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Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

Debating Dracula’s Roots, and Other News

February 9, 2016 | by

Photo: Greg Willis

  • Breaking news: Bram Stoker’s great-grand-nephew has rejected a scholar’s recent claim that Dracula hailed not from Transylvania but from Exeter. “People will be surprised and sometimes shocked by my findings, as most of what they now hold true will be proven to be false,” the scholar said humbly. “It’s a bit like finding out who Father Christmas really is.” Dacre Stoker retorts: “Everyone tries to find something a little bit new or different about Dracula, even now, 118 years after it was published, which is wonderful ... But to me it is a bit of a stretch to argue that Dracula came from Exeter.”
  • Maurice White died last week, prompting Sam Lipsyte to remember “some odd family history”: “In 1975, when I was eight, a film called That’s the Way of the World was released in America. Harvey Keitel starred in the story of a hotshot record producer’s struggles with art and mammon. The screenplay was written by my father, the sports journalist and fiction writer Robert Lipsyte, and the soundtrack was by Earth, Wind and Fire, who also appear in the movie as the Group, a band with a groundbreaking sound but not enough commercial appeal … White called my father a few years ago and asked him to write the liner notes for a reissue of That’s the Way of the World. They had some long conversations my father cherished.”
  • Today in improbable connections between Oscar contenders and classic American lit: Mark Mangini, the sound designer for Mad Max: Fury Road, says he put together the film’s aural palette with Melville in mind: “I had this notion that the truck itself was an allegory for Moby Dick … We wanted to personify it as this giant, growling, breathing, roaring beast … It had to be grounded in reality, but we wanted it to be more than that, so we designed whale sounds to play underneath all those truck sounds to embody the real sounds and to personify it … We go into a beautiful ballet-like slow motion sequence as the War Rig upends and turns on its side and crashes. All those sounds, there are no realistic sounds there. Those are all whale sounds and actually slowed-down bear sounds,” He said. “What we wanted to say to the audience was, ‘This is a death. This is the death of the great white whale.’ All you hear as it rolls over in slow motion is the final death rattle of a dying creature. It just felt like the right sound to use.”
  • A. O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism provides critics with an unprecedented, mouth-watering opportunity to review criticism itself. Christian Lorentzen is up to the task, so much so that he went on a road trip with A. O. Scott just to talk about it: “ ‘To the extent that there’s a polemical thrust that this book has,’ Scott told me, ‘it’s a fairly simple one: in favor of thinking. It’s against the notion that we’re just supposed to have fun. Turn off your brain and eat your popcorn. I’m offended by that. If someone is spending $200 million to make and market a movie, there’s no way you can say, “That’s just nothing.” Plus, it’s two hours of your own life, $15 of your own money, and all the dreams and emotions you bring into the theater with you. Why empty out your own experience? Why be passive about it? Why accept it on the terms that it’s given to you? The book is a plea to be more active, more engaged, and more thoughtful.’ ”
  • Remember when Malcolm McLaren released an opera record? I don’t either, but Stephen Akey does, and he remains really fond of the thing: “If on the radio that day I hadn’t heard Malcolm McLaren’s gleefully debased six-minute version [of Madame Butterfly]—identified by the disc jockey as the first of six workings of Puccini on an album by McLaren called Fans—I might never have known grand opera at all … Fans survives McLaren’s brazen talentlessness because the concept animating it is so ingenious and because McLaren was smart enough to hire accomplished musicians to execute the concept … It may be that Fans is little more than a clever novelty item with classical pretensions, but I think that McLaren’s cleverness points to a profound intuition about opera, namely, that it is (or at least can be) a music of the masses.”

Classic Dionysian Shit: An Interview with Richard Hell

December 8, 2015 | by

© Rebecca Smeyne

“Without a doubt, the single most influential thing I’ve done was my haircut,” Richard Hell writes in Massive Pissed Love, his new collection of nonfiction. It’s a characteristically self-deprecating statement from a writer who started as one of the main sparks in New York City’s 1970s punk-rock movement. Hell has authored novels, books of poetry, and an acclaimed memoir—but his most lasting achievement, in his view, is that groundbreaking haircut.

Maybe it’s a strangely fitting legacy: Hell has been fascinated with hair since childhood. “Because it’s dead but personal and because I’m moved by the futility of its attempts to warm and protect the places where it grows,” as he put it in 2013’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. Rachel Kushner’s review of that memoir lauded Hell’s commitment “to the unvarnished truth, about himself and others.” That honesty remains on display throughout Massive Pissed Love; at one point, he imagines asking Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth whether her hair is real or if she scalped an angel.

The collection is divided into three sections: long-form essays (“Massive”), angry takedowns (“Pissed”), and adoring panegyrics (“Love”). Hell, a prolific essayist and critic, has published everywhere: in Bookforum, the New York Times Book Review, GQ, and in the cunnilingus-themed issue of Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal, where he envisions eating out a deer whose “vagina would taste like warm folds of liquefying bubblegum and then like lobster meat drenched in lemon butter sauce.” Elsewhere, he writes on culture, politics, emotions, spirituality—anything he wants, really.

I first spoke to Hell for an essay I was working on about Michel Houellebecq and the nineteenth-century French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, who figures prominently in Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission. The discussion below took place soon after Houellebecq, who did a literary event alongside Hell in Spain in 2008, wrote a widely discussed op-ed for the Times. (Antonin Baudry, The Paris Review’s newly appointed Paris editor, comments on it here.) Houellebecq’s call for France to be run without political parties or a government, through direct democracy, seemed like a fittingly punk-rock place to begin the conversation. Read More »

Don’t Like the Cover? Sew Your Own, and Other News

July 21, 2015 | by

stitchedbiblecover

Elizabeth Sandwich’s 1759 hand-stitched Bible cover. Image: Provenance Online Project

  • If you like asking big questions about, say, the presence of sentient life-forms elsewhere in the universe, then look to science fiction, which at its best functions philosophically: “What, then, does it really mean to be alone or not alone? If you are alone, are you by definition lonely—with the yearning that implies? What does yearning do to warp the results of an inquiry? … A circle looks at a square and sees a badly made circle. If we’re going to ask a question like ‘Are we alone?’, an awareness of our own inconsistent history, our own limitations, is important—and so too is a wider understanding of what exists all around us.”
  • Samuel Delany’s novel Hogg is chock full of rape, incest, and abjection; to read its reviews is to understand “the difficulty of ascribing value to literature that is purposely unpleasant to read.” What are we to make of it—or, more important, how are we to discuss what we mean by enjoyment and disgust? “What happens when readers feel, for instance, aroused while reading Hogg, or when they experience conflicting affective responses? … The body’s responses are nuanced and manifold, and critics require more nuanced and legible terms for understanding them, especially those that are unsettling or unrecognizable.”
  • If that’s too heavy for you, look at this eighteenth-century embroidered worsted-wool Bible cover, a handmade, one-of-a-kind object that functions to individuate in the same way that an iPhone cover does now: “This is a book that was owned by someone with something to show the world … This embroidery work, taken up by a woman in a quiet moment at home 256 years ago, serves as a reminder to us of all we put our names to, all we add of our own selves to the world, and all the ways what we read, view, and watch is wrapped in the colors of our own individual experience.”
  • Joe Gould’s The Oral History of Our Time might just be the longest book ever written—portions of it were secreted away in closets and attics, and its manuscript, all told, was more than seven feet high. In the forties, speculation about the book was rampant, but no one could find it, and its author, an old drunk, wasn’t much help. But we’re in 2015 now. We can find anything. Cue the new search for Gould’s opus, and with it a new set of frustrations.
  • In Russia, censorship takes a host of forms: in recent months, rap groups, blockbuster movies, YouTube sensations, performance artists, opera productions, metal bands, and theater festivals have all fallen afoul of the government. What do they all have in common, according to Russia? They “deny human morality”; they “contradict moral norms.”

Is It Sincere? Is It Genuine? and Other News

April 24, 2015 | by

mhabrams

M. H. Abrams.

  • M. H. Abrams, whose Norton Anthologies have united the bookshelves of English majors across time and space, is dead at 102. His seminal work, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), was that rare thing, a work of criticism that permeated the culture and changed the way we read; it resuscitated the reputation of the British Romantics and launched a new school of thought. “The first test any poem must pass,” Abrams wrote, “is no longer, ‘is it true to nature?’ but a criterion looking in a different direction; namely, ‘Is it sincere? Is it genuine?’ ”
  • Maureen Freely, Orhan Pamuk’s longtime English translator, has come to see Istanbul through his eyes: “The Istanbul of my own childhood had vanished. I was left, instead, with men streaming down badly paved streets in shabby suits and covered women waiting on the roadside for the bus that never arrived; with collapsing Ottoman palaces, and fountains that had ceased working two centuries ago, and mosques whose lead domes were being plundered piece by piece.”
  • Rupert Brooke, who died in 1915 of a mosquito bite, was once of Britain’s most beloved poets—devastatingly handsome, wealthy, and deeply patriotic, he was an ideal poster child for all things English. But today his sonnets on World War I make him look like a “posh idiot nationalist”: “As with the work of many writers whose worlds have so thoroughly vanished and whose lives have sunk into myth, it can be hard to grasp the humor and the lightness in Brooke’s writing.”
  • Philip Glass has written a memoir. The composer Philip Glass has written a memoir. Philip Glass has written a memoir. It begins in Baltimore. The composer Philip Glass has written a memoir. It begins in Baltimore. The American composer Philip Glass, known for his use of repetition and incremental variation, has written a memoir.”
  • When the scatological meets the diabolical: a history of poop as a weapon. (Oh, like you’ve never tried to kill anyone with it.)

Bolaño Hits the Powerball Jackpot, and Other News

March 17, 2015 | by

Illustration by Hache Holguin.

Illustration by Hache Holguin

  • Chicago’s Goodman Theater is mounting a five-hour adaptation of Bolaño’s 2666. The production is underwritten by a grant from “an actor and stage manager turned Episcopal monk who pledged last year to give away much of his $153 million Powerball jackpot” to support the arts.
  • Are you tired of suffering through novels rife with profanity and cussing? Try Clean Reader, “the only e-reader that gives you the power to hide swear words”—it’ll change bastard to jerk, damn to darn, and presumably render most David Mamet plays unreadable. And here’s a winning slice of the Clean Reader philosophy: “Will some authors be offended that some of their consumers use Clean Reader to pick out most of the profanity in their books? Perhaps. Should the reader feel bad about it? Nope. They’ve paid good money for the book, they can consume it how they want.”
  • For the literary critic F. R. Leavis—who was, by the time of his death in 1978, totally out of fashion—great books were judgments about life, and “when a great novel or poem is used to support some generalization about culture, the qualities which make it worth reading tend to be ignored.” Leavis abstained, dogmatically, from the pleasures of pop: “Leavis declined ‘intellectual slumming’ of any sort. If he got winded, he put Schubert on the gramophone or read a neglected classic.”
  • How music hijacks our sense of time: “In 2004, the Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring deemed Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie the most dangerous music to listen to while driving. It is not so much the distraction, but the substitution of the frenzied tempo of the music that challenges drivers’ normal sense of speed—and the objective cue of the speedometer—and causes them to speed.”
  • On getting a start as a critic: “I drew on a quality—a resource, a tool—that is very dear to me, and, I’d venture to say, very dear to most people who write reviews: arrogance … There’s good arrogance, too, just like there’s good cholesterol: arrogance that bolsters you, that allows you to feel that your judgment might be sound, that it might—and this is when the reviewer’s mind starts warming up, starts humming—be even better than sound.”

Speaking Bluntly

January 28, 2015 | by

ColetteReveEgypte1907

Colette in 1907.

Two letters from Colette, who was born on this day in 1873, to her friend Marguerite Moreno.

 

Rozven, mid-September 1924

… I should like to talk earnestly to you about your copy for Les Annales. You still do not have quite the right touch. You lack the seeming carelessness which gives the “diary” effect. For the most part you have approached your gentlemen as though they were so many subjects assigned in class … For one portrait which works—Jarry—there are two others—Proust and Iturri, say—who don’t. They are just not sufficiently alive!

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