- 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.
There’s a moment in “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking,” a story by Denis Johnson that first appeared in The Paris Review, in 1989, when a woman learns of the death of her husband and unleashes a terrible scream. The narrator, instead of expressing the expected sympathy, leans out of the page a little to offer this unnerving confession: “It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”
Reading Young Skins, Colin Barrett’s debut story collection, can leave one with a similar sense of disturbed gratitude. The stories blend moments of horror with moments of hilarity, shocks of joy with shocks of despair, and no matter how grim a given scene by Barrett can get, it’s a thrill to be alive to hear him. In a restroom, under a naked bulb, we find “a lidless shitter operated by a fitfully responsive flush handle.” In a field, “crushed cans of Strongbow and Dutch Gold and Karpackie are buried in the mud like ancient artefacts.” A “big brown daddy-long-legs pedals airily in the sink basin,” its movements ”describing a flustered circle,” and a character named Bat cannot enjoy his dinner because a clan of kids is “eyeing the bulky hydraulics of his jaw.”
The vitality of Barrett’s prose—the special intensity of attention he’s able to draw from details of small-town life—has already helped win him the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. To mark the U.S. release of Young Skins this month, I talked with him about his allergy to “lethally competent writing,” the details of character and language upon which he builds a story, and how a work of fiction—like the community it describes—can develop “its shibboleths, its customs and codes, its own way of talking to itself.”
Were your earliest efforts as a writer very different to the stories collected in Young Skins?
I wrote and drew lots of gory comic books as a young kid and as a teen. Then I discovered and wrote lots of poetry around college age. Awful, sub-Ashbery, sub-Muldoon, sub-Eliot stuff, but at least it was writing. Then I attempted a few novels—multinarrator, genre-splicing Pynchonian or Foster Wallace sprawlers, usually set in alternate futures, though I never got more than a couple dozen pages in. I only started really writing stories at twenty-five. The early stuff was all, obviously, awful—but awful in a vital way. The wonderful thing about being completely inexperienced is the impregnable purity of your ignorance. You are utterly insensible to any conception of your own crippling and patent limitations, and so you try anything and everything. Read More
“I like big novels,” Robert Stone said in his 1985 Art of Fiction interview. “I really admire the grand slam.” Stone died last weekend in Florida, at seventy-seven. He leaves behind more than a few grand slams—broad, despairing, powerful books full of searchers, outsiders, and misfits. His work exudes what Jessica Hagedorn calls “exquisite paranoia and apocalyptic dread.”
Of course, descriptions like that can make his novels sound too potent—and one of the surprising things about Stone, it must be said, is how little he’s read these days. I hope that will change. As M. H. Miller wrote of him in 2013,
He’s a best-selling author whose work has been heaped with critical praise, but because of the long interims between books, he is more heard of than read by a certain generation of readers. Updike had Rabbit, Roth had Zuckerman, Norman Mailer had Gary Gilmore, even Joan Didion, whose novels are the least interesting thing about her, had Maria Wyeth. Among Mr. Stone’s books there is no clear standout, no obvious introduction. His work is best taken in tandem, like one long narrative where you age with the characters.
He’s right: among readers my age, Stone’s work has had that enviable air of mystery to it. He was always that major writer lurking in the distance. His books didn’t seem approachable, not because they were long or “difficult” but because, as the New York Times put it, they “resonate with philosophical concerns, the thin divides between life and death, good and evil, God and godlessness.” These were tomes about war and God and postwar tumult, and, uh, we definitely wanted to get to them, yes, but—maybe later? Read More
- A new book looks at the history of the literary feud—with an abundance of ripe examples, including “the battle between Bevis Hillier and AN Wilson in the 1980s. Wilson had published a devastating review of Hillier’s authorized biography of John Betjeman, calling it ‘a hopeless mishmash.’ When Wilson announced his own biography of Betjeman, he received a letter from a mysterious French woman including the copy of an unpublished letter from Betjeman to Honor Tracy, describing their affair. Wilson could not resist including it in his book, and when the biography came out Hillier gleefully revealed that the letter was an acrostic, spelling out ‘AN Wilson is a shit.’”
- Today in evolving forms of literacy: Emoji as language. On Twitter, emoji are now used more frequently than hyphens, tildes, and the numeral five. Whither emoji-speak? And does this wordless tongue have any antecedents? (“In 1974, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation, designed a new system of symbols to be used in airports around the world in response to the increase in global travel … the design committee also made the following deduction: ‘We are convinced that the effectiveness of symbols is strictly limited.’ ”)
- In 1616, Peter Paul Rubens painted a hippo. Problem: He had never laid eyes on a hippo. How did he do this?
- A debut, of sorts, for Denis Johnson—as a visual artist. “His sketch is what I like to think of as three-quarters Basquiat, one-quarter ninth-grade geometry class.”
- Writers and musicians seem to collaborate constantly, and yet it’s seldom a collaboration in the truest sense of the word. “Superficially, these collaborations fit into a pattern of writing and music as natural partners, one—to paraphrase Katharine Hepburn on Astaire and Rogers—providing the other with class, the other giving sex appeal … Perhaps tellingly, however, such liaisons tend to be one-off or short-lived … A novelist, playwright or poet providing words for someone else to turn into music and perform, although it is a model inherited from opera and musicals in earlier eras, is now surprisingly rare.”
The Haggis-on-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance is McSweeney’s hilarious series of faux-science books. The latest volume, “Children and the Tundra,” is due out in May; it includes such edifying features as “Quick Fixes for the Growing Epidemic of Talking Child Syndrome,” “Snow Druids: Fact and Fiction,” and “Comparing Snow with Presidents Past and Present.” (Snow and Zachary Taylor share the following attributes: cold, white, usually on the ground.) In its tone and design, to say nothing of the sturdiness of its typefaces, Haggis-on-Whey nails the authoritarian aesthetic of 1950s textbooks. Most important, it is very, very silly. —Dan Piepenbring
Wordsworth looked forward to a day when poets would “be ready to follow the steps of the man of Science … carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of Science itself.” Alfonso D’Aquino is one such poet of sensation and science. Fungus skull eye wing, his first collection available in English, is dense with the tropical life of Cuernavaca: root systems, veins of mineral, tangles of foliage. Some of the poems are spookily nonhuman; in others, even the stones seem to speak: “I squint fixedly / and find / in this marvelous density in the hollow of my hand / in its livid insomniac paleness / and in its veins dialogues / that only for a moment crisscross.” Forrest Gander’s translation is another marvel. —Robyn Creswell
You could easily teach a whole seminar on Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” (in this week’s New Yorker). You could prepare students by assigning them “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “The Dead,” which seem to me a sort of North and South Pole to Johnson’s story, and shape its beginning and end. Then you could have students compare the two paintings in the story, and the two newspapers called the Post, and the names Elaine and Maria Elena, and you could let those comparisons lead you into the narrator’s habits of mind. Or else you could spend a whole semester reading Denis Johnson, trying to pinpoint the quality of his prose that makes him sound both matter-of-fact and possessed. Or you could dismiss class and send everyone home to read the story again and stare at the wall, because “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is great and the questions it raises—like, What difference would it make if Whit could say he loved his wife, or that his daughters were beautiful or clever; or, What kind of fairytale is this—are too big for an English seminar to answer. —Lorin Stein
In Seattle, this year’s AWP is off to a rollicking start: picture 15,000 writers and all their attendant neuroses in one sprawling conference center. Madness! Luckily, no one bats an eye if you take a break to read some newly published poetry; that is, after all, what this thing is about. My first AWP purchase was Caroline Manring’s Manual for Extinction, which soothes the overstimulated soul with its lyrical surrealism and extraordinary formal experimentation. And of course one cannot help but see the mass of writers reflected: “When we are arranged by crop // you can see we are a toothy, / forever naked, rag-tag lot.” —Rachel Abramowitz Read More
Some years ago, when I was trying to learn Spanish, I bought Borges’s lectures on English literature. As it turned out, these were largely concerned with Old English, so actual Spanish was required to read them and I had to throw in the towel. Now, New Directions has translated the talks as Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. Recorded in 1966 at the University of Buenos Aires, this introductory class oozes charm. Quoting from memory, because he’d already lost his sight, and relying on his own translations, Borges ranges from Caedmon’s Hymn to the Victorians. It’s been a long time since I went back to the poems of Rossetti—and longer since I had any urge to reread Beowulf—but Borges is no ordinary teacher, and his old-fashioned taste, for Germanic heroes and doomed love and G. K. Chesterton, is sincere, untroubled, and contagious. —Lorin Stein
It suddenly feels like winter here in New York: we saw the first snowflakes of the season on Tuesday morning. I don’t have a fireplace, but it’s hard to resist the urge to curl up by the heating pipe with a fat, favorite classic. Enter the new Penguin Clothbound Classics edition of Vanity Fair, beautifully rendered in pale blue, and scattered with stylized gems in honor of the ambitious Becky Thatcher. I am generally fairly indifferent to what my books look like, but I love this series, which manages to feel both modern and heirloom. As to the novel, it’s just the best; you don’t need to hear that from me. From the opening lines of Thackeray’s preface, “Before the Curtain,” you know you’re in for a treat, whether reading it for the first time or the twentieth. The author subtitled Vanity Fair “A Novel without a Hero,” but though it’s peopled with some of literature’s most memorable characters, it’s true that the real star is a sweeping story that manages to be both tragic and fun. —Sadie O. Stein
On Saturday afternoon, I took the Southeast line from Grand Central Station to Mount Kisco and read a fitting book: the 116-page Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. A mélange of sharp realism and muted surrealism, this novella was first published in the 2002 summer issue of The Paris Review; it was released in book form to great acclaim in 2011. Johnson takes us from the turn of the twentieth century through the late 1960s; Robert Grainer is the stoic loner who guides us through both the Idaho Panhandle and industrialization. “Now he slept soundly through the nights, and often he dreamed of trains, and often of one particular train: He was on it; he could smell the coal smoke; a world went by.” —Caitlin Youngquist
Among the many wondrous artifacts left by the late poet John Hollander is Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse, a 2001 volume of slim dimension and great poetic wisdom that has traveled with me for the past few days. I have been thinking about poetry’s relation to music, and early on Hollander writes, “It should be remembered that all poetry was originally oral. It was sung or chanted … poetic form as we know it is an abstraction from, or residue of, musical form, from which it became divorced when writing replaced memory as a way of preserving poetic utterance.” The book does not linger in sermon though, hastily moving into witty explorations of wide-ranging forms, schemes, and meters. —Adam Winters
The eighteenth-century French court’s rococo hairstyles—if such a word can even be applied to the elaborate confections—are the stuff of legend. Will Bashor’s Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution certainly gives you plenty of bang for your buck in that regard: thirty-pound wigs, mouse-infested coiffures, and the occasional miniature naval battle all make appearances. But it is also a scholarly history not merely of the vagaries and politics of Versailles court fashion, but the rise and fall of Léonard Autié, a man of modest background who rose to become hairdresser to the queen, and whose fortunes were inexplicably tied to that of the doomed monarchy. —S.O.S.