- Ursula K. Le Guin defends genre fiction: “When the characteristics of a genre are controlled, systematized, and insisted upon by publishers, or editors, or critics, they become limitations rather than possibilities … I love to remember Edmund Wilson, king of the realist bigots, squealing ‘Oo, those awful Orcs!’ and believing he’d made a witty and cogent critical point.”
- The sordid history of the paperback, which democratized and scandalized: “When we look back on the mass-market-paperback phenomenon it’s hard to keep the Emily Brontës separate from the Mickey Spillanes. In the same year that Signet published I, the Jury, it also published reprints of books by James Joyce, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and Arthur Koestler. Paperback publishers made no effort to distinguish classics from kitsch.”
- Where does zero come from? A mathematician traced the earliest-known written representation of the numeral to a seventh-century tablet in Cambodia: “It was important to recover this artifact with the earliest zero … there’s a monument to this great invention of the human mind, the ability to write something down that represents complete nothingness.”
- A new year, a new occasion to police language. Presenting Lake Superior State University’s fortieth annual list of banished words, including curate, skill set, takeaway, and others you’d sooner cut your ears off than hear again. (It’s worth revisiting the lists from years past—in ’98, for instance, people were sick of da bomb, talk to the hand, and yadda yadda yadda.)
- And while we’re on words: “What exactly is luxury? The concept is both slippery and divisive … The language associated with it is replete with qualifiers. It can be ‘authentic,’ ‘absolute,’ ‘aspirational’ or ‘affordable’ … The acquisition of luxury is both an attempt at transcendence and an act of appropriation, like the picking of the apple in the garden of Eden. Perhaps that was mankind’s first luxury good.”
- If you’re like me, your otherwise successful ghost-hunting expeditions are often thwarted by matters of taxonomy: Was that a wraith you just saw or simply a type-two apparition? Wonder no more. (N. B., the type-two apparition “leaves behind appalling ectoplasm stains on wallpaper and soft furnishings.”)
- Today in zingers and put-downs, we bring you Edmund Wilson on H. P. Lovecraft, 1945: “The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.”
- Whither the artist residency? Say you’re a serious, industrious, diligent artist whose working life requires “solitude, beauty, the natural sublime, and global travel … extended stretches of time, free of any interruption, in order to create new work. All of this can be found on a container ship.” A new residency called Container gives artists the chance to work on just such a ship. (“Artists won’t have to live in a container,” the program hastens to add.)
- And while we’re hithering and thithering: Whither Ethan Hawke, who seems finally to have escaped the long shadow of the nineties? “Ethan Hawke was once the mascot we did not ask for. He has become the one we deserve.”
- To raise money for Freedom from Torture, seventeen authors—including Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Ken Follett, Hanif Kureishi, Will Self, Alan Hollinghurst, and Zadie Smith—are offering the rights to name characters in their new novels. (They call this an “Immortality Auction,” which implies that all the authors involved expect to have healthy readerships in the coming eons.)
- Edmund Wilson on the Fourth of July circa 1925: “The last random pops and shots of the Fourth—the effortful spluttering and chugging up a hill—the last wild ride with hilarious yells on its way back to New York. Then the long even silence of summer that stretches darkness from sun to sun.”
- And here’s a handbook for firework design from 1785. (Note: The Paris Review does not endorse the unsupervised construction or detonation of homemade pyrotechnical devices from any era, past or present—unless you’re reasonably sure you know what you’re doing, in which case, have at it.)
- Forget King Lear with people—that’s old-fashioned. What you want is King Lear with Sheep. “The actors are actually incapable of acting or even recognizing that something is expected of them.” (Because they’re sheep.)
- “Here’s the problem for someone trying to give Pride and Prejudice a contemporary twist … Jane and Lizzy Bennet are twenty-two and twenty years old, respectively. This means that, in the novel’s world, the two are pretty much teetering on the edge of spinsterhood. The whole twenty-three-year-old-spinster idea will not resonate, of course, with contemporary readers.”
- Is Moby-Dick something of a roman à clef?
When I was a teenager, I had a series of dreams in which I would attempt to do the most banal tasks underwater: eat breakfast, cut my toenails, read a book whose waterlogged pages would always stick together. I never really thought much about the dream’s implications—Was I suffocating under life’s demands? Or was it just something I ate?—until I stumbled on Bruce Mozert’s 1950s underwater photography. Using a self-constructed underwater camera, Mozert spent his career shooting underwater portraits for numerous lifestyle magazines—entirely without digital manipulation. (One Mozert trick was “using baking powder to create the powdery ‘smoke’ coming out of the underwater barbecue.”) Why would a photographer devote his life to such a niche? Some things (like the genesis of my dreams) are better left unanswered. —Justin Alvarez
I’m impressed by a twenty-eight-page examination of “The Endangered Semicolon” in the debut issue of Apology, Jesse Pearson’s new quarterly. It’s disheartening, though, to read that the semicolon is in decline, not least because it is my favorite punctuation mark—a fact that displeased Matt Sumell, who cheerfully rejected the suggested use of semicolons in his story for issue 200 (save two) and who wrote me recently with the sole purpose of informing me that he still doesn’t use semicolons. I pity him and Alexander Theroux, who bemoans in Apology the semicolon’s typographical imbalance (neither a colon nor a period) and its existence as a tentative mark, an “illicit and uneasy compromise.” Let others have the em dash, the period, the showy exclamation point. I’ll keep the semicolon, so adept at capturing a particular cadence, a curt melody. —Nicole Rudick Read More
Here in the Northeast, we are all hunkering down for what could be a lot of snow, or at least a little slush. Either way, it will be a weekend for staying indoors with a good book, and we asked some of our bookish friends what they recommend for such occasions.
I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith, and Laurie Colwin! —Emily Gould, writer, founder of Emily Books
I am reading a dated but rad detective novel called The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, wherein a detective laid up in the hospital clears King Richard III of the crime of murdering his nephews using deductive logic and dubious speculation. This is part of my ongoing celebration of Richard III’s skeleton’s coming-out-the-closet or whatever you call it. Otherwise keeping busy with hoarding seltzer/Snackwell’s vanilla cremes. So this is a pretty normal weekend for me. —Pete Beatty, editor
Right now I find myself on page 1400 of Proust, by circumstance. Hoping to make some real headway in the next forty-eight. (Yesterday I was reading it on the A train, and this woman got down on her knees to look up to see what was the giant book I had in my hand. Like, she could have asked. Maybe she was saving me the pretension of responding, “Proust.”) —Brian Ulicky, publicist Read More
About ten years ago, after depositing my brother at camp, my parents found themselves in a junk shop in upstate New York. My dad came upon the following playbill for The Evil Eye: A Musical Comedy in Two Acts, presented by the Princeton University Triangle Club from 1915 to 1916. He opened the first page and noticed the following: “Book by Edmund Wilson, Jr., 1916,” and, a bit further down, “Lyrics by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1917.” Numbers like “Jump Off the Wall” and “Harris from Paris” may be lost to history, but we thought we’d share the program with you nevertheless!