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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

The Totalitarian Tank Engine, and Other News

May 13, 2015 | by

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Thomas: a thinly veiled work of socialist realism? Image via the Telegraph

  • As Thomas the Tank Engine turns seventy, it’s worth asking: What’s this talking train’s political agenda? A thoughtless pushover, fearful of going off the rails and fixed on his cohort’s industriousness, “Thomas resembles one of those preposterous idealized figures of Stalinist propaganda. Face radiant with a dream of heightened productivity. In fact, Stalin would probably have approved of Thomas, who always does what the Fat Controller tells him and strongly disapproves of other engines who step out of line.”
  • If society seems increasingly illiterate to you, person of letters, remember that society relies less on literacy every year: “Most human beings worldwide would rather talk than read. Reading and writing are late inventions in the human story; widespread literacy in most places is only a few centuries old. And the fact that in black-and-white pictures of a commuter train almost every passenger is reading was an artifact of the technological state of things at the time. Today, most of those people’s equivalents are either talking on their phone or listening to music on it. Their forebears in those pictures would have been as well, if there had been devices to allow it.”
  • Piero di Cosimo is remembered most for his religious paintings, but he also made “startlingly vivid portraits of individualsHe gave himself the same tests, again and again, though he did not always pass them: for example, depicting feet, which he did in an elegantly detailed manner, down to their splayed toes.”
  • “When I began my first novel … I asked my colleague whether writing fiction caused manic-depression or merely mimicked the symptoms of manic-depression. He answered, ‘Yes,’ a cleverly enigmatic but also oddly confirming response.”
  • Want a euphemism for motherfucker? Try melon-farmer, mother-fouler, or motorcycle, and have a nice day.

Glitch Art Goes for Broke, and Other News

March 23, 2015 | by

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Max Headroom, which marked glitch art’s entry into the mainstream. Image via Daily Dot

  • The word glitch “may derive from Yiddish words conveying slippage”—and glitch art explores the grating moments of slippage in our technology. It is, depending on whom you ask, new, old, incisive, crass, “beatified violence, “ “the product of an elitist discourse and dogma widely pursued by the naïve victims of a persistent upgrade culture,” or just kind of neat to look at.
  • If the art world is consumed by the effects of the Internet on our synapses, literary fiction is just the opposite: much of it seems unwilling—or unable—to engage with the texture of networked life. Novelists prefer to set their stories in technological vacuums, and it disadvantages them: “I don’t see these elements of contemporary life as destructive of narrative possibilities, but as sources for new. I’ve become something of a collector of fictional moments in which networked life matters. Not the simple inclusion of emails and other ‘found texts’ in a novel, nor casual mentions of characters owning phones and computers, but scenes in which these technologies allow writers to show something distinctly now.
  • Does a “safe space” have any chance of functioning as a truly intellectual space? “While keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.”
  • Readers (or book buyers) in the UK have expressed a seemingly inexhaustible desire for nature writing—it sells well, it gets good reviews, it questions “the values of our current society.” “I know of nature books that are being released this year on the last Thursday in July, when [Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk] was released. It’s now seen as the new magical date in publishing.”
  • Mario Vargas Llosa on the state of literature: “The function of the critic was very important in establishing categories and hierarchies of information, but now critics don’t exist at all. That was one of the important contributions of the novel, once, too. But now the novels that are read are purely entertainment—well done, very polished, with a very effective technique—but not literature, just entertainment.”

Man in Hole II: Man in Deeper Hole

March 19, 2015 | by

Assigning emotional values to words.

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Last month I wrote about Matthew Jockers’s research on the shapes of stories, which has since met with a welter of reactions within and without academe. His critics ask two questions, essentially: Is it really possible to assign every word a reliable emotional valence? And even if the answer is yes, can we really claim that all the plots in the history of literature take so few basic forms?

A rough primer: Jockers uses a tool called “sentiment analysis” to gauge “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction”; algorithms assign every word in a novel a positive or negative emotional value, and in compiling these values he’s able to graph the shifts in a story’s narrative. A lot of negative words mean something bad is happening, a lot of positive words mean something good is happening. Ultimately, he derived six archetypal plot shapes. (To his credit and my chagrin, he’s refrained from giving them catchy names.) Here’s an example: Read More »

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Introducing the Mating Book Club

March 9, 2015 | by

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On April 7, at our annual Spring Revel, we’re honoring Norman Rush with our Hadada Prize, presented each year to “a distinguished member of the writing community who has made a strong and unique contribution to literature.” To celebrate, the Daily is hosting a book club of sorts.

Starting next Monday, March 16, we’re running a series of posts about Rush’s seminal 1991 novel, Mating. Twice a week, from start to finish, we’ll have writers examine a twenty-five-page installment of the book—not just to discuss the plot, but to offer the same spirit of reflection, debate, and restless inquiry that animates the novel itself. Whether you’re an avid fan of the book or completely new to it, we invite you to read along. Read More »

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Sublime, Subversive Sappho, and Other News

March 9, 2015 | by

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Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864.

  • How does contemporary literature derive meaning in the age of big data? “The rise of corporate capitalism, and the astonishing, almost exponential rate of its recent acceleration, I would argue, present a huge challenge to the writer, forcing him or her to rethink their whole role and function, to remap their entire universe. There is no space outside this matrix … Western literature may have more or less begun, in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, with a lengthy account of a signal crossing space, and of the beacon network through whose nodes the signal’s message (that of Troy’s downfall) is relayed—but now, two and a half millennia later, that network, that regime of signals, is so omnipresent and insistent, so undeniably inserted or installed at every stratum of existence, that the notion that we might need some person, some skilled craftsman, to compose any messages, let alone incisive or ‘epiphanic’ ones, seems hopelessly quaint.”
  • “KAYO IN THE LUNA PARK / FREEZE FRAME ON A DRUNK IN THE PIAZZA / THAT’S WHAT WE HAVE FOR PIGEONS / LUMBERING ON ASPHALT FACEDOWN / LEAPSICKNESS THE LAW OF LIQUIDS.” Basquiat’s notebooks “variously sound like song lyrics, slogans, mantras, fragments of scenarios, of ‘routines’ like those of William S. Burroughs.”
  • Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of the Globe Theatre, said that he’s sometimes cut “unfortunate anti-Semitic things” from Shakespeare—should we censor plays like The Merchant of Venice?
  • Who was Sappho? Scholars and readers have been bickering about her for the better part of three thousand years: “about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her ‘sublime’ style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works … Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage.”
  • Part two of John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel’s essay “on Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights.”

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Writing from the Winners of the 2015 Whiting Awards

March 5, 2015 | by

whitingCongratulations to the ten winners of this year’s Whiting Awards:

The Daily is delighted to have selections from work by all the 2015 honorees. Click each name above to read on and learn more about them. Read More »