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Posts Tagged ‘James Baldwin’

I Call This Oulipo Meeting to Order, and Other News

May 4, 2016 | by

  • In July 2009, the French mathematician Michèle Audin began to attend the monthly meetings of Oulipo, everyone’s favorite experimental collective. And they involved just as much wine, whining, and rare meat as you’d hope: “Once everyone has entered and settled in, the President draws up the agenda, noting the names of those present and those excused (but only among the living Oulipians, the others are definitively excused ‘for reason of death’), including E and F who don’t come very often. We help ourselves to pre-dinner drinks … The President signs Oulipians up for the ‘Creation’ section: the rule says that, if no one signs up for this section, the meeting is cancelled. In March 2016, we’re up to the 665th meeting, and this has never happened … H and I, who are always late, arrive. J doesn’t drink alcohol, K prefers root beer, everyone has a glass in hand. The meeting begins. L is the one presenting a creation. Tradition requires that we continually interrupt the presentation to complain about the presenter’s never-ending sentences … N found new ‘anticipatory plagiarists’ (Oulipians before the creation of the Oulipo).”
  • A reminder—courtesy of Jessa Crispin, who is, after fourteen years, shutting down her blog, Bookslut—that literature in the U.S. is an over-professionalized, glad-handing extension of academia and corporate mass media, and the Internet hasn’t helped: “It’s just taking the print template and moving it online. I see the Millions used on book blurbs now. They’re so professional, and I mean that as an insult. I didn’t want to become a professional … I just don’t find American literature interesting. I find M.F.A. culture terrible. Everyone is super cheerful because they’re trying to sell you something, and I find it really repulsive. There seems to be less and less underground. And what it’s replaced by is this very professional, shiny, happy plastic version of literature … I don’t feel like publishing is going to be terrible forever. Now I think fiction is more interesting internationally, but there are so many great nonfiction writers here.”
  • Today in words versus numbers: words are fun, sure, and there’s no doubting their power, but the fact is that certain enormous prime numbers are so powerful they’re actually illegal, and I don’t know if words can compete with that. “In the digital age, huge prime numbers are really, really important for encryption … So important, in fact, that having or sharing some of them could get you prosecuted under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which prohibits people from subverting copyright-prevention measures …  Software to copy DVDs started circulating soon after the DMCA passed, and movie studios sued those distributing the software not long after that—and won … The silliest part? Phil Carmody discovered a 1,401-digit prime number—no, we’re not going to post it—that (with the right know-how) was executable as the very same illegal software—hence, an illegal prime number.”
  • Jacqueline Woodson remembers the day James Baldwin died, and what Giovanni’s Room meant to her: “Having become intrigued by everything he wrote, I moved on to finding pictures and films about him. I knew well the gapped-toothed smile sometimes veiled over by cigarette smoke. I knew the eternal cigarette dangling almost absently between his fore and middle finger. I knew the head thrown back in laughter, the deeply furrowed brow, the rage behind the poetically nuanced answers he gave to deeply uninformed questions about race, economic class, sexuality. I believed I would one day meet him, that we would sit at a café in France (a place I had not yet traveled to) and discuss the politics of queerness, art, our shared Blackness.”
  • Good news: that erotic Brazilian theme park you designed in RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 may soon be a reality. Bad news: you can’t actually have sex there, because think about it—really think about it. “The investors behind ErotikaLand say the park will promote a healthy approach to sex. Parkgoers will be able to tour a museum exploring the history of sexuality, and employees will promote condom use. The park will have a ‘sex playground,’ but it will feature a labyrinth, Ferris wheel and water slide. What the customers cannot have, the investors say, is any actual intercourse—at least, not in the park.”

The State of the Political Novel: An Interview with Édouard Louis

May 3, 2016 | by

Édouard Louis

Édouard Louis, born in 1992, grew up in Hallencourt, a village in the north of France where many live below the poverty line. Now his account of life in that village, written when he was nineteen, has ignited a debate on class and inequality, foisting Louis into the center of French literary life.  

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule) is unsparing in its descriptions of the homophobia, alcoholism, and racism that animated Louis’s youth in Hallencourt. “We thought the book would be as invisible as the people it describes,” said Louis, who rejects any romantic views of the “authenticity” of working-class life. His publisher thought the first edition, two thousand copies, would last years. But hundreds of thousands of copies have sold in France, and the book is being translated into more than twenty languages. The novel, which has earned Louis comparisons to Zola, Genet, and de Beauvoir, is set to appear in English later this year.

Eddy Bellegueule can be read as a straightforward coming-of-age story, but beneath its narrative is an almost systematic examination of the norms and habits of the villagers—inspired, Louis has said, by the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It’s as if he’s taken the whole place and put it behind glass—like observing the inner workings of an anthill.

Who is Eddy Bellegueule, and why do you want to finish him off?

Eddy Bellegueule is the name my parents gave me when I was born. It sounds dramatic, but yes, I wanted to kill him—he wasn’t me, he was the name of a childhood I hated. The book shows how—before I revolted against my childhood, my social class, my family, and, finally, my name—it was my milieu that revolted against me. My father and my brothers wanted to finish off Eddy Bellegueule long before, at a time when I was still trying to save him. Read More »

An Indulgence of Authors’ Self-Portraits

March 24, 2016 | by

Philip Roth

“An Indulgence of Authors’ Self-Portraits” appeared in our Fall 1976 issue, the same year Burt Britton’s book Self-Portraits—Book People Picture Themselves was published. Britton’s book displays his collection of self-doodles by famous authors, artist, athletes, actors, and musicians, much of which was sold at auction in 2009. “So what does Mr. Britton look like?” asked the New York Times in 2009. “He refused to be photographed.” —Jeffery Gleaves

One evening fifteen years ago Burt Britton (now head of the Review department at the Strand Bookstore) and Norman Mailer were sitting together in the Village Vanguard where Britton then worked. On impulse, Britton asked Mailer for a self-portrait. Mailer complied—the first of a collection which began to fill the pages of a blank book in the Strand. These were done by friends—primarily writers—who entered their drawings and salutations when they visited the store. No one has refused him a self-portrait. When he remarked on James Jones’ generosity, Jones explained, “Burt, for Christ’s sake, I wouldn’t be left out of that book!”

As his collection grew, Britton was approached by a number of publishers, but always refused publication on the grounds that the self-portraits were the property of his private mania. But recently Anais Nin and others have persuaded him to let others in on how writers view themselves. Random House will publish the entire collection this fall under the title, Self-Portraits—Book People Picture Themselves. Many of the portraits reproduced here are by writers who have been published and/or interviewed in this magazine.  Read More »

Another Another Country

March 23, 2016 | by

It goes without saying that James Baldwin was a legendary speaker—a preacher turned orator turned public intellectual who knew the power of words. But hearing him never ceases to shock. Very little can be added to this mesmerizing recording of Baldwin reading from his 1962 novel, Another Country. Answering a prompt for The New York Times Book Review about why his book had become so popular, Baldwin wrote, Read More »

NPR Mug Optional, and Other News

February 26, 2016 | by

Lit mag to the stars.

  • That image above comes from the trailer for Maggie’s Plan, which features Ethan Hawke reading our Winter 2014 issue (if I had to guess, he’s somewhere deep in the Michael Haneke interview) as Greta Gerwig looks on with envy. Is the rest of the film this scintillating? One can only hope.
  • Since it closed in 1957, Black Mountain College has achieved a level of renown verging on mythic—it’s now the subject of an exhibition in Boston, the fourth show devoted to it in recent years. Barry Schwabsky asks: “Why the recurring preoccupation with a short-lived, unaccredited school at the back of beyond, which never had enough students to pay its way? It could be the school’s believe-it-or-not story and how, the more you learn about it, the more unlikely it seems … The idealism, the creative élan, the infectious sense of possibility that the exhibitions highlight—these were all part of Black Mountain, and the school’s implicit promise was fulfilled surprisingly often. But there were illusions, too … the community’s internal politics turned out to be nearly impossible to negotiate with grace. An educational philosophy based on ‘the whole person’ gave no indication of how to square the conflicting goals of community and individuality.”
  • In 1960, James Baldwin gave a speech called “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel.” “I want to follow a group of lives,” he said, “almost from the time they open their eyes on the world until some point of resolution, say, marriage, or childbirth, or death.” Edwidge Danticat unpacks those remarks: “In other talks and essays, he laid out some ideas about what made an unsuccessful novel, citing problems like too neat a frame, sentimentality, and facile lessons and solutions. The novel he was referring to in the speech, though, he claimed, was both ‘unwritten and probably unwritable.’ Neither was it meant to be a ‘long, warm, toasty’ novel. ‘This hypothetical book is aiming at something more implacable than that … The social realities with which these people, the people I remember, whether they knew it or not, were really contending can’t be left out of the novel without falsifying their experience.’ ”
  • Before the black-and-white photograph came to prominence, there was the lowly cyanotype, a photographic process known for its blue tint and its speedy, easy production. A new exhibition gives the form its due, as the curator Nancy Burns says: “The fact that they were blue was also just too weird for people—that the idea of what a photograph was supposed to look like was black and white … but blue was just too bizarre … Last but not least, is that they were used for making blueprints—that you could make cyanotypes as not just a photograph, but you can use it to transfer a drawing or text. And because it has an association with something so pedestrian and being used as a photocopier, it didn’t quite make it into the earliest histories of photography because people weren’t entirely convinced that they were photographs.”
  • Creative people like to say they hate small talk, with its eye-rolling tendencies toward banality and formality. But no matter what Heidegger and other opponents of “idle talk” suggest, their hatred for it is probably to blame on the fact that they’re bad at it: “We are living in a low moment for the art of minimal social interactions … Small talk has always been a tool to avoid the minefield of unintended boorishness … Even those who found small talk uninspiring once recognized its utility, like the British statesman Lord Chesterfield, who’s responsible for the first-known use of the phrase … It requires playing within the lines. Using sports, weather, family, and other unremarkable raw material, the skilled conversationalist spins it into gold—or at least cotton candy.”

Addy Walker, American Girl

December 23, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

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From the cover of Meet Addy.

The role of black dolls in American culture.

In 1864, a nine-year-old slave girl was punished for daydreaming. Distracted by rumors that her brother and father would be sold, she failed to remove worms from the tobacco leaves she was picking. The overseer didn’t whip her. Instead, he pried her mouth open, stuffed a worm inside, and forced her to eat it.

This girl is not real. Her name is Addy Walker; she is an American Girl doll, one of eight historical dolls produced by the Pleasant Company who arrive with dresses, accessories, and a series of books about their lives. Of all the harrowing scenes I’ve encountered in slave narratives, I remember this scene from Meet Addy, her origin story, most vividly. How the worm—green, fat, and juicy—burst inside Addy’s mouth. At eight years old, I understood that slavery was cruel—I knew about hard labor and whippings—but the idea of a little girl being forced to eat a worm stunned me. I did not yet understand that violence is an art. There’s creativity to cruelty. What did I know of its boundaries and edges? Read More >>