- The Internet is awash in devastating, graphic personal essays—young writers are encouraged, maybe more than ever, to monetize and sensationalize their grisliest experiences. So … now what? “The Internet’s confessional impulse has been fully codified. Every site seems to have a first-person vertical … But for all the different house styles these pieces accommodate, it’s striking how many of them read like reverse-engineered headlines, buzzy premises fleshed out with the gritty details of firsthand experience … This is a key problem with the new first-person economy: the way it incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling.”
- The Joan Didion that people adore these days is the Didion of The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, not the Didion of Democracy—but that novel is remarkable, too, and to read it is to enter a fecund and too often neglected phase of her career: “There’s something in Democracy that you’ll find little of in Didion’s nonfiction: It’s the book in which she does the most thinking about a formative subject in her life, the Vietnam War, yet it’s a book that rarely enters into current discussions of her work … A more useful understanding would recognize the later nonfiction as an extension and amplification of the early nonfiction’s achievements. It would also see the novels as vital continuations of the same project, workings out of problems in style and sense painted on blank canvases. Such an understanding would turn Democracy from a bookshelf ornament to a central work about Vietnam, the other historical hinge in Didion’s career.”
- Roland Barthes wrote well about TV, and professional wrestling in particular—meaning he was also, thirty-five years ahead of time, writing well about Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. “The key to generating passion, Barthes notes, is to position yourself to deliver justice against evil forces by whatever means necessary … But why can’t voters see that what Trump offers is just an act? As Barthes illustrates, that’s asking the wrong question. ‘It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theater.’”
- Today in fact-checking: the most error-prone movie of the year thus far is Jurassic World, which boasts an impressive nineteen continuity blunders, plot holes, and factual mistakes. “Errors in Jurassic World reportedly include a mobile phone that appears to magically fix itself … and the ability to start up an abandoned Jeep that has been parked, fully exposed to the elements, on a tropical island for twenty years … The all-time record is held by 1979’s Apocalypse Now, with a whopping 561 mistakes.”
- The typographer Adrian Frutiger, who designed the font for London’s street signs, has died at eighty-seven. “I learned to understand that beauty and readability—and up to a certain point, banality—are close bedfellows,” Frutiger said. “The best typeface is the one that impinges least on the reader’s consciousness, becoming the sole tool that communicates the meaning of the writer to the understanding of the reader.”
- Plenty of adjectives are fit for Norman Mailer—insecure, misogynistic, overrated—but the one people seem to settle on, as a kind of euphemism, is pugnacious. Yes, here was a man whose ears always pricked up for the call of combat, a man who’d ask you to put your dukes up even when no one was watching: “Imagine it: Mailer is living in small-town Connecticut. He takes his dogs out after midnight to relieve themselves. He chances to stroll past a few young men sitting on a porch, one of whom points out the obvious: Mailer’s well-groomed poodles were probably queer. Mailer must have seen the implication: Who would own homosexual dogs, if not a homosexual man? In the middle of the night, with no one there to impress, one of the world’s most famous authors demanded satisfaction … Fearing for his life and bleeding from both eyes, Mailer surrendered and dragged himself home. Laid up in a dark room for days afterwards, he didn’t feel too badly about himself: there was only dishonor in flinching from a fight, not in losing decently.”
- Joan Didion, meanwhile, has been held up as the embodiment of feminine cool, even with her wincingly elitist, antifeminist politics: “It’s interesting to think about how Didion would have fared had she come to New York in 2015 rather than 1955. She is, after all, a writer for whom feelings (especially her own) are inherently unreliable sources. She assailed feminism’s ‘invention of women as a “class” ’ and wrote dismissively of the oppressed ‘Everywoman’ who ‘needed contraceptives because she was raped on every date … and raped finally on the abortionist’s table.’ She never got involved in the women’s movement, because, according to a friend, ‘she was beyond that.’ Didion is, for all her sensitivity and curiosity, more than a little bit of a class snob.”
- “The Contemporary Novel,” an 1927 essay by T. S. Eliot, is finally seeing publication in English, nearly ninety years later. Of novelists like Woolf, Lawrence, and Huxley, he writes, “I can find unity—or rather, unanimity—only in the fact that they all lack what [Henry] James seems to me so preeminently to possess: the ‘moral preoccupation.’ And as I believe that this ‘moral preoccupation’ is more and more asserting itself in the minds of those who think and feel, I am forced to the somewhat extreme conclusion that the contemporary English novel is behind the times.”
- Some twenty-five hundred words of a lost F. Scott Fitzgerald novel have been found languishing in a box in the Princeton library. They’re from an unfinished work called Ballet School—Chicago, which is about, sure enough, “a ballerina trying to make her way in Chicago. She has an attraction to a wealthy neighbor because he can get her out of this tough existence … and she can have a happy life with him. The story goes into the very hard training for ballet dancers. But then something quirky and unsuspected happens that changes her impression of him.”
- Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, otherwise known as “the Bean,” has been a major attraction in Chicago since 2006, which is maybe why in China, the city of Karamay, Xinjiang, has just ripped it off with a new, shiny, surprisingly Bean-like sculpture of their own. “A spokesperson from the Karamay tourism bureau went on the record to defend the sculpture, telling the Wall Street Journal that while Kapoor’s sculpture was ‘a bean shape,’ the sculpture in Karamay ‘looks like an oil bubble.’ ”
- Explaining the Internet’s Joan Didion obsession is a tricky thing: “In the crossover of feminism, fashion, and literary interests, there is a whole swathe of the internet where Didion is a staple reference. Her borscht recipe can be found on the website Brain Pickings, and her list of items to pack for reporting trips periodically crops up on style blogs … In 1989, she appeared in GAP ads with her twenty-three-year-old daughter, wearing black turtlenecks, and staring defiantly into the camera with only the barest suggestion of a smile. Last year, she wore huge black shades in ads for the French luxury goods brand Céline, which inspired devotion in unexpected places and in-depth analysis from the already devoted.” And yet this obsession seldom seems to extend to her political writing, which accounts for the bulk of her output—they only want her to write about herself. And what of that self? “To be so glamorously sensitive and beautiful that you have to be taken care of,” Pauline Kael once wrote, was the “ultimate princess fantasy.”
- This is peak road-trip season. If you’re not in a car right now, lighting out for the territories and exuding manifest destiny—well, it’s not too late. But don’t be all Fleetwood Mac about it. You cannot, in fact, go your own way. You can instead follow in the footsteps (tire tracks?) of writers past: Kerouac, Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Wolfe …
- On second thought, stay home. It’s more or less impossible to be a good travel writer anyway. You risk falling into two camps: the Elizabeth Gilbert, interior psychodrama, “obnoxious white lady in brown places” camp, or the Bruce Chatwin, indomitable male, “colonialist’s baggage stuffed full with preconceived assumptions” camp. If you’re looking for role models, try Freya Stark and Dervla Murphy: “Stark was in the world with her writing, not above it, not in herself … Her writing restores humanity to people who have otherwise been stripped down to news reports, reduced to death tolls and photos of open-mouthed weeping. The secret to her success was listening to the people she visited and letting them tell the story. This shouldn’t be any secret. It should be what every travel writer does.”
- A man who speaks hardly a lick of French has triumphed in the Francophone Scrabble Championship having apparently memorized the entire French Scrabble Dictionary in just a few days. Nigel Richards, “the Tiger Woods of Scrabble,” regards words as “just combinations of letters,” like numbers: “He has learned no language logic, just a succession of letter sequences giving rise to words. In his head it’s binary: what draw (of letters) can make a scrabble, what draw can’t.”
- On James Purdy, who wanted to write stories that “bristled with impossibilities”: “In his novels and short fiction, possibility and potential are always compromised. There is neither transcendence nor transformation. His characters do not grow or develop; they dwindle and unravel … It’s hard to think of a contemporary writer whose work shares this sensibility, a cool elegance laid over extreme emotion. The most apt comparison may be Wes Anderson, whose films similarly feature casts of eccentrics, dialogue full of non sequiturs, deadpan humor, and unabashed farce.”
- Joan Didion is twice the man you’ll ever be, so suggests a recent article in The Millions. Her masculine superiority lies in the “glacial emotional distance” of her prose, which is better than yours. Her coolness astounds: in her essay, “On Self-Respect,” she writes that people who have it, “are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.”
- Ottessa Moshfegh, winner of the 2013 Plimpton Prize, talks with Sarah Gerard about keeping a notebook: “When I’m writing to myself, I’m really trying to process something, and it usually has to do with writing out my delusion and then trying to interpret what that delusion might be in service of, and then trying to comfort myself about the anxiety that the delusion was helping me cope with.”
- Apple reversed its decision to ban historical video games that depict the battle flag of the Confederate States of America. Copies of Gone with the Wind and The Red Badge of Courage weren’t being pulped during the recent public outcry against flying the Confederate flag at certain state capitols, nor were Cold Mountain or Glory taken off the iTunes store. This reminds gamers, yet again, “that games are seen not as a scholarly pursuit, that they do not merit serious consideration alongside films and books on their subject matter.”
- While we’re talking about America, it seems our literary canon isn’t fit for television. Consider the numerous Jane Austen adaptations, the massive success of Downton Abbey, and the lack of a critically acclaimed film version of any Faulkner novel. Are American novels too dark for TV, or has Hollywood locked up the rights for most major American titles? As Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece, says, “The reasons that we haven’t are twofold … One is money, the second is money. And the third is money.”
- Which reminds me: culture isn’t free, but our post-Napster, digitalized-content world still operates as if it were. The trouble is, “if individual artists cannot make a living from their creative work, they will eventually throw in the towel,” and it’s important that “large corporations do not monopolize the cultural sphere.” Wrest control of culture from the ruling class. Buy a book.
The widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”
A recent Russia Today headline suggests that Europe is “slouching towards anxiety and war.” According to the title of Robert Bork’s latest best seller, the United States is Slouching Towards Gomorrah. A new book by W. C. Harris, an English professor, claims we’re Slouching Towards Gaytheism. A casual reader might wonder why the nations of the world have such terrible posture; is it that the earth is slouching towards bedlam? Have things fallen apart?
The only thing not doing any slouching these days is the “rough beast” in W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” the 1919 poem from which the phrase originates: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
But Yeats’s beast, it must be said, isn’t deteriorating or dying in its slouching, as the many references to the phrase would have you believe; rather, it slouches in steady, dedicated progress toward a goal. It’s actually a terrifying sight: the poem’s narrator intuits that the beast is coming to wreak some untold havoc. (At least one blog got this subtlety right in a headline about the 2012 election cycle: “Romney slouching toward GOP nomination.”)
“The Second Coming” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration. But how many of them get it right? Read More
- Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has started a book club—it’s perfect for philistines. “Zuckerberg launched the project by announcing, with what sounds almost like surprise, that books are ‘intellectually fulfilling’ and ‘allow you to fully explore a topic … in a deeper way than most media today’ … Imagine a world in which there’d been 700 years of the internet, before, in the nineties, somebody invented books. It would surely seem a miracle that, instead of trawling through acres of semi-reliable information, you could have a guaranteed, portable and inexpensive source of knowledge from someone who knows both how to write and what they’re talking about.”
- Joan Didion is, at eighty years old, still writing, and still modeling. She’s the new face for the Spring 2015 line of the French fashion label Céline. And she looks positively thrilled to be there.
- Why have we reserved the adjective difficult for works of high art? If difficult means “hard to read, hard to get through, hard to finish,” then Fifty Shades of Grey is every bit as difficult as The Recognitions. “Difficulty is various and subjective … opacity and frustration aren’t necessarily errors or failures on the part of the reader.”
- A crop of recent novels express a curious nostalgia for the seventies: “Everyone knows now how decades come back into fashion with motiveless regularity … The novelists who have lately returned to the Seventies seem to be making a stronger claim: that there is something uniquely vital to the decade, and in fact uniquely to be missed.”
- Say the apocalypse were to arrive and a world-sundering hellfire rained down upon us. CNN is ready. When Ted Turner founded the company thirty-four years ago, he stipulated that the network’s last functioning employee had to air a certain video before ceasing broadcast at the end of the world. This is it.