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Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Vonnegut’

You and Your Fantastic Hopes, and Other News

December 7, 2015 | by

Kurt Vonnegut with his wife Jane and their three children, Mark, Edie, and Nanette, in 1955. Photo: Edie Vonnegut

  • Our new Winter issue, out now, features an interview with Gordon Lish, the editor whose drastic emendation of Raymond Carver’s work remains contentious even now, decades after the fact. In an excerpt of the interview in the Guardian, Lish talks about his reasoning with Carver: “I saw in Carver’s pieces something I could fuck around with. There was a prospect there, certainly. The germ of the thing, in Ray’s stuff, was revealed in the catalogue of his experience. It had that promise in it, something I could fool with and make something new-seeming … But Carver’s were not the only ones I’d worked on to that extent. Not the only ones by a long shot. There were many. I’ve been decried for a heinous act. Was it that? Me, I think I made something enduring. For its being durable, and, in many instances, beautiful.” Subscribe now to read the whole interview.
  • Kobe Bryant’s versified retirement announcement is only the latest example (and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, not an especially sublime one) of the sports poem, a venerated form whose proponents include Randall Jarrell (“Say Goodbye to Big Daddy”) William Carlos Williams (“The Crowd at the Ball Game”) and Marianne Moore (“Baseball and Writing”). But how to tell which is the most accomplished of all time? With a March Madness–style tournament, of course, conducted by Daily contributor Adrienne Raphel: “In honor of Bryant, I’ve pitted sixteen sports poems against one another—with both ‘sports’ and ‘poems’ arbitrarily defined … to determine which sports poem should be crowned victorious. The four regions: Basketball, Baseball, Football, and Running.”
  • Zadie Smith argued in 2008 that literature was too dominated by lyrical realism. In a new interview with The White Review, she refines her thinking: “The fashionable argument against ‘realism’ has become a bit simple-minded … In fact I think we are rather sophisticated in our understanding of the limits and illusions of language, and that this is again largely due to our familiarity with the literary uses of language in everyday life. When you hear, for example, two girls at a bus stop and one is telling the other a ‘story’—‘and she was like … and I was like … and they were like’—the storytelling girl is not doing this because she imagines that with this act of mimesis, with this ‘realistic’ re-telling, she has fooled her listener into believing that what she is presenting is ‘authentic’ or an unvarnished truth, in some sense essentially ‘real’—no. She is performing a speech act in which both parties understand, at least to some degree, that what is happening is a form of ‘performance’, a bracketed and partial reality. The problem with the argument that all realism is naïve is that it assigns to both parties in the literary exchange—the reader and the writer—an almost childlike innocence in the face of literary artifice.”
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s wife Jane played a critical role in her husband’s career—it was she who convinced him that he should write at all. “Many of the ideas and themes that characterize Vonnegut were born in the conversation between Kurt and Jane, and throughout his career she remained a voice in the text … Her faith sometimes baffled him. ‘I can only hope, and this on your instigation, that I’ve not reached my full stature,’ he wrote. ‘I’m willing to work like a dog to attain it.’ And he did ... ‘I don’t want to let you and your fantastic hopes down with a thump.’ ”
  • Did you know? This thing called Art Basel happened in Miami: a bunch of overblown parties that may or may not have been art-related. Kaitlin Phillips was there, watching the arrivistes: “Christopher Bollen playful-seriously accused all artists of the Dunning-Kruger effect, ‘a psychological term for people who highly exaggerate their skill sets. I feel like all artists have to be sufferers of it. What you are trying to achieve, like, outweighs even your own experience of what it is’ … Aesthetically, I’m more willing to diagnose the suits from last night with Dunning-Kruger; the men without so much as a Wikipedia entry, or even a personality, let alone charisma or looks, god forbid politesse, trying to talk their way into clubs. But I’m being morbid. ‘What is your criteria? I just want to learn,’ said a man, angrily. ‘There’s no criteria,’ said the doorman, a real cool customer. And there were women too: ‘You don’t understand the culture,’ lisped (or rasped) a thickly beautiful woman in a thick Italian accent. ‘You don’t understand the culture.’ Neither, apparently, did she, not that I don’t sympathize with the trials of a chunky-junky-jewelry woman. It’s a postlapsarian scene, baby—you can’t just walk in on the Louboutins you never learned to walk in.”

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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Man in Hole

February 4, 2015 | by

Turning novels’ plots into data points.

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Kurt Vonnegut

Motherboard has a new article about Matthew Jockers, a University of Nebraska English professor who’s been studying what he calls “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction.” Jockers has crunched hard data from thousands of novels in the hope of answering two key questions: Are there any archetypal plot shapes? And if so, how many?

The answers, his data suggest, are “yes” and “about six,” respectively.

Jockers, it should be clear, is pursuing a different meaning of plot than the one we conventionally reach for—he conceives of it as an emotional concern more than a narrative concern. His research was spurred by a concept called syuzhet, one of a pair of terms coined by the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp. As Jockers explains, Read More »

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The Flatus of Yore, and Other News

January 24, 2014 | by

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What a gas! Image via Beautiful Decay.

  • Japanese scrolls from the Edo period depict—yes—erumpent, competitive flatulence.
  • Back to more dignified fare. Guess the classic novel from its first sentence.
  • Fact: Kurt Vonnegut wrote a made-for-TV movie in 1972. It’s called Between Time and Timbuktu, or Prometheus-5: A Space Fantasy. Vonnegut later withdrew from the production: “I am not going to have anything more to do with film—for this reason: I don’t like film.” Well. As far as excuses go, that one’s airtight.
  • “I think empathy is a guy who punches you in the face at a bus station, and you’re somehow able to look at him and know enough about what situation he was in to know that he had to do that and not to hit back. That’s empathy, and nothing ever happens in writing that has that kind of moral heroism about it.” A new interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan.
  • As any reader of Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity knows, vagueness can be artful, but it’s especially so in Mandarin writing, where ambiguous sentences resemble optical illusions.

 

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Weapons of Mass Instruction

November 11, 2013 | by

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VONNEGUT

I took my basic training on the 240-millimeter howitzer.

INTERVIEWER

A rather large weapon.

VONNEGUT

The largest mobile fieldpiece in the army at that time. This weapon came in six pieces, each piece dragged wallowingly by a Caterpillar tractor. Whenever we were told to fire it, we had to build it first. We practically had to invent it. We lowered one piece on top of another, using cranes and jacks. The shell itself was about nine and a half inches in diameter and weighed three hundred pounds. We constructed a miniature railway which would allow us to deliver the shell from the ground to the breech, which was about eight feet above grade. The breechblock was like the door on the vault of a savings and loan association in Peru, Indiana, say.

INTERVIEWER

It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.

VONNEGUT

Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.

INTERVIEWER

The ultimate terror weapon.

VONNEGUT

Of the Franco-Prussian War.

—Kurt Vonnegut, the Art of Fiction No. 64

 

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On Occasion, I Write Pretty Well

August 6, 2013 | by

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Via the 92nd Street Y.

 

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