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Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

The Uncanny I: An Interview with Kristin Dombek

October 11, 2016 | by

Photo: Amy Touchett.

Readers of The Paris Review will remember Kristin Dombek’s essay “Letter from Williamsburg,” one of our perennial favorites. In August, Dombek published her first book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, a diagnosis of our attention-starved culture and its fixation on self-absorption. The book covers everything from Bram Stoker to My Super Sweet 16; the New York Times calls it “sharply argued, knottily intelligent, darkly funny cultural criticism.” Dombek spoke to Robert Polito, the poet, biographer, and critic, about “the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust who we do, in life and in writing.” The Editors


When I talk to fellow nonfiction writers, I’m always interested in how they locate themselves along the prose or argument continuum. When you sit down to write an essay, are you primarily thinking prose—sentences, words, tone—or are you thinking argument, what you might wish to say about a subject? And are you the sort of nonfiction writer who plans, or even outlines, or is the writing more improvisatory and about discovery for you ?



Usually an essay begins with an argument, for me. Not a linear argument, in the sense of a line of reasoning, but an argument as in two people or groups shouting at each other, but in my head. The dumber the disagreement, the more I want to kind of explode it and discover what it covers up, find better language for what life is really like. In this case, the disagreement was narcissism is the opposite of human—i.e., a total lack of warmth, empathy, “human” feeling—versus narcissism is everybody. Usually, what’s next is scene, where the language of the essay gets discovered, and the idea. Often an editor helps to lay bare the structure that will let the idea happen, rather than being told to the reader.

But in this book, at least in its final version, I wasn’t working in scenes but rather channeling kinds of Internet and academic language that aren’t really my own, and kind of sculpting that language like material. So there is so much telling, summary, which is painful for me to read. There wasn’t a reasonable progression of ideas, but on one axis, a progression of kinds of language, and then on the other, a slow panning out from the trapped, limited perspective of fearful, solitary, listicle-fueled diagnosis to a broader view, and poetry. Read More »

Staff Picks: Stage Fright, Substitute Teachers, Skin

September 9, 2016 | by

Photo: Charlotte Strick

Alex Prager’s brilliant ten-minute film La Grande Sortie in its U.S. debut, is looping in the upstairs screening room of Lehmann Maupin Gallery through October 23. Prager has imagined for us the marvelously grotesque descent of a prima ballerina into a state of hysteria provoked by our worst fears of stage fright. Witnessed through the shifting perspectives of the dancer (the remarkably theatric Émilie Cozette) and her ever more repulsive and hostile audience, the ballerina’s derangement reminds one of a desperate Mia Farrow surrounded by equal parts evil and camp in Rosemary’s Baby. Even on the fourth viewing, my heart rate surged in time with the stabbing string instruments in the film’s score, sampled from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and composed by Radiohead’s producer, Nigel Godrich. Layered under these orchestral notes is the amplified tap-tap-tap of scraping toe shoes across the wooden stage, the flapping of the dancer’s tulle skirt, and the noisy fidgeting of her restless audience. I marveled at Prager’s ability to create such a polished and darkly humorous examination of the extremes of human anxiety and artificiality. And the artist delivers up a panic-filled surprise ending worthy of a Hollywood horror flick. —Charlotte Strick

Type our education system into Google and Autofill will finish your thought: “is broken.” “Is outdated.” “Is flawed.” Any Joe on the street can tell you that. But Nicholson Baker strode bravely into the classroom to see just how defective our schools are: for six months in 2014, he subbed for K–12 teachers in Maine. His new book, Substitute, is a close record of the hairline cracks and scotch-tape fixes that are comprised by a public education. Rather than fulminate or theorize, Baker offers a lively day-by-day account of everything he saw and heard in the classroom. It’s storytelling as commentary, and it means that Substitute’s seven hundred pages fly by, filled as they are with the mulch of student life: the iPad games, the idle chatter, the dioramas and worksheets and silent-reading blocks. Fans of Baker’s know he can elevate any subject—this is a man who’s written compellingly about vacuum cleaners—and the tedium of teaching finds him pressing his gift for metaphor to ever more creative ends: “We all walked to the cafeteria, where there was a massive molten fondue of noise.” Or: “We were swimming in a warm, lifeless salt pond of geopolitical abstraction.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Alan Watts, This Is It

August 24, 2016 | by

Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago.

Alan Watts.

Alan Watts.

In my high school creative-writing class, one day a week was set aside for reading, our choice of material. The hippieish teacher guided those choices, but almost anything worked. It was here, because of her, that I first encountered Alan Watts, specifically his essay collection This Is It. All I remember about the book itself is my teacher dreamily commenting on the title. I picked up a copy because it was short, and because the subtitle—and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience—spoke to me. The idea seemed “cool”—Watts was a forerunner of the counterculture movement—but I must have been too busy with the eternity of high school to focus my attention.

I was in college when I was in a car accident that tore a nerve in my shoulder. A botched surgery to repair it severed an artery and released a blood clot that, a week later, caused a massive stroke that left me locked inside my body. I couldn’t move or speak, and the doctors said I would be paralyzed from the eyes down for the rest of my life. Read More »

Staff Picks: Marlys, Menopause, Mallet Percussion

August 19, 2016 | by

“The one thing no one will tell you is that these feelings and this behavior will last ten years. That is, a decade of your life. Ask your doctor if this is true and she will deny it.” In Mary Ruefle’s hands an essay about menopause becomes an essay on the human condition; ditto an essay about shrunken heads, and one about milk shakes, and one about dealing with crumbs. We published “Milk Shake” in our Spring issue as a prose poem—and it is that—but reading her collection My Private Property, I’m struck by the conversational quality of this new work, by its anthropological spirit, and by its stubborn emphasis on the facts as Ruefle has found them—whatever your doctor, or hers, or anyone else, may say to the contrary. —Lorin Stein

“One day I was drawing my weekly comic strip, and as I drew the frame, I had a half-memory of being with my cousins after seeing the torch light parade … 9 kids crammed into one car—no seatbelts, 3 adults smoking … And suddenly we were all just throwing up parade food at the same time. On top of this image was a half-memory of staying overnight at a neighbor’s house. Nine kids. The mom said things like ‘Holy Balls!’ When I make a comic strip, I let these sorts of images lead and combine as I move my pen. I try to let one line lead to the next without plan. The only thing I have to do is stay in motion. That’s what I was doing when I first saw Marlys.” Lynda Barry has been drawing the freckled, bespectacled, opinionated eight-year-old since 1986; to my mind, Marlys ranks with Charlie Brown as one of the most genuine and poignant adolescent protagonists in serial comics. The newly updated and expanded collection, The Greatest of Marlys, has been my beach reading this week. If you haven’t read Barry, let this book be your gateway: she is one of a kind, and with Marlys, she is irresistible. —Nicole Rudick Read More »

Mahasweta Devi, 1926–2016

August 8, 2016 | by


Mahasweta Devi.

“Please don’t write more books. I can’t read so many books,” a little girl once said to Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and Nobel laureate. The little girl was Mahasweta Devi, who grew up to be one of India’s best-known writers and activists. When Mahasweta died, on July 28—Devi is an honorific—she left behind no small collection herself: she had written more than a hundred books, including fiction and nonfiction about India’s tribal communities, Maoist insurgents, and women. Read More »

Merle Haggard, 1937–2016

April 8, 2016 | by

The cover of Serving 190 Proof, 1979.

Ever since I started editing The Paris Review, I’ve wished we could interview Merle Haggard. No songwriter means as much to me. Unfortunately, the Review doesn’t have a series on the Art of Songwriting (and for good reasons), so for the past six years I just wished. Then last Friday, at a friend’s wedding, I met a country deejay named Rebecca Birmingham. We happened to start talking about Merle and how much his songs moved us both, how true they were to experience, how original they sound even now. We both knew he was in poor health, he’d been in poor health for years, but she had a friend who’d know how to get in touch … Four days later we got the news that he was dead. Read More »