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Posts Tagged ‘radio’

Writing Is a Nefarious Business

November 10, 2015 | by

“Have you been doing anything you shouldn’t, William Carlos Williams?” asks the venerable women’s-hour host Mary McBride. 

“Writing for forty years!” replies the poet with alarming jocularity. “That’s a nefarious business, you know!” Read More »

The Ghost in the Machine, and Other News

October 28, 2015 | by

A man and his son listen to their battery radio, September 1946.

  • Jonathan Franzen investigates the necessary and sufficient features of that classic, oft-maligned form, The New Yorker story: “What made a story New Yorker was its carefully wrought, many-comma’d prose; its long passages of physical description, the precision and the sobriety of which created a kind of negative emotional space, a suggestion of feeling without the naming of it; its well-educated white characters, who could be found experiencing the melancholies of affluence, the doldrums of suburban marriage, or the thrill or the desolation of adultery; and, above all, its signature style of ending, which was either elegantly oblique or frustratingly coy, depending on your taste.” In Cheever’s well-wrought “The Country Husband,” we see “a reminder of why ‘the New Yorker story’ became so dominant. In a country recovering from one war and entering others, living under a nuclear shadow, awaiting large-scale social upheavals, no scream could do justice to the American middle-class predicament. Only understatement could.”
  • For ammunition in your war against writer’s block, look to the past—Wycliff Aber Hill’s Ten Million Photoplay Plots, from 1919, offers a superabundance of narrative solutions for whatever ails you. (Okay, it only lists thirty-seven “basic dramatic situations,” which is a far cry from ten million, but use your imagination.) Among such mainstays as “fatal indiscretion” and “adultry [sic] with murder”—those are apparently different—you’ll find deep cuts like “struggle against God” and “involuntary criminal love,” which contains fecund sub-possibilities: “discovery that one has married his own mother … having through the villainous instigation of a third person taken a sister for wife … discovery that one is about to violate, unknowingly, a daughter.” On second thought, just give up—writing is silly, anyway.
  • Today in spooky media: Long-Delayed Echoes (LDEs) have plagued radio since their discovery in 1927, and scientists can’t really explain them. They could be signals reflected from outer space; signals reflected terrestrially; or, most plausibly, signs of alien life. “In 1960 Ronald Bracewell proposed in Ronald Bracewell proposed in Nature that if we were to be contacted by an autonomous artificially intelligent alien probe, the messages we received would most likely sound like the echoes … the reflection of our own radio signals back to us being a highly energy efficient mode of establishing contact.”
  • For years, American writers have toiled in obscurity, with precious few monuments, commemorative plaques, or wax likenesses devoted to their memory. Well, friend, no more: Chicago is soon to open the first-ever American Writers Museum, where, god willing, the fraught history of our art-form, like so many before it, will be boiled down into propaganda and shoveled merrily down the throats of our youth. And if you’re worried that a museum about words will look too much like a library—perish the thought—allow me to allay your fears: “The museum will focus on using new media and technology in exhibitions, not only to differentiate it from a library, but also to engage in contemporary forms of writing from social media to digital journalism.” That is, not much writing will be featured at the American Writers Museum.
  • Fact: “an unprecedented six cooking-related books by black women will have been published by the end of this month.” If six doesn’t sound like many to you, remember that the tradition is rooted in memorization, not record: “Plenty of my African American friends marvel over their family elders’ ability to cook from memory, processes so rote that mistakes are rare. But history is never so simple. Memorizing recipes or cooking without them has its roots in slavery: The need for cooking aptitude predated the existence of legal literacy for enslaved kitchen workers—let alone the existence of cookbooks by free black authors … cookbooks by black authors have steadily trickled to market in far fewer numbers than titles by white authors.”

Dancing in the Trenches, and Other News

October 26, 2015 | by

E. H. Shepard, Close of the Italian Season. Grand ‘Peace Ballet’ Finale, 1918–1919. Image via NYRB

  • Ask your standard-issue grammarian about further versus farther and he’ll trot out the conventional wisdom: farther should be used to refer to literal distances and further to metaphorical ones. But what if everything we’ve been taught is a lie? Caleb Crain investigates: “Further didn’t originally mean ‘more distant’ but something like ‘more ahead,’ or, as the contemporary O.E.D. puts it, ‘more forward, more onward’ … farther refers to a greater distance, literal or metaphorical, from a shared measuring point. Further refers to a greater progress in a shared direction.”
  • What did the literary world look like before the free market enveloped and swallowed it? Memories of that time are getting murkier every day: “It is almost impossible now to remember … that poetry was the literary genre to which the greatest prestige accrued until the mideighties; that one might have spent an afternoon talking with an acquaintance about the rhythm of a writer’s sentences … that we didn’t think of success in writing mainly in relation to the market, and in relation to a particular genre, the novel, and to a specific incarnation of that genre, the first novel, possibly until 1993, when A Suitable Boy was published, or maybe a year earlier, when Donna Tartt’s The Secret History appeared. It is now difficult to understand these examples as watershed occurrences in an emerging order, and difficult to experience again the moral implications of living … in an order that was superseded.”
  • NPR personalities used to position themselves as the genuine, warts-and-all alternative to the downy baritones on offer from traditional radio broadcasters—but today even the NPR voices have come to sound manufactured, their hesitant cadences and informality built into the script. “In addition to looser language, the speaker generously employs pauses and, particularly at the end of sentences, emphatic inflection … A result is the suggestion of spontaneous speech and unadulterated emotion. The irony is that such presentations are highly rehearsed, with each caesura calculated and every syllable stressed in advance … the preplanned responses of NPR personalities sound somewhat counterfeit when stacked against the largely, if not completely, unscripted monologues that open rawer podcasts … an even more forceful catalyst for speech patterns has been the modern Internet, the most powerful linguistic relaxant outside of alcohol.”
  • E. H. Shepard is best remembered as the illustrator behind the original Winnie-the-Pooh, but before that, during World War I, he ran a soldiers’ magazine from the trenches: “For months, his life, like all those on the front, was surrounded by slaughter. His sketchbook was full of pictures of crammed dugouts and rough shelters. He drew the chaotic rubble of no-man’s land, the plight of the wounded, and the tall roadside crucifix used as a lookout post by the Germans … But there’s still plenty of humor in Venti Quatro, the soldiers’ magazine he edited, satirizing the gung-ho coverage of the British press, so far from the bitter reality. His wit is not verbal, but visual—a quality hard to define—seen here in affectionate caricatures of fellow officers and in the wonderful, rhythmic dance of beak-nosed, moustachioed officers in swirling tutus.”
  • More and more literary magazines are charging a reading fee—is this blatant money-grabbing or the latest in a series of efforts to stanch the flow of submissions? “The major reason literary journals charge fees has less to do with money, and more to do with the enormous number of submissions they receive. Around the country, MFA programs are graduating people who want to be writers, so they submit creative writing to literary journals. The journals, with small staffs and minuscule budgets, are overwhelmed with submissions and take a long time—sometimes six months to a year—to reply. Most writers can’t wait that long for a single response, so they send their work to more journals. The whole thing snowballs … In some sense, then, writers are to blame for blanketing journals they haven’t even read with their work.”

Signing Off, and Other News

April 21, 2015 | by


The Brox Sisters tuning a radio, ca. 1920s.

  • Historically, U.S. novelists have made their subject “the American dream,” starry-eyed and ambiguous as it may be—but “has the American dream run out of road? Perhaps an exhaustion with national myths explains the recent advent of post-apocalyptic literature … When the dream has been blown to bits for more than a century, all that’s left is to tell bleak stories of human survival set in the wreckage of a junkyard.”
  • Today in blunt, clear-eyed statistics: one in six writers did not earn any money from their writing in 2013, a new report from The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society said, “though 98 percent saying their work had been published or used in other ways. 11.5 percent of authors now earn a living solely from their writing—down from 40 percent a decade ago.”
  • Norway has announced that it will cease FM radio broadcasts in 2017, and others are expected to follow suit—meaning the age of analog may be drawing to a close.
  • Critics, Saul Bellow felt, “ought to provide useful encouragement and then get the hell out of the way. This … helps to explain the lifelong tension between Bellow and Lionel Trilling, the leading critic of his time … Bellow greet[ed] Trilling at a party: ‘Still peddling the same old horseshit, Lionel?’ ”
  • “I feel about so-called intellectuals, especially academics—English professors in particular—almost the same way I once felt about my rural townsfolk: that I can’t get far enough away. At least, I have come to learn, there was among my fellow country dwellers an engaging suspicion of pomposity, a strange verbal lyricism, a physical vigor, and the deep lonesomeness of Celtic immigrants who sense ‘I shouldn’t really be here.’ ”

Inventing Situations: An Interview with Thomas Pierce

January 8, 2015 | by

Thomas Pierce author photo (c) Andrew Owen

Photo © Andrew Owen

What’s immediately striking about Thomas Pierce’s debut story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, are its wild, unforgettable conceits. In “Shirley Temple Three,” a long-extinct dwarf mammoth is cloned for a TV show, then dumped off in a small Southern town with Mawmaw, the show host’s mother. In “More Soon,” the body of a man’s brother is shipped all over the world because of worries over a mysterious contagion. In “Videos of People Falling Down,” the lives of a host of characters—a local-news reporter, a right-wing Listserv manager, a cheesy pop singer—converge and intertwine through the shared humiliation of having been filmed while falling. But Pierce’s characters never feel secondary to his plots. They are resoundingly human, with their bundles of worries, joys, dreams, and burdens, their beliefs, theories, and suspicions, their wanderings and wonderings.

Pierce and I first met in 2000, as students in a high school summer program in South Carolina, our shared home state. Even then I was impressed by his charm and intelligence, and his lively, slightly askew sense of humor. In 2013, my magazine, Gigantic, published his story “Time to Get Radical,” a funny and unexpectedly moving catchphrase-driven monologue that in around twelve hundred words manages to capture the highs, lows, and in-betweens in the life of one semi-religious auto-parts salesman someplace down South.

This interview took place over a series of e-mails and a shared Google Doc, along with two in-person meetings—in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he now lives.

You worked for five years at NPR as a blogger, reporter, and producer. How has this experience informed your work?

In radio, you’re always aware that you have to win the listener’s attention. You’re wrestling them away from their breakfast or their drive or kids. So lesson one is to be interesting and engaging. You also learn quickly that the best sentence to read over the air is usually the simplest one—complex ideas don’t necessarily require complex sentences. Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful, confusing sentences, too, but I also value clarity—and radio helped me in that regard.

You may only have ninety seconds to tell a story on the radio. When you write a radio script, there’s software you can use with a little clock in the upper right-hand corner that tells you the piece’s length in terms of time. This helps you to remember that what you’re creating will occupy a portion of a person’s day. One of my short stories might steal forty-two minutes from your life. I want to use your time wisely. Read More »


The Answers to Walter Benjamin’s Riddles

December 11, 2014 | by


Last week, we published a transcript of one of Walter Benjamin’s radio broadcasts for children from 1932. It had thirty brainteasers in it. Here are the answers: Read More »