Stay Humble, and Other News


On the Shelf

Hans Memling, Vanité (detail), ca. 1490.


  • Our contributor Ben Nugent appears on Selected Shorts’ “Too Hot for Radio” podcast this week to discuss his short story “God,” which appeared in our Fall 2013 issue. Here’s how it all started, he says: “One of my best creative-writing students, Megan Kidder, a well mannered girl from rural Maine with dyed black hair, a silver nose ring, and a studded belt dropped by my office and informed me, I wrote a poem about how this one guy prematurely ejaculated … ”
  • Here’s Carina Chocano to remind you that you’re probably misusing the word humbled, you misinformed braggart, you duplicitous self-promoter, you smarmy pretender to humility: “To be humbled is to be brought low or somehow diminished in standing or stature. Sometimes we’re humbled by humiliation or failure or some other calamity. And sometimes we’re humbled by encountering something so grand, meaningful or sublime that our own small selves are thrown into stark contrast—things like history, or the cosmos, or the divine … To be humbled is to find yourself in the embarrassing position of having to shimmy awkwardly off your pedestal, or your high horse—or some other elevated place that would not have seemed so elevated had you not been so lowly to begin with—muttering apologies and cringing, with your skirt riding up past your granny pants.”

  • In Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature, Daniel Hack argues that “a wide range of the most important nineteenth-century African American writers drew from and engaged with writers of equal importance to the Victorian literary tradition.” Joseph Rezek enumerates Hack’s points: “Frederick Douglass serialized Dickens’s Bleak House in Frederick Douglass’ Paper as it was first being published in England and printed extensive commentary on the novel. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and others turned to George Eliot’s little-known dramatic poem “The Spanish Gypsy” and reworked its minoritarian nationalist rhetoric to find an analogy between the plight of the Romani people and the African American experience. Charles Chesnutt imagined a biracial David Copperfield in The House Behind the Cedars … Victorian literature heavily influenced African American writers—even as Victorian writers themselves all but ignored or even disdained African Americans as a people.”
  • Masha Gessen on the aesthetics of vacuousness that animate the executive office: “On Saturday it emerged that the inaugural-ball cake that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence cut with a sword was a knock-off of President Obama’s 2013 inaugural-ball cake. Obama’s was created by celebrity chef Duff Goldman. Trump’s was commissioned from a decidedly more modest Washington bakery than Goldman’s, and the transition-team representative who put in the order explicitly asked for an exact copy of Goldman’s design—even when the baker suggested creating a variation on the theme of Goldman’s cake. Only a small portion of Trump’s cake was edible; the rest was Styrofoam (Obama’s was cake all the way through). The cake may be the best symbol yet of the incoming administration: much of what little it brings is plagiarized, and most of it is unusable for the purpose for which presidential administrations are usually intended. Not only does it not achieve excellence: it does not even see the point of excellence.”
  • You’ve probably heard of Soylent, the liquid “meal replacement” designed by Silicon Valley “biohackers” intent on reverse engineering the human body; and you may, too, have thought to yourself, Fuck, that shit’s just SlimFast for tech bros. Comparing the two and peeling back their layers of gendered marketing, Rachel Stone finds that they share an ideal: “Meal replacement food technology telegraphs your preferred mode of bettering yourself, upgrading your personal brand to its next glittering iteration. By emblematizing the absence of food, both Soylent and SlimFast fetishize self-denial and austerity—one makes distraction a sinful indulgence, as the other does consumption—and promise transcendence through self-denial.”