Cameras Aren’t Magic, and Other News


On the Shelf

Robert Cumming, Quick Shift of the Head Leaves Glowing Stool Afterimage Posited on the Pedestal, 1978. Image via Aperture


  • So you want to learn how to write well: you’re in luck! There are hundreds, maybe thousands of books designed to teach you just that. They’re called “usage guides,” but they’re sometimes not as boring as that designation would suggest. They’ll teach you how to wrangle subordinate clauses, where to put the best commas, how to wield participial phrases with style and grace. They’ll inveigh against weasel words; they’ll deplore indirection. They’ll tell you who’s hot, who not, who rock, who sell out in the stores, tell you who flopped, who copped the blue drop. And they will do all of this with authority and conviction. But how far, Nat Segnit asks, will that get you? More to the point, he writes, “What are these books for? In attempting to straddle the how-to guide and the critical study, they instead fall into the chasm between them, neither offering much in the way of practicable advice nor subjecting the writers they cite to worthwhile textual analysis … Literary style is the difference between a cricket bat and a lump of wood. It is the unapologetic authorial sensibility—‘an absolute way of seeing things,’ in Flaubert’s phrase—rendered in language that matches it as precisely as language ever can. When that sensibility is fine, humane, and receptive, and its owner’s ear sufficiently attuned not to deaden or distort it too greatly … a gifted writer’s style is as irreducible and arbitrarily conferred as any talent; amenable to practice and refinement, sure, but at base as God-given and inimitable as Federer’s touch or Picasso’s hand. Here lies the existential challenge faced by the style guide or writer’s manual: beyond the nuts and bolts of usage and basic writerly manners, they are attempting to teach the unteachable.”
  • In an interview with Caille Millner, Rachel Cusk outlines (thank you) her revised approach to fiction, opening up the novel’s “Victorian construct” and urging it toward reality: “I’ve never treated fiction as a veil or as a thing to hide behind, which perhaps was, not a mistake exactly, but a sort of risky way to live. And I guess I thought about other people’s processes and how even though they constructed something that said ‘this isn’t real,’ you know perhaps they smuggled their reality into this sort of imagined structure—which is something I’ve never done. I always sort of thought that the memoir, the thing that says ‘this is real,’ even if it’s as constructed as a novel, seems to me to do something for the reader that’s very different from a novel. But in the end it is an exhausting enterprise, and you’ll be criticized too much for it, and the criticism is personal even if the writing of it is not personal at all. So I guess it was that, of thinking, okay, maybe I’m going to reexamine the novel as something that can be made to soften the concept of reality, to find something halfway, I suppose, between ‘I’ and ‘Not I.’ ”

  • In the seventies, the photographer Robert Cumming would browse Hollywood memorabilia shops, amazed at the degree of artifice on display: so much fakery went into making a movie look real. His experience led him, in his own work, to dissect what Sarah Bay Gachot calls “the mechanics of photographic perception,” building elaborate sets and photographing them to emphasize their illusions: “The French philosopher Hubert Damisch mandated in his 1963 essay ‘Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image’ that a true artist should never fall prey to the artificiality of photographic illusion. According to Damisch, photographs were not really ‘invented’ in the early nineteenth century; the camera obscura had existed for centuries, and the lens even longer. It was the desire to fix the image that was new—a latent image was revealed, developed, and preserved; it wasn’t magic: lenses and cameras complied to a spatial system dependent on distance and curvature of glass. Cumming was highly sensitive to these mechanics—for instance, the ability to transform a three-dimensional object with heft and depth into a flat representation. He celebrated this as a skill to be learned and exploited, rather than subverted as opaque—to simultaneously maintain and destroy illusion and quirks of vision with photography.”
  • In which Daniel Wenger and his love interest listen not so casually to some Romantic-era German music, with less-than-stellar results:“One night, I made R listen to a song cycle by Robert Schumann called Dichterliebe, which means, coincidentally, ‘poet’s love.’ I learned to sing it in high school, and wanted him to enjoy the image to which it corresponded: me, a fat but not too acned sophomore, sitting on a stool in the choir room of the Unitarian church on Middlefield Road, trying to make an ew sound while holding my lips in an O shape—one of many derangements essential to the correct pronunciation of German. By the seventh song, the disingenuous ‘Ich grolle nicht’ (‘I do not chide you’), the singer is frothing, as I felt myself to be frothing at R, trying to show him how cosmopolitan, musical, knowledgeable I was. Not only that, but how singular also, how my love for the songs indicated a unique confluence of passions and memories in me. R pulled a Warhol monograph off his bookcase and began pointing things out; I nodded absently and turned the music up. In the morning, we agreed that we’d see less of each other.”
  • Rereading Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries,” George Saunders lauds its ambiguous attitude toward happiness: “Fiction can allow us a really brief residence in the land of true ambiguity, where we really don’t know what the hell to think. We can’t stay there very long. It’s not in our nature. You can be truly confused by something and then ten minutes later you’re grasping for your opinions like somebody going for a life jacket. But that brief exposure to the land of ambiguity is really, really good for us. To be genuinely confused about something for even a few seconds is good because it opens us up to the idea that that which we know right now is not complete. Just to know that for ten minutes a day is unbelievable.”