In September, the art historian Douglas Crimp was speaking about his new book, Before Pictures, at the Whitney Museum when the slide projection was turned off and the screen rose, revealing the sunlight bobbing on the Hudson River and a view of Pier 52. It was there that, forty years prior, Gordon Matta-Clark had carved his monumental and illicit work Day’s End in an abandoned warehouse and Crimp had gone cruising for sex. The piers were known to be dangerous, Crimp writes, but at the time he had no fear of them, except the anxiety that their lure was distracting him from his work. Now the seventy-two-year-old was backlit against a thoroughfare of joggers and Citi Bike riders along Eleventh Avenue. The “vast and hauntingly beautiful” structures he describes had long ago been flattened into a parking lot for the Department of Sanitation. Read More
At fourteen, James Baldwin “underwent … a prolonged religious crisis” and discovered “God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell.” At the same age, Hilton Als was given a copy of Nobody Knows My Name and discovered James Baldwin. He then entered into a tempestuous love affair with Baldwin’s work, one that shifted, over the years, from ardent infatuation and reverence to disaffection, settling somewhere in between: “no matter how much I tried to resist my identification with Baldwin,” he writes in his 1998 New Yorker essay “The Enemy Within,” “we were uneasy members of the same tribe.”
Last month, Als discussed Baldwin’s legacy at the Windham-Campbell Prize festival, where he was honored for his work in nonfiction. His interlocutor was Jacqueline Goldsby, a professor of English and African American Studies at Yale. What follows is a sliver of that conversation, published with permission by the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes. —Caitlin Youngquist Read More
Gregory Crewdson is a photographer, but he calls himself a storyteller. He has spoken of his belief that “every artist has one central story to tell,” and that the artist’s work is “to tell and retell that story over and over again,” to deepen and challenge its themes. True to this, Crewdson’s most recent body of work, Cathedral of the Pines, shares the aesthetic that has defined his career—cinematic scenes of domestic life in the Berkshires—but the images have quieted down. While once Crewdson burned down houses or called the police on himself in order to photograph officers, his concerns have shifted lately from the spectacular to the murky and internal.
The hallucinatory images for which Crewdson is best known—sod laid on living room carpets, crop circles and house fires, or tight beams of light emerging from a blank sky—evince the magnetism of catastrophe and the titillation of the strange. Those older works defined Crewdson’s signature style of cinematic production values applied to suburban surrealism and made him one of the most recognizable and influential contemporary photographers. To give a sense of his stature, his gallery is Gagosian, he was the subject of a feature-length documentary, and he directs the graduate photography department at Yale. Read More
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
Speaking to The Paris Review in 2011, Nicholson Baker remembered one of the small joys of his childhood. “The pencil sharpener was probably the best thing about school,” he said. “A little chrome invention under your control. It had a thundering sound, a throat-clearing sound, that I especially liked.”
As it happens, pencil sharpeners appear early and often in his new book, Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids. But they’re all electric now, and they’ve lost their thunder. “There was a lot of earnest grinding away at the fancy electric pencil sharpener,” he writes on page thirty. Twelve pages later, “Someone else was grinding loudly away on the mechanical pencil sharpener.” On page 111 he mentions again “the remedial grind of the pencil sharpener.”
There’s a sound reason for this anti-sharpener rhetoric: in 2014 Baker became a substitute teacher at several Maine public schools, where the sharpeners’ grinding is just one agent in a multifront sensory assault, and further proof that technology doesn’t equal improvement. Substitute—Baker’s thoughtful, well-observed chronicle of his twenty-eight days in the classroom—catalogs the bells, the morning announcements, the iPad games, the lively chatter, and all the miscellaneous noise that characterize a day at school. Rather than a broadside against the education system, Substitute’s seven-hundred-plus pages offer a close, empathetic account of Baker’s time as a teacher, trading editorial asides for the richness—and, not infrequently, madness—of our efforts to impart knowledge. For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement.
Substitute is Baker’s sixteenth book; though he’s written nonfiction before, it marks his first outing as a participatory journalist, and he called it the most immersive book of his career. I reached him in his hotel room in Atlanta to ask him a few questions about it.
This is basically an act of participatory journalism, but it’s not like any other account I’ve read. Did you have any touchstones in mind?
Well, there’s George Plimpton. If you want to write about football, get yourself on a football team. If you want to write about boxing, you’re going to have to get punched in the head a few times. That’s what I did with Substitute. When I was in high school I read Up the Down Staircase and really loved it—all those wonderful memos—and in fact there was an actual down staircase and an up staircase in the middle school where I was a substitute. Two nonfiction books, Death at an Early Age and The Way it Spozed to Be also made a huge impression back then, even though I’d gone to an alternative public high school that was nothing like what was described in those books. Once I began writing Substitute in earnest, I tossed educational theorizing aside for the most part and went back to the method I’d used in Human Smoke, a book about World War II, where I did a lot of quoting from daily sources—newspaper articles and diaries and speeches on the radio. Substitute is a sort of collage of voices. In Human Smoke, I took my own voice out completely, but in Substitute I couldn’t—I had to be true to my own teacherly fumblings. Read More
Moonstone, Sjón’s latest novel, has been called “the gayest book in Iceland.” It follows the sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn, a queer hustler and cinephile whose life becomes upended by the Spanish flu of 1918 when the pestilence ravages Reykjavik. With the country fearful of any bodily contact, Máni can no longer pick up “gentlemen,” and the cinema houses are shut down. Máni finds solace in a new friendship with Sóla G, a beautiful feminist who rides a motorcycle and dresses all in black. When Máni gets tangled up in a sodomy scandal that threatens to humiliate the homophobic country, Sóla is perhaps the only person who can help him.
As with Sjón’s previous books—The Whispering Muse, The Blue Fox, and From the Mouth of the Whale—the magic of Moonstone lies in language. Máni Steinn doesn’t just love movies but “lives in the movies. When not spooling them into himself through his eyes he is replaying them in his mind.” Máni is illiterate, and as he struggles to read, “the letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word, and might as well be a red cipher to which he does not have the key.” Sjón’s easy way with words goes back to the Icelandic sagas he devoured as a child. He has internalized the lyrical language of epics, myths, folktales, and religion—“the old great narratives,” as he calls them.
Moonstone has been praised all around, with David Mitchell calling it “Sjón’s simmering masterpiece,” and it has won nearly all of Iceland’s literary prizes, including the country’s most prestigious: the Icelandic Literary Award. Sjón and I met once in New York in 2013, to discuss his earlier works; this month he was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him about Moonstone over e-mail. Read More