- Our new Winter issue features an interview with Jane and Michael Stern, “the original culinary road warriors.” A new profile in Eater captures what Norman Rush would call their “idioverse,” i.e., a “private patois made up of shared references and sayings, occasional neologisms, and common words that have taken on new meanings”: “the dyad of Jane and Michael—some four decades in, now—almost surpasses idioverse, and forms a hovering mushroom cloud of collective memory. Spending time with them, I realized that there’s a voyeuristic pleasure in finding yourself submerged in the intimacies of a couple with a complex history. Watching the deepest, strangest way two people communicate made me feel like an intellectual Peeping Tom—one who wanted to stay … They go at it tit for tat, with the rapid-fire speed of David Mamet dialogue, but they’ll linger to enjoy language more when discussing their Roadfood glory days. At times, listening to them talk, it seems that alone neither one can remember an entire story, and that together neither one can remember it the same way. There are tales about botched attempts to donate leftovers that ended in an undercover police sting, and casual references to a strange commune-like group of former Barnum & Bailey performers who live in Bethel and call themselves the ‘frog people.’ ”
- This is a public service announcement. If you, like me, were taught growing up to deploy synonyms for said whenever you wrote dialogue, please stop immediately. To stick to said is to improve the world of prose for all of us. Gabriel Roth agrees: “Replacing the word said with ‘colorful’ or ‘lively’ synonyms is a ubiquitous symptom of bad writing. Individual instances are usually redundancies: ‘I’ll never cheat again!’ is recognizable as a promise without ‘he vowed’ after it. But a procession of she explained and he chuckled and I expostulated—the reporting verbs that clog your dialogue when you follow the ‘never say said’ rule—is worse, because they force the reader’s attention away from the content of the writing and onto the writer’s hunt for synonyms.”
- “Nabisco. Nabisco! / Oreos! Right? / Oreos! I love Oreos! // I’ll never eat them again. OK? / I’ll never eat them again. // No … Nabisco.” This poem, a masterwork of compression and a ludic comment on commodity fetishism, comes courtesy of Donald Trump, whose speeches have been anthologized in a “treasury of oral poetry” called Bard of the Deal. Some are calling “Freedom Tower,” in particular, the most vital and intriguingly cross-disciplinary work of our young century: “Worst pile of crap / Architecture / I’ve ever seen.”
- Hey there, young person: Do you wish to be as successful and as verbally acrobatic as bona-fide geniuses like Trump? Gay Talese has some advice for you: “I don’t think this new generation has the patience or even knowledge of how to get things … You have to get off your ass. Make something happen with your personality, with your goddamn style, your charm, your beautiful clothes, your reassurance, your salesman huckster-ist licorice. Know how to get something and not break hearts or be offensive.”
- Before he embarked on Moby-Dick, Herman Melville paid an inspiring visit to London: “Late at night, he ‘turned flukes’ down Oxford Street as if he were being followed by a great whale, and thought he saw ‘blubber rooms’ in the butcheries of the Fleet Market … Perhaps most importantly, it was here that Melville saw the work of J M W Turner, a clear visual influence on his book-to-be. Turner had painted a series of whaling scenes for Elhanan Bicknell, whose British whaling company was based in the Elephant and Castle; parts of Moby-Dick would read like commentaries to those tempestuous, brutally poetic canvases, not least the painting that greets Ishmael at the Spouter-Inn, ‘a boggy, soggy, squitchy picture’ of ‘a black mass … floating in a nameless yeast … an exasperated whale.’ It is all the more intriguing to note how Melville’s Anglophilia was the yeast out of which this great American novel emerged.”
Life is an onion—you peel it year by year and sometimes cry. ―Carl Sandburg
Here’s a practical writing tip: if you’re stuck, write “Once upon a time.” Go on, try it—I think you’ll find that even the action is soothing. It’s not just that now you have something on the page, although you do. The words themselves are calming.
Where did I encounter this piece of advice? I don’t want to rob anyone of credit, but misattribution would be bad, too. I think it was in the cookbook The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, but I can’t swear to it. Anyway, in this book, one of the authors relates a time-honored tip passed down from her grandmother: if you don’t know what to make for dinner, just cut up an onion and put it on to cook. The action, the aroma, the fact that an onion is the basis for so many dishes—these factors will conspire to prompt a plan. And if nothing else, you’ll enjoy the savory smell of industry. Read More
- New York in the late seventies was not exactly a utopia: crime was soaring, graffiti was ubiquitous, mace was a must-have accessory. But a certain set of novels and films has made the era something to yearn for: “This was the last moment when a novelist or poet might withdraw a book that had already been accepted for publication and continue to fiddle with it for the next two or three years. This was the last time when a New York poet was reluctant to introduce to his arty friends someone who was a Hollywood film director, for fear the movies would be considered too low-status … these works express a craving for the city that, while at its worst, was also more democratic … where not even money could insulate you. They are a reaction to what feels like a safer, more burnished and efficient (but cornerless and predictable) city.”
- Today in writing advice that isn’t total shit, even if it’s about shit: “I preach the radio. I do not preach thinking you must know what you are about. Faulkner had good drugs and a big radio. I recall having heard my own little radio at times. It is rare, yes, and it is, now, rarer. But you are young and have your juice, you’re still full of poop, which is the necessary requisite to tuning the radio. Got to be some poop out there, on the airwaves, or in there, in you, for you to tune it in. Cherish the poop you are full of, and work on excreting it with sound fundamentals.” That’s Padgett Powell, being correct.
- On procrastination and art: might there be something heroic, or at least admirably resistant, in the idea of putting off one’s writing? “Bartleby is my hero, endlessly preferring not to, but though I find him sympathetic, he—along with all the ‘writers of the no’, writers who turned their backs on writing, Rimbaud and Walser among them—is not in the same game as me. Or if we are in the same game, I’m not playing it right. I don’t turn my back on writing. I don’t say no. I say yes and fail to follow through. I sit suspended between preferring not to and not preferring to enough—I’m hung on a peg.”
- Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter is “a compressed, unflinching portrait of the turmoil that envelops Bird, an alcoholic, after his son’s birth.” The novel has a new champion: none but Jonathan Franzen, who adores its disturbing elements, its comic elements, its vomit elements: “I don’t know of a more compelling description of throwing up than the ones that occur in this book. He’s sweating, he looks at himself in the mirror, and there’s bad sex. It’s partly that—the really, really tight focus on Bird’s body. There’s nothing like a microscopic view of your body to evoke shame.”
- While we’re on shame—it’s time for men to cry again. They have much to cry about, being men, and yet they shed no tears … why, when male weeping has been treated as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history? In fact, it was exalted for a while: “ancient Greeks saw it as a model for how heroic men should behave … 20,000 knights swooning from grief were considered noble, not ridiculous … there’s no mention of the men in these stories trying to restrain or hide their tears … They cry in a crowded hall with their heads held high. Nor do their companions make fun of this public blubbing; it’s universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling.”
I was delighted, at a London bookshop, to encounter a recent reissue of the 1954 Ethelind Fearon manual The Reluctant Hostess. As far as I’m concerned, Fearon’s entire oeuvre should be in print always, regardless of commercial considerations. She is that idiosyncratic.
Fearon, who died in 1974 and at present doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry, was an authority on restoring medieval houses and an accomplished gardener—at one point she kept H. G. Wells’s garden—but as her official Random House bio would have it, “under pressure from publishers and an eager public she also wrote a number of books on such diverse but essential subjects as pigkeeping, pastries, how to keep pace with your daughter, and how to grow herbs.” (I want to meet every member of this supposedly clamoring public.) Read More
- Philosophers are always telling us what to do and why to do it—telling us, in essence, how to rescue ourselves from childhood, how to grow up. For Vivian Gornick, their advice is lacking in what a college counselor might call real-world experience: “The Hebrew philosopher Hillel urged that we do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Kant urged, similarly, that we not make instrumental use of one another. With all the good will in the world—and remarkable numbers of people have it—we have not been able to make these noble recommendations carry the day. Not because we are lazy or venal or incompetent but because most of us live in a state of inner conflict that makes purity of behavior an impossibility. Every day of our lives we transgress against our own longing to act well: our tempers are ungovernable, our humiliations unforgettable, our fantasies ever present … ”
- Today in ill-advised marketing campaigns: the Australian publisher of the new Lisbeth Salander novel has taken branding to a disturbingly literal level in its quest to find “a female fan prepared to ‘donate’ her back for three months. This would have involved being adorned with her very own Dragon Tattoo for advertising purposes.” The so-called tatvertising campaign sought to find someone who could “handle the pain, just like Lisbeth Salander.” The publisher has since canceled the promotion, but there’s nothing stopping true fans from pursuing masochism to please their corporate masters.
- Does the art market depress you? The answer should be a resounding yes—no one likes plundering plutocrats. But here’s a thought: you can probably just ignore the whole sordid commercial aspect of the thing. “Sensing that people will one day look back on this era as a freakish episode in cultural history, why not get a head start on viewing it that way? Detach and marvel. Meanwhile, art goes on making meaning for those who are rich only in the desire and leisure to engage with it … To expect the running-scared super-rich to behave benevolently, in regards to art, is plainly foolish.”
- So you’re conceiving a building in which the sexes are segregated—congratulations! The Shakers have just the kind of architectural design you need. The key is extreme symmetry, “in which one side meticulously mirrors the other, door for door, stair for stair, each fitting answering another … The control implicit in the design goes further. Men and women worked in different trades, so rarely encountered one another in the workplace … The Shakers perfected what they called a ‘living building’: a settlement that served their purposes while also reinforcing their separation from non-believing outsiders.”
- Critical thinking remains an integral part of an education in the liberal arts—and a vague, endlessly broad term, with no real applicability. What is it? How do we use it? For the answers to these and other unanswerable questions, all you have to do is go to college. But even there the term is on watch now. “One of my colleagues adamantly rejected the inclusion of an allegedly trendy catchphrase (‘experiential learning’) as part of our mission statement, and insisted that we use ‘critical thinking’ instead. My colleague was ostensibly rejecting the professionalization of college education, in favor of the more properly academic priority of intellect. This preference, however, struck me as curious, as it revealed that ‘critical thinking’—whatever cluster of ideas or intellectual ideals hide behind the phrase—had become something for which we felt nostalgia.”
- Barney Rosset, the “the downtown pugnacious outré rebel” (read: publisher of provocative texts), spent his final years immersed in an artistic experiment—transforming one of the walls of his East Village apartment into an elaborate mural. Now there’s a movement to preserve this mural, even if it’s “an art critic’s worst nightmare. For an esteemed literary publisher to leave behind a final work so unpredictable—and so large—has understandably baffled those who survived him. David Rose, editor-in-chief of Lapham’s Quarterly, typifies most people’s reactions to the wall. ‘It’s the most unexpected thing I would have associated with Barney Rosset,’ he said. ‘Of course he would do this, because it makes no fucking sense whatsoever.’ ”
- The evolving (devolving?) art of songwriting in the streaming age: If everyone’s using Spotify to listen to music, and Spotify pays artists only after their songs have been streamed for thirty seconds … then why bother to write songs that are longer than thirty seconds? “Now that streaming has taken off, will song form react? Will it just be three choruses and nothing else? Is it the return of the ABAB song form, where the sections have a balanced weight and there are no sections dedicated to ‘setting up’ another section? … And bridges? Bridges to what, exactly? Who has time for a bridge? You’re either there or you’re not there. Why get stuck in transit from one section to another?”
- The Sketchbook Project is “a collection of crowdsourced sketchbooks that is, according to its staff, the largest in the world. The project was founded in 2006, when Steven Peterman and Shane Zucker, two art students living in Atlanta, began mailing blank Moleskines to anyone who wanted one for a small fee, and then archiving whatever came back.” The project, which now comprises some thirty-four thousand books, is currently mounting its final world tour.
- “Whenever you introduce a character, you don’t have to specify that they are wearing pants. Most readers will just assume that they are wearing pants unless you say otherwise.” Finally, some useful advice from your favorite established authors.
- The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is many things, most of them reprehensible—but its fixation on capital and cosmetics is arguably instructive, and it has lofty origins. “There’s something weirdly High Tory about the Beverly Hills Housewife profile, more Trollopian dowager than spirited arriviste.”