- Need a morning pick-me-up? Say it with me: “I am full of impulses to shove animal matter into my poorly designed facial rot hole … I must endlessly defecate. I need to fuck. I need to be fucked. It’s fantastic and terrifying. Fascinating. Pointless, swirling molecules. But, yeah, having a fun time. I spent $300 on a T-shirt last week … People are horrible. People are cruel. People are abused. Social circles, especially in small towns, can get fucking nasty. I just write what I see and what I’ve experienced. I don’t deliberately set out to aggravate or shock. I don’t censor myself. You need to be honest. You need to not hold back. I hate twee art. I find it dishonest; a false, privileged construct. Life is not nice. Existence is sad and cruel.” That’s Simon Hanselmann, the author of the cult comic series Megg, Mogg and Owl and a dealer in hard truths.
- If you prefer your truths a little softer, or maybe just leavened with bons mots, you could try Dorothy Parker. Or maybe not. Robert Gottlieb reminds us that her quips and flair concealed an enormous sadness: “Death and suicide are never far from her thoughts—she titled her collections Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, Death and Taxes, and Not So Deep as a Well … Was her poetry just rhyming badinage dressed up as trenchant, plaintive ruminations on love, loss, and death? Her subjects are serious, but her cleverness undercuts them: there’s almost always a last line, a sardonic zinger, to signal that even if she does care, the more fool she. Even her most famous couplet—‘Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses’—bandages a wound, although plenty of men made passes.”
- Paintings look great in galleries, but I find that they really shine, in all their subtlety, when they’re hanging behind politicians at podiums. As Kelly Grovier writes, “The silent stare of a poised portrait gazing at you over the shoulder of David Cameron or Vladimir Putin is often more loaded and more deliberately orchestrated than you might think … Obama’s decision to hold a press conference announcing his determination to close Guantanamo once and for all in the shadow of a swashbuckling portrait of Obama’s forebear, Theodore Roosevelt, was hardly accidental. After all, Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1898 led a legendary cavalry of so-called ‘Rough Riders’ to victory against Spanish overlords in Cuba, helped establish U.S. control over Guantanamo Bay in the first place. By placing himself visually alongside a heroic portrait of the galloping leader, who is credited with the credo ‘speak softly and carry a big stick,’ Obama hoped to bask in the reflected testosterone of America’s most macho president.”
- Bad news: most book reviewers do their jobs hastily and carelessly. Good news: Edward Copleston’s 1807 satire “Advice to a Young Reviewer, with a Specimen of the Art” really holds up, because book critics are still using the same set of shortcuts and white lies. “In the art of reviewing I would lay down as a fundamental position,” Copleston writes, “which must be the mainspring of all your criticisms—write what will sell.” He also recommends perusing the table of contents and the index: “Here then is a fund of wealth for the Reviewer, lying upon the very surface; if he knows anything of his business, he will turn all these materials against the author, carefully suppressing the source of his information, and as if drawing from the stores of his own mind, long ago laid up for this very purpose. If the author’s references are correct, a great point is gained; for, by consulting a few passages of the original works, it will be easy to discuss the subject with the air of having a previous knowledge of the whole.”
- Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s Kids is more than twenty years old now. Moira Weigel blew the dust off her old VHS and took another look: “At the time, the press hailed Kids as ‘raw,’ ‘frank,’ ‘honest,’ and ‘gritty’—all adjectives that boasted of its fidelity to the realities of kids just a little older than me. I couldn’t judge for myself since I never got around to seeing it. Watching it now, at thirty, those words still seem apt for describing something important about the film. But that something is not its realism … What I feel most, watching Kids in 2015, is that it is shallow. I mean this partly as praise. The shallowness is the key to the film’s ability to transport us into the world of its characters, as if participating in their refusal to think of consequences, to look beyond the here and now … The problem is that Kids reproduces the superficiality that makes it so stylistically compelling in its approach to its subject matter. Watching it today, I was hoping for an account of the ways that the fear of AIDS shaped how young people in that time and place learned about desire. Instead the film recasts the virus into the threat lurking in the background of a kind of nightmare fairy tale. The role that HIV plays is to give a sense of momentum to what is basically an observational essay.”
- For the painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet, the most profound art was “art brut”—created from chaos and madness by the mentally ill. A new exhibition at the American Folk Art museum explores his ethos. Our managing editor, Nicole Rudick, explains: “Dubuffet advocated on behalf of art brut in famously eloquent pamphlets, speeches, and manifestos. In 1951, he gave a talk at the Art Institute of Chicago called ‘Anticultural Positions,’ which set out his antiformalist, expressive style and his dissatisfaction with Western conceptions of beauty. He rejected the notion that certain objects are more beautiful than others, advocating instead for the idea that ‘there is no ugly object nor ugly person in this world and that beauty does not exist anywhere, but that any object is able to become fascinating and illuminating.’ ”
- Today, literary blogs such as this one face competition from their fiercest adversary yet: Bill Gates. His blog, Gates Notes, features a thriving book reviews section—and Gates, unlike all those self-aggrandizing show-off critics you’ve grown accustomed to, endeavors “to fill his reviews with bits of information he hopes people will consider, even if they don’t end up reading the book. ‘I read textbooks related to global health but they are pretty technical for a general audience, so I generally don’t review them,’ he said … ‘I like to share what I learn from books like that because I know most people won’t read the whole thing but some will read an 800-word review of it.’”
- Conventional wisdom maintains that commercial fiction is vastly more sentimental than “serious” literary fiction—and that eschewing sentimentality is a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Academics have tested that notion using sentiment analysis, mapping the number of positive and negative words in literary novels: “There appears to be an assumption at work among the canon that reality is harsh and positivity distorts the truth … It’s not that emotions are absent from the most serious of serious literature. Rather, what is missing is a kind of explicit articulation of belief, what we might call, for lack of a better word, conviction. Over time we seem to institutionally value novels that downplay the clarity of their own beliefs. This makes a good deal of sense—novels that endure do so because they represent more open belief systems, ones that allow readers across broader stretches of time to engage with them and explore their own beliefs.”
- Free yourself from the tyranny of choice. Submit to the awesome power of fate. Visit this Tokyo bookstore, where only one title is for sale each week. (Right now it’s Masaru Tatsuki’s photo anthology Fish-Man.) “This bookstore that sells only one book could also be described as ‘a bookstore that organises an exhibition derived from a single book,’ ” says the proprietor, Yoshiyuki Morioka. “For instance, when selling a book on flowers, in the store could be exhibited a flower that actually appears in the book. Also, I ask the authors and editors to be at the bookstore for as much time as possible. This is an attempt to make the two-dimensional book into three-dimensional ambience and experience. I believe that the customers, or readers, should feel as though they are entering ‘inside a book.’ ”
- In 1939, when he was nine, the historian Gerhard Weinberg fled Germany to escape Hitler. Now Weinberg is eighty-seven and advocating for the first new German edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf since 1945, along with its little-known sequel. “In 2003, Weinberg wrote, ‘Germany and the rest of the world have not yet come close to coming to terms with Hitler as a person, as leader of a great nation, and as a symbol.’ The publication history of his books seems to support Weinberg’s point. In 1961, publishers were afraid of Hitler’s second book. In 2013, the state of Bavaria showed that it was still afraid of his first. The lack of critical editions didn’t prevent readers from accessing Hitler’s ideas—instead, it prevented historians from shaping the way these books are remembered.”
- The lit-flick streak continues! The Palme d’Or is likely to go to one of several adaptations.
- As Harry Potter mania fades, hundreds of pet owls are being abandoned across England.
- How to open a new book.
- Quiche Lorraine, the comic.
- Need inspiration? Dial-a-poem!
- Andrew Ladd decodes Blurbese for the nonreviewer.
- When less is more: minimalist covers.
- Cineastes! Help save an endangered film before it’s too late!
- William Hazlitt, “On the Pleasure of Hating.”
This is the second installment of Williams’ culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
DAY FIVE9:30 A.M. I read a profile of novelist David Mitchell by Wyatt Mason in The New York Times Magazine. I try to read anything Mason writes. He’s always sharp, and he was among the few critics who gave one of my favorite novels (It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick) its due. As for Mitchell, I want to read him in theory, but I’ve yet to feel inspired to actually pick up the books. I’m most interested in Black Swan Green, his semi-autobiographical novel, and by consensus his least formally inventive.
11:00 A.M. I read an excerpt from David Grossman’s forthcoming novel, To the End of the Land, at The New York Review of Books site. The novel is one of the fall books I’m looking forward to most.
11:45 A.M. I go back through several publishers’ catalogs to firm up a list of titles that I hope to assign for review on The Second Pass in the fall. I add Dinaw Mengestu’s sophomore novel, How to Read the Air, and the list is now sixty-five books long, which seems ambitious. I may have to prune it a bit.
4:35 P.M. I read the first few pages of The Art of Losing, a debut novel by Rebecca Connell that appeared in the mail last week. It’s being published in October, and I add it to the list for review. I realize this is the opposite of pruning.
11:00 P.M. The Criterion Collection recently released Make Way for Tomorrow, a 1937 movie directed by Leo McCarey, who also directed Duck Soup, The Awful Truth, and dozens of others. I watch it on my laptop. It stars Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi as an elderly couple who lose their home to foreclosure. None of their children are able to take them both, so they’re separated. Legendary character actor Thomas Mitchell is great as George, the son who takes in his mother. Made in the wake of the Social Security Act of 1935, the movie, without being overtly political at all, unfolds like an argument for the importance of social safety nets. There are moments of real humor, but the overall mood is melancholy. Read More