Where I went to college in the purple valley of northwest Massachusetts, there was a fellow in my class who used to drag a brick around by a string. He called it his “pet brick.” Every night he would drag his brick into the campus snack bar when the snack bar was most crowded, and order two vanilla milkshakes—one for himself, one for his brick. The first time I saw him I laughed at the absurdity of the proposition. A pet brick! A brick drinking a milkshake! The subsequent occasions of my seeing his fellow and his brick made me respond differently. Often I was angry, thinking he dragged the brick for just the clamor that will always attend the outrageous. Sometimes, when I could convince myself that he and his brick were actually a charade protesting technology gone wild or man’s inhumanity to man, I could feel the pleasant twinge of belonging to a fraternity of hoodwinkers. But when I saw him in the early morning, dragging his brick through the empty quads, my heart would fill with the silent despair that rose from the strange interplay between them. Just as it was impossible to know exactly how he felt about the brick, in those days I never knew how I should feel about anything. Only one thing was clear. He did not love the brick. Nor did the brick love him. This fact became my reference point in all matters of faith.
- When Richard Dawkins conceived of memes, he imagined them as units of culture, transmitted like viruses to contribute to our social evolution. But Internet memes have distorted the meaning of the term, arguably to uselessness. “Trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins … seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a ‘hijacking’ of the original term.”
- George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) is good for a whole host of reasons, but it’s “a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on ‘the writing life’—in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece. The lesson of Gissing is that most novelists are bitter failures—always were, and always will be.”
- Curmudgeonly grandparents around the world would have you believe that textspeak is a travesty, a crime against language. But it has, in so many ways, expanded and streamlined our methods of communicating: our tonal varietyyyyy, our semiotics (!!!), our ability to corretc (*correct) ourselves …
- The postal service’s new Maya Angelou stamp contains many perfectly nice words—“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”—but they weren’t written by Maya Angelou. “A Postal Service spokesman told the newspaper that the line, which has been widely attributed to Angelou by people including President Obama, was approved for use on the stamp by Angelou’s family.”
- The insidious logic of the trailer has made its way from movies to music and books—now there are trailers for college courses, too. “A branding tactic once reserved for the marketplace has entered the marketplace of ideas.”
First, a general note: At what point do we stop celebrating the birthdays of the deceased? Yes, Robert Frost was born on this day in 1874, and yes, that would make him 141 today—had not death intervened in 1963, when, at eighty-eight, Frost had already been around for a good while. At a certain point, can’t we just say that today is “the anniversary of his birth”? The word birthday no longer seems to apply—in the normal range of things, it starts to feel a bit macabre. One begins to imagine cakes and party hats on gravestones. Read More
The hard truth is that not everyone has a novel in them. “I have no gift for invention,” I say to anyone who ever asks after my own ambitions—and why do people ask? For that matter, is my response even appropriate? I’m not sure what that means, “a gift for invention”: certainly I’ve never visited the Genius Bar without concocting some elaborate and gratuitous lie to explain the condition of my computer.
Which is not to say I’ve never written any fiction. I have, under duress. It was a requirement for my degree. The instructor was an older lady in caftans and arty jewelry with pumpkin-colored hair who had at one point written an epic women’s best seller with a lurid, seventies-style jacket. She’d also written a book of cat poetry. I didn’t mind any of that; the problem was that every detail of the class was as lazy and clichéd as that constellation of characteristics.
A few people in the class were predictably pretentious. They turned out derivative takes on macho writers and they were unnecessarily confrontational when discussing others’ submissions. One guy’s work was disturbing, but tritely disturbing. A few in the class spoke and wrote poor English. One girl was writing a fantasy novel; she was my favorite. Read More
In 1972, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings changed the face of country music forever with the Outlaw country sound. In 1974, the Ramones did the same thing for rock ’n’ roll. In 2000, my friend Tim and I set out to do the same for both genres with a way-out sound and a more ambitious instrumentation.
We call ourselves Royal Quiet Deluxe, which is also the make and model of the typewriter I play as percussion. Tim plays the guitar and the bass, often simultaneously. We provide the backing rhythms for two live chickens that peck out abstract melodies on toy pianos.
Every rehearsal and performance is a spontaneous improvisation, and no two performances are ever the same. The chickens are named Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline. Different individual chickens come and go, but in our pretentious barnyard Menudo they are always named Kitty Wells or Patsy Cline.
The band played two shows last year in college that we felt went incredibly well. Our former housemate lives in Japan now with a boyfriend who books bands in Osaka and Tokyo. We lied to her a little about how much we’d improved since graduation, and she lied to her boyfriend a little more on top of that, and now he says that if we can get him a solid live tape, of an actual show with a cheering audience and everything, he can book us a tour in Japan.
And you just know Japanese people are crazy about this kind of shit. Read More
“You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices.” —Ray Bradbury, the Art of Fiction No. 203