- Fact: the American newspapers and gazettes of the nineteenth century had names that absolutely trounced their present-day counterparts where liveliness and creativity are concerned (with the exception of the Modesto Bee, which remains a truly great paper title). In simpler times, you could spend your mornings over the Horseneck Truth Teller and Gossip Journal, Estabrook’s Great Public Chowder, Steven H. Branch’s Alligator, and the Striped Pig, among others.
- For a different kind of nostalgia, contemplate MacGyver, which hit the airwaves thirty years ago and has left in its wake a mess of nerdy white-male heroics and misplaced, quasi-racist adventure: “MacGyver embraces its own insistent loneliness to an absurd degree. And that, in turn, makes the whole show feel distinctly retrograde … MacGyver sags under the weight of its old-school definition of heroism. It glorifies the single man—the single mullet—while treating other people as victims and saps.”
- Not dissimilarly: in a new book, Lions in the Balance, Craig Packer attempts to careen between the MacGyver-esque machismo of those who hunt lions in the Serengheti and the “communal emotionalism” that so often animates conservation movements. “It is his position, as the story begins, that the lions of the Serengeti need sport hunters to survive; that Cecils must die if prides are to endure … In his quest to restructure incentives, in his willingness to take the long view, in his commitment to numbers over narrative, Packer deems himself ‘ultimately alone.’ ”
- Trying to build a brand of one? Of course you are! This is the age of the brandividual. Let me tell you a few things you already knew, though: it’s a futile project, authenticity is a myth, and branding strategists are working to make our society a waking nightmare of empty professionalism. “I don’t think it’s possible to appeal to everyone and still be authentic, let alone unique. When [my branding strategist] declared my web-site font ‘almost hippie-dippy,’ I couldn’t help but get a bit defensive. So what if it is? My truest self does not use ‘impact as a verb.’ My truest self likes to be catty about former employers that have done me wrong, not write pleasant summaries of what I was able to achieve while working there. My truest self is sending GIFs to my friends, not cheerfully influencing strangers’ thoughts.”
- Today in new and novel uses for the black crayon: Richard Serra’s strangely affecting “Ramble Drawings” are seventy-four works on paper, all “variations on Malevich’s square, stretched out and pressed with black lithographic crayons to achieve different textures: oily, streaky, pocked, solid. The pictures, stacked like rows of large, incongruous industrial cement bricks across the gallery walls, are anything but monotonous, however. Black never looked so colorful.”
- Günter Grass, best known for his novel The Tin Drum, has died at eighty-seven. “Grass learned a lot from Rabelais and Celine and was influential in development of ‘magic realism’ and Marquez,” Orhan Pamuk said about him. “He taught us to base the story on the inventiveness of the writer no matter how cruel, harsh, and political the story is.”
- Joseph Mitchell was on staff at The New Yorker for decades—and yet the magazine has suspiciously few of his bylines. What was he doing all that time? “Mitchell had no idea he was embarking on one of the most celebrated writer’s blocks in American letters. In fact, at the time he was juggling a variety of ideas, hoping—assuming—that in his reporting one of them would logically emerge as his next New Yorker piece.”
- Distracted? Of course you are—this is 2015. It’s in the nature of contemporary society “to manipulate our attention and to profit others … repetitive pseudo-actions create patterns of satisfaction that progressively disconnect us from the world.” And for this preponderance of pseudo-actions we can blame one Immanuel Kant, whose “insistence on autonomy … reads as a denial of mutual entanglement.”
- Toby Barlow on Derek Walcott and Star Trek: “If any other show had as many scenes in an elevator as Star Trek did, we would have talked about it, complained about it.”
- On the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which dubs itself “America’s last newspaper” and reads like “Our Town on bad Mendo meth, a Norman Rockwell scene painted in the midst of a weed-wine binge and given a makeover by Hunter S. Thompson.”
- How does contemporary literature derive meaning in the age of big data? “The rise of corporate capitalism, and the astonishing, almost exponential rate of its recent acceleration, I would argue, present a huge challenge to the writer, forcing him or her to rethink their whole role and function, to remap their entire universe. There is no space outside this matrix … Western literature may have more or less begun, in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, with a lengthy account of a signal crossing space, and of the beacon network through whose nodes the signal’s message (that of Troy’s downfall) is relayed—but now, two and a half millennia later, that network, that regime of signals, is so omnipresent and insistent, so undeniably inserted or installed at every stratum of existence, that the notion that we might need some person, some skilled craftsman, to compose any messages, let alone incisive or ‘epiphanic’ ones, seems hopelessly quaint.”
- “KAYO IN THE LUNA PARK / FREEZE FRAME ON A DRUNK IN THE PIAZZA / THAT’S WHAT WE HAVE FOR PIGEONS / LUMBERING ON ASPHALT FACEDOWN / LEAPSICKNESS THE LAW OF LIQUIDS.” Basquiat’s notebooks “variously sound like song lyrics, slogans, mantras, fragments of scenarios, of ‘routines’ like those of William S. Burroughs.”
- Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of the Globe Theatre, said that he’s sometimes cut “unfortunate anti-Semitic things” from Shakespeare—should we censor plays like The Merchant of Venice?
- Who was Sappho? Scholars and readers have been bickering about her for the better part of three thousand years: “about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her ‘sublime’ style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works … Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage.”
- Part two of John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel’s essay “on Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights.”
- What makes certain writing publishable while the rest of it, the bulk of it, is consigned to the slag heap? Kenneth Goldsmith’s UbuWeb has launched Publishing the Unpublishable,” a series of e-books dedicated to challenging the precepts of literary merit. “If nothing else, the chance to stare into the face of deletion and creep around in the bins of what might never have been gives us the chance to see the world a completely different way.”
- Protestantism, Catholicism, and their varying approaches to the novel: “To write a Catholic novel is thus to attempt something a little tricky, a little verging on the self-contradictory. And when a Catholic-aiming novel fails, it typically fails because it is at war with its own form … To write a Protestant novel is, instead, to do something a little unnecessary, a little verging on the redundant. And when a deliberately Protestant novel fails, it often fails because it seems didactic and preachy, engaged in what the art form itself promises that readers can take for granted.”
- John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel “on Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights”: “The Freeman ranks among the defining cultural expressions of black Houston … A single copy survives, physically, digitally, in any form, that we know of … In 1940, a man named Carter W. Wesley, a black publisher who’d at first worked under Love and later assumed control of the Freeman enterprise, lamented in print … that nobody appeared to possess a solitary copy of this great newspaper, which had started everything. Well, paper is useful—it gets used—especially by people who don’t have money to buy more.”
- “More than six feel tall and four feet wide, Suburbs is Ben Tolman’s interpretation of the Wheaton, Maryland, community he called his home as a kid. Composing the drawing took six months: five days a week, fourteen hours each day, just ink and paper and repetition … the houses themselves are all faithful depictions. He inked each of the buildings based on photographs of the houses surrounding his own former home.”
- The Mexican writer Sergio Pitol on smoking, hypnosis, and prose style: “I feel incapable of describing any action, no matter how simple, in a direct way. I said that other writers were able to do that, which did not mean I was less competent than they. In my case, plain and naked exposition, without flourishes, without detours, without echoes or shadows, fatally diminishes the efficiency of the story, converts it into a mere anecdote; a vulgarity, when all is said and done.”
Adventures in tastelessness at The Onion.
I used to be an editor at The Onion. This was in 2004, when most of the original writers were still there—just a handful had gone off to Hollywood. I was hired by my friend Carol Kolb, who’d just been made editor in chief.
Carol is the funniest person I have ever known. One time we went to a German restaurant together, and our server was a cross-dresser. The cross-dresser was the newer kind. He was a man, dressed as a woman, but I think the polite thing is to use the female pronoun. She didn’t wear any makeup, and she didn’t have styled hair. She wore blue jeans and a shirt from the Gap. Her chin-length red hair was lackluster, and looked a little oily. She was about forty years old, and she behaved like a forty-year-old woman—tired, kind, a little weary.
I went to the restaurant a lot, and for whatever reason, she never confused me, but Carol, I have to say, was uncomfortable. It was as if she couldn’t decide whether this was just a guy who had accidentally put on his wife’s clothes that morning or she was a woman who had just given up all hope. Carol had trouble ordering—she stumbled over her words and couldn’t meet the server’s eye. I noticed she kept looking nervously at the server’s breasts and hips. It wasn’t too big a deal, and the server handled it like a forty-year-old woman would, not taking it personally and not acknowledging that it was happening. When the server walked away, Carol said, “I am so embarrassed. I was acting like somebody from Spencer, Wisconsin.” She made her eyes glaze over as a hayseed’s would if he met Divine. “I was like this!” she said, “I just couldn’t get it together.”
Another joke of Carol’s was to say, on a crowded subway, “Did you hear about Maria’s new boyfriend?” Read More
We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
In nearly twenty years and twelve hundred obituaries, Margalit Fox, a senior writer at the New York Times, has chronicled the lives of such personages as the president of Estonia, an underwater cartographer, and the inventor of Stove Top Stuffing. An instrumental figure in pushing the obituary past Victorian-era formal constraints, Fox produces features-style write-ups of her subjects whether they’re ubiquitous public figures, comparatively unknown men and women whose inventions have changed the world, or suicidal poets. (More on those below.)
I caught up with Fox in the Upper West Side café where she’s written two books, Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind and The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, the latter of which was published in paperback earlier this year. She was remarkably jovial and eager to clarify what it’s like to write about the dead every day. We spoke about the history of the obituary, her love of English eccentrics, and how it feels to call a living person in preparation for his or her eventual death.
Does the work you do change the way you think about death?
This work does skew your worldview a bit. We all watch old movies with an eye toward who’s getting on in age. I watch the Oscars memorial presentation and sit there going, Did him, did her, didn’t do that one. For obit writers, the whole world is necessarily divided into the dead and the pre-dead. That’s all there is.
How did you end up in the obituaries department?
I’d never planned for a career in obits. The child has not yet been born that comes home from school clutching a composition that says, When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer. I started as an editor at the Times Book Review. It was wonderful to be around books and people that love books, but the job itself was copyediting. I was afraid that all they’d be able to put on my tombstone was “She Changed Fifty-Thousand Commas into Semicolons.” I started contributing freelance to the obituary section and ended up getting pulled in as a full-time writer.
How is your section different from other news sections at the paper?
Ninety-five percent of our job is writing daily obits on deadline. It’s impossible to have an advance written for all the pre-dead who we hope to cover, so we usually have to phone someone up to ask about a person or a subject we don’t know much about. Recently, one of my colleagues was heard running around the office going, Does anyone know anything about exotic chickens?! It’s that sort of thing. Read More >>