- John Jeremiah Sullivan on Donald Antrim and his new collection of short stories, The Emerald Light in the Air: “That last story [‘The Emerald Light’] does something special, something very quiet that demands extremely close brushwork, something that exceedingly few writers can do … The technique is one of illusion and happens at the level of the text itself. It’s a way of rendering permeable the surface lens that divides the underworld of fantasy from the ‘painful realism’ hovering above it, so that writer and reader at moments seem joined in not being totally certain whether what’s happening on the page should be taken literally and naturalistically or as mythical, otherworldly.”
- “It is almost unheard-of for the same writer to have a byline on the lead item in rival newspapers. But it has happened in Britain today—to a man who last picked up his pen in 1796.” (Hint: think New Year’s Eve.)
- Apple’s iOS 8 includes QuickType, a predictive typing feature that suggests words you might want to type next. Followed to its extremes, it takes one’s sentences to strange and arguably poetic lands: “I have a great way of saying the government has ordered a pizza./ Yes, you do that for the rest of the day before I go to sleep.”
- Ben Lerner and Ariana Reines in conversation: “For me, the cow is a real modernist figure. I feel like after God died, the cow became the onlooker in great works of modernism. It’s the witness in Joyce, it shows up again and again—for me, it’s like the residue of the divine in the twentieth century.”
- In the eighties, Michael Chabon had a punk band in Pittsburgh. They were called the Bats. One of his bandmates said, “I just remembered being very impressed with his stage presence, like he’d been waiting all his life to do this.”
- Philip Larkin: Not always a tremendous admirer of people, but an ardent lover of animals. “His secretary Betty Mackereth remembers how, ‘He just stood at the window of his office, looking out, and said: “I mowed the lawn last night; and I killed the hedgehog.” And tears rolled down his face.’ ”
- James Meyer, who was for thirty years an assistant of Jasper Johns, has pled guilty to stealing at least twenty-two of Johns’s works—an estimated $6.5 million value.
- We live in a world where not one but two new apps promise to re-create “the experience of a manual typewriter, but with the ease and speed of an iPad.”
- Against Against: “In recent years, there has been an ‘Against [X]’ epidemic: against young-adult literature, against interpretation, against method, against theory, against epistemology, against happiness, against transparency, against ambience, against heterosexuality, against love, against exercise, et cetera. The form announces a polemic—probably a cranky one, and very likely an unfair one. But an essay with such a title has inoculated itself against the criticism of being too polemical or tendentious—after all, did you read the title? Caveat lector!”
- In Pittsburgh, a nonprofit called City of Asylum provides free housing and a stipend “for foreign-born scribes who endured imprisonment, or worse, in their home countries.”
On photographer W. Eugene Smith’s unseen opus.
On September 2, 1958, W. Eugene Smith’s passport was stamped at the airport in Geneva, Switzerland. Hired by General Dynamics, he was there to photograph the United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, known as “Atoms for Peace.” He was to be paid $2,500 for two weeks of work (about $20,000 in 2014 money), plus a $20 per diem. Commercial work wasn’t Smith’s preference, but he needed the money. He needed some distance from New York, too.
A week later, on September 9, Smith’s long-awaited extended essay on the city of Pittsburgh hit newsstands in Popular Photography’s Photography Annual 1959. It was the culmination of a three-and-a-half-year odyssey that began with a three-week assignment and led to 22,000 exposed negatives, two thousand of which he said were “valid” for his essay. He staked his reputation on the work, evoking Joyce, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Beethoven, among others, as influences for the “layers” intended in his Pittsburgh layouts. Two consecutive Guggenheim fellowships (the first one coinciding with his friend Robert Frank’s fellowship for the work that became The Americans) further raised expectations. After turning down $20,000 from both Life and Look magazines when they would not agree to his demands for editorial control, Popular Photography offered to put thirty-six pages of their Annual 1959 at his disposal for $3,500. Smith accepted.
Now the anticipated magnum opus was set to arrive. But rather than stick around to toast his achievement, Smith jetted to Geneva. He had anticipated a Pittsburgh flameout earlier that summer, in a letter to his uncle, Jesse Caplinger: “The seemingly eternal, certainly infernal Pittsburgh project—the sagging, losing effort to make the first of its publication forms so right in measure to the standards I had set for it … it is a failure.” Later, he wrote his friend Ansel Adams to “apologize” for “the debacle of Pittsburgh as printed.” Read More
In early March of 1955, W. Eugene Smith steered his overstuffed station wagon into the steel city of Pittsburgh. He’d been on the road all day, leaving that morning from Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where he lived in a large, comfortable house with his wife and four children, plus a live-in housekeeper and her daughter. He was thirty-six, and a fuse was burning inside him. He had recently quit Life, after a successful but troubled twelve years, and joined Magnum, and this was his first freelance assignment. He had been hired by renowned filmmaker and editor Stefan Lorant to shoot a hundred scripted photographs for a book commemorating Pittsburgh’s bicentennial, a job Lorant expected to take three weeks. On Smith’s horizon, however, was one of the most ambitious projects in the history of photography: he wanted to create a photo story to end all photo stories. His station wagon was packed with some twenty pieces of luggage, a phonograph, and hundreds of books and vinyl records—he was prepared for an eruption.
A hundred and eighty miles southwest of Pittsburgh, in Athens, Ohio, James Karales was finishing up a degree in photography at Ohio University. He had studied Smith’s work in class; Smith was a hero. While Smith was crawling all over Pittsburgh, day and night, several cameras wrapped around his neck, fueled by amphetamines, alcohol, and quixotic fevers, Karales was getting his diploma. Little did Karales know, his path and Smith’s were about to become one, and he would get an education no college could provide. Read More
According to the timetable of the Capitol Limited, I spent exactly twenty-four hours and one minute in Pittsburgh. It felt, I am pleased to report, more like a week.
In the first place, I met one of my literary heroes, Chuck Kinder. Chuck is a legend in Pittsburgh. Among other things, he is the real-life inspiration behind Michael Chabon’s Wonderboys. If you’ve seen the movie, he’s Michael Douglas. Only Chuck’s funnier and better-looking and West Virginian. Also, in real life his manuscript doesn’t blow away (it, Honeymooners, was the first novel I ever signed up for FSG). After years of phone discussions and sheafs of correspondence, he more than lived up to his reputation for hospitality. In fact, he and his wife, Diane Cecily, and their friends were so hospitable, I almost missed my midnight train. And would hardly have minded if I had.
I cannot tell you all the things we did. The day’s events, included, in no particular order, a guided tour of the magical Mattress Factory (pictured above and below); a leisurely rooftop interview with the charming Guatemalan journalist Silvia Duarte; two fiction readings; a lively staged talk with the book critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, including the by-now requisite opinions on Jonathan Franzen qua bestseller; a studio visit with Diane Samuels, who is copying Fagles’s Odyssey (in a tiny, elegant hand) onto a large painting of the street behind the house where she lives with Henry Reese, director of City of Asylum (I can’t even begin to describe City of Asylum!); and a multigenerational farewell party at Chuck and Diane’s, where I learned much that I had never guessed about the moped scene in Cincinnati (it’s coed, and it’s hopping), the early history of the nickelodeon, how to roast a groundhog (use a corn cob), the difficulties of writing closed captions for girl-on-girl pornography [moans intensify], and the Depression-era practice of using textbooks for fuel. About which last factoid I remain skeptical.
Also in Pittsburgh I was told by an Amtrak ticket agent—for the second time in exactly two days—“You won’t make your train,” then sent running down a platform while somebody woke up the sleeping-car attendant, who was cheerful and informal about it and made up my berth in his boxers.
Well, slightly West.
First stop: Pittsburgh
Tomorrow, September 29, Stein will join Bob Hoover, books editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to reveal “The Sordid Confessions of a Subversive Big-Apple Editor.” The free event starts at 6:30 P.M. at the Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Avenue.
On September 30, Stein and Stop Smiling editor JC Gabel talk with Literago.org’s Mairead Case at Maxim’s: The Nancy Goldberg International Center, 24 East Goethe Street. The conversation begins at 6 P.M.