- Compared to writers at the beginning of their careers, successful authors have an enormous freedom to experiment with form and style: their reputations are sound. And yet so few of our most prominent authors risk anything in their books. Writers like Haruki Murakami and John Irving compare their readers to addicts, “always waiting” for the fix of a new book; Tim Parks asks if “addiction” is really what an author should seek in his readers. “If a writer accepts such addiction, or even rejoices in it, as Murakami seems to, doesn’t it put pressure on him, as pusher, to offer more of the same? In fact it would be far more plausible to ascribe the failure (aesthetic, but not commercial) of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and indeed Franzen’s Purity, not to the author’s willingness to take exciting risks with new material … but rather to a tired, lackluster attempt to produce yet another bestseller in the same vein … to create anything genuinely new writers need to risk failure, indeed to court failure, aesthetically and commercially, and to do it again and again throughout their lives, something not easy to square with the growing tendency to look on fiction writing as a regular career.”
- On social media, hyperbole reigns supreme: I’m literally dying because it’s the worst thing ever. It can be hard to mock or even to coolly discuss the trend toward overreaction without sounding like an uptight dad with a wedgie—but let’s try to have that conversation, because right now we’re standing at the brink of Total Overstatement. The Internet, Jessica Bennett writes, “has taken all these speech patterns and hit them with a dose of caffeine: the need to express emotion in bite-size, 140-character bits; the fact that we must come up with increasingly creative ways to express tone and emphasis when facial cues are not an option. There’s a performative element, too: We are expressing things with an audience in mind … Yet if a bacon-flavored ice cream sundae gives you all the ‘feels ever,’ or you are ‘dead’ over a cute cat photo, how do you respond if something is actually dramatic?”
- Along with hyperbole, the Internet has made a cozy home for trite bursts of New Age pabulum, and science has at last intervened to ask: Why does anyone like this shit? Last month a journal called Judgment and Decision Making published “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” by Gordon Pennycook and colleagues. “People who are more susceptible to BS,” he found, “score lower for verbal and fluid intelligence, are more prone to ‘conspiratorial ideation,’ and more likely to ‘endorse complementary and alternative medicine’ … In a series of studies, the authors presented participants with randomly assembled pseudo-profound statements, Deepak Chopra tweets, and tests of cognitive and reasoning ability… In general, the profoundness ratings that participants gave the BS statements were very similar to those they gave to Chopra’s tweets.”
- Given the ever more likely presence of water on Mars, it’s time to reevaluate the Martian in fiction. Though the Martians of the later twentieth century were often destructive, bloodthirsty creatures with only a superficial resemblance to humankind, the earliest Martians were basically exactly like people—demonstrating either a failure of imagination or a deep optimism. Percy Greg’s 1880 novel Across the Zodiac features “a polygamous society of ‘Martialists’—diminutive men and women, less than five feet tall, who look a little bit like Swedish people and dominate the planet. They’re an agricultural society: they raise one-horned antelope-like creatures, birds ‘about twice the size of a crow,’ and a range of crops, that, besides their color, basically resemble plants on Earth … In Aleriel (1883), Martians are about twice the size of humans and much more hairy; in Stranger’s Sealed Package (1889), besides being blue, they are essentially the same as humans—they even share ancient ancestors.”
- One of the more bizarre artifacts of the eugenics movement is this 1904 map showing “The Distribution of Men of Talent” throughout our fair nation. Its author, Gustave Michaud, thought we needed to see where geniuses lived in high density so that, I don’t know, laypeople could move to their towns and force them to reproduce with us, spawning a new generation of baby geniuses. Unsurprisingly, Michaud contended that the overwhelming majority of geniuses lived in New England, and that Wyoming was all but genius-free. Sorry, Wyoming.
Everyone knows Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”—and almost everyone gets it wrong.
From The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, a new book by David Orr.
A young man hiking through a forest is abruptly confronted with a fork in the path. He pauses, his hands in his pockets, and looks back and forth between his options. As he hesitates, images from possible futures flicker past: the young man wading into the ocean, hitchhiking, riding a bus, kissing a beautiful woman, working, laughing, eating, running, weeping. The series resolves at last into a view of a different young man, with his thumb out on the side of a road. As a car slows to pick him up, we realize the driver is the original man from the crossroads, only now he’s accompanied by a lovely woman and a child. The man smiles slightly, as if confident in the life he’s chosen and happy to lend that confidence to a fellow traveler. As the car pulls away and the screen is lit with gold—for it’s a commercial we’ve been watching—the emblem of the Ford Motor Company briefly appears.
The advertisement I’ve just described ran in New Zealand in 2008. And it is, in most respects, a normal piece of smartly assembled and quietly manipulative product promotion. But there is one very unusual aspect to this commercial. Here is what is read by a voice-over artist, in the distinctive vowels of New Zealand, as the young man ponders his choice: Read More
- “The role of a novel is to entertain readers, and fear is one of the most entertaining things there is … I don’t particularly feel like apologizing. It’s impossible to increase the proportion already given to Islam in the news. We’re already nearly at 100% … A good provocateur knows who he’s going to shock. I’m absolutely incapable of predicting that … It’s always a surprise every time.” That’s Houellebecq, saying typically Houllebecq things about Islamophobia, on the eve of his novel Submission’s release in the UK. (It comes to America next month, translated by our own Lorin Stein.)
- Today in wacky and yet not implausible Pynchon theories: Is this brick of a novel called Cow Country—published this April by one Adrian Jones Pearson through a very, very small press—actually the work of the P-man himself? It has all of his hallmarks: “Need I mention that this novel is serious while spoofing … that high satire with a healthy dollop of bodily humor and a keen eye for paradox is this literary sensibility’s chosen (and perhaps as a person, inevitable) metier? … With a magnifying glass, one could look closely and find what seem to be minor instances of Pynchon jokes from earlier novels recycled in Cow Country, tweaked for their new context.”
- Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin were architects in the late days of the Soviet Union, which set strict aesthetic parameters for the buildings it erected—all but ensuring that architecture ceased to be an imaginative discipline. But Brodsky and Utkin found a way to skirt the rules: they designed buildings that could never exist, like “precarious scaffolding, classical domes, huge glass towers, and other visionary architecture that referenced everything from ancient tombs to Le Corbusier’s sprawling city plans.”
- What is an author’s reputation made of? Reviews, sure. Critical studies, yes. But there’s also a less tangible factor you might call “litchat”: “the conversations that writers, readers, and critics have amongst themselves. Whether another writer is spoken of respectfully, whether you get the impression that ‘everyone’ is reading his or her new book enthusiastically, or how well people think he or she comes across in interviews—these and a dozen other imponderable factors constitute a reputation during a writer’s lifetime, particularly in the early part of a career.”
- The image of the booze-soaked, tortured writer is a distinctly male one—but let us not forget the women who drink. “Male writers get careful interpretation of the role of alcohol in their creative lives; women writers are alcoholics, pure and simple … Women writers, meanwhile, have evolved a more complicated relationship with drunkenness. It is no longer quite the stain it once was … Still the canon is for the most part seriously dented by the effects of what you could call the Hemingway attitude—this idea that a woman is contaminated by self-destructiveness, and contaminated in a way that slurs her art.”
Penelope Fitzgerald’s shifting reputation.
Penelope Fitzgerald would have been ninety-eight today. We should mark the occasion by remembering that it is not extraordinary that she became a prize-winning novelist, though you may have heard otherwise.
In 2008, Julian Barnes described Fitzgerald as a jam-making grandmother, carrying a plastic, purple handbag. “Many readers’ initial reaction to a Fitzgerald novel,” he wrote, is, “ ‘But how does she know that?’ ” He said that he has reread the first scene of her book The Blue Flower (2000) many times, “always trying to find its secret, but never succeeding.”
And most everyone knows the story of the Booker dinner in 1979, to which Fitzgerald supposedly wore a flannel housedress. When she beat out V. S. Naipaul for the prize with Offshore, Robert Robinson of Book Programme proposed that the judges had made the wrong choice.
Then there’s Michael Dibdin, who once compared Fitzgerald to Jane Austen, of whom Lord Grey of Fallodon said something like, How astonishing that, despite the dullness of her life, she should write not only one novel, but several, and they are very good, too. Didbin was also incredulous of The Blue Flower: “How on earth was this done?” Read More
David Foster Wallace, James Joyce, and the trouble with public image.
In 2010, just under two years after David Foster Wallace’s death, the journalist David Lipsky published Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, a memoir of transcripts from an interview he’d conducted with Wallace in 1996 for Rolling Stone. The book was well reviewed—it made the Times best-seller list—and late last year it was announced that it would become a film starring Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky and Jason Segel as Wallace. The End of the Tour is already in postproduction and slated for release in late 2014, but last week, the Wallace Literary Trust issued a public statement making it “clear that they have no connection with, and neither endorse nor support” the film: “There is no circumstance under which the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust would have consented to the adaptation of this interview into a motion picture, and we do not consider it an homage.”
I was struck by similarities between this situation and the case of James Joyce and Samuel Roth, which began in 1926. In his recent book Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain, the scholar Robert Spoo devotes two chapters to Joyce’s desperate attempts to defend his intellectual property against Roth, an infamous American “booklegger” who reprinted the entire text of Ulysses, as well as large portions of Finnegans Wake, without permission. Roth’s actions, like those of the filmmakers of The End of the Tour, were not illegal: Joyce didn’t possess the U.S. copyright on his works, which were originally published in Europe and—after a brief window during which he could have established copyright by securing American publication—fell immediately into the U.S. public domain. Read More