- If you’re buying a new home, avoid the intersection of Art and Commerce. It’s no place to raise a family. Out on the streets you’ll find foppish aesthetes and sturdy banker types in three-piece suits, variously copulating with and murdering one another at all hours of the night. The sidewalks are littered with cigar butts and paperbacks, many of them used. This week has seen an especially nasty accident there: Delta Airlines and Bank of America pulled their funding from a Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in which the emperor takes on a distinctly Trumpian tint. (Spoiler: he is stabbed.) As Justin Davidson argues, the takeaway here is not that the American public is too foolish to “get” Caesar or that corporations are lumbering, amoral agents of ignorance and destruction—we knew that already. Instead, the controversy illustrates just how vexed our expectations of corporation patronage have become: “Neither art nor money is a neutral force … To pretend that people who write checks have an abstract duty to fund an artistic enterprise without caring about the result is naïve. Most of the time the decision whether to fund a novel, a new piece of music, or an exhibition is made long before these works see the light of day. The Public’s Julius Caesar is a rare instance of a donor’s after-the-fact judgment, but that doesn’t make it outrageous … Corporations often fund the arts as a way of cleansing reputations they have sullied through their business practices or products, and money-hungry organizations have to decide how willing they are to play the game … Organizations slaver over big-ticket philanthropists who can jump-start a construction project, ensure a blockbuster exhibition, or pay for a production by writing a single check. Pursuing them usually means arguing that the work they’re paying for will exhilarate more people than it will anger. Dependence on donors, by its nature, nudges the arts toward traditionalism and conservatism.”
- Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a portraitist with a devastating secret: none of her subjects are real. I, too, gasped. The impudence. The temerity! And yet, as Zadie Smith writes, it all works out: “Yiadom-Boakye’s people push themselves forward, into the imagination—as literary characters do—surely, in part, because these are not really portraits. They have no models, no sitters. They are character studies of people who don’t exist. In many of Yiadom-Boakye’s interviews, she is asked about the source of her images, and she tends to answer as a novelist would, citing a potent mix of found images, memory, sheer imagination, and spontaneous painterly improvisation (most of her canvases are, famously, completed in a single day). From a novelist’s point of view, both the speed and the clarity are humbling. Subtleties of human personality it might take thousands of words to establish are here articulated by way of a few confident brushstrokes. But the deeper beguilement is how she manages to create the effect of wholly realized figures while simultaneously confounding so many of our assumptions about the figurative … Who is this? The answer is both literal and liberating: No one.”
- People think they’re so special, with their tools and their language and their consciousness. “There’s nothing like us in the universe,” people say. “We’re people!” It’s enough to make you sick. How grand, then, to see the pillars of anthropocentrism begin to fall. Con Slobodchikoff, a biology professor, has been studying the sounds of prairie dogs for three decades, and it’s his belief that they have a distinct language. They know what’s up. Whenever intruders approach their little prairie-dog towns, they can sound very precise alarms. Slobodchikoff told Ferris Jabr that he prefers the term language to communication: “Calling it communication sets up that us-versus-them divide … I don’t think there is a gap. I think it all integrates in there. You can go to Barnes & Noble and pick up book after book that says humans are the only ones with language. That cheats our understanding of animal abilities and inhibits the breadth of our investigation. I would like to see people give animals more credence, and I think it’s happening now, slowly. But I would like to push it along a little faster.”
- Masha Gessen with a quick reminder that the best words are the most precise words, for in them we know where we stand: “A Russian poet named Sergei Gandlevsky once said that in the late Soviet period he became obsessed with hardware-store nomenclature. He loved the word secateurs, for example. Garden shears, that is. Secateurs is a great word. It has a shape. It has weight. It has a function. It is not ambiguous. It is also not a hammer, a rake, or a plow. It is not even scissors. In a world where words were constantly used to mean their opposite, being able to call secateurs secateurs—and nothing else—was freedom.”
- Looking for a fun, easy way to spice up your writing? Try throwing in a fecal intensifier or two. They’re the shit, and you’ll be thrilled shitless with the results. As the translator Brendan O’Kane writes, fecal intensifiers are the idiom of the moment, but it’s hard to follow their logic: “A certain distinguished Dutch professor emeritus … noted that ‘people before about 1950 were mostly bored shitless.’ This cracked the room up, naturally, but it also seemed slightly off … I might be scared shitless, but I’m unlikely to be amused, bored, delighted, outraged, or annoyed shitless. This is curious, since shitlessness would seem to be the natural result of something scaring, boring, or annoying the shit out of me—all distinct possibilities, according to my understanding of the idiom. In particularly unexpected circumstances, one might even shit oneself—as a response to fear, outrage, amusement, or surprise, rather than delight or (unless as a last resort) boredom.”
- If shitlessness is too taboo for you, there are other ways to jar and unnerve your potential readers. Take pains to pepper your prose with irregardless, for example, and watch the hate mail pour in. According to Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, “Irregardless is one of those words that people love to hate. No one is lukewarm about irregardless. I don’t use it, but what I love about it that it has hung around on the periphery of English for over 200 years. It’s like this barnacle that you can’t get off the hull of the language, and I think that’s great.”
On translating Karolina Ramqvist’s novel The White City.
It started with an editorial query about a bag.
In Karolina Ramqvist’s novel The White City, a woman, Karin, has been left without resources after living a luxe life with her gangster husband, John, who is dead. Karin’s Swedish, middle-class family never approved of her decision to become a criminal’s housewife, so she can’t go to them for help. The “gangster family” that was supposed to have her back has turned on her. She has no one but her nursing infant, and she’s reluctant about motherhood. In the middle of a frozen Stockholm winter, Karin is being left out in the cold, figuratively and literally: the authorities are about to seize her grand suburban home. The reader meets her there, where signs of filth and decay abound. There’s no heating, no Internet. Desperate for cash, she’s selling off her luxury handbags. The doorbell rings; a prospective buyer who has seen Karin’s ad has come to have a look: Read More
- Our contributor Ben Nugent appears on Selected Shorts’ “Too Hot for Radio” podcast this week to discuss his short story “God,” which appeared in our Fall 2013 issue. Here’s how it all started, he says: “One of my best creative-writing students, Megan Kidder, a well mannered girl from rural Maine with dyed black hair, a silver nose ring, and a studded belt dropped by my office and informed me, I wrote a poem about how this one guy prematurely ejaculated … ”
- Here’s Carina Chocano to remind you that you’re probably misusing the word humbled, you misinformed braggart, you duplicitous self-promoter, you smarmy pretender to humility: “To be humbled is to be brought low or somehow diminished in standing or stature. Sometimes we’re humbled by humiliation or failure or some other calamity. And sometimes we’re humbled by encountering something so grand, meaningful or sublime that our own small selves are thrown into stark contrast—things like history, or the cosmos, or the divine … To be humbled is to find yourself in the embarrassing position of having to shimmy awkwardly off your pedestal, or your high horse—or some other elevated place that would not have seemed so elevated had you not been so lowly to begin with—muttering apologies and cringing, with your skirt riding up past your granny pants.”