Friday, December 28, 2007

Rebecca West on the Importance of Narrative

More from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

As we grow older and see the ends of stories as well as their beginnings, we realize that to the people who take part in them it is almost of greater importance that they should be stories, that they should form a recognizable pattern, than that they should be happy or tragic. The men and women who are withered by their fates, who go down to death reluctantly but without noticeable regrets for life, are not those who have lost their mates prematurely or by perfidy, or who have lost battles or fallen from early promise in circumstances of public shame, but those who have been jilted or were the victims of impotent lovers, who have never been summoned to command or been given any opportunity for success or failure. Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted. If one's own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book. We can all of us judge the truth of this, for hardly any of us manage to avoid some periods when the main theme of our lives is obscured by details, when we involve ourselves with persons who are insufficiently characterized; and it is possibly true not only of individuals, but of nations. What would England be like if it had not its immense Valhalla of kings and heroes, if it had not its Elizabethan and its Victorian ages, its thousands of incidents which come up in the mind, simple as icons and as miraculous in their suggestion that what England has been it can be again, now and for ever? What would the United States be like if it had not those reservoirs of triumphant will-power, the historical facts of the War of Independence, of the giant American statesmen, and of the pioneering progress into the West, which every American citizen has at his mental command and into which he can plunge for revivification at any minute? To have a difficult history makes, perhaps, a people who are bound to be difficult in any conditions, lacking these means of refreshment (55-56).
I love how West will veer without warning into the deep waters of generalization. This habit used to be more common among writers than it is now, and one can see why the practice would have been abandoned, since there is such obvious arrogance in it, and potential for error. Yet watching West generalize is breathtaking, because even when the details don't work, she's usually onto something. (How could she not be, when she's got so many interesting observations scattered across the landscape at one time?)

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Rebecca West: Black Lamb, Sharp Teeth

Rebecca West, discussing the law's ancient pedigree in eastern Europe:

It is a thing to be noted, the age of legalism in these parts. It is our weakness to think that distant people became civilized when we looked at them, that in their yesterdays they were brutish.
This is from her 1150-page tome on Yugoslavia published in 1941, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.Worth reading? Well, I'm only on p. 49 so far (which is where the quote above comes from), but so far, I can tell you that critics call it one of the greatest books of the 20th-century, and that the prologue is worth the price of admission. Nobody today writes with such final authority, casual erudition, or unexpected battiness.

Writing about the Emperor Franz Joseph (of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for those of you who slept through European history), she observes,
He was certain of universal acclamation not only during his life but after his death, for it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, "Ah, So-and-so was a marvel! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens when has gone!" It was true that there was already shaping in his court a disaster that was to consume us all; but this did not appear to English eyes, largely because Austria was visited before the war only by our upper classes, who in no country noticed anything but horses, and Austrian horses were good.
That's from p. 10, in the prologue, and is soon followed by this from p. 14, after she discusses the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Franz Joseph, whose death was used as pretext for the war that soon became World War I:
Of that assassination I remember nothing at all ... I was then very busy being an idiot, being a private person, and I had enough on my hands. But my idiocy was like my anaesthetic. During the blankness it dispensed I was cut about and felt nothing, but it could not annul the consequences. The pain came afterwards.
By her "idiocy," West means her infamous, 10-year affair with the much-older-and-married H.G. Wells, by whom she had a son. She sets up this metaphor at the start of her prologue, when she mentions the wonders of modern surgery: "[t]hey had taken me upstairs to a room far above the roofs of London, and had cut me about or three hours and a half, and had brought me down again ..." -- as well, obviously, as the pain of her breakup with Wells, and the horror brought by the Great War. Absolutely killer.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Orwell's Still Got Our Number

Sound familiar? The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is from an Orwell essay on Kipling, from 1942, 65 years ago:

All left-wing parties in the highly industrialised countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are "enlightened" all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our "enlightenment", demands that the robbery shall continue.
--George Orwell, p. 400 of his Essays.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, December 21, 2007

Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

Back in 1988, Dan Hofstadter published a meandering essay about the eighth (I think) meeting of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, which sounds like a great place for brainiac foodies. At that meeting, Dr. Max Lake lectured on the "resemblance between sexual smells and the smells of cheese and wine:"

I have been fortunate enough to have access to a sexual-odor library [Lake said], which, believe it or not, consists of little bottles in a laboratory. One of the most important human pheromones is isobutyraldehyde, which is the next relative in the carbon chain to the odor of bean sprouts. Great champagne has many aldehyde tones. There are also definite cheesy and sweaty notes. These middle-range fatty-acid smells characterize, in higher apes and human beings, the pheromones of the female in mid-cycle, and are also found, believe it or not, in several of the world's most delicious and expensive cheeses ...
Another lecturer, Charles Perry -- "accomplished Arabist, a former editor at Rolling Stone, and a restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times" -- lectured about "Medieval Near Eastern Rotted Condiments."
[Perry] had set out loaves of barley dough to rot in various ways, in accordance with instructions in old Arabic cookbooks. After forty days, each smelled unique. The most suitable were wrapped in grape leaves in a loosely lidded container. They were to be used with a rotted whole-wheat flat bread from a health-food store to make bunn. The loaves of barley dough "were surprisingly white throughout most of their volume, and smelled faintly but not unpleasantly of rot," he reported. "The bread had rotted vigorously, and in the end looked like a furry black kitten with pink patches." These rots Perry then ground and sifted to make the bunn, which "developed a curious richness of aroma, like that of a ripe salami, after a week," he said. "It had a loathsome appearance but was agreeable to taste, if not a delicacy by my standards." Perry concluded by wondering aloud why these condiments had disappeared. Much of his audience was apparently wondering why he had not disappeared, and one listener rose to congratulate him on his survival.
Hofstadter marvels at the adventuresome tastes of the lecturers:
Many of these foods were not only strange but also unpalatable -- even, in some cases, inedible ... Past and present symposiasts had trumpeted their consumption of -- among other items -- bear's paw, "properly rancid" yak butter, fermented fish liquid, viper in chicken broth, house cat, fox, owl, ground bats' wings, pressed lizards, pangolin, Spanish fly, and frog's ovaries, not to mention sheep's-tail fat and medieval Arab rotted-grain condiments. Was there nothing they wouldn't put in their mouths?
Apparently not.

--Quotes from Dan Hoftstadter's "Omnivores." The New Yorker, April 25, 1988.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

The Mysterious East

Just read a long and very boring essay about China's "Long River," the Yangzi. The two things that stuck out:

[My Chinese wife] had warned me that the more conservative Chinese -- particularly those in the countryside -- would look askance at any public show of affection or solicitude, such as my holding her arm when we crossed a street. Though she promised not to walk behind me, in traditional Chinese fashion, she did make me agree not to help her up if she slipped and fell, explaining that it would be far more appropriate for me simply to stand by and laugh.
More amusing was a passing reference to one of the categories into which people in China were classified during the Cultural Revolution (and probably before then as well, as the categories may have predated it). In the 1980s, as economic reforms took hold, the reputations of various categories, such as "capitalists," were being "rehabilitated." They were able to "recover former assets and properties as a result," but not so for "the 'stinking ninth class' -- the intellectuals, who possess little beyond what's in their heads ..."

Stinking ninth class. How's that for a résumé-builder?

--Quotations from "The Long River," by Robert Shaplen. The New Yorker, August 8, 1988.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

John McPhee on Stopping Volcanic Lava

In 1988, McPhee published a two-part essay on what was the only successful human intervention to divert flowing volcanic lava (to that date, at least - don't know if this has changed): a battle waged in 1973 by Icelanders to keep lava flowing out of a new volcano from filling up a key harbor. They did this by spraying the flowing lava with water. Cooled lava formed hard walls, which would direct, to some extent, new lava flows.

And if that sounds easy, it wasn't. McPhee is clear that the victory was equivocal -- though they saved the harbor, they lost much of the town (buried under many feet of new, cooling rock); many inhabitants fled the island, never to return; and in many ways they were just plain lucky.

There are some amazing descriptions though, of what it was like to be up on top of the flow, working on a thin skin of barely-cooled lava with pipes, hoses, and bulldozers amid clouds of steam-fog, while being pelted with falling ash (think hot pea gravel that can cut skin and leave burns) and lava "bombs" -- just-solidified rock with molten cores that often exploded -- falling around them that sometimes weighed as much as a third of a ton.

A large part of these operations -- including, eventually, the coordination of the pumping crews -- was directed by the Icelandic fire chief of the American base at Keflavik ... This was a slender man of deceptively mild aspect, vaguely professorial, appearing like a genie through his own pipe smoke. He sometimes wore a uniform, with stripes that suggested military rank, but he was an Icelander, not a soldier, and in any case, no width or number of stripes could ever have conveyed the status he acquired on the island. Sent by the Civil Defense to help in the emergency, he quickly assumed command of one unit after another, until his de-facto rank had outflown eagles and was far into the stars. His name was Sveinn Eiriksson, but no one much used it. On Heimaey, in the battle, he was known universally as Patton.
--From John McPhee's "The Control of Nature: Cooling the Lava." The New Yorker, February 22, 1988, p. 51, later collected in The Control of Nature.

The essay was originally published in two parts, in the February 22nd and February 29th issues of The New Yorker. The second half is much weaker than the first, as the narrative falters and McPhee includes random anecdotes that appear to be taken straight from his unedited notes. (Hard as it is to imagine, somebody at The New Yorker fell asleep at the wheel.) Reading this piece reminded me that as much as I admire McPhee for his restless curiosity, and the way in which he's able to make the unusual, obscure, and mundane interesting and educational, he's not a very good editor of his own work. The guy blurts it onto the page, shapes some of it, and then he's off to the next assignment. That said, I'll keep reading him -- I rather welcome his periodic eruptions.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Limits of Author Interviews

The usual practice, when invited to write the introduction to an anthology, is to praise its contents. How refreshing to come across an introduction that finds most of the volume under discussion wanting (and manages also to achieve resonance well beyond the book under discussion):

Some of the Americans in this book are perhaps a little too eager to explain themselves. All that has ever really happened to them, one feels, is the experience of being writers. When they talk about themselves, these "selves" become sacred objects. As so often happens with Americans, the terror of failure hangs over them ... By contrast, Blaise Cendrars seems carelessly bountiful of everything, and recounts his life, his friends, his many countries and adventures simply as anecdote and observation, for the pleasure of talking about them. His interview makes an extraordinary impression on us who are saturated in literature: this is not merely a writer seeking to be a writer, this is a man who has lived.
-Alfred Kazin, in the introduction to Writers at Work, The Paris Review Interviews, Third Series, 1967.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Didion the Slow Learner

A while back, I praised Joan Didion's style, which led me to catch up on some of her recent writing and her interviews (in 1978 and 2006) from The Paris Review. The thing about Didion is that she seems to have sprung, like Athena, from the brow of Zeus. Everything she's published is so clearly, distinctively hers, that it's hard to believe she ever suffered a moment's doubt about her craft.

I suppose I should find it encouraging or heartwarming to read that Didion does suffer such doubts, but oddly, I find it merely ... doubtful. But see for yourself. Here she is, from the 1978 interview, talking about her novel, Run River:

It's got a lot of sloppy stuff. Extraneous stuff. Words that don't work. Awkwardness. Scenes that should have been brought up, scenes that should have been played down. But then Play It As It Lays has a lot of sloppy stuff. I haven't reread Common Prayer, but I'm sure that does, too. [It doesn't.]
Actually, I didn't much care for either Run River or Play It As It Lays when I attempted them years ago, but to suggest that Book of Common Prayer is sloppy --!

Well all right, then: may all writers be cursed with such messiness.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

What's Wrong with The Bonfire of the Vanities

I'm a fan of Tom Wolfe's, if by that you mean a fan of his classic journalism - The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and The Right Stuff, both of which I read in high school. And though I don't agree with his anti-Modernist ranting in The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, I enjoy his brio.

What soured me on his work was The Bonfire of the Vanities, in part because I found his ideas about what novels should be terribly limiting. What with all the hoopla over his Harper's essay on this topic that presaged the appearance of "Bonfire," and the subsequent barrage of publicity that accompanied the book's eventual publication, I began to realize that Wolfe was an aesthetic and moral bully. And truth be told, when I read the book in 1988, I wasn't terribly impressed: it was engrossing, but it was populated with thinly-drawn characters, mere counters to be moved around the board in the service of Wolfe's satire. It didn't stick with me.

How satisfying, then, to learn that I wasn't alone in my feelings about it when I ran across Terrence Rafferty's respectful demolition of Bonfire, which came out at the time. Rafferty begins his review by addressing the bold panache with which Wolfe debuted as a novelist:

... he's not about to come on all insecure and timid and terrified of committing a gaffe, as if he were just another eager arriviste. Bearing this gigantic book, he crashes the novelists' party, and it's as if a professional wrestler in full signature regalia had suddenly appeared, waving his arms and declaiming and hurling people to the floor: he makes a big impression.
The book, Rafferty says,
... allows Wolfe to show off his talents as a listener and an observer: he knows how to cram scenes full of visual and verbal details without slowing the momentum of the narrative, so the novel seems rich and generous while we're reading it. But why does it feel so thin when we're done with it? Dazzled by the flamboyant performance, we may still wonder, when the wrestler has finally left the room, what the hell that was all about.
Aye, laddie. Done and dusted.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Origin of "Honesty is the Best Policy"

Just read a long biographical essay/review by John Updike about Benjamin Franklin -- worth reading in its own right -- and ran across this interesting tidbit:

Among the assertions of Poor Richard is not "Honesty is the best policy;" this saying dates from the sixteenth century and appears in the "Apophthegms" [sic] of Archbishop Whately of Dublin, with an interesting second thought: "Honesty is the best policy; but he who is governed by the maxim is not an honest man."
--From "Many Bens," by John Updike, The New Yorker, February 22, 1988.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Vicki Hearne on Cats

I used to hear older experimenters advising younger ones about working with cats. It seems that under certain circumstances if you give cats a problem to solve or a task to perform in order to find food they work it out pretty quickly. But, as I heard, "the trouble is that as soon as they figure out that the researcher or technician wants them to push the lever they stop doing it; some of them will starve to death rather than do it."

That result fascinated me -- I would have dropped everything in order to find out what the cats were trying to do or say to the researchers. After all, when human beings behave that way we come up with a pretty fancy catalogue of virtues in order to account for it. But, of course, I was stupidly supposing that the point of these efforts was to understand animals, and it wasn't at all. The point was simply to Do Science, or so I began to suspect when I heard one venerable professor tell a young researcher, "Don't use cats. They'll screw up your data."

-from Vickie Hearne's "Questions about Language," Part II. The New Yorker, August 25, 1986.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Vicki Hearne on Language about Animals

... [I]n the trainers' world different kinds of animals exist from the ones that I heard and read about in the university. For the trainer, there are hot working Airedales, dutiful and reliable German Shepherds, horses with intense, fiery, and competitive temperaments, other horses who are irredeemably dishonest. In the universities, there were more or less Cartesian creatures of uncertain pedigree, revised by uncertain interpreters of Freud and Jung, which may be why animals are invoked in the world of letters in general to mark "primitive" and usually unsavory impulses, while in the trainers' world they are more like characters in James Thurber, who insisted that in his work dogs represented "intelligence and repose." The trainers' language was ... the right language, the philosophically responsible language.
--"Questions about Language," by Vicki Hearne, The New Yorker, August 18, 1986, p. 38.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Joan Didion Skewers George Herbert Walker Bush

Recently, I posted a great metaphor describing Joan Didion's style, which reminded me how much I love her work and inspired me to catch up on some of her recent essays. So here's a lengthy quote from her work. If you're not familiar with it, you should know that she has an abiding fascination with how public narratives are constructed by politicians, policymakers, and influential people -- narratives that usually are seriously disconnected from what she has called "observable reality." She particularly likes to see the way this works when it comes to American foreign policy, which is frequently developed, as her essays invariably reveal, in an alarmingly offhand way, without concern for its human impact or "collateral damage." While the story below is not an example of foreign policy in its highest sense, it betrays a self-centered obliviousness that does not recommend itself for diplomacy, and which is all too common:

In August 1986, George [Herbert Walker] Bush, traveling in his role as vice president of the United States and accompanied by his staff, the Secret Service, the traveling press, and a personal camera crew ... working on a $10,000 retainer paid by a Bush PAC called the Fund for America's Future, spent several days in Israel and Jordan. The schedule in Israel included, according to reports in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, shoots at the Western Wall, at the Holocaust memorial, at David Ben-Gurion's tomb, and at thirty-two other locations chosen to produce camera footage illustrating that George Bush was, as Marlin Fitzwater, at that time the vice-presidential press secretary, put it, "familiar with the issues." The [personal camera] crew did not go on to Jordan (there was, an official explained to The Los Angeles Times, "nothing to be gained from showing him schmoozing with Arabs"), but the Bush advance team in Amman had nonetheless directed considerable attention to improving visuals for the traveling press.

Members of the advance team had requested, for example, that the Jordanian army marching band change its uniforms from white to red. They had requested that the Jordanians, who did not have enough equipment to transport Bush's traveling press corps, borrow the necessary helicopters to do so from the Israeli air force. In an effort to assure the color of live military action as a backdrop for the vice president, they had asked the Jordanians to stage maneuvers at a sensitive location overlooking Israel and the Golan Heights. They had asked the Jordanians to raise, over the Jordanian base there, the American flag. They had asked that Bush be photographed studying, through binoculars, "enemy territory," a shot ultimately vetoed by the State Department, since the "enemy territory" at hand was Israel. They had also asked, possibly the most arresting detail, that, at every stop on the itinerary, camels be present.
-from Joan Didion's "The West Wing of Oz," in Political Fictions, pp. 60-61.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cyril Connolly on E. M. Forster and Style

In 1938, Cyril Connolly performed a rather bleak assessment of the state of English literature. He singled out E. M. Forster as a novelist whose work seemed to be surviving the passing years. Here's part of what he had to say:
Much of his art consists in the plainness of his writing for he is certain of the truth of his convictions and the force of his emotions. It is the writer who is not so sure what to say or how he feels who is apt to overwrite either to conceal his ignorance or to come unexpectedly on an answer. Similarly it is the novelist who finds it hard to create character who indulges in fine writing.
Lest you think Connolly is an enemy of style, rest assured that he is not. But he does like precision, as he states with admirable beauty here:
The vocabulary of a writer is his currency but it is a paper currency and its value depends on the reserves of the mind and heart which back it.
In drawing this analogy, Connolly goes against the now long-established rule of literary criticism that one should not confuse an author with his or her work -- a good rule in general, though I can say from bitter personal experience that Connolly is absolutely correct, if I understand him aright, to draw a connection between a writer's prose and his or her personal qualities. Some of us are not made to write massive 19th-century Russian novels (never mind our inability to speak the language): some of us were made for (very) light verse.

--from p. 6 and 10 of Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Calvin Trillin Runs out of Spanish

Even when I seem to be doing pretty well in speaking Spanish, I can run out of it, the way someone might run out of flour or eggs. A few years after I passed up the chance to stay in Madrid, some friends and I went to Baja California to mark an occasion I can no longer remember, and I became the group's spokesman to the owner of our motel, a Mrs. Gonzales, who spoke no English. Toward the end of a very long evening, as I listened to her complain about some excess of celebration on our part, I suddenly realized that I had run out of Spanish. It wasn't merely that I couldn't think of the Spanish words for what I wanted to say. ("I am mortified, Mrs. Gonzales, to learn that someone in our group might have behaved in a manner so inappropriate, not to say disgusting.") I couldn't think of any Spanish words at all. Desperately rummaging around in the small bin of Spanish in my mind, I could come up with nothing but the title of a Calderón play I had once read, to no lasting effect, in a Spanish-literature course.

"Mrs. Gonzales," I said, "life is but a dream."

She looked impressed and, I must say, surprised. She told me that I had said something really quite profound. I shrugged. It seemed the appropriately modest response; even if it hadn't been, it would have been all I could do until I managed to borrow a cup of Spanish from a neighbor. Eventually, I came to look back on the experience as just about the only time I had been truly impressive in a foreign language.

-from Calvin Trillin's "Abigail y Yo," from The New Yorker, June 26, 1989, pp. 83-84.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Don DeLillo's Pseudonymous Novel Reviewed

One of my favorite all-stops-out novels is Don DeLillo's Amazons: An intimate memoir by the first woman ever to play in the National Hockey League, published in 1980, under the pseudonym of Cleo Birdwell. You rarely see it discussed anywhere, but it's one of the funniest things I've ever read. I'm not up to describing its varied pleasures, but lucky for you, I am able to direct you to a recent review. If you're a fan of plot or moral seriousness, skip it. Otherwise, here are your orders: acquire it ASAP. You'll likely have better luck on Advanced Book Exchange than Amazon (ironically), but use whatever works for you. Should you run across it in a used bookstore and find yourself wrapping your fingers around it just as someone else does the same, be ruthless. It's worth it.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Billy Wilder on Why Screenwriting is Worse than Playwriting

The tragedy of the picture maker, as opposed to the playwright, is that for the playwright the play debuts in Bedford, Massachusetts, and then you take it to Pittsburgh. If it stinks you bury it. If you examine the credits of Moss Hart or George Kaufman, no one ever brings up the play that bombed in the provinces and was buried after four shows.

With a picture, that doesn't work, no matter how stupid and how bad, they're still going to try to squeeze every single penny out of it. You go home one night and turn on the TV and suddenly, there on television, staring back at you, on prime time, that lousy picture, that thing, is back! We don't bury our dead; we keep them around smelling badly.
--from p. 421 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Michael Cunningham on Joan Didion's Style

Michael Cunningham on Joan Didion, quoted on the National Book Critics Circle blog:

She writes sentences that seem sculpted out of dry ice. She writes in a style that never feels like a style. You could put a drink down on a Joan Didion sentence.

He's not right that her style "never feels like a style" - on the contrary, especially with her more recent work, it feels mannered. But Christ, what a manner!

Stumble Upon Toolbar

On Taste - Wine & Marijuana

Okay, so first, Tom Christensen's quirky, entertaining blog linked this week to Jonah Lehrer's post describing some experiments with wine experts being given blind taste tests, with amusing results, quoted below. (Don't take them too seriously, though, unless you track down the original research, links for which are given in the many comments on Lehrer's blog.)

In 2001, Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its “jamminess,” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.” Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.

The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was a fancy grand-cru. The other bottle was an ordinary vin du table. Despite the fact that they were actually being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings. The grand cru was “agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded,” while the vin du table was “weak, short, light, flat and faulty”. Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only 12 said the cheap wine was.

I'm no wine expert -- don't really care for it, unless it's sweet, which puts my wine-loving friends into paroxyms -- so I always find the language used to describe wines both un-illuminating and amusing. (Probably the same way others feel when I talk about what makes one piece of writing better than another.) Imagine, however, how ludicrous it would be if a cadre of critics applied such language not to wine, but to marijuana?

Well, much to my surprise, you don't have to imagine: such critics evidently exist. Recently, on the "new books" shelf at my library, my wife noticed The Big Book of Buds, Volume 3, which turned out to be a coffee table book about ... pot. And not just any pot, but serious, genetically- modified pot that's nothing like your daddy's pot. It looks like ... well, pot on steroids. (I work in the field of adolescent treatment, as it happens, so I'm under no illusions that "you can't get addicted to pot," or that kids who use it aren't smoking several cigar-sized blunts a day and drinking as well, but I also believe in free speech, so the appearance of this volume at the local library gave me an ethical headache.) Here's how the "Sour Cream" strain was reviewed:
Sour Cream descends from two powerful North American lines. The New England "diesels" are non-haze sativas that push marijuana's citrus-like pungency into the realm of fuel. Sour Cream's mother is the near-pure sativa Sour Diesel, a clone-only strain derived from Chem crossed with Mass Super Skunk. This version of Sour Diesel is known for her sour Kush-like smell and her stand-out sour candy taste. The father, G-13 Haze, is a cream of the crop male that shows his true colors in this cross, but with improved yield. Sour Cream brings these two North American strains together for a complex, unusually calming stone.

--From p. 142 of the Big Book of Buds, Volume 3: More Marijuana Varieties from the World's Great Seed Breeders.

I only understood about a tenth of this, but my theory is that if you substituted the word "varietal" for "sativa," the word "wine" for "marijuana," and "glass" for "stone," you could post this on a wine-lover's blog and get at least 10 people writing in complaining that their local wine shop doesn't carry "Sour Cream" or -- better yet -- "Mass Super Skunk."

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ian Frazier on How Stories About Bears Help Them Survive

When Ian Frazier is walking in Montana and meets his first bear:

For some reason, I picked up a rock. I felt the weight of the rock in my hand, I smelled the breath from a wild rosebush, I saw the sun on the tops of the mountains, I felt the clothes on my back. I felt like a man -- skinny, bipedal, weak, slow, and basically kind of a silly idea (77-78).
He goes on to engage in what Anne Fadiman once referred to in an essay as "anticipatory plagiarism," i.e., stealing an idea I elaborated on almost a decade later about the supremacy the stories we tell about wilderness has over our actual experience of it:
Today, for grizzly bears to survive in the mountains of several Western states they must also survive in people's imaginations ... [In newspaper stories] and in magazines and on television, too, bears fatten on certain feelings people have for wilderness, and suffer for others ... In a way, a grizzly is as alive in the pages of a newspaper as he is walking through the trees from which the newspaper is made (79).

---from Ian Frazier's essay, "Bear News," from The New Yorker, September 9, 1985.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, November 03, 2007

John Dufresne on Talking Dogs

John Dufresne's book, Love Warps the Mind a Little, which I read a few years ago, was not what I signed up for - it was a lot sadder and much more affecting than I'd expected. But it's stayed with me. I recommend it, with the caveat that it starts out easy, and turns into a tough trip.

Here's one of the easy parts. The narrator in the following paragraph goes to the dentist, who gives him nitrous oxide for pain relief. His dog's name is Spot.

Under the gas I dreamed that Spot and I were cruising down a back road in Vermont. I was driving my father's car, the '71 Plymouth Fury. Spot was watching cows out the window and telling me that some dogs, mostly your purebreds, believed in an afterlife, but he certainly wasn't one of them. I said, Look at me when you talk. I want to see your lips move.

--From p. 154 of Love Warps the Mind a Little.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

John Dufresne on How Being a Writer & Holding a Job Don't Mix

"I was reminded of teaching and of how a job is incompatible with writing. So are a marriage, kids, religion, a bowling team. Probably everything is. And why is it called writing when the words are only a part of it? How do you explain to someone that your eyes are drifting up and to the left because you're trying to watch this actual person you made up cross the room and close the blinds, and that this is your job?"

--From page 6 of John Dufresne's powerfully affecting Love Warps the Mind a Little.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, November 02, 2007

Homer-Dixon Connects Economics to Ecology

Thinking about alternatives to the growth imperative means thinking about alternatives to conventional economics -- an elaborate apparatus of assumptions, theories, and empirical research that reinforces the legitimacy of globalized capitalism and the power of the world's capitalist elites. At the heart of this view is the assumption that the economy is separate from nature and operates much like a machine. The machine's behavior is linear, predictable, and reversible, so it can be managed by a planet-wide class of technocrats -- including central bankers and government officials -- trained in the arcane science of economics. An alternative theory would recognize that the economy is intimately connected with nature and its energy flows. This larger economic-ecological system often doesn't act like a machine at all. Instead, its behavior is path dependent, marked by threshold effects, and often neither predictable nor controllable. An alternative view would also recognize there are no good substitutes for some of the most precious things nature gives us, like biodiversity and a benign climate. Because we can't adequately replace these things with something else once they're gone, we need to create ways of giving them explicit economic value so people will have an incentive to protect them. Such an alternative view, if developed in detail, would help everyone understand that conventional economics is not unchallengeable truth but rather a particularly potent ideology -- a blend of scientific finding, analytical gymnastics, value judgments, and self-congratulation.

--from p. 293 of Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Author Stephen Marche on Why Canadian Fiction Sucks

Setting is everything in Canadian fiction. Plots don't matter much. There are only a few plots anyway: recovering from historical or familial trauma through the healing power of whatever (most common); uncovering historical or family secrets and thereby achieving redemption (close second); coming of age (distant third place).

The characters are mostly the same: The only thing that changes is the location of the massacred grandmother, what kind of booze the alcoholic father drinks himself into fits with, what particular creed is being revealed, in deft and daring ways, as both beautifully transcendent and oppressive.

From: "Raging Against the Tyranny of Canlit." Of course, all that said, 31-year-old Marche seems a little too taken with the American youth cult he left behind in Brooklyn.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, October 13, 2007

After Watching a Documentary about a Slaughterhouse

The quote below comes from a 1967 essay by critic Raymond Durgnat about Le Sang de Bêtes [literally, the blood of beasts], a documentary about a slaughterhouse in Paris. And if that's not removed enough for you, I've neither seen the movie nor read the essay in its entirety, but cribbed the quote from p. 252 of Jonathan Coe's The Winshaw Legacy: or What a Carve Up!

It's a reminder that what is inevitable may also be spiritually unendurable, that what is justifiable may be atrocious ... that, like our Mad Mother Nature, our Mad Father Society is an organization of deaths as well as of lives ...

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, October 11, 2007

In Which St. Anselm Belabors the Obvious

For, just as what is thought is thought by means of a thought, and what is thought by a thought is thus, as thought, in thought, so also, what is understood is understood by the mind, and what is understood by the mind is thus, as understood, in the mind. What could be more obvious than this?

--From St. Anselm's Reply to Gaunilo, in Proslogion, with the Replies of Gaunilo and Anselm.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Newsflash: It's O.K. to Take Candy from Strangers

More evidence that Americans increasingly live in a climate of fear of their own making.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the tradition of Halloween trick-or-treating came under attack. Rumors circulated about Halloween sadists who put razor blades in apples and booby-trapped pieces of candy. The rumors affected the Halloween tradition nationwide. Parents carefully examined their children's candy bags. Schools opened their doors at night so that kids could trick-or-treat in a safe environment. Hospitals volunteered to X-ray candy bags.

In 1985, an ABC News poll showed that 60 percent of parents worried that their children might be victimized. To this day, many parents warn their children not to eat any snacks that aren't prepackaged. This is a sad story: a family holiday sullied by bad people who, inexplicably, wish to harm children. But in 1985 the story took a strange twist. Researchers discovered something shocking about the candy-tampering epidemic: It was a myth.

The researchers, sociologists Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi, studied every reported Halloween incident since 1958. They found no instances where strangers caused children life-threatening harm on Halloween by tampering with their candy.

Two children did die on Halloween, but their deaths weren't caused by strangers. A five-year-old boy found his uncle's heroin stash and overdosed. His relatives initially tried to cover their tracks by sprinkling heroin on his candy. In another case, a father, hoping to collect on an insurance settlement, caused the death of his own son by contaminating his candy with cyanide.

In other words, the best social science evidence reveals that taking candy from strangers is perfectly okay. It's your family you should worry about.

--From pp. 13-14 of Chip Heath & Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Jonathan Coe on the Illusory Nature of Banking

Banking, as he once told a television interviewer, had become the most spiritual of all professions. He would quote his favourite statistic: one thousand billion dollars of trading took place on the world's financial markets every day. Since every transaction involved a two-way deal, this meant that five hundred billion dollars would be changing hands. Did the interviewer know how much of that money derived from real, tangible trade in goods and services? A fraction: 10 per cent, maybe less. The rest was all commissions, interest, fees, swaps, futures, options: it was no longer even paper money. It could scarcely be said to exist. In that case (countered the interviewer) surely the whole system was nothing but a castle built on sand. Perhaps, agreed Thomas, smiling: but what a glorious castle it was ...

--From p. 310 of Jonathan Coe's The Winshaw Legacy: or What a Carve Up!

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Stop Being a Workaholic? Naah - It's Too Much Work

... Tony decided to attend a Workaholics Anonymous meeting in New York City, near his home ... When he got to the meeting, there were four other people gathered around a table in a church basement. It turned out that the group's size hadn't increased significantly since its founding a decade ago ... [As] Tony was leaving, one of the participants approached him. "Welcome to the French Resistance," the man said with a sly smile. "There are five million workaholics in New York, and you've just met the only four who are in recovery."

--From pp. 40-41 of The Power of Full Engagement, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, October 05, 2007

Why Human Ingenuity May Not Be Enough this Time

A hopeful public, including leaders in business and politics, views the growing problem of oil depletion as a very straightforward engineering problem of exactly the kind that technology and human ingenuity have so successfully solved before, and it therefore seems reasonable to assume that the combination will prevail again. There are, however, several defects in this belief.

One is that we tend to confuse and conflate energy and technology. They go hand in hand but they are not the same thing. The oil endowment was an extraordinary and singular occurrence of geology, allowing us to use the stored energy of millions of years of sunlight. Once it's gone it will be gone forever. Technology is just the hardware and programming for running that fuel, but not the fuel itself. And technology is still bound to the laws of physics and thermodynamics, which both say you can't get something for nothing, and there is no such thing as perpetual motion. All of this is to say that much of our existing technology simply won't work without petroleum, and without the petroleum "platform" to work off, we may lack the tools to get beyond the current level of fossil-fuel based technology. Another way of putting it is that we have an extremely narrow window of opportunity to make that happen.

--From pp. 101-2 of James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

V.S. Naipaul Seeks Out Erotic Carvings

I went to the Nepalese Temple, 'disfigured', Murray's Handbook said, by 'erotic carvings; they do not catch the eye, provided that the attendant can be discouraged from pointing them out'. The attendant was a youth with a long switch; I begged him to point them out. 'Here man and woman,' he began unexcitedly. 'Here other man. He Mr. Hurry-up because he say, "Hurry up, hurry up.'" Tourist lore: the gloss did not please me. The pleasures of erotic art are fragile; I wished I had followed Murray's advice.
--From pp. 266-7 of V. S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness: A Discovery of India.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

V.S. Naipaul Appreciates an Exquisite but Often-Unrecognized Skill

Appreciation of different kinds of intelligence -- or, more accurately, different ways of expressing it -- is not common. As a writer myself, I used to judge people's smarts based on their verbal ability. It took me many years to dimly grasp how wrong and foolish this was, as I think Naipaul demonstrates below. (I'm not sure he's entirely serious, actually, but I'd prefer to think he means it.)

[Aziz] seemed to be so many persons. It was especially interesting to watch him at work on our friends, to see applied to others that process of assessment through service to which, in the early days, we ourselves had been subjected. They had servants of their own: nothing bound Aziz to them. Yet he was already taking possession of them; and already he was binding them to himself. He had nothing to gain; he was only obeying an instinct. He could not read or write. People were his material, his profession and no doubt his diversion; his world was made up of these encounters and managed relationships. His responses were acute ... He had picked up his English by ear; he therefore avoided Indian eye-pronunciations and spoke the words he knew with a better accent than many college-educated Indians. Even his errors ... showed a grasp of a language only occasionally heard; and it was astonishing to hear a word or phrase I had used coming back, days later, with my very intonations. Would he have gone far if he had learned to read or write? Wasn't it his illiteracy which sharpened his perception? He was a handler of people ... To us illiteracy is like a missing sense. But to the intelligent illiterate in a simpler world mightn't literacy be an irrelevance, a dissipation of sensibility, the mercenary skill of the scribe?
--From p. 162 of V. S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness: A Discovery of India.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, October 04, 2007

V.S. Naipaul Reveals Why Domestic Staff in 19th-Century Novels are so Uppity

Anyone who has ever had to supervise others in the workplace will recognize what Naipaul describes below.

On that small island I had become involved with them all, and with none more so than Aziz. It was an involvement which had taken me by surprise. Up to this time, a servant, to me, had been someone who did a job, took his money and went off to his own concerns. But Aziz's work was his life. A childless wife existed somewhere in the lake, but he seldom spoke of her and never appeared to visit her. Service was his world. It was his craft, his trade; it transcended the formalities of uniform and deferential manners; and it was the source of his power. I had read of the extraordinary control of eighteenth-century servants in Europe; I had been puzzled by the insolence of Russian servants in novels like Dead Souls and Oblomov; in India I had seen mistress and manservant engage in arguments as passionate, as seemingly irreparable and as quickly forgotten as the arguments between husband and wife. Now I began to understand. To possess a personal servant, whose skill is to please, who has no function beyond that of service, is painlessly to surrender part of oneself. It creates dependence where none existed; it requires requital; and it can reduce one to infantilism. I became as alert to Aziz's moods as he had been to mine. He had the power to infuriate me; his glumness could spoil a morning for me. I was quick to see disloyalty and diminishing attentions. Then I sulked; then, depending on his mood, he bade me good-night through a messenger or he didn't bid me good-night at all; and in the morning we started afresh. We quarrelled silently about guests of whom I disapproved. We quarrelled openly when I felt that his references to increasing food prices were leading up to a demand for more money. I wished, above all, to be sure of his loyalty. And this was impossible, for I was not his employer. So in my relations with him, I alternated between bullying and bribing; and he handled both.

--From pp. 120-121 of V. S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness: A Discovery of India.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

On V.S. Naipaul on the Importance of Being an Outsider

One thing I forgot to add to my previous post on this topic: Naipaul's upbringing -- as an outsider in Trinidad, and later as an outsider in England -- was a prerequisite for developing his superb eye for detail and limning the outlines of cultures he's only visited.

Perhaps that's so obvious it could've gone unsaid. Well ... too late, now!

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

V.S. Naipaul on the Importance of Being an Outsider

When I've talked with other white people about racism in America, they've often said they think it's largely a thing of the past. What they (like myself, until fairly recently) often don't understand is that being black or brown in a predominantly white community changes the way others react to you in usually subtle, but constant ways, and you feel differently about yourself as a result. I'm sure the same thing happens if you're white and you live in a community that is predominantly of color: you stand out, and other people make you feel it. (And your attitude toward your own difference also contributes.) In any case, constant awareness of one's difference from the surrounding community has an up side. Here's V.S. Naipaul -- born in Trinidad, whose grandfather came from India -- on the topic, describing what it was like for him to go to India for the first time and lose his sense of difference:

And or the first time in my life, I was one of the crowd. There was nothing in my appearance or dress to distinguish me from the crowd eternally hurrying into Churchgate Station. In Trinidad to be an Indian was to be distinctive. To be anything there was distinctive; difference was each man's attribute. To be an Indian in England was distinctive; in Egypt it was more so. Now in Bombay I entered a shop or a restaurant and awaited a special quality of response. And there was nothing. It was like being denied part of my reality. Again and again I was caught. I was faceless. I might sink without a trace into that Indian crowd. I had been made by Trinidad and England; recognition of my difference was necessary to me. I felt the need to impose myself, and didn't know how.

--From p. 39 of V. S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness: A Discovery of India.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, October 01, 2007

Michael Crichton on the Need for Editors

Strange to say this about anything by Crichton, but a truer word was never said:

... I'll tell you, I think every writer should have tattooed backwards on his forehead, like AMBULANCE on ambulances, the words everybody needs an editor.

--From p. 346 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Rebecca West on Getting Something on One's Mother-in-Law

WEST: I won't say I'm interested in spies, but they do turn up in my life in quite funny ways. There was a man called Sidney Reilly, who was a famous spy, a double agent. My mother-in-law was very upset because my husband married me instead of the daughter of a civil servant. My husband's mother thought she was a nice Catholic girl, who'd be so nice for my husband, and it always tickled me because it gradually emerged that this girl was the mistress of this very famous and disreputable spy. It was a wonderful thing to have in your pocket against your mother-in-law.

--From p. 268 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Rebecca West Trashes T.S. Eliot, Somerset Maugham, and The New Yorker

I love it when a writer expresses a strong opinion about a colleague. You don't see it much now.

INTERVIEWER: Are you interested in T.S. Eliot's writing?

[REBECCA] WEST: Goodness! T. S. Eliot, whom I didn't like a bit? He was a poseur. He was married to this woman who was very pretty. My husband and I were asked to see them, and my husband roamed around the flat and there were endless photographs of T.S. Eliot and bits of his poetry done in embroidery by pious American ladies, and only one picture of his wife, and that was when she was getting married. Henry pointed it out to me and said, I don't think I like that man.

INTERVIEWER: What about the work of Somerset Maugham, whom you also knew?

WEST: He couldn't write for toffee, bless his heart. He wrote conventional short stories, much inferior to the work of other people. But they were much better than his plays, which were too frightful. He was an extremely interesting man, though, not a bit clever or cold or cynical.


INTERVIEWER: Have you ever had a close relationship with an editor, who has helped you after the books were written?

WEST: No. I never met anybody with whom I could have discussed books before or after... And I very rarely found The New Yorker editors any good.

INTERVIEWER: They have a tremendous reputation.

WEST: I don't know why.

--From pp. 259 and 261 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, September 27, 2007

V.S. Naipaul on Experiencing Wilderness

I've never seen anyone talk so eloquently -- and so precisely -- about what it's like to visit the mountains.

The Himalayan summer was short, its weather treacherous. Every exploration, like every pilgrimage even today, had to be swift ... Beyond the Amarnath Cave was the mountain of Kailas and beyond that the lake of Manasarovar. And legends attached to every stage of the Amarnath pilgrimage. These rocks were what remained of defeated demons; out of that lake Lord Vishnu arose on the back of a thousand-headed serpent; on this plain Lord Shiva once did the cosmic dance of destruction and his locks, becoming undone, created these five streams: wonders revealed only for a few months each year before disappearing again below the other, encompassing mystery of snow. And these mountains, lakes and streams were indeed apt for legend. Even while they were about you they had only a qualified reality. They could never become familiar; what was seen was not their truth; they were only temporarily unveiled. They might be subject to minute man-made disturbances -- a stone dislodged into a stream, a path churned to dust, skirting snow -- but as soon as, on that hurried return journey, they had been left behind they became remote again.
--From p. 165 of V. S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness: A Discovery of India.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Wodehouse Updated via Kyril Bonfiglioli, circa 1972

I don't trust a book review that compares an author to P.G. Wodehouse: it's never apt. For example, Paul Murray's An Evening of Long Goodbyes. Sure, the narrator's British and he's featherheaded and feckless, but that book is so freighted with sadness that it's a ridiculous comparison. But recently I stumbled on a book that was described by a reader as "Like Wodehouse on acid," and for once, the comparison is dead-on.


He greeted me with his usual surliness: dealers in illegal firearms almost never smile, you must have noticed that. [p. 47]
(I yield to none when it comes to eyebrow-raising; I was taught by my father himself, who could have eyebrow-raised for Great Britain had he not been so haughty.) [p. 105]
Item - our narrator is speaking figuratively of a verbal skirmish he has just lost:
'Thank you, yes,' he replied. My attack was wiped out. I felt just like an infantry subaltern who has thrown away a platoon against a machine-gun emplacement he forgot to mark on his map. (Listening to the Colonel's remarks afterwards is not nearly so unpleasant as sitting down to write twenty letters to next-of-kin while the people in the Orderly Room pretend you're not there. The worst bit is when your batman brings you your dinner to the foxhole or bivvy-tent, saying 'Thought you might be too tired to dine in the Mess tonight. Sir.' But I reminisce.) [p. 131]
The clerk droned legally for a while; Jaggard put on a joke-policeman voice while he read bits from his notebook about how he had proceeded from here to there on information received ... but I must not trouble you with such minutiae: I am sure you have been in magistrates' courts yourselves. [p. 165]
Item (in which our hero is on the losing end of a shoot-out in a factory that butchers pigs):
Had I been a religious man I should probably have offered up a brisk prayer or two, but I am proud, you see: I mean, I never praised Him when I was knee-deep in gravy so it would have seemed shabby to apply for help from a bacon-factory. [p. 178]
From Kyril Bonfiglioli's1972 After You with the Pistol.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, September 07, 2007

Rebecca West on War

Rebecca West: ... I think the Second World War was much more comfortable because in the First World War the position of women was so terrible, because there you were, not in danger. Men were going out and getting killed for you and you'd much prefer they weren't ... It was very curious, you see. There I sat on my balcony in Leigh-on-Sea and heard guns going in France. It was a most peculiar war. It was really better, in the Second World War, when the people at home got bombed. I found it a relief. You were taking your chance and you might be killed and you weren't in that pampered sort of unnatural state ...

Interviewer: And yet a [conscripted] army, as fought in Vietnam -- you laugh?

Rebecca West: Well, I can't help thinking that the whole of the Vietnam War was the blackest comedy that ever was, because it showed the way you can't teach humanity anything. We'd all learned in the rest of the world that you can't now go round and put out your hand and, across seas, exercise power; but the poor Americans had not learned that and they tried to do it.
--From p. 242 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Rebecca West Does Ian McEwan Justice

I've never understood why people revere Ian McEwan's novels. How gratifying, then, to come across this 1981 interview with Rebecca West, in which she skewers his novel, The Cement Garden:

Rebecca West: ... I do think modern novels are boring on the whole. Somebody told me I ought to read a wonderful thing about how a family of children buried Mum in a cellar under concrete and she began to smell. But that's the sole point of the story. Mum just smells. That's all that happens. It's not enough.

Interviewer: This is a new Ian McEwan, isn't it?
--From pp. 261-2 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hemingway's Metaphorical Advice for New Writers

Interviewer: What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?

Ernest Hemingway: Let's say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.
--From p. 42 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Truman Capote Digresses Spectacularly

... I despised school -- or schools, for I was always changing from one to another -- and year after year failed the simplest subjects out of loathing and boredom. I played hooky at least twice a week and was always running away from home. Once I ran away with a friend who lived across the street -- a girl much older than myself who in later life achieved a certain fame. Because she murdered a half-dozen people and was electrocuted at Sing Sing. Someone wrote a book about her. They called her the Lonely Hearts Killer. But there, I'm wandering again ...

--From pp. 21-22 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Truman Capote on Finding the Shape of a Story

The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final.

--From p. 21 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, July 14, 2007

M.T. Anderson on the Tedium of Knocking Out Goons

Larry advanced menacingly toward them. There was a big fight. Most of the goons were knocked out or in some kind of disarray.

That sounds sloppy. But please. Take my word for it; they were out of the picture, okay? I could describe the whole tedious fight. I could work it out numerically and mathematically, but goons -- and hand-to-hand combat with goons; anything to do with goons --it all really bores me to the point of weeping. Their equipment, their martial arts training, their love of dried flowers, their fondness for sports bars ... I am not goon friendly. Bing, bang, biff. Clocked on the jaw; hip check; knee to the nose; leap out of the way so two of them run into each other; swing; pow; knuckle sandwich. Let's just assume that they're all knocked out.

--From pp. 174-175 of M. T. Anderson's Whales on Stilts!

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Thomas McGuane Trashes Faulkner & Talks about How Writing Movies Affected his Fiction

[Interviewer]: Has your involvement with screenplays affected your notion of fiction writing?

Thomas McGuane: It's made me rethink the role of a lot of the mnemonic things that most novelists leave in their books. The worst about these things is probably Faulkner, who frequently had his shit detector dialed down to zero. We all read Faulkner in a similar way: we move through these muddy bogs until we hit these wonderful streaks, and then we're back in the bogs again, right? Everyone agrees that Faulkner produced the greatest streaks in American literature from 1929 until 1935 but, depending on how you feel about this, you either admit there's a lot of dead air in his works or you don't. After you've written screenplays for a while, you're not as willing to leave these warmups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You're more conscious of dead time.

--Thomas McGuane, quoted in Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s,by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, University of Illinois Press, 1987, p. 217.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tom Robbins Dismissing the Idea that Artists' Environments Necessarily Influence Their Work

You know the painter Jacques Louis David had a room, a studio, that overlooked the square where the major guillotine was located in Paris before the Revolution. And he would sit up there all day and watch heads being lopped off, blood flooding the cobblestones. Then he would turn to his easel and paint those very sweet portraits of members of the court. Now there was a man who was rejecting his environment.
--Tom Robbins, quoted in Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s,by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, University of Illinois Press, 1987, p. 225.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, June 28, 2007

How Holy Ole Cured His Back Problems

From a 1951 history of Seattle, entitled Skid Road.The mayor under discussion was a passionate orator, and nicknamed "Holy Ole" (yes, it rhymed).

[Mayor Ole] Hanson was working in Butte, Montana, in 1900 when he injured his spine; doctors doubted that he would ever walk again. But Ole's hero was Teddy Roosevelt, and Roosevelt had conquered illness by exercise. Hanson bought an old covered wagon and rigged up a combination harness and sling, which he fastened to the rear of the wagon; it enabled him to walk behind the prairie schooner. With his wife driving the wagon Hanson trudged along behind. He walked the seven hundred miles from Butte to Seattle and reached the Sound country physically fit.

From Murray Morgan's 1951 Skid Road, pp. 203-204.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

How Weapons Physicists Feel About Atomic Explosions

Speaking about working conditions at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory circa 1987, one physicist described how things used to be:

And there was a great deal of adventure here in those days. ... With atmospheric testing, the way you collected samples was by climbing in the back seat of an air force airplane and taking off and having filter papers on either wing, and after the bomb goes off and you have a lovely mushroom cloud, then in an hour or so you make a quick pass through the cloud and expose the filter papers and collect samples and bring those back to the laboratory. . . . I thought that sounded absolutely wonderful.
--Quoted on p. 47 of Hugh Gusterson's 1996 Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ann Beattie on the Creative Impulse

My stories always seem to begin with something very small ... If I were to say I usually begin with a character, that wouldn't mean that I know the character's occupation or age or whether the character is happy or sad. I would know that the character is named Joe. Yes, sometimes the idea that the character's name is Joe has gotten me to the typewriter. More often it's really a physiological feeling that I should write something. This feeling doesn't always work out.

... I don't know how to talk about this without sounding like Yeats saying that the "Voices" were driving him into a room and dictating to him, but it's almost like that. Something in me has built up, and this is a compulsion to go and write something at the typewriter. It's not totally amorphous. There is something in the back of my mind: a sentence, a sense of remembering what it is like to be in the dead of winter and wanting to go to the beach in the summer, some vague notion like that. It's never more than that. I've never in my life sat down and said to myself, "Now I will write something about somebody to whom such-and-such will happen.

--Ann Beattie, quoted in Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s,by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 55-56.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Samuel Delany on How Having an Audience Changes One's Art

Many years ago I was a page turner for the rehearsals of a concert of new music at Hunter College. One piece was written for twelve instruments, all of which had to play a different note of the scale -- except one, which was left out. The melody was really an absence of that note, which moved up and down, working its way through the composition, a traveling silence through a constant acoustic field of eleven other notes.

When the piece was played in rehearsal in an empty auditorium, the missing note was absolutely audible, hovering and drifting through the cloud of cacophony. But when you heard it in an auditorium full of people, the resonance of the auditorium changed, due to the general noise of people breathing, or shifting in their seats, or the new deployment of mass, or whatever. You could no longer hear the silent note.

That has always struck me as a good analogue for the art of the postmodern artist, who works today in a highly refined field. The writer is concerned with small resonances, phrase to phrase, word to word; such effects sometimes simply vanish before the reality of a statistical audience. But if everyone is quiet, sometimes you can hear them.
--Samuel Delany, interviewed in Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s,by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, University of Illinois Press, 1987, p. 110.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Samuel Delany on How to Write Believable Female Characters

As early as 1959 or '60, I'd noticed that there was something terribly wrong with the female characters in most novels I was reading. Most of the writers (men and women) tended to conceive of their male characters as combinations of purposeful actions, habitual actions, and gratuitous actions. A female character, in contrast, would be all gratuitous action if it was a "good woman," with no purposes and no habits; if it was a "bad woman," she would be all purpose, with no gratuitous actions and no habits. This seemed silly. Very early on I tried to think about women characters in terms of all three -- actions purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous.
--Samuel Delany, interviewed in Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s,by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 99-100.

Stumble Upon Toolbar