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.

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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 BĂȘtes [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 ...

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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.)

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