27 December 2011

How to Respond to a Critic

Posting will be light-to-nonexistent here until after the new year, but I want to put this up before I forget it.

I've been bingeing on Tim Minchin over the holidays, mostly because I've been very busy with grading, writing, wrapping, cleaning, etc. and needed something amusing and profane in the background of these activities. Minchin's "Song for Phil Daoust" is a heartfelt, soul-searching, and genuinely touching example of something artists should really never, ever do, despite the temptation: respond to a negative review. (Note: despite being heartfelt, soul-searching, and genuinely touching, this is not a song you will want to play anywhere where colorful words might singe sensitive sensibilities.)

15 December 2011

A Promise Kept

In my latest Sandman Meditations piece, I discussed the unconscious shame of reading comics in certain settings, and at the end I promised I would read some old G.I. Joe comics while my students worked on their final exam activities.

I have kept my promise -- and gone beyond it. Since today's class was called Media as Popular Culture, I thought we should all enjoy some popular culture for a moment, so I loaned everyone in the class a G.I. Joe comic....

14 December 2011

Site Note

I was bored with the old look of this site, so decided to change things around a bit. (If you're reading this via RSS or a mobile device or something, check out the actual website to see.) There may be some adjustments as I try it out on other computers and browsers, but for now this will do.

Until I decide to go all neon green.

Because clearly the internet needs more neon green.

13 December 2011

Canonical Nationalism

Questions of literary canonicity have been stalking me for the past few months, mostly in relation to teaching. Some I began thinking about because I was designing a course called Currents in Global Literature, and when faced with giving English majors perhaps their only taste of writings from beyond the U.S. and U.K., I had to figure out my priorities.

One of the things I decided to do was try to provoke the students to think about why they have read what they have in school, why they have the assumptions they do about books and writers, and how they can learn more. So I had them watch TED Talks by Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, listen to Stephen Snyder on "The Business of International Literature", and read Dan Edelstein on "Gerrymandering the Canon", Binyavanga Wainaina on "How to Write About Africa", and Manijeh Nasrabadi on her experiences trying to write and publish a memoir. Additionally, our poetry textbook challenged the templates of Romanticism they had previously encountered in other courses and complexified their understanding of literary history -- not just the history itself, but how it got to be that way.

Global literature in our class, then, was presented not as some ethereal essence floating through the ether, but as a system of literary production, distribution, and reception. It's too easy to gain a feeling from our curriculum that U.S. and U.K. fiction, poetry, and (to a lesser extent) drama are Literature and everything else is some exotic offshoot. The department has done a lot to try to mitigate that, but there are huge disciplinary systems in place that make it difficult.

Last week, I was part of a panel discussion for English majors about canonicity. Various questions had been raised by majors this term about what they were learning -- particularly for the English Education majors. Hearing these questions, one of my colleagues decided to put together the informal discussion, and so a group of us created 5-minute statements about canonicity and education, then we had a free and wide-ranging discussion of all sorts of things related to it all.

11 December 2011

Notes on Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Petals of Blood, Moses Isegawa calls the novel "the definitive African book of the twentieth century". I would only disagree because I do not think there is any one definitive African book, nor should there be -- one of the problems African literatures face when sampled here and there is the tendency for one or two books to be seen as giving some sort of definitive portrait of a continent of over 50 countries, a billion people, and thousands of languages. Petals of Blood is capacious and brilliant, but it's not definitive.

A lot has been written about Petals of Blood since its publication, and it continues to incite interest both in its portrait of Kenya in the early years of independence and its (and its author's) politics. This was especially true at the time of its release, because it was difficult then to see beyond the novel's critique of Kenya's ruling class to its subtler aspects, and the fact that Ngugi was soon imprisoned without trial added to the political reading of the book. It is, of course, an overtly political novel, a novel that very clearly wants readers to see the government of Kenya as betraying the ideals of the liberation struggle in favor of capitalistic greed. But one does not need to be a Marxist to find great value in Petals of Blood, any more than one needs to be a visionary Christian to find value in Dostoyevsky's novels or a vegetarian to appreciate Tolstoy's.

One of the purposes Petals of Blood serves is to recuperate in writing an unwritten past. We might identify the central narrative of the book as the story of the murder of three prominent men, but amidst that story are many others, and the movement is hardly linear. Were we to create a graphic representation of the novel's many pieces, it would surely require a spiral or two, because the overall sense the various strands of plot and event give is one of moving deeper and deeper through the history of the village of Ilmorog, which is also, at least partially, the history of Kenya. The structure is so carefully constructed, though, that this history does not feel tangential -- indeed, it becomes impossible to see the solution of the murder mystery (the primary concern of the basic narrative) as separate from the history of Ilmorog and of Kenya generally: specifically, the history of its systems of power. This is perhaps one of the reasons why I constantly think of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy when I think of this novel. The murders in Petals of Blood serve similar narrative purpose(s) to the murders in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, or the battles in War and Peace. While certainly this purpose/structure/effect can be interpreted as a result of Ngugi's Marxism (perhaps with reference to Lukács), it's not something we find only in Marxist narrative. It could come from any worldview that is not fanatically individualist.

Back in the Saddle

Things have been mostly quiet here for a few months because of general busy-ness on my part since September. Not just with teaching, though that has eaten up more time than usual, but also with my membership on the jury of the Shirley Jackson Awards and the board of our local domestic violence shelter and resource center, Voices Against Violence. (Operating a domestic violence shelter and resource center that offers entirely free services in these economic times in a state where the legislature is full of anti-government, anti-spending fanatics is not the easiest job on Earth.) Free time and sleep have not been things I've experienced much for the past few months, and that took a toll as well, since I'm now recovering from a rather nasty virus. But we soldier on!

And there should be a bit more time for blogging in the coming months, so I've begun to make some plans. First, the usual reflection on the term's classes, which even if it ends up being terribly boring for most readers is very useful to me, and it's also helpful to be able occasionally to point people toward some of my writings on what I do in the classroom. One thing I want to do is write about a few of the books I used in the Currents in Global Literature course I taught, and which I'll be teaching again in the spring, because a few of them are books I haven't taken the time to write about before. So expect posts soon on Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood, Alejo Carpentier's Kingdom of This World, and Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men. (I've written previously about Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter and a little bit about Flaubert's A Sentimental Education.)

I also need to write about a few books some folks have sent me over the past six months; I've mostly discouraged anybody from sending me books (well, before I joined the jury of the Jackson Awards) because I knew I'd have limited time for reading and, especially, reviewing, but there's lots of really interesting stuff out there, and I need to take a moment to note some of it.

Also, I had fun creating the video essay on Derek Jarman, and would like to hone my skills at that with a few more. I'm thinking about something about Jean Renoir, maybe something on one of his most-neglected films, La Nuit du Carrefour, or perhaps a look at how Fritz Lang remade two of Renoir's films (La Bete Humaine became [or drew from the same source: Zola's novel] Human Desire and La Chienne became Scarlet Street). Or maybe/also something about 1980s movies like Red Dawn and Invasion U.S.A. We shall see...

30 November 2011

Profane Love: Derek Jarman and Caravaggio

I created the above video after failing at writing about Caravaggio for The House Next Door and the Summer of '86 series. I had a pile of fragments, quotes, scenes I wanted to somehow refer to, but couldn't make any of it cohere. A month or two ago, I thought about trying again by creating a sort of collage, and figured if it was too weird or unfinished for The House, I could at least post it here and be done with it. But as I looked over the collage, it felt more like some sort of script to me. "Wouldn't it be nice," I thought, "to make a film about Caravaggio?" In all my copious spare time. But the idea nagged at me, and finally I sat down to see what such a thing might look like. I transformed the essay-collage into a script-blueprint, recorded the narration, and then tried to fit images to it. I thought it would take an afternoon. It took substantially longer, and involved various software failures, lots of thinking and rethinking, a willingness to put up with some frustrating compromises after headache-inducing hours of work, and some serendipity.

In the end, I like what came out. Given endless time, there's plenty I'd change, and it's still very much a text essay that became a video essay rather than something that was conceived from the beginning as a video essay, but that's okay. Maybe I'll conceive some video essays now.

Below the cut, I'll post the script as originally written. It went through some edits as I put the video together, so this is essentially a shooting script rather than a transcript. But one of the problems I faced in putting the video together was how to signal quotations, and I never really solved that problem, so the script will at least help make it clear what is and isn't a quote.

29 November 2011

Buy Yourself a Holiday Gift! And Something for Everybody Else You Know, Too!

Terri Windling is facing health and financial problems right now, and so a bunch of folks have banded together to create a giant auction of stuffs to raise money for her. If her name is unfamiliar to you, check out her Wikipedia page for a quick summary.

photo by Beth Gwinn
I don't know Terri Windling, but she has been a great help to many of my friends in their lives and careers, so I am distressed to hear of her distress. I've got dozens of books in the house with her name on them, and far more with her name on the acknowledgments page.

Therefore, I decided to contribute an item to the auction, something I've had for a while and have been looking for a good cause to which to donate it. This seems perfect.

Thus, if you would like to bid on a copy of Startling Mystery Stories with Stephen King's second professionally-published story in it, follow this link. This issue of Startling Mystery was the first magazine where King's name appeared on the cover.

There are all sorts of other items offered in the auction, of every size, shape, purpose, and price, with more added frequently. Keep your eyes on it -- treasures and wonders await you, and your money will go to a good cause!

15 November 2011

World on a Wire Update, Plus Vanya

Consumer-citizens of the United States, rejoice! Criterion has announced that they will be releasing Rainer Werner Fassbinder's wonderful science fiction epic World on a Wire in February. Diligent and obsessive readers of this here blog may remember that I swooned over World on a Wire both here and at Strange Horizons back in September, and I remain as swoonful toward it as before. The DVD/Blu-ray will include a 50-minute documentary about the film by Juliane Lorenz, one of Fassbinder's most frequent collaborators and the head of the Fassbinder Foundation. Lorenz has created documentaries for some of the other DVD releases of Fassbinder's films in the U.S. and elsewhere, and I've enjoyed all of the ones I've seen, so am looking forward to this one quite a bit.

And in equally magnificent — indeed, perhaps even more magnificent — news, Criterion will also be releasing Louis Malle's final film, Vanya on 42nd Street. It's one of my favorites, a movie that has been important to me since the day I first saw it at the Angelika in New York during my freshman year at NYU — accompanied by Carol Rocamora, whose Chekhov course I was taking at the time, and for whom I later did work as a production manager and a copyeditor. My VHS of the film is wearing out, and it will be a real thrill to replace it with the Criterion Blu-ray. I know of only one other film of Chekhov's work that affects me as deeply as some of the great stage productions I've seen — Nikita Mikhalkov's Unfinished Piece for Player Piano, which is a much freer adaptation of Chekhov (created from elements of his first play, Platonov, and some short stories). Vanya on 42nd Street uses David Mamet's adaptation of a translation of Uncle Vanya, and while there are vastly better versions (Carol Rocamora's, for instance!), the synergy of the actors along with director André Gregory is pure magic. I disliked Wallace Shawn as Vanya for a while, but have grown to love him in the role. And Larry Pine as Dr. Astrov gives one of the greatest performances I've ever seen. And Phoebe Brand and Jerry Mayer are charming and brilliant and sad and hilarious. And— Well, I'd better wait. In February, I'm sure I'll want to write about the details, and about watching the film again, for what will be something like the 15th time (I used to watch it at least once every 6 months, and used it with a couple of classes years ago).

If you can't wait till February, Amazon has the film available online, and the old DVD is back in stock after having been unavailable for years (it seems to be still unavailable outside the U.S., alas). I expect Criterion will do an excellent job with the remastering of the image, and though it's not a film that has the sort of striking cinematography that World on a Wire does, nonetheless the intimacy and immediacy of the staging will, I expect, benefit from the new image and higher resolution.

Epigraphs for an Imaginary Novel

Going through notes for old pieces of writing, I discovered this collection of quotations I hoped to sprinkle through a piece of long fiction I was outlining ten years ago. The story itself never came to anything, but some shadowy traces of it remain in the collage...

If the New World fed dreams, what was the Old World reality that whetted the appetite for them?  And how did that reality caress and grip the shaping of a new one?
—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

Why is it so inconceivable to our dramatists that some people do not know, or care, how they feel all the time?  That some people act with a detachable motive, or from a myriad of contradictory ones?  Why is life itself less interesting per se than explanations of life?
—Mac Wellman, “The Theater of Good Intentions”

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.  And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.  And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

It is the private dominion over things that condemns millions of people to be mere nonentities, living corpses without originality or power of initiative, human machines of flesh and blood, who pile up mountains of wealth for others and pay for it with a gray, dull and wretched existence for themselves.  I believe that there can be no real wealth, social wealth, so long as it rests on human lives — young lives, old lives and lives in the making.
—Emma Goldman, “What I Believe”

I have carried out, before my own eyes and against my intention, a part of the modern tragedy: I have made a lasting flaw in the face of the earth, for no lasting good.
—Wendell Berry, “Damage”

A great idea springs up in a man’s soul; it agitates his whole being, transports him from the ignorant present and makes him feel the future in a moment....Why should such a revelation be made to him...if not that he should carry it into practice?
—William Walker, president of Nicaragua, 1855-1857

If we confine the concept of weeds to species adapted to human disturbance, then man is by definition the first and primary weed under whose influence all other weeds have evolved.
—Jack R. Harlan, Crops and Man

Faith defies logic and propels us beyond hope because it is not attached to our desires.  Faith is the centerpiece of a connected life.  It allows us to live by the grace of invisible strands.  It is a belief in a wisdom superior to our own.  Faith becomes a teacher in the absence of fact.
—Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Of what consequence, though our planet explode, if there is no character involved in the explosion?
—Henry David Thoreau, “Life without Principle”

I actually had to develop a love of the disordered & puzzling, viewing reality as a vast riddle to be joyfully tackled, not in fear but with tireless fascination.  What has been most needed is reality testing, & a willingness to face the possibility of self-negating experiences: i.e., real contradictions, with something being both true & not true.
—Philip K. Dick, Exegesis, 1979

For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity.  God keep me from ever completing anything.  This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught.  Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

My favorite melodramatic theme: the harried anarchist, a wounded wolf, struggling toward the green hills, or the black-white alpine mountains, or the purple-golden desert range and liberty.  Will he make it?  Or will the FBI shoot him down on the very threshold of wilderness and freedom?
—Edward Abbey, journal, December 1951

To argue from analogy, every thing around us is in a progressive state; and when an unwelcome knowledge of life produces almost a satiety of life, and we discover by the natural course of things that all that is done under the sun is vanity, we are drawing near the awful close of the drama.
—Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

When I reflect to what a cause this man devoted himself, and how religiously, and then reflect to what cause his judges and all who condemn him so angrily and fluently devote themselves, I see that they are as far apart as the heavens and earth are asunder.
—Henry David Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown”

You tell me of degrees of perfection to which Humane Nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.
—Abigail Adams, November 27, 1775

06 November 2011

Fresh Links

Just an addendum to my previous post, in which I lamented the breaking of Google Reader's share function, which enabled the "Fresh Links" widget over on the sidebar—

I have created a near fix, as you'll see if you look over on the side. I'm using the RSS feed from my Delicious account for this, since it was sitting dormant. (Thus some of those links are very much not fresh right now!)

02 November 2011


Google has done gone and broke Google Reader, removing the sharing function to encourage people to use Google Plus instead. This means the "Fresh Links" section over on the sidebar is no longer able to be refreshed, and I'll probably go back to occasionally doing linkdump posts. Here, for instance, are some links:

Kael Days

Seventeen years after her last book and ten years after her death, Pauline Kael's name is hard to avoid right now if you read culture magazines or blogs. That's because of three books that came out in October: The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, edited by Sanford Schwartz and published by The Library of America; Brian Kellow's biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark; and James Wolcott's memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, which includes, apparently, lots of material about his friendship with Kael (before they had a falling-out after he published a sharply critical, even vicious, essay on Kael's acolytes in Vanity Fair in 1997).

I haven't read Wolcott's memoir, but I've been reading around in Kellow's biography and I'm familiar with almost everything in The Age of Movies. It was Kael's 1,291-page retrospective collection For Keeps from 1994 that made me into a fan of her writing when I was an idealistic, ignorant kid studying playwrighting and screenwriting at NYU, and though my opinions about her have changed a bit over the years, she's part of my psyche, her presence inextinguishable, like a crazy aunt.

26 October 2011

About (Experimental) Writing

...having the entire intellectual armamentarium of rhetorical devices at your beck and call is far preferable to having to limit yourself to tradititional narrative tropes, when writing about truly important matters. To me, that's just simple logic. 
—Samuel R. Delany

(see also, here)

22 October 2011

Film Textbooks, Take 2

On the last day of 2009, I wrote a post about choosing a textbook for the Introduction to Film class that I was then designing. I'll be teaching that course again next term, along with another film class: Outlaws, Delinquents, and "Deviants" in Film and Society. Book orders were due at the beginning of this week, so I've been looking through film textbooks a lot over the last couple of months, and especially the last two weeks.

21 October 2011

A Contribution to Schaller-VanderMeer Studies

After my own previous contribution to the burgeoning academic field of VanderMeer Studies, I am happy to christen yet another field: Schaller-VanderMeer Studies, a discipline inaugurated in ivy-covered halls with the Illustrating VanderMeer exhibit. True (Schaller-)VanderMeer Studies scholars do not limit themselves to the study of half a VanderMeer, however, and so I am happy to present here a monograph by Eric Schaller about the woman who was described by Xaver Daffed as "the better half of VanderMeer" (325).

This monograph was originally published in the Fogcon program book, March 2011.

by Eric Schaller

Something was happening back there at the tail end of the last millennium. And I’m not talking about The Gulf War, McDonald’s opening a franchise in Moscow, the cloning of Dolly the sheep, the Spice Girls, or even Bill Clinton demonstrating new uses for a cigar. Although all these probably figure in there somewhere. What I am talking about are THE SILVER WEB (1990-2002), CRANK! (1993-1998), CENTURY (1995-2000), and LADY CHURCHILL’S ROSEBUD WRISTLET (1996-date), four magazines that helped define a new course in speculative fiction. Whereas before, most notably in Damon Knight’s ORBIT series, there had been attempts to define science fiction more broadly, so much so that the old guard hesitated to call it science fiction, here the editors of these new magazines basically said, “Definitions be damned, we’ll publish whatever gives us that certain feeling we got when we first encountered genre fiction, when it seemed to open a new vista on the world, blew our collective consciousness, so to speak. Oh yeah, and we do care about language, so don’t destroy the waking dream by confusing an adjective with a unicorn.”
I notice that I didn’t mention the name of Ann VanderMeer in the previous paragraph, although her presence suffuses it. Ann was, of course, the editor for THE SILVER WEB, the first of these magazines to see print and the one that cast the broadest net in terms of what you might discover between its covers. Completists please note, the first couple of issues were published under the name of THE STERLING WEB. This quickly morphed into THE SILVER WEB but, reports by CNN pundits to the contrary, this change of name had nothing to do with any confusion brought on by the strange coincidence of Bruce Sterling having coined the term ‘slipstream’ and THE STERLING WEB, being an early proponent of strangeness and the surreal in fiction, having no connection to Bruce Sterling himself. But, back to the matter at hand, in THE SILVER WEB you never quite knew what to expect and this was all to the good. There were the short stories of course, but there were also poems, interviews, and essays. There was rock’n’roll (Ask Ann about her years playing bass with Grandma’s House). And there was the art! Great stuff, printed large, that complemented but did not repeat what was in the stories. I know of no other editor who has cared more about the relationship between art and text. Everything played off of each other to create a unique experience greater than the sum of its parts.

19 October 2011

A Contribution to VanderMeer Studies

My previous post about The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction noted that it is in beta-text mode and so quite obviously incomplete. Among the lacks are entries on either Jeff or Ann VanderMeer. I am not a contributor to the encyclopedia nor am I in any way affiliated with it, but I do have a great interest in all things VanderMeer.

Earlier this year, I wrote a biography of Jeff for Fogcon, where he and Ann were honored guests. (Eric Schaller wrote the biography of Ann, which I hope he will allow me to reprint here, but he's not returning my calls or email at the moment, probably because I suggested that for Halloween he should dress his dog as a character from Twilight.)

I hope the information provided below will prove useful to the encyclopedists and any future scholars. My only goal in life is to be helpful. Jeff VanderMeer will, I expect, deny the accuracy of some of it, but I believe such denials only confirm the truths I am here able to provide to the world...


compiled from notes found in the files of Orem Hoegbotton, including scrawls attributed to Duncan Shriek

edited and embellished by Matthew Cheney

At the tail end of America's revolutionary years, Jeff VanderMeer was born in Bellfonte, Pennsylvania, the county seat of Centre County and part of the State College, Pennsylvania Metropolitan Statistical Area. His birth seems to have caused some consternation at high levels of the U.S. government, but all the files have been classified until 2068; we do know, though, that his parents soon joined the Peace Corps and brought the child with them to the Fiji Islands. After their work there was completed, they returned to the U.S. via a circuitous route that allowed the impressionable young man to encounter Asia, Africa, Europe, Antarctica, and Long Island — experiences that would deeply influence his later fiction.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (3rd edition) is now in beta-text mode online for free, and even in this obviously incomplete form it's remarkable and fascinating. At Readercon this summer, in answer to the question of what works of SF criticism have been as influential as some of the seminal works of the 1970s and early '80s, I proposed the second edition of The Encyclopedia, a book that was not merely a collection of facts, but an argument about how to categorize the world and our imaginings of it. As such, it reduced even someone as taxonomy-averse as I to awe, and the influence of a lot of its idiosyncratic terms and templates on how people write about SF is undeniable.

I haven't had a chance to read a lot of the new material in the online 3rd edition, and have really only spent time with the Delany entry and the entry on Feminism. The Delany entry is basically the old entry plus some apparently quick updating -- its coverage of material by and about Delany after the early 1990s is vastly incomplete, but there's no reason to assume it will remain so. And it's nice to encounter again my favorite phrase from the older version of the entry: "frank and priapic to the verge of the scabrous" (I think "To the Verge of the Scabrous" would be a marvelous title for something...).

The Feminism entry, originally written by Lisa Tuttle, has been updated by Helen Merrick, a great choice for that task. (The entry on "Women in SF" does not seem to have been updated yet.)

(Tangentially, it seems to me it would be helpful to have the contributors page more prominently available. All the abbreviated names of contributors are annoying enough without hiding the page that tells us what the abbreviations mean. It would be nice in the future if the contributors' initials could provide the full name when hovered over. The people who've done all this work deserve credit.)

Just moving the original encyclopedia, with all its references and cross references, onto the internet is a gigantic task. That the team has worked and continues to work on updating it is even more impressive, since it's not like history and the publishing world are going to stop and wait for them to catch up. Even in its current state, it is easily among the most useful reference sites available anyone with an interest in science fiction. I'm very excited to see where it will go from here...

13 October 2011

Silly (Awards) Season

I'm a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards this year, so perhaps I'm more sensitive than normal to pundits carping about award results, but something about awards brings out people's desire to complain, and they don't usually come out looking very good by doing so.

The ones people always complain about get complaints again this year -- the Nobel and the National Book Awards. The two articles I've seen linked to most frequently are Tim Parks on the Nobel and Laura Miller on the National Book Awards.

The Parks piece isn't terrible, but I'd agree with M.A. Orthofer at The Literary Saloon that it's "somewhat careless". (Parks has written a bit more thoughtfully about the Nobel in his essay "The Nobel Individual".) I certainly agree that the Nobel is inevitably in a tough position because it's supposed to be so international and definitive, and people give it almost mystical reverence, but its track record really isn't that bad. Sure, I wish they'd give it to Chinua Achebe already, and then Ngugi wa Thiong'o (so I could say I once interviewed a Nobel winner), and not be so generally Eurocentric, but it's an award based in Europe, so, you know, whatever. And I've got no problem with it being anti-American. Michael Bourne can whine all he wants about Philip Roth not getting it, and maybe Roth will get it one of these days, but I hope not. When Bourne writes, "If Philip Roth doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize, no one does," he just flaunts his ignorance of world literature. There are plenty of other writers out there who would benefit from it more and who are equally interesting and even influential artists.

Tomas Transtörmer, this year's winner, is a safe and relatively obvious choice. Some people have complained that he's an "obscure poet", but anybody who refers to him as such doesn't know what they're talking about. He's been translated into somewhere around 50 languages, has multiple translators in English, has books in print in the U.S. For a poet, that's rockstar status. Just because you haven't heard of somebody doesn't mean they're obscure.

Laura Miller's slam of the NBA is some of the worst writing I've ever seen from her. People have a habit of complaining about the obscurity of NBA finalists, and it always makes them sound stupid. Laura Miller accuses the NBA judges in the fiction category of deliberately seeking out books that are no fun to read and are published by small presses. She accuses them of seeking out books that deserve more attention and ignoring books that are popular. "If you categorically rule out books that a lot of people like," she says, "you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of people don’t like the books you end up with."

That's not really an argument, though. It's more like a non sequitur. At the very least, it's irrelevant.

The judges for the fiction award this year are Deirdre McNamer (Panel Chair), Jerome Charyn, John Crowley, Victor LaValle, Yiyun Li. That's an interesting panel. My interest in a book would rise if I knew those folks had thought the book was worthwhile and even impressive.

08 October 2011

Telluride at Dartmouth: Le Havre

This post is the last in my chronicle of attending the Telluride at Dartmouth program at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Days 1 & 2 (A Dangerous Method and Albert Nobbs) can be found here, Day 3 (We Need to Talk About Kevin) can be found here, and Day 4 (In Darkness) can be found here.

The final film of the six shown in the Telluride at Dartmouth program was Le Havre, written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. (As I expected, I wasn't able to get over to Hanover for The Kid with the Bike, alas.) It was a good choice for a concluding film because the program had been, overall, rather bleak -- enjoyable, powerful, illuminating, but seldom uplifting. Le Havre is a fairy tale and a feel-good movie, one that tackles terrifying and complex subjects whimsically and is so determined to finish on a good note that everybody's ending is a happy one. It's naive to the point of being Panglossian, but so darn nice about it that it seems churlish to complain. It's a tremendously enjoyable movie to sit through -- weird, funny, and full of scenes that will make you feel good about human generosity. It's the cinematic equivalent of "Kumbaya", but with more wit.

[Note that from here on, I'm going to talk about the whole film, including its ending(s). I don't think knowing how it all turns out will impede most people's enjoyment of the movie, because its tone from early on telegraphs that this is not a tragedy, but if you're the sort of person who hates to know anything about a movie's story no matter what, you should stop reading right now.]

05 October 2011

Strange Horizons Fund Drive

It's the final week of the Strange Horizons Fund Drive, and there are lots of fun prizes that have been donated by the various folks who support SH. But you shouldn't donate just to get a prize. You should donate because that's what keeps SH going, and has kept it going for 10 years now, long enough to make it venerable. Their staff is all volunteer, but they pay their writers good rates (think of it as the opposite of the Huffington Post that way).

Here's some useful info:

Where does my money go?

Strange Horizons is staffed entirely by volunteers, so everything you donate goes towards the running of the magazine. At the moment, our costs break down something like this:
  • Your $5 donation will cover our administrative overhead costs for one week
  • Your $20 donation pays for one poem or one review
  • Your $50 donation pays for one article
  • Your $100 donation allows us to sponsor a convention event
  • Your $250 donation is the average amount we pay for a new story
  • Your $400 donation pays for an entire week's worth of material at Strange Horizons

And now, so I can follow the progress you help SH make, here's their progress rocket:

An Autobiography in Books

Ray Russell of Tartarus Press has just put a lovely short film up on YouTube, a sort of autobiography via his book collection. Anyone who has ever felt the passions of bibliomania will find the film irresistible, and the shots of some of the rare books, especially by Arthur Machen and Sylvia Townsend Warner, are sensuous and gloriously bibliopornographic.

01 October 2011

Telluride at Dartmouth: In Darkness

This post continues to chronicle my attendance at the Telluride at Dartmouth program at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Days 1 & 2 (A Dangerous Method and Albert Nobbs) can be found here, Day 3 (We Need to Talk About Kevin) can be found here.

I resisted In Darkness because it is a Holocaust film, and that is just about my least favorite movie genre. Nonetheless, it is a genre I'm deeply familiar with, and was the subject of the first serious film book I ever read, the original edition of Annette Insdorf's Indelible Shadows, which I discovered on my father's bookshelves when I was in high school. Soon after, I saw Schindler's List and found it deeply moving in a very adolescent way (on my part, at least, and maybe on Spielberg's). Later, I realized that Schindler's List had created a sort of emotional smugness in me -- it had made me feel good about feeling all the appropriate emotions. Spielberg is one of the greatest manipulators of emotion that the cinema has ever seen, and part of the pleasure of his action films, especially, lies in surrendering to them, allowing our emotions to be played by a virtuoso. I resist this in his films about something more serious than excitement; my loathing of The Color Purple and Munich is boundless and perhaps even a bit irrational -- indeed, I may resent the manipulation so much that I tend to perceive it as worse (cinematically and morally) than it is. At the same time, I desire great art to help us understand the Nazi era and its aftermath -- Paul Celan is my favorite 20th century poet, perhaps because so much of the power I perceive in his words derives from a struggle with (and against) the representation of atrocity. The problem is that for me it has to be great art. Plenty of subjects can withstand mediocre, ordinary, awkward, or bad art. Art that takes the Nazi years as its subject and ends up, in my estimation, to be less than great feels like a trivialization, and it infuriates me.

In any case, this is the background I brought to In Darkness, and explains why I spent the first half hour or so with my arms folded and jaw clenched -- I had pretty well decided that whatever magic spells this film tried to cast, I would resist them.

In Darkness tells the story of the final liquidation of the ghetto in Lvov, Poland, in June 1943 and of a group of Jews who hid in the city's sewers to survive. They were aided by Leopold Socha, a sewer worker, whose original goals were mercenary -- in the film, he is represented as a scavenger and thief, and tension is built early on because we fully expect him to take the Jews' money and then turn them over to the Germans for a reward. This is not what happens, though, and one path of the narrative is the story of Socha's redemption.

Had that been the primary path of the narrative, I would have hated In Darkness, because using the Holocaust as a plot device for tales of redemption seems despicable to me. (Millions of people died, and thus Our Protagonist found the goodness in his heart!) Thankfully, director Agnieszka Holland had much more on her mind in making this film than the redemption of Socha, and so the redemption of Socha becomes a powerful element of the story instead of its reason for being.

Once I saw that In Darkness was not relying on the cliché emotional moves of the Holocaust film genre, I let down my guard. The characters were complex, and few of the heroic actions unambiguously heroic. Everyone is desperate, exhausted, hungry, uncomfortable, and terrified -- these are not conditions that always bring out the best in them. We may find ourselves sharing Socha's frustrations with the refugees, sympathizing with his conflicts, his desire to be free of the people he has taken responsibility for and his desire to help them. This is a brave space for the film to open up, but it is an important one for any savior story. Inevitably, viewers want to identify with the savior; we want to think we are the sorts of people who would also be good people and risk everything to save our fellow humans. Many savior stories highlight the dangers and show how fatal missteps can be, but it is much less common for such stories to show the tensions that build between people being saved and the savior. Also, the tensions between the individuals within the group -- when they are first running through the sewers, and one woman is overcome by fright and wants to return to the ghetto, we feel her sister's rage and panic, we are pushed toward terrible thoughts: Slap her! Leave her! Save yourself! Thoughts we, if we are self-consciously decent people, push from our minds -- but they were there, and their shadows remain. We learn from In Darkness how difficult it is to be a decent person in an indecent world.

Such moments let the film earn its emotional rewards. Experience is different from manipulation. If 100 viewers of the film were to chart their emotional responses to it, there would be some overlaps at climactic moments, but there would be significant deviations as well.

I discovered I had fully surrendered to the film when a relatively small moment brought on uncontrollable tears. It was a simple moment of ordinary humanity: Socha allows one of the children, who has become catatonic from fear and exhaustion, to look up at the sunlight and taste the air. That's all. But up to that moment, we, too, as viewers have not had much chance to breathe -- we have spent a lot of time with the refugees in the sewers, our eyes have grown accustomed to the dark, we have experienced our own fears for their safety: our fears that Socha would give in to his worst impulses, our fears that the group would destroy itself from carelessness or weariness or frustration. We have spent enough time looking at the darkness that the sudden bright light is blinding, but it is also welcome.

It is not a simple emotional moment. Of course, the kindness of Socha is touching. But it's a small act compared to many of his others, ones that aren't as deeply affecting. We, too, have yearned for sunlight and fresh air. We have felt a sliver of what the refugees have felt -- and if we think about it, we know it is a sliver, a grain-of-sand-sized feeling compared to all the pain and fear of the refugees, and that opens up whatever capacity we have to empathize, but though we empathize, we know our empathy is not equal to their experience.

This, it seems to me, is exactly what films about atrocity should do. They should make us empathize and at the same time they should confront us with the inadequacy of our empathy. Like Celan's poems, they should strive for language while knowing that such experiences defeat language. The work should bear the scars of its impossibility. The work should not encourage us to feel good about ourselves; rather, it should show us all the terrors we contain.

In Darkness earns our joy in its characters' heroic acts because it is honest about what all those acts must overcome. The Nazis are a clear enemy, the metonym for evil. We are good at hating them and at rooting for their opposition. The Nazis are other than us, something we would never be, because we are good and decent. They're the most convenient, least controversial bad guys wherever they appear. Hating Nazis and feeling pity or even sympathy for their victims is a worthwhile feeling, but it is not a difficult or complex one, and it trivializes the agony when art encourages us to use the Nazi era for easy feelings proudly felt.

There are few easy feelings in In Darkness, and some you will not be proud to feel. We are rewarded with a mostly happy ending, an ending that is very much a relief, even perhaps a purgation in the Aristotelian sense. (There is even one moment that is an unexplained miracle.) The ending, at least in general terms, is true to history. Many other stories of escape from the Nazis did not end happily, despite even the most selfless heroism, and In Darkness includes that fact in a way that is more powerful than most other Holocaust savior films I've seen. Much of this comes from how well Holland shows us that the group is, at the end, a small one. We move from the relative largeness of the ghetto to an overfilled living room to the crowded sewers to, finally, one tiny section of the no-longer-crowded sewers. We saw how this small group was created, and we remember the faces of the people who were not able to be part of it.

Our knowledge of the refugees as individuals grows throughout the film, but we also know why it grows: the group becomes smaller and smaller and smaller. Our joy at their survival, then, is attached to, even dependent on, our knowledge of how few survived, and what it cost to survive.

For me, then, In Darkness joins a small group of films that represent the suffering of the Nazi era in a way that is complex in what it asks us to know and feel. The only film I've seen this year that even approaches it in such complexity is The Tree of Life, a work so different from In Darkness that I find them impossible to compare except in their effect on me as a viewer: leaving the theatre, I felt more aware of the potentials and limits of my own humanity. Stating it in such a way -- trying to capture rich emotions in ordinary words -- sounds like hyperbolic praise, but I am only pointing to one of the reasons we seek out art beyond entertainment or beyond aesthetic pleasure. We spend our lives trying to understand what it means to live, what it means to know history, what it means to feel. It's an impossible quest, but great art lets us know, at least for a moment, that the quest is worthwhile.

Such words are grandiose, so I will end instead with Celan:

above the grayblack wastes.
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond

--trans. by Pierre Joris

30 September 2011

In Praise of the Thesaurus

Hearing the news that the latest issue of the Writer's Chronicle contains a statement from poet Mark Doty that, "If you write a poem with the aid of a thesaurus, you will almost inevitably look like a person wearing clothing chosen by someone else. I am not sure that a poet should even own one of the damn things," I was aghast.

Aghast, I say! Astounded! Appalled!

I have said before that my favorite reference book is a 1946 edition of Roget's International Thesaurus, and that remains true. I covet the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary and continue to dream at night of figuring out a way to convince the good people at Oxford University Press to send me a copy (other than to pay them $500). (I do have The Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, which is a delight. It includes a fun foreword by Rick Moody in which he notes that Donald Barthelme used a thesaurus, which should be enough to cause you to make sure you are never without one yourself.) (And, by the way, Mark Doty, what's so wrong about wearing clothes somebody else picked out?)

Doty's statement is idiotic. Irrational, witless, obtuse, hebetudinous, dull-pated, chuckleheaded, purblind, and dim. Writers! Decline to dote on Doty! He wants you to be dumb, in all senses of the word!

Few reference books are as fun to roam around in as thesauri. They demonstrate the marvelous connections possible with language. Dotyish dolts are fools who simultaneously think they have a superior command of language over everybody else while being afraid of the marvelous vast richness of language -- they want to tame us and they want to tame it. Don't give in!

Some of these crustaceous curmudgeons will say things like, "Well, if you must use one of those terrible tomes, make sure you only do so to jog your memory of words you already know."

That's terribly churlish advice. Why limit ourselves to words we already know? I want to know more words! I am greedy and lexically lustful!

There's some sort of strange Romanticism going on in the idea that one must only use the words one has immediately at hand. It's like people who say one should always go with the first draft of a piece of writing because that's what's most pure. Eschew the puritans! Cast off your ideas of Romantic genius! Get to work -- and use a thesaurus!

So some people will misuse words, particularly if they are young and untrained, impressionable and ignorant. Oh no, the unruly kids might not fully understand the context and connotations of a word they discover! Horrors! Next thing you know, they might start playing with their words! Nooooo! Stop them before it's too late!

Poets -- be not a Doty! Take instead Wallace Stevens for your model, a writer of vast vocabulary, a man who reveled in language. Do not let the great structure of words become a minor house! Fall into the thesaurus and let yourself feel the obscurity of an order, a whole, a knowledge. Dream of baboons and periwinkles! Let your thesaurus take dominion everywhere! Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one, and bid him whip from thesaurus pages concupiscent words!

27 September 2011

Die, American Literature! Die! Die!

Last month I wrote about Joseph Epstein's hilariously grumbly screed against The Cambridge History of the American Novel, and now at Slate the editor of that volume writes a temperate, rational, and utterly ungrumbly response. I particularly liked this paragraph:
Simply recording our appreciation for the "high truth quotient" (the measure Epstein wants) of a stream of canonical novels won't do. It's not clear what that "quotient" is for Epstein, but anything that smacks of pop culture is by definition excluded. Yet novels were and remain a vital part of popular culture, and their emergence in the 18th and 19th centuries was greeted as an affront to the "centurions of high culture" who appointed themselves to guard the gates before Epstein nominated himself for the job. Only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of American novels published ever achieved—or even aspired to—the exalted status of high art.

26 September 2011

Telluride at Dartmouth: We Need to Talk About Kevin

This post continues to chronicle my attendance at the Telluride at Dartmouth program at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Days 1 & 2 can be found here.

Lynne Ramsay is a director of exceptional visual and aural skill, as anyone who has seen her films Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar can attest. I adored Ratcatcher and found Morvern Caller rather a bore, which seems to be a somewhat idiosyncratic view, as lots of people who saw both loved the second film even more than they did the first. What we can all agree on, though, is that a new Lynne Ramsay movie is a cause for celebration. And when that new movie stars just about my favorite living film actor, Tilda Swinton, it becomes for me a great event.

I have not read the acclaimed novel by Lionel Shriver that We Need to Talk About Kevin is based on, and I was just about to read it when I heard about the film, so I decided to wait. I have seldom wished I had read a book before seeing a movie based on it, and so whenever possible, I don't read the book first. That turned out to be, it seems, an especially good decision here, because I had dinner after the film with friends, some of whom had read the book, and it was clear that that would have changed my viewing somewhat by adding more context to Swinton's character of Eva.

Ramsay is brave and nearly alone among narrative filmmakers in her willingness to subsume almost all exposition within image and sound -- to suggest, hint, and gesture toward exposition rather than state it. (It is no surprise that Tarkovsky and Malick are to her taste, and in Ratcatcher she even used some of the Carl Orff music from Malick's Badlands.) What we get in We Need to Talk About Kevin, then, is not so much a story as a portrait of a psyche. Things happen, certainly, and there's a major climax that the film works its way toward, but the movement of the film is associational, imagistic, musical. Meaning is created not through dramatic scenes, but through colors and sounds, camera angles, montage, repetitions. The story is not presented so much as unearthed -- this is filmmaking as psychic archaeology.

24 September 2011

Telluride at Dartmouth, Days 1 & 2

A Dangerous Method
Dartmouth College has a long-standing relationship with the Telluride Film Festival, and every year a group of films that premiered at Telluride are shown as part of the Telluride at Dartmouth program, a highlight of any northern New England cinephile's year. (It was at Telluride at Dartmouth last year that I saw Never Let Me Go.)

This year, I've decided to try to see as many of the films as I can, and unless exhaustion wears me down, I expect to see five of the six. (Unfortunately, The Kid with the Bike, the new movie from the Dardenne brothers, is playing on a day when I have a prior commitment.) I won't do in depth reports on the films here, I don't think, because of a lack of time, but I do want to record initial impressions.

The first film shown was A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg's best comedy since Crash. Most people probably wouldn't classify A Dangerous Method as a comedy, and it's certainly not being sold as such, but I find it a helpful way to view it. Cronenberg has the most developed and complex kitsch aesthetic this side of Abel Ferrara, and much like Ferrara, he allows actors to indulge their most histrionic tendencies with utter sincerity. Such acting can create a variety of effects, and the style's strength is the complexity of feelings it can evoke in an audience -- a complexity especially apparent when one cannot suppress laughter at the unbridled mugging on screen while also wondering whether this is something you should be taking more seriously (one of the funniest scenes I've ever watched is the one in Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant where Harvey Keitel talks to Jesus). Yet the filming and acting make no concessions to comedy in such moments -- and many viewers do not see them as funny; indeed, some see them as "great acting" and powerful, authentic expressions of emotion. Which they may be. Most of James Dean's reputation is based on such scenes, and one of the legacies of American Method acting, particularly as proselytized by Lee Strasberg, is a whole canon of "Look at me, Ma, I'm emoting!" moments. The filmmaking process can tone down, fragment, and distort such performances, and the brilliance of a Cronenberg or a Ferrara is to go in exactly the opposite direction -- to indulge the actors and allow them to reach their full melodramatic heights. More traditional directors and editors try to manage the emotions represented and the emotions evoked in the audience, and their greatest nightmare would be an audience laughing at a scene intended to be dramatic, but the filmmakers who love the melodrama inherent in their material cast that fear aside.

22 September 2011

The Revelator is Now Revealed!

Eric Schaller and I have been working on creating an online version of a magazine some of our ancestors  were involved with in 1876, and after a long period of work, with the brilliant and invaluable help of Luís Rodrigues, THE REVELATOR can now be revealed.

In it you will find two new short stories, "Gaslight" by Jeffrey Ford and "Nick Kaufmann, Last of the Red-Hot Superwhores" by Nick Mamatas; an essay about the relationship between Salem, Massachusetts and witches by Robin DeRosa, poetry by Lillian Aujo and Beverly Nambozo, an interview with and comix by Edward Bolman, an account of The Spleen Brothers by Brian Francis Slattery, paintings by Michaela D'Angelo, and an eyewitness account of the James/Younger gang's raid on the bank in Northfield, Minnesota -- an account unlike any others, and till now lost in the archives of The Revelator!

A theme of twins, doubles, and doppelgangers runs lightly through this issue of the magazine. It's present in the fiction, there's the idea of historical doubling in Robin's essay on Salem, etc. We got creative with the doubling in the poetry department -- I knew Beverly had a lot of poet friends, and so we asked her to be the commissioning editor for the second poem, and she brought Lillian to us. Never having met Lillian in real life, I don't know if she's Beverly's doppelganger, but I do know we're thrilled to be able to publish the work of both. And of everybody else who was brave enough to want to join the old, weird tradition of The Revelator.

There will probably be future or past issues. Please note though that because of limited resources, we are not open to unsolicited submissions. We would love to get to that point eventually, but right now we just don't have the ability to read through a lot of unsolicited work.

21 September 2011

Politics and Aesthetics, Part MCCCLV

My writing at this here blog has fallen off significantly since classes started, because I'm teaching six days a week (university classes during the week, a high school class in epistemology on Saturdays), and so my current schedule consists of prepping for classes, teaching classes, and then whatever errands, etc. I can fit into the occasional free minutes.

But still the internet provides interesting stuff, regardless of how much I am paying attention to it! Imagine that!

For instance, here's an advertisement from a 1968 issue of Galaxy that reveals which science fiction writers were in favor of the Vietnam War and which ones were not. I've seen the ad before (I have some Galaxy issues from 1968) but never paid much attention to it, really, until just now I noticed something odd.

On the list of writers who declared themselves in favor of remaining in Vietnam in 1968, there are very few whose writing I have much interest in -- R.A. Lafferty and Jack Vance are the only ones whose work I find especially compelling, though I like some of the writing of Leigh Brackett, Fredric Brown, Edmond Hamilton, and Robert Heinlein, and isolated stories by a couple of others.

On the list of writers who declared themselves opposing the continued presence of the U.S. military in Vietnam, I find names I would include on any list of favorite science fiction writers, certainly, and in many cases favorite writers of any sort -- Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Carol Emshwiller, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, Joanna Russ -- as well as others who I have at least as much interest in as in nearly anyone on the other list. And among the names I recognize, at least, there are fewer I think of as just flat-out bad writers than among the names I recognize on the list of Vietnam war supporters.

Of course, aesthetics and politics have a complex relationship, and support for/opposition to the Vietnam war could include people of varying ideologies, but I'm still struck by the general aesthetic differences between the two lists. Since I am a bourgeois liberal with occasional pretensions of radicalism, my own ideological position may explain some of my preferences. (I'd be curious to see a similar list for other genres or non-genres -- didn't the New York Review of Books or the New York Times run something similar during the '60s?) But even someone who didn't find the differences between the two lists as striking as I do would have to admit that overall, and with a handful of exceptions, the two sides represent two different styles of writing. We could take the political labels off the advertisement and present the two lists to folks who have read stories and novels by many of those writers, and the groupings would still make sense overall. That could mean all sorts of things -- I would be wary of essentialist claims about how ideology affects writing, but it would be interesting to think about the ways various affinity groupings overlap. You could create Venn diagrams from those lists in which politics, friendships, publishers, etc. are categories, and the results would be interesting.

10 September 2011

This Term's Courses

I haven't done my usual blogging about teaching yet this term, mostly because I spent so much time trying to put a couple of new classes together that the idea of writing about it all wasn't very appealing. But now the classes are up and running, and so I can at least share some syllabi and thoughts with those of you who are curious.

The classes, with links to their syllabi, are:

07 September 2011

Just Be Glad You're Not Trying to Sell a Poetry Book

I was working on a post about the BlazeVOX asking-writers-to-help-subsidize-poetry-publishing brouhaha, and its connections to the criminal idiocies of so much academic publishing, and what the idea of "legitimacy" in publishing does for us as writers and readers, but the post got long and banal and so boring that I started falling asleep while I wrote it, which is a bad sign, so I abandoned it, but I've still been keeping one eye on the discussion.

Today's post of note is from the blog of No Tell Books, a small, respected indie press:

No Tell Books' best selling title broke even after three years and is now earning a very modest profit. This is by an author whose work has appeared in places like Poetry and Best American Poetry. This title has been taught at universities. How many copies does one have to sell to be the best selling title at No Tell Books after four years? 228. That is not a typo. This number doesn't include what the author has sold herself, probably around 200 copies on her own. But the press doesn't earn money on those sales.  
So if that's a best seller, what's a flop? 74 sales after five years (again, this number doesn't include what the author sold on his own, which was maybe 50 or so). (UPDATE: Gatza states, "In general, books by new authors sell around 25 - 30 copies." Shocking? Only if you don't know the first thing about poetry publishing.)
This is the reality of poetry publishing. There are certainly presses that sell more copies. A poetry title reviewed in The New York Times can sell 2-4k copies, it is true. But small, independent presses, those small shops, usually run by one or a few people, rarely see those kinds of sales. University presses, for the most part, don't see those kinds of numbers for poetry. I attended a panel by the publisher of Grove/Atlantic and he said his press' poetry sales was around 800 per title. They publish "big-name" poets, their books are often shelved by chain bookstores, they have good distribution, a strong reputation . . . and that's what they sell. Publishing poetry is their charity--their poetry titles are subsidized by their fiction and non-fiction sales.  

I know of prose books where the publicity machine exploded spectacularly (or didn't exist), the publisher seemed to do everything possible to bury the book, and it only ever appeared at tiny bookstores in uninhabited regions of the world -- and still managed to sell over 300 copies!

I was going to say that obviously America hates poetry, but that's not true. To hate it, we'd have to pay attention to it.

05 September 2011

World on a Wire

My latest column is up at Strange Horizons, and this time it's about Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic science fiction film World on a Wire (Welt am Draht).

If you want to see World on a Wire (and you should!), it's available on home video in the U.K. and Europe, and in the U.S. can be seen via Hulu if you subscribe to Hulu Plus (you can get a free trial subscription for a week, or if you have .edu email address, for a month). Rumor has it that Criterion will be releasing the film on DVD and Blu-ray in the U.S. at the end of this year or the beginning of next [update: the rumors were true]. It's also still touring various U.S. cities -- at the end of this week, it will be at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, MA.

I'm a Fassbinder nut, so will passionately defend even his films that only lunatics defend, but you don't have to be as obsessed with Fassbinder as I to see get pleasure from World on a Wire. (Although if "efficient" plotting, suspenseful storytelling, and "round" characterizations are your primary requirements for pleasure, you should probably stay away.) While World on a Wire isn't of the power and depth of, say, Berlin Alexanderplatz or a handful of Fassbinder's other absolute masterpieces, it's still a powerful, unsettling, beautiful movie, and the restoration that the Fassbinder Foundation did is remarkable -- to take an old 16mm master made for TV and turn it into something that can be admired on a giant cinema screen is no easy feat.

I could go on and on. I won't. Instead, if you want a taste of the film, check out the trailer, which I'll embed after the jump here:

02 September 2011

An Obstacle

The preconception, on the part of critics and actors alike, regarding cinematic theatricality as a marker of feeling—a prejudice in favor of one particular school and method of acting—remains as much an obstacle to creation as to appreciation.
—Richard Brody 

31 August 2011


I've got a couple of pieces of writing floating around out in the internets this week—

A new Sandman Meditations piece has been posted at Gestalt Mash. This week, the penultimate chapter of Brief Lives. If my counting is correct, this is the 50th Sandman Meditation. (The 50th issue of Sandman was "Ramadan", but because I'm reading the stories in the order of the trade collections rather than the original publication, I wrote about that issue back in June when I read it in Fables and Reflections.)

Over at Strange Horizons, it's Pat Cadigan week, and I've contributed an essay about some of the 1980s short stories that helped make Cadigan famous. It's a somewhat odd essay. I expect the nice young men in their clean white coats to show up at my door any moment...

Also, it's Strange Horizons Fund Drive time! The site exists through contributions. The staff are not paid, but the writers are (the reverse of many publisher's policies). Except for a brief hiatus during the end-of-the-year holidays, SH brings you new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry every week at no cost to the, uh, consumer. Donating is easy. Try it, kids, it's fun!

27 August 2011

The Reign of Good Queen Anne Was Culture's Palmiest Day

I hadn't read an ill-tempered screed against all things contemporary and academic for at least a couple of days, so it was with delight that I happened upon Joseph Epstein's Wall Street Journal review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel. What a hoot!

Some sadistic editor at the WSJ assigned Epstein to read and review a book that was never intended for people to just sit down to read. It's a reference book, something for library shelves, a book to be cited, and, for its contributors, a credit for touting. That's not to say it's not useful -- were you doing some research on a particular phase of American lit, it might give good guidance, and I would find it especially useful with undergraduates to show them the wide range of topics that can be thought about, analyzed, studied. Like a 1,200 page collection of academic essays about American history. Useful for various purposes, but not really something to take to the beach or the bed.

Properly categorizing and assessing this book isn't Epstein's priority, because he's not actually interested in the book itself. He wants to rant about the decline and fall of university English departments and the general decline of American culture. He's an inveterate conservative, and that's what they do. We can go to the WSJ to watch them as we might go to the Right-Wing Zoo and knock on the glass at the Crusty Curmudgeon exhibit.