July 30, 2014
Black Mountain Rag
July 20, 2014
Margaret and the Cult of Likeability
Lately, as you may have noticed, I've been fascinated/horrified by the increasingly prevalent "likeability" standard as the primary criterion for assessing the value of literary works. (James Wood addressed it here; and here's Dan Handler, Brendan Halpin, and me, most recently, here.) The basic idea is, or seems to be, that it is the author's job to provide the reader with pleasant, admirable characters whose predominantly unobjectionable views and laudable actions are endearing, inspiring, indomitably-spirited, just-so-doggone charming etc. And nothing but.
There's a word to describe such characters, their attitudes, and the state of mind that prefers them, which harkens back to an earlier, much maligned, era of social disapproval of and frowning upon art: Pollyanna-ish. It was, and remains, a pejorative when it applied to literary characters, or anything, really, but it seems like its spirit is making a bit of a comeback on the internet these days, though today's readers seem to expect even more from Pollyanna than their puritanical mid-to-late-to-post-Victorian counterparts ever did. The contemporary reader, it seems, wants a novel's narrator not just to be nice and fun and unobjectionable and "positive", but also to be a role model, an all-around wonderful person, the kind of person you want to get to know, spend time with, make out with, possibly even marry, and grow old together with.
Failure to provide the reader with such a virtual soul mate is seen as an unforgivable failing on the part of the author and a glaring flaw in the writing itself, something so bad that it's hard to see why the book was published in the first place or why anyone would give it any "stars" at all. The corollary to this tendency, and possibly its inevitable result, is that the flaws and quirks that were once regarded as important parts of character building and indeed can be the entire reason for the existence of the novel in the first place are seen as little more than careless and infuriating mistakes on the part of the author (rather than, like, what he or she was trying to do all along.) Or the very literary conceits that form the basis of some works are derided in a weird "this doesn't pass the smell test" spirit that I've compared to "reviewing" Hamlet by saying: "of course, there really are no ghosts, and the editor should have caught that."
But here I have stumbled on a much better example from real life (or from what passes for it on the internet), a reader review of Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret that I present without further comment as a sort of pearl of great price:
I'm surprised that this has such good reviews. It's about a little girl that really wants to get her period?
I think that the main character is just silly, she doesn't stand up for herself, and she doesn't really seem to like her friends - but she sticks around with them anyway. One girl tells her a big lie and she hardly seems to care.
Hey Margaret, it's me [reviewer] - you should get better friends - and also, getting your period kind of sucks, don't wish away the time you have without it!
Sound advice. Judy, you fucked up.
I suppose if you elect presidents based on whether or not you'd like to have a beer with them, subjecting literary characters and the novels in which they appear to the same test isn't much of a stretch, and isn't a whole lot worse. But of course, if novelists really were to adopt these parameters and follow the logic of the cult of likeability, the end product would be unrecognizable as literature, and pretty lame. And maybe this is a Pollyana-ish view on my part, but the cult of likeability had better be careful what it wishes for because I think even it would hate the result if its implicit program were ever to come to pass.
July 19, 2014
Stuff people say on twitter
July 18, 2014
So apparently we are now arresting, jailing, and breaking up the families of parents for letting their kids do stuff that was totally normal when most of us were growing up, like going to the park, waiting in the car, "babysitting each other" (as in the first linked article), etc.
Nosy neighbors call in complaints, armed officers arrive to take the parent to jail and abduct the kids so that they may face the trauma of being ripped from their now impoverished homes (along with possible abuse and neglect) in a series foster homes. Even conceding, for the sake of argument, that leaving an eleven-year-old waiting in a car for thirty minutes, say, is somehow a bad thing to do, how did we turn this kind of routine parental choice into a criminal matter? Possibly leaving a ten-year-old to watch a five-year-old for a few hours, though it too was once quite an ordinary thing to do, is ill-advised parenting that carries some degree of possible risk to the children's welfare. But with regard to the aforementioned welfare, can that really be what we care about when our proposed remedy is to drag the parents away in chains, cause them to lose their jobs, and break up the family?
What would be an appropriate remedy? I don't know, something short of ensnaring the entire family in the (notoriously unjust and corrupt) criminal justice system, perhaps a helpful pamphlet entitled "So, your kid wants to go to the park..." Maybe the nosy neighbors could be encouraged to keep an eye on the kids while you run some errands, instead of acting as the unofficially deputized Eyes and Ears of the State and calling the cops. (That pamphlet could be called "So, your neighbor has to run to the store...")
I know that's crazy. We've left that folksy, helpful social world far behind, if it ever really existed. But this thing that's really happening right now is even crazier.
Like so many other instances of the law's increasingly draconian reach into what were once universally assumed to be private matters, it happened gradually while we weren't looking. And it must be happening, continuing, now, even as I type. Bit by bit, more and more things are being made illegal, many of them quite ordinary, some of the newly invented crimes so technical and abstruse that no one could possibly predict or divine what they prohibit; bureaucrats and their armed agents enforce the prohibitions with brain-dead literalness, just doing their jobs, forsaking common sense and without pausing to reflect on whether the outcome will help anyone or do any good, or if it is even remotely in keeping with the alleged intent of the measure in the first place. There's a kid in a car. Someone must pay.
We won't know where it's all headed till we get there, by which time it's almost always too late to turn back. This is madness, we say, upon learning of each successive outrage, knowing deep down that madness has become normal. It's a small thing, really, and there are many bigger, worse things could be happening and aren't (yet) so that's a relief at least. Dystopia is a process.
July 17, 2014
Came across a copy of the 1967 Rosemary's Baby hardcover at a used bookstore and got it because it felt like I should probably have one.
It is inscribed with the name of a former owner, a pentagram, and the words "Proud Pagan".
The House of the Devil
Very impressed with Ti West's House of the Devil (currently on Netflix, and super cheap on Amazon.) I've never seen a better, more effective attempt at re-creating and re-imagining a retro style in film, right down to the feel of discontinuity in the abrupt, over the top denouement, the ironic anti-climactic, not over-explained final credits image, the vaguely established but played-for-all-its-worth conceptual backstory. It's very cleverly done. The cinematography is beautiful, and authentic. If you want an encapsulation of the essential experience of watching horror movies in the 70s/early 80s (basically, what it was like to be a teenager in those years) you won't do better than this. It really took me back. Recommend it highly.
They Warned You, But Would You Listen? That's Your Problem You Just Don't Listen
The New Republic says "we told you so" about The Catcher in the Rye, but this critique ("Holden Caulfield isn't as clever or perceptive as he thinks he is") is rather embarrassingly obtuse. That's what's *good* about it. It's like saying "I can't help but feel that Frodo's ambivalence about the Ring stems from an unfortunate weakness of character..." Yeah, the editor really should have caught that....
July 09, 2014
I think this may have been our first show at Gilman. Photo by Ian Harper.
July 08, 2014
This kid just thought it would be funny to pose with the book because of the title (I assume) and indicated in a subsequent tweet that he wasn’t too interested in the book and didn’t buy it, but it’s a great image nonetheless.
(And it’s always nice to see evidence of books actually being sold in bookstores, not to mention people actually being in those bookstores. It still happens.) So, thanks Dylan.
So, today is the official publication date of the new edition of King Dork.
It features a new full color frontispiece (if frontispiece means what I think it does) -- basically it's the full view, in color, of the illustration seen in the ripped off corner of the cover. (Fun fact: that was originally going to be the cover of the book, till we hit on the idea of defacing The Catcher in Rye instead.) Also, it includes an excerpt from King Dork Approximately and updated, John Green-heavy, "praise for" hype text.
Theoretically at least, you can order it on line and receive the new one, or even buy it in a store (one hopes) if you want to make sure.
King Dork Approximately won't be out till December 9, but you can pre-order it, as I keep saying ad nauseam, probably.
July 04, 2014
My Back Pages
This article/interview is kind of a blast from the past that wound up on my google alert-o-sphere because someone seems to be archiving the Kitchen Sink at the moment. To my surprise, there’s a bit in there that fairly closely foreshadows on accident some of the stuff in King Dork Approximately, showing, I guess, something or other. I was so much closer there, I'm farther than that here.
Anyway, thanks again Juliet.
June 29, 2014
Stealthily Fake Books
One of the charges here is that the Joyce estate connived with the editors of the 1986 "corrected" edition of Ulysses to make enough changes to justify extending the copyright as though it were a new work.
Did this (and could this) work? And is this the only text currently available, as it was when the article was written in 1988? The one I'm reading happens to be the 1961 Modern Library one, so it looks like I'm safe. But how would you know which one to order from Amazon?
I should probably just get over it, but as I've written over and over and over (and over), alteration of the text of books, especially without informing the reader or making it challenging for the reader to learn that changes have been made, fills me with rage and anxiety. In this case it's not a matter of bowdlerlizing the text or "updating" it to make it more "with-it" but rather (if the charge of the article is to be believed) of "correcting" it under false pretenses. And in this case, it seems that at least in the initial publication, there was substantial fanfare about it, a notice on the cover, and a considerable "apparatus" that made it clear that "improvements" had been made. However, subsequent versions of the same text may well leave all this stuff out, particularly the apparatus. You can't tell from the Amazon listings what text is on offer, and it is extremely unlikely that your local bookshop, if you still have one, will feature an array of possible copies of Ulysses whose copyright pages you can peruse to make sure you've got an untainted version. Moreover, you'd only know that there was a tainted version in the first place if you'd happened to read an obscure article from the New York Review of Books, 1988.
I'd love it if the standard were a textual history notice at the front of every book, noting the kind and extent of changes that have been made throughout the book's history.
But as that is never going to happen, the only rational course of action is to assume that all texts are tainted till proven untainted, and in the absence of proof, seek out and read first editions only. That'll get expensive and take up a lot of time, but it's better than reading stealthily fake books.
June 28, 2014
Ulysses, the Sex Pistols, and the End of Everything
Reading Ulysses for the first time since I was a teenager. (I know, weird, not to say crazy, thing to do.)
In high school the flash and gimmickry and Tristram Shandyness loomed far larger for me, and I suppose I was more impressed with what seemed like absurdity and obscurity for its own sake. It was in the same spirit that I used to pseudo-proselytize, with a smirk, things like Exercices de Style or that guy who shot himself in the arm and called it a sculpture.
Then in college I read it as primarily an ironic commentary on the Odyssey -- which it is, of course -- smugly feeling I had decoded all there was to decode in it, the original smirk having endured and deepened.
Now that I'm generally less impressed with myself, it seems I'm a bit less impressed with it, too, while I (probably) admire it more. It turns out you can just pick Ulysses up and read it as you would an ordinary novel. And it is of course genuinely impressive that it can be all those things at once. But it is undeniable that its comparative ordinariness, as I experience it now, diminishes it somewhat.
One absurd comparison that springs to mind is the difference between hearing the Sex Pistols in 1977, when I was 13 and it sounded like the destruction and end of everything, vs. now, when you put on the record and it sounds like just another rock band.
It was always just another rock band, and it was always just another novel, too. But that naivety that allowed me to celebrate the end of everything ironically but, in another sense, without irony -- that was precious and I wish I could get it back sometimes.
June 27, 2014
The High School Self
Came across this photo while looking for something else. (It appears to have been taken on the same day as this one.)
June 26, 2014
Real Men Read YA
I mean, sure. I really don't get this (apparently quite common) fear that someone is going to notice what you're reading and blame you for it. There are lots of genuinely embarrassing things a person can do and be blamed for, and reading the "wrong" sort of book is well down the list. But yes, men, real and otherwise, should read YA, particularly mine which can be preordered here.
Think of it as self-actualization and sticking it to the man and not letting anyone put their labels on you.
June 24, 2014
Whenever some misfortune befalls me, a minor setback, a major triumph by an enemy or rival, a significant failure, or an insignificant one, I will often note the occasion with this phrase, cryptic only to those unfamiliar with Rosemary’s Baby: “Donald Baumgart got that part.” People who know me well can sometimes detect that particular look on my face and will beat me to it. “It’s a bad play,” they’ll say. “But it’s a part that gets noticed,” I’ll reply.
Vice hate-blurbs a handful of books by celebrities for your amusement and sense of intellectual superiority.
Notes: (a) the Tyra Banks book mentioned here is legendary and has been on my "say I'm planning to read it" list ever since I first heard about it; (b) there is absolutely nothing wrong with this sentence: “Patty McLade dropped to the floor like a whore’s nightgown."
June 07, 2014
This little booky went to market
"You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
I believe most people who have never written novels themselves tend to over-estimate how much control a novelist has over the tone, shape, and character of his book in the end, not to mention that of the audience it finds, if it finds one. You have some control, but it's not complete, no matter how hard you try. (This is good, by the way. There's no spark in a world without surprises.) Publishers will "aim it at" this or that market, and marketing terms like "YA" or "literary fiction" are most useful when the topic is marketing. But to ask whether or not a given book truly lives up to or fulfills the promise of its marketing category, or to wonder whether its audience is fulfilling its most proper role in the hierarchy of this "aiming" -- those are just about the least interesting questions that can be asked about a book. The answers are negligible. That they dominate "serious" discussion of books these days is both funny and sad.
The Post Office broke it so it had to be repaired. Now... it's back, baby.