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Saturday, September 18, 2004

Will Middlebrow Ever Return?
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, As Terry Teachout and many others have noted, the fragmentation and proliferation of new media voices correlate with a decline in Middlebrow Culture. The Era of Broadcasting is replaced by the Era of Narrowcasting, as illustrated quite well by the damage to CBS' credibility in l'affaire Rather. But, to use contrasting metaphors, how does one distinguish in a cultural moment whether it is a case of genies escaping bottles or a case of a pendulum reaching the end point of its arc? Under the former metaphor, circumstances prompt a permanent change; under the latter, we are all slaves to human nature, and the fights that we fight have a tendency to move in large, barely perceptible, circles. The current conventional wisdom seems to be that the former metaphor--the genie escaping the bottle--is the correct one. Teachout himself states--ruefully, in a way--the ability to frame a common culture "is now splintered beyond hope of repair." The signs point in that direction, but a contrarian bet in cultural matters if often the correct one, so I wonder. I agree that the tools we have to communicate with one another are influential in shaping what we communicate. But is it the case that the ability to watch a wrestling channel 24/7 will lead permanently to a wrestling caste, cut off from public affairs, Oprah's Book Club and Sibelius? People play with new toys, to be sure, but might it not be the case that they will sooner or later find themselves in need of a new recentering? [temporary diversion to urbanism theme: my dad loved his 900 square foot ranch house and had no need for Main Street--actively avoided it in fact--but new urbanism is not a bad bet for the next several decades. what people yearn for can run in cycles.] A possible signal in this regard: Bill O'Reilly has been taking heat from the Right since the Rather thing blew up. He's been using the "fair and balanced" argument to pontificate against "right-wing talk radio hosts" and "far-right bloggers" in a semi-defense of Dan. That has gotten said hosts and bloggers mad. Laura Ingraham showed up on his show two nights ago, crying "Bill, how could you??!!" And she had an article to this effect in yesterday's New York Sun as well (subscription required). In her view, bloggers have changed everything--it's a utopian moment in which the new media have altered everything forever, and Bill, an old media guy, just doesn't get it. What's going on? I think Bill, a very savvy guy, simply figures that the cultural moment is being recentered. Tussles usually take place on the extremes--Ladies and Jemmin', Michael Moore versus Jerry Falwell in the fight of the century!--but the terrain at stake is usually the last few inches in the center of things. It's not that O'Reilly is looking to "take Rather's place at CBS", as some have speculated. Rather (so to speak), it's a matter of a shift in what constitutes... posted by Fenster at September 18, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Friday, September 17, 2004

Mark Helprin
Francis Morrone writes Dear Blowhards, Have you ever read Mark Helprin? As I survey the fall offerings in the literary realm, the thing that jumps out at me is the new collection of stories by Mark Helprin. It's called The Pacific and Other Stories, and Amazon says it'll be out on October 21. I like Helprin as a novelist, but, in my opinion, short stories are where he really excels. This new volume will have sixteen stories, nine of them never before published. I was already a devotee of Helprin's stories (which appeared mainly in the New Yorker) when his second novel Winter's Tale appeared in 1983. I vividly remember the eagerness with which I began reading it. After the first few pages, I felt convinced that this was going to be one of the great American novels. But after about the hundredth page (out of more than 600), I had to stop. The experience of reading this novel felt exactly analogous to eating a rich pastry. It was utterly delicious, but I knew that if I didn't stop, I'd get sick. Others have told me they have had similar experiences with Helprin's prose. In his stories, the richness never overwhelms--portion control. At novel length, it was a problem, and none of his novels has seemed to me to be quite perfect. Now, I know it's not such a harsh criticism to say of a book that it isn't quite perfect. But Helprin writes so well, you feel he has it in him to write a perfect novel. Or maybe not. Maybe he's destined to be just a writer of perfect short stories. After all, how many writers have been equally great at stories and at novels? Flaubert, Henry James, a few others. All that said, I did, a year later, get around to finishing off Winter's Tale, and boy am I glad I did. It's a very uneven book, a very flawed book in many ways. It's also the best book about New York I've ever read--it's the book that captures the soul of this contradictory city. For then, in an overwhelming confusion, he saw before him all the many rich hours of every age and those to come, an infinitely light and deep universe, his child's innocent eyes, and the broken city of a hundred million lines which, when seen from on high, were as smooth and beautiful as a much-loved painting. All time was compressed, and he and the others were shaken like reeds when they realized fully what had come about, and why. And then they were taken by a wind which arose suddenly and carried them up in full and triumphant faith. As they ascended, in mounting cascades, they saw that the great city about them was infinitely complex, holy, and alive. OK. If that isn't your cup of tea, then nor will any of the book's several thousand other paragraphs be. But if it is, then by reading the novel you'll know the meaning... posted by Francis at September 17, 2004 | perma-link | (25) comments

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Digital Culture
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another week, another perfectly-fine NYTimes Circuits section. David Pogue, who writes about the new Imac, is as helpful, informative, and amusing as ever. Good as it is, though, I always feel depressed when I leaf through the Circuits section -- because there's never any discussion of the impact of digital technology on culture. The latest in robots or cordless phones, sure. But culture more generally? Nada. What a missed opportunity. How are movies changing? What values are books now selling? In what ways is narrative being affected? What's it like to give a performance in front of a blue screen? Not a word about any of it. Now that I type this, it occurs to me that I should admit something flatout, and then ask something. The flatout thing first: I take it for granted that the move from analog to digital is the most significant change in the basis of culture since the invention of the printing press. I mean, this is big. In ten or twenty years, it's likely that 95% of the culture we encounter will be digitally-based and digitally-mediated. Even much "live" culture -- art galleries, music concerts -- will be affected, because many instruments, materials, sound systems, and audience expectations will have gone digital. As a consequence, I can't help believing that -- for the last couple of decades, and for the next who knows how many years -- the most important (and fascinating) story in the arts has been, is, and will be the impact of digital technology on culture. Which is, ahem, why I raise the topic so often around this blog. God knows it can be amusing to compare notes about the latest movie or album -- er, DVD or CD. But aren't such matters just a little dwarfed by such questions as: Where are we going? Where have we been? And how is our experience of culture changing? But I may be assuming agreement where there is none, so I gotta ask: what's your hunch about the importance of the move from analog to digital where culture's concerned? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 16, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * John Massengale has written two wonderful postings -- one on starchitects and one on Munich -- that summarize about half of what anyone really needs to know about architecture and urbanism. * David Sucher -- whose immortal Three Rules summarize the other half of what anyone really needs to know about architecture and urbanism -- links to an on-the-money Douglas Kelbaugh piece, "Seven Fallacies in Architecture Culture." * I'd be curious to hear how you respond to this new Daniel Libeskind building in London. How do you rate its context-sensitivity? And how about the context-sensitivity of Archigram's latest, in Graz? * Design Observer's Michael Bierut (and his commenters) share some interesting thoughts and observations about architectural renderings. * Good lord, something I thought would never happen: big media (namely Time magazine) pays some hard-hitting attention to the Mexican border. Word is now officially out: It's fair to estimate, based on a TIME investigation, that the number of illegal aliens flooding into the U.S. this year will total 3 million—enough to fill 22,000 Boeing 737-700 airliners, or 60 flights every day for a year. It will be the largest wave since 2001 and roughly triple the number of immigrants who will come to the U.S. by legal means. (No one knows how many illegals are living in the U.S., but estimates run as high as 15 million.) * Vdare gets it together and now has a blog. Peter Brimelow comments on the Time magazine cover story. * I enjoyed Forager's taxonomy of movie remakes. * Carpal-tunnel syndrome, guaranteed. * JVC's Jeff wonders why it suddenly seems like New Jersey is everywhere. * Terry Richardson is the badboy fashion photographer parents fear their daughters will meet. Though god know I wouldn't have turned down an invitation to the opening of Richardson's latest show ... (That second link is most definitely NSFW.) * Steve Sailer wonders which Hispanics exactly should benefit from affirmative action. * Here's a graphic that makes vivid some of the bad Bush news. As the headline says: "Under Bush, Federal Spending Increases at Fastest Rate in 30 Years." That's from a rightwing organization, by the way. * Thanks and congrats to Will, Deb, and Craig, who have brought out another issue of their first-rate Ex Libris Reviews. Reviewed authors this time around include Elizabeth George, Colin Dexter, Eusebius, and Nick Sagan. * Walter Olson explains how we arrived at rule-by-lawyers-and-lawsuits. Some perspective: The share of America’s GNP that is devoted to litigation has tripled over 50 years. We spend two to three times more on it, in terms of percentage of GNP, as the other industrial democracies. The figure for how much is spent annually on liability insurance in the U.S. –- a relatively easy thing to measure –- is now $721 per citizen, which comes to over $2,800 per year for a family of four ... In recent years, litigation has evolved into a kind of substitute for politics. * I... posted by Michael at September 16, 2004 | perma-link | (2) comments

YA Fiction
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of months ago, in a posting about the creation of the American teenager, I cited a lot evidence for the idea that teenagerhood as we know it today -- a self-contained, desirable/traumatic period in life that's also an enormous target market -- is, by and large, a post-WWII American creation. Some examples: the word "teenager" didn't appear in dictionaries until 1942; teen magazines, rock and roll (ie., music for teens), and movies for teens all made their first appearance in the 1950s. It turns out that I overlooked another juicy piece of evidence: YA, or "young adult," fiction. Frances Fitzgerald, of all people, has a good essay in the September issue of Harper's magazine about the history and culture of YA fiction. Since the piece isn't online -- curses! -- I'll summarize some of what Fitzgerald says. YA fiction isn't just fiction for young people, of which there's often been a fair amount. It's fiction about teen experience that is portrayed from a teen point of view. It's S.E. Hinton, Judy Blume, and Robert Cormier, and not "The Yearling" or "Count of Monte Cristo." YA fiction is largely an American phenomenon. Most of the storylines in YA fiction have taken the form of problem stories. A typical YA book might well have a therapy-esque, coming-of-age narrative that centers on struggling with and overcoming an "issue" -- delinquency, drug addiction, distant parents ... In America, novels for kids began appearing in the mid-19th century: think Horatio Alger, or "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." These books were most often about kids having adventures and then growing up into responsible adults. In the 1920s, a new strain of fiction for kids began appearing: "idealized realism," with childhood portrayed as a happy, protected period. This theme lasted through the early 1960s. "Two decades after 'the teenager' became a distinct species and well after Hollywood had discovered juvenile delinquency ... most novels for teens still clove to the idealist mode of kids growing up in safe, nurturing families to become fine, upstanding members of their close-knit communities," writes Fitzgerald. The appeal of this kind of book began to crumble in the 1950s under the influence of Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Louise ("Harriet the Spy") Fitzhugh. YA fiction's big bang, though, didn't take place until 1967 and 1968, when S.E. Hinton published "The Outsiders," Robert Lipsyte published "The Contender," and Paul Zindel published "The Pigman." A major factor in the success of YA fiction was Title II of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which "poured money into [schools'] empty libraries, permitting publishers to reissue the older classics and to publish a host of new novels for adolescents, almost all of which were in the new realist mode." You might not expect this, but librarians by and large -- and especially librarians who were young in the 1960s -- have always been cheerleaders for YA fiction. They approved of its "relevance" and "subversiveness," and have treated the... posted by Michael at September 16, 2004 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Bonjour les paradoxes
Francis Morrone writes: Dear Blowhards, Back in May, Michael posted about Debra Ollivier's Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. Michael suggested that this frothy book offers better insights into the French character than does Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon. In 1955 Preston Sturges made a film called The French They Are a Funny Race. Right now, many Americans have a love-hate relationship with the French. And not just Americans. Anthony Daniels, an Englishman and a prison doctor, is a compulsively readable writer on many subjects, though he is perhaps best known for his dead-pan scathing column in the Spectator, written under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple. He's also very familiar to readers of the New Criterion, City Journal, and other publications. In the Autumn 2002 City Journal, Daniels wrote a terrifying piece called "The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris." Here's how it begins: Everyone knows la douce France: the France of wonderful food and wine, beautiful landscapes, splendid châteaux and cathedrals. More tourists (60 million a year) visit France than any country in the world by far. Indeed, the Germans have a saying, not altogether reassuring for the French: "to live as God in France." Half a million Britons have bought second homes there; many of them bore their friends back home with how they order these things better in France. But there is another growing, and much less reassuring, side to France. I go to Paris about four times a year and thus have a sense of the evolving preoccupations of the French middle classes. A few years ago it was schools: the much vaunted French educational system was falling apart; illiteracy was rising; children were leaving school as ignorant as they entered, and much worse-behaved. For the last couple of years, though, it has been crime: l’insécurité, les violences urbaines, les incivilités. Everyone has a tale to tell, and no dinner party is complete without a horrifying story. Every crime, one senses, means a vote for Le Pen or whoever replaces him. He goes on to detail, as only he can, the horrendous living conditions and pervasive hopelessness among the immigrant population of the housing projects ringing Paris, and the tidal wave of crime and social disorder that has emanated from these projects in recent years. One's immediate reaction to the piece was, OK, I won't be going back there any time soon. Ah, but the French are made for paradoxes. On January 3 of this year, Daniels wrote a Spectator cover story, entitled "Escape from Barbarity." The "barbarity" in question is hooliganish England. The destination of escape is...France. Daniels, in this piece, announced that he was moving to France. Is France in better shape than Britain? Its countryside is emptier, which for someone like me, who has had enough of crowds in general and people in particular to last him a lifetime, is good enough. I know it is a high-tax economy — bureaucratic and sclerotic in many respects — but... posted by Francis at September 14, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

"Home Movies" at TNR
Fenster Moop writes Dear Blowhards: I've been a subsciber to The New Republic since the days when its visual appearance lent it a certain heavy, ponderous gravitas: cheesy paper, all black-and-white text and no ads. Andrew Sullivan, when editor, did his bit to make the place hipper (including more cultural reportage and high quality men's underwear ads on the rear cover), but the TNR brand still retains some vestigial Lippmanesque qualities. As such, the term "The New Republic Online" seems slightly oxymoronic on the face of it. Perhaps I am an old fuddy-duddy, but, while I have no problem getting the news online from Slate or Drudge, I still feel I am supposed to go to a musty old library to read the latest issue of TNR. But lo and behold, TNR Online is a pretty good site. One feature recently added that I have just noticed is entitled Home Movies. The idea is that, with Americans now spending twice as much on home videos as in theaters, the time is right for more DVD reviews. This is not a new concept--TNR would not want to break any new ground, I wouldn't think--but it is welcome nonetheless. Especially by me, since, while I am an old fuddy-duddy, I do have three youngish kids at home and find it hard to locate babysitters as much as I'd like. Therefore, "the movies" is, for me, synonymous with DVD rentals (in my case, Netflix). Here's an interesting column (free registration required). In it, Chris Orr uses the occasion of the release of The Ladykillers on DVD to comment on the careers of the Coens. I think he is spot-on that the best descriptor of their output is "downward trajectory". Indeed to my mind (and I am quite sure some of our readers will not agree with me, but that's the fun part of this site), I don't think Orr is quite harsh enough. He dates the decline "at least" from O Brother Where art Thou?, but I would push it back further, back to . . . maybe . . . um . . . Blood Simple . . . somewhere around there? OK, that was their first film--and a terrific one at that. And I was so excited on seeing it that I determined I was going to see anything new they turned out. Alas, until recently, I did. I don't share Orr's enthusiasm for their second, the overwrought and overdone Raising Arizona. And Miller's Crossing, while consistently interesting, was already pushing the pair's trademark preciousness so much into the foreground that it left room for little else. Ditto Barton Fink, Hudsucker, etc. Some of these films seemed to want to be, in the fashion of Seinfeld, about nothing. But, no, to throw a bunch of negatives together, Seinfeld was never truly about nothing, I don't think. Beneath the sometimes creepy and odd behaviors were real people, in a manner of speaking. By contrast, I find much of the Coens work truly... posted by Fenster at September 14, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments