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Books, Writing and Publishing

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What Salinger Read
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- As many readers know by now, author J.D. Salinger died yesterday. And many readers have read Salinger. Even not-so-lit me read "The Catcher in the Rye" when I was too young to really understand all the East Coast stuff it inhabited. Speaking of reading preferences, what were Salinger's? Roger L. Simon comes to the rescue with this anecdote. Key passage: My encounters with Salinger happened when I was a Dartmouth student (1964). The already reclusive Salinger would appear on the campus occasionally, usually to make a stop at the Dartmouth Bookstore to stock up on books. (He lived some twenty miles off in the town of Cornish, N. H.) When he was around, word would go out to the artier types at the college and we would slip over to the bookstore and, well, stalk the famous writer, I guess you could say. By then he had published Franny and Zooey, among other works, which we greatly admired. But many of us were puzzled that the majority of his purchases were mere mystery paperbacks – Dorothy Sayers was one of his favorites. Undergraduate snobs, we had expected Dostoevsky or Camus. This deserves further comment, but I'm not equipped to deliver. Are you there, Michael Blowhard? Anyone? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 28, 2010 | perma-link | (3) comments

A Disappearing Book Genre
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- We'll probably drive to Reno tomorrow so that Nancy can take a break from skiing. While there, I'll probably stop by the National Automobile Museum, site of what's left of the once-massive Bill Harrah collection. If I do, I'll probably do a walk-through of the books/gift shop. Am I using the word "probably" a lot? Well, here's one more: In the shop I probably won't spy a lot of books dealing with cars of a given brand (or "marque" as it's often put). Actually, automobile books of all descriptions save shop-manuals seem to have been in comparatively short supply for the last ten or 15 years or so. Okay, another exception is the sort of car book you can see piled high in the discount section of your local Barnes & Noble store. What I've been missing are serious histories of marques intended for car buffs like me. Back in the 1970s and 80s there were many such books that I'd drool over in stores, fingers itching, especially in times when my book-buying budget was tight. Nowadays, I just don't see many compelling car books. Why? One possibility is that it's just me; I bought the good stuff and new titles get ignored because I really don't need a lot of redundancy. Most likely, publishers find that books about defunct marques simply don't sell all that well. Marque books I notice on store shelves tend to be about existing makes (Porsche, Ferrari, Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang and such) or dead brands familiar to the under-50 crowd. (Be braced for more titles dealing with Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn and Plymouth.) New offerings treating Packard, Studebaker, Nash, Hudson and De Soto are rare, and often take the form of photo albums. This seems to be true in Europe as well. When I visit, I keep my eyes open for books dealing with 1927-1947 vintage Alfa-Romeos, Lagondas, Lancias and such. I'd like to find a decent book about pre-1958 "street" Ferrari coachwork by various builders such as Touring and Vignale. Of interest to me are those now little-known English makes such as Jowett, Riley, Wolseley (I do have a book or two about these). French publishers seem to do a little better, so I have a fair collection dealing with French brands. Besides the personal experience factor, it's likely that people (usually guys) are less emotionally involved with cars these days than my generation was. Therefore, I await the launch of books dealing with histories of cell-phone brands. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 28, 2010 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Boilerplate Adventures
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards-- I've thumbed through it at bookstores, been intrigued by the concept, but still haven't come around to plunking down the cash for a book titled Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel. It's a richly illustrated fiction piece about a robot soldier created in the late 19th century called Boilerplate. Boilerplate serves in a number of conflicts, including Teddy Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill, and disappears on the Western Front shortly before the armistice is signed, ending the Great War. To me, the most intriguing aspect of the book noticed during my thumb-throughs was how well the book's creators inserted images of Boilerplate in various historical photos and illustrations -- that robot blends into each scene beautifully, regardless of the style of the original image. I notice that reviews in the Amazon link above were quite positive (aside from one fellow who failed to get the joke). Have any of you purchased / read through Boilerplate? Your reactions, please. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 16, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, November 6, 2009

Blut, Eisen and Survival
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Great War brought forth a number of books dealing with the soldier's life, some fictional, others autobiographical. Probably the best known is All Quiet on the Western Front (In Westen Nichts Neues -- nothing new in the west). Most of the well-known ones had an anti-war tone. I bought an account better known in Europe than in America -- Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (29 March, 1895 – 17 February, 1998) -- two and a half years ago, but didn't get far into it. Having read more about the Great War in recent months, I grabbed it for trip reading here in California and now I've nearly finished it. As you can see from Jünger's dates, he lived almost until his 103rd birthday. But it's a wonder he got past 11 November, 1918. Jünger was in the thick of things on the Western Front from early 1915 until the end with short time-outs for leave, NCO and officers training as well as hospital stays. He was a highly aggressive junior officer who went on dangerous raids largely for the hell of it. By the end of the war, he had been awarded the pour le Mérite, the highest German military order. The Wikipedia article linked above deals with Jünger's political and literary life and goes wrong, in my judgment, regarding Storm of Steel which it characterized stating "This book by which Jünger became suddenly famous has been seen as glorifying war." I do not see glorification of war in the book. Nor do I see it as anti-war. It strikes me as being brutally descriptive of both the élan of Jünger and some fellow soldiers and the literal blood and guts suffered by the unlucky. The notion of luck is key to understanding Jünger's narrative. He experienced a number of close calls, yet survived. Others caught the British sniper's bullet in the throat, were ripped apart by shrapnel or buried in a collapsed trench during artillery bombardment. Derring-do and courage are present and perhaps some might call that "glorification." But balancing those accounts are many passages dealing with the dead and dying. Jünger takes care to describe the case of newly married Lieutenant Zürn after a battle: "Now he was lying on a door, half-stripped, with the waxy colour that is a sure sign of imminent death, staring up at me with sightless eyes as I stepped out to squeeze his hand." Jünger was a realist. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 6, 2009 | perma-link | (14) comments

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Zdeno on Fratire
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Zdeno is back, this time discussing a literary genre that's new to non-twentysomething me. * * * * * In case my previous posts haven't completely strained my credibility among the sane and sensible of the Blowhard readership, I thought I'd finish the job today by venturing into the darkest, foulest, most wretched corner of contemporary literature. The genre I refer to goes by the name Fratire , and it is exactly what it sounds like: Literature written by and for young men, celebrating contemporary masculinity in all its adolescent ingloriousness. The unrivaled king of the Fratirists is Tucker Max. No description could possibly do justice to Max's literary stylings, so I quote at length below: From: The Absinthe Donuts Story 10:20: We station ourselves in the kitchen. A fat girl walks in. It's game time. "Well, say goodbye to all the leftovers." 10:21: Apparently, this fatty seems to think she can hang. The Medina Division made better tactical decisions: Fatty "What did you say?" Tucker "Can you not hear me? Are your ears fat too?" Fatty [Look of astonishment, stares at my friends cracking up] "EXCUSE ME?" Tucker "I'm sorry. Really I am. [I open the fridge] Would you like cheesecake or chocolate cake? Probably both, I'm guessing." Fatty [Turns and leaves in utter astonishment] Tucker "Hey Sara Lee, I was only kidding! COME BACK HERE--MY FRIEND LIKES TO GO HOGGIN. MORE CUSHION FOR THE PUSHIN! IT'S LIKE RIDING A MOPED!!" Tucker has arrived. 10:23: Rich knows me from undergrad, and knows how to ride my hot streaks by provoking me, "come on man, you can do better. There are plenty of people around here to make fun of." Express elevator to hell, going down. I give him my voice recorder and a simple order, "Don't miss anything." 10:26: I see a girl wearing two colored tank tops over each other. This is too easy: Tucker "Hey 1985 Madonna, are you gonna get the person who did that?" Girl "Did what?" Tucker "Spilled 80's all over you." Girl [Confused look] Tucker "I know I'd be pissed if I looked like an extra from Desperately Seeking Susan." 10:29: Eddie points out a girl wearing the standard anti-globalization outfit. It is topped off with a "No Blood for Oil" button. Rich whispers in my ear, "You gotta get her. Come on man. Do it--for us...for your country." Eddie starts humming God Bless America. 10:29: I storm over. Rich says into the voice recorder, "Target acquired...we are weapons hot." 10:30: I introduce myself to her as Alger Hiss. She doesn't get the joke. Time to be blunt: Tucker "Do you hate the World Bank?" Girl "Uhh, umm, well, I mean, yeah, I feel that..." Tucker "You don't hate the World Bank." Girl "I don't?" Tucker "No. You're mad at your father. You just want daddy to hug you more." Girl "What?" Tucker "You were a sociology major weren't you?" Girl "NO!" Tucker "What was your major?"... posted by Donald at November 3, 2009 | perma-link | (44) comments

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Local Detail in Novels
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I recently wrote about a book dealing with Russian art and culture in the early 20th century where the focus was on Moscow and St. Petersburg. In passing, I mentioned that it was helpful to have actually visited those cities and viewed some of the works of art discussed in the book. Which got me to thinking about reading books containing details of places I hadn't visited. Basically, I had only a foggy notion of what was being discussed because I really couldn't visualize the settings. Given that lots of readers haven't been to all corners of the world, this presents a problem for writers: How much detail and geographical scene-setting should be included? Historians sometimes have no choice but to report such details. Consider the political maneuverings leading up to the 10 May 1940 replacement of Neville Chamberlain by Winston Churchill as British Prime Minister. It would be difficult indeed to not mention major actors entering, leaving, meeting at, passing through, etc. places such as Whitehall, the Admiralty, 10 Downing Street, the Thames Embankment, the Houses of Parliament, Pall Mall, Buckingham Palace and elsewhere. Arthur Conan Doyle (or was it Dr. John Watson?), writing about master detective Sherlock Holmes, includes references to many places in London as well as in surrounding counties and even more distant parts of England such as Dartmoor. His primary, magazine-reading audience mostly lived in the Home Counties region and could visualize many of the settings from personal experience. But most foreign readers would have trouble. If Piccadilly Circus was mentioned, some might recall photos of it. And if the action called for Holmes or Watson to stroll from there to Trafalgar Square, no one but those who had visited London could easily picture the relationship of the two places, let alone the sights between them. My memory of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is getting foggy and I don't have a copy at hand. That said, I think he referenced a number of Paris sites in the parts of the novel set in that city. This was hard to avoid if he wanted to evoke the place. Yet how easily could an untraveled 1928 reader in Dubuque picture Montparnasse and the cafe/bar scene there? Or the Right Bank, where other scenes were placed? Where the place is only a minor character, the author has the opportunity to be sketchy on local atmosphere, leaving it to the reader to create details from his imagination. But if a place is a significant character in a story, this poses a serious problem for a writer. Is there any decent solution to the place-characterization versus ignorant reader dilemma? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 25, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Unusual Literary List
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Edward Craig, back in Michigan after bravely braving San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore and living to report his findings here, now unearths for us a surprising nugget of ... well, let him report: * * * * * Michael Blowhard often lamented on this site about the lack of appreciation for the writing skills of popular novelists. These novelists often share the same lament. In his book On Writing Stephen King relates a story about Amy Tan at a conference, complaining about how the audience always asks questions about her plots or characters, but never about her choice of language. I purchased a book a few years ago called The Top Ten edited by columnist J. Peder Zane. The book collects responses from a variety of writers about the ten greatest works of fiction. The topic probably proved too broad, like when the Heisman Trophy tries to name the best player in college football. There’s a lot of repetition, such as Anna Karenina making 25 percent of the lists. I wonder if some of the choices aren’t the result of what economists call “signaling.” In other words, I wonder if some of the respondents want to be known by what they read, rather than what they write. An example is Robert B. Parker, creator of the “Spenser” detective novels, whose list appears across from Joyce Carol Oates. I fully expected her to choose titles by Stendhal, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. But I was strangely disappointed that Parker chose works by Henry James and John Dos Passos. He did have Hammett and Chandler on his list, but those are acceptable among the literati. Other modern novelists presented lists that lead one to conclude nothing worth reading has been written since the start of World War II. Lolita is the only post-war selection on Bobbie Ann Mason’s list. Chick lit author Jennifer Weiner struck me as one of the most honest contributors. Her list included not only The Stand by Stephen King, but Pearl a novel by his wife, Tabitha. The most interesting list, hands down, was the one across from Weiner’s. David Foster Wallace, the late poster child of literary fiction, submitted the following: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis The Stand by Stephen King Red Dragon by Thomas Harris The Thin Red Line by James Jones Fear of Flying by Erica Jong The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein Fuzz by Ed McBain Alligator by Shelley Katz The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy Maybe I’m misreading the meaning of these lists. Maybe Parker was just naming what he considers the best works of fiction in a traditional sense. And maybe Wallace was making some sort of ironic joke. I still enjoy the idea of a pompous grad student having a minor stroke reading his list, though. * * * * * Once again, Edward, thank you for contributing to 2Blowhards. Later,... posted by Donald at October 21, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Monday, October 19, 2009

Euphony and the Art of Writing
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The subject of this post is euphony and the writer is a man who deals with it professionally. He's Charlton Griffin, a long-time 2Blowhards reader who creates audiobooks for a living (the link contains interesting biographical information). Our founder, Michael Blowhard, is a huge fan of Charlton's work, a catalog of which is here. (Don't forget to check out links at the top of the page that lead to much more than the short story selections shown.) I'm utterly hapless behind a microphone, even when trying to record those "we're not here" messages for voicemail. So I found Charlton's peek behind the audiobook curtain fascinating; don't miss his takes on which authors do and don't make for easy reading. * * * * * "[A]greeableness of sound; pleasing effect to the ear, esp. a pleasant sounding or harmonious combination or succession of words: the majestic euphony of Milton's poetry." In my experience, very few persons have ever expressed an opinion on the way literature sounds. Since most of us read silently, it would seem to be a moot point. But it is not. Because my daily bread is earned as a narrator, I have to give voice to books. It can be an arduous affair sometimes. Of all the qualities good writing possesses, I suppose euphony is the least understood and least important. Lucidity, simplicity and euphony were always the holy trinity of writing to Somerset Maugham. Like many great writers, he read his work aloud before he put his pen aside for the day. Don't you wish all writers would do this? Why on earth do some writers insist on linking up a long series of words that begin and end in difficult consonants? Or trip you up with a series of dependent clauses that leave you gasping for intellectual air? If you can't read a sentence aloud without contorting your face or stumbling around to find the right place for emphasis, there is a problem. It is my opinion that the best writers are the ones whose works can be enjoyed audibly. I don't say this because I think their works ought to be enjoyed aloud. But it is in the vocal realm that language meets its sternest tests. A book can be lucid, and yet lose the reader because its sentence structure is so complex that the mind begins to wander. Think of those wonderfully logical college textbooks you struggled through. Can't get any more lucid than Plato, for example. Unfortunately, by piling one idea upon another in unending cascades, this kind of writing can sometimes require superhuman concentration after more than a few pages. Adding euphony to this process would probably not advance its ability to engage. Simplicity is always to be desired. This assumes that you have something interesting to write about. Simplicity linked with inanity is devastating. But if your thinking process is such that you find it necessary to express complex ideas in an obscure manner, you... posted by Donald at October 19, 2009 | perma-link | (16) comments

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pre-Revolutionary Russian Art and Culture
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I finally got around to buying a book I've had my eye on for several months. "Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900-1920: Art, Life & Culture" by John E. Bowlt It was published by The Vendome Press which is responsible for a similar book about Vienna that I had reservatons about, and another, "The Society Portrait," that I realy liked. I finally decided to buy it because it was richly illustrated and covered a period of art that interests me greatly: the transition to modernism. For example, below is an image of a painting shown in the book, and it's by an artist I wasn't aware of. "Pool" by Viktor Borisov-Musatov (1870-1905) - 1902 Tempera on canvas. Alternate English title: "The Reservoir." I'm about halfway through reading the book's text and thus far my reaction is mixed. It's useful when it focuses on paintings, sculptures and architectural examples. For example, I found it helpful to read the suggestion that the dominant school of painting during that period was Symbolism. I haven't made up my mind that Bowlt's assessment is correct; I need to do some research of my own before I accept it. The idea is definitely food for thought even though I wonder if the writer might have stacked the deck by including a possibly disproportionate number of works by Mikhail Vrubel, a Symbolist to the hilt, who I wrote about here. He also mentions that Russian arts lagged behind trends and fads of countries farther west, a reasonable assumption. And valid (for some artists, anyway) is his contention that what might be termed the weight and pervasiveness of historical Russian culture affected how those westerly fashions were manifested by Russian hands. My problem with Bowlt is that he falls into what I consider the trap of trying too hard to link artists and works of art to contemporaneous events and phenomena. Of course an artist is influenced by the world around him. But it's likely that he's also influenced by past art if he has at all studied his craft. Then there's the matter of the artist's temperament and personality, hugely important for his creations. Here, from the the first page (99) of the chapter "The Shock of the New" is the sort of writing that annoys me: The consequent and fundamental dichotomy between the vestiges of a patriarchal social order and the semaphores of a new modus vivendi, between country and town, stasis and action, aristocracy and democracy, released an energy and dynamism which, in turn, guided many of the explorations and discoveries of the Russian Silver Age. Aside perhaps from the bits about aristocracy and the specific mention of Russia, this sentence might have been applied to almost any Western society at virtually any time between 1750 and 1950. Which means it is useless. I should mention that I might never have purchased the book if I hadn't visited Russia. I have walked the streets of St. Petersburg and, to my... posted by Donald at October 17, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Digging Ferlinghetti's Old Digs
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Today's guest article is by Michigan-based writer Edward Craig who reports on his recent visit to San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore in the North Beach area which was co-founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti who gained his greatest fame publishing Beat poetry in the 1950s. Edward's report: * * * * * I visited San Francisco recently and made a pilgrimage to City Lights, which is what’s known as a “destination bookstore.” Other examples are Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. and Powell’s in Portland. These stores are marked by their size. City Lights in three stories tall and most of its square footage, including the staircases, is packed with books. More importantly, though, is the zeitgeist of these establishments. City Lights reflects the spirit of San Francisco, that being an in-your-face leftism. You can pick up books with titles like “The ABCs of Communism” and “Film in Post-Colonial Africa.” It made me almost ashamed to be a white male. I wondered how it made the other white males hanging out in the store feel. I might have asked them, but I didn’t want to disturb their leisurely reading. I could have sought the opinion of the one young woman of color at the store, but she was busy running the cash register. There are chairs set out in City Lights so you can take your time reading the books they offer. Which is good, since most of them are really expensive. There are no discount tables at City Lights like you’ll find at Borders or Barnes & Noble. I considered buying a two-volume set on the history of Southern succession. It seemed very interesting, getting into topics such as the eccentric character of South Carolina. But they would have cost me more than $50 and I would have had to haul them back to Detroit. I considered a number of books from the eclectic art section, which includes categories dedicated to graphic novels and graffiti. What stopped me was a growing sense of being ripped off. I kept wondering, “How much less would I pay for this on Amazon?” But you’re not buying books at City Lights, You’re buying into a heritage. The Beats used to hang out at this store. You pay for a connection to people like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. You pay to support a stance against the establishment, against the corrupt system that keeps us down. In the end, I walked out with nothing. I guess I’m too cheap to be one of the people. * * * * * Thank you, Edward, for bringing us up to date on the post-Beat scene where the market somehow still manages to rule. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 8, 2009 | perma-link | (8) comments

Saturday, October 3, 2009

New Venues For Used Books
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm seeing used books in places I never saw them before. When I was young, Seattle had a large used-book store (Shorey Book Store) in the downtown area. I only visited it once, and since then it seems to have migrated a time or two to ever-cheaper real estate. There are other stores specializing in used books, but I don't shop in them. You see, one of my quirks is preferring new things to used. I prefer to buy cars new, clothes new and books new. I'm not a purist, mind you: I bought three used cars and a smattering of books long out of print and unlikely to be republished. And I do patronize stores that offer a mix of new, remaindered and used books -- Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, for instance. Nevertheless, when book browsing and shopping, I go to certain stores with the expectation that the books I see will be new and perhaps remaindered. An example is the University Book Store by the University of Washington. Yes, the textbook area in the basement has both new and used textbooks, but that's accepted textbook sales practice. Recently I've been seeing used books creeping into the trade books sections. They can be spotted because they have little yellow circles or dots attached near the base of their spines and their price labels are yellow rather than white. I feel that those books don't belong there. Even more startling to me was the appearance of what are labeled "gently used art books" on a table in the Barnes and Noble store in nearby University Village. I remember B&N being a breed of cut-rate bookstore back in the 1960s and early 70s with outlets on lower Fifth Avenue in New York and downtown Boston. The chain went on to other things -- until now. I'm not sure what to make of it. Used books can have whatever markup the seller thinks he can get away with, so I assume they can be pretty profitable if they sell well. Is this business tactic why I'm starting to see them pop up in unlikely places? Are there related reasons? The depressed economy? Competition from Amazon? Or is something else happening in the book industry? I'll be happy to get clued in. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 3, 2009 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ferdinand Bardamu Guest Post
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Several people have expressed interest in guest-blogging at 2Blowhards to help fill the huge gap created when Michael decided to retire from full-time posting. Today guest-blogging begins with an article by Ferdinand Bardamu, who blogs at In Mala Fide and is a contributing writer for The Spearhead. Not long ago Michael linked to Ferdinand in this posting. What Ferdinard has to say might be provocative in some quarters; comments no doubt will tell that tale. Over to you, Ferdinand: * * * * * The Provincialism of Modern Novelists A few years back, I was waiting at the dentist's office, thumbing through a copy of Time magazine, when I came across an article entitled "Who's the Voice of this Generation?" The author was lamenting the fact that not one of the "young novelists" writing today is representative of the attitudes and neuroses of this generation. As is the nature of modern journalism, this reporter was trained to ignore the truth in front of her face. The reason that not one of these "young novelists" can claim to be the voice of this generation is because all of them are nauseatingly parochial in thought and style. Anyone involved in the world of literature is aware of the old cliché, "Write what you know." There's an unstated implication in that phrase; make sure what you know is interesting. The best novelists had no trouble grasping this concept. Ernest Hemingway only wrote what he knew, but the breadth and depth of his life experiences - fighting in World War I, living in Paris during the Roaring Twenties, reporting on the Spanish Civil War - was a large part of what made his novels compelling. Louis-Ferdinand Cé:line's Journey to the End of the Night (as well as his other works) was a glorified retelling of his experiences during WWI and later working in colonial French West Africa and the U.S. The list of great novelists who infused their writing with their varied life experiences is endless: F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Tim O'Brien, etc. No more. Today's crop of popular novelists, having missed the subtext, are "writing what they know," the likes of which is small enough to fit into a shot glass. Let's take Jhumpa Lahiri as an example. Lahiri has been widely acclaimed for her depiction of Bengali immigrants in the U.S. in her works. Beyond the fact that the "immigrant adjusting to life in a new land" trope is so burned out at this point its unbearable, Lahiri is incapable of writing anything beyond her dull life as an American of Bengali descent. Her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, was about Indian immigrants acclimating themselves to American culture. Lahiri's novel, The Namesake, beyond being poorly written and having improbable plot elements (Indians nicknaming their child "Gogol"? Uh-huh), was about the exact same thing - Indian immigrants acclimating themselves to American culture. Her most recent short story collection, Unaccustomed... posted by Donald at September 30, 2009 | perma-link | (15) comments

Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Report
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Folks who have been 2Blowhards readers for more than a year might remember that I have been thinking about writing a well-illustrated book dealing with painters who were bypassed by art history -- many of whom I've been featuring here. (My most recent (I think) posting about the proposed book is here.) I was about to send a package of material (prospectus, contents, CV, a couple of sample chapters) to publishers last fall. Then the current economic crisis hit. I thought the uncertainty of the times would make publishers more leery than usual about accepting new works, so decided to hold off until things settled down. And, by golly, things have settled down to the point where the shape of the economy over the next year or so is fairly clear. It's not a pretty sight. But it's better than things seemed last October and, as noted, it's fairly clear. I might as well get the process started. Below are extracts from the "Subject" section of the three-page prospectus I'm still fiddling with. I hope it will give you a picture of what I'm up to in this project. Critiques and suggestions would be helpful. There seems to be a hole in mainstream histories of painting starting at the point where Impressionism entered the scene. Such histories usually focus on the various modernist movements beginning with Impressionism and continuing through (among others) Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art and so on up to today’s newest artistic thing. And the painters who didn’t participate in any of these schools? They are seldom worthy of mention unless they are so famous they can’t be ignored: think Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. Also sometimes included might be painters such as John Singer Sargent, Joachim Sorolla and J.W. Waterhouse whose reputations have been on the rise for some time now. Perhaps the same could be said for non-modernist schools such as California plein-air painters active 1900-30. Indeed, there are many books about individual non-modernist painters and non-modernist painters grouped by geography and, sometimes, style. But apparently no one has tried to present a general history of non-modernist painting from 1870 to the present in book form. That is the task of this proposed book. After a few paragraphs outlining the history of modernism and non-modenrist reaction to it, I conclude my discussion of the book's subject as follows: The book proposed here is intended to provide coverage of many of the excellent artists who, for various reasons, failed to embrace modernism. The contexts mentioned in the preceding paragraphs form the framework for the presentation. Why does any of this matter? It matters because there is a good chance that modernism in its various guises lacks staying power. Arguments are presented in the enclosed draft of Chapter 1. But the gist is that modernism has strayed so far from basic human experience that future generations will not easily relate to it, unlike the... posted by Donald at August 31, 2009 | perma-link | (13) comments

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bill Links
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bill Kauffman celebrates the just-deceased Western novelist Elmer Kelton, and the hillbilly actor and '70s movie icon Warren Oates. Bill Kauffman himself is an exciting and significant cultural figure. Access all five parts of our interview with Kauffman from this posting. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 26, 2009 | perma-link | (0)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Budd Schulberg R.I.P.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A quick posting to note the passing of filmworld legend Budd Schulberg. Schulberg was probably best-known for writing the classic Hollywood novel "What Makes Sammy Run?" and the screenplay for "On the Waterfront." He was 95 years old. Carrie Rickey's short obit of Schulberg is very informative. Back here, I shared a few thoughts about "Sammy," which as far as I'm concerned is a great (and underappreciated) novel. It's also -- hallelujah -- a fast, smart, dirty-minded, and suspenseful read. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 6, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments

Crime Fiction Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Newsweek's book critic Malcolm Jones reviews some of the strengths of noir fiction, and offers some recommendations in the genre. * A nice passage from Irish novelist John Banville, who writes both literary novels and (as Benjamin Black) crime fiction: I deplore the apartheid that has been imposed on fiction writing, so that in shops the "crime books" are segregated from the "proper" novels. Of course, there are bad crime novels, many of which seem to have been written with the blunt end of a burnt stick, but the same is true of so-called literary fiction. The distinction between good writing and bad is the only one worth making. * In an interview with Tom Piccirilli, Ed Gorman recalls his ornery early days. (I raved about one of Ed's western novels here. Here's Ed's own blog.) * Enjoy some fun visual interpretations of Donald Westlake's great creation, the brutal crook Parker. The LA Times' Geoff Boucher enjoys a new graphic-novel adaptation of one of the Parker novels, and links to a trailer for John Boorman's amazing 1967 Westlake / Parker adaptation, "Point Blank." UPDATE: Whisky Prajer offers a well-illustrated rave about that graphic-novel Parker. * MBlowhard Rewind: I praised the work of the brilliant Gold Medal crime novelist Charles Williams. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 6, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Monday, July 20, 2009

LitFict and Sentences
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In case some visitors think that, in my many rants about the book-fiction world (sample one example here), I have overstated the intellectual set's commitment to literary fiction, let me present Yale's "The American Novel Since 1945." Take that course and you'd learn little if anything about postwar crime, horror, romance, or western fiction. You'd discover next to nothing about erotic fiction or humorous fiction. You'd remain clueless about the enduring influence of writers like Mickey Spillane and Jacqueline Susann. (I bet you also wouldn't wake up to the history of the postwar American publishing business.) Yet you'd emerge convinced that you'd "done" the postwar American novel. And you'd have Yale's imprimatur bolstering your confidence about that judgment. And, in case some visitors think I've overstated the intellectual set's commitment to writin' -- ie., fussing with words -- let me present The Teaching Company's "Building Great Sentences." Take that course and you'll be unlikely to discover much about how to create living-breathing characters, or how to come up with fictional situations that might conceivably pique a reader's interest. Your sentences will glitter, though. Best, Michael DIMLY-RELATED UPDATE: Sarah Weinman shares some welcome news about the recently-deceased crime-fiction giant Donald Westlake, a hero of mine. Rege Behe offers a well-judged tribute to Westlake.... posted by Michael at July 20, 2009 | perma-link | (38) comments

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Books and Publishing Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Enjoy the latest offering from Charlton Griffin, frequent 2Blowhards visitor and producer of some of the classiest audiobooks available. * Big Hollywood's Matt Peterson continues his series about conservatives and literature. * Cullen Gallagher reads and enjoys "Pick-Up," by the pulp master Charles Willeford. * Whatever became of sexy-trashy blockbuster novels? * Gerard Jones takes stock of how things are changing for book authors. * Thanks to Bryan for turning up this excellent interview with the great, and very down-to-earth, Elmore Leonard. * Here's a downside to the Kindle that I hadn't thought of before. * Why doesn't the opinion-making class appreciate light verse more? * MBlowhard Rewind: I praised the sly and satirical work of the popular novelist Ira Levin. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 2, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mad Alice
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Lit-fict vet Alice Hoffman shows how to respond classily to a negative review: here, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 30, 2009 | perma-link | (11) comments

Monday, June 29, 2009

Best Sellers: Why Read Them?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Confession time again. I can't remember the last time I bought for myself a non-fiction book on a best seller list. I know that I bought autobiographies of Lee Iacocca (the Ford and Chrysler honcho) and Chuck Yeager (the guy who broke the sound barrier), those books from 25 years or so ago. But after that.... As for fiction, I did buy every Harry Potter book. That's probably because I've always had a soft spot for science fiction where another world/civilization is made fascinating thanks to the imagination and skill of the writer. The Potter books aren't sci-fi, but they had the quality I just mentioned. In other words, I didn't buy them because they were ultra-hyper-mega best sellers: that factor was incidental. I've mentioned before that I read little fiction, this largely because I don't like getting hooked to the point my sleep suffers. So the Potter books aside, I can't even guess what the last best selling novel I read was. I did read Drury's "Advice and Consent," Michener's "Hawaii" (because I'd just visited there for the first time) and Heller's "Catch-22." Oh, and I did read "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" for a reason I no longer can begin to comprehend. These were read when the books reached paperback. I'm not counting classical fiction written many years before I got to it such as Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" or Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series. To summarize, as nearly as I can tell, I read my last non-Potter best selling novel before I turned 40. I do read a lot of non-fiction. But not best sellers. More precisely, I now never buy a book simply because it is on a best seller list. I might have read some books in recent years that might have shown up on one list or another, but that would have been happenstance. Why is that? It's because I buy books to get information in greater depth than can be provided in magazine articles, internet postings and outlines. Yet many non-fiction best sellers strike me as beefed-up versions of what I just mentioned or else deal with subjects I'm not deeply interested in. If I've already gotten the basic information in concise form elsewhere, it makes no sense to buy a book on the subject. If I'm not presently interested in a subject, taking time to read about it deprives me of the time I would spend learning about things I deem more important or interesting. We are far past the point where an individual can be conversant with everything, so I feel little guilt about ignoring Things I Should Learn About. This doesn't mean I'll never again buy a non-fiction best-seller, it's just that the odds against doing so are high. On reflection, what I've been discussing is really about life cycle stages and how they can affect one's behavior. Between my mid-teens and mid-thirties, I felt it was important to stay au courant. That might... posted by Donald at June 29, 2009 | perma-link | (9) comments

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Matt's Response to Me
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Big Hollywood's Matt Patterson responds to what I said in his interview with me. He also writes a good introduction to the New Formalism. Nice passage: Conservative authors today want to “conserve” what has come in the past, but this in itself is actually quite a radical notion in today’s literary climate. Ain't things topsy-turvy? Don't skip the comments. BONUS RELATED LINK: Joseph Phillips does an amusing job of describing "the right-wing tango." BONUS, COMPLETELY UNRELATED, LINKS: Jeremy Richey shares some Peckinpah posters, as well as some screenshots from one of The Wife's favorite movies, George Axelrod's zany 1966 SoCal satire, "Lord Love a Duck." I wrote a bit about Axelrod -- who was a major talent and a major pop-culture figure back in the '50s and '60s, but who has been largely forgotten since -- back here. Buy a copy of "Lord Love a Duck." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 28, 2009 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, May 22, 2009

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The number of print-on-demand titles published in the US has exceeded the number of traditional books produced for the first time ever. Source. A cool development, at least for those of us rooting for a more open and pluralistic book-publishing environment. Worth keeping in mind, though, is another fact that I ran across recently: The average number of copies that a book published via the POD outfit Lulu sells is one. Best, Michael UPDATE: Kelly Jane Torrance takes a smart look at these publishing developments.... posted by Michael at May 22, 2009 | perma-link | (16) comments

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New Teaching Company Sale
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The sale that the Teaching Company is currently running is a particularly attractive one. Of the many bargains that beckon, I'd especially love to try out The Physics of History, How the Earth Works, Biology, A History of Mathematics, Chaos, and Understanding Genetics. The new course that I've already pulled the trigger on, though, is The Conservative Tradition. Great topic, of course. Though conservatism has a vast and impressive pedigree, the only version of it that too many people encounter is what they see on Fox News. Hey, world: Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott aren't just enormously impressive and enlightening writers and thinkers, they might even disapprove of Glenn Beck. The course is being delivered by a great lecturer too -- Patrick Allitt, one of my fave Teaching Company profs. I've been through two of Allitt's series and I loved them both; read about 'em here and here. Fabulously smart, articulate, knowledgeable and articulate, Allitt also has a delightful manner: amused, admiring, gentle, and enthusiastic. A stuffy pedant he ain't. Sigh: Sophisticated yet accessible ... It's one of my very favorite combos. (I wrote back here about how much I've gotten out of wrestling with the history of rightie thought. Back here you can find links to all three parts of an interview I did with the brilliant traditionalist conservative Jim Kalb. Buy Jim's mind-opening book here. BTW and FWIW: Although I'm certainly interested, respectful, and sympathetic, I'm by no means a conservative. I co-write X-rated fiction, I live downtown, I move among gays, artists, and performers, and I spend most of my "thinking about politics" time wishing the world's Primarily Political People would go away and die, or at least shut up.) Among the on-sale courses are a few that I've listened to and can recommend: Buddhism by Malcolm David Eckel. A first-class survey by a winning and enthusiastic prof. (I say this, by the way, as someone who has been through dozens of intros-to-Buddhism.) Eckel has clearly gotten a lot out of Buddhism himself, and he delivers his material in an inspired way, mixing up straightforward history, explanations of the content of Buddhism, Buddhist legends and lore, and a little bit of storytelling of his own. It's an approach that might well go awry, but Eckel keeps matters moving forward, and the approach pays off, shedding mucho worthwhile extra light on the topic. He has a burly-yet-boyish energy that I enjoyed spending time with too. Religions of the Axial Age by Mark Muesse. Back in this posting I was hard on Muesse's Hinduism lecture series. (Short version: I found it informative but dry.) I had no such quibbles with this course, though, which is a real beauty. Was I unfair in my judgment of "Hinduism"? Or is Muesse one of those profs who shines when he gets a chance to do big-picture, compare-and-contrast presentations? In any case, I found "Religions of the Axial Age" not just supremely informative but enchanting. (The Axial... posted by Michael at May 19, 2009 | perma-link | (11) comments

Monday, May 18, 2009

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Big Hollywood's Matt Patterson interviews a certain M. Blowhard. (Matt's general intro is here.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 18, 2009 | perma-link | (9) comments

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- John Wiley & Sons, a textbook publisher that also creates the "For Dummies" series, employs three full-time staff members to trawl the web for unauthorized copies. In the last month, the company has sent notices out on more than 5,000 titles -- five times more than a year ago -- asking various sites to take down digital versions of Wiley’s books. Source. I've been urging youngsters for some years now to consider going into copyright law. It's a happening field, and it looks like it'll continue being a lively one for a long time to come. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 16, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Sunday, April 26, 2009

1000 Words: Patrick Dennis
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another installment in my occasional series of looks at underknown cultural phenomena. Today: Patrick Dennis, an American author of comic novels. For starters, let me pump up that description: Calling Patrick Dennis "an author of comic novels" is like describing "Gone With the Wind" as "a Civil War romance." It may be accurate but it doesn't go nearly far enough. Because in the 1950s and for much of the '60s, Patrick Dennis was huge. HUGE. At a time when writing, reading, and books really counted for something in our national life, Dennis was a star. Many of his 16 novels became bestsellers -- at one point he became the first person ever to have three books on the NYTimes bestseller list at the same time. He made millions of dollars. He was the toast of Manhattan high life. Not only were a number of his books adapted for the stage and screen, several of his characters became iconic. His madcap life-force creation Auntie Mame, for instance, was for many years as familiar a figure in America popular culture as Elvis Presley and Lucille Ball. Dennis was a larger-than-life figure himself -- an irreverent, live-it-all-out cutup whose nonwriting life, once he hit the bigtime, consisted largely of parties, balls, dinners, and sexual adventures, all of them enacted to the accompaniment of oceans of booze. You never knew quite what Pat Dennis was going to get up to next, to put it mildly. "I always start writing with a clean piece of paper and a dirty mind," he once said, and judging from his biography he might have been talking about how he approached every new day too. Despite all this, Patrick Dennis has these days been largely forgotten. If you ask a Greatest Generation person about Patrick Dennis and / or Auntie Mame, you'll likely evoke happy memories. But where his rep among younger people goes... Well, try Googling the name "Patrick Dennis." You'll turn up a helpful Wikipedia entry but very little else. He was so big once and he's so neglected now that it's a little peculiar. It's as though Frank Sinatra, say, had disappeared entirely down the memory hole. Until recently I knew little about Patrick Dennis myself. I knew of, but hadn't seen, the movie of "Auntie Mame." And I retained a memory of Camille Paglia declaring Auntie Mame a genuinely great creation. Here's Camille: "Auntie Mame" is the American "Alice in Wonderland." It is also, incidentally, one of the most important books in my life. Its witty Wildean phrases ring in my mind, and its flamboyant characters still enamor me. Like Tennessee Williams, Patrick Dennis caught the boldness, vitality, and iridescent theatricality of modern American personality. In Mame's mercurial metamorphoses we see American optimism and self-invention writ large. Anyway: For no reason that I can recall, I found myself curious. Over the last few months I've read a couple of Dennis' novels, as well as a biography of him. So... posted by Michael at April 26, 2009 | perma-link | (23) comments

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Romance Anniversary
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Harlequin (of Harlequin romance novels) turns 60 this year. * Bhetti, a smart and funny young woman who hangs out at Roissy's, has some words to say in favor of reading romance novels. * ABC celebrates the big Harlequin anniversary. Small MBlowhard rant: I do wish that many readers wouldn't be as quick to condemn and/or condescend to romance novels and romance writers as they are. In fact, it's quite amazing how prone many readers are to dismissing romance fiction, vampire fiction, and the like without ever having read any. How to explain this tendency of so many readers? My theory: It must have something to do with excessive exposure to English-lit classes. In any case: Romance fiction is dismissable because it's formulaic, you say? Response: Sonnets aren't formulaic? Rock and roll isn't formulaic? Incidentally, and FWIW, romance-reading isn't my thing by a long shot. But 1) I'm generally reluctant to condemn anything without having experienced it for myself (because I'm such a super-admirable person, of course), and 2) I'm always curious about genre books. So, many years back, I took the time to read a couple dozen romance novels. You know what I found? Surprise, surprise: Some romance novels are solid entertainments, crafted by generous and talented entertainers. I was left wondering: Why would anybody sneer at such creations, or at such creators? Let alone at the people who enjoy these creations? Related: Here's Harlequin's website. Wikipedia is very informative about both Harlequin and romances generally. One of the best of the romance novelists I read turns out to have been a man. Alias Clio is a fan of romance legend Georgette Heyer. Are you really gonna look down on the pleasures of Alias Clio? Other Popular-Fiction Links: I raved about James M. Cain's mean, brilliant, and juicy "Mildred Pierce." I praised some of the work of trash-novel diva Jackie Collins. I ranted about the class-and-snob basis of the "literary fiction" thang. Question for the day: Why are do so many people who are comfy with the idea of "popular music" and "popular movies" as "legitimate forms of entertainment that might well be art" turn their noses up at popular book-fiction? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 14, 2009 | perma-link | (57) comments

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Hardboiled Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Daer Blowhards -- * The Rap Sheet offers a farewell to the recently-deceased crime-fiction giant Donald Westlake, here and here, with tributes by many crime-fiction scenesters. Loads of good reading suggestions. * Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai (a one-man antidote to the general pussification of book-writing and book-publishing) offers his own recollections of Westlake. * Say hi to an impressive new website devoted entirely to Westlake's masterful Parker novels. * Cullen Gallagher writes a nice appreciation of the underknown pulp novelist Day Keene. As far as I'm concerned, Day Keene was a major fiction talent. You're unlikely to hear anything about him if you follow the usual "literary" press, though. * MBlowhard Rewind: I raved about Donald Westlake, who (FWIW, of course) I consider a genius, as well as one of America's greatest entertainer-artists. * Bonus link: An introduction to the influential paperback-original crime-fiction line Gold Medal Books. A question to drive home one of my favorite themes: If you'd been following contempo fiction in 1950, would you have bet that 60 years later the lowbrow Gold Medal Books would be viewed by many as having been a vital and important moment in American literary history? C'mon, be honest. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 22, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Monday, March 16, 2009

Terry Southern
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Terry Southern photographed by Stanley Kubrick Christy Rogers writes an appreciation of the brilliant American satirist Terry Southern, best known for "Dr. Strangelove" (co-written with Stanley Kubrick) and "Candy" (which Southern co-wrote with Mason Hoffenberg). In a posting I wrote about co-creating a trash novel with The Wife, I passed along a lot of my own reflections about Terry Southern. Southern, who died in 1995, is one of my art-heroes. This conjunction of Terry Southern, satire, and co-creating may just be a fluke -- but, on the other hand, when The Wife and I co-wrote and co-produced a ribald audiobook last year, Terry Southern was definitely an influence and an inspiration. Total coincidence? Christy Rogers link found thanks to ALD. Buy yourself an Arts and Letters Daily t-shirt here. Here's the Terry Southern website. I found the 1963 photo above here, where M. Bromberg has posted a very on-target and evocative appreciation of Southern's writing. If you're curious about our audiobook -- a funny and raunchy Hollywood satire, full of wildass storylines and far-out performances by gifted actors -- shoot me an email at michaelblowhard at gmail. I'll send you a link to the website that we made for the audiobook, where you can learn a bit about it, enjoy a small audio sampler, and maybe hit a "Buy Now" button. The Wife and I will probably never create anything so ambitious again. My Question for the Day is a variant on many of my rants about the entrenched academic / bookchat / lit-fict thing: Why aren't more of Terry Southern's books taught in contempo lit classes? Why isn't more made of his writing by critics? And why aren't potentially turned-on kids introduced to his work as a regular part of a literary education? My hunch: It's because Southern's books were hilarious, often dirty, showbizzy, accessible, and entertaining. Funny, rowdy, easy-to-read, and recent ... Something about that combo rubs many readin'-and-writin' authorities the wrong way. Too bad. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 16, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, March 5, 2009

More on DFW
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ron Rosenbaum contrasts the fiction of David Foster Wallace, which he doesn't like, to three novels that he does enjoy. All are detective novels. Gil Roth, who pointed Rosenbaum's piece out to me, recalls his own wrestle with DFW. Great line: "It felt as if he really needed an editor, but was stuck with enablers who believed they were publishing genius. They must’ve felt like 'the footnoting thing' was Wallace’s brand or something." Gil is always smart and shrewd about the way the book publishing world thinks and works. Best, Michael UPDATE: Alias Clio shares some thoughts about depression, depressives, and DFW. Jewish Atheist writes about why DFW was his favorite writer, here and here.... posted by Michael at March 5, 2009 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The DFW Story
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- D.T. Max's New Yorker article about David Foster Wallace -- the acclaimed literary novelist who committed suicide at the age of 46 last September -- should be of interest not just to fans of DFW's but also to those curious about this weird creature called "contemporary American literary fiction." Has enough time passed since DFW's death so that I can decently express a few scattershot observations about Wallace's life and work that aren't completely reverent? I hope so. All sympathy extended to his loved ones, of course, and I'm happy to agree that he was a brilliant and talented guy. In case you aren't aware of the legend ... Wallace emerged as a literary-world star in the '80s, while still an undergraduate at Amherst. He published a brash young novel; a lot of inventive short stories; a giant novel called "Infinite Jest" that some consider a masterpiece; and many pieces of journalism. He was known for his twisty sentences, his "maximalist" literary ambitions, and his GenX tone of sophisticated, bored, self-questioning plaintiveness. FWIW, I wasn't a fan. I wasn't even sympathetic, to be honest, though I had no reason to wish him ill either. There was just nothing about his work that hooked me. I found "Broom of the System" to be so much undergraduate showing-off; I liked a couple of his stories pretty well but found the others I tried to be a lot of juvenile grandstanding; I glanced at a couple of pages of "Infinite Jest" and thought "No thanks, I've already read too much Pynchon and DeLillo." I don't think I ever finished any of his journalistic pieces, which seemed to me to express a very peculiar combo of exhaustion and exhilaration, as though Wallace was convinced that the point of writing is to expend your vital forces chasing your thoughts around. As a person, DFW was an anxiety-ridden depressive. He had sweaty anxiety attacks while in high school; he was put on anti-depression meds while still in college; he attempted suicide several times; he was a heavy pot-smoker and drinker who eventually needed to go cold turkey; and he spent a couple of stretches in mental clinics. DFW was a total creature of academia, even so far as his family background went. His father taught philosophy, his mom taught English. Once he finished Amherst he went to Arizona for a creative-writing MFA. In the years following, he lived on book advances and by teaching creative writing at a number of different colleges. At one point, he decided that he'd burned up his interest in fiction. What did he do to try to resolve the dilemma? Why, he went back to school, this time in philosophy. In other words, in his entire life DFW almost never ventured out of academia, except to get treatment for his mental problems, or to recover from those treatments. DFW's writing was a total creature of contempo literary fiction. What was his fiction about? Language. Writing... posted by Michael at March 3, 2009 | perma-link | (52) comments

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hawks on "The 10,000 Year Explosion"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Anthropologist John Hawks reads and reacts to Cochran and Harpending's "The 10,000 Year Explosion." Verdict: "I've read most of the recent popular books about human evolution or genetics. To me, this one stands above the others." Read the 2Blowhards interview with Gregory Cochran here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 19, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

Monday, January 19, 2009

Podcast Recs 1
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Since I've spent some of the last month filling my iPod with podcasts and taking it with me on daily walks, I thought I'd pass along the highlights of my recent adventures in listening. First up: * Dan Ariely on behavioral economics. (To download the podcast, go here and do a Search on Ariely.) One of the hardest things to get used to where economics is concerned is the preference so many in the field have for constructing mathematical models. Shouldn't they be out in the world (or at least in the lab) investigating what people are like and how they tend to behave instead? Behavioral economics has brought a little realism back into the field. What built-in quirks do people tend to have? In what ways are they not "utility maximizers"? In this podcast, the behavioral economist Dan Ariely offers a lot of examples of ways in which people differ from pure-rationality automatons. The fun of the talk comes partly from the little shocks of recognition that Ariely's research delivers. Hey, life is what seems to be being discussed and described, not some geek's theory. But it also comes from Ariely's presentation style. In his scholarly way, Ariely is a real performer, with a hyperbolic-yet-droll, innocent-yet-canny tone that put me in mind of the Russian writer Sergei Dovlatov, an underknown literary writer of the 1980s. Buy a copy of Ariely's book here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 19, 2009 | perma-link | (0)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Charlton's New One
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here's the latest by the superb audiobook producer and reader Charlton Griffin. Talk about audacious, ambitious, and substantial! Have I mentioned before that audio can be a terrific way for those with gaps in their educations to fill a few of them in? Charlton has done many of the classics -- type "Charlton Griffin" into the Search box at Audible and you'll turn up numerous titles by giants. Among them: Dickens, Milton, and Polybius. At Blackstone Audiobooks -- another fab resource -- you can find many other bedrocks-of-Western-Civ, including Whitman, Tolstoy, and Kipling. There's no longer any excuse to remain an unlettered clod. Vaguely related: Back here I wrote about co-producing a raunchy and satirical audiobook with The Wife. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 16, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, January 12, 2009

More on Westlake
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of good tributes to the late great Donald Westlake: from editor/bookstore-owner Otto Penzler (a pretty terrific crime-fiction figure in his own right), and from Cullen Gallagher. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 12, 2009 | perma-link | (0)

Friday, January 2, 2009

Donald Westlake R.I.P.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was very sorry to learn that the crime fiction writer Donald Westlake has died. He was 75, and until his sudden heart attack on Wednesday evening had been as busy and active as ever. FWIW, Westlake was among my very favorite fiction writers ever -- and I do mean ever, as in "of all times." While the novels of his that I've read have ranged from fabulous to pretty-good, each and every one of them had a snazzy hook, a half a dozen fully-inhabited characters, a handful of fun plot twists, loads of satirical observations, and a big and mischievous spirit. Each and every one, in other words, delivered a generous heaping of talent and entertainment. And the man published more than a hundred different books! Though I generally avoid arguing over greatness and comparing rankings and such, let me say this in anticipation of those who would protest "How can you say that Westlake was one of the greats? Which of his books would you set up against 'Ulysses'?" I'm not saying that Westlake was one of the greats in any for-eternity, lit-crit way. I'm saying that as far as I'm concerned he was one of the greats. As for the immortality stuff: Well, history will take care of it ... I won't be around to agree or disagree anyway ... And then history may, or may not, change its mind ... So explain to me why exactly I should care? I will argue that Westlake was an awe-inspiring talent, that he was fantastically productive, and that he consistenly kept his output at a very high level. If we can't agree on this, then let's change the subject right now. The point of comparison here shouldn't be "Ulysses" anyway. No disrespect meant to James Joyce -- but aren't there plenty of reasons to grant a lot of respect to Westlake as well? After all, in the time that it took Joyce to write "Ulysses," Westlake produced dozens of hooks, scads of inspired plot twists, and crowds of lively characters. Let's get our terms straight. Westlake wasn't playing the literary set's sacrifice-it-all-for-one-masterpiece game. He was a hyper-gifted working-class writer who entertained everyday readers for a living. No, the point of comparison should be TV series. Can an episode of "The Sopranos" really be said to rival "Rules of the Game"? Obviously not. But perhaps it can be plausibly argued that "The Sopranos" as a series deserves the respect we accord the best movies and novels. My point: It's better to think of Westlake's work not as a rival to "Ulysses" but as something with a long run, something you tune into, something you can count on to deliver a lot -- something like "The Sopranos." Which maybe we can agree is plenty awe-inspiring in its own terms, and in its own right. Another good comparison: P.G. Wodehouse. Both of them tremendous entertainers; both creators of huge bodies of high-quality work. Hey, isn't it... posted by Michael at January 2, 2009 | perma-link | (7) comments

Monday, December 15, 2008

Online Writing Tools
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Paul Glazowski recommends 35 online tools for writers. Me, I'm using Google Docs as my main word processor these days. It's a nothing-special writing tool in many ways, but it's responsive, its filing system is swell, and I do love being able to get at my writing from whatever computer I happen to be at. I've also tried and liked Zoho Writer and Adobe Buzzword -- but, since there's such a thing as juggling too many logins and passwords, I've settled on Google Docs instead. As for the rest of Glazowski's tips, I can endorse Facebook (which I love), and Squarespace, which strikes me as really brilliant. If you want easy fun on the web -- commenting, linking, posting, etc -- Facebook is hard to beat. A visit to Facebook can be like a stop at the neighborhood bar, full of chance and casual interactions. And, recently, it hasn't just been the young 'uns who have been showing up on Facebook. The chances of a grownup finding old classmates, friends, and colleagues have in fact gotten pretty good. (Wired thinks that people who are thinking of becoming bloggers ought to forget it and take to Twitter or Facebook instead. I'm with Wired on this. I think that Facebook offers 99% of what most people are hoping to get from blogging while demanding about a tenth the work and effort.) If a complete website of your own is a goal, Squarespace is genius. Using drag-and-drop modules, you can create (and then revise to your heart's content) as elaborate a website as you could possibly want. It took me about an hour to become competent at using Squarespace, and within a couple of days I had myself a fun personal website that I continue to amuse myself with. Compare that to the effort involved in getting up to speed with HTML and/or Dreamweaver. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 15, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cochran and Harpending's New One
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- John Derbyshire loves Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending's new book about how the advent of civilization didn't slam the brakes on human evolution, it has instead speeded evolution up. I'm looking forward to the book myself, as one of the most bedrock of bedrock beliefs back in the day was that human evolution screeched to a halt 50,000 years ago. Fun to witness the Blank Slate mind-frame finally busting up, isn't it? 40 years of near-totalitarian denial and top-down mind-control -- man, that was one long and weird stretch. You can pre-order Cochran and Harpending's book here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 3, 2008 | perma-link | (29) comments

Friday, November 7, 2008

15 Years of Bestsellers per USA Today
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- USA Today's Bob Minzesheimer takes a look at the last 15 years of USA Today's bestseller list. What would such a thing be without J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, and Dr. Atkins? USA Today's list may be the most trustworthy bestseller list in the country, by the way. It mixes up paperbacks and hardcovers as well as fiction and nonfiction, and it includes the genres (self-help, baby-raising tips, etc) that many other lists ignore. If you want to see what the U.S. is really reading -- or at least buying and intending to read -- look at the USA Today list. FWIW -- and make of this what you will -- there isn't a lot of contempo "literary fiction" to be seen on it. Back here, I reviewed some of the failings and quirks of bestseller lists. Did you know that it's possible for a book to sell millions of copies yet never appear on a bestseller list? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 7, 2008 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friday, October 31, 2008

Software for NaNoWriMo
MIchael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- National Novel Writing Month begins tomorrow. If you're nuts enough (or exuberant enough, or whatever) to want to take part -- or if you're just someone who sometimes puts together long pieces of writing -- let me suggest buying and using some software that can make your writing projects a lot more pleasant: Scrivener and StoryMill. They're first-class examples of a new kind of writing tool that I wrote at some length about back here. FWIW, I consider these new programs the first big advance in computer writing tools since the word processor. There's no reason to bother with them if you never write anything longer than a few thousand words. But once your projects grow bigger than that, these programs can be godsends. Imagine keeping all your research, your drafts, your notes, your revisions -- everything -- not in scattered folders but in one file. Lordy, if only the Wife and I had had one of these packages back when we co-wrote our trash novel we'd have spared ourselves numerous headaches. Scrivener is probably the more versatile of the two applications. It's good for any kind of writing, where StoryMill has been optimized for fiction writers. But they're both great, and are very reasonably priced. Scrivener is a bargain at $39.95, and StoryMill is on sale until Monday for just $29.95. Now, as for whether or not it makes any sense whatsoever to write a novel these days ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 31, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fragile Popularity
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yes, yes. I know. Just because something's popular doesn't mean it has high quality. And just because something has high quality doesn't foreclose it becoming popular. Moreover, all things being equal, I think it's nice when a writer / painter / creative whatever finds fame, fortune or both during his lifetime. Still... You see, there's this schadenfreude thing. I find myself pleased when one of those writer / painter / creative whatever types who happens to crank out garbage gets his comeuppance either in his own lifetime or his hereafter. Such reputation-crashing gives me hope that many of those "creatives" who have been doing such damage to the arts will indeed "get theirs" once the wheels of history have finished their grinding. And this is not to mention my happiness when a worthy artist gets his reputation restored after having fallen from fashion's favor. A complicated business all this. Murky, too. That's because everything aside from sales statistics (volume, price per unit, etc.) is opinion-driven. Speaking of numbers-driven information, I thought it would be fun to list the top ten best-selling fiction book authors from 100, 80, 60, 40 and 20 years ago and let you mull them over and make observations. The lists were compiled by Editor & Publisher and can be found on Wikipedia pages such as this one. Here are the lists, ordered from the author of the best-selling book to number ten. 1908: Winston Churchill (the novelist, not the politician), Rex Beach, John Fox, Jr., Harold MacGrath, Frances Hodgson Burnett, F. Hopkinson Smith, Mary Johnston, Louis J. Vance, George Barr McCutcheon, Gilbert Parker 1928: Thornton Wilder, Hugh Walpole, John Galsworthy, S. S. Van Dine, Viña Delmar, Booth Tarkington, Warwick Deeping, Anne Parrish, Mazo de la Roche, Louis Bromfield 1948: Lloyd C. Douglas, Norman Mailer, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Agnes Sligh Turnbull, Betty Smith, Frank Yerby, Ross Lockridge, Jr., A. J. Cronin, Elizabeth Goudge, Irwin Shaw 1968: Arthur Hailey, John Updike, Helen MacInnes, John le Carré, Taylor Caldwell, Allen Drury, Gore Vidal, Fletcher Knebel, Catherine Marshall, Morris L. West 1988: Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, Robert Ludlum, James A. Michener, Judith Krantz, Anne Rice, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Richard Bach, Leon Uris For what it's worth (remember, I'm not at all a lit guy), I can identify only one author (Churchill) from 1908. If the list were book titles, the only familiar book name was The Trial of the Lonesome Pine (by Fox). Five names from 1928 are familiar to me, ditto for 1948, nine from 1968 and nine from 1988. The reason I knew most of names from 1968 and 1988 is because I was an adult then and the information simply seeped into my brain. One puzzling item is the reason why 1908 came off so badly. Was it simply a blah year that randomly happened? As a check, here are the author names I recognize from the entire 1900-09 decade: Winston Churchill (the fiction writer -- and I did read his... posted by Donald at October 15, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Jim Kalb's Book Is Almost Available
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Traditionalist conservative Jim Kalb's new book "The Tyranny of Liberalism" goes on sale soon. Read an interview with Jim about the book here. I've long been a fan of Jim's. His thinking strikes me as deep, his writing as helpful and clear, and his manner as both calm and patient. He makes a great and humane case for traditionalism both in what he says and how he says it. This ain't Fox News conservatism, to put it mildly. Jim's blog is here. Long ago, I interviewed Jim at some length. You can get to all three parts of the interview from this posting. I urge you to give the q&a a read: provocations and surprises (of a gentle but trenchant sort) are guaranteed. Don't skip the very interesting commentsthreads that follow the postings. Jim writes eloquently in praise of nostalgia here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 1, 2008 | perma-link | (17) comments

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Your Most Memorable Character
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- GFS3 asks five writing-world figures a good question -- “What literary character do you find most compelling and why?” -- and gets some fresh answers in response. Time for me to catch up with E.W. Hornung's "Raffles" books. Interesting the way that characters in popular fiction are so much more likely to jump out in three dimensions than modern lit-fict characters are, isn't it? What to make of this? A thought experiment: Would it be fair to say that some of Jackie Collins' characters have more "life" in them than any of Salman Rushdie's do? Seems a perfectly reasonable claim to me. After all, Collins' people get up and walk around under their own steam from page one, where Rushdie's characters emerge vaguely over the course of hundreds of pages from huge (and to my mind exhausting) blasts of writin'-writin'. Now, what if we value "the creation of lively and persuasive characters" more highly than we do "the creation of complex and glittering word-clouds"? (Let alone "authorial showing-off.") There's no reason a respectable reader shouldn't have such a value-set, is there? If we can indeed grant that, then perhaps it would also be OK to rank Jackie Collins as a better writer -- at least in one very important sense -- than Salman Rushdie. Fair? Unfair? Bonus point: Don't miss Dark Party Review's collection of "5 Questions" interviews with authors. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 23, 2008 | perma-link | (27) comments

Monday, September 22, 2008

Good Reading / Good Writing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Gil Roth has been working his way through a lot of Montaigne, the 16th century Frenchman who's often said to be the inventor of the personal essay. (Learn more here.) Here's Gil's latest encounter with the genius. I'm a big Montaigne fan myself, though Gil has got me feeling embarrassed about how little of the master's work I've actually read. Long ago I wrote an intro to the mindblowing philosopher Stephen Toulmin. Montaigne is one of Toulmin's heroes too. * Gil points out a fab Kassia Krozser blogposting about the book publishing business. One of Kassia's points is that the people most likely to bemoan the end of books are literary people. Great quote: "Don’t insult the readers, man. It’s just bad form, and you really, really need people to buy your books." Say it, sister. More: Publishing, like the rest of its entertainment brethren (and I understand that even thinking they’re part of entertainment world pains some in the industry. Get. Over. Yourselves. Thanks.), caters to a diverse audience. Those who see the sky falling are those who see their niches not performing. In part because those niches never were as big and profitable as legend suggested. Why are so many literary people such a pinched and depressive bunch? Back here I compared books people (often introverted, solitary, and high-minded) with movie people (usually extraverted, sociable, and opportunistic). * Don't let this get around, but: Good writing -- even of a belles-lettres sort -- has never always come wrapped in a pretty highbrow-magazine or prestigious-book-publisher cover. These days especially I'm stumbling into high-quality writing in all kinds of crazy places. One example: If you have a taste for smart and shrewd artsyak, why not treat yourself to a browse of the Amazon reader and viewer reviews written by Ivy Lin. Ivy is an opera, a ballet, and a classic-film buff, but her discussions of these works and performances are anything but stuffy -- they're alive, informed, perceptive, appreciative and funny. I'm not sure I'd dub her a "critic," exactly -- but who cares about that? Ivy makes you want to join her at a performance and then blab with her about it afterwards. Coming from an enthusiastic artsyakker like me, that's intended as totally high praise. Back here I wrote a few words about that perpetually good topic, critics vs. bloggers. * Scientists are starting to pay attention to the very real miracle that is narrative storytelling. Back here I riffed through the work of some fab thinkers who are 'way ahead of the scientists on this one. Neuroscience and evolutionary biology finally show some re-spect for the basics of audience involvement and narrative suspense, baby -- and it's about effin' time. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 22, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What has your response been to the suicide of David Foster Wallace? In an email he gave me permission to copy and paste, frequent 2Blowhards visitor PatrickH wrote an eloquent passage: I am so depressed over the death by suicide of David Foster Wallace. Why, I’m not sure. I just am. He was a kind of hero to me...a man of hugely varied interests, of great curiosity, and in his own way, fearless. I read and learned from (and was massively frustrated by) his book on the mathematical concept of infinity, even though it was organized in such a perverse way as to be virtually useless to the reader. Infinite Jest is a book so overrich with, well, everything, that I could reread it a thousand times and still not get to the bottom of it. Sigh. I knew he was married, and I am angered that he would treat his wife this way (Spalding Gray made me angry in the same way), but I was even more appalled at first because I thought he had children. It doesn’t make me any less depressed by his loss, but it does make me less angry, knowing he hasn’t abandoned any children. I have no idea why he did what he did, and for all I know he could have been very sick physically, or perhaps mentally (I’ve known what it’s like to be clinically depressed), so he no doubt had what must have felt to him to be compelling reasons. But self-murder is still murder, and to take a human life is a kind of cosmic blasphemy that only gets more difficult for me to accept as I get older. Sigh. Damn. I wish he hadn’t done what he did. Because I was never a fan of DFW's writing, my own response was the generic one I usually have to news of suicides: "I'm so sorry"; "Gosh that's awful"; "I wonder what the real story was"; and "What an asshole." Killing yourself -- unless we're talking about horrendous, physical, end-of-life situations -- may be an individual's own business in some ways, but it's also often a terrible thing to do to the people who know and care about you. Gil Roth was saddened by DFW's death too, and links to a couple of worth-reading pieces. I wrote some unappreciative and ungallant words about DFW's writing in the comments here -- but read the posting for the comments by Mr. Tall, who makes a very interesting case for DFW. Best, Michael UPDATE: Because I'm an asshole too with no sense of the decencies, I'm going to venture a probably-unfair and definitely-out-of-line thought. Here it is, and do take it with a giant grain of salt: "DFW's suicide illustrates something for me: that the combo of philosophy, 'literary fiction,' early acclaim, academia -- DFW was the son of teachers and spent much of his own life teaching -- and playing the 'genius' game is one seriously unhealthy... posted by Michael at September 18, 2008 | perma-link | (44) comments

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

More Westlake
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Is the crime writer Donald Westlake America's greatest living fiction-writer? I'm certainly open to the possibility -- I've praised Westlake repeatedly, maybe even monotonously, on this blog. (See here for one long-winded example.) In fact, I'm happy to consider Westlake a genius. Lordy, if he doesn't qualify, which of our fiction-writers does? The LA Times' Richard Rayner -- writing about Westlake's "Parker" novels -- expresses a similar kind of X-treme admiration: The Parkers read with the speed of pulp while unfolding with almost Nabokovian wit and flair ... not so much masterpieces of genre, just masterpieces, period. I'd get rid of that weasely "almost" myself. But Rayner's piece is -- by hyper-cautious mainstream book-journalism standards, anyway -- an excellent and daring one. It's nice when Americans take a little appreciative note of the riches that are already ours, isn't it? Now, how long until we see the NYTimes Book Review Section venturing to publish such an appreciation? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 16, 2008 | perma-link | (14) comments

Monday, September 8, 2008

Quote for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Tom Conoboy, who has been thinking about American "metafiction," offers a sensible question: I guess this is the problem with anything experimental ... Eventually, the experiment has to either lead somewhere or stop. We've had metafiction for forty years (and more) from Auster, Barthelme, Barth, Pynchon et al. They've broken down the barriers. But is there anything beyond? Or do you, in the end, have to return to traditional storytelling in order to tell a story? Source. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 8, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Tom Wolfe on Writers and College
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Tom Wolfe responds to questions literary on Time's web site (hat tip, Matthew Continetti, The Weekly Standard). One item: What are your feelings on the current state of fiction? Andrew Herold, JOHANNESBURG There's so little of it now that it's pathetic, and it's pathetic all over. Writers come from master-of-fine-arts programs now. If you add up the college education of Steinbeck, Hemingway and Faulkner, you get to spring break of freshman year. This comes from a guy who has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale. I, myself branded with those scarlet letters, tend to agree that college isn't all it's supposed to be -- and should do for you. Discuss. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at August 31, 2008 | perma-link | (23) comments

Monday, August 25, 2008

Manny Farber, RIP
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was very sorry to learn that the painter and film critic Manny Farber has died. He was 91. I loved his art (a few examples are here) and his criticism. The Wife and I spent a little time hanging out with Manny and his wife, the artist Patricia Patterson (they often wrote together), and I can report that I found him a lovable guy: spikey, difficult, and maybe even a little paranoid, but brainy, funny, and soulful too. There can't be many critics who made as big an impact on a medium with a single volume of writing as Manny did on movies with his legendary "Negative Space." But, as far as I could tell, his heart was really in painting. Half of him may have been a wisecracking, off-center, neurotic intellectual -- but his bigger half was a color-drunk west coast sensualist. Some highlights from the press and the blogosphere: David Chute offers some personal reflections, a lot of quotes, and a sensible evaluation. A 2006 Duncan Shepard memoir of his friendship with Manny and Patricia is also a fine snapshot of an amazing era in American art. Michael Sragow recalls his own friendship with Manny. Carrie Rickey recalls Manny's influence, as well as his impact as a teacher. Robert Pincus offers an appreciation of Manny's art and supplies a good short biography of him too. Green Cine Daily rounds up many more links. In sadness, Michael... posted by Michael at August 25, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Genre Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Polly Frost bemoans "audio overload" in contempo horror films. One especially concise, "I wish I'd said that myself!" passage: "A person’s nerves can only take so much before they tune out entirely." * Vince Keenan is dazzled by a new Lawrence Block novel. * Andrew Klavan makes some good psychological-crime novel suggestions. As it happens, psychological suspense is my own favorite narrative genre. I wrote about the genre back here. * I see that New York's legendary Mysterious Bookstore has just started a blog. Many of the entries are written by crime-fiction dean Otto Penzler himself. * Listen to an interview with Otto Penzler -- who is, IMHO, a major figure in contemporary American book-fiction -- here. Is it a complete coincidence that the interview was published by a rightie outfit? Sigh: Why doesn't the leftie-arty set see more in genre fiction? It may be worth pointing out that genre fiction is, in the U.S. at least, the book-fiction of "the people." Hey, didn't lefties used to make a big deal out of their commitment to "the people"? * MBlowhard Rewind: I raved about two novels that struck me as genuine 20th century greats -- but that you won't find on any official canon: James M. Cain's mean yet fullbodied "Mildred Pierce," and Francis Iles' sly, creepy, and beyond-brilliant "Before the Fact." (UPDATE: Mr. Tall enjoyed "Before the Fact" too.) * A fab bit from a recent Robert Townshend comment about American crime writing: There are no grand moral backgrounds, no straining for hard-boiled glamour. The prose is level, which always helps. The evil is shabby and domestic. I feel relaxed-in-a-good-way when I pick up a Goodis or James M. Cain, also Woolrich, Fredric Brown, others. The quality is very uneven -- nearly all these guys died of the booze -- but I usually pick up their works with a sense of relief and refreshment. And ain't that well-said? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 20, 2008 | perma-link | (10) comments

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Immersion in Another Life
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I almost never read multi-volume biographies. The only one I distinctly remember having read is William Manchester's two-volume effort taking Winston Churchill from birth to becoming Prime Minister. While Manchester put a lot of effort into the two Churchill books, he also wrote a lot of others; this biography is a lesser part of his literary legacy taken as a whole. Writers such as Emil Ludwig cranked out biographies of several subjects during their prolific careers. Then there are writers who concentrate (consecrate?) their career on only one person. Not being a Lit major or disciplined bibliophile, I can't rattle off names of extreme cases who spent essentially all of their careers chronicling a sole subject. I'm sure some savvy readers can provide examples. So let me at least toss out the name of John Richardson, who has written three parts of a projected (and not likely to be completed) four-volume biography of artist Pablo Picasso. The three volumes can be found here, here and here. Info on Richardson is here. Richardson seems to have written a few other books to help pay the bills for his Picasso project, so Picasso wasn't his life work, strictly speaking. And he had justification writing about Picasso because we knew the man. Some day I might get around to reading one of the books. Although the spending of decades to write a large biography of someone of importance is indeed a great service to many readers, I find it strange behavior. True, throwing oneself wholeheartedly into a cause is a disease of many young people. And having a "career" is a form of long-term devotion, though its motivation might well be wealth and a certain degree of notoriety or perhaps fame. But to devote one's professional life to the cause of re-living another human being's life seems, well, ... odd. Granted, a biographer needs to learn and report on a lot more than the details of a life; context is required to make sense of it. Perhaps the task isn't as limiting as it might seem. So maybe it's me that's the odd one who doesn't quite get the concept that vicariously living someone else's life can be more rewarding than living one's own. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at August 14, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Monday, July 28, 2008

Quote for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Patrick Milliken -- who works at Scottsdale, Arizona's superb crime-fiction bookstore the Poisoned Pen -- graduated from college with a degree in literature. When he started working at the bookstore he knew very little about crime fiction. Since then ... [I] have done my best to make up for lost time ... I remember a great quote from (blues great) Lightnin' Hopkins when he was asked if some of the guys in his band could read music. He said "Some of 'em do, but it don't hurt 'em none." So many students of literature are spoon-fed the canon and never learn about the great stuff that exists out there on the margins. I was amazed by the sheer breadth and quality of crime fiction that's out there, and I think much of the best writing today is done in the genre. That was my experience too. Fancy degrees in lit from fancy colleges ... Easy familiarity with the usual big-city debates and publications ... Unconsciously snobbish attitudes ... Then -- just because I was curious about these categories of fiction that so many of my colleagues and friends sneered at without having tried -- I dared to crack open a few contempo genre novels. (Talk about forbidden literature!) Then a few more. Soon I was buttonholing friends and saying "There's amazing stuff being written and published in non-literary settings! Why aren't we being told about this? And why is our own class claiming that the only fiction worth taking note of is literary fiction? It's a lie!" FWIW: The only thing in Patrick Milliken's quote that I'd dispute is his description of genre fiction as something "at the margins." In practical fact, it's literary fict that's at the margins. Why on earth is such a big deal made of it? More here. Finnish nonfiction author Juri Nummelin writes that American hardboiled fiction is "the best literature in the world." Half of me thinks, "Well, that's a reasonable and defensible position." The other half of me goes "Fuckin' A it is!!" Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 28, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Literary RIPs
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back in those happy days when trilobites ruled the planet and I was taking English classes in college, the literary scene included poetry, short stories and the perennial hazy shadow of The Great American Novel. And now, there is desolation or a seriously good imitation of it. Poetry? Pretty invisible aside from precious little journals. True, Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball include it from time to time in The New Criterion, but the cause is pretty well lost for the near term. And I'm no help. Although I'm capable of writing the stuff, I have zero interest in reading it. Moreover, my prospects of becoming the Lone Ranger in that regard are zilch on steroids. Short stories? When I was a kid, mass-circulation magazine such as Saturday Evening Post and Collier's -- not to mention the women's magazine my mother read -- had lots of short fiction to complement their other articles. Today, mass-circulation magazines that include fiction represent a diminished species. My impression is that, aside from anthologies, short fiction is mostly found in "little magazines" and genre magazines (think mystery, sci-fi). As for The Great American Novel, I'm not sure that there ever was such a thing. Rather, it was a semi-mythical Quest that writers with a couple of halfway decent-sellers under their belts wanted to take on. Maybe the whole idea was simply a joke. Still, I've seen it mentioned for about as long as I can remember. Actually, the notion of encapsulating a large nation is a single novel seems absurd. And it was absurd even in the time of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis; Small-town Minnesota or big-city Illinois are not each other, nor are they Pennsylvania coal-mining country, the Deep South or Monterey's canneries. About the only country remotely capable of being encapsulated by a work of fiction is the Vatican, and even that would be a toughie to pull off. Later, Donald UPDATE: Mulling over the concept of The Great American Novel 15 minutes after posting the above, I suppose the phrase might have to do with a great novel written by an American. This would make sense in the context of American cultural inferiority to Europe that lasted into the 20th century. However, the phrase doesn't scan that way. The implication I've always drawn is that the theme of such a novel must be about America and reveal much about the character of the country. That is, the whole package -- author, subjects, theme -- must be home-grown. Since I never was an English major in college, I'll cop out and plead ignorance, letting Michael and others more familiar with the game take over in Comments.... posted by Donald at July 23, 2008 | perma-link | (49) comments

Friday, July 11, 2008

More on Disch
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of excellent memoir-appreciations of the novelist-critic-poet Thomas Disch, who died by his own hand last weekend: John Clute, Elizabeth Hand. (Links thanks to Dave Lull.) Disch was an amazing talent. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 11, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Janwillem Van de Wetering, R.I.P.
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Just a few days after Thomas Disch's suicide, word comes from Sarah Weinman that another genre-fiction giant has fallen: Janwillem Van de Wetering, dead at 77. I wrote a brief appreciation of Van de Wetering back here. Van de Wetering wasn't just an oddball creator of quirky police procedurals, he was one of my favorite contemporary artist-entertainers. His publisher is the excellent Soho Press. EuroCrime reprints the Radio Netherlands report of his death. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 10, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Thomas Disch
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A quick posting to acknowledge, with sadness, the recent death -- at 68, from suicide -- of the audacious, accomplished, and super-productive sci-fi writer and poet Thomas Disch. Disch, who was born in Iowa and came to New York City as a young man, was a real phenomenon, and a much under-appreciated artist. He was a prominent part of the New Wave movement in sci-fi in the '60s, which sought to take sci-fi out of the hands of 12 year old boys and introduce adult themes and sophisticated techniques into it. He wrote a popular children's book; an opera libretto; numerous volumes of numerous different kinds of poetry; excellent theater reviews; horror novels; and several volumes of poetry and genre criticism. Years ago I enjoyed a wickedly satirical Disch masque. He even wrote, back in the days of computer text adventures, one of the best of them (so it's said -- no experience in the field myself), "Amnesia." A giant, in my opinion. (Freakily enough, I was asked just a couple of days ago which figure from the field of sci-fi I'd most enjoy meeting in person. Thomas Disch was my answer.) Not that you'd have learned a lot about him by following the usual literary gatekeepers -- The New Yorker, for example. "I have a class theory of literature," he once said. "I come from the wrong neighborhood to sell to The New Yorker. No matter how good I am as an artist, they always can smell where I come from." The NY Times Book Review Section didn't make enough of him either, but it's nice to read this good Douglas Martin obit of Disch in the daily Times. Edward Champion writes movingly about Disch here, and shares a podcast of what seems to be the last interview Disch ever did. Ed Gorman's verdict on Disch: I can't say I kept up wth his novels. For all their skill, even genius, there was a bitterness in them that put me off. I'm sure this marks me as hopelessly square but so be it. He was easier to appreciate, for me, in shorter form and he wrote many excellent short stories from early on to well into his later career. Ed may not have loved the novels -- but you did notice that he used the word "genius," didn't you? Here's Disch's LiveJournal blog, where he published most of the writing that he did during the last several years. Last entry: July 2nd. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 8, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Evolving College Bookstores
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- If you attended the University of Michigan, you might not have the slightest idea of what I'm writing about: the college bookstore. True, there were and are bookstores atop the hill in Ann Arbor that sell textbooks, art and engineering supplies, notebooks, pens, pencils and even college-logo sweatshirts and beer mugs. It's also true that the original Borders store was there -- though that comparatively cozy establishment is gone and a huge newer one is around the corner and down Liberty Street. But none of those are bookstores controlled by the university or perhaps the student association, and that's what this post is about. (Okay, I over-dramatized. Gotta snare eyeballs somehow. Those non-Borders Ann Arbor bookstores are pretty much the same as "official" college bookstores aside from the nature of the ownership and for-profit/non-profit status.) Speaking of Borders (and Barnes & Noble), before they went big-time it was often the college bookstore that was the most comprehensive in town. That was true in Seattle, where the student association-owned University [of Washington] Bookstore reigned for decades. It had its rivals, of course. Across the street for many years was the for-profit Washington Bookstore that also sold textbooks and college-related items. Downtown department stores used to have fairly decent book departments, and there once was a large used-book store downtown. Nevertheless, the University Bookstore was It for a long time and I still hold fond memories of its glory days. My fondest memory is of the day Sophia Loren waltzed through the lobby wearing a bright red dress. The University Bookstore has several branches, some of which seem harder to justify than others. Besides the main site on a business street a block from campus, there are branches at the student union building and the medical school: that's okay. Also okay are branches at the UW brand-extension campuses (University of Washington Bothell, University of Washington Tacoma). On the other hand there was a bookstore branch in the heart of Seattle's business district for a number of years. It was situated a few blocks from where the original UW was, but the university departed for its present site in the mid-1890s. And there is a campus-less branch across Lake Washington in Bellevue. It sells textbooks. Not textbooks for UW classes, but instead for classes in private secondary schools. And of course it sells trade books, school supplies, logo gear and the rest. I also see that there is yet another branch in a suburb north of Seattle, not near a campus. This seems a far step removed from a student-services bookstore, even though the non-student items sold probably contribute to the support of the original functions of selling textbooks and supplies. When I entered Dear Old Penn, the campus bookstore was wedged into one end of the basement floor of Houston Hall, the student union building. Yes it was cramped. But the charm of that was enhanced by something so odd that it is unique in my... posted by Donald at July 3, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reading Journal: "Gross National Happiness"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Arthur C. Brooks' book is a survey of happiness studies, combined with political-policy suggestions. Did Brooks write the book as a response to Richard Layard's "Happiness"? Where the British Layard -- a Labour life peer in the House of Lords -- uses happiness studies to bolster up a traditional social-democratic agenda, Brooks looks at the same (or similar) data and reaches mostly conservative conclusions: Economic opportunity raises people's happiness levels, where social-welfare taxing-and-spending lowers them. So let's promote opportunity and be wary of government programs. But Brooks isn't dogmatic, and he's responsive to the evidence. If marriage, family, and religion matter to happiness, so do job-satisfaction, professional success, charitable giving, and volunteer work. Short version: There's a lot to be said for solid values, and for living 'em. This is a pleasing point-of-view to me. But in the case of both books, I enjoyed the well-done happiness-studies surveys far more than the op-ed arguments. The main reason is dopily basic: I'm simply hyper-skeptical of using happiness studies as a basis for setting policy. I mean, happiness? Talk about a soft, still young, and easy-to-interpret-in-a-zillion-ways social so-called "science." Although I do think that "if a policy is clearly making us miserable, then why are we pursuing it?" isn't a bad argument. And I do celebrate the fact that economists are studying happiness. Anything that introduces a bit of humanity into the field, eh? Softness isn't just squishiness. It's also a big part of life, and well worth our attention. FWIW, although Layard's book is much the more fluent read, Brooks' book -- despite being a bit plodding and earnest -- strikes me as subtler, fresher, and more original. One especially nice passage comes in the midst of a look at the fact that, in the U.S., political conservatives are, as a bunch, markedly happier than political liberals. Why should this be the case? The American left has occupied itself for decades with the plight of victims -- victims of discrimination, of class, of circumstance, and of exploitation -- who lack control over their fate. In many cases, such as during the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, this focus was not only justifiable, but noble and important for America, and instrumental in giving victims more control over their lives. Bu inasmuch as the American left is now a coalition of groups that define themselves as victims of social and economic forces, and inasmuch as liberals encourage these feelings of victimization in order to mobilize votes, liberal leaders inevitably make themselves and their constituents unhappy. Not a bad shot at an explanation. Semi-related: Friedrich von Blowhard expressed reservations about happiness studies here. I mused at length about free-marketeers and happiness studies here. Richard Layard talks to -- inevitably -- the Guardian. Here's a video interview with Arthur C. Brooks; here's a text interview with him. Buy a copy of "Gross National Happiness" here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 26, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Changing Reading Habits
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- About a year ago I wrote about how I no longer could get very motivated to read books by or about currently active politicians. Today I thought about Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism, wondering when the paperback edition might come out and whether I should buy a cut-priced hardcover edition (they seem to cut prices when the paperbacks arrive) or simply buy a paperback. Or perhaps I should wait until the paperbacks go on the remainder shelf and pay even less. Then I began to wonder whether I should buy the book at all. Here is my dilemma: (1) I enjoy reading Jonah's stuff; but (2) I think that I pretty well know his basic argument and many of the supporting examples he probably used. Add that to the fact that, since retirement, my book buying budget is a shadow of what it used to be. Ah, the indecision. A larger issue is that it's no longer politician books that don't seem worth reading, it's almost any book about contemporary politics and issues. Why is that? One reason might be because I've been around long enough to have witnessed a good deal of what goes on under the political sun. Or maybe it has to do with the Internet. Thanks to political blogs and websites, it's easy to stay current with issues. And even issues that were current months back while a political book was being written are fairly easy to remember. So why pay good money for a book that about things you already basically know? Nevertheless, political issues books keep pouring off the assembly lines like those political biographies I grumbled about earlier. So there must be a market for the stuff out there, and I'm just not part of it. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at June 24, 2008 | perma-link | (16) comments

Friday, June 20, 2008

"Mommie Dearest"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When Christina Crawford published "Mommie Dearest" in 1978 the book caused a sensation. Christina -- who had been adopted and raised by the movie star Joan Crawford -- accused Crawford of having been a drunk, as well as a physically abusive parent. The book was one of the first warts-and-all celeb-offspring memoirs, and it was soon followed by many others. (It was a major publishing event, in other words.) Christina had herself a bestseller, and was celebrated for her courage. She was also accused of exaggerating and even lying about events. On the 30th anniversary of its publication, "Mommie Dearest" is being reissued. Christina has given The Guardian's Elizabeth Day her first interview in a decade. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 20, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, June 13, 2008

I Am Not A Plotter
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I had a cold the first part of the week and, of necessity, resorted to light reading to pass some of the time. On the Internet or someplace else (I already have forgotten where), the name Mycroft Holmes came up. Mycroft was Sherlock's older, heavier, less-energetic, but smarter brother. Of course I knew of Mycroft, but realized that I had never read any of the stories where he was involved. So I checked out the Wikipedia entry in the above link, noted the names of the appropriate stories, grabbed my "complete works" Holmes book off the shelf and dug in. Having dispatched a couple of Mycroft entries, I continued with some other short stories, concluding (as of last night) with "Silver Blaze" -- the one containing the famous passage where Holmes and Inspector Gregory have the following exchange, Gregory speaking first: "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." "The dog did nothing in the night-time." "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes. In case you haven't read that story I won't toss in any "spoiler" material. I will say that the yarn was entertaining in its way, as are most Sherlock Holmes stories, though the greatest draw for the reader is the personality of Holmes himself. It is for me, anyway. I should add that when I do read mystery stories (and I seldom read fiction of any kind, I'm semi-sorry to admit), I seldom cross wits with the writer, trying to guess who the guilty party is. I simply go with the narrative flow, especially if I have a cold and don't feel much like thinking about anything. Mysteries are a specialized kind of story-telling where grand plot themes such as "dealing with evil or misfortune" or "the transition to true adulthood," or whatever they actually are, seldom or never come into play. Characterization tends to be minimal as well -- especially in the space-limited short story form. There, the people the protagonist deals with are usually little more than one-dimensional "types" whose personalities can be selected by the writer to help distract the reader from other clues dropped along the narrative way. Even so, mysteries definitely do have plots. That means I can never be a mystery writer. Or a science-fiction writer or a Western writer. Or, for that matter, a writer of any kind of fiction. The reason is simple: I am all but incapable of concocting plots of any kind. Don't know why: I just can't. This isn't simple ignorance, mind you. I've even read a book about plotting, not that it changed anything one bit. I just [Sniff] don't have that gene. Still, I can almost imagine how Doyle worked out "Silver Blaze" before he set to writing it. He probably first thought of the conclusion and the guilty party. Then he must have worked up key clues along with distractions. After... posted by Donald at June 13, 2008 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Charlton Goes to BEA
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- So far as trade book publishing goes -- "trade book publishing" is the branch of book publishing concerned with the kinds of books that you run into in typical bookstores -- the main annual event is Book Expo America. BEA is a trade convention where publishers display their upcoming wares to buyers and to the press, and where agents and representatives dicker over publishing rights. BEA is always quite a spectacle. Around 2000 exhibitors show up; around 30,000 people attend. Authors shake hands and sign books, freebies are handed out, and parties aren't in short supply. I've been to around 15 books conventions myself, and I always enjoyed them. People wear badges, swap stories, catch up with gossip, and have adventures. The Expo floor is full of zany displays. Extra added attraction: There's no better antidote to the lies you may have been fed as a literature student. My main reaction the first time I attended a books convention? "Oh, I get it now. It's a business. Sort of." This year, BEA took place in Los Angeles, and frequent 2Blowhards visitor and commenter Charlton Griffin was there to capture some of the action with his digicam. Explore Charlton's record of the BEA here. Here's my favorite of Charlton's BEA vidclips: One of the best readers and producers of audiobooks out there, Charlton has just released his version of Polybius' "The Histories." Buy a copy and download it here. Charlton also points out that Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR's final Commie leader, has outed himself as a Christian. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 11, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, June 5, 2008

"Foundations of Western Civilization"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thomas F.X. Noble's lecture series is a topnotch Teaching Company offering. It's a great intro to Western Civ -- the one you probably should have taken as a Freshman but skipped, or that you did take as a Freshman and that wasn't very good, or that was perfectly OK but that you didn't pay enough attention to. Guiding the listener from pre-history to the 1600s, Noble delivers both the classical basics as well as a lot in the way of more open, searching, and complex material. His virtues as a presenter and summarizer are many. He's good at reminding us that people in, say, 1400 had no idea what their actions would lead to. He's modest about what's known, and about what can be known. He's informative about disputes and controversies. He regularly reminds us that women were part of the Western Civ story, and he doesn't fall for the idea that history consists of nothing but Great Men and their battles -- though he doesn't forget about them either. And, though the material is crisp, focused, and well-rehearsed, his voice and mind are alive. He never drones; he's full of fervor, humor, and enthusiasm. (A small technical note: I'm awestruck by the way Noble moves back and forth between the big picture and the closeup, and knows exactly when the audience needs such a shift.) Two small misgivings. 1) I wish that Noble made more use of genetics and linguistics. 2) I'm always more curious than historians seem to be about how people paid their bills. But these are just minor quibbles. Noble's series is so good that it made me wonder why such a class should need to be delivered ever again. Can anyone do better? FWIW, my main idiot reaction was, "Wow, that medieval period was really interesting!" You can buy Noble's series here, though I suggest waiting until The Teaching Company puts it on sale, when it'll cost about 1/3 its list price. For more Teaching Company recommendations (from visitors as well as from me), type "Teaching Company" into the Search box in the left-hand column of this blog. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 5, 2008 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Janwillem Van de Wetering
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Joe Queenan is pigging out on glum Scandinavian mystery writers. (UPDATE: Link fixed.) Of the authors he mentions I've only read a few. I do love the work of one of them -- Janwillem Van de Wetering, though he's anything but glum. Instead, Van de Wetering's tone tends to the whimsical, the playful, and the philosophical. He strolls through situations and personalities, musing about them as he meanders along. Mysteries are often spoken of as a closed form that questions but inevitably reinforces the status quo. That doesn't hold at all for Van de Wetering's novels, which are about as "open" as can be. Yes, a crime-conundrum is posed and is (usually) solved. But the final effect is searching and marveling -- anything but rote or formulaic, let alone status-quo-reinforcing. (Not that there's anything wrong with reinforcing the status quo!) Though he's working in the police-procedural genre, Van de Wetering's touch is far more akin to the spare and intuitive music of Basho's "Narrow Road to the Deep North" than it is to, say, the soulful drive of Ed McBain. I'd imagine that anyone who has enjoyed Kurt Vonnegut would enjoy Van de Wetering's mysteries. His novels are eccentric and delightful entertainments as well as fast easy-reading, but they're deep and rewarding experiences too. That's an awfully nice -- and quite addictive -- combo. His memoirs about some time he spent in Zen monasteries are also awfully good. (Here, here, here.) Read more about Janwillem Van de Wetering at Wikipedia. Here's a helpful list of recommendations by a fan who has read more Van de Wetering than I have. If you want to taste-test Van de Wetering before committing to a book, this very amusing review of a biography of the great Buddhism-diva Alexandra David-Neel should serve. It has the real Van de Wetering flavor. If I had any energy this morning I'd make the case that Van de Wetering is an under-recognized major artist, and that 99% of the lit-fict crowd is as fleas before his talent and achievement. I do indeed believe all that, but I'm a little short on combative zing today. Semi-related: I raved about Francis Iles' "Before the Fact," a brilliant British mystery novel that struck me as one of the best 20th century novels I've ever read. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 27, 2008 | perma-link | (6) comments

Monday, May 26, 2008

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I enjoyed this retrospective by The Guardian's literary editor Robert McCrum, who is stepping down after ten years. (CORRECTION: Thanks to Britishreader, who points out that McCrum was actually literary editor of The Observer, not The Guardian.) One of the many striking facts from his piece: In 1996, Amazon sold just $16m worth of books to 180,000 customers. By 2007, sales had soared to $3.58bn in 200 countries. A satisfying companion piece to McCrum's is Robert Darnton's new essay about books and digitization. (Link thanks to ALD.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 26, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hot Numbers
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Diane Patterson likes a spicey read but wants the sex to mean something, dammit. Nice passage: I am one of those readers who is very, very happy about the boom in erotica in books. I don’t always want explicitness in my sex scenes, but when I do I prefer graphic. The problem has been, however, that erotica seems to mean, “As many combinations as possible, with a minimum of one per chapter.” (E.g. anything by Black Lace, which doesn’t publish novels so much as Twister games set in print.) I don’t want to see every character banging everyone and anyone; I want there to be some plot-worthy purpose to all this sex going on. It’s like black comedy: it still has to be comedy. Erotic novels still have to be novels. (Link thanks to visitor Julie Brook.) * Alt-porn starlet Sequoia Redd thinks that Abby Winters, I Shot Myself, and Beautiful Agony have added a lot to the eroticism and porn market. Nice passage: I did not make it to the AEE or the AVNs this year, but when I heard about what the team at Abby Winters were going to go there to do I felt like screaming “Hell YES, finally!”. A group of empowered, healthy, intelligent women challenging men to play speed chess, performing yoga, and engaging their fans in an arena where young women are usually exploited in an unhealthy way, how awesome?! This is exactly what the morons in the porno industry need to see. Peter especially should appreciate this Sequoia posting. (NSFW) Interesting to learn that Sequoia was inspired by the film "Dangerous Beauty." It's one of the rare straightforwardly sexual films that many women like. A few others: "Lie With Me," "The Lover," and "Sex and Lucia." * Semi-related: I blogged about a bunch of books about sex by women. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 24, 2008 | perma-link | (10) comments

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- More video material has been uploaded to YouTube in the past six months than has ever been aired on all major networks combined. My source for this is Michael Wesch, a Kansas State University cultural anthropologist. A project that Wesch runs called Digital Ethnography can be explored here. Who says we aren't living through an astounding period in cultural and media history? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 22, 2008 | perma-link | (5) comments

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Marathon Writer I Ain't
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I have Terry Teachout envy. No, I don't envy everything about him, though there is a lot to admire. Specifically, I envy his productivity as a writer. For example, he writes 1.5 columns a week for The Wall Street Journal. He has a monthly column in Commentary and posts an occasional book review on their web page. He has a blog (see the above link). He writes books -- biographies of H.L. Mencken, George Balanchine and (forthcoming) Louis Armstrong. What I find astonishing is his ability to crank out thousands of words over a few days on his book projects. And the results are good-quality writing. Teachout has even mentioned on his blog that he has the ability to estimate how many hours it will take him to produce copy of a certain length about a given subject: amazing! Me? I struggle. As regular readers know. I'm toying with the idea of a sort of art history book. I want to send prospective publishers an annotated outline, the introductory chapter and a sample chapter from the main part of the proposed work. And boy is progress slooooow. I started chipping away on things nearly half a year ago and I'm only now within striking distance of completing the first draft of everything. Then I'll have to polish, add more material, perhaps reorganize things. I'll be lucky if I start publisher-shopping by July. There are reasons for my snail's pace. Foremost is that fact that the project is speculative, and that means my motivation is less than it would be if I had a contract and deadline in hand. Then there is the matter of life -- the quotidian stuff and all the travel we do serves to interrupt and distract. And there is the blogging. I love blogging, and will post an essay before getting around to book work. By that point, my energy level can be a lot lower because writing can be tiring. Perhaps the most important reason why I'm making such slow progress is that I'm not a natural writer of book-length pieces. Some people like Terry Teachout and our own Michael Blowhard can sit down at a computer and words simply flow. Not me. The post you are reading now will probably take an hour to complete. My book-writing sessions yield 600 words if I'm doing well and half that if I'm struggling. I suspect that my "natural" writing length is on the order of 600 words -- around the size of a newspaper column. Moreover, I think that I can usually make the points I want to at that approximate length. I find it hard to elaborate or the keep tossing in new examples. Perhaps it would be different if I were writing a narrative of some kind, a biography or perhaps a history or description of a well-defined event such as a battle. In those cases, the what-comes-next problem is largely resolved once research and outlining are completed.... posted by Donald at May 11, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, May 9, 2008

Responding to Thursday
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- On an interesting thread over at GNXP, Thursday issued a challenge. I'd been goofing around, writing that "novels themselves were quite disreputable at the outset -- the reality TV and tabloid-TV of their day. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that some novelists started putting on airs." Here's Thursday: Bullshit. No less a "serious" personage than Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a novel and a very good one too. Novelists like Richardson, Fielding, and Burney were considered serious writers right from the beginning. Haven't you read Boswell's life of Johnson. I have a hard time believing Jane Austen didn't take her meticulously planned and written books as high art. Tom Jones is planned to classical perfection. Critics like Hazlitt and Coleridge took the novelists like Richardson, Smollett, Sterne and Fielding seriously right from the start. Stop trying to rewrite literary history as if no-one had any clue what was high art and what wasn't. OK then: Time to get serious myself. Here's my response to Thursday: You're making a basic mistake. You're projecting current-day critical rankings back onto past eras. You're assuming that what we now consider great was self-evidently Great at the time. No. Look, what a work's reputation is today often has zip to do with how it was taken (and what it represented) when it was produced. What we now consider great was often taken for granted at the time, or looked-down-on. Defoe's novels are just one example. At the time they were published they weren't taken to be novels in our current sense. They were made-up fantasies that pretended to be works of reportage -- in other words, they were aesthetically and morally dubious productions akin to today's scandal sheets and reality TV, or maybe even to those books that turn up every few years about alien encounters in Australia. It took more than a century before many people started wondering if maybe "Robinson Crusoe" wasn't a pretty good novel. Works often become "literature" in hindsight, not at the time of their production. No matter how great we recognize "Tom Jones" to be today -- and I'm a big fan myself -- the early British novel was a scrappy and aesthetically scorned form, far more akin in its time to what journalism and TV are these days than to today's "literary fiction." The early English novel was a middle-class market phenomenon, not a serious or intellectual or literary one. We've learned to see structure, complexity, grandeur, and depth in these books only in retrospect. From Wikipedia's "literature" entry: "Early novels in Europe did not, at the time, count as significant literature, perhaps because 'mere' prose writing seemed easy and unimportant." From an online resource about Jane Austen: "In Jane Austen's era, novels were often depreciated as trash ... In Jane Austen's day, novels actually had something of the same reputation that mass-market romances do today." No matter what your opinion of Austen's books these days, and no... posted by Michael at May 9, 2008 | perma-link | (16) comments

Friday, May 2, 2008

Service Charges
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Daniel Flynn snarls at Ticketmasters' absurd "service charges." Daniel is the author of the new "A Conservative History of the American Left." He's interviewed by FrontPage magazine's Jamie Glazov here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 2, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Razib and Tyler on Lit and Guys
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Razib asks a lot of good questions about guys and contemporary fiction. Tyler Cowen picks up the thread. Many commenters run with it. Yours truly contributes this little bit: A couple of additional things y'all may get a kick out of chewing on: When you're talking about contempo fiction, most of you seem to be thinking about contempo "literary fiction." Literary fiction generally sucks. It's wimpy, depressive, and fussy. It's also an artificial construct. Literary fiction as we currently know it is an invention of the '60s and '70s, something in arts terms akin to the Great Society programs of the era. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, O'Hara ... There were higher and lower forms of fiction being written in those days, but it was all part of a continuum. They wrote for popular magazines, after all; they had bestsellers. More about this here. One of the reasons contempo fiction seems weak to many people is that ... well, to be frank, book publishing is one of the most feminized industries around. Back in, say, 1970, the editorial side of book publishing was probably 80% male, and many of them were hetero. These days, the editorial side of book publishing is probably 75% female, and many of the guys are gay. Good for them, of course, and they bring many virtues. Unfortunately, the ol' rampaging-male-stallion energy is not one of them. Book publishing is a bit like Vassar or Smith these days. Guys sense this, and they avoid the field -- red-blooded yet arty types tend to go into music, or TV, or movies instead. Same holds for creative types. The more outgoing, dynamic creative guys are writing TV these days, or creating webseries, not trying to put their thing across in book publishing. Despite all this, there's some awfully good new and newish fiction out there, even for the tastes of people who prefer action to contemplation. The reason you may not know this is that you're being ill-served by the reviewers and the press. They're anxious, striving, Ivy wimps, generally, eager to impress each other with their fussy taste. (Or, worse, wannabes. Imagine that: wuss wannabes.) A couple of suggestions: try more crime and western fiction -- Westlake, Richard S. Wheeler, Leonard, Gorman, Hillerman, Crais and many more in America ... Ruth Rendell, Peter Dickinson in England ... And have any of you read Steven Pressman's "Gates of Fire," about the Spartans' defence at Thermopylae? That's a really amazing, stirring novel. This is high-quality fiction. But a lot of it is flying under the radar. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 2, 2008 | perma-link | (10) comments

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

StoryMill On Sale
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here I did a lot of enthusing about a new and terrific class of writing tools for the Mac. Short version: They aren't word processors or page-layout programs. They're more like project organizers. Gather all your research, all your drafts, and all your files in one place, and move among these resources quickly and intuitively -- no more contending with files-scattered-everywhere. Then, when you've finished writing, make your project look pretty in a word processing or page-layout program. Novelists and other book-writers are likely to find these products godsends, but they're also helpful for any writing project longer than about 5000 words. Really-truly: Using these products will likely reduce your writing-organization headaches by 90%. One of them -- originally called Avenir and recently renamed StoryMill -- has just gone on sale. I've settled on Scrivener myself, and love it. I have nothing but good things to say about Scrivener; it strikes me as one of the most brilliant pieces of software I've ever used. But StoryMill -- which, unlike the more customizable Scrivener, has been optimized for fiction-writing -- is an excellent product in its own right. Current price: $29.95. That's a serious bargain. Another Mariner Software program that I like a lot is MacJournal, a small miracle of versatility. You can use MacJournal to keep a journal, or even many different journals. But you can also use it as a general bin for all your writing. Why go searching every which-where to find something you've written when you can dump all your writing in one place instead? As with StoryMill and Scrivener, if you use MacJournal you'll want to export (or copy-and-paste) your masterpiece into a word processor for prettying-up before showing it off. But that's a small price to pay for a great big heap of convenience and ease. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 29, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friday, April 18, 2008

Katie's Book
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Good news. Katie Hutchison -- an inspired new-traditionalist architect as well as a most-excellent blogger -- will be writing a book for The Taunton Press, one of the best publishers in America. Read about Katie's appropriately modest and touching subject, namely small retreats, here. (MBlowhard mini-rant: An architect writing not a work of chic hyper-theory but instead something sophisticated-yet-accessible that might be of use to normal people -- now that's an event to be celebrated!) If you know of any successful and appealing examples of small retreats that deserve consideration for a place in the book, be sure to get in touch with Katie, who can be reached at katie-at-katiehutchison-dot-com. I rhapsodized about The Taunton Press back here. Sample some of their beautiful books here and here. Don't be completely surprised if -- as you let your eye and mind play over their products -- you discern a certain kinship with the thought of Christopher Alexander ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 18, 2008 | perma-link | (0)

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Wolfe That Doesn't Prowl
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I never was much of a fiction reader and hardly touch the stuff any more. But I do have relapses. The latest was on my recent trip to Puerto Vallarta. I didn't bring a computer and knew that Nancy would be putting lots of time in with her granddaughters. So there was no real alternative than to bring along some books to read. For the hell of it, I bought four Nero Wolfe detective novels and tossed them in my suitcase. I went through a Wolfe splurge 45 years ago and had happily forgotten all the plots, thus the deck was clear for another shot. My selection criterion was to load up on the books with the earliest copyright dates. This was because I associate Wolfe with the 1930s and 40s; author Rex Stout kept cranking them out into the 70s. Perhaps I should have tried one of the later ones to satisfy a point of curiosity. You see, in the books written in the 30s, Nero Wolfe's cheeky leg-man Archie Goodwin zips around Manhattan in a roadster, parking wherever he needs to; he never has trouble finding a spot in front of Wolfe's West 35th Street townhouse. I wasn't around until the last two months of the 1930s, so I'll have to assume that Stout wrote the truth. But I know perfectly well that Manhattan curbside parking was hard to come by in the 1960s -- except maybe Sunday mornings. Another thing I'm not sure about is how well Nero Wolfe novels rate according to mystery buffs. The stories were popular with the public from the start, but that factor doesn't always count amongst the cognoscenti. Moreover, I haven't read enough detective books to have any sort of handle regarding what's good, mediocre or bad. I like the Wolfe novels because of the quirky cast of characters that, for the most part, was fully formed in the first of the series, Fer-de-Lance (1934). Perhaps most other detectives spring with the same level of completeness from the heads of their various Zeuses, but I wouldn't know that. The thing with Nero Wolfe is that the books involve a lot more people than the detective himself. Here are some quick sketches of the more important ones. Nero Wolfe. Born 56 or so years earlier in Montenegro, but now an American citizen with perfect command of English. Agent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Balkans and involved in the Great War in various ways. Currently lives in a double-townhouse on West 35th Street in New York, "near the river." Weighs "one-seventh of a ton" and never leaves home unless he absolutely has to. The top floor of the building is devoted to orchids, of which there are 10 or 20 thousand, many rare hybrids. He tends those orchids two hours each morning and two every afternoon at unvarying times; orchids come before crime-solving. His live-in gardener is Theodore Horstmann who seems to have little or no... posted by Donald at April 7, 2008 | perma-link | (11) comments

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

R.I.P.: Sorrentino, Yang, Ichikawa
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When you aren't a devoted newsbuff -- and I'm not -- contempo events sometimes just slip by you. It was only recently that I caught up, for instance, with the fact that three artists whose work I'm very fond of died in the last few years. * The novelist and critic Gilbert Sorrentino. Sorrentino was as experimental and hardcore-modernist as it gets: For him a piece of fiction wasn't a story with characters, it was a construction of words and letters. Downside: His books often lost themselves in intellectual gamesmanship. But -- perhaps despite himself -- a few of his novels delivered real guts and feeling. They paid off emotionally; in them, the modernist strategies felt like fresh ways of presenting juicy subjects. Born in Brooklyn, Sorrentino taught in later years at Stanford, and the longer he was a professor the more ingrown his fiction became. Still, in "Aberration of Starlight" and "The Sky Changes," he combined virtuosity and sophistication with a lot of earthy Brooklyn soul and humor. He was also an excellent critic of modernist poetry. * The filmmaker Edward Yang, who died in June of last year at 59 of colon cancer. Although Taiwanese, Yang worked in the tradition of the Euro-American cinema. No kabuki here, and no crazed action or fable-like ghost stories either. Instead, he made films that feature three-dimensional "humanity" in the western sense. (Yang grew up on Taiwan; went to college at the University of Florida, where he earned an engineering degree; and was living in L.A. when he died.) The film of Yang's to start with is the 2000 "Yi Yi," a quiet, expansive-yet-intimate work that bears comparison to Chekhov and Renoir in its patience, its unforced curiosity, and its willingness to let characters and situations reveal themselves in their own time. * The Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa, who died in February at 92. I'm not as crazy about some of Ichikawa's more famous movies ("Fires on the Plain," "The Burmese Harp") as many are. But I love-love-love many of his other films, and am happy to think of him as one of the true giants of the Japanese cinema, the equal of Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi. If Ichikawa wasn't as well-known as the Big Three perhaps it's because he worked in a really wide variety of genres and styles, and that made him a hard one to nail down. But to each of the films of his that I've seen he brought a distinctive technical brilliance, a snakecharmer's psychological insight, and a wicked perversity of attack. My viewing tip: Start with his documentary "Tokyo Olympiad" -- genius stuff. And hope that one day his brilliant Tanizaki adaptations "The Key" and "The Makioka Sisters" will be brought out on DVD. * MBlowhard Rewind: I raved about Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff" here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 11, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Pulp and Hardboiled Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * PJ Parrish has been lovin' "The Big Book of Pulps." * Dark Party Review interviews the great mystery-crime bookstore owner / editor Otto Penzler. * Joe Valdez revisits "Blue Velvet." You don't think there could have been a "Blue Velvet" without pulp fiction, do you? * August West recommends a couple of hardboiled noirs by Dolores Hitchens. * Classy genre writer Dan Simmons has been reprinting a book about the book publishing biz by literary agent Richard Curtis. I enthusiastically recommend it -- Richard Curtis is one of the smartest and frankest bookworld people around. I recommend the fiction of Dan Simmons too -- I praised a Buffalo-set hardboiled Simmons novel back here. * A great line from pulp writer and former peepshow girl Christa ("Money Shot") Faust, who has written some novelizations: I love tie-in work and have infinitely more respect for hard-working writers like Lee Goldberg and Max Allan Collins than I do for self-styled literary geniuses who are still sitting in mom’s basement polishing their unpublished masterpiece. Here's another interview with Christa Faust. Here's Christa Faust's very amusing website. * Scottish crime novelist Allan Guthrie offers a list of his 200 favorite noir novels. * The Telegraph runs a list of 50 Crime Writers You Should Read Before You Die. * Bill Crider recommends a new Stark House volume of Peter Rabe novels. If I remember right, the great Donald Westlake is also a Peter Rabe fan. * Ed Gorman thinks that crime-movie fans should keep an eye out for the Robert Ryan / Mary Astor vehicle "Act of Violence." Those with a few bucks to spare can buy the movie here. * Vince Keenan enjoys a couple of movies with Robert Siodmak's name on them. I raved about the brilliant Siodmak here. * MBlowhard Rewind: I wrote an introduction to the pulp publisher Gold Medal Books. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 2, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

"Sleep With the Devil"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I just finished a superfine noir novel by a writer we'd never read before, Day Keene. It's a compact marvel with rock'em sock'em pacing, ingenious plotting, a satisfyingly cynical and embittered tone, and an inspired concept. The usual noir thing involves a normal guy who gets in over his head when he's tempted into crime. In Keene's "Sleep With the Devil," the putz is a criminal and a sociopath. Normalcy is what tempts him. Another bit of originality that the book features: Although the lead character is a megatwisted dude, the writing isn't expressionistic, or bizarre in any way. None of that "mirroring the disordered mind" stuff here. Instead, the writing is as straightforward as can be. Despite this, the pathology of the protagonist comes across clear and clean. That may mean that Day Keene will never attain the kind of cult status held by such hyperbolic and/or quirky writers as Jim Thompson and James Ellroy. Still, woo hoo: what a fascinating reading experience Keene's calm, plain-Jane strategy makes for. Download a copy of the book for next to nothing from this resourceful publisher. I do love a good novel that can be gotten through in one or two evenings. If someone wants to make a case for Day Keene as a neglected master, I'll certainly listen respectfully. Bill Crider introduces Day Keene here. Although Keene -- who was born Gunnar Hjerstedt, and who lived from 1904 to 1969 -- wrote dozens of novels, only a small handful are in print today. Hard Case Crime offers one of his best-known titles. I've ordered a copy. Semi-related: A wrote an introduction to film noir, mused about neo-noir here and here, praised Jack Kelly's "Mobtown," raved about a rediscovered hardboiled French film, and tried to figure out why I didn't enjoy the movie version of "Sin City" more than I did. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 2, 2008 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lit-fict and Popular Fiction
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In a posting about the film "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," the Western novelist Richard S. Wheeler gets off a great passage: "The novel of the same title, by Ron Hansen, dazzled readers, but the dazzle lay in the glittering word choices of the author rather than in the storyline or characterization," he writes. The Hansen novel, in other words, was of the "literary fiction" genre, not the "Western fiction" one. That sentence of Richard's says a lot more that's of practical use to readers than most of what you'll read in fancy magazines by big-name critics, IMHO. So far as literary fiction goes, I'd add to Richard's characterization of it a concern with trendy themes, and with fashionable writing strategies generally. But Richard's larger point is the key one: Literary fiction is generally concerned with writerly grandstanding, er, showing-off, er, prowess. The writer, finally, is the real show. Narrative fiction (which in the U.S. these days means genre fiction) is generally more concerned with suspense, involvement, and situations. The story and the characters -- and not the author -- are what the spotlight is trained on. (Which isn't to say, of course, that some lit-fict writers haven't created living-breathing characters, or that some narrative-fiction writers -- Richard S. Wheeler among them -- don't also deliver a great deal in the way of writerly pleasure.) In other words: If you like the emphasis in the fiction you read to fall on character, hook, situations, and story, then literary fiction probably isn't for you. 99% of the time, that's simply not what the lit-fict set is up to; it isn't the package they're selling. Instead, they're generally selling tone, themes, strategies -- striking and/or brilliant "moves." On the other hand, if character-creation and story-engineering don't speak to you while writerly games-playing does, then why not choose your fiction-reading from the lit-fict shelves? Nothing wrong with that part of the bookstore either. I share the taste for fancy writin' myself, if very occasionally, only to some extent, and less with each passing year. Back here, in fact, I listed the lit-fict titles that I enjoyed most during my years of following the new-literary-fiction scene from up close. Give it a read. If nothing else, it isn't the usual best-of list. All of this is fine by me. I think it's great that options exist and that people have them to choose from; I'm always eager to hear about what people enjoy and to learn about what they know. No, it's something else that bugs me, namely: Why should the package of values that the lit-fict crowd prefers be considered to be superior to the popular-fiction package? What case can possibly be made that fussin'-with-the-writin' is automatically more important than attending to matters of character, suspense, story, situation, and entertainment? It's a pointless argument to make, no? As pointless as arguing that vegetables are automatically better than fruit, or that candy is... posted by Michael at February 14, 2008 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Newspapers, R.I.P.?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The New York Times reports on the shakey state of the newspaper business. Nifty/scarey passage: “I’m an optimist, but it is very hard to be positive about what’s going on,” said Brian P. Tierney, publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News. “The next few years are transitional, and I think some papers aren’t going to make it.” * Marc Andreessen inaugurates a New York Times Deathwatch. Funny bit: "Sometimes it's darkest right before it goes pitch black." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 7, 2008 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Anthony Burgess
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ricpic points out a first-class David Guaspari essay about the British writer Anthony Burgess, who was best-known for "A Clockwork Orange," the novel that was the source for the famous Stanley Kubrick film. Burgess, who died in 1993, was quite a force in the reading-and-writing (and film) worlds back in the '70s and '80s -- Friedrich von Blowhard was a major fan. About the Guaspari essay, Ricpic writes, The article is an appreciation of the work of the novelist Anthony Burgess and particularly the four books he wrote about a failed poet, Enderby. But it's more than that. Guaspari takes on, for lack of a better word, the dilemma of the artist in the world. Obviously I found it well written and utterly intriguing or I wouldn't be recommending it. Here's the website of the Anthony Burgess Foundation. Many thanks to Ricpic. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 5, 2008 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friday, February 1, 2008

I Am Not Worthy
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Some excerpts from an email recently sent around by an organization called Americans For the Arts: One of our main objectives is to support and secure federal, state, and local education policies that provide students a balanced education and prepare them to compete in a globally innovative and creative workforce ... Americans for the Arts maintains that arts education develops the precise set of skills students need in order to thrive in a global economy that is driven by knowledge and ideas ... Formalize an incentive program to hire arts educators and strengthen the Arts in Education program at the U.S. Department of Education through revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act ... Now, I have tended to think of myself as a pretty committed culturebuff. But this email has got me thinking that perhaps I've been mistaken. After all, my hopes for culture have zero to do with the agenda of Americans for the Arts. Personally I'd love to see people free their experience of the arts from the hands of politicians, bureaucrats, educators, and worthy-nonprofit types, 90% of whom seem to me to be devoted to bleeding the arts of everything I love the arts for. * Some headlines and taglines from recent issues of the highbrow lit magazines Bookforum and The Boston Review: Slave Trade On Trial Richard Locke on Pat Barker Jyoti Thottqm on Tahmima Anam's "A Golden Age" Matthew Price on Richard M. Cook's "Alfred Kazin: A Biography" Vivian Gornick: Hannah Arendt's Jewish Problem J.K. Bishop: The Art of Dying Peter Terzian on William Maxwell's Early Novels and Stories Now, I'm a big reader, and during one 15 year stretch I even followed the NYC publishing world -- and new literary fiction -- pretty closely. Yet I'm never, ever going to read any of those pieces. In fact, I look at Tables of Contents like these and think, "Isn't it amazing? Some people are still arguing about Alfred Kazin, Hannah Arendt, William Maxwell, and slavery." I also can't tell you how bizarre I find it that not a single word reflecting an interest in entertainment values appears in any of those headlines. Real intellectuals apparently have a hard time staying awake when topics like suspense, humor, characterization, plotting, sexiness, pacing, and identification come up. I guess I have no choice but to say it loud and say it proud: I am 1) not a Worthy Artsperson, and 2) certainly not a Serious Reader. Funny how good it feels to get these two admissions out there in public. Back here I wrote about what I called "the Arts Litany" -- the list of beliefs and convictions that arts people are expected to hold. FvBlowhard responded here. Do you keep up with any of the heavyweight art-or-lit mags? If so, what on earth do you get out of it? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 1, 2008 | perma-link | (18) comments

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Richard S. Wheeler Blogs
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm very glad to learn that the Western novelist Richard S. Wheeler has begun blogging. Go read, learn, enjoy -- and bookmark. Some great stuff is heaping up already. Richard finally finds an XM station that suits him; he shares some shrewd and rueful thoughts about the fate of copyright; and he expresses skepticism about the idea that fiction-writing is a craft that can be taught. As a novelist, Richard brings together many wonderful qualities: dignity and gravity; wit and experience; invention, sympathy, and imagination. Although he has only recently begun blogging, it's clear that he's bringing those same characteristics to bear on his online writing. It should go without saying that this combo is unusual and refreshing, especially in the buzzing and shallow electronic space that we all spend too much time surfing around in these days. It's a treat and a privilege to have easy access to such human, rounded, and warm-blooded writing. And did I mention brainy? If you haven't done so already, be sure to check out some essays that Richard wrote for 2Blowhards. He shared some wisdom about writing and publishing; and he filed a report from a convention of the Western Writers of America. I raved about Richard's marvelous novel "Flint's Gift" here. Richard recently published a memoir, which you can buy here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 17, 2008 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, January 4, 2008

Help Me
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Lifehacker invites visitors to name their favorite self-help books. Lots of interesting and funny contributions. Me, I've long wanted to write a blog posting in which I'd argue that the self-help genre is 1) unfairly scorned, and 2) an important American literary genre. Funny I haven't done so yet. Maybe one day I'll run across a self-help book that will give me the motivation I need to actually write this posting ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 4, 2008 | perma-link | (18) comments

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The End of Flashman
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- George MacDonald Fraser -- author of the "Flashman" comic novels as well as much else -- has died at 82. (Here too.) Fraser was an unabashed reactionary who was also a hyper-gifted fiction writer. Hmmm: I wonder how many university lit courses have Fraser's books on their reading lists ... James Fulford takes a look at some of Fraser's political views. Here's a brief interview with Fraser from 1999. I've only read two of the Flashman novels but both of them bowled me over; I found them to be among the most flat-out entertaining novels that I have ever read. And I liked Fraser's nonfiction book about how Hollywood has treated history very much. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 3, 2008 | perma-link | (14) comments

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Fab Freebies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Lexington Green points out an amazing free resource -- the website of Alan Macfarlane, a topnotch British prof and anthropologist with a special interest in economics. Macfarlane, who is well-known in Britain for his popularizations as well as for his academic achievements, has put an almost overwhelming amount of his work online: books, lectures, interviews, research, and more. I've only begun to scratch the surface of what Macfarlane has made available but my head is already spinning in the most pleasant of ways. Check out this jaw-dropping collection of interviews with prominent anthropologists and sociologists, for just one instance of what's there to be explored. Download 'em and put 'em on your iPhone. I'm looking especially forward to the talks with Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Lex describes Macfarlane as "anti-Marxist" and "sensible and empirical," and he calls Macfarlane one of his own intellectual heroes. That's one terrific recommendation. Lex suggests starting with this TV series, as well as this collection of downloadable e-books. * Thanks to visitor Brian for pointing out this Paul Cantor lecture series about culture and the market from the Ludwig von Mises Institute. (Where has Brian been recently? I miss his brains, humor, and spirit.) I'm about midway through the series and I'm enjoying it thoroughly. Cantor is brainy, exuberant, and very likable -- a wisecracking and irreverent, yet truly culture-entranced, guy. He's a spritzer, and he's very spontaneous, so the talks are alive. Yet he manages to keep his material organized too. To do Cantor a small injustice, his theme here is, "Commercialism ain't bad." And his main goal in the series is to get people with an interest in culture over the cultureworld's usual anti-commercial bias. In this, his series resembles Tyler Cowen's "In Praise of Commercial Culture," a book that looks with every passing year more and more like one of the most important arts books of the past few decades. (Here's a semi-informative review of Cowen's book.) Cantor is very generous in acknowledging Cowen's work, as well as the contributions of other researchers and writers. Hey, here's a discovery that you make if / when you go into the cultureworld: Most of what you wind up talking about with other arts and culture types isn't ideas and aesthetics. Conversation inside the NYC cultureworld is often anything but highflown, in fact. Usually what you wind up talking is jobs, money, grants, and gossip. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Artspeople gotta pay the bills too, and this is their shoptalk. Still, it's one of those disappointments that culture-besotted newbies have to look forward to. The sad fact is that if you're hungry for sizzling yak about the arts, generally speaking you gotta turn elsewhere. Cantor is sensible and vivid on some really important questions: The market as a feedback mechanism, for example. It's common to think of "the market" as something that degrades the purity of aesthetic creations, and there's no question... posted by Michael at December 18, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Donald's Art Book of the Year
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- "I can resist anything but temptation." I'm not certain who first came up with that line, though I associate it with Mae West. Not many things tempt me, but I'll publicly admit that one of them is books. Notably books about art these last few years that I've been blowharding. Moreover, books about realistic/naturalistic art centered around the late 19th century, plus/minus 100 years. Especially books dealing with realist paintings of people done during that period. (That's because painting a person convincingly is one of the hardest things to do artistically, and that's what I attempt when I find the time to paint.) So I whipped out my credit card without hesitation when I spied this book at the Seattle Art Museum store. The cover is Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, and Her Son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill by Giovanni Boldini, 1906. The subtitle "From David to Warhol" is, fortunately, not entirely descriptive. That's because only six pages are about post-1950 portraits, a merciful thing in my estimation. In fact, about 140 of the 205 or so basic content pages deal with the period 1795-1915 and 25 or so more are devoted to setting the scene. Even so, the book's point of view can be characterized by this chapter title: "The Belle Époque: Portraiture at the Zenith." Most of the major Western European portraitists are represented, along with a few I'm not familiar with. The 13.3x10 inch format is usefully large for studying the full-page reproductions. Better yet for artists, there are a number of full pages devoted to details of paintings; not as good as visiting a museum to study technique, but quite helpful nevertheless. Here's an example of a portrait and artist unknown to me: Portrait of Madame Leroux by Jean-Jacques Henner - c.1898 I suppose it can be taken as given that a society portrait is not likely to be brutally honest in its depiction of its subject. It can be interesting to compare portraits to photographs. Still, I'm not particularly curious about the exactitude of the portraits in the book. Most of the paintings are interesting to savor as art alone, not as some sort of social record. Speaking of things social, I suppose there are folks out there with a Social Conscience who would get in some sort of huff because the portraits were commissioned by rich folks and even royalty. To which I say: Get over it and enjoy the art. (Science fiction writer Larry Niven asserted to the effect that: "The word 'social' in a sentence negates the meaning of the word following it." Think Social Justice, Social Sciences, etc.) Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 13, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, December 6, 2007

More Reading and Writing Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Ebook fan Robert Nagle left a very interesting comment on my recent posting about Amazon's Kindle. Recommended. Robert has also responded to my posting at Teleread. Reading-and-technology fans take note: as far as I know, Teleread is the only online site that regularly covers ebooks and ebook readers. * Maxine makes some sense of LibraryThing. (Link thanks to Dave Lull.) Social networking for the cataloguing-inclined? * Mencius Moldbug has a good time dumping on some all-too-typical contempo poetry. Great passage: Certainly the best poetry of the 20th century was written from the '20s through the mid-'60s ... In the '60s, though, something awful happened. Poetry became a Federal jobs program. To use the terminology from my theory of corruption, it became a form of edupatronage. The great disaster was the enormous expansion of higher education in the '60s and '70s. There is a reason so many college campuses have that abominable Brutalist architecture .. The overwhelming force behind this expansion was a massive injection of Federal subsidies ... Education, for New Deal [and Great Society] Democrats, is just like immigration -- a way of making more Democrats. Of course, no one thinks of it this way, but the machine works whatever its parts are thinking. (Link thanks to Derek Lowe.) * Bryan Appleyard wonders why sci-fi doesn't get more respect. (Link thanks to ALD.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 6, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

From Richard S. Wheeler
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The excellent Western-fiction blog Saddlebums has asked Richard S. Wheeler -- whom they aptly describe as "the dean of the modern Western story" -- to write about Conrad Richter's "The Sea of Grass." Richard's posting is a beautiful piece of appreciation. A while back, Richard wrote some postings for 2Blowhards: here and here. Click on 'em, read 'em. * In an email to me, Richard has pointed out that of the fiction-books included on the NYTimes' Notable Books of 2007 list, precisely zero come from the popular-fiction shelves. (Harry Potter excepted, I guess, though it seems to me more useful to think of Harry Potter as exceptional in every way.) Zero! The Times' editors and critics are nothing if not open to global literature, god knows. But to the popular fiction of their own country they continue to turn a completely blind eye. Gotta love some of the "plot" descriptions of the fiction-books that earned places on the Notable list: "A nerdy Dominican-American yearns to write and fall in love." "The boy narrator of this novel, set in Libya in 1979, learns about the convoluted roots of betrayal in a totalitarian society." "A young woman searches for the truth about her parentage amid the snow and ice of Lapland in this bleakly comic yet sad tale of a child’s futile struggle to be loved." "In this short yet spacious Norwegian novel, an Oslo professional hopes to cure his loneliness with a plunge into solitude." "Henkin follows a couple from college to their mid-30s, through crises of love and mortality." "In this debut, a Londoner emerges from a coma and seeks to reassure himself of the genuineness of his existence." Could a parodist have done better? And what a jolly, out-to-entertain bunch the literary set is, eh? * A while back, I wrote a five-part series ranting about the Times Book Review Section's absurd attitude towards popular fiction: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five. * The wonderfully crusty and combative B.R. Myers has a wrestle with Denis Johnson's highly-praised new novel. (Link thanks to Saddlebums' Gonzalo Baeza.) In 2001, Myers wrote an anti-literary-pretentiousness rant called "A Reader's Manifesto." At that time, I was still working in and around the book publishing world, and I can report that there were many people in the business who read Myers' essay and smiled in quiet agreement. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 5, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Friday, November 30, 2007

More on E-Books and E-Book Reading Devices
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Amazon's new Kindle, announced a few weeks ago, the debate is on once again about e-book reading devices. Bezos' Baby Everyone has an opinion about the Kindle. Half-Sigma thinks that the prices of e-books are out of line. David Pogue writes that this kind of device might make some sense for the textbook market; the comments on Pogue's column are worth scrolling through too. Tyler Cowen and visitors pitch in. Newsweek's Steven Levy visited with Amazon's Jeff Bezos and thought the Kindle had its virtues. Hotshot book designer Chip Kidd thinks that the Kindle is going nowhere fast. Meanwhile, Amazon quickly sold out of the device. Robert Nagle and I have a bet on about e-book readers. Robert thinks that e-book reading devices will catch on bigtime -- he makes a good case for this, by the way -- while in my opinion e-book readers will never become a hugely successful product. Let me offer two quick, very practical reasons why I think I'll win our bet: Who needs 'em? Books of the paper-and-cardboard sort are miraculously efficient, enjoyable, and affordable content-delivery vehicles. They're unmatchably pleasing in many ways. For one thing, in order to use them you don't have to do any thinking. Interacting with a book is all a matter of reach-and-grab. You get to reserve your mental power for the book's content. With an e-book reader, by comparison, you have to puzzle out how to use the thing, and then you have to keep relearning your lessons. "How do I make the device behave?" keeps breaking in on your experience of the book's content. Think of the consequences. While being able to store your entire library in one small device certainly sounds appealing, it also means: No passing along your books to family and friends; worries about what will become of your beloved collection should the electronic device it's stored on fail; and -- inevitably -- the nightmare of digital-rights management. You don't think that publishers are going sell easy-to-use, compatible-with-everything files, do you? Get real. They're going to do whatever they can to protect their creations from unauthorized copying, and they're unlikely to band together and settle on a single convenient format. In other words: Imagine the Betamax-vs.-VCR wars multiplied many times over. And then imagine contending with all of this: decoding the device, keeping it charged, not being able to rip out pages, and feeling annoyed that the book you want can't be read on the device you own. That's a lot of brainstrain. Now recall what it's like to interact with a book. You grab it off the shelf, and you settle in for a read. I could be wrong, of course. I find Robert Nagle's enthusiasm for e-book readers very winning, I think that David Pogue's hunch about the textbook market makes a lot of sense, and progress will march on no matter what my opinion about it is, darn it. And the designers of... posted by Michael at November 30, 2007 | perma-link | (22) comments

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book It, Donno
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- At the ultra-secret 2Blowards staff meeting a few weeks ago someone -- The Wife, I think -- said something about me writing a book. I hear such remarks about twice a year, and my standard response is that I did write a book once upon a time: this one, actually. (Lord knows why Amazon even bothers to list academic books that went out of print more than 25 years ago.) To be honest, I sometimes do consider writing another book. If the book question pops up when I'm in one of those delusional frames of mind, I then usually say something like: "I might. But a really tough part is finding a publisher, and I'm not sure I want to go through that hassle." Then, after saying just that at the restaurant table, I mentioned that I was toying with the idea of building on those Peripheral Artists (and similar) posts. The concept would be to create a kind of alternative to painting history narratives showing an inevitable path from the Renaissance to Modernism. That is, if Establishment/Modernist narratives downplay or ignore artists and styles that don't fit those narratives, then why not create a narrative where Modernism is a source of ideas, yet a sideshow, an interesting experiment that ultimately proved unsatisfying. Since the meeting I've taken a few small steps. First, I've been fiddling with a provisional outline. Once that's done I'll probably have to write a sample chapter. The third task is coming up with a list of potential publishers (I'm doing that now, actually). Then I assemble a proposal and shop it. Given that such a book requires plenty of illustrations, I don't think self-publishing or electronic publishing will work; I almost surely will have to talk a going concern such as Yale University Press into backing the thing. An important consideration is that I don't want to turn this into a crusade; if I get turned down by a number of publishers I want to be able to walk away from the project with few regrets and a minimum of wasted time. Money? I'm not doing this for dollars. As Michael and others have repeatedly mentioned, the hourly wage for most authors is pitifully small. Yes, there's the little dab of glory and the larger surge of ego-satisfaction and pseudo-prestige (in some circles) of having a book published. But my main motivation, oddly enough, is idealism. I genuinely think that Modernism has received far too much honor and attention than it deserves, and needs to be cut down to its proper size: I want to do my part. Another thing I'm doing is writing little notes to myself while at my favorite donut shop. What I need is some sort of organizing scheme. Obviously, there's chronology. Then there's the matter of geography: a lot of important non-Modernist art was created someplace besides France and New York, and that must be be dealt with somehow. And at this point I'm... posted by Donald at November 28, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Wisdom from the Grumpy Old Bookman
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Since I'm still floundering around in a flu-ish, cold-ish fog, I'm going to let one of my betters do the speaking in this posting. Michael Allen, aka the Grumpy Old Bookman, has written a book called "The Truth About Writing" that's a weatherbeaten, beady-eyed, plain-spoken wonder. Do you want to know what the writing game and the publishing game really consist of? You can't do better than read Allen's book. I know of few books that speak as directly and truthfully about the arts-life generally, come to think of it. Some nice passages: Most professors of English literature, and most of the highbrow literary critics of this world, would have us believe that there is, metaphorically speaking, a hierarchical tower of fiction. This tower is something like a block of flats. At the top, in the exculsive pethouse, is a small amount of "literature," i.e. Great Novels. In the basement is a large heap of trash ... The truth, however, is that there is not a top-to-bottom hierarchy of fiction, with great books at the glorious summit and "trash" or "pulp" at the unspeakably vulgar bottom. If we must think of the range of available fiction in visual terms, it is best to think of a broad spectrum of books, which runs horizontally. You might care to imagine a street in whcih every buiding is a bookshop containing a particular kind of fiction ... Consider the vested interest of all those who teach the subject of English literature. They are all doing pretty nicely, thank you, preaching the 1947 party line, and they're not too keen on having any revisionists question it ... The facts are really very simple. A book eitherworks in terms of producing the intended emotion in a target reader, or it does not ... Personally I do not believe that a book can be said to be good or bad in any absolute sense -- it is only successful or unsuccessful in terms of its intended audience ... If there are no great novels, there is no hierarchy of fiction, with the good stuff at the top and the trash at the bottom. Indeed, only the briefest of considerations will demonstrate that the trash is every bit as effective in generating emotion as the so-called good stuff. Usually, in fact, a lot better ... Books which continue to be enjoyed for long periods of time tend to become known as "classics." This is a convenient shorthad term, but again, you should not be misled into assuming that it implies some absolute quality ... As for striving to achieve classic status yourself -- forget it. Your first task, when writing a novel, is to make it work for your intended audience today. Let the future take care of itself ... A work of art is .. a work which has been created through the exercise of skill, rather than by accident. The most common use of the term is in relation... posted by Michael at October 30, 2007 | perma-link | (18) comments

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Missed Opportunities
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- For an arty guy with no technical gifts or interests, I smacked into the computer world at a relatively early stage. I don't mean "the computer world" in the absolute sense, by the way. When I was in high school back in 1970, for instance, computers were certainly around. But at that point they weren't of much interest (let alone of much use) to anyone other than extreme geeks. In 1970, the idea of computers seemed futuristic in appealing ways. But the reality of computers was much less attractive. In the case of the high school I attended, for instance: Computing meant one small, airless room with a keyboard and punchcards, and a connection to what was mysteriously referred to as "the Dartmouth computer." I poked my head into that computer room one time and one time only. Not pleasant: bad lighting, and full of geek b.o. and giggly social ineptitude. And why on earth would anyone think it was a big deal to be playing playing tic-tac-toe "with Dartmouth"? Since what I wanted from life was girls, movies, art, physical activity, and sunshine, computers in 1970 seemed like the opposite of everything I valued. They seemed like the antithesis of what I then thought of as "aesthetics." No, for the sake of this posting anyway, what I mean by "computers" is computers in a somewhat later sense: computers at the time videogames and personal computers were starting to make a more-than-a-novelty kind of impact -- the early-to-mid '80s, roughly. By then, computers and aesthetic matters didn't seem to occupy quite such opposite poles. Pong had long since given way to more complex games. Hard drives were beginning to seem like a plausible part of everyday reality. And when the original Macs came along -- in early 1984 -- the machines started to speak directly to the arty set. Right about then was when I woke up to the cultural implications of computing. I found myself on BBS's, for instance, caught up in debates about the impact of word processing. For those who haven't encountered the philosophy-of- word-processing field: The advent of word processing hit a handful of culture-types very hard. Nearly all writers were delighted by the way the new tools enabled them to get their writing down so easily, of course. But a small band of culture-fiends also found themselves looking at the phenomenon from a longer point of view, and musing, "Hmm, you know, this word-processing thing might really change the whole 'writing' game at a very deep level ..." It was a tiny world, this musing-over-the-aesthetic / cultural-implications-of-computers world. But for some reason I really zero'd in on it. For instance, I didn't just read Jay David Bolter and Michael Heim -- the philosophers of what word processing might mean in the big sense. I met and chatted with them. In 1987, Apple's HyperCard gave non-techies a chance to mess with databases and programming. By the late 1980s, software created... posted by Michael at October 18, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Grumpy Old Bookman on Short Stories
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Grumpy Old Bookman thinks that the problem with the contempo short story is that "it's pussywhipped." He gets no argument from me on that score. Also not to be missed are GOB's two contrasting Histories of the Short Story, the official one and the true one. "Not only do academic writers tend to overlook whole areas of fiction writing," writes GOB, "but they are also likely to ignore the economic facts of life." There's a lot of experience and wisdom in those words. Thanks to Dave Lull. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

1000 Words: Francis Iles' "Before the Fact"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've blogged recently about food, architecture, performers -- some of my favorite topics, in fact. But if I were to be entirely honest about what's been occupying my culture-mind for the last few weeks, I'd have to say that it has mainly been these questions: "Why isn't the Francis Iles novel 'Before the Fact' better-known than it is? In fact, why isn't 'Before the Fact' celebrated as one of the most brilliant prose-fiction performances of the 20th century?" Since you've probably never heard of Francis Iles, let me backtrack and fill in a few blanks. First: Until a few years ago I was barely aware of Francis Iles myself. The only reason I knew anything about him at all was because I've been through a number of histories of crime fiction. In them, Iles plays a small role as one of the originators of the genre known as the "inverted mystery," which in turn led to the genre of "psychological suspense." Little is usually said about Iles but that. He's presented as a small but significant historical landmark. There isn't much to be learned about Iles on the Web either. There's no Francis Iles Society, and there aren't any websites devoted to him. (Here's Wikipedia on him; here's a Crippen & Landru page.) What little I know about Iles I mainly owe to Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler's excellent "Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection." Among other things, their entry on Iles says, "[His] shunning of personal publicity made his private life a notable mystery in itself." Berkeley. Er, Cox. Er, Iles ... In any case: He was born Anthony Berkeley Cox in 1893. He wrote humorous pieces for Punch; he worked as a journalist; he cranked out comic novels. In 1925 he wrote his first mystery story. Finding that he enjoyed the rather larger paycheck he earned, he turned his talents and energies to the mystery field, writing numerous detective stories under a variety of pseudonyms. Along with such other giants as G.K. Chesterton and E.C. Bentley, Cox / Iles founded the first important mystery writers' organization, London's Detection Club. He also became a regular reviewer of mystery fiction. Then, in 1939, he stopped writing fiction entirely. Why? Did he come into some money? No one seems to know for sure. No one seems to know much else about him period. Did he grow up aristo or working-class? How did he pay the bills? Where did he stand politically, if at all? Was he a breeder or a non-breeder? What did he make of modernism? To all those questions I have not a single answer. Cox died in 1970. Or maybe 1971. Since psychological suspense happens to be my very favorite genre, around a year ago I finally decided that the time had come for me to read one of Cox's, er, Iles' books. (I'm anything but a scholar, but every now and then I do get curious about things.) So I read his... posted by Michael at October 9, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Poetry, Fiction, Length, More
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This piece by the NYTimes' Corey Kilgannon about Frank Messina, a Mets fan who writes poems about his team and about his feelings about them, is a sweetheart: amusing and touching -- "appreciative" in the best sense of the word. It also triggered off an email back-and-forth between FvBlowhard and me that, for better or worse, I'm copying-and-pasting into this blog posting. Hey, 2Blowhards started as an extension of the email exchanges FvBlowhard and I were already having. Every now and then we have to reconnect with our gabby-arts-buddies roots. FvBlowhard: The problem with modern poetry is that guys like the guy in this story are treated as laughable. He, not the poetry establishment, is the one in touch with the spirit of Homer. He may not be all that good as poet, granted, but that's really beside the point; he is marginalized not for how he does poetry but for the purpose he is putting it to. MBlowhard: That's a great article, tks. Nice catch by the reporter. And gotta love people who really do what they do for the love of it. My own current rant has to do with length. The Wife is back to working on another novel. She's really determined to be a pro and to make money doing it, and good for her. Me, I had a mini-crisis the other day. I have a short novel all sketched out, a good first draft of it down on paper, etc. And I was having hard time facing the next stage -- moving from "rehearsals are going well" to "let's get this baby up on its feet." The Wife looked at me, read my mood, and said, "Novel-writing's a job. You've got a fulltime job already. Why not let yourself do manageable projects instead, at least until you retire?" She was right. I set the novel aside and the gloom lifted. Anyway, my thesis about length and scale boils down to a few points. 1) Novels are the limit of what humans can do. 2) Doing anything on that scale isn't going to be fun-fun. Some exceptions allowed for, few novels have been written on a pure breeze of inspiration. Most have, to some extent, been ground out. 3) Most stories don't need to be more than 5-50 pages long. All of which means that most people who write novels are weirdos (because who else would inflict such a lot of loneliness and delayed-gratification on themselves?), and that most novels have a lot of padding in them. Exceptions (the work of professional writer-entertainers especially) allowed for, of course. Given all this, why on earth do readers expect or even want novels? And why on Earth would anyone -- or anyone from a normal range of emotion, drive, ability -- want to write them? I mean, really, compare a novel to a movie. A movie gives you a complete story, the energies and personalities of tons of people who are pitching... posted by Michael at October 2, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Some Publishing Phenomena
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Talk about a professional! Western and mystery writer James Reasoner has published 200 books and is still going strong -- giants apparently do still roam the earth. Reasoner blogs very generously here; Saddlebums interviews him here. Ed Gorman says that Reasoner's recent southern-noir novel "Dust Devils" is a corker. * One of the more surprising publishing events of 1986 was a volume entitled "White Trash Cooking," by Ernest Matthew Mickler. It really was what it seemed to be -- a cookbook featuring recipes for dishes like Icebox Cake and Potato Chip Sandwiches. But it was more than that too. Full of humor, perceptiveness, and pride, it was touching and funny -- a poetic piece of popular anthropology: a genuine, if oddball, work of art, in other words. Though the book was controversial -- the term "white trash" was just not used at the time -- it also struck a happy nerve, and it went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. The Oxford American's John T. Edge recalls the book, as well as Ernest Mickler. * 50 years ago, Grace Metalious was a hard-drinking, poor New Hampshire mother with a feverish yen to be a writer. One of the novels she submitted to that strange and distant place, the New York publishing world, was accepted, was given a new title, and was then set loose on the world. "Peyton Place" became one of the publishing sensations of the 1950s. It sold skillions of copies, helped set the pattern for generations of soap operas to come, and scandalized Americans from many different walks of life. Within six years, Metalious -- a loose cannon on the best of days -- had spent all her newfound money, and had drunk herself to death. She was only 38. Michael Callahan profiles the case for Vanity Fair. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 27, 2007 | perma-link | (19) comments

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Trad Meets New Kid
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Newsweek points out that the hip, fun, and innovative traditional publisher Chronicle Books has forged an interesting deal with the newish POD (print-on-demand) outfit Blurb. MBlowhard tip: Expect to see lots more of this kind of thing -- trad publishers using POD publishers as farm teams -- as we move into the next phase of book publishing. We do live in awfully interesting times, don't we? Incidentally, I don't think it's a coincidence that both Chronicle and Blurb are west-coast outfits. It's a sad but solid fact that east coast publishers are stuck in deeper ruts than are west coast publishers, who tend to be far more open-minded and forward-looking. By the way, those interested in publishing their own books owe it to themselves to take a look at Blurb, which is a heck of a service. Blurb turns out beautiful books, gives away its well-designed and rock-solid book-making software for free, and has quickly developed a classy reputation among self-publishers. The one downside in Blurb's model that I can see: It's difficult or impossible to sell a Blurb-produced book on Amazon. But if your main goal in creating your book is to give it away or to sell it to friends and family, Blurb is hard to beat. Semi-related: I've blogged a lot about the self-publishing outfit Lulu, most recently here. And it's worth noticing that Amazon has entered the field with its own outfit, CreateSpace. Small musing: Blurb, Lulu, and CreateSpace may be to traditional book publishing what blogging software is to traditional journalism -- an acid corroding the very foundations ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 26, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Thomas Sowell
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you read any books written by the economist Thomas Sowell? I've read seven or eight of them, have found nearly all of them rewarding, and suspect that many people who haven't given Sowell a try would find him worth their time too. If you know Sowell only through his work as a syndicated op-ed writer, though, you might not feel inclined to cut him much slack. While I've enjoyed and admired some of his columns, he's unquestionably a combative debater, as well as far more of a Republican hack, er, cheerleader than seems necessary. But his work as an economist and a book-writer is quite different. When he isn't quarreling over what current policies should be but is instead organizing data, examining details, and analyzing processes and results, he's substantial, calm, and impressive. I've found his books -- which tend to focus on economics, ethnic questions, and immigration-and-migration matters -- to be thoughtful, info-packed, and open to the evidence. They aren't thrilling in a literary sense or mind-bending in a visionary sense. Instead, they're solid and informative -- driven, it seems, not by a passion for political battle but for straight facts and clear understanding. In the books, at least, political conclusions (if any) follow the evidence, and not vice versa. My mind is on his work because I've just finished reading another one of his books, the 1984 "Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?" 20 years after the Civil Rights Act and 30 years after Brown v. Board of Education, how did matters stand? It's a short book -- yay to that -- and I found it a very helpful and interesting one as well: super-organized, and pushed along by a lowkey, rumbling, and unstoppable energy. As a book-writer, Sowell is whatever the positive opposite of "glib" is -- patient and methodical, able to herd huge numbers of facts without letting them overwhelm his narrative or his argument. He's even capable of the occasional touch of quiet and droll humor. He jokes about one proposed law, for example, that it was so badly written that it should have been called "the lawyers' full employment act." Sowell is sometimes known as a black conservative, though he himself says he's far more libertarian than conservative. (He's often grouped with Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter.) He has been a controversial figure, as you might suspect, with some lefties and some in the race industry labeling him a traitor to his race and a dishonest scholar. Quite amazing how quick the racially sensitive can be to resort to name-calling, isn't it? (I haven't run across criticism of the factual content of his work that seemed to amount to anything.) In any case, where racial matters go, Sowell is both firm about the injustices that blacks were subjected to in America's past and pleasingly reluctant to play the racism card in the present tense. In this book, the main questions he wrestles with are "How did... posted by Michael at August 29, 2007 | perma-link | (45) comments

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Narrative Book-Fiction for Grownups: "What the Dead Men Say" and "Gates of Fire"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It seems to me that an assumption many sophisticated American fiction readers make is that narrative fiction -- ie., fiction whose energies are mostly invested in the creation and "selling" of characters, situations, and storylines -- is, when you come right down to it, for kids. Stories are felt to be like Sugar Pops or Frosted Flakes -- supereasy, overbright, fizzy-poppy. Adults are supposed to have graduated to something more complex and substantial -- with complexity and substance understood to imply "literary fiction," ie., fiction whose energies are mainly invested in fashionable themes; fancy language; and writerly, linguistic, conceptual, and structural games. Oh, realistically speaking, we all know that many educated adults enjoy spending occasional time with a thriller or a mystery novel -- but we agree to call that mere recreational reading. "Real reading," as we all know, is a more challenging, if not an actual slogging, kind of pursuit. I think I know where this assumption comes from: from our English-lit educations. And I think I know how it's reinforced: through colleges, foundations, and virtually all the respectable bookchat outlets. Needless to say, I think this assumption is wrong, wrong, 100% wrong. I also think that it does a disservice to readers, to writers, to literature, and to pleasure more generally. I lay out most of my reasons and my evidence for this position in a series of postings about the New York Times Book Review Section and the way it shuns popular fiction: here, here, here, here, and here. Lit-fict people who are curious about popular fiction will sometimes give it a try -- and good for them, of course. Typically, though, they don't make it very far. Flying without a map, they tend to sample titles from the bestseller lists. And, unsurprisingly, they often find that these books are every bit as bad as the enforcers of Lit-Fict Correctness say they are. Disappointed, our adventurers return to the lit-fict fold, resigned to the apparent fact that contemporary narrative fiction is written only for in-transit businesspeople. It's really remarkable how many lit-fict people, even the open-minded among them, are convinced that contempo book-fiction divides up into only two camps: lit-fict, and top-ten bestsellers (and wannabes). If that were the case, I'd probably be a lit-fict addict myself. Happily, it's anything but the case. As with movies and music, there are plenty of gifted people out there creating first-class work in popular and accessible forms. You just have to know where and how to find it. Hey, in the last couple of weeks I've turned up a couple of narrative book-fiction gems myself. Ed Gorman's "What The Dead Men Say." I've long relished Ed Gorman's work as a short story writer and an anthologist; the man has done more for the cause of short fiction and miscellanies (two forms I adore) than anyone else I know of. More recently I've been a fan of his blog. But -- to my shame --... posted by Michael at August 23, 2007 | perma-link | (46) comments

Monday, August 13, 2007

Me and the Snobs and the Little Guy
MIchael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back in this posting, I took a gratuitous swing at the European concert-hall tradition. Challenged by Jult52 about whether that was necessary -- and of course he's right, it wasn't -- I responded with some thoughts that Donald has urged me to turn into a free-standing posting. So without further ado, although with a little additional dolling-up ... Well, "Suck on this" wasn't exactly meant to be taken as a considered (let alone defensible) critical position ... But, what the heck, to indulge in a little earnestness for a sec: I love the Euro high-art traditions. What I don't like (and what I think screws up a lot of American arts discussions and arts education) is seeing American art through a Euro-derived, high-art fixated lens. Sometimes it's helpful, but much of the time it blinds people to the riches we have, or makes them much too modest about them. A lot of our best art (it seems to me) is folk, popular, self-created, entertainment-driven, commercial, eccentric, and/or hard-to-categorize. Much of it wasn't even intended to be taken as art. Meanwhile, our high-art style work, while sometimes amazing, is often either thin on the ground (hard to make a living at it here) or embattled, stressed, and self-righteous in a way that can weaken its quality. As a result we have a culture that's very different from a Euro-ish one in many important ways -- it's scrappy, decentered, unofficial, making-itself-up-as -it-goes-along, and often coming at ya out of seemingly nowhere ... Work that wasn't intended as art -- movies, jazz -- becomes a hugely important part of world culture, while much of our self-consciously arty art goes nowhere at all. So why do many critics, profs, and even civilians insist on applying inappropriate -- or at least what I consider inappropriate -- standards to what we do have? (I think I have a hunch why, btw ... ) Like I say, this kind of attitude can blind us to much of what we have and can make us too modest about how rich our culture is. It can also kill pleasure, and by god I love pleasure. High-art-obsessed types tend to see things awfully hierarchically. One work is automatically more valuable than another simply because of the kind of work it is. A literary novel is automatically more valuable than a collection Dave Barry columns, for instance. Seriously: It isn't uncommon to run into someone in the books world looking at something like a Dave Barry collection and sniffing, "Oh, that isn't a real book" as though he's just seen a dog turd on a sidewalk. Yet Dave Barry has been around for decades, and so far his writing seems to be holding up better than 90% of the lit novels -- the so-called "real books" -- from the same stretch. Similar kinds of people in the visual-arts field view a gallery-style sculpture or piece of installation art as automatically more worthy of "serious" consideration... posted by Michael at August 13, 2007 | perma-link | (54) comments

Monday, August 6, 2007

More Lulu Wonderfulness
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've written before about the wonderful print-on-demand outfit For one lengthy example, see here. Short version: Lulu is to traditional book publishing what blogging is to traditional magazine publishing. One of the great things about Lulu is that you can use the service as you see fit. Publish a book meant only for your family or friends. Make a photo book, or a comic book. Alter and revise whenever the mood strikes you. A couple of other excellent uses of Lulu have just come to my attention: * Use Lulu to bring out of print books back into print. Dave Lull points out that the Mises Institute is using Lulu to make a lot of their harder-to-find publications available in attractive paperback editions. Catch up with some of the giants of free-market theory. * Use Lulu to create an anthology of your own brain. Blogger / commenter / webcreature John Emerson has edited and expanded a lot of the writing available on his website, and has turned the results into a Lulu book. I haven't yet had the chance to make it through every last word of John's book, but I've spent enough time with it to be dazzled by its cabinet-of-wonders quality. Though basically a collection of quirky mini-essays on topics from Freud to Parmenides to Bob Dylan, it also has its own Borges-like, Calvino-like character. John is a perfect person to be using Lulu -- he's a freelance intellectual with his own way of making sense of the world, and his own distinctive way of piecing things together. His book is both a stimulating browse and an act of intellectual pointillism that coheres into something larger. * Small, a-propos-of-nothing rant: John's book reminds me that one of my favorite book-forms is what's known as the "miscellany" -- a ragbag that can be entered and enjoyed from any number of angles. Why on earth don't miscellanies get more respect than they do? (The NY trade-book industry seldom publishes miscellanies these days, and reviews of such books are even rarer.) But why should the thing we generally expect from a book be a work that is meant to be read from page one through to the end? Nothing against this particular kind of book, of course. But it seems to me that we have our expectations ass-end up. It seems to me far more natural that most books should be ragbags, miscellanies, and collections -- books that we pick up, put down, and put-together for ourselves, at our own choosing. After all, why should any of us be expected to serve someone else's ideal of "the book"? Why isn't it the expected thing instead that books should serve us? Best, Michael UPDATE: Conrad Roth reviews John Emerson's book here.... posted by Michael at August 6, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Monday, July 30, 2007

Clean Sweep at Powell's
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards: I finally did it. On our way to the Oregon Coast last week we stopped in Portland at Powell's book store with a box of books to sell. They bought every book! Which is unheard of, for me at least. I figure I'm doing well if I can sell them two-thirds of what I bring. (I described here last summer's book-packing project when I moved from Olympia. I tossed a lot of books in the dumpster and sold a lot of others to Powell's.) For readers not living on the wet side of the Cascade Mountains, I need to note that Portland-based Powell's is a Big Deal for bookish people. The main store takes up a city block in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood on the edge of downtown. It's a jumble of structures where walls have been knocked out so that customers can, at great risk of becoming disoriented, proceed through floor after floor, section after section of books, books, books. I haven't checked with management or even done my own sample, but a good share of what's on the shelves is used books. That used to put me off. You see, I have this, uh, thing about used stuff. Unless an item is a family heirloom, I have a distaste for having to use somebody else's former things: books, clothing, furniture, cars, what have you. I don't like antique shops, for instance. And seeing all those used books at Powell's mixed with new books put me off. At first, anyway. I was used to books being either in stores selling all new books or all used books, and finding them jumbled took some adjusting. Now I'm okay with it. I normally look for the new stuff and screen out used books. Unless I spy a book that I want and know is hopelessly out of print. Yes, I actually can be practical when circumstances demand it. I've worn cast-off uniforms in the army, dealt with antique items in places I've lived -- even lived in furnished apartments -- and bought used cars. Nevertheless, I prefer new stuff. I guess I'm weird: but you knew that. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 30, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry and Me
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yes, I bought it. The latest Harry Potter book. In fact, I also bought the previous book while at Barnes & Noble. But not at midnight, unlike what most of the rest of the world did. And not before I read a synopsis of Deathly Hallows. Harry Potter books get "darker" volume by volume, and I'm not about to blow twentysomething dollars plus 20 hours of my time on a downer. Not me. No way. I've been a peek-at-the-ending sorta guy from way back. I was thinking about buying the whole Potter series because, although I'd read the first five, it can be hard to remember minor characters and plot elements from years before. So it might be a good thing to just start from scratch and plow through the whole thing, no? Then I went to the Internet and discovered this source containing information about all the characters in the series. It looks like it'll be useful, but I might end up buying the first five anyway. I first encountered Harry Potter at Hatchards bookstore at 187 Piccadilly in London back in 1998. Near the entrance was a large stack of books with this cover: First British edition of the Harry Potter series Yep, it sure looked like a kids book. But why were there so many of the darned things at Hatchards? This was before the Harry Potter craze had jumped the Atlantic, so I was clueless. As I've grown older I find myself reading less and less fiction. What I do read tends to be escapist stuff -- most usually science fiction featuring well-imagined societal and physical settings along with a healthy dose of blood 'n' guts smeared on with savoir-faire, not a trowel. I'm not a fantasy reader aside from Harry Potter. I like Potter because of the world J.K. Rowling created for him. And it seems I'm not alone. Later, Donald UPDATE: Yes I know the title of this post ain't grammatical. I riffed on the title of the Michael Moore hatchet-job movie "Roger and Me" just for the hell of it.... posted by Donald at July 21, 2007 | perma-link | (14) comments

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Politician Books
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't bother reading politician books, though once upon a time I did. When I was in my twenties or thereabouts I'd buy and read a book by a politician (or his ghost-writer) or perhaps a politician's biography or autobiography. This activity was inspired by John F. Kennedy's presidential run, which I ardently supported. (I reached voting age less than a week before the 1960 election.) By "politician books" I'm referring to books related to the current election cycle or a future one. Such books tend to be either puff-pieces or hatchet-jobs motivated by a desire to mold public opinion. This is different from biographies or studies of politicians whose time has passed. For example, JFK, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon have been gone long enough that their presidencies and related issues are becoming hard to tie to current political matters. That is, they are now the stuff of History (though still subject to the biases of historians). Ronald Reagan is entering the transition zone between relevant and historical. So might Jimmy Carter but for the fact that he's still alive and searching the world for dictators and America-haters to embrace. One reason I abandoned the genre is because I learned that politician books can be pretty deceitful. In particular, the 1960-vintage pro-Kennedy books ignored the seriousness of the man's health problems -- information that came fully to light only a few years ago. Another reason is that the Internet offers easy access to gobs of information on biographical details, positions on issues and so forth that weren't so available in the past. In other words, I have a pretty fair perception of politics and politicians and believe reading books would largely be a waste of my time. The rest of the world seems to operate differently, if the piles of politician books at Borders and Barnes & Noble are any indication. Given the high likelihood of pro / con bias and the easy access to information, why are politician books still being published? Some possible reasons: Some such books actually sell well and earn a profit for the publisher. Perhaps some money changes hands under a table and a politician's campaign gets a boost by having their man presented in a "prestigious" setting -- a book. A publisher friendly to a candidate will okay publication of a prestige-building book even though it will lose money: call it a form of campaign contribution. Perhaps Michael, who knows book-trade stuff, can give us the skinny. And who buys such books? And actually reads them? Doubtless a few pimply-faced enthusiasts such as I was in my JFK phase. And probably political staffers and consultants looking for stray insights and opposition ammunition. Then there might be a scattering of folks who prefer to get most of their information from books while smugly feeling that they are going beyond the call of civic duty thanks to the number of pages they're turning. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 19, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Quote for the Day: Elizabeth George
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Flipping through a notebook I keep, I ran across a quote from the mystery writer Elizabeth George that I've always wanted to post: Novels were designed to entertain, and those of us who wish to keep the art form alive need to keep this in mind. To aim for lofty literature instead of aiming for a good story with real characters who grow and develop and a setting that's brought to life is to go at the art form, like putting the varnish on the canvas first. I attempt to write a good novel. Whether it is literature or not is something that will be decided by the ages, not by me and not by a pack of critics around the globe. Hey, folks: The early English novels were tacky affairs -- the equivalent of today's reality TV. There is such a thing as high culture, of course, but much of it has its roots solidly planted in the mud. An example: For much of its history, opera -- today's highest of the high -- held a place in the general culture analogous to today's movies. Small MBlowhard hunch: When you pull an artform out of the earth it grows from, even if you do so with the best or the loftiest of intentions, it's likely to whither and then die. Connecting with the basics -- and then reconnecting with them again and again -- matters. Ohio and California-raised, Elizabeth George is known for writing mysteries set convincingly in Great Britain. She has been a very popular author; she sells well, and a number of her Inspector Lynley novels have been turned into TV shows by the BBC. A quick but maybe not-unfair characterization of her work: She's like an American P.D. James. She uses the form of the mystery story to deliver full-bodied fiction experiences that are similar to those supplied by the 19th century novels that many people complain aren't being written these days. Yes they are, love. You just have to open your mind and look outside of the "literary fiction" genre. I've read a couple of Elizabeth George's novels -- this one and this one -- and I found them both impressive, substantial, satisfying, and enjoyable. They may not exactly be my kinda thing; neither are P.D. James' books. (I don't love-love-love 19th century novels either.) But both women are superb novelists, and I'll be reading more of both of them. Here's Elizabeth George's website. I also loved her book about writing fiction, which I found helpful, thoughtful, and (praise heaven) practical. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 18, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Long, Short, Gore
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- There aren't many cultureworld cliche-phrases that make me groan quite as loudly as "the novelistic accumulation of detail." Why is this phrase often spoken in tones of praise? To me it sounds like "some author or filmmaker who piles up tons of examples instead of getting around to the damn point and moving on to the next one." Lordy, why are so many novels so very long? Even when my appetite for plowing through acres of text was greater than it is now -- back in college, or just back when my eyes were stronger than they are now -- I didn't crave ultra-long novels. I read through a decent number of the Lengthy Greats and am glad I did -- helped make me a semi-cultured person. But as soon as I stopped needing to read long I reverted to shorter works. Exceptions allowed for, of course, as we always must when it comes to culture. But, generally speaking, I simply don't like having a piece of any kind of fiction in my life for too long a time. If I can't get through a work in an evening or two, I become impatient. I haven't even had a fiction-TV series in my life since junior high, come to think of it. In recent years, I've sat through a handful of series: season one of "The Sopranos," "Firefly," and a few of the "Prime Suspect"s. ("Prime Suspect" 1 and 3 were terrif -- why was 2 so bad?) But only a few such -- and in each case I watched it on DVD and got the chore over with in a weekend. This isn't because I don't like fiction, let alone narrative, let alone reading, by the way. I can't resist taste-testing prose when I run across it, and I fancy myself a connoisseur of drama, plot, suspense, and story. But I seem to have a greater taste for shapeliness and intensity in narrative than the "I love losing myself in a fictional world for weeks at a time" crowd does. As a consequence, my own tastes generally run towards movies, plays, webseries -- complete experiences that can deliver considerable involvement yet wrap it up in an hour or two, or perhaps an evening or two. Where book-fiction is concerned, one reason I generally go for crime novels these days is that crime novels tend to be shorter, faster, more to the point, and shapelier than most lit-fiction novels are. A great Donald Westlake quote: If your subject is crime, then you know at least that you're going to have a real story. If your subject is the maturing of a college boy, you may never stumble across a story while you're telling that. But if your story is a college boy dead in his dorm room, you know there's a story in there, someplace. Come to think of it, I like spare French novellas for much the same set of reasons: They're intense,... posted by Michael at July 5, 2007 | perma-link | (22) comments

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Nikos on Amazon
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm thrilled to notice that Nikos Salingaros' books about architecture -- previously rather hard to get hold of -- can now be bought from Amazon: here, here, here. They're brilliant. You can get a good sample of Nikos' thinking by reading 2Blowhards' interview with him. All five parts can be accessed via this posting. Here's an impressed and impressive recent Ashraf Salama review of one of Nikos' books. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 3, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Going Live
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I are coming off a long-ish spell of old-fashioned barnstorming. In recent months we've put our raunchy fiction up in front of live audiences all around the country. We've conferred our genius on San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix, L.A., Austin and seven or eight more cities (/irony, of course). Or was it nine more cities? When you're on tour, where you are and where you've been can get to be a bit of a blur. It has been an elaborate and exhausting procedure, mainly because we don't just show up at bookstores and read from books. That would be too easy. No, we arrange with local actors to semi-read / semi-perform our stories. We put on a real show, in other words. It's all very no-budget and catch-as-catch-can, but even so the process involves arranging a venue, buying advertising, trying to rustle up local press coverage, and auditioning actors and getting them to show up on time. To be honest, this has all been The Wife's doing, not mine. For one thing, she's promoting a collection of her own stories that has just been published. (If you'd like an Amazon link to the book, email me at michaelblowhard at gmail and I'll email it back to you. And please do! The Wife's book is a super-fun read -- full of mischief, nifty hooks, lively characters, and hot and filthy sex scenes. Not that I'm biased or anything ... ) For another, The Wife just likes putting on live shows. She's that type -- I often tease her that she's more actress than writer, and I wonder sometimes if she wouldn't be even happier making movies than writing books. Performers, venues, applause, audiences, the crackle of electricity that's special to live performances -- for her, that combo is like the world's bestest-ever drug. Me, well ... Let's just say that I enjoy co-writing, lending moral support, and hanging out backstage. Please don't feel impressed. We put our shows on at small clubs, even at sex-toy stores, not in auditoriums. At our level, the usual audience ranges from 40-60 people. (On the other hand: Be impressed! Most writers would kill to have 40-60 people show up to listen to their fiction.) We've also been doing the touring on our own nickel. What, you don't think book publishers actually promote the books they publish, do you? Please, grow up. The fact is that, for 90% of book-authors, publishers do nothing besides turn the material into a book and place it on bookstore shelves for eight weeks. That's it. No ads, no touring, no support. The book either finds its audience or it doesn't. (It's an absurd business: How is anyone supposed to learn about the book's existence in the first place?) So The Wife and I -- darned proud of our kooky, nasty fiction, and maybe a little tougher about promotion than many tenderfoot writers are -- have been doing our best to give our... posted by Michael at June 21, 2007 | perma-link | (12) comments

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ed on George
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ed Gorman enjoys "Blackmailer", a nearly-50-year-old novel by George Axelrod that has just been republished by the excellent Hard Case Crime. Axelrod (who died in 2003) doesn't seem to be well-known these days. But he was a legend back in the '50s and '60s -- a wildly successful TV and radio writer; a celebrated playwright ("Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?", "The 7-Year Itch"); and a high-paid screenwriter who penned scripts for such movies as "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "The Manchurian Candidate," and the hyper-kooky "Lord Love a Duck" (one of The Wife's favorites), which he also directed. As far as I 've been able to tell, "Blackmailer" was his only novel. He wrote it for the famous Gold Medal paperback line, which I blogged about here. He was at his malicious and exuberant best doing dizzy, poppy satire. Ed Gorman describes Axelrod this way: "There were few cooler guys on TV in the Fifties than George Axelrod ... I always thought Now that's the kind of guy I wish I could be. Hip but accessible." Ed calls "Blackmailer" "larky ... pure escape," which sounds awfully good to me. I've just hit Amazon's One-Click button. I couldn't find much about Axelrod online. (Funny how little the web offers on some major figures, isn't it? How is our picture of culture being affected by this?) Axelrod dropped out of circulation in the late '60s, then did a few screenwriting jobs in the '80s: "The Last Protocol," "The Holcroft Covenant," neither one of which I've seen. Here's a short look at his life. Wikipedia is pretty informative too. Here's an AP obit. It's good to see that a movie based on one of Ed Gorman's novels has just gone into production. I'm looking forward to that too. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 31, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, May 21, 2007

Meet Ed
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Ed Gorman has a tasty-sounding new mystery out. Haven't read it myself, but the reliable Bruce Grossman is enthusiastic. Ed Gorman runs a feisty, companionable, and smart blog here. Don't miss recent Ed postings about a couple of legendary gal fiction-writers: Margaret Millar and Marijane Meaker (aka Vin Packer). This posting about the haunting and poetic David Goodis is a special gem. Great Ed line: "The physical settings may change but usually you have the same man -- i.e., David Goodis -- trying to survive being himself for at least another twenty-four hours." Now that's some first-class literary criticism. Recently, Ed ran a two-part article about the amazing Charles Williams by Ed Lynskey: here and here. Lynsky reports in his excellent piece that, for Maxim Jakubowski, Charles Williams is "an American classic," and that, for Max Alan Collins, Williams is "the best-kept secret in ... noir fiction." I'll second and third those opinions. I raved about Charles Williams myself not so long ago. This may be nothing but gratuitous point-scoring on my part, but I can't resist mentioning that, while it isn't unusual to run into sweet-natured and big-hearted people in the crime-fiction field, I've run into much less in the way of generosity and directness during my explorations of the literary world. Best, Michael UPDATE: In the Prospect, Julian Gough asks "what's wrong with the modern literary novel?" (Link thanks to ALD.) For Gough, the answer has to do with writers' tendency to overemphasize the tragic vision at the expense of the comic vision. My own small contribution to this discussion: Perhaps it also comes down to goals and personalities. Writers of narrative (and genre) fiction are generally trying to craft accessible and rewarding entertainments that can be enjoyed by regular folks, while many creators of lit fiction are doing their best to show off for an audience of editors, critics, profs, and other lit-fict authors.... posted by Michael at May 21, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Why Read?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- There I was not so long ago, flying Business class on American. (Thank you, Frequent Flyer miles.) Cruising altitude had been attained. I was leaning back, about to settle into the book I'd brought along, when a steward-person held out one of these to me: It took me a few seconds to make sense of what was was being proposed. My steward-person was wheeling a cart laden with a number of these devices, each one zipped into its own little gizmo-bag. The machines had hard drives loaded with movies, TV shows, and music. In other words: We ritzy biz-class types were being offered the chance to use a snazzy media device for the duration of our flight. Looking around warily -- surely there was a catch -- I accepted the gizmo and plugged it in. The device proved friendly enough; dimwitted me was able to find my bearings quickly. Wariness now allayed, I set my book aside and started surfing programs, music, and movies. I found watching a movie on the device to be a surprisingly satisfying experience. I'm film snob enough that I never, ever watch a movie on an airplane. I find the watery, dim, poorly-aimed video image that front-of-the-cabin airplane screens offer an affront. On this little gizmo, though ... Well, its six-ish inch screen was bright and clear, and the sound was luscious. There was no hope of being ravished by the kind of dreamy hugeness and engulfing hyperreality that actual movies offer, of course. Still, the film's moods came across, the framing was razor-sharp, and the performances were more-than-adequately conveyed. And the suit-yourself intimacy of the device was its own major plus. I loved being able to surf, start, stop, pause, and rewind as I saw fit. No passengers walked between me and the gizmo's screen. The gizmo was as convenient to use and as eager to please as the book that I'd stowed away and forgotten about. One final factor made the device seem plausible: It felt semi-important to me that the gizmo wasn't a mere DVD player, but that it instead contained a library of various media offerings. There was no need to exit the device's thought-space in order to fumble around with something physical, like a disc. Being able to select from among a bunch of already-in-there media options made me want to get to know the device a lot better. As you might be able to tell from my lousy photos, the device is about the same size as a modest hardcover book. Even so, handling it isn't quite the unself-conscious thing that handling a book is. The device is considerably heavier than a book, for one thing. For another, despite its ironclad chunkiness it still feels breakable. Maybe that's partly a function of having a screen; maybe it's also partly a function of me knowing that there's a spinning hard drive inside. (You can feel the battery heat up and the hard drive whirr... posted by Michael at May 21, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"The Man Who Was Thursday"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just finished G.K. Chesterton's novel "The Man Who Was Thursday." It's certainly a brilliant book; it's just as certainly one of the most peculiar books I've ever read. Although you might call it a metaphysical thriller, the effect it produces is anything like that of conventional fiction, philosophical or not. In the way it combines debate and fantasy, as well as in the way it continuously -- and whimsically -- keeps reframing its own nature, it comes across like a cross between an Escher print and a medieval romance. Fascinatin'! All that said, the novel is also intensely and explicitly Christian in its concerns. Fine and dandy, of course. But once again I find myself confessing that Christian conversations not only aren't ones that I find very inviting, they're so foreign to what runs through my own mind and spirit that when I attend to them I feel like I'm listening to people speaking Chinese. Which means in effect that, reading "The Man Who Was Thursday," I felt curious and amazed, but shut out as well. But of course that's my shortcoming, not the novel's. Recently, I read and reacted to Chesterton's "Orthodoxy." Philip Bess responded to my posting here. Visit the excellent and thoughtful blogger who calls himself the Man Who Is Thursday here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 20, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, May 18, 2007

Philip Bess on Chesterton
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I received a very interesting response via email to my recent posting about G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" from Philip Bess, an architect, an author, and a professor of architecture at Notre Dame. It was too interesting not to share with others, so I asked Philip for permission to copy and paste it into the blog. Philip has kindly agreed. Here it is: Dear Michael Blowhard: Wow, thank you for the wonderful recent post on Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" (which John Massengale forwarded to me), especially impressive given your own existential caveats. While I don't agree with your characterization of Chesterton in all of its details (this owes, perhaps, to my being familiar with a larger part of the Chesterton corpus; though by no means a majority!), your review is nonetheless generously sympathetic. I appreciate too your gently-phrased advance warning to any would-be evangelists eager to think you may be on the edge of religious conversion, and hoping themselves to give you that just slight but decisive nudge. At the risk of appearing to be one of that type -- and advance apologies if indeed I am one of that type -- allow me nevertheless to give you my take on several of the interesting issues and questions your review has raised. 1) Several of your readers have already pointed out that "Orthodoxy" represents not Chesterton's apology for Catholicism (of which there are several later examples, to one of which I refer below), but rather simply for orthodox Christianity as summarized in The Apostles' Creed, which can be (and is) affirmed by Orthodox and many Protestant Christians as well as Roman Catholics. Chesterton states this almost in passing near the end of his Introduction: These essays are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics.... When the word "orthodoxy" is used here it means the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed. And the rest of the book simply proceeds with this understanding of Christianity. It also may or may not help to understand 1908 "Orthodoxy's" relationship to his 1905 book "Heretics," one of whose subjects made the off-hand remark that he would worry about the alleged deficiencies of his own philosophy "when Mr. Chesterton has given us his." "Orthodoxy" followed from that challenge. 2) I think you are absolutely right that Chesterton embraced orthodox Christianity (and ultimately Catholicism) not because he reasoned his way through all the propositions of its creed/s and catechism but rather because he simply came to believe 1) that Catholicism was foundational for, inseparable from and part and parcel of western culture (including the best parts of the modern world, not least science and technology); 2) that he found that Christian orthodoxy suited his own temperament and intellect; and 3) that he believed points... posted by Michael at May 18, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, May 14, 2007

Maugham Moment
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Without intending to, I've stumbled into a Somerset Maugham phase over the last few months. I read Maugham's novella "Up at the Villa," I saw the movie that was based on it, and just yesterday I watched the film of Maugham's novel "The Painted Veil." Two out of three ain't bad. The dud of the bunch was the movie of "Up at the Villa." Its dudness came as a surprise partly because the novella was so darned good. Maugham's insight and command are extraordinary in the book, which is set in pre-WWII Italy and which concerns a young English widow in need of both a husband and some love. Although Maugham tells the story with nary a wasted motion, and using a calm and controlled surface, he generates tons of charged emotional drama. The other reason the dudness of the movie came as a surprise was that its makers Philip Haas and his wife Belinda Haas had made a very stylish splash with the 1995 "Angels and Insects." I didn't enjoy "Angels and Insects" much -- I don't care for conceptual / intellectual entertainments generally. But it certainly wasn't short on snazz or brio. "Up at the Villa," by contrast, has zero style and brio. It's conventional and unremarkable, a movie for the least adventurous of the arthouse / foreign-movie crowd. The Haas's open up the novella's story with some unncessary plot complications and with a lot of emphasis given over to the era's looming fascism. Were they imagining that they were saying something, or perhaps making some kind of statement? Or were they run roughshod-over by producers or moneypeople? In any case, the film (which features one of Sean Penn's more flagrantly bad performances, and that's saying a lot) doesn't come off at all, The only real reason to see it is for Kristin Scott Thomas, who's miraculous: womanly, daring, elegant, impassioned. That woman can veer back and forth between poised and desperate like no one else. Besides the novella, I also loved the film "The Painted Veil." Produced by and starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, and written by Ron Nyswaner, it's brilliant. Or perhaps I should just say that I found it involving, moving, and surprisingly intense. It's a romantic melodrama, centered on a spoiled upper-class brat (Watts) who lets herself be won and married by a middle-class doctor who's working in China. Once there, her egocentricity starts to find itself challenged in all kinds of unexpected ways. Let me list some of what's remarkable about the film: Its sense of scale. Though it's a period costume drama and was filmed in China, and though it certainly has its share of sets, landscapes, hairdos, and even a few crowd scenes, it's one of the least "sweeping" romantic costume movies ever. (It was directed by John Curran, who previously directed Watts in a movie I didn't care for, "We Don't Live Here Any More.") It's focused almost entirely on the psychologies and... posted by Michael at May 14, 2007 | perma-link | (19) comments

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Nagle Speaks
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm glad to see that Robert Nagle will be doing a live webcast tomorrow. Robert -- who's very smart and interesting about numerous up-to-date subjects -- will be talking about ebooks, text books, and digital storytelling. Robert sometimes comments here at 2Blowhards, and he runs his own blog here. He also writes fiction under a variety of pseudonyms -- I wish I knew what they are. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 10, 2007 | perma-link | (0)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Chesterton's "Orthodoxy"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I recently finished reading G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy." I found it a fascinating book for a variety of reasons. For one: Chesterton describes his book as a far more modest project than it turns out to be. According to what he announces at the outset, he's simply setting forth how he came to embrace Catholicism at its most traditional. [CORRECTION: Make that "Christianity at its most traditional." Thanks to several visitors who pointed out that Chesterton didn't commit to Catholicism until a number of years after publishing "Orthodoxy."] But he doesn't in fact keep the book that personal; he doesn't stick to his announced limitations. Instead, he winds up making an aggressive and ambitious case for Catholicism as the truest account we have of life, and the most trustworthy guide we have to that life. I suppose that Chesterton, a sly fox, was pursuing this bait-and-switch strategy deliberately. Does it really matter if he wasn't? Given what a spokesguy for limits and forms he generally makes himself out to be, perhaps it does, if only a little. Anyway: a quick personal aside. I have a tendency to treat myself to looks into Christianity or Judaism -- into monotheism, Western-style -- once or twice a year. When I do this and I blog about my adventures, I always receive solicitous emails from people convinced that I'm teetering on the verge of committing to some Christian faith or other. I'm guessing that, in the view of these correspondents, I'm blogging out of intensely-felt spiritual agonies, and that all I need is a little love and encouragement to enable me to fall into the embrace of the Church. The care and interest are both much appreciated, of course. But they're based on a misapprehension. I'm not blogging out of a sense of agony and yearning. Really I'm not. I take my looks into Christianity and Judaism out of nothing more than curiosity. Well, a strong curiosity, but mere curiosity anyway. Western monotheism is a knot I gnaw at. One reason for this: Western civ was partly formed by Western monotheism. I inhabit Western civ; I'm an arts-and-culture kinda guy. Hence, I'd like to understand the connections between Western monotheism and the life around me better than I do. The other basis for my curiosity and gnawing is even more dopey. Western monotheism has never worked for me in the most basic sense. Forget about ideas and beliefs, let's talk showbiz. I don't get it, emotionally or imaginatively. I stare at Western monotheism like I stare at a comic book series that fails to hook me. I find that I can tune in to the fascination and the magic for a second or two tops. Then it slips away from me again. As a result, I'd like to develop a better grasp on what it is I'm missing. (FWIW, and purely for the sake of self-indulgence: I not only don't get monotheism, I find it unappealing. It seems to... posted by Michael at May 8, 2007 | perma-link | (36) comments

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Bookbiz Linkage
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Jim Miller points out a Guardian article comparing women's and men's tastes in book-fiction reading. Like Jim, I don't know why anyone was surprised by the results -- dudez like heroes and ideas, galz prefer to compare feelings and receive validation, etc. But apparently some people were. * Jim also makes some refreshingly down-to-earth (and hence un-P.C.) comments about a Seattle librarian's reading list for children. It can sometimes seem as though teachers and librarians want to prevent little boys from reading, can't it? My own working assumption: School is a conspiracy against boys. (UPDATE: Steve Sailer writes about one small publishing house that has made a point of publishing books for boys.) * Thanks to FvB, who points out a NYTimes article about how newspapers' book-review sections are shrinking. Book publicists eager for coverage are now almost as likely to approach litblogs as they are traditional publications, it seems, and the National Book Critics Circle has even launched a Campaign to Save Book Reviews. The smart 'n' sassy Book Babes comment. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 2, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Nate Likes Avenir
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Nate Davis gives Avenir -- one of the Mac writing tools that I recommended recently -- a spin, and likes what he encounters. He also does a better job than I did of describing what Avenir is: It's a database-driven interface with containers for notes on characters, scenes, chapters, etc. It even has a very optimistically designed section for keeping track of your submissions! ... I like that this program is fairly minimalist -- it stays out of the way and lets me just free-form ramble to get things started. But it's there to step in with containers for this and that when things get complicated. Nate reports that using Avenir has even helped him become unstuck where one of his writing projects is concerned. I've been making a lot of use of Scrivener myself, and the experience has left me more convinced than ever that the Avenir / Scrivener class of software marks as much of an advance over the word processor as the word processor represented over the typewriter, at least so far as longer pieces of writing go. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 1, 2007 | perma-link | (0)
Long Books
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Tyler Cowen asks, "What's Wrong with Long Books?" Fun thoughts from many visitors. I pitched in with this comment: Well, many books are too long. It's commonly acknowledged in the bookbiz that many nonfiction books, for instance, are just blown-up magazine articles. Also, when you think about it, isn't it incredibly ... audacious or arrogant or something for authors to ask us to read (for instance) 600 pages? Even if you read at a very good clip, this author is asking you for at least a 10 hour commitment. Tyler, who seems to have 60 hours in a day, might breeze through such a book in a weekend, but it'd take me a couple of weeks. And what individual -- and whose individual voice -- merits that kind of attention? Would you voluntarily say, OK, I'm going to listen to Person X yak on for 10 hours straight? I mean, would you do that often? By contrast, a season of a TV series (about the equivalent in length) has all kinds of talents and personalities pitching in for your entertainment's sake: designers, performers, multiple scriptwriters, directors, photographers, costume and music people ... Downside: commercial anxiety, too many cooks, etc. Still, the book-length thang (and our fetishization of it) strikes me as weird. Books are as long as they are in many cases not because that's the right length for them but because book-publishing requires that length. Books are book-length not because it suits us but because it suits the book-publishing business. What if you've got a story that tells itself naturally in 80 pages? It seems to me that most stories run naturally as prose things around 20-80 pages. Beyond that is padding, writin', atmosphere, authorial ego ... All the more reason to value novels that do justify 400 or 800 pages, of course. But why not acknowledge that they're rarities? Besides, I'm simply not 600 pages' worth of interested in many stories, or many subjects. I solve the problem for myself practically where nonfiction is concerned by buying abridged audiobooks. I'll listen to a four-tape version of a biography while commuting or exercising and be quite happy about it (and I'll be done with it in fairly short order too). But the 600 page full-length bio? I'm just not gonna get around to it. One of the great things about the internet is that it's freed writing from the old length-predicament of "either it's an article or a book." Why do we make such a big deal out of the book-length writing performance? Is it entirely because of history and school? Is there any reason to expect people in the future to have the same attachment to the book-length performance? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 1, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

"Youthful Desires"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I spent some of the weekend reading Darrell Reimer's story collection "Youthful Desires." I had a very good time, and I suspect that anyone who took to (for instance) the early movies of Richard Linklater will enjoy "Youthful Desires" too. (You may know Darrell already; he blogs at WhiskyPrajer.) Darrell's fiction is of the same general school as Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," or (in book terms) Tom Perrotta's early story collection "Bad Haircut" and Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity." This is a landscape / mindscape / writing-scape inhabited by bright young boy-men with searching brains, more mixed-up than they know, yet sweet and open, caught between adolescent lustiness, nostalgia for childhood, anxiety about entering the adult world, and amazement at the vastness of it all. What makes Darrell's book distinctive is that his language has its own out-of-the-mainstream music, and that his young men have their own special concerns. Darrell -- who, if I remember right, is the son of a Mennonite pastor -- is amazingly unself-conscious about shifting into metaphysical-speculation mode. Wondering about the divine is a natural part of what his young men do. Yet Darrell isn't imposing ideas, let alone using fiction as a mere vehicle for philosophizing. The stories and characters have their own life; the ideas and speculations are part of the loam that the stories grow from, alongside testosterone, confusion, grogginess, and giddiness. Darrell's young men are wondering what they might do in life, hoping to get laid, and asking themselves what God might be up to. In one story, Darrell's protagonist has thrown himself into bodybuilding as -- he hopes -- a redemptive activity, and Darrell's evocation of this kid's disordered thought processes is shrewd, funny, and brilliantly done. Like Perrotta and Hornby, this is Lit Lite -- yet it's also Lit Very Likable, Lit Very Amusing, and Lit Very Touching. (And who says that achieving a shallow-yet-setting-off-deeper-notes tone isn't a considerable achievement?) Darrell keeps his stories very personal and informal. The collection -- which Darrell has published himself via -- never feels not-handmade; it never feels not like a labor of love. This may be workshop-style fiction -- though indie-cinema creators should find a lot of rich material here, Jerry Bruckheimer certainly won't be buying these stories to supply plot-lines for next summer's action movies. But it isn't fiction that has been workshopped-to-death. Darrell isn't out to be the toughest, most virtuosic writer in writing class. He's using workshop techniques to show off his subject matter. This is amateur fiction in the best sense, in the sense of fiction that has been written from love. I want to add a small thing here about the amateur-vs-professional pickle. The professional publishing process involves many stages, and it has much to recommend it. The processes tend to ensure that a certain level of gloss and professionalism is attained and sustained. While this can often be a good thing, at other times the process is destructive. What can happen... posted by Michael at May 1, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friday, April 20, 2007

A New Class of Writing Tools for the Mac
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- There isn't much that'll prod me into acting all unpleasant and snobby, but a few minutes with Microsoft Word will do the trick. All due respect to those who like it as well as to those who have no choice but to use it, of course. Still: what an unhelpful beast I find it to be. The picky writer in me is beyond-offended. I rise up and say, huffily: "Why, that's not a tool for real writers. It's a program for the creation of" -- patooie -- "business documents." To be fair, my dislike of Word has a lot to do with the word processor category generally. I wrote back here about how much I dislike conventional word processors. (I notice that I cracked a few decent jokes and ventured a couple of potentially-amusing thoughts about writing too.) Short version: I find word processors to be unsatisfying compromises. Half text-slinging tools, half page-layout programs, they aren't particularly good at either task. And Microsoft Word compounds the basic conceptual problem with the usual Microsoft featuritis. God ... Word really does make me turn up my nose. In my previous posting, I extolled a couple of non-word-processor writing tools that I was then finding helpful in a sympathetic-to-real-writing kind of way. That was a few years ago, though, and those tools have since been superseded by yet better writer's tools -- by a whole new class of software, in fact. Since many people may not be aware of these new and newish programs, why not yak about 'em a bit and pass along a few links? My taste in writer's tools has first to do with something very basic and rooted in temperament. For some people, pulling together a piece of to-be-published material is a matter of integrating imagery, graphics, words, and editorial concepts. That's where they start, juggling all those different media elements. Dave Eggers and Chip Kidd, for example, are famous for composing their books -- right from the outset -- in page-layout programs. This approach makes sense for Eggers and Kidd because layout and design are so integral to how they think and work, as well as to what they want to produce. The Wife is someone else who likes seeing her writing in a page-layout sense as she's composing. She says it helps her bring her writing to life. I'm not like that. I'm a words-first kinda guy. Incidentally, this isn't to put people who aren't words-firsty down. I often I wish I shared their kind of talent-set and temperament-set. I love artist's notebooks and sketchbooks, for instance -- they're some of my favorite books. The combo of jotting, sketching, notes-to-self, captions, diary entries, watercolors, etc., can make my head spin in pleasure. I feel like I'm experiencing someone else's perceptual apparatus, and in a nice way. Unfortunately, working in such a way doesn't seem to be in the cards for me. No, when I want to pull together a piece of... posted by Michael at April 20, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Crime Writing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bruce Grossman raves about novels by Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Elmore Leonard. All three are among my own crime-writing favorites. Folks who casually assume that genre writing doesn't offer a lot of brilliance or much writin'-writing pleasure are in for some surprises if they try these guys. Between you and me, in my personal art-cosmos all three rate as entertainer/artists on a par with Duke Ellington, Ruth Brown, Count Basie, the Cord automobile, Robert Siodmak, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Cary Grant, Margaret Sullavan, and the Chrysler Building. Ie., they're among the very best that American culture has to offer. But let's keep that between us, OK? I wouldn't want the wrath of the Official Lit Set descending on me. Best, Michael UPDATE: Thanks to jult52 for linking to this great Elmore Leonard 10 Rules of Writing. Read; memorize. You can now skip creative-writing school.... posted by Michael at April 18, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The NYTBR Section and Fiction 5: Literary Fiction and Literature
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here's my widely-anticipated (small joke) new installment in a continuing series of postings in which I spout off about the New York Times Book Review Section's ka-razy over-emphasis on literary fiction. Previous installments here, here, here, here. Today's theme: "Literary fiction and literature." Let's examine this idea of "literary fiction" for a few minutes. I'm not concerning myself with any official definition, by the way. I'm interested in what's commonly understood by the term. As far as I can tell, the thing that most people understand by "literary fiction" has two main components. One is that the book in question is more concerned with the details and fine points of writing itself than non-literary writing is. The other is that whatever it is that the future will decide was the lasting literature of our era, it will be drawn from the "literary fiction" candidate-list. If you disagree with me about either of these points, please join in the commentsfest. Almost all pictures need complexifying. Still, I've met many people for whom the above pretty much summarizes what they understand by "literary fiction." So why not examine how these two assumptions hold up in actual fact? A self-conscious concern with writin'. There's no doubt that the lit-fict class makes a bigger show of fussin' with the writin' than the non lit-fict crowd does. 99% of the time, the prose surface of literary fiction is more heavily-worked and more aggressively manipulated than the prose-surface of non-literary fiction. Hooo-eee, how these people love to critique each other's sentences. But what a narrow idea of writing critiquing sentences is, no? After all, how big a part of fiction-creation does the specific act of fussing with words make up? (Incidentally, there are in fact some writers whose fiction arises from the energy they expend on fussing with words. I know that. But they aren't numerous.) Back here I made a quick list -- informal but maybe serviceable -- of some of the activities that are often involved in creating prose fiction. Writin' is just one item on it. Two of the others: the construction of a story, and the creation of characters. Dismiss me as a traditionalist, but I'd be happy to argue that these two activities are, always have been, and always will be more central to the creation of fiction than verbal fussbudgetry is. To heighten the contrast, let's look at "The Maltese Falcon" and Salman Rushdie. The writin' in "The Maltese Falcon" is of course a wonder to behold. But writin' per se is about 10% of what the book puts on display. How about that cast of characters, eh? Brigid O'Shaughnessy ... Joel Cairo ... Caspar Gutman (the fat man) ... And of course Sam Spade himself -- living, breathing people every one of them, or perhaps even better than that. And how about those moments of suspense, humor, surprise, and excitement? Pretty hard to shake, no? These things don't just happen any more than... posted by Michael at April 12, 2007 | perma-link | (31) comments

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Richard S. Wheeler's Memoir
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm thrilled to see that the western novelist Richard S. Wheeler has just published his memoir. I've pressed the One-Click button myself, and am looking forward to reading the book. Some great p-r copy: "In his early forties, Richard Wheeler had never given a thought to writing fiction. By his early seventies, he had written sixty novels." Now that's an interesting and productive writing life! I raved about Richard's masterful novel "Flint's Gift" here. 2Blowhards re-published a speech Richard gave on the topic of book publishing here, and ran an article that Richard wrote for us about the Western writing scene here. Prairie Mary writes about Richard's new memoir here. Since I've ventured the thought on this blog that more writers ought to study acting, it's especially fun to learn that Richard and Mary both feel that they've profited as writers from taking years of acting class. Best, Michael UPDATE: Ed Gorman recommends Richard's memoir too.... posted by Michael at April 11, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Charlton / Juvenal
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I recently had a wonderful time going through Charlton Griffin's audiobook of Juvenal's "Satires." Amazing material, of course. Juvenal was a Roman poet given to wild caricature of the life he observed -- he's like the poet version of Hogarth, only for Roman times rather than for 18th century England. The poems are given a superbly-judged production and reading by Charlton, who presents them with a winning combo of dignity, lasciviousness, and merriment. The effect is like spending a sozzled, off-the-record evening with a dirty-minded senator. You can download the audiobook from Audible, or from the iTunes Store. Charlton -- no stranger to merriment or to witty observation himself -- has forwarded along some tasty links. * Cliff's Notes for "The Sopranos." * Enough already with the super-slow-mo shots of bullets. How about a slow-mo shot of a samurai sword in action? That's one sharp blade. * The immigration crisis, via The Onion. * Do men really like the hourglass figure best? * How to resist game-show bloopers? * When it's over, it's really over. Charlton is currently reading a history of Rome for XM satellite radio. Best, Michael UPDATE: Thanks to The Man Who Is Thursday, who points out this Roger Kimball essay about Juvenal.... posted by Michael at April 3, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Novelization Game
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bookgasm's Rod Lott talks to novelization writer Greg Cox, and asks my favorite question of the day: "When you finally see a film you earlier wrote a novelization for, what's that experience like?" A nice illustration of how zany -- and how ass-backwards -- the media-creating life often is, no? Incidentally, you won't catch me making fun of novelizations, let alone of the writers who write 'em. Fiction writers need to pay the bills too, after all, and I have the greatest respect for people who manage to write fiction for a living. Plus -- and not that I've spent anything like a Rod Lott amount of time looking into novelizations -- I've read a few novelizations that weren't just well-done, they were better than the movies they were based on. They were, in fact, darned good books. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 24, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, March 2, 2007

Quote for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Midway through G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" I ran across a very nice passage: Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else ... Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all other women, so when you take one action you give up all of the other courses ... It is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation. The essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold, creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe ... You can free things of alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars, but do not free him of his stripes ... The artist loves his limitations. They constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colorless. Sure there are other ways of seeing and thinking about art. I get a lot out of some of them myself. But isn't it terrific that 1) this view of art exists too, and that 2) Chesterton has put the case for it so snappily? And -- a question that I often mull over -- why is this p-o-v so seldom to be encountered these days, whether in the schools or on the arts pages? Instead we're fed the usual lines about self-expression, about conceptual gamesmanship ... It's almost as if the Chestertonian p-o-v is actively being kept from us, isn't it? I'm reading "Orthodoxy" on audiobook, by the way, a fact that makes my middle-aged eyes happy and grateful. You can find the audio version of "Orthodoxy" at the ultra-excellent Blackstone Audiobooks, and at the iTunes Store. Best, Michael UPDATE: Chris Floyd posts a terrific passage from Chesterton. A funny line from Chris, who has also been dipping into E.F. Schumacher: "For those of you keeping score at home, this may signal my move so far to the right that I've wrapped around to the far-left (the environmentalist and anti-globalization left, to be specific." And Chris links to this well-worth-wrestling-with "Reactionary's Catechism." Stuart Buck posts some passages from Chesterton and some thoughts of his own here, here, and here. Daniel Tammett suspects that Chesterton was an autistic savant.... posted by Michael at March 2, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Long Tail, Short Version
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A podcast recommendation: Russ Roberts interviews Wired editor Chris ("The Long Tail") Anderson. Anderson is an enthusiastic and helpful interviewee, and he supplies a more-nuanced-than-I-expected sketch of his Long Tail idea. Here's Anderson's own blog. I look at Wired only occasionally these days, but I'm pretty dazzled by the magazine when I do. Anderson seems to be an inspired and inspiring editor. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 22, 2007 | perma-link | (0)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Get Rich Writing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Planning on getting rich writing sci-fi or fantasy novels? Think again. Tobias Buckell writes that the average advance for a first sci-fi or fantasy novel is $5000. Five years and five novels later, the average author is pulling in around $13,000 per novel. Sci-fi pro Charlie Stross describes the dreary lot that is a professional writer's life. Nice quote: It's startling how many people think that the writer's life is one of glamour and artistic credibility rather than a mundane job, with everything that goes with that. If you want to do the art, you've not only got to put in your time learning the tools of the trade -- you've got to remember that it is a trade, and there are trade-like activities that go with it and that you can't afford to shirk if you want to keep doing the important stuff. Links via Peter L. Winkler, who thinks that print-on-demand won't be the salvation of the book publishing industry. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 20, 2007 | perma-link | (18) comments

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Farewell Indies?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The LA Times' David Streitfeld sums up the sad state of independent bookstores. "I'd be really hard pressed to come up with a single social or demographic trend that is in favor of bookstores," says one former bookstore owner. "It's a lost cause." (Link thanks to Anne Thompson.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 8, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Charlton's Latest
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Charlton Griffin -- who sometimes shows up in the comments here at 2Blowhards -- happens to be one of the very best producers and readers of audiobooks. I've listened to a number of Charlton's productions, and they've supplied some of the classiest and most pleasurable culture experiences I've had in recent years. So I'm glad to notice that Charlton has recently issued two more productions: R.D. Blackmore's classic Victorian romance "Lorna Doone," and -- a book I've long wanted to read -- the Satires of Juvenal. These are downloadable files from Audible, meant to be listened to on an MP3 player or an iPod. I'm a big fan of the downloadable-iPod-audiobook thang myself. I've been listening to audiobooks on my iPod for about a year now and I love it. I've encountered few technical problems, the sound quality is excellent, and the convenience can't be beat. It seems quite miraculous to tote around entire long novels (or Teaching Company lecture series) on such a tiny device. Hey, maybe the iPod-playing-audiobooks is the e-book reader that many have been awaiting. In any case, let me encourage those who have resisted audiobooks to give them a try. If you take to them -- and many, many people do (it's one of the few flourishing parts of the book-publishing industry) -- you may be amazed by what a great resource they are. Reading no longer has to wait until the end of the evening, when your vision is shot and your mind is dozey. Commuting time and exercise time become reading time as well. I get through many more books these days than I did in my pre-audiobook years. Here's an additional benefit: In my experience, audiobooks don't clutter up the house like books-on-paper do. I don't know why, but books-on-paper accumulate while audiobooks don't. One reason may be that I'm simply more likely to read an audiobook I've purchased than I am to read a book. For another, once you're done with an audiobook there's no point in keeping it around. You can't thumb through it, after all. So if it's a digital file you might erase it. If it's on CD, you might give it to a friend. In either case, when you're done with an audiobook, it's gone. Books meanwhile gather dust. Here's the website of Charlton's outfit, the well-named Audio Connoisseur. Charlton has made audiobooks of many substantial volumes of history and mucho great literature, so be sure to type "Charlton Griffin" and/or "Audio Connoisseur" into the Search box at Audible and have a look at the titles he has made available. Thanks to audiobooks you don't have to wait until retirement to catch up with the classics you missed as a kid. Charlton's Maugham and Maupassant are extra-special gems, IMHO. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 7, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, February 4, 2007

YUP Hatches a Nope: Flawed Take on Norman Bel Geddes
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I like a lot of what Yale University Press publishes on art. For instance, their series of books on John Singer Sargent is wonderful (too bad I can't afford any). Alas, even a high batting average includes misses along with the hits. And I say that YUP whiffed on this book: Designing Modern America:Broadway to Main Street by Christopher Innes, Canada Research Chair in Performance Culture at York University, Toronto. If I understand Innes correctly, his thesis goes something like this: Now largely forgotten, Joseph Urban (1872-1933) and Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) were important shapers of modern American design, and their skill and success were related to their experience in theater-related design. The book is his attempt to demonstrate this, and I'm persuaded that the theatricality angle is interesting and doubtless an important factor in the architectural and design aspects of their careers. I've always been fond of Urban's work and ought to set aside time to work up a Blowhards post about him. Briefly, he was an Austrian involved one of the 1900-vintage secession movements. He moved to America in the 1910s and had a successful career in several design-related fields before his death at age 61. A book providing good coverage of his career and work is here. Besides his theater work, Norman Geddes (the "Bel" was an affectation he added to his name in recognition of this first wife) was a pioneer industrial designer and masterful self-publicist. For a brief biography, click here. I believe Innes' book has two major flaws: In his drive to prove Geddes' originality and influence, Innes fails to place him in context. Previous and contemporary designs from others tend to be ignored. Innes lets too many errors slip in, casting doubt on the book's reliability. In many cases there are near-errors or slightly misleading statements. In a discussion or urbanism (page 180) Innes states that "President Roosevelt's New Deal, announced in the 1932 election campaign, included the redevelopment of ninety-nine communities and ultimately led to new towns like Columbia, Maryland." I don't know about the 99 number, but it is true that Columbia, Maryland exists though it didn't get rolling until the mid-1960s. And it was a private -- not federal government -- undertaking. Innes would have been on firmer ground had he cited Greenbelt, Maryland -- a true New Deal style project. I'll cut Innes a little slack on this because he's originally from the UK. On the following page he mentions Baron Haussmann and his "Parisian boulevards [that] converged on symbols of French national pride -- the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe"... I might be mistaken, but I don't know of any Haussmann boulevards going anywhere near the Eiffel Tower, let alone converging on it. (Besides, Haussmann was 20 years gone when the tower was built.) It gets worse when the topic is automobiles. Geddes indeed prepared a series of designs for the Graham-Paige company in the late 20s that attempted to predict... posted by Donald at February 4, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Sean Sakamoto catches author T.C. Boyle giving a primo demonstration of lit-person snobbery and lit-person ignorance. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 31, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't know about you, but I'm split on Dave Eggers. On the one hand, I can't read more than a few paragraphs of his writing without feeling overwhelmed by dismay and annoyance. Must it be so twee? On the other hand, his go-get-'em, hands-on, pluralistic, and inventive attitude towards publishing delights me; it strikes me as just what writers and readers need. Joe Hagen writes an appreciation of Eggers and his McSweeney's outfit from a biz point of view. I've recently been enjoying a snoop around the website of Wholphin, McSweeney's magazine / DVD of short movies. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 30, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Molly and John
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Can we call 'em or what? Long ago 2Blowhards featured irregular bulletins from the young artists John Leavitt and Molly Crabapple. John wrote about art-school shenanigans and sillinesses, while Molly told tales about her day job as an artist's model. So it's fun to see that John and Molly -- close buds, btw, in addition to being gifted and mischievous artists and writers -- haven't confined their activities to the blogosphere. Instead, they're entrepreneurial dynamos who have taken their acts on to bigger venues. Let's hear it for resourceful, cheeky, and open-minded kids. Have you read about Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School? Molly and John reacted to conventional figure-drawing classes as students often do, thinking "Wow, nude models! This is hot! Why's everyone pretending it isn't?" But instead of shrugging the question off, Molly and John kicked off their own monthly, open-to-the-public session that plays up the sexiness of the figure-drawing experience. They do this mainly by employing neo-burlesque artistes as models -- gotta love the stage names: Clams Casino, Little Brooklyn ... -- encouraging irreverence, laughter, and conviviality, and setting the hours spent drawing to funky music mixes. Figure-drawing sessions don't get more alternative than Dr. Sketchy's. Molly and John have had themselves a big hit. Dr. Sketchy events take place regularly in NYC, are popping up in Detroit, L.A., San Francisco, and have even started to crackle in Melbourne and Scotland too. And recently Molly and John have even turned their Dr. Sketchy concept into a book. You can read about it here, and buy it here and here. Check out the enthusiastic customer reviews on the book's Amazon page! Here's Molly's website. Here's John's. You can read Molly's columns for 2Blowhards here, here, here, here, and here. John wrote for us here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Here's the very lively Dr. Sketchy blog. Here's a New York Press article about the Dr. Sketchy phenomenon. Here's a videoclip from a Dr. Sketchy's event. Molly and John celebrate the publication of their book at the great NYC comic book store Jim Hanley's Universe. Those in the mood for a daydreamy few minutes should enjoy gazing on this page of modeling photos of the lovely and graceful Miss Molly. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 30, 2007 | perma-link | (0)

Friday, January 26, 2007

McWhorter on Language
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another winner from The Teaching Company: John McWhorter's lecture series "Story of Language." This is an overview of language -- and when I say "overview" I mean "from really far above." You won't learn lists of the major language families; etymologies aren't what's on offer either. Instead, McWhorter's focus is on processes: How languages grow, merge, change, twist, turn, and die. Along the way he of course touches on many of the basics: What are the differences between dialects, creoles, and pidgins? What can be known about early languages? And how about that Esperanto, eh? McWhorter's approach is far more descriptive than prescriptive. He has no apparent desire to tell people how to speak, for one thing. As he points out, what's considered to be proper usage inevitably changes over time -- and what really interests him is the "changing over time" angle. (He has a nice way of describing a language as being not one-thing-with-deviations but instead "a bundle of dialects.") Anyway, McWhorter's approach suits my own "far more interested in how things are than what they ought to be like" temperament to a tee. Much as I loved the series, I confess that I floundered for the first half-dozen lectures. The talks seemed to alternate between vague generalities and blizzards of examples. They were interesting and engaging right from the outset, but I felt lost. I couldn't discern the logic of the series. Then I finally caught on to McWhorter's method. What he's doing in each lecture is announcing a general principle or theme, then riffing on it. When I settled into his rhythym and allowed myself to be swept along, I left my confusion behind and had a swell time. I found myself thinking: "So what if I'll learn and retain few new facts -- I don't retain many new facts these days anyway. And so what if the series is short on conventional argument-structures? It has its own kind of beguiling organization." Besides, in most of the lectures McWhorter's riffing has the effect of deepening and broadening the theme. What's coolest about the series is the way that a kind of immense vision takes shape as it goes along. As McWhorter presents it, language is a huge, organic, ever-morphing, ecologically-opportunistic bio-something, like a gigantic fibrous Blob, rooted in nature (and in human nature) yet under the impetus of its own nature as well. The examples McWhorter supplies in abundance are fun too. A small sampling: Around 6000 languages are spoken in the world today. 800 of them are to be found on the island of New Guinea. Only one-fifth of living languages have words for both "a" and "the." Only 200 languages have a written component. What round-eyes tend to think of as varieties of Chinese -- Cantonese, Fujian, Mandarin, etc -- are really quite different from one another. So different in fact that linguists consider them to be separate languages, as distinct from each other as European languages are... posted by Michael at January 26, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was sorry to learn (thanks to ALD) that the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski has died at the age of 74. A foreign correspondent with a knack for showing up in trouble spots -- he witnessed 30 coups, uprisings, and revolutions -- Kapuscinski wrote nonfiction books of a kind unfamiliar to most Americans. Neither of the "objective" sort nor of the New Journalism genre, they're a kind of hybrid of poetry and journalism. They remind me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's journalism, and of some of Oliver Sacks' writing too. Despite being based in fact, they're evocative and suggestive -- intense fairy tales for adults -- and they can really make the mind and the imagination take flight. "Everything is a metaphor," he was once quoted as saying. "It's not that the story is not getting expressed. It's what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town; the smell; the thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper." "Shah of Shahs," "The Emperor," and "The Soccer War" were very high on my list of favorites from the years I spent following contemporary writing. I wrote a posting about Kapuscinski here. ALD links to obits and reminiscences from The Guardian, the WashPost, the NYTimes, and others. A standout is this obit from the London Times. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 25, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The NYTBR Section and Fiction 4: Literary Fiction and Class
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- At the risk of being over-exhaustive, not to say boring, I'm going to venture a few more postings about the New York Times Book Review Section and its attitudes towards fiction. Maybe they'll be of interest to a few visitors. You can catch up with the first installment here, the second here, and the third here. Today's topic: Literary fiction and class. * How about poor, beleaguered literature? Doesn't art already come under too much attack in this crass commercial country of ours? Shouldn't we cut literary fiction (and serious fiction of the heavy-on-the-"issues" type) not just a lot of slack but offer it much in the way of charity? Shouldn't we root for the media to pay attention to literary writing? The popular writer, after all, already has the market on her side -- Nonononono! Oh, please God, no!!! Let's blast this one out of the water as quickly as possible. The literary-fiction / prestige-fiction / "issues"-fiction / NYTBR-fiction world is anything but an oppressed, orphaned, crippled little street urchin. The fact that it has managed to plant such an image of itself in the minds of many intelligent people is a p-r triumph of major proportions. It's instead an upper-middle-class, ritzy-schools, clubby world. Trust funds aren't in short supply. Parents and other relatives often help out not just at first but forever. Degrees from fancy schools may not be mandatory but are certainly plentiful. Marriages to connected and prosperous people aren't unusual. Institutional support isn't in short supply either. Important connections have often been forged before the first novel is finished. I'm not talking about individual writers, by the way. Many lit-fict authors squeak by in fringe ways on tiny amounts of dough. They often spend their lives bouncing from crappy creative-writing-teaching job to crappy creative-writing-teaching job. Part of the difficulty of this life, by the way, is watching as the people working in the offices at the universities and foundations make better and more secure money (and needless to say have better pension and health-care plans) than do the writers -- the people whose work is supposedly the raison d'etre for the institutions. Not an easy irony to put up with! So let's make a distinction between the individual lit-fict author and the lit-fict world. I'm talking about the latter. The people at the publishing houses who publish most of the fiction that the NYTBR section counts as serious are usually from upper-middle-class backgrouns and ritzy schools, and usually do OK for themselves. The profs, critics, and arts administrators who people the institutions that support the lit-fict thing do OK for themselves. Come to think of it, the people at the NYTBR section itself do OK for themselves too. If and when you should spend a few minutes in the NYTBR section's version of the lit-fict world, you'll find yourself in a world where many of the inhabitants know each other, where people award each other grants and prizes, and where... posted by Michael at January 17, 2007 | perma-link | (30) comments

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Number of independent bookstores in the U.S. in 1991: 5,200. Number of independent bookstores in the U.S. in 2005: 1,702. Source: "Chain Reaction: Do bookstores have a future?" by Paul Collins in the Village Voice. Collins' article is a good one generally, by the way. He explains clearly two of the main reasons why American publishing and bookselling are in the state they're in: the "returns" boondoggle (bookstores can return unsold merchandise, er, books for full credit -- is there another industry where retailers can do likewise?); and the 1979 Thor Power Tool Supreme Court ruling, which changed inventory accounting rules and was thus responsible for the explosion of the "remainders" market. And should the bookselling chains be allowed to become book publishers themselves? Best, Michael UPDATE: The Written Nerd reports from the frontlines of the indie-bookstore scene. Bookseller Chick delivers the news that the bookstore where she has been working is closing.... posted by Michael at January 16, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The NYTBR Section and Fiction 3
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another posting to continue my look at the NYTimes Book Review Section and its attitudes towards fiction. (As well as, admittedly, to document my own decline into dementia and obsessiveness. Hey, maybe I should rename this blog "Blogpostings From Underground.") Previous installments can be read here and here. I promised the other day that my next posting on the topic would concern class and literary writing. But I'm feeling the need to sketch a little something else in first. Today, let's examine how accurate my portrayal of the TBR's attitudes towards popular fiction was. * Surely MBlowhard has exaggerated the TBR's view of fiction!? Surely the TBR's editors are more open to the panorama of what's created, fiction-book-wise, than MBlowhard has made them out to be!? Surely these responsible and knowledgeable professionals can't be presenting such a warped view of things!? If anything, I may have underemphasized how narrow the TBR's point of view on the world of fiction-book-reading-and-writing is. I'm not about to do the comprehensive research that a topic like this deserves. But I did go to the trouble of digging up a semi-recent special issue of the TBR devoted entirely to fiction. (You can look at it, as well as doublecheck my facts and assertions, here.) Let's see how popular literature fared. The issue's big production number is a poll to determine The Best American Work of Fiction in the Last 25 Years, as voted-on by a long lineup of writing-world dignitaries. The winner: Toni Morrison's "Beloved." "Beloved" is of course contempo lit-fict to the max. Lit-fict 1, popular fiction zero. How about the runners-up? Now let's see ... Quel surprise! The runner-up novels are all lit-fict too. There isn't a thriller, a romance, a western (except for Cormac McCarthy's hyper-literary version of western), a cop novel, or an erotica/porn work among 'em. Humor and comedy don't make strong showings either. Lit-fict 23 (if I'm counting right), popular literature zero. In semi-fairness, the rules of the game the TBR proposed virtually guarantee this kind of outcome, don't they? Judges were each given one vote and one vote only to name the Best. That's semi-inevitably going to mean that novels making Big Pretentious Statements will win more votes than, say, novels that are amusing or entertaining, however beautiful and moving they may also be. (Then why set such rules? Why even play such a game?) All of which has got me wondering ... Those dignitaries awarded voting power ... Who were they anyway? You can learn a lot about a publication by inspecting who the editors consider to be People Worth Consulting, after all. So join me in eyeballing the list of the people the TBR polled here. Hmmm, onetwothreefourfivesixseven ... I count 125 voters. And -- onetwo, er, two, er, two -- as far as I can tell, only two of them might be said to represent the world of popular fiction. I'm familiar with most although not all of this... posted by Michael at January 10, 2007 | perma-link | (12) comments

Monday, January 8, 2007

The NYTBR Section and Fiction 2
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Lots of interesting back-and-forths in the comments on my recent posting about the NYT Book Review Section and its attitudes towards fiction. At the risk of morphing into a monomaniac, I'm going to venture a few responses. I'll spread them out over a handful of postings both for my own convenience as well as to focus discussion (if any) a bit. Up first: * A definition-thing: the term "popular literature." Perhaps I should have been more clear about this. "Popular literature" is a potentially confusing term that civilians often haven't had the chance to give much thought to. So here goes: The term "popular literature" doesn't mean that these books are popular, let alone that their authors are getting rich. There's a bit of a tendency for people, especially those who are interested in books, to picture the book-fiction world this way: "Literary fiction" is automatically worthy yet unfairly overlooked and otherwise abused by a crass and unfeeling populace, while "popular fiction" needs no support or interest, because it's created by a bunch of crude showpeople who rake in buckets of dough yet who want highbrow acclaim too. Um, no. Simple terminology problem. Let's straighten it out. The "popular" in "popular literature" is like the "popular" in "popular music." It doesn't mean "wildly successful." It doesn't mean successful or profitable, or even much-read, at all. All "popular" means here is "of the people" -- ie., "not-highbrow." It's quite possible to be a talented, industrious author of "popular novels" yet to sell fewer copies and make less money than a talented, industrious author of "literary novels" does. "Popular" doesn't automatically mean "rich," and "literary" doesn't automatically mean "overlooked." As far as money and audience-sizes go, these comparisons have to go book-by-book and author-by-author. "Popular music" isn't a bad comparison. We all know that for every Celine Dion there are thousands of gifted, hard-working entertainers who are making very little money. Similarly, for every Anne Rice who is awash in millions and stalked by rabid fans there are crowds of hard-working, gifted writers of popular fiction who you (unless you've done some serious poking-around in the field) have never heard of. The "popular music" vs. "highbrow music" comparison isn't a bad one either. We all know that most creators of "popular music" are people the rest of us are unaware of. We also know that some highbrow musicians are well-set-up in life. (And we also know that both fields are competitive, flukey, and tough ...) In other words, a singer fronting a locally-successful dance band might be doing less well for herself than a composer of atonal music who is married to a stockbroker and has landed a tenured teaching job at a university. In this not-unusual example, the "popular entertainer" is less well-off than the highbrow-art person is. What doing popular entertainment, no matter what the field, basically means is making work that the common audience finds approachable; using a language (in the large sense)... posted by Michael at January 8, 2007 | perma-link | (11) comments

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Publishing Elsewhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Michael Hyatt explains some of the reasons why all bestseller lists are inaccurate. I wrote about the ins and outs of bestseller lists myself back here. I'm pleased to see that Michael thinks, as I do, that the best of the bestseller lists is the one compiled by USA Today. If you want to see what America is really buying, go there, not to the NYTimes. Michael shows what an even better bestseller list might look like here. (Link thanks to Joe Wikert.) * Richard Curtis -- not just one of the smartest agents I've ever met but one of the smartest people in publishing generally -- thinks that print-on-demand might save the publishing industry. * Thanks to Ed Gorman for turning up this good North Coast Journal article by Jay Herzog about the super-resourceful Stark House Press. Let's hear it for publishers like Stark House. Jay Herzog, a very interesting guy, blogs here. Fun to see that Jay's as big a fan of Sister Rosetta Tharpe as I am. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 2, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, December 29, 2006

The NYTBR Version of Fiction
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Steve Weber thinks it's a scandal that the NYTimes Book Review Section doesn't even try to cover self-published books. I do too. I also think that Steve's blog is a must-visit for those interested in self-publishing, and in innovative publishing generally. As for the NYT Book Review Section ... Well, for the last few years I've been happy doing without. No longer professionally obligated to keep up with new books, I've been thrilled to let go of the concern. (God, do I hate "keeping up" with things ... ) The other day, though, I felt a twinge of curiosity and picked up a copy of the NYTBR Section. What kind of impact has Sam Tanenhaus, the current editor, had on the Section? Verdict: Where nonfiction goes, Tanenhaus is doing exactly what he said he'd do when he was appointed to his position in 2004 -- emphasizing newsy nonfiction and opening the pages of the Section to a broader range of points of view. It's crisp and intelligent (if over-earnest) work. Good for Tanenhaus and his staff, about time, and a refreshing pick-me-up for the Section's readers too, I'd imagine. Where fiction goes, the picture isn't nearly so pretty. I give the Section a D-minus. "Staid," "entrenched," and "boring" about sum it up. The Section under Tanenhaus is devoting fewer pages to fiction coverage than it used to -- debatable, of course, whether this is a good or a bad thing. What isn't debatable, as far as I'm concerned, is that those pages are full of the dismal usual: over-serious people carrying on in self-important ways about a bizarrely narrow range of titles. Does Tanenhaus not have the confidence where fiction is concerned that he has where nonfiction goes? Is the "literary" cabal really that hard to break up? (I'd clean house myself.) Or are readers -- horrible thought -- relatively content to see fiction discussed in this dreary, aggrieved, PBS-ish way? (Hey, I once made fun of what I called "The Church of PBS.") Of my many beefs with the way the Section covers fiction, my main one has to do with its attitude towards popular fiction. To say that the Section neglects popular fiction would be to understate matters by approximately a billionfold. As far as the Times Book Review Section goes, the book-fiction that represents probably 99% of what's read in America barely exists. You think I'm kidding? The issue I looked at was the year-ender Best-Of issue. To run the numbers: Of what were proclaimed the year's five best fiction titles, not a single one was an example of popular fiction. Of the four fiction books that were awarded individual reviews in the rest of the issue: zero popular fiction. The big fiction-book review went to a new collection of Alice Munro stories. No complaint there -- I think the world of Alice Munro too. But what were the other fiction books that rated? One is a Very Serious Ambitious First... posted by Michael at December 29, 2006 | perma-link | (34) comments

Sunday, December 24, 2006

On the Road: Projections
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Since completing our trash novel a couple of years ago, The Wife and I have co-written another novel's worth of fiction. It's a comic-erotic soap opera about Hollywood that we think of as a cross between "Candy" and "The Player." It's funny and sexy; it's full of lively characters and saucey situations; and it's as up-to-the-moment as fiction can be. Not that I'm biased or anything in these judgments, of course ... Will it ever actually be a novel? Maybe, maybe not. Our project has an oddball hybrid nature. It's half prose narrative (ie., meant to be enjoyed as on-the-page writing) and half dramatic storytelling (ie., meant to be performed). This is an approach to fiction that, so far as we know, is all our own. We didn't develop it in order to be innovative, though; we're anything but intellectual avant-gardists. We developed it for practical reasons. Here's the problem / challenge we were facing. We both love audiences, performers, and theater -- yet we both dread the kind of labor, fuss, and expense that goes into creating full-dress conventional theater. We both love reading-and-writing, yet we both despise the typical author-reading. So our goal was to come up with a way of presenting our work that would enable us to enjoy interacting with live audiences, that would cost nothing to produce, and that would nonetheless be a lot more rewarding for audiences than most author-readings are. Our solution was to cook up and write our stories in half-dramatized form -- they're almost like scripts -- and to have actors do the reading and presenting. We're very, very pleased with our approach. Our events are zero-budget and informal; the actors sit on stools with scripts and read. Yet the evenings are also lively and outrageous. They're like high-spirited rough play run-throughs. The actors -- who seem to see our evenings as opportunities to jam like after-hours jazz musicians -- bring a huge amount of zing, talent, and energy to the presentations. And audiences generally seem to go away happy, feeling that they've had a fun, happenin' experience that they couldn't have gotten better from TV. So far, we've done more than 20 of these evenings for the boho set in downtown-NYC venues. I should add that these shows are entirely The Wife's doing. I co-write with her, and god knows that I do my share of wife-maintenance as the performance dates approach. But it's her drive and her work that make the evenings come together. I sometimes joke that she's one-third writer, one-third actress, and one-third impresario. In any case, we're by now both semi-familiar with the putting-on-a-no-budget-show-in-NYC thing. Recently, though, we've begun to present our stories outside of the big city. World domination has yet to be achieved, but we're having a good time. There we are, out on the road. Hello, America! Biggest discovery so far: The rest of America isn't very much like NYC. What has hit me hardest is what... posted by Michael at December 24, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments

Thursday, December 21, 2006

DVD Journal: "Writer of O"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Pola Rapaport's "Writer of O" -- a documentary about Dominique Aury, the Frenchwoman who, under the pseudonym Pauline Reage, wrote the 1954 erotic classic "Story of O" -- is a much more peculiar affair than the Bukowski documentary I wrote about recently. Peppered with filmmaker autobiography and staged tableaux vivants, it's part chic performance piece itself. And, even at its most straightforward, it maintains a tragic and solemn tone that suggests a collaboration between Ken Burns and Pina Bausch. Still, I found the story of Dominique Aury fascinating, and I'm glad to have watched the film. Are you familiar with the novel? Or with the meta-story about the novel? Those who are may want to skip the next few paragraphs. As for the novel, "Story of O" is about a young woman fashion photographer. Identified only as O, she's taken by her boyfriend to a mysterious chateau outside Paris where she is bound, beaten, and used, until -- it's presumed -- she becomes more truly herself. Or does she? On its publication, the book became an immediate bestseller and scandale. It won a French literary prize while at the same time being the object of obscenity charges. (Ah, the French, so much more comfy with paradoxes than we are ...) There are obvious reasons why this should have been the case, of course: sex, sex, and more sex. But there were more subtle reasons for the worldwide fascination with the novel too. (The novel has sold millions of copies and has never been out of print.) One was the way the precise, clinical, "objective" language contrasted with and brought out the vulgarity, brutality, and subjectivity of the experiences portrayed. Another was a simple sociological fact: The novel wasn't just the usual sex-book thing -- a sweaty tale for lonely guys to jerk off over. It had sophistication, style, and content, if of a hard-to-nail-down kind. It was also embraced and celebrated by modern women, who -- as far as da boyz could gather -- saw much of themselves in it. And what was the book's purpose anyway? Is O -- who is at every moment free to cast off her chains -- determined to prove her love? Or perhaps her boyfriend, in submitting her to these trials, is proving his love for her? Is the author arguing that masochism is at the heart of female sexuality? Perhaps. Yet there's no question that, despite her tribulations, O is in charge of her fate as well as the center of her own universe. It would have been hard in any case to persuade the crowds of dynamic women who loved the novel that they were identifying with weakness. Feminists were understandably baffled by the whole affair. Should they celebrate the woman author's triumph, and the way O managed to be both her own subject and object? But there was that awkward bit about the heroine being repeatedly beaten and violated ... Even the main character's name... posted by Michael at December 21, 2006 | perma-link | (22) comments

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

DVD Journal: "Bukowski -- Born Into this"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The biggest surprise of John Dullaghan's excellent documentary "Bukowski -- Born Into This" is that Charles Bukowski appears to have been not-all-that-bad a guy. He was certainly capable of self-centeredness, misbehavior and testiness; he did his share of brawling; and the camera does catch one awful moment when Bukowski works up an abusive head of steam towards his wife. God knows that, for much of his life, Bukowski was one seedy, sad, and lower-depths figure. But most of what we see and hear suggests that Bukowski was a hyper-talented, go-it-his-own-way writer who -- despite the booze -- remained about as true to his muse as a writer can be. Friends show up from Bukowski's childhood, and from his years at the Post Office -- people who knew him when he was trying to get published and from after he'd become a cult star. They testify that he liked booze, that he was devoted to art, and that he worked on his writing really, really hard. That wife Bukowski mistreated? She tells the filmmakers that she never let her husband get away with crap like that again. Good for her, of course -- but good for Bukowski for taking it and shaping up too. Given how autobiographical much of Bukowski's fiction is, the film doesn't supply a lot of surprises. The fun and interest is in meeting and seeing the man himself, his haunts, and his people. Bukowski, who died in 1994 at the age of 73, was born in Europe, arrived in America in Baltimore, and grew up in L.A. His parents were strict, working-class Europeans; if Bukowski is to be believed, his father doled out numerous vicious beatings to his son. Young Hank suffered from horrendous adolescent acne, dropped out of college, wrote a bit, then bummed around the country, doing odd jobs and living a rooming-house kind of life. With his scarred face and his lousy education, he didn't exactly have his pick of the dames and the jobs. In the 1950s he returned to L.A. and took a job at the U.S. Post Office. A near-fatal case of bleeding ulcers seems to have turned him around. After recovering, Bukowski began writing poetry and trying to publish fiction. Still at the Post Office, he became a regional small-press regular. By the late 1960s, his reputation had grown a little. Among the people wowed by Bukowski's writing was John Martin, a businessman in the process of becoming a publisher. Martin felt that Bukowski was the real thing, a writer whose work would last for centuries, and he arranged to give Bukowski $100 a month, enough to enable Bukowski to quit the Post Office and write full-time. Bukowski, already 49 years old, delivered his first novel to Martin in less than a month. By the mid and late '70s, Bukowski had become near-legendary, especially on the west coast. Poets, actors, filmmakers, and writers revered him. His public readings were mobbed. Sexy chix were suddenly... posted by Michael at December 19, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Book Publishing Advice
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Probably because I've written a lot of postings about book publishing, I receive emails asking for advice about publishing books on a regular basis. Most of these correspondents seem to have run across my posting "Writing a Book," which tends to turn up high on the hit list when "writing a book" is Googled. By dint of practice, I've come up with a semi-standard response to people who ask me about book publishing. Maybe some visitors will enjoy reading these thoughts and this advice too. Others may well feel that they've had enough of me on this subject already. First off: Who am I to yak about book publishing? I've published precisely one book, and even on that one I was a co-writer and not the full-credit author. Good point. But I was close to the book publishing industry (especially the New York City-based end of the trade-book publishing biz) for more than 15 years. While a lot of people know swathes of the book-publishing biz better than I do, few people have snooped around book publishing from as many different angles as I have. Some bookbiz trade reporters aside, that is -- and I was friendly with a number of them too. So when I generalize it's based on some actual experience. But the real reason I'd encourage you to pay a bit of attention is that I have no agenda. I really don't. When the usual crowd talks about book-publishing, they have something to sell. Agents peddling advice to wannabes ... Published authors conducting workshops for the eager-believer set ... Editors pontificating to credulous reporters ... They all have a vested interest in perpetuating the mystique of book publishing. They want you reading books, but they also want you dreaming about writing and publishing books. And they want you to be impressed. Sadly, that means that the book business is happiest if and when you're stuck in a state of yearning and aspiring and never-quite-getting-there yourself. Nothing wrong with this, of course. It keeps the faith alive, the congregation vulnerable, and the sales turning over. But, generally speaking, the usual suspects are about as frank about their business as a GM CEO is when he speaks to The Wall Street Journal. Ie., not very much at all. Me, I like reading and writing a whole lot, but I couldn't care less about the container I'm dealing with. Books can be fun, god knows, but so can websites and photocopies. And, unlike many in the biz, I didn't enter book publishing because I yearned to be close to The Greats. I'm not one of what I've called "the book-besotted." I happened to stumble into the field, I found it interesting, and I started taking note of what I encountered. Publish a book or don't publish a book, it doesn't matter to me. So even if I'm not perfectly objective (is anyone?), I'm at least sympathetic and agnostic, and I have some potentially useful... posted by Michael at December 12, 2006 | perma-link | (24) comments

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Three more of my favorite Teaching Company series can also now be bought for bargain prices: Patrick Allitt's American Religious History, Kenneth Harl's Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor, and David Zarefsky's Argumentation. I raved about Allitt's series here; about Harl's here; about Zarefsky's here; and about Zarefsky's inspiration, the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, here. I should add that I've received an email from a visitor who disagrees with me about the Harl series, which he found naive, and biased towards the Turks. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 30, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Timothy Taylor on Sale
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I notice that Timothy Taylor's lecture series about Economics for the Teaching Company are currently on sale. I've listened to them all, and I've found them all to be superb: clear, enthusiastic, and hyper-informative. Taylor seems to see economics not as a hard science full of immutable and unbendable truths so much as an ongoing, open-ended conversation. He's no Aspergery fundamentalist, but he's no relativist either; in the course of the Econ discussion, a lot of smart, useful, and helpful things have been said. That's a view of econ I can get with. This is human behavior -- and not the properties of minerals and asteroids -- that's being observed, described, and analyzed after all. Economics as he presents it isn't physics. It's more like a blend of psychology, philosophy, and sociology -- only with far more reality checks than those fields sometimes permit themselves. Bless his heart, Taylor also presents his subject in non-techie terms. (Let's hear it for that underused resource, namely plain and vivid English.) Which means that his lectures are an excellent way for the math-phobic among us to crack this annoying but essential and finally fascinating subject. My humble suggestion: Start with his Legacies of the Great Economists. It's a fun history-of-thought survey that'll give you an overview of the terrain. Then move on to Economics for the real content. History of the American Economy in the 20th Century will bring you up to the present here at home, and Contemporary Economic Issues will help you make sense of the headlines. Back here, a bunch of us traded tips about a lot of intro-to-econ resources that we've found useful. Best, Michael UPDATE: Tyler Cowen points out an article that attempts to explain why most people don't get economics.... posted by Michael at November 30, 2006 | perma-link | (0)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bond Figures
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Is the Bond franchise the most financially successful one in fiction history? The Times of London estimates that Bond, James Bond has generated $10 billion in revenue. Question for the day: How many contemporary-fiction classes spend any time at all on Ian Fleming? Wouldn't you think a publishing phenomenon on this scale would merit a few moments of attention? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 21, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, November 20, 2006

Charles Williams
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The reason I was thinking of Gold Medal Books last week was that I'd recently read two novels by the Gold Medal suspense specialist Charles Williams: "The Hot Spot" (source material for the sexy and seedy smalltown Texas noir by Dennis Hopper) and "Dead Calm," a sailboat thriller that was turned into an early Nicole Kidman movie. I loved 'em both. A Texas-born high-school dropout, Williams knocked around a lot as a young man: Merchant Marines, electronics inspector, etc. He didn't publish his first novel, "Hill Girl," until he was in his 40s, but it was a big success. He continued to write popular novels, and he spent time working on screenplays in the States and in Europe. Yet he didn't wind up happy and comfortable. By the early 1970s, his wife had died of cancer and the kinds of books he knew how to write had fallen out of favor. While still in his early 60s, Charles Williams committed suicide. Williams has always been one of the lesser-known of the better-known Gold Medal novelists, if that makes any sense. While Jim Thompson's work was rediscovered in the 1980s, Charles Williams' books have remained far harder to find. You don't see downtown hipsters walking around with Charles Williams novels under their arms, for example. Yet those who have read him have always recognized how good he was. The great John D. MacDonald, for example, several times called Williams the Gold Medal writer who most deserved more recognition: "Nobody can make violence seem more real," MacDonald said. And such contemporary crime-fiction eminences as Ed Gorman and Geoffrey O'Brien have been generous with praise for Williams' work. Gorman called Williams "my favorite of the Gold Medal writers." The two novels I read were very different in most ways yet they shared a a few characteristics too: a grownup view of the world somewhere between hardboiled and John O'Hara; a tone that's both juicy and unsentimental; and a fascination with storytelling, especially (oh bliss!) the mechanics of tension and suspense. "The Hot Spot" (originally entitled "Hell Hath No Fury") is much the tangier, sexier, and more colorful read. It's full of sweaty, smalltown atmosphere, and is populated by no-good characters with a lot of shifty trouble and pleasure on their minds. If you liked the movies "Body Heat" and "The Last Seduction," well, this is those films' grittier, earthier, sexier grandma. And the storytelling! Good lord, what a tour de force. I don't know that I've ever read a better-plotted novel. Jaw-dropping yet plausible and "right" plot twists drop out of the blue about every ten pages. "Dead Calm" is a more impersonal, sleeker piece of engineering. Yet it's shrewd, nervy, and enjoyable -- a humdinger -- in its own way. A couple sailing the South Seas on their honeymoon sees a becalmed sailboat on the horizon. Is anyone on board? Williams -- a sailing fanatic himself -- gives the sailing and ocean-going a lot of convincing... posted by Michael at November 20, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Return of Ed Gorman
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm thrilled to see that Ed Gorman -- brilliant editor as well as topnotch author of resonant, dark, and intense westerns and mysteries -- is back, and is blogging again too. Gorman has faced some health challenges recently, so it's an extra-special treat to see him making such a vigorous reappearance on the web. Don't miss Gorman's enthusiastic case for the great Ross Thomas. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 17, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

1000 Words -- Gold Medal Books
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Another installment in my all-too-occasional series of looks at culturally-significant, underknown phenomena and events, "1000 Words." *** 1000 Words -- Gold Medal Books What if you could trace the French New Wave, Sam Peckinpah, cyberpunk, "Pulp Fiction," "Mulholland Drive," and "Sin City" back to one business gamble taken by a third-tier publisher in 1949? In fact, you can, and without being guilty of too much overstatement. A little, sure, but not that much. The publisher was Roscoe Kent Fawcett of Fawcett Publications, and his gamble was to try something no one else had tried before. He decided to publish original novels in paperback. In 1950, his new line of paperback originals was launched. It was called Gold Medal Books, and it became not just a tremendous commercial success but a culture-shaping one too. Before discussing the impact of Gold Medal Books, let me take a few paragraphs to situate Gold Medal in time. The immediate post-WWII era was an interesting moment in publishing history. A variety of vectors were in collision: One was the existence of paperbacks themselves. In 1949, paperbacks were still a recent innovation. The first large-scale experiment in paperback publishing had only taken place 1935 with Britain's Penguin Books; soon after in the States, Pocket Books began selling paperbacks. During WWII, soldiers developed the habit of carrying around, reading, and trading paperbacks. Tastes were shaped; new readers were reached. Another vector: the era of "the pulps" was drawing to a close. The pulps were cheap magazines that published sensationalistic fiction. They had their origins in the late 1800s; Frank Munsey's "Argosy" is usually cited as the first pulp magazine. The pulp magazines often specialized in male genres: adventure, sci-fi, war, crime, western. And they were often seriously popular. The most successful pulps often had monthly print runs of over a million copies. They also had their artistic achievements. The pulps were where sci-fi flourished. And, under the editorship of Capt. Joseph T. Shaw, the hardboiled detective fiction of Black Mask magazine developed into something remarkable. But by the late 1940s, the pulps had begun to run out of commercial steam. Even so, the demand for hard-hitting and juicy fiction persisted. Another: the new taste for comic books. Comic strips may have been around for a while; Fawcett Publications itself got started in the late 19-teens with a joke-book / comicstrip publication called Captain Billy's Whiz Bang. But comic books per se were an innovation of the 1930s (and Fawcett -- as much a distributor as a traditional publisher -- had had a major hit with Captain Marvel). Superheroes, adventure, crime ... Once again, fans were won over and expectations were affected. And a final vector: Mickey Spillane. Spillane (who died only this past July, aged 88) was the author of the Mike Hammer detective novels. As a publishing phenomenon, Spillane was like nothing ever before witnessed. His first novel -- the two-fisted, paranoid-macho, hardboiled "I, The Jury" -- sold only a... posted by Michael at November 15, 2006 | perma-link | (24) comments

Airplanes and Celebs
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Long airplane flights ... All that time to kill ... Hey, why not do some reading? Still, the constant on-board whooshing noise ... The cramped quarters ... Since concentration doesn't exactly come easy in such circumstances, going through the classics isn't a workable option. What to spend in-flight reading-time on? The Wife meets the cross-country-flight reading-material challenge by picking up a minimum of four celebrity-scandal magazines. Not all that expensive a habit, really: There are always new ones trying to compete, and the new ones all price themselves at $1.99. "But why buy so many celeb-scandal mags?" I asked the beloved as we settled into our seats yesterday. "Given that they all seem to package the exact same news-and-gossip bits, why not just buy one?" "They are all the same in many ways," she granted. "But I had to buy this one to get Reese's point of view, and this other one to get Ryan's. You get the idea." Flying between coasts yesterday, The Wife spent two hours snoozing and three hours happily immersed in her celeb mags. When she's thumbing through the trash rags, she's really immersed in them. What does she get out of the experience? "They give me everything that movies today don't give me," she told me. "Trash, glitz, craziness, and campy make-believe that I can pretend to have a little emotional involvement with. They're basically all about glamorous people making fools of themselves. If the movies themselves offered more of more of this kind of thing, I'd be a moviegoer." I'm sympathetic: God knows that it's been far too long since Hollywood turned out juicy trashfests like "The Betsy." Still, when I look at The Wife's celebrity-scandal mags I'm unable to lose myself in them. I spend my time instead wondering who in hell most of the people in the pictures are. George Clooney, Sharon Stone, and Jennifer Lopez I recognize, of course. But who in god's name is Mischa Barton? And why would anyone care about her? As far as I can tell, Mischa Barton radiates absolutely nothing. Though The Wife has a much greater appetite for celebrity trash than I do, it isn't as though I was able to look down at her airplane reading from a lofty perch. My own reading as we crossed the country yesterday was Karrine Steffan's "Confessions of a Video Vixen." I bought the book carelessly, expecting it to be an EZ-readin' look at the life of a rock-video backup dancer. What wouldn't be interesting about that? Instead it turned out to be a garish brag-session / cautionary-tale by an ambitious young woman who made a life for herself as professional arm-candy to the hiphop world. Yikes: The beatings, shriekings, pill-poppings, coke-snortings, booty-swivellings, Cristal-swillings, pole-dancings, dick-suckings, trick-turnings, and VIP-room-misadventurings never end. Well, almost never. Once in a blue moon Karrinne recalls hazily that she has a child, and stops in for a visit with the kid. I stared at the book in... posted by Michael at November 15, 2006 | perma-link | (23) comments

Saturday, November 4, 2006

Nikos' New Book
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm delighted to pass along the news that a new book by my friend and intellectual hero Nikos Salingaros is now available. For people who have begun visiting this blog only recently, a word of explanation. A conviction that I think all Blowhards share is that the fine arts in America have gone badly off the rails in recent decades. Though I "get it," though I enjoy occasional examples of it (Joe Brainard! Jeff Koons' puppy!), and though I'm often eager to endorse weirdo-ness and experiments, it's just plain bizarre how specialized, antagonistic, and off-kilter fine-art-making generally has become. Who but brainwashed insiders can care about much of this stuff? And why shouldn't civilians throw mud while muttering bitterly about turncoat elites? How did this state of affairs come about? After all, the usual thing is for the fine arts to crown, extend, and complete culture more generally, not to outrage and betray it. One of many plausible explanations is that the fine-arts world has been led astray by politically-motivated thinking and theory, much of it of a seductive, French-derived, chic-academic, wheel-spinning nature. So one of the things we like to do at this blog is to celebrate the contemporary thinkers who seem to us to put the fine arts back on more solid footing -- from philosophers like Denis Dutton to literary types like Frederick Turner to anthropologists like Ellen Dissanayake to evo-bio cats like Steven Pinker to architectural thinkers like Christopher Alexander and Leon Krier. Even among this high-powered crowd, Nikos Salingaros is a standout and a special case. He's a University of Texas mathematician who has worked closely with Christopher Alexander and who has become a major architecture-and-urbanism thinker in his own right. A hyper-civilized guy, responsive to and knowledgeable about the arts, he's appalled by fraudulent and destructive culture-thinking. Nikos is urbane and witheringly funny when he examines what passes for contemporary architecture theory, for example. How can such utter nonsense possess and transfix so many? He has an intriguing theory about that too. But Nikos isn't just a devastating critic of folly. He has also made profound contributions. Though he's aligned in many ways with the New Classicists -- his book has an introduction by the New Classicism fan, the Prince of Wales -- Nikos's own urgings are, like those of Christopher Alexander, style-independent, and should be of great use to any designer, patron, or township. How can ornament be justifed, and why is it necessary? What are the ratios and hierarchies that promote neighborliness and beauty? What is it about our biological nature -- perhaps even about the nature of matter itself -- that makes us feel one thing in the presence of one kind of structure and something else in the presence of another? "A Theory of Architecture," Nikos' new book, is on its most basic level a textbook for architecture students. Slim, witty, and thorough -- as well as sophisticated-yet-accessible (a favorite combo of mine) --... posted by Michael at November 4, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fiction, Empathy, Chix, Names
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It seems that reading fiction can help you develop empathy. Dudes who want girlfriends, listen up: Take yoga classes; learn how to cook, dance, and flirt; and read a few novels, OK? In any case, girls sure look cute when they're wrapped up in a book. (Link thanks to Dave Lull, that literate lech.) Find out how many people in America share your name. I should warn you, though, that when I typed my real name into the search box, this was the result: HowManyOfMe.comThere are:0people with my namein the U.S.A.How many have your name? Pardon me while I treat myself to an identity crisis. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 25, 2006 | perma-link | (45) comments

Music and Lit
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- P.I. novelist Robert Crais is asked to explain the appeal of private eye fiction. Nice response: "What jazz is to music, detective fiction is to literature. Another color on the palette. The more colors you have, the richer you are." Amen to that, bro. Now why don't more people agree? Funny how so many people can accept jazz and movies, perhaps even rock and design and television, as legitimate forms, yet shy away from the idea that anything but the snootiest kinds of books can be worthy of attention. Crais is an inspired novelist, by the way. I've enjoyed and can recommend several of his novels: this one and this one. Funny and stylish, laid-back yet tense ... First-class popular literature. Oops, did I say "literature"? Here's Robert Crais' website. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 25, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Five
Michael Blowhard writes: It's Day Five of Bill Kauffman Week here at 2Blowhards. I introduced the political writer Bill Kauffman in a recent posting. Let me also recommend a couple of Kauffman resources that have turned up as these interviews have been running. An intelligent Caleb Stegall review of Kauffman's "Look Homeward, America" can be read here. Clark Stooksbury provides a discerning review of "Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette" here. Lee at Verbum Ipsum is level-headed yet sympathetic about "Look Homeward, America." And, for all those New York City partisans out there, here's a Kauffman essay about the city -- found, as you might imagine, by the wonderful Dave Lull. Part One of our interview with Bill is here. Part Two is here. Part Three is here. Part Four is here. Now, on to Part Five, the final part of our interview. *** A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Five Bill Kauffman, photographed by daughter Gretel 2B: So you think our involvement in WWII was a mistake too? BK: As for WWII, my sympathies are with the America First Committee and more generally the Middle American isolationists who wanted to stay out of the war, as they would want to stay out of any foreign war. They said we'd get a draft, curtailed civil liberties, confiscatory taxes, and a greatly enlarged centralized state that would never return to an appropriate size. They were right. The demonization of the AFC, which with 800,000 members was the largest antiwar movement in our history, is a crime. No one, outside the most noxious propagandists, regarded it as anything but wholesome at the time. Hell, its founding members included Gerald Ford, Sargent Shriver, and Potter Stewart. Young John F. Kennedy sent in a check for $100. Its sympathizers ranged across the American spectrum: Sinclair Lewis, Norman Thomas, Edmund Wilson, Alice Roosevelt Longworth ... a long and honorable list. Eighty percent of Americans opposed involvement in the war as late as fall 1941. But you see, in the United States of Armaments we always go back and paint villain's mustaches on the antiwar side. The losers in historical debates either get flushed down the memory hole or demonized beyond recognition. Peace is patriotic. That's not a simpleminded slogan, it's the truth. The antiwar folks in '40-41 had seen how the First World War had trashed civil liberties, centralized economic and political power, fed a mass culture of conformity and obedience, and pissed all over traditional American liberties. War is the health of the state, in the great aphorism of Randolph Bourne. As it was the health of the state in WWII. That war -- like other wars -- did incalculable damage on the homefront: it served to uproot Americans, to separate them from their homeplaces, often for good, to destroy healthy manifestations of local culture, to intensify the industrialization of our country, to kill the vital spirit of local, human-scale democracy. The antiwar people were in no way, shape, or form pro-Hitler. They understood him... posted by Michael at October 20, 2006 | perma-link | (21) comments

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Four
Michael Blowhard writes: It's Day Four of Bill Kauffman Week here at 2Blowhards. I introduced the political writer Bill Kauffman in a recent posting. Let me also recommend a couple of Kauffman resources that have turned up as these interviews have been running. An intelligent and appreciative Caleb Stegall review of Kauffman's "Look Homeward, America" can be read here. And, for all those New York City partisans out there, here's a Kauffman essay about the city -- found, as you might imagine, by the wonderful Dave Lull. Part One of our interview with Bill is here. Part Two is here. Part Three is here. Now, on to Part Four. *** A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Four Bill Kauffman, photographed by daughter Gretel 2Blowhards: How do people of the left receive you? People of the right? I notice that, although you're a Democrat, you mostly publish in rightie outlets. Bill Kauffman: I have a strong libertarian streak, and when I started writing for magazines in the mid-'80s the right had at least an ancestral memory of liberty. Many of the postwar political writers I admire were on the "right": Robert Nisbet, Murray Rothbard, the Michigan master of the ghost story, Russell Kirk. My work has appeared now and then on the left -- Utne Reader, The Nation, In These Times, The Independent of London -- but more often on the right. In the '90s I wrote frequently for Chronicles and Liberty; of late I've written up secessionist Vermonters and George McGovern and Frank Bryan, the great interpreter of town meeting democracy, for The American Conservative. The problem is so much of the DC-NYC right is bought off by the GOP and the neocons. A lot of the older cons are secretly antiwar but they long ago lost their voices, not to mention their balls. Loose lips bring pink slips. I still have friends on the right and publish, quite happily, in their journals, but what attracted me to the right 25 years ago -- its capaciousness, the willingness to entertain dissident views -- has vanished. I have friends on the left, too -- I spoke recently at Paul Buhle's "Antiwar Patriots Day" at Brown, and I'm very sympathetic to the decentralist wing of the Green Party. Mailer calls himself a "left conservative." I know just what he means. I am for place, family, liberty, peace. Is that right or left? 2B: Your version of U.S. history is nothing if not unorthodox. It sure wasn't what I was taught in school. How did you develop that? BK: "So let us think about the people who lost," said William Appleman Williams. That's what I do. I had a lost year once which wound up being fruitful. After I'd left Moynihan's office I rode the Hound to Salt Lake City. Lodged in a flophouse, wrote derivative poetry, thought on things. Then I came back for an ill-starred year in grad school at the University of Rochester. I was in the political science department... posted by Michael at October 19, 2006 | perma-link | (24) comments

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Three
Michael Blowhard writes: It's Day Three of Bill Kauffman Week here at 2Blowhards. I introduced the political writer Bill Kauffman in a recent posting. Part One of our interview with Bill is here. Part Two is here. Now, on to Part Three. *** A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Three Bill Kauffman, photographed by daughter Gretel 2B: Why did you abandon fast-lane, big-city life? Was there a specific moment or event that made you pull the trigger? BK: I'd always wanted to go home. Life anywhere but in my natal place seemed fugitive, evanescent, meaningless. I don't mean that as a knock on other places; if I were native to them, I'd be in their thrall. But you play the hand you're dealt. I don't believe in "rising above" your origins -- without at least one foot on the ground you'll go floating off into the empty realm of global citizenship. I need anchorage. Mooring. Plus I despise modern urban architecture: in its scale and characterlessness it is intended to make people feel dwarfed, insignificant, powerless. But I guess it took my wife, an LA girl, to bring me back home. Lucine and I married in May 1987. Went to Salem on our honeymoon -- spitting in the face of augury? She laid her bouquet at Jack Kerouac's grave in Lowell. "He honored life." Great epitaph. We lived in DC for a while but finally I convinced her to join me in a "one-year experiment" in repatriation. A year to be measured in Old Testament terms, it seems. Nineteen years later I figure we've just passed Washington's Birthday. Or "President's Day," in post-republic zombiespeak. 'Course now we live five miles north of Batavia in Elba -- apt address for an exile! The Onion Capital of the World. Lucine is Town Supervisor. With Deukmejian on the sidelines in California she may be the highest-ranking elected Armenian-American official in America. At least until California sends Cher to the U.S. Senate. As First Man, I'm more Pat Nixon than Hillary Clinton. My advice is limited to urging her to be the first elected Republican to call for Bush's impeachment. 2B: How did your stay in big cities and your experiences with real-life politics affect your views of politics? I turn off politics and politicians generally. "Fuck 'em all, and let's vote for the least-bad" -- that's all I come up with. You seem to have maintained a more nuanced view of the field and of politicians generally. BK: Well, on the proper attitude toward politicians I'm of two -- or five, or 20 -- minds. Hey, I contain multitudes. I'm of the "fuck 'em" school, in part. Like Edward Abbey, I grow more radical with age. I still curse, execrate, and maledict the bastards as I read about them in the paper. (Hah -- that last line reminds me of something Thomas Wolfe once wrote: "I do not believe the writing to be wordy, prolix, or redundant.") National figures who exist mostly as... posted by Michael at October 18, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Two
Michael Blowhard writes: It's Day Two of Bill Kauffman Week here at 2Blowhards. I introduced the political writer Bill Kauffman in a recent posting. Part One of our interview with Bill is here. Now on to Part Two. *** A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Two Bill Kauffman, photographed by daughter Gretel 2Blowhards: What kind of a kid were you, and what led you to venture out of Western NY? I'm not a political person, but I can imagine that if you find politics intoxicating you might want to head to the big city. Bill Kauffman: l loved baseball and reading and football and astronomy. I grew up a block from Dwyer Stadium, home of the Batavia Trojans (now Muckdogs) of the oldest continuously operating Class A baseball league. 'Twas in my blood. We had lots of kids in the neighborhood and my brother and I and the gang would play ball from dawn to dusk. My parents were (are) terrific; my relatives all lived nearby. So I always had an intense attachment to Batavia. My dad used to point out the significance of spots that to outsiders would seem humdrum. That's where the town whore lived. That's where Donny Bosseler (Batavia's greatest athlete, later a Washington Redskin) used to practice. That's where a guy hanged himself. So I grew up with a sense that Batavia was a place of mystery, repository of every story you could hope to tell. It wasn't just a launching pad. I did leave home, though like Jack Kerouac I have always been homesick. Upon graduating from the University of Rochester I went to work as a research assistant and later legislative assistant for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, about whom I have written with an occasionally admiring ambivalence. Though Moynihan was rude to underlings -- an unforgivable offense; there is no bigger asshole than the sort of personal-parking-space executive who yells at the secretary, is there? -- he was not an oozing sac of liberal cliches in the way that Ted Kennedy was. And his staff was filled with bright, amiable folks. I enjoyed my two and a half years in the employ of the Senatron, but if I entered a liberal with a rural populist streak I left an anarchist. Still am 23 years later. (Though I'd also confess to being a Jeffersonian, a decentralist, a localist, a cultural regionalist.) Moynihan, by the way, was the only statewide politician in years to understand Upstate. He claimed to be the Senate's only dairy farmer, though I can't really see him at 4:45 a.m. squat on the stool coaxing milk from Bessie. That his seat is now occupied by the carpetbagging militarist Hillary Clinton is a disgrace. She has blood on her talons. 2B: What was the big-city, glam-job world like to you? Early in my life in NYC I had drinks with a young woman, a NYC native. We were swapping the usual biographical stories. When I revealed where I grew up she said, "Of... posted by Michael at October 17, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Monday, October 16, 2006

A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day One
Michael Blowhard writes: It's Day One of Bill Kauffman Week here at 2Blowhards. I introduced the political writer Bill Kauffman in a recent posting. Now, on to the interview itself. *** A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day One Bill Kauffman, photographed by daughter Gretel 2Blowhards: How far back do you and your people go in Western NY? How did they wind up there? Bill Kauffman: I'm a typical American mongrel. My English forbears came to God's country on neither the Mayflower nor a Mayflower moving van. They were farmers who settled around Churchville in the dim mists of time. (Speaking of Churchville -- I digress the way other men blink -- my wife, the lovely and long-suffering Lucine, was roped into coaching the Batavia High basketball cheerleaders a few years ago. BHS is the Blue Devils, a colorless French-derived militaristic nickname that we and 1,200 other schools ought to drop tootsweet. When BHS played the Churchville-Chili Saints, Lucine's girls chanted "Go Devils! Beat the Saints!" A chill ran down my superstitious Catholic back.) Anyway, the Kauffmans came to Batavia from Germany in the mid-19th century. Fought for the Union. John Kauffman, my great-grandfather, ran one of the first garages in town. The Garraghans, my Irish line, left the emerald isle in the 1880s. And the Stellas, responsible for my Italian quadroonhood, came over from Asiago to Lime Rock at the eastern edge of Genesee County circa 1900. As my 93-year-old grandmother, Mary Stella Baker, says, we're Northern Italian -- almost Swiss. So I ain't DAR and I ain't FOB. 2B: What kind of regional identity does Western New York have? I'm often surprised by how well people from the area understand each other, for instance, in terms of humor and political points of view. Your combo of isolationism, regionalism, humor, modesty, rambunctiousness, etc -- I suspect many people would find it a hodge-podge. But it makes a lot of instinctive sense to me. BK: Yeah, well, we're homeboys, right? We speak the secret Upstate code. So many parts of our country have faded into the Great American Nothingness, and Western NY is no exception. Television, school consolidation, the dislocations of empire, the fetish we make of "success" (which is often determined by mobility: the farther one moves from home the better one is thought to have done) -- we've been ravaged by the usual villains. But we retain a history, customs, accent, even sins all our own. The forces of homogenization, which is to say the forces of evil -- Dick Cheney, the "Vagina Monologues," Taco Bell, Katie Couric, the Department of Homeland Security -- have yet to entirely replace unpasteurized cider, volunteer fire departments, New York-Penn League baseball, and the front-porch anarchism that has animated such Western NY patriots as the Wyoming County abolitionists, novelist John Gardner, and the rural folk who kept the despised Mario Cuomo from siting a radioactive waste dump in lovely sylvan (and cash-poor) Allegany County. (Speaking of that sanctimonious bully, can you believe his... posted by Michael at October 16, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Bill Kauffman, An Introduction
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Dave Lull, I've recently discovered the work of the political writer Bill Kauffman. With a few of his books still to catch up with, I've become a big fan. Kauffman's nothing if not contrarian, one-of-a-kind, and hard-to-categorize. He once worked for Reason and he publishes mostly in rightie outlets, yet he's a registered Democrat. Decidedly libertarian in most ways, he often votes Green. Drawn to the political scene, he's frank about the way that his own experiences in the political world turned him into an anarchist. Rock on! I like people who won't be confined by conventional labels. Kauffman's writing is just as hard to slot: prickly yet rambunctious, traditionalist yet gonzo, ornery yet extravagant. He generally works as an up-to-date journalist, but his books are ambitious in a pre-modernist literary way. Temperamentally drawn to the small-scale and the personal, he's also unstoppably outgoing, rowdy, and exuberant. He's an upbeat pessimist, both a nostalgist and a punk rocker. But encountering his work isn't just to be swept away by energy, talent, and brains, it's also to discover a fresh, unexpected, and fully-developed vision. In "America First!: Its History, Politics, and Culture," Kauffman rehabilitates the reputation of a mid-century antiwar group that, these belligerant days, is looked highly-askance-at. In "Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists," Kauffman celebrates a motley group of go-it-your-own-way cranks and dreamers that you're unlikely to hear praised by profs, let alone by partisan cheerleaders. His version of American history is the -- to me very convincing -- story of the Empire (and its supporters and propagandists) vs. Us Human-Scale Creatures. None of Kauffman's books are straightforward affairs. You'd be frustrated if you turned to them for clearly-laid-out arguments or encyclopedia-style information. Instead, they're fullblown reading experiences: part history, part personal essay. They're also big, heraldic, all-over-the-place prose poems -- patchwork, Whitmanesque, "barbaric yawps" set to driving rock, country, and blues beats. They're florid and funky, perverse yet open, bristling with deeply-felt exhortations and digressions, and full of comic but heart-busting praise-songs. To the extent that I'd want to categorize his work at all, I'd put it on the same rhapsodic / eccentric, full-of-contradictions-but-that's-the-point-dammit shelf as Edward Abbey, Henry David Thoreau, and H.L. Mencken. Kauffman's most personal book is "Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town's Fight to Survive." It's about Kauffman's love affair with his hometown, Batavia, New York, a small place about 20 miles outside Rochester. In "Muckdog," he blends history, tales, autobiography, and ruminations. Kauffman grew up in Batavia, and Batavia has been the fulcrum of his work all along. His theme is almost always "home" -- he often describes himself as (among many other things) a "localist," and his devotion to Western New York runs deep. He studied at the University of Rochester, worked in D.C. as a staffer for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, spent some time in L.A. (where he met Lucine, his wife-to-be),... posted by Michael at October 14, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Formerly Writely
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I liked the online word processor Writely quite a lot back when it was still Writely. I found it very handy to have access to all my word processing documents from any computer (so long as it's connected to the web, of course). I had some reservations about the way that tags are superseding folders as a standard way of organizing and finding files. How many paradigm shifts can one person adjust to in a lifetime, after all? But Writely was a more-than-adequate word processor, it was pleasant to use, and it was free. Will I like the webapp's new incarnation? We'll see. Google bought Writely some months ago, and has just now re-launched it. Bundled together with a Google spreadsheet, it has a new name: Google Docs and Spreadsheets. First impressions: It's still free -- that's good. Microsoft ought to be worried -- that's beyond-excellent. The interface has been tweaked -- hmmm, was that necessary? Tags, sigh. And the app now looks very Google, ie., it's all white and blue and barren. That's not so good. You can read about Google Docs and Spreadsheets here, and you can try it out and / or sign up for it here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 12, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

How Can Brittanica Compete?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Someone has already done the research for you! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 11, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Fun Quote of the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This passage from a Rod Lott posting at Bookgasm had me cheering: There seems to be this unspoken rule in America that unless a book is either: a) literary, b) covered by The New York Times Book Review, or c) Oprah-approved, that it shouldn't be talked about, let alone read at all. In other words, genre fiction. It's weird, because our society has no problem talking to one another in public about genre movies or genre TV shows. But genre books? No one wants to admit they're reading it, for fear of being looked down upon. Unlike films or television, a book requires a degree of intellect to be experienced; therefore, they reason, books must be intellectual. Wrong! So there is sanity to be found among those who discuss books, even if not among the official bookchat class ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 4, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Book Meme-ing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The recent book meme has been taken up by some inspired bloggers: Kelly Jane Torrance, Anne Thompson, Andy Horbal. I have the nagging feeling that I'm neglecting some other snazzy bloggers who have given this particular meme a whirl. Lordy, I can be such a scatterbrain. Anyway, send in links, and I'll update as people let me know who I've been forgetting or ignoring. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 4, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Why Aren't More Books More of a Turn-On?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- If books people -- ie., librarians, publishers, profs, etc -- are serious about wanting people to read, why don't they publish and promote more -- and better -- sexy books? Erotica writer Polly Frost recalls being aroused into readerhood by "Lotta Drum and the 69 Pleasures." Nice passage: She had to endure lesbian love from her captors, as well as some highly detailed bamboo S & M ... The fact is, I can still remember passages from "Lotta Drum" that I can't remember from the books I'd been assigned in school. I slept through "The Red Pony," and even though it was a "classic" it had no impact on my life and today I can't recall anything about it except for a lot of tedious metaphors that my teacher wrote up on the blackboard. Lotta Drum, however, has stuck with me ... Librarians, listen up! Erotica writers are your best friends -- we're the ones who get people hooked on reading. That's for sure, at least in my case. As a kid, I spent a Lotta Time reading the sexy potboilers that Polly praises in her posting: Jackie Susann, Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane. Those in fact are the books -- along with the comic books I was enjoying at the same time -- that turned me into a lifelong reader. One thing's for certain: There's nothing quite like a novel that's full of good parts to make a kid's reading-comprehension skills skyrocket. I can't imagine that there aren't, oh, a few million other people with similar stories to tell. Given this, why is the books establishment such a dreary, do-gooding, back-to-school thing? And what were some of the books that turned you into a reader? Saucy and dirty candidates especially encouraged. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 3, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, September 28, 2006

1000 Words -- Coffee-house Culture
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not the first observer of the web and of blogdom to be reminded of the 17th and 18th century coffee-house. "It's open! And everyone is having a say!" -- the parallels between now and then are striking. Even so, I haven't yet run across a brief blog-intro to coffee-house culture. What was this coffee-house phenomenon about anyway? Introduced to Europe in the 1600s, coffee took the continent by storm, and coffee-houses sprang up in many major cities. The caffeine high contributed to the fervor, of course, but the historical moment (which can be seen as a transitional era between the Renaissance and the modern world) was important too. The aristocracy was beginning to lose its grip; the middle-class was a-borning and wanted to stretch its wings. Wikipedia, for instance, calls the Paris coffee-houses "a major locus of the French Enlightenment." Nowhere did coffee-mania hit as hard as London, where the city's first coffee-house was opened in 1652. Within a couple of decades, coffee-houses had become the centers of London social life -- and that's "social" as in business, politics, art, and crime. By the mid-1700s, there were 550 coffee houses in the city. Wives complained that hubbies were spending too much time at the coffee-houses. (Women weren't allowed in them.) Coffee-house-going became so popular that for a time Islamic styles of dress and fashion became a fad. Established authority figures had bouts of paranoia about the coffee-houses. Surely conspiracies and other seditious doin's were being hatched there! What in fact was taking place in most of them was vigorous conversation. Partly thanks to the caffeine, it was an extraverted, dynamic time. People were out and about, learning how to be sociable. They were comparing notes and trying out ideas; there were deals to be made. The birth of modern English-language publishing was intimately bound up with coffee-house culture. Pamphlets, newsletters, and early periodicals (such as The Guardian and The Spectator) were distributed largely to and through the coffee-houses, and the writers and editors treated the goings-on at coffee-houses as part of their subject matter. Did you realize that the modern short story, British division, has its roots in the unsigned, semi-disguised nonfiction accounts run in these publications? That's right: "The short story," today often thought of as a super-specialized, la-de-dah form, is a direct descendent of the 17th and 18th century equivalent of Page Six. (Good lord: Anal-sex guru Tristan Taormina is Thomas Pynchon's niece!) Different coffee-houses attracted different kinds of crowds. The scientists of the Royal Society met at The Graecian. Other coffee-houses were patronized mainly by politicians; there were Whig coffee-houses and Tory coffee-houses. Still other coffee-houses attracted businessmen -- Lloyd's of London had its birth at Lloyd's Coffee-house. Says one source: "It was in such coffee-houses as Lloyd's, Garraway's, and Jonathan's that Britain's modern business institutions spent their infancy and that the foundation was laid which would lead them towards ascendancy in world commerce in the nineteenth century." Arty types... posted by Michael at September 28, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, September 15, 2006

Literacy: Normal? Natural? Desirable?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Alec makes an important point in response to some interesting comments from Rachel: It's funny. We think that reading is (and should be) the norm, and that books have been around forever, but literacy has been rare throughout human history. For most of human existence, people have been illiterate and used pictures and symbols (graphic arts), and of course speech, to convey and interpret information. For example, according to a Wikipedia article, as late as 1840, 33% of men and 44% of women in England signed marriage certificates with a mark because they were unable to read. The irony is that the post-industrial age, dominated by video and audio stuff without a need for text, is allowing large numbers of people to be comfortably illiterate. I'm not certain how widespread it is, but I am always amazed at how easily Jay Leno is able to find young adults -- even many with college degrees -- who profess that they never read novels and who are increasingly ignorant of anything but pop culture, but who nonetheless are immensely pleased with themselves. I'm not sure how this will develop in the future, since the Internet is actually encouraging a continued literacy (blogging, individual fiction) even as audio-visual culture intensifies (MySpace, YouTube, iTunes, etc.) We oldies may take written-word-centricity for granted, but there's nothing natural about literacy of the "addicted to plowing through long gray rivers of text" sort. And a book-based culture -- however familiar it may feel to some of us -- is, historically speaking, an anomoly. One consequence of the electronics revolution seems to be that we're turning into -- or turning back into -- an image-and-sound-and-presentation-based culture. Is this good? Is it desirable? And does the kind of playing-with-graphics- images- text blocks-sound-and-motion that seems to be becoming the standard thing represent a new, or different, or maybe even better kind of literacy? Best, Michael UPDATE: Tyler Cowen asks, "When should we consume culture in small, sequential bits?"... posted by Michael at September 15, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Saturday, September 9, 2006

The Zaniness of FLW
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Prairie Mary for pointing out this fascinating Christopher Hawthorne article about "The Fellowhip," a new study of Frank Lloyd Wright. The authors did their best to discard the Eternal Genius lens through which Wright is usually seen, and to consider him as a mere mortal, if one with enormous talent. That's something I tried to do myself -- in a much more modest way, of course, and confining myself entirely to his work -- back in this posting, which I wittily entitled "Frank Lloyd Wright Is Not God." It generated some controversy, to say the least. Mary has put up a wonderful posting of her own about how she learned to write. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 9, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friday, September 8, 2006

"Real Food"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Of the many books about food, eating, and food production that I've read in recent months, my favorite has been Nina Planck's "Real Food." It's a book with a simple message: If a food is traditional, then the odds are it's tasty, satisfying, and nourishing. If a food has been invented or developed in the last hundred years -- if it's what she calls "an industrial food" -- then you'd probably do well to be wary of it. (Hey, that's a good two-line summary of conservatism -- the political philosophy of conservatism, anyway, if not the sorry present-day Republican reality of it. When there's a question, odds are you should trust to experience and not to theory.) No accusations of Luddism, please. A nice passage from a q&a with Planck: Look, I love my ice cream maker. I love electricity. What I don't like is technology that reduces a food's flavor or nutrition. Chicken stock is great. The bouillon cube is an abomination. As I read it, Planck's book exists on two levels. One is the facts-and-arguments level. Here, I found the book extremely helpful and informative. Be warned, though: It isn't for the un-crunchy, let alone for those averse to a little eccentricity. (Those who dislike the book may accuse Planck of being vulnerable to cranks.) Planck doesn't play by the health-tip world's rules or current advice, to say the least. Lard? Most excellent -- "hardly anyone knows that lard is good for you." Tropical fats? Yum-o. Red meat? Dig in, but search out the grass-fed kind. Salt isn't a poison to be avoided; it's a godsend that brings out the flavors of many foods. Unrefined sea salt is best. Search out fermented foods: kefir, sauerkraut. Your gut will thank you for it. Eggs? "A nutritional bonanza." "I don't buy the low-fat version of anything," Planck writes. Planck is especially keen on milk, which she thinks we have become neurotic about. Full-fat milk doesn't just taste loads better than skim, it's also better for you. But make it organic if not raw. Feeling inspired by Planck, I drank my first raw milk last week. It was, as she wrote that it would be, a far more creamy, complex, and rich experience than supermarket milk. Maybe pasteurization and homogenization aren't all they're cracked up to be. To those who respond with shock or surprise to her very unorthodox views and advice, Planck has a -- to me, anyway -- plausible and convincing response. Since the health establishment changes its tune every five minutes -- are eggs good for you this week? -- we'd probably do well, much of the time, to ignore the people in the white lab coats and trust to experience and taste instead. At times the book feels like a concerted attempt to restore the reputation of fat. Planck argues that the more we know about fats, the more complicated the are-fats-good-or-bad-for-you? question becomes. There are many kinds of fats, and... posted by Michael at September 8, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Saturday, September 2, 2006

Charlton on Audible
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Visitors to 2Blowhards have almost certainly encountered Charlton Griffin, who has left a lot of informative and smart comments on various postings. They may not realize that Charlton is one of the most distinguished readers and producers of my favorite current media form, namely audiobooks. I notice that many of his productions can now be purchased at Audible for download. (Type "Charlton Griffin" into the search box.) I urge audiobook fans to start downloading now, and I urge those who have been hesitant to try audiobooks to start with Charlton's productions. This is some of the classiest work available: great material, beautifully produced and presented. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 2, 2006 | perma-link | (0)
Derbyshire on Betjeman
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- John Derbyshire writes an appreciation of the English poet John Betjeman here. Although a man of the 20th century, Betjeman composed touching, funny, instantly-comprehensible -- ie., completely traditional and non-modernist -- poems. Needless to say, he has been almost completely overlooked by the American academic-media lit establishment. A nice passage from Derbyshire: Practically all Betjeman's verses rhyme, scan, and yield up all their sense at a first reading, if you can get past the Britishisms. He ignored the "modern movement" in poetry altogether ... It follows from this that Betjeman is not really the sort of poet you can teach, and he is therefore of no interest to the academic Eng. Lit. clerisy. It is hard to imagine anyone getting a Ph.D. by "interpreting" Betjeman. There is nothing to interpret. And what a lovely compliment that is. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 2, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Rewind: More on Books
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- On vacation in Lotusland, I'm finding the siren song of the hot tub sweeter this morning than the appeal of blogging. So, fond though I am of generating new posts, I'm going to baby myself and link to an old one instead. Since we've been comparing notes about books and publishing, here's a related post from a while back: my version of the future of books, book publishing, and book reading. Hey, here's another. A little repetitious, OK, but such are the perils of blogging ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 31, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Books and Sales Redux
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A few postings ago, I wondered out loud why so many people are horrified when they discover that book publishing is a business, and that -- as with all businesses -- salesmanship is involved at many levels. Visitors volunteered many good reasons why this might be the case. Please take a look at the comment thread. The ideas and observations of our visitors got me pulling together a few more fresh, if mighty basic, thoughts. There are always far more book-writer wannabes than the book-publishing industry needs. Econ 101, folks: If supply is huge and demand is tiny, prices will fall and remain low. Translated in terms of the book-writing biz: So long as there are a lot more people around who want to write books than there are places for them on commercial-publishing lists, the prices/salaries given to book-writers are going to tend to be small, smaller, smallest. Are you a book-writer wannabe? It doesn't hurt to remember that there's always someone who can do the job as well -- or almost as well -- as you can, and who will do it for less money too. Wait, this item doesn't really have anything to do with salesmanship and books. Oh well, it's a basic fact of commercial book-writing and commercial book-publishing anyway. Maybe someone will find it interesting. As I mentioned in the comments on the previous posting, book-publishing has to be one of the few industries where the vast majority of the people who supply the industry's product don't and won't ever make a living at it. In the U.S., there are only a couple of hundred people who make a living from writing trade books. ("Trade books" are the kinds of books you might buy at a Barnes and Noble.) Meanwhile, the book-publishing industry employs (and pays living wages to) many thousands. If you want to make a living from books, do indeed go into the books business -- but don't go into it as a writer. Many book people are introverts. Actors love audiences; few pop musicians are shy; painters and photographers generally know in their bones that they have to play the game if they want to move some product. But people who work in publishing? And people who dream of writing books? What they often love most is spending quiet time with books. They like reading better than being with other people. Many of them would be happy, they feel, if only they could spend all their time inside a book. I feel divided about introverts and books. On the one hand, I sympathize with the introverts. God bless 'em, they're people too, and why shouldn't they have an art-medium of their own? It's understandable that they would dream of a place (booksville) where they could flourish, feel appreciated, and be taken care of. On the other hand: C'mon.. I mean, really. We all have to deal with the external world -- and, whatever else it is,... posted by Michael at August 30, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Books and Sales
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards - I just had one of those conversations with one of those people. You know the type. An intelligent, friendly person. A pleasant vibe. And then, whammo, the moment comes -- the moment when you discover that, so far as books and book publishing are concerned, this otherwise sensible person is completely out of his mind. Why is that so many down-to-earth people turn into delusional space cadets when the topic is books and book publishing? After all, they know from their own experience how the world works. Yet, magically, where book publishing is concerned, none of these how-the-world-works rules is supposed to apply. These people are OK with -- or at least not surprised by -- the way that politics, egos, money, ambition, and luck play important roles in life and business. Yet, magically, in book publishing, genius and worthiness always rise to the top. You can inform these people that, in the U.S., no more than a couple of hundred writers of trade books make a living writing books. You can let them know that the book publishing business generates somewhere between 50,0000 and 200,000 new titles every year. Dents are not made. (By the way, here's a fun mind experiment. Let's say you're a real new-books buff. You follow reviews, magazines, and bookstores. In a given year, you might be aware of a couple of hundred of new titles, right? If you're a real enthusiast, you might even read 50 or 100 new books. That means, in a busy publishing year, you're aware of 0.1% of the new books published that year. I take this as reason to be a little skeptical of anyone who makes pronouncements about such-and-such being the "best new book of the year.") The particular delusion that possessed the specific otherwise-sensible person I talked to the other day had to do with sales. To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure what it was. I don't think I can nail it down once and for all. For a minute, it seemed as though this person felt that an author shouldn't have to "sell" his book in any sense. At another point, I had the impression that this person felt that sales play no role in the "literary" process. (Or was it that they should play no such role?) At yet another moment, this person seemed to hold the strong opinion that an author's role is (or should?) be done when he finishes typing. It was hard to tell specifically what the dream was that this person was clinging to. The only thing that was really clear was that this person felt that "sales" (as in the act of selling) and book publishing should have nothing to do with each other, and that to the degree that "sales" enters into book publishing, that's too damn bad, and perhaps even worthy of grief and/or moral censure. Look: The business of books and book publishing is a business. It's an unusual business... posted by Michael at August 23, 2006 | perma-link | (30) comments

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Prairie Mary's Blackfeet Stories Are on Lulu
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The best linkage news of the day is that Prairie Mary has just published her collection of Blackfeet stories with the first-rate POD outfit As visitors to 2Blowhards (or to her own blog) know, Mary Scriver is an unruly fireball of writing talent -- full of horsepower, information, soul, brains, and juice. I just ordered a copy of the book, and am expecting an involving and exciting read. You can order a hard copy or download a PDF version of the book from this page. Best, Michael UPDATE: I'm hoping to see many writers sidestep traditional commercial publishers and go the self-publishing route. It's a lot less trouble, far less wearing on the soul, and (potentially, at least) a much more direct way of connecting with audiences and readers. Why re-enact all the old battles? Why not sidestep them, and then get on with life instead? Are you, as your own publisher, stuck doing all your own promotion? Sure. But -- sad fact but true -- so are 9 out of 10 commercially-published authors. Most commercial houses put their marketing muscle behind very few of the books they publish. Taking charge of your own fate can be a real high. Dave Lull spotted a Times of London article by a downright exultant Martin Wroe celebrating his experience with Wroe writes: "Holding the finished product -- a proper, perfect-bound book, gleaming colour cover hugging 76 crisp white pages of text -- it was obvious that a revolution is under way for prospective authors everywhere ... The maths of publishing is changing. Profitability has been factored around millions of sales by hundreds of authors; in future it may be based around hundreds of sales by millions of authors." Mary's first reflections about self-publishing with Lulu can be read here.... posted by Michael at August 17, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Monday, August 14, 2006

Colin Wilson
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Here's a great tale: the electrifying rise and almost instant fall of the British writer Colin ("The Outsider") Wilson. Acclaimed as a brilliant talent while still in his early 20s, he became rich and famous very fast. But he was critically eviscerated within a couple of years and has been ignored (and/or treated like an embarassment) ever since. I've never read a word of Wilson's myself, but The Wife, who has, says that Wilson can be a lot of fun to read, in a wild-eyed/autodidact kind of way. Talk about a bulletproof ego! Despite the blows he has taken, Wilson has gone on to publish more than 100 books. "I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century," he says. "In 500 years time, they'll say, 'Wilson was a genius', because I'm a turning-point in intellectual history." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 14, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Tom Hart
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm a big fan of Tom Hart, a graphic novelist and comic strip writer/artist whose best-known character is probably the rebel-bum Hutch Owen. Hart is of the alt-weekly school of cartooning, and his work has a fizz and a quirkiness that I find impossible to resist. The stories and concepts have a brainstormy spaciness, while the grubbiness, directness, and informality of the drawing keep the material firmly of this earth. If ever a work could be said to be both whimsical and soulful, "Hutch Owen" is it. So I'm tickled to discover that Tom Hart writes a blog. It's a charmer -- as perceptive, goofily creative, and human as his comix. In this posting, Hart goes home to Missouri and reflects on how his old stomping grounds now strike him. Nice passage: The buffet was awesome for 6 bucks. I saw a young woman there who was so cute and dressed so urbanely it made me homesick. Girls like that are few and far between in the flat, rural midwest. People in the midwest really could not give a shit for Hollywood, or our New York culture, or anything. Strange how still the TV commercials reflect the culture of the coasts. The world between the coasts is so radically different. People drive to each other's houses just to sit in chairs, drink soda and say hello. Yeah they eat like utter crap, but they like it. They like keeping their tax money. They have jobs, they buy shit, they live and die. They like that just fine, too. They don't think about other cultures. They don't aspire to make great things. They don't get off on the fruits of their labor. They sit around and tell stories about their childhood, about mutual acquaintances, about illness and trauma and near-misses and shared opinions and advice. Now that's saying a lot with very little. Which, come to think of it, is what the very best cartoonists do, isn't it? I'm also tickled to discover that Tom Hart teaches cartooning. I'll bet he's a generous and terrific teacher. Now, if only I had some talent ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 2, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

"Flint's Gift"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I think it may be a common mistake to assume that you'll like the artist who has made work that you've enjoyed, and that you''ll dislike the person whose work you haven't cared for. How could this not be the case? That painter whose images click for you ... That musician who knows how to touch your heart ... That filmmaker who rouses your imagination so reliably ... The inner stirrings their work makes you feel can't just be tricks of art, can they? No, they must -- they simply must -- represent something real. Well, perhaps most people aren't as naive as I once was. But it took small-town, dreamy me a while to get over this particular fantasy. In fact, back when I was interacting regularly with authors, artists, and filmmakers, I found that the opposite was as likely to be true. Adrian Lyne, for instance: I don't care for most of his movies -- except for the magnificent "Unfaithful" -- but I got on with him (in an interview setting anyway) like a house on fire. On the other hand, Alice Munro: I worship much of her work, but in person we chatted agreeably like the polite strangers we were and then went on our separate ways. I still retain a bit of apprehension when I look at the work of someone I've met and liked. Good lord, is it so much to ask to enjoy both the artist and the work? So I'm not just happy but relieved to report that, midway through my first Richard S. Wheeler novel, I'm lovin' it. Not that Richard and I are buds; visitors to this blog know Richard as well as I do. (Prairie Mary did the honors of introducing Richard to the blog, and us to him.) Richard sometimes drops by and sometimes leaves comments, all of them urbane, helpful, and interesting. Richard gave us permission to print a couple of pieces by him -- highly recommended, here and here. And I'm hoping to coax him into contributing more to the blog. But we've never actually met. Still, what a likable, class act. Happily, I can say the same about his novel. The book I'm in the middle of is his western "Flint's Gift." It's a gem: spacious and leisurely yet full of understated drama, fragrant and atmospheric when it isn't exciting and tense ... Richard has a phenomenal intuitive sense of how to combine his ingredients as well as how to spread his creation out before us for our enjoyment and pleasure. He mixes just the right combo of the stern with the gentle, the impressionistic with the Biblical. Action, psychology, and history lie side by side, enhancing each other to the max. His narrative makes use of noble themes: honor vs. love, tradition vs. progress, the longing for home vs. the love of adventure, the ways wars play out in both public and private arenas ... The story setup: A... posted by Michael at August 2, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, July 27, 2006

"The Conservative Nanny State"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just finished Dean Baker's new book, "The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer," and recommend it enthusiastically. It's full of well-informed analyses of dubious government programs and policies and well-presented challenges to them. (My only quarrel is with Dean's use of the word "conservative" when what he's really talking about is a certain class of fat-cat Republicans. Hey, world: There's nothing conservative about a lot of Republicans.) Whether you're of a right-ish or a left-ish persuasion, you'll find plenty in the book to work up a good head of indignant steam about. Generously, Dean makes the book available as a free download. Let's see more of that kind of publishing. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 27, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

More Than Once
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- David Chute makes a list of the books that he has read more than once. I like many of the books David likes, but I'm not much of a re-reader myself. My own version of such a list would be very short: "The Charterhouse of Parma," and that's about it. (Read this translation.) Oh, and "Candy." And "The Long Goodbye." OK, and "Winnie the Pooh." But that's about it. How long would your own list be? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 27, 2006 | perma-link | (32) comments

Saturday, July 22, 2006

More on Self-Publishing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- People interested in the evolution of the book and developments in the self-publishing field should get a lot out of Peter Wayner's piece for the New York Times. I've heard from friends that is an excellent service. (Here's an interview with a Lulu honcho.) Wayner passes along the names of a few more promising outfits. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 22, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

More on Lit Fic
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The whole "literary fiction" thing, eh? What a ... confounding phenomenon. Is the term "literary fiction" a sign that we ought to pay attention and offer respect? Or is it merely a label for pretentious books that are too high-falutin' to bother delivering engaging and absorbing plots? In a piece he shared with us not long ago, the western novelist Richard S. Wheeler noted that, when he was growing up, no such thing as a contrast between "literary fiction" and "genre fiction" existed. A fiction-book might be more or less refined, but they all existed on the same fiction continuum. So what's with this lit-fic thing anyway? Maybe it's all a great big ... Anyway, I was surfing Wikipedia the other day and was made very happy when I read their entry on literary fiction. Fun passage: Literary fiction is a somewhat uneasy term that has come into common usage since around 1970, principally to distinguish 'serious' fiction (i.e. work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction. In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the 'pageturner') focuses more on narrative and plot. 1970 ... Hmmm. That would be right about when the creative-writing schools started to make an impact on book publishing ... England's sensible Robert McCrum (in a piece about BZ Myers' infamous anti-lit fic rant "A Reader's Manifesto") is similarly straightforward and frank: Nowhere has literary fiction been more fiercely entrenched than the United States. Here, the establishment I've described has been reinforced by a network of creative-writing communities, from Iowa to Yaddo, each devoted to turning out publishable examples of literary fiction. I just ran across another piece -- dating back to a 1993 issue of England's irreverent The Modern Review -- that points out another element in the equation: changes in the structure and makeup of the book-publishing biz. Characteristic passage: One useful way of thinking of this kind of literature [ie., "literary fiction"] is as a category that won't admit it's a category ... The fantasy is that the culture of books is guided by people of talent and taste, and that while decency may not always prevail, it has a fighting chance. But the fact is that trade publishing is now run almost entirely on the business' terms. The rout began about 15 years ago is now close to complete. Trade publishing is a thoroughly professionalized world. Publishing lists are constructed under the same kind of constraints and with the same kind of conceptualizing-editor guidance (and interference) that glossy magazines are, and the fiction writers who contribute their work to these lists tend to have an academic preparation comparable to that of contemporary journalists and business people. It appears that word may finally be getting out to the public at large that -- despite its intending-to-awe name -- "literary fiction" represents nothing more than another shelf in your local bookstore's... posted by Michael at July 12, 2006 | perma-link | (25) comments

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Kenneth Harl on the Ancient Near East
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A while ago I wrote about how much I'd enjoyed a Teaching Company lecture series by Kenneth Harl entitled "Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor." I recently finished another Harl lecture series -- "Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations" -- and I enjoyed it just as much. It's one of the Teaching Company's shorter programs -- twelve 30-minute lectures -- and it's clearly meant to serve as an introductory survey. It covers a huge amount of ground: around 3000 years, from the beginnings of settlements in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys to the Persian Empire. So it's a very speedy overview of the world out of which the old familiars (Egypt, Greece, Rome) grew. I can't say that I now carry around a vivid picture of these nations and tribes: among them, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Hebrews, the Sumerians, and the Assyrians. But I've wanted to find out a bit about these peoples for ages, and I'm grateful that I now have a general, eagle-eye impression of them. (Back here I wrote about how much I love 101-style introductions to subjects.) With these two series, Harl has become one of my favorite audio presenters. His speaking voice is a long way from being the silken, clear, calm-yet-impassioned instrument that Charlton Griffin's is. (For my money, Charlton -- who I'm thrilled to say visits 2Blowhards occasionally -- is the best reader of audiobooks ever. You can explore the ultra-classy and mega-satisfying audiobooks that Charlton produces and presents here.) But Harl has lots of virtues of his own. He tempers scholarly zeal with a sense of perspective; his knack for doling out information in appropriately-scaled ways is really impressive. He respects the fact that, for many of us, he's delivering what's likely to be our one and only jaunt through the material; although he keeps the information coming at a cracking pace, he doesn't lose track of the larger movements and sweeps. He's modest about how much can be known about eras so very distant to ours, and -- for all his proficient-academic smarts -- he's down-to-earth about and even amused by how the real world works. (Bless him, he has no apparent political agenda.) And, unlike some profs, Harl seems to have no trouble with the idea that his listeners are grownups with busy lives. Instead, he seems to be thrilled that we're there, and that we're interested. In the Teaching Company's lineup, Harl seems to be the go-to guy for the-stuff-in-between-the-usual-ancient-stuff. (It's a sign of how smart and decent the Teaching Company is that they have such a go-to guy on their team.) Harl doesn't do Egypt, Greece, or Rome at great length. Instead, he discusses all those other tribes and peoples. In addition to the series that I linked to above, he also presents the barbarians who duked it out with Rome, Byzantium, and the Vikings. Interesting topics! -- as well as ones that my college history profs skipped entirely. A while back... posted by Michael at July 5, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Richard Wheeler Reports
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm delighted that I've been able to coax another piece of writing out of our new friend, the Wyoming-based (CORRECTION: whoopsie, make that Montana-based) Western novelist Richard Wheeler. Richard recently attended the convention of the Western Writers of America, and has generously filed this report about the event. *** Report From Cody by Richard Wheeler The convention of Western Writers of America, held here in mid-June, was remarkable for its size and vitality. There was an overflow crowd attending, the mood was upbeat, and the six hundred-member organization is in fine financial condition. This is a remarkable feat, considering that western fiction is no longer a significant part of mainstream publishing, and exists only as a niche market. Most mass market publishers have abandoned genre westerns, and the remaining ones concentrate on dead western authors. University presses have to some extent taken up the slack, publishing a little western fiction and nonfiction. The transformation of WWA from an organization struggling to survive as western fiction and film declined in recent decades, to its robust status today, is largely the result of remaking the organization. It began in 1953 as an authors guild, with membership confined to well-established professionals. In this respect it resembled its brother genre fiction guilds, Mystery Writers of America, and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Some years ago WWA quietly began to ignore its membership bylaws and admitted people who did not qualify. Later this was legitimized by changing the bylaws to admit self-published authors, paving the way for the flood of members who resort to the new print-on-demand vanity presses such as iUniverse or PublishAmerica. Today, perhaps three-quarters of the members have no significant professional credentials. As traditional book publishers retreat from western fiction, that percentage is likely to increase. The Mystery Writers and Science Fiction Writers have gone the other direction, tightening membership requirements to preserve their professional status, and requiring applicants for membership to be published by an approved list of legitimate royalty-paying presses. WWA is also steadily expanding its Spur Awards. Two new ones were announced at the Cody convention, one for best original audio novel, and one for best western song. The latter is actually a major departure for WWA, the first move from literature to music, or to put it another way, a departure toward the performance arts. The new awards will draw WWA away from print and into other media. For an organization wrestling with its irrelevance to traditional publishing (New York editors and publishers and agents no longer bother to attend its conventions), WWA offers an amazing number of awards. With the new additions, it now offers seventeen Spur Awards, plus the Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement. Some of these awards, notably the Best First Novel and Storyteller, began life as subsidiary honors, and were not intended to be Spur Awards, but recent boards have converted them. WWA hands out more awards than any other genre literature society. By way... posted by Michael at June 22, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friday, June 9, 2006

Manny Farber
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As a big fan of both Manny Farber's paintings and Manny Farber's film criticism, I was thrilled to read that a new show of his visuals was recently on display in La Jolla, and that a new collection of his writing about movies will be coming along soon. (He has often co-written with his wife, the artist Patricia Patterson.) Duncan Shepherd's memoir of being a student and a friend of Farber's is a bit scattershot, but I also found it touching, as well as very good on the kind of boho, freeform lives many filmnerds and artnerds lead. Hard to believe that Manny Farber will soon turn 90 ... Best, Michael UPDATE: I just this minute stumbled across the blog of David Chute, one of the very best of the Boomer film critics. As a reviewer, Chute is supersmart and perceptive about movies; as a blogger, he's all that, plus frank about the pleasures and travails of the critic life. A few good passages: I've found myself wishing many times over the years that there was something else I had learned along the way that people were willing to pay me to do. (Folding socks? Reading detective novels?) ... If the day ever comes when I cobble togethr 40 whole hours of remunerative employment I imagine it will be sweet to pursue writing, if I decide to do so at all, strictly as an amateur activity in the best sense, as a labor of love. When I changed the course of my life in the mid-1980s by leaving a full-time job as a critic at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner I was moved as much as anything by disgust at the level to which second-string critics have to stoop, writing for weeks on end only about the purest, dullest trash. One's job in a case like this becames a mad tap-dance, trashing the film as entertainingly as possible so that at least the experience of reading about it wouldn't be a total loss ... I think only a bully could sincerely enjoy doing this work week in and week out. And there is likely some connection between the state of mind required to feel self-righteous while humiliating people, and how notoriously thin skinned many critics are when they find themselves on the receiving end.... posted by Michael at June 9, 2006 | perma-link | (0)

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Richard Wheeler on Book Publishing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Prairie Mary, I've recently had the pleasure of e-meeting the novelist Richard Wheeler. The author of dozens of published novels, Richard has had a serious lot of experience with book publishing. I asked him if I can publish part of a beautiful and informative talk he recently gave to a group of writing students, and he kindly agreed. Lucky us: Let's hear it for people who are generous enough to share the wisdom. I was going introduce his talk with a graceful paragraph of my own introducing Richard -- but the paragraph that Richard sent me about himself was so much more elegant than anything I'd be able to turn out that I've decided to simply reprint it. Please meet Richard Wheeler: I was born in suburban Milwaukee, 1935. I spent my early years as a newsman, but after assorted firings it dawned on me that news gathering was not my calling, so I became a book editor, working for two or three scholarly and public affairs presses in the Midwest. The oil recession of the early 70s put me back on the streets, so I wrote my first novels, which were purchased by Doubleday. I've made my living as an obscure novelist ever since, doing historical and biographical novels, as well as genre westerns. I count it a blessing that the New York Times Book Review has never heard of me and never will. I've written sixty-odd novels, 58 published so far and others are in process. I've won five Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, and have been a finalist numerous times. One of my novels won a starred lead review in Publishers Weekly. My wife, Sue Hart, is an English professor and writer/producer of PBS documentaries, one of them dealing with Ernest Hemingway's sojourns in Montana. I live in Livingston, Montana, which has a delightful literary and film tradition, and wilderness in sight from most every window. And now on to his talk, given last fall in Whitefish, Montana. Here's Richard Wheeler: *** I am pleased to be here today. Thank you for coming here and listening to an elderly novelist wend his way along the primrose path. Writing skills are largely self-taught, but perhaps I can steer you in a new direction, and maybe I will inspire you to try something different and promising. I am hoping to persuade you to look at literature in new ways. I am also hoping that you will find yourself writing more compelling novels and selling them successfully. We are all familiar with the idea that there is literary fiction, and there is popular fiction. Most of us choose to write in one realm or the other. Literary fiction is considered the more prestigious form of the novel, the more serious art, and is regarded as a higher calling than popular fiction. Literary fiction is usually defined as the examination of the human condition. The literary novelist sets out to depict... posted by Michael at June 7, 2006 | perma-link | (14) comments

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Diet Books
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Eager to lose ten pounds, I've recently been spending time with diet books. (It's soooo much more satisfying to read and make plans than it is to take action, don't you think?) I've leafed through a bunch of them, and I've spent serious time with three. As someone who once followed the book-publishing industry closely, I enjoyed exploring these books as much for their characteristics as books as for their content. My general reaction: What an over-edited, by-the-numbers genre diet books have become! Start with a description of the crisis ... Devote 'way too many pages to the "science" of whatever your angle is ... Keep ringing and then re-ringing the alarm bells ... Finally volunteer the eating advice you've been withholding (it's usually worth about a dozen pages) ... Then finish with a small collection of recipes. Decorate the whole with bullet points, boxes, multiple fonts, quotes from authority figures, and bossy language ... Hey, isn't it strange how the business memo has become a model for books? In fact, isn't it strange how central the business memo has become as an organizing metaphor in American life? Note to self: Write heavily bullet-pointed blogposting about the business-memo form. And the length of diet books: Have there been many that really needed more than 100 pages? Yet few clock in at less than 350 pages. Why are books that are meant to guide us into living more elegantly themselves so overstuffed? Sad fact: Americans are impulse-buyers who love quantity, not quality. In the bookbiz this is widely felt to be the case anyway. Publishing efforts are forever being made to make books (especially pop and/or "bestseller"-style books) look thicker than they really should be. Check out how big the margins of thrillers are, and how very many chapters they're divided into. Publishers want the saps who buy their reading material from bins at discount stores to think, "Wow, for only $11.95 I can have myself a hardcover copy of a novel by someone whose name I've heard of! And it's really long! Now that's getting value for my money!" Hey, Americans: Grow up! Quit letting yourselves be taken advantage of by cynical big-city media operators who look down on you! Come to think of it, our preference for quantity over quality might be one of the main reasons we're so fat in the first place ... Some brief notes on the three books I looked at closely. Here come the bullet points! Although Joel Fuhrman's "Eat to Live" was my least-favorite of these books, I couldn't tear myself away from it. I found it transfixing in a gruesome kind of way. Fuhrman hits the ground running with a "You're gonna die if you don't take action now!" tone, and then cranks it up to a pitch of pure hysteria. And many of the recipes he supplies are recognizable by even a tyro foodie like me as awful. To be fair, there's probably some substance... posted by Michael at June 1, 2006 | perma-link | (20) comments

Thursday, May 25, 2006

It's Pulp Time
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- We're having a pulp fiction moment, so why not enjoy it? Pulp fiction is the theme of Slate's Summer Reading Week, and IFC has declared June Pulp Viewing month. So far I've found most of the Slate articles twitty and condescending -- all-too-characteristic of what happens when smartypants types discuss popular culture. I did enjoy Bryan Caplan's intro to the history of pulp fiction, Dwight Garner's survey of the work of Erskine Caldwell, and John Banville's piece arguing that two of the greatest 20th-century writers of on-the-page fiction were the crime writers Georges Simenon and Donald Westlake in his Richard Parker incarnation. (FWIW, I find Banville's argument plausible. I wrote here about Simenon, and here in praise of Donald Westlake.) Maybe that isn't too bad a harvest. Among the films that IFC will be featuring, I can recommend ... Whoops, I can't find IFC's June film schedule, so I can't pass along any tips at all, darn it. I do love passing along tips. By coincidence, I happen to be spending commuting time with this audiobook collection of Raymond Chandler short stories. What a dazzler and a giant Chandler was. All that juicy narrative tension ... The wised-up psychological shrewdness ... The mind-bending way a kind of poetic dream/symbolic logic mixes with straight-ahead crime yarns ... And of course the famous (and often-parodied, often-imitated) hard-bitten florid quality in the writin' itself. One beyond-fabulous line and metaphor follows another. About a tough guy with something dreamy in his eyes: "He looked like a bouncer who'd come into money." Woo-hoo! I'd happily sacrifice a half a dozen literary novels for the sake of one line like that. Before I slipped it into the Walkman, the audiobook had gathered dust on my shelf for a few years. I'd been apprehensive about it because the reader is Elliott Gould. (Gould in fact reads nearly all of the Chandler books that are available on audio.) An often-inspired actor whose work I generally enjoy, Gould appeared as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's 1973 film of Chandler's "The Long Goodbye," a flip and satirical riff on Chandler. Although I love the film and Gould in it, I was worried that Gould as an audio presenter of Chandler would be facetious or otherwise disagreeable. In fact, he presents the stories beautifully, and never tries to outsmart them. He balances "reading" mode and "acting" mode alertly, he plays up the laconic growl in his voice in a way that suits Marlowe and the era, and he sinks into and sells the tense moments with a rueful grit that feels convincing. Thinking about pulp fiction has got me thinking about American on-the-page fiction more generally ... Hmm. I don't think it's misleading to picture on-the-page 20th century American fiction as coming in two main flavors: the uspcale tradition (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Updike, Cheever, Pynchon, etc) and the popular tradition (pulp, crime, sci-fi, blockbusters, thrillers, porn, etc). The first is generally more concerned with "the writin'."... posted by Michael at May 25, 2006 | perma-link | (16) comments

Friday, May 19, 2006

John Osborne
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Once upon a time I was a big fan of the British "angry young man" playwright John Osborne. "Look Back in Anger" ... "Inadmissable Evidence" ... What were the others? Anyway, I probably identified a bit: youthful torment and grandiose bitterness, all that. But Osborne really did have an amazing talent for juicy invective and bloody abuse. I see that the 50th anniversary of "Look Back in Anger" is upon us. I also see that John Heilpern has written a biography of Osborne that has just come out. I'm sorry to learn that Osborne was as bitter and abusive in real-life as his characters could be on the stage. What an awful man. All in the name of protecting his own sensitivity and creativity, no doubt. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 19, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Speedy Writing
Donald Pittenger writes Dear Blowhards -- A favorite sport in this ol' blog is pounding on the Ivy League. One reason we can get away with such cruelty is that those in the active blogging corps at 2Blowhards are, well, Ivy Leaguers of one ilk or another. Michael and Friedrich went to an un-named Ivy university as undergraduates. (Clue: it is south of Canada, north of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of Pittsburgh. I hope this is helpful.) As for moi, I went to an anonymous Ivy university I refer to as Dear Old Penn. Except I was a grad student, which is hugely different than being an Ivy undergrad. But I did come in contact with that species; you see, I was a teaching assistant ("Boo!! Hiss!!!"). I had my own little Introductory Sociology Quiz Section and graded my students on the general course questions. Something that never failed to astonish me was the way those students would rip through blue books on exam day. They'd be sitting in the main lecture hall on those chairs with an attached writing board, scribbling like mad with one hand and puffing away on a cigarette held in the other. And the words just flowed onto those blue book pages. More astonishing was how good those extemporaneous essays often seemed when it came time to grade them. They were far better than anything I could have done in the same circumstances. Truth is, what got me into universities at all was my ability to avoid total disaster on those machine-scored multiple-choice exams. Blue book exams were hell for me. My penmanship (especially using a ballpoint, as I usually did in those days) stinks. Worse, I write slowly. This is partly because of my poor penmanship; if I wrote too fast, my writing would be totally unreadable. But beyond the mechanics of writing was the fact that I simply was not a fast writer. I'm still slow. Contrast this with Michael Blowhard. You might have noticed that he posts a lot more than I do. (As this is written, I checked the last 60 entries in the blog log -- 41 have Michael's name, meaning he churns out twice as much content as I do.) When he's not doing linkage posts, Michael's articles tend to be longer than mine. And his e-mails to me can be long. How does he do it?? Me, I tend to spend time thinking about each sentence or two before I type the words. All the while I'm doing this, part of my brain is editing -- did I use a key word in the previous sentence and repeat it in the current one?; am I starting too many sentences with a passive clause?; do the sentences have good flow and rhythm? Then I spend a lot of time re-reading what I've written. Unless I'm rushed, I probably re-read each post four or five times before publishing. And the final article can be crummy in spite of all... posted by Donald at May 16, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Ivy League Cheaters
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Enough with the usual debates: How did the novel by Harvard undergrad/plagiarist Kaavya Viswanathan novel actually come into being? (Hint: She didn't just sit in her room and write it.) An article by Slate's Ann Hulbert provides a revealing snapshot of how today's commercial fiction-publishing world sometimes goes about its business. I'd love to know more about Alloy Entertainment, the fiction-packaging outfit that took Viswanathan on. According to Hulbert, they describe themselves as "a creative think tank that develops and produces original books, television series and feature films" with a focus on the teen market. Gotta love it. A John Barlow article about working with a fiction-packager can be read here. What has your reaction to the story been? I'm split. On the one hand, I feel for Kaavya. She has been broadcast nationwide in a negative light -- not fun! And her entire life is likely to be tainted by what seems to be, when you get down to it, overeagerness and misjudgment. (OK, bad misjudgment. But she has received a lot more coverage than many murderers do.) God knows that I'd hate to be held too responsible for a lot of my 18-year-old behavior. I shudder to think of what a fine-tooth-comb run through my college papers and early fiction would turn up. More than a few "borrowings," no doubt. Kids deserve to be cut some slack. And Hulbert's article shows Viswanathan being swept up in the gears of an unappealing machine that is much larger than she is. Don't current fiction-publishing practices deserve much of the blame here? On the other hand: I find it impossible not to enjoy the spectacle of an over-achieving golden-child/grind taking a pie in her face. There's something else that I find pleasing too: The way the affair drags Harvard's name in the mud. I was tickled by the Larry Summers flap for a similar reason. The less-seriously the world takes the Harvard brand, the better off the world will be. Ivy Leaguers, patooie: Many of them are, in my experience, the least spontaneous, least generous, least open, and least-humane people imaginable. God knows that most of them are bright and hard-working. But what a pain they are too -- often unoriginal and plagued by me-too-ism, yet self-congratulatory to the max, annoyingly "entitled," and deeply convinced that they represent the country's best and finest. Still, Kaavya is only 18 ... How have you reacted to the affair? Best, Michael UPDATE: Steve Sailer experiences the thrill of being plagiarized.... posted by Michael at May 3, 2006 | perma-link | (46) comments

Monday, May 1, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back in college, FvB and I giggled a lot over The Furry Freak Brothers -- an underground comic book that was stoner humor of a very high order. Here's a rare interview with the Freaks' creator, Gilbert Shelton. Who, for what it's worth, I value more highly than R. Crumb. You can order up copies of Shelton's immortal work here. Here's a tribute site. A Freaks Bros. movie might soon be made in stop-action, by a team including some of the animators from "Wallace and Grommit." Hey, the Freak Brothers even have their own Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that knows what people are really interested in ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 1, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Saturday, April 8, 2006

Upscale Book Jackets
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back when upscale fiction took the form of minimalist stories and novellas, the factor about a fiction-book that signaled "literary" most unmistakably was usually the title. It sometimes seemed as though the titles of all these books featured pleading variations on the word "I": "Why Do I Ever." "What Was Mine." "Where I'm Coming From." When you read titles like these, you felt pretty certain that you weren't looking at the Thriller shelf. These days, it seems that the standard way for a book to announce its literary bona fides is with its jacket art. I'm overstating matters, of course. A lot of elements go into creating a book's aura: the typefaces, the paper quality, the blurbs, the jacket copy, the title, even the amount of white space on a typical page. Even so, a contempo literary book's aura often seems to be mostly created by its bookjacket. Makes sense: We live in a hyper-visual, make-an-instant-impact era. Literary-book-jacketwise, something that has caught my attention -- as in "amused and annoyed me" -- is a tonal thing. An awful lot of literary book jackets seem to want to hit the same tone these days, don't they? Let me offer some examples of what I'm thinking about. Whatever the differences between these jackets, they all hit the same emotional note -- an off-center, almost-discarded-snapshot tone. Looking at these designs, I'm reminded especially of today's girl folk-rock singers: all those tough-cute chix with girlish-gargling voices -- half-bawling, half-teasing, sorrowful-sexy descendents of Rickie Lee Jones and Liz Phair. These bookjackets radiate: I'm recessive yet exhibitionistic. I'm far too classy (not to mention too wrapped-up-in-myself) to extend myself for your sake, let alone belt out a melody or dance the boogaloo. I'm expressive, but reluctantly expressive. I'm expressive because ... well, being expressive is my sad-sexy fate. Thinking of all these bookjackets as one great big group, I find myself noticing two main subgenres. The minor one shares a theme: "Horsing-around in someone's backyard, though I can't remember exactly when or where." But the main subgenre -- by a huge, huge margin -- is "bits and pieces of girls." A few examples: What do these bookjackets say to you? I mean, besides "I'm fashionable." My own take runs along these lines: "My fiction is a little piece of me, and I give it to you compulsively if reluctantly. I'm part Tori Amos, part Hemingway." Thwarted-desire, falling-off-the-table-ness has become such a standard-issue motif (or visual strategy, or something) that even the brassier cover muchachas are often presented in lopped-off ways. Book-jacket designers really don't know where to stop, do they? They've even taken to chopping up children. Call the cops! Quark-violence is being inflicted on the underaged! The question arises: Why stop with just one off-center image? Why indeed? Here's the book jacket that strikes me as the ne plus ultra of the moment. You know how you can sometimes look at a provocative, s&m-themed fashion image and wonder, "What... posted by Michael at April 8, 2006 | perma-link | (19) comments

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Charlton Griffin
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Let me alert visitors and Blowhards to the fact that one of our visitors, Charlton Griffin, is also one of the very, very best audiobook readers there is. Given what a loudmouthed audiobook fan I am, I feel very foolish, because I only recently became aware of Charlton's work. Downside: Damn, what a clueless fool I can be! Upside: A lot to look forward to! In any case, I recently loved Charlton's brilliant rendition of this collection of Maugham stories, and I'm hoping to get around to his performance of Xenophon soon. Charlton brings a lot of chops, dignity, and feeling to what he reads. He also has something very rare: a gift for bringing a listener into contact with multiple layers in the work he's presenting -- the words, the sentences, the characters, the story ... He has exquisite but never overbearing taste: There's a lot of lowkey beauty on the surface of his productions, but it's all in the service of taking you further into the material. You can tell that Charlton loves his craft, and also that he loves the books he's reading. The result, as far as I'm concerned, is something rare. These aren't audiobooks to be listened to in reluctant place of the great originals. They're beautiful works of art to be enjoyed ... OK, I'm hesitating but I gotta say it: to be enjoyed in preference to the originals. When I read Maugham on my own, it was a wonderful experience. But listening to Charlton read Maugham was even better. I encourage audiobook listeners to search out Charlton's work -- and I encourage those who haven't yet got the audiobook bug yet to come to their senses. Charlton isn't just the narrator of these books, by the way. As the sole owner and in-house one-man-band at his boutique publishing company Audio Connoisseur, he also selects, edits, and produces his recordings. Check out Audio Connoisseur's website, and drool over its classy and enticing list. Just think: You could be listening to all that great literature, beautifully presented, as you do your commuting or exercising ... As far as I can tell, Amazon carries nearly all of Audio Connoisseur's titles. You have no excuses not to start indulging and enjoying now. A quick Google sweep turns up this collection of terrific Amazon reviews by Charlton. I also enjoyed this appreciative and perceptive profile of Charlton. Click on the red "play" button to listen to Charlton's very silky voiceover reel. Best, Michael UPDATE: A convenient way to avail yourself of Charlton's work is to sign up with Audible, the downloadable-recorded-books website. Nearly all of Charlton's recordings are there to be purchased, and they play very well with iPods.... posted by Michael at March 29, 2006 | perma-link | (0)

Friday, March 24, 2006

Becoming Creative 1: I'm So Boring
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A few months ago, I wrote about how The Wife and I co-ghostwrote a commercial novel. Happily, our fiction partnership hasn't stopped with co-ghosting. We've continued collaborating on pieces of fiction under our own names, and we're having a great time doing so. Part of the fun has been cutting loose together. Where the novel was a commission job -- a piece of mainstream (if very randy) fluff -- the fiction we've been writing since has been our own thing. Which isn't to say we aren't hyper-proud of our ghosted novel. We are. In the nine weeks we were given to write the book, we created a 300 page novel complete with characters, a plot, a lot of character-motivated sex, and even a few jokes and observations. But doing our own thing has been its own giddy high. Being as full of ourselves as any other artists, The Wife and I think that we've taken on an important question: humor and eroticism. (Now you know what our idea of "an important question" is ... ) The usual thing is to see laughs and heat as being at war with each other. As humor is usually used, it undercuts the sexiness of the moment. The joke pushes you outside the moment; you may enjoy the laugh, but the mood evaporates. (Unless we're talking about something like "Road Trip" ... ) And as sexiness and heat are usually used, they're so solemn that the merest hint of irreverence breaks the spell. Why should this be so? After all, don't well-matched sex partners often have a jolly time together? Doesn't having a laugh sometimes put you in the mood? And don't humor and heat both make contributions to the more general pleasure-thang? In our own real-life case, this has certainly all been the case. When The Wife and I met we discovered not only that we dug each other in a slow-dancin' kind of way, but that we were able on a regular basis to send each other into fits of giggles. Both of the these things played big roles in our sense of delight and discovery. Both were part of our attraction to/for each other. With questions like these on our minds, it's no surprise that the fiction we have been writing has turned out to be raucous, dirty, click-here-to-verify-that-you're-18-or-over comic fiction. We're co-writing a lot of satirical erotica: Terry Southern meets Jackie Collins, basically, or so we fondly imagine. We hope it's funny, and we hope it's hot. We also hope that the time is ripe for this kind of thing, and that a few people -- oh, heck, a ton of people -- will get a kick out of what we do. While The Wife has been a fiction writer forever, I'm a Creativity newbie. Genuine creativity, anyway. Before beginning to work with The Wife, I'd done my best for years to escape from my assigned role as a grown-up Smart Kid. (Smart Kid-ism... posted by Michael at March 24, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Mary on Classic Writing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Prairie Mary is delighted to discover Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner's wonderful writing guide, "Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classsic Prose." (It's buyable here.) Nice passage: I have a feeling that Transcendalists and those trying to transcend their circumstances are often writing in order to think things out -- to reduce or expand the inchoate to something intelligible. Thomas and Turner insist that this is NOT classic writing, in which the thinking is done beforehand until it is resolved and exact -- THEN the words and sentences are chosen in response to and as an accurate representation of those facts. Denis Dutton is just as enthusiastic. I'll add that, while Turner and Thomas' book is certainly one of the best things I've ever read about writing, it concerns a lot more than writing. I'm a big fan of Turner's "The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language," too. It can be bought here. Here's a webpage that shows off some of Turner and Thomas' thoughts. Fun excerpt: Those who teach writing today include many who attempt to teach some version of "the rules" and others who want to politicize such instruction because they think that teaching ideology is teaching writing. Neither of these strategies seems to work very well. How can learning to write be so difficult when learning to talk is so easy? Mary also links to a related website. Here's Mark Turner's website. Here's Francis-Noel Thomas'. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 16, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I are once again visiting California. We flew out from New York City Business Class. The last time we flew out we flew Business too. The time before as well. Ain't we fancy. In fact, we're scrounging, just-getting-by, middle-class people who have to watch the bottom line more closely than we'd like to. But we're typical of middle-class people in another way too. Over the years, we have managed to pile up hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. What to do with them? As far as I can tell, every U.S. airline company is going to go out of business sometimes within the next 12 months; we wouldn't want to simply lose our miles. Yet whenever we have tried to use our miles to pay for tickets, we've been completely stymied. Oh, sure, we can use our miles to buy plane tickets to places we want to visit -- provided only that we let the plane company pick which one, that we're willing to commit to an intinerary three years ahead of time, that we don't mind flying on Thursday afternoon, and that we aren't put off by the idea of taking prop planes that make seven stops to get from Cleveland to Chicago. Our solution to this dilemma is to use our miles for upgrades. We book our usual flights, then tell the agent to use our miles to put us in Business. This isn't a perfect solution. We still need to book well ahead of time. And we've sometimes had to take a slightly earlier or later flight than we'd have preferred. But we're at least getting some utility out of our miles. Not the least of the pleasures of flying Business is the entertainment factor. I'm not talking about the in-flight movies, which are as bad in Business as what's shown to the losers back in Economy. Though, come to think of it, Business passengers are at least spared "Everybody Loves Raymond" -- reason enough to spring for an upgrade. For me, what's most entertaining about flying Business is the way language changes. Shell out a certain amount of money (or at least miles), and you enter a realm where sentences and phrases that might be simple and to-the-point become hushed, circumlocutious, and elaborately discreet. I have one well-off acquaintance who refers -- straight-facedly-- to rich people as "high net-worth individuals." That's the kind of language-thing that is forever going on in Business, which does its best to mimic the kind of snobby country club you'd be crazy to want to belong to -- the kind of place where you wouldn't be surprised to hear a drive in a car referred to as "a motoring experience," or a pen as a "writing instrument." Here's how the menu on our most recent flight described one of the breakfast dishes on offer: Cheese and Vegetable Omelette Seasonal Fruit Appetizer Cheese Omelette filled with Vegetables, enhanced by a fire-roasted Pepper... posted by Michael at March 7, 2006 | perma-link | (26) comments

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Products in Fiction
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not much into fiction, but osmosis or delusion tells me that some writers drop product names into their books. I'll assume formal "product placement" hasn't yet made the jump from Hollywood and TV to Fifth Avenue and environs. Rather, my guess is that writers are simply trying to establish a "sense of place" or perhaps a sense of time and place -- usually "today." This is okay by me so long as the novel becomes fishwrap within five years. But what if the writer wants his precious effort to be "immortal"? Seems to me that immortality and naming things don't easily go together. Consider this passage: He gave his open luggage one last scan. What else might be needed on the Continent? Oh yes. He made a pass through the room, tossed in a few boxes of Pear's, Lucifers and Navy Cuts, closed the luggage, shut off the lights and headed downstairs to hail a cab for Waterloo. Did you get all that? Exactly what was added to the luggage at the last moment? And just where was the character heading via the cab? Given the quality of 2Blowhards readership, I'll assume a perfect "4." Just in case, here's a translated version of the nano-drama I concocted: He gave his open luggage one last scan. What else might be needed on the Continent? Oh yes. He made a pass through the room, tossed in a few boxes of soap, matches and cigarettes, closed the luggage, shut off the lights and headed downstairs to hail a cab for the train station. As you probably guessed, the scene was in the London of nearly 100 years ago. "Lucifer" was not a product, but a term used in England at the time for what we would call a "kitchen match." Pear's was a popular scented hand soap. Navy Cut was part of Player's cigarette product line. I suspect most younger Americans, even if college-educated, do not know these details; their inclusion in the first passage would only mystify. Even "Waterloo" could pose a problem to a reader who had never been to London and perhaps even to casual tourists who enter and leave England only by air. True, it was the most likely station to start a journey to France, but this detail adds nothing important to the first narrative, The second version suffices because the reader can assume the unnamed character would be taking the most convenient route unless that wasn't the case, which would then be a plot element. Using product names is dangerous because, over the span of decades, product lines can be abandoned and companies can go out of business (so much for the notion of all-powerful corporations). This is true for brands that seem unassailable. For instance, a Gatsby-like story set in a ritzy 1920s exurb might mention a character owning or being driven up in a Packard automobile. How many younger readers know that, in the 20s, Packards were at... posted by Donald at March 5, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Friday, March 3, 2006

Bookstores and Sex
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was nosing around a Borders bookstore, surrounded by other busy shoppers, when one of those basic realizations hit me: Book-shopping these days is an awfully ... hygienic affair. Indie bookstores tend to be virtuous, beleaguered, NPR-ish places, while the chain stores are about as full of mystery as a corporate headquarters. Why, back in the day -- OKOKOK, yesyesyes, before I embark on my tiresome nostalgia-jag, I hereby agree that it's a marvelous thing that books are cheaper and more widely-available today than they have ever been in all of human history. I've made exactly this point in arguments with friends when these friends have gotten soppy on me. There's no escaping the improvements. In the old days, for example, the big city near my beloved hick hometown had precisely zero good bookstores. These days, thanks to B&N and Borders, it has a half a dozen excellent bookstores. On balance, of course, this is a much-improved state of affairs. But, still, something important has been lost along the way. The mystery. The poetry, maybe. Something central to both life and art. I'm choosing to call it "sex." Books aren't sexy any longer. Books certainly were sexy when I was growing up in the '50s and '60s, and they still cut an enticing figure in the '70s, when I was in college and grad school. In arty fiction, there was Terry Southern, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, the many Beats, Celine. In the trashy-fiction realms: Mickey Spillane, Harold Robbins, Jackie Susann, Ian Fleming ... These were books that gave off heat, baby: volumes that promised the secrets of life and sometimes even delivered a few of them. When I was a kid, a visit to the library often turned into hours of enraptured reading. The thrill of the hunt (and the capture!) only increased once I was old enough to travel on my own. Now I was able to explore bookstores in big cities and college towns. Dusty, sagging shelves! Graying old Village types! Foreign literature! Art photography! Exchange students in smelly sweaters! The scripts of Off-Off Broadway plays! By the 1970s, the old publishing houses were being bought up by corporations and chain bookstores were starting to dot the landscape. Even so, books still had an allure and a mystique. They could still make the temperature go up and the heart pound. There was mucho dreck and vast oceans of mainstream tediousness to be waded-through or avoided, of course. And for many kids, reading and writing were activities taken part in only because the schools insisted. But for many other kids, books were a wonderland of semi-forbidden, often hard-to-obtain, exotic delights. I consumed trashy blockbusters, sex manuals, my dad's paperback thrillers, and French literature -- they all gave me a thrill. I read from hunger, and I felt grateful for the pleasures and the satisfactions that books delivered. Visual delight wasn't a minor part of this pleasure. Here's a not-unusual paperback book... posted by Michael at March 3, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Friday, February 10, 2006

How to Read
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The London Times' Carol Sarler writes that any interest she might have had in reading great books was beaten out of her by over-pushy, over-serious schoolteachers. These days, she may be a professional writer, but she doesn't read many books at all. I was luckier. Although my mom was rigid in many ways, where her kids and reading were concerned she was open and permissive. "It doesn't matter what they read so long as they're reading" -- that was her attitude. She got me reading very young and then set me loose. I read often, I read for fun, and I read in order to pursue my interests. The whole "school is about books/books are about school" complex was never a problem for me. Neither was the tendency to see books as something sacred -- as something other than one medium among many. I'm perplexed by people who view books reverentially, and who see the reading of books as a kind of sacramental act: "Books are good for you. You must, you simply must, read books. If you don't, then you are failing." Where does such an attitude come from? God forbid that a book should be merely fun, useful, or interesting. No, for these people the very act of handling a book confers ... Well, I don't know what exactly. But, where books are concerned, it sure does seem that some people can get awfully solemn. How did you get hooked on reading? Do you feel any sense of moral obligation towards books? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 10, 2006 | perma-link | (22) comments

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

J.T. Redux
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Susie Bright and Dennis Cooper blog about what it was like to be taken in by "J.T. Leroy." Filmbrain pans a movie that Asia Argento -- who once claimed to be carrying J.T. Leroy's baby -- has made from some J.T. Leroy material. I raved (in a semi-but-not-really-ironic way) about Asia's beyond-narcissistic "Scarlet Diva" here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 8, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Monday, January 30, 2006

Fake Memoirs
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Fake memoirs are getting to be a big deal. In fact I am figuring to set myself up as a feke memoirist. It's a growth industry. I got support from an unexpected place over the weekend: the DVD of Beyond the Fringe . In one sketch, Peter Cook addresses this issue of fake memoirs, in a roundabout sort of way. He does a monologue playing the part of a miner having a hard time getting anyone to pay attention to his memoir of working in the mines. Frustrated, he stumbles across a very simple literary device: the naked lady. Lo and behold, he finds interest in his mining memoir is piqued considerably with the addition of a naked lady, dancing down in the mine. And a simple addition it is: every now and again he has only to add a sentence like meanwhile, the naked lady continued dancing. In time, he figures if one naked lady is good, more must be better, so the next thing you know he has a million naked ladies wandering in a desert, until they come across a mine, which they then enter and dance. By now you may have guess the title to Cooks memoirs: A Million Dancing Ladies. Does this make Frey a plagiarist in addition to a fabricator? Best, Fenster PS. While Beyond the Fringe has been available in audio form for some time, it is new to DVD. If, like me, you like Brit wit and are interested in the early sixties--post-beat but pre-hippie--you really ought to track it down. Like a lot of cultural product from that era, it's simultaneously dated and up-to-date.... posted by Fenster at January 30, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Low-Tech Sci-Fi
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Let's say you're a well-known Science Fiction writer and you decide to knock out a handful of thousand-page novels -- a series, actually. You spend a little time scratching your head and staring at the wall till you've got a sense of the concept, plot and major characters. Now it's time to start writing. So you grab a sheet of paper and a fountain pen and get cracking. What?!? Paper? Fountain pen? Well, if you are Neal Stephenson and you are writing the "Baroque Cycle" ("Quicksilver," "The Confusion" and "The System of the World"), paper and fountain pen it is. Given that the series takes place around the year 1700, I suppose some sort of case could be made that writing with pen and ink might get you in the proper mood. But to be authentically authentic, that would mean using a quill pen, right? Actually Stephenson make no such mood-claim. He says in interviews that he thought he could draft and correct the books better using pen and ink rather than a computer. And he does use a computer, eventually transcribing his handwriting while making further corrections and changes. Stephenson has a picture of the trilogy manuscript on his website (it's a GIF image and 2Blowhards is a JPEG shop, so you'll just have to click to see it). I saw the MS in person recently. As I mentioned in my last post, I took in Paul Allen's Science Fiction Museum . One of the displays was a Stephenson manuscript. This interests me in a perverse sort of way. When personal computers with word-processing software came on the scene in the early 1980s, a number of writers leaped into print declaring their contempt for the newfangled technology. Some swore by their prehistoric Underwood or Smith-Corona manual typewriters. Others would rather die than part with a beloved IBM Selectric. And a few insisted that a pen and a legal pad were all a writer really needed (I wonder how many of these never even learned to type). As for me, I thought they were nuts. I used to write newspaper copy on typewriters. I wrote my book using one. I also drafted letters by hand. (At the office the boss' policy was that we would draft using every other line, using the in-between lines for corrections.) And time and time again I would find myself launched on a sentence and then having to twist phraseology to the breaking point to make suddenly thought-of changes without smearing on correction fluid or retyping the page. This practice leads to really awful writing. Computers were a godsend for me and the quality of my writing. I find it almost impossible to imagine how anyone can think handwriting or typewriters beat computers. But Stephenson is no fool, so who knows? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at January 26, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Short-Fiction Audio Bliss
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As I walked to work listening to this collection of short stories, I was smiling mirthfully when I wasn't bursting into malicious laughter. I'd forgotten how brilliant and funny a writer Guy de Maupassant can be. Born in 1850, Maupassant is usually thought of as one of the creators of the modern short story, along with Poe, Chekhov, and the Brothers Grimm. As for his bio, well, apologies: I have no idea how to characterize the class he came from. In any case, he grew up in Normandy the adoring son of a literature-lovin' mom. During years spent toiling as a clerk in Paris, he began writing seriously and started to find his way in the literary world, becoming friendly with the likes of Flaubert, Henry James, and Turgenev. His first published story was a sensation, and his fame and success only grew. Writing came easily and he had a good business sense; the stories and novels poured out, and the money poured in. (In the 1880s, he finished six novels and 300 short stories, as well as mucho incidental writing.) He traveled extensively and enjoyed owning a yacht. He was quite the late-19th century writing/publishing phenomenon. But when he died of complications from spyhillis, he was paranoid, insane, and only 43 years old. Although Maupassant is considered one of the early masters of the modern short story, almost no stories that are written today show his influence. (Glad to be corrected on this if I'm wrong, by the way.) Today's short fiction is largely divided between genre stuff (horror, mystery, sci-fi) and arty stuff (writing workshop/New Yorker fiction). Poe is the granddaddy of the genre tradition, while Chekhov set the pattern for much of the highbrow short fiction. Despite his fame and success, Maupassant no longer seems to be looked-to for much. His stories generally aren't Poe-ish. Though he wrote some ghost and horror stories, most of his fiction isn't plot-driven, it doesn't make use of verbal music, and it doesn't rely on sensationalism or spookiness. The characters and the actions in most Maupassant are as plausible and recognizable -- as "realistic" -- as anything in Zola. The language is crystal clear and to the point. But his stories aren't Chekhovian -- ie., casual-seeming, deceptively slight, and epiphany-heavy -- either. Things really happen. Maupassant's people confront predicaments, take actions, and struggle to get what they want and where they want to go. He isn't trying to capture the ethereal in a net of words. Maupassant was famous for the witty ways he "turned" his stories -- for his twists, his knottings-and-unknottings, and his kickers. Come to think of it, this may help explain why Maupassant's influence is so hard to detect nowadays. One of his disciples was that lover-of-trick-endings O. Henry. And if there's anyone a contempo short story writer is strictly forbidden to imitate, it's O. Henry -- gimmicky, you know. As though the contempo workshop short story isn't equally as gimmicky,... posted by Michael at January 11, 2006 | perma-link | (19) comments

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Online Lit
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Thanks to Tatyana, who wrote me the following note: The best, uncensored, least commercialized, newest and most talented authors in Russia are now online, and have been for the last decade. There are also online competitions, literary awards and subsequent publishing of works (most popular - short stories, but there is poetry and novels, too) on paper; I have some books presented by authors whom I know thru Live Journal communication; some of the stories in the books I've read first online. Tatyana points us all to a posting at Language Hat where LH and she supply the key links. Those who haven't already run across it will enjoy (and learn a lot from) a Guest Posting Tatyana did for 2Blowhards about the Russian Bard scene in the U.S. * That inspired linker Bluewyvern has turned up some webcomix that sound tempting. (She also supplies a link to this adorably-drawn Flash card-toss game.) * Sepia Mutiny sponsors a regular "nanofiction" festival -- inviting readers to submit prose fiction pieces of no more than 55 words in length. I found SM's latest collection of nanofiction a lot of fun, with mucho on display in the way of ingenuity, wit, and sweet emotion. The festival includes an enchanting, rule-bending contribution from MD that's like a piece of narrative haiku. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 5, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

New E-Book Readers
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- David Sucher brings news of a promising new Dutch e-book reader. And Sony introduces their own impressive e-reading machine. I ventured a few thoughts about e-books here. Short version: the "book" in "e-book" is something we shouldn't get too hung up about. (We get 'way too hung up about the "book" thing generally, IMHO.) What's more important is the development of e-reading and e-writing -- and we're already a long ways down that road. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 5, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

The Blooker Prize
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you heard yet of that new form, the "blook"? A blook is a book made out of material that first showed up on a blog. The publish-it-yourself outfit -- whose service I hear good reports about, by the way -- is sponsoring a new prize for the best blook of 2005. But hurry: entries for the Blooker Prize have to be submitted no later than January 30. Best, Michael UPDATE: Lulu has also sponsored a study of what makes for a good bestselling-book title. The results are amusing, with John ("Spy Who Came in from the Cold") Le Carre recognized as the master of the bestseller-title. You can see how well your own book's title fares here. The title of the novel The Wife and I just published scores better than "The Da Vinci Code"!... posted by Michael at January 3, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Sunday, January 1, 2006

It's a Book
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A few weeks before Christmas, a package arrived with a return address neither The Wife nor I recognized. We tore the box open ... and there they were: the "author's copies" (around 20) of the novel the two of us wrote together a year ago. An Amazon page for the book had appeared a couple of months ago, so we knew publication-time was near. But we were still a little taken by surprise. The publisher (as is typical) hadn't exactly been in close touch. Still, there our words were, between OK covers, on pretty-nice paper, and presented in -- thank god -- a readable typeface. Phew! Needless to say, I've been strutting around feeling smug for the last few weeks -- that's "Mr. Author" to you, peons! Or "Mr. Half-an-Author," anyway. The truth is, though, that our novel (the first one for both of us) isn't likely to be a candidate for next year's high-brow prizes. It's no piece of painful self-expression let alone any attempt at "literature," whatever that might be. Instead, it's a commercial piece of light entertainment -- a sexed-up potboiler. The project didn't even originate with the two of us. It came as a commission. An agent asked The Wife -- who has written a lot of different kinds of fiction -- if she could produce a raunchy pop novel in two months; a publisher promoting a line of such books needed a new title in a hurry. The Wife eyeballed the contract and -- pro that she is -- said, "No problem." Then she came home and asked Lovin' Hubby if he was in the mood to co-write a novel with her. And we were off. What a busy two months we had. For the sake of efficiency, we made a decision to pull the book together as though we were producing a movie -- to dream up situations, characters, story, and actions before moving on to the writing-writing phase. Many "real writers" make a point of discovering their novel in the course of writing it. They're proud of taking this tack; they think of it as The Artistic Way. Well, that certainly wasn't going to be our way! In other words, we first developed a blueprint rather like a treatment for a film, and only when our blueprint was in good shape did we turn to directing our movie -- er, to writing our novel. It was a good policy choice, I think. In any case, it seemed to minimize misunderstandings and streamline the workflow. Once the blueprint was solid, we never had a moment when we didn't know what our characters needed to do or where our story needed to turn. And lemme tellya, writing a scene goes a lot faster when you don't have to blunder your way blindly through it. When it came time to write-write, we were able to work on well-defined sections. We'd discuss what needed to happen in a given chapter, and... posted by Michael at January 1, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Lit or Not-Lit?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- There aren't many statements about "literature" I can sign on to. But, in an interview that Bookgasm did with the author Christopher Moore, I just ran across one: Bookgasm: Is there a difference in your mind between serious literature and stuff thats just fun to read? Moore: I suppose, but Id find it hard to delineate. Some of Steinbeck is awfully fun to read, some, not so much. Is "Grapes of Wrath" literature, and "Cannery Row" not? I find Mark Twain fun to read, but I have no idea if his work is considered literature. It wasnt in his day. I have friends who really dont enjoy a book unless it plows headlong into the problems of human existence, or explores some aspect of human suffering. I mean, they really enjoy that. Not my cup of tea, but they like it. On the other hand, I think "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a brilliant book, and if its not literature, then I dont really want anything to do with literature. "I don't really want anything to do with literature": This fiction-lover has certainly had that feeling more than a couple of times ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 22, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Another Holiday Gift Suggestion
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- In her memoir "I'm With the Band," Pamela Des Barres recalls the adventures she had back in the '60s, playing groupie with the likes of Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison. When it was first published in 1987, the book was widely-loved both for its X-rated tales and for Des Barres' voice, which is a charming mixture of the frank and the hilarious. She's a dirty-innocent flower-child -- so credulous, unembarassed, and full of blissed-out delight as to be a camp hoot, yet wised-up and insightful too, if in a very dizzy way. An example: the book's first chapter is entitled "Let Me Put It In, It Feels All Right." If that doesn't jolt you out of your drowsiness and make you want to start reading ... well, then you were probably one of those kids in my English class who got better grades than I did, and the hell with you. The book, which I'm tempted to call a pop classic, has recently been reissued. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 15, 2005 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Used-Book Phobia
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't like to buy used books unless I have no alternative. There. I said it. I feel better already because confession purifies. Or something. Maybe I don't like used books because they give me the feeling that they're not really mine. Or maybe there's another explanation. I'm not sure. Truth is, I have all sorts of bookish quirks that are inexplicable -- well, I can't explain them, and they're my quirks after all. Another quirk is that I don't believe in Freud, so no comments invoking him, thank you. (And my belief in Santa Claus is wavering too; I'll save that for another time. But the Easter Bunny rules!!) While I'm on a roll, here are more of my book-related quirks: I do read library books that are, by definition, (sometimes heavily) used. I don't throw away the dust jacket. I don't bookmark pages by folding over a page corner. Since completing formal education I've stopped marking passages with marker pens or ballpoints. When I mark at all (seldom), I pencil lightly. I sometimes (but rarely) pencil in notes on unprinted pages at the back of a book. I guess I must be a book-worshiper. What about your book-quirks? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 7, 2005 | perma-link | (33) comments

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Tiresome Turtledove
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I haven't read much fiction in the last ten or 15 years because a good page-turner keeps me up too late, ruining my sleep. But when I did / do read fiction, it's often science-fiction. [Cast eyes to ground in shame, shuffle feet.] As for non-fiction, the bulk of my reading since age ten has been history -- especially military history. So it isn't surprising that my favorite sci-fi genres include "Alternative History" and time-travel stories. The current king of Alternative History is Harry Turtledove. His Wikipedia entry is here and his "official" fan website is here. For me, a key factor in time-travel and AltHist fiction is getting the historical details straight. Not the made-up stuff, the real stuff. I've read a few books where so many details were wrong that I either finished the book with a bad taste in my mouth or else simply abandoned it. Turtledove has a History Ph.D. from UCLA, specializing in Byzantium. So you would expect him to deliver the goods, and he does. Some of his earlier fiction dealt with alternative Byzantine history where Islam never happened, the empire continuing on its merry and, uh, Byzantine way. But besides being incredibly prolific, Turtledove found the time to be widely-read in European, American and military history as well -- Europe, North America and war being the grist for his fiction since the early 1990s. I've read perhaps six or seven of his novels and, as best I remember, haven't caught him on a false detail: pretty amazing. Turtledove's breakthrough novel was "The Guns of the South" wherein time-traveling South African white racists supply the Confederate army with AK-47s and ammo. The South wins the war and the second half of the book deals with the aftermath. His next important effort was the "Worldwar" series which has extraterrestrials invading Earth while World War 2 was going full-blast. Unfortunately for the invaders, their reconnaissance mission visited long before industrialization, so they were expecting to confront spears and bows and arrows, not tanks and early jet fighters. I really enjoyed the first three books in this series. More recently, among other things, Turtledove launched a lengthy South-wins-Civil War-aftermath ("Southern Victory") series (not using the time-travel ploy) that goes through the time of the Great War and beyond. I read the first two or three books, but then had a Hell With It experience and haven't read Turtledove since. My problem is that his books, despite the details, eventually proved too plodding and predictable. Items: Turtledove sets up four or five or seven or more character-sets and key characters, shifting from one to another in the form of chapter-sections. While I accept this as a reasonable approach when dealing with a broad subject, it can get repetitive and therefore tiresome. I think he uses more character-sets than necessary. For instance, the Worldwar series devotes a good deal of space to Polish Jews. Now Turtledove has every right to include that character... posted by Donald at December 4, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Holiday Gifts 1
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As traditional books stagger through yet another year of sales sluggishness, audiobook consumption continues to fizz: up 15% in 2003 and another 4% in 2004, with library circulation of audiobooks growing more than 13% over the same two years. (Here's a summary of the audiobook biz. Attention: PDF file.) I'm going to indulge in yet another gloat: And who's been yakking about the glories of audiobooks, and how well they suit the conditions of our up-to-date lives, ever since this blog was born? Moi, that's who. I have to say that I'm feeling very impressed by myself these days. The underdiscussion of immigration issues ... The changing role and nature of magazines ... Concerns about the digital cinema ... Audiobooks as the coming thing ... I really should peddle myself as a media prophet. Takers? Yes? No? Oh, well. Anyway, in my view, there are many excellent reasons why audiobooks are flourishing. More material is available every year, and in a variety of suit-yourself formats: abridged, unabridged, audiotapes, CDs, digital downloads. And many people have gotten used to doing business online. I've rented unabridged audiobooks from Blackstone Audiobooks and Books on Tape. They're both terrific services, reasonably priced and hyper-convenient. If you buy audiobooks and want to swap them for credit -- there's no point in keeping an audiobook once you've been through it -- I can recommend another webplace: AshGrove Audio Exchange. Being an on-the-page book reader can be discouraging these days. When to read, for one thing? Commutes are growing longer, life in general tends to get busy, and by the end of most work days, eyes and brain can be very tired. Come 11 pm, settling into a comfy chair and opening a traditional book often results not in an intense reading-session but in a swift fade-to-snooze. Audiobooks, by contrast, are usually listened to while commuting, while exercising, or while doing chores around the house. You're awake and alert as you listen, both because you're doing your listening during the brighter part of the day and because you're physically moving about. Doubting Thomases claim to have trouble with being read to. And there are certainly a few challenges to overcome, at least initially. Listening ain't reading, or not exactly anyway. The words move more slowly, and there's that funny feeling that you're a child being read to by a parent. And there are readers to contend with. Some audiobook readers are determined to get all dramatic with material that simply isn't meant to be acted. Most audiobook readers and producers these days have wised up, however. They're more concerned with presenting the material clearly and energetically than they are with showing off acting chops. But once you've adapted to being read to, the experience of listening turns out to be as interesting as the experience of reading. The case of drifting off is one f'rinstance. If I drift off while reading a book, I usually have to thumb my way back... posted by Michael at November 26, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Friday, November 25, 2005

How to Write Plays
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The web is the resource that just keeps giving. Here's a very well-done how-to-write-plays site that breaks the subject into easily-digestible chunks: subtext, suspense plot, content, characterization, etc. Put together by Richard Toscan, dean of Virginia Commonwealth University, it's a first-class -- ie., accessible but sophisticated -- intro to dramatic writing, as helpful as anything I've read between covers. And it's all yours, and all for free. Many thanks to Richard Toscan for his good and generous work. I wrote here about my enthusiasm for the storytelling end of the fiction thang, and recommended a couple of how-to-create-a-story books. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 25, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Book-Length Fiction?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Where on-the-page-fiction is concerned, why are we so addicted to the novel-writing/novel-reading experience? O, the assumptions many of us make : On-the-page-fiction isn't really real unless it's a novel. A fiction-writer isn't really a fiction-writer unless he's churning out novels. Many readers even seem to feel that they haven't had an honest-to-god fiction experience unless they have immersed themselves for a couple of weeks in a novel. It seems such an odd fixation -- a fetish, really. As a practical matter, I have a pretty good idea how this state of affairs came about. It's a matter of publishing requirements, traditions, educations, and convenience. (How odd that novels are just about as long as well, as books are! Coincidence? I think not!!) But on a dumber yet more basic and emotional level, I'm quite puzzled. From a consumer's point of view: How often are you really in the mood for an on-the-page fiction experience of novel expanse -- ie., one that demands numerous nights to complete? I'm someone with a reasonable if not overwhelming appetite for on-the-page fiction experiences, yet my desire for fullblown, multi-week-long novel-reading adventures is very limited. After all, in terms of time, reading a 400 page long novel isn't like watching a sitcom, a play, or a movie -- perfectly satisfying fiction experiences in their own rights. Reading a 400 page long novel is more like committing yourself to making your way through a whole miniseries. And how many miniseries do you have room in your life for? Which brings up another point: how sensually impoverished on-the-page fiction is. A miniseries (or a movie, a play, or even a sitcom) offers not just words and storytelling, but also direction, color, design, photography, music, and especially acting and personalities. In sensory terms, even bad movies are rich and intense experiences that offer a lot of variety. Watching a film, you know that the camera will cut away to someone else soon. You're certain that the location will change. There'll always be something or somebody new to look at and listen to. By contrast, on-the-page fiction offers nothing but the author's words -- nothing but the author and his/her skill and talent, really. Just that one person ... Yet, despite this fact, a novel-author also wants to stake a claim on the reader's full attention for, say, 15 hours. Whoa, Nelly. In real life, I don't know a soul who can hold my attention for such a long time. Yet that's what a typical novel is: a 15 hour long performance by one person -- snoozola, man. I'm also struck by how arrogant it seems for any artist to say, "Here's the deal. I'm going to tell you a tale, and it's going to last for 15 hours. And for those 15 hours you are going to have nothing but my imagination, my craft, and my voice to enjoy." I'm not sure I want to be in the same room... posted by Michael at November 20, 2005 | perma-link | (30) comments

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Confessions of a Book Review Junkie
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I love reading book reviews. I read them every day in The New York Times back in the days when I bought it at the news stand or subscribed to it. I grind my teeth in mild frustration on Mondays -- that's the day The Wall Street Journal doesn't print a book review. And I look forward to Fridays when their Weekend section has one long review along with a couple shorties. When my monthly copy of Commentary arrives in the mail I agonize over which to read first, the book reviews or Terry Teachout's music article. And if they display the whole thing and not a teaser snippet, I read reviews on the Weekly Standard's Web page. Furthermore, I feel guilty that I don't always buy and read the Claremont Review of Books more often. But it's a quarterly that I don't often see on news stands and I sometimes forget about it. Worse, I now must confess the shameful fact that (shhh) I read book reviews as a substitute for reading the books themselves. If you strip away the cultural/scholarly mystique, book reviews are, well, just reviews like one finds in Consumer Reports or car magazines. Read the review and save $34.95 ($26.49 at if the book gets panned by a reviewer you trust. Even a favorable review might not be enough to get me to buy the book. If it's a one-idea book and the review conveys that single idea, I'm not normally motivated to buy the book to find out how the author dresses it up. What's more, I use book reviews simply to keep up with intellectual trends, though I find the Internet increasingly useful for that purpose -- actually, I rely a lot more on the Web than reviews nowadays. Another confession: I still buy a lot more books than I ought to. Without researching my Visa statements, I'll guess that I spend about $225-275 a month on books. That's way too much. Is there such a thing as Bookbuyers Anonymous? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 26, 2005 | perma-link | (24) comments

Sunday, October 23, 2005

"44 Sonnets"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Of the new books I've spent quality time with this year, my favorite has been the shortest: Mike Snider's poetry collection "44 Sonnets." By my count, 44 sonnets equals about 5300 words -- I've written blog postings that were longer. But Snider does an awful lot with his words. I found "44 Sonnets" as moving and engaging as a much-clung-to novel, or as the kind of CD whose music you find yourself returning to dozens of times. Sonnets? Sonnets? Y'mean, like Shakespeare and the Romantics? Note to those who haven't yet stumbled across this fact: There's a rhyming-and-metering, traditional-forms renaissance going on in the poetry world. It's typical -- as in annoying/amusing -- that the academic poetry world isn't thrilled by this development, and that the official poetry institutions are being pissy and dismissive too. But a fact is a fact, and the scene itself is lively and welcoming one. This is an eye-opening anthology of recent poetry written in traditional forms. Eratosphere is this crowd's web hangout. And the West Chester Poetry Conference is the scene's annual in-person get-together. Interesting, isn't it, the way that a traditional-poetry-forms scene has taken shape at the same time that similar developments are occurring in architecture, in music, and in the visual arts? What with so much of our cultural life going cyber-electronic, you might not expect a renaissance in traditional forms-and-skills to be happening at the same time. In any case, you won't find the coverage these developments deserve in the conventional arts press, which remains as devoted as ever to its standard-issue mix of happenin'-media-events and the academic avant-garde. Hmmm: To simplify things for myself -- without, I hope, doing too much of an injustice to the book -- I'm going to discuss "44 Sonnets" as though it exists primarily on three levels. * As individual creations, Snider's poems are lovely: as casual as notes on postcards yet with that grand sonnet-structure thing chiming away in the background. This mingling of the informal and the formal -- of the passing and the eternal -- combined with Snider's generally rueful tone makes it hard not to be reminded of Philip Larkin. (If you haven't read Larkin, snap to. Try this collection. The audio version of it is wonderful too.) Larkin's tonal speciality was a kind of bleak bitterness that he made seem very humane. By comparison, Snider is companionable and friendly, intimate without being pushy about it. But Snider has a Larkin-esque accessibility and virtuosity, as well as a similar kind of half-muffled sense of tragic mischief. There's another thing that reading the poems reminds me of: listening to the more personal and quiet kinds of country music -- Jimmie Dale Gilmore, for instance, or Guy Clark. This is partly because Gilmore and Clark are rumpled, sad/funny artists too. But there's another reason: Snider's poetry always has a full-bodied performance charge. As lowkey as they often are, his poems have a handmade physicality and an emotional... posted by Michael at October 23, 2005 | perma-link | (20) comments

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Large-Picture Books
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I like to browse remainder tables at bookstores. And if I'm at an outlet mall that has a store specializing in remaindered books, why I'm happy to browse it too. (Background notes for non-bibliophiles: The book business has charmingly antiquated distribution practices. One is that the publisher -- not the bookseller -- is stuck with the unsold merchandise. So, after having been returned, the publisher has the option of cutting the books' prices and sending them back to stores as "remaindered" -- otherwise, returned books are simply destroyed. Sometimes hardcover books are remaindered because the title has gone to trade-paperback and they are priced somewhat in line with the new, cheaper edition. More often, remaindered books are both hardcovers and trade paperbacks that failed to sell the first time they hit the shelves. A "trade" paperback, for readers who don't know the industry lingo, is a larger-format paperback that closely resembles a hardcover book; it's more of a "quality" item than the more pocket-size paperbacks found in drugstores and news stands. As best I can recall, this latter class of book is distributed differently; news stands used to rip off covers of unsold books and returned these to the publishers for credit, the books being disposed of as trash -- which many of them were.) For as long as I can remember, I've had a soft spot for car and plane books. And I often have an empty spot in my wallet following purchasing same. Over the years, I've accumulated so many car and plane books that I know a fair amount about the subjects and I can be fussy when I see new books dealing with them. My tendency is to buy books that use a comparatively large number of medium-to-small illustrations as opposed to books featuring illustrations that are full-page, two-page spreads, or even spreads with a fold-out. One theory of extra-large photo illustrations is that the reader is "drawn into" the subject and can savor the detail presented in the picture. For cars and planes, at least, I'd rather have a large variety of illustrations -- different planes, say, or several views of the same or similar aircraft. Big, showy photos strike me as a waste of resources when it's information that I want. I don't totally reject books with big pictures. Books about painters, for example, need some full-page reproductions. This is because large pictures can give the viewer a better idea of how the actual painting appears plus provide more information about its painting technique than smaller pictures can. I also like the "Above Dogpatch" sort of books with their horizontal page format and huge photos taken from planes or helicopters. For places I've visited, I find it fun to try to spot that hotel or restaurant I patronized. Anyway, recently I was bookstore browsing in Gilroy, California (of all places) and noticed that the remaindered car-and-plane books seemed to be of the vacuous, big-picture format. This easily could... posted by Donald at October 12, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

Teaching Company Update 1
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Does Christianity make intuitive sense to you? Does it make your soul and your spirit sing? It mostly leaves me bewildered. I've tried fairly often to understand Christianity's appeal, and have fallen on my face each and every time. I certainly don't mean to be insulting; if Christianity resonates for you, then more power to you. I'm simply reporting my personal reaction. Face to face with Christianity's tales, its mythology, its disputes -- with the whole Christianity package -- I blank out. My reactions don't go much beyond muttering, "Huh? Wha'?" Attending to Christianity-inflected discussions, I feel like someone who's sharing a table with a group of "Star Wars" fans -- and I seriously don't get "Star Wars." Although I find the spectacle fascinating, I don't share the passion, the language, or the point of view. Even when I'm curious and alert, I remain on the outskirts, unable to take part. Still, Christianity works for many people: interesting! Plus, it's big, and it has helped shape the world we live in: doubly interesting! So I treat myelf to a wrestle with the subject from time to time. If the mythology, the imagery, and the disputes don't grab me, maybe its history and sociology will. I've enjoyed and learned much from Paul Johnson's "A History of Christianity," and from Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirt of Capitalism." Pascal and Nietzsche both made me say "Aha!" a couple of times. The History Channel ran a multipart series on the history of Christianity that I found worthwhile. One of these days I'll read C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity," I swear I will. What I'm hoping for and failing to find is a concise and enlightening explanation for Christianity's basic emotional/imaginative/spiritual appeal. I certainly can't find any incentive to believe in my own background. Brought up in iceberg-lettuce Presbyterianism, I've been left with little but pleasant memories of smalltown Jello-mold social events. Though the Teaching Company's lecture series on Christianity doesn't deliver the explanations I was hoping for, it was on its own terms perfectly fine. Written and delivered by a former Benedictine monk, Luke Timothy Johnson, the series presents Christianity as an ongoing series of doctrinal disputes; it's an account of Christianity as the working-out of its inner logic, the unspooling through time of its central DNA. Thomas speaks clearly and enthusiastically, and he has a lot of likable zeal and irreverence. As usual, though, I felt first unable to get on board, and then left completely in the dust. Well, not quite completely. Listening to the series did confer one "Aha!" moment on me. One thing I've often been struck by is how exhausting being a believing Christian seems to be. Buying into such farfetched concepts as the Trinity, the virgin birth, and the one redeemer seems like such a lot of work. Why would anyone bother? One thing Luke Timothy Thomas makes very clear is that, for enthusiastic Christians, the effort that believing demands... posted by Michael at October 12, 2005 | perma-link | (51) comments

Friday, September 16, 2005

Blair Tindall on Classical Music
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Dave Lull for pointing out this lively interview with Blair Tindall, oboist and author of "Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music," a memoir-ish book about what the world of classical-music performance is really like. Here's one dandy (and heartening) passage from Paul Comstock's q&a with Tindall: Tindall: "A mystical attitude about the place of music can create a devastating effect, driving both audiences and amateur musicians fearing they lack the intellect to understand -- away. Music is beautiful, uplifting, and can make life so much more than it already is, butit is still just music. "To anyone who reads, writes, practices, and performs the stuff, it is ethereal, yet straightforward. Those schooled in music performance understand how much rote practice is involved; scales, arpeggios, repetition. To produce a great performance, even the most talented and renowned player must be applauded for this necessary and diligent preparatory work. "Music is a resource that anyone can understand, and even participate in. Even those without musical training can drum on the beach, enjoy a picnic at the local orchestras parks concert, or sing in a church choir once a year. Music is everywhereand classical music is composed of the same 12 tones and the same rhythms as pop songs and much other music." Why aren't more people as open-yet-sensible about the arts as Blair Tindall? I've already One-Clicked myself a copy of her book. The California Literary Review, which published the interview, is a very lively web arts publication, by the way. I'm having a good time catching up with their interviews and reviews. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 16, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The Way of All Reading?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've wondered out loud about the future of long, all-prose narratives. As the world goes more and more electronic -- and hence multimedia -- what chance do 400-page-long novels stand? That's a lot of words; that's a lot of gray stuff; that's a lot of eyestrain. Some visitors have found my musings absurd (or maybe depressing), and have written that there will always be a place for books. I certainly hope so; I've always been a big reader myself. Still, we're going through a period of major media transition, and sentiment can make our vision misty. Why not sweep the mist aside and take note of what's actually out there? A few points: "Books" and "long prose narratives" are not synonymous. Many books contain images and graphics; most books in fact aren't meant to be read straight through. Books in a general sense remain attractive in many ways. They're easy to carry around, they're easy to give and receive, they're easy to flip through. It's hard to imagine people abandoning them. But long prose narratives are a very special sub-sub-category of books. For some reason -- school? -- many people seem deeply convinced that the only books that qualify as "real books" (and hence worthy of serious thought and discussion) are long-prose-narratives. This is a sweet conviction, but it's also a slightly deluded one. I don't have a figure to volunteer, alas, but most books aren't "real books" in that limited sense. Most books are cookbooks, reference books, travel books, professional books, visual books, joke books -- books that are primarily meant to be used, and to be interacted with in short bursts at the user's convenience. Among books more generally, the long-prose-narrative is an oddball category: No images. No graphics. The demand that you start on page one and keep on keepin'-on until you make it to the finish line. Doug Sundseth argues that, while people haven't stopped reading, the nature of their reading is changing. I think Doug's point is a good one. These days, we tend less and less to chomp our way, Pac-Man-style, through endless yards of text. Instead, we tend to take in short chunks of prose. Our brains are largely engaged in sifting and sorting images, graphics, sounds, and moving images. What we turn to prose-chunks for is mostly orientation, narration, and information. Words, once the primary event, now play a supporting role to the central thing, which is the multimedia experience. The charm is already off long-narrative-prose. The young people I see -- many of whom are coming out of the most expensive liberal-arts colleges -- no longer have the same attitudes towards books that many older people do. They're free of the feeling that books are something special -- that there's something sacred about "the book." And they clearly don't feel that it's automatically a good thing to sit quietly and read your way from beginning-to-end, all the way through an all-prose book. As far as... posted by Michael at September 6, 2005 | perma-link | (26) comments

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Me on Books, Redux
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The attitudes I sometimes express about the experience of interacting-with-books might strike some visitors as odd, offensive, or far-out. (Here's hoping a few people are tickled by 'em too.) They're certainly unusual, at least in the sense of "You don't see that expressed in print too often!" I've been blogging for three years now, and I long ago unloaded many of my most urgently-felt Big Ideas. These days, I'm a happy, fulfilled blogger who generally free-associates, takes note, muses out loud, and moves on. Having already put my small handful of Big Ideas into words, I now take them for granted. I glance off of 'em more than I spell 'em out. Fun -- for me, at least. But this new mellow-me may also be leaving some recent visitors puzzled. What the hell am I talking about? Where do these zany ideas come from? Is there anything to 'em? Why are they so unlike the ideas and attitudes the profs and the critics are selling? And who the hell am I anyway to be expressing such bizarre notions? A quick, if necessarily vague, self-introduction: I've got a perfectly-OK academic background, but I've also spent more than 25 years as a fly on the wall of the NYC culture and media worlds. I've known artists, poets, novelists, musicians, producers, and actors personally and as friends. I've also met and interacted-with-professionally hundreds of culturefigures, many very superficially and some in considerable depth. I've been a moviebuff for more than 30 years, and for 15 years I followed the book publishing world closely. Nothing special about me, or about any of this, by the way: These are simply the kinds of experiences you have if you spend a big part of your adulthood in the culture-and-media worlds. And I've never been anything but a worker ant in this world. Still, I've tried to be an observant worker ant. I've watched the personalities, the business, and the processes. I've been far more interested in taking note of what the world I've found myself in is like than in what I think it should be like. I seem to be, temperamentally, more of an anthropologist than a debater, let alone an opinionator: I have always got on better with journalists for trade magazines than I have with critics, for instance. I enjoy the sensation of my feet on the ground. As a consequence, I've found that I've had to throw overboard much of what I was told about art and culture as a student. It was simply wrong, or misleading. I've also found myself unable to endorse much of what the media and the profs tell us about culture and the arts. The media, I've found, are generally selling us an image (often more than half believed-in, by the way, and often quite hard to resist), while the profs are generally pompous, naive, and deluded. The main thing I like using this blog for is passing along my own... posted by Michael at August 24, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Taking Jackie Collins Seriously
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just finished reading a novel by the mistress-of-trash novelist Jackie Collins. I enjoyed it. It's the second Jackie Collins novel that I've read. I enjoyed the first one too. Collins -- who is in her 60s and is based in Los Angeles -- has been pumping out glitzy fiction since 1968. She was born in England, and is the sister of glamor-queen actress Joan Collins -- who, amusingly, starred in movie adaptations of Jackie's early hits "The Bitch" and "The Stud." (Joan is a trash novelist in her own right -- nope, I haven't read her oeuvre. But recently she has also been writing columns for London's Spectator -- they can be found here. I think they're pretty entertaining.) The maestra Needless to say, Jackie Collins' work is considered beyond the pale by most lovers of literary fiction. I know lots of lit-fiction buffs, for instance, who have never read a word of her, who know of her only to laugh at her, and to whom it would never occur to give her books a try. It's easy to see why. Her novels are sensationalistic, tacky, and outrageous. Her writing has a lot of crude drive, and not a lot of patience for the niceties of literary finesse. Sensitive, quivering-flower stuff it ain't; it isn't a carnival of sophisticated intellectuality either. Instead, it's extraverted, opportunistic, and dynamic. I'm not going to quarrel with the lit set; people can read to please themselves, of course. And, after all, what would be the point of feeling sorry for Jackie Collins? She has had more than 20 bestsellers, many of which have sold to movies and television; she's said to have sold more than 400 million copies of her books. One estimate puts her net worth at over a hundred million dollars. Jackie Collins could buy out the entire literary world and not notice a dent in her Beverly Hills checking account. Still, I'm puzzled by a few things. One is: Why aren't more lit-fiction types curious about non-literary kinds of fiction? I know a lot of lit-fict addicts, for instance, who sneer at popular fiction without ever having read any. Sneering at what you don't know seems like bad form. (I've had a couple of chances to witness what happens when a literary type is forced to read some popular fiction. Usually the sequence of reactions goes this way: horror, depression, reconsideration, and finally, "You know, it isn't Shakespeare, but there's real talent here, if of a beneath-the-likes-of-me sort!") Life may be short. But it isn't as though there's so immensely much unmissable contempo lit fiction around that you can't take a few breaks from it to explore the larger reading-and-writing world. Another puzzler: Why are many people's attitudes towards popular fiction different than their attitudes towards the popular arts in other fields? By now, most sophisticated and educated people can see virtues in rock and roll; in sitcoms; in action-adventure movies; and in barbecued... posted by Michael at August 20, 2005 | perma-link | (44) comments

Thursday, August 18, 2005

"100 Bullets"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you ever run across "100 Bullets"? It's an ongoing graphic novel written by Brian Azzarello and arted by Eduardo Risso. I've read and enjoyed a couple of episodes. They're in a downbeat-gruesome/nihilistic-noir mode that generally strikes me as juvenile and tiresome. But Azzarello is a witty and resourceful writer; there's an underlying expansiveness and a brutal good humor in the way he pushes the form around. And I find Risso's art hilariously pleasing: sophisticated yet slapsticky, droll yet dynamic, suave yet antic. Here's the official "100 Bullets" site. Here's a C.H.U.D. interview with Brian Azzarello. And here's Eduardo Risso's site, where he offers some original comicbook panels for sale. The prices seem very reasonable. What a tempting way to become an art collector. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 18, 2005 | perma-link | (1) comments

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Writing a Book
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to The Communicatrix, who pointed out this good and helpful Seth Godin posting about some things you might want to keep in mind if you're thinking of writing a nonfiction book. I wrote a similar (if much longer) posting a few years back. It can be read here. Don't skip the comments, which are full of true-life stories about what it's like to write and publish books. The first-class nature writer Stephen Bodio (whose own blog is here) did a must-read Guest Posting for us on the theme. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 2, 2005 | perma-link | (0)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Great Titles
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Among the many great things about "3:10 to Yuma" is its title. Yet what makes it such a good one? And more generally: Why do some titles strike us as wonderful while others are immediately obvious as duds? Can anything even semi-objective to be said in answer to this question? I took a browse through my shelves and made a list of some of the titles that struck me as hot stuff. So far it includes: "Last Tango in Paris." "Hollywood Wives." "Bad Lieutenant." "Psycho." "My Night at Maud's." "Red Harvest." "The Long Goodbye." "Mayflower Madame." "New Hope for the Dead." "Kiss the Blood Off My Hands." "Bonanza." "Son of the Sheik." "Unforgiven." "Mildred Pierce." "Unfaithful." "Desperate Housewives." "Fight Club." "The Color of Pomegranates." "Vampyros Lesbos." "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." "The Dream Police." "Catch-22." "Knife in the Water." "Women in Love." "The Picture of Dorian Gray." "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman." "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie." "The Seven Samurai." "Aguirre, the Wrath of God." "I, Claudius." "Barfly." "Goldfinger." "Malice Aforethought." "The Bride Wore Black." "The Postman Always Rings Twice." "No Orchids for Miss Blandish." "Little Caesar." I notice that my list is heavy on crime and exploitation titles. Hmm. I wonder if it's generally true that the best titles are often to be found among the less respectable works. Shakespeare's titles don't make me want to rush to the theater: "Romeo and Juliet." "King Lear." Dickens' titles don't make me eager to shell out either: "Bleak House." "Hard Times." And would I have bothered with Russian lit at all if I were judging by the titles? "Crime and Punishment." "Sketches from a Sportman's Notebook." "War and Peace" -- these simply aren't titles that reach out and grab ya. My own very-favorite writer, the French writer Stendhal, had one of the tinnest of all ears where titles were concerned: "The Red and the Black" has been puzzling people for years, and "The Charterhouse of Parma" -- well, what's that about? Great novels both, but loved by no one for their titles. A good title intrigues and tantalizes. It makes you promise yourself to read that novel or see that movie, and the sooner the better. But I can't come up with any useful generalizations at all about what makes a title a good one or a bad one. Can you? My hunch, or rather cop-out, is this: Titles are mysterious. They're little works of art in their own right. What are some of your favorite novel and movie titles? Do you have any hunches about what makes some of them so good? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 13, 2005 | perma-link | (41) comments

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Evan Hunter
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was very sorry to see that the crime novelist Evan Hunter -- who was probably better-known as Ed McBain -- died of cancer on Wednesday, at the age of 78. I've only read four or five of Hunter's many, many books, but I'm completely convinced that he was a giant. His fiction has a distinctive tone -- a combo of thuggish brutality and sophisticated, melancholy courtliness. His stories are street-wise and soulful, canny and exciting, both hardboiled and operatic. And they're full of living, breathing characters. Hunter had an amazing career that lasted more than 50 years. He was born Salvatore Lombino in New York City and changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. He wrote under the names Evan Hunter and Ed McBain, and under many other pseudonyms too. He was nothing if not a workhorse. He wrote ten hours a day, seven days a week; he tried to average eight finished pages a day. He published his first novels in the early 1950s, while he was still in his 20s, and kept it up until very near the end; a new Ed McBain novel is scheduled to be published in September of this year. One estimate of how popular Evan Hunter was puts total worldwide sales of his books at around 100 million copies. Hunter is probably best-known for his many Ed McBain novels set in and around one Chicago police precinct; they're known as the 87th Precinct series. [CORRECTION: James M. points out that I goofed here; the 87th Precinct novels are set in a fictionalized version of New York City. Yet one more example of Why Not to Trust a Middle-Aged Memory.] But he published well over a hundred books, novels as well as collections of stories. His work was the basis for some memorable films, including "Blackboard Jungle" and Kurosawa's "High and Low." He worked on around 75 screenplays, and even did screenwriting for Hitchcock on "The Birds." Hunter/McBain was an important fiction innovator. He was an early writer of what are known as "police procedurals" -- crime stories that are less about criminals vs. heroes than they are simply about how police-people do their jobs. Hunter liked to explain that, in his mind, he wasn't writing mysteries or genre fiction. Instead, he was writing realistic novels about cops. He's also sometimes credited with inventing the storytelling format that would eventually surface on TV in "Hill Street Blues," and later with "NYPD Blue" and many other series: the ongoing soap-opera cop dramady -- a matter of multiple storylines, ensemble casts, and many arcs weaving through many episodes. Hunter -- who wasn't short on ego, and who wasn't shy about proclaiming his own status either -- sometimes growled that he couldn't understand why he wasn't paid royalties from "Hill Street Blues." Whether or not you take Evan Hunter as a major artist -- I certainly do -- probably depends on your attitude towards literature. Is it the lofty,... posted by Michael at July 7, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Friday, June 24, 2005

Short Story Contest
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It seems to me that the cheeriest and most enterpreneurial of the book-blogs is Kevin Holtberry's Collected Miscellany. The CM posse -- Kevin, David, Phil and Jeff -- are nothing if not devoted readers and book-lovers, and their reviews and tips reflect a lot of brainy experience and sensible thinking. Energy, too: Kevin and the boyz publish q&a's, for instance -- and they're open-minded and down-to-earth enough to recognize that the book-thang ain't just about the writers. Check out this talk with Kelly Hughes, who works in p-r; or this one with that dynamo M.J. Rose, who began as an ad-gal, self-published a novel or two, and who has turned herself -- willed herself, really -- into a successful author. Forget the English-major baloney; this is the way the book-making process works. I also can't help linking to Kevin's excellent two-parter with W. Wesley McDonald, the author of a biography of Russell Kirk. Kirk was a major -- perhaps the major -- figure in American conservatism, and Kevin's interview is very informative about this influential figure. At the moment, Collected Miscellany is even sponsoring a short-story-writing contest. Dogs are the subject, and 800 words is the maximum length -- now that's a short short story. We don't see enough of those, IMHO. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 24, 2005 | perma-link | (0)

Friday, June 17, 2005

Stephen Bodio Blogs
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Stephen Bodio is a beyond-excellent nature writer who manages the distinctive -- and too-rare -- feat of fusing the lyrical and rhapsodic with the harshly down-to-earth. (I especially loved his collection of essays "On the Edge of the Wild: Passions and Pleasures of a Naturalist.") Based in New Mexico, he's accessible yet sophisticated, full of curiosity and interests, and has a good sense of rueful humor about the ultimate absurdity (and beauty) Of It All. He also has a special affinity for raptor birds. So it's a real pleasure to welcome Stephen to the blogosphere. Here's his general website, where you can explore a lot of freebies and links. Here's his blog. As a blogger, Stephen's off and running with good stuff about nifty topics like fashions in Kazakhstan and the greatness of Frederick Turner. It's always interesting to see how pro writers handle it when they start blogging. Blogging simply isn't like traditional writing, and many accomplished traditional writers never quite find the rhythm. Stephen, though, is having fun with links, quick observations, and humor. He shows mucho evidence of having the blogging gene. BTW, if I write about Stephen in ever-so-slightly-familiar tones, it's because he was an early visitor to 2Blowhards. I even coaxed a Guest Posting out of him, a terrific set of thoughts and observations about what it's like to be a book-publishin' writer. You can read Stephen's Guest Posting here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 17, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

Monday, May 16, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Thanks to Dave Lull, who emailed me a link to this Charles Isherwood essay theater essay for the New York Times. One passage in Isherwood's piece especially fascinated and irked me. He's constrasting two current plays, John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" and Martin McDonagh's "Pillowman": Although they share a dark view of human behavior that reflects our anxious age, the plays represent radically different outlooks on the purposes and priorities of theatrical writing. To put it casually, Mr. McDonagh wants merely to tell a story, while Mr. Shanley is interested in saying something. From which I conclude that, in Isherwood's value system, "saying something" automatically trumps "telling a story." Hey, a small hint to anyone who wants to impress the critics? Make sure your play or novel isn't just telling a story. Make sure it appears to be "saying something." I've grown amazed over the years by how condescending many high-toned people are towards storytelling -- storytelling as in narrative, plot, etc. Can they really think that the creation of a galvanizing-or-amusing narrative is a minor achievement? Can they really take the existence of a story that holds your attention and delivers a few satisfying surprises for granted? I notice, for instance, that while Charles Isherwood feels free to scold Martin McDonagh for having nothing to say, he neglects to ask how well John Patrick Shanley tells his story. Though I now marvel at this attitude, I confess that I once shared it. During college, grad school, and for a few years after -- when else? -- I thought of storytelling as a kind of unfortunate necessity that, perversely, fiction required. In this view, story is the clothesline you hang your artistry on; further, the "art" in a given work is to be found in deploying the artistry, not in creating the clothesline. I didn't come to my senses until I tried writing some narrative fiction of my own. When I did, I quickly discovered two things. Coming up with and telling a convincing and enjoyable story is hard work. And The ins and outs of narrative fiction fascinate me far more than the ins and outs of the nonnarrative game do. I'm tempted to assert as a once-and-for-all, objective truth the statement that the narrative-fiction package -- its history, how it works, etc -- is more fascinating than the nonnarrative-fiction package is. But, given that I'm really talking taste here, I'll back off from attempting anything so grand. Still, any look at world literature makes it clear that the taste for story is infinitely more widespread, deeply-rooted, and longstanding than is the taste for "artistry." (God bless artistry, of course.) In fact, the general preference for storytelling in fiction seems to be as fundamental as the general preference for figuration in the visual arts, for tonality in music, for decoration in dress, for rhythm and rhyme in poetry, and for traditional forms in architecture and urbanism. How then to explain the dismissive attitude of... posted by Michael at May 16, 2005 | perma-link | (31) comments

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Kelly Jane on Short Stories
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- If attention spans are growing shorter yet the appetite for fiction is remaining constant, then why aren't people reading more short fiction? Kelly Jane Torrance ponders this question as well as others in a good article for DoubleThink. I also enjoyed an observation-plus-musing from one of the commenters on Kelly Jane's piece. It goes like this: Part of the problem, I believe, is that there are fewer and fewer people reading, period -- but especially fewer who are reading so-called "literary" fiction. I work part-time in a municipal library and rarely does anyone under the age of 40 come in to borrow a book; most of our readers are in their fifties, sixties and seventies. The teens and twentysomethings who come in do so to use the Internet (and they're not accessing sites that feature writing). And the readers who come in are not looking to borrow "serious" fiction or poetry. It's romances and legal thrillers and pop nonfiction. In short, I see the demise of the short story as just an early symptom of the demise of recreational reading. In a generation, I'm not sure that anyone will be reading for enjoyment -- and if people do read, it probably won't be a traditional print book. I'm afraid I agree with this commenter: I can't see much reason to think that books -- or even reading-for-enjoyment in the way we currently understand the activity -- will play much of a role in the culture in 50 or 100 years. Can you? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 13, 2005 | perma-link | (16) comments

Debra Winger Reads "Karamazov"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of my biggest cultural blindspots has been the fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Over the decades I've had a number of goes at his work, so I've at least been able to check some of the big books off my must-read list: "The Idiot," "Crime and Punishment," "Notes from Underground." But, generally speaking, his work washes over me, leaving me unmarked, bewildered, and mildly seasick. I think it's the unceasing storminess of his universe that overwhelms me. (My limitation, of course. I have no beef with Dostoevsky's ranking as one of the greats.) The carrying-on lurches from one sweaty, wild-eyed, emotional extreme to the next, and the action seems to be nothing but variations on groveling, loathing, pleading, raging, exulting, manipulating, sputtering, fuming, and yearning. The bestial transforms into the saintly, and then back again. I stare at Dostoevsky's fiction with near-complete incomprehension. His books portray a universe that's a total stranger to my own temperament: a churning, heaving place full of histrionic, religion-addled, epilepsy-plagued drunkards. But I'm making my way through the ultimate Dostoevsky challenge right now -- "The Brothers Karamazov" -- and am having a pretty good time of it. My secret: I'm listening to an abridged audiobook of the novel. (I blogged here about the advantages of audiobooks, and about how abridgments may not always be bad things.) A match made in heaven? The version I'm listening to is read by the actress Debra Winger, and I'm finding her a great help even though in some ways Winger's a not-ideal reader. She doesn't have a lot of vocal technique, for example, or control. But she does have something I'm finding very handy: an instant and intuitive understanding of these (to my mind) bizarro bedbug/angel Russkies -- the emotional shifts and ploys, the venting followed by the shame and neediness. I'm reminded of how turbulent, mercurial, and sexy Winger's own emotions seemed in her early movies. Winger seems to know where Dostoevsky's people really live; she flares right up with them, then falls apart with them. That little rasp in her voice is helping me stay interested too. What I'm starting to "get" -- finally -- about Dostoevsky is how shrewd and funny he was about his characters. He may have shared many of their manias, but he also looked at his people with amazement, and wanted to note down some of their behavior patterns and emotional patterns. So he was a great psychologist and sociologist after all. Hmm. I blogged here about great artworks I don't get. Lots of visitors pitched in with entertaining lists and observations of their own. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 13, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Erma Bombeck
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I love humor writing, and consider it an artform on a level with poetry in terms both of the difficulty of its demands and the amount of pleasure it can deliver. Until her death in 1996, the humor columnist Erma Bombeck was a huge presence in American popular culture. (Funny: you don't hear feminists celebrating her accomplishment. Why not?) I wasn't much of a fan, but I did just now have an informative time surfing through this well-done website devoted to her work. And I loved learning that the University of Dayton sponsors, every other year, an Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop. Among the workshop's guest speakers: Art Buchwald. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 10, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

"The Maltese Falcon" Turns 75
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When I first read Faulkner and Hammett, I read them side by side and loved 'em both. But I was also an impressionable, over-trusting kid, and I was content to accept the usual evaluation: that, while Faulkner's work stood for Real Literature, Hammett's was ... something else, and something unquestionably lesser. A few years ago, though, I re-read "The Maltese Falcon" -- and found myself gasping in admiration. I've now come to my senses: as far as I'm concerned, "The Maltese Falcon" is the equal of any 20th century novel I've ever read. My little contribution to the conversation: it may be helpful to think of "Falcoln" not as a conventional-novel-wannabe, but as epic vernacular poetry -- as a work more along the lines of "Beowulf" than of "Middlemarch." I just noticed that 2004 and 2005 are the 75th anniversary of the original serial publication of "The Maltese Falcon." Here's an interesting WashPost-sponsored online chat with Rick Layman, a Hammett biographer, and Julie Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter. William Ames' quick intro to Hammett and "The Maltese Falcon" is a good one. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 2, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Big Art/Short Fiction
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Do you crave long art experiences? I've noticed in recent years that any appetite I once had for Long Art is drying up. Once upon a time, I was curious about epic Philip Glass operas, LaMonte Young drone-fests, Peter Brook cyclical-time experiments, and Syberberg movies that never ended. The stage version of "Nicholas Nickleby"? Made it through both evenings. Or was it three evenings? In my 20s and 30s, I sat through such works barely noticing their length. These days, I start to twitch when a movie gets to be longer than 80 minutes. A play that lasts longer than 100 minutes? I start to harumph: that's asking an awful lot of an audience if you want my opinion, grumble grumble. Novels, for another instance: love 'em, respect 'em, etc. But surely part of the appeal of reading a novel is the experience of losing yourself in a story for evenings (or even weeks) on end. I'm not sure how much I ever craved that kind of immersion. Even in my big-novel reading days, I ran into few long novels that didn't seem like they couldn't have been shorter. Still, my appetite for losing myself forever in a fictional world has definitely grown smaller. If a piece of fiction can't be finished in a couple of evenings max, I'm sorry to say that I probably won't be getting around to it. Entering an author's fictional world for a couple of hours retains its appeal, though. This may help explain why I'm into noir crime fiction; few noir novels run longer than 150 pages. These days, I'm hungry for manageable art -- art that serves, and that respects my comfort and my pleasure. The explanation for this certainly has something to do with physical changes. My eyes aren't as strong as they once were, for example. They tire quickly; they aren't primo equipment for epic bouts of novel-reading. Age also brings experience. I've been through a lot of art-things by now, and I "get" most art a lot faster than I once did. Better put: I get the art I'm going to get a lot faster than I once did. But I'm also quicker to let go of the art I'm not likely to get. No one can browbeat me into thinking that I must, I simply must -- because I owe it to myself! -- sit through anything I don't deepdown have any curiosity about. Life will go on even if I fail to expose myself to some of the Great Works. I'm OK with that in a way I guess I once wasn't. Age confers perspective too, if little else of worth. These days, art seems less compelling than life itself does; and normality looks more beautiful than the extraordinary does. Art subsides in importance a bit. It takes its place as a part of life. A work of art that does its thing and then moves quickly aside is something that's very... posted by Michael at January 27, 2005 | perma-link | (25) comments

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Richard Curtis at Backspace
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back when I was following books and the publishing biz, I found it surprisingly rare to run across people with sensible, long-term overviews of the institution of book publishing. Lots of smart people knew a lot about lots of the bits and pieces, of course. But where was the One Guy who had the Big Picture? Sad to say, I never found him. (I hear that the wonderful Princeton scholar Robert Darnton is at work on a history of publishing, though. Pant, pant: can't wait!) Still, a close-to-ideal source was the book agent Richard Curtis. I found Curtis brainy and informed; down-to-earth as well as literate and tasteful; and thoughtful. He's also an excellent writer himself: his books about publishing were some of the most helpful I read. So it's great to see that Curtis is in the middle of a three-part discussion about the State of Publishing over at Backspace. People with an interest in books and how they come about shouldn't miss the series. Part One is an overview of the current state of the biz; Part Two is an enlightening discussion of what's become of paperbacks. Part Three is, so far, something to look forward to. Backspace itself is a resource that I wish had been around 20 years ago, when I began to fumble my way through the biz. Visitors will find tons of frank discussions about what the whole mess of activities that's collectively known as "book publishing" is really like. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 12, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Saturday, January 8, 2005

Davenport and Sontag
Francis Morrone writes Dear Blowhards, Susan Sontag's death occasioned an extraordinary outpouring of commentary. The death of Guy Davenport, on January 4, will inevitably receive much less notice. (Though Crooked Timber and Armavirumque both noted it.) I wrote in this space only a few weeks ago, in a posting on the architecture critic Ian Nairn, of Sontag's famous essay "Against Interpretation." I liked that essay when I was a teenager, and I like it now. In fact, I have always liked Susan Sontag. That's not to say I did not find some of her political views pernicious. And it is not to say that I did not think her reputation to be wildly inflated at the expense of other essayists and critics who mined much the same terrain. Indeed, when I mentioned Sontag a few weeks ago, I noted that I much prefer Guy Davenport. When I wrote that, both Sontag and Davenport were still alive. Now, for those of you who do not enjoy or do not care about such writing, you may not sense or care about the differences between Sontag and Davenport. You may not care for their kind of richly allusive kind of essay writing, in which they seem to flaunt their expensive educations at every turn. You may be offended that Sontag may presume you know the basics of Heidegger's philosophy, or that Davenport may presume you know how to read Greek. You may hate that they both believed in a high seriousness in which the reader bears as much responsibility for learning as the writer does for teaching. First let me say that neither flaunted an expensive education. No matter what schools one attends, learning at Sontag's and especially Davenport's level is always a matter of autodidacticism. And for all the lip service many people give to the ideal of lifelong learning, they are made very uneasy in the presence of the profoundly self-taught, feeling it is a kind of moral rebuke to themselves. I've no doubt that for many people Davenport was nothing more than an intellectual wanker. Everyone is entitled to his opinion. What I don't understand is why some people have to run down writers they "don't get." Ignore them if they're not your cup of tea. Davenport was, and is, very much my cup of tea. I know maybe a hundredth of what Davenport knew. But reading him always goaded me to know more. His wildly allusive style, almost Whitmanesque, long functioned for me much like the Internet--or perhaps like a "mind map." One snippet--a quotation, an aperu, half an argument--would lead to another would lead to another, until the web seemed to comprehend some fabulous and elucidating and heretofore obscured strand of literary or art history. Davenport never sought to be definitive. Thank goodness for that. Definitive can be boring. And he seldom sought to convince. Again, thank goodness. He sought to probe, to entice, to illumine, to lead--to converse. Sontag's work style as well as her literary style... posted by Francis at January 8, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friday, December 3, 2004

Francis Davis on the Blues
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of months ago I took The Wife to a blues festival in the Mississippi Delta town of Helena, Arkansas. Its official name is the King Biscuit Blues Festival, but locals and veteran festivalgoers refer to it in fond shorthand. They say things like, "Hey, are you headin' over to the Biscuit?" and "The weather's even worse than it was at last year's Biscuit!" Well, The Wife and I headed over to the Biscuit despite the rain, and we had ourselves a great time. We'd had our first encounter with the Delta two years ago, passing quickly through it during our first spin ever through the (non-New Orleans) South. Though we both fell in love with more or less the entire south, we tumbled hard for the Delta. Have you ever been? It's a mysteriously wonderful place -- unremarkable in most ways, flat, and dirt poor. When you're driving along and first awake to the fact that you're now in "the Delta," you may wonder what the fuss is all about. But the place seeps into you. (It seeps into many people, in any case.) I'm anything but a superstitious or woo-woo guy, yet it didn't take long -- as in a half an hour -- before funny and marvelous things started happening to my thought processes. My time-sense shifted, and various guardians that normally supervise my brain's workings dissolved in the hot air. My thoughts were swimming. The world seemed like an endlessly braiding and unbraiding quilt of interwoven stories and songs. I had the feeling that if I went out into the middle of any of those nondescript cotton fields and turned over any old rock, ghosts would emerge and would start singing songs and telling stories. Everything seemed to mingle in fragrant, beguiling, sexy, and somewhat frightening ways. The Wife felt the intoxication as strongly as I did, and we decided then and there that we wanted more Delta in our lives. Which is why I arranged for us to head to the Biscuit. The festival was about as fun as could be. Well, I shouldn't be so cowardly: I found it not just fun but entrancing -- easygoing, rewarding, and deep. Doing the Biscuit isn't just about the music, not by any means. It was a total gestalt -- the people, the food, the pace, the vibes, and more: the whole easygoing, drunk-on-soulfulness thang of it. The food, by the way, is almost all fried. Delicious -- but it took us a couple of weeks to recover from it. The Wife and I stayed at a beautiful b&b in Clarksdale, a onetime cotton town of around 20 thousand people that's often referred to as the home of the blues. Given the number of blues greats who were born or who lived there, or who (in Bessie Smith's case) died there, Clarksdale is sometimes said to be the birthplace of the blues. Clarksdale-ites include Son House, T-Model Ford, Pinetop Perkins,... posted by Michael at December 3, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Friday, November 5, 2004

"Isherwood" and Book Publishing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Coming soon to a bookstore near you: a major new biography of the English writer Christopher Isherwood. Do you care for Isherwood's work? I'm a fan. I've read four of his books -- not enough, but still -- and I've loved them all. To be honest, I'm a very, very big admirer. Though Isherwood's certainly a respected writer, he's also generally considered something like "awfully good, but second tier, at least next to the true greats." Me, I'm betting that one day soon Isherwood will be recognized as a giant. His work is very enjoyable in its own right -- a model of easy-seeming, relaxed sophistication. But it has also been super-influential; it helped set the pattern for much modern gay writing, and for much modern nongay writing too. The whole intimate-but-without-crowding-you, casual-and-amusing-without-being-slight, it-reads-like-a-letter-from-a-friend thing -- as far as I've been able to tell, much of this comes out of Isherwood. It seems to me that his approach and tone have been as influential as Chekhov's and Hemingway's -- as influential, that is, as the most influential of modern writing. Despite his easy, Hockney-esque surfaces, Isherwood was incisive too. And like Hockney and some other gay artists (Cole Porter, W.H. Auden), Isherwood made art that has tough and strong roots. (As a faghag friend of mine used to say: "There's no one as tough as some of these faggy gay guys.") I could be wrong, of course, but I'm betting that Isherwood will go on being read and being influential long after most of James Joyce's books have been consigned to the dustiest of shelves. I like much of Joyce but -- given the way the culture is going -- I find it hard to imagine that in 50 years "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" will be understandable to more than a very, very few people. Isherwood, on the other hand? If people are still reading longform prose, Isherwood's likely to be experienced with pleasure still. It's impossible to make these points without spoiling the breezy-though-substantial "minor" pleasures Isherwood offers. The last thing I'd want to do is inflate Isherwood's importance, or to oversell the pleasures of his work, fabulous though they are. So it's probably best to forget that I ever wrote the above few paragraphs. By the way, Isherwood's companion of many years, Don Bachardy, is a superb visual artist. Still alive -- Isherwood died in 1986 -- Bachardy's a portraitist who works from life, often using friends and acquaintances as subjects. He works in "minor" modes, mainly in pen or pencil on paper. He's an amateur sketch artist, in other words. But what an amateur, and what a sketch artist. Not only does he have the rare gift of being able to -- seemingly effortlessly -- "get" a likeness, he's as shrewd, witty and economical a visual guy as Isherwoord was a writer. (I imagine that artfans who love the work of Richard Diebenkorn, Paul Cadmus, and Wayne Thiebaud would enjoy Bachardy... posted by Michael at November 5, 2004 | perma-link | (13) comments

Saturday, October 2, 2004

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of hotstuff new books are upon us. I'm looking forward to longer discussions about them, god knows. But for now, I'd hate to not take note. Nikos Salingaros' "Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction" should ruffle lots of feathers in the building and design world. But I suspect it'll also fascinate many who aren't generally architecture and urbanism fanatics. Puzzled by the prevalance of hideous buildings (and the kind of thinking that justifies and rationalizes such practices), Salingaros applies his powerful mind to such basic questions as: what is a theory? What might the difference be between an art theory and some other kind of theory? What are the ideas and aims of the current architectural elite? And what might explain why these flawed ideas have such a powerful hold on so many people? This is a stunning and deep book, as interesting for its analyses of psychology and politics as it is for its discussions of architecture. It's guaranteed to get the brain buzzing; what a treat too that it's a real reading pleasure, written in a voice that's both urbane and forceful. "Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction" can be bought here, as a conventional paper book and as a PDF download. I'm also looking forward to seeing how Toni Bentley's new book, "The Surrender", will be received. I'm hoping it'll be quite le scandale; it certainly deserves to be. I'm a big fan of the writing of Toni Bentley, who's a former NYCB ballerina and who has until now written about dance and performance. I blogged about her here and here; here's her own website. With "The Surrender," she shifts gears in a startling way. The book, which I got an early look at, is a spare and intense erotic memoir. Bentley encountered a man who, shall we say, possessed the key to her locked-up rollerskates -- and a new world of sensation, release, and fulfillment was hers. Many of the themes that fascinate in her previous books -- art, spirituality, sex, striving, beauty -- find embodiment here too. It's quite a story, delivered with Bentley's daredevil mixture of the funky, the intellectual, and the intuitive. (Camille Paglia fans will spot a kindred spirit in Bentley.) I was fascinated by the book in literary terms, too, because in it Bentley manages something rare, which is to present a convincing American version of the spare French autobiographical novella of pain and love. I found the book an intoxicating performance, informal and approachable, yet sophisticated and elegant too: the good parts of "American" plus the good parts of "French" -- what's not to like? Plus, hey, the book couldn't be sexier. "The Surrender" goes on sale in a couple of weeks, and can be pre-ordered here. Provocative reading! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 2, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, September 16, 2004

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

Friday, August 27, 2004

The Renaissance
Dear Vanessa -- I just finished reading two compact histories of the Renaissance, William Henry Hudson's The Story of the Renaissance (which I listened to on audiotape, rentable here), and Paul Johnson's The Renaissance (buyable here). They're both accessible and helpful, as well as miracles of organization and condensation. If anyone's interested: I'd recommend reading the Hudson before the Johnson. Johnson's awfully good on the art of the period, and he brings his vigorous and earthy commonsense to bear on everything he says. But Hudson's book is much more comprehensive, without being much longer than Johnson's. It's the better E-Z general survey. A couple of things struck me as I was going through these books. One was ... Well, it's going to take a few sentences to set up. The Middle Ages, out of which the Renaissance emerged, was a theocratic time. All the era's best brainpower went into re-justifying theological conclusions that were already agreed-upon: the medieval Christian view of the world. As Hudson writes, "All thought led back to the monastery." As the Middle Ages started to come apart, some people started looking outwards. They looked beyond the walls of the monastery, began comparing what they saw with what they'd been told, and having new and fresh thoughts. This opening-up was the Renaissance Humanist spirit at work; the ingrown reasoning it slowly dislodged was Medieval Scholasticism. My modest reflection? That what the PC/multiculti/academic view of the arts -- whether modernist, post-modernist, or deconstructivist -- represents is a present-day equivalent of Medieval Scholasticism. It's a never-ending, self-justifying, all-devouring system that's a labyrinth leading nowhere but back to its own premises and predetermined conclusions. Both books -- but especially the Johnson -- were very effective at reminding the reader how naive we are when we imagine Renaissance artists as early versions of self-expressive, modern, gallery-art-type artists. In fact, Renaissance artists were almost all outgoing entrepreneurs with bills to pay and contracts to honor. Art was their business; hustle, talent, and skill were what they were selling. Manpower, too: Bellini was famous for employing dozens of assistants. Here's a vivid passage from the Paul Johnson book about what the art game was like in Renaissance Florence: We must not take too elevated a view of the Florentine art shop. It was a business venture, whose chief object was to get lucrative commissions, execute them at a profit, and excel or fend off the competition. Florence was about art, but it was also about money. In 15th century Florence, there was a continuum from the countinghouse through the wholesale cloth warehouse, to shops selling embroidery and colored shoes, to the all-purpose art workshop, catering to the sometimes vulgar taste of rich parvenus, but also producing works of genius that we now venerate. That's the stuff, as far as I'm concerned: don't be so blind that you ignore the actual circumstances out of which art emerges; but don't be such an unresponsive clod that you fail to experience and acknowledge how beautiful and... posted by Michael at August 27, 2004 | perma-link | (16) comments

Friday, August 20, 2004

"Mildred Pierce"
Dear Vanessa -- James M. Cain What with spending my summer vacation weeks far from computers, I've been doing more fiction-reading than I've done in a while. And what a good time I've been having: ten novels in a couple of months, and not a stinker among them. Novels -- who knew? The novel I'm currently shaking my head in wonder over is James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce (buyable here). Have you ever read Cain? Centuries ago, I enjoyed Cain's two most famous novels -- the crime novels "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity." But I hadn't looked at his work since. In terms of its actions, "Mildred Pierce" -- which was made into a famous Joan Crawford movie by Michael Curtiz, buyable here and Netflixable here -- is epic women's fiction. There isn't a murder or a blackmail scheme to be found in the book; although Vintage publishes the book in its Vintage Crime series, it isn't a crime novel. Instead, it's about Mildred's ups and downs as she makes her way through life's cycles of work and love. It's as much this kind of thing as any Sidney Sheldon novel or supermarket romance. What makes the novel remarkable is that it's shrewdly realistic, it's hardboiled, and it's caustically funny. I suppose someone intent on dismissing "Mildred" might call it a mere potboiler, or a melodrama, or a page-turner, and it's certainly all of those things. But it's also juicy, wickedly smart, and insightful -- and it moves like a choo-choo train. I had such a rip-roaringly good time reading it that I found myself put in mind of such other non-crime/non-modernist 20th century narrative wonders as "Babbit," "What Makes Sammy Run?" (which I blogged a bit about here), and Somerset Maughams "Cakes and Ale" -- superb novels whose superbness resides in good stories and effective storytelling, not in abstruse linguistic gamesmanship. By no stretch of the imagination could "Mildred Pierce" be said to be "about consciousness," or "about language"; it's straightforwardly about Mildred and her world. It also reminded me of the cruel and fascinating work of John O'Hara -- but then I shook my head No. Even in "Natica Jackson" and "Butterfield 8" (sexy and mean novels that I love), O'Hara never worked up anything like this degree of straight narrative oomph. In terms of its appeal, "Mildred" is a twofer. On the one hand, it's an acute and shrewd psychological profile. Mildred is an L.A. mom in her late 20s. When the Depression destroys the family savings, her husband folds up shop, psychologically-speaking; Mildred kicks him out and starts making her own way. What soon becomes clear is what a bossy dynamo she is. And how self-deceiving, too; she's hyper-attached to imagining that she's accomplishing what she's accomplishing for the benefit of her older daughter, who isn't by any means the perfect kid Mildred imagines her to be. Viewed charitably (something Cain isn't prone to do, thank heavens), Mildred's got to do what she's... posted by Michael at August 20, 2004 | perma-link | (16) comments

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Writer's Block
Dear Vanessa -- Some of the reasons this blog enjoys throwing rotten tomatoes at Modernism: Modernism claims to be radical and progressive when it in fact couldn't be more elitist. I've got nothing against radical art or elitist art per se, and nothing against progressive art either. But I do get annoyed when elitist art stomps around justifying itself as radical and progressive -- "good for the people," or "good for the unconscious," or "setting people free," or whatever. Modernism is a secular religion-wannabe akin to Marxism and Freudianism. Secular religion-wannabes are always annoying and often destructive. Modernism's batting average is terrible. I know the idea that 95% of art is always crap is widely accepted; sorry to say I don't agree. It seems to me that traditional art-making has a pretty darned good batting average. A brief break to spell out a couple of assumptions I'm making: that Modernism descends directly from Romanticism; and that the styles that have followed on Modernism (po-mo, decon, etc) aren't the alternatives-to-Modernism they're usually made out to be but are instead extensions of it, attempts to keep the corpse alive. Now, back to the jeering. Modernism doesn't work by accepting tradition and context and then contributing what it can. Instead, it makes a point of violating context and tearing the fabric, all for the greater glory of showing off its own (supposedly redemptive) virtues. Like Romanticism, Modernism seems to have addictive properties. Discovering it, you at first feel exhilaration and pleasure; so this is what Reality, experienced fully, is really like!!! For many, the search for this sensation becomes a soul-sucking addiction. Quickly, though, the high becomes scarcer, and soon the search becomes everything. Many people manage to kick the habit, thank heavens. Too bad that some of those who don't wind up as profs, teachers, journalists and critics, and then do their best to pass along the addiction. Modernism has exacerbated the high-low clash that's such a tedious part of cultural life in America. While promising deliverance and transcendence, Modernism in fact creates a lot of misery. Forget lousy Modernist architecture for a sec and think instead about the thousands of people stuck in creative-writing workshops. Let's admit that there's something sweet about their desire to take part in the art life. Yet in most cases, what they're being sold are approaches that make art-creation difficult if not impossible. And in many cases they're being steered into creating work that they'll never be happy with. Why aren't they being given basic and traditional, "here's how you get an idea on its feet" skills instead? In a short-fiction writing class, for instance: why aren't people being shown how to project and develop their ideas into actual narratives? Forgive me for suspecting that that'd suit many students far better than being taught how to create the usual nonnarrative autobiographical/lyrical/non-epiphany-epiphany thing. Modernism has contributed a lot to the irrelevance of the fine arts to everyday people. Modernism promotes the idea that art should be difficult,... posted by Michael at July 14, 2004 | perma-link | (26) comments

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

"Neuromancer" on Audiobook
Dear Vanessa -- Currently on the commute-to-work tape-player: an abridged audio version of William Gibson's Neuromancer. (It's buyable here.) I'd tried several of Gibson's books before but was unable to get through them, hence my resort to the audiobook. I'm eager to hear how you've reacted to Gibson's fiction if you've given it a try. It occurs to me -- audio propagandist that I am -- that I've hit on another good way to use books-on-audio. I've blogged before about how audiobooks enabled me to get through books I hated but felt I needed to have read. ("Feeling obliged to finish books I hate": now that's a phase I'm long done with!) It turns out that audio's also a good way to get through books I'm curious about but don't have the reading-willpower to finish. Because it does take a fair amount of willpower to get through a whole print book, doesn't it? Either that, or the book's got to be delivering a darned rewarding time. (Also, middle-aged eyes give out suprisingly fast. No more read-a-thons for bi-focal'd me.) So what becomes of you-and-a-book if you're merely idly curious about it? What if you haven't got the necessary horsepower to get through the print version, yet you wouldn't mind knowing what the book's like? Solution: let the Walkman take care of the grunt work for you. Click the "play" button, and all you have to do is stay awake. As if turns out, I'm semi-enjoying my abridged audio Gibson. It's brilliant; what a great job he did of capturing the fantasy life that many geeks seem to share. I'm finding it hard to tell how satirical Gibson is being, though. This is admittedly a pitfall of books on audio, especially abridged ones; it can be hard to be certain of a book's exact tone. It's pretty funny, after all, that so many geeks share such an overblown fantasy life. But is Gibson giggling about this, or is he offering up his perceptions and observations with a straight face? I can't tell. Can anyone illuminate here? It's also a culturally-significant book, of course. Gibson helped set a style (cyberpunk is its usual name, though videogame-noir is how I think of it) that's proved important and surprisingly long-lasting. So, culturally-curious guy that I am, I'm enjoying learning a little something first-hand about what this "Neuromancer" thing has been all about. My problem with the novel -- and this isn't a criticism, just a personal reaction -- is that I simply don't share this particular fantasy life. (I'm tempted to use the term "fantasy space" instead of "fantasy life." It sounds so much more ... I dunno, conceptual or technical or something, doesn't it?) How about you? What direction do your own fantasies tend to race off in? To be honest, I can't imagine getting much pleasure out of the techno-noir fantasy world. I had my share of little-boy, action-comedy fantasy pleasures when I was a child, but I put them aside as... posted by Michael at June 23, 2004 | perma-link | (21) comments

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

A New Sarah Susanka Book
Dear Vanessa -- Sarah Susanka, the architect and author who's best-known for "The Not-So-Big House," has just published another lovely and helpful book, Home By Design. Like "The Not-So-Big House," it's a beautifully-produced, practical, and visual guide to how to make a house a home. Susanka's titles refer to the idea that it can worth spending a little extra money and care on somewhat fewer square feet than Americans often do. She's urging us to buy quality, not quantity, in other words, and she's showing us how to do it wisely. Susanka -- and her designer and photographers, as well as the architects and builders whose work she features -- steers a middle ground that I suspect many homeowners will find helpful. Her books have real substance; they aren't mere lifestyle-and-trimmings extravaganzas. Instead, she discusses such questions as: Why do so many buildings and spaces these days feel barren? Why do so many houses fail to turn into homes? What's the difference between square-footage-surrounded-by-walls and a room you love? Her books are intellectually engaging, yet they're fun and easily-browsable catalogs of ideas too. These are user's guides, in other words, the contempo equivalent of the "pattern books" used by the local builders in the 19th century who created many of our best-loved houses and neighborhoods. Susanka boils Christopher Alexander's "patterns" down to a manageable number, discusses general principles as well as specifics, and gives lots of (superbly-photographed and laid-out) examples of how to put them to use. She isn't trying to bury you in theory, or to lock you into some absurd all-or-nothing system; she digs the fact that it's your project, and your life. Interesting, no? Hmmm, so architecture as an art form doesn't have to be about a solo ego showing off; it can instead be about helping people get more of what they want out of their buildings and neighbhorhoods. Susanka's own designs tend towards a modernism-meets-Arts-and-Crafts thing that isn't much to my taste. But so what. She isn't trying to impose her vision; she's offering general patterns that can be adapted to personal taste. She's here to serve, not to impose. When I talked to her once some years back, I found her modest and enthusiastic, firm in her convictions, and eager to acknowledge Chrisotpher Alexander as a giant. In fact, people intrigued by the Alexander approach will probably enjoy exploring Susanka's books, as they'd enjoy exploring Jacobson, Silverstein and Winslow's recent Patterns of Home, buyable here. (Two of this book's three authors collaborated with Alexander on "A Pattern Language.") No coincidence, by the way, that all these books are published by the excellent Taunton Press -- I blogged about Taunton here. Eyeballing books like these, you get some idea of what Alexander's ideas look like when put into practice by talented designers and builders. Although images can never replace on-the-spot, in-person experience, you can also begin to sense what these structures feel like too. Which is really the important thing, because the central goal of... posted by Michael at June 16, 2004 | perma-link | (1) comments

Book Elsewhere
Dear Vanessa -- * Is it unjust to bitch about how ingrown current American lit-writing can be? Those who think so might want to take a look at this amusing piece here for the Guardian by Katharine Viner, who was one of the judges for this year's Orange Prize. Like the other judges, Viner read 46 candidate books in six weeks -- heavens! Where's the discussion about how that kind of pressure might affect one's reading pleasure, let alone one's judgment about which books are best? Anyway, what did Viner find the low points of her read-a-thon to be? One was when I had a run of books about nothing. These were usually by authors from the US, who have attended prestigious creative writing courses, often at the University of Iowa. They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce. In other words: quit trying to impress your writing-workshop buddies with your exquisite sentence-making, and get on with the story, please. * Many thanks to Doug Sundseth, who passed along a link to this funny Tedi Trindle piece entitled "How to Write A Literary Novel," here. * A few years ago, having gotten it into my head that I might enjoy composing short verbal things that rhymed, I signed up for an intro-to-poetry-writing class. What a surprise it turned out to be. I'd expected to be given a down-to-earth introduction to poetry writing, and I was looking forward to being drilled in simple poetic forms. First we'd master limericks, then we'd take on the sonnet! Instead, we were given a small set of tricks, er, tools and then hustled into taking part in a truly bizarre activity: concocting prose poems and arranging them in ways that made them look like poetry. (I'm told that this is what the standard-issue intro-to-poetry-writing course has become in this country.) I had the strong impression that I was far from alone in being horrified by the unhelpful nonsense we were being sold. I and my fellow malcontents would probably have been happier attending the West Chester Poetry Writing conference, which was organized ten years ago by the poet (and current NEA head) Dana Gioa and a fine-press printer named Michael Piech. The program is devoted to poetry in its form-and-narrative aspects, and this year's edition just wrapped. Here's the conference's website. Here's Mike Snider's preliminary report from the Conference. Some time back, I did an interview with Mike, who's a terrific poet and blogger; part one can be read here, and part two is here. Here's a good Christian Science Monitor blog posting about how horribly poets often treat each other. * The brilliant Donald Westlake has... posted by Michael at June 16, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The Culture of Books
Dear Vanessa -- I notice that this year's Book Expo took place in Chicago a few weekends ago. Did you attend? If so, I'm curious to hear how it struck you. For those who haven't encountered it, Book Expo America is the trade-book industry's annual convention. It's quite a show; two or three thousand exhibitors display their wares to 25,000ish attendees. When it first began, the convention's purpose was to enable publishers to show off upcoming lines of books to retailers, who at the time were mostly local bookstores. What with changes in the business (the big bookselling chains, the absorption of much of the publishing industry into media conglomerates, etc), that original rationale has semi-evaporated. The show has become more of a general bazaar, as well as an excuse for people in the industry to mingle with each other, swap business cards, and size up the competition. During the years I semi-professionally followed book publishing, I attended 17 of these get-togethers. Fun and exhausting, all of them. But educational, too: I learned far more about the culture of books -- which is, like it or not, the matrix from which all trade books (including that tiny subset known as "literature") emerge -- from attending Book Expos than I did from anything I ever read by a prof or a critic. It's been wonderfully enlightening. In fact, I've had exasperated "if I were God" moments when I've decided that all authors should be required to attend a Book Expo. It's amazing how naive writers (and would-be writers) can be about the industry they're hoping to find a place in, and their dreaminess has at times driven me batty. At other times, though, I wonder. Some writers, I've found, get some of their energy from their naivete. And is learning the simple truth guaranteed to do anyone any good anyway? The other day, for instance, I heard about a published novelist who attended her first Book Expo and was so traumatized by the experience that she wasn't able to write again for another year. Then again, was the world any worse off? In any case, I enjoyed the Book Babes' wrapup of this year's BEA, here. As the years have passed since I gave up following publishing, my brain has gone on sifting and sorting what I observed and experienced. The picture keeps getting simpler and simpler. For instance, if someone a couple of years ago had asked me, "If you had to say which three new lit-fiction books from your years in the biz were the best, which would you choose?", I wouldn't have been able to answer. I'd read too many really good new lit-fiction-books -- how to choose from among them? Today, though? Not a problem: Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera; Josef Skvorecky's Dvorak in Love; and Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies. In memory -- though I'm not entirely sure why -- these three really stand out. Another hyper-general retrospective observation ... Many people... posted by Michael at June 15, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, June 11, 2004

B&N's Portable Professors
Good news for lifetime-learning buffs: the Teaching Company now has serious competition. Barnes and Noble has launched what they're calling a "Portable Professor" series. Some decent subjects: Mozart; American business history; Ben Franklin. And some classy professorial names: Colin McGinn, Robert Dallek, Joseph Ellis. I haven't tried any of B&N's titles yet, but I certainly will. Here's a page that lists their current, attractively-priced offerings. Incidentally, I'm in the middle of another fabulous Teaching Company title, Darren Zarefsky's "Argumentation," buyable at an amazingly low price here. More on this terrific lecture series later.... posted by Michael at June 11, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

"Ulysses" on Audio
I notice that 100th anniversary of Bloomsday approaches. Bloomsday, for those who dodged classes on James Joyce, is the name given to June 16, the day of the year on which the action of Joyce's "Ulysses" is set; Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus meandered overlappingly around Dublin on June 16, 1904. I wonder what kind of recognition this anniversary will receive. I could be wrong, but I'm anticipating a fair amount of noise: celebrations of the immortal genius, re-evaluations of the book's significance, all-night readings by charismatic actors with fine and resonant voices, etc. FWIW, the novel never meant to me what it seems to have meant to many people my age and older. For decades, "Ulysses" was the Everest of Modernism. You weren't a true Literary Person until you'd submitted to a thorough wrestle with the novel, which was taken to be so complete a masterpiece that no individual wrestle with it could ever be sufficient anyway. You were put in the position, as Modernism so often put people, of Failed Aspirant to Greatness. For true believers, "Ulysses" was the Modernist gospel, the One True Text from which all sprang and to which, as to a well, all needed to periodically return. I read the book back in '75, I think. Though I liked it, I haven't given it much thought since, at least until the last few days. Other books have meant far more to me; and whatever the secrets are that can revealed by repeat readings of "Ulysses," I seem able to spend this lifetime in ignorance of them. My attitude these days: I'm glad I got through it, and I'm glad I spent some hours being baffled by "Finnegans Wake" too. Well, I guess I am. I can't help wondering if I wouldn't have gotten even more out of spending all that time and effort on some other book. Or books, since, after all, in the same time it took me to read "Ulysses" I might well have finished a half-a-dozen other novels. What I genuinely value in retrospect was some straightforward reading pleasure. The book is a surprisingly funky, juicy and sometimes funny experience. The Leopold Bloom passages are, anyway. (The book is split between passages about the soulful, middle-aged Leopold Bloom and the self-dramatizing and hyperintellectual whippersnapper Stephen Dedalus.) On the other hand, I thought Joyce got carried away with the Stephen Dedalus stuff, and I spent many of these pages pleading for mercy: "I get the idea, dude: Stephen lives too much in his head. I'm not that dumb. Now, can we please get a move-on?" And of course there's the general lit-history, cultural-significance side of the matter. I'm a better-equipped culture fan for having read a decent amount of Joyce. I know what people talking about Joyce are talking about, and I'm even entitled to an opinion or two myself. "Ulysses" above all 20th century novels is one of those landmark culture-things no serious culturefan should miss, etc. But has anyone else... posted by Michael at May 26, 2004 | perma-link | (38) comments

Saturday, May 15, 2004

1000 Words -- "Carmilla"
Dear Friedrich -- It's been called to my attention more than a few times that I often write postings that are just, well, too damn long. Point taken. At the same time, sheesh, y'know, I'm forever running across bits of culture-lore and culture-thinking that I'm eager to gab about and pass along. What to do? I'm resolving this problem for the moment this way: I hereby initiate a series of postings on topics of cultural interest that I'll be presenting in a thousand words or fewer. Not an easy challenge for long-winded me. But no doubt good exercise, sigh. *** The First Vampire Novel? I bleed, I swoon "The first Vampire thriller" -- it said so right there on the dustjacket of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla: A Vampyre Tale. How to resist? I'm no vampire-fiction buff, to say the least. But, an ever-curious lit-history and genre-history buff, I read that jacket copy and thought: "Whoa, a vampire novel that came earlier than 'Dracula'? Who knew? Well, I guess it makes sense. And, hey, maybe it's the ur-vampire novel!" So I bought "Carmilla" and had myself a read. I know very, very little about vampire-lit history. (Note for a possible blog-rant: why doesn't a typical lit education nail down the history of the various genres: the western story, the romance story, the crime story, etc? Wouldn't you think that would be basic?) When I read "Dracula" long ago, I simply assumed that it was the archetypal vampire tale. I'm pretty sure that the only other vampire fiction I've read since has been a couple of Anne Rice's novels. Have you ever tried her work? I think she's a brilliant commercial novelist. For one thing: what a great idea, fusing vampire and rock-n-roll attitudes and iconography -- fiction for stoners, bikers and heavy-metal-heads. No foolin': I genuinely do think this is brilliant. That said, and although I find Rice's porn novels (published under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure) pretty hot, I was barely able to get through a couple of her Lestat vampire novels. I spent my hours reading them alternating between a daze and a trance. I'm not sure why this was so: could it have the guitar-solo/mind-altering language? Or does the whole vampire thing -- the blood, the dark mutterings about immortality, the puncture wounds, the Goth fashions -- simply mean something to fans that it doesn't mean to me? What Roger Vadim saw in "Carmilla" As far as movies go, I've seen the standard, well-educated-film-buff vampire canon, plus a few more; I have a small but real taste for funny vampire movies, and for porno vampire movies. But I've never searched the genre out. And let me tell you, there are vampire-film and vampire-lit buffs who know this stuff. (Check out Dagon's site, for example, here.) Vampire-wise, I sit a very long way from the head of the class. So what was "Carmilla" like to read? Inevitably, I tranced out a fair amount. But I had a good time... posted by Michael at May 15, 2004 | perma-link | (42) comments

Thursday, May 13, 2004

"The Dreamers," the novel
Dear Friedrich -- Remember my conversation with TurboKitty about the recent Bertolucci movie The Dreamers? (The posting is here.) The movie was based on a novel by the British film critic Gilbert Adair, whose film criticism I like. Well, the novel has an amusing history. It turns out that Adair had always been unhappy with the novel, which was his first. Then, when he worked with Bertolucci on the movie, he started to see how he could fix the novel, and after filming was over he went ahead and did a rewrite. Why not, eh? It's his damn book. So these days, in England anyway, the novel known as "'The Dreamers' by Gilbert Adair" isn't the original, and it isn't a novelization of the movie either. It's Adair's rewrite of the novel of his that the Bertolucci film was based on. Could this be a first? I couldn't resist, ordered up a copy of Adair's rewrite from Amazon UK (here), and wound up liking the book a lot. It's a creepy, sexy, fast read. It packs a lot more punch than the movie does, and it has a very different feel too. The characters, for one thing, are much more maliciously motivated. The incestuous French twins are charismatic monsters who are straightforwardly using the blank-faced, tremulously gay -- and eager to be used -- little American. In the Bertolucci movie, all three characters come across as pampered neurotics playacting out rather charmingly on each other. In the Adair, the narcissism is much more dangerous and pungent. Fascinating also to see that the book also has an entire third act that shows up for only a minute or two in the movie. Adair's style and approach cross a sinister and precious neoclassicism with a spare, hallucinatory avant-gardism. The book moves from gorgeous, slightly-sickly tableau to sickly tableau, with little of the action conventionally dramatized. It also has some enjoyable conceptual brilliance. Adair has somewhere said that in his opinion what the student revolts of 1968 were really all about was the first TV generation acting out for the cameras. Reading the novel, you can see how he's worked that perception out. You're in the front row at a kind of film, gazing at a screen that's beaming back at you: the incestuous, Cocteau-ish twins; the blank-screen American; their film-buff sex games; the window that breaks, drawing them out of their make-believe world and into the city; the riots that originate at the Cinematheque and then spill out into real-life street theater ... It's all quite flakey and high-strung, yet it's all quite calm and well-composed too. I enjoyed the book a lot. But -- fair warning -- it's only for those with a taste for ultra-arty (and High-Queer) modernism. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 13, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, May 7, 2004

Meeting Toni Bentley
Dear Friedrich -- I posted here and here about my enthusiasm for the writing of the ballerina-turned-author Toni Bentley. Lucky me, the other day I got the chance to meet Toni Bentley herself. She was in town for a few days and sweetly got in touch to see if we could meet for a drink. Indeed we could! Full disclosure: I'd pushed myself on Toni long ago, emailing links to my postings, and she'd been gracious enough to respond. Hence our contact. Well, OK, so she was just being cordial to a fan. Still! I'm glad to report that Toni -- she's "Toni" to me now -- is charming, smart, and full of relaxed energy. She was looking elegant in what I'll ineptly describe as hippie-gypsy clothes made edgy with a touch of bondage chic. We swapped news and gossip, and yakked about this and that. Toni told me a bit about her new book, "The Surrender," which is due out from HarperCollins in October. I can report that the book sounds as yummy as its title. I suspect that it'll cause quite the scandale -- here's hoping, anyway. I've sworn to keep the juiciest details under wraps, but I'm free to say that the book is a memoir, and that sex, God, art and ecstasy (some of the Blowhards' favorite themes) are never far from Toni Bentley's mind. If you're eager to know what her subject is -- and who wouldn't be? -- you can visit a webpage that Toni has set up here, and have a good time trying to make sense of the clues. I mentioned to Toni that I'd noticed at Terry Teachout's blog that Toni had met with Terry too. (Glad to see that Terry likes Toni's writing as much as I do. Here's Terry's charming account of their get-together.) "He invited you up to see his prints?" I said in disbelief. "And you went? Don't you know by now never to trust a critic?" Toni giggled. "He was charming, and a complete gentleman." Phew! So we marveled for a few minutes about how much first-class pro stuff Terry publishes in legit venues. "And then he goes home and blogs! For relaxation!" We shook our heads in wonder and shrugged. What's to be done? Some people just have the gift. Then I got down to blogbusiness, did some sulking and some arm-twisting, and managed to get Toni to agree to do an exclusive q&a with 2Blowhards -- er, that would be this Blowhard -- when the release of her book gets near. Ah, the things I do for our visitors. Hey, who needs the Algonquin Round Table or Bohemian Paris when we've got the blogging life? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 7, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Monday, May 3, 2004

Ira Levin Adds Value
Dear Friedrich -- Have you read any of the novels of Ira Levin? He's best-known as the author of the novels Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys from Brazil, and of the play Deathtrap. I think he's sensational, and I marvel that more isn't made of him. His books -- I haven't yet read "Deathtrap" -- strike me as stunning examples of American art at its best. Er, "Rosemary's Baby"? "The Stepford Wives"? Hook-y, bestselling popular thrillers, right? Am I really trying to make the case that they're American art at its best? I sure am. (By the way, I'm hoping to do so in a way that doesn't put down hook-y popular fiction, which I've got a lot of respect for.) They're very sophisticated entertainments. I've only read three of Levin's novels: his first, "A Kiss Before Dying"; "Rosemary's Baby"; and "The Stepford Wives." To run through them ultra-quickly ... "A Kiss Before Dying" is a brilliant example of psychological suspense. (I blogged here about my enthusiasm for the genre generally.) It gets creepily inside the mind of a killer, and it has a couple of twists that have had readers falling out of their easy chairs with alarm, fear, and amazement for decades. It may be less needling and chilly than the best Patricia Highsmith, but it's even more maliciously plotted. Humbling note: Levin published this terrific novel when he was 23. 23!!! Interesting lit history: like the early Highsmith, "A Kiss Before Dying" (which was published in 1953) was a breakthrough psych-suspense novel that helped set the genre's pattern. A pause for a moment of exasperation: can you explain why so many educated English-major types have such ... well, if it's not contempt then it's certainly a lack of respect for the craft of storytelling? Lit types seem to think that plot and story are nothing much, and easily taken-care of. They're the lowest of writing's concerns, a matter of mere mechanics. But then, lit types often seem convinced that the only fiction-thing that counts is the writing. (Or what I like to think of as "the writin'.") Of course, their definition of what the writin' consists of changes regularly. Back in our college years, the writin' was a matter of meta-fictional games; for a stretch soon after, a writin' writer wrote flattened-out snapshots of depressing Americana; more recently, writin' writers wrote memoirs as metaphors for American dysfunction. I'm perfectly capable of appreciating and enjoying this kind of thing. I've got some, if not much, taste for it, as well as 'way too much education and experience in it. What I fail to understand is why the lit set has so little respect for the most basic elements of fiction-writing: for example, story, plotting, humor, characters-who-seem-alive, and suspense. This is especially puzzling given the way many lit-writers of my acquaintance spend their own leisure time reading mysteries and thrillers. All of which reminds me of the true stories you hear about the edgy and thorny... posted by Michael at May 3, 2004 | perma-link | (47) comments

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Rewind -- Lit Writers vs. Genre Writers
Back in early blogging days, we Blowhards had next to no visitors -- this place was one very lonely Internet outpost. Yet we were doing some fiery and original writing, or so we like to imagine. Sad to think of these postings mouldering unread in the archives. These days the blog is hopping; we feel like lucky restauranteurs whose eatery has somehow caught on. What a treat to welcome so many lively visitors. So we hope our current crowd will forgive us if we occasionally see fit to re-run some of our early-on writing. Perhaps a few of these golden-oldie postings will amuse and provoke. Since the topic of genre and artistic forms has cropped up recently, here's a quickie posting I wrote comparing American literary writers with genre writers. Note: I've met a lot of examples of both categories and know plenty of exceptions to the general observations I make below. But as rough overgeneralizations and smudgey rules of thumb, my observations seem to me valid. Plus, what can I say, I just like making rough overgeneralizations. And exceptions are always allowed for. Friedrich -- Another entry in our ongoing attempt to put into words the things people know but that don't make it into the official sources... In a general sense, there are real group differences between American literary-fiction writers and American writers of genre fiction (horror, romance, mysteries, erotica, graphic novels, etc). It breaks down this way: Literary writers tend to feel that what they do is a vocation -- ie., a religious calling. Genre writers tend to view what they do as something that's fun -- which doesn't mean that they aren't committed to what they do, or don't fundamentally take it seriously. Lit-fict writers tend to feel harshly conflicted (a word we New Yorkers love) about money and careers. How could they not? Trust funds make people feel guilty, jobs take up too much time. Everyone hopes to be touched by the magic wand -- to win the respect of the bigtime, and to earn enough money from the writing to pay the bills. Yet nearly everyone winds up next-to-unread, and chasing academic jobs and grants. And isn't it kind of anti-artistic to fret over money and prestige anyway? So pretences and rivalries abound. Genre writers tend to experience no conflicts at all about money and career. Most seem to know that writing fiction-between-covers is an absurd field, but hope to win readers and make money at it anyway. They're straightforwardly happy when and if they do. Self-serious creatures on an artistic crusade, dependent on a sense of mission and destiny that's forever in need of recharging, lit-fict writers tend to be serious and touchy people -- and difficult on the personal level, to say the least. (Depression, jealousy and resentment are common ailments.) Lugging around egos that are both big and fragile, they make high-maintenance friends and acquaintances. Genre-fict writers tend on the personal level to be easy friends and colleagues. They've got a... posted by Michael at April 22, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, April 8, 2004

Book Publishing
Dear Friedrich -- When it comes to the views about books and book publishing that I've presented at the blog, I've gotten the impression that some visitors think I'm a bit ... well, eccentric. Morbidly defeatist and pessimistic. Sick and twisted, perhaps. In my mind, of course, I've simply been having a good time telling people what I've observed. In fact, I'm one of the cheerier people you'll ever meet; I may even someday publish a book of my own. I just see no reason to fool myself about what the process is likely to entail. Still, it's fun to find backup. (Don't girls call this "validation"?) I recently ran across a couple of items that visitors interested in writing and publishing may find interesting. Not so coincidentally, these two pieces confirm every damn thing I've ever written here about book publishing. Ahem. Doubt a Blowhard at your peril. Here's a piece by the distinguished journalist Anne Applebaum about the mutual hostility between high-cult people and pop-cult people. "Popular culture now hates high culture so much that it campaigns aggressively against it," she writes. "High culture now fears popular culture so much that it insulates itself deliberately from it. As for the rest of us -- we're inundated with the former, often alienated from the latter." (Link thanks to Terry Teachout, here.) Here's a pseudonymously-written Salon piece about what it's like to try to make a go of it as a writer of midlist books. (You'll have to accept a Salon "day pass" to read the piece, but all that means is clicking through some ads.) Moral: why not shoot yourself now instead? And a couple of bonus tracks: Here's a super-amusing q&a that Craig McDonald did with the wonderful English mystery writer Peter Lovesey. Here's a decently-done animated BBC history of books. You now know virtually everything about book publishing that it took me 15 on-the-job years to figure out. Ain't the web great? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 8, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Book Sales/Audiobook Sales
Dear Friedrich -- Audiobooks, whose virtues and pleasures I've been touting on this blog for a while, continue to gain. Although sales of adult hardcover books dropped 2.4% in 2003 -- and I've been told that the figure would be close to 4% if you left out the "Harry Potter" books -- audiobook sales rose 12.4% in the same period, a rate of growth that has held steady since 1997. I got these figures from the excellent inside-publishing newsletter Publishing Trends, whose website is here. Some more interesting facts and passages from the piece: "The average audiobook listener remains middle-aged to older, well educated, and relatively affluent. According to APA stats, audiobook listeners are 76% female, with an average age of 45 (the average male is 47). And, more telling than any other trait, the average listener does so while driving." "Publishers report that the sale of [books on] CDs has shifted into overdrive, and many say it's only a matter of time before cassettes go the way of the Edsel." Digital downloading of audiobooks is now possible -- more than 5000 audiobooks can now be downloaded via Apple's Itunes site, for instance. Digitification means that audiobooks will soon be popping up in all kinds of venues. "Daniel Waters, chair of the Public Library Association's Tech in Libraries Committee ... said it's only a matter of time -- say, 18-24 months -- before most libraries offer digital downloads of books." It's expected that audiobooks will soon be offered on airplanes, as one of the audio channels. Already, a digital-radio channel offers audiobooks 24/7. Although I'll miss books-on-cassettes, I can't see any other downsides to these developments, can you? IMHO, audiobooks are a bandwagon well worth jumping on. Thanks to 'em, commuting time, exercise time, even time spent on housework can all go from being tedium-time to book-reading time. Best, Michael UPDATE: Here's a link to Telltale Weekly, an interesting attempt to create a public-domain audiobook library.... posted by Michael at April 8, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Elizabeth George
Dear Friedrich -- Have you ever run across the crime novelist Elizabeth George? To my shame, I've only read one of her novels, this one here. But I thought it was terrific, and I'll be reading more of them. I suppose the dismissive view of her work might be that it's nothing but PBS "Mystery!" fodder. And that's not inaccurate; in fact, some of her books have been made into "Mystery!"-ish TV series. But at the same time such a judgment misses the point of what's to be valued, admired and enjoyed in her books. Like PD James and Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George uses the crime-novel form to explore the traditional material of fiction -- psychology and character, sociology and politics. Readers looking for full-bodied novel-reading experiences from contemporary fiction would be well-advised, IMHO, to avoid most lit-fiction (especially the buzzed-about stuff) and pick up a crime novel by James, Rendell or George instead. All three are expert storytelling craftspeople; all three are also shrewd, observant and insightful, and have a lot on their minds. Of the three, Rendell is the strangest, the most malicious and the most perverse. Many of her books (especially her non-series books) are wonderfully freaky reading experiences, and of the three she's my personal fave. James and George satisfy in more traditional ways. Their books are as much like old carved-from-oak, made-for-the-generations 19th-century novels as you can find (or at least as I've found) these days. Attention, attention, attention: all of these writers are working in what today passes for non-"literary" modes. The central thing they're selling, so to speak, is story, sociology, and character; don't bother with them if what you're in the market for is pinwheeling, attitudinizing literary hijinks. All three are terrific writers in the (sigh) hyper-limited sense of being able to use words and sentences fluently, and of structuring a reading experience effectively. But they're a lot more interested in the human content of their subjects than they are in linguistic, let alone writing-school, games. This is non-egocentric writing, the equivalent in fiction of what Christopher Alexander, Leon Krier, and the New Urbanists fight for in architecture -- art that isn't about the the caperings of an artist-genius, but that puts technique at the service of subject matter, and that serves traditional human interests and needs. Needless to say, I think that's great, and I think the self-conscious "literary" world should bow down before these prolific and brilliant giants. But I vowed early this morning to not let myself get too worked up about these things today. As a person, George is an interesting figure too, famous mainly because, although she's an American (born in the midwest; lived for ages in California; recently moved to Washington state), she writes novels set convincingly in Britain, and featuring British characters. When asked why she does this, she tends to say, Why not? And then that she does it because she likes England. (Good answer!) She has done a lot of teaching, and recently... posted by Michael at April 8, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Friday, February 6, 2004

More on Book Review Editing
Dear Friedrich -- Because I'm the kind of bore who can't let go of a topic without giving it one final shake ... Here's a list of some of the culturethings I've been looking at/listening to/flipping through during the last few weeks. "A History of Classical Music" by Richard Fawke -- a Naxos four-CD package that's read by Robert Powell and that includes many musical examples. An excellent first spin through the history of Western art music, by the way. It's buyable here. "Money Money Money," a terrific police-procedural crime novel by Ed McBain, which I listened to in an abridged version on audiotape. Several episodes of the A&E series "American Justice." The Wife loves Bill Kurtis, the show's host, and the episodes themselves are well-told, hour-long true-crime stories. Several Howard Goodall music-history shows on Ovation. A three-part IFC documentary about American movies in the '70s. An English documentary about Dizzy Gillespie. The usual huge number of websites. A talk by the wonderful Vedanta guru, Swami Prabhavananda, which I listened to on audio. (Tons of Vedanta-related books and tapes are buyable here.) A few decades ago, all the above media products might well have been books. These days they're media products instead. They were all, by the way, just as satisfying as good books, and often (to my mind) better-scaled, as in "finito in a few hours." I think this list can help explain two things that are useful when thinking about the state of bookchat and book reviewing. * It helps explain why so much vitality has gone out of the book world. There's been no loss of cultural vitality in a general sense, IMHO, but as media options have opened up, energy has dispersed among them. (I don't read as many books in the traditional way as I once did; and I don't watch network TV anymore either. Both are consequences of the same thing -- the explosion in media options.) Cultural energy now slops around among many media possibilities. There used to be a small number of well-defined categories: network TV; movies; books; classical, jazz or pop music; etc. These days, there are an uncountable number of categories. What to call, for instance, a website that includes visuals, writing, biographies, and sound clips? That's certainly a project that a few decades ago might have been a book. Is it a tragedy that today it's a website instead? If so, why? Gee whiz: it's free, it's accesssible, it's easy to use, and the blending of media works better on a website than it ever could in a book. As far as I can tell, its availability as a web thing is a big fat plus for consumers. But the fact that it's a website rather than a book does mean that the world of books per se is a little less rich than it might have been. * My list also helps illustrate the kinds of challenges book-review editors are up against. A simple-and-obvious example: these days, where... posted by Michael at February 6, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, February 5, 2004

Whither The NYTimes Book Review Section?
Dear Friedrich -- The chitchat in the bookworld these days is about The New York Times Book Review Section. Have you followed the gossip? Chip McGrath, who has edited the section for some years now, is stepping aside to return to writing. Who'll be named to replace him? The choice will be announced in a few weeks. Amazingly, some misguided soul has written in to ask what my thoughts about the matter are. Well, I do declare! But I certainly can't resist doing some opinionating and pontificating too. First things first: there's been good information and sassy commenting from a number of sources, and I urge the interested to check them out: Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel at Poynter Online (here), OGIC at About Last Night (here), Cup of Chicha (here), Mark Sarvas (here), Bookslut (here), Dr. Mabuse (here), Boris Kachka in New York magazine (here) and Rachel Donadio in The Observer (here) have all had much to contribute. Christopher Dreher in Salon reports here, but you have to subscribe to read his article. What's raised temperatures is what the Times' new Executive Editor, Bill Keller, has been quoted as saying he wants from the Book Review Section -- less space given to first literary novels, more attention paid to mass-market fiction, and more coverage of the bookbiz. Are these good or bad ideas? My mature reaction (which I promise to keep very short) is ... Well, we'll see how it plays out in practice. I confess that some of what Keller is planning is what I'd insist on too if the Book Review Section were given to me to edit, not that anyone in his right mind would do such a thing. In some ways, and although this probably makes me one of the bad guys, I'd take things further than he would. Just for the heck of it, I went through a recent issue of the NYTBR, which I'll assume is a typical one. Here's the editorial matter in the issue's 28 pages: A letters column. Full-scale reviews that covered 13 nonfiction books. Full-scale reviews of six fiction books. Four are new literary titles, two are volumes of a new translation of Proust. A "crime fiction" column that consisted of short reviews of five crime-fiction books. An "in brief" section that gave short reviews to three new lit-fiction books and to three new poetry collections. Two pages of bestseller-lists and recommendations. A final-page essay. Topic: was Sherlock Holmes gay? In all, 30 books were reviewed -- seven lit-fiction books, five crime novels, 13 nonfiction books, and three poetry books. The issue contained no news stories, no interviews, no visits, no trend pieces, no musing-and-thought pieces. A fine, professional book-review publication, but also one that I haven't felt the need or desire to follow closely for some years now. As a piece of self-indulgence, I've pulled together the M. Blowhard guide to making the Book Review Section a vital and enjoyable read, at least one that I'd consider a... posted by Michael at February 5, 2004 | perma-link | (20) comments

Friday, January 30, 2004

Classic Prose
Dear Friedrich -- Denis Dutton has posted a lot of fresh material on his site, here, only a little of which I've had time to catch up with so far. But I was thrilled to see that, like me, he's enthusiastic about Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, by Francis-Nol Thomas and Mark Turner. The book is basically a guide to writing good prose -- but it's also one of the most exciting meditations on learning, thought processes, language and classical art that I've ever run across. Turner's a fascinating guy who combines an interest in art with an interest in neuro- and cognitive science. Why isn't he better known? A passage from Dutton's review: The classic stylists confidence derives in part from the manner in which the writing is addressed intimately to a single reader, rather than a large and possibly disparate group. Groups have to be persuaded, but friends dont have to explain everything in conversations. The book is buyable here. Dutton's tiptop essay -- a firstclass introduction to the book -- is here. Here's Mark Turner's own website. Here's a long, high-level q&a with Turner by James Underhill. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 30, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Saturday, January 24, 2004

More on Making Books
Dear Friedrich -- Interesting tales about what it's really like to make a book: Andy Kessler writes for the WSJ about self-publishing his book, here. David Sucher recalls what it was like to bring his own excellent book to the public here. Philip Greenspun lays out the details of his own publishing story here. Reading these accounts got me thinking: If I had a nonfiction project that might be a book, I'm not sure a book is what I'd choose to turn it into. Why? Because books aren't electronic, and these days most information is accessed electronically. If I thought that by turning my material into a book I might change my life in a good way -- by making a zillion dollars, say, or by earning tenure -- I might well decide to publish a book. But if my book prospects looked more typical -- pathetic advance, few reviews, many frustrations, lousy sales -- I'd choose to put my material online instead, where it could at least be found, looked at, and made use of. If the real point of writing is to contribute to the larger conversation, why consign your work to a dusty, lonely shelf when you can give it a public life instead? A note here: I'm as lousy a predictor of the future as the next guy. But when I do get lucky and connect, I find that I hit on a topic about 2-5 years before it turns up as a subject of general discussion. And I gotta say that I'm feelin' the heat here about this particular line of thought. So I'm going to go out on a limb and make a Blowhardish prediction: in a couple of years, you'll start noticing that numerous nonfiction writers are agonizing out loud about whether they should be turning their material into books, or into online resources instead. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 24, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Bookpeople Moviepeople Redux
Dear Friedrich -- It's been fun to see the comments pile up on my posting about the differences between the way moviepeople and bookpeople see things (here). Many fab observations, lots of fun admissions of book pleasure, tons of provocative book suggestions, scads of well-made points, and pleasingly little prissiness. Since what I was complaining about in my posting was the prissiness of the bookpeople view, I couldn't be more pleased: hey, a rowdy, enthusiastic, open-minded conversation about books -- cool! Something you'll run into at 2Blowhards, by the way, but won't often find if your idea of the books life comes from following, say, The New York Times Book Review Section. Which was kinda my point: why aren't more bookchat sessions like this? Being co-proprietor of this blog, I can't resist treating myself to a return to the topic, as well as to an epic wallow in navel-gazing. Be warned. First: the question of qualifications. I notice that some commenters seemed to think that I wrote my posting out of ignorance, whether of the academic or of the professional sort. It's funny, as you and I have often noted, the way some people seem to believe that if they disagree with you, it must be because they know something you don't. The presumption evidently being that disagreement between knowledgeable people is impossible. Patooie on that, especially where the arts are concerned. First, I've got a couple of fancy-enough English degrees from a couple of fancy-enough colleges. Second, I've spent more than a couple of decades in the thick of the arts and writing worlds -- as a nonentity, you betcha, but a nonentity who was taking note. Third, I'm familiar with the business of movies and the business of publishing in ways that many academic sorts aren't. (You'd think it would occur to them -- occasionally, at least -- to shut up and learn. But then maybe they wouldn't be academics.) Fourth, though I enjoy presenting postings in a whimsical and open-ended way, some of them have oomph and weight behind them -- some thought and a lot of experience. This posting was one. It's a discussion that took form in my head over decades, and it's one that I've road-tested with many people in both the bookworld and the movieworld. It may have its flaws, but its tires have been kicked plenty, and by experts. Fifth, I hear fairly regularly from people in the bookworld and the movieworld -- authors, screenwriters, editors, agents -- who write in to let me know that they're glad someone's finally saying these things out loud. So: qualifications? Yup. To be candid (something I generally avoid), I wonder how many of the people who see fit to take a lecturing, you-don't-know-anything tone come close to having my qualifications. But that's falling for the I've-got-a-fancier-degree-than- you-do-and-thus-I'm-right approach to a discussion. And patooie on that too. Let's agree that the case I made in my posting is one that can indeed be made by a... posted by Michael at January 14, 2004 | perma-link | (25) comments

History of Math
Michael: I have a question. This is supposed to be a culture blog; why don't we ever talk about what may be the most significant, or at least most accomplished, field of human intellectual endeavor: mathematics? Ive been reading Carl B. Boyers A History of Mathematics and its been quite an eye-opener. Granted, just following along with the examples is, to put it mildly, stretching my brain a good deal. (Before I go any farther, let me freely admit to being a math lightweight. I never went beyond calculus. I like to think I could do more advanced math, but realistically I know that it would only happen if someone was holding a gun to my head to give me the, uh, necessary motivation.) So keeping in mind that Im a highly superficial kind of guy, math wise, I thought Id share some observations from the first few chapters. Does it ever strike you as weird that you read about a lot of guys like Steven Pinker, who study how people acquire language, but nobody who studies how you (or the rest of humanity, for that matter) acquired the ability to do math? They may exist, I grant you, but I dont run across them. Whats with that? And in evo-bio theory, is it culturally or biologically significant that symbolic representations of numbers came so much earlier than symbolic representations of speech? Cause they sure did: in Czechoslovokia a bone from a young wolf was found which is deeply incised with fifty-five notches. These are arranged in two series, with twenty-five in the first and thirty in the second; within each series the notches are arranged in groups of five Such archaeological discoveries provide evidence that the idea of numberantedates civilization and writingfor artifacts with numerical significance, such as the bone described above, have survived from a period of some 30,000 years ago. Regrettably, the discussion of the fascinating prehistory of math is quite short, as either so little is known or, possibly, Mr. Boyer has so much ground to cover in one book that he cant dilly-dally in the Stone Age. So we move rather quickly to ancient Egypt. I was immensely gratified to learn that Egyptian mathematical ideas were, to put it kindly, sort of idiosyncratic. I remember in high school thinking that the most intimidating thing about math is how logical and systematic it all is. I mean, just about any math textbook makes me feel like a scatterbrained moron as it carefully works its way from one topic to another, in an unbroken flow of tight logic. So when I realized that the Egyptians wanted to take one-third of a number, they first found what two-thirds of the number was and then divided it in half, I was tickled pink. Also, for reasons known chiefly to themselves, Egyptians seem to have taken a dislike to any fractions (except, oddly, 2/3) that werent inverses of whole numbers, i.e., 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, etc.: Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions have a... posted by Friedrich at January 14, 2004 | perma-link | (40) comments

Friday, January 9, 2004

The Book-Person's Vision
Dear Friedrich -- The Wife and I just spent a happy evening watching the DVD of a 1980 Roger Corman horror picture, Humanoids From the Deep. It's full of tacky pleasures: shag haircuts on both the girls and the boys; lots of naked pre-Nautilus bodies (it was fun to remember that a certain amount of flop-and-dimple was once considered sexy); rubber-suited, seaweed-draped monsters; and a blessed absence of souped-up, computer-generated imagery. "Humanoids" is a likable hybrid of a movie, caught somewhere between a cheapo postwar monster pic and an '80s conglomerate-driven extravaganza -- which means in practice that the first thing the otherwise very '50s monsters do when they see a girl in a bikini is to yank her top off. (Very '70s). It's from an era when I was able to find contemporary movies a lovable medium, something I can't do anymore. Rather wistfully, I watched the film thinking: now this is a movie I can imagine going out with my friends and having a good time making. But, for probably quirky reasons, what the movie really made me chew over was the difference between the movie-person's view of the world and the book-person's view of the world. A quick word of explanation and qualification: by "movie people," I don't mean everyone who likes movies. I mean people who wind up in the field, whether as techies, execs, publicists, journalists, directors, designers, etc. Same for "book people"; for the sake of this discussion, I don't mean book fans. I mean people who spend a hunk of their professional lives in the books world -- as agents, retailers, critics, editors, writers, designers, etc. I'm going to make the daring assumption that we can all tolerate some wild overgeneralizations for the sake of a point or two. So, if you're with me ... As you certainly don't need to be told, the movie-person's view of the world swings happily back and forth between art and trash. It's a view that grows out of discussions of the movies and of popular culture that were pioneered by such people as Gilbert Seldes (here), the Cahiers du Cinema crowd (here), and Pauline Kael (here). It's a cartoonish view of their arguments, but nonetheless there it is. The movie person's conviction is that trash and art are closely and necessarily connected -- that, since movies have their roots in lowbrow entertainment, the ultimate movie is one that fuses the oomph and power of popular entertainment with the values, complexity, and pleasures of high art. Movie people aren't much different than many foodies, come to think of it. (I haven't been friendly with the kind of food snob who looks down on anything that isn't three stars and French.) The foodies I've known are pluralistic eaters: "I love food," they're prone to say. They adore cheap ethnic dishes, high-end fusion cooking, a good burger, a home-cooked plate of macaroni and cheese, exquisite sushi, etc. It's a kind of daredevil, whirling approach to food. Go for the... posted by Michael at January 9, 2004 | perma-link | (129) comments

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

How to Adapt a Dick?
Dear Friedrich -- I know you're a fan of the sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick, so you may enjoy this Frank Rose piece (here) for Wired. It's mainly about how little money Dick made from his writing while alive, and how in recent years Hollywood has been buying up rights to nearly all his work. Brief Dick aside: a few weeks ago, The Wife and I caught "Paycheck," the John Woo version of a Dick story that's now out starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman. I didn't see many new movies last year, but I nonetheless confidently nominate "Paycheck" as Biggest Turkey of 2003. It sounded like a reasonably yummy evening at the theater: a hook-y Dick idea, and Woo doing some pretty action choreography. (I'm not a big Woo fan, but the man does know chases and explosions.) But the film is so bad -- like a lousy episode of "The Man from UNCLE" -- that you wonder how it could have gone so wrong. It even manages to make Uma look haggard, though I did enjoy her new haircut. As for Ben Affleck: perhaps the worst excuse for a real-guy action hero Hollywood has ever proposed. "Paycheck" made me wonder a bit about Hollywood's appetite for Dick's material. All due respect to "Blade Runner" and to "Total Recall," of course, both of which managed to turn Dick into something watchable. But "Paycheck," like "Minority Report," is a terribly awkward and halting viewing experience. There's ten minutes of action, then there's ten minutes of explanation; then ten more minutes of action, then another screeching-to-a-halt break for exposition ... I found watching both of these Dick adaptations to be like listening to stories told by someone with a terrible stutter. I found myself struggling so consciously with the basic sense of the narratives that the largely unconscious process of enjoying the movies never had a chance to get started. But I've only read one Dick book while you're a Dick expert. Dick's premises have brilliant-lunatic qualities that must make them irresistable to some filmmakers. Yet maybe they're a little too brilliant and a little too tricky to be ideal movie material. How do you think filmmakers might best think about handling his work? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 7, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

"Killing Freud"
Dear Friedrich -- Though Freud died in 1939, his reputation lived on and on -- despite the fact that good scholars repeatedly demonstrated how utterly unscientific his ideas were. Then, in the 1990s, the Berkeley professor and literary critic Frederick Crews trained his sights on Freud. Not much remained when Crews was done. Crews' book The Memory Wars (buyable here) is one of the most entertaining and brilliant demolition jobs I've ever read. Still, a few intellectuals persist in seeing value in Freud's work; most of them, of course, inhabit liberal-arts departments. (Film Studies is apparently still very hot on Freud.) For whatever quirky reasons, one of my micro-hobbies is following the flailings of the handful of remaining true believers. Their rationales can get entertainingly desperate. Harold Bloom, for example, just can't bring himself to let go of his hero. Instead, he's invented this justification for keeping Freud in the pantheon: "OK, so Freud wasn't a scientist. He was a great literary artist!" Bloom, greatness, genius and Freud, eh? But maybe the time really has come to write RIP on the tombstone of Freud's legacy. I just spent a couple of enjoyable hours with Todd Dufresne's new book Killing Freud (which is buyable here). Dufresne turns a few too many po-mo pirouettes, and I'll never get around to reading every word of his book. But I couldn't resist cheering the show he puts on anyway. Because what Dufresne sets out to do is dance on Freud's grave. "How did this awful man and his worse ideas ever get themselves taken seriously? What in god's name were people thinking?" -- these are a couple of the questions Dufresne asks. (For a scholar, Dufresne has a lot of nose-thumbing common sense.) I'm going to indulge myself and type in a few of my favorite passages from the book. Here's hoping they amuse. But, really, do we need Freud to tell us that people are aggressive? Do we really need the overblown theory of the death drive to explain the rise of Nazi Germany? ... We most certainly do not need Freud to help us describe the world -- inner or outer. If, on the other hand, there is a use for Freud and pschoanalysis, it is as a cautionary tale, or, if you prefer, as a case study of a modern politico-religious movement having just about run its course ... First of all, the unconscious: there is no reason to hang onto a theory inherited from the dubious baggage of mesmerism and hypnotism (and which has nothing to do with what is sometimes called the cognitive unconscious). Boogie-men and other unknown forces may make for excellent bed-time stories, but that does not make them true. As the case of Anna O. amply demonstrates, the myth of the unconscious is the direct result of a paranoid discourse bent on proving its own assumptions ... Repression is just another myth of psychoanalysis. It must be admitted, moreover, that even the commonplace notion of "repression"... posted by Michael at January 7, 2004 | perma-link | (27) comments

Monday, January 5, 2004

High School Yearbook
Dear Friedrich -- I mentioned in a recent posting how Aaron (here), George (here) and I did a little blogger-guy bonding when we found ourselves agreeing about how wrong it is that the immortal National Lampoon's 1964 High School Yearbook has been overlooked by the literary set. (A reissue of the book is buyable here.) Sigh: the lit set, eh? Why would anyone look to a such a bunch of killjoys for guidance where their reading and writing lives are concerned? But stars have come into alignment, and if the lit set declines to appreciate bookmaking brilliance when it hits them in the face, maybe another set will. Here's a sweet and informative appreciation of the book by Michael Bierut of DesignObserver, with special emphasis on the contributions of the book's graphic designers, Michael Gross and David Kaestle. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 5, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Dear Friedrich -- A few of the things I've learned from hanging out online: How many people identify themselves as libertarians. How many people have gone through serious Ayn Rand phases. How many bright people read and enjoy sci-fi as adults. The immense cultural importance of Robert Heinlein. I think I've managed to semi-understand the first three of those phenomena. The fourth still eludes me. As you know, I'm largely incapable of reading sci-fi -- off we swoop into other lands, dimensions and times, and some toggle in my brain I've got no control over switches to "off." So I've read almost no Heinlein, only "Starship Troopers," which I was curious about because I loved the Verhoeven movie based on it. Have you seen the film? I found it a riot -- an irreverent, midnight-movie-ish, satirical, borderline-porn bash that happened to get produced on an A-movie budget. But I understand true Heinlein fans don't approve of the movie. I can see why --- when I read the novel I was surprised to find it straight-ahead and earnest in its concerns, though (the toggle in my brain having switched to "off") I can no longer recall what those concerns were. I seem to remember that you were a fan many decades ago. Can you explain what it is Heinlein means to many people? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 18, 2003 | perma-link | (48) comments

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Coming To Grips With Nietzsche, Part III
Michael: In my (no doubt) long-awaited third posting on Nietzsche, I want to discuss where I think his ideas have been significant to me, and where I think he went wrong. Because I havent touched on all aspects of his thought in my previous posts, I beg your indulgence while offering a brief summary: God is DeadThis is Nietzsches term for the collapse of belief in God and the Christian interpretation of the meaning of life, a process that had been underway for a century but was accelerating in his time. The Christian interpretation of the world had served as a way of giving meaning to suffering, death and worldly frustration, so it kept under control humanitys tendency towards nihilismi.e., the belief that life is meaningless suffering, with its consequential world weariness and will to death. Nietzsche therefore anticipated that he lived at the beginning of an epoch during which nihilism would spiral out of control. However, he notices that although belief in God was diminishing, the credence given to Christian moral judgments seems to be doing fine. This leads him to ponder the source and nature of morality and value systems, a project he entitles the Revaluation of Values. By contemplating history and psychology, Nietzche rejects the notion that values and moralities are handed down from on high and are thus absolute. He finds, rather, that values and moralities (which are, in essence, systems of guidance) are developed to serve the needs of particular human groups, communities and classes. He finds that the group whose needs are served by taking guidance from Christian values are the weak and suffering majority of mankind. He also finds Christian values to be infused with envy and resentment against the powerful. By the powerful he meant the well-formed, those who do not suffer, those who get what they want. Nietzsche also thought that these lower class values had hampered the few well-formed powerful individuals of his time from actualizing themselves. Nietzsche also saw that the values of the secular religions of his time (democracy, socialism, feminism, nationalism) were likewise in the service of the same weak and suffering majority, and were laden with the same resentment. (As you might expect, Nietzsche was against all of these secular religions, which makes the Nazis appropriation of his philosophy sort of a bad joke.) Looking back in history, he saw, however, that the weak and suffering had not been the only human group that had created a set of values. According to Nietzsche, the classical Greeks and Romans, who were dominated by the upper classesthat is, the masters, the powerful and well-formed, those that never doubted that they should be in charge and get what they wanthad believed in a very different set of values. This master morality was not full of resentment, as those that believed in it didnt feel weak or powerless. Nietzsche also found that this master morality had encouraged the remarkable development of superior human beings in the Classical era and their... posted by Friedrich at December 17, 2003 | perma-link | (16) comments

Monday, December 1, 2003

Coming to Grips With Nietzsche, Part II
Michael: This is the second part of my series of postings on Nietzsche. (You can read the first part here.) Having laid out his ultimate goals in the first posting, I want to sketch out the intellectual program that Nietzsche undertook to provide support for his ultimate goals. As you recall, Nietzsche felt that the demise of Christianity, which was speeding up in his era, was leading to a crisis of nihilism. He saw that the collapse of the central pole, so to speak, in the intellectual structure of the age would cause people to doubt all meaning and all valuesto believe in nothing. And this belief in nothing would lead to a sort of suicidal depression that would be felt most keenly by the era's leading spirits. He felt it was urgent to replace the no-longer tenable Christian interpretation of the world and its associated hierarchy of values with a different interpretation, both to forestall nihilism and because he felt his new interpretation would speed the evolution of the individuals who would eventually give birth to a more life-affirming world-view. However, replacing the Christian world-view was easier said than done. By Nietzsches own estimate, notions that ultimately derived from the Christian world-view and its associated hierarchies of value were threaded throughout European culture, from the most abstruse speculations of philosophy to the most down to earth aspects of language and science. Where was one to start in untangling such a wide and subtle web? One of Nietzsches methods was to write an essay in a series of short fragments or "sections" in which he touched briefly on many different aspects of an overarching subject. In each fragment he adopts a reductionist position, showing that what at first appears to be an unrelated set of phenomena actually shows (on closer examination) an underlying unity. He thus simultaneously creates a chain of argumentation while making it clear that the examples chosen could be multiplied many thousands of times over, because the pattern he was describing is omnipresent. It must be admitted, of course, that this method makes it easy for lazy readerslike me at the age of 20or intellectually unscrupulous readerslike some of our leading postmodernistsignore the context and continuity of his argument. Heck, its fun to seize on one of his striking intellectual formulations and treat it as if it popped up in a vacuum. But I would assert that this is the wrong way to read Nietzsche. The strongest impression Ive had in re-reading Nietzsche is exactly how sustained his argumentation actually is. Let me give an example of this by walking you through an overview of the first chapter or essay of his book, Beyond Good and Evil. The chapter is titled, On the Prejudices of Philosophers. It is divided into a series of 23 short numbered sections, the longest being several pages in length. In it Nietzsche has three highly inter-related themes. The first is that all forms of metaphysics can be reduced to religion (which, in... posted by Friedrich at December 1, 2003 | perma-link | (17) comments

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Inexcusable Self-Congratulations
Dear Friedrich -- Here's a well-done piece for Reuters by Mark Egan about the lit-fiction author John Robert Lennon, with a special focus on the finances of writing literary novels. "As soon as you get the money, half of it is gone," says Lennon, who (unlike most novelists) has at least had the luck to be well-reviewed by the NYTimes and other important outlets. (Link thanks to Bookslut, here.) May I be permitted a moment of gloating? Here's my posting about how goofy it is, from a practical and financial point of view anyway, to write a book. In Egan's piece, John Baker of Publishers Weekly adds an interesting fact: "More than 60 percent of fiction is bought by women and most of that by women aged between 35 and 55." May I be permitted another moment of gloating? Here's my posting about how publishers are worried that they're losing younger readers. Hey, did I ever mention that most authors of what's generally considered to be "serious nonfiction" actually lose money on their books? How is this possible? Well, say you're lucky, and say you get a $100,000 advance for your book. Subtract 15 percent for your agent, and 30ish percent for taxes. You're down to $55,000. That's got to get you through the writing of your book, which often takes two to five years -- "longer than you think it will" is a good rule of thumb here. Plus, the expenses ... All the telephoning, all the traveling, and all the hanging out that you've got to do to accumulate the facts you'll be making use of? They get paid for not by the publisher, but out of your own pocket. Harumph: And people think I make this stuff up. Of course, that may just about exhaust my store of mildly-interesting inside dope about the business of the arts ... Best, Michael UPDATE: Tyler Cowen takes note and offers some reflections, here. UPDATE UPDATE: Don't miss Alan Kellogg's discussion of RPG fiction in the comments on this posting. It's a whole new world.... posted by Michael at November 30, 2003 | perma-link | (10) comments

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Westlake Makes Me Happy
Dear Friedrich -- During my recent week off I treated myself to one of Donald Westlake's "Parker" novels (which he writes under the pseudonym Richard Stark), and as always with Westlake I had a very good time. But more than that too. What I had wasn't just a very good time; it was a shaking-my-head-in-disbelief, I-can't-believe-how-good-this-guy-is, guffawing-with-pleasure, happy time. I made a note to write a heartfelt tribute to the Parker series on returning to blogging life -- but then, when I started blogsurfing again, I found that both JW Hastings (here) and Terry Teachout (here) had recently written eloquent tributes to the Parker books. Whew! To what both of them have said, I'll add only that I find the Parker series, which represents Westlake's hardest-boiled side, funnier than Terry and JW do. Freed from the chore of writing an appreciation, what I've found myself thinking about instead -- marveling at, really -- is the way a book of fiction can brighten the mood, raise the spirits and make life a more congenial thing than it often is. I mean, how miraculous and wonderful is that? I also find myself wondering: which living writers of fiction put an almost instant smile on my face? Here's who I've come up with. * The cop novelist Joseph Wambaugh certainly gives my mood a reliable boost. I've read a half a dozen of his books and even the most minor was a rollicking, companionable, lowdown thing. The best of the ones I've read ("The Choirboys") was all that and a lot more. Just between you and me: if I were into making rankings and lists and discussing the topic of "greatness" -- and of course I'm not even remotely into any such puffed-up, gatekeeper-y thing -- I'd argue that "The Choirboys" (buyable here) deserves to be considered a major novel. Why has it been so underappreciated? I don't feel remotely sorry for Wambaugh, who's made a skillion dollars from his bestselling books, and from TV and movies. But I do marvel at the judgment of the lit set. Why should "V," for example, have the reputation it does, while "The Choirboys" -- infinitely more substantial on a human level, IMHO -- is seen as a mere cop novel? Which of course it is. But it's also rowdy, irreverent, large-scale, rough and ready, humane, and finally very moving. * I start giggling almost instantly whenever I open one of P.G. Wodehouse's books. Those sentences, his irrepressible silliness -- oops, forgot my own rule about how the writer has to be alive. * Robert Armstrong's "Mickey Rat" and David Boswell's "Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman" make me superhappy, but they're comics, or rather comix. And something -- I don't know what -- isn't right about mixing comix and all-text fiction in the same thought. So, fair or not, I'm choosing to exclude visual books from consideration here. But I make no apologies for loving "Mickey" and "Reid"; in my personal canon, they occupy a spot... posted by Michael at November 25, 2003 | perma-link | (44) comments

Friday, November 21, 2003

King vs. Hazzard
Dear Friedrich -- A couple of people have written in asking what I think about the Hazzard vs. King dustup at the National Book Awards. Hey, imagine that: people who mistake me for someone with an interesting opinion. Fools! (You can read about the comments Hazzard and King made here. Terry Teachout was on the awards committee; you can read his accounts here and here.) In case you didn't follow the news: Stephen King, who was receiving an honorary award, urged the audience to give popular fiction more respect, while Shirley Hazzard, the novelist receiving the award for best fiction of the year, delivered a highbrow scolding. But I'm in a mood to indulge my pomposity, so ... I may be an odd one, but generally speaking I root less for one side or the other in a debate than for the debate itself. I want it to be a good one. (I'm like this even watching sports; I want the game to be a good one far more than I want one side or the other to win.) I want sparks to fly and brains to sharpen. I want to walk away thinking fresh thoughts and noticing new things. Still, in this case, if I absolutely-absolutely, gun-to-my-head had to pick a side, I'd go with King. He's as smart as can be (I've interviewed him a couple of times), he's unquestionably supertalented, and Hazzard makes a prissy case, thereby proving everyone who resents highbrow art correct about its prissiness. But my real feeling in this case is simple: this is a debate I'm very, very tired of. And I wish it would end. Art vs. business; literary fiction vs. popular fiction ... -- really, what conversation could be more tedious? Haven't the arguments on both sides been made often enough and well enough? And many times already? Why rehearse them again? The main reason I groan at the debate is that it supplies (IMHO, of course) a lousy picture of how American culture works, let alone what culture more generally is. When I scan the horizon, I see lots of cultures. I see folk cultures, international cultures, regional cultures, popular cultures, pop cultures, commercial cultures, traditional cultures, cutting-edge cultures, and many kinds of high cultures -- and beyond that, lots of individuals leading all kinds of lives, as well as making and enjoying all kinds of things. Categorizing is a necessary (and inevitable) cognitive exercise, but narrowing this rich vista down to "business vs. art" does a disservice to almost everyone; it also, needless to say, promotes a kneejerk view of business as automatically bad and art as automatically good. (As if the movies could exist as an artform without also being a business.) It also makes me wonder: what sort of person is it who visits the cultural sphere and comes back describing what he saw as "business vs. art"? I'm suspicious of this person; I suspect him of tunnelvision and of projecting an agenda; and I'm pretty... posted by Michael at November 21, 2003 | perma-link | (29) comments

Coming to Grips with Nietzsche, Part I
Michael: As you probably remember from our student days at our Lousy Ivy University, I was a fan of NietzscheI read all his books in the university library and I wasnt even taking the Nietzsche course. (Hey, what greater love can an undergraduate show?) The Big "N" Himself Granted, Nietzsche hasnt been a big part of my daily existence in the intervening decades. But while writing for this blog over the past year or so I keep coming across intellectual problems or concepts that remind me of something the terrible Teuton wrote. So the other day at a bookstore I did something I havent done for nearly thirty years; I picked up the Modern Library edition of The Basic Writings of Nietzsche and started leafing through it. It suddenly dawned on me that Im now older than Nietzsche was when he went insane; it seems like I ought to be old enough to formulate an adult opinion of his thought. This is easier said than done. Nietzsche wrote a good deal on quite a wide variety of subjects, and his tendency towards writing in aphorisms and fragments makes it hard to speak definitively about his thought. And thats not the full extent of the problem. Nietzsche delighted in throwing intellectual bombs at received opinion, whichwhile a groove and a gasdoesnt make getting a handle on his overall program any easier. But since this is about my response to him, I have to do things the Friedrich way. So, following my own instincts, I'm going to try to ignore his surface brilliance, wit and juvenile delinquent ways while (1) trying to identify his positive goals, (2) surveying the intellectual program he set himself in pursuit of those goals, and (3) discussing what aspects of his thought still engage me and where he strikes me as a sort of brilliant lunatic. The results will of course, only constitute a bloggers personal musings--I'm well aware of, and utterly disinclined to engage, the whole academic Nietzsche industry and its products. My first observation is that its useful to keep in mind exactly when and where Nietzsche wrote, because his work now seems to me to be very much a reaction against the situation of his time and placei.e., Europe in the 1870s and 1880s. He was the German son of a Lutheran minister (who died when his son was only five). He was a brilliant student and became a professor at the then-astounding age of 24. He started writing in the wake of the Darwinian revolution, only a decade or so after the Origin of the Species was published and immediately after The Descent of Man came out in 1871. During this same period democracy and egalitarian social concepts were gaining traction. In the U.S. the Civil War led to the elimination of slavery in 1865; in England the parliamentary reforms of 1867 widened the British voting franchise; in France, the Franco-Prussian war led to the replacement of the 2nd Empire with a republican-style... posted by Friedrich at November 21, 2003 | perma-link | (19) comments

Monday, November 17, 2003

The LA Times Book Review and Me
Dear Friedrich -- Do you follow the LATimes Book Review Section? It's edited by Steve Wasserman, who's quite the serious fellow; the section is earnest and intellectual, furiously intelligent and morally-bullying -- ie., far more New York in tone than West Coast. This week's issue strikes me as typical; its informal theme appears to be "leftists vs. the left." A few examples (none of them available online, unfortunately): * From a review by Michael Kazin of Susan Braudy's new book about Weather Underground gal Kathy Boudin: How many know that one of the ringleaders of the failed insugency, Kathy Boudin, was the daughter of a brilliant, philandering lawyer, Leonard Boudin, once famous for defending accused Communist spies as well as Paul Robeson, Benjamin Spock and Daniel Ellsberg? Or that her mother stuck by her man, even inviting his lovers to cocktail parties, then tried to commit suicide? Or that her brother Michael rebelled by becoming a federal judge with strongly conservative views? ... From the 1930s through the 1950s, Leonard Boudin used his talents to serve a party that blinded itself to the awesome butchery of Lenin and Stalin. Then his daughter persuaded herself that the cause of liberation required her to blast apart a bathroom in the U.S. Capital. .. The whole New Left was a movement famously led by privleged young people who clashed with their parents. Many, like Boudin were 'red-diaper babies.' * From a Christopher Hitchens review of a new David Horowitz book: Quarrels on the left have a tendency to become miniature treason trials, replete with all kinds of denunciation. Theres a general tendency -- not by any means confined to radicals but in some way specially associated with them -- to believe that once the lowest motive for a dissenting position has been found, it must in some way be the real one ... No matter what the shortcomings of U.S. policy may have been in the post-2001 crisis, it is clear at least to me that much of the left has disgraced itself either by soft-headed neutralism or, in the case of a very noticeable minority, by something rather like open sympathy for the enemies of civilization ... There really is a cultural layer, in academia as well as outside it, that considers Joseph McCarthy to have been far more opprobrious than Josef Stalin... Well, heaven praise Hitchens for being so sensible. But still: There's nothing quite like lefties when they start blazing away at each other, is there? Back when we were kids dipping our toes in the NYC arts-and-ideas worlds, did you expect to find this kind of thing to be quite as common as it in fact turned out to be? All these vicious, often ad-hominem debates over minuscule pieces of leftist turf -- I found it hard to believe that anyone could take them seriously. Hey, it's a big country; room enough here for plenty of points of view -- such was my initial reaction. But these people seemed... posted by Michael at November 17, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friday, November 7, 2003

Toni Bentley Redux
Dear Friedrich -- A few months ago I raved a bit (here) about Sisters of Salome, a book by the ballerina-turned-author Toni Bentley about four turn-of-the-century women who danced the role of Salome. A fascinating work of theatrical history as well as a meditation on nudity, sex, performance and modern women, it's one of my favorite books of the past few years. (The book is buyable here.) Since putting that posting up I've treated myself to Toni Bentley's three other books, all of which I like just as much as I like "Sisters of Salome." So I'm back now to rhapsodize about her work some more. Forgive me and my language if I shift into stuffy-critic mode here and there -- bad habit. All I really mean to say is, Hey, I like these books a whole lot, and here's why! Photo by Paul Kolnik I find Bentley a daring original. What's sensational about her writing is the way she inhabits her words and her thoughts. We're used to seeing actors and dancers perform bodily and emotional prodigies, but it's rare for writers to convey quicksilver and kinesthetic feats of imagination. Remember the audition in "Mulholland Drive," when Naomi Watts reads for a director? She's been rehearsing a scene on her own in a breathy, innocuous way; now she pulls herself together, faces her co-actor directly, and pours on the eroticism. When I saw the movie, the audience went silent and the temperature in the theater went up a few degrees. The fling-it-out-there physical/emotional/spiritual audacity that Watts showed in that scene is what I find Toni Bentley manages to get down on the page. Her first book Winter Season (just republished in a new paperback edition and buyable here) is a wonderful combination of the aristocratic and the funky. It's based on a journal she kept when she was 22 and dancing in the corps de ballet at the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine. It's unlike most performer's memoirs. What we're used to are the stories of performers who've made it, and who are looking back as they tell us the story of how they got where they are. Bentley wrote "Winter Season" to sort out the confusions and feelings she was living through, and to convey what being a professional ballet dancer is like. She isn't recollecting; what she's writing about is swirling around her as she tries to get it on paper. During this particular season she had a personal crisis: life outside the ballet studio seemed to be beckoning, and dancing was losing its freshness and meaning for her. "I love all the beauty and movement but hate the life," she writes. She discovers the wonders of sex with romance. She wonders where the magic has gone in her dancing. Could she use some time off? Should she just quit? It's dawned on her that although she dances at the highest level, she'll never be a star. "If simple happiness is the aim, dancing is... posted by Michael at November 7, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Book Sales vs. TV Viewship Redux
Dear Friedrich -- Wow, I really was tired when I put up that posting last night comparing sales for "The Lovely Bones" to viewership for "Skin," wasn't I? Failed entirely to make any interesting points whatsoever. Well, it's a new day, the caffeine in me is still relatively fresh, and Deb, Nate, Reuben, Iris, and The Wife have all given me firm kicks in the butt. So I'm going to try to formulate some of what intrigued me about those numbers. While almost everyone understands that hit books and hit TV show are measured by two different scales, I've found that many people are surprised by how drastic the difference between those scales is. What the figures for "The Lovely Bones" and "Skin" dramatize is this: that even an unnoticed, quickly-canceled TV-series flop gets many times the audience that a famous and widely-discussed hit book gets. So, despite the way that books are discussed as significant and important things, only the biggest hit books even begin to edge their way into the realm of what's generally considered to be pop or mass culture. Only a small handful of books a year play in that league. To descend for a minute into the realm of the more possible and plausible: if I were to write a novel and it were to sell 200,000 copies, my publisher and I would be prancing around, celebrating an enormous and unexpected success. Yet 200,000 copies in a country of 300 million people? That's reaching less than a tenth of one percent of the population. And the sad fact is that if I wrote and published a first novel and it sold 20,000 copies, that'd be quite a surprise -- 20,000 hardcover copies is darned good for a first work of fiction. Yet that would be to reach less than a hundredth of a percent of the population. Nate makes the distinction between two different kinds of "important": "numerically and economically important" vs. "culturally important." It's an excellent distinction, and one that it'd be great to see cultural-discussion specialists make (and respect) more often and more clearly. We too often let the two categories overlap and blend. Let's use Nate's distinction. OK, very few books are numerically and economically important. And how about "culturally important"? Hmm. How to judge? Some nonfiction policy-type books have certainly had a discernable impact: "The End of History," "Bowling Alone," etc. But how about fiction? Well, depends on how you define "cultural importance," doesn't it? If you're using harder and more objective criteria -- ie., demonstrable effect at a significant level -- my hunch is that very few qualify. Stephen King certainly; he revived the horror genre, an achievement with large cultural consequences. Anne Rice fused rock-and-roll and vampire sexiness, and is partly responsible for the persistence of the Goth phenom in many media. Michael Crichton played a role in making the well-researched sci-fi thriller thing go over; Rosemary Rogers helped revive the romance; Grisham and Turow put over the lawyer-thriller;... posted by Michael at November 7, 2003 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, November 6, 2003

Book Sales vs. TV Viewership
Dear Friedrich -- A comparison between sales of a best-selling novel and viewer numbers for a failed TV show. Total hardcover sales in 2002 for Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," widely considered a mega-hit: 1.5 million copies. (Your average published novel-writer is thrilled to sell 20,000 copies of a new novel.) Total viewers for the debut of Fox's series "Skin": 6.3 million viewers ("dismal," according to the WSJournal). A few weeks later, only 4.1 million viewers tuned in, a figure considered so low that Fox has canceled the show. Maybe it's just me, but I find it useful to remind myself of this kind of thing occasionally. Puts things in perspective, makes me feel my head's screwed on a bit tighter, etc. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 6, 2003 | perma-link | (13) comments

Friday, October 31, 2003

"City Comforts," the Book
Dear Friedrich -- Has your copy of David Sucher's revised edition of his book City Comforts arrived yet? Mine showed up yesterday. I settled into the Barcalounger at 11 pm, planning to spend a little time with the book before sacking out. I wound up enjoying it so much I didn't get to bed until 3 a.m. Feeling a little bleary today, thanks. It's a really lovely book: a series of modest, down-to-earth tips about how cities and towns can turn themselves into more agreeable places. No theory, no philosophy, no criticism -- just practical observations about things that work and have shown their value, from curbs to traffic circles to awnings. David, who likes to present himself as an anti-ideas kind of guy, will object, but I maintain that his approach and his work are expressions of a set of deep convictions and ideas, namely the humane wing of architecture and town planning. Book buff that I am, I also love "City Comforts" as a book. It's a trim thing, a little larger than a guidebook, full of pictures and chunks of text. You can spend five minutes with it or hours with it; it's adaptable, it's here to help. It's a firstclass example of much of what's best about some recent trends in book publishing: it's designed to the max, and accessible and engaging visually as well as verbally, rather like a good Web site. David, who worked with the designer Magrit Baurecht, probably killed himself putting the book together. I've watched people put things like this together; they're major logistical challenges, like doing a tabletop-size jigsaw puzzle. People knock themselves out on the level of the concept, the visuals and the layout, which helps explain why so many such books seem beautiful but insubstantial; all the energy has been spent on look and feel. But "City Comforts" has, along with a first-class look and feel, substance galore, as well as a strong point of view and a personal voice. The book feels friendly and informal, yet it's also intellectually and artistically stimulating, something David would probably not want me to say. But there you have it. A few more thoughts: * My sense of self-satisfaction enjoyed noticing that David I have both found our way to the same cities-and-buildings reading list: Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, William Whyte ... It took me years -- years! -- of snooping around the architecture world before I stumbled into the writers and thinkers whose point of view I find congenial. I wonder how David found his way to them. In any case, his book belongs on the same shelf as their work, right alongside "The Timeless Way of Building" and "City." * I enjoyed noticing the influence on David's approach (and on his bookmaking too) of Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language"; I could be mistaken, but I think I also sense the influence of Stewart Brand and of "The Whole Earth Catalog." (Note to self: do a posting someday on these... posted by Michael at October 31, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The Future of Book Publishing
Dear Friedrich -- If 15 years of following the publishing biz don't entitle me to pontificate grandly and extrapolate baselessly about the future of books, well, then ... (Huff, puff, snort.) What the hell good were those years? Don't answer that question. Nonetheless, I'm in a mood today to make a few modest predictions about the directions we'll be seeing book publishing taking in the future. First, the setup: some ruminations and observations. The trade-book biz -- the "you might buy it in a typical bookstore" end of the book-publishing business -- is in a recession. Aside from the occasional "Harry Potter" bonanza, the biz doesn't seem able to move much product; you don't have to sell many copies of your book to get on the bestseller lists just now. When will the biz come out of this cyclical slump? But is the slump in fact cyclical? Many people in the biz worry that it may not be. Hey, book-publishing people aren't blind; like you, me and everyone else, they've noticed that young people aren't reading in the same way young people used to. What if the business has simply lost the younger generations? How do the younger people you're in contact with interact with books? The ones I see don't seem to get through many books at all, especially fiction. (They also don't seem to see books per se as anything special.) The young women go through a little chick-lit, and do a little of what a book critic friend calls "worthiness reading" (Oprah books, the current jabbered-about collection of literary stories). The young men barely read fiction at all, although they seem eager enough to flip through certain kinds of nonfiction books (Nascar biographies), and books relating to their jobs and businesses. And these are bright kids from snazzy colleges. It seems that the media menu that young people order from isn't the same one that older people have been using. Interesting to note, for example, that network TV-viewing is down 12% just in the last year, with most of that decline attributed to young people watching less. What are these young adults spending their entertainment dollars and hours on? Since I can make a seat-of-the-pants guess as well as anyone else can, I may as well pitch in. As far as I can tell, the young people play with media things. A little websurfing here. Some thumbing-through-a-magazine there. A DVD with friends. Some videogaming ... Fiction's a special case. Americans have always had a hard time with it. We're practical, empirical people, more interested in getting ahead than in savoring what we have. We're also sincere and earnest, wary of amorality and artifice. Yet at the same time, we cling to what works for us; we keep watching a few TV shows and we keep going to movies. What this seems to mean for fiction books is that more and more people read fiction books as a substitute for the movies or TV they'd prefer to be... posted by Michael at October 28, 2003 | perma-link | (35) comments

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Moviegoing and Reading Journal: "Laurel Canyon"; "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius"; "Lost in Translation"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Forgive the light blogging from my side of the continent. I've come down with a rotten cold; my head is full of nothing that shouldn't wind up in a Kleenex; and my energy is doing anything but rising to the occasion. Still, a few thoughts and reactions are semi-visible through the fog ... * Laurel Canyon -- File this movie under "shoulda been a comedy." Did you catch it? Well-acted, some talent and moodiness, but unstoppable self-seriousness too, and of an especially unamusing sort. (This was true as well of the writer-director Lisa Chodolenko's first movie, "High Art." She's one somber gal.) A goody-two-shoes young couple moves in with the boyfriend's mom, who's a pothead record producer with a pad in Laurel Canyon. Slowly (and I do mean slowly), the over-achieving youngsters start to come unraveled ... It's a puzzling watch: why is everything being treated with such Bergmanesque solemnity? Almost no one in the film seems to experience so much as a stray untroubled moment. The overemphasis on heavy emotional weather left me puzzled at times about how to read the film's action. Plot spoiler here: what the hell happened in the swimming pool anyway? There's splashing and smooching; there's a cut; there are shots of puffy, troubled-looking faces ... So you assume they've gone for it, they all had sex. Then, ten or fifteen minutes later, there's an indication they never did go through with the sex -- wha'? Typical of the movie: people getting upset about things they apparently didn't do. (I've known a couple such people and am glad I don't know them anymore.) Coming sexually and romantically unravelled in LA isn't bad subject matter for a movie. The Wife pointed out that if Alan Rudolph had directed the movie it'd at least have been absurd; if Paul Mazursky had directed it, it probably would have been funny. * The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius -- Have you read the Stoics? I think I like 'em, though I've only read Epictetus and now Marcus Aurelius. How to keep calm and serene (or at least how to maintain more rather than less balance) in the face of life's vicissitudes -- that's the subject of Stoicism, which isn't quite the "suck it up, kid" philosophy you expect it to be, although there is some of that too, god knows. (Lots of admonitions to remember that life is short and YOU'RE GONNA DIE.) But its basic vision -- the background convictions that the Stoic advice is set against -- is expansive and mystical. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are forever yanking you out of your self-centered view of things. Now you're seeing things from millions of miles away; now you've penetrated into the very nature of matter. So when you find your way back to your own point of view, life looks different; things seem set in a better perspective. And that's the point: to understand that none of this will matter, that life is... posted by Michael at October 16, 2003 | perma-link | (24) comments

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Authorship Redux
Friedrich -- I'm looking through a wonderful little art book that's a recent fave of mine, Ronald Pisano's The Tile Club (buyable here and, at a discount, here), about the Aesthetic Movement in America. This was an art trend in the mid-to-late 1800s -- an era of art clubs and art schools; the Tile Club was one among many. But a classy one: among its members were Winslow Homer, William Merritt Chase, John H. Twachtman, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Stanford White. I love this Victorianism-encounters-Japan, arts-and-craftsy period in the American visual arts -- here's a posting I did about one of the era's giants, the largely forgotten John La Farge. As I flip around inside the book, my mind's awash in this and that: how much I love the era and its arts despite the fact that it's so banally easy to love, and despite the sneers of the edgy and academic crowd (what do they have against what's accessible, tasteful and relaxed?); how pleased I am that the arts of this era have shown such staying power despite being largely overlooked by the academic art crowd (take that, snobs!); how sadly rare it is in America for popular taste and the fine-arts world to find a rhythm together; how we ought to celebrate -- and god knows cherish and enjoy -- such moments as the Aesthetic movement, early jazz, '30s movies, etc. And, hey, why isn't more effort being made to see what's there to learn from these periods? My delighted mind's also enjoying reflections about what a multimedia, hypertext-y marvel a good art book is. One small package delivers photos, graphics, reproductions, book design; texts (often multiple texts); indexes, footnotes, tables of contents -- multiple media, all of them pointing back and forth at each other and also leading you out of the book and into further books as well as the world. How can people not be dazzled and amazed by all this browse-y fabulosity? It's the Web before there was the Web, it's a sensory extravaganza to match anything Hollywood produces with the most advanced technology ... And I realize that some little shred of my mind's still dwelling on my posting from a few days ago about authorship (here). Gloating, perhaps, but where's the harm? So I thought I'd indulge my rantin' self once again, and pause to run through this particular book's credits. And forgive me if I seem like a boring monomaniac, which I probably am. Anyway, in terms of the lavishness of its production, "The Tile Club" is quite a modest art book, so it should be a fair example of how these things work. Let's first remember that, as far as librarians and booksellers are concerned, this is "The Tile Club" by Ronald G. Pisano. And many cheers and hosannas for Ronald G. Pisano, who did a terrific job. But why not make a quick list of some of the other people whose good work went into the creation of this book... posted by Michael at October 15, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

If Big is Bad, Is Small Good?
Friedrich -- Those horrendous, octopus-like multinationals, that funny big money, those soulless corporations with the hearts of accountants -- the horror of it all. What do they have to do with art, with writing, with culture? Where to turn, if you're a person who cares? A valid set of concerns, worries and anxieties that not even a Blowhard would try to pooh-pooh. What I am going to pooh-pooh, though, is the sentimental flipside that many of us fall for, which is the assumption that if big is bad, small must be good; if soulless is bad, souful must be good; if corporate is bad, storefront must be good. I'm taking a shot, in other words, at this picture: if you're horror-struck by what's become of bigtime publishing (whether books or magazines), go to the little guy instead. There you'll find welcoming arms. If the money is vanishingly small, well, at least you'll be treated like the talented person you are, and your work will stand a decent chance of displaying its intrinsic worth. And you'll be dealing with real, decent human beings -- people who care. Well, as it turns out, maybe. One of the more common sad discoveries writers of books and magazine pieces often make is that not only do many of the small presses and magazines barely pay money at all, they behave unprofessionally. They ignore you; they're rude; they don't know what it means to return a phone call. Despite their rhetoric and grooviness, despite their loudly-announced devotion to art/lit/ideas, in many cases they screw you over as effectively as the mega-corporate places do. All the while treating you badly, failing to promote your work, sending along tiny checks that bounce, and carrying on as though they're the ones who are suffering for art. Many exceptions allowed for, of course. I was set to remembering all this -- a few tussles of my own with small magazines, as well as tales book authors told me of wrangles with small book publishers -- by this article here in the New York Press about shenanigans at Soft Skull Press. Link thanks to Turbokitty. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 14, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, October 10, 2003

No Wonder It's So Confusing
Michael: I dont know if youve come across the Documentary Hypothesis that the Jewish Torah (for non-Jews, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are the work of four authors cut and pasted together by one editor or redactor. This hypothesis, also known as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis after the scholars who originally formulated it back in the 19th century, claims to be able to separate the contributions of the four authors by word choices, literary style, and preferred name or names for the Big Guy upstairs. (For the curious, there is a succinct description of the theory here.) Ive been dimly aware of this theory for agesI ran into it (in my tender years) during my own religious education. Ever since I first heard of it Ive been curious to read the Torah disassembled into its original sources. Of course, since I'm quite lazy, this was one of those Ill get around to it someday aspirations. It probably would have remained that way permanently except that my hard-working brother, as part of a larger project he is working on concerning Middle Eastern religions, went to the trouble of e-mailing me a copy of the Torah (plus the book of Joshua), color-coded for the different sources. Being the simple-minded guy I am, I am in the process of separating the four original accounts. My brothers color-coding follows the work of Richard Elliot Friedman, perhaps the leading contemporary proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis, as presented in his books, Who Wrote the Bible? and The Hidden Book in the Bible. Im not even finished with Genesis yet, but I have to say reading the ostensibly original sources is pretty intriguing. (Let me offer a disclaimer here: I am no biblical scholar, I dont read Hebrew and I am resolutely unqualified to comment seriously on any aspect of the truth or falsehood of the Documentary Hypothesis. If the comments that follow offend you, feel free to ignore them as the work of a lunatic amateur.) Based on the material as translated into English in the 1952 Revised Standard Version, I will say that each identified author seems to maintain a quite constant point of view and literary stylean identifiable voice. What intrigues meat least so faris just how different the various versions are. The two most voluminous sources so far are the P source and the J source, both of which form fairly continuous narratives (although J is more encyclopedicif the Documentary Hypothesis is correct, chunks of the P story must have been edited out as redundant). The J source is into drama and psychologyit is the source that contains the Garden of Eden episode, the Tower of Babel episode, the Cain and Abel episode, the various episodes where Abraham passes his wife off as his sister, the episode of Lot offering his virginal daughters to the lust-crazed inhabitants of Sodom and the episode in which Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him, rather than Esau, his blessing. The relationship... posted by Friedrich at October 10, 2003 | perma-link | (17) comments

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Macbeth Through The Years
Michael: Do you have certain works of art that you return to repeatedly as you go through life? One of these works that keeps coming back in my own life is Macbeth. I grant you that Hamlet is a work of greater eloquence, and Lear a work of greater moral vision, but Macbeththat murderous son of a bitchis still my son of a bitch. H. Fuseli, Macbeth and the Witches; H. Fuseli, Lady Macbeth I first read Macbeth in 10th grade English. I started out reading it purely as an assignment, a few pages at a time, but on the third day or so of that I got hooked and read the rest in an hour. When I snapped out of my trance, I found myself staring at the end page, my back sore from the hunched over posture I had assumed reading. I knew this story was compelling as all get outthat, on some level, Macbeth was the story, or one of the stories, of my lifealthough I had no idea why. In my twenties I went another round with Macbeth. After being out on my own for a few years, I had moved back into my parents home so I could go to law schoolthus committing two capital crimes against myself. I was also still suffering from the nasty breakup of my first serious relationship. As I contemplated the gloomy Scot in my state of unwanted celibacy, it suddenly dawned on me that Macbeths childlessness was the key to his character. It made him vulnerable to his ambitious wife, who browbeat him into killing Duncan the king by hinting broadly that he wasnt a real man. A Macbeth who was afraid of not being a real man would clearly be hostile to Banquo, MacDuff and Duncan, all of whom had children. Pondering Macbeth's fate as well as my then-current state of regressed sexuality, I decided that it was my duty to bail out on law school, move out of my parent's basement and get on with starting a family. Otherwise, I might well end up stabbing my own parents in their beds. (Listen, after months of living at home as an adult, it got touch-and-go there for a while.) In my thirties, a small businessman and a father twice over with plenty of ambivalence over having assumed so much adult responsibility, it was the similarities between Hamlet and Macbeth that I noticed: Both are emotionally involved with morally questionable mothers. In "Hamlet," Hamlets mother married her husbands murderer and presumably had an affair with him before the murder. In "Macbeth," Lady Macbethwhos had children by another man--is eager for our hero to move up in the world via butchery. Both Hamlet and Macbeth are hostile to fathers and father figures. Hamlet hates and mistrusts his uncle and is passive-aggressive about revenging his father's murder. Macbeth actually kills his mild mannered father-king, Duncan. Both Macbeth and Hamlet seem reluctant to assume an adult role. Hamlet seems very unwilling to... posted by Friedrich at October 8, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Story Structure
Michael: On a few occasions you've given me the impression that youve sought out training in how to structure stories. Well, the only ideas I can contribute to this discussion derive from the fact that I have a DVD player in my car and I play movies for my two-year-old son to keep him happy on car trips. My son loves to watch Stuart Little 2; consequently, I have listened to this film a large number of times while out doing errands. Hearing the movie all the way through repeatedly, it finally dawned on me that its basic story structure is broken up into four roughly equal parts: Part IIntroduction to our hero/heroines inner, emotional problem Part IIIntroduction to our hero/heroine's outer, practical problem and the explanation of the link between it and the inner problem Part IIIFirst round of engaging the practical problem Part IV--Second round of confrontation with practical problem, culminating in ultimate success or failure While this accurately described "Stuart Little 2," I was curious about how generally applicable this model might be. During this past weekend it dawned on me to make a test. I happened to pick up a copy of The Great Bathroom Book while, ahem, hanging out in the bathroom, and, to pass the time while I was, ahem, occupied, I scanned a one-page plot summary of "The Great Gatsby." I decided to try the "SL2" model out on "Gatsby." It would appear to go like this: Part I--Gatsby meets Daisy during his training for WWI in Louisville; he falls hard for what she represents (youth, glamour, what his lower-class life lacks.) The end of this part would show Gatsby coming back from France, only to hear that she's married rich Tom Buchanan. Part II--Gatsby, who is broke but toughened up by the war, gazes longingly on Daisy from afar while going into the bootlegging business. He intends to make a lot of money fast so he can go after Daisy on a level playing field with Tom Buchanan. Part III--Several years later, Gatsby, now well set up from his illegal activities, buys a home near Daisy's, and starts entertaining lavishly to see if he can hook up with her somehow. He does, via the narrator, and starts an affair with her. He confronts Tom Buchanan about his affair with Daisy, but shes ambiguous about leaving Tom. Part IV--Gatsby tries to gain possession of Daisy, but ends up getting shot by Tom Buchanan's mistresses husband, who thinks Gatsby killed Tom's mistress in an auto accident. (Daisy, of course, was actually at the wheel.) Of course, the first part of the SL2 schema is only glancingly referred to in the novel; the second part is reduced in the text to a rumor. I can see why F. Scott may have suppressed these parts; he had written about the issues of Part I exhaustively already, and my guess is he knew nothing and cared less about the issues in Part II. But the neglect of... posted by Friedrich at September 23, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Monday, September 22, 2003

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- I remember you as a grumpy undergrad at our Lousy Ivy University, hating the profs and their stuffy reading lists, and wallowing in Chandler, Hammett, and Spillane. Do you still follow crime and P.I. fiction? If you do and you're in the mood for something fresh, I've got a recommendation: Jack Kelly's '50s-set, noirish private eye novel Mobtown (which is buyable here). I loved it. Probably the most striking thing about the book is how straight it plays the P.I.-novel game. As you know, these days the usual thing for a writer considering a P.I. novel seems to be to look at the genre and think: "Hmm, tired and squaresville. Gotta bring it back to life somehow. Gotta figure out a new way to make the form sizzle. Otherwise, what remains, right? Just the routine. Just ... genre. And we don't want that! So where's the angle? Where's the edge?" The upshot? Po-mo shenanigans, literary grandstanding, attitude-copping, and newfangled updates -- Regional! Feminist! And why not, eh? I've enjoyed some of those books myself. But what Jack Kelly has done with "Mobtown" strikes me as deeper and more exciting; he's gone ahead and written the standard thing unapologetically, as though there were no reason not to do so. He does it so well and so eloquently that he makes you wonder: "Why don't we see conventions and forms as full of potential rather than as played-out?" (And, hmmm: "Perhaps we're projecting our own spent-ness on them.") Kelly plays the classic game in a classic way, in other words -- and the result is classic in the good sense (respectful of form in a way that brings out the full body of the material) rather than in the bad (ie., dead) sense; to my mind, an example of classic in the bad sense would be the movie of "L.A. Confidential," which though well-done struck me as embalmed in its own self-consciousness. (How did you react to "L.A. Confidential," by the way?) Kelly's a sophisticated guy, so this isn't a matter of someone naive lucking out -- it's an act of high-wire art daring. I picked the book up not knowing anything about Jack Kelly, and simply because it's set in Rochester, NY, the city near where I grew up. There aren't many novels set in Rochester, to say the least, and running into such proper names as Webster, Lake Avenue, the Red Wings, and Sodus Point was more than reason enough to keep me reading. But I also kept feeling knocked-out by the book's quality; it's a big, rumbling 18-wheeler full of fiction pleasures. For one thing, it's colorful -- surprising, given the ultra-whitebread setting. To me, growing up in the '50s and '60s, that part of the world meant vanilla, cornfed, nice people being tirelessly sweet to each other -- life only 20 miles from downtown was like "Hoosiers," if with the occasional David Lynch-esque interlude. Kelly looks at the same world, heads straight... posted by Michael at September 22, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Lesy on Rich Kids, Publishing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Remember being amazed by how "entitled" yet how touchy so many kids at our Lousy Ivy University seemed to feel? And remember the indignant blogosphere fuss I kicked up when I dared to suggest that publishing a book wasn't all champagne, caviar, and horselaughs with good friends? Michael ("Wisconsin Death Trip") Lesy, interviewed by Robert Birnbaum here, touches entertainingly on both topics. Er, that's privileged kids and how rotten publishing is, nothing to do with me. Lesy teaches writing and journalism at Hampshire College. Robert Birnbaum: You scare 'em [your students]? Michael Lesy: Sure. At Hampshire College -- and this is probably true at a lot of schools like Hampshire -- these kids have been privileged. As a result, they have both very large and very frail egos. You and I both know that the world of publishing is brutal and shitty and unfair. The students think that all they have to do is really mean what they say and things will work out for them. That's not true. It's terrible and painful and sad. And it's shitty. So the students sit there, thinking that they can be writers -- and my job is to try to tell them that, in the end, it's like a bar room fight. It's who's left standing. They don't even suspect that. They think, of course, "I'll be left standing." It's so funny. They come with more experience than you would imagine kids in their twenties might have. But they are also very shy. So when you say to them, in a course, "I want you to go home or I want you to go to the neighboring town, and I want you to find something that really interests you ... The response is that they get very uneasy. It turns out that, in spite of all their vacations and their, shall we say, 'recreational experiences', they are very timid. Very shy. RB: Why do you think? ML: I don't know. Because they have had it their way. RB: Because they haven't had to reach out? ML: It's like you go to one school and go to another and camp is arranged for you and vacations are arranged for you. Your friends have interesting adventures and do naughty things. You think that's life. For whatever reason, they both imagine themselves to be more able than they often are and more experienced than they really are. But it's an interesting process of growing up. And that's what this work at this level of education enables some of them to do. Which is to grow up and to bear witness and to understand that all the shit that they read and listen to on NPR or in The New Yorker or in The Atlantic has taken tremendous effort and tremendous work to make it just a good read. They don't understand that. They think it's like salted nuts at a bar. Right? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 17, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Saturday, September 6, 2003

Read Mike Snider!
Friedrich -- Do you suppose there are visitors to 2Blowhards who haven't yet read our q&a with the poet and blogger Mike Snider? I hope they'll treat themselves to it now. Mike's a terrific poet and an interesting thinker, and he has a view of the arts (and a way of interacting with them) that's quite wonderful. Part one of the q&a is here. Part two is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 6, 2003 | perma-link | (0)

Friday, September 5, 2003

Interview With Mike Snider, Part 2
Friedrich -- Continuing our interview with the poet and blogger Mike Snider. Part One can be seen here. Mike's own blog is here -- please do pay it a visit. 2Blowhards: Some general rube-like musings and whinings ... I make an effort to read some contempo poetry, I'm interested and open -- yet often when I've finished lingering over a new poem I wind up thinking, Whew, that certainly wasn't worth the effort. It's all lyric, and it's all manufactured epiphanies, few of which I find I can buy. While often when I listen to country and western, for instance, I'll think, Wow, rhyme, rhythm, cleverness, wordplay, concision: pleasure! How much of this can we blame on me and my rube-ishness, and how much on what's become of the poetry world itself? I get a kick out of such poets as Betjeman, Larkin, Wendy Cope -- easy to enjoy, easy to appreciate. And I'd recommend them to people who gripe about nothing of worth being published in ages. I have my modernist pleasures too (Dennis Cooper, Charles Simic), but I'd be shyer about pushing them on people. Modernist pleasures are usually rather special ones. Mike Snider: From one rube to another, Betjeman, Larkin, and Cope are pretty wonderful, and there aren't many out there who can match them. But the first two are dead, and Cope's last book, after long years of nothing, isn't up to her first two. Richard Wilbur, now in his 80s, continues to write marvelous poetry and to produce incredible verse translations of classical French theater. Among at least somewhat younger folk (some a lot younger) I like Alicia Stallings, Tim Murphy, Rhina Espaillot, Jenny Factor, and Kim Addonizio, but I think R. S. (Sam) Gwynn may be my favorite these days. His "No Word of Farewell: Selected Poems, 1970-2000" is in print (and buyable here), and includes selections from the incredibly funny mock-epic "The Narcissiad," in which the poets make war on each other until only one is left. Sam describes the eventual winner early on: Confident in his art, he knows he's great Because his subsidy comes from the State For teaching self-expression to the masses In jails, nut-houses, worse, in grad-school classes In which his sermon is (his poems show it) That anyone can learn to be a poet. With pen in hand he takes the poet's stance To write, instead of sonnets, sheaves of grants Which touch the bureaucrats and move their hearts To turn the spigot on and flood the arts With cold cash, carbon copies, calculators, And, for each poet, two administrators. In brief, his every effort at creation Is one more act of self-perpetuation To raise the towering babble of his Reputation. That's not calculated to win friends in the academic poetry establishment. Neither is this more serious piece: At Rose's Range Old Gladys, in lime polyester slacks, Might rate a laugh until she puts her weight Squarely behind the snubnosed .38, Draws down and pulls. The bulldog muzzle... posted by Michael at September 5, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, September 4, 2003

Interview With Mike Snider, Part One
Friedrich -- I don't know about you, but I'm left in the dust by the work of most contempo poets and poetry critics. Happy to admit that I'm a long way from being an expert. On the other hand, what kind of art form would demand that a reader/consumer/spectator be an expert before beginning to enjoy its products? And if I'm a long way from being a specialist, I'm also a long way from being the world's worst poetry-reader. I'm eager and interested, my basic feeling about poetry being "Hey, little crafted verbal things? Cool!" I've also got what passes these days for a decent lit education, and, heck, I do some actual contempo-poetry reading. I've even got a few poet friends. Yet, yet ... Jesus, an awful lot of the poetry (and poetry-discussion) that I look at delivers very little for the amount of effort it demands. Some exceptions: Tom Disch (also a first-rate poetry critic). Vikram Seth. Frederick Turner. Charles Simic. Dennis Cooper. Dana Gioia. Some other names my tired brain isn't volunteering at the moment. For the last year I've also been enjoying the work of Mike Snider, a poet who runs a blog here, where he publishes some of his poems and writes about poetry. I took to Mike's poems first. They're charmers -- often offhand-seeming, sometimes erotic, sometimes ruefully humorous, sometimes flat-out emotional (in a restrained kind of way). Pleasingly weatherbeaten while also showing off a lot of clarity ... "Deceptively casual" is the usual term for this kind of thing -- work that looks easy, that's genuinely fun to experience, yet that delivers real payoffs. Then I got further into Mike's concerns and point-of-view: hmmm, the importance of artistic form, the challenge of making room in life for art, an interest in evo-bio and neuroscience, the pleasures of minor art ... Well, I gotta say I found it freaky how very right he is. Or maybe, to be more modest and honest, how much his interests overlap with mine. So I kicked off an email correspondence. As we swapped messages, Mike struck me as so interesting that I slyly turned the discussion into a q&a with him. With Mike's permission, and in the hope that visitors to 2Blowhards will find the results enjoyable, I've edited our correspondence into the following conversation. If it's a little rough and awkward (is this an interview or a conversation?), that's all my fault. Please don't let that get in the way. I especially hope everybody will treat themselves to a visit to Mike's blog, which is here. It's first-rate; he's generous to other poets yet firm in his own convictions, and he's interested in the arts in a broad way. And his own poetry's a reminder of how delightful and moving little crafted verbal things can be. I like Mike's work and mind a lot; I've also got the greatest respect for his approach to art. This is part one of the interview. I'll post part two tomorrow.... posted by Michael at September 4, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Postmodernism for Dummies
Michael: I've actually been reading that book, "Postmodernism for Dummies"er, no, Postmodernism for Beginners by James M. Powellthat you sent me. (Thanks for the gift.) While I in no way claim to be a great or even a small expert on Postmodern thought, I have been doing a lot of reading in French history this past year. As a consequence, I followed with some interest a section of Mr. Powells book that attempts (rather lamely) to deal with the question of why postmodern theorists are all, or nearly all, French. Since I didnt find the books explanationthat intellectuals in France crank out heavy, dense, theoretical tomes because thats a good way to get laid in Paristo be very convincing, let me hazard my own crude, stupid, American explanation: I would guess that postmodernism is so Franco-centric because the real subject of Postmodern theory is France. Perhaps a better way to put this would be to say that postmodernism is about the experience of being French in the late 20th century...after your country suffered a degrading collapse (and then collaborated with the Nazis) in World War II, after your country suffered the humiliating loss of Vietnam and Algeria (and nearly succumbed to a military coup in disengaging from the latter), after being displaced as the world center of art and culture, and after being economically colonized by American transnational business. Hey, talk about being decentered! This may be rather glib, but I'm not done. Lets take Lyotard's "death of meta-narratives." Id say the biggest meta-narrative that ceased to be credible around, say, 1945, was the notion of France as the center of the world, the Grand Nation, the birthplace of the Revolution, the place where everything important happened and always would happen. (The Marxism of Sartres generation was a sort of rear-guard defense of this crumbling meta-narrative, because, bien sur, Marx was an intellectual offshoot of the Revolution and hence, French by association.) Or how about Baudrillard's theories about the "death of the real" and the growth of "hyperreality"? Doesnt that sound a lot like a description of the displacement of traditional French culture by American and international media culture? (By the way, if "Postmodernism for Beginners is accurate, Baudrillard's discussion of the history of simulacra rather humorously skips over the iconclasm of the Reformation, which I suppose makes sense to a French intellectual because, hey, if it didnt happen in France, it might as well have not happened at all!) Then there are Foucault's theories about power, knowledge and resistance. I dont know, but they sound a lot like life under the German occupation to me, as well as a discussion of the life under the continuing Vichy-like authoritarian strain in French politics and society. But probably the best example is Derrida and his notions of how there is a sort of unstable shifting back and forth between "privileged" and "marginalized" readings of the same text. Hmmm, what could have prompted that notion? Lets see, over the past 214 years... posted by Friedrich at August 26, 2003 | perma-link | (23) comments

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Bad for Your Mental Health
Michael: Is there no end to the hypocrisy of American journalism aimed at young women? These glossy magazines seem to have an endless ability to sell girls utter conformity in the guise of self improvement. With two teenage girls in the house, as you might imagine, we have a lot of magazines aimed at young women lying around. I happened to glance at a copy of the September 2003 issue of Self yesterday, and noticed the beaming smile of Alicia Silverstone gracing the cover: Being a big fan of "Clueless," Ive kept some fondness in my heart for Ms. Silverstone, so I picked it up and took a closer look. What I found, though, made me laugh out loud: My first reaction was, gee, what were they going to say on the cover of Self magazine? Alicia Silverstone: desperate, lost and guzzling M&Ms? I flipped through the magazine to read the profile on Ms. Silverstone. Like all such profiles, it conforms to the degrading female magazine ritual of forcing Ms. Silverstone to exploit her personal life, and especially her personal misfortunes, in order to plug her upcoming roles in the film Scooby-Doo 2 and in a NBC series, Miss Match. The misfortune in question was Ms. Silverstones weight problem of the latter 1990s. As I recall, this pretty much derailed her ascent to Hollywood royalty. However, according to Self, she no longer has a weight problem, apparently as a result of becoming a vegan. Ms. Silverstone claims she adopted the vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons, which may well be completely true, but our friends from Self magazine immediately zoom in on what they see as the real payoff: Soon after she began living the vegan life, that commitment had a huge health payoff. My skin started glowing, my eyes got brighter and I lost weight, Silverstone says. This, incidentally, made her more marketable to Hollywood, but that was icing on the (nondairy egg-free) cake. The way I love to eat and the way I love to live made me look the way they want me to look, so it works out, she says. [Emphasis added] The magazine is working hard at making you think, of course, that the they mentioned in that last sentence is the evil patriarchy of Hollywood. But, come on, whos kidding whom here? We have met the enemy and they is Self magazine! There are no fat or even pleasingly plump girls in Self magazine. No, wait, there are actually two, in an ad from One-A-Day WeightSmart, which asks: Youre working on your metabolism. Is your multivitamin? In the editorial portion of the magazine, the only women who are permitted to appear while being even slightly less than stick-thin are recovering foodaholics who have "gone straight", so to speak, and lost 50-100 pounds. They appear only in tiny little pictures. Sure, the magazine covers exercise and diet, but only for the ultra-critical purposes of permitting young women to fit into contemporary fashions, provide a worthy palette... posted by Friedrich at August 23, 2003 | perma-link | (34) comments

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Them That Knows Don't Talk, And Them That Talk...
Michael: Why is it that journalists really expect to learn remarkable truths by just walking around, flashing their credentials, and asking people to tell them things? And then believing what theyre told? A fairly humorous example of this is from a story in the August 18-25 Business Week. Titled The Quest for the Next Big Thing, it documents a series of such, er, candid conversations between Robert D. Hof and various tech insiders over the course of the last year or so. Eventually the intrepid Mr. Hof decides to consult a remarkably successful venture capitalist, Don Valentine of Sequoia Capital, two of whose investments include Apple Computer and Cisco Systems. Mr. Valentine informs Mr. Hof that the current depressed state of the technology industry is the result of what he terms extraterrestrials (i.e., goofballs like Mr. Hof) who are searching for the Next Big Thing. Undaunted, Mr. Hof asks the venture capitalist what he thinks the next big thing will be. The result: After a long pause, Valentine finally answers, very slowly, as if to a child: I wouldnt tell you that if you were my mother. Ah, our Diogenes has finally found his honest man. And just remember, you read it all in a national weekly newsmagazineso it must be true. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at August 16, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Austrian LitCrit
Friedrich -- Hey, it isn't just Marxists (and Marxoids) who do economics-based arts criticism. Here's a fun q&a with -- believe it or not -- an Austrian-economics-sympathetic literary critic named Paul Cantor. (Beware: PDF file.) Cantor says a lot of hearteningly sensible (and dare I say 2Blowhards-ish) things. I can't resist highlighting a few of them: The problem with economic criticism of literature is not that it takes account of economics but that it uses bad economics ... The real key to understanding why Castro is so popular with Latin American authors -- and why socialism attracts so many writers and artists -- is that these writers feel underappreciated by the market. They are looking for the Great Man, the dictator who will recognize their genius and exalt their talents above the petty bourgeoisie ... We are now in a situation in which the only arguments remaning for socialism are aesthetic ... That is why artists are drawn to socialism. They hope that socialism will liberate them from their greatest fear: being judged by the common man ... It is a Romantic myth that artists are not in it for the money. Many were and are, and that is perfectly okay ... There is a certain tension between the aesthetic and economic realms. The need of markets to apply standards of utility and rationality often rubs artists the wrong way ... What it comes down to is this: There is something aristocratic about great art. And artists in many ways have felt more comfortable with aristocrats than with the middle class ... I have a rule: Be politically conservative, but don't be intellectually conservative. The biggest problem on the Right vis-a-vis cultural criticism is this tendency toward fuddyduddyism. We need to recognize that new things come along in art that are very valuable and worthy of study. Why leave the exciting stuff to the Left?... I would be willing to take the twenty best movies of the twentieth century and match them against the artistic products of any other century, with the exception of William Shakespeare. I don't think there is another century that produced twenty dramas as great as the past century's twenty best movies ... Just think of all the capital that has gone into the motion picture industry. No royal court, no prince of the church, has presented the arts with as much capital as the free market has placed in the hands of the producers, directors, actors and composers who work to make movies today ... And here's a q&a that Stephen Carson did with Cantor, during the course of which Cantor predicts that videogames "will be the major art form of the 21st century." Best, Michael... posted by Friedrich at August 13, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, August 4, 2003

Hugo's Novel
Friedrich -- I just last night finished reading The Execution, the first novel by Hugo Wilcken, an occasional commenter here at 2Blowhards (you can find some good Hugo-comments on this posting here). Pleased to report it's a good 'un, and that I enjoyed it a lot. Camus meets Brett Easton Ellis, with maybe a little Graham Greene and some "Notes from Underground" thrown in as well. Psych-suspense (actually I'd call it psych-horror) about a young Londoner (about to turn 30) who works for a human rights group; his artist girlfriend and their daughter; and the campaign he's running for an African who's been sentenced to death ... Pitch-perfect portrayal of a type we all know -- paranoid and blanked-out at the same time, self-absorbed and prematurely world-weary, failing to connect yet unable to extend himself far enough to ask for help, desperate yet peevish -- not a novel (chuckle chuckle) for those who prefer a likable or attractive protagonist, in other words. It isn't what anyone would call a plot-driven book, either. Instead, it's constructed like a piece of poetry or music, with motifs and echoes bouncing off each other this way and that. This is one of those novels that works by burying a bomb 'way down deep, setting it off, and then letting the explosion rise to the surface in slow, ultra-controlled (and sly and enlightening) ways ... Plus a fabulous use of voice. Here's a short passage I've pulled out of the book at random: That evening the phone rang while I was reading Jessica a bedtime story. Marianne was in the garden, so I got up to answer it, with Jessica pulling at my shirt. Before I even picked up the receiver, though, somehow I knew it was Christian and I had this visceral desire not to talk to him. I just felt it wouldn't be good for me. Perfecto Gen X Meursault: narcissistic (look at the way everything comes back 'round to the narrator); noncommittal in a droning, vague way (look at those overcaffeinated-yet-exhausted extra words: "somehow," "this," "just"); unpleasant and irritable yet screaming "help me" at the same time. Hats off to Hugo. First-rate: a slim, easy read -- always appreciated -- but with a hefty payoff. You can buy Hugo's book here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 4, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Saturday, August 2, 2003

Friedrich -- * Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber takes a break from politics and philosophy to post about some of the fiction he enjoys: crime fiction (here), and what he calls "philosophical romances" (here). Good observations from Henry, followed by many fun musings from commenters. I couldn't resist taking part in the crime fiction thread myself. * Aaron Haspel looks over a lovely Thomas Nashe poem with an appreciative, knowledgeable and beady eye, here. * John Derbyshire writes in NRO about the dangers of overanalysis and the bliss of not having to give something too much focused thought, here. His lucid piece reminded me of this long interview with Roger Scruton, here. * I own and and love a book of pre-WWII surfing photos by the dentist-surfer Don James called Surfing San Onofre to Point Dune (buyable here), and have leafed through a number of other such collections. But I've known sadly little about surfing photography more generally. Now, thanks to Sebastian Smee writing for the Telegraph here, I know a bit more. His subject is LeRoy Grannis, who's now in his mid-80s and is best-known for the photos he took in the 1960s, when he helped find and set the style for some of the original surf magazines. Here's Grannis' own site. Grannis, by the way, worked for Pacific Bell for 40 years. I wonder if he ever got an NEA grant. Heather MacDonald * Luke Ford interviews the City Journal reporter/writer Heather MacDonald here. She's impressive (in a pleasingly modest way), and thoughtful on some surprising topics -- eloquent about what it's like to come from L.A., and smart about what the decon-and-politics profs did to literature. As well as being straight-shootin' about how she stopped being an Ivy liberal and became a conservative instead, of course. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 2, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Free Reads -- Harold Bloom
Friedrich -- Harold Bloom: the Last Good Critic, or a tiresome old gasbag? Jennie Rothenberg interviews him for The Atlantic online, here. Sample passage: I left the English department twenty-six years ago. I just divorced them and became, as I like to put it, Professor of Absolutely Nothing. To a rather considerable extent, literary studies have been replaced by that incredible absurdity called cultural studies which, as far as I can tell, are neither cultural nor are they studies. But there has always been an arrogance, I think, of the semi-learned ... And, of course, we have this nonsense called Theory with a capital T, mostly imported from the French and now having evilly taken root in the English-speaking world. And that, I suppose, also has encouraged absurd attitudes toward what we used to call imaginative literature. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 24, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Free Reads -- Alexander Zaitchik on Romance Writers
Friedrich -- One of the many cuckoo notions college lit studies left me with was that the people who write literary fiction (instead of pop or genre fiction, let alone do any other kind of writing -- TV, self-help, technical advice...) do so because they're better writers, and maybe better people too. Not a matter of preference or choice, in other words, but an inevitable consequence of brainpower, taste, discernment and talent. Imagine my surprise when I met dumb literary writers and smart genre writers, and when I discovered the important role that family money (as well as networking and connections) plays in the literary world. Imagine my further surprise when I discovered that I often like genre writers as people more than I like literary writers. The mystery and crime-writing scene, for example, has got nothing to apologize for where brains are concerned. Neither has the romance-writing scene, which, the few times I looked into it, I found to be full of tough, smart, industrious gals doing their best to deliver some pleasure for your entertainment buck. Like many ex-English-lit types who spend time in or close to the publishing world, I wound up with 'way less respect for the lit celebs than I once expected to have, and 'way more for the low-key pros. So I was pleased to run across a good NY Press story by Alexander Zaitchek (with help from Adam Bulger) about the romance-writing scene. It's remarkably unsnarky, and full of up-to-date information and surprises -- romances have become popular in France, for instance. Sample passage: The biggest romance subgenre at the momentand the one taken most seriously outside of romance fandomis chick-lit, and Jennifer Crusie is one of its rising stars. As the RWA faithful ate strawberry cheesecake, Crusie delivered the conferences keynote address, in which she recounted her flight from academia. "Im an intellectual damn it," she remembers thinking. "Im not gonna write a cheeseball romance." But write one she did. And shes damn proud of it. "The world doesnt need any more writers, it needs storytellers." At this, the crowd of storytellers erupted in cheers. Hey, I've read a Jennifer Cruisie book. I enjoyed it. Zaitchik's piece is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 23, 2003 | perma-link | (13) comments

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Why Entrepreneurs Make For More Inspiring Reading
Michael: Thanks for the link in your posting, The Contempo Trade Book-Publishing Biz, an Intro to The NY Times Magazine's July 20 profile on Bertelsmanns Peter Olson. The profile lays out the dynamics of consolidation and cost control in a creative business showing little or no growth. However, as I pointed out in a comment, the story was a bit long on personalities and a bit short on notions of how to promote growth. (Or, failing that, even an insightful analysis of why such growth wasnt happening naturally.) As a refreshing counterpoint, I would offer a link to a story from the L.A. Times (which you can read here) on a businessman in another creative industry suffering from static or even declining markets. Titled Comics' Unlikely Hero it profiles Mark Alessi, who has plowed a good deal of the fortune he made in software into a comic book startup. Mr. Alessi, a classic entrepreneur (in contrast to Mr. Olson, a classic manager) is bursting with ideas about how to bring new creativity and audiences into the fusty reaches of comicdom: CrossGen, in a bland office park just north of Tampa, Fla., stands as a lifelong fan's response to what he thinks is wrong with the comics industry. Alessi says there's plenty, starting with a retail network that in 50 years has shrunk from hundreds of thousands of newsstands and corner variety stores to 2,500 specialty shops, many of them "at the end of a seedy strip mall under a broken overhead light no place any parent would want his kid going on his bicycle." At $2.95 an issue, many of today's monthly books offer more lavish art, color and printing than their 10-cent counterparts of the 1950s. But the price and the often adult-oriented content are barriers to new young readers. And so, Alessi says, the industry increasingly tightens its circle around a core market of young adult males and collectors. Beyond that, he notes that burnout is rife among the mainly low-paid and isolated freelance artists and writers who create the books, making for high turnover and a weak sense of professionalism. The CrossGen founder has said all this before in numerous industry forums, winning himself a reputation as a scold out of all proportion to his longevity in the business or his company's 5% market share. Wouldn't You Rather Be In Comics Than in Book Publishing, Anyway? Who knows whether Mr. Alessi can shake up the world of comics successfully but he certainly is an example of why entrepreneurs with a unique business vision make for more inspiring reading than do the Peter Olsons of the corporate media world. I mean, you gotta like this guy's style: "I am the worst loser you will ever meet," Alessi said during an interview this week in his cramped office at CrossGen. "You may beat me, and if you do, I hope I will be gracious. But we will play again." Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at July 20, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Saturday, July 19, 2003

The Contempo Trade Book-Publishing Biz, an Intro
Friedrich -- I don't know of a better snapshot of the contempo NYC-centric trade book publishing world than Lynn Hirshberg's NYTimes profile of Bertelsmann honcho Peter Olson. Olson's brilliant and terrifying. He's got three degrees from Harvard, reads a ton of military history, loves stuffed animals, and has probably fired more people than anyone else in publishing. Sample passage: ''Do I still have a job?'' Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, asked Peter Olson. She was standing at the bar of a restaurant called Campanile, having a glass of wine before the annual Knopf author dinner at Book Expo America. Morrison was dressed in black, her long gray hair braided like an enormous challah. ''I hear you're firing people,'' she said. ''Maybe you're firing me.'' Olson ignored the jab. ''I haven't read 'Love' yet,'' he said, changing the subject by deftly mentioning Morrison's soon-to-be-published book. ''I hear you think this one is really good.'' Morrison nodded. ''It's perfect,'' she said. ''The main character is a bit of a con artist. He's attractive, and he ruins everyone's life. Like all you guys.'' Very curious to hear where your sympathies fall as you read the piece. Mine were all over the place. The piece can be read here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 19, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Bestseller Lists
Friedrich -- Have you ever given bestseller lists much thought? I certainly never would have, had I not followed the publishing field for years. But I did follow the field, so I did learn a lot about the lists. They turn out to be fascinating artifacts. The assumption most readers make when looking at, say, the NYTimes bestseller list is that what's being given is an objective picture of the books Americans are buying in greatest quantities right now. What could be more straightforward than measuring sales and presenting the results? Wrongo. In fact, nearly all bestseller lists (and there are many) give skewed and distorted pictures. Let me have a little fun by using a q&a format to explain. 1. Well, first off, the lists are measuring the sales of all books, right? Nope. The lists you encounter in general-interest newspapers and magazines measure the sales of what are known as trade books -- ie., the kinds of books you might buy in a typical bookstore. That skips all other books -- textbooks, medical books, and law books, for example. Big business: they constitute around 2/3 of the total books market. Let me repeat that: bestseller lists ignore 2/3 of the actual books market. That mass of kids buying Econ 101 textbooks at the beginning of every semester? Doesn't show up. 2. OK, we're ignoring 2/3 of the actual books market. That's cool with me -- all I'm interested in is the sales of bookstore-type books anyway. So what is it a bestseller list actually measures? All a bestseller list measures (at its best) is the rate of sales -- in other words, how quickly a book is selling. That's it: what's hot today. A one-dimensional picture. Which means that other sales dimensions are being skipped. Many books with big sales never appear on bestseller lists. Why? Because even though they sell well and do so over a long period, they never sell fast enough to make it onto the list, which after all is only measuring the speed of sales. A useful way of picturing this is to imagine yourself watching cars go by, but being able to watch them only through a very narrow vertical window. What do you know about those cars? Only how fast they're going for a very brief time. You have no idea about so much else -- about how far they've gone, for instance. (Bestseller lists try to account for this with their "weeks on the list" feature.) An example of a very popular book that has never shown up on a general-interest bestseller list is "A Pattern Language," by Christopher Alexander and some colleagues, one of the alltime bestselling books on architecture. I've been told that it has sold from ten to twenty thousand copies a year ever since it was published in 1977; that means it has sold a total (in hardcover!) of from 250,000 to 500,000 copies -- far more than many books on today's bestseller list. Yet it... posted by Michael at July 19, 2003 | perma-link | (19) comments

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Booze and the Writing Life
Michael: I was leafing through the August issue of Vanity Fair, when I stumbled across The Road to Samarra. This is an excerpt from an upcoming biography of John OHara by Geoffrey Wolff. I had the same reaction to the antics of O'Hara that I often do to tales of the New York literary world in the 1920s and 1930show could those guys have ever gotten any writing done for all the drinking? A few excerpts on the general topic of OHaras boozing: Letter after letter from those days [1927-8] finds OHara reporting about himself that he was drunk and drinking, on a bender, recovering from a three-day-and-night tear, broke, in debt, up all night baying at the moon or baying at its absence, rising well past midday. OHara met Dorothy Parker, later his loyal pal and most admiring fan, listening to the Hawaiian house band at an all-night joint called the Dizzy Club. He also frequented the Owl, which served the hardest of hard-core soakers, patrons who showed near dawn and drank till noon. Farr has invoked the clientele as people who drank fast, said little and had pistols under their coats. Others were there only because they did not want to interrupt their consumption of alcohol, except when unconscious, until they died. now [in the early 1930s OHara] indulged even more in prolonged benders, what he called overnight vacations; getting so cockeyed drunk that twenty hours elapse before I recover. Okay, so OHara was in his twenties, but he must have needed an iron constitution to survive long enough to write Appointment in Samarra. Since I am far less informed about the personal lives of writers than of painters, I ask you: has wildly excessive boozing always been central to the writing life? Was Dickens a lush? How about Stendhal? Goethe? Was it primarily an American thing? A 20th century thing? Surprisingly, O'Hara Made It Into His Sixties As best I can tellgranted, what do I knowdrinking in American life seems to have moderated a good deal from my youth. At my first job, in advertising, everyone was either a drunkthe three martini lunch was no hyperbole for these guysor they were recovering from a heart attack and forbidden to drink at all. Today you cant coerce people into having a drink at a business lunch by taking hostages. While Im sure the country is still well-stocked with alcoholics, any tinge of glamour associated with excessive drinking (or drugging, at least in my circles) seems to have faded long ago. How has this trend impacted the writing lifeif it has at all? Have writers (young or old) sobered up? If so, is this trend visible in their work? Im so isolated from anyone in the writing life--with the exception of the occasional sitcom writer--that I would be curious to get your perspective. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at July 15, 2003 | perma-link | (13) comments

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Free Reads -- Bohemian Porn
Friedrich -- Remember Maurice Girodias? Legendary French publisher of porn novels? (As well as the guy who finally brought out "Lolita.") It turns out that the erotica he published was written by a small circle of arty bohemian friends -- ah, Paris back in the early '50s. John Preston tells the story and tracks down a few of the surviving authors for the Telegraph, here. Sample passage: But however easy he found it to crank out the books, the writing did soon lose its appeal. "You have no idea what it's like writing one sex scene after another," he says in a heartfelt voice. "Trying all the time for new permutations. Believe me, it can really get you down. Occasionally I found it erotic, when I was really getting into a scene. Most of the time, though, I just thought about the money." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 9, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Free Reads -- Female and Male Writing Styles
Friedrich -- I seem to be the last person on the web to run across this piece, but just in case you haven't ... A handful of scientists have developed a computer algorithm that can analyze a text and, with 80% accuracy, predict the sex of the text's author. The key seems to be that women use more people-y language where men use more thing-oriented language. Clive Thompson writes about the algorithm for the Boston Globe, here. Link found via Arts and Letters Daily, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 9, 2003 | perma-link | (0)

Saturday, July 5, 2003

The Nature of Order, Now
Friedrich -- FYI, Volume One of Christopher Alexander's much-anticipated, much-delayed magnum opus The Nature of Order is finally available. This Blowhard is, as you know, a big fan, and imagines that anyone intrigued by our occasional discussions about architecture and cities -- or who found our interviews with Alexander's colleague Nikos Salingaros provocative (they begin here) -- will enjoy the book too. Whether Alexander's assertions and arguments finally convince as science -- which is the main goal of the book -- I'm certainly not qualified to say. But, just between you and me, I don't care that much, because a good 80% of what Alexander thinks and writes I find completely convincing on a human basis; his view of art is both commonsensical yet compatible with many people's intuitions about beauty and what its existence may imply about the existence of a spiritual dimension. 80%! That's pretty damn good. And, in any case, the book is a staggering thing, argued accessibly and directly but in searching depth, as well as beautifully illustrated and produced. Plus, there's always the fun of wrestling with the question, Christopher Alexander: greatest art-thought genius of the age? Or loony Messiah wannabe? It's a pricey volume, and if you aren't in the mood to impoverish yourself, you can explore Alexander's thinking and approach online at his Pattern Language site here. But if you've got a few spare bucks available and look forward to doing some reading that'll give your mind a major shake 'n' bake, go for the book. Amazon offers a bit of a price break here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 5, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Where Are They Now, and How Do They Sell?
Friedrich -- Book Magazine (which is evidently sponsored by Barnes & Noble) had the good idea of tracking down well-known authors who haven't been heard from recently and finding out what they've been up to. What's online here is only a sample of what's in the magazine, but you can still find out about Harper ("To Kill a Mockingbird") Lee and S.E. ("The Outsiders") Hinton. If you click here, you can look at a table showing how well many famous books of yore sell these days. It's a big graphic, so those with slow connections may want to give it a pass. Others will find much to be amused by: "The Scarlet Letter" outsold "Clan of the Cave Bear," which outsold "The Fountainhead," which outsold "Dune" ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 2, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Haspel on Cult Critics
Friedrich -- I love the way some bloggers sometimes get possessed -- and who knows why? Aaron Haspel is one of them. Every now and then Aaron, evidently feeling that the time has come, decides to set us straight on something to do with literature, and raps out a brilliant posting. His latest such concerns what he calls "cult critics" -- academics who explain it all to adoring acolytes. Funny and pissy. Might make you want to read Yvor Winters, too. You can read the posting here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 2, 2003 | perma-link | (0)

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Guest Posting -- Publishing in Britain
Friedrich -- This note just in from a visitor from England who wants to remain anonymous, and who has a few things to tell us about writing and publishing books Over Yonder: I was interested in your observations about the book industry. I used to work in publishing, and your comment on the industry supporting a lot of salaried people and the authors usually getting next to nothing is true. But it's also true that, in Britain at least, a lot of people in the industry get next to nothing. A very high proportion of the editorial function is hived off to freelances of various kinds (copyeditors and proofreaders) who are often wannabe authors themselves or adjunct academics needing to add to their poor salaries. Editorial judgement is also often handed over to academics who are persuaded to write readers reports for minute sums (one publisher routinely pays 150 pounds, or 300 pounds worth of books from their back catalogue). Academics will do this because they need to ingratiate themselves with publishers (more below). On the printing side, where I happen to know a few people, the industry here is being badly squeezed by competition from India (fair enough, if they can do it cheaper). In the publishing house where I worked the rule of thumb was to pay no-one until they were screaming. So, for example, authors were due royalty cheques on a given date, but they would never be paid unless they complained. Some weren't paid for years. Ditto with the various freelances. The other thing that makes it hard for any serious non-fiction writer is that academics (like me) have undermined the market. Since we need to publish for career reasons (publish or perish), we'll accept very low advances and poor royalties. That's OK for us: the contribution publishing makes to our incomes is more indirect -- promotion after a book will boost our salaries. But pity the poor independent author trying to compete with us. My latest contract was a complete joke. Luckily, I've worked in the industry and my husband is a lawyer, so we sat down and amended it (tripled the advance -- from nothing to three times nothing!), removed all the clauses offering them first refusal on my next book and unlimited rights to republish in different formats without paying a penny etc etc etc. My editor agreed to all the changes without argument, but told me that he'd sent four contracts out for books in the same series and that the other three had been signed and returned without any fuss. Many thanks to our anonymous visitor. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 1, 2003 | perma-link | (0)

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

The Book-Besotted
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Have you had a chance to eyeball the comments on the "Writing a Book" posting? A fascinating collection. Many were sweet, some were thoughtful, some even appreciative. Best, I thought, were the personal stories many people told. For a glimpse of what the book-writing life is really like, I can't imagine doing better than checking out the comments, which will tell you lots more than the lit mags ever will. I got just as fascinated, though, by the commenters who quarreled with me, or tried to pick fights. Some went after my motives. Perhaps I wrote the posting because I'm depressed? (Never been happier.) Perhaps because I'm bitter? (Nope, sorry.) Others tried to take me to task for doing things I wasn't doing. Most of these commenters seemed to be under the impression that I was trying to discourage or even prevent people from writing books -- as though the only alternative to you-can-do-it-ism is you-shouldn't-do-it-ism. A few commenters questioned my handful of publishing-life facts, yet offered no evidence that contradicted any of what I offered up. (I covered the field closely for more than a decade, and lunched and partied with hundreds of publishing people and authors. I feel on pretty secure ground when I talk about publishing.) So I find myself wondering: What were the carpers really up to? Any ideas here? Me, I'm guessing that they were feeling offended. But by what? I'm guessing here too, and perhaps I'm wrong, but: by my attitude towards books. Why? Because they believe in books and I don't. Well, perhaps they believe not in books, but in "the book" per se. I can't tell you how often I've run into this particular form of semi-religious regard. I tend to forget how many people have this attitude. I'm very fond of certain literary forms -- erotic novellas, for instance, and psychological suspense. But "the book" per se means nothing to me, despite having been just as big a reader as most art-and-lit geeks are as kids. (Book-y kids sometimes grow up to be book-worshipping adults.) As far as I'm concerned, a book is just a bound-together container for a certain sum of paper and ink. It's a delivery system -- one that I've got a lot of respect for, and one that has many virtues. But, per se, "the book" is nothing more to me than a very cool delivery system. Such is how I think and feel, in any case. (Covering the publishing biz for years will tend to knock the sentimentality about books out of you. But even so, I was never all that reverent.) But, to my eternal surprise, many, many people seem to care about books per se. They worship 'em -- or perhaps what it is they worship is the idea of "the book." Starry-eyed believers, they clearly aren't thinking of the actual bestselling thrillers, the cat books, or the politicians' memoirs that clutter up our lives. No, they're thinking... posted by Michael at June 25, 2003 | perma-link | (34) comments

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Writing a Book Redux
Friedrich -- Our posting from a few weeks back entitled "Tacit Knowledge -- Writing a Book" was linked to by the great Arts and Letters Daily. Yippee: An honor and a pleasure. Also an occasion for more visitors than usual to drop by, and to leave comments. Readers interested in the topic of writing and publishing might enjoy revisiting the posting in order to read the new comments, which follow the posting here. It'd be hard to find a more raw and truthful set of snapshots of the book-writing and book-publishing life. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 22, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friday, June 20, 2003

Free Reads -- Diana Cambridge on Writing
Friedrich -- Chris Bertram (of Junius, here) was kind enough to email along a link to a good piece by Diana Cambridge in The Guardian, here. Cambridge asks writers who hold down office jobs yet manage to finish novels, How do they manage to do it? 2Blowhards visitors who have gotten something out of our discussions of the challenges of being involved in art yet having to make a living will probably enjoy the piece. Thanks to Chris Bertram. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 20, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Kem Nunn 2: Writin'
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- More musings prompted by my reading of Kem Nunn's surf-noir novel Tapping the Source. Yesterday I scratched my chin a bit over the topic of neo-noir. Today: writing per se. How important is the word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence writing -- I always think of it as "writin'" -- in a work of prose fiction? I know all too well that the professor-and-critic-approved line is that for a work of true literature, the writin' is everything. Sigh. Lord, am I aware of this. I dispute it, though. I don't see -- given the massive amount of evidence to the contrary -- how the case can even begin to be made. There are a lot of powerful novels whose writin' is indifferent, and tons of books whose writin' is first-class that have no life at all. And there's the gigantic question that history itself poses, namely: How certain can we be in our judgment of a lot of the writin' of the past? We've lost much of our feel for it. To take two examples of certified Important Literature that I happen to have read fairly recently: How well-written can "Beowulf" be said to be? How well-written is "Clarissa"? And how can we know for sure? "Clarissa" struck me, as it has struck many people, as horrendously written -- but, although I'm a bit of an 18th-century prose nut, who am I to judge? I feel semi-qualified to characterize Richardson's style by comparison to the other 18th century prose I know. But I clearly don't have the same in-the-blood feel for this that a good 18th century reader would have had. There may well be much there, style-wise, that simply eludes me. There's also the major/minor issue of how much lit we know only via translation. Thanks to a long-ago year in France, I can sort of judge, or at least characterize, recent French prose (or I semi-could at one point). I still feel competent enough to get good and furious over a recent, highly-praised translation of Stendhal's sublime "The Charterhouse of Parma," which strikes me as an abomination. Grrr, snarl. But so much lit from so many other countries I'll only ever know through the work of translators. I loved the writin' in "Anna Karenina," for instance, along with much else about the book. Yet how can I know for sure whether what I responded to was Tolstoy or Constance Garnett, or some combo of both? I can't, for another example, think of a more beautiful novel than Lady Murasaki's "The Tale of Genji." But, sheesh, that's a novel dating from a thousand years ago that was originally written in an archaic form of Japanese, and that I read in a famously loose and poetic translation. Exquisite writin', for sure -- but was it Lady Murasaki's? Are we stuck making do with the word of the translator, or (worse) of the professor? Perhaps, alas, we are. I'm not remotely averse to writin'; I just don't assign it... posted by Michael at June 18, 2003 | perma-link | (23) comments

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Kem Nunn 1: Neo-Noir
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm out in California for some vacation weeks, and in recognition of this happy fact I've lined up a couple of beginning-surfing lessons for myself. You laugh, and rightly so -- but also: hey, if not now, when? I suspect that the outings my nursing home is likely to arrange won't include visits to the surf shop. More a propos to a cultureblog, I'm also reading Kem Nunn's surf-noir novel Tapping the Source. Have you ever looked at it? Considered by the three or four who might know to be the great surfing novel. (Myself, I'm not even sure what the competition is.) I have no interest in writing a review of the novel, which I haven't enjoyed terrifically but have found fascinating to think about. Instead, I'm interested in using the book as a pretext for wondering out loud about a few things. But, to do the book the courtesy of politeness, I'm first going to ask myself: What would I say about this novel if a friend had written it? Here's what I come up with: Surf noir? Fab idea, and I hope to come with half as good a concept for a novel myself sometime before I die. The evocations of what it feels like to surf, not that I have any firsthand knowledge of this? Also fab. Plus, I like the fact that Nunn committed himself to working with the noir-crime tradition, and to crafting an actual plot. Not enough of that around in lit circles these days as far as I'm concerned. But on to my own musings. Today: the topic of neo-noir. I feel cheerfully divided on the topic, surprise surprise. How about you? I'm thinking about pop music guys like Chris Isaak and Mark Knopfler; I'm thinking about movies and filmmakers like "L.A. Confidential," "Red Rock West," David Lynch; I'm thinking about writers like Kem Nunn and Barry Gifford. I'm very sympathetic to and full of admiration for what they're doing, while (alas) not enjoying much of their work. On the good side: these are guys who recognize a central arts-in-America pickle -- which is that, while we have wonderful popular and folk forms and traditions, we barely have a fine-arts tradition at all. What becomes of you if, like so many Americans, you come to the arts through loving commercial and folk forms? Authors like Jim Thompson and John D. MacDonald really are first-rate, god knows. Yet, let's face it, popular forms are mainly suited for kids, for the unschooled, for people who are very unself-conscious, for easy pleasures, and for those tiny handful of people whose talents really do lie in the commercial direction. How to make use of them yourself? Let's say you get an education, or you acquire some sophistication and experience, or you have talents that lend themselves to more complex forms. What do you do in the American arts? And how do you grow in them? If you try to adapt... posted by Michael at June 17, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Guest Posting --Stephen Bodio on Writing
Friedrich -- Tons of good thinking, reacting and writing in the comments to the posting below about writing a book (here). I hope visitors will treat themselves to a very lively and classy conversation. I want to be sure that one of the comments especially doesn't get overlooked. Stephen Bodio, a professional freelance writer who lives in New Mexico, wrote in with a lot of interesting thoughts and observations. I'm lifting what follows from the comments as well as from a few emails he and I exchanged. He's given us permission to use what he wrote on the blog: Great discussion -- I read it through going yes, yes, yes, all the way. You have summed up the current dismal state of publishing perfectly. Despite which: I am a well-reviewed and utterly ill- paid writer (mostly "creative non-fiction" -- nature/travel/bio for lack of a better definition) with 4 or 5 books in print, and I can't think of anything else I'd rather be. I should add I haven't had a "real" job in close to 30 years, and have no independent income. I do write an awful lot of magazine work, from well-paying (Atlantic) to stuff that pays $125 a pop (newspaper book reviews). You have to do it because you love it; you must -- otherwise it's really pointless. If you do, you do it because you must, and do on some level enjoy it. One alternative to job versus starvation may be to live somewhere off the beaten track that is very cheap. I have lived for 22 years in a small New Mexico village 75 miles by air from the nearest city, and in a determinedly un-chic part of the state. I live in a 100 year old stone house with 4 main rooms (a nice piece of "Alexandrian" vernacular architecture) that cost me less than a cheap new car does today. My newest car is 13. My wife currently works part-time in the local post office. At times she has worked full-time, and often had no job at all. Our main expenses are books and travel. And travel itself can help pay the bills. We have in the last decade spent time in London, France, Zimbabwe, traveled twice to Mongolia, and are heading for Kazakhstan in the fall. All trips were at least work-related, and the last 3 paid for up front. What other life would give me freedom to do what I like and write about it? A job that paid for a month here and there would take all my time ... expensive! Isolation was more of a problem 20 years ago. Now, with blogs, e-mail, and internet it's not even a factor. I "talk" every week with people in England, New York, Latvia, Finland, Russian, Kazakhstan and more. There is more info a click away than you could have had in, say, Victorian London. Blogs (and websites, etc.) ARE dessert -- "Mmmm--bllooggs!" -- but also the best news and culture source there is.... posted by Michael at June 12, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Saturday, June 7, 2003

Tacit Knowledge -- Writing a Book
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Another posting in my very occasional series concerning the rules of thumb that people in the arts work by but almost never get around to articulating. Today: writing a book. Isn't it interesting how many people dream of writing a book? It's sweet, and it's (mostly) harmless, and I guess I once semi-shared that dream, and I guess one or two brain cells still make room for the possibility that I will someday write a book (fat chance). But, but, but ... Then I followed the book-publishing industry for 15 years. Fact #1: Millions of people are working on books, or believe that they could write a book, or are planning to write a book. And I'll bet that for many of them a part of that fantasy is the making - a - living-as-a-freelancer -doing-something-interesting-rather- than-working-as-a- flunky-in-a-boring- job element. But how many people in the country actually manage to make a living writing books? A couple of hundred. Millions would like to do it. A couple of hundred actually manage it. In other words, your chances of making a living writing books are perhaps better than are your chances of ever playing in the NBA. But not all that much better. Technical pause here: there's an important-to-understand distinction that needs to be made between "book publishing" generally and "trade book publishing," which is what most of us think of when we think of book publishing -- ie., the biz that creates the books that fill up the local bookstore. Book publishing generally is a fairly substantial industry, and most of the money in the field -- 2/3, if I remember right -- doesn't come from "trade book" publishing. It's generated by the sales of products many of us almost never think of as books: medical reference books, atlases, textbooks. This end of the biz operates in the semi-rational way many businesses do, with similar profit margins and incentive structures. There's real money to be made here, other words. You can get rich writing and/or publishing textbooks, for instance, even if it's a very competitive industry. Trade-book publishing, the wing of the industry that fills up your local chain store, is a very modest subset of book publishing. And it's got a quite different texture. It's rather irrational, makes very modest profits, is full of well-meaning ex-English majors, and is forever being invaded (and wreaked havoc on) by conglomerates that think they can run it like a conventional business, and who always fail to turn the trick. Despite the celebrated star authors and the occasional celeb execs and agents, there's rather little money to be made here. And most of that money is as flukey and moody as the money that sloshes around the moviebiz. You'd be surprised by how many name authors don't manage to make a living at their trade. Fact #2: Most people who write "serious" trade nonfiction actually lose money on their projects. Biographies? Serious travel books? Moneylosers for most... posted by Michael at June 7, 2003 | perma-link | (186) comments

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Psychological Suspense
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- I caught a good French movie the other night -- Claude Miller's Alias Betty. From one point of view, it's a fairly absorbing, not-very-thrilling thriller. But from another, it's a first-rate example of my very favorite genre, the one known as "psychological suspense." Some people like speculative history; some like hobbit-style fantasy; some like Cold War spy fiction. I like psychological suspense. I can't defend my taste for it, which seems built into my biology. All I know is that I tend to be happy and engrossed when I'm in that world. Ever run across discussions of this genre? I can't imagine why; it's not very well known in America. England and France have much more developed traditions of psych-suspense fiction. But it's got its own interesting history, and sets of conventions and expectations. A few movies and authors to get us in the ballpark: Ruth Rendell. Patricia Highsmith. Simenon's non-Maigret novels. "Lantana." The Swedish co-authors Sjowell and Wahloo. "Purple Noon." "Cul de Sac." Chabrol. "The Vanishing." The movie version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" was a highly-compromised version of psychological suspense. Another fairly recent example: "With a Friend Like Harry." Have you seen that one? A French film about a charming murderer, very lowkey and quietly freaky. Tragedy, desperation, psychosis -- and life goes on. What characterizes the genre? I find it helpful to keep in mind that it isn't a mystery-fiction subgenre; it's really best thought of as a crime-fiction subgenre. That helps take some weight off the idea of "mystery." Its main characteristic, though, is it generally uses a crime as a pretext for opportunities to look into personality and sociology. There's a murder or a kidnapping, sure -- but often in psychological suspense you know from the outset who did it. Ie., from a mystery point of view, there's pointedly no mystery. And often the central character, if there is one, isn't the investigator but the criminal. In the crime-fiction world, these fictions are sometimes referred to not as whodunnits but as whydunnits, because they aren't as concerned with the finding of the solution to a crime as they are with psychological and social observation -- with tracing the reasons that lead to a crime and the consequences that flow from it. Where the detective novel, say, drives to a solution, the psychological-suspense fiction lingers over the minds of the criminal and the other people involved. I recall someone somewhere writing that psychological suspense is (roughly) "the story of a crime, not the story of the tracking down of a criminal." These novels and films often resemble Altman movies but with actual pretexts. Suspense? Well, kindasorta. But seldom of the rushing-to-a-breathless-climax sort. There's often a tone of dread or malignity -- you're watching or reading about curious, fated, peculiar things, people and actions. But that tone is usually part of a more "objective" overall point of view. (Because of this, these books and movies are more likely than most to... posted by Michael at June 4, 2003 | perma-link | (18) comments

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

The Contempo Lit Galaxy According to Me
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- I'm a literary enough guy, but I don't have much time for most of the contempo lit-fic writers who are generally thought of as important: Updike, Roth, David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Louise Erdrich, Sontag, Amis, Rushdie, Toni Morrison, DeLillo ... Talented and important they may be, but as far as I'm concerned: Snoozola, man. I'm not trying to be perverse; it's just that I can always think of a million things I'd rather be doing. In fact, that whole scene has always struck me as made-up, an ongoing soap opera with a rotating cast of characters, an illusion conceived and maintained to please the class of people (critics, editors, gullible recent English majors, indie bookstore employees) who need to believe that something of urgent literary importance is taking place on a weekly basis. When I view the scene as such, I can sometimes enjoy the spectacle. But when it's boiled down to a recommended-reading list, it's not one I can sign my name to. But enough with the putdowns and grumpiness. It's too easy to score off people with big reputations. What lit-fict books do I recommend? Well, I've gathered a little courage and a few notes together, and I hereby present my list of lit-fict books from the last 20 or 30 years that I've been a big, big fan of. No genre books, and no books I simply enjoyed. Instead, these are the books that struck me as really terrif, the ones I'd press on friends and say, Hey, this is really something! Readers may not be surprised to notice that between my version and the offical version of the contempo literary world there isn't much overlap. * My favorite contempo American lit-fict writer is Lee Smith. She's from Appalachia herself and most of her books are about Appalachian people, but there's nothing drearily worthy about them. Instead, her fiction is lyrical, soulful, often funny, and big-hearted. Her books do what the best movies do, combining the directness and ease of popular art with the sophistication and gravity of high art. Black Mountain Breakdown is the funniest of her books (though it's also quite sad), and Fair and Tender Ladies is probably her most moving (though it can be quite funny). I have no idea why more people don't know her work, which is always satisfying, accessible, moving and entertaining, and often a lot more. * Tom Perrotta writes Lit Lite, but he does it really well -- his books are funny, sly, bemused, and blessedly un-messed-up by politics. They're good, quick reads that are also perceptive and moving. (He's like an American Nick Hornby.) Bad Haircut is a terrif collection of stories about suburban Jersey -- anyone who lived through the '80s should enjoy it. Election is the funny and malicious novel the Reese Witherspoon movie was based on. The Wishbones is a bittersweet romantic comedy about a 30ish guy who's still playing with a rock band and is struggling... posted by Michael at May 14, 2003 | perma-link | (20) comments

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Comedy for the Ages
Michael: Thanks for the link to Dave Barrys column on taxes (which you can see here.) After reading Mr. Barrys column, which is, as usual, very funny, I was struck by just how long Ive been laughing at his work. And despite having been enjoying Dave Barry for at least a decade, it turns out I was relatively late to the Barry party: hes actually been cranking this stuff out for 20 years. That means hes produced roughly 1000 columns. Yikes! (Along the way hes also tossed off some 24 books.) This got me to thinking about the nature of what might be termed long-haul comedy. What permits someone to keep being funny year after year? (And dont bring up such tired theories as (1) drugs, (2) unhappy childhood, (3) divorce and (4) more drugs. We all know these things are useful inputs for comedy, but they cant account for sustained comedy.) Seeking an explanation, I turnedas I often doto the greatest repository of information on earth: Google. Simply typing in humor longevity (and then, after some hard thought, comedy longevity) I came up with the following explanations offered by various sages of the Internet. 1. The Blackstone AudioBooks Hypothesis: Avoid Shrillness Wodehouses longevity is found, like Keillors News from Lake Wobegon, in his ability to poke without being brackish or brutish. He shuns the shrillness that diminishes comedy and that is found too often in other dens of entertainment-such as American politics. 2. The Larry Wilde Hypothesis: Be Warm and Fuzzy The platform performances of Larry Wilde -- in addition to his books, television, stage and concert appearances -- have kept millions of people laughing for almost four decades. More than the humor, however, it is the humanity that has made him America's premier motivational humorist and earned him such enduring success. 3. The Kurt Kilpatrick Hypothesis: Use Detailed Research on Your Audience and Be Sure To List Your Educational Credentials: Kurt Kilpatrick has been a professional Humorist and Motivational speaker for twenty-five plus years. He is skilled at the Art of using Humor in Business and always works hard to relate his humor and message to the audience. It takes extra work and detailed research but the end result always pays off. Kurt Kilpatrick can add That extra spark at any meeting that will make the event fun, exciting, stimulating, memorable and extraordinary! Doctor of Jurisprudence, Cum Laude, 1978, Jackson School of Law at Mississippi College. Bachelor of Science, Cum Laude, 1971, Communications and Journalism, University of Southern Mississippi. 4. The Art Buchwald Hypothesis: Avoid Acknowledging Your Own Mortality, Especially To Yourself: For example, humorist Art Buchwald says he thinks less about dying than about his funeral, for which he hopes "everyone will get the day off and work very hard on their speeches." 5. The Chile Peppers, Sex and Football Hypothesis: Eat Right and Stay Fit : Adam lived to a ripe old age and so did Able. Their recipe for longevity? Grow peppers, make hot sauce... posted by Friedrich at April 17, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, April 7, 2003

Whence the Publishing Consensus?
Friedrich -- One of the odder phenomena that leaped out at me back in the days when I followed publishing was the disjunct between what the industry (meaning the publishers, agents, editors, critics, profs, etc, all together) promotes as Meaningful and Significant, and what these people as individuals actually confess to enjoying and not enjoying. For instance: I very seldom ran into people who loved the writing of my pet peeves, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. Yet it's hard to think of two contempo writers whose reps the industry pushes as hard. In other words, while the industry is promoting the notion that these two are major and important writers, the individuals who make up the industry, when speaking privately and freely, often confess that they don't enjoy their work at all. How to explain this? Being a math-o-phobe, I have no idea if there's some good chaos-theory-plus-simple-stats way to do so. A butterfly flaps her wings and soon after, in Stockholm, a writer is awarded the Nobel Prize? In this specific case: why Morrison? Why Rushdie? And do these kinds of consensus-judgments-that-no-one-really-likes take shape in all industries? I have some totally inadequate and predictable theories of my own which I'll try to articulate sometime. For now, I'll just say that my years hanging around publishing left me wanting to shout at people, Don't take what's being pressed on you as important too seriously! Most of the people doing the pressing don't believe in what they're selling themselves! Best, Michael UPDATE: The jamboree continues. Aaron Haspel has posted on the topic here, and the comments are already piling up.... posted by Michael at April 7, 2003 | perma-link | (28) comments

Thursday, April 3, 2003

Another Posting I'll Never Get Around to Writing
Friedrich -- A posting I've been planning to write for so long that I've finally become certain I never will get around to it... It concerns how I think the web is remaking reading and writing, and how that's likely to affect the place of literature in the larger culture. Short version: as the traditional prof-and-critic-and-editor class loses its exclusive grip on how the arts are discussed and how tastes and standards are defined, the general public (and the lit world itself) will find it impossible to avoid confronting how little most people like what passes for lit these days. How little time they have for it, how little interest they have in it, etc. Lit types up till now have fought these facts. With the web all around them, they'll come to accept that, in the larger scheme of things, lit just doesn't matter that much, that it's just a specialist taste and activity. And -- a Blowhard prediction here -- eventually literary reading and writing will take a new place in the culture -- no longer as something special and above, but as a niche market instead. I'm betting that's going to happen with all the fine arts, come to think of it. But there's yet another posting I'll probably never get around to writing. Damn. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 3, 2003 | perma-link | (16) comments

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Book Review -- "The Year 1000"
Friedrich -- In my better-late-than-never campaign to learn a bit about British history, I just finished an excellent and entertaining book, Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger's The Year 1000, buyable here and rentable on audio here. It's inventive and vivid popular history -- a horizontal slice through time, a look at what life was like at the turn of the first millennium, an evocative bit of this and an incisive bit of that. The reader learns about late Anglo-Saxon medicine (such as it was); the way Christianity was mopping up after its conquest of paganism (the authors compare the mania for Christianity to today's lust for inclusion in the European Economic Union); about food, drink, farming, coinage, and ways of doing battle. The authors have a lot of flair for the telling detail and the comparison that drives a point home. Opposing armies at this time, for instance, didn't wear distinctive outfits, so battle was like "a rugby scrum conducted without benefit of different-colored uniforms." They compare the politics of the time to to Chicago in the 1930s. I'd certainly never really registered that monks were bossed by abbesses -- ie., women -- before. Fans of the topic of global-warming (pro or con) will be interested to learn that the first millennium was a time when average temperatures were several degrees above what they are today, and that this wasn't a terrible thing for British agriculture. The authors are also good on the topic of slavery, a phenomenon that interests the crank in me because of my annoyance with the reverent (and misguided) way so many people treat American slavery as though it was unique in the world. (In fact, the word "slave" comes from "Slav"; the Slavic lands for centuries supplied easy pickings for slave-traders.) They don't shy from other gruesome daily realities either. Flies were everywhere and people were riddled with tapeworm and fleas, though teeth and jaws weren't in bad shape; honey, the only sweetener available, was a luxury. Bathing? Perhaps a few times a year. You're left on your own to imagine the dandruff, lumps, crud, pimples, bumps, scaley patches, and stink that must have been routine. I marvel, not for the first time, that such unappetizing creatures managed to procreate. All very enjoyable and informative. And, since I'm an arty-farty guy who tends to respond to almost everything in primarily literary and artistic ways, I'm also struck by the writing, and by the way the book is put together. Brit writers often have a flair for intelligent, informative history; keeping things fast, informal-seeming, and amusing seems to be a point of pride, and god bless 'em for it. "The Year 1000" is erudite yet, sentence by sentence, is presented in a tone of casual conversation; reading the book is like listening to friends talk wittily about a fascinating recent vacation. (Some excerpts from the book can be read here.) As a piece of book-making (ie., as idea and structure), it's also impressive -- prismatic, searching,... posted by Michael at March 26, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Guest Posting -- Tim Hulsey on Western Novels
Friedrich -- Once again we're (or at least I'm) being humbled, upstaged and enlightened by one of our visitors, and, as usual, what a pleasure that is. Tim Hulsey -- reluctant commenter, virtuoso Amazon consumer-reviewer, and all-around arts fan -- sent me an email after looking at my recent posting about Western novels. Here's what he had to say: I used to teach a course on the American West in literature, called "How the West Was Written." I tended to stop the course at WWII, because that's where my sense of literary history sort of falls off -- and also when writing about the West became more a case of nostalgia (or anti-nostalgia, in the case of the revisionist Western) than a contemporaneous event. At any rate, what constitutes a Western? As classifications go, this one is pretty easy; it's certainly easier to define a Western than it is to define a Novel (although most Westerns in print are Novels, too). I'd tend to define the subgenre of Western primarily by theme and setting -- although in the case of a Western, the two are so closely related as to make their separation more useful for critics than readers. The setting of the Western is, on some level, the frontier -- and I mean that as the "edge of settlement," in the classic Frederick Jackson Turner mode. The central theme of the Western usually involves a sense of human beings having to carve out their place within the immensity of this setting, a setting where civilization has just begun, however tentatively, to establish itself. It is a situation in which, Western writers usually claim, human nature is revealed in its barest form; it is certainly a situation in which governmental intrusion is minimized (the Law being either absent or ineffective), and individuals must thus resolve conflicts on their own. Reading a Western can often feel like reading Conrad -- there is the same sense of European Man overwhelmed by the immense void of frontier wilderness, and trying to work out a reasonable coexistence with it. Of course, unlike Conrad, the Western tends to record success rather than failure: Conrad's stories deal with individuals who try to conquer the Heart of Darkness and fail, but Westerns offer at least the promise of success, at least for those willing to make compromises and adapt to their land. Westerns may not look to Europe very much -- and the West Coast doesn't seem to look so much to Europe now. (If anything, it looks the other way, to China and Japan.) The historical West, however, looked to Europe very closely, so that colonists from the Eastern United States could preserve what remnants of that culture they could. If you ever tour Western homes, you'll be amazed at how many of them have the Complete Works of Charles Dickens lined up on the bookshelves. Not until fairly late in the nineteenth century did Westerners start to value artifacts of their regional culture -- which... posted by Michael at March 20, 2003 | perma-link | (0)

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Reading the West
Friedrich -- As you know, I'm just back East after a couple of weeks in Arizona and California. Visiting the West always makes me feel freed but ashamed at the same time. Why freed? Because the West is its own culture (or many cultures, really), and because it doesn't look to Europe -- what a relief. Why ashamed? Because I know so little about the West. Given the couple of years I've spent on the west coast and my marriage to a gorgeous, free-associating, horse-loving, rangy blonde 6-foot-tall Californian (they don't grow them like that on the east coast, at least they didn't in our generation), I know a lot more about the West than do most of my fellow northeasterners. But there's so much I don't know. Which is shameful but also wonderful. I also feel more than a bit of the usual indignation about the pathetic education (or "education") we got at our Lousy Ivy College. How can our lit classes have so completely overlooked the Western, for instance? I'm on semi-firm footing where movie Westerns are concerned, but (despite fancy Eng-lit degrees) I've only read a handful of Westerns, and know little about the form's history. Why do you suppose the poobahs of the East are so content to overlook the Western? Ignorance? Snobbery? It's not as though the Western is historically insignificant. I wonder if the poohbahs have even looked into the form -- its conventions, its influence, etc. Or perhaps they're simply content to sneer at it as trash without ever giving it a whirl. I suspect the latter explanation is the closest to the truth. Ah, the power of received opinion. I wish I had tons to report where the Western is concerned. Not much, alas. I once tried a couple of Louis L'Amours and couldn't get through them, but I can recommend Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star (innovative nonfiction about Custer and the Little Big Horn -- Connell's an amazing writer generally, by the way); and Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, an impressive and enjoyable piece of storytelling. (Here's a link to the Zane Grey Society, and here's Bill Hillman's Zane Grey Tribute site.) Did I ever pass along to you the amusing remark a book critic friend once made? He and I were talking about how great a book Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? is. Have you ever read it? Fab and essential, as taut, tense and compact as a good James M. Cain. And amazing in the way it nails once and for all a particular character type -- "Sammy Glick," the unprincipled, asslicking, domineering, will-do-anything-to-succeed Hollywood hustler. (Here's the official "What Makes Sammy Run?" site -- every great book should have its own site.) Once and for all: Budd Schulberg We were wondering why the book is seldom if ever taught in college lit classes. I came up with some unsatisfying possible explanations, then my friend came up with one that was much better. It... posted by Michael at March 19, 2003 | perma-link | (14) comments

Monday, March 10, 2003

Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating redux
Michael: In reading your posting, Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating, I realized in scanning your list of authors that I have read books by only two of themMssrs. Westlake and Kundera. That got me to thinking about why I dont read more contemporary fiction. Partly, it is a result of a shift in my taste over the years. Today, I simply prefer the mysteries of fact to those of fiction, the ungainly shape of true stories to the smoother shape of made-up stories. These true stories reach me largely via biographies and works of history (and very occasionally from the pens of fiction writers like Saul Bellow who seem, at least today, to be writing ultra-thinly fictionalized versions of real-life family history). This shift seems to have occurred about the time I had childrenI dont know whether that timing amounts to coincidence or causation. Thinking back, however, I realize that since childhood Ive preferred older fiction to contemporary fictionby older I can mean writing that is a mere 10 or 20 years old at the time I read it. Truly contemporary fictionespecially if it in any way is making claims for its artistic meritshas way too much anxiety and ambition floating around in it. (Joyce Carol Oates? No thanks.) I find those qualities to be like static in a radio broadcast, preventing me from hearing the music being played. I also find that the sheer volume of contemporary fiction writing gives me unpleasant intimations of mortality. Given my limited time and resources for reading, why not utilize the inexorable friction of history to grind away the mud and leave the diamonds? I would bet that any fiction you could actually lay your hands on that's 150 or more years old would be of markedly higher quality than whatever is on the new fiction shelf at your local bookstore. I have never read Racine, but if I had to chose between his collected works and those of Rushdie, Morrison, DeLillo, Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon, Id head for Racine every day of the week. I would certainly prefer to read everything Ive never gotten around to reading by say, Stendahl--no matter how minor--to a greatest hits collection of the above contemporary writers. In what may be a connected issue, Ive always found it extremely irritating when writers (or artists, for that matter) are dismissed for not being sufficiently of their time or praised for possessing this same quality (as if they could be anything else.) Virtually every time I can detect someone as being of an era--at least one that Ive actually lived through--I regard it as a sign of artistic weakness rather than strengthsince to me such era-specificity almost always means incorporating a contemporary clich in place of an original thought. A few years ago it dawned on me, glancing through the New York Times Review of Books at tale after tale of violence, rape, child molestation, et al, that this fiction wasn't the product of the... posted by Friedrich at March 10, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, March 9, 2003

Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating
Friedrich I havent blogged much about books, lit and writing, which along with movies is the current artform I know best. Why? Because I covered the field professionally for 15 years, and I just have too damn much to say, much of which runs counter to conventional lit-world wisdom. Where to start? And how to avoid being knocked over by the sheer pressure of what wants to be said? But, gotta start somewhere, and its about time, or so says some inner voice of mine. Why not start by triangulating my peculiar taste set in contempo fiction-book writing? Some of the usual major suspects: I read Rushdie and Morrison thinking bullshit bullshit bullshit. DeLillo? I read two of his books, and thatll last me my next ten lifetimes. Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon? Brilliant, sure, but when I want ideas, I prefer to turn to actual philosophers, and besides, Im a couple of decades out of grad school. The whats great sweepstakes: Reluctantly, I place my votes for three or four Garcia Marquez books, a couple of books each from Josef Skvorecky (The Bass Saxophone and Dvorak in Love) and Milan Kundera (but early Kundera, please), two novels (start with Season of the Jew -- better than Hemingway) by the almost-completely-unknown-in-America New Zealander Maurice Shadbolt, and four or five of Alice Munros books. But, to be honest, those are conversations that Im not much interested in taking part in. Age and fatigue probably explain this. But also, there are plenty of people clamoring to fight these fights and Im happy to leave the brawling to them. Me, Id rather explore pleasure, personal responses, and enjoyment, and do my best to be honest about my reactions. (And I love comparing notes with people I respect and enjoy who are also willing to let go of the damn whats great argument.) Ill take a pass on arguing over who should win the next Nobel and choose instead to admit that I was surprised to discover that I enjoyed reading Terry McMillans Waiting to Exhale and Jackie Collins Hollywood Wives much more than I did Cold Mountain or All the Pretty Horses. How about you? The genres. I tend to respond most happily to erotic-philosophical novellas, to mystery, to comedy and humor, and probably best to psychological suspense. Straightforward horror doesnt mean much to me; neither do political thrillers, sci-fi, or straightforward spy novels. The current lit genres (and, despite the pretences of the lit crowd, there are genres in lit writing just as there are in commercial writing) leave me cold -- the family-dysfunctional, the pinwheeling multicultural extravaganza, the austere farm-based tragedy. My personal faves: So, wading through the thicket of my own rants, I arrive at the currently-active fiction-book writers (and I specify book because I also like the work of some screenwriters and TV writers) whose work I most happily look forward to, and most happily abandon myself to. Ruth Rendell, an English specialist in mystery and... posted by Michael at March 9, 2003 | perma-link | (14) comments

Friday, March 7, 2003

Postmodern Fairy Tales
Michael: My almost-two-year-old son is fixated on The Three Little Pigs. He walks around growling and making blowing sounds, and then doing cute little pig grunts while wrinkling his nose. Clearly something about the danger and violence first set into motion by the Big Bad Wolf (and his house-destroying breath) and then resolved by the triumphant if deadly cunning of the last Little Pig is clicking with his emotions. He has made my wife go over the story over and over with him for the past week. Thinking to help resolve his issues with the story, my wife made a trip to the book store and picked up a handsomely illustrated volume by a D. Wiesner, entitled The Three Pigs. When she got home and read it to him, she was startled to find that rather than the standard version of the story, she had picked up a Postmodern fairy tale. The Pigs Exit the Story In this version, the Wolfs breath is so fierce that the first Little Pig is blown clean out of the storythus saving his life. Said pig scurries ahead of the wolf and convinces his brethren to exit the tale as well. They end up in a sort of meta-museum of illustrated childrens stories, which they can enter and exit at will, wandering through Hey Diddle Diddle and some medieval adventure story, in the course of which they recruit both the Cat (and the fiddle) and a dragon to their story-hopping crew. Finally they decide to return to their own narrative, where the dragon makes quick work of the extremely surprised wolf. Everyone, except the wolf, lives happily ever after in the cosy brick pig house. All fairly amusing, but I must report that my son was having none of this. Not only did he find this version confusing, but it quickly became apparent to him that whatever emotional juice he was looking for in the story had apparently leaked out with the punctured narrative. He shortly pushed The Three Pigs aside and has steadfastly ignored it since, preferring a crudely illustrated version of the original (which I have now read to him at least 100 times.) Apparently when confronting primal fears and fundamental questions, its better to take your medicine straight. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 7, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Tell, Don't Show
Friedrich -- I recently finished Paul Johson's magnificent History of the English People (out of print, but Amazon will do their best for you here), as well as John Keegan's elegant short biography of Winston Churchill (buyable here). Thought I should know a little more about English history than the eensie bit I did -- they have royalty, some white cliffs somewhere, and produce many programs for Masterpiece Theater. First-rate books, both of which I listened to on audiobook. I don't understand why more people don't use audiobooks, which are a great way to spend commuting and traveling time (beats the radio), as well as exercising time (I got tired of my music tapes pretty quickly). Audiobooks also spare middle-aged eyes, something I'm appreciating more and more. Did someone say "expense"? But renting audiobooks turns out to be quite a cheap way to go through books. The Paul Johnson is a long work of history, yet, renting it from the excellent Blackstone Audio (here), my total cost was about 20 bucks -- a steal, really. (Another good rental source is Books on Tape, here.) Arty flibbertigibbet that I am, my main reflection on finishing the Johnson and the Keegan was about the writing. Well, one aspect of the writing. American teachers and critics often go on and on about the importance of "showing, not telling," advice that tends to enrage me. Why the general preference for one over the other? There are times when it's appropriate to tell, and times when it's appropriate to show. Plus, heck, my tastes run more towards telling anyway. Stendhal, my favorite author, is in "tell" mode probably more than half the time. Aaron Haspel (here), a "tell" buff himself, points out that one of his favorite authors, the great Heinrich von Kleist, almost never "shows." Johnson and Keegan, bless their hearts, are both primarily tellers, not show-ers. When they feel they need to, they'll zero in on a detail or a setting or a anecdote. But most of the time they're simply telling you what you need to know. Why not? I wonder if this is partly a British/American thing. American writers and publishers (and presumably at least some readers) seem to be crazy about show-ing: "On the evening of August 8th, 1764, a small boy in a straw hat was whittling a piece of birch with his father's penknife..." My response: who cares? (My other response, which I'm a little ashamed of: What a bunch of rubes we Americans can be!...) A biography-buff friend of mine shares my aversion to excessive show-ing, but claims that it's the quality of the writing that makes all the difference. According to him, there are a couple of biographers who can make "show" mode really sing. I'll take his word for it. As for me? Hey, authors: When you've got something to tell me, tell it to me. You want to keep it lively with a few concrete details? Fine. Otherwise, shut up. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 26, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Saturday, February 22, 2003

A Confession
Friedrich -- I own hundreds of books I will almost certainly never get around to reading. Before I die, I will almost certainly buy and own hundreds more books that I will never get around to reading. I'm not sure why, but I needed to get that off my chest. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 22, 2003 | perma-link | (11) comments

Saturday, January 25, 2003

Free Reads -- Reality TV
Friedrich -- A fascinating piece by Bill Carter in the New York Times today about how the success of reality TV is changing the economic basis of the TV business. Sample passage: Not only will reality shows continue to flood network's schedules next fall, but television executives are also predicting such developments as an end to the traditional television season. Instead of the time-honored formula of introducing shows en masse in September and ending them in May, broadcast networks want to stagger the shows' debuts and banish repeats from the schedule almost entirely. There could also be fewer orders for dramas and comedies, with a resulting shrinking of jobs for Hollywood writers and actors. And, perhaps most significant, executives are preparing for a fundamental rewriting of the economic model underpinning network programming Carter's piece is readable here. I'm reminded of some art thoughts I've been chewing over for the last few years. They go roughly along these lines: OK, there have been many basic changes in technology and organization, as well as thought patterns, as digital technology takes over. Old structures are being turned into databases; everything's being turned into databases. What seems to follow is that structures collapse. They pancake. This has been much noted in business. But what might be the equivalent in the arts? Well, during this period in book publishing, there have been a lot of memoirs, as well as ever more focus on books you can use. In movies, even as the Hollywood spectaculars have grown more Photoshopped and audience-survey-sensitive, the indie cinema's movies are often puzzlingly flat in affect; they have no lift, no traditional art exhilaration. Kids in their manners generally have become more impatient, and cut-to-it-now abrupt. A lot of the newer, younger gallery art is scrawly and autobiographical, as well as conceptual. When I watch a reality-TV show like "The FBI Files," I'm registering something funny; it's like watching "Dragnet" -- except, of course, that it isn't fictional. But the tone is similar, and it engages the same part of me that used to be engaged by a fictional TV show like "Dragnet." The web seems to promote a kind of cut-to-the-quick-of-it mindset even where pornography is concerned. Amateur porn, indie porn, and peeping porn seem to predominate over old-fashioned story-based porn. The discussions we've had on 2Blowhards about the pros and cons of digital-video imagery often seem to come back to the fact that digital-video imagery doesn't have the density of traditional movie imagery. It's flat -- it seems to have all the information and none of the poetry. As digital technology (and the kinds of mind and behavior patterns that accompany it) invades more and more of our lives, it seems to chew up the fiction, the poetry, the analog elements and transform them into endlessly branching databases -- what's left is all wiring and connections, and nothing in the way of what used to be thought of as substance. Perhaps what this means is that part of what's... posted by Michael at January 25, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Tacit Knowledge -- Lit vs. Genre fiction
Friedrich -- As you know, I enjoy collecting bits of tacit knowledge -- those things people know, but that they never quite get around to knowing they know, or maybe never quite get around to writing down. One more such occurs to me. It's a book-publishing thing. Many of the people on the editorial (as opposed to business) side of book publishing ... Well, first off, let me just say this flat out: many of them are women. And most of the rest are gay men. There are very, very few straight guys on the editorial side of book publishing. (Which makes the still-bitter-about-the-excesses-of-feminism part of me want to shout: So if you've got a problem with books and how they're published these days, that means you've got a problem with the work of women and gay guys! You can't pin this one on straight guys! But, you know, I've finally gotten that part of me under pretty good control.) Another thing: many people on the editorial side of book publishing are former English majors. They got into the field because, heck, they loved reading and writing. In the biz, they discover that they have to fill out forms, deal with egos, fight bureaucratic fights, make projections, etc. They have to worry about money, and how books sell. The degradation of it! They can't believe how much energy they're having to put into trash fiction, self-help, romance. What's become of literature? So far, so familiar. What often isn't said is that this phase is often succeeded by another, during which the publishing person finds herself growing friendly with a self-help author, hating the latest hot literary book, noticing the degree of craft and commitment that a mystery writer brings to her novels. And finally she finds herself thinking thoughts like this one: "Gee, you know, most of this contempo 'lit' writing that I'm reading and being paid to promote, and which the media are buzzing about, has almost nothing to do with why I fell in love with books. I loved Dickens and Flaubert, not anorectic little memoiry writing-school collections that go nowhere. In fact, I actively dislike a lot of what passes for contempo lit. In further fact, if I'm to be completely honest, I'm getting more I-love-books pleasure out of the work of some genre writers than I am out of the lit writers that the industry sees as its pride and joy. And to my surprise, there are self-help and bizbook authors who I respect and like more as human beings than I do my lit authors. What's going on here?" It's a very common thing for people who came to the business devoted to a fancy ideal of literature to wake up one day and reflect, Gosh, you know, I've developed a lot more respect for professional writers than I ever thought I would. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 23, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

More Author Interviews
Friedrich -- Another good web resource for fans of long interviews with authors: January magazine's archive, here. Good stuff! Plus, to their credit, a broad range of writers, from lit to self-help to crime -- Kazuo Ishiguro, Clive Barker, and much that falls in-between. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 23, 2003 | perma-link | (0)

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Tacit Knowledge -- Authors and money
Friedrich -- A woman I was lunching with who works at a large literary agency told me an amazing fact. Her agency represents over 3000 authors. Guess how much of the agency's income is brought in by their top 10 authors. Ready? The answer is 25%. Wow: 1/4 of the money this company makes is brought in by 1/300th of its authors. (And one of their top 10 authors has been dead for some years now.) I wonder what percentage of their revenue is brought in by the bottom 1500 of their authors? And people talk about book-writing as though it's a career. It isn't a career; it's a crapshoot. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 16, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Philip K. Dick and Sci Fi Gnosis
Michael As you may remember at our Lousy Ivy University, when I should have been writing term papers or thinking seriously about my future I hung out in the library reading whatever amused me. In a comfortable little lounge that I didnt discover until I was a senior I came across a history of Gnosticism. This has always seemed like a stroke of luck to me, intellectually, because Gnosticism is one of those energizer bunny ideas that keeps on showing up in one unexpected context after another. Plato, the Christian Gnostics, Manichaeism, the Kaballah, Theosophy, New Age mysticism, The Matrix, all contain echoes of the thought that the world that we wander through is a dark, delusional, screwed up place and that our spiritual home, our true reality, to which we must struggle to ascend, lies on another plane accessible only through mystic insight or gnosis, achieved either by contemplation or via divine revelation. On an emotional level, if our deepest desires and urges seem constantly frustrated in this world, if we feel at root that things shouldnt be like this, thats because this world isnt really real, but rather a kind of nightmare were trying to awaken from. When I picked up Philip K. Dick as an adult I discovered that I had read many of his books as a teenager indiscriminately gobbling up my local librarys collection of sci-fi. Of course, since it had been nearly two decades since I had read them I had almost forgotten them--resulting in a very Dickian ghost memory as I read them again 20 years later. Of course, to call Dick a science fiction writer is a bit of a misnomer: the futuristic settings of his novels just give him permission to cut loose from the constraints of psychological realism and get on with setting up his Gnostic allegories. The situations of his books are often hilariously complicated, as I have found trying to summarize them for friends: Well, um, in Ubik, the heroJoe Chipis an employee of a psychic protection agency in a future world where reincarnation has both been scientifically proven and can be delayed, so its possible to communicate with the dear departed for a while. The plot gets going when the agency is hired for a big job on the Moon and then their team of psychic operators is double-crossed and the charismatic protection agency boss gets killed. When Joe and his fellow psychics try to accompany the bosses body for burial, Joe starts getting weird spirit messages from his boss (words written on mirrors, television commercials featuring his boss with messages directed at Joe, etc.) and of course the world they travel through keeps slipping further and further back into the past I remember giggling and thinking that I had never run into anything that was quite so transparently allegorical, at least not since "Pilgrim's Progress." (And, of course, Dick is a great deal funnier than Bunyan, at least as I remember the old boy.) But I... posted by Friedrich at January 15, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Femme (Lit) Erotica
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- As you know, in the last twenty or thirty years a lot of women artists and writers have made attempts to move into erotica, into porn, and into the edgier precincts of art. Do you enjoy keeping tabs on what they're up to? I do. Why? Partly for erotico-religio-aesthetic reasons that I'll save for a slower day. But partly also because it's simply fun (and occasionally beautiful and moving) to watch women stretch their wings. There's also the interesting-art-and-sex-puzzle side to it. Which, as I see it, is this: Given that women haven't traditionally played the straightforward, aggressive-pursuer role, given that many women don't seem as narrowly sex-centric as men so often are, and given that sex per se is the basic motor of this kind of art -- well, how can the woman artist move to the center of it and take command? I'm interested; I want to know the results, or at least watch the effort get made. So I'm a student and fan of all this, and it's a corner of the art-and-lit worlds I'm forever returning to. Over the holidays I treated myself to three fairly-recent erotic books by women. I caught up with The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a memoir by a French art-magazine editor named Catherine Millet that created a scandal some months back. Susanna Moore's In the Cut caused a fuss a few years farther back; it's basically a writing-school attempt at doing something hard-boiled, thriller-like, and sexual, but from the female point of view. Both of these books have some serious lit pretentions. I also read through one example of flat-out erotica, a collection of stories, Dark Desires, by an author who calls herself Maria del Rey. What's the verdict? Well, I had a good time. I often like it when art pretentions are mixed up with erotica -- the boundary between art and porn is one I'm fond of exploring. So that wasn't the reason I found myself skimming through much of the French memoir. Did you read about it at all? Millet writes about her sex life, which seems largely to have consisted of saying No to almost nobody; she's a woman who has made her orifices available to hundreds of men, whether in the forests of the Bois du Boulogne, or in sex clubs, or in artists' studios, or in the back seats of cars. As a book, it's a strange and arresting piece of performance art. Millet's take on her own story is about as French as can be: ie., clinical, distanced, chic, philosophical, existential. She isn't going to make sense of it. She isn't going to go searching for explanations. She isn't going to justify it. C'est comme ca, and that's all there is to it. I'm actually rather fond of the genre: the intense, existential Frenchwoman's book about sex,alienation, masochism, negation, and spirituality. I tend to take it (and enjoy it) as a kind of chic, sexy grandstanding. This... posted by Michael at January 14, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Guest Posting -- Yvonne Harrison
Friedrich -- Yvonne Harrison, who lives in New Zealand and makes a living as a technical writer, got in touch a few weeks back. I asked her what it's like to work in her field, and I asked for her reflections about how it affects her experience of (and pleasure in) writing. She wrote a wonderful and informative note back, which she's agreed to let me reprint here. So, a guest posting, by Yvonne Harrison: Every writer dreams of earning their living as a writer. Getting paid for their prose is up there with the thrill of getting published for the first time. For many the lifestyle of the writer holds much appeal as well. The prospect of never setting foot in an office, of being able to set up your own writing schedule, of having your very own writer's study usually occupies a considerable chunk of the writer's romantic and long-held dreams about writing. If they're anything like me they discover that it's not that hard to make a good living out of writing. The only problem is that it's not creative writing. There are a myriad of jobs out there that involve stringing words together to form a sentence but as many a (non-creative) writer learns, the job of being a writer can quickly kill any ambitions to be another type of writer. Unfortunately being a non-creative writer also tends to scupper any illusions about living the solitary writer's life of writing for four hours in the morning at the local cafe while nursing a latte. The problem is that earning a living as a writer usually involves office politics, and a nine-to-five day in a Dilbert like cubicle all of your very own... Just take my career (job) for instance. I'm a technical writer. There are many good points to this job. I'm a contractor so I can happily pay my mortgage, buy food and other essentials of life as well as save for holidays or the new computer. I've just started working from home for a lot of my contracts, so I really am living the writer's dream of typing away within my very own writer's study. A big component of technical writing is analysis, so it forces me to think logically and clearly so this helps with plot construction in stories. Additionally, users don't have time to wade through stylish prose or convoluted sentences so it teaches writers to get to the point. Quickly. With as few words as possible. Unfortunately the big down side to the job is that it makes creative writing a tough challenge. I wrote a novel while I worked as a technical writer. The technical writing project was under some tight deadlines. So I would get to work at 5.30 am in the morning, write all day until about 3.00 pm then get home and try to work on my novel until about 8.00 pm. Quite frankly it was an idea born of stupidity. By the time I finished the... posted by Michael at December 15, 2002 | perma-link | (0)

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Writing for a Living
Friedrich -- I'm always pleased to see people taking writing classes, music instruction, art classes. It's a great way to enhance your involvement in the arts, and it can refine and civilize your perceptual and critical apparatus in the most pleasing ways. Plus, it's wonderful fun to make art things. The vibe in an intro-to-oil-painting classroom, in my experience, is very enjoyable and unlike what most people remember of being in class. In school, you were -- to some extent -- there merely because you had to be. In oil-painting class, everyone's there because they want to be. At the same time, it can drive me nuts that so many Americans are prone to base their involvement in the arts on the fantasy of having an arts career. Readers seem to love imagining that they too could score big. If you look at hobbyist magazines, it's incredible how much of what's published caters to (I'll just say it: exploits) the fantasy that there's a career to be had here, and maybe even a killing to be made. I've noticed that English dabbling-in-the-arts magazines don't seem to sell this fantasy quite as hard -- they're straightforwardly publications for amateurs who follow the field because they love it. Are the English more commonsensical and down-to-earth than we are? I've been lucky enough to follow the business of some of the arts pretty closely. (More closely than I ever wanted to, to be truthful.) So I'm going to use this blog occasionally to get down some of what I learned. Today: writing. The boiled-down executive-summary version of what I have to say: writing books as a "career"? Hah. The slightly longer version: English-major rube that I used to be, I early on imagined that the country was awash in busy writers, busily making livings. Then I began to wonder. Finally, I called an acquaintance who runs an authors organization and asked him flat out: how many writers in this country actually make a living at it? We backed and forth-ed a bit. Was I including writers of technical manuals? Sit-com writers? Ad copywriters? Journalists? We finally decided to focus on something along the lines of "authors who write the kinds of books you think of when you think 'books' -- ie., the kinds of books you take out of a library intending to read." So how many of them actually make a living at it? Oh, my friend said, certainly fewer than 200. Like I say: "Career"? Hah. I remember one study that showed that most authors of checking-it-out-from-the-library nonfiction actually lose money on the books they write. Why? Because they pay their own expenses, and books almost always wind up taking more time and research than an author anticipates. And fiction? I just bumped into a friend who's published a couple of books. He's about to finish the first draft of a novel. Unprompted he sighed, "I'll be happy to get $3000 dollars for it." Out of that he'll have to pay... posted by Michael at December 12, 2002 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, December 6, 2002

Writing Software
Friedrich -- Do you dislike Word as much as I do? I suppose it's an OK piece of software, and using it to write certainly beats longhand or a typewriter. But I'm offended by it. It's really a tool for making documents, optimized more for memos and reports than for helping you get your thoughts down. As a tool for writing, it's a lumbering beast determined to inflict on me its rather sinister desire to do favors. (Why do so many Microsoft products want to do me favors? I feel the way a restaurauteur does when the Mob offers to do him a favor.) My copy has to be actively stopped -- apparently at the end of a gun barrel -- from turning asterisks into bullets, for instance, and from underlining grammar and spelling it doesn't approve of. I don't care if there are ways of stopping this behavior, I don't want it starting in the first place. Feeling offended isn't a good mental state to be writing in. And, besides, writing and document-making are two different activities, darn it. I'd prefer to have a separate program for each. But the problem, as I see it, also boils down to something that isn't specific to Word. It's the nature of the word-processor itself. A word processor sure beats a typewriter -- but by all that much? Maybe it's just me, but once I got past the "I never have to retype again" exhilaration, I started wondering: Gee, aren't there better things computers can do to help with writing? The main job/task/challenge/fun of writing, it seems to me, is to take a vague and cloudy (ie., nonlinear) notion -- something that exists only in your mental space -- and translate it into linearly-arranged strings of concrete words on a real page. No one has ever asked me for this, but here's the way Michael Blowhard breaks down the act of writing, plus bonus tips. Four steps, as I see it: 1) Collecting data -- whether research, notes, thoughts, or ideas. It's best at this stage to keep things nonlinear. Avoid turning your hunches and notions into anything polished or grammatical. Just note it all down telegraphically. It's important to keep the writing project, however tiny, open-ended even as you begin to give it some definition. 2) Organizing the material sequentially. Imagine how you'd present your material to to a bright friend who's interested in what you have to say. Line your research, ideas and information up in the way your friend would find most helpful and entertaining. 3) Writing your way all the way through. Even now it's best to avoid being too linear. Write a passage at the end of the piece first. Write something from the middle. Do a little work on the second paragraph. Move around inside the piece, and when you get stuck, drop the problem and go to work elsewhere in the piece. The problem will probably solve itself. Painters often work this way -- a... posted by Michael at December 6, 2002 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, December 5, 2002

Art Critics -- What Are They Like?
Friedrich -- The National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University just released the results of a study they did of art critics. My favorite fact: of the 169 writers they looked at, only 3 claim to be politically conservative. The report goes on: In fact, art critics were more likely to vote for the Green Party in the 2000 presidential election than to vote Republican. Progressive political dispositions underlie art critics' positions on several issues in the visual arts today, including government arts funding and freedom of speech. Time to call in the Diversity Police? Asked whether they agree with the statement "Postmodernist theory has a strong influence on the art being made today," 84% of the critics said they somewhat or strongly agree. Asked whether they agree with the statement "Multiculturalism has a strong influence in today's art world," 96% said they somewhat or strongly agree. 61% of the critics agree that "the federal government should make the support of individual artists a policy priority," and 75% "strongly disagree" with the placing of any constraints on publicly funded art. The writers picked favorites from a limited list of living artists. Their top ten faves from this list are, in this order: Jasper Johns Robert Rauschenberg Claes Oldenburg Maya Lin Louise Bourgeois Chuck Close Ed Ruscha Gerhard Richter Cindy Sherman Frank Stella Their least favorite living artists, also drawn from a prepared list: LeRoy Neiman Thomas Kinkade Julian Schnabel Jeff Koons Dale Chihuly Yoko Ono David Salle William Wegman Damien Hirst Tracey Emin The report can be looked at more closely here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 5, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments