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Wild Nights with Emily

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A few years ago, I declared a movie about Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, to be "one of the worst movies I've ever seen". It remains so.

Madeleine Olnek's Wild Nights with Emily is everything A Quiet Passion is not: lively, irreverent, joyfully artificial, poetic without being "Poetic", exuberantly cinematic, intentionally funny, and, in the end, quite moving. And while it is occasionally anachronistic, frequently campy, definitely uninterested in nuanced (or balanced) (or even fair) portraits of historical figures, and sometimes just flat-out bonkers, it's also a bit more accurate to Dickinson's actual life — and vastly more accurate to her legacy — than A Quiet Passion was.

But Wild Nights with Emily is more than a biopic. It's a movie about literary history, about how stories of writers (and artists of all sorts) get told and received. It says that even with truths in plain sight, most people prefer legends, because legends are soothing an…

Poetry in the Streets

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Sunday, February 9 is J.M. Coetzee's 80th birthday. I have written about Coetzee frequently — you'll find plenty here at this site (including one of the oldest posts: 2003's "Genre, Imagination, and J.M. Coetzee", written by a callow youth), as well as in my new book Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form: Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee at the Limits of Fiction. There are already various tributes being published; one I particularly enjoyed was Angelo Frick's for the Mail & Guardian, as Frick was once Coetzee's student, and writes well about Coetzee as a teacher and the value of studying literature.

At this moment, trapped in New Hampshire a few days before the Democratic primary, feeling deluged by desultory politics, I keep thinking back to some passages in Coetzee's Summertime, a book about a character named John Coetzee, a writer with a life story somewhat like his own, a writer who is dead and whose friends and acquaintances are being intervie…

Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form

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My new book Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form: Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee at the Limits of Fiction is now available from Bloomsbury Academic.

I don't mind if you don't buy it. The retail price is absurd. This hardcover is aimed at the academic library market, even though academic libraries (at least the ones I know) have shrinking book budgets. I've been told that in 12-18 months, a less expensive paperback will be released (though by "less expensive", something in the range of $40 is probably what we can expect — a price higher than the average trade hardcover). There is an ebook edition, but it's currently going for $99 at Amazon; Bloomsbury will sell you an ePub or PDF for $79.20. Those prices for an ebook are not ones anybody I've ever met would pay, and indicate a publisher that doesn't want people to buy ebooks.

I don't point out the absurd prices because I am mad at Bloomsbury. I've had an excellent experience with them, and ev…

2019: Writing, Reading, Viewing

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In an attempt to remember some of what I wrote, read, and watched this year, here are reflections on 2019 as it enters the past...

Writing
I had only a handful of publications this year, mostly because a lot of energy was eaten by work on my book Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form, which will be published next month by Bloomsbury, and by a few other items that are all scheduled for publication next year. I did manage to publish some fiction, though, for the first time in a while, and that was heartening, especially as the two stories appeared with publications I particularly respect. Here's the list:
"Toxic Masculinity at the End of the World: On David R. Bunch's Moderan", The Millions (January)Review of The Undying by Ann Boyer and Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno, Rain Taxi (Fall)"After the End of the End of the World", Outlook Springs issue 6"A Liberation", Conjunctions issue 73
Reading
Because both my dissertation and the book I expanded/ada…

An Earth Elegy in Memory of Katherine Min

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The new issue of Conjunctions collects stories, essays, and poems that are, in some way or another, "Earth Elegies". It includes my most recent story, "A Liberation", which I chose to dedicate to the memory of my friend and mentor Katherine Min.

She was generally known as Katherine, but to me she was Kathie. Or just K. (Kafka was one of the interests we shared.) She died in March, one day after her 60th birthday. It was the end of a long, hard struggle with cancer. I've wanted to write a tribute to her ever since the day of her death, but could not summon words that felt accurate or adequate. I'd known her since I was in college, when she worked in the office next to my mother, and one day she said to my mother that she was thinking about writing a screenplay but didn't know how, and my mother said, "My son's at NYU studying playwriting and screenwriting. I'll put you in touch." And she did. Though neither of us went on to do much scre…

Stephen Dixon (1936-2019)

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Sometimes, I would get annoyed when I saw Stephen Dixon's byline, because sometimes it felt like he was everywhere. Pick up a literary magazine, scan the table of contents: familiar name, unfamiliar name, Stephen Dixon. For a while, too, I thought there was a uniformity to his style: long, headlong sentences, endless paragraphs, the minute thoughts of boring white hetero guys. Everywhere. Stephen Dixon.

These feelings of annoyance never lasted very long, because I'd always end up going back to one of Dixon's collections, particularly The Stories of Stephen Dixon and, more recently, What Is All This?: Uncollected Stories. Open a random page of either of those books and you will find energy, weirdness, insight, humor, tragedy, wonder. And while, yes, there's often page after page of hetero white guy yammering, we mustn't forget that Kafka was among Dixon's favorite writers, and Dixon never gets too far away from Kafka's sense of the absurd, the horrifying, t…

Wrestling with the Devil by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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This review was first published in the Fall 2018 issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books. (I have kept the page references in that are provided for the Rain Taxi copyeditors, but which are cut from the printed version.)

At the end of December 1977, police arrived at the home of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in Limuru, Kenya. He was sent to the Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison under a detention order signed by the Minister for Home Affairs, Daniel arap Moi. He had no right to a lawyer, there was no trial, there was no sentence. For two weeks, no-one outside the government and police forces, including his family, knew where he was, or even if he was still alive. (Later, family visits were occasionally permitted, but they were rare and extremely short.) He could be detained for a day or for the rest of his life, his access to any news of the outside world severely restricted, his recourse to anything resembling due process limited to brief appearances before biannual review tribunals that might as well have…