31 December 2009
I previously wrote (and wrote and wrote...) about what I was thinking when designing an intro to film class that I'll be teaching next term, and particularly when choosing the fourteen films to show during the 150-minute screening time outside of class. That post wasn't complete, though, because an important other factor in the shape of the course is the textbook.
When I got the assignment to teach intro to film, I'd never looked at a film textbook. I'd be tempted to say, "When I was in school, we didn't need none of them overpriced, overstuffed, overacademic behemoths!" And though it is true that the profileration of such textbooks is a relatively recent event, a handful of them are over thirty years old. I just tended to get teachers who didn't want us to read much in film classes.
I'm a fan of reading, though. And I'm especially a fan of reading in an intro class, where a textbook gives interested students more information than they'll get from the inevitably incomplete survey an intro class provides. With a good textbook, or even a mediocre textbook, a student who becomes particularly curious about a topic will have a tool that shows the way toward deeper exploration.
I began by borrowing books from colleagues, then contacting publisher's representatives to see what they could send me. I soon had over a dozen books to choose from.
After skimming the books in my pile, I was able to eliminate half of them as in one way or another obviously inappropriate. For instance, I loved Routledge's Introduction to Film Studies, and particularly appreciated that it was thirty dollars less expensive than most of the other textbooks. But that book's idea of introduction and mine are very different -- for students in their first or second year of college, it would be dauntingly complex, its vocabulary and concepts challenging even for intrepid students. As a textbook for graduate students or for undergraduates in a serious and comprehensive Film Studies program, it would be an excellent resource.
Once I had skimmed and whittled, I encountered this post by Chris Cagle about film textbooks and found it helpful and reassuring. Most of the books Cagle writes about have been updated or are out of print, but the post confirmed a number of ideas that had been floating around in my mind. With one exception (and that likely because of a difference in editions), the descriptions of the books seem accurate and fair to me.
It only took me a few days to get down to three finalists: Bordwell & Thompson's Film Art, Barsam & Monahan's Looking at Movies, and Corrigan & White's The Film Experience.
Each is a wonderful textbook and would serve the class well. Looking at Movies is the most straightforward and clearly written of the three, absolutely perfect for a basic intro class. It also has the only useful accompanying DVD that I've seen with a textbook. Film Art is a pure joy to read and look at; it has, hands down, the best use of images from films in any textbook I looked at. Appropriately, given its title, it feels like an art book. David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson are among the best writers in the English language on film -- this is a book I sat with and read as much for pleasure as for work. The Film Experience is the book I thought must have improved between the first edition, which Chris Cagle wrote about, and the second, which I have. The layout and design is not bad at all, with full color throughout, though the book doesn't even come close to Film Art in its use of the imagery -- too many of the stills seem to be in the book to provide a break from the text rather than to illustrate a concept, whereas Film Art brilliantly demonstrates how to make stills an essential part of the book's argument and information. Cagle also notes that The Film Experience is advanced and likely difficult, but I didn't find this to be particularly true for the second edition, though certain advanced terms are included (syntagma is still there, as it should be!).
The first book I eliminated was Looking at Movies, though I wished there were some way I could have the students have access to the DVD, since a number of film ideas are explained far more efficiently and clearly via a DVD than a book. Alas, it seems the only way to assign the DVD is to assign the book, and in the end Looking at Movies was just too simple and too formalist in its approach for my needs.
Film Art is also mostly formalist, but it's also by Bordwell & Thompson, and if you're going to get formalist, you might as well get Bordwell & Thompson. As they said of James Bond, nobody does it better. I'm not sure why textbook writers and publishers even try to compete. Film Art is the most frequently adopted film textbook, and so publishers and writers feel compelled to try to nip at its market, but though a genius might be able to improve on Bordwell & Thompson, most textbook writers are not geniuses. The key to competing with Bordwell & Thompson is to offer a textbook for the teachers who want something other than what Film Art, for all its wonders, offers.
The only book I've found that does that is The Film Experience. Its chapters on the formal elements of film are adequate, though the materials trying to convince you to adopt the book say it has "the best coverage of film's formal elements," which is a lie. Film Art has the best coverage of film's formal elements, and White and Corrigan recognize the need for a book that has a perfectly good but not "the best" section on film form and style while also offering something else. The example films in The Film Experience are broader and more diverse than the examples in Film Art, there's coverage of theoretical and political approaches to analyzing film, and throughout the book there's an emphasis on the social construction of our responses to and expectations of the movies we see.
The Film Experience arrived after all of the other textbooks, and before I saw it, I was certain I would use Film Art and that it was pointless to look at any other textbook. I had never read a textbook of any sort with the pleasure I had read Film Art. It's that good.
But when I started trying to fit the lists I had made of films I wanted to screen to the content of Film Art, I saw there was a bit of a problem. I would need to supplement the book with something to cover the territory Film Art ignored or skimmed over. I had planned a whole unit on how engaged filmmakers have used the medium to explore ideas of representation (thus, Do the Right Thing, The Living End, and Orlando, plus the various clips I planned for the six classes in that unit). Film Art would not help me much during that unit (though it has a great 4-page analysis of Do the Right Thing).
When The Film Experience arrived, I paged through it and, without looking at the captions, recognized still after still after still. One film after another on my lists was included. There was a chapter on global and local cinemas, with two paragraphs on Ousmene Sembene (one of those paragraphs devoted to Black Girl), which may not seem like a lot, given Sembene's importance, but is astounding for an intro textbook. In a section on "The Lost and Found of American Film History", significant discussion is given to the pioneering women of early cinema and the awful facts of Hollywood sexism -- a subsection titled "Women Who Made the Movies" begins, "The movie industry remains male dominated, with women directing only 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing films in the United States, according to a 2006 study." It goes on to discuss women in independent film (still not even remotely equal) and the overlooked, significant contributions of women to the history of the medium. It does the same with African-American film and with gay and lesbian film, and it discusses in a pretty accessible way the power of ideology to shape expectations and actions. These sections aren't tokenist, either -- the text of the entire book supports them, making these sections feel like elaborations on ideas that have been prepared earlier.
I hated to let Film Art go, but it was obvious once I saw The Film Experience that this would be the textbook for my class. I wish I could assign them both, because they make fine companions, but I try not to go beyond a retail price of $100 for all of the books I assign to a course. (This has gotten harder to do over the last decade, so I sometimes have to raise the limit to $125, but never beyond that.)
Just before book orders were due at the bookstore, I decided to add one more text. I'd been toying with the idea of adding Amy Villarejo's Film Studies: The Basics, at least as a recommended text, because it's a good one-stop reference guide and priced like a trade book, not a textbook. It didn't offer sufficiently different content from The Film Experience, though, to justify the order.
What I did decide to add, though, was The Village Voice Film Guide, which is a great collection of short reviews of many wonderful movies, including some we'll be watching in class. One of the virtues of the book is that it often gives multiple reviews of films, so, for example, there's the original Andrew Sarris review of Psycho along with a later review from a re-release. These reviews can sometimes be entirely at odds with each other, and that serves my purposes well. The Voice has employed a good range of reviewers, so the book shows a variety of writing styles, from the informal to the almost-academic. It's important for the students to have good examples of a range of short writings on film, because most of the writing they will be doing will be short responses. Ultimately, the book will, I hope, help guide students toward films we don't watch in class and further stoke their curiosity about all that remains to be seen.
In addition to the textbooks, I'll constantly be pointing them toward various film blogs and websites, because today much of the conversation about cinema has moved to the web. Indeed, I can slightly alleviate my sadness at having to let Film Art go by sending students to David Bordwell's website, one of the best film sites out there.
Update 1 (2011) here.
Update 2 (2013) here.
29 December 2009
And so I've spent more time preparing for this class than I have for any class since I decided to add an African lit section to one of the high school AP English classes I taught nearly ten years ago. I've done this only partially out of fear of not knowing what the heck to do once I'm standing in front of the class -- that fear, I've learned, never goes away, no matter how well prepared I am; it's the same fear I have before setting foot on stage as an actor, and it's essential to being able to perform well. (Indeed, the few times I've lacked the fear have been disastrous.) The primary reason I've spent so much time preparing is that the material is engrossing and the possibilities for the class are about as close to limitless as it's possible to get and still provide a general course description. One of the two regular teachers of the class told me he loves teaching it because it allows him to show some movies he likes and talk about them with students, and who wouldn't like that? (His syllabus reveals there's a bit more to it than that!)
21 December 2009
Here's what you do: Go to the Underland website, order lots of books, and type in the code xmas09. This should get you 15% off your order. The more you spend, the more you save! I would recommend getting at least 5 copies each of Finch, Best American Fantasy, Pilo Family Circus -- well, heck, all of their books. You need at least one for yourself, two or three for various friends and family, one to donate to the local library or school, etc...
Hitchcock's Films Revisited is fascinating, too, because it is multiple books in one, and various parts think about, contradict, and, indeed, criticize other parts of the book. After the original Hitchcock's Films was published, Wood's life changed considerably -- he had been a married man living in England, politically uncommitted, with little knowledge of or respect for certain trends in film theory. In the 1970s, he divorced, came out as gay, re-evaluated some of his stances on film theory, developed strong leftist political convictions, and moved to Canada. These seismic shifts in his life inevitably affected his view of Hitchcock's films, and he chronicles those changes in the autobiographical sections of Hitchcock's Films Revisited, which includes the entire text of the original book and adds hundreds of pages of later material. Even if I were not as interested in Hitchcock's work as I am, I would find Hitchcock's Films Revisited valuable as a model for the intersections of autobiography and criticism. It forces readers to assess their own ways of evaluating and interpreting films by showing the ways Wood himself had done so over the years and, as importantly, the experiences that led him to choose particular techniques of evaluation and interpretation when he did.
There have been numerous eulogies for Wood written in the past few days. The Auteur's Notebook has a roundup. David Bordwell's blog post is typically thoughtful and well-written. Film Studies for Free links to eulogies as well as works by or about Wood. All worth reading.
18 December 2009
December 18 1832
After passing through the straight of Le Maire at Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle anchored at Good Success Bay. Here Darwin had his first encounter with savages [sic]. He was shocked by the primitive way of life they led but was also fascinated by them. A group of four male Fuegians met the landing party. After an attempt to communicate with the Feugians the party presented them with some bright red cloth and the Feugians immediately became friendly with them. The natives initiated a dialogue by patting the crewmen on their chests. Apparently they had the most amazing ability to mimic the crew's gestures and even the words they spoke, often repeating whole English sentences back to them. Darwin was bewildered by all this.
17 December 2009
Here's how Seitz defines the group:
The sensualists are bored with dramatic housekeeping. They're interested in sensations and emotions, occurrences and memories of occurrences. If their films could be said to have a literary voice, it would fall somewhere between third person and first -- perhaps as close to first person as the film can get without having the camera directly represent what a character sees.Bingo -- if I could sum up the mix of aesthetics and worldview that most appeals to me, that reflects and extends my own take on how it feels to live, I doubt I could come up with a better description than Seitz has. Indeed, it reveals succinctly what I most favor in art. That's not, of course, to say that all other approaches are wrong or don't work or whatever, but that the fastest, surest way I've found toward the pleasures of recognition (of life, of living, of being and time) and the evocation of emotion (without what feels to me to be sentimentality) is via exactly what Seitz describes.
Yet at the same time sensualist directors have a respect for privacy and mystery. They are attuned to tiny fluctuations in mood (the character's and the scene's). But they'd rather drink lye than tell you what a character is thinking or feeling – or, God forbid, have a character tell you what he's thinking or feeling. The point is to inspire associations, realizations, epiphanies -- not in the character, although that sometimes happens, but in the moviegoer.
You can tell by watching the sensualists' films, with their startling cuts, lyrical transitions, off-kilter compositions and judicious use of slow motion as emotional italics, that they believe we experience life not as dramatic arcs or plot points or in-the-moment revelations, but as moments that cohere and define themselves in hindsight -- as markers that don't seem like markers when they happen.
(If my preoccupations of late seem mostly to be with the world of cinema, you're right. A profound sense of having burned out on prose fiction has been replaced by a deeper fascination for film and film criticism than I've felt for years. [The timing is appropriate, since I'm teaching an intro to film course next term, about which more later.] I always return to prose fiction -- it is, in so many ways, the foundation of what I know -- but sometimes need to take a little break.)
14 December 2009
In a recent issue of the Times, Dargis wrote an essay about women in Hollywood. The commercial American film industry remains an astoundingly sexist enterprise, and the sexism is systemic, as Dargis shows. Even if you think you know how bad the situation is, the statistics are breathtaking:
Only a handful of female directors picked up their paychecks from one of the six major Hollywood studios and their remaining divisions this year: 20th Century Fox had “Jennifer’s Body” (Karyn Kusama) and “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” (Betty Thomas), while Fox Searchlight had “Amelia” (Mira Nair), “Post Grad” (Vicky Jenson) and “Whip It” (Drew Barrymore). Anne Fletcher directed “The Proposal” for Disney, while the studio’s once-lustrous division, Miramax Films, continued on its death march without any help from female directors. Ms. Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” was released by Sony Pictures while the art-house division Sony Pictures Classics released “An Education” (Ms. Scherfig), “Coco Before Chanel” (Anne Fontaine) and “Sugar” (Anna Boden, directing with Ryan Fleck). Universal Pictures has Nancy Meyers’s “It’s Complicated”; its specialty unit Focus Features has no female directors.The Jezebel website has now published an interesting interview with Dargis about the essay and about the relationship between women and Hollywood. Her replies to the questions are sharp, succinct, and peppered with the wonderful vernacular vocabulary the Times never lets her use...
Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures, meanwhile, did not release a single film directed by a woman. Not one.
The only thing Hollywood is interested in money, and after that prestige. That's why they'll be interested in something like [Kathryn Bigelow's] The Hurt Locker. She's done so well critically that she can't be ignored.
Let's acknowledge that the Oscars are bullshit and we hate them. But they are important commercially... I've learned to never underestimate the academy's bad taste. Crash as best picture? What the fuck.
The new print issue of RT includes an essay I wrote about the work of Wallace Shawn, a playwright and essayist whose face and voice many people know from some of his iconic roles in movies and TV shows, but whose writing is vastly less known -- he's one of those writers who is more popular outside of his native country than in it.
Aside from a couple short stories that are currently wending their way through the submission process, my major writings since this summer have been the Shawn essay for RT and the essay on Coetzee for The Quarterly Conversation. The effect of spending so much time reading and re-reading the writings of both men is obvious in my latest Strange Horizons column, "On the Eating of Corpses".
13 December 2009
Everybody's making lists of the best of everything from 2000-2009 right now. I like reading such things when they're the personal preferences of individuals -- Richard Brody's film list is the most idiosyncratic I've encountered, filled with films I haven't seen and in many cases have never heard of, and of the ones I have seen, they aren't really films I'd put toward the top of my own best-of-the-decade list, were I even able to come up with such a list. And yet I loved reading Brody's list because his explanations worked together to create a sense of how he thinks about his encounters with art.
Similarly, John Patterson's passionate essay on Terrence Malick's The New World as the single best film of the decade is a joy to read because of Patterson's ability to share his deep engagement with Malick's creation. It helps that I'm sympathetic to Patterson's view -- I would certainly include The New World among my favorite ten or even five movies of the decade, though I don't think I could choose just one as "the best".
The committee lists are less interesting to me (even when they are ones I am surprised to find myself frequently agreeing with), because I use them primarily to remind myself of films I wanted to see but forget to get around to sticking on the Netflix queue. By melding various aesthetics in a quest for objectivity that ends up being more procrustean than coherent, the editors produce lists that feel, to me at least, almost random.
Whereas looking at the individual ballots is fascinating -- at Time Out London, for instance, I love that the dance editor put Man on Wire as #1. And when I looked at the ballots for the Time Out New York reviewers, I realized why I had liked the overall list more than any other committee list I've seen: though I preferred the individual lists to the combined one, none of the lists made me say, "Egads! I will never trust a review you write!" The film section at TONY is one I read closely because they have managed to put together a group of writers who do not have exactly the same tastes (how dull that would be!) but who share an approach to analyzing and evaluating movies -- an approach that often fits well with my own tastes. They also show a talent for writing very short reviews that are usually richer than many reviews twice their length.
As for me, I would need to go back and take a closer look at what came out between 2000 and this year before I could really make such a list. I'd also need to take another look at at least a few films (The Fall, Grizzly Man, Mysterious Skin, There Will Be Blood, 3-Iron, others) before I could sort out anything resembling a list I was happy with, but I know I would be inclined to include Across the Universe, Children of Men, Code Unknown, The Edge of Heaven, I'm Not There, Memories of Murder, Miami Vice, Mulholland Drive, The New World, No Country for Old Men, Nobody Knows, Public Enemies, Reprise, Spirited Away, Synecdoche, NY, The White Diamond, Yi Yi, Zodiac...
Oh, lists are such fun -- especially when I should be writing a final exam and/or doing housework!
11 December 2009
The Rogue Film School is about a way of life. It is about a climate, the excitement that makes film possible. It will be about poetry, films, music, images, literature.
Excerpts of films will be discussed, which could include your submitted films; they may be shown and discussed as well. Depending on the materials, the attention will revolve around essential questions: how does music function in film? How do you narrate a story? (This will certainly depart from the brainless teachings of three-act-screenplays). How do you sensitize an audience? How is space created and understood by an audience? How do you produce and edit a film? How do you create illumination and an ecstasy of truth?
Related, but more practical subjects, will be the art of lockpicking. Traveling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully. The athletic side of filmmaking. The creation of your own shooting permits. The neutralization of bureaucracy. Guerrilla tactics. Self reliance.
Censorship will be enforced. There will be no talk of shamans, of yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your Boundaries, and Inner Growth.
Related, but more reflective, will be a reading list: if possible, read Virgil's "Georgics", read Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber", The Poetic Edda, translated by Lee M. Hollander (in particular the Prophecy of the Seeress), Bernal Diaz del Castillo "True History of the Conquest of New Spain"
- Follow your vision. Form secretive Rogue Cells everywhere. At the same time, be not afraid of solitude.
The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted; it is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lockpicking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects. In short: for those who have a sense for poetry. For those who are pilgrims. For those can tell a story to four year old children and hold their attention. For those who have a fire burning within. For those who have a dream.
07 December 2009
Here's a taste:
In its form and subject matter, Summertime has more in common with Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year than Boyhood and Youth, but some of its central concerns are the same, and it is possible to see the John Coetzee who is the topic of Summertime as an adult version of the John Coetzee who is the protagonist of Boyhood and Youth (if we assume the protagonists of those books are the same John Coetzee . . .). In many ways, Summertime unites the strategies of the recent books with the earlier ones—not only Boyhood and Youth, but Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country, Foe, The Master of Petersburg, and Doubling the Point.As usual, this is a rich and diverse issue of TQC -- deserving particular attention is "Translate This Book!", in which dozens of translators, writers, editors, publishers, agents, journalists, etc. offer one title not available in English that they wish were.
03 December 2009
(It is here, dear reader, that you should depart if you have not read the novel and do not want to learn important details of plot and situation, for I shall soon be writing about some of the primary mysteries of the tale........)
One of the ideas propelling the narrative of Under the Dome is that it is a rare person who will not, under the right circumstances, behave in a cruel and brutal way. There's nothing particularly profound about this -- we all know about the Milgram experiments, after all -- but it's one of those ideas that proves particularly fruitful for storytellers. In Lord of the Flies, Golding found a powerful template for such an idea, and King has extended it to the world of adults, although the adults who are self-reflective and try for decency often think back to the shames and cruelties of childhood. Shame for the decent people usually comes as much from complicity as from the commission of crimes: Dale "Barbie" Barbara, the primary protagonist-hero of Under the Dome carries tremendous guilt for having stood by while soldiers under his command tortured and killed a man in Iraq. Barbie's shame mixes at the end with the very different shame of the other protagonist-hero, Julia, who helps evoke a sort of pity from the alien child controlling the Dome by projecting her memories of abasement at the hands of the children who had attacked her in elementary school along with Barbie's memories of Fallujah, and the effect is to cause the alien child to lift the Dome: "She took pity," Julia says, "but she wasn't sorry." The shame wasn't enough to bridge the gap of species and create empathy, but it is enough to evoke pity and a sort of mercy.
There are more implications in the novel's exploration of such emotions as pity, empathy, and remorse, but the one I found most striking was how the reader becomes implicated by the narrative. The people who get their news of the Dome from CNN are observers, just as the aliens are observers, just as we are observers. We take pity and are not sorry, because this is our entertainment. There's a Hitchcockian element to it all -- reading the book, we share some qualities with the aliens who have set the Dome down on the town of Chester's Mill. The Dome is there in the narrative for our entertainment. The characters suffer and die because we read the words that equal their suffering and death: we create that suffering and death in our minds, and we take some sort of pleasure from the imagining. Julia hears the alien child say, "You aren't real," and "How can you have lives if you aren't real?" Julia tries to convince the alien otherwise, screaming out that she is, indeed, real:
--Prove it [the alien child says.]The moment can't help but be metafictional. The words we have read are tools that let us imagine a character named Julia, and that imagined character, like all the other characters in the book, has, indeed, taken our mind. If we have read this far, we want her to live. We have developed more feelings for her than the alien child has, though, because we are capable of more than pity -- our minds have turned the words into characters and situations, and those characters and situations have evoked emotions. We have reached the point in the narrative where we want the tension to be released, where we are ready for an end, and so the Dome lifts ... and a few pages later, the book runs out of words.
--Give me your hand.
--I have no hand. I have no body. Bodies aren't real. Bodies are dreams.
--Then give me your mind!
The child does not. Will not.
So Julia takes it.
Thus, King has made us complicit. We are the alien children. Storytelling is an experiment in cruelty. We could have stopped reading at any point. We did not need to imagine the suffering and horrible destruction -- we could have stopped it. But we wanted to see what happened. We wanted to be entertained, amused, to pass some time with this toy of a tale. Fiction is a safe way to enjoy all sorts of things we'd rather not enjoy in life, because it's all make-believe. How can the characters have lives if they aren't real? It's just a story.
The narrative voice supports the metafiction -- it is not invisible. From the earliest pages, the narrator tells us of things that will happen in the future. By page 37 (of the U.S. hardcover) we can't ignore the narrator, who suddenly steps forward:
We have toured the sock-shape that is Chester's Mill and arrived back at Route 119. And, thanks to the magic of narration, not an instant has passed since the sixtyish fellow from the Toyota slammed face-first into something invisible but very hard and broke his nose.If the narration has been transparent, it has now revealed itself to be, like the Dome, very hard indeed.
The narrator, being a good storyteller, encourages our fun, popping in now and then to let us know that everything is going to get much worse. If we keep reading and are horrified at the carnage, we cannot say we were not warned.
The citizens of Chester's Mill aren't like ants being tortured and killed by sadistic children, as the survivors think. They're like characters in a novel: their misery is the stuff of someone else's entertainment.
Maybe Aristotle was right, and great tragedy produces some sort of purging of pity and fear. If so, Under the Dome is a great tragedy about great tragedy. Scholars have argued for centuries over who benefits from Aristotle's purgation -- the creator, the characters, the audience? We could argue the same for Under the Dome. For centuries, too, people have debated the uses of art and imagination, the morality of imagining suffering and horror, the complicity of narrative voyeurism.
And yet few of us desire stories where the characters do not face obstacles, do not struggle and suffer, because, alien children that we are, we can't help but want to set down Domes and see what happens.
28 November 2009
I don't know where I first heard about Wilson's book -- probably via Bookforum -- but it's gotten plenty of press, including a mention by James Franco at the Oscars and an interview of Wilson by Stephen Colbert. The concept of the book is seductive: Wilson, a Canadian music critic and avowed Céline-hater, spends a year trying to figure out why she is so popular and what his hatred of her says about himself. I kept away from the book for a little while because I thought it couldn't possibly live up to its premise, and that in all likelihood it was more stunt than analysis. Nonetheless, the premise kept attracting me, because I am fascinated by the concept of taste and I, too, find Dion's music to be the sonic equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
What makes Wilson's approach so effective and insightful is that it avoids the fanboy defensiveness marring everything from internet discussions to scholarly studies such as Peter Swirski's From Lowbrow to Nobrow. Wilson isn't grinding axes or settling scores; he's more interested in exploration than proclamation, more inclined toward maps than manifestos. The result is one of the few books I know that is as likely to expand its readers' view of the world as it is to provide the choir with an appealing sermon.
16 November 2009
WSJ: The last five years have seemed very productive for you. Have there been fallow periods in your writing?I was struck, too, by this:
CM: I don't think there's any rich period or fallow period. That's just a perception you get from what's published. Your busiest day might be watching some ants carrying bread crumbs. Someone asked Flannery O'Connor why she wrote, and she said, "Because I was good at it." And I think that's the right answer. If you're good at something it's very hard not to do it. In talking to older people who've had good lives, inevitably half of them will say, "The most significant thing in my life is that I've been extraordinarily lucky." And when you hear that you know you're hearing the truth. It doesn't diminish their talent or industry. You can have all that and fail.
CM: I'm not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.Oh, Cormac! Aspire! I've spent up to six years on a single story! The possibilities for suicidal ideation as an obsessive short story writer are vastly greater than those of an obsessive novelist -- imagine years spent on twenty pages rather than hundreds! And then the struggle to just get, say, 5 cents a word for that story, if you can get paid at all! Cormac, baby, stop being such a wuss!
It's also clear that Mr. McCarthy has never encountered Big Fat Fantasy:
WSJ: Does this issue of length apply to books, too? Is a 1,000-page book somehow too much?The interview is long and fascinating, well worth the time to read it.
CM: For modern readers, yeah. People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you're going to write something like "The Brothers Karamazov" or "Moby-Dick," go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don't care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.
12 November 2009
Ms. P. Martha Moog thought about reading Finch, but decided against it when she discovered that the eponymous protagonist is not, in fact, a delectable bird. She very much liked the gun on the cover, though, and so dragged the book and one of our home decorations over the couch to spend some time with them. (She fancies herself a gun moll, I'm afraid. I keep having to confiscate her collection of Derringers.)
11 November 2009
09 November 2009
I'm particularly happy with this for a few reasons -- first because my friend Nita Noveno, one of the editors, asked me to contribute, and it's always nice to be asked to contribute to something, but also, and especially, because the Sunday Salon website reaches toward some of my own ideals for ways literature and the world can encounter each other. It's a site worth exploring and supporting.
Here's an excerpt from the story to entice you (or warn you away)--
Olly and I spent much of our time together, though, because Olly liked to hear the stories I told her. At first, I told her stories about the things our parents were doing out in the world -- fighting evil witches and dastardly kings, working as spies for the government, flying in warplanes and bombing remote regions of the Earth. Olly didn't seem to understand these stories, but she liked them. As she got older, though, she asked for stories about other people. I told her about Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman. She especially liked the story of how Wonder Woman discovered that Superman was insane and used her powers to tie him up and then smash his head in with a boulder. "She had to hit him again and again, didn't she?" Olly asked. "Yes," I said. "He was very strong, and she had to smash his head in over and over and over again to kill him." We laughed a lot at that, and then Olly began to sing, and soon I joined her:
She smashed his head in
over and over and over again
and over and over and over again
and over and over and over again!
Returning now to work on the aforementioned J.M. Coetzee essay, which is once again insisting on going in unexpected directions requiring more reading. (Paul de Man's "Autobiography as De-Facement" this morning. I know you're jealous.) No more blogging till it's done. Bad me.
07 November 2009
It's a sunny, cool Saturday morning up here in the wilds of New Hampshire, and I was filled with the desire to share some music this morning, but wasn't sure what. My recent discovery and obsession, Ted Hawkins? Couldn't choose just one song. The most amusing song I've heard this week, Marion Harris's "I'm a Jazz Vampire"? Tempting, tempting...
But then a finished copy of Alan DeNiro's novel Total Oblivion, More or Less arrived in my mailbox, sporting its fabulous cover, and Booklist gave it a starred review, and for various reasons that will become apparent the minute you read a synopsis of the book, I couldn't get a certain Andrew Bird song out of my head, and then found this lovely video someone had created for it, and my choice of music to share with you this morning was pretty much made for me. Enjoy--
06 November 2009
"I just want to say," I said as the meeting closed, "that we have sat here and consistently called books by women small and books by men large, by no quantifiable metric, and we are giving awards to books I think are actually kind of amateur and sloppy compared to others, and I think it's disgusting." (I wasn't built for the board room.) "But we can't be doing it because we're sexist," an estimable colleague replied huffily. "After all, we're both men and women here."(Be sure to read the whole essay; it's a smart and sharp attack on a problem that we should be past at this point.)
But that's the problem with sexism. It doesn't happen because people -- male or female -- think women suck. It happens for the same reason a sommelier always pours a little more in a man's wine glass (check it!), or that that big, hearty man in the suit seems like he'd be a better manager. It's not that women shouldn't be up for the big awards. It's just that when it comes down to the wire, we just kinda feel like men . . . I don't know . . . deserve them.
The good people at Publisher's Weekly are probably speaking what they think is the truth when they say, about their all-male list of 10 "best" books of the year, that "We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz." I believe them when they say, "It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male."
But being disturbed is not enough. What they have done is shameful.
This is not just some blogger's list of favorite books of the year. This is the publishing industry's trade journal telling the world what ten books from 2009 deserve most acclaim and attention. This list will affect how books are stocked in stores and it will affect what books are bought by libraries. The fact that the list only includes male writers contributes to a problem.
The editors who created this list have chosen to perpetuate sexism. They have deliberately and knowingly made it easier for male writers to have access to sales and publicity at the expense of women writers. Their list perpetuates the idea that the best, most serious, and most consequential books are written by men, and that idea will continue to have an effect out in the world.
Our society has made plenty of great strides over the past centuries and decades in terms of reducing institutional sexism, but moments such as this highlight just how entrenched the patriarchy is. Yes, patriarchy. Male dominated, male identified, male centered. It's insidious, and it is self perpetuating.
There is no objective, essential "best". There is stuff we like and stuff we don't -- texts we have developed techniques for appreciating and texts that we do not, for myriad reasons, appreciate. There are texts about which we have built large critical apparatuses for justifying as "great". Perceptions of gender, race, sexuality, class, and other broad social categories mix with our experiences as readers, our educations, etc., to produce the judgments we make. Though we may struggle to create vivid and convincing justifications for our judgments, there are still mysteries to any evaluation that strives for nuance. But even so, we can expand our awareness, question our gut instincts, analyze our justifications, wonder why we are doing what we do and saying what we say. To assume that we can simply "not pay attention" to some of the central forces structuring our perception of reality is naive. We might be powerless to change them, but we might also be in a position to avoid perpetuating them and adding strength to them. We don't have any choice about whether the society we're born into is racist, sexist, heterosexist, whatever. But we do have some choice about how we relate to that society, how we work within it, what we pay attention to, and how we choose to make our choices.
I'm not ranting from a position of innocence -- most of the writers I most deeply value are men (many of whom are white, middle class, born within the last 150 years, and not from the U.S.). I have some hunches for why this is, hunches related to early reading experiences, prejudices about language and its relationship to reality, etc. Personal taste and judgment are too complex to explain simply or conclusively. Individual readers are strange creatures, full of prejudices and whims and blind spots and allergies. Individually, I expect there are weird particulars other than race, class, and gender that affect our taste more profoundly, more forcefully than those social categories themselves (if those social categories could ever be isolated, which I am skeptical of anyway -- any discussion of them is provisional and strategic). But when we move beyond the individual, as lists try to do, we're moving into the realm of systems and social structures -- means of distribution and consumption, gravitational forces that shape and warp how we talk about the realities we perceive, the tides we choose to sail with or against. And that talk itself then goes on to shape some more realities and turn some tides.
All of which is just me noodling around and trying to say the same basic thing: An institution with the power of Publisher's Weekly has more responsibility than an individual has, because the power that institution wields is greater than the power of most individuals (certain folks like Oprah excepted, although I can imagine people could argue that "Oprah" should be considered more of an institution than an individual).
Or, more basically, what I said above: The editors at Publisher's Weekly should be more than disturbed. They should be ashamed.
Here's a book to add to a best of the year list: A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter. I've got plenty of quibbles with the book, especially Showalter's dismissive attitude toward Gertrude Stein, but I'm also finding it (still reading; it's big) a rich source of information and delight. I've already begun seeking out writers I hadn't heard of until reading Showalter, and revisiting ones I had not paid enough attention to. Check out Katha Pollitt's review of Showalter at Slate or Rebecca Hussey's at The Quarterly Conversation or Sarah Churchwell's at The Guardian or Susan Salter Reynolds's at The L.A. Times.
Or watch Sarah Nelson, former editor-in-chief of Publisher's Weekly, interview Showalter.
I haven't read nearly as many books published this year as the editors at PW have, but I'm perfectly happy to propose A Jury of Her Peers as the best book of the year on a single criterion: It's the book we, the litterateurs and taste proclaimers, seem to need the most.
05 November 2009
And today the Illustrating VanderMeer exhibit that I helped put together at Plymouth State University got a big feature story in the Monitor, with a particular focus on New Hampshire's own Eric Schaller.
The web version has the full text, but I was blown away when I opened up the paper and saw it was almost the entire front page of the arts section:
And just a reminder that Jeff and Eric will both be in Plymouth on the evening of November 23 for a reading and discussion. Huge thanks to David Beronä and Jennifer Green at Plymouth State for their work in putting the exhibit together, and special thanks to the Public Relations department at the University as well for helping it continue to get great coverage.
And if you haven't yet bought Booklife or Finch, the only acceptable excuse around these here parts is, "I'm waiting to buy them at one of Jeff's events so he'll sign them for me and they can then become treasured family heirlooms." (Except that's not an excuse, either, because you need reading copies, copies you don't mind getting all grimy on the subway or warped from reading in the bathtub. And you need copies to give away to people, because you're going to read both books and want to share them, but you're not going to want to give away your own copies. So stock up while supplies last. Remember what happened to military-style rifles when President Obama got elected? Who were the happy people then? People who had ten WASR AK-47s that they'd only paid $350 for back when demand was low. Sure, their friends said, "Why do you need ten of those damn things?! How many can you shoot at once?!?" Well, where are those friends now? That's right, mewling and puking in the gutter. And you know what? It's going to happen soon with Jeff's books. Trust me. His books are assault weapons. High-end ones, not crappy WASR AKs. And not as heavy, regulated, or expensive. At least as much bang for the buck, I guarantee you. Easier to carry onto airplanes, too. Really, in almost every way imaginable, Jeff's books are better than assault weapons. You have no excuse not to hoard them. And now that I've given you your free advice for the evening, it's time for me to go watch Project Runway...)
02 November 2009
But I'm going to pause in the fight for a moment and break my self-promise because today I discovered Aaron Bady's astoundingly excellent blog Zunguzungu via a marvelous post Bady wrote at The Valve about Chinua Achebe and the African Writers Series (a post that previously appeared on Zunguzungu).
It's been a long time since I last encountered a blog where the excitement of discovery came from finding someone giving expression to inchoate thoughts I'd never quite found words for, but that happened again and again as I read through Bady's blog, especially the post "When Good People Write Bad Books" and this earlier Achebe post, referencing Norman Rush (whose Mating I adore, or, at least, I adored when I read it about ten years ago) to explore the idea of "great writers" and who has the authority to write about/represent particular cultures in writing -- the discussion in the comments section is as wonderful as the post. Indeed, in one of the comments, Bady sums up what I most respect in fiction far better than I ever have:
...what I find most interesting in Achebe is his attention not to questions of who is right and who is wrong (since every perspective is flawed and mediated) but his exploration of how official truths are produced, which TFA as novel becomes a vehicle for. Or, in Arrow of God, his interest in how official truths get subverted when they don’t “work” the way they’re supposed to. In both cases, it seems like he manages to make any conception of “representation” take on so much water, so fast, that you’re left, like Foucault reading criminology texts, scratching your head and trying to figure out how people come to believe the things they do, instead of trying to figure out what the correct belief should be.It's not all about Africa and African lit -- Bady's interests are wide-ranging and eclectic -- but that's what first captured my interest and attention, so it's what I'm highlighting here. I was taken, too, with Bady's explanation of the blog's title:
In Tanzania, you learn that you’re an mzungu when children shout “zunguzungu!” and follow you around, and in California you learn to forget because they aren’t there to remind you. But you still are, so I’ve kept the name, even though I’m now writing about other things. And I won’t define what it means, because you can if you want, and words aren’t so easily corralled into order as it might sometimes seem, thank goodness. And anyway, it’s not such a bad thing to be, really. They were delighted to see me, and I was delighted to see them, if not for the same reasons.
I learned a long time ago that I’m a white guy from the United States, long before I ever left Appalachia. But being called an Mzungu–for out of the mouths of children!–can teach you different things, if you let it. Too many people take the name Mzungu as an insult; but it isn’t, not exactly. Tanzanians sometimes use it as a compliment for other Tanzanians; wewe kizungu sana! It isn’t that either, not quite. Race is physicial, but “kizungu” is tabia or utamaduni, words that get mistranslated as culture or civilization, but mean something deeper about how and why people relate to other people the way that they do. Some people like to be called “Western,” and some people don’t; some people have that option and some people don’t. But I’ve taken the name zunguzungu for this blog not as a claim but as a provocation, and a reminder for myself. I’m really not sure what it means, on the deepest level, and I want to remember that ignorance. It also means many different things, so I want to remember that too. But whatever “zunguzungu” is, I know that I am it; the task, then, is to make that “it” into something good.I could keep quoting all night. I won't. I have a z to keep working on before I let myself return to this here province. Meanwhile, you should be reading Aaron Bady.
(Oh, you want to know what I think of Coetzee's Summertime? Well, since I'm here already... It's magnificent and thought-provoking, of course, because I think Coetzee is just about the best living writer in the English language, at least among the living writers of English I know. It's been billed as the third in a trilogy of memoir-novels begun with Boyhood and continued with Youth, but though the "John Coetzee" of those books seems to be roughly the same creature as the "John Coetzee" of Summertime, the book itself is more of a piece with Dairy of a Bad Year [a book I think I underestimated when I first read it] and Elizabeth Costello in the ways it forces readers to become active, even self-aware participants in the meaning-making in a more insistant way than many other books -- indeed, it seems to me that Coetzee is using the fame he gained from winning a second Booker Prize and then a Nobel to question the whole idea of the writer as role model and authority -- an idea he's been questioning pretty much his entire career, but the changed and extraordinary circumstances of his life now give him some particularly powerful tools [in the form of readers' expectations and desires] to work with. I don't think it is a coincidence that Disgrace was his last novel to have a traditional narrative structure [it being the work that got him his second Booker, and the first I have with the word "bestseller" emblazoned on the cover]. I also think Summertime shows how vital the conversations and essays in Doubling the Point are to understanding a lot of what Coetzee is up to, even now, nearly twenty years after that book was put together. Confession and complicity remain powerful concerns for him. More -- hopefully, much more -- on this subject anon...)
10 October 2009
Richard Hughes's first and most famous book, A High Wind in Jamaica, is one of the strangest novels I've ever read, which is really saying something. It's both delightful and disturbing in the way it presents -- in an unfailingly light tone -- children as amoral aliens. The novel is rich with irony, and it's not a satire so much as a relentless attack on sentimental notions of childhood. The possible interpretations of the novel are likely endless, but in many ways the book itself is about interpretation -- about the futility of trying to interpret a child's experiences and thoughts through adult eyes. (It's also worth noting that the novel was first published in the U.S. under the title The Innocent Voyage, which I'm rather more fond of than its better-known title. It was also once illustrated by Lynd Ward.)
I was surprised this morning to discover an essay by British teacher Victoria de Rijke in a 1995 issue of Children's Literature in Education, "Reading the Child Invention", in which de Rijke explores the very concept of "children's literature" by having children read A High Wind in Jamaica. The majority of the essay consists of transcripts of a conversations de Rijke had with an 11-year-old who read the novel, Ayeshea Zacharkiw. It's possible that Zacharkiw was extremely precocious, but de Rijke writes of many other children who read and appreciated the book, too. Toward the end of the discussion, she asks Zacharkiw if she thinks Hughes's novel is a book for children or for grown-ups, and Zacharkiw says she thinks it depends on reading ability, and a child's willingness to use a dictionary.
AZ: ...It’s an old book as well, so it’s got all these old expressions, but I think anyone could read it whether they’re children or grown-ups. Yeah. It might take the children longer than older people, but cut at two year olds, cos you have to be sensible about ages.De Rijke draws some interesting conclusions from this exchange:
VdR: Right. I agree. And do you think there’s anything in it that adults now wouldn’t like children to read?
AZ: I don’t know why it’s been republished for adults. There are words in it I suppose, rude words (laughs) and piracy, but you can get horror books especially for children, but adults read them. Well, anyone can read any book. It’s just what level you are at reading, whether you like that particular type of book, and if you don’t like it, you can always put the book down.
VdR: Mmm, absolutely. You’re free to do that, aren’t you? It’s not in control of you! (laughs)
AZ: (laughs) No, course not. Once you’ve bought it. It doesn’t matter who you publish it for. Anyone can buy it and read it, or get it out of the library.
VdR: So what kind of particular type of book do you think this is?
AZ: Well, it’s about life. It’s about life on the schooner, and about children, as they’re the man characters, and about the difference between grown-ups and children, who’s in control.
Children’s observations are often valued by grown-ups for their blunt honesty and wisdom, for cutting through the adult flannel and exposing simple truths, most often because adults are already uncomfortable about hypocrisies which they are concealing. Ayeshea reminded me that there are a number of basic requirements for effective reading: a level of basic literacy, information retrieval and developmental skills ("cut at two year olds, cos you have to be sensible about ages"). What a terrifically blunt reminder of the low expectations teachers and adults have of reading potential! ... The act of reading cannot be controlled by publishers’ reading-age targeting, or price, given access to the library and a free choice of genre. In conversation, Ayeshea and I also emphasized, by the repetitive use we made of the word control the significance the book places on power relations, in terms of its subject. The term subject could be applied to both reader and plot.It's a fine reminder not to underestimate readers.
For another view of the book, Francine Prose's introduction (PDF) to the NYRB edition is a good overview of some of its strange wonders and terrors. And I'm entirely in agreement with Mr. Waggish: "The sheer oddness of this book really defies summary."
In place of summary or analysis, I'll leave you with a direct quote from the middle of A High Wind in Jamaica:
In short, babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind.
It is true they look human -- but not so human, to be quite fair, as many monkeys.
Subconsciously, too, everyone recognizes they are animals -- why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a Praying Mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely.
Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child at least in a partial degree -- and even if one's success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee.
How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome?
08 October 2009
Also, Jeff's upcoming novel Finch has an instrumental soundtrack from the band Murder by Death. The website lets you stream it, or you can download the album or specific tracks and pay what you want for them. Some lovely, haunting stuff that I haven't had nearly enough time to listen to to really absorb, but the couple times I've had it on the background, I've been pleased. I also seem to have grown strange mold on my skin and developed a real craving for dark, damp places...
Finally, if you're in the Plymouth, New Hampshire area between October 15 and November 23, stop by the Lamson Library & Learning Commons at Plymouth State University, where the exhibit "Illustrating VanderMeer: A Glimpse Into the Collaborative Works of Author, Jeff VanderMeer and Illustrator, Eric Schaller" will be on display (contrary to what the site says, though the majority of the books included are from my collection, some of them are Eric's). The big event will be the evening of Monday, November 23, when Eric and Jeff will both be in attendance, and there will be a reading, as well as discussion. I expect we might even be able to rope David Beronä into the discussion, though he might not be willing to join us for the obligatory mud wrestling afterward.