30 September 2011

In Praise of the Thesaurus

Hearing the news that the latest issue of the Writer's Chronicle contains a statement from poet Mark Doty that, "If you write a poem with the aid of a thesaurus, you will almost inevitably look like a person wearing clothing chosen by someone else. I am not sure that a poet should even own one of the damn things," I was aghast.

Aghast, I say! Astounded! Appalled!

I have said before that my favorite reference book is a 1946 edition of Roget's International Thesaurus, and that remains true. I covet the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary and continue to dream at night of figuring out a way to convince the good people at Oxford University Press to send me a copy (other than to pay them $500). (I do have The Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, which is a delight. It includes a fun foreword by Rick Moody in which he notes that Donald Barthelme used a thesaurus, which should be enough to cause you to make sure you are never without one yourself.) (And, by the way, Mark Doty, what's so wrong about wearing clothes somebody else picked out?)

Doty's statement is idiotic. Irrational, witless, obtuse, hebetudinous, dull-pated, chuckleheaded, purblind, and dim. Writers! Decline to dote on Doty! He wants you to be dumb, in all senses of the word!

Few reference books are as fun to roam around in as thesauri. They demonstrate the marvelous connections possible with language. Dotyish dolts are fools who simultaneously think they have a superior command of language over everybody else while being afraid of the marvelous vast richness of language -- they want to tame us and they want to tame it. Don't give in!

Some of these crustaceous curmudgeons will say things like, "Well, if you must use one of those terrible tomes, make sure you only do so to jog your memory of words you already know."

That's terribly churlish advice. Why limit ourselves to words we already know? I want to know more words! I am greedy and lexically lustful!

There's some sort of strange Romanticism going on in the idea that one must only use the words one has immediately at hand. It's like people who say one should always go with the first draft of a piece of writing because that's what's most pure. Eschew the puritans! Cast off your ideas of Romantic genius! Get to work -- and use a thesaurus!

So some people will misuse words, particularly if they are young and untrained, impressionable and ignorant. Oh no, the unruly kids might not fully understand the context and connotations of a word they discover! Horrors! Next thing you know, they might start playing with their words! Nooooo! Stop them before it's too late!

Poets -- be not a Doty! Take instead Wallace Stevens for your model, a writer of vast vocabulary, a man who reveled in language. Do not let the great structure of words become a minor house! Fall into the thesaurus and let yourself feel the obscurity of an order, a whole, a knowledge. Dream of baboons and periwinkles! Let your thesaurus take dominion everywhere! Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one, and bid him whip from thesaurus pages concupiscent words!

27 September 2011

Die, American Literature! Die! Die!

Last month I wrote about Joseph Epstein's hilariously grumbly screed against The Cambridge History of the American Novel, and now at Slate the editor of that volume writes a temperate, rational, and utterly ungrumbly response. I particularly liked this paragraph:
Simply recording our appreciation for the "high truth quotient" (the measure Epstein wants) of a stream of canonical novels won't do. It's not clear what that "quotient" is for Epstein, but anything that smacks of pop culture is by definition excluded. Yet novels were and remain a vital part of popular culture, and their emergence in the 18th and 19th centuries was greeted as an affront to the "centurions of high culture" who appointed themselves to guard the gates before Epstein nominated himself for the job. Only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of American novels published ever achieved—or even aspired to—the exalted status of high art.

26 September 2011

Telluride at Dartmouth: We Need to Talk About Kevin

This post continues to chronicle my attendance at the Telluride at Dartmouth program at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Days 1 & 2 can be found here.

Lynne Ramsay is a director of exceptional visual and aural skill, as anyone who has seen her films Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar can attest. I adored Ratcatcher and found Morvern Caller rather a bore, which seems to be a somewhat idiosyncratic view, as lots of people who saw both loved the second film even more than they did the first. What we can all agree on, though, is that a new Lynne Ramsay movie is a cause for celebration. And when that new movie stars just about my favorite living film actor, Tilda Swinton, it becomes for me a great event.

I have not read the acclaimed novel by Lionel Shriver that We Need to Talk About Kevin is based on, and I was just about to read it when I heard about the film, so I decided to wait. I have seldom wished I had read a book before seeing a movie based on it, and so whenever possible, I don't read the book first. That turned out to be, it seems, an especially good decision here, because I had dinner after the film with friends, some of whom had read the book, and it was clear that that would have changed my viewing somewhat by adding more context to Swinton's character of Eva.

Ramsay is brave and nearly alone among narrative filmmakers in her willingness to subsume almost all exposition within image and sound -- to suggest, hint, and gesture toward exposition rather than state it. (It is no surprise that Tarkovsky and Malick are to her taste, and in Ratcatcher she even used some of the Carl Orff music from Malick's Badlands.) What we get in We Need to Talk About Kevin, then, is not so much a story as a portrait of a psyche. Things happen, certainly, and there's a major climax that the film works its way toward, but the movement of the film is associational, imagistic, musical. Meaning is created not through dramatic scenes, but through colors and sounds, camera angles, montage, repetitions. The story is not presented so much as unearthed -- this is filmmaking as psychic archaeology.

24 September 2011

Telluride at Dartmouth, Days 1 & 2

A Dangerous Method
Dartmouth College has a long-standing relationship with the Telluride Film Festival, and every year a group of films that premiered at Telluride are shown as part of the Telluride at Dartmouth program, a highlight of any northern New England cinephile's year. (It was at Telluride at Dartmouth last year that I saw Never Let Me Go.)

This year, I've decided to try to see as many of the films as I can, and unless exhaustion wears me down, I expect to see five of the six. (Unfortunately, The Kid with the Bike, the new movie from the Dardenne brothers, is playing on a day when I have a prior commitment.) I won't do in depth reports on the films here, I don't think, because of a lack of time, but I do want to record initial impressions.

The first film shown was A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg's best comedy since Crash. Most people probably wouldn't classify A Dangerous Method as a comedy, and it's certainly not being sold as such, but I find it a helpful way to view it. Cronenberg has the most developed and complex kitsch aesthetic this side of Abel Ferrara, and much like Ferrara, he allows actors to indulge their most histrionic tendencies with utter sincerity. Such acting can create a variety of effects, and the style's strength is the complexity of feelings it can evoke in an audience -- a complexity especially apparent when one cannot suppress laughter at the unbridled mugging on screen while also wondering whether this is something you should be taking more seriously (one of the funniest scenes I've ever watched is the one in Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant where Harvey Keitel talks to Jesus). Yet the filming and acting make no concessions to comedy in such moments -- and many viewers do not see them as funny; indeed, some see them as "great acting" and powerful, authentic expressions of emotion. Which they may be. Most of James Dean's reputation is based on such scenes, and one of the legacies of American Method acting, particularly as proselytized by Lee Strasberg, is a whole canon of "Look at me, Ma, I'm emoting!" moments. The filmmaking process can tone down, fragment, and distort such performances, and the brilliance of a Cronenberg or a Ferrara is to go in exactly the opposite direction -- to indulge the actors and allow them to reach their full melodramatic heights. More traditional directors and editors try to manage the emotions represented and the emotions evoked in the audience, and their greatest nightmare would be an audience laughing at a scene intended to be dramatic, but the filmmakers who love the melodrama inherent in their material cast that fear aside.

22 September 2011

The Revelator is Now Revealed!

Eric Schaller and I have been working on creating an online version of a magazine some of our ancestors  were involved with in 1876, and after a long period of work, with the brilliant and invaluable help of Luís Rodrigues, THE REVELATOR can now be revealed.

In it you will find two new short stories, "Gaslight" by Jeffrey Ford and "Nick Kaufmann, Last of the Red-Hot Superwhores" by Nick Mamatas; an essay about the relationship between Salem, Massachusetts and witches by Robin DeRosa, poetry by Lillian Aujo and Beverly Nambozo, an interview with and comix by Edward Bolman, an account of The Spleen Brothers by Brian Francis Slattery, paintings by Michaela D'Angelo, and an eyewitness account of the James/Younger gang's raid on the bank in Northfield, Minnesota -- an account unlike any others, and till now lost in the archives of The Revelator!

A theme of twins, doubles, and doppelgangers runs lightly through this issue of the magazine. It's present in the fiction, there's the idea of historical doubling in Robin's essay on Salem, etc. We got creative with the doubling in the poetry department -- I knew Beverly had a lot of poet friends, and so we asked her to be the commissioning editor for the second poem, and she brought Lillian to us. Never having met Lillian in real life, I don't know if she's Beverly's doppelganger, but I do know we're thrilled to be able to publish the work of both. And of everybody else who was brave enough to want to join the old, weird tradition of The Revelator.

There will probably be future or past issues. Please note though that because of limited resources, we are not open to unsolicited submissions. We would love to get to that point eventually, but right now we just don't have the ability to read through a lot of unsolicited work.

21 September 2011

Politics and Aesthetics, Part MCCCLV

My writing at this here blog has fallen off significantly since classes started, because I'm teaching six days a week (university classes during the week, a high school class in epistemology on Saturdays), and so my current schedule consists of prepping for classes, teaching classes, and then whatever errands, etc. I can fit into the occasional free minutes.

But still the internet provides interesting stuff, regardless of how much I am paying attention to it! Imagine that!

For instance, here's an advertisement from a 1968 issue of Galaxy that reveals which science fiction writers were in favor of the Vietnam War and which ones were not. I've seen the ad before (I have some Galaxy issues from 1968) but never paid much attention to it, really, until just now I noticed something odd.

On the list of writers who declared themselves in favor of remaining in Vietnam in 1968, there are very few whose writing I have much interest in -- R.A. Lafferty and Jack Vance are the only ones whose work I find especially compelling, though I like some of the writing of Leigh Brackett, Fredric Brown, Edmond Hamilton, and Robert Heinlein, and isolated stories by a couple of others.

On the list of writers who declared themselves opposing the continued presence of the U.S. military in Vietnam, I find names I would include on any list of favorite science fiction writers, certainly, and in many cases favorite writers of any sort -- Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Carol Emshwiller, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, Joanna Russ -- as well as others who I have at least as much interest in as in nearly anyone on the other list. And among the names I recognize, at least, there are fewer I think of as just flat-out bad writers than among the names I recognize on the list of Vietnam war supporters.

Of course, aesthetics and politics have a complex relationship, and support for/opposition to the Vietnam war could include people of varying ideologies, but I'm still struck by the general aesthetic differences between the two lists. Since I am a bourgeois liberal with occasional pretensions of radicalism, my own ideological position may explain some of my preferences. (I'd be curious to see a similar list for other genres or non-genres -- didn't the New York Review of Books or the New York Times run something similar during the '60s?) But even someone who didn't find the differences between the two lists as striking as I do would have to admit that overall, and with a handful of exceptions, the two sides represent two different styles of writing. We could take the political labels off the advertisement and present the two lists to folks who have read stories and novels by many of those writers, and the groupings would still make sense overall. That could mean all sorts of things -- I would be wary of essentialist claims about how ideology affects writing, but it would be interesting to think about the ways various affinity groupings overlap. You could create Venn diagrams from those lists in which politics, friendships, publishers, etc. are categories, and the results would be interesting.

10 September 2011

This Term's Courses

I haven't done my usual blogging about teaching yet this term, mostly because I spent so much time trying to put a couple of new classes together that the idea of writing about it all wasn't very appealing. But now the classes are up and running, and so I can at least share some syllabi and thoughts with those of you who are curious.

The classes, with links to their syllabi, are:

07 September 2011

Just Be Glad You're Not Trying to Sell a Poetry Book

I was working on a post about the BlazeVOX asking-writers-to-help-subsidize-poetry-publishing brouhaha, and its connections to the criminal idiocies of so much academic publishing, and what the idea of "legitimacy" in publishing does for us as writers and readers, but the post got long and banal and so boring that I started falling asleep while I wrote it, which is a bad sign, so I abandoned it, but I've still been keeping one eye on the discussion.

Today's post of note is from the blog of No Tell Books, a small, respected indie press:

No Tell Books' best selling title broke even after three years and is now earning a very modest profit. This is by an author whose work has appeared in places like Poetry and Best American Poetry. This title has been taught at universities. How many copies does one have to sell to be the best selling title at No Tell Books after four years? 228. That is not a typo. This number doesn't include what the author has sold herself, probably around 200 copies on her own. But the press doesn't earn money on those sales.  
So if that's a best seller, what's a flop? 74 sales after five years (again, this number doesn't include what the author sold on his own, which was maybe 50 or so). (UPDATE: Gatza states, "In general, books by new authors sell around 25 - 30 copies." Shocking? Only if you don't know the first thing about poetry publishing.)
This is the reality of poetry publishing. There are certainly presses that sell more copies. A poetry title reviewed in The New York Times can sell 2-4k copies, it is true. But small, independent presses, those small shops, usually run by one or a few people, rarely see those kinds of sales. University presses, for the most part, don't see those kinds of numbers for poetry. I attended a panel by the publisher of Grove/Atlantic and he said his press' poetry sales was around 800 per title. They publish "big-name" poets, their books are often shelved by chain bookstores, they have good distribution, a strong reputation . . . and that's what they sell. Publishing poetry is their charity--their poetry titles are subsidized by their fiction and non-fiction sales.  

I know of prose books where the publicity machine exploded spectacularly (or didn't exist), the publisher seemed to do everything possible to bury the book, and it only ever appeared at tiny bookstores in uninhabited regions of the world -- and still managed to sell over 300 copies!

I was going to say that obviously America hates poetry, but that's not true. To hate it, we'd have to pay attention to it.

05 September 2011

World on a Wire

My latest column is up at Strange Horizons, and this time it's about Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic science fiction film World on a Wire (Welt am Draht).

If you want to see World on a Wire (and you should!), it's available on home video in the U.K. and Europe, and in the U.S. can be seen via Hulu if you subscribe to Hulu Plus (you can get a free trial subscription for a week, or if you have .edu email address, for a month). Rumor has it that Criterion will be releasing the film on DVD and Blu-ray in the U.S. at the end of this year or the beginning of next [update: the rumors were true]. It's also still touring various U.S. cities -- at the end of this week, it will be at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, MA.

I'm a Fassbinder nut, so will passionately defend even his films that only lunatics defend, but you don't have to be as obsessed with Fassbinder as I to see get pleasure from World on a Wire. (Although if "efficient" plotting, suspenseful storytelling, and "round" characterizations are your primary requirements for pleasure, you should probably stay away.) While World on a Wire isn't of the power and depth of, say, Berlin Alexanderplatz or a handful of Fassbinder's other absolute masterpieces, it's still a powerful, unsettling, beautiful movie, and the restoration that the Fassbinder Foundation did is remarkable -- to take an old 16mm master made for TV and turn it into something that can be admired on a giant cinema screen is no easy feat.

I could go on and on. I won't. Instead, if you want a taste of the film, check out the trailer, which I'll embed after the jump here:

02 September 2011

An Obstacle

The preconception, on the part of critics and actors alike, regarding cinematic theatricality as a marker of feeling—a prejudice in favor of one particular school and method of acting—remains as much an obstacle to creation as to appreciation.
—Richard Brody