26 March 2013

On Burn After Reading

Press Play is running a series of essays on the Coen Brothers' films this week, and they very kindly asked me to contribute and let me pick the movie I wanted to write about. I chose Burn After Reading. The essay is called "They Know Not What They Do". Here's the opening:
When Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) descends into her husband's basement office and copies financial records off of his computer, we get a glimpse of a book on the desk, a book that looks to be George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment: 1944-1946: The Kennan-Lukacs Correspondence. This should not surprise us. We have previously heard Oswald Cox (John Malkovich), while struggling to dictate his memoirs, declare: "The principles of George Kennan—a personal hero of mine—were what animated us. In fact they were what had originally inspired me to enter government service."

Burn After Reading is a film about containment and knowledge, or, to put it another way, a tale of wars against chaos. Necessarily, it is a farce.
Continue reading at Press Play. 

22 March 2013


Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013

It's going to take me a while to have anything coherent to say about Chinua Achebe now that he has died. Not just because he was a great writer — and he was a great writer, as Aaron Bady says, "full stop". But because, right now at least, I can't think of a more deeply influential writer in our era. Not just for Things Fall Apart, though that book certainly did a lot. But for so much else — his work as an editor for the African Writers Series, his essays on Conrad, his championing of Amos Tutuola after Tutuola's work had gone out of fashion, etc. etc. (If you ever needed evidence of the irrelevance of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the fact that Achebe never won it is Exhibit A.)

The best writing I've seen so far on Achebe in the wake of his death comes from Keguro Macharia. You should read the whole, beautiful essay, but here is a taste:
His departure now – euphemism must be used, if only once – feels much like an encounter with his work: it was unexpected because it had been possible to believe that he was beyond mortality. Achebe simply was. He existed in the world and the world existed because he did. I could afford to take his existence for granted, could afford not to teach or discuss or write about his work, because he simply was. His being in the world made certain things unnecessary. Because he was. Certain figures inspire a kind of faith that they have transcended death, and their deaths hit all the harder – most recently for me, Adrienne Rich who, like Achebe, simply was. When they die – euphemisms can no longer work – we continue to call their names, hoping that they will return to us, that their ghosts will continue to energize the labor they started and sustained and that we now feel unable to continue. So it is that we continue to call for Audre Lorde. Believing, as we must, that she can still provide the right words, the necessary words, the transforming words.

Simon Gikandi has written that Chinua Achebe “invented” African literature. This is not a claim about who wrote first – other Africans wrote before Achebe. Nor is it a claim about the volume of his work – others have written more. It is a claim, I think, about Achebe as an institution builder, as one who made possible a certain kind of imagination and, in his role as editor with the African Writers Series, made possible many other imaginations for African literature. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be given to a writer is this: that a particular book has been written. A particular imagination explored. A room populated. And multiple other rooms made possible.

Few contemporary Africans, if any, feel the need to write another Things Fall Apart. Indeed, by the mid-1960s, Things Fall Apart could not be written again. Achebe’s work had given African writers the permission to pursue their geo-histories, to take multiple paths, to pursue the mystical and the routine, the profane urban and the perverse rural, the unending past and the foreclosed future. Things Fall Apart had been written, and African writing pursued its multiple afters, with Achebe as inspiration, as guide, and as champion.

14 March 2013


One of the most interesting discussions I saw at the AWP conference was one sponsored by VIDA, with editors and writers talking about the results of VIDA's 2013 count of female and male writers in various publications. This year, they were able to offer a particularly revealing set of graphs showing three year trends in book reviewing at major magazines and journals.

The only report of the discussion I've seen so far is that of VIDA volunteer Erin Hoover at The Nervous Breakdown (although I'm sure it was covered by Twitter when it happened). Hoover gives a good overview of the panel and the issues. I took lots of notes, so will here add some more detail to try to show how the discussion went.

After introductory remarks by moderator Jennine Capó Crucet, the first responses were made alphabetically by last name, and so two men began: Don Bogen, poetry editor of The Cincinnati Review, and Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review. Bogen noted that, inspired by VIDA, he'd done a count of the poetry published by CR during his 7-year tenure and discovered to, really, his surprise that he'd achieved parity between male and female writers (or at least male and female bylines). How had he managed to do this unconsciously, he wondered? The best hypothesis he had was that he seeks real diversity of experience and point of view in poetry and has eclectic taste — indeed, the only poems he said he's not particularly interested in are ones that reflect his own experience. He noted that certainly the idea of parity depends on where one is counting from, as particular issues of the magazine would go one way or the other, and he tends to organize blocks of poems in between other genres in each issue in ways that have sometimes been balanced but also sometimes been entirely female or entirely male. Many times, too, he said, he does his best to read blind, paying little to no attention to a byline, and has often discovered that material he thought was "male" or "female" had been written by someone of another gender. Thus, the magic of literature.

AWP 2013

I traveled down to Boston for the AWP Conference, the first time I'd been to AWP in 5 years. It's always a busy, frenetic, overwhelming, and generally wonderful experience, made all the more wonderful this time by the presence of quite a few friends I only occasionally get to see in person these days. On Thursday, I moderated a discussion between Samuel R. Delany and Kit Reed that was one of the featured events of the conference, and on Friday and Saturday I worked the morning shift at the Rain Taxi Review of Books table, something I enjoyed very much because it meant I got to stand in one spot and talk to lots of people instead of having to move all around to talk to lots of people (which is what I spent most of the rest of the conference doing). It was a great delight to catch up with folks like Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan of Omnidawn, Dustin Kurz of Melville House, Gavin Grant and Kelly Link of Small Beer Press, Hannah Tinti of One Story, Lawrence Schimel of Midsummer Night's Press, Parker Smathers and Stephanie Elliott of Wesleyan University Press, various folks from Unstuck, and others I'm sure I'm forgetting (sorry! you are so closely woven into my life that I take you for granted!). (Also, everyone who worked the Coffee House Press booth, because each time I walked by, I couldn't help saying, "I love your books!") I had a great conversation with someone at the Copper Canyon Press table about how they handle poetry lineation in ebooks by offering a sample line from which to calibrate, kind of like color bars on a tv. This allows the reader the flexibility to read the lines as the writer intended them, or to not. It also gave me a great excuse to buy an ebook (Laura Kasischke's Space, In Chains).

I went to panels and discussions and readings. Highlights were the joint reading/discussion by Dana Spiotta and Don DeLillo, moderated by Nan Graham, publisher and senior VP of Scribner. It was a highlight mostly because I haven't yet read anything by Spiotta, so it was a nice introduction to her, and because I've often wondered what DeLillo is like in person. He seemed pleasant enough, not particularly uncomfortable on stage, and in discussion his comments were often accompanied by a marvelously dry wit. I'm not a DeLillo fanboy — I like Underworld very much, but haven't ever warmed to the other books of his that I've read or sampled, and I positively hated White Noise. But hey, it's Don DeLillo. And it was an especially DeLilloesque moment because there were lots of warnings about taking pictures, making recordings, etc. We must abjure the age of digito-mechanical reproduction. (It was okay, they said, to use Twitter, though!) Meanwhile, because the event was in a giant auditorium, there was a massive screen up above that broadcast faces to us all. It was difficult not to look at the screen rather than the actual people.

Another great event in the same giant auditorium (indeed, immediately following the Spiotta/DeLillo event) was supposed to be a reading/discussion between Jeanette Winterson and Alison Bechdel, but Bechdel was trapped by snowfall in Cleveland, so it was Winterson alone. And if anybody can hold the attention of a giant auditorium full of writers, it's Jeanette Winterson. But still, I thought the pairing of Winterson and Bechdel was genius, and I desperately looked forward to seeing their interaction. Nonetheless, Winterson was awesome (for a somewhat similar version of the performance she gave us, see this video of her at the Sydney Opera House). I'm not quite in agreement with her Modernist self-help shtick, but I could watch her for hours, because she's a marvelous performer and a great reader of her own work. And I'm looking forward to reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal very much, because I'm a total sucker for her writing — reading Art & Lies at 20 was a revelatory experience, and I went on to devour just about everything else she wrote.

But the best event I saw at AWP may have been the discussion of the VIDA Count with various writers and editors. In fact, I have so many thoughts about it that I'm going to make it a separate post. [Which is now available here.]

Of course, I bought some books. Quite a few poetry books, in fact, because I've had a lack of poetry in life over the last few years, and it's a genre I love.

It was especially fun to see my friend and colleague Ivy Page sell out of her hot-off-the-press first poetry collection, Any Other Branch. And Lesley Wheeler very kindly gave me a copy of her new book from Aqueduct, The Receptionist and Other Tales, because Lawrence Schimel said nice things about me (haha! I fooled him!).

Overall, and as always, the greatest joy of AWP was getting time with great people. Eric Lorberer, Rudi Dornemann, Meghan McCarron, Jen Volant, Richard Larson, Nick Mamatas, and so many others (Laird Hunt! Who I don't think I'd seen since my first AWP back in 2006!). I came home exhausted and with a cold, but it was completely worth it.

08 March 2013

The Ends of Violence

I have a new video essay and a new text essay up at Press Play looking at Clint Eastwood's movies, called "The Ends of Violence: The Conclusions of Clint Eastwood". The text essay also contains links to two previous video essays I made on Eastwood, "Outlaw: Josey Wales" and "Vigilante Man: Eastwood and Gran Torino".

02 March 2013

Weekend Reading

I've been thinking about short fiction a lot recently. The truth is, after working on three Best American Fantasy anthologies, I was shellshocked from reading piles of short stories, and stayed away from them. I pretty much stopped writing them for a while, focusing instead on academic writing, film stuff, etc. Judging the Shirley Jackson Awards was fun and brought me back to short fiction, but again in such an overwhelming way that by the time it was done, I didn't want to read another short story for months. And I didn't.

I've gotten over that, finally. I've read a few short stories over the last month (and it's been a busy month, so reading a few of anything is an accomplishment!), and, just as importantly, for the first time in years I've gotten back to writing stories — two so far this year, one of which already sold (I'll reveal the details once I've signed the contract).

I've had plans to write more about short stories here, but the time for doing so has eluded me. But I've still been reading, and still want to share. I've decided to do so occasionally, probably on weekends. An offering of weekend reading. So here are 5 stories, all available online, that I think are worth at least the time it takes to read them:

"Heaven" by Alexander Chee (TriQuarterly)
He wants to at least tell him, he understands what he wanted. He always had. He just hated that anyone could tell.

"Understanding Human Behavior" by Thomas M. Disch (originally F&SF; here, Strange Horizons)
A lot of the time he couldn't suspend his disbelief in the real people around him, all their pushing and pulling, their weird fears and whopping lies, their endless urges to control other people's behavior, like the vegetarian cashier at the Stop-and-Shop or the manager at the convenience center. The lectures and demonstrations at the halfway house had laid out the basics, but without explaining any of it. Like harried parents, the Institute's staff had said, "Do this," and "Don't do that," and he'd not been in a position to argue. He did as he was bid, and his behavior fit as naturally as an old suit.

"Declaration by the Ghost of Emma Goldman" by Rick London (New American Writing)
I see now that the mind is occupied territory. Most likely, as long as we’re thinking the mind is under occupation. Despite our high ideals and surging rhetoric, we go on as if we were alone and adrift, seeking some small moment of advantage. Indeed, amid so much of the usual sectarian bickering you’d think we couldn’t see past our noses or had to close one eye to see out of the other. Will we ever pull aside the curtain on this hapless drama?

"Arbeitskraft" by Nick Mamatas (The Mammoth Book of Steampunk)
I was an old hand at organizing workers, though girls who consumed electricity rather than bread were a bit beyond my remit.

"Please Note That I Am Not Burt Reynolds*" by Sarah Sorensen (Identity Theory)
*Although I might be introduced to you as such a person. There was probably a point when I should have mentioned that I wasn’t actually Burt Reynolds. Of course, I’m not sure why she thought that I was Burt Reynolds to begin with. I don’t resemble Burt. Burt was never a portly woman in a pug t-shirt and skinny jeans.