31 July 2014

20 July 2014

The Ideal Literary Life


I've never seen the life of the writer Raymond Roussel condensed so marvelously as in David Macey's The Lives of Michel Foucault (Foucault wrote a book on Roussel), where it becomes a kind of perfect literary life: a life of weirdness, alienation, mental illness, addiction, and suffering, all capped with a mysterious death:
Enormously rich, [Roussel] travelled the world but rarely left his hotel room or his cabin. He financed the publication of his own writings and the staging of his own plays, which were invariably expensive failures accompanied by riots among the audience. His writings excited little interest in his lifetime, though some of the surrealists — notably Breton in his Anthologie de l'humour noir — appreciated them. For much of his life Roussel suffered from serious neurotic illnesses provoked (or at least triggered), it is thought, by the spectacular failure of La Doublure (1897), a long verse-novel, written in alexandrines, about a stand-in actor. He was treated by Pierre Janet, who failed to see any literary talent in him and described him as un pauvre petit malade; Roussel is the "Martial" whose case is discussed in the first volume of De l'Angoisse à l'extase (1926). Roussel was a homosexual, though little is known about his sexual tastes and activities, and became totally dependent on barbituates in his later years. He died in Palermo, where his body was found in his hotel room, lying on a mattress which he had — presumably with great difficulty, given his physical state — pushed up against the door connecting his room to that of his travelling companion. The door, habitually left unlocked, was locked. Whether Roussel was murdered or committed suicide has never been determined. (125)
You have succeeded as a writer if someone can describe your work as "invariably expensive failures accompanied by riots among the audience".

18 July 2014

Snowpiercer: Total Cinema

 

Press Play has now posted my new video essay with a brief accompanying text essay about the great new science fiction action movie political parable satire call to revolution Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, a filmmaker I am especially enamored of. (Memories of Murder is easily among my favorite movies of the last 15 years, and back in 2010 I defended Bong's previous film, Mother, from the criticisms of Richard Brody at the New Yorker.)

As a little bit of extra, below the fold here I'll put some thoughts on elements of the remarkable ending of the film...

16 July 2014

Whose Word Crimes?


Yesterday, "Weird Al" Yankovic released a video for his song "Word Crimes", a parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines". Since a lot of people I know are language folks of one sort or another, I saw it flow and re-flow through various streams of social media. But I had qualms.

I love Weird Al, and he's been a formative influence on my life, since I started listening to him when I was a kid. (My entire sense of humor could be described by three childhood influences: Weird Al, the Marx Brothers, and Monty Python.) I also think the detestable "Blurred Lines" is ripe for ridicule and attack. And I like words.

But how are we to understand the speaker in "Word Crimes"?

Most people I saw who shared the video seemed to identify with the speaker. This is not as disturbing as people identifying with the rapey speaker of "Blurred Lines", but it reveals a certain cruelty in the feelings of people who want to be identified as linguistically superior to other people. A tinge of cruel superiority is essential to grammar pedants, and "Word Crimes" reveals that again and again in how it characterizes people who commit such "crimes". On his Facebook page, Jay Smooth listed these characterizations:
"raised in a sewer"
"Don't be a moron"
"You dumb mouthbreather"
"Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head"
"you write like a spastic"
["spastic"?]
"Go back to preschool"
"Get out of the gene pool"
"Try your best to not drool"
Hyperbole in service of comedy? Or your (not so) secret inner feelings?

It's interesting to follow the comments on that Facebook post as well as on the Grammar Girl post that Jay Smooth linked to. Various interpretations and arguments come up, including the common complaint that it's just comedy and you shouldn't take it seriously (a pernicious attitude, I think). I don't know exactly what Weird Al intended with the song, nor do I particularly care (it's a clever song, with fun animation in the video) — it's more interesting as a kind of Rorschach test: Do you identify with the speaker in the song? Do you enjoy the cruelty and want to replicate it?

Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg


For Strange Horizons, I reviewed Glen Hirshberg's Motherless Child.
Motherless Child is a vampire novel that isn't much interested in vampires. Instead, as its title suggests, more than anything else it is a novel about motherhood. Most of the main characters are mothers, the primary themes are ones of parenthood and responsibility, and the basic storyline sends vampirized mothers running away from their children and then fighting against the urge to return, fearing that they will no longer see their kids as offspring but as prey.
First published by Earthling Publications in 2012, Motherless Child has now been reprinted by Tor. Glen Hirshberg has won a number of awards for his horror short stories (collected in The Two Sams [2003], American Morons [2006], and The Janus Tree [2012]), and Tor may see Motherless Child as a breakout book for him, one that will bring a wider audience for his fiction. It clearly displays some of the hallmarks of a tale that could be embraced by a wide audience, certainly more than his often subtle, enigmatic short stories do. Whether this is to its benefit as a novel depends entirely on what you want your novels to do, both in the prose itself and in the story that prose tells.
Continue reading at Strange Horizons.

14 July 2014

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

via The Paris Review

Nadine Gordimer has died at the age of 90, a significant age to reach, and yet, as always with the loss of a major figure (particularly one who stayed active and known) it feels like a robbery. We are greedy, we living people.

Writers satiate some of our greed against death by leaving us with their words. Gordimer's oeuvre is large (she began publishing fiction in South Africa in the late 1940s), and her fiction in particular will live long past this moment of her body's death.

Because Gordimer was so active in the anti-apartheid struggle, and her writing so often addresses the situation in South Africa at the time of its writing, it is easy to fall into the trap of reducing her to a political writer and to ignore or downplay the artistry of her work. She sometimes encouraged this view in her essays and interviews, but she also understood that she was not a propagandist, telling Jannika Hurwitt in 1979, "I am not by nature a political creature, and even now there is so much I don’t like in politics, and in political people—though I admire tremendously people who are politically active—there’s so much lying to oneself, self-deception, there has to be—you don’t make a good political fighter unless you can pretend the warts aren’t there."

09 July 2014

The Plausibles


Alfred Hitchcock in conversation with Francois Truffaut:
To insist that a storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately. What's the ultimate in representative painting? Color photography. Don't you agree? There's quite a difference, you see, between the creation of a film and the making of a documentary. In the documentary the basic material has been created by God, whereas in the fiction film the director is the god; he must create life. And in the process of that creation, there are lots of feelings, forms of expression, and viewpoints that have to be juxtaposed. We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it's not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.

02 July 2014

Poetical Needy-brains, empoisoned pens, obscene invective...

via Rutgers University Community Repository

Two passages from Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot by Anna Beer, concerning the early 1640s:
As with the Internet in this century, people expressed real fears about the sheer number of new works appearing. Others condemned the whole notion of publication, particularly for money. Publication was imagined as "epidemical contagion", and "Pamphlet-mongers" were castigated for writing for "a little mercenary gain, and profit", as "poetical Needy-brains, who for a sordid gain or desire to have the style of a witty railer, will thus empoison your pen". The proliferation of new pamphlets was also resented by more (allegedly) serious writers, who complained that "such a book as that of thirty or forty sheets of paper is not likely to sell in this age were the matter never so good, but if it had been a lying and scandalous pamphlet of a sheet of paper ... to hold up Anarchy" then the printers would print it, knowing it would sell, be "vendable ware". (128-129)

Print proliferated because almost every opinion generated a response, which in turn necessitated a counter-response from the maligned author. When the Smectymnuans, for example, attacked Bishop Hall, he replied, condemning their views, to which their response was a 219-page answer. The speed of these exchanges was often remarkable. Milton's own first pamphlet on Church reform received a reply within days of its publication. Vicious abuse of one's opponents characterised much of the debate. When in May 1642, around the time of his marital expedition to Oxfordshire, Milton wrote An Apology against a Pamphlet (in itself a response), he claimed to be furious at the way he had been personally attacked. Immersed as he was in this world of cheap print, he cannot have been genuinely surprised. Colourful, personal, and at times obscene invective was the order of the day, the religious and political pamphlets picking up the techniques of the earlier forms of popular writing, whether ballads or jestbooks, almanacs, or tales. (139-140)

01 July 2014

The Private Life of Power


Corey Robin, from The Reactionary Mind:
One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great political blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power. “Here is the secret of the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.