March 2008 Archives
... as a mild-mannered arts producer-reporter-blogger over at www.kera.org/blogs/culture, he has put up his first for-real radio news feature, as opposed to his on-air reviews, which have basically been just him in front of a studio mike, mouthing off. Check it out, freshly broadcast today. It's about Greendale, the rock opera by Neil Young, which is being given a world-premiere staging by Dallas' adventurous theater company, the Undermain. That's Nelson Pittman, Bruce DuBose and Kenny Withrow in the photo by Brian Barnaud.
All of this makes book/daddy feel like Johnny Gizmo, Cub Radio Reporter! But it really is kinda cool, especially when the whole thing is then put up online with production photos, song clips and links to other websites, the whole 'multi-platform' experience.Which, it should be pointed out, is the kind of cultural coverage no one else is really doing in the neighborhood.
So give a listen: Book/daddy talks!
- Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to write about the Victorian governess -- all of those formidable women from Mary Wollstonecraft to the steamy romantic heroine to Anna in The King and I -- you had to dig for primary sources, says Kathyrn Hughes. Not many people felt the memoirs of nannies were worth keeping. Now comes a new history of the governess, and nothing new is to be said? And it turns out Anna was a more hard-headed sort than generally thought:
It wasn't just her past that Leonowens faked. Much of her highly spiced account of the years she spent at the "barbarous" court of King Mongkut was later revealed as a work of titillating fancy. Leonowens was determined to find a way of buying herself out of the schoolroom, and if writing passages of barely veiled erotica was the cost, then she was prepared to pay it.
- The kind of lead sentence in a review that gets a professional journalist/critic's attention:
First the good news. It won't be long before borderline illiterate half-wit blowhards like me, with our fat salaries, expense-account lifestyles and stranglehold on the means of expression, become obsolete. Wikipedia, Second Life, Craigslist, MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, Flickr point the way to the lovely future where sharing caring groups of amateurs can connect in ways that will be experientially satisfying, community-boosting and, fingers crossed, democratically revivifying. I and 35,000 other paid journalists in the UK plus lots more worldwide face the knacker's yard.
The bad news is that the if two books under question are right, "most professions will be undermined by web-based social tools in similarly harrowing ways... So don't look so smug." But what book/daddy wants to know is ... "expense -account lifestyles"? I seem to have missed some serious perks.
- The National Portrait Gallery in London has opened an exhibition on the "bluestockings," the 18th century female intellectuals who pioneered feminism, and subsequently had the term -- why is this not a surprise? -- turned on them as an insult.
These opulent salons attracted not just women, but also men - among them Dr Johnson, Joshua Reynolds and the actor-manager David Garrick. The term "bluestocking", which had been employed to abuse Cromwell's Puritans a century earlier, was revived in 1756 when the poet and botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet turned up at Montagu's house wearing blue worsted stockings instead of the fashionable white silk.
The event is recorded in Boswell's Life of Johnson, in which the author observes that Stilling fleet's conversation was so sparkling that in his absence people declared: "We can do nothing without the blue stockings."
It is a curious origin for a word that came to be so closely associated with intellectual women, but the term's history - quickly becoming a mark of approbation, then one of abuse - is just as singular. During the conservative backlash against the French Revolution, it became associated with women's striving for sexual freedom, personified by Wollstonecraft's unconventional private life - she had a child outside marriage with an American, and then married the atheist philosopher William Godwin after becoming pregnant with his child. Only later did the label acquire connotations of sexlessness and asceticism.
The bluestockings were acceptable, in other words, as long as they clothed their intellectual accomplishments in the trappings of conventional femininity.
- Shakespeare had a lot to say about leadership. What might he say about the current crop of presidential candidates? "The Bard as pundit" is not as silly a hypothesis as it sounds.
-- and you get all the insights you need about literary criticism, litblogging and the state of book reviewing. It's Adrian Searle's wise yet acerbic essay in the Guardian about how art criticism has fared against the flood of money in the art world:
Well worth reading the whole deal.
Some critics think that the fact that there's so much bad art around means that it is a great time to be writing about art, which is like saying that because of the plague, what a great time the 14th century was to be an undertaker. Critics aren't doctors. We can't fix things. We are not here to tell artists what to do. They wouldn't listen anyway. Maybe the word criticism has become part of the problem. Or the problem is that we are asking the wrong thing of the critic: critics are not the painting police nor the sculpture Swat team, not market regulators nor upholders of eternal values (there aren't any). Those who think they have a role to play in this regard are as jumped up as they are unreadable. Criticism might blow the whistle on overhyped art, flabby curating, moribund institutions or the odd fly-blown administrator, but that is because you cannot divorce art from its context....
Being iconoclastic, slagging off artists and institutions, gets a critic noticed. Anger, undeniably, is also a good motive for writing in the first place. Controversy, the smell of blood, the whiff of scandal - this makes careers. It also sells newspapers and magazines. Of course it is the duty of the critic to be iconoclastic, and to be reckless; but critical terrorism is no good as a long-term strategy. It becomes predictable, and the adrenaline buzz soon wears off. It is also disingenuous, and ultimately a false position. There is such a thing as bad faith, and lousy opinions....
Writing about art only matters because art deserves to be met with more than silence (although ignoring art - not speaking about it, not writing about it - is itself a form of criticism, and probably the most damning and effective one). An artist's intentions are one thing, but works themselves accrue meanings and readings through the ways they are interpreted and discussed and compared with one another, long after the artist has finished with them. This, in part, is where all our criticisms come in. We contribute to the work, remaking it whenever we go back to it - which doesn't prevent some artworks not being worth a first, never mind a second look, and some opinions not being worth listening to at all.
When it's not called one of his "dark comedies," Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is most often labeled his first "problem play": Coleridge called it "the most painful -- say rather the only painful" play of Shakespeare's (why Titus Andronicus didn't merit inclusion makes one wonder about Coleridge's tolerance for multiple amputations). The atmosphere and setting of Measure for Measure are sordid and cynical -- the meeting of prison, brothel, convent and courtroom.
But a chief reason it's a problem play is its two difficult-to-explain, difficult-to-accept main characters: Angelo, the puritanical deputy of Duke Vincentio (his "blood / is very snow-broth"), who is put in charge of the city while the duke is away. And Isabella, who has just entered a nunnery. Her brother, Claudio, is arrested for getting his girlfriend pregnant, and under Angelo's new anti-sex regime, he is condemned to die. He asks Isabella to beg for his life.
Angelo has mercilessly clamped down on Vienna's criminals with "most biting laws," ordering the brothels to be pulled down. Yet when he hears Isabella's impassioned defense of Claudio, he is overwhelmed by lust for her. He demands she submit to his desires or her brother will be executed. Why Isabella refuses to comply has inspired a sizable hillock of explications, to which book/daddy will not add.
But Angelo is also seen by many as a somewhat improbable figure: A hard-hearted moralist, he'll suddenly risk his career, his entire reformation of Vienna, for a bit of fluff, a quick tumble in the sheets? Or he's seen as too easy, too dismissable, a target. He's just another powerful hypocrite, another Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker.
I think you can see where this is headed -- to a certain disgraced New York governor. But Shakespeare's portrait is more nuanced than just "public moralist implodes over illicit sex."
Nowadays, there are more critical responses than ever, but critical authority has been devolved from the experts. McDonald surveys the rise of blogs and readers' reviews, of television and newspaper polls and reading groups, under the heading "We Are All Critics Now". He argues that the demise of critical expertise brings not a liberating democracy of taste, but conservatism and repetition. "The death of the critic" leads not to the sometimes vaunted "empowerment" of the reader, but to "a dearth of choice". It is hardly a surprise to find him taking issue with John Carey's anti-elitist What Good Are the Arts? (2005), with its argument that one person's aesthetic judgement cannot be better or worse than another's, making taste an entirely individual matter. McDonald proposes that cultural value judgements, while not objective, are shared, communal, consensual and therefore open to agreement as well as dispute. But the critics who could help us to reach shared evaluations have opted out.
The distance between Ivory Tower and Grub Street has never been greater.
As a biography -- that is, a history -- of the epic poems themselves, most of Manguel's book throws --
-- a pleasing light on the many ways these poems have come down to us through the years. Christians spun them out for their own purposes, Muslims for theirs. ... In the Middle Ages, Dante kept him elevated in the pantheon of luminous spirits of the past, and the unearthing of Greek texts (they had been known mostly through Latin translations until the 15th century) served as a spur to the Renaissance. Milton wrote with epic Homeric aspirations. English literature is barely imaginable without Alexander Pope's translation of the Iliad and its influence on Keats, among others, and certainly the history of the 20th century would have been singularly different had we been deprived of that benchmark of modernism, James Joyce's Ulysses. This isn't just a matter of toting up allusions; every writer since the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed belongs to the fraternity of the Homeridae, the descendants of Homer.
One problem with this passage -- and I would have brought it up to the WashPost directly except, for some reason, online comments are turned off for this article -- Keats was certainly a member of the Homeridae. But he wrote one of his finest sonnets about his excitement "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" (italics added) -- not Pope's Homer.
It was George Chapman's more vigorous translation from 1616 that excited Keats, not Pope's heroic-coupleted version, published over the years 1715-1726. Keats, in fact, dismissed the Augustan poets and their verse style, writing, "They rode upon a rocking horse/And called it Pegasus."
But perhaps Manguel's book offered a different interpretation/argument and Simmons only reflected that.
Author Hillary Jordan spent her childhood in Dallas and Oklahoma, but her debut novel, called Mudbound, is set on a Mississippi cotton farm in 1946. This actually isn't all that big a jump. Dallas may play up its cowboy myths, but not so long ago, the city was surrounded by cotton fields. Cotton farming built Dallas, it built the Cotton Bowl.
Given its time and place, Mudbound is inevitably about Jim Crow. A Memphis schoolteacher, Laura moves to Mississippi because her husband Henry loves the land and wants to raise cotton. They're cheated out of the nice house he bought, so they're stuck living on the farm with no electricity, no running water. Before this, Laura must have lived a sheltered life.In 1946, America was a much more rural and segregated country, yet Laura is shocked by how primitive and racially ugly the Delta can be.
Needless to say, family tensions and racial tensions mount.
The San Francisco Chronicle has an article about the success of the free online literary journal, Narrative, which Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian started five years ago with an initial readership of 1,200. Now they have 40,000 registered users.
"This is a revolutionary period," says Jenks, 57, who has held fiction editor positions at Esquire, GQ and Scribner's. "And as with all revolutionary periods, it's one of enormous opportunity - I don't think there's ever been a greater period of opportunity for writers, for literary work."
"I think the transition for writers (from print to digital) is painful because it's new," adds Edgarian, 46, the author of the critically acclaimed novel "Rise of the Euphrates." "But the opportunities are enormous."
OK. Good stuff. Refusing to accept the (supposed) rising tide of illiteracy. A mission statement about bringing great literature out of the Gutenberg era into the digital age. Publishing the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Scott Spencer, profiles on writers such as Ann Beattie.
And then, later, there's this:
Narrative may be atypical in terms of circulation for new literary magazines - most "small magazines," on- or offline, have a regular following of about 5,000 people - but its business model, if you can call it that, is decidedly nonprofit. Almost all of its 65 staff members, including Edgarian and Jenks, toil unpaid. There is no advertising on their site, nor do the editors give much thought to marketing or promotion.
Ah yes, that tremendous, revolutionary opportunity the digital age offers so many of us: writers and editors not getting paid.
Daniel Menaker's Titlepage show debuted Monday, and this attempt by the former fiction editor at The New Yorker to create a low-cost web alternative to the near-zero of book shows on network or cable TV is pretty much as I feared -- a kind of droney cocktail party that ran out of liquor 30 minutes ago but everyone's still stuck there. The Charlie Rose Show with more people squatting at the table.
Mmmm, boy. That's exciting. Sure, it's well-meaning and not hopeless and I even like Richard Price (see my Lush Life review). But Titlepage seems to provide more evidence for why TV producers think just about any living author is bad ratings ju-ju. Hold up a book on camera (or have him mention his good friend, that more famous author) and it'll drive the entire cosmos to switch to another channel. This is the web for sweet gravy's sake. Can't we be a little more inventive? Doesn't anyone here know how to play this game?
I'm going back to watching Stephen Colbert interview Henry Louis Gates.
His book starts at the point at which he got interested in the story of what he calls 'flat earth news': 'A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true - even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.' That's flat earth news, and Davies became interested in the phenomenon, via the story of the millennium bug. How on earth did so many papers get sucked into producing so many millions of words of, it turns out, total nonsense ... ?
Lush Life is Richard Price's best novel since Clockers.
Perhaps it's been writing for HBO's The Wire (and not the movies), perhaps it's because Lush Life is set in New York's Lower East Side and not Dempsy, his stand-in for Jersey City in Freedomland and Samaritan, perhaps these things have tied him both closer to researched reality and to the forward momentum of the crime novel. Whatever it's been, Lush Life is tauter, more consistently engaging than either of those two books, which were pretty marvelous Dickensian epics of American urban life on their own, but they got a little thick, not just dense but slow, especially the self-reflective Samaritan.
Lush Life will still confound readers who are looking for straight police procedurals or shoot-em-up thrillers. The literary rhythms, the slangy-jargony dialogue, the incredible feel for details in a gentrifying-but-still-gritty neighborhood that mixes old Jewish immigrants, project kids and Manhattan trendoids, the psychological introspection in families and friends wounded by a murder -- Price is after more than just law-and-order, crime-and-punishment, justice-is-served. You watch: Lush Life is going to end up on a lot of end-of-the-year Top 10 lists, and deservedly so.
One thing (among many) that marks Lush Life as a Price novel: The protagonist is morally muddled, a mess, and a key fact about the murder that happens -- in this case, a street hold-up gone bad -- is withheld by him out of fear and guilt, even as the city almost comes apart over the crime and his silence. Why he withholds and what that key fact is are the central character questions to be found in Lush Life and Freedomland and Clockers.
book/daddy heard this song the other day on the radio, a parody of Nena's old 1983 pop novelty number, "99 Luftballoon." It's called "99 Words for Boobs." The lyrics are pretty much as the title indicates, although the leering persistence and inventiveness involved are, um, impressive (MREs -- the Army's "meals ready to eat"?). What nearly caused book/daddy to brake to a halt on the freeway, though, was amid the happy listing of "double whoppers" and "traffic stoppers," we get this sequence: "Pillows, billows -- Don DeLillos."
Obviously, the songwriter needed the rhyme (although he also had "armadilloes" still to come in the next verse). But still-o. You don't hear Cormac McCarthy getting referenced in a fetishist's pop fantasy.
book/daddy's new position -- the one that's been keeping him from blogging more consistently the past several weeks -- is "arts producer/reporter" for KERA, the NPR and PBS station for the Dallas-Fort Worth area. With a grant from arts patron Donna Wilhelm, KERA is doing something book/daddy has often argued is sorely needed from PBS and NPR, especially in this day of newspaper cutbacks: arts coverage, particularly arts coverage that is, to a large degree, locally based. And by arts coverage, book/daddy means not just a local talk show with a host who chats with touring authors or a music show that hosts area bands. Arts reporting, arts reviews, arts profiles -- the kind of journalism that only daily newspapers have done but are currently abandoning.
You can read the official press release here. KERA is using this grant to do something unusual -- establishing an "arts unit" that will combine web, radio and television coverage. In addition to weekly on-air book and theater and museum reviews, book/daddy has been posting at KERA's Arts + Culture blog, but Arts + Culture will soon be only one part of a new, multi-service arts site. Having checked around, looking for arts feature content on other NPR sites, we think KERA's arts unit, if it works as we hope, will be something exceptional. That's not so much a brag as it is a reflection on the current level of cultural discussion in America: We did not find a great deal in the way of useful, independent, locally-based, quality arts journalism, beyond newspaper websites and the aforementioned talk or music programs. Here's hoping we become a worthy model.
So: book/daddy is learning about broadcast production. Next up, web video training. If this all falls apart, at least he'll get some new skills out of it.