Critical Difference: January 2010 Archives

We know now that J.D Salinger was no recluse, despite what the headlines say. He shut the larger world out, but he did it with help from his neighbors: the people of his tiny New Hampshire town, who closed ranks around him to keep outsiders at bay.

There's a story to that effect in tomorrow's New York Times, and The Boston Globe had one yesterday. But it's a local paper that deserves the credit for the scoop. The Valley News broke the story on Friday, two days after Salinger's death, in an utterly charming piece by Susan J. Boutwell and Alex Hanson. It's the kind of story that only local journalists would realize was there to be reported. It probably couldn't have been broken by the big guys even if they had known, because who among the famous author's neighbors would have opened up to them?
January 31, 2010 9:15 PM |
Last weekend, I was book browsing in Chelsea when an excited young man -- a friend of the shop, I gathered -- came in and said to the clerks at the front, "Guess who I just passed on the street." He paused for one dramatic beat, then announced his celebrity haul: "Colin Firth." Colin Firth, the BBC incarnation of Mr. Darcy; Colin Firth, whose face on the cover of the new edition is selling copies of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel, "A Single Man."

Hearing this news, both female clerks deflated as instantly as I did, all of us slouching with envy. Then one of them dashed out the door, coatless, to try to spot him, too.
January 28, 2010 12:35 PM | | Comments (1)

In the stories we tell about ourselves, the temptation to lie -- to ourselves, to each other -- triumphs more often than it ought to. It happens in public life (see John Edwards), in pulp fiction masquerading as memoir (see James Frey), and in the cultural myths we accept as true (see New Yorkers' entrenched and baseless insistence that they're tougher than the average bear). This is nothing new.

And yet: Is it getting worse? Is a devolution in our use of language helping to blur the distinction between truth and untruth?

"Reality itself is a term that is rapidly being devalued," Daniel Mendelsohn writes in The New Yorker. Pondering the mendacity that has long been entrenched in the memoir genre, he points to the dominance of reality TV as emblematic of this cultural moment, when the degree of "blurring between reality and fiction" seems especially high.

Reality's root, too, is taking a beating. A lot of us don't even know what "real" means anymore, and the confusion is polluting our politics. The 2008 presidential campaign pitted a place called "real America," populated by "real Americans," against ... well, against a bunch of fake Americans living in fake America, apparently. Who knew that the simple act of opposing a Republican could invalidate a passport, a birth certificate, the results of a citizenship test?

Last Sunday, when President Obama flew to Massachusetts to try to salvage Martha Coakley's Senate run, Scott Brown's supporters flocked to a rally of their own. "The president may be in Boston," read a block-lettered sign in the crowd, "but the real people of Mass. are here with Scott Brown in Worcester." The phrase "real people" was, predictably, written in red.

The sign laid out a clear dichotomy, and a false one, casting Obama and his supporters as fake people (cyborgs? foreigners? carpetbaggers? all of the above?) and those on Brown's side -- the Right's side -- as authentic.

"Authentic": another word whose meaning seems now to elude us.

A few years ago, a young artist I know put up a website to sell the clothes she'd designed. Outlining her personal narrative in her bio, she strained to establish blue-collar cred: not an easy task, given her upper-middle-class upbringing, but reality didn't make as good a story. So, instead of crediting her love of design to her mother's creative passion for sewing, she twisted the truth to suggest that her mom (who was, in fact, a doctor's wife) was a seamstress. It sounded, you know, more authentic, what with the struggle and all.

When the drama that makes a compelling story is missing from lived experience, we're only too eager to fabricate it, or have it fabricated for us. But, as Mendelsohn writes, "an immoderate yearning for stories that end satisfyingly -- what William Dean Howells once described to Edith Wharton as the American taste for 'a tragedy with a happy ending' -- makes us vulnerable to frauds and con men peddling pat uplift."

Here's the thing: We can tell whatever tales we want to, but make-believe is still make-believe, illusions are still illusions, and lies are still lies. In failing to insist on those distinctions, we engineer our own continuing gullibility.

When we lose control of a simple word like "real," when we accept its widespread dishonest misuse, we lose sight of what's genuine. If there's no true north, how are we supposed to find our way?

January 23, 2010 1:39 PM |

Producing real journalism, good journalism, costs real money. Charging for frequent online access, as The New York Times plans to do beginning next year, is a step away from the cliff -- or, perhaps, a step toward scrambling back up it.

Why in the world should we be getting all this for free?

And that's just today's arts coverage -- so far.

January 20, 2010 12:30 PM | | Comments (1)

The drama in Massachusetts at the moment is all about the Senate race, but it's an unhappy day for Boston popular fiction as well: Erich Segal, the creator of Oliver Barrett IV and Jennifer Cavilleri, and Robert B. Parker, the creator of Spenser, have both died.

I think of Jenny Cavilleri every time I drive past Cranston, R.I., on I-95, even though she never really lived there -- even though she never really lived. A little farther north, whole swaths of Boston and Cambridge are inhabited, if only in imagination, by Oliver and Jenny, Spenser and Susan.

In my 20s, when I was especially fond of detective novels and happened to be living in Massachusetts, I dipped into the Spenser books. As a teenager, I read and reread Segal's "Love Story." But, just as it was the TV series that introduced me to Spenser (Trinity Church, consequently, has faint echoes of the private eye for me), it was the movie "Love Story," also written by Segal, that led me to the novel.

One night in the '80s, I was babysitting for a family I barely knew when "Love Story" came on the TV. I'd already put the kids to bed, so I watched it, and by the end I was a sodden, tear-stained mess. Right after the credits rolled, the parents walked in the door. I remember the alarm in their faces as they looked at me, assuming some disaster had befallen their children. Still sniffling, I explained about Jenny's demise. The mom got it immediately.

January 19, 2010 3:04 PM |

"Talk to us about your credit needs," the sign in the bank window said, and I made a scoffing sound as I walked past. The lack of monetary credit is hobbling the economy, but something larger is standing in the way of our cultural health. Faith in the worth and urgency of our own work -- credit in a larger sense -- has gone missing.

One of the most shameful, least discussed effects of the current epidemic of unemployment and underemployment is the sheer squandering of brainpower, skill, expertise, creativity. What a waste. What an enormous waste.

That's true in the arts, where seasons and staffing are being stripped down in the name of survival, and it's true in arts journalism, where employment eroded steadily even in the boom years and has since fallen into the abyss. For the ecosystem the arts and arts journalism inhabit together, these are bleak times.

Hunkering down in this economy is a matter of necessity, of course, for some organizations, and it seems to strike many as the only safe approach. In reality, it comes with its own perils, banality being one: Spending less rarely translates into doing more, or better. Failure to take risks, to contribute something new to the conversation, may well bore an audience into going elsewhere for artistry and enlightenment.

Worse, perhaps, is the danger of an irreversible talent drain: losing valuable people to other fields that offer them less in the way of creative fulfillment but at least allow them the dignity of earning a living. It's a hazard whose impact neither the arts nor arts journalism should underestimate. The people and the work we forfeit now may not be recoverable. (Funders, are you listening?)

In redefining budgets to focus on the essentials, then, we seem to have forgotten what some of those essentials are. The way we choose to spend our money is a reflection of our priorities, which right now seem driven disproportionately by panic. But failure to nurture talent, both established and emerging, has its price, too, and it's heavy.
January 17, 2010 2:32 PM |
Over dinner last night, a reporter I know, who covers real estate, was lamenting credulous reporting on his beat: articles that reflexively link individual homeowners' woes to the real estate crisis, when a closer look would disprove the assumption. This morning on WNYC, the closing of a Broadway show got similarly unexamined treatment.

The story, by political reporter Bob Hennelly, is about what Democrats have to do about the economy if they want to win this fall's elections in New York state. Broadway being big business, it's not surprising that its health is one of the vital signs to be checked. That's why Rudy Giuliani, after the Sept. 11 attacks, implored the world to come back to New York and see a show.

They're still coming. However star-driven Broadway has become, it's doing well, reporting a record-breaking gross of $1 billion at the box office in 2009.

So how is it that Hennelly uses yesterday's closing of "Ragtime" to illustrate his point that the issue facing Democrats in New York is "jobs, jobs, jobs"? Here's how he frames it:

"A fabulous show. Great reviews. Forty actors, 20 musicians, out of work because the bottom line is -- you know, downtown Wall Street, they may be doing fine, figuring out should it be six figures or eight figures or 12 figures in terms of bonuses -- bottom line is, pain is being felt all over, and unless Democrats in the White House and in the Senate and the House come up with some kind of jobs program for the arts, nonprofits and for the broader economy, there is gonna be some problems come November."

That may be perfectly astute political analysis, and there's certainly nothing wrong with pushing for jobs-creation programs targeting the arts and nonprofits. But the vaporization of jobs on Broadway simply comes with the territory -- even when a show is terrific -- and the people involved know the risks. Shuttering a show can't be assumed to be a reverberation of trouble in the broader economy. It's normal, just as it will be normal, and not a sign of boom times, when another show creates jobs by opening.

A political reporter can't necessarily be expected to understand the mechanics of commercial theater (that's what arts journalists are for), but WNYC is savvier than that. It's a little bit shocking that this slipped through the cracks.

January 11, 2010 10:58 AM | | Comments (1)
If there's one group of authors who excel at envisioning utopias and dystopias, particularly those brought about by technology, it's the science fiction crowd. So the fact that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America are sounding the alarm over the Google books settlement ought to give pause, at the very least.

That thought has been niggling at me for weeks, ever since Ursula K. Le Guin quit the Authors Guild in protest over the proposed deal. "There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle," she wrote in a fiery letter of resignation. Noting opposition to the settlement by the National Writers Union and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, she told the guild she would remain a member of those less influential organizations.

Yesterday both of those groups, along with the American Society of Journalists and Authors, sent Congress a letter (text below) decrying the proposed settlement as unfair. "There are millions of book authors in this country who could be locked into an agreement they don't understand and didn't ask for," they wrote. Arguing that genuine "orphan works belong to We, The People," not to Google, they added: "The Constitution says copyright is essential and gives Congress responsibility for it, not Google and a gaggle of lawyers."

Sci-fi authors have an uncanny ability to imagine the dangerous directions in which the world could -- and sometimes does -- go when technology and corporations are unreined. But they don't get a lot of respect, at least not until someone notices that their predictions have come true.

Their warning against the Google books settlement as it stands is explicit and very much rooted in reality. It might be safer to heed them, if only just this once, before disaster strikes.

January 7, 2010 1:21 PM | | Comments (1)
Suffering as I do from the procrastination pathology that afflicts so many journalists, it's only now, with three days left to vote, that I'm taking a close look at the candidates for the National Book Critics Circle board of directors. What I see is dismaying, all the more so for being unsurprising.

Of 21 candidates for eight spots, only six are women.


(Sigh sigh sigh sigh sigh.)

Maybe I'm overreacting; it's entirely possible. The NBCC's current 22-person board is 50 percent female, and the organization's president is Jane Ciabattari. That doesn't exactly suggest a male stronghold. And women as a group are hardly known for shying from volunteer labor.

Yet two things immediately come to mind. The first is the National Arts Journalism Program's board election a few years ago, when male alumni of the prestigious program threw their hats into the ring with wild abandon. The women, meanwhile, hung back -- not because they didn't care about the NAJP, or because they were too busy, but because they were unsure of their own abilities in comparison with the men's. A prominent former NAJP fellow, who has since been shortlisted for one of journalism's highest honors, told me she didn't think she could hold her own with a couple of the boldface names among the male candidates (only one of whom made it onto the board anyway). She wasn't alone in her thinking.

The second thing I'm reminded of is novelist Julianna Baggott's recent lament and call to arms in The Washington Post. As exemplified by Publishers Weekly's all-male 2009 top-10 list, Baggott argued, the presumed momentousness of male authors' books eludes their female counterparts:

I could understand Publishers Weekly's phallocratic list if women were writing only a third of the books published or if women didn't float the industry as book buyers or if the list were an anomaly. In fact, Publishers Weekly is in sync with Pulitzer Prize statistics. In the past 30 years, only 11 prizes have gone to women. Amazon recently announced its 100 best books of 2009 -- in the top 10, there are two women. Top 20? Four. Poets & Writers shared a list of 50 of the most inspiring writers in the world this month; women made up only 36 percent.

Just as with authors and readers, it's not as if there's a shortage of female book critics. The NBCC board's current gender split looks about right -- though that didn't quite translate to female authors raking in the National Book Critics Circle Awards last year. (Women won in zero categories.)

Maybe, in practical terms, shifting the board's balance in either direction would be irrelevant. But I can't help believing that having a seat at the table -- having, in fact, enough seats to make a difference -- matters. Boards like the NBCC's have influence, and the literary world is a place where female writers and readers still encounter obstacles to being taken seriously. The battle is lost if female critics don't take their own abilities seriously enough to put themselves forward.
January 5, 2010 12:50 PM |

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by Critical Difference in January 2010.

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