On annual “best of” anthologies

Robert Daseler, a good poet (and one of my email pals), sends in his thoughts on annual “best of” anthologies:

I would like to draw your attention to a book that you might otherwise overlook. Louis Menand, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, edited The Best American Essays 2004, and it turns out to be a splendid collection.

Ordinarily I shy away from “The Best of” books. The annual gathering of “The Best of” American poetry would lead you to despair, if you actually believed that this was the best poetry produced by Americans in a given year. The same is true of the annual “The Best of” American short stories. One suspects that the editors of these annual harvests select one entry apiece for five or six of the most famous or most established writers in the field and then add a few pieces by friends or writers to whom the editor owes favors.

The best short stories compilation will probably contain samples by T. Coraghessan Boyle and Annie Proulx. The best poetry will undoubtedly turn out to include poems by John Ashbery, Billy Collins, Jorie Graham, and Rita Dove. This is not to suggest that Boyle, Proulx, Ashbery, et alia don’t produce good work on a fairly regular basis, but their inclusion in the annual “The Best of” collections seems automatic rather than earned.

Such, however, is not the case with The Best American Essays as compiled by Louis Menand. A week or two ago I picked up a copy at Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and initially I was skeptical about the number of New Yorker writers Menand had included. It looked like favoritism to me, and when I sat down to read the essay by Jonathan Franzen, it was with the expectation of finding something meretricious and unworthy. As it turned out, it was my bias that was unworthy. The piece by Franzen was quite good, an exposition of adolescent behavior and psychology that carried solid nuggets of insight.

There was also an essay by a writer named Kathryn Chetkovich, about whom I know nothing not revealed in her essay, “Envy.” [Ed. note: the Chetkovich essay chronicled her relationship with Franzen, and was a subject of much discussion in 2003.] As I began reading “Envy,” I took it to be a garden-variety tale about an unhappy love affair, but its development surprised me. Chetkovich’s essay is really a meditation on the differences between men and women, particularly in their expectations of each other. It was the sort of thing I should have read 40 years ago, though, come to think of it, if I had encountered such an essay when I was 19, I doubt that I would have learned anything from it. (The ability to learn anything useful from experience seems to be withheld until after that type of experience has been removed from life’s menu.)

I had a similar experience five years ago with The Best American Essays of 1999, which was edited by Edward Hoagland. As I read through the essays in that collection, I kept expecting to come upon one that was dull or trite or boring, but, against all expectation, every single essay selected by Hoagland was a small gem.

The most memorable of them was a piece by a writer named Charles Bowden, who had been, as a young man, a reporter on a Tucson newspaper. His essay, “Torch Song,” reprinted from Harper’s, described in some detail the effects on his life of being assigned a regular beat covering crimes (usually violent) against children. Just reading his essay was a harrowing experience. You really don’t want to think too much about the hideous things that happen to children, society’s natural victims.

In “Torch Song,” Bowden describes how, over the course of a couple years, he lost his ability to find pleasure in anything. His sexual relations were confined to women who also were professionally engaged in dealing with the atrocities that he wrote about as a reporter: female police officers and family service councilors. “Torch Song” reminds one that there is a nightmare world that exists alongside the world we are familiar with, a world packed with such horror that even reading cursory descriptions of it makes one feel sick.

The annual production of these compilations of essays suggests that the essay form is thriving in this country. This is just about the reverse of the impression one gets of the health of the short story and poetry from their annual national gatherings.

Iowa schoolchildren shielded from Hotmail, The Onion and MaudNewton.com

Joe, a high school teacher in a northeastern Iowa town, reports that The Onion, Homestar Runner, Hotmail and MaudNewton.com are among the sites proscribed by the school system’s “Bess Internet filtering software,” which “helps protect more students & library users online from inappropriate or illegal Internet content than any other filter.”

Due to the frequency with which “fuck” and other four-letter words are bandied about on these pages, I’m not surprised to see my site banned (a fellow blogger informed me months ago that it’s off-limits in Kentucky state offices). But Hotmail? The Onion?

Joe’s email about his job and the filtering software is excerpted below (after the jump): Continue reading…

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s Weekly Events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled by Lauren Cerand, that appears Mondays and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please submit details to lauren@maudnewton.com by the Thursday before publication for consideration.

I am a bit miffed that my “Intellectuals’ Rockin’ Eve” headline was snagged first by The Philly Inquirer for their MLA article…nonetheless, here are a few recommendations for the days ahead. A standard edition of The Smart Set appears Monday.

THURSDAY, 12.30: Three poets read from their work in Russian and English while you drink vodka: literally, a perfect evening [details at Languor Management].

FRIDAY, 12.31: New Year’s Eve is not my favorite holiday, but there are a few intriguing options at a variety of price points worth considering: For the Beat poet in you, Jivamukti Yoga holds its 16th Annual New Years Celebration, featuring silent meditation from 9:00pm-12:00am and chanting at midnight, FREE. ALMA holds a “White Party” to fete the occasion with Brazilian style, $25. [via The Brazilian Muse]. Alternatively, enjoy Latin Jazz and a little midnight champers at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, $25. Fans of Kaiju Big Battel, take note: “Live Monster Mayhem” is scheduled at Irving Plaza, $50. Chanteuse-wise, Patti Smith takes up her annual residency at Bowery Ballroom ($55) and Peaches rocks the mic at the Tribeca Grand ($99). And for the sweet sum of $5, you can get down to the sonic sounds of 60’s reggae, soul, roots, mod, streetpunk, dancehall and hip-hop at the ABC No Rio New Year’s Eve Party.

SATURDAY, 1.1: The Poetry Project holds its 31st Annual New Year’s Day Marathon Reading, featuring “the best of downtown poetry, performance, dance, music, and multimedia, with over 150 performers and readers.” 2:00pm-3:00am; $16.

SUNDAY, 1.2: The show that guest curator Kurt Andersen put together (inspired in part by the setting for his next novel) in homage to the rather extraordinary year of 1848 is really quite sublime. Thru January 9 at The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Sunday hours: noon-6:00pm, $10.

MLA Convention dispatch #2: w(h)ither publishing?

An anonymous MLA convention-goer is sending dispatches, including this one, while Maud is otherwise engaged this week. Unfamiliar with the Modern Language Association? Consult this quick primer.

The keys — well, two anyway — to surviving the MLA are hydration and overcaffeination.

This makes the loooong line at Starbucks a great place to scope the latest fashion trends in academe. Will patterned hose be big again this year? What’s with the longer hair on older men?

Theory rockstar Slavoj Zizek encouraged readers to “enjoy your symptom!” At the MLA, it’s “accessorize your paranoia!” Everyone is practiced in the quick glance at the conference badge — do I know you? Should I? Do you have a better job or affiliation than I do?

And then there are the many unwise shoe choices. For example, one of the publishing reps at Palgrave was wearing stiletto-heeled leather boots — sexy, but not the ideal footwear for eight hours of standing. Also, the academics are more interested in scamming “desk copies” of books they will never include on a syllabus anyhow.

The book exhibit is in many ways the most rewarding aspect of the MLA. It’s a total see-and-be-seen scene. Publish me! Why isn’t my book prominently displayed? Give/send me free/steeply discounted books! Assign our anthology! Come to our author appearance! Free wine and cheese and crudite at 4:30! As I wandered around, I kept thinking of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ wise observation: “There are no problems at the MLA; there are only crises.” Just like publishing!

The big commercial houses take up multiple exhibitor slots, while the small university presses sometimes combine forces in a sliver of a space. For example, Bedford/St. Martin’s took up two spots and brought along a small sofa. If you’re looking for literature among the shelves and shelves of anthologies, classroom guides, and Shakespeare editions, try sitting on the sofa and looking down and to your right. Tucked among the Bedford Cultural Editions were single copies of Chabon, Cunningham, Heaney, and Anita Diamant’s tent. I kept encouraging other exhibitors to maybe try napping on Bedford’s sofa. There’s not enough performance art at the MLA.

The University of Chicago jumped on the coffee table book bandwagon this year with the Encyclopedia of Chicago, referred to recently in the Atlantic Monthly as a “bonbon,” I’m told, albeit one marred by jargon. Yale’s and Rutgers’ university presses have tackled New York City and New Jersey, respectively, also looking to fatten their bottom lines with a dads-and-grads gift book.

Over at Random House, if you signed up for an email newsletter, you could take your pick of six free titles: Barak Obama was on offer, but I scored David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas instead. There was also a discreet stack of purple and white business cards, bearing Haruki Murakami’s site URL on one side and “Password: Kafka” on the other. It’s a well-designed site, too. Less sleek was the publishing conglomerate’s appropriation of the Staples slogan, “Yep. We’ve got that.” on postcards touting its services for academics. Continue reading…

A monument to the printed page: Seattle’s new public library

A dispatch from Sean Carman, intrepid cultural reporter for Maudnewton.com.

Seattle’s new downtown public library is amazing. If you visit, expect to find yourself in the condition I’m experiencing as I try to write this paragraph. I don’t know where to begin. I’m literally speechless. Here is what my heart wanted this first paragraph to say: “Goo, gaaah! Gah, gah, gah! Gaaaahhhh! Gah!”

From outside it looks a little like a jewel, but more like a sleek, distorted Rubik’s cube. Its odd angles and overhanging floors make you want to take it in your hand and reshape it. It’s a particularly inviting public monument.

A monument, in fact, is what this building is. And like all good monuments it is principally a dazzling metaphor. Those overhanging top floors offer pedestrians a reflective, bird’s-eye view of the adjacent traffic. Everything inside is open, transparent, and exposed, from the floor beams to the elevator workings. Of course the building isn’t standing there naked, with nothing to hide, it only looks that way. There’s something holding up those suspended floors, making effortless magic of everything. You just can’t see what it is.

The floors housing the books are slanted and linked at the ends, parking garage style, to create one long spiral. You can literally wind your way though the stacks. These floors are also linked at their midpoints, if darting through is more your thing. There are, at the end of each row of books, these ingenious and surprisingly handy Dewey-Decimal-range floor mats.

Not only is the library user-friendly, its open spaces and sight lines bestow upon the public library patron that all-important exalted feeling. It’s that same feeling you get gazing into the vaulted ceiling of a Gothic church, although I was reminded more of the exhilaration of visiting Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Pennsylvania woods. The open cantilevered floor design gives the same relaxing, liberating sense to both places.

And don’t churches have that odd way of making you, the tourist, feel unwelcome past a point? You feel awed and then, later, a bit unworthy. In the Seattle Library, as at Fallingwater, you only want to stay.

More, in another dispatch perhaps, about the odd little things I don’t like about churches. Churches are great, don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying.

As for the feel of Seattle’s new library, it hums with activity and everyone seems happy to be there (not to belabor the point, but notice how the tourists in churches always seems so dour? Everyone looking down, grimly frowning, acting nervous. No good!).

On my visit this week the Seattle Public Library was swimming with elated tourists, smiling downtown office workers (it was that quiet, self-satisfied smile, that “Yes, I live in the city with the coolest library in America” smile), kids with stylish jeans wielding film cameras (film cameras are the new Ipods), and, yes, the occasional Public Library Patron Who May Not Have Showered. I’ve never felt so egalitarian as I did in that crowd.

Of course there are small, nagging questions the library forces us to ask — uncomfortable truths it forces us to admit. For me, the open spaces and their complete lack of privacy mean no possibility of reliving the clandestine assignations that made law school so memorable. But then that’s probably a good thing.

And, of course, no discussion of any monument would be complete without mention of the uncomfortable fact that, um, they only make monuments for things that have died. And, then, Rem Koolhaas’s design does feel a little cold.

But these are minor points. (The first was not even worth mentioning; it just seemed the perfect place for a cheap laugh.) What I’m saying is, the Seattle Public Library is a vibrant, happy place. You’ll want to stay longer, and come back soon. That a city built such a monument to the printed page will make you happy and give you hope.

If you visit Seattle you have to go. You absolutely, positively, must, must go.

How to help

I’ve only just seen Hurree‘s impassioned email to the literary blogger community. He passed along the word about TsunamiHelp, a blog that’s playing a huge role in marshalling support for victims of the Tsunami disaster. Take a look. And if you’ve been meaning to look up the Red Cross tsunami donation page, go here.

Finally, please visit Laila Lalami’s site for her breathtaking reflections.

R.I.P. Susan Sontag

That shock of white hair always gave her an air of immortality, but Susan Sontag died today, at 71, after a bout with leukemia. She spoke earlier this year about “the truth of fiction.” (Thanks for letting me know, GMB.)

Some of my favorite pieces on Sontag in recent years have been penned by Scott McLemee, an ardent — but far from uncritical — admirer of her criticism (and, in a much more qualified sense, her fiction).

I’d say more, but I’m still on deadline, so I’ll leave you with this excerpt and the hope that a smart editor somewhere will invite Mr. McLemee to share his thoughts on Sontag and her life’s work:

It has been quite some time since Susan Sontag published anything that doesn’t fill an admirer of her best work with embarrassment. Where the Stress Falls, her last collection of essays, consisted for the most part of hints to posterity about how she would prefer to be described. She proclaimed a devotion to complexity (both moral and intellectual) and seriousness (ditto), and also said that she is very passionate – a quality seldom evident from her fiction, with its thin trickle of emotion. It was the kind of solemn preening that calls to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s remark that the poet Paul Valery had spent the final decades of his life preparing posthumous editions of his own work.

So it is with some misgivings that I opened Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag’s meditation on the imagery of warfare, which revisits the concerns first staked out in On Photography, published in 1977. “My energy as a writer impels me to look forward,” she proclaimed in Where the Stress Falls, “to feel still that I am beginning, really beginning, now.” Yet much of her work in recent years has consisted of spirals backward, rather than energetic forward thrusts. AIDS and Its Metaphors offered a set of afterthoughts on Illness as Metaphor, for example, while In America recycled the historical-romantic pastiche of The Volcano Lover (Sontag’s one readable novel, of the four published thus far).

But Regarding the Pain of Others is not simply a repetition of the earlier writings on photography; rather, it is a genuine return to the source of the energy driving Sontag’s critical prose from the 1960s and ’70s.

The immediate topic is the role of war photography in how noncombatants understand military violence and respond to its human cost. (Or fail to understand it, and grow numb to it.) A timely subject, unfortunately. But a longtime reader of Sontag notices that her discussion of Matthew Brady’s images of the Civil War — or photojournalistic coverage of downtown New York, autumn 2001 — land her in the middle of familiar questions about the history of sensibility in a culture shaped by the mechanical reproduction of imagery. That has always been one of the guiding preoccupations of her best work, from Against Interpretation to The Volcano Lover.

If you’re looking for more Sontag once you’ve read McLemee, Ron Hogan of Beatrice marvels at the omission of Annie Lebovitz, Sontag’s longtime partner, from the New York Times obituary.

MLA Convention dispatch #1: “Get this housewife out of here!”

An anonymous MLA convention-goer is sending dispatches from the convention while Maud is otherwise engaged this week. Her first report centers on MaudNewton.com hero Grace Paley. Unfamiliar with the Modern Language Association? Consult this quick primer.

An elderly female professor of my acquaintance often has to deflect importuning undergraduates because, well, if the Pillsbury Doughboy had a grandmother, she’d be the model. She looks like something out of a fairy tale, all soft round envelopingness and deep belly laughs. But she’s no cuddly pushover; she’s a leading scholar in her field and tough as nails. More than once, she’s had to set the kiddies straight: “I may be somebody’s grandmother, but I’m not your grandmother.”

I was reminded of this story tonight because Grace Paley looks like my grandmother. And she continues to set us all straight. Tonight I heard her speak in Philadelphia.

Paley ventured to Philly from her home in Thetford, VT, to take part in an MLA panel, “Feminist Activism inside and outside the Academy,” examining the legacy of deceased professor, author, and feminist Carolyn Heilbrun. It was a high-powered assemblage on the podium. A madwoman in the attic, Susan Gubar, presided, and Sara Paretsky winged in from Chicago to discuss her partner in crime. The audience in the Liberty Ballroom of the Marriott was just as high-powered and fabulous. Even the toughest butch professors laughed easily, in open delight.

Because your correspondent had to contend with stop-and-go traffic between the many storied rest areas of the New Jersey Turnpike, I was only able to catch the luminous and salty Paley, midway through a story about her six-day stint in the now-demolished women’s jail on 10th and 6th Avenue for sitting down in protest in front of a mounted police officer. [“Six days? What the fuck for?” exclaimed a woman looking at three years.] In her braying echt-Noo Yawk accent, she wryly observed that, “despite the great history of prison literature,” she found herself in stir with nothing to read, no pen, no paper. Even under privation conditions, she managed to remember and recreate the voices of the other women there: the junkies, the high-end hookers and the street whores, their voices contiguous with the women that peopled Paley’s Village neighborhood and her short stories, just on the other side of the bars. I just wish I knew how this tale tied in to Heilbrun’s legacy.

A connection was easier to discern in the poem Paley chose to close with, “Responsibility,” which concludes, “It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman, to keep an eye on this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be listened to this time.”

For the next three days, I promise to follow the example of Paley and Heilbrun and keep an eye on the world of the MLA. If past experiences are any guide, you can expect a great deal of crying out.

In preparation for the MLA dispatches

While I’m otherwise occupied this week, a mysterious MLA convention-goer will be sending dispatches about her experiences there.

If you, unlike those of us in the Maud household, have managed to steer clear of English Departments in general, and the Modern Language Association in particular, why sully yourselves now?

But if you plan to read on, here’s some essential (and controversial) reading:

Kafka: the musical

Zadie Smith (White Teeth) and her husband, writer Nick Laird, are collaborating on a musical about the life of Franz Kafka:

Smith told British magazine Dazed and Confused, “It’s not exactly a cheery, high-kicking affair. It’ll need some good actors like Nathan Lane or Anthony Sher.” She would also like the show to run at London’s Royal National Theatre, adding, “God knows who wants to watch a musical about Kafka. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.”

Smith’s forthcoming novel, On Beauty, is due out in Britain next September.

Favorite books, and holiday remainders

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a brief piece for Newsday about some of my favorite books of the year. Today it appears alongside 2004 selections from Laurie Muchnick, Scott McLemee, Peter Terzian, and others.

I mentioned Muriel Spark’s The Finishing School (a hilarious, plot-driven commentary on the creative writing culture and the publishing world’s feverish pursuit of young authors), James Hynes’ Kings of Infinite Space, Miljenko Jergovic’s Sarajevo Marlboro, Stephen Elliott’s Happy Baby, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Lucy Ellmann’s Dot in the Universe, and Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli. I wanted to include A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise, but it doesn’t appear in the U.S. until the spring (although it’s been out in Britain for months). (And if you’re still looking for holiday gifts, one book I didn’t mention — Jonathan AmesWake Up, Sir! — was a big hit with the P.G. Wodehouse fans on my list.)

Finally, some random items:

  • Quotes from Zadie Smith, J.M. Coetzee, and Jeanette Winterson appear in John Dugdale’s end-of-year round-up of odd literary passages, statements and exchanges.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez agreed to carry messages between Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the U.S. government, “in exchange for some private accounts of the Cuban president’s life, including details of a conversation Castro had with Pope John Paul II during the pontiff’s visit to Cuba.” After Garcia Marquez fulfilled his part of the bargain, the Cuban leader waved him off, saying “Oh, I’ll tell you later. In any case, it’s not important the way you think.”
  • Norman Mailer, longtime literary rocket scientist, has got the Iraq crisis all figured out (“Manliness is what is missing from the current conflict. . .”). And having discovered the writings of Men are From Mars author John Gray, he’s backpedalling from his prior stance on relations between the genders (“all women should be locked in cages”) and embracing a new theory: “‘People have been known to say that men and women come from different planets, and were landed here, and that to me is as reasonable a hypothesis as another.'”

Holiday wishes and miscellany

There’s no snow in Brooklyn, at least not yet, but we in the Maud household are buried nonetheless.

If you celebrate Christmas, have a great one. If you don’t, enjoy the quiet. The blogging and email response forecast through the end of 2004 remains unpredictable. For now, here’s a personal, less-than-heartwarming holiday story of sorts that some of you may remember from last year. And, because I’m procrastinating, a few random things:

  • The Guardian‘s holiday quiz tests your knowledge of seasonal first lines like this one: “It was Christmas Day and Danny the Car Wiper hit the street junksick and broke after seventy-two hours in the precinct jail.”
  • Roth and Hollinghurst dominate Britain’s end-of-year best novel selections. Zoe Heller and Anita Brookner have given the nod to The Line of Beauty.
  • In related news, the Landover Baptist folks have outdone themselves this year with a list of proscribed Christmas gifts, “Lucifer’s Toy Chest,” which includes:

    Leap Start Learning Table – Marketed to Caucasian children and Colored adults, this so-called “Learning Table” spits out lies about math, science and other secular bunk Christ-haters teach in public schools. We suggest you just start your toddler out with an illustrated King James Bible and a spanking instead.

  • What’s better than going home to visit family at the holidays? Returning to an email inbox filled with urgent requests from coworkers, jokes forwarded by friends, and solicitations from Viagra purveyors, mortgage brokers, and the ever-present “young sl*ts getting creamy facials.”

“‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”: actually a tragedy

Wendy McClure of Poundy and Television Without Pity (and author of the forthcoming memoir I’m Not the New Me) shares her early attempts at poetry interpretation:

when I was six years old, my grandpa read A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka “Twas The Night Before Christmas“) aloud to me, and though I’d probably heard the poem dozens of times by then, I hadn’t realized that the narrator — maybe Clement C. Moore himself — vomits right in the middle of the story. It happens not too long after that part with the sugar plums dancing in the heads and so on, right after out on the lawn there arose such a clatter.

“‘I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter!'” my grandfather read. I loved his voice. ” ‘Away to the window I flew like a flash,’ ” he continued. ” ‘Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.’ ”

He stopped for a second. “Uh-oh,” he said. “He threw up.”

“Really?” I said. I could definitely understand why someone might throw up on Christmas Eve. Sometimes I worried that I would.

“Poor fella,” my grandpa said.

Patriot Act: still problematic

I was deeply troubled by Rachel Donadio’s recent New York Times Book Review essay, “Is There Censorship?,” in which she suggests that because liberals can’t point to many concrete, deleterious effects of the Patriot Act (and other “anti-terrorism” laws and regulations), we are overreacting when we decry its far-reaching provisions.

The argument seems to be that because the country hasn’t yet slid back toward the sort of prohibitions that characterized the McCarthy Era, and because there is no demonstrable rise in overt censorship of books (e.g., the sort of treatment Lady Chatterley’s Lover received in the last century), it’s a little ridiculous to be concerned about the terms of the law.

Donadio’s reasoning is problematic, even leaving aside the likelihood that Patriot Act provisions will impact free speech. Her argument is akin to saying that laws criminalizing sodomy aren’t a big deal because they’re rarely enforced.

If a law isn’t enforced, and shouldn’t be, why not take it off the books?

Whether or not the government pushes its power to the fullest extent of a law, the terms of the law matter. The fact that the Patriot Act allows the government to monitor (without warrants) citizens’ speech and activities, including what library books they read, is troubling even if no monitoring actually occurs.

In 2003, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick took a thoughtful look at the Act. Acknowledging that some of its provisions are “benign,” she pointed to some “truly radical” portions and said “what is most frightening about the act is exacerbated by the lack of government candor in describing its implementation.” Continue reading…

Bring on the sophomore efforts

Swink (edited by Leelila Strogov) and n+1 (brainchild of Keith Gessen & Co.) have my vote for best new literary-interest publications of the year. You couldn’t go wrong with a subscription to either.

n+1n+1, which bills itself as a new Partisan Review, is the subject of a profile by Wesley Yang in this week’s Observer (and, I should note, has incurred the wrath of the illustrious Elizabeth “Baby, to call you a Neanderthal is $100 extra!” Merrick for failing to feature enough female contributors).

SwinkAs for Swink, Leelila Strogov reports in email that the second issue should be out very early next year. To sample the contents of the last issue, read excerpts from Daniel Alarcon’s Florida and Lisa Glatt’s Cream online.

Tom Wolfe to world: it’s not bad, it’s ironic

I was going to ignore the latest round of I Am Charlotte Simmons whoring, but Emma‘s take is too good to pass up:

Tom Wolfe joins the ever growing “flagrantly inaccurate use of the word irony” club.

See also:

  • A Wolfe partisan’s different perspective:

    I love his response here. And who the hell says that Americans have no sense of irony? Unless that statement was meant to be ironic. Or maybe the judges really are aware that the sex scenes were intentionally bad, so they ironically awarded the Bad Sex award to Wolfe, who failed to pick up on the irony. Or maybe Wolfe did pick up on the irony, and his annoyance is meant to be ironic.

  • Theo Tait’s Rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut in the current LRB:

    Tom Wolfe is, in many ways, an outrageous figure — with his white suit and cane, his glib social analyses, and his delusions of grandeur. For three decades he has been saying that his minutely researched books herald ‘a revolution’ in literature, which is bound to ‘sweep the arts in America, making many prestigious artists . . . appear effete and irrelevant’. Over the years, a lot of these effete and irrelevant artists — John Updike, Norman Mailer, Jonathan Franzen — have launched tirades against him. The most concise comes from John Irving, commenting red-faced and furious on live TV: ‘Wolfe’s problem is, he can’t bleeping write! He’s not a writer! Just crack one of his bleeping books! Try reading one bleeping sentence! You’ll gag before you can finish it! He doesn’t even write literature — he writes . . . yak! He doesn’t write novels — he writes journalistic hyperbole!’ These comments, graciously reported by Wolfe himself, don’t seem entirely fair to me. They do, however, perfectly describe his bloody awful new novel I am Charlotte Simmons.

TMFTML’s books of the year

He has, as Yahweh did His people, left us crying out in the wilderness for (what seems like) forty years. But I tracked down Alex Balk in that empty lot on 13th St. and prevailed upon him* to share his favorite books of 2004. Here’s what he said:

Between the final episodes of Friends and the new season of The O.C., I had very little time this year for reading anything that didn’t defecate blow-in cards onto my lap when opened. I was able to squeeze in Tom Perotta’s Little Children which I much enjoyed, even if I didn’t feel it was the great leap forward for the author that others seemed to suggest. Jonathan Coe’s Like a Fiery Elephant, a biography of the experimental British novelist B.S. Johnson, was fascinating as both a life story and a subversion of the conventions of biography, which is pretty appropriate given its subject.

I was especially pleased by the reissues of Julian Maclaren-Ross’ memoirs and short fiction. Best known as the inspiration for X. Trapnel in A Dance to the Music of Time, Maclaren-Ross was a wildly talented stylist and raconteur, and one hopes that the new availability of his work will find him the wider audience he so desperately deserved. (I’d also like to throw in a brief bit of thanks to The Overlook Press for their continuing republication of the works of Wodehouse, a stylist of a very different order.)

The most interesting book I read this year was the new edition of Ralph Caplan’s By Design, recommended to me by a designer friend who correctly diagnosed it as a book that even laymen to that specialty could appreciate. (You can read more about it here.) Caplan shows how design permeates every aspect of modern life, and does so in a clear, informative, and often humorous fashion, and the book changed the way I think about a lot of things. Except The O.C. which is pretty much perfect as is.

* The check’s in the mail, Alex. Cheers.

Print-Internet relations

  • As bloggers talk up (or run down) their sex lives and professors — and sometimes the sex lives of their professors — on the Internet, Jeffrey Rosen wonders what privacy standards apply to blog posts. He contends that, with the continued proliferation of blogs, “citizens will have to develop new understandings about what parts of our lives are on and off the record.” A former law professor of mine has written extensively on the community standard in the context of Internet defamation cases. Some of her arguments may be germane to issues raised in the privacy arena.
  • Will the Internet revolutionize publishing? Bubble Generation advances some thoughtful arguments that extend beyond the usual “yay, ebooks and bloggers!” line of reasoning. Educated skeptics are reponding in the comments, anonymously, so why not add your $.02? (Via Mike Gerber.)
  • Last year Random House sold its stake in Barnes & Noble online. Now, says a B&N spokesperson, “they’re wanting to compete with us.”


Deadlines, family drama, protracted dental appointments, and holiday preparations make me long, like Virginia Woolf, for forced bed rest. Since I can’t have that, I’m opting for blog rest.

Posting will be slow to nonexistent for the duration of the holiday season, with the possibility of occasional flurries. In my absence, please visit a bunch of the other fine literary destinations on tap around here.

Happy, happy to you and yours.

As the gentile holiday approaches

These tips from Emily Post’s Guide to Ukranian Dinner Parties also serve in a pinch at Xmas dinner with family:

Use a darkly colored tablecloth, so that spilt wine or bodily fluids are less noticeable.

The large spoon is for soup, the medium spoon for eye-gouging, and the smallest spoon is not to be used until coffee or tea after the meal.

When pulling the ol’ switcheroo, always start with the poisoned goblet to the left of the victim. Goblets should be swapped in a counterclockwise flourish.

Salad is too early to kill, dessert too late.

When choking or strangling, see to it that the victim’s chair is first pulled back six inches from the dinner table, so that his flailing arms and legs do not upset the place setting.

Always wait for a suitable lull in conversation before stabbing with a butter knife. (Tip: For effectiveness, butter knives should be inserted between the third and fourth ribs.)

Avoid discussion of politics or religion in mixed company, or at least until after those with differing opinions have been brutally dealt with.

See also: