How an obscene work becomes a classic

Looking back on the Madame Bovary trial, and the banning of Lolita, Ulysses, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it’s easy to feel superior to the philistines who didn’t recognize these literary works as high art. (Flaubert disséquant Madame Bovary caricature, at right, found here.)

But Elizabeth Ladenson argues in Dirt for Art’s Sake that each age, including ours, is censorious in its own way — and that our elevation of banned books to classics status is predictable rather than subversive.

“We are titillated by the idea of dangerous literature,” she says, “precisely because literature no longer poses any danger. It has become anodyne, if not entirely irrelevant, at least in terms of ambient threats to the status quo.” Here’s an excerpt from her introduction:

In the spring of 2001, as I was beginning work on this book, a strange thing happened. I was at Berkeley, on leave from the University of Virginia on a visiting appointment, and I had seemingly endless problems getting my e-mail account to function properly. When I finally resolved the difficulty, I wrote a message to a friend and colleague describing my electronic travails. I used a number of what used to be called “Anglo-Saxon” four-letter terms in my description, and when I hit “send” a message popped up on the screen, accompanied by a sinister computer-generated voice emanating from the machine’s speaker. Both of these informed me that my message contained language which might be considered offensive by the average reader, and that I should reconsider sending it, lest my keyboard, the warning continued with ponderous virtual jocularity, be washed out with soap. Stunned by this interpellation I set out to find what was behind it, and discovered that the version of Eudora I had been furnished with included a default option called “Moodwatch,” designed to protect unwary e-mailers from their own linguistic impetuosity. Moodwatch operated through a series of offensiveness ratings iconically represented by little cartoon chili peppers. According to the degree of offensiveness, one’s message is assigned one, two, or three chili-pepper icons, and when one uses language that Moodwatch judges to be beyond the pale, as was the case for my message complaining about the inconveniences of e-mail itself, the warning message inviting one to change one’s ways is delivered in simultaneous visual and auditory form.

Continue reading…

Lynch and Au Revoir Simone: match for a future film?

Maximus Clarke (aka the guy I’m married to) saw David Lynch Upstairs at the Square last month. This belated report appears here and at his own site, Voltage.

Upstairs at the Square host Katherine Lanpher puts authors and musicians on stage together at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. The result is an unique, unpredictable hybrid of interview, reading, and performance.

January’s installment featured surrealist filmmaker David Lynch, and indie synthpop group Au Revoir Simone. I’ve been a big fan of Lynch’s film and TV projects since watching Twin Peaks during its original run — but he wasn’t appearing at this event to plug his new movie. Instead he was there as the author of Catching the Big Fish, a short book about his creative process and his longtime practice of Transcendental Meditation.

Au Revoir Simone performed a few songs and briefly answered questions from Lanpher. But Lynch was the focus of the evening. His newly revealed zeal for Transcendental Meditation is a bit unexpected, but there have long been hints of mystical preoccupations in his work. (Visions beyond time and space played a key role in Dune, and Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper had supernatural dreams, studied Tibetan Buddhism, and traveled between dimensions.) Continue reading…

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30pm 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 send details to lauren [at] by the Thursday prior to publication, with the event’s date in the subject line.

MONDAY, 2.26: At the Reader’s Room, one of the assuredly best literary evenings the city has to offer, Emilie Stewart and Leigh Newman present John Marks, author of Fangland, a “chilling reinvention of the Dracula epic, seen through the lens of today’s media saturated culture.” At Mo Pitkin’s. 7PM, one-drink minimum. And, “Books that Build is an organization that supports children’s literacy. Through an annual fundraising event, Books that Build teams with a charity of choice, along with friends and family and everyone they know, to throw a fantastic party raising money for children’s literacy. The 2007 beneficiary of this event is Reach Out & Read of Greater New York, a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit, which puts books in the hands of children and their parents during regular medical checkups. 7PM, $120 (at door).”

TUESDAY, 2.27: The Center presents “Word Up – A monthly cocktail Party, Reading and Book Signing,” featuring Michael Lowenthal, author of Charity Girl, the story of Frieda Mintz, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants to Boston… [and] a story of how an American crusade for freedom overseas cost thousands of its citizens freedom at home. Filled with details that accurately evoke the atmosphere of life in America during World War I, the novel resonates with implications for modern times – mirroring recent atrocities such as the shunning of HIV-positive citizens, and the American government’s detention of suspected terrorists.” 6PM, $15. Also, the Mercantile Library presents a 2006 Sargent Prize (“created in 2006 to honor the best first novel of the year and carries with it a $10,000 prize”) Finalist Reading, by Peter Orner, author of The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo: “Set in Namibia just after independence in the early 1990s, this novel chronicles the long days, short loves, and cold nights at Goas, an all-boys Catholic primary school.” 6:30pm, FREE.

WEDNESDAY, 2.28: Albert Stern says, “I just wanted to let you know that Mouthpiece will be performing on 2/28, at the D-Lounge on Union Square at 8 p.m. We’re a group of storytellers – most of us have worked on the Moth main stage, and James Braly is the only two-time Moth SLAM winner. His show ‘Life in a Marital Institution’ will debut Off-Broadway next fall and is being directed by Hal Brooks of Thom Pain fame. His book of essays will also appear late this year, and he is a frequent commentator on NPR. Andy Christie’s work has recently appeared in the NY Times, and his ‘Liar Show’ – where the audience has to determine which of four tales is fabricated – is a sellout hit at The PIT and Cornelia Street Cafe. I’ve had two one person shows at Westbeth and have recently published stories you can check out at and We have two other excellent storytellers working with us next Thursday, and would sure appreciate a mention. I think we’re doing the kind of work your readers might be interested in supporting – the price is right, just $8, with a two drink minimum.” Highly recommended. And, Jami Attenberg hosts her quarterly Class of 2007 Reading Series @ Boxcar Lounge with Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End, Annie Choi (Happy Birthday or Whatever, Min Jin Lee (Free Food for Millionaires) and others. 8PM, FREE [Full disclosure, as always: I worked with Jami to publicize her literary debut last summer, and I'm working with Min Jin this spring]. Plus, The Poetry Vs. Comedy Variety Show at Bowery Poetry Club, and Indie Press Night with Ig Publishing at McNally Robinson.

THURSDAY, 3.1: At Three Lives, Matthew Sharpe reads from his new novel, Jamestown: “Set in the indeterminate but not too distant future, JAMESTOWN chronicles a group of “settlers” (more like survivors) from the ravaged island of Manhattan, departing just as the Chrysler Building mysteriously collapses, heading down what’s left of I-95 in an armor-plated vehicle that’s half-schoolbus, half-Millenium Falcon. They are going to establish an outpost in southern Virginia, look for oil, and exploit the Indians controlling the area.” Highly recommended. 7PM, FREE.

FRIDAY, 3.2: On view (through March 18): “In partnership with Africa e Mediterraneo, a non-profit organization based in Bologna, Italy, The Studio Museum in Harlem is thrilled to present Africa Comics, the first-ever exhibition in the United States dedicated exclusively to comic art from across the continent. The work, which addresses issues as wide-ranging as corruption, human rights, immigration, and the plight of women, provides an unprecedented glimpse into modern Africa… Africa Comics includes 32 artists or 2-person artists’ teams from all over the continent of Africa, including Angola, Benin, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, and Togo.” Highly recommended.

SATURDAY, 3.3: Aspiring memoirists, and um, bloggers in general, take note: “P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center is pleased to announce Jonas Mekas: The Beauty of Friends Being Together Quartet, an exhibition comprised of films and film stills by the celebrated artist. Mekas is considered an inventor of Diarist Cinema – an intimate first-person collision of poetry, fiction, documentary, and formal experimentation through which any autobiographical themes can be explored – and is also renowned for his extensive film archive. Such seminal and varied components of his oeuvre will be intimately presented in the Mini-Kunsthalle from February 11 through April 16, 2007.” And, at McNally Robinson: “Every Saturday at 12pm, Spanish Language Discussion Group (downstairs). Practice your Spanish with Javier Molea, our resident Spanish language literature expert. Javier owned a bookstore in Montevideo, Uruguay, where people gathered on Saturdays to discuss books. He has brought that tradition to our store. No preparatory reading is required; Borges, Cortazar, Fuentes, and all of the greatest Latin American writers are discussed.”

SUNDAY, 3.4: “Come on down” to Red Hook for a zeitgeist-y edition of Sundays at Sunny’s: “Novelist Michael Thomas had his debut reviewed favorably on the front page of the New York Times Book Review last week. Two-time Edgar Award winner SJ Rozan just received another nomination. Blake Nelson’s latest novel for young adults is now being turned into a film by Gus Van Sant.” Co-sponsored by BookCourt. Noted, “Sunny’s is a legendary old bar on the Brooklyn waterfront in Red Hook at 253 Conover Street (between Beard & Reed Streets). You can buy books and get them signed by the authors. Suggested donation: $3. The bar (cash) will be open. Free coffee and Italian pastries and cookies will be provided.” Also noted, the pastries are soooo good. 3PM. And, “Lannan Foundation and the Nation Institute present An Evening with Robert Fisk, Recipient of the 2006 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Prize for Cultural Freedom. In a rare New York City appearance, award-winning journalist Robert Fisk will discuss the politics, wars and civil upheavals of the Middle East. Fisk is the Middle East correspondent for The Independent (London) and the author of Pity the Nation (Nation Books) and The Great War for Civilisation (Knopf).” At Town Hall. Highly recommended. 7PM, $8-10.

This week’s soundtrack: Santogold, “You’ll Find a Way”.

Who we are at the office

The Office has the realities of cubicle life covered, right? And after so many disappointing fictional treatments of the subject, the last thing we need is a debut novelist throwing his 375-page effort into the ring?

I get where you’re coming from, but hold on a minute: Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End is a stunning first novel. It’s as funny in its way as Ricky Gervais on office life, but considerably more empathetic than the hit BBC show. (Someone else made essentially these same observations, in fewer words, on Friday, when this post was sitting around in draft form, so you know I’m not blowing hot air.)

I reviewed Then We Came to the End in the weekend’s Newsday. Here’s an excerpt:

“Work,” said Oscar Wilde, “is the refuge of those who have nothing better to do.” Many of us who spend weekdays looking busy in cubicles agree with this sentiment, but only as it relates to our co-workers — not our friends, but those other, pathetic characters leading such empty lives.

After all, we are nothing like the guy who wears the same company polo shirt for weeks on end. We bear no resemblance to the woman who passes her lunch break sitting in a pool of plastic balls at McDonald’s. If we were a middle manager, we certainly would not roll our bicycle into our office each morning and lock the front tire to the frame as though “beset on all sides by thieves and barbarians.” And yet, in the world of the office, we too are defined by some eccentricity. We are every bit as cartoonish to our co-workers as they are to us.

Joshua Ferris’ brilliant and incredibly funny debut novel, “Then We Came to the End,” lays bare the strange interconnectedness of human cogs in the corporate machine. The dot-com boom has already turned to bust when the story opens, and the ad agency where our heroes work is laying them off one by one. Milling around in cubicles, taking advantage of increasingly infrequent free morning bagels, they have almost no work to do but plenty of time to talk about each other — and about Lynn, their boss, who may or may not have cancer.

The Elegant Variation ran the book’s opening late last year.

Winners and sociopaths: the mind of Stephen Cloud

The best of Steven Cloud’s Boy on a Stick & Slither (BOASAS) comics recall Calvin & Hobbes, and Linus’ existential philosophizing in the glory days of Peanuts.

The strip has reached new heights lately — “Champions of Winning” is a recent favorite — but it’s always been good.

Conformity” has hung on the Maud Household’s pantry since 2002. “Don’t forget! Be severely competitive within the narrow range of acceptable behavior.”

Here’s an August 2006 interview with Cloud, a Brooklynite raised in Bonifay, Florida.