Archive for October, 2008

Kelly Link’s frightful recommendations

Terry Teachout has posted a list of Kelly Link‘s recommendations for Halloween-appropriate reading. Among the titles that Link suggests is Edith Wharton’s “Afterward,” which she describes as “one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read.” I think it’s a terrific story, too, and since it’s in the public domain, there are a number of places where you can read it online for free.

I’d also like to echo Link’s recommendation of the ghost stories of MR James, which are accessible online via Project Gutenberg.

Thoreau and climate change

Henry David Thoreau was way ahead of his time, but, as the The New York Times observes, he wasn’t quite so prescient as to have predicted global warming. All the same, his voluminous (and apparently nearly illegible) journals, chock full of detailed observations of the flora of Walden, are now helping present-day researchers track the effects of climate change in New England.

Here’s what they’ve found:

On average, common species are flowering seven days earlier than they did in Thoreau’s day, Richard B. Primack, a conservation biologist at Boston University, and Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, then his graduate student, reported this year in the journal Ecology. Working with Charles C. Davis, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard and two of his graduate students, they determined that 27 percent of the species documented by Thoreau have vanished from Concord and 36 percent are present in such small numbers that they probably will not survive for long.

The researchers involved in the project note that their work wouldn’t have been possible at all if the notebooks, publications, and research materials of Thoreau and other Walden watchers hadn’t been carefully preserved:

The scientists say their research demonstrates the importance of simply watching the landscape and recording what occurs in it. And it demonstrates the importance of old records and natural history collections, Dr. Davis said. But in general, he said, there is little interest in devoting money, time and space to their preservation.

“It’s hard to defend the space on major campuses,” Dr. Davis said. “Eaton could not have prepared his ‘Flora’ unless Harvard University had maintained herbarium specimens. Hosmer’s book was here in Concord for 100 years before anyone used it.”

And that’s as good of an argument as any in support of continued (and expanded) science funding.

A side note here on the politics of science: on Slate, Christopher Hitchens has written a column blasting Sarah Palin, John McCain, and the GOP in general for what he identifies as their ignorant contempt of science. He’s particularly harsh on Palin, who recently publicly attacked funding for research involving fruit flies—never mind that fruit flies have long been useful in studying disease, and are significant agricultural pests besides. Scathingly, Hitchens points to the fact that at the University of North Carolina, there’s even a “Drosophila–based center for research into autism,” which is hardly the kind of scientific work that someone who’s allegedly committed to helping people with “disabilities and special needs” ought to oppose.

Writing term papers for a living

Nick Mamatas has written a funny and fascinating post on The Smart Set about his lucrative former career as a writer for a term paper mill. In the piece, he describes his typical clients (generally clueless and/or lazy college students), as well as his methods for churning out two or three term papers per day:

You have to make your own fun. In business papers, I’d often cite Marxist sources. When given an open topic assignment on ethics, I’d write on the ethics of buying term papers, and even include the broker’s Web site as a source. My own novels and short stories were the topic of many papers — several DUMB CLIENTS rate me as their favorite author and they’ve never even read me, or anyone else. Whenever papers needed to refer to a client’s own life experiences, I’d give the student various sexual hang-ups.

Mamatas says that the gig has not only helped his other, more substantial writing pursuits, but has also given him insight into why so many students struggle with writing a term paper in the first place:

It’s because students have never read term papers. Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel. Instead, you meet once or twice a week with someone who is an expert in describing what novels are like. Novels are long stories, you see, that depict a “slice of life” featuring a middle-class protagonist. Psychological realism is prized in novels. Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as “I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else.” Further, many long fictions are called novels even though they are really adventures, and these ersatz novels may take place in a fantastical setting and often depict wild criminal behaviors and simplified versions of international intrigues instead of middle-class quandaries. Sometimes there are pirates, but only so that a female character may swoon at their well-developed abdominal muscles. That’s a novel. What are you waiting for? Start writing! Underline your epiphany.

There’s some solid advice there for all you first-year composition teachers out there: please, please be extremely clear in your expectations, and give your students some examples of successful papers to work from. As a librarian, I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve had a reference interaction with a student who simply didn’t understand what a research paper was. They’d come to me with a vague idea that they were supposed to copy some things from journals and then type them up in Microsoft Word, and would often show signs of bafflement and fright when I’d explain to them that they were actually expected to do things like construct their own original argument while marshaling support from the works of scholars and other experts. The whole concept was often foreign to them: most first-year college students have never seen an academic journal before, and many have barely read anything at all. And a good proportion of them have never been asked to build an argument or analyze a text: generally they’ve summarized things in book reports and answered “objective” multiple choice questions, but that’s about it. The task of writing a research paper, then, can seem truly daunting—but as Mamatas points out, it would no doubt go a long way if more instructors would simply give beginning students examples of successful papers, and talk about how and why they work.

Mamatas goes on to argue that he’s no more of a “cheat” than the colleges and universities that happily cash tuition checks from students who can’t really be gaining much of anything from their classes. This is an insightful observation. But all the same, I think Mamatas lets himself off a little too easily: certainly profiting off of students and educational institutions makes him complicit in their failures. It’s kind of like condemning an angry mob of looting rioters, but then reaching into a smashed store window to grab a TV set anyway.

Robinson Crusoe, action hero

The Millions has a post on what sounds like a laughable new TV adaptation of Robinson Crusoe:

Those whose appetites for desert island antics and pirate slapstick were not sated by the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, by all means, tune in; Also those who measure entertainment by the number and diversity of booby traps made out of bamboo and rope (a la Indiana Jones): This show’s for you. For those us of us, however, who found ourselves entranced by the novel’s much more modest “dramas,” the show is a buffoonish disappointment.

Crusoe’s island adventures in Defoe’s novel, for the most part, are domestic and agrarian. Rather than, “Will Crusoe and Friday free themselves from the curse of the water god’s tomb?” (as NBC’s version offered this week), the novel offers adventures such as “What will Crusoe salvage from the shipwreck before it breaks up?” “Will Crusoe manage to make bread?” “How will Crusoe catch and domesticate goats?” “Who made the single footprint in the sand?”

From this description, it sounds like this Crusoe TV show bears almost no relationship to the book, beyond the names of the characters and the fact that it involves someone stranded on a desert island. I suppose the producers decided to call it an adaptation in the hope of benefiting from the name recognition of Defoe’s novel, because otherwise all they would have had was an obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity of shows like Lost and Survivor.

Age, genius, and great art

Since the days of the Romantics, youthful inspiration has long been associated with artistic genius and the production of great work. Talented young artists are seen as iconoclasts rebelling against the idols of generations past, and are expected to produce their greatest and most significant work early in their careers. Older artists seen as wedded to the ideas and aesthetics of generations past, and it is often assumed that their best work is behind them.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell draws on the work of the University of Chicago economist David Galenson on the question of the relationship between age and the production of great artistic work. In his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Galenson offers a comparative discussion of Picasso (an early bloomer) and Cezanne (whose artistic success only came much later in life), and concludes that Picasso’s path to greatness is by no means the only way for an artist to get there.

Cezanne, Self-Portrait with Rose Background c. 1875

Cezanne, "Self-Portrait with Rose Background" c. 1875

With Gladwell’s article in mind, I was also struck by a recent Pitchfork interviewwith the guitarist and songwriter Marnie Stern, in which she discusses the significance of the fact that she didn’t put out a debut album until after the age of thirty. In the world of popular music, that’s nearly a decade behind schedule for a recording debut—most musicians and bands get their start by their early twenties at the latest. Even more than in most fields, there’s a very strong expectation in popular music that only the young will produce great work, and that aging only reduces the power and relevance of a musician’s output. Young bands have the greatest energy and freshest ideas, and tend to create their masterworks only three or four albums into their careers (if not sooner). After that, many musicians settle in for years or even decades of comfortably retreading the same ground, never again recapturing the fire of their earlier innovations and accomplishments.

The case of Marnie Stern, then, is certainly unusual in popular music—especially given that her new sophomore release, the verbosely titled This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, only confirms her status as a unique and dazzling talent. Her first album, 2007’s In Advance of the Broken Arm, succeeds largely on the strength of Stern’s idiosyncratic and head-spinning fretwork: on song after song, she unleashes avalanches of notes, while all the same sounding very little like guitar gods past. On This Is It…., the adventurous guitar playing, harsh sonics, and rhythmic complexity of her previous album remain, but this time she adds a healthy dose of tunefulness to the mix. Stern has arrived on the indie rock scene as a fully-formed talent with a unique and compelling vision—an achievement that, by her own account, she simply could not have managed when she was younger.

When asked by the Pitchfork interviewer if she felt “there was an advantage to having your first record come that late,” Stern answered:

Of course. I don’t know about for other people, but I know for me, I mean, I had material for all those years and certainly wasn’t anywhere near up to par. I think it takes a long time to find your voice. A really long fucking time to figure it out. And plus, I don’t know, I guess it’s different for everyone, but it’d be hard to tap into a really honest place when you’re really young….And how brave you are. Because that’s the other thing. The only things I like to listen to are things where risks are being taken. I think that’s the only thing that pushes you to the next place, when you do things that are out of your comfort zone.

Stern didn’t emerge out of nowhere at the age of 30; instead, she devoted countless hours over a period of years to an intense and serious exploration of who she was as a guitarist, songwriter, and creative person. She was unsatisfied with the the work she was producing when she was younger, and also felt that she hadn’t yet “found her voice.” If she’d attempted to make a go at a music career in her early twenties, she would have lacked both the self-knowledge and the technical skill that play significant roles in making her music so successful now that she’s in her thirties.

Marnie Stern, This Is It....

Marnie Stern, "This Is It...."

In popular music, the norm is for an artist to follow a pattern of development that matches David Galenson’s description of a “Young Genius”—someone who, like Picasso, bursts onto the scene early in their 20s, and produces their greatest and most significant work in the years immediately following. Marnie Stern, on the other hand, would seem to be a closer match for Galenson’s “Old Master” category: artists who labor for years or decades to find their voices, and rarely enjoy their greatest accomplishments until much later in life.

For Galenson and Gladwell, it’s not just that “Old Masters” bloom later; rather, their entire approach to creativity is fundamentally different. In his New Yorker article, Gladwell establishes a contrast between the fiction writers Jonathan Safran Foer—who wrote his highly successful first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, at the age of 19—and Ben Fountain, whose debut story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, was published when he was 48. According to Gladwell, Foer writes quickly and passionately when inspiration takes him, and finds it difficult to comprehend how a writer could work doggedly at researching and re-working a piece of writing over a long period of time. Fountain, on the other hand, worked on his fiction for 18 years before he saw publication and success, and sees writing as a slow and laborious process of careful thought and self-discovery. Fountain, in fact, will sometimes write as much as 500 pages of drafts in order to produce a single short-story. Much like Stern, Fountain’s success did not depend on a burst of youthful energy, but instead on many years of devoted research, reading, exploration, and hard work.

Quoted in Gladwell, Galenson notes that, for artists like Cezanne (or Fountain, or Stern), creativity takes a very different form than it does for a Picasso:

They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings.

On a personal level, I find it much easier to identify with Fountain, Stern, and Cezanne than with Picasso or Safran Foer. When I read about Fountain’s 500 pages of work for a single short story, I sighed in recognition: I tend to write at least ten or fifteen thousand words for every thousand that actually make it into a completed draft of a short story. Also like Cezanne or Fountain (and perhaps like Stern), I don’t tend to view my creative work in conceptual terms—my creative energy instead comes from the process of exploring themes, language, and characters in the hope of coming to some kind of greater understanding of the world and of fiction itself.

That said, Galenson’s categories do seem like something of an oversimplification. No doubt there are many artists who fail to fit into either the “Young Genius” or “Old Master” mold. One example that comes immediately to mind is Philip Roth: his debut short story collection Goodbye, Columbus (1959) earned him widespread critical acclaim, and positioned him as a young rising literary star. But his next few novels were far less successful, and he seemed to struggle to find his voice until the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). And Roth wouldn’t write several of his best novels until the 1990s. The pattern of his career doesn’t match either of Galenson’s categories. (Though he is a good fit for one of the Galenson’s characteristics of an “Old Master”: Roth has consistently, even obsessively, revisited similar themes, ideas, settings, and characters throughout his career.)

Gladwell’s article also alludes to another factor in artistic development without fully engaging it: questions of class and financial support. While Ben Fountain struggled for the better part of two decades to produce his first good fiction, his wife, a successful lawyer, offered him both financial and moral support. And as Gladwell does point out, Cezanne had a string of famous patrons during his very long artistic apprenticeship. Not all artists are nearly so fortunate: in fact, it would seem likely that many people who might have one day created great works instead end up unable to practice their art in any kind of sustained manner because they simply don’t have the kind of support that would free them to devote the necessary time and energy. It’s hard to labor through years and years of disappointment when you have to pay the bills, take care of the kids, mow the lawn, and put dinner on the table every night. Very few artists will be so lucky as to find themselves a good patron.

Gladwell didn’t address the class and gender issues underlying the economic realities of artistic production. In music, for example, no doubt part of why the “Young Genius” model has taken such hold is because the demands of establishing a music career are easiest for young men of a middle-class (or better) background to manage. It’s hard to (for example) raise a family while you’re broke all the time and need to devote your time to the exhausting grind of touring, as well as to the late-night partying and socializing that’s necessary for networking your way into the music scene. Older musicians are bound to have a harder time living up to these kinds of expectations. And it’s far easier to choose to place yourself into poverty for a few years if you know that you can always get a “real” job someday (thanks to your college degree), and that if you really get in trouble, your middle-class (or richer) parents will always be there to bale you out.

John Williams, a great and forgotten American novelist

I’d never heard of the American writer John Williams until I stumbled across copies of the recent NYRB Classics reissues of his novels Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner on a display table in a Minneapolis bookstore. Although Williams won the National Book Award for Augustus, a novel of ancient Rome, in 1973, he has since faded into obscurity, and his other books have long been out of print. This is a real shame; Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner are both tremendous novels, and on their strength alone I’d confidently place Williams in the company of America’s best novelists.

Butchers Crossing by John Williams

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

Butcher’s Crossing (1960) is an engrossing and breathtakingly beautiful western about buffalo skinners in the dying days of the old American West. Sentence to sentence, the book’s primary concern is detailing the day-to-day activities of the buffalo hunting expedition, and then later, the efforts of the expedition’s members to survive a winter while trapped in an isolated valley in the Rockies. But Butcher’s Crossing also contains a compelling coming-of-age narrative, tracing young Will Andrews’ transformation from a naive Easterner with romantic ideas about the Wild West into a man with a much deeper understanding of the world and his place in it.

As Butcher’s Crossing opens, Will considers himself an Emersonian transcendentalist, and expects that the vast wildness of the West will possess the power to move him to some kind of altered and higher state of consciousness. But after experiencing the harsh, dangerous, violent, and utterly indifferent beauty of nature in the unsettled reaches of Colorado, Andrews comes to understand that nature is in not something to be transcended, and that humans have only a very small place in it. The natural world is in fact indifferent to humans—far less malice can be found in its various life-threatening assaults on the members of Andrews’ expedition than in the indiscriminate and excessive slaughter that Andrews and his companions bring down upon the defenseless buffalo of the valley. The natural world resists all personification, philosophizing, and understanding: it is irreducibly itself, entirely apart from whatever sense humans might attempt to make of it.

Butcher’s Crossing also contains a critique of the myths of the American West. In the novel, the idea that even the roughest and hardiest of American adventurers might be capable of in any way taming or conquering the wildness of the West is treated as a vain fiction. Williams holds up the whole of human ambition against the vastness of the natural world, and finds it insignificant in scale by comparison. When the expedition returns from the mountains, they find Butcher’s Crossing well on its way to becoming a ghost town: the bottom has fallen out of the market for buffalo skins, and so the place has lost both its purpose and its primary source of prosperity. Meanwhile, the natural world waits with complete indifference to wipe the remnants of Butcher’s Crossing from the surface of the earth.

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

On its surface, Stoner (1965), the second John Williams book reissued by NYRB Classics, could hardly be more different from Butcher’s Crossing: it’s an academic novel about a Midwestern English professor of no particular distinction. After growing up poor and ignorant on a Missouri dirt farm, William Stoner begins a course of study in agriculture at the University of Missouri. His parents expect him to return to the farm upon graduation, in the hope that the new and unfamiliar science that he will learn there might help the family claw its way above the barest subsistence living. But then Stoner falls in love with literature and the life of the mind, and decides to stay in Missouri to pursue a graduate degree, and then later to make a career as an English professor. For several decades, Stoner endures a disastrous, loveless marriage and the slings and arrows of petty departmental politics, all the while finding some solace in his teaching and (most of all) in his private reading. He has one brief and passionate affair, and also makes a an emotional connection with his loving but distant daughter, but he primarily lives within his own mind. Eventually he succumbs to cancer, having never left Missouri or risen above the rank of assistant professor.

Upon his deathbead, Stoner reflects:

He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else?

What did you expect? he asked himself.

For Williams, Stoner may be a mediocrity, but he is no failure: he has been a learner, a teacher, and (at least briefly) a lover, and no human can truly expect much more out of life. The book’s tragic weight comes from a sense that the heart longs for more than it can ever truly have, while meanwhile the “assaulting” trivialities of day-to-day existence diminish even what what little love and satisfaction people do manage to find in their lives. The life of the mind can bring great pleasure, but never the transcendent wisdom to which every reader and learner aspires; and love brings joy and meaning above all else, but it is also fragile and vulnerable.

Stoner shows its age a bit more than Butcher’s Crossing; its female characters, in particular, are thinly drawn and unconvincing, and also reflect the dominant ideas about gender roles of its time. Stoner’s wife, Edith, is a one-dimensional hysteric, and though Williams seems to recognize that her condition is rooted in her housebound and circumscribed life, he does little to acknowledge Stoner’s role in keeping her confined and unhappy. He does, however, regard Edith’s fate as having its own tragic dimension, and laments the social and cultural “trivialities” that prevented the two of them from finding a way to connect with one another. But this insight remains a long way from a feminist understanding of all that Edith has suffered on Stoner’s account.

This criticism aside, Stoner remains an uncommonly moving, thoughtful, and memorable book—one that deserves a much broader audience. But, given the themes of Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing, I doubt that Williams would himself lament his own obscurity. Though Stoner dies while clutching a copy of his only published book, it isn’t a gesture of ego or vanity, but instead of wonder and awe:

It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there.

Jeff Mangum emerges at E6 show in New York

Pitchfork has video of Neutral Milk Hotel’s reclusive Jeff Mangum joining numerous other Elephant 6 collective members onstage for a ragged and endearing rendition of Olivia Tremor Control’s “The Opera House.” The video is decidedly lo-fi, and Mangum mostly just shouts along, but all the same it’s exciting to see him performing in public again.

In a related news story, Pitchfork is also reporting that Mangum is planning to join the Elephant 6 crew when they stop in Chicago later this month. Yet another reason for me to miss Chicago….


Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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