I can’t believe it… Just caught the headline. George Plimpton died today. He was one of my favorite writers. I met him twice: once in college when he signed a copy of his The Best of Plimpton collection and again a few months ago when he came by the book store to promote the new Paris Review collection. Both times he regailed everyone present with a vast array of stories that placed him as an observer or a bystander to some remarkable moments (for example he was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was killed.) But he didn’t mind being the center of attention either, like when he stepped in the ring with Archie Moore or ran out on the field as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He put himself in many situations like this because he knew that most folks had, at one time or another, wondered what it might be like to be a modern day gladiator. It wasn’t a stunt really; it felt more like a favor to his friends. And though he wrote a lot about sports, that was only one dimension of his life. He also founded the The Paris Review, perhaps the most significant literary magazine of the last fifty years. It is notable for having published early works by many great writers, and it is also well-known for the “Art of Fiction” (or Poetry, or Drama) interviews included in each issue. There is a wealth of knowledge in each interview; the worlds greatest writers talking about how they write. Most of all he simply seemed like someone who truly loved life. You could see it in his face when he spoke and you could see it in his writing. Whether he was ringside for the Thrilla in Manilla or running with bulls in Pamplona it was really about the joy of it all. Here’s the obit.
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Yesterday, I was watching the headlines as I often do, and I was shocked to see the obituary for Bebe Moore Campbell, author of Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, 72 Hour Hold, and many other books, come across the wires. She died, at 56, from complications of brain cancer. Campbell was a well-known writer, but that is not how I came to know her. For a year, when I lived in Los Angeles, she was my landlord.I first met her as the stern Mrs. Gordon - her full name was Elizabeth Bebe Moore Campbell Gordon - when she showed my friend Derek and I a hillside apartment in Silverlake. This upscale nook of the neighborhood was beyond our means - I was working at a bookstore and Derek was helping out on indie film sets - but her price turned out to be just barely in our budget. In the end, it was worth it for the fantastic westward facing view that on the rare smog-free day provided a glimpse of the ocean and for the walk down the hill to Spaceland, a venue where we saw many of our favorite bands.Campbell's daughter lived upstairs - it was a bilevel duplex - and this arrangement gave us a glimpse into Campbell's life. It is odd, in these situations, how well you can come to know people without knowing them as friends, or even acquaintances. It wouldn't be fair to get into all the details here, but we came to learn, in the odd communication beyond mailing in our monthly rent and in the overheard voices that cannot be avoided when one shares a building with someone else, of the challenges in Campbell's life.After a year, I got engaged to Mrs. Millions and moved out. Derek stayed on through two more roommates before leaving Los Angeles. I've never read Campbell's books, but the obits in the New York Times, Washington Post, and from the AP describe their importance and her place as "a best-selling novelist known for her empathetic treatment of the difficult, intertwined and occasionally surprising relationship between the races." I'll remember her as my landlord Mrs. Gordon, but for more, Tayari Jones remembers her as Bebe Moore Campbell, the writer.Update: Richard Prince pens a more substantial obituary of Campbell.Related: Campbell wasn't my only literary landlord.
One of the world's great photographers and perhaps the greatest portrait photographer ever, Richard Avedon died today. Avedon started out in the fashion world, and then he became equally well known as a portraitist in the documentary style. He was known for placing his subjects in front of an all white background, for eliciting hidden emotions from his subjects, and for his meticulous darkroom work. Photos, a timeline, and various other goodies can be found here. Here are his most comprehensive collections: Evidence: 1944-1994 and An Autobiography
I met Iris Chang about a year and a half ago. She was passing through Los Angeles, and she stopped at the bookstore where I used to work to sign some copies of her book, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. The book hadn't rewritten history and showered her with critical acclaim like The Rape of Nanking. But this time her book tour had taken her to Chinese-American cultural centers, which she seemed to appreciate. She was talkative in a quiet sort of way and lingered for a long time talking to the staff and browsing the shelves.The news that she committed suicide is a shock. As are the suggestions that she was driven to this by looking too long and too hard into the parts of human history that rest of the world works so hard to forget. We need historians and authors like Chang to remind us of what we are capable of. (More on Chang from the SF Chronicle.)
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The first words of Harry Crews’ first book, The Gospel Singer, are: Enigma, Georgia was a dead end. The courthouse had been built square in the middle of highway 229 where it stopped abruptly on the edge of Big Harrikan Swamp like a cut ribbon. This is geography as metaphysics, and I can never read about the Big Harrikan Swamp without thinking of it. William Gay’s horrifying Twilight followed Crews into the literary Harrikan. Now Crews, who died on March 28 at age 76, has followed Gay all too closely into that bigger, scarier Harrikan that eats us all. Before that was Barry Hannah, and before that Larry Brown. It’s hard not to notice the way the obituaries make all of these writers sound the same, when they don’t in their own prose. An excessive journalistic focus on their hard-scrabble lives creates the illusion of a school: the rough-and-tumble "Southern Writers." It’s true enough that the manners described by Hannah, Brown, Gay, and Crews were those of the mid-to-late twentieth century South. However, the mystery each grasps at in his own way extends beyond any real-life coordinates. In Crews’ case, when we look past the haggard face and the thrilling biography full of fights and fornication, we find a fictional world closer to the Eastern Europe of Kafka and Hrabal than to today’s good ole boy. I first heard about Crews when I was trying to write a novel about people I’d known when I was living in South Carolina with a stripper several years my senior. I was embarrassed of my novel and of South Carolina. I'd tried my hardest to get the hell out of there — to become unSouthern. But as any Southerner who is a writer and an exile knows, it only really gets in your blood once you’re gone. I wasn't trying to convince myself I didn’t hate it, like Quentin Compson; I was trying to convince myself I did. A friend, seeing my struggle, suggested I try Harry Crews. I picked up A Feast of Snakes and was astounded by how radically unSouthern its South was. The book had all the tropes of a “Southern Novel,” sure — alliterative names, bootleg whiskey, dog-fights — but it pushed them so far as to blow them to kingdom come. Which was what I’d been waiting for. I’d read a ton of Faulkner and all of Flannery O’Connor, but, with apologies to Faulkner, the past is, after a certain point, past. (Today, it’s hard to believe that when O’Connor went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, nobody could understand what she was saying. Southern kids text “OMG” like everyone else.) Crews’ book had come out the year I was born, and yet, as I read it at the turn of the millennium, I saw an old coot way out-doing what I thought was new; this wasn’t past at all. Joe Lon, Berenice, and all the snake freaks, dog-fighters, and castrated cops pushed the real South I knew into an ecstatic, rhapsodic space. It was right next door and out of this world. In a lot of ways, Crews’ irreverence toward regional tradition is to be expected. With World War I, generation displaced region as the primary literary category, Malcolm Cowley once argued. This seems pretty sound today. We don’t really talk about “Midwestern literature” post-Sherwood Anderson (or maybe Saul Bellow). “New England literature” sends us all the way back to Emerson and Thoreau. Yet you still hear “Southern Literature” all the time. It resounds like the drone-string of a banjo every time one of these old white rebel novelists dies. There is still plenty of debate about the implications of the term. Marc Smirnoff, editor of the Oxford American, recently wrote a controversial essay attacking an upstart, upscale rival, Garden and Gun, for “white washing” the South. I like Garden and Gun, but I loved Smirnoff’s attack — except that much of his criticism applies equally well to his own pages. Why does the Oxford American have to be a magazine of “good Southern Writing?” It might not fetishize the South in precisely the same way as Garden and Gun (or Southern Living, to which Smirnoff compares G&G), but it still fetishizes it. There are amazing writers in the South — Suzanne Hudson is the best, in my opinion; seriously check out In A Temple of Trees — but they aren't good because they’re Southern. So maybe the most fitting tribute we could pay to Harry Crews’ achievement is to bury the term “Southern Literature” alongside him. But we need Southern Lit, you might say. The South is different — they’re crazy down there — and we require a certain quota of drunk, hard-living scribblers in order to understand them. I’d reply that that’s precisely the reason Southern Literature should be kicked to death like the dog, Tuffy, in Feast of Snakes — with a vicious brutal love. Because it is not the job of Harry Crews to school you on the quaint anthropology of a foreign region or to make you feel better about living there. It is his job to take you to a different Georgia, Enigma and Mystic, a Georgia of the mind. Crews is not a romantic writer, but his works are now being romanticized — and civilized. The Southern Lit industry tells us what to expect when we read these dead gritty Southern white dudes. But the only way to do justice to the sledgehammer prose of Crews — to allow it to do its work — is to kill off the genre, sacrificing the adjective “Southern” for the sake of what really matters here, which is Literature.
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