I got the most recent National Geographic in the mail yesterday. The issue is devoted entirely to one subject, Africa, and, according to the AP, is notable for being the first one-topic issue in the magazine’s history and only the second (since they started using cover photographs) to not have a photo on the cover. National Geographic always provides broad, colorful stories, but never before have they delved so deeply on a single subject, and having read through this issue, I think they ought to do it more often. Some notable names make appearances in the Africa issue. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse) pens the issue’s introduction with a discussion of why Africa has fallen behind the rest of the world but is not doomed to this fate in the future. Joel Achenbach, Washington Post reporter – and blogger – looks at some of the current shortcomings of paleoanthropology. And Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight) returns to Zambia, the country of her youth, in a piece that is more personal and less straightforward than a typical National Geographic article.
Its laudatory impulses notwithstanding, Louis Menand's worthwhile essay in the current New Yorker on Mark McGurl's The Program Era - an account of the rise of the creative writing program - doesn't quite save the book from sounding depressing. For those with ambitions to write fiction, Menand offers a whirlwind tour of a sausage factory. Except that in this case you're not the guy who likes to eat sausage, but the guy (or gal) who raises the hogs. Or maybe you are the hog itself. Reading Menand reading McGurl, you get the very same sense of a vast, tentacular, and mildly deterministic academic-industrial complex you might get in... well, a creative writing program. Which speaks to the characteristic thoroughness of Menand's writing. And, presumably, of McGurl's book.Largely absent from Menand's account (and Mark Grief's review in Bookforum), however, is the question of money. Even for those who agree emphatically with Menand that "there is no 'craft of fiction' as such," the value of two or three years of subsidized writing time is hard to understate. Rilke had the Princess of Thurn and Taxis; we have AWP. And though the rise of the M.F.A. program may well exert a systemic pressure on the writer, it need not, as Menand is at pains to point out, vitiate the visionary. By far my favorite nugget in the Menand piece is his mention of two workshops filled with idiosyncratic talent:Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Wendell Berry taught by Wallace Stegner at StanfordJohn Irving, Andre Dubus, Gail Godwin, and John Casey taught by Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa.I've also heard tell of a workshop that includedJhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Peter Ho Davies, and Marshall Klimasewiski taught by our guest contributor (and National Book Award finalist) Joan Silber at Boston University.If any of you out there have taken, or know of, similarly stacked workshops, we'd be curious to hear about them, if only as a way of letting M.F.A. applicants cling to a little of the glamor McGurl and Menand have done the rest of us the great favor of dispelling. Somehow the prospect of participating in an aesthetic of "class-based self-consciousness" pales next to the thought of getting drunk with Richard Ford and ripping on Jay McInerney... and hasn't that always been (along with the financial assistance, of course) the most compelling reason to apply to a writing program?
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Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass has revealed in an interview with a German newspaper that he was in the Waffen-SS in the twilight of World War II. The SS was the Nazi secret service and played a major role in the Holocaust. He has a new book coming out in Germany in September that is a memoir of his wartime years. From the Reuters story:The author, best known for his first novel The Tin Drum and an active supporter of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), said his wartime secret had been weighing on his mind and was one of the reasons he wrote a book of recollections which details his war service. The book is out in September."My silence through all these years is one of the reasons why I wrote this book," the paper quoted Grass as saying in a preview of its Saturday edition. "It had to come out finally."From later in the article: "'It was like that for many of my generation,' he added. 'We were doing army service and then suddenly, one year later, the draft order was on the table. And then I realized, probably not until I was in Dresden, that it was the Waffen-SS.'"
A new issue of the excellent online literary review, The Quarterly Conversation has been posted. There are plenty of goodies on offer, but perhaps the most intriguing is a piece by François Monti about Zone, a French novel by Mathias Énard that has certain literary corners of Europe buzzing. It's got quite a hook:Zone, as has been much noted, is a 517-page sentence, and its rhythm is one that draws readers inevitably toward the end, much faster than you would have thought. It's difficult to stop for a breather, to try and reflect on what's being read. Somehow, form and content stymie a consideration of the meaning of the narration and the way it works. I thought I liked it perhaps more than I really did.The book will be published in English by Open Letter in summer 2010.