[Editor's note: This week we've invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors' first-job follies.]Max writes:When I finished college, I followed my then-girlfriend (now wife) to Los Angeles, where she was to attend grad school. Fortuitously, some buddies of mine from high school were headed to L.A. as well. I found an apartment with them and we set out looking for jobs. At the time, I felt singularly unqualified to do anything in particular despite just a couple of months before having been handed a diploma that had cost into the six figures.In L.A., of course, when you look aimlessly for employment, you land in the entertainment industry, which is exactly what happened to my friends and me. As I began my job hunt, I was sufficiently dazzled by this prospect even though I had never up until that point considered acting, directing, or screenwriting. As I would soon find out, if you're not the "talent" in Hollywood, you're just another guy at a desk.I landed at a second-rate agency in Beverly Hills as an assistant for a newly hired literary agent. We'll call him Bert. I was so clueless that every mundane detail was a revelation: "We send out thirty copies of this script to production companies!?" "I'm supposed to call your client and tell him 'I have Bert on the line for you?'" As I soon realized that the job mostly entailed getting coffee and related menial tasks and looking busy when the head of the firm came through, I pushed for anything that would make the hours there bearable. I got along with my fellow assistants but the bosses tended to look beyond me into the distance when I talked to them. Attempting to play to my strengths, I asked Bert if I could read some scripts.I tore into them ruthlessly. Part of this was because these scripts were undoubtedly bad - heist and car chase rehashes - and part of it was because I had never read a script before and had no idea what they looked like. I produced pages of notes cataloging logical falacies, stilted dialog, and poor character development (this for a knock-off of Vin Diesel-vehicle The Fast and the Furious) and included lots of snarky asides. I handed the notes off to Bert and he never mentioned them again.From there my trajectory was decidedly downward. I was transferred to another agent, in a move that I now realize was intended to punish her poor performance - give her the worst assistant so she knows she's on thin ice - and then ultimately "laid off" to punish her further. From there, I headed down the path of temp work and retail before turning things around by going back to school. As it has been for many, my first brush with Hollywood was humbling.Megan Hustad responds:Ever heard of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency? Me, too! I was an assistant at Vintage Books, and my boss handed me the manuscript (for the fourth in the series, I think, but none had been published in the U.S. yet) and asked me to make six copies. I was to keep one, distribute the rest, and read overnight. That was big clue Nos. 1-6; seldom were so many souls asked to weigh in on a manuscript overnight. But no, I strolled in the following morning with this assessment: "I dunno, it seems 'small' to me. I just can't picture the audience at all." I may have added an aside about library ladies too, but I've suppressed the memory, so I couldn't tell you.Thing is, the impulse to cough up withering assessments of proposals, scripts, or what have you, is strong. Especially when you're employed in a creative industry but mainly engaged in menial tasks-- how else, you think, can I help people understand that I'm capable of so, so much more than I'm being asked to do? This is what I learned, however, after eventually quitting Vintage (because my, ahem, "career" there had stalled out) and reading a lot of success manuals from the 1910s and 1920s, when snark was first in vogue: It's actually very difficult to make positive and affirming statements, using American English, and still sound like you have a brain. Very demanding, intellectually. I mean, Lincoln had it down, but it didn't come easy. You basically have to practice. Uselessness rating: 4For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew
I've been a little out of loop lately, but today I picked up a copy the Chicago Reader, having noticed that it was their "Spring Books Special." Among the many reviews and briefs is an entertaining article called "So This is the Blog Revolution" by Laura Demanski AKA OGIC. It's a short history of the litblog phenomenon and an attempt to gauge its importance (unfortunately the article is not available online). As both a reviewer and blogger, Demanski understands that part of the draw of such blogs is to watch as non-professionals turn book criticism into a conversation and review the reviewers. The tendency of litblogs to critique mainstream book coverage directly (eg. the Brownie watch, The LATBR Thumbnail, etc.) has no doubt raised their visibility. What better way to get noticed by journalists and reviewers than to repeat their names incessantly? Everyone gets a thrill out of Googling themselves. In terms of elbowing its way into mainstream book coverage, it may be that the LBC will represent the pinnacle of the litblog movement.I love my fellow litblogs dearly, and I have enjoyed watching the community grow. But I also think that one can keep a blog about books that does not exist to be the David to the New York Times' Goliath, and, no, I'm not going to deliver The Believer's anti-snark manifesto here. There is a certain joy that is derived from reading a good book and discussing that book with a fellow reader. Having a blog has allowed me to direct this inward act outward. My blog is essentially a reading journal, and my reading journal exists to interact with other readers (and with their reading journals, if they have them). Although many of my fellow members in the LBC have garnered a certain amount of fame by holding mainstream book coverage to a high standard, I am relieved that the LBC seems to arise from a different sort of urge. I look at the LBC as twenty readers getting together to recommend to you a book that they hope you'll enjoy.(Mark your calendars, LBC selection #1 is just 6 days away).
Once you have seen the astonishingly evocative portraits of the neo-Modernist painter Carl Köhler (1919-2006), you will wonder how he died relatively unknown outside of his native Sweden. Such are the vagaries of the art world: Andy Warhol's rather uninteresting 200 One Dollar Bills sells for over 40 million dollars, while the remarkable author portraits of Carl Köhler go all but unnoticed. But this, perhaps, is changing. Thanks to the efforts of his son, Henry, Köhler's work has made its way outside of Sweden for the first time. If you live in New York, you might have seen "Beyond the Words: The Author Portraits of Carl Köhler" at the Brooklyn Central Library this past winter and spring, or the write-up in The New York Times' blog Paper Cuts. The show was also briefly at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, in Washington, D.C., in July and August. Now, this exhibit is on its way to Canada: Its next stop is the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto (January-March 2010). After that, the show's on to the University of British Columbia's Irving K. Barber Learning Centre in Vancouver (April-June/July 2010). With any luck, these shows will not be the last. While Köhler's figure drawings from his time in Paris in the 1950's are remarkable, as are his abstract figural paintings, it is what he called his "authorportraits," his paintings of European and American writers, intellectuals, and popular artists that I am most taken with—as much for their content as for their formal diversity. These portraits comprise an astonishing variety of media and styles, a variety that reflects the variety of Köhler's subjects, who included James Joyce, Günter Grass, Joyce Carol Oats, Michael Jackson, Simone de Beauvoir, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, among many others. With the exception of a few Swedish artists, Köhler did not actually meet any of his subjects. His inspiration for his portraits came through each artist's work. He was an avid reader of wide-ranging tastes and wrote himself, though he never published. Literature—and music and film—were his inspiration, but paint, ink, collage, and blockprint were his media. While artists like R.B Kitaj and Don Bachardy have also produced significant collections of artist/author portraits, their own artistic styles remained relatively unchanged regardless of their artist subjects. Köhler's experimentation with many startlingly different techniques and media in his portraiture, and his often exquisite pairings of style and subject, give his work an arresting and distinctive expressiveness. His portraits infuse the physiognomy of each artist's face with the immaterial, spiritual dimension of his or her work and life. The authorportraits distill the essence of each artist—the mood and aesthetics of each artist's work—with an uncanny, luminous intensity. Köhler's woodblock print of Franz Kafka, for instance, offers a disorienting, sinister labyrinth of lines whose sharp edges seem simultaneously to represent and dismantle the face of the artist. This vision of Kafka's face is tenuous (a few more lines carved in the woodblock and the face would be unrecognizable) and this sense of human fragility suggested by the print echoes Kafka's own. In works like The Metamorphosis or "Josephine the Singer (The Mouse Folk)", Kafka asks us to see how delicate and vulnerable our lives and loves and societies are. This print's black maze is also a vision of the byzantine, dehumanizing bureaucracy of a novel like The Trial, and a demonstration of metamorphosis: the longer you look at the portrait, the more it seems to represent the carapace of an insect, or a skull, or a snarled, unreadable web—all symbols of the Kafkaesque, with its the atmosphere of impending danger and death, its sense of menacing, disorienting complexity, of something becoming something else. Köhler painted the American poet and novelist Charles Bukowski— uninhibited, antisocial spokesman for drinking, fighting, and fucking; defender of the inescapable squalor, oppressiveness, and futility of life—in an earthy, visceral red. The paint looks, appropriately, like dried, clotted blood. Bukowski was a poet of bodies and bodily hungers. His writings depict the dirty, lusty, ignoble side of human life and human nature and don't apologize for their unsavory vision. Köhler's rough, mottled, blood-colored paint communicates this essence precisely. The wound-like eyes and mouth of Köhler's Bukowski—rough-gouged scars where the sensory organs ought to be—emphasize again the raw, brutal quality of Bukowski's poetic vision, while the whole composition's symmetry and balanced color palate suggest the lyricism of which Bukowski was also capable. Henry Miller, the controversial and much demonized author of Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and Black Spring, Köhler depicts "as Demon." Using again the black and white block-print style of his Kafka, Köhler reassembles Miller's rather benign facial features into a snarled, sinewy, black fist. Miller's work is raw, uncomfortable stuff. I struggled with the apathy, squalor, and obscenity of Tropic of Cancer, and even the admiring can be a little circumspect about his work: George Orwell, ultimately Miller's champion, described him as, "a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses." Köhler's distortion of Miller's face befits his work's darkness, its difficulty, its simultaneously arresting and repellent frankness. In contrast to Andy Warhol's iconic images of Monroe, whose garish colors and tiled formats offer the actress as a celebrity brand, as something both less and more than human, Köhler's portrait, with its delicate, wash-out palate and deconstructed, barely recognizable features, draws attention to the artifice and constructedness of Monroe's celebrity. Köhler's portrait is the inverse, the negative, of Warhol's: it captures the troubled, shy, stuttering Monroe—the fragile private self that her celebrity obscured. In this photo-collage, Michael Jackson's face looks as if it is made of porcelain, as if it is a doll's face—but a doll's face that has been vandalized or inexpertly drawn. The lips, eyebrows, and nostrils are, deliberately, not quite right. Köhler's altered photo and the collage technique emphasize Jackson's physical freakishness, which became the outward sign of his freakish personal life. The toy-like quality of the face also connotes Jackson's obsession with childhood, while the doll face's troublingly irregular features—somewhat suggestive of Heath Ledger's Joker make-up—recall his brutal childhood and his questionable interest in children. The portrait and it's title borrow something from surrealist painting (Think of Magritte's The Treachery of Images, sometimes known as Ceci n'est pas une pipe./This is not a pipe.) Köhler's technique here forces the viewer into a kind of blindness, an approximation of Joyce's failing sight. Köhler's portrait of Fyodor Doestoyevsky gives the author's profile an otherworldly incandescence and suggests itself as perhaps inflected by the redemption plot of Crime and Punishment. There are more images of Köhler's work at the official website. All images © Carl Köhler.
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Yesterday marked eight years since a devastating earthquake struck Haiti and a few days ago Trump put the country back in the news (but not in an reflective or uplifting way). Looking to learn more about Haiti sans racist rhetoric? The New York Times has "three books by Haitian writers that provide insight into the country’s history of struggle and resistance." Find the list here.