Some of the best novels out there — Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men — deal largely with fictional friendships. Yet depictions of close friends that are central to the plot are considerably rare in modern novels. At The Guardian, AD Miller notes this isn’t the case for movies and TV shows, and suggests a number of reasons why. You could also read our own Kevin Hartnett on friendship in the age of Facebook.
Although Of Mice and Men is an iconic novella about the Great Depression, could it be set in another era? At McSweeney’s, Thomas Scott imagines Lennie and George in Silicon Valley. “Well, we’ll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens and a 7,000 square-foot Hacienda with a little landing pad on the top deck for a helicopter.”
Perhaps thanks to my day job, which puts me in close proximity to each day’s market carnage and keeps my nose in the business section, I’ve been thinking a lot about troubled economy and what it might mean for the arts.There is an accepted notion that poverty inspires art, and Wikipedia even has an entry for “starving artist,” so central is that idea to our perception of the artist (or writer or musician).But there’s little use in speculating whether the coming years will inspire more or better fiction; these things are too subjective. Nonetheless, it seems to me that we are at a particularly fruitful moment for the fiction writer, on the cusp of big changes economically and politically and in the country’s prevailing mood. Yet we should not look for novels explicitly about what we are experiencing. I argued a while back that the expectation that fiction ought to explicate another great cataclysm in recent history, 9/11, was misguided in that fiction doesn’t typically “react” in such an obvious way.I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel.” Writers, artists, and filmmakers, consciously or subconsciously, react to the world around them some way, and 9/11, from many angles, is incontrovertibly a part of our world.When writers succeed at this they come to epitomize an era because their fiction embodies the prevailing mood seamlessly. Too reach for an obvious example, F. Scott Fitzgerald did this with the 1920s. A more timely example: with Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Steinbeck embodied the Great Depression in fiction. It would be a small silver lining if this moment produced an epic on the order of Steinbeck. On the non-fiction side, we would hope that among the flood of books arriving to dissect 2008’s historic economic gyrations, there will be another Barbarians at the Gate, perhaps the best business book ever written. The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.In the world of film, meanwhile, the calculation is different. Hollywood’s approach is to divert rather than to emphasize or illuminate. A recent Financial Times squib suggests we should “expect a new era of movie escapism,” but points out that after several years of fare like 42nd Street and King Kong in the 1930s, the movie studios eventually dealt with the Great Depression with more realism. But this doesn’t mean that Hollywood will ignore the current crisis altogether. You’ve probably already heard the news that 20th Century Fox is making a sequel to Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s 1987 film whose villain, the rapacious Gordon Gekko, became something of a hero. The working title is Money Never Sleeps, and The Economist engages in some speculation: “If [Gekko] is to be cast once again as a villain, the mind boggles at the possibilities. A mortgage broker? The genius behind collateralised-debt obligations? Dick Fuld? A naked short-seller? (Steady, ladies.)”In the high-stakes art world, bankrolled by billionaire hedge fund managers, the 2008 collapse may prove to be just as severe as the one facing Wall Street. According to Reuters, the art market had stayed frisky despite the foreboding but now it appears that the drying up of millions once earmarked for conspicuous consumption is finally hitting the auction houses. The first stumble in what may turn out to be a free fall happened this month in London, at the annual Frieze Art Fair with “weekend sales that fell well short of the low estimates.” Bigger art auctions in the coming weeks are expected to confirm the trend. The extremely cyclical art market has had severe downturns before, most notably in 1990. Art fans will be wondering what rises from the ashes this time around and prospective collectors – those few who have money to spend – may begin seeing bargains previously unheard of.What about music? I don’t know – and music is already so fragmented as it is – but one might reductively say that grunge was born out of early-90s malaise and punk out of late-70s disgust.Speculation aside, the arts are both a mirror and a filter. The last few months have felt momentous, and next month will likely be even more so. There’s much to be inspired by.
I’d have thought that the whole concept of summer reading lists for high schoolers would have fallen by the wayside, as it would seem to lack usefulness in our testing- and extracurriculars-obsessed education system, but a CS Monitor article shows that it’s alive and well (and just in time for that last-two-weeks-of-summer cram).The article includes some interesting insights on the makeup of such lists and how they’ve changed over the years.For the most part, reading lists are still heavy on classics. But consider the differences between reading lists from the 1960s and those in the 1980s. Of the nine most commonly taught books in public high schools in 1963, only one (the 1938 play Our Town) was written in the 20th century. By 1988, the 10 most commonly taught novels in public schools included four books from the 20th century: The Great Gatsby (1925), Of Mice and Men (1937), Lord of the Flies (1954), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).But not all novels take a generation to catapult to required summer reading lists. Some new staples in summer reading lists: Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.Ten years ago, these reading lists didn’t have new books like that,” says Alleen Nilsen, Arizona State University English professor and co-author of the textbook Literature for Today’s Young Adult. “These are really popular new books.”So what catapults Life of Pi and The Lovely Bones to the elusive reading list club? Both are bildungsromans, or stories of young people coming of age. Ms. Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature.
Sometimes I find that I need to slow things down. After reading four or five books a month, it becomes necessary to pick one book and settle down – to nestle in and enjoy every painstakingly created word. This month, I finally did it.I found great pleasure in discovering John Steinbeck five years after going to college. I read Of Mice and Men while in high school, and breezed through The Pearl in college, but never gave him a second thought until reading East of Eden last year.I was hooked.Instead of doing the compulsive book-reader thing and devouring every Steinbeck book at once, I’ve decided to stretch them out. Steinbeck’s not writing any more books, and I’d hate to not have one to look forward to, even if it’s a shorter novella or play.With that in mind, I felt it was time to dive into his Pulitzer Prize winning novel – The Grapes of Wrath – and experience the horrible, yet satisfyingly moralistic life of the Joad family.Think about it: what happens when you lose everything? When your livelihood dries up and your home is taken away. When you’re forced onto the road after selling nearly everything. What happens when you drive off in search of a better place and it proves not to be the Babylon you’d dreamed of but a living hell?To most of us, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl eras are historic concepts, no longer conceivable in today’s world, destined to live in the past and remembered only by those who lived through it. However, nearly 70 years after it was published, The Grapes of Wrath continues to outline the life and death struggle to survive without food, money, or prospect.The Joads are a typical Dust Bowl group: a farm family whose land dried up, cashed out, and was taken away. They’re forced to begin a journey to California, admittedly with the greatest of intents. Jobs are rumored to be plentiful, and even the eldest members are excited to bask in endless fields of grapes and peaches. With very little money and an unreliable truck, the family heads west on Route 66 in search of their new life.What they find is anything but plentiful. An entire population of displaced farm families – “Okies,” as they were slanderously called – had arrived in California to find very few jobs. Because of this, wages were lowered; child labor encouraged, and even those who had constant work were hard pressed to keep their families fed. Children starved, men and women collapsed, exhausted, and what little belongings that still existed were moved weekly, sometimes daily.Steinbeck constructs an unassuming, yet vicious landscape throughout the book. The imagery is stark. Hope is fleeting as the Joad family slowly makes its way down Route 66. They felt the cold calculation of the banks that took away their home. Then they experienced the restless journey towards something they couldn’t quite grasp. Eventually, they discovered that they could be powerful – if they organized, they could beat this rap. If a man’s children are crying for food, starving and dying, you’d be surprised the amount of fight it can bring up.The Grapes of Wrath isn’t a dusty, boring tome. It’s not a chore. It’s amazingly gripping and startlingly vivid. At times it’s hopeful. Other times, terrifyingly melancholy. If you see a little of yourself in the Joad family, you’re liable to understand their plight, to feel their pain – to quietly champion their cause until, by the end, you’re fighting for a rally and hoping things turn out.Steinbeck champions the “down on his luck” traveler better than anyone. He brings the fight not just to the family, but to everyone around them. Brief chapter-long interludes paint a frame around the Joad family’s odyssey, bringing perspective to their suffering. Steinbeck argues that bad luck shouldn’t cause an entire region to end up poor, homeless, and without prospect. And it shouldn’t cause hardship for the small farmers that have to try to survive in a world of declining costs and dwindling returns.There are stark parallels between the westward migration of Midwesterners during the Depression and a more recent disaster – Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Look at what happened last summer – at the destruction that Mother Nature brought down upon the people of New Orleans – and consider what happened to residents who were too poor to pick themselves back up. Think about the people who were forced to move on from their homes in order to fight for the same job as their displaced neighbors.Ultimately, we can all learn a lot from Steinbeck’s prose. In The Grapes of Wrath, we learn not to take anything for granted. We learn that beauty can be found in the simple – in a loaf of bread, or in a porcelain bathtub.Most of all, we learn that many times it’s the people with nothing that are willing to give the most. We learn that everyone is a member of the same human race – that everyone has a hand in everyone else’s life – and that if you can’t help a fellow destitute, then what good are you to yourself?Frankly, that’s a lesson we all could learn a thing or two about.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, August