Inter Alia #18: Julia Child and the Ethical Appeal

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Prominent among my childhood memories is the voice of Julia Child. Or rather, the voice of my father imitating Julia Child. Ours was (you’ll be shocked to learn) a PBS household, and the pseudo-Julia arias he would deliver while making Chicken Dish – in that swooping, fluty, Childian soprano – were guaranteed to crack me up, as was his Maggie Thatcher. (Come to think of it, they were pretty much the same impression). And so this year, when the first posters for Julie & Julia began to appear, I thought I knew what I was in for: some laughs, some game-fowl, and Meryl Streep trilling, “Save the liver!”

What the movie and the attendant retrospectives of the real-life Julia Child suggest, however, is less a figure of fun than a figure of liberation. In a country that has never quite outgrown its Puritan pedigree, here was a woman fearless about all things sensual: food, sex, and her own big, lovely body. Seen in this light, Mastering the Art of French Cooking amounts to a kind of manifesto in defense of pleasure. I don’t own that particular book, but Julie & Julia sent me back to Child’s slightly less-famous opus, The Way to Cook, which had been sitting neglected on a shelf in my kitchen. And Julia Child turns out not only to have been a kind of unfussy feminist; she was also a terrific writer.

It’s not often we think of recipes as a form of literature, but they are as formally exacting as the Spenserian stanza (and, as anyone who’s ever ruined $40 worth of lamb knows, the stakes are higher). The Way to Cook is a model of clarity and pragmatism. Moreover, it offers a master class in rhetoric.

In my freshman comp classes, we talk about the three classic rhetorical appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos. Most any piece of rhetoric makes all three appeals simultaneously, but a good rhetor will emphasize one or the other. The first two are fairly easy to grasp; the pathetic appeal (a.k.a. the appeal to emotions) is the mode of contemporary advertising, and is thus ascendant in American discourse. (Death panels, anyone?) Other voices will attempt to correct for widespread abuse of pathos by focusing on the logical appeal (a.k.a. the appeal to reason). Thus, we get liberal pundits reasoning themselves blue in the face: But there are no death panels in these bills! Alas, in cooking, politics, and other inexact sciences, head does not always trump heart. To mediate between the claims of each, we must look to that mysterious creature: ethos.

As I understand it, the ethical appeal has to do with establishing the speaker’s credibility, or the attractiveness of her persona. One approach might be simply to flourish one’s expertise. But, in our postmodern age, the conspicuous display of expertise too easily gives rise to charges of elitism. (Charges which, because they are essentially pathetic, are impossible to rebut.) Contemporary masters of the ethical appeal – among them David Foster Wallace, Jane Jacobs, and my quondam dentist, Dr. Bob Cargill – use the vast resources of voice to make us want to trust them. And how do they do this? By trusting us. By respecting our intelligence. By making a point of showing all their cards and giving a fair assessment of the strength of the overall hand. And above all, by acknowledging that we have the freedom to disagree.

Notwithstanding that overweening title – The Way to Cook – the power of Julia Child’s ethical appeal is that rather than seeking to bully or lecture or intimidate or dazzle us (which, of course, she could) she writes as though we are working in the kitchen alongside her. She allows that there are different approaches to cooking; she frequently suggests that, in her experience, some complication is necessary and some is not. And she does all this with constant, gentle humor. Here is her introduction to game birds:
Since all birds roast in about the same manner, and simmer, sauté, and stew in almost the same way, you’ll find them grouped together that way here, for the most part. It makes more sense, it seems to me; then you have the theory and practice for each technique, whatever your bird happens to be. Actually, it would make even more sense to group the beasts along with the birds . . . but I have resisted carrying logic that far.
Compare to Martha Stewart, a fine writer and cook but an imperialist of logos if ever there was one. Here’s a classic example, first noted by Anthony Lane, of Martha’s single-minded, logical pursuit of the very best:
Locate an area in advance with tender, young, organically grown grass that has not yet been cut. . . . It is best to cut it very early in the morning while the dew is still evident.
It is evident that Martha has lost sight of her context – a recipe for baked ham – and thus of her audience. How much she presumes about us: our lives, our patience, our willingness to go along with her harebrained schemes! Her ham might taste just as good as, or even better than, Child’s, but the cook will feel too humbled, or even belittled, to enjoy it much.

I would suggest that the same principles of ethos that make The Way to Cook so effective – mastery lightly worn and a pronounced solicitude for the reader – might translate well to other fields. Even, perhaps, to literary criticism. A truly great critic has two jobs – to judge and to persuade – but some of our most polished logicians seem sometimes to forget the ethical appeal entirely. Aspirants to the throne of E.M. Forster and Leslie Fiedler could do worse than to study The Way to Cook. Julia Child’s voice on the page proves as indelible as her voice on the tube.

[Image credit: foodista]

Inter Alia #17: N1BR, Blazing Saddles, and the Art of Fashionable Lateness

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A prize-winning journalist once told me this story: Early in his career, writing on spec for The Village Voice or some such organ of the alternative press, he had ventured to the set of Blazing Saddles to interview Mel Brooks. Flush with the wine of self-importance, he flourished his press pass for the security guard outside the soundstage. Inside, however, he found himself merely the youngest and least consequential member of a flock (pod? pride? murder?) of reporters. While waiting for Mr. Brooks to appear, he tried to make small talk with Kenneth Tynan of The New Yorker. “So you guys are doing a profile? Must be a tall order to crank 5,000 words out in time for the movie premiere.” I have no idea whether Tynan wore small half-glasses at that or any other point, but I picture him gazing coolly over the top of the lenses to deliver the following riposte: “We are The New Yorker. We don’t do timely.”This anecdote, in its 2005 version, was meant in part to tweak Tynan for his Olympian condescension, but there was envy in it, too: O, to write without the oppression of deadlines and “news hooks!” I thought of Kenneth Tynan and Blazing Saddles again last week, as I perused the contents of the second issue of N+1’s new book review supplement, N1BR. Here were: Nikil Saval assessing Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, a year and a half after its publication.Giles Harvey arriving six months late to the 2666 party, with a thoughtful dissent, no less.Nathan Heller offering trenchant insights on a John Updike novel from 1968.Rachel Aviv ranging over the decades-long career of Anne Rice.We are N1BR, I thought. We don’t do timely.Which is all to the good. It goes almost without saying that the current book-marketing dispensation, in which reviewers are given a brief window to render a collective judgment on, say, Tree of Smoke, has seemed more and more ludicrous the smaller that window has become – particularly as books, unlike their authors, live for hundreds of years. One of the knocks on online discourse has been that it pushes timeliness to the point of ephemerality. But as Open Letters Monthly’s “Second Glance” column, Dan Green’s emerging side project, the brand new Second Pass site, and our Year in Reading series, not to mention our own Lydia Kiesling’s Modern Library Revue, suggest, the departure from the economic vicissitudes of print may in fact help free us from the tyranny of the now.To be sure, one of the purposes of literary journalism is to alert readers to the new. Still, the scarcity of advertising dollars, and the attendant lack of a profit motive, do seem to open up the possibility of writing about books because they are worth writing about, rather than because they came out last week. At which point the challenge becomes to write well. Here’s hoping the folks at N1BR, and others like them, will make arriving late to the party fashionable again.

Inter Alia #16: Footnoting D.T. Max’s DFW Piece

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Well, Wyatt Mason beat me to it. Over at his blog, Sentences, the Harper’s critic has registered a couple of cavils with D.T. Max’s powerful, fascinating New Yorker article on David Foster Wallace, “The Unfinished.” First, Mason suggests, Max makes his case for The Broom of the System at the expense of what may be a better book, Girl With Curious Hair. Second, Max might have profitably spent more time on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, and the nonfiction. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me to find Mason anticipating, more eloquently, my own response to “The Unfinished”; I find him to be our most astute critic of Wallace (by which I mean, of course, the one whose thinking most resembles mine).It’s important to note, as Mason does, that these are minor quibbles, mere footnotes to Max’s achievement. (In my case, think of The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy pontificating from the front row.) But they also betoken the immense, almost maternal protectiveness some readers feel toward Wallace’s reputation. We feel about Infinite Jest as William H. Gass does about Finnegans Wake: “Not to have been… influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time.” Our underlying anxiety is that the Kakutanis of the world will deprive our grandchildren of the beautiful thing we ourselves have been blessed to witness. And so, with an eye toward posterity – toward those who have not yet experienced Wallace’s writing first-hand – I humbly submit three additional footnotes to “The Unfinished.”1) It seems to me that there’s an assumption in certain passages of the article that writing fiction posed a “risk to [Wallace’s] mental health,” without sufficient evidence to discount the possibility that the causal arrow might have pointed the other way. In general, Max exhibits an admirable tact on the subject of Wallace’s depression and addictions; he wants to extend to the author the dignity that is his due. It seems important, therefore, that we not turn “The Unfinished” into an explanation of Wallace’s suicide. In particular – for the sake of reading the forthcoming The Pale King with a clear head – one wouldn’t want to succumb to the temptation to say that this last novel pushed Wallace over the edge. Writing is a form of daily frustration; it can also be, as Max shows, a source of daily grace.2) Because “The Unfinished” suggests that Wallace “began to develop a taste for journalism” in the wake of the publication of Infinite Jest, rather than in the early 1990s, it skirts a more thorough examination of the relationship between Wallace’s fiction and his nonfiction.3) Perhaps most significantly, Max summarizes a bit too approvingly Wallace’s sense that he had never “hit his target.” Indeed, Wallace’s attempt to do so becomes the narrative hinge of the article. But many who have read Infinite Jest will feel differently.On the subject of his own creations, the novelist is, at best, an unreliable witness. As Robert Musil writes in that other unfinished monument, The Man Without Qualities:He loves creation as long as he is creating it, but his love turns away from the finished portions. For the artist must also love what is most hateful in order to shape it, but what he has already shaped, even if it is good, cools him off; it becomes so bereft of love that he hardly still understands himself in it, and the moment when his love returns to delight in what it has done are rare and unpredictable.It is seemly for an artist to never be satisfied with past achievements, as Wallace no doubt knew, but it’s readers who get the final word. As time passes, Infinite Jest looks closer to Wallace’s stated target – “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” – than any other English-language novel of its era. I felt this way before Wallace’s death, and I still do.(P.S.: You got me, Andrew.)Bonus link: Sam Anderson’s take on “The Unfinished,” from New York Magazine

Inter Alia #15: Toward a Phenomenology of Snark

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Today on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, David Denby put in an appearance promoting his new book, Snark. I’m not sure what qualifies Denby, a movie critic, to save us from “a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation.” Nor am I entirely sure we are in need of saving. That said, I’ve enjoyed Denby’s recent feistiness in the back pages of The New Yorker (after some mid-Bush-era doldrums), and was perfectly happy to give him a hearing while I made lunch.

Suffice it to say, I was underwhelmed. The segment largely consisted of Denby listening to audio clips of SNL and Crossfire declaring whether or not they constituted “snark.” In place of any really useful distinction between “nasty” snark and legitimate discourse, we got a tendentious history lesson (Diogenes but no Juvenal?) and a jurisprudential approach to snark that amounts to “I know it when I see it.”

Do we need anything more than that? Do we need to define snark? I would argue that we do. Ever since Heidi Julavits popularized the term, in her March 2003 Believer manifesto, the word “snark” has been used as a cudgel against all manner of populist tomfoolery (Julavits singles out The New York Post), even as it has proven useless against the pungent attitudinizing of Gawker and its discontents. (For fun, check out the Denby comment thread.) Moreover, the pejorative overtones of the floating signifier “snark” imply that equally fatuous but positive commentary is somehow less damaging to “the national conversation.” If we’re going to have a conversation about that conversation, it seems worth knowing what we’re talking about when we talk about snark. So here, tendered with love and humility, are some notes toward a phenomenology of snark.

Snark is, above all, a tone, and this is what makes it so difficult to pin down. Julavits calls it a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt,” but forecloses the possibility that hostility and bitterness might be legitimate critical positions. And again, for some reason, online text often reads as more hostile than it actually is. (Think of the phenomenon of the misunderstood email.) No, it’s not negativity, but been-there, seen-that “knowingness,” that is the call-note of snark. (It is impossible to surprise a Snark.) However, allowance must be made for the fact that some people actually know things. Perhaps snark, properly understood, involves a tone of knowingness that doesn’t correspond to actual knowledge. (Truly great snark would thus be impossible to identify: persuading us of its authority, it would be ignorance that leaves no fingerprints.)
A related point: snark is a response disproportionate to the offense, a comment that outshouts the original post. The Snark expends more emotional and intellectual energy formulating his aphorisms than he did consuming, or skimming, their subject. Otherwise, we would have to recognize his hostility, bitterness, or contempt as legitimate. (We carp because we care.) Currently, the perfect object of snark for me is Benjamin Button; it’s a movie I’ll never see, but have put a great deal of thought into making fun of. This lack of regard is more deeply wounding to Benjamin Button fans than it would be if I actually had a legitimate grievance against the film.
The true Snark, perhaps by virtue of his reflexive contempt, cannot be bothered to understand the object of his snark – to expand the compass of his sympathies, to assume good faith. Thus James Wood, even at his most trenchant, does not get accused of snark, whereas Lee Siegel, for all his anti-web fulminations, often seems to be writing from the very heart of snarkness. Siegel believes the length of his essays, and their appearance in print, indemnifies him against his own charges, but is wrong (see numbers 1 and 2 above). Brevity is the soul of wit, but not necessarily of snark.
Snark is a kind of show of plumage, almost a mating ritual. As such, snark always calls more attention to the Snark than to snarked. But again, just because the dagger is driven in with a flourish does not mean it is done snarkily. The thoughtful, the passionate, and the justly aggrieved – Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, Anthony Lane – are entitled to be stylish, without being shouted down for snark.
Morally, snark is no better or worse than genial puffery; indeed, it is its dark twin, its complement, an advertisement for the self. Snark is more aesthetically pleasing than puff, however, by virtue of the complexity of its defense mechanisms. It reduces criticism of itself to a negation of a negation – that is, to mere snark. Hence: Denby.

Such notes can only be preliminary. They attempt to prepare the ground for, but do not answer, more important questions: Is snark truly a conjunctivitic plague upon the nation? Or is it, rather, a form of hygiene, defending us against an epidemic of epiphenomena we do not and should not care about? Perhaps the answers are not to be found in intellectualizing, but in a tortured embrace of our own snarky sides. As Susan Sontag might say, in place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of snark.

As always, your thoughts (even snarky ones) are welcome.

Inter Alia #14: My Political Blog Hangover and the Virtues of Finitude

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Among its many peculiar achievements, the Internet seems to have pushed the old “observer effect” – wherein by paying attention to a process we alter its outcome – into the realm of magical thinking. Back during election season, I remember, I had assembled a little rosary of blogs I’d cycle through every day – or, let’s be honest, every hour: Nate Silver, TPM, Politico, RealClearPolitics…as though the existence of the daily cavalcade of kerfuffles depended on me being around to bear witness.Eventually, the endless news cycle would be revealed as the engine of ephemera I already suspected it was. Mr. Silver’s uncannily good number-crunching had Obama on a cruise course to victory from mid-September onward. I could have done something worthwhile with my time; I could have…I don’t know…read a book. Instead, what did I do? Nate Silver, TPM, Politico…Since the election, however, I’ve found that most of these sites give me a headache. The expanded version of Politico, in particular, seems to have diced the news cycle to such a fine consistency that, by the time I get to them in the afternoon, the morning’s chunky controversies are so much dust in the wind.So which of the political blogs do I still read? To my surprise, it’s The Atlantic’s. I’ve singled these guys out before, but I’d like to cast my interpretive net a little wider. That feels as worthwhile now as it did back in July (a veritable eternity, in the blogosphere) seems to me to point to some of the overlooked ingredients of good online writing.First, I like that The Atlantic focuses on a certain subject – in this case, politics – but not too narrowly. Digressions are encouraged, in a way that keeps the conversation tethered to the wider culture, and accessible to newcomers. This turns out to be a tricky middle ground to occupy; it’s something we’re still working on at The Millions. Still, it seems possible to write about a given passion while still addressing a general-interest audience. (The New York Review of Books has been doing it for almost half a century.)Another thing I admire about The Atlantic’s blog offerings is the plurality – not to say preponderance – of voices. Jeffrey Goldberg, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ross Douthat, Andrew Sullivan et al offer a broad range of insights and provocations. Still, unlike the tentacular Huffington Post, this eighteen-armed blog monster feels refreshingly vincible. A mere half hour of my attention exhausts it. And in the everything-all-the-time world of the web, such limitation may prove to be a precious commodity.This is, of course, a somewhat self-serving post: We at The Millions have a vested interest in figuring out how the successful websites became so. (And my lifelong love affair with print continues; you will have to pry my weekly New Yorker from my cold, proverbial fingers.) Still, trying to figure out why we like what we like may help preempt the “slow decline and emerging blind spots” Max, among others, has warned us about. Now if someone could just figure out how to make online journalism profitable…

Inter Alia #13: Font Wars, the Phantom Menace

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Back in 2001, The Onion published a breathless report from a gala awards ceremony: The Fontys. A few dissenting voices groused about the night’s big winner, Helvetica Bold Oblique – “a bold as best font?” – but ebullience carried the night. “‘A million thanks to all the wonderful folks in the font community who believed in Helvetica Bold Oblique,'” said “an ecstatic Oliver Rudd, designer of the font,”Without your faith in my vision, I would not be here before you tonight. I’d also like to thank Helvetica Regular designer James T. Helvetica, the giant upon whose shoulders I stand.Of course this was satire, and its ostensible message served mainly to emphasize a subtext: No one cares about typeface. Some recent reading experiences, however, have me wondering if that’s really true.This summer, I encountered the ultramodern Vendetta font in two books of debut fiction: Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis and Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. Its polygonal punctuation and strangely shaped gs and ps kept distracting me from the text. I’ve also had problems reading several books from the NYRB Classics series, which has otherwise been justly praised for its attractive design. In each case, an obtrusive font made it hard for me to forget that I was staring at ink on a page. It was hard to distinguish frustration with the typesetting from frustration with the prose itself.Now I’m about three-quarters of the way through John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, which Overlook Press has heroically brought back into print. Aegypt is a startling hybrid, part fantasy and part novel of ideas, and, when you’re hip-deep in Daemonomania, a blurb comparing Crowley to Thomas Mann doesn’t seem unjustified. For some reason, however, Overlook has chosen a stylized typeface called Rotis that graphically overemphasizes Aegypt’s connection to genre fiction. Overlook told us that Rotis was chosen because it echoes the “feel” of the book; for me, it overdoes the echo. At times I’ve found myself reading racing along to the next plot-point, rather than slowing down to appreciate Crowley’s rich prose, which deserves the same distinction accorded to other modern masters. I wonder if my experience would be different had Crowley been given the Everyman’s Library treatment – or, indeed, if War & Peace would read differently, printed on copier paper in 12-point Courier.The New Critics taught us that we were supposed to disregard superfluities and focus on the words on the page – but how much does the printing process color our reception of those words? Don’t design choices advance a set of claims for the work – claims that subtly shape our judgment? This seems particularly worth thinking about now that modern technology has made typesetting easier. It would seem to be a fairly simple matter to switch the next print run of Crowley or Gessen or Ulinich to good old Garamond, or to some other font that meets master typographer Matthew Carter’s criteria: clarity is all. Perhaps there are readers out there who care nothing for the superficial, who would just as soon read an airport paperback as, say, a Vintage International trade. I’ve been a little embarrassed to discover I’m not among them.

Inter Alia #12: Tell No One I’m A Literary Snob

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Film critics have lauded the French thriller Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One) with adjectives fit for a personal ad: “taut,” “sexy,” “smart…” Having recently caught a matinee, I’m willing to attest to its tautness. However, the climax reminded me that dramatic smarts entail more than a pensive hero and a Gallic pedigree. By way of elaboration, I will now spoil the ending: A bad guy, training a gun on the hero, maps out one of the most convoluted conspiracies this side of Behold, A Pale Horse. Then he orders the hero to keep listening: “But wait, there’s more. I also killed your father.”The “Let me explain my master plan” speech is a staple of crime novels, and has enlivened any number of TV shows. We accept the convention without balking because generic narratives like The ABC Murders, Scooby Doo, and Murder, She Wrote aren’t claiming to be “smart”; they’re meant to entertain. But when characters who’ve been granted all the appurtenances of serious drama – histories, mannerisms, tastes – are suddenly reduced to conduits for information, as they are in Tell No One, the reader experiences cognitive dissonance. Who writes this stuff? he wonders.The answer, in this case, is the quintessentially American Harlan Coben, from whose novel the film was adapted. In a memorable Atlantic Monthly profile last year, Eric Konigsberg portrayed Coben as a nice guy, albeit slightly insecure about his reputation vis-a-vis that of his Amherst dorm-mate, David Foster Wallace. But this being the Atlantic, the profile also attempted to pose questions (or stoke resentments) about the nature of literary distinction:In Las Vegas, I asked Coben how he felt about being invisible to the world represented by The New York Times Book Review, and about the parallel-universe status that so much crime fiction, including his books, has. At first he was au fait about it, but then he got worked up. ‘If I asked you to name five great books that survived 100 years ago that don’t have a crime in them, you couldn’t,’ he said.Not having read the work, I was willing to give Coben the benefit of the doubt. Now, after seeing the movie, I’m more inclined to agree with his later admission, “It’s not like I’m an artist.”Konigsberg and Coben are right to suggest (and I’ve argued before) that the distinction between art and genre fiction rests on false premises. Cormac McCarthy alone should demonstrate that a novel can contain a murder, or an apocalypse, or a dead mule, and still be literature. Yet to imply that a writer of westerns, thrillers, or romances automatically deserves to be considered alongside Dostoevsky is to err in the other direction. If anything, the NYTBR’s problem is not that it accords too little serious consideration to genre writers, but that it accords too much to novelists toiling in the vineyards of literary fiction.That is, there is a distinction between art and entertainment; it’s just not the one we’ve been thinking of. FSG’s Jonathan Galassi and Grove/Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin came close to pinning it down at a publishing panel last year, when they suggested that “genre fiction” aims to repeat an excitement, by meeting established conventions, whereas literature inaugurates new conventions, and thus new excitements. (Of course, innovations of character and of language require more column-inches to explain to potential readers.) By this definition, plenty of the short stories in The New Yorker constitute genre fiction, while some “crime novels” – those of Richard Price, for example – are literature. And even great artists – the Dickens of Little Dorrit, comes to mind – can lean too heavily on crutches like the expository filibuster.Without knocking the pure entertainment value of watching Harlan Coben’s characters fulfill their generic destinies, Tell No One is no Crime and Punishment. It’s not even The Fugitive. Yet it seems frivolous to bemoan the literary establishment’s “parallel universe” when your own universe comprises a vast audience and sums of money Dostoevsky only dreamed of. If literary discrimination is, by definition, elitism, it is, in America, an elitism without teeth. And even when elitists like me campaign to preserve the meaning of the words “smart” and “literary,” we know that a taut, sexy, and ultimately silly thriller is still nothing to sniff at.

Inter Alia #11: The Death and Life of Literary Spaces

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Last week, Manhattan’s Mercantile Library emptied the shelves of its shambling, elegant midtown mansion and locked the doors for good. The Merc, one of Old New York’s several private libraries, had occupied its East 47th Street location continuously since 1932, but could no longer outrun the fiscal exigencies of arts funding and NYC real estate. Executive Director Noreen Tomassi did her best to put a positive spin on the Merc’s search for a new home, pointing out in the Times that a downtown relocation could put the 175-year-old institution closer to the center of the current literary scene:The vibrant centers of the city have changed. The challenge the board faced was trying to run a capital campaign to raise money to refurbish the building in an area which does not have the kind of residential community and vibrant night life that we believe is important to the institution to grow, where young writers are living who we can help.Nonetheless, count this young writer among the pessimists. The Merc’s move strikes me as both a huge loss for bibliophiles and an indictment of the self-annihilating quality of the current “Warhol economy.”What kind of loss? It’s hard to describe the charms of The Merc to anyone who’s never visited, but I suspect that denizens of other literary cities can find analogues in beloved (and perhaps shuttered) bookstores, museums, and libraries. Originally a resource for merchants and their clerks – one pictures Melville’s Nipper and Turkey calling up books from the stacks – The Merc became, in its East 47th Street incarnation, nothing less than a temple of the book. As the Times noted, the building provided a “midtown perch” for 75 years’ worth of writers, known and unknown. And the ghost of readers past – in the open shelves and dusty stacks, the sunken armchairs, the uneven stair a Pulitzer winner may once have stumbled over – gave the place an auratic quality that would be difficult for any renovation (and impossible for any relocation) to preserve.Of course, the American city is defined by change, whether at the hands of developers, of neighborhood associations, or of government. At their best, the three exist in a kind of dynamic tension. (The Merc’s rebranding as a “Center for Fiction,” offering studio space, reading groups, classes, and awards, is an example of what might be called intelligent re-design.) But it seems to me that our increasingly culture-driven economy has a vested interest in sustaining the cultural spaces that sustain it; instead, a kind of remorseless accounting – in which potential funders scrutinize “metrics” – threatens to strip them of their distinctions.Moreover, in a city where the distance between culture and commodity is increasingly notional, The Merc’s visible continuity with a literary history encompassing Thackeray and Twain offered a welcome corrective. This is not to say that a quantum of glitz doesn’t help the cause of literature, but there’s more than enough of that going around. Young writers need the courage to be marginal, and to write for posterity, just as much as they need pressure to speak to “the vital centers.” When I had the pleasure of giving a reading in the old building this winter, it was precisely its distance from the “vibrant night life” of downtown that made the event meaningful to me. People were there to engage, rather than to be seen.By nature of its inherent privacy, literacy is one of the cultural practices most insulated from the vagaries of fashion. It takes years to write a book, and sometimes weeks to read one, and this acts as a check on the hype cycle. To put it another way, literature and real estate trade on different notions of “vitality.” Spaces where readers and writers can congregate help bridge the divide between the two, literalizing an otherwise imaginary community; the quality of that community will, perforce, inform the quality of the work written for it. And so literary spaces are worth protecting.The foregoing is doubtless an oversimplification. The Merc will continue to foster literary vitality once it finds a new home, as the central branch of the New York Public Library (where I’ve been logging many hours of late) will survive its Steven Schwarzman-funded renovation. But the private equity moguls and cultural stewards who have created the conditions for the gut renovation of Gotham would do well to remember Walter Benjamin’s warning: “What is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.” That is, a building like the old Mercantile Library will look great as condos, but, absent neighborhood cultural draws, good luck finding anyone who wants to live there.

Inter Alia #4: International Prizewinners and the Business of Translation

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[Editor’s Note: To plug a hole in the Inter Alia series, we’ve numbered this one out of order.]I know next to nothing about the translation business, except that it is vital to my reading habits. And so, earlier this week, I posted a little survey of international awards for fiction, along with the unobjectionable (I think) suggestion that more foreign-language prize-winners should be translated into English. I had been surprised at how difficult it was merely to find English-language information on, for example, The Austrian Grand Prize for East European Literature, and part of my intention was to put the “wisdom of crowds” to work for me, via reader comments and blog reactions. And, lo! The Complete Review and The Guardian’s book blog obliged. From the former, (which seems in possession of much better intel than I am) I learned that the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize may have been a weak proxy for the cream of German-language literature. I also learned, in a pleasant surprise, that my “translation quotients” apparently “do seem to reflect general translation-trends.” I thought I’d follow up today with a few interpretive gambits.First: literary awards are a notoriously subjective indicator of literary value (with apologies to fans of James A. Michener’s Pulitzer-winning fiction.) Nor is a foreign book’s publication in the U.S. or U.K. a measure of its greatness. The absence of translations of Tanizaki Prize-winners should not be taken as a reflection on the prestige of the prize, the health of Japanese literature, or even the level of American interest in Japanese writers. (Witness the runaway success – not to mention the genius – of Haruki Murakami.) And again, given the relative paucity of information, my “Prizewinners: The International Edition” feature may have been looking at some of the wrong awards.However, in aggregate, it does constitute an interesting snapshot of the business of translation. Romance languages seem to predominate. Is this because these are the languages Americans tend to learn in school – leading to a surfeit of translators? Or because of our long-standing cultural ties to Western Europe?The picture shifts a bit when we consider writers whose non-prize-winning novels are the ones that have been translated into English, and when we look at prizes given for a body of work. Writers who have been canonized in, say, the Netherlands are a sure bet for translation into English. But the single-book prize can be a testament to what’s vital and urgent in a literary tradition. It’s the difference between Philip Roth and, say, Edward P. Jones. And a healthy culture of translation will make sure that Edward P. Jones gets read in other languages now, rather than in 40 years. The Rómulo Gallegos had this effect for Bolaño; the Alfred Döblin Prize, for Katja Lang-Müller… well, not so much.Indeed, a translation gap for the historic period 1995 – 2005 seems particularly glaring when we look at Germany. With the exception of Ingo Schulze (whose monumental New Lives will appear from Knopf this fall), few of the Döblin winners have had any of their work at all translated into English. Does this mean that American publishers are doing a crappy job translating German novels, or that American readers have little appetite for them, or that I did a crappy job educating myself about contemporary German literature? (A friend who used to work at publisher Berlin Verlag suggested calculating TQs for the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, the Leipzig Book Fair Prize, Aspekte Literaturpreis, and the Berliner Literaturpreis der Stiftung Preußische Seehandlung.) Rather, I think it suggests that having a clearer awards consensus can make it easier for readers like me to find out about new books, and can help push publishers off the fence. Already, the creation of the Booker-esque German Book Prize in 2005 has proven a boon to German-language translation. Since being shortlisted in 2006, Sasa Stanisic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, to name one example, has been published in about a billion countries.[It bears mentioning at this point, inter alia, that there is a lot of wonderful contemporary Chinese, Arabic, Slavic, Hebrew, Setswana, etc. literature that slipped through the cracks of my survey. (I’m currently reading the Hungarian Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies and Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun.) I had hoped to create a more truly International edition of “The Prizewinners,” but the criteria outlined in my original post prevented it. Literature is, of course, irremediably tangled with history, and it came to seem, as I looked at the various prizes, that they were closely linked (as language is) with nationalism. This made it difficult, in particular, to construct a proxy for African literature, or to compare specific traditions within Africa with specific European traditions. Nigerian authors are eligible for the Booker, while Egyptians would compete for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The existing pan-African literary awards seem to represent such a diversity of languages, and such a plurality of markets, that it was difficult to find any one award to focus on. The cultural traditions of Communist China remain opaque to a monoglot like myself, and while the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize seemed comparable to the Booker or the Pulitzer, none of the winning books has been translated into English.]Ultimately, it seems to me that the “problem” of translation is, like many of the “problems” of the literary marketplace, a problem of money. Translating the second and third parts of Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance, for example, will require two or three years’ pay for the great translator Joachim Neugroschel. A more well-publicized award field, with more prominent awards for foreign markets, might give publishers and foreign funding agencies the “hook” they need to make deeper investments in translation. (And might yield even greater sales for presses like New Directions, Dalkey Archive, Archipelago, NYRB and Open Letter, who have already made heroic commitments to publishing translations.) The mainstream media “hype machine” has a role to play here. As do blogs.* Which gives me an idea… who wants to figure out how many of our own Anglo-English Prizewinners have been translated into Russian?*(whose job would be easier if Blogger would make it simpler to use diacritical marks in posts; sorry, no stresicas, Sasa!)

Inter Alia: Authority, an Anniversary, and Book Reviewing

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In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagines a fungus that grows on another fungus; a nuclear reaction fueled by the byproducts of nuclear reactions; and movies whose audiences watch an audience watching them. For this kind of derivative process, he invokes the adjective annular, which the O.E.D. defines as “ringlike” or circular, but which presumably shares some roots with “annul” – to make into nothing. Last week, reading John Freeman’s strange piece in the online Guardian (via TEV), I felt I was in the presence of annular writing: writing about writing about writing. I wade into yet another consideration of the state of book reviewing, then, at the risk of saying nothing about nothing. Nonetheless, I’m going to take this opportunity to advance a couple of propositions I’ve been thinking about lately.The first is that talk in certain quarters about crises in book reviewing, newspaper journalism, online recommendation systems, and so forth is really an extension of a conversation that’s been going on for at least decades now: one about a more general crisis of authority. Ever since the wheels of modernity set to work on the fixed stars by which we navigate our culture, we’ve been trying to figure out what to look to instead. Technology is only just catching up with us.Those attached to tradition have always tended to look at the democratization of information warily. For example, I learned in this week’s New Yorker about Walter Lippmann, whose 1922 book Public Opinion argued that the average American “lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” According to Eric Alterman, Lippmann proposed that crucial decisions about that world be made by “intelligence bureaus,” which would be given access to all the information they needed to judge the government’s actions without concerning themselves with democratic preferences or public debate.This sounds like a nightmare, elitism reduced ad absurdam. Yet the assumption that the dispersal of the authority once held by, say, Edmund Wilson and The New York Times must, ipso facto, produce smarter decision-making doesn’t hold water either. The information superhighway may lead to enlightenment, but it offers exit-ramps to every conceivable variety of cant.For a while now, I’ve had the nagging feeling that there’s a third way we’ve been neglecting, some kind of solution to the crisis of authority. And then, in the Alterman article, I found another reason to love John Dewey. To wit:Dewey did not dispute Lippmann’s contention regarding… the public’s vulnerability to manipulation. [But] the foundation of democracy to Dewey was less information than conversation. Members of a democratic society needed to cultivate what the journalism scholar James W. Carey, in describing the debate, called “certain vital habits” of democracy – the ability to discuss, deliberate on, and debate various perspectives in a manner that would move it toward consensus.This, I think, is why book reviews play a vital, if circumscribed, role in any democracy. I’d also like to think (not coincidentally) that this is the project that we – you and I – are engaged in here at The Millions. Five years into a conversation Max started, I’m consistently impressed by the civility, acuity, and enthusiasm of those who comment on the site (as I invite you to do below). Which leads me to my second proposition: the problem with pre-modern notions of authority has always been that they’re non-consensual. For all its failings, the web is one arena where authority is earned instead of inherited. And so, on the occasion of our fifth anniversary, I’d like to thank you for granting authority, in whatever measure, to us.