Tonight, we'll be at Poets House, where Douglas A. Martin and Eileen Myles will read their work. Myles's new book is Inferno, an autobiographical novel about becoming a poet in New York. Like most good autobiographical novels about writers, this one is gossipy (watch for stories about Ted Berrigan) (and even Richard Hell), sometimes cutting (a passage about Kathy Acker comes to mind), but never quite spiteful.
Jonathan Lethem, best known for his novels about Brooklyn (though he's also written about Manhattan) (and about black holes), will set his next book in Queens. Will the Bronx or Staten Island ever make the cut?
Michelle Kerns urges book reviewers—particularly the ones who don't live in New York City—"to take this opportunity to rise up against the oppressive power of the Publishing Dictators of the East." She offers her own Martin Luther-esque "95 Theses; Or, Things to Nail on the Door of Random House." A lot of them complain about New York City, so we're guessing Kerns is immune to novelist and Columbia professor Janette Turner Hospital's celebration of the city's literary supremacy.
Salman Rushdie says that writers who challenge official doctrines are "in more danger perhaps than they've ever been."
Last May, Laura Miller speculated on the generalization that men don't read as much as women do (and on the fact that the book industry is a world with more women than men). Now, Publishers Weekly revisits the issue, wondering: "Does the lack of men in publishing hurt the industry?"
The 2010 MacArthur Fellows have been announced, with three authors among the twenty-three winners. Journalist and television-guru David Simon, fiction writer Yiyun Li, and historian Annette Gordon-Reed now all have license to affix the word genius to their name.
Barnes and Noble chairman Leonard Riggio and his group of board of director candidates have withstood a strong challenge from Los Angeles investor Ron Burkle, as shareholders have voted to re-elect Riggio and his supporters. As shareholder Howard Tannenbaum put it: "Riggio and his brother built up the company. What does Burkle know about book selling?"
In The Guardian, Jonathan Franzen talks about Oprah, being called a Great American Novelist ("It paints a big bullseye on the back of my head,") and writing Freedom, and says that David Foster Wallace's suicide in 2008 angered him into finishing the book: "I was mad. I got motivated by anger at him. 'Well, goddamn it, Dave! I've got one advantage over you, and that's that I'm still alive, and I'm going to show what I can do.'"
Tonight at McNally Jackson Books, Darin Strauss reads from his memoir Half a Life.
TALKING TO SARA MARCUS ABOUT RIOT GRRRL
Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front, an engaging chronicle of the early-’90s punk feminist movement known as Riot Grrrl, is being published today by Harper Perennial. Writing in Bookforum’s music issue, musician and author Johanna Fateman called the book an “ambitious and convincing book that makes narrative sense out of events that had so far been recorded only in mythic, unverified, and fragmentary form.” We recently sat down with Marcus, who is a freelancer at our sister publication Artforum, to discuss her writing process, feminism’s fate in mainstream culture, gender bias in book criticism, and the feminist future.
Q: I imagine that early on in writing Girls to the Front you were confronted with the challenging realization that Riot Grrrl resists definition. How did you deal with this?
A: I figured out pretty quickly that the only way to tell the “story of Riot Grrrl” would be to tell stories of individual people and stories of context, and that through a kind of triangulation, this would yield a sense of Riot Grrrl as a whole while hopefully steering clear of any reductionism. But it’s not true that there’s no common thread, and I parse this in the book: The girls were really careful to say there’s no there there, but there were specificities to the experiences, and to the networks, that are important.
Q: Though you're clearly a fan of Riot Grrrl, the book is not a hagiography. Can you talk a bit about your writing process? I'm wondering if you experimented with different voices and writing techniques in order to balance the subjective voice of a fan and the more objective, skeptical, and authoritative voice that’s expected from a historian.
A: The first drafts of parts of the book, which I turned in to my workshops in the nonfiction program at Columbia, got responses from my classmates that horrified me. People were reading what I’d written and saying, “These girls are so immature, and they’re so bratty, and don’t they realize that they’re contradicting themselves all over the place? And don’t they see that they’re making impossible demands? And don’t they understand that if they take their shirts off they’re going to be sexually objectified, and how they could they possibly take their shirts off and demand to not be sexually objectified? Why are they so unrealistic and naive?” That made me realize that I was going to have to really enlist the reader and immerse the reader in the mind-set of angry adolescent young women, regardless of whether or not the reader had ever been an adolescent young woman, angry or not. I was going to have to do the work of evoking that. So I began to think about how the book could be novelistic, in order to not give the reader any place from which to stand and look down their noses at the people in the book. Anyone can, with the benefit of hindsight, look back at what a teenager did and say, “Oh, that was not fully formed. That was a little green.” But it doesn’t mean that the stuff doesn’t matter, and if you permit yourself as a reader to lodge yourself in a space of judgment and condescension, you miss so much of what’s happening and so much of what’s important.
As for whether I experimented with different writing styles, yes, I did a lot of experimenting. The intermediate forms of the book were quite fragmentary. I was reading Moby Dick at a certain point, and feeling completely enthralled by the way Melville makes room in his text for such a ridiculously wide range of material, and so for a while I was just plopping source material into my text whole hog. At one point, the whole founding constitution of the Boston chapter of ACT UP was in there, kind of out of nowhere. And Barbara Jordan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1992. Plus, there were all these poetic fragments; I had this idea that in between all the chapters there would be inter-chapters, like in Grapes of Wrath, that were more evocative. Then I started folding those into the chapters themselves, and many of those still remain in the book in some form, but without enacting such an overt formal break. In addition, there were originally several portions where I just broke into oral history format, where I stepped out as a narrator altogether and was just transcribing and cutting together different interviews, because it was very important to me to have a structure that indicated the inadequacy and incompleteness of the text, that foregrounded the research method and the subjectivity of the material. I showed them to my editor and she was like, “These aren’t really working. It looks like you outlined the chapter and never got around to writing it.” I agonized about this for quite a while. I had already come to terms with the idea that those sections might fail; that was OK with me. But my editor pointed out that people might lose momentum there and stop reading the book, which did concern me. I took a step back and recognized that there really was a swoop of narrative that had taken form that didn’t want to be held back and didn’t want to be complicated in that particular way. I still had a lot of anxiety about the ethics of narrative in general, but there were other ways that my insistence on multiplicity and on rupture was being registered without actually being aggressive toward the reader. While revising, I realized that I had been feeling a little bit aggressive toward my reader, like: “You think you can understand this? You’re never going to understand this! You think you can own these girls’ lives by reading their stories? Well, fuck you!” I was like, maybe I can transform that into something a little more loving.
Q: I‘ve heard that writing about a teenage passion can diminish the thrill of it, and the magic sort of disappears once you start to study it too closely. Did you find that was the case?
A: Who says that? I found the opposite!
Q: Really? That’s good news to me.
A: Oh my god! I got so into it. I did not at all feel that it lessened the passion of it, but I think that had a lot to do with how I chose to approach it. You see in the book’s Prologue one example of this, when I suddenly shift into: “More to the point: When you’re a teenage girl who is X, Y, and Z. . . . ” That “you” is not an accident; I’m trying to draft the reader into this collective adolescent consciousness.
In researching the book, I read many academic studies of Riot Grrrl ephemera. Nobody had any sense of the whole deal, but people would grab onto whatever part of the elephant they could find and then apply somebody’s theory to it. They’d enlist whatever part of the movement they had some sources for into buttressing a theoretical operation. That absolutely diminishes the passion. I felt that what Riot Grrrl really needed was for somebody to approach it as a storyteller. I knew there were so many different schemas into which I could fit the story, but I felt that would be premature when the whole story hadn’t ever been told in one place.
Q: I think the most concise summary of Riot Grrrl’s internal conflicts and eventual disintegration came from Bikini Kill drummer and Jigsaw zine author Tobi Vail, who wrote in a 1993 zine, “Everybody’s talking about what kind of girl, nobody’s starting a riot.” I think there's some hard-earned wisdom in that pithy statement, which speaks volumes about feminism's fate in mainstream culture. Why is it always about what kind of girl?
A: That’s an enormous question. I want to start by saying that any kind of subcultural or radical political expression in adolescence is going to be closely tied to selfhood, to construction of a self, and is therefore going to be closely tied to “what kind of girl” or “what kind of boy.” I don’t think that’s primarily a manifestation of a sexist gaze. With regard to Riot Grrrl specifically, some punk women didn't want to be considered riot grrrls because that meant something very particular—you were aligned with certain people, you had a certain political style. Johanna wrote in her Bookforum review, "Riot grrrls went to meetings, I didn't." But in some cities where there were never any meetings, I talked to girls who were determined to identify as riot grrrls—perhaps even more strongly because there weren't any meetings to go to. Also, some divisions came up in cases of bands of women who didn’t want to be called Riot Grrrl, because they weren’t linked to this specific thing, even though the term had begun to bleed out into the culture and mean much vaguer things. Anyway, a lot of that is the micro-parsing of subcultural identities that happens regardless of gender.
Q: The narcissism of small differences . . .
A: Totally. Are you a spirit of ’77 punk, or are you a crust punk, or are you an anarcho-punk; and if you’re an anarcho-punk are you a vegan who eats honey or a vegan who doesn’t? These things become the grounds for great divisions. Because, and this is something that I talk about in the book, that’s what you actually have control over—you can actually see yourself making a difference in your community if your community consists of several dozen people.
Q: But what’s so striking is that whenever feminism, or even a powerful woman, enters mainstream culture, it’s always about “what kind of girl.”
A: You’re thinking specifically about self-presentation, clothing, grooming, and pulchritude?
Q: Yeah, how do they look?
A: Which is an incredible way in which feminists are viewed that other activists are not. Nobody really talked about what the people in ACT UP were wearing. There’s a recent piece in Harper’s by Susan Faludi about the generational divide in feminism—the piece has its own problems, but I was particularly struck by the way that the paradigmatic rendering of generational splits in feminism is totally done via “Are you shaving, are you waxing your bikini line, are you wearing fishnets, are you wearing skirts? ‘Young women wear high heels and I fought for years not to have to wear high heels—they’re so ungrateful!’ ” I think that this is a cooptation of the socially transformative potential of feminism as a philosophy, to constantly reduce it to matters of physical self-presentation. It’s so unbelievably counterproductive to continually reinscribe differences along these lines. And it’s bought into by some of the major thinkers of the movement. It might seem that such choices work well as metaphors or as symbols, but I think they colonize the discourse in a really harmful way.
Q: As a young woman writer writing about a feminist subject, I fear that your book could be marginalized in a way that perhaps wouldn't occur if you were a dude penning a paean to Bob Dylan. And yet, considering Riot Grrrl in its political, social, historical, and aesthetic context seems to me to offer a vitally important perspective not just on feminism or a particular DIY music subculture, but on American culture at large. The recent conversation about the coverage of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom gets at a similar point. Do you think there's still a gender bias when critics determine what constitutes a great book?
A: I think the question of gender bias is no longer a subjective question for me to give my opinion on. Double X ran their analysis of how many books by women versus men were reviewed in the Times, and how many got the one-two punch of the weekday and the weekend review. I don’t think anyone can really dispute that it’s an issue, and I’m super gratified to see how broadly it’s being discussed. Meghan O’Rourke’s brilliant essay in Slate got so perfectly at the issues involved. I’m relieved to hear people talking about how it’s subtly, insidiously harder for people to give women’s writing credit for being ambitious and broadly relevant and Great. If there are any elements in a work that read as small—for instance, the book’s issues play out on the stage of interpersonal relationships, or the main characters are all young women—these tend to brand the whole work as small in a way that doesn’t seem to happen to men’s work.
When I was at Columbia, they would invite agents up to have cocktail hour and sushi with us and we would wander around tipsily pitching our books to people. And the agents would all listen to my spiel and say to me, “That sounds like a niche book.” Was that because it was a book about young women? Who can say? I certainly don’t think of it as a marginal or “niche” story. I have a very polemical stance on this. I chose, in this book, to follow the stories of young women who aren’t in bands, in addition to the stories of the musicians, in order to assert that the lives and struggles of teenage girls matter, and that, furthermore, you can know some very important things about a historical and political era by looking at the lives of teenage girls. And this was particularly true of the years in the early ’90s in which the book takes place, for reasons that I lay out in some detail: I show how societal anxieties about young women’s bodies and sexualities were acting as synecdoches for the culture wars as a whole at that moment. I hope people recognize and catch on to that, instead of seeing the book as being purely a Please Kill Me–style history of a moment in American music.
Q: One of Riot Grrrl’s most liberating ideas is that girls can make their own culture without anyone’s permission and without being tied to past styles or strategies. Can you talk a bit about what you call “the feminist future” in the book and current projects that inspire you?
A: I can’t write while I listen to music, and consequently, I listened to very little music for a three-year period that ended quite recently. Since turning in the book a few months ago, I’ve been happy to discover that there are a lot of really good bands right now. I have the Grass Widow record running through my head on complete repeat, all the time. I’m so excited about Frankie Rose and the Outs. Mountain Man is another great band; I’m doing an event with them in upstate New York, in Troy, in November. I don’t know if any of these bands see what they're doing as a feminist project per se; I think the individual members might well call themselves feminists, but it gets into a little bit of a wacky territory to say, “Grass Widow is part of the feminist future.” Are they? Or are they a band of women? It does make me really happy that there are so many wonderful women making music.
So what is the feminist future? I’m super excited by the profusion of feminist discourse on the Internet. There are blogs by feminists in high school that read a lot like Riot Grrrl zines: There’s poetry, and photographs of ads they find offensive, and rants about why the ads suck, as well as thoughts about strategy. Something nice about the Internet is the leveling out: There’s not a big gulf between being in high school and wanting to enact your media criticism, and seeing yourself as part of a conversation with the website Feministing and the feminist essays on Double X and all the rest. I think that it’s incredible that at this moment there are so many conversations about generational conflicts within feminism, and some people are saying that there’s a fourth wave right now—there’s kind of a Fibonacci thing with how much more quickly each successive wave comes on. I think the fifth wave is going to be next week. It’s a shame that the “wave” rubric reifies the sense of competition and the sense of rupture, but it’s positive insofar as it allows women within a certain age bracket (in this case I’m talking about women who are currently in their early to mid-twenties) to feel that they have an opportunity to set some terms and to define some issues.
Q: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Where can people go to get information about upcoming Girls to the Front events?
A: The book’s release party is Saturday, October 2, at Bruar Falls in Williamsburg, and then I leave on the 5th and I spend much of October on tour, with a few New York City readings sprinkled through October and November. All the events are up on www.girlstothefront.com. For people who fancy a more interactive experience, the book has a Facebook page, and I’m also on Twitter.
This week's New Yorker is available in a new iPad version, with a nifty animated cover by David Hockney. In a note to readers, the New Yorker editors write nostalgically about the magazine’s early days, noting the scarcity of pencils, and marveling that founder Harold Ross "could not have imagined a day when the magazine would be available as quickly to a reader in Manchester or Madrid as to one in Manhattan." They assure readers that "print remains, by miles, our most popular form," before telling us how they really feel. "We’re at once delighted and a little bewildered about this latest digital development and our place in it: delighted because of the quality of what the tablet provides and the speed with which the magazine can be distributed, but bewildered, too, because we’d be liars if we said we knew precisely where technology will lead." Readers need not be bewildered, however, as the New Yorker has enlisted tousled actor Jason Schwartzman to explain how to use the new app.
Music writer Nitsuh Abebe is leaving the indie-rock review website Pitchfork to become New York magazine's pop music critic. While you wait to read Abebe's work at his new gig, check out some of his greatest hits from Pitchfork: Reviews of The Cure, Yoko One, Daniel Johnston, Stereolab, an essay on "The Decade in Indie," the "Why We Fight" column, as well as his tumblr page, a grammar, which contains this memorable post on female fandom, among other gems.
At Slate, Emily Bazelon offers new details on the suicide of the Virginia Quarterly Review's managing editor Kevin Morrissey this summer, including emails to staff from editor Ted Genoways, who has been accused of workplace bullying. Bazelon writes: “A closer look at what happened at VQR, informed by conversations with Genoways and most of his colleagues and by examining internal e-mails sent in the run-up to Morrissey's death, suggests that while the VQR staff was unhappy with their boss, bullying may not be the right label for his behavior. The accusation that Genoways is to blame for Morrissey's suicide is even more questionable.”
Tonight, the Word in Brooklyn is hosting Indie Press Night.
This weekend, we witnessed the maiden voyage of the Wall Street Journal's new stand-alone Books section; Publisher's Weekly chats with editor Robert Messenger.
Farenheit 451, 2010: The Pentagon held a book burning on September 20th, destroying 9,500 hundred copies of Operation Dark Heart. The book's author, Anthony Shaffer, told CNN: "The whole premise smacks of retaliation. . . . Someone buying 10,000 books to suppress a story in this digital age is ludicrous." And if you can't burn 'em, ban them: September 25th marks the beginning of banned books week; did someone really think it was a good idea to ban Webster's Dictionary from a school library?
The 2010 PEN Literary Awards Winners have been announced. Paul Harding continues his winning streak by taking home the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers for his debut and Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Tinkers. Don Delillo won the Saul Bellow award for Achievement in American Fiction, and granted a rare interview. When asked about digital books and social media, Delillo answered: "The question is whether the enormous force of technology, and its insistence on speeding up time and compacting space, will reduce the human need for narrative—narrative in the traditional sense. Novels will become user-generated. An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character."
Even critics who are lukewarm about the film version of Howl are praising James Franco's portrayal of the Beat icon Allen Ginsberg. It can't be easy to portray a man who was not only a poet but also a "grand guru of the counterculture—chief spokesman of the Beat Generation, shaggy incarnation of flower power, tireless crusader against the war in Vietnam," as John Palattella wrote in Bookforum in 2006. Franco has been preparing for his turn as a real-life writer, too: His book of stories, Palo Alto, will be published on October 19, and has blurbs from the likes of Amy Hempel and Ben Marcus.
Danielle Steel: not a romance novelist.
Vanity presses. Non-traditional publishing. DIY publishers. Publishing solutions. Indie publishers. Edward Nawotka looks at the evolving vocabulary of the book-making profession.
Via the Casual Optimist: Design consulting firm IDEO offers three visions for the future of the book, and, unsurprisingly, print isn't on the agenda. IDEO's video outlining their ideas is so blithe and whimsical that we we were swept up for a moment in their somewhat surreal concepts, such as "Alice," an interactive e-book that aims to "[blur] the lines between reality and fiction." As the narrator cheerfully intones, "stories unfold and develop through reader's active participation . . . unexpectedly the reader stumbles upon plot twists and turns, embeded in the stories that are unlocked by performing certain actions, such as being at specific geographic locations, communicating with the characters in the stories, or contributing to the stories themselves." When the spell was broken, we suddenly remembered that perhaps GPS, an iPhone, and an iPad weren't necessarily crucial for engaging with a story.
Forbes wonders: Why does Ron Burkle even care about Barnes & Noble? (Via Pwxyz.)
Tao Lin, Great American Novelist.
At the New York Times Magazine, Elif Batuman gives the definitive report on the ongoing and bizarre trial over boxes of Franz Kafka's unpublished work, which is currently (and controversially) owned by two women in Tel Aviv, one of whom by all accounts has too many cats. A question that Batuman raises early on: Can anyone own Kafka?
Novelist and editor Keith Gessen goes on YouTube to apologize to all readers who were offended by the backwards apostrophes in N1FR, n+1's film review magazine.
Jessica Duffin Wolfe, photo by Liz Clayton
AN INTERVIEW WITH JESSICA DUFFIN WOLFE, AN EDITOR OF THE FORTHCOMING TORONTO REVIEW OF BOOKS
Print book reviews have been having a tough time in the past decade, but there are grounds for optimism in the online world. And though the web makes it easy to cross borders, there is still a case to be made for grounding a publication in a specific locale. One example of both that has been getting a lot of attention is the new Los Angeles Review of Books, which is scheduled to launch in early 2011. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, editor Tom Lutz says “The majority of our contributing editors live on the West Coast, and yes—without entering into any of the LA-NY rivalry, a kind of high culture version of Lakers-Celtics—I think our perch is a little different, we see things a bit differently. But we hope to be of national and international interest, and to cover the national and international book scene.”
This same spirit inspires Jessica Duffin Wolfe, editor of the forthcoming Toronto Review of Books. Its homepage is still in development, but as she points out in the following interview, the TRB will “take online media as seriously as print media—and will do so from an exuberantly Torontonian home base.” The TRB plans to publish its first issue this fall. We recently caught up with Ms. Duffin Wolfe via email to discuss the Canadian book reviewing landscape, what motivated her to start the TRB, and their plans for the first issue.
The name Toronto Review of Books parallels the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Are you aiming to create a Canadian equivalent?
I think the Literary Review of Canada aims to be the Canadian equivalent of those publications—but that's not really our goal, especially since those are pointedly city-based rather than nation-based publications. By self-consciously mirroring the names of the NYRB and the LRB we'd like to be a Toronto tribute to their traditions of excellent writing on ideas, but we're pursuing a fairly different structure.
Can you give us a sense of what Canadian book review publications are out there, and where you see the TRB fitting in? Why did you decide to start the Toronto Review?
The Literary Review of Canada fills the role of a more traditional reviews publication, but it only reviews Canadian books and doesn't really attend to culture online. In contrast, the TRB plans to take online media as seriously as print media—and will do so from an exuberantly Torontonian home base.
As for other publications with reviews, I actually edit the reviews section in one of them, Spacing, a magazine that considers public space and the city, and which has been at the forefront of articulating the new impression of Toronto that has grown here over the last decade. It was partly that experience that made me think it might be time to create a forum for a broader take on culture from this new Toronto perspective.
Really though, as for why—rumor has it that Canadian publishers have been griping of late about the lack of good review organs in this country, but I would never say there is actually a specific need for the TRB. We're doing this because we like books and ideas, and because we think Toronto abounds with interesting and talented writers—and mainly because we think it would be fun to do.
How much of the Toronto Review will be focused on Canadian works? Or is the name only an indication of where it is produced?
The name is an indication of where the editors live—a city we all feel excited about—so I think Canadian perspectives will emerge quite strongly by default, but we're not planning on having any rigid quotas and will publish whatever interests our editors and writers. Most of us have some kind of international affiliation or experience—that seems to be part of what it means to be from Toronto. (More than fifty-percent of Torontonians were born in other countries.) I hope that characteristic internationalism will infuse the TRB.
You mentioned in our initial communication that the Toronto Review will include a "heavy podcasting component." Can you elaborate?
We are planning to podcast public lectures in Toronto, as well as the essays we publish. It seems to me that audiences seek out book-review publications for access to sophisticated ideas put in easily consumable formats. Since many people seem to have more time for podcasts than for reading in-depth articles, exploring different delivery formats is a way to stay true to the spirit of traditional book review rags while catering to contemporary preferences.
Do you have the initial set of reviews already commissioned or written, and do you have a set of contributors who will write regularly for the TRB?
We're still putting the first issue together—so it's still too early for me to say in too much detail, however, I can say now that the celebrated Toronto columnist and author Shawn Micallef will be writing a review of the Toronto Twitter scene. Other contributors include filmmaker and Shakespeare scholar Holger Schott Syme, and Damian Rogers, a poet and former assistant editor at Poetry magazine.
Can you tell us about the TRB’s other editors?
Our editors are:
Karim Bardeesy, an editorial writer at the Globe and Mail (Canada's national newspaper), who holds a masters of public policy from the Kennedy school at Harvard.
Claire Battershill, who is also doing her PhD in English Literature and Book History at U of T, and who won Canada's prestigious CBC Literary Award last year.
Marc Glassman, who founded and ran Pages Books & Magazines—arguably Canada's most famous independent book store—for the thirty years it presided on Queen Street West in Toronto. He now continues to direct its incredibly popular book series This Is Not A Reading Series (TINARS), and run its offshoot sales organ Pages Beyond Bricks & Mortar. He is also a prolific film critic and edits two film magazines—Montage and POV.
Artist and business reporter Rachel Pulfer, who is currently International Programs Director at Journalists for Human Rights, while working on an MFA at the Ontario College of Art & Design.
You also mentioned before that you are "working to solidify a collaboration with the University of Toronto". What does that entail?
Basically, we have a small start-up grant from the University, but in the long run our collaboration with the U of T promises to be fairly multi-faceted.
One of our ambitions is to function as an interface between Torontonians and the U of T. To that end, we've recruited about forty-five U of T graduate-student volunteers who will be helping us podcast lectures as well as blog about local events and U of T research. We hope that this division of the TRB can become a training ground for young writers that is sort of halfway between professional and student journalism.
Meanwhile, by soliciting contributions from both professors and journalists we also want to help critics working inside and outside of academic institutions learn about and collaborate with each other. That motive is very much indebted to the fabled, charming, and sometimes strange U of T-affiliate Massey College, which has brought together graduate students, journalists, academics, and engaged Torontonians ever since the tenure of its Founding Master, the novelist Robertson Davies. Most of our editors met at the College, and Massey continues to be an unofficial home of the TRB.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what motivated you to start the TRB?
As I mentioned earlier, being the reviews editor of Spacing magazine showed me how the TRB could work. Meanwhile, as both an arts journalist and humanities scholar I could see huge imbalances between the resources available to professors writing about culture, and experts working outside of institutions, but I also felt that scholarly expertise had too few public outlets. Situating an outward-looking cultural publication within a university seemed like a way to create avenues for communication among scholars, journalists, readers, and enthusiasts in general, while allowing academics to contribute some of their energy and salaried time to the public celebration and discussion of culture.
Another contributing motivation has been starting and running the graduate-student speaking series WIDEN (Workshops for Inter-Discipline Exchange and Novelty). WIDEN is sort of like a This American Life episode about academic research instead of stories—at every workshop three graduate students from different disciplines present their research on a common theme. One of the excitements of WIDEN is how it challenges presenters to make their (often arcane) work accessible and engaging. For me that same objective—to make complex ideas public in simple language—is behind the deliciousness of the NYRB and the LRB, and is very much a motive of the TRB.
Final point—on ancient history—when I was a kid my grandfather—who I thought was the smartest and funniest person I'd ever meet—seemed to be constantly reading the New York Review of Books, so this whole enterprise may be motivated by my childhood (and ongoing) desire to meet smart and funny people.
FSG publicity and marketing vice-president Jeff Seroy is pals with the New Republic's literary editor Leon Wieseltier—the two seem compelled to inform people that they went to Columbia together. But when Seroy dismissed TNR's less-than-fawning review (by Ruth Franklin) of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom by saying that Wieseltier "specializes in drawing attention to his pages through consistently negative reviews," the old collegial spirit quickly dissipated. Wieseltier has responded to the charge by penning a rousing defense of the value of negative reviews in a literary world "that is amiable, bland, clubby, pious, careerist, relentlessly cheerful, desperate for numbers, suavely relativizing, and awash in worthless praise." Wieseltier writes, "I was not aware that it is a heresy to hold that Freedom is not a masterpiece. There is something churlish about my friend’s insistence upon critical unanimity. . . . No culture, no literature, ever advanced by niceness."
Civilians will have to wait until next week to read Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, but the New York Times has managed to get a copy (Woodward's newspaper, the Washington Post, also has an early review). The Times notes that though the book's revelations of differing opinons within the administration over the war in Afghanistan "have become public, the book suggests that they were even more intense and disparate than previously known." Also: "The United States has intelligence showing that manic-depression has been diagnosed in President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan." For readers puzzled by this bombshell, the Times offers a helpful bit of context: "Mr. Karzai’s mood swings have been a challenge for the Obama administration."
In 1980, Gilbert Rogin, an editor at Sports Illustrated and a well-respected novelist, had already published 33 pieces of short fiction in The New Yorker. Then, the magazine's fiction editor Roger Angell accused Rogin of repeating himself. Rogin hasn't written a word of fiction since then ("That motherfucker literally demoralized me," Rogin says of the Angell episode), but the author is having something of a renaissance, now that indie publisher Verse Chorus Press is bringing him back into print. This week, the Observer delivers a fun, expletive-spiked profile of Rogin, "one of the most irascible (often intemperately so) characters in the history of New York publishing."
Valerie Martin and Margaret Atwood, photo by Nancy Crampton.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood read from her latest novel, The Year of the Flood, at Monday’s opening night of the 92Y Reading Series, an evening one-on-one discussion series entering its 72nd season.
During the introduction, longtime friend and colleague Valerie Martin said Atwood was so prolific that she’s not sure who writes all of Atwood’s books. (“It might be a Sasquatch double,” deadpanned Martin, a wink at Atwood’s Canadian heritage). When Atwood is not writing, Martin said, the 70-year-old Ontario native is tweeting, blogging, or “on a carbon-neutral, around-the world tour” promoting not only her book, but environmental conservation and Bird Life International. “She’s maybe finishing a new novel backstage,” Martin quipped.
Arriving onstage to applause from the full house, Atwood told the story of a book tour a few years earlier. She was afraid she’d have no audience for the event due to a “terrible promoter,” but was able to fill the seats thanks to her following on Twitter. When asked how it felt to embrace technology, Atwood responded: “I haven’t embraced technology. I was more embraced by it.”
Following a reading of selections from Flood, the second novel in Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, the conversation between the old friends was entertaining and often comical—although many of the topics discussed were unsettling (e.g. eating maggots and antibiotics made from cockroach brains to survive the coming apocalypse). The MaddAddam trilogy’s theme of an “almost annihilation of the human race” was the starting point for the night’s most compelling and revelatory dialogue. Many of the speculative ideas raised in Atwood’s trilogy are, if not contemporary, then on the brink of happening. When asked by readers how she foresees these ideas playing out during the next twenty years, Atwood’s response was frank: “I don’t know. I won’t be around in 20 years, that’s your problem.” —Tynan Kogane
Tonight at 192 Books, Frederic Tuten will read from his new book Self-Portrait: Fictions. Recently, Bookforum's Peter Trachtenberg caught up with Tuten to ask him about cinema, his friendship with Roy Lichtenstein, and his "painterly prose."
Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, Known and Unknown, will be released on January 25. The book has been embargoed, so we won't be able to read Rummy's rhetorical twists, revelations about the events leading up to the Iraq War, or recollections of meeting Elvis until the book is in stores. In the meantime, can someone please cook up a book trailer?
The Rumpus presents its second "Culture Death Match"—this one between Tom Bissell (who is represented here by author Salvatore Pane) and Sarah Vowell (Amy Whipple). The battle is in part between Bissell's and Vowell's obsessions—video games and history, respectively—but also about men and women writers. "Think of the guys here on The Rumpus or over at HTMLGiant," Whipple writes. "You get to say what you want to say when you want to say it and it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re right—just so long as you act like you are."
Laura Kipnis's latest book attempts to help you become better not just at scandalizing people, but at being scandalized.