Luc Sante

  • Speak, Memories

    Last Witnesses was the second book by Svetlana Alexievich, originally published in 1985, the same year as her first, The Unwomanly Face of War. Both of them, like the three major works that followed—Zinky Boys (1990), Voices from Chernobyl (1997), and Secondhand Time (2013)—could be briefly and superficially described as oral histories. They indeed consist of testimony, recorded and transcribed, by witnesses to major events and periods in the history of the former Soviet Union.

    Oral history is an important research tool, but it has not often been treated as literature. Although it obviously

  • Camera Obscura

    Vivian Maier was an ambitious and prolific photographer who conducted her work in the open but kept its results almost entirely to herself. No one has any idea why that is. We know about her work only by chance, and through cultural and economic circumstances specific to the early twenty-first century. Had her end come even a decade earlier, it is quite likely that her photographs would have been destroyed and her name relegated to a mere census entry and a dim memory in very few minds. Instead she has been propelled to posthumous fame, and fortune by proxy. She has attained that rarefied

  • New York Book

    There have been many, many books published about New York City in the past twenty years, but Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (2011) stands apart. It’s not a history, although it contains and embodies history, and it’s not a polemic, although a hundred arguments can be heard in it. It is something much more fundamental: an account of deep engagement with a place. Rhodes-Pitts experiences the present through the window of the past, as well as vice versa. She knows what it’s like to go to an address and stand rooted in disbelief that what transpired

  • Artist in Extremis

    If David Wojnarowicz were alive today he’d be turning fifty-eight in September. Who knows what his art would look like by now? But there is every reason to think he would have been one of the relative few to have graduated from the hit-or-miss East Village art scene of the 1980s and gone on to greater glory. His stencils, icons, symmetry, hot colors, homoerotic imagery, and street art all remain visible in the work of others now. His ghost is just about discernible around the edges of stuff by Gilbert & George, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Barry McGee, and I’m sure you can think of more. Of course,

  • Murder, He Wrote

    You may remember the case: On a Saturday in July 2000, Lucie Blackman, a twenty-one-year-old British woman who had been working as a bar hostess in Tokyo, disappeared. Her remains were found seven months later, by which time her killer had been arrested. His trial did not end until nearly six years after that. I remembered the case only vaguely myself; it had gotten confused in my mind with a number of roughly similar cases of young women who had disappeared in foreign countries. Since I didn’t follow it, I hadn’t been aware of the agonizing slowness with which the case developed, a protraction

  • culture January 24, 2012

    The Mother Courage of Rock

    I first heard of Patti Smith in 1971, when I was seventeen. The occasion was an unsigned half-column item in the New York Flyer, a short-lived local supplement to Rolling Stone, marking the single performance of Cowboy Mouth, a play she cowrote and costarred in with Sam Shepard, and it was possibly her first appearance in the press. What caught my eye and made me save the clipping—besides the accompanying photo of her in a striped jersey, looking vulnerable—was her boast, “I’m one of the best poets in rock and roll.” At the time, I didn’t just think I was the best poet in rock and roll; I

  • The Quick-Change Artist

    A writer who actively resists categorization these days might seem to be deliberately flouting common sense. Writing is a lame-duck art form at best, since readers go for data, preferably without having to chop their way through encroaching idiosyncrasies such as style. For all we know, the pursuit of data will soon enough be free of the encumbrance and ambiguity of words. In the meantime, the writer should be building a brand identity and hitching it to a neatly delimited subject area. If you’ve written a successful memoir about fishing, Manitoba, and suicidal ideation you would do well not

  • Soul Inspector

    In 1927, Georges Simenon, the phenomenally prolific Belgian author of crime novels, helped engineer a publicity stunt that sounds like a forecast of reality TV: He sat in a glass booth and wrote a novel in a week, in full view of the public. Simenon was all but unknown then, a journeyman author of indifferent pulp novelettes under a variety of pseudonyms. The feat made him famous, became the first thing many people knew about him. It was certainly the first thing I ever knew about him—I heard the story from my father, who at the time of the performance was growing up a few miles from Simenon’s