• print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

    Sense and Saleability

    DWINDLING ENLISTMENT AMONG STUDENTS and deteriorating market share among consumers; confusion as to immediate method and cloudiness as to ultimate mission. . . . Professors of literature have good reason to feel insecure about the status of literature and literary scholarship. And, like many an insecure person, the discipline of literary studies has grown increasingly interested in and respectful of popular taste as its own popularity has declined. Between the Great Recession and 2019, the number of undergrads majoring in English shrank by more than a quarter, and it’s difficult to imagine the

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

    The Laconic Verses

    DEPRESSION, FOR ALL THAT HAS BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT IT, remains in many ways a voiceless illness. If depression were an actor in a play, it would be one without words, its presence a reminder that psychic darkness isn’t invisible so much as carelessly—or, as it may be, willfully—overlooked. Since time immemorial, clinical depression—the kind that sometimes ends in suicide—has not been given its due as a legitimate ailment, with claims on our attention and concern every bit as much as cancer. Like many psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, the ratio between biological determinants and

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

    Complex Messiahs

    IT TOOK ONLY A COUPLE MONTHS after moving to Memphis for me to realize I was living in a necropolis. You have Elvis’s Graceland temple by the airport; the solemn Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered; a famous cemetery where Isaac Hayes and Sam Phillips are buried and—in case you’re still doubting my assessment—downtown’s hulking black Bass Pro Shops pyramid, where the redneck pharaohs await the endless hunting and fishing of the afterlife. Sometimes I’d feel I was walking not through a city made for the living, but a temple compound dedicated to gods that can’t hear us. And

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

    Approaching Eye Level

    UPON HER ARRIVAL at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1993, Pakistan-born artist Shahzia Sikander was asked by an instructor if she was there “to make East meet West.” In this volume’s interview with Vasif Kortun, Sikander goes on to note that “no one else was asked such a question,” and that she “became aware very quickly that America was about a black-and-white relationship, where being brown was not yet fully visible.” As an undergraduate in Lahore, Sikander had produced The Scroll, a watercolor depicting daily life that won national recognition for its adroit engagement with the Indo-Persian

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  • review • December 01, 2021

    Our winter issue is online now!

    Welcome to the Dec/Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Bookforum! In this edition, our writers pick the best books of 2021, Melissa Anderson delves into the diaries of Patricia Highsmith, Benjamin Kunkel considers how Amazon has changed the way we read, and much more. Read the issue online here, and consider subscribing or gifting a subscription with our holiday discount.

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  • review • November 30, 2021

    Rachel Greenwald Smith’s argument against compromise

    In the 1982 documentary All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story, an unseen male interviewer asks the late singer and actress whether she would “compromise” for love. Kitt’s brow furrows, and she faces the camera. “Compromise?” she demands, “Compromising for what reason? . . . What is compromise?” Surely Kitt knew the meaning of the word, but she’s not seeking definitions here. Rather, her question—“What is compromise?”—fastens a severe and distinctly skeptical beam of light on the concept. Such scrutiny might lead us to the word’s darker resonances: to spoil or imperil. After all, there is risk

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  • excerpt • November 29, 2021

    An excerpt from The Art of Revision: The Last Word

    While Flannery O’Connor’s example suggests the value of holding on to and interrogating the kind of anomalous details that don’t do enough work in early drafts, there are also those cherished elements we resist cutting that should probably go.

    Ben Lerner describes one such instance in his autofiction 10:04 concerning a short story of his, “The Golden Vanity,” that appeared in the New Yorker. He relates its conception and shares an extract of an early draft—“the prose I generated first, the kernel of the work”—detailing a plot to fake letters from famous writers that the protagonist hopes to

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  • interview • November 24, 2021

    A roundtable on comedy and writing with Melissa Broder, Megan Milks, Torrey Peters, and Brontez Purnell

    Megan Milks: You’re all hilarious. Where does the humor in your work come from? What kinds of strategies have you used to hone your comedic sensibilities?

    Brontez Purnell: My humor is based in a very deep form of tragedy. Essentially, I have to laugh to keep from crying, or rather, I feel like I have such deep hands in comedy and drama at the same time that I’m always creating a balance. I also don’t feel like I’m really “honing” my comedy at this point. Sarcastic humor has become so formulaic and weaponized against us, that the older I get, I actually feel like my humor is becoming more

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  • excerpt • October 28, 2021

    An excerpt from Black Paper on Edward Said’s love of music and late Beethoven

    A couple of hours from Beirut, if you’re fortunate with the traffic, you come within touching distance of the Syrian border. A course northward of that brings you through the Beqaa Valley and into Baalbek. We clambered through the palimpsest of ruins in Baalbek—the Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, and Muslim ruins—and, wary of the proximity to the hot war just a few miles away, wondered if this is how people get kidnapped. That evening, coming back from the ruins, we thought we’d stop in Broummana, and see Edward Said’s grave.

    Literature is haunted by gravesite pilgrimages. The acolyte seeks

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  • excerpt • October 26, 2021

    The parallels between Walden and Thoreau devotee John Cage’s 4′33″

    After reading Walden, I like to rip it up. Not the book itself, but the sentences and passages that Thoreau so painstakingly put together. When I do, I make it a party, or at least a group affair. On various occasions I have convinced a small group of people to choose sentences at random (some short, some Thoreauvianly long) and then to read those sentences aloud, simultaneously, at various different tempos and modulating volumes, while standing in a circle. The result is an aural montage: some words and phrases lost in the river-rush of words, some bobbing to the surface, like Ishmael at the

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  • excerpt • October 19, 2021

    Revisiting Harold Rosenberg’s 1952 essay on the American Action Painters

    At the outset of his influential 1952 essay, “The American Action Painters,” Harold Rosenberg announced:

    What makes any definition of a movement in art dubious is that it never fits the deepest artists in the movement—certainly not as well as, if necessary, it does the others. Yet without the definition something essential in those best is bound to be missed. The attempt to define is like a game in which you cannot possibly reach the goal from the starting point but can only close in on it by picking up each time from where the last play landed.

    Rosenberg knew that the “game” of

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  • excerpt • September 30, 2021

    An excerpt from Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon

    Fiction in the Age of Amazon is the symbolic provision of more—above all, of more various and interesting “life experience” than can be had by any mortal being, let alone one constrained by the demands of work and family. It is a commodification of this experience, shaped to the reader’s limitations and recurring therapeutic needs.

    A physical book is in this sense a box of time, and an e-book the virtualization of the same. It is a volume in which time has seemed to stop. Or, rather, it has been put on a kind of imaginary endless loop inasmuch as fictional time moving in sequence from a novel’s

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