• August 03, 2016

    Reforming the Racist Criminal Justice System

    Throughout the Democratic primaries, police brutality and systematic discrimination in the criminal justice system have become critical campaign issues, due in large part to the unrelenting pressure placed on candidates by activists involved in Black Lives Matter and other social movements. Criminal-justice reform, with an emphasis on abolishing racial inequality, now occupies a central place in the 2016 Democratic Party Platform.

    The party’s criminal-justice-reform agenda is outlined under a section of the platform entitled "Bring Americans Together and Remove Barriers to Opportunity" and

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  • May 26, 2016

    Fame's Growing Pains

    Consider the following simile: Growing up is like getting famous. The confusing internal and external changes, the influx of sexual attention, with its addictive qualities, and the magnified sense of shame. There’s a reason Disney Channel shows have found coming-of-fame to be such a useful narrative tool. While the coming-of-age novel often employs supernatural metaphors to explain puberty and its burdens—vampires or werewolves as an allegory of otherness, adult responsibility, and animal desire—burgeoning fame may offer a way to understand adolescence that’s closer to home, even as it remains

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  • February 22, 2016

    Machine Learning

    “Machine Learning” is a catchall term for software that improves computers’ ability to recognize patterns and solve problems through examples and feedback. Deep Learning is based on similar methods, but increases efficiency by mimicking the gang mentality of neurons, creating convolutional neural nets similar to the human mind, allowing computers to grasp abstract meaning with less guidance. The combination of these two learning approaches has put humanity on a rapid course toward creating sophisticated (and ubiquitous) artificial intelligence. The gold standard of AI has been a machine that

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  • January 29, 2016

    Selling Citizenship

    The idea of buying citizenship tends to invoke Bond villains or the louche drifters in Graham Greene’s novels. But it’s also a very real practice that offends nationalists, rankles politicians, and incites populist rage. It hints at a breakdown of the social contract, a “marketization” of everyday life that was practically unimaginable just ten years ago, and perhaps even the creeping obsolescence of the nation-state itself.

    Since the mid-2000s, citizenship has become a legitimate, above-board industry, one of the high-end services that bankers, lawyers, consultants, and accountants come

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  • November 23, 2015

    Southern Comedy

    When it comes to literature, the word southern practically begs for the follow-up gothic. A certain set of tropes spring to mind when you mention the South: alligators and frosted julep cups, hypocritical preachers and Civil War widows, decaying mansions and petit fours. With all the antebellum remnants to contend with, you don’t expect anyone to be very funny.

    But what I found when I worked on my book South Toward Home was that, too often, people are missing the humor in southern literature, the comic asides in the tales of deep-fried grotesque. Just listen to Flannery O’Connor read “A Good

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  • November 12, 2015

    Thought Laid Bare: Notebooks by Artists and Writers

    Looking through the notebook of an artist or writer is a revelatory experience: To enter their laboratory, where they are free of the weight of expectation, is to witness the unpredictable process in which ideas, materials, forms are first conceived and tested, discarded or developed. Notebooks are mysteriously alive—thought laid bare. Notes, sketches, and collaged scraps reveal the strange and compelling metamorphoses that result when writers and artists experiment and play, opening the field of possibilities. What notebooks have—in comparison with more finely wrought, finished works—are

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  • September 11, 2015

    Sex and Hysteria in the 1980s

    In the 1980s, an idea took hold throughout the US that very young children existed in a near-constant state of sexual danger. A moral panic ensued, in which many day-care workers were wrongly accused of committing awful, elaborate, sometimes satanic crimes against the children in their care. Some version of that fear remains a largely unquestioned feature of contemporary American life—see the persistent myth of a trenchcoat-clad predator stalking the playground—and its sources are extraordinarily varied. While working over the last few years on my book, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic

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  • July 28, 2015

    Feminism, Dominance, and Submission

    It can seem a tall order to find literature about BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadomasochism) that is both erotic and cerebral, and that can depict a woman playing the submissive role without appearing to demean her. Several years ago, Katie Roiphe and other journalists seized on the popularity of E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey series to suggest that women who enjoy the bottom role in kink do so because their increasing economic and political power have begun to feel like too much of a chore. But it should be obvious that power willingly surrendered as part of

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  • June 08, 2015

    The Literature of Obsolescence

    William Gaddis, the author perhaps most concerned with the entropic decay of older systems and organizational principles in fiction, famously taught a class at Bard College in 1979 on “The Literature of Failure.” The books on his syllabus, which included texts ranging from Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, gestured toward an ethic of personal failure or insufficiency—a sense of one’s faulty position within the baroque machinery of American productivity.

    The threat of obsolescence takes many forms, and may have marked stylistic

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  • May 14, 2015

    The Innocent/Corrupt

    A narrator is a much stranger toy at the novelist’s disposal than is usually thought. It’s not just something as depressingly ordinary as a character—more a vast system of smuggling. And there’s one kind of narrative voice or tone in particular that offers a way to explore that difficult relationship at the hidden center of every art form: the one between writer and reader (or spectator). Although this tone seems to exist most easily in novels, it isn’t only to be found there—it appears wherever anyone tries to figure out what a monologue might mean, or how to talk to a you. It is garrulous,

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  • May 04, 2015

    The Nicholson Baker Course

    When I starting reading Nicholson Baker, so as to write my homage, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, I quickly grew concerned, because Baker’s many writerly interests got all jumbled up in my mind. It’s just this kind of jumble that triggers the taxonomical reflex in teachers of writing and literature—jumbles must be ordered, organized into units of study—and I did not stop being concerned until I realized that embracing this sense of jumbledness, books and ideas seeming to clamber all over one another, would produce the best possible portrait of Baker’s mind. I offer the following

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  • October 30, 2014

    Andre Dubus's best characters

    Andre Dubus’s literary superpower is to hit upon that one thing about a character that makes him him, or her her. And in so doing, with subtle, clever details—breadcrumbs on the trail to the nucleus of a character—he makes a reader want to keep going, because she knows exactly who these people are and has to know what happens to them. It’s a feat that fellow short-form heavyweights Chekhov and Carver knew all about. Rather than getting bogged down in the details—hair and eye color, the make of automobiles, the inconsequential cousins and endless backstories—Dubus trains his eye on the here and

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