• July 13, 2011

    Gender Troubles

    To write fiction is to challenge the most basic of human facts: that we don't have access to other people’s minds. Authors are more able than most to ignore the audacity of occupying other selves, though—it's in their job description. And what's a more obvious challenge than assuming the consciousness of the opposite gender?

    That some of our most canonized heroines—Clarissa Harlowe, Isabel Archer, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina—are products of male imaginations is not surprising. With nowhere to go besides the parlor and nothing to do but read accounts of people they would never meet, women were

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  • Christopher Isherwood in 1973, photo by Allan Warren.
    July 07, 2011

    All of Me

    Pretty much every fiction writer has had their readers guess (and ask) what real events inspired them. Some writers complicate that guessing game by inserting their actual names into their work. Roberto Bolaño and Paul Auster have made cameo appearances in their books the way Hitchcock walked through his movies.

    J. M. Coetzee spends his most recent novel Summertime getting eviscerated by fictional representations of women he knew in the early ’80s. Philip Roth casts two “Philip Roths” in Operation Shylock. While “David Wallace, age forty, SS. No. 975-04-2012,” announces sixty-odd pages into

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  • May 06, 2011

    Life after Larsson

    Where does the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s sadistic Salander series leave the rest of Scandinavian literature in translation? In his shadow, it seems, or branded as a Crime Wave thriller—one can imagine a classic such as Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa marketed as The Girl with the Coffee Plantation. Meanwhile, a smorgasbord of literary fiction from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark is available or forthcoming in English, providing readers with a look beyond Larsson’s gloomy world of torture chambers and heartless bureaucrats. The following novels make up a kind of anti-genre to the dominance of

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  • Othello and Iago
    May 02, 2011

    Dangerous Friends

    Everyone loves reading about a diabolical mastermind who plots the downfall of his unwitting enemies. But there’s a variation on the literary villain whom I find particularly compelling: the dangerous friend who lays waste to the lives of his lovers, neighbors, and associates. The prototype of this character is Shakespeare’s Iago—a trusted friend who has everyone’s worst interests at heart. Shakespeare never fully explains the mystery of the dangerous friend: Why does he act that way? As Joan Didion puts it in the famous opening line of her novel Play It as It Lays, “What makes Iago evil?” This

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  • March 17, 2011

    So You Want to be an Artist?

    In an effort to rebrand themselves as pragmatic exemplars of capitalist utility, art schools have lately emphasized preparing students for the outside world: There are seminars on grant-writing, as well as classes on building and presenting a marketable portfolio. But what about courses on How to Cope With Neglect? Would it be too self-defeating to offer master classes called The Art World is Generally Speaking Not a Meritocracy, or We Can’t Teach You Charisma?

    When I give lectures in art school, I gaze from the podium before speaking and size up the room. And I always see myself at the

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  • The Winchester Mystery House
    December 10, 2010

    Haunted Houses

    The haunted house has performed a dramatic, if often caricatured, role in the literary and cinematic narratives of the last century. Over time, the once popular “old dark house” tropes were abandoned—or at the very least, relegated to genre fare. Now, in the place of exotic castles and remote mansions (think Walpole's Otranto or Radcliffe's Udolpho), apartment blocks, duplexes, tract houses, trailer parks, and roadside motels have become the haunted spaces of the twenty-first century. The contemporary supernatural dwelling is no longer a reliquary of spirits and ghouls, but rather a porous

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  • September 24, 2010

    Laugh Lines

    As any comedian knows, the quickest way to kill a joke is to study it too closely or attempt to explain it. So how can one be serious about comedy? These books manage to capture the fleeting charm of comedy without stepping on the punch line.

    Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy published this month by Chicago Review Press.

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  • Ralph Ellison
    September 15, 2010

    Posthumously Published Novel Fragments

    The recent publication of Nabokov’s index cards in The Original of Laura made me consider the fate of similar projects during the past few centuries. It’s striking how often we novelists are struck down in the middle of writing our weakest work—and yet these novels intrigue because, if only the writer had lived, the book might have really “come together.” As my days dwindle down, I contemplate writing chunks of say, four or five different novels: That’ll make them miss me when I’m gone! And yet what self-respecting writer doesn’t have those four or five novels already, in some drawer somewhere

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  • Fire Island Beach by Sanford Robinson Gifford
    July 14, 2010

    Anxious Vacations

    As we hunch over computers in airless office cubicles, many of us wish we could take a break from our daily routine. But vacationing can be an anxious endeavor in its own right. The following books begin with pleasant holidays, but end up delivering something darker and more complex. Or as the perennially grand-touring Miss Lavish muses while strolling the alleys of Florence in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View: “How delightfully warm! But a wind down the side streets cut like a knife, didn’t it?”

    Naomi Fry is an editor of Paper Monument.

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  • Eden Hexagonal Structure, photo by Eva Kröcher (image used under the terms of the GFDL.)
    June 25, 2010

    Utopian Fiction

    The history of utopian literature is very nearly the history of civilization. Lewis Mumford claimed in The City in History that the original utopias—those of Plato and Aristotle—were a reaction to the dystopia of Athens, upending the usual argument that dystopia is the result of utopian experimentation gone wrong. In fits and spurts, and in a variety of forms, utopian literature has played a central role in the advent of almost every significant ideology in history, from democracy to fascism. In the contemporary era, when literature seems increasingly disconnected from the real world, the books

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  • Lajos Tihanyi, Portrait of Tristan Tzara, 1927, oil on canvas.
    June 03, 2010

    A Dose of Dada

    In the contemporary digital world, where it seems everything has been said, done, and made instantly available, one word might prove to be a useful corrective: Dada. Born in 1916, the anti-art movement continues to influence critics, poets, artists, and tastemakers. Sustained by its many paradoxes, Dada challenges staid institutions with questions that provoke debate and spur artistic production. In the poetic realm, Dada is no less contradictory or revelatory, offering ways of opening up language that have not yet been exhausted. The volumes here are recently published (or translated) doses

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  • Lee Lozano, Untitled, 1970, ink on notebook paper. Courtesy of the Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser & Wirth.
    May 21, 2010

    Paint It Black

    These books by artists—mostly painters—read like diaries. They reveal the successes and failures, highs and lows, of working in the late 1960s up through the ’80s. Rather than telling studio stories, the artists focus on art and life; some, like Lee Lozano, make a case for fusing the two, while others offer a subtle acknowledgement of and attitude of defiance against the “idiocy of painting,” as Gerhard Richter put it in his collection of writings The Daily Practice of Painting. The recent revival of these artists adds yet another layer of complexity, but their narratives speak to something

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