21 March 2011

A nice look at The Late American Novel over at the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog.  Blogger Rachel Hurn reminds us of a film classic, one of my favorite Hepburn-Tracy movies, “Desk Set” — in which a gifted research librarian (Hepburn) and an efficiency consultant peddling a revolutionary, room-sized computer (Tracy) go head-to-head over the human vs machine conundrum.

The fight between Hepburn and Ms. Warren [a computer technician] captures the sort of conundrum considered by the contributors to the new essay collection “The Late American Novel,” edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee […] Nancy Jo Sales, who briefly mentions “Desk Set,” wonders whether her life in books would have been the same if they had always come to her via Kindle. “There’s something about the physicality of a book,” Sales writes, “the way it looks and feels and even smells—the notes written in the margins—that makes it a living, breathing companion (who, like yourself, is actually dying).”

Thanks especially to Ms. Hurn for these kind words:

My favorite paragraph is by Sonya Chung. She suggests that while we can’t ignore the elephant in the room (or the room-sized computer, or the iPad 2 advertisements), a writer’s optimism says, “Hope is what we exercise in spite of our knowledge that things may not get better.”

15 March 2011

From Jenni Quilter‘s essay in the exhibition catalogue for “Tibor de Nagy Gallery Painters and Poets,” which closed earlier this month:

“[The publisher] didn’t just find some painter and some poet who would work together.  She asked two men who really knew each other’s work and life backwards, which means to include all the absurdity and civilization a lively mind sees in friendship and art.”

Larry Rivers on “Stones,” a collaboration (12 lithographs) between Rivers and Frank O’Hara

I’m intrigued by these examples of collaboration; there is a feeling of a different time, when artists mingled more freely, perhaps more deeply, and collaborations sprung from these intimacies.

“…the accumulation of time spent with a friend – the discussions about art, parties, movies visited, theater productions, visits to the opera, beaches swum at, vacations gone on, heartbreaks listened to, ecstasies encouraged, bitchiness and generosity, slow fades and sudden infatuations – these experiences might be the shared ground from which an imagined world could be created.”

Drawing to James Schuyler‘s poem “Sunday”

I’ve been thinking lately about the comeback of the stable nuclear family to the lives of artists.  The artists and writers I know are all very committed to their families – to material and emotional stability.  I am no exception.  This can only be a good thing.  Except, I wonder, maybe, for art, the creation of which is always on some level at odds with life.  Stability requires schedules, boundaries, a certain measure of containment.

“Friendships are amorphous creatures, prone to sprouting new limbs and self-amputating others, easily misidentified and disconcerting in the sudden strength and satiations of appetite.  Their development is messy, and it’s this fluidity that allows projects to be easily proposed.”

Pyrography: Poem and Portrait of John Ashbery II

The back-to-family zeitgeist  has perhaps improved upon the messiness of artistic lives from a previous generation.  For example, I’ve been reading Javier Marias‘s Written Lives, which (according to the back cover) chronicles “the fairly disastrous” stories of twenty great world authors – Faulkner, Joyce, Turgenev, Malcolm Lowry, Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, etc alia.  Disastrous, indeed. And yet, I wonder if in gaining health and stability, we aren’t losing some fluidity.

In Bed

In the end, we do and make and live as we can, as best we can.  Rivers, O’Hara, Ashbery, Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Koch, Schuyler, Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher – these artists collaborated because they could, because the energy and chemistry was there, because they wanted to work, because why not, what did they have to lose.  You just can’t force that kind of thing.

12 March 2011

These links at Bookforum’s Omnivore, under the topic “Is There Anything Good About Men?“, are all smart and fascinating.  Discussions around biology v. sociology, instinct and culture, sex and relationships and economics, from male and female perspectives.

Are men and women in crisis? is the question at the heart of these discussions.  Perhaps leaning more toward the crisis belonging to men, but with the implication that if men don’t know who they are or how to be in modern society, then women suffer equally.

I’m thinking about modern male-hood for a few reasons: a recent profile I wrote on James Salter; my own fiction, which currently evolves around two male characters; and my current addiction to “Friday Night Lights” (thanks, Maud Newton).   More, btw, on FNL, in a later post.

8 March 2011

I know the title of this post sounds like something from a trade magazine.  I actually am a self-proclaimed un-expert on this issue, but I’m trying to get up to speed. According to Publisher’s Weekly (a week or so ago – see, I know, I’m behind), Random House was the last of the big publishing houses to switch to the agency model of e-book pricing:

In the agency model, publishers set the price and designate an agent—in this case the bookseller—who will sell the book and receive the 30% commission. Adopting the model for e-books tends to mean e-book prices will rise, something both publishers and independent retailers applaud. Publishers believe low e-book prices devalue their books and cannibalize hardcover sales. Under the agency model once a price has been set it cannot be changed or discounted by the retailer and independent e-book retailers believe the higher prices of the agency model allow them to compete with big e-book vendors.

What I’m not clear on is why Random House took so long, what were they weighing in terms of the downside of the agency model.  I know it’s great for consumers if e-books cost $1.99; but it’s not good for book sales, and thus not good for authors.  Some things (this author believes) are worth paying for, and if we value them, we’ll hopefully be willing to do so.

3 March 2011

It’s a little like falling in love, when you find a kind of literary mentor from afar.

I had a great, great fear that I was bent on doing something for which I have no ability, and that took years and years to get rid of…that I was dedicating my life to something I was not fit for.

I am uncertain about every line I write and I am uncertain until I get readers.

Like every form of art, literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death.

-from Michael Ondaatje‘s introduction to The Paris Stories

That last quote makes Gallant sound perhaps melodramatic about life as an artiste, but if you read her work you know that melodrama is not a part of her lexicon or world view.  She is speaking, I think, to the stakes of literature – the quality of both our reading and writing, how real is our commitment – if you have chosen it as your path. Gallant chose it above all else, this is clear.  I think about how selfish that choice must have seemed  to others throughout her life; and yet look at what she’s given us.

1 March 2011

Check out The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, in which I have a short essay called, “In the Corporeal Age, We Will Know the Names of Trees.” With essays by Jonathan Lethem, Nancy Jo Sales, Rivka Galchen, Victor LaValle, Emily St. John Mandel, Joe Meno, Benjamin Kunkel, Victoria Patterson, Garth Risk Hallberg, and others.  The book is officially released today!

At Amazon, click here.

The book’s Facebook page, click here.


1 March 2011

Today, March 1, the NYC Council is holding a hearing on continued regulatory issues surrounding hydrofracking (the subject of the film GASLAND) – the Halliburton-developed process for extracting natural gas from shale. Why should you care?  Because the process poses serious threats to the safety of drinking water, i.e. the entire New York watershed.

It was disappointing that GASLAND did not win the Oscar for Best Documentary.  I hope you’ll go see it anyway; it’s educational, disturbing, and weirdly entertaining, in that “Are you kidding me?” kind of way.

The NY Times finally did a major article on the issue, published this past Sunday.  Here is an excerpt:

High-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing—or hydrofracking—carries significant environmental risks. It involves injecting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressures to break up rock formations and release the gas.

With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene, and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.

While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.

The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.

The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.

As for me, I live part-time in Pennsylvania, 1/2 mile from a well site (they’ve already drilled the “test well”), which is very upsetting.  See the movie – you’ll be glad to be informed on this issue!