24 September 2012

I had the privilege of seeing The Culture Project’s 10th Anniversary revival of The Exonerated.  I missed it the first time around, but I remember hearing much about it.  A friend of mine was at the time working in Alabama as a defense attorney on death row cases, and she’d urged me to see it.  I’m glad I had this second chance.


The idea that people are wrongly accused for capital crimes is now, if not “well-known,” much better known than it was in 1992.  So the impact of the play may not have been as strong as it would have been had I seen it 10 years ago.  And yet still… maybe the measure of its success as art, in addition to documentation, is that I walked out of there feeling a lot of different things simultaneously:  grateful, for my freedom and my life; moved and inspired, by the enlargement of soul that these “characters” demonstrated after losing so many years of their lives, after losing, really, their very lives; frightened, that we live in a society whose justice system is so deeply flawed; ashamed, of my pettiness and limits of character; envious, of the depth and breadth of love these people, these exonerated, had given and received throughout their struggle.  It would be foolhardy to imagine that I would become a different person after seeing the show, but I do truly feel changed, in some invisible but significant way, for seeing it.

The cast rotates (brilliant for publicity, and for the show itself), and we had the good fortune of an amazing group, including Chris Sarandon, Stockard Channing, Delroy Lindo, JD Williams, and a non-rotating cast who performed impeccably.

Related, filmmaker Errol Morris spoke on this week’s “On the Media” about Jeffrey MacDonald, a man sentenced to death 30 years ago for the murder of his wife and daughters.  Morris is convinced that MacDonald is innocent and has written a book about it, a revisionist history, A Wilderness of Error.  Will this be THE THIN BLUE LINE 2.0?


21 April 2012

A lot’s been happening in the publishing world, it seems — with the DOJ going after Apple and the corporate conglomerates over e-book price points and whatnot.  It occurs to me that I am really in denial — and out of touch — when I start to feel frustrated that no one ever speaks to how e-book pricing affects authors.  The author’s voice or stake in this is, apparently, so WAY off the radar.  The cost of a book once seemed to mean something for whether an author got paid; now it’s more a matter of whether corporate publishers can stay in business, keep from laying off half their employees, etc.

Case in point: this week’s “On the Media” program at NPR is called, “Publishing: Adapt or Die.”  I was pretty blue after listening to it.  It actually poked holes in my sense of purpose re: finishing my second novel. It wasn’t because of the money issue, but more the readership issue, the declaration that “no one reads literary fiction” anymore.

I started this blog in 2009, a year before my (first) book came out.  A lot happens in three years; publishing years are like dog years these days.  I was reminded of how much has changed when I co-moderated a panel at Columbia last week on “Current Landscapes in Publishing.”  One of the questions I asked was whether the panelists felt optimistic or troubled by what’s happening in their corner of the publishing world, and every one of them was optimistic, excited, energized, etc.  Five out of the six were writers themselves in addition to being editors; the publications/organizations with which they were involved ranged from mainstream/corporate to super-indie/startup, and a few in between.  None of them seemed concerned about the fact that they might never see monetary compensation for their own work.  They were all happy that content was booming, that literary culture (online) was thriving, that it’s “a reader’s market” now.

Two of the publications represented — The New Yorker and Electric Literature — do in fact compensate writers significantly for their work.  I wonder how sustainable each model is into the future. (The co-creators of EL do not get paid, which is the standard for editors of most new and online literary publications.)

I’m slow to this adjustment (but that’s not surprising, I’m generally slow about most things).  Hopefully I’ll get there.  Or maybe not.  Does anyone else think we should be mad — more mad, a little mad — that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living as a writer?  To me, there is actually a significant difference between no compensation and modest compensation: it’s the difference between having to devote full-time to non-writing work versus part-time.  It’s the difference between getting a book written and not getting a book written.  I’m not talking about six-figure advances, I’m talking about any advances at all.  I’m talking about piecing together bits of income to live a simple, low-overhead life.

Ugh.  I’m devolving here.  Ok, let me turn this around and give a shout-out to all those literary publications and institutions who are scraping up money for writers.  Thank you thank you thank you.


p.s. Of course my blind spot here in this rant is that the consumer has to be willing to pay for the content. One of our panelists was wise to say so.  I’ve been trying to be more mindful/faithful about myself as a literary consumer, about subscriptions, about paying for what I possibly can.  At the risk of sounding corny, every little bit counts!

19 September 2011

I appreciated Amy Sullivan‘s piece at TIME about questioning politicians on religion.  She wrote in response to Bill Keller‘s NY Times column, in which he challenged journalists to ask “tougher” questions about candidates’ religious beliefs and practices. Sullivan urges journalists to ask not “tougher” questions, but more relevant and informed ones.  Generally speaking, “liberal” journalists have less direct experience in, for example, evangelical or – particularly relevant this year – Mormon communities, and thus often ask questions that, in Sullivan’s words, “compar[e] religious believers to people who believe in space aliens, and refer[…] to evangelical Christian churches as ‘mysterious’ and ‘suspect.'”

For the first time, it seems a real-life political analysis may actually be more hopeful – less cynical – than a TV one.  As an avid watcher of The West Wing, I would often lament real-life politics and wish for Aaron Sorkin‘s version; but in this case, I recall a (very good) episode about religion and campaigning, where the Republican candidate Arnie Vinick (played by Alan Alda) – a non-churchgoing John McCain straight-talking centrist type – says at a press conference: “If you ask candidates about religion, you’re just asking to be lied to.”  Keep religion completely out of it, Sorkin seemed to be saying in this episode; it’s irrelevant, and always disingenuously presented besides. Sullivan is saying, Oh no, it’s very relevant, but not in the way that goofy gotcha questioning is trying to imply.

I especially appreciate Sullivan’s exhortation for journalists to learn, and use, the language of religion(s) more intelligently. She offers the examples of “devout” and being “called” (to a vocation in politics); both terms that she feels are lazily employed in political journalism.

You can listen to Sullivan talk with Bob Garfield at NPR’s On the Media here.

19 July 2011

If you listen to This American Life on NPR, you know that the show’s excellence lies in its storytelling, and its humanizing of complex issues.  Well, they’ve done it again – here is a painfully accurate portrait of the natural gas drilling conflicts (“fracking”), from the perspective of several key stakeholders, in Pennsylvania.  In the stories highlighted here, we see corporate profit vs public health, the ties between academic research and political power (i.e. funding), short-term vs long-term views on community wellness, and class conflict between local farmers and newcomers (usually urbanite transplants).

Despite all of the investigative pieces out there in the mainstream that question the health, environmental, financial, and social costs of hydrofracking, drilling goes forth with full force – somewhere in the realm of 100,000 wells to be drilled in the NY/PA region. (Governor Cuomo intends to lift the moratorium on fracking in NY state.)

My other posts on fracking here.

4 June 2011

I had just been thinking about re-reading – its value – when I came across this article at Open (via Bookforum’s Paper Trail).  The article claims that most of us re-read as a “guilty pleasure” – for “the comfort of the same old story and the same old characters and the same old ending…”  Hmm.  The writer continues:

To pick up a yellowed, tattered copy of a Turgenev or a Tagore is almost a guilty pleasure today, one that has to be explained away by the need to rediscover old texts from new perspectives. But why pretend? I reread, not in search of new meanings in familiar words and sentences, but precisely to taste the old meaning all over again. In exactly the same way, every single time.

Well.  I’d been thinking about this because I was running along the Hudson River path and (distracting myself from knee pain by) listening to “Selected Shorts”.  The story was Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which most of us have read at least twice by the time we graduate college.  I was just about to fast forward through it (the next story was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”), but then I thought, Well, why not listen.  The reader was the eminent Terrence Mann.

I was very glad that I decided to listen.  The story really did strike me in new ways – as not only a traditional narrative of human psychology and guilt, but also a compelling consideration of the fluidity of wisdom, madness, and “nervousness” – a perspective that always intrigues me, as it subverts all conventional notions of morality and normality.  It’s not exactly that I saw something new, but that I apprehended the layers somehow more clearly, and the implications of the ideas sunk in more deeply.  What’s “crazy,” and who decides? (Regarding the timelessness of these ideas, there is a new book by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test, that has been getting a lot of attention.)

Perhaps this is also an argument for “reading” literature in different formats – print, audio, etc.  But the other thing I considered (as I hauled myself up an endless set of steps in Riverside Park) was how well Mann – whose reading was superb – had simply followed the rhythms inherent in the text itself. Consider the frenetic short sentence pacing in this passage:

… for many minutes the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.

And the smoother, longer, compound sentences in this passage, which serves as a kind of stabilizing fermata, following the above:

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence.

The acceleration and choppiness in this passage, which concludes this section:

I took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly so cunningly, that no human eye — not even his — could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing to wash out — no stain of any kind — no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that.

I love the sounds, rhythms and absence of comma in “so cleverly so cunningly,” which feels like slipping over a waterfall.

The story in fact grabbed me anew from its first line – True!  Nervous — very, very nervous I had been and am!  But why will you say that I am mad?  I actually laughed out loud listening to it – my very own mad nervousness escaping me.

So I think that this claim that we’re all “pretending” to see or experience something new when we re-read is rather thin.  You’d have to be completely static in mind and soul for “exactly the same way, every single time,” which strikes me as virtually impossible.

25 April 2011

A nice piece by Linda Homes at NPR (thanks to Jane for passing along) about the anxiety many of us have these days re: “so much to read, so little time.”  She makes the argument that the sadness we feel about “what we’re missing,” because there’s just too much good stuff out there, is also a beautiful thing; and that we should resist “culling,” which is her term for coping with the volume of choices by mentally eliminating entire categories of art from our “worthwhile” list.

Culling is easy; it implies a huge amount of control and mastery. Surrender, on the other hand, is a little sad. That’s the moment you realize you’re separated from so much. That’s your moment of understanding that you’ll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there’s something being performed somewhere in the world that you’re not seeing that you would love.

It’s sad, but it’s also … great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.

And here’s an interesting response in the comments from someone who disagrees, who thinks generalism is a waste of time:

Endeavor to contribute in your special way, and humanity grows. It’s a fools errand to personally know all knowledge. It’s a liars ruse if one claims to know all. Furthermore, if you knew and could do all, there would be scant appreciation for those that excel at only a few things. Would the great artists, architects and leaders be useful if all were as capable?

I have to admit that I have culling tendencies; though I’d like to think that I cull in a thoughtful way, as opposed to a dismissive one.  In other words, in my experience, culling is not easy, it means developing priorities based on an aesthetic and/or personal value system that’s idiosyncratic by virtue of having formed over time.  It also recognizes reality; I can’t know or do everything, so I’ll work on what I can.  I trust the people who are gifted otherwise to cover those areas, while I cover mine.  Be master of such as you have, is how Barry Hannah put it.  Perhaps the compromise is that the culling process works best when it’s evolving and organic.  Tomorrow I may evolve into, say, an Italian film enthusiast; but only if I’m open to it.

22 July 2010

Julian Schnabel is known for his ego — an artist who perhaps better than anyone inhabits/embodies the non-normative fullness of that word; neither “good” nor “bad,” just what it is.   He’s a polymath, and a talented one, and I confess that his ball-busting, I-could-give-a-fuck attitude intrigues me, despite myself.  Not to mention his just-do-it creative output.  I’m a wildly successful painter; I think I’ll make a movie now, and a really good one. And now another one, and another, and I think I’ll learn French so I can make this third one (and win Best Director at Cannes and at the Oscars)…

Flavorwire describes Schnabel as “one of the most motivated creative forces of the past 40 years.”

(It is not lost on me that my last post was about “the ambition of growing okra.”  Clearly, we are cut from different cloth, Mr. Schnabel and me. Likely the root of the intrigue…)

Now Schnabel has a new exhibit of large-format Polaroids, with accompanying monograph.  More info here.

Here’s a link to a radio interview with Elvis Mitchell from 2008.