There’s a fantastic short story in this week’s New Yorker (July 2, 2012) by Paul La Farge called “Another Life,” which is about an English professor (aren’t stories by English professors about English professors the best?) in his late 30s who picks up the bartender of his hotel after his wife goes off to sleep with a man whom she meets while watching the Celtics game at the bar. The story is told in the second person, which is often gimmicky, but it works here because La Farge’s language is so vivid and urgent that the reader gets drawn into the story, thinking only about the actions of the characters and what they look like in one’s head and forgetting about the story’s form. For instance, here is the professor’s first kiss with the bartender: “Then the husband leaps forward and kisses April P, whose body is hot and full of instincts.” What a lovely line! It describes something cliche using language which makes fun of the cliche, but in a way that is not cliche, thus making it especially sharp. The story ends realistically, with both April and the professor going back to their dreary, normal lives, but this conclusion is not depressing because the force of their experience, of their brief entrance into the other “life” of the title, is the element of the story that sticks with the reader. Also, there is a hilarious scene where they do a few lines of cocaine off of the cover of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. Best use of a Norton ever!
Monthly Archives: June 2012
Theodora Keogh’s 1956 novel My Name is Rose is, like her 1954 novel, The Fascinator, about a married woman having an affair. However, unlike the earlier book, where the story builds up to the affair and the woman is not punished, My Name is Rose depicts a woman whose actions drive her to madness because of the guilt she feels (the narrator’s voice does not seem to condemn her). It takes place in postwar France, with all of the stereotypical touchstones one might expect from such a setting–the poor artistic neighbors, the husband who works on a literary magazine, the American expatriate (Rose herself), the clandestine meetings in cafés, et cetera. But Keogh’s brilliance lies in how affecting, how sharp, how uncanny her books are despite their simple plots. She makes us care for Rose and hope for her happiness, hope that she will realize her husband, who is so modest that he refuses to see her naked, will always make her unhappy. Keogh does this by switching back and forth between first and third person, with Rose’s sections in the form of journal entries. These entries get more and more frenzied even as Rose’s affair makes her happier and happier. Her fatal flaw is that she is only able to take what she wants via action rather than also in spirit–she never commits to doing what she needs, instead letting men use her like a pawn. Rose’s inability to love herself is her undoing. Keogh thus creates another profound proto-feminist text, showing that women must grab control of their own lives.
Italy convincingly beat Germany 2-1 today to set up a match against Spain in the Euro 2012 final. Italy played their best match of the tournament despite a shaky game from goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, with Mario Balotelli scoring two fantastic goals in the first half. The Italians have played inconsistently in the tournament (their only previous win was against underwhelming Ireland), but seem to be peaking at the right time.
Spain, on the other hand, got outplayed by Portugal during regulation of their semifinal, then played somewhat better during extra time, and won on penalties. The Spanish continue to not play impressively, but to their credit they are getting the job done, and the bottom line is results. They look more beatable than they have in quite a while. If Italy plays on Sunday like they did today, they will win the tournament. They were impressive in the first round draw between the two sides. It is difficult to bet against Spain, though.
Nora Ephron died today at the age of 71. This is a major loss for American culture. While I enjoyed a number of Ephron’s films, including When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, and Bewitched, I will especially remember her for her occasional witty personal essays from the New Yorker and her early feminist essays in collections such as Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (1975). I always felt enriched after reading her work because she had the ability to be profound without being pedantic, and she used enough humor that I would feel inspired to keep on without feeling that she was making a big joke of everything. I will miss her.
Elaine Blair has a fantastic article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (July 12, 2012) about how the fictional trend of oafish male protagonists has evolved from the work of hoary giants such as Philip Roth and John Updike through the work of present-day writers such as Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Franzen. She points out that, while female readers in the 1960s were willing to read their sexist contemporaries because that’s what one did in order to keep up with the intellectual Joneses, female readers today (who comprise a much larger proportion of fiction readers than they did in the 1960s because all guys want to do now is play video games) are much less willing to put up with men’s misogynist shenanigans, fictional or otherwise. Blair posits that contemporary male authors are aware of this (logical) attitude, and as a result make their male characters so ridiculously pathetic that they are impossible to hate; one just feels sorry for them instead. As a result, maybe female readers will read their books. She shows, though, that this trend is just sexist pandering which leads to a lot of uninteresting novels.
I fully agree with this critique. Blair quotes a David Foster Wallace essay in which he recounts an instance of one of his female friends calling Updike “Just a penis with a thesaurus.” This description is spot on… but damn, that penis sure knows how to get the most out of that thesaurus. I have to admit that I like Updike, and I love Roth (and Wallace, and Franzen). They are my guilty pleasures. I enjoy their writing because I am their intended audience, no matter how much they try to attract female readers. I can’t imagine women enjoying their male characters because I don’t enjoy them either. But I appreciate their truthfulness, and their beautiful use of language.
This raises the question, though, of whether literature that is merely valuable for its formal and/or aesthetic qualities is worthwhile. To read for fun, maybe, but I don’t assign these authors in my classes because they are so off-putting to women. The ideal texts to teach are those which are both aesthetically beautiful and politically engaging–Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany, Don DeLillo, and the like.
The Euro 2012 quarterfinals concluded today with England and Italy drawing 0-0 after extra time and the Italians progressing to the semifinals 4-2 on penalties. It was the first 0-0 match of the tournament even though both sides had some very good scoring chances in the first half and the game was an exciting one until the extra time sessions. It was yet another failure for the English on penalties; this time they were ahead 2-1 when Ashley Young hit the crossbar with his kick and then Ashley Cole had his kick saved. It means that Italy will play Germany in the second semifinal on Thursday, and Portugal and Spain meet in an Iberian derby on Wednesday. Germany have played better than Italy throughout the tournament and will have two days extra rest, so expect them to advance. The Portugal-Spain match will be a close one. Spain have been steady but not great, and Portugal have been riding Cristiano Ronaldo’s coattails. If Ronaldo is able to keep up his torrid play, the Portuguese will pull off the upset.
There is a fascinating and disturbing article by Ken Auletta in this week’s (June 25, 2012) New Yorker about the current legal face-offs between amazon.com and six large publishing companies in the U.S. (Random House, Penguin, Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster). Basically, Apple created a deal with the publishers to fix their ebook prices at a higher rate than amazon demanded from them, and amazon then entered into a similar deal, which has resulted in the publishers now being able to sell their ebooks on amazon at a slight profit rather than a loss, but the Department of Justice has initiated an antitrust lawsuit on behalf of consumers as a result (if you want all of the legal nitty-gritty, read the article itself [you need a subscription to the print version of the magazine to read the article online, so support print culture by going and buying a copy at your local newsstand!]—I’m more interested here in the larger ramifications for the future of books in general).
I am normally against big companies setting price controls because they hurt consumers, but in this case I am rooting for the publishers to win because they need the price controls in order to stay in business. Books are essential to a functioning democracy, and, while one could question whether our “democracy” is currently functioning considering how ridiculous the goings-on in Congress have been for the past fifteen years or so, anyone who has an interest in education or civil rights or, to put it bluntly, freedom must recognize the necessity of books and do everything they can to help protect them. If amazon—which I must admit I love and buy print books from frequently (I will never, ever buy an ebook as long as paper books exist), though this article forces me to re-think this practice—is able to force publishers to provide them with books at a loss to the publishers, the end result will be that publishers (especially independent publishers [including university presses], who are the most important because they publish valuable books that are not necessarily profitable, and thus would never be published by large publishers) begin to go out of business, leaving amazon as both distributor and publisher of books, which means that readers will be forced to accept their view of what is important enough to publish or not. I try not to let large corporations make these types of decisions for me.
The issue is not just about physical objects, it is about how ideas are disseminated, and the avenues available for this dissemination play a major role in what ideas are put into the public eye. The more of these avenues that are available, the more new ideas enter public discourse, which benefits everyone because it stimulates further thinking. Books (and print culture more broadly) have been the primary way of disseminating ideas since the 1500s (we see their power in the example of the Protestant Reformation, which would have been impossible without them), and while that does not mean that other forms of idea dissemination are invalid, it does mean that we must do everything we can to ensure that books will survive, which means ensuring that a competitive publishing field survives.
A note on ebooks versus real books: according to Auletta’s article, ebooks “make up about a third of all book sales” (37). More and more of my friends and colleagues, educated people who should know better, prefer ebooks because they are supposedly more “convenient” because you don’t have to carry them around and they take up less space. This is a ridiculous argument. If carrying several books with you is too much of a physical strain, you need to be in better shape anyway (or you are elderly or disabled, in which case I am willing to make an exception), so just think of it as some informal weightlifting. As a compulsive book-buyer, I can see the space argument, but a) you can do wonderful things with modular shelves from a store such as Ikea to maximize the space you have for your books, because any room is made better by the presence of books—they show that you are an intelligent person, which is always sexy; and b) the benefits that physical books have which ebooks do not far outweigh the minor problem of figuring out where to put your books, anyway. Aside from the unquantifiable aesthetic pleasure of holding and smelling an actual book in your hand as your read, enjoying the different fonts in different volumes and thinking about the history of the physical object in your hand if you acquired it used, a major benefit of real books is that you can flip through them, finding favorite passages with ease, or looking in the index for the subject you are interested in and going straight there. With ebooks, you are forced to go through chronologically, or at least chapter-by-chapter, not to mention ruining your eyes by using yet another electronic device (real books give me a much-needed break from the computer) and the uselessness of ereaders once we run out of fossil fuels.
A similar point is made in the article, which discusses how the process of browsing in a bookstore is essential for finding new authors, whereas online shoppers tend to just go straight for what they are looking for. This both hurts lesser-known authors and is less fun for customers. Part of the joy of book-buying is finding unanticipated treasures, and the chance of this is greatly diminished when shopping online. It is true that it is more convenient to shop at a site such as amazon’s—if I know what I’m looking for I can literally buy a book from them in less than sixty seconds—but the most convenient way isn’t always the best way. It’s fun to spend an hour or two just lazily browsing at your local bookstore. I fear that, the way things are going, this activity will no longer be an option when I am older. To prevent that horrific possibility, it is necessary to support printed books and reject their much less satisfying electronic impostors.