Unreachability and self-seriousness used to define many of our best-known authors, but the public appetite for writerly swagger in both old and new media is at an all-time low. Jonathan Franzen, for example, continues to spark minor firestorms with his pooh-poohing of Twitter: “I see people who ought to be spending time developing their craft […] making nothing and feeling absolutely coerced into this constant self-promotion,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Today program. Franzen is behind the curve, but not because he doesn’t like Twitter. It’s his fundamental misunderstanding of social media that makes his opinions so quaint.
In the end, social media are just other platforms for authors to speak or ignore as they wish.
The great John Milton lived in Berkyn Manor (known later as the Bull Manor), a house in Horton near Slough, Berkshire, for about three years (1636-1638). He was out of Cambridge, apparently due to a conflict with his tutor, and was living with his parents. He didn’t write his greatest works there. Paradise Lost was published in 1667. He worked on it at his cottage, which is open to literary tourists.
Photographers have drawn attention to the Berkyn Manor by distributing their shots of the dilapidated interior, which has been sitting empty since it’s last owner died in 1987.
When Lafcadio Hearn stepped onto the shores of Japan in 1890, he began writing ghost stories. On assignment from Harper’s Magazine, Hearn was charged to explore and explain this undiscovered country to eager Americans. That his answer was to write about Japan’s spirits should have surprised no one; Hearn had a predilection for the macabre and uncanny. But while a previous sojourn in New Orleans had supplied him with ore for his imagination, in his new home he struck the mother lode. Japan is the most haunted country on Earth.
Most people know that Japan is particularly good at ghost stories. As they should be; they have been working at it for some time. Theater, literature, art, or film—Japan’s storytelling is inherently haunted. Indeed, a history of Japanese literature is a history of ghost stories.
For years, American writers have toiled in obscurity, with precious few monuments, commemorative plaques, or wax likenesses devoted to their memory. Well, friend, no more: Chicago is soon to open the first-ever American Writers Museum, where, god willing, the fraught history of our art-form, like so many before it, will be boiled down into propaganda and shoveled merrily down the throats of our youth. And if you’re worried that a museum about words will look too much like a library—perish the thought—allow me to allay your fears: “The museum will focus on using new media and technology in exhibitions, not only to differentiate it from a library, but also to engage in contemporary forms of writing from social media to digital journalism.” That is, not much writing will be featured at the American Writers Museum.
Maybe readers will finally get a good answer to the question of how a writer came up with an idea. Dan Piepenbring has this and many more tidbits on his Paris Review blog today.
Dan Piepenbring responds to a “really snotty” piece in The Guardian about avoiding reading anything by a recently deceased author. He says there’s at least one truth that emerges from this snobbery. “There are writers we instinctively, permanently dislike: not only will we never read them, we will quietly relish the not-reading, finding in it a pleasure that can occasionally rival reading itself.”
It’s the nature of the beast, he says. Not that we have to be nasty in our opinions of authors we haven’t read, but we will reject–and even enjoy rejecting–books and authors for scant reasons of our own. And sometimes we miss good writing, which Piepenbring illustrates with his about-face on Michel Houellebecq. Once he enjoyed hating Houellebecq, but now he enjoys his work greatly.
“It took impassioned pleas by not one but several friends to get me to read him—an almost literal conversion effort. People have become Catholic for less.”
On that topic, Stephen King says in his widely praised book On Writing, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. . . . If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
He also says, “Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.”
Today, I happened to think of the Party slogan from George Orwell’s 1984:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
And it occurred to me that we’ve reached the age of the second line.
How can freedom be slavery? How can a political culture devoted to the concept of human freedom turn around and call freedom slavery?
We’re seeing it happen now, I think.
The problem of freedom, from the progressive point of view, is that it makes inequality inevitable. Leave any group of people free to do whatever they want, and inequality will be the result. Some people have more talent or intelligence than others. Some have better work habits. Some did a better job picking their parents. It follows inevitably that the competition will have winners, losers, and lots of people in between.
The Left is convincing itself, more and more, that such inequality is unacceptable. Inequality is unjust. Inequality, it seems to them, is exactly equivalent to slavery.
An eponym is “a person after whom a discovery, invention, place, etc., is named or thought to be named.” An example given by Merriam-Webster goes, “Toadfishes burp the songs of their eponyms; one sort of toadfish is called the singing midshipman. —John Hersey, Harper’s, May 1987.”
As I slog my way through my last two months of grad school classes, I’m not ashamed to admit that there are times when I cool my overheated brain in a nice bath of light reading or television. On the television side, though, I’ve given up entirely on the network stuff. For the first time since college, I’m watching none of the alphabet networks’ current offerings. Instead, I’ve been following a superior effort from Canada – Murdoch Mysteries, on Netflix streaming.
William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) is a stalwart detective for the Toronto Constabulary in the 1890s. A frustrated scientist, he keeps up with the journals and frequently applies the latest discoveries to his forensic work (effectively this is “CSI—Victorian Toronto”). He even invents devices never before seen, such as night vision goggles and telefax machines – which are promptly forgotten about, apparently, once their job is done. Though brainy as Jeeves, he’s limited on the emotional side (we’d say he scores high on the autism spectrum). He’s strongly attracted to Dr. Julia Ogden (Héléne Joy), the beautiful medical examiner, but doesn’t know what to do about it. He’s a geek, but the Victorian kind, so he dresses neatly.
A nice touch is that he’s a practicing Catholic who attends mass daily and crosses himself whenever he encounters the dead.
He is supported by Chief Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig), a Yorkshireman who likes to bluster about “good old-fashioned police work,” but knows Murdoch’s value and mostly supports him. Constable Crabtree (Jonny Harris) is callow but enthusiastic, and provides comic relief and a foil for Murdoch. Continue reading Netflix review: ‘Murdoch Mysteries’→
Several new books intend to supplant vampires and others horrors in popular imagination with ghosts, writes Sarah Hughes, such as books by The Woman in Black author, Susan Hill, and Kate Moss, who’s latest, The Taxidermist’s Daughter: A Novel, will be released this spring.
Hughes writes, “Not since the heyday of MR James and WW Jacobs has the ghost story been so in vogue, but why? ‘We’re definitely seeing a resurgence after horror has held sway for a long time,’ says Mosse. ‘The thing about horror is that it’s not that subtle; it’s a straightforward chase about the terrible thing that’s going to get you. With a ghost story the whole thing is, “Is it coming? Is everything in your head?” Ghost fiction plays on those fears – which is why I describe The Taxidermist’s Daughter as not a whodunnit but a whydunnit.'”
Editor Angus Cargill tells Hughes genre fiction is growing in popularity. “We’re definitely seeing less of the sort of snobbery there used to be. I love it when writers cross genres, so it’s great to see someone like William [Gay], who was known as a literary southern gothic writer, move more towards horror, or [David] Mitchell writing a ghost story.”
Not quite in this vein, but I’m told the movie Lake Mungo is a quite scary ghost story, which while having a feel like Paranormal Activity, puts it to shame with a substantive story and acting.
In a society that is entirely hostile, and, by its nature, seems determined to cut you down . . . it begins to be almost impossible to distinguish real from fancied injury. One can very quickly cease to attempt this distinction, and, what is worse, one usually ceases to attempt it without realizing that one has done so.
The distinction between real and fancied injury is a crucial one, of course, for fighting chimeras is not merely a waste of time and effort but positively destructive of all that is valuable in life. Just as paranoia eliminates that important distinction, so the incentives to emotional entrepreneurialism blur the distinction between real and simulated emotion, and veil the distinction from the phoney himself. Anger is not its own justification—there is no Cartesian syllogism in moral philosophy, “I’m angry, therefore I’m right”—and any honest person will admit that there is a seductive pleasure in anger. I have mistrusted my own rage ever since, as a student of physiology, I saw a cat stimulated to insensate rage by the discharge of electrodes in its amygdala.
What’s disconcerting is that the youngish, dirtbag American male no longer has an obvious “look” inasmuch as he no longer has tattoos or long hair or some obvious “tell” – the likes of which your mother used to tell you to avoid. The new self-loathing American male probably went to college and has a decent job. What’s interesting is that they obviously and intentionally didn’t use attractive or charismatic people in these ads, rather, they cast the guy next door (subtext: your next door neighbor is just picking his players and getting paid immediately, so why aren’t you?).
This is the picture of who we are when we follow our heart without reflection, without a challenge from someone who has tasted real life. (via Barnabas Piper)