11/21/2008 4:54:16 PM
Status updates and photos comments posted on Facebook provided the narration of one turbulent relationship, posted on the 26th Story blog. The author captured the saga of one anonymous couple’s love story, which would be well-known to any of the “friends” who are privy to their stories. The uncredited Bob Dylan quotes that pepper the story provide a kind of soundtrack, including this one:
Her is a bit nervous about Wednesday.....
Her feels so serene
Him: you rock my world.
Her has known it from the moment that we met....
Her can't even remember what his lips felt like on mine....Most of the time.....
(Thanks, Newmark's Door.)
11/20/2008 4:23:40 PM
Immersion journalism requires writers to throw themselves into the thick of things, spending months and even years with their subjects. (Think Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, or more recently, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.) It’s a genre not without criticism—some fret about lost objectivity, while others dismiss it as “stunt” journalism—but its unique merits shouldn’t be overlooked at a time when deflated budgets increasingly deny writers opportunities to do deep reporting.
For one, the story that emerges is often different than the one a writer sets out to find. Lee Gutkind, founding editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction and a contemporary master of immersion journalism, tells Fresno Famous about working on his latest book, Almost Human: Making Robots Think.
“Almost all of the cutting-edge research, software writing, and engineering is being done by people, mostly men, and a few women, under 25 years of age. I was stunned by that,” Gutkind says to the Fresno Bee-owned website. “I thought I was going to go meet all these people who look like me, with gray hair. You know, Einstein-like characters….”
You might go into an immersion with a particular idea, Gutkind explains, but after a few months, you have a new one—or a variation on the original. “If you spend another year or two, your idea sophisticates and focuses even more,” he says.
It’s not to say that all writers ought to (or can) adopt an immersion model, but Gutkind’s statement does nudge at a dilemma haunting the general journalistic pursuit of objectivity in an era of quashed resources:
If a beleaguered writer, strapped for time or cash or both, “parachutes” in on a story and spends only limited time with the subject (be it person, place, or thing), then the window for maturing comprehension slams shut. Whether we’re talking about jumping directly into the fray or reporting from the sidelines, without time to make discoveries, vet assumptions, and evolve perceptions, isn’t a writer destined to deliver a story closer to what he or she expected to find in the first place? And isn’t that its own kind of subjective slant, in the end?
Compare that hypothetical to immersive, time-drenched work like Dave Eggers’ What Is the What. Eggers, one of Utne Reader’s 50 visionaries, and Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, spent three years working closely together to complete what evolved into a fictionalized autobiography—written by Eggers in Deng’s voice.
“It was not until six months ago that I saw the book in the form of a whole book,” Deng says in an interview on his foundation’s website. “It was very strange how [Eggers] envisioned events through my eyes. Because we had spent so much time together by that time, it is not surprising that he could guess my thoughts.”
The men’s close relationship roils the traditional tenets of objectivity—but the resulting book, which many consider a masterpiece, couldn’t have been produced any other way. Among various reasons, “because Valentino was very young when many of the book’s events took place, there is no way he can recount his life with a degree of detail necessary for a compelling nonfiction book,” McSweeney’s FAQ explains. In its fictional hybrid state, What Is the What is more truthful than the truth.
That might not make it an objective tale, but then what is the pursuit of objectivity other than the pursuit of truth—a straining toward some kernel of certainty, untainted by overt bias or agenda? Books like What Is the What chart a course toward a compelling new way to tell the truth: one armed with facts, but also rendered with intimacy, subjectivity, and slowly-developed insight. When lack of resources pinches much of the writing overtly aiming at objectivity, it may be time reevaluate what kinds of stories are really cutting to the heart of their matters.
11/20/2008 10:28:59 AM
At the beginning of 2007, news concerning the war in Iraq made up 10 percent of Fox News’ total air time. News and opinions on Anna Nicole Smith’s death occupied almost the exact same amount of time.
How can the passing of a TrimSpa spokeswoman/graverobber wife make as much noise as fallen soldiers? Well, death has frequently been called the great equalizer, and it proves that stars are just like us after all: mortal. In the Fall 2008 edition of The Antioch Review, writer Daniel Harris offers up "Celebrity Deaths," a brilliantly bitter essay investigating the cult of tabloid-style mourning (excerpt only).
The author theorizes that celebrities are like the monarchs of Europe and ancient Egypt; they have a physical body, subject to pain and disease and bad hair days, and a symbolic body, the one the public sees during premiers and TV interviews. It is rare that the public gets a glimpse of a celebrity’s private self, but when it happens, we latch on tight.
A celebrity dying seem to bring normal people to their knees. The outpouring of love started with Rudolph Valentino’s death in 1926 and continues to this day (minus the suicides). But that grief genuine? Not at all, concludes Harris. The flood of sorrow following any famous fatality is part of what he calls “recreational grief,” where loss is turned into an entertaining spectacle every time. “Because Internet mourners grieve for the fun of it, they eulogize stars indiscriminately, the virgin as well as the whore, the saint as well as the sinner, Princess Diana as well as Anna Nicole Smith.”
A star’s death gives the public the opportunity to connect with them on an intimate level, for once and for all. “Our contact with celebrities is so limited that we view them as mirages until the one event that restores to them their real physical presence, their deaths, the moment of our greatest intimacy with them”
And even the act of death is heightened: How many times have we read that a star didn’t just fall ill, they “collapsed”?
Despite all the attention we pay to these events, our celebrity worship (both in life and in death) goes against our better judgment. Somehow famous people “retain their hypnotic sway over their followers even if they set a deplorable example of ostentation and promiscuity.” Diamond-studded phones and “sex addiction,” anyone?
But these demigods don’t exist in a vacuum. We, as spectators and consumers of culture, are complicit in the breakneck lifestyle of celebrities. Our adoration smothers them and our expectations for their talent force them to produce or get shoved out of the spotlight for someone who can.
Harris wraps up his essay by exploring the notion that stars drink and snort themselves to death in order to numb the pain of being famous. But what if, instead of partying to death out of misery, they’re just having fun? What if they’re celebrating instead of self-medicating?
“There is no link in popular culture between creativity, unhappiness, and death. The link is between happiness, death, and the money to purchase the pills, coke, and intravenous drugs necessary for a glorious if inadvertent exit out of the gossip columns and into the obits.”
Image courtesy of Bob Jagendorf, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/18/2008 11:10:02 AM
Books blog NewPages passes along an item from PhysOrg.com arguing that contemporary fiction is just as good an indicator of the global condition as academic nonfiction, especially in the realm of poverty and development.
A team of British researchers has found that novels often illuminate the complexity and human dimensions of poverty as well as, if not better than, academic research. “Fiction is important because it often concerned with the basic subject matter of development,” Michael Woolcock, a professor with Manchester University’s Brooks World Poverty Institute, told PhysOrg.com. “This includes things like the promises and perils of encounters between different peoples; the tragic mix of courage, desperation, humor, and deprivation characterizing the lives of the down-trodden.”
The team studied—and recommends—the following best-selling novels: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga; A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry; The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini; Raag Darbari by Shrilal Shukla; and Brick Lane by Monica Ali.
“Storytelling is one of humanity’s oldest methods of possessing information and representing reality,” David Lewis from the London School of Economics told PhysOrg.com. “The stories, poems and plays we categorize as literary fiction were once accepted in much the same way that scientific discourse is received as authoritative today.”
11/13/2008 10:10:25 AM
Pulitzer-winning author Alice Walker has written a brief but beautiful open letter to Barack Obama.
Unlike many letters addressing the President-elect, hers does not caution him to forward an agenda or else. Instead, she begins by absolving Obama of the impossibly high expectations placed on him by some voters. “I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance.”
What he must take responsibility for, she insists, is his own happiness and that of his family. He cannot succeed without remaining a good husband and father, for “it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader.”
11/11/2008 6:51:52 PM
Utne Reader contributor—and extremely well traveled journalist—Andy Isaacson dropped us a welcome line today: Isaacson recently had been in Kenya, where he met Abebe Feyissa, an Ethiopian refugee living in the Kakuma Camp and author of “Traveling Souls,” an essay about camp life that we excerpted in our Sept.-Oct. 2008 issue.
“I came across the article online while I was searching for Kakuma,” Isaacson writes. “I then visited the camp, last week, and found Abebe Feyissa. We spent several hours together over a couple days, talking and walking around the camp. I took him to the camp’s only cyber cafe so that he could see the article on Utne’s website—I wanted him to know where his words are reaching.”
Feyissa is an interesting, thoughtful man, writes Isaacson. “His predicament—he’s been in the camp for 17 years, and will not be leaving in the foreseeable future—was rather saddening.” All the same, we were heartened to hear that Isaacson had visited him.
During his month-long journey to Kenya, as it turns out, Isaacson also spent some time with U.S. president elect Barack Obama’s grandmother. Read his pre-election story on Slate, and then check out Isaacson’s account of post-election jubilation for U.S. News & World Report.
Isaacson’s previous stories for Utne Reader concerned indigenous medicine, the social significance of tea, and better design through biomimicry.
Image courtesy of Andy Isaacson.
11/11/2008 10:59:42 AM
For five years now, Continuum Publishing’s 33 1/3 Series (named for the speed at which an LP record spins) has given music-loving bookworms over 50 hip little volumes that marry their two obsessions beautifully.
Written mostly by musicians and music critics, each book in the series concerns a pop album that played a momentous role in the author’s life, and can take the form of an essay, extended review, memoir, novella, interview with the artist—or some hybrid thereof.
I found my way into the series via one of its more unique entries, penned by erudite pop songsmith Joe Pernice, of the Pernice Brothers. Its subject was the Smiths’ seminal 1985 album Meat Is Murder, but rather than a straight review, Pernice wrote an autobiographical novella about a high school subculture infiltrated by Morrissey & Co.’s angsty opus.
The series boasts a diverse range of authors and genres—both literary and musical. Colin Meloy, of the Decemberists, has published a volume on Let It Be by the Replacements. Eliot Wilder interviews Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, about his groundbreaking trip-hop album Endtroducing.... Pitchfork writer Amanda Petrusich memorializes Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.
33 1/3’s catalog is by now expansive enough that it probably includes a book on at least one Album That Changed Your Life Forever. But if you find it lacking, you can take matters into your own hands: 33 1/3’s editors are currently accepting proposals, due December 31, for the series’ next batch of volumes. Pick an album, put on your headphones, and start typing.
11/7/2008 4:16:56 PM
So much of the world’s great literature is lost for lack of awareness. Sure, Harry Potter has been translated into 60 or so languages, but it’s not as easy to find lesser known written works. That’s why it’s quite exceptional to find an anthology that translates the writings of up-and-coming authors the world over.
Two Lines: World Writing in Translation
, is the Center for the Art of Translation’s annual collection of poems, short stories, and essays that “could never have been written first in English, as their necessities so clearly reside in the soil and local waters of their cultures,” according to co-editor Sidney Wade. This year's anthology, edited by John Biguenet and Wade, is titled Strange Harbors, with original works in Bengali, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish, to name a few, side by side with their English translations.
In "Thirteen Harbors," Vietnamese author Suong Nguyet Minh blends a local folk tale with the consequences of Agent Orange, the poisonous chemical herbicide the U.S. military sprayed during the Vietnam War. In the story, translated by Charles Waugh and Nguyen Lien, a young woman repeatedly fails to carry children to term. Unaware of the source of her birthing troubles, she believes herself to be cursed. Only later does she find out that her husband, Lang, was exposed to Agent Orange while he fought in the war:
“How could I know?” said Lang. “I feel fine. But after speaking with the doctor, I thought about the defoliated forests we had to cross. We drank water from streams running through them and even put some in our canteens. Once, in the jungle, we watched American planes flying slowly overhead spraying a dense white mist. A few days later, the leaves shriveled and came down easily in the breeze. All the trees withered and turned the color of death.”
Wrapped in my husband’s heart, I felt a pain there like one I’d not yet seen. Withered and bitter myself, I had no comfort to pour into him.
More lighthearted is Teolinda Gersao’s story “Four Children, Two Dogs and Some Birds,” a wry account of one woman’s difficulty trying to do both the traditional tasks of a wife and mother and take care of her career. Originally written in Portuguese, Gersao’s story presented a challenge for the translator, Margaret Jull Casta, because first-person narratives have a distinct tone of voice that is not easily carried over to another language. In stripped down syntax, Casta succeeded in capturing the humor and latent sadness of Gersao’s main character:
The number of times I regretted having given in to the children and bought the animals. And the number of times, too, that I regretted having had the children. Not, of course, that I said as much.
Anyways, what was done was done, and now I just had to get on with it and look after the whole lot of them.
And then one day, I got really angry; enough is enough, I thought, and it was then that I decided o look for a live-in help.
A loving help, asked the concierge, puzzled, mishearing what I said when I informed her of my plan.
Exactly, I said, and the sooner the better. Today. Yesterday even.
Because I’ll be dead tomorrow, I thought, starting up the car. Tomorrow I’ll be dead.
Nothing in translation can be exact. Obscure connotations can throw an intricate metaphor off balance or lead it astray completely. Alliteration and quirks of diction are often forfeited, and cultural idioms may go tragically unnoticed. For this reason, reading literature in translation can be a strange experience, shrouded in doubt about the translator’s adherence to the original text but spiked with awe at the thought that you have the opportunity to read it at all. A good translator, however, can deliver a story as close as possible to the way in which it was initially written, and for that I am grateful. The stories and poems within Two Lines open the reader up to a world that would otherwise be closed entirely, and to connect with that world is truly fortunate.
11/7/2008 3:02:54 PM
Last month, the book blog Omnivoracious kicked off its “Books of the States” project, which highlights essential books and authors from each state in the union. In his introduction to the series, editor Tom Nissley explains the strategy: "We're going to use the clunky structure of the electoral college to build a map of our own, a reader's map of the United States."
Every weekday, the Omnivoracious blog editors endeavor to post a new state, nominating as many books as that state has electoral votes (i.e. Delaware gets three; California, a whopping 55). Readers are invited to weigh in via the comments section. Once all states are tackled and all suggestions have been accounted for, the blog will post a final list of the 538 essential state-centric books.
Books qualify as state representatives either by their setting (e.g. Winesburg, Ohio) or the origins of the author (Kurt Vonnegut represents Indiana). So far, the list contains a good mix of fiction and nonfiction, and Nissley encourages suggestions spanning “history, kids' books, art books, anything you can make a case for. We're relying on your local expertise.”
It's worth noting that while the editors began with the goal of 51 consecutive daily posts, the entries gradually petered out with the last one posted on October 27. Perhaps they were distracted watching another electoral map unfold? Whatever the status of the project, it’s fun to see what they’ve come up with so far.
(Thanks, Maud Newton.)
11/4/2008 12:47:08 PM
BART [mocking a man with a ponytail]: Look at me, I’m a grad student. I’m 30 years old and I made $600 last year.
MARGE: Bart, don’t make fun of grad students. They’ve just made a terrible life choice.
JACK: We may not be the best people.
LIZ: But we’re not the worst.
JACK and LIZ [in unison]: Graduate students are the worst.
Mocking the idea of graduate school is a pastime enjoyed most, it seems, by grad students themselves. That’s true for me, at least, having recently completed a Master’s of Fine Arts program and masochistically relishing every joke about the usefulness of those extra three letters on my resume. The feeling among many fresh out of grad school, especially in the arts, is equal parts accomplishment and ambivalence: “Well, I’m glad I did that. What the hell do I do now?”
April Bernard makes a more measured case against graduate school in “Escape From the Ivory Tower” (excerpt only available online) in the Fall 2008 “Ways of Learning” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. Actually, to say she is “anti-graduate school” is not entirely accurate; rather, she provides sound reasons why graduate school isn’t for every person—or every discipline. Speaking from her experience with an unfinished English PhD from Yale, Bernard describes the tedious seminars, sexist milieu, and post-structuralist myopia that characterized her time there.
Bernard’s essay doesn’t brim with the same elitist contempt for her own students as Lynn Freed’s infamous anti-MFA screed, “Doing time: My Years in the Creative-Writing gulag” (subscription required) published in Harper’s in 2005. Rather than penning a haughty manifesto, Bernard advances an argument about pedagogy, teasing out the reasons why the humanities aren’t always best served by the kind of highly specialized postgraduate study brought to bear on other fields, such as science or business.
The essay serves as a reminder that education can be found outside the classroom, and good writing beyond the workshop. For her own part, Bernard has made her peace with academia: By publishing poetry and fiction, she’s secured a job teaching writing to undergraduates, circumventing the advanced degrees that retain their stranglehold on the faculty hiring process. Based on her wit and nimble prose, I’d say her students are lucky to have her, even without that almighty graduate degree.
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