9/25/2009 12:45:18 PM
Move over Sesame Street. Clever skits that target older generations (remember Sesame Street’s Bruce Springsteen parody, “Born to Add”?) have been replaced by the hyper pre-teen SpongeBob SquarePants.
Though it's hard for many adults to feel comfortable with such tinsel flashing before our youngsters’ eyes, James Parker, writing for the very mature Atlantic magazine, embraces that change. Parker offers up a philosophical view of SpongeBob, dissecting the “postmodern place” that is Bikini Bottom (SpongeBob’s home), and explaining why kids love—and should love—the golden sponge:
As a cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants absorbed the advances made by John Kricfalusi’s The Ren and Stimpy Show—the mood swings, the fugue-like interludes, the surreal plasticity of the characters—but without the earlier show’s edge of psychic antagonism […] But where Ren and Stimpy seemed bent on freaking out the more fragile (or stoned) sectors of its audience, the SquarePants writers are interested in stories, even in lessons. Again and again, a kind of innocence triumphs—over fear, over snobbery, and over skepticism.
If your eyes hurt at sight of SpongeBob’s manic grin, try reading this story and consider Parker’s plea: “Embrace him, drained adult. Where you see his little yellow flag, salute it; it’s a sign of life.”
For more, watch Parker analyze a few scenes from the show in the video below:
Source: The Atlantic
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9/23/2009 12:47:44 PM
Writing is hard. That’s what singer/songwriter Gillian Welch and writer Lydia Peelle are talking about in this excerpt from a conversation between the two printed in BOMB. Peelle’s latest book is a collection of short stories called Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. Welch’s last record was Soul Journey, released way back in 2003. Here’s what the pair had to say to each other about writing:
Sometimes it’s like I’m watching myself sitting there at the desk, and saying, Wait a minute. Stop right there. I know what you’re about to do, and it won’t work, so don’t even try it. What I learned is that I am an extremely inefficient writer.
It sounds like we have a similar process.
Just reams of wasted paper. I feel like I have to know the whole story, as if someone has told it to me, before I actually write it … For a while I couldn’t write a story unless I knew whether or not each person in the story believed in God. Then there’s, of course, rewriting the same paragraph over and over, because I’m afraid to go on, or I don’t know where to go next … Someone told me recently that you shouldn’t sit down to write without knowing what you’re going to write about. I thought, Hang on, that’s like three-fourths of my process right there, sitting there staring at the desk!
Me too, and then I don’t start writing until I’m totally miserable.
Writing is so painful. There are so many things I’d rather do than write. I think I’d rather do anything than write.
Jerry Garcia said, “I’d rather pitch cards into a hat all day than write a song.”
Flannery O’Connor said it was like trying to eat a horse blanket. The thing is—you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to just get something down. If I’ve done that, then I know I can go on with the rest of my day and do all the other things I do. Writing that one page—or even that one paragraph or sentence—is the one sacred part of the day.
9/23/2009 9:33:30 AM
Mark Twain wasn’t just a riverboat pilot, a raconteur, a mustache pioneer, and one of the great early American celebrity-authors: He was also an animal rights activist. The new Twain compilation Mark Twain’s Book of Animals (University of California Press) explores Twain’s treatment of animals —in literature and in life—throughout his career and arrives at an inescapable conclusion: He was a softie when it came to the beasts. Twain may have come to largely despise what he famously called “the damned human race,” yet he turned into a puddle of mush at the sight of a kitten.
In her introduction, editor Shelley Fisher Fishkin traces Twain’s sympathy for animals to his youth and especially to his mother, who kept a house full of cats with names like Blatherskite and Belchazar and once soundly berated a man in the street for beating his horse. Fisher Fishkin also digs up evidence that a formative experience for Twain was his shooting of a bird as a child, an act he deeply regretted. In the previously unpublished “Family Sketch,” he writes:
. . . I shot a bird that sat in a high tree, with its head tilted back, and pouring out a grateful song from an innocent heart. It toppled from its perch and came floating down limp and forlorn and fell at my feet, its song quenched and its unoffending life extinguished. I had not needed that harmless creature, I had destroyed it wantonly, and I felt all that an assassin feels, of grief and remorse when his deed comes home to him and he wishes he could undo it and have his hands and his soul clean again from accusing blood.
Fisher Fishkin goes on to follow the threads of Twain’s animal fascinations and sympathies in his writings, from his early celebrated story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” to his “Letter to the London Anti-Vivisection Society,” which is perhaps the best known expression of his views on animal cruelty. “From 1899 until his death in 1910,” writes Fisher Fishkin, “Mark Twain lent his pen to reform efforts on both sides of the Atlantic and became the best-known American author—and, indeed, the most famous American celebrity in any field—to give outspoken, public support to agitation for animal welfare.”
Source: Mark Twain’s Book of Animals
9/22/2009 5:05:47 PM
Editors have a hard time resigning themselves to the creeping destruction of the English language. A few have decided to fight back against the hackneyed popular fiction and nearly incomprehensible public speaking that infects common discourse. Though some 80 million copies of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code have been sold, Brian Joseph Davis of The Globe and Mail writes that the author’s writing style “is so toxically inept that Vladimir Putin could use it to poison dissidents.”
Rather than simply criticizing idly, Davis took a crack at editing the first two chapters of Brown’s novel. He released PDFs of his efforts, complete with deletions, additions, and comments in the text. Davis tried desperately to excise a few uses of the word “slowly,” which appears 7 times in the first 10 pages.
A similar effort was undertaken by the editors at Vanity Fair, after Sarah Palin made a mockery of her native language during her resignation speech. The literary editor, copy editor, and research editor took their pens to a transcript of the speech in a valiant effort to make the semi-coherent speech comprehensible. The result is cluttered with ink, but a vast improvement over the original.
Both efforts came too late to salvage the original source material. Perhaps next time, Brown will think twice before using the word “slowly,” and Palin will try and check her facts. (Not likely, though.)
Sources: The Globe and Mail, Vanity Fair
9/22/2009 4:42:14 PM
Intrigue! Obsession! Money! Obsession! It’s all here, in a very entertaining Village Voice peek inside the impassioned world of sneaker connoisseurs. The colorful piece, written by Elizabeth Dwoskin, profiles a bigwig among sneakerheads, Mark Farese (a.k.a. “The Mayor”)—he is the proud owner of 1,400 pairs of sneakers, most of them Air Force 1s:
Farese pulls out some of his most treasured possessions. There are the two white pairs on which Chinese characters are stitched in red thread that were manufactured for athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but never sold commercially. (He won't say how he obtained them.) There are handmade pairs covered in real crocodile and anaconda skin and dyed in rich shades of red, orange, and black, that include lace tags with gold trim (Nike's price: $2,000). . . . Some are made of suede or fake fur; others glow in the dark. He had one pair encrusted with real diamonds. Others have his name engraved in gold. Some have an image of his face that he commissioned an artist to design.
Farese, unlike many other sneakerheads, does actually walk a mile in his shoes. “People call me a collector,” he tells Dwoskin, “but I’m a sneaker wearer. I wear my sneakers. It takes me a long time, 'cause I have an abundance, but I wear them.”
It’s a fascinating portrait of the sneakerhead subculture, in which Farese is a veritable celebrity. There’s a brilliant moment in the story where a 14-year-old fan meets Farese for the first time. “He’s, like, the king of all sneakerheads,” the boy tells the Voice. “I expected him to be a little cocky, but he blew me away ‘cause of how respectful he was of everyone else’s shoes. And he told me not to just focus on sneakers, but to focus on, like, college and stuff, too.”
Source: Village Voice
Image by sling@flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/18/2009 4:36:23 PM
Canned food is one of the more underappreciated staples of the human diet. According to James Parker, writing for the Boston Globe ideas section, the humble canned food—invented by a Frenchman and industrialized by the British—is “an instrument of culture,” diffusing knowledge across borders, “agent of dietary democracy” understated in its transnational diplomacy. It’s also a symbol of rich philosophy, standing for “asceticism, separateness, lack of nurture, the dignity of the mental life.” Let the snobs scoff at the understated value of the canned food. Parker writes:
Let’s face it, we can’t all be cooks. And for those of us unattached to the soil, amicably divorced from Nature, to whom the seasonal tang and the fibrous crunch of freshness are matters of indifference, civilization has made a single marvelous provision: canned food.
Source: Boston Globe
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9/15/2009 2:46:56 PM
Peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff sandwiched between two pieces of white bread, known as the fluffernutter, may be one of the most cherished foods in New England. And when Massachusetts State Senator Jarrett Barrios tried to restrict Marshmallow Fluff intake among school children—limiting public schools to just one serving per week—Barrio’s constituents rebelled. As Katie Liesener eruditely reports for Gastronomica, “fluff runs deep in this country.”
In response to Barrio’s regulation attempt, residents organized a movement to declare the fluffernutter the official Massachusetts state sandwich. Barrio eventually withdrew his anti-fluff legislation, and a loyal aide assured the Associated Press that “He loves Fluff as much as the next legislator.” Liesener provides an engaging and wonderfully crafted profile of the controversy, dubbed a “kerfuffle,” and the enigmatic company behind the iconic Marshmallow Fluff. “Outsiders may know New England for its baked beans and chowder,” Liesener writes, but deep in the hearts and pantries of New England homes lies a jar of Marshmallow Fluff.
Image by jessamyn, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/15/2009 2:32:38 PM
“More crappy news for short story writers,” is how The Rumpus interpreted a literary agent’s polite rejection note to short story writer writer Mark Tainer:
... I have no confidence in being able to place a collection at this time in the world of publishing. Publishers don't like to publish short story collections in general unless they are VERY high concept or by someone very strange or very famous or Indian. In the current climate, it is harder to publish even those. Some of the authors I represent have story collections I have not been able to talk their loyal publishers into publishing. I can't in good conscience encourage you to send them to me. It will just make both of us feel bad. I am very sorry. If you write another novel, I will gladly read it...
This triggered Rumpus blogger Seth Fischer. “The form of the short story collection is so uniquely well-suited to the Internet age,” writes Fischer. “A good short story should grab you by the junk and make you yelp in that first line. So should good web copy. A good short story should be no longer than it need be. So should good web copy. There are many very important differences between the two types of writing, but the publishing houses could be taking advantage of the similarities to develop a model that could turn a profit.”
Is the publishing industry’s lethargy towards short story collections really news? A commenter at Tainer’s blog points to a newspaper column by short story writer Dennis Loy Johnson, who took up the issue way back in 2001:
The problem, it is often said, is that story collections have never sold much, although I'd point out that they've never been promoted much, either. Hype them as heavily as some novels get hyped — Raymond Carver, Melissa Bank — and they sell just fine, thank you. I mean, no American should ever forget that we live in a country where someone not that long ago made a fortune selling pet rocks at Christmastime.
“It seems to me that all it would take is a tiny bit of ingenuity to make money off the right short story collection,” writes Fischer. “Why aren’t the publishing houses trying it?”
Are you supporting the lowly short story writer? When was the last time you paid for short stories?
Source: The Rumpus
Image by ginnerobot, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/14/2009 10:00:01 AM
Get out your awesome-nerdy-tech hat and strap it on securely: Robin Sloan, a San Francisco-based writer (and web worker), is using Google ads to select a name for the lead character in his forthcoming detective novel—a cool and fitting experiment for a book funded through Kickstarter.
“I’m trying to craft a central character with some of that same iconic strangeness that makes Sherlock Holmes so appealing,” Sloan writes on RobinSloan.com. “There’s a lot that goes into that, but for now, focus on the name. Sherlock Holmes. It leaves an indelible mark on the brain.”
Sloan spent $40 to take out a series of Google AdWords spots—those little ads that pop up next to any search based on keywords. Each ad included a different potential name and the same blurb, like this: Julie Hanus. She’s the Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century. robinsloan.com.
A ranking emerged based on the number of clicks each ad received out of the number of pages it appeared upon. His original idea came in at a .21 percent click-through rate, Sloan writes, while a name he’d been most fond of netted a paltry .07 percent.
Sloan admits the exercise was “mostly an excuse to try a new tool,” but he’s also got his eye on the possibilities. “I mean, imagine—this is the sci-fi extrapolation—imagine highlighting a block of text, choosing a menu item called Test the way you’d choose Spellcheck today, and when you do, a little timer appears next to it,” he writes.
“Five minutes later, ding—the timer goes off and you have the results right there, floating over the text. Aggregated feedback from an anonymous swarm of readers: ‘I stumbled here,’ ‘this variation works better,’ ‘this line rings false.’ ”
Bonus item: Check out my write up of Kerry Skemp’s You’re Talking a Lot but You’re Not Saying Anything for more intriguing thoughts on the future of online feedback-and-commenting.
9/11/2009 4:37:07 PM
Literary critics have long argued that novels are inherently anti-religious. They believe that novels, with their many voices and styles, necessarily challenge the certainty of a worldview with a divinely authored text at its core. In the book The Broken Estate James Wood said, “it was not just science but perhaps the novel itself which helped to kill Jesus’ divinity, when it gave us a new sense of the real.”
This view is overly simplistic (pdf), Justin Neuman writes for Culture magazine. According to Neuman, too many people assume a sharp divide with religion on one side and debate, questioning, and literary freedom on the other. This marginalizes many aspects of religion that encourage the pursuit of knowledge and freedom. It also misses the potential that both novels and religion have to change people’s worldviews for the better.
Image by (michelle), licensed under Creative Commons.
9/1/2009 5:05:54 PM
The next person to press their forehead to my shoulder and weep over the fate of the printed word will be fined (standard practice) and then made to sit in a comfortable chair with a copy of the emerging writers issue of Urbanite. In it, there is a down right inspiring interview with the husband and wife team (writer Matthew Swanson and illustrator Robbi Behr) who run a tiny press called Idiots’ Books. They are purveyors of “odd, commercially non-viable illustrated books” distributed through a subscription service. As long as there are relentlessly innovative storytellers like these two around, words will find their way to the page and the page will find its way to a reader (who will pay for it, I assure you).
Lately, Swanson and Behr have been creating short stories they call One-Page Wonders, which Urbanite describes as “circular confections of words and images whose elements can be cut, folded, and manipulated by enterprising readers.” One of these delightful creations is included in the magazine, and you can watch how it works in the video at the bottom of this post.
Swanson and Behr are also teachers, and Urbanite asked them about the advice they give to aspiring writers:
When you’re teaching student writers, do you give them the brutal truth about their dim prospects for actually making a living with this skill? How do you prepare young people for a career in
Matthew: Our bottom line is to try to teach them to be thinking people. Even though we are helping them with their craft, we care far more about the evolution of thought and the development of concept and the ability to draft an idea and articulate it. That is paramount to us.
Robbi: For the writing to work, it’s not just about spinning an interesting narrative; it’s about getting an idea across in a thoughtful way. In terms of preparing them to be writers, mostly we just tell them it’s work. No matter what you do, if you’re going to be successful at it, you have to work. If you’re not willing to just do the hard work, it’s not going to happen.
Matthew: We also tell them that both of us had to spend a decade mucking through the professional world while developing other skills and creating salaries for ourselves so that we could go off the grid. This myth of just sitting in your apartment and creating art and having it become your career might work for a few really lucky people, but in general making art is kind of a deliberate byproduct of a life plan that includes some other things that you have to do along the way. Hopefully, they are things that you enjoy and have relevance.
Here's the (very charming) video demonstration of a One-Page Wonder:
And hey! Visit our new homepage for great writing, curated by Utne Reader editors and always changing.
Image courtesy of Robbi Behr.
9/1/2009 3:58:13 PM
We struggle with how to write about poetry at Utne Reader, and it’s not because we don’t read it and love it. The closest we’ve come lately in our pages is an interview with undertaker and writer Thomas Lynch: “The reason poets aren’t read,” he said, “is that we don’t hang any of them anymore”:
We don’t take them seriously; we don’t think that poetry can move people to do passionate things. But poets did. Poets could change cultures. Before there was so much contest for people’s attention, poets were the ones who literally brought the news from one place to another, walking from town to town, which is how we got everything to be iambic and memorable and rhymed and metered, because the tradition was oral before it was literary.
That was the last best thing I had read about poetry—until I stumbled upon an essay by Karin de Weille in the Writer’s Chronicle. Lynch’s spiel was profound, but it was almost like he was eulogizing poetry. Not so in de Weille’s piece, How We Are Changed by the Rhythms of Poetry. “A poem designed to evoke anger,” she writes, “does much more than give us information about the triggering event; it shapes our energy into the very rhythms of anger. A series of words is chosen because it literally causes us to sputter and spit, stirring up memories and experiences from our personal past, reviving the emotion itself.”
Poetry, de Weille adds, “asks us to pump this life into our throats and out through our mouths. Then it can circulate among us, with total disregard for the distinctions that otherwise rule our lives.”
Visit our new homepage for great writing, curated by Utne Reader editors and always changing.
Source: Writer’s Chronicle (Article not yet available online)
9/1/2009 10:36:55 AM
In the category of brilliant ideas: If you make less than $25,000/year, you can request a free galley copy of Stephen Elliott’s true-crime memoir The Adderall Diaries, released today from Graywolf Press. (Galleys are those advance reader copies, soft-cover editions that sometimes find homes in reading programs and the like, but too often end up in recycling bins.)
Read about the free book offer at The Rumpus, which Elliott edits, plus details of his book tour.
Source: Graywolf Press, The Rumpus
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