Archives: August 2014

Lunch with Bob Silvers

The New York Review of Books turns 50 years old this year. Emily Stokes had lunch with Bob Silvers to talk about it:

As an editor working at a literary magazine, I find Silvers’ work ethic inspiring, if hard to mimic; he is in the office seven days a week, often until midnight, where he keeps a bed in a cupboard. He edits every piece in the NYRB himself. Contributors speak of his long polite memos revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of even the most obscure subjects, as well as a disregard for normal working hours; many have stories of receiving clippings and queries from “Bob” in the middle of the night or as they sit down to Christmas lunch.

(…)

Editing, Silvers advises me, is an instinct. You must choose writers carefully, having read all of their work, rather than being swayed by “reputations that are, shall we say, overpromoted”, and then anticipate their needs, sending them books and news articles. “You see something in a piece that you can’t understand, and you have to say, ‘Can it be clearer?’ Issues that are left out, you have to raise them. You see dead or tired metaphors, you have to get rid of them.” He pokes at the sprouts in his little bowl, explaining how various phrases are tired or misused – “compelling”, “key”, “massive”, “context” – before looking down. “On the table!” he cries. The metaphorical table, he says, is now terribly overburdened, “with ‘issues’, ‘phrases’, ‘treaties’, ‘wars’ … ” He dips a sprout into his soup, absent-mindedly.

On the History of Office Cubicles

From Martin Filler’s New York Review of Books‘ piece, ‘The Road to the Zombie Office’, on Nikil Saval’s Cubed, which by and large explains how we all got to spend so much time in offices:

Propst—a polymath with no specific background in office planning—was convinced that a more innovatively designed work space would increase both productivity and creativity. He devised an ensemble of interrelated furniture components to create a flexible “workstation” that (as its trade name Action Office suggests) contravened the essentially sedentary nature of tasks performed within it. This approach was indicated by the inclusion, along with a shelving unit and a conventional work table, of a stand-up desk.

Although advertising for the Action Office used blurred male figures to convey the go-go tempo of the early 1960s, the new product line was a commercial flop, which prompted Propst to come up with a more salable revised version, Action Office II (1968). The major difference between the two was that the second version introduced the freestanding partitions that have become the most detested aspect of the open office. As shown in newly depopulated ad schematics of Herman Miller for Action Office II, these movable walls were at first splayed at obtuse angles to convey a spacious, nonregimented feeling.

However, it took corporate customers no time at all to set them up in rigid right-angled formations, and for furniture companies less concerned with quality to flood the market with cheaper, flimsier knockoffs. The sharp recession of the early 1970s and the “stagflation” that plagued the American economy throughout the rest of that decade increased the acceptance of the open office for all the wrong reasons. Open-plan spaces that could be cheaply and easily reconfigured as the number of employees ebbed and flowed with layoffs and hirings became the new order of the day, and have remained so. Today an estimated 60 percent of American office workers are consigned to cubicles that are disliked, Saval tells us, by 93 percent of their occupants.

Emily Witt on pornography

Emily Witt’s essay, ‘What Do You Desire?’, on San Francisco’s sexual vanguard, from n+1‘s sixteenth issue:

Princess Donna arrived with a small entourage, wearing a vacuum-tight black minidress that flattered her exceptionally perfect breasts. Donna is an extraordinary physical presence in any group of people, and her stature plays integrally into her authority. She is five foot seven with long, almost alarmingly thin limbs that make her seem taller. She has large, brown, Bambi-ish eyes that, the night of the shoot, were complexly shadowed and wreathed in fake eyelashes, which Kink purchases in quantities of several hundred at a time. Her long brown hair was tied up in a high ponytail. She has a tattoo of a biologically correct heart on her left shoulder and a cursive inscription that says DADDY on her inner right forearm. She strode into the room carrying a black vinyl purse from which a riding crop protruded. With her minidress she wore tan cowboy boots, which made the length of her legs appear heron-like. A neck bruise the size of a silver dollar that I had noticed during my first meeting with her a week before had faded.

Donna stood before the bar with the palindromically stage-named male performer, Ramon Nomar, surveying the room. He pointed up to several hooks on the ceiling and to a metal Juliet balcony over the bar. Donna nodded without a word. They retreated to the back. I asked a production assistant where the female performer was. Penny Pax, she said, was having “quiet time.”

Soon, the music was silenced (Kink had its own music, cleared of rights, to play). The bartender removed his gingham shirt and his tie and suddenly was wearing nothing but his waistcoat. Donna came out to make some announcements to the assembled crowd, which was well on its way to getting soused.

“You might think we are doing things to the model that are mean or humiliating, but don’t,” said Donna. “She’s signed an agreement.” According to the agreement, the crowd had permission to poke the model, fondle her, and finger her, but only if they washed their hands and had neatly trimmed fingernails. A fingernail trimmer was available if necessary. “I’m going to be watching you like a hawk to make sure you’re not doing degrading things to her pussy,” Donna said. She continued: “You’re allowed to spit on her chest but not her face. You can give her a hard spanking but you are not allowed to give her a hard smack.” She pulled her production assistant over to her physically. “If Kat is the model”—here Kat bent over obligingly—“this would be a reasonable distance from which to spank her.” Donna mimed responsible spanking practice.

‘The Albertine Workout’ by Anne Carson

‘The Albertine Workout’ by Anne Carson, a new poem  in the London Review of Books:

1. Albertine, the name, is not a common name for a girl in France, although Albert is widespread for a boy.

2. Albertine’s name occurs 2363 times in Proust’s novel, more than any other character.

3. Albertine herself is present or mentioned on 807 pages of Proust’s novel.

4. On a good 19 per cent of these pages she is asleep.

5. Albertine is believed by some critics, including André Gide, to be a disguised version of Proust’s chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli. This is called the transposition theory.

6. Albertine constitutes a romantic, psychosexual and moral obsession for the narrator of the novel mainly throughout Volume Five of Proust’s seven-volume (in the Pléiade edition) work.

7. Volume Five is called La Prisonnière in French and The Captive in English. It was declared by Roger Shattuck, a world expert on Proust, in his award-winning 1974 study, to be the one volume of the novel that a time-pressed reader may safely and entirely skip.

8. The problems of Albertine are
(from the narrator’s point of view)
a) lying
b) lesbianism,
and (from Albertine’s point of view)
a) being imprisoned in the narrator’s house.

‘Brief Interviews with Hiddeous Men’ by David Foster Wallace

‘Brief Interviews with Hiddeous Men’, a short story originally published by the Paris Review in 1997: 

#6 E——— on “How and Why I Have Come to be Totally Devoted to S——— and Have Made Her the Linchpin and Plinth of My Entire Emotional Existence”

And yet I did not fall in love with her until she had related the story of the unbelievably horrifying incident in which she was brutally accosted and held captive and raped and very nearly killed.

Q.

Let me explain. I’m aware of how it might sound, believe me. I can explain. In bed together, in response to some sort of prompt or association, she related an anecdote about hitchhiking and once being picked up by what turned out to be a psychotic serial sex offender who drove her to a secluded area and raped her and would almost surely have murdered her had she not been able to think effectively on her feet under enormous fear and stress. Irregardless of whatever I might have thought of the quality and substance of the thinking that enabled her to induce him to let her live.

Ian Parker on Edward St Aubyn

Ian Parker in the New Yorker on the novelist Edward St Aubyn — a man who ‘has the air of someone who is puzzled, and rather impressed, to find that he is not dead’:

Toward the end of his three-year course, a generous but too hopeful professor suggested to him that, with effort, he could do very well on his final examinations. Not long before this conversation, St. Aubyn had stopped breathing in the back of an ambulance between his London apartment and Charing Cross Hospital, after an overdose. Feeling that he “had to confess,” St. Aubyn said, “Well, there is a problem—I am a heroin addict.” The professor was concerned. “He said, ‘Do you have a television?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Oh, do get one, they’re very relaxing.’ ” St. Aubyn laughed. “The Oxford University recovery program. I bought a television and took it back to my Oxford flat, and watched a lot of daytime television.” The university awarded him the lowest possible class of degree: a pass.

On our walk through Oxford, we passed Keble, his college, and he mentioned that, in 1982, during the vacation before final exams, he had attempted replacing heroin with whiskey and Valium. Waiting in a pharmacy to fill his Valium prescription, he met Nicola Shulman, the daughter of well-known journalists. Shulman became his partner until the end of the decade. She was having a sunnier experience at Oxford. The election of a Conservative government, in 1979, and the success of such period dramas as “Brideshead Revisited” had made it newly fashionable for students to participate in moneyed, black-tie frolics. (Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty” captures the moment.) Shulman’s extended circle, which St. Aubyn joined, included Hugh Grant and Nigella Lawson, whose father was one of Margaret Thatcher’s ministers. The previous summer, Lawson had been photographed dangling a croquet mallet out of a sedan chair carried, on poles, by four young men.

St. Aubyn could play the part. He was not quite an aristocrat; an English peer, when recently asked to identify St. Aubyn’s place in the country’s upper classes, paused for a long time and then said, “Well, he’s upper-middle-class, isn’t he?” But St. Aubyn said “huff” for “have,” and “orf” for “off.” Oliver James is sure that St. Aubyn has never worn a pair of jeans: “He always dressed like, and had the manners of, a toff.” And St. Aubyn was attractive, thanks, in part, to his mixture of vulnerability and predatoriness. One observer described him as a “golden lamb” with “very beautiful soft skin and wonderful wavy hair.”

 

Interview with Eimear McBride

On 4 June, Eimear McBride won the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, beating Donna Tartt, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jhumpa Lahiri to her second major prize.

And yet: she finished the book in 2004, and didn’t find a publisher for it until 2013. In a recent interview with The White Review, she is pretty damning about mainstream publishing:

I hate a moral and I’m not much keener on an inspirational tale of survival against the odds. I find the current vogue for heavyweight middlebrow fairly depressing too, but suspect this has more to do with what publishers are willing to publish than what writers are offering. Girl was recently turned down by a large publishing house in the US because they feared ‘…that broad-mindedness is a thing of the past and that McBride’s brilliant and moving novel will suffer in the marketplace as a result’.

I can’t count how many responses I’ve had in that vein and I don’t think they’re just a problem for me personally. Responses like that are a problem for everyone interested in serious writing. I will be eternally grateful to Galley Beggar for the risk they took in publishing Girl and for possessing the imagination to see beyond the narrow perimeters marketing departments offer to their giant international counterparts. That they have generated so much interest on a marketing budget of almost nothing is testament to their hard work but also to the fact that there is an audience out there for this kind of writing and while Girl isn’t going to make millionaires of any of us, it has a place and a value too. Publishing shouldn’t be about seeking out next year’s rip-off of last year’s hit. Both readers and writers deserve better.

Simon Critchley, ‘Working-Class Ballet’

In Roads & Kingdoms, Simon Critchley writes on football as working-class ballet, on Zinedine Zidane as anti-hero, and on a lifetime of supporting Liverpool:

Football is working-class ballet. It’s an experience of enchantment. For an hour and a half, a different order of time unfolds and one submits oneself to it. A football game is a temporal rupture with the routine of the everyday: ecstatic, evanescent and, most importantly, shared. At its best, football is about shifts in the intensity of experience. At times, it’s like Spinoza on maximizing intensities of existence. At other times, it’s more like Beckett’s Godot, where nothing happens twice. 

Let me try and make some sense of these thoughts by focusing on an exemplary artwork: Zidane by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno from 2006. The movie’s subtitle is A Portrait of the 21st Century and these words have a wide range of meaning. Zidane is a meditation on the nature of the image and the endlessly mediated quality of reality. We begin by watching the usual, flat TV images and commentary of the game before being sucked in to something else… but let’s leave that ‘something else’ for a moment.

At the most obvious level, Zidane is a portrait of the 21st century, where reality has an utterly mediated quality. It is a world of celebrity and commodity, a world of smooth and shiny surfaces, a hallucinatory reality, nothing more. The 21st century is a portrait. Everything is a portrait. Zidane himself is a portrait, a perfect and magical fetish, a pure commodity that inspires desire, a product with rights owned by Adidas, Siemens or his whole panoply of sponsors. Zidane is a spectacle.

Fitz Carraldo Editions