Archives: July 2017

The Heretical Things Statistics Tell Us About Fiction

Dan Piepenbring for the New Yorker

For the New Yorker Dan Piepenbring reviews Ben Blatt’s book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing and looks at what he has discovered:

In high school, writing term papers on the family PC, I’d often turn to Microsoft Word’s “readability statistics” feature to make sure I sounded smart enough. With a few clicks, Word assigned my papers a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: a number from one to twelve indicating how many years of education the average reader would need to have completed in order to decipher my language. I had no idea how Word made this calculation, but I noticed that it rewarded prolix sentences with a higher “grade.” So that’s what I wrote. I put my every word choice under close scrutiny. Soon my paragraphs buckled under the weight of clauses and polysyllables, but I, a ninth grader, was generating prose that only twelfth graders could read—which made me pretty hot shit, my thinking went.

Those Flesch-Kincaid trials came back to me as I read “Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing,” by Ben Blatt, which looks at the canon as a statistical gold mine to be dredged for patterns, variances, and singularities. In “literary experiments” on diction, punctuation, cliffhangers, clichés, and other aspects of style and usage, Blatt uses data to probe the body of conventional wisdom that surrounds creative writing. What if those who allegedly loathe adverbs are actually completely, totally addicted to them? What if it’s quite O.K. to use intensifiers very often, because Jane Austen is rather fond of them? What if I like exclamation points! Blatt’s jacket bio cites “his fun approach to data journalism”—a bit of prolepsis, maybe, aimed at those of us who’d sooner watch paint dry than look at anything quantitatively—and his book is laden with charts, lists, and tables printed in a gentle purple. The lessons here are valuable because of their workmanlike cast, not in spite of it. Put aside the “fun approach” and “Mauve” makes some enticingly heretical observations: that every great writer is a technician, every novel a mere agglomeration of prose effects.

The book is built on agreeable miscellany, and parts of it are willfully trivial. On the face of it, there’s not much to be gleaned from the fact that James Joyce uses 1,105 exclamation points per hundred thousand words, or that J. R. R. Tolkien leans too often on “suddenly,” that most accursed of adverbs. Blatt’s findings are more absorbing when he ditches the bean-counter approach. American writers of Harry Potter fan fiction are actually more liable to use “brilliant” than their British counterparts, who employ the word with native agility. And, in a study of erotica written by New Yorkers, Blatt notes a preponderance of the following words: subway, popsicle, senator, butthole, museum, landlord, thrusted, Jacuzzi, sin, and shrugs. Most of these choices are intuitive, even laudable—but what explains those last three? I grasp that a New Yorker might lust for a senator with a popsicle in his butthole; a shrugging sinner in a hot tub doesn’t quite rate.

Blatt’s research on diction and gender is especially revelatory. Looking at a broad swath of twentieth-century lit, he tallies the verbs most often used to describe one gender over another. The results find rich deposits of sexism running through the language. Male characters are most likely to mutter, grin, shout, chuckle, and kill; women are doomed to shiver, weep, murmur, scream, and marry. Male authors are far likelier to write “she interrupted” than “he interrupted.” A grim typology begins to emerge. Men are raffish, jolly, murderous sorts, while women are delicate and meek, except when they deign to interrupt men, as they often do. There’s some sexual self-loathing across the board, too: when writers assign verbs to someone of the opposite gender, they most often reach for “kiss,” “exclaim,” “answer,” “love,” and “smile”; characters of the same gender “hear,” “wonder,” “lay,” “hate,” and “run.”

The high point of the book is Blatt’s effort “to test whether something like a literary fingerprint exists for famous writers.” It does, he finds­—across their oeuvres, “authors do end up writing in a way that is both unique and consistent, just like an actual fingerprint is distinct and unchanging.” Even the way that writers deploy simple pairs of words—“and” and “the,” “these” and “then,” “what” and “but”—is often enough to identify them. The numbers bear out a romantic idea: that a writer is always ineluctably herself. Soon, Blatt zeroes in on writers’ “favorite” words—hence his title, indicating Nabokov’s predilection for “mauve.” The words must be used in half an author’s books, at least once per hundred thousand words; they can’t be proper nouns. His discoveries are startlingly apt. Almost without fail, the words evoke their authors’ affinities and manias. John Cheever favors “venereal”—a perfect encapsulation of his urbane midcentury erotics, tinged with morality. Isaac Asimov prefers “terminus,” a word ensconced in a swooping, stately futurism; Woolf has her “mantelpiece,” Wharton her “compunction.” (Melville’s “sperm” is somewhat misleading, perhaps, when separated from his whales.)

Cumulatively, these facts and figures make “Mauve” an effective craft book. By reminding us that literature is just strings of words and punctuation, Blatt has taken the whiff of the godhead out of it. Writers like to emphasize the psychology in their work, their strenuous labor toward depth and verisimilitude; they’re less inclined to talk about how few decent synonyms exist for “good.” The stats speak a cold truth: there are dozens of prosaic choices behind every artful sentence. Dwelling on this can inoculate writers against the preciousness of the workshop. “Mauve” has no truck with showing instead of telling, no druthers about sense of place or voice. Even in great books, it says, one word follows another, all of them slaves to grammar, sequence, and probability.


What Should We Call Exile?

Raphael Cormack writing for The TLS

Raphael Cormack writes for The TLS about the cultural development of the new Arabic diaspora:

“Berlin is the new capital of the Arab world”, someone joked with me on my last visit to Cairo. They have a point. Over the past five years, we have seen the movement of large numbers of people from the Arab world, often due to war and political oppression. Among the displaced are some of the most talented writers and scholars working in the Arabic language today. Rasha Abbas, a Syrian journalist and short story writer who left Damascus for Beirut in 2012, eventually arrived in Germany in 2014. She said that she seemed to run into people she knew on the street in Berlin more often than she ever did in Damascus.

Abbas spoke recently at the British Library, where she has a short residency, researching a new project. Using the Library’s collections, she is beginning to write a story that uses tarot cards to link the story of the current refugee crisis with the period lasting three years from 1958 to 1961, in which Egypt and Syria were merged into the United Arab Republic; short extracts of her work were revealed on Saturday. Her talk was part of a two-day summit of Arab literature that featured the work of seventeen other writers from across the Arab world, organized by Shubbak Festival, a biennial festival of Arab culture in London.

Fourteen of the eighteen participants are currently based in Europe or America. The choice of speakers is, of course, somewhat limited by what appears to be official hostility to visa applications in Britain. Of the four writers based in the Arab world, only two got visas to come to the UK; the other two had their work discussed and one sent in a video of her reading. But the dominance of writers now living outside the Arab world also represents a broader trend in contemporary Arabic literature. More and more writers, forced out of their country by war or other hostile conditions for literary creation, are now based in Europe or America – temporarily at least. They write, by and large, in Arabic and for Arabic-speaking audiences. At the festival, readings were given in both English and Arabic. One line in a poem by Mona Kareem, born in Kuwait but forbidden from returning in 2011, spoke of a “life lived half on Skype”. The closest model for this generation of writers in exile might be the so-called “Mahjar poets” of the early twentieth century – a group of Syrian and Lebanese writers, based in America, who made a vital contribution to modern Arabic literature.

Unsurprisingly, one leitmotif of the weekend was what this distance from home meant for the writers. It was even unclear what we should call it. “The Spider makes a home outside itself. It does not call it exile”, went a verse by the Iraqi-America poet Dunya Mikhail. The Palestinian-American novelist Susan Abulhawa preferred the Arabic word ghurba, which means any estrangement and separation from your land. Others, such as Ali Badr, the prolific Iraqi novelist, and author of twenty-one books in Arabic, now based in Brussels, were happy with the word “exile”.

This experience of diaspora can be emotionally difficult but also literarily productive. In conversation with Susan Abulhawa, Gillian Slovo said that she had never felt she belonged either in South Africa or England but the one place she did feel at home was in literature. Exile can allow a writer to see their homeland from a different angle. Ali Badr said that the first time he really understood his country was when he was away from it. The inspiration that these writers’ experiences gave them was evident throughout the weekend. Talks on Arabic literature often do not get beyond the predictable gripes that no one ever reads Arabic literature and when they do they are only interested in clichés of headscarves and oppression. These panels, by contrast, were vital, varied and complex.


The Farm

Nicola Barker's H(A)PPY excerpted in GRANTA

Extract in Granta from Nicola Barker’s new book H(A)PPY, published this month by William Heinemann:

All our fabrics are intelligent now. We grow them in laboratories. Our fabrics are self-cleaning and self-maintaining and they interact with our bodies to gauge things like size, density and temperature according to the specifics of the conditions in which we find ourselves. Our fabrics – our shoes – are alive. They are sensitive and so we – The Young – are sensitive to them. Appreciative of them. In situations of stress or duress or jeopardy our clothes will modify to protect us. They are fully breathable. They will change colour on request. We can wear any style or pattern that we choose, but mostly we choose to wear plain, loose, non-gendered styles and the colour white because we are The Young and we are Clean and we try not to complicate things too much by engaging The Ego in mundane or insignificant day-to-day decisions. Choice, fashion etc. are the pointless and outmoded preoccupations of The Past. And colour often represents The Ego. The Ego and difference. So we can choose to wear whatever we like, but we always choose to wear white, because it best expresses how calm we are, and how free we are, and how whole we are and how H(A)PPY we are.



I really, really wish it would stop doing that.











And yet even though our fabrics are sentient, and our food is carefully prepared in laboratories where levels of power and water and waste etc. are all minutely controlled – we eschew the old Capitalist Modes of Production and quietly consider them the greatest human evil (please note that I employ this provocative word with a combination of calm and regret and disquiet), The Young still choose to spend time In Nature, at regular intervals, to keep in touch with our dear Mother, Earth. Mother Earth is our sustainer, our source, our root, and we love her. When we touch Mother Earth something fundamental is stimulated within us and we feel an intense sensation of Actuality and Belonging. Because we live in The System it is sometimes easy to forget that at the root of everything is Mother Earth who sustains us. We live in The System but we must look behind it, the way a child in The Past might watch a puppet show and then – once the performance is over – run to the back of the box and lift up the curtain to squint into the darkness at the hunched and mysterious (and no doubt heavily perspiring) figure of the puppeteer.

In The Past our ancestors forgot to love (and love is a strong word, a dangerous word, a word The Young are discouraged from using if any other word will suffice) Mother Earth. They created Gods in their own image and worshipped these images instead of Mother Earth. They told themselves that the creator of the universe had chosen them and made them rulers over all things – all the plants and the animals, all Mother Earth’s many riches and resources. Soon they invented their demi-gods of Growth and Progress. They forgot that Mother Earth sustained them freely. They were arrogant and self-serving. Their philosophies were both physically and intellectually flawed. They worshipped the number. They became an unsustainable parasite on Mother Earth. They stole from Mother Earth. They abused her and all her many glories. Their ignorance and vanity were insupportable. They forgot how to feel gratitude. They forgot how to see, how to empathise, how to reason.

Yes. Oh yes. That is who we once were. The Young must never, ever allow themselves to ignore what has brought them here. The Young must never, ever forget the debt that they owe to Mother Earth. Insofar as it is helpful and fruitful, The Young must feel a measure of shame and embarrassment (even consternation, even disgruntlement, even astonishment) at the chaos and destruction their own race has unleashed against Mother Earth. Shame. Embarrassment. Sharp words. Dangerous words. And, as such, it is only appropriate that The Young should embrace them for a moment – a brief moment – then push them away and move on. It is a lesson. It is why we live by The Graph. We cannot be self-serving. We cannot be individual. We are one consciousness fractured into a multitude of forms. We cleave to what is good and, still more importantly, what is feasible. Our survival is dependent upon our unity. We must be dispassionate. The System is our unity. The System is our dispassion.


But The System is not our God.

We are our own Gods.


Mathias Enard’s speech at the Leipzig Gewandhaus

On receiving the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding

In March 2017, Mathias Enard was awarded the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding for Kompass, the German edition of Compass, published by Hanser Berlin. Previous winners include Péter Nádas, Svetlana Alexievich, Eric Hobsbawm, Claudio Magris, Pankaj Mishra and Mircea Cărtărescu. Charlotte Mandell, Enard’s English translator, translated his acceptance speech, reproduced below: 

First of all, I would like to extend my thanks, my immense gratitude, to everyone. Contrary to what some people might at first think, an author does not write books. He writes texts, at best. Between the text I wrote and the book you have in your hands there are quite a few people: a French publisher, first of all, Actes Sud; then German translators, Sabine Müller and Holger Fock; then a German editor, Delf Schmidt, and a publishing house, Hanser Berlin, and its director, Karsten Kredel: a book is the work of a team, and that’s what differentiates it from a text. A book is an author, plus a publisher, plus editors — a chain of exchanges and shared contributions. Contributions that extend the text, and that clarify its meaning in a given context: heartfelt thanks to the Jury, which saw a European book in this Compass. Thank you, Dr. Dakhli, for the moving speech — my emotion upon hearing it is added to the emotion of finding myself on the Gewandhaus stage, which, for a writer, is rare enough to explain the tremor in my voice. Thank you.

It seems that political commentators lately have forgotten who Europe was. Europa. Forgotten the meaning of Europe. Europa was a Lebanese princess kidnapped on a beach near Saïda by a God from the North — Zeus — who desired her. The princess Europa, daughter of Agenor, never set foot on our lands; Europa spent her days in the Mediterranean, between Phoenicia and Crete. Europa is an illegal immigrant, a foreigner, the spoils of war. The story of Europa is a story of the Mediterranean, of desire and conquest. This metaphor and the story of Europa is rich in teachings for us. We bear her name. Europa is desirable. Europa is eastern. Europa is subjected to the domination of those from the North, who possess her by ruse. The colonizer Zeus appears masked, disguised as a bull, as power, as beauty. Sarpedon, Europa’s son, would go on to fight on the side of the Trojans, on the side of the Orient. His lifeless body would be carried off by Apollo, away from the battle, to be entrusted to the twins Hypnos and Thanatos, Sleep and Death. Unfortunately we too often forget these stories, we forget that the Mediterranean, the Eastern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean, saw the birth of the princess Europa. That the Mediterranean space, the cultural and linguistic space formed by its shores, has been an extremely vital and important part of our history, and that by shutting itself up in its Northern part, by forging an exclusive identity for itself as if it were draping itself in a cloak of pretension, Europe has condemned itself to a form of solitude. A fortress despite itself. 

In Compass, I tried to shed a little more light on the Oriental side of the history of the European arts, literature and music mainly. For instance, in 1820, when Stendhal wrote his discourse On Love, he cites liberally not just The Thousand and One Nights but also Ibn Abi Hajala and his Diwan Al-Sababa, from which he excerpts a little story that, later on, Heinrich Heine would read in Stendhal’s piece and from which he would draw his poem “Der Asra” — a poem that would be, and this is still just one example, translated into Bosnian around 1900, set to music and sung in Sarajevo in a magnificent sevalinka, thus closing the circle of a long poetic transmission. Or, another example, Louis Aragon, the great French poet who carried the story forward of the Arabic poet gone mad from love, Qais ibn Al-Mulawah, who was called Majnun Layla, the one mad about Layla. Aragon pictures himself in Grenada desperately in love, burning with an absolute love, just like his model, to the point that he composed, in French, some magnificent Arabic verses. Cervantes himself, the great, unique Cervantes, inventor of the novel, claimed that the story of Don Quixote was actually the work of an Arab from La Mancha, Cide Hamete Benengeli, thereby in one stroke giving an Arabic ancestor to the entire European tradition of the novel. One could cite such examples ad infinitum, like so many little streams irrigating and spreading throughout all of Europe: the part of Princess Europa, the Sidon part — the other in the self. 

Today some people seek exactly the opposite — to find or rediscover a mythical purity inside which they can shut themselves up, like an oyster. Today the ravages of war are destroying the princess Europa’s shores — Syria is in flames. We have abandoned Syria to destruction and suffering, just as we did before to Lebanon and Bosnia. Europeans are often sad spectators. But they cannot forget that this “Europe” whose name they have appropriated was in the beginning a construction of peace — as in the European Union — and that peace requires courage and conviction. Do we never learn anything from massacres? Ever? Do we draw no consequences from this destroyed country, from these hundreds of thousands dead, from these millions of refugees? Can we guarantee peace only to an area of land so small it includes neither the Ukraine, nor Turkey, nor the Sudan, nor Mali? Do we know how to achieve security only through domination and imperialism?

I wrote Compass under the sign of hope, relying on the axiom of hope. The principle of hope. What kind of hope can be contrasted with the somber hope of a man putting an end to his life and killing his fellow humans in exchange for the promise of paradise? What kind of hope can we place in the scale faced with the divine infinite? It would seem that democratic hope or economic aspiration no longer function for the world’s outsiders, the excluded ones, who look at globalization from below, the way you watch an airplane go by — for them the plane passes through the clouds of conspiracy. They see the planet as an immense plot from which they try vainly to extricate themselves, a generalized conspiracy of which they are the victims and from which only violent death can rescue them. And even beyond this self-destructive illusion, this blindness in the Self, this feeling of abandonment faced with the chaos of the world can be found everywhere, in Germany, France, Russia, Turkey. Everywhere, verbal violence against the Other and difference is becoming an illusory refuge against the movement of the world. A morbid refuge, a refuge that tends toward the violence of isolation. What can hope offer against this? What possible remedy, what suggestions? A hope that is perhaps modest, that of knowledge, of an erotics (like a poetics) of knowledge: the propagation of the desire for knowledge, the sharing of this desire. Curiosity as motivating force of the world, curiosity, knowledge, art, and literature as constituents of a shared world. Nothing is fixed in our identities, we are only ramblers on this planet. And if nothing is fixed, if everything is moving and undetermined, then we are constantly constructing ourselves; we are continually transformed by the other, by that other whom we in turn transform in a fertile aporia. Hominem unius libri timeo, I fear a man of one book, said Thomas Aquinas or Augustine of Hippo (who was, let’s not forget, Algerian); I fear a man of one book because he could be ignorant, the child of a single reading. I fear a man of one book because he might know that book so well he would be difficult to contradict… To that man of one book let us oppose the countless number of languages, the infinity of stories. To fixed identity let us oppose the energy of knowing. To the immobility of hatred let us oppose the infinite hope of the sun of knowledge. 

Thank you.


What I Learned Editing Hunter S. Thompson

Terry McDonell writing for LitHub

Hunter S. Thompson’s editor Terry McDonell writes about the author and the origins of “gonzo” for LitHub:

There are conflicting stories about the first use of the word gonzo to describe Hunter’s journalism but all credit fellow journalist Bill Cardoso. Maybe it was on the press bus during the 1968 New Hampshire primaries, maybe it was in a letter praising Hunter’s 1970 Kentucky Derby piece, maybe it was just one night in a bar, but it was definitely Cardoso who used gonzo first, and he and Hunter agreed on that. It came to mean more than the lack of objectivity in the amped-up first-person voice that Hunter’s work personified, but Cardoso would say only that he meant the word scatologically—as in crazy shit—and that he had used it many times before he applied it to Hunter’s journalism.

Cardoso rose at the Boston Globe to edit its Sunday magazine, quit to open a jazz club in the Canary Islands, then returned to journalism and famously become the most unfamous practitioner of the New Journalism among the New Journalists. I wish that sentence were as sharp as it is true in the way Cardoso wrote that the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena was “the meeting ground of Babbitt and Costello.”

Cardoso and the journalist and promoter Harold Conrad painted layers of polish on the word hipster—or, as Cardoso sometimes put it when describing himself, wordhipster. Conrad was less unfamous, since his friend Budd Schulberg had based the cynical fight press agent in The Harder They Fall on him, and Humphrey Bogart had played him in the movie. Conrad introduced Cardoso, Thompson, George Plimpton and Norman Mailer to Muhammad Ali, and put them in ringside seats. His idea was that if you get important journalists to cover the fights, the rest takes care of itself—especially after a toke or two.

All of the writers mentioned above wrote careful, crafted pieces that came in clean. Unsurprisingly, not Hunter. Likewise those same writers helped to speed the editing process while Hunter turned it into theatre, saying that there were far fewer good editors than good writers, and that he had learned some nasty lessons from their incompetence. He had a riff about it, about how he would suck editors into his pieces as conspirators, all of us wanting to prove ourselves good enough—hip enough—to edit him.


An Extract: Moving Kings

From Joshua Cohen's new book out today

An extract from Joshua Cohen’s new book Moving Kings, published today:

(In Distraint)

Ye shall know them by their vehicles: those blue trucks that’re always cutting you off on your way to the airport, sides emblazoned with grimy white crowns, dinged bumpers stickered GOT A PROBLEM WITH MY DRIVING? CALL 1-800-212-KING!

Ye shall know them by their ads: on basic cable and drivetime radio, those billboards that’re always blocking the signs and making you miss the airport turn, with their offers of free estimates over the phone and 100% money back guarantees.

Or maybe, like more than 180,000 other satisfied customers served in all five of the boroughs and three neighboring states since 1948, you know them as the Courtly Couriers®, or the Royal Treatment Pros®, or the Removalists with the Regal Touch™—whom you’ve let into your home, to move your most precious possessions to your new home, or else to one of their six 24-hour, security-monitored, climate-controlled storage facilities conveniently located throughout the New York Metropolitan Area.

Or maybe, whatever you know is wrong, because you’ve just been reading their online reviews.

King’s Moving (David King, President, Spokesman, Container of Crises, Stresses, & the Distrained) was a licensed, bonded, limited-liability insured large small business that specialized in—one guess—moving … ’n’ storage … ’n’ parking … ’n’ towing … ’n’ salvage … ’n’ scrap, activities that demanded the bloodsweat of plus/minus 40 fulltime and 60 parttime employees, 50 vehicles, three lots, five garages, six 24-hour, security-monitored, climate-controlled storage facilities conveniently located throughout the New York Metropolitan Area—not to mention a headquarters in Jersey City, hard by the piers.

Above all, King’s Moving was a family business. Family owned, family operated. Family, family, family… Take that into account, Your Honor…


It was summer, toward the weekend of a holiday week—Moving Day (last day of the month, first day of the month), followed by Independence Day—and David King was out in the Hamptons at a birthday party for America, to which he’d been invited as a member of the Empire Club, which had required attendees to donate upwards of $4K for the privilege of drinking diluted booze and eating oversauced BBQ under the auspices of the New York State Republican Committee.

Inviting him to a party and then making him pay: that was class. That was how billionaires stayed billionaires.

And David, who’d resented even the toll to the Long Island Expressway, couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d met $4K worth of people yet—he couldn’t help valuating everything: the people, the property, the Victorianized manse shadowing the pool. His phone was vibrating again in his pocket.

He canceled the call—he was working.

He was working by attending a party at which he didn’t know anyone, or knew only that he recognized: names, faces, profiles.

It was work having to restrain himself from mentioning mergers he’d only read about, acquisitions that weren’t his, a celebrity stranger’s divorce/custody negotiations still ongoing—having to endure discussions of clean ocean and beach replenishment initiatives, when all he wanted to know was: daughter or wife? when all he wanted to know was: does anyone know where our hostis? It was work pretending he blended, he mixed, pretending he wasn’t sweating and had a second residence of his own and was a Hamptons vet and agreeing yes hasn’t the Meadow Lane heliport gotten so crowded lately? and yes isn’t Ray from Elite Landscapers just the best?

Because the fact remained that David had never been this far out on the Island before and not only couldn’t he tell you which of the Hamptons he was in, he couldn’t even tell you the number of Hamptons, or the differences between the Hamptons, or what made a Hampton a Hampton, singular, to begin with.

“Hope we’re not keeping you?” a lady said.

David said, “Come again?”

“You keep checking your phone.”

“I’ve got foreign business, never stops. It’s already July 5th somewhere.”

And he excused himself from that bezant of lawn and its assembly of skinny flagpole women flying dresses in red, white, and blue.

Ruth, his office manager, had been calling without leaving messages. Now she was gibberish txting: sorry sorry bill sick have take bill jr bball practice.

And then: anyway not finding passcard.

David made his way among tents, buffet tables of chafing and carving and bars—the trick was to keep on the move.

Kids—put David around kids and he’d fantasize about having them and only then would he recall that he had a daughter, who was an adult now—the kids were having their faces smeared native with warpaint. They bounced around on a giant inflatable galleon, parried and thrust with balloon swords.

A breeze blew in with the dung of elephant rides.

He moved among servers who made $8.75 an hourand so who made about 14 cents, 14.5833 cents, he did the figures in his head, for each minute it took them to carve him primerib or fix him a scotch or direct him and his menthols to a smoking area.

Conversations collected, as they were conducted, in circles. About stocks, about realestate, stocks. About renovations and how draining it was to open a house for the season. Apparently, to have two houses meant always neglecting one of them, at least. About alarm systems, sprinkler systems, sump pumps, white vs. black mold. About politics.

David’s politics were aspirational, inferior: he was in favor of contacts, contracts, the right to not diet, and the right to jump lines at dessert stations.

David King was a man who if a longtime employee flaked on a commitment on short notice because her exhusband was too ill to take their son to a baseball practice that wasn’t even hardball but actually softball, or if his primerib came closer to medium than to the already spineless concession that was medium rare, or if his Dewar’s 18 turned out to be Dewar’s 15 or 12 or God forbid came with an icecube or even just an extra splash of water, or if the line for the dessert station was moving so indecisively slowly that his icecream would melt before he got to the toppings he liked—it wasn’t his fault that he was so decisive about his toppings—he’d scream, he’d have a conniption, and yet once he’d fudged his sundae with a cherry atop he had all the attention, all the guilty sated childlike attention, for being lectured by an Ivy League B student on the new model Gulfstreams (though David didn’t have his own plane), the best sailing routes (though David didn’t have his own boat), the best steeplechase courses (David didn’t even have a pony), how New York State was the most regulated statein the union, the state with the highest taxes, the state with the highest energy costs, the highest fuel costs, the highest insurance premiums, and a convoluted body of tort law that made even the Nazi justice system seem unbiased and lenient, and how so and so was really the only candidate to bet on, so and so the only candidate who had real plans both for the Middle East and for midsized American businesses (our composited Ivy League B student apparently knew his audience)—the only candidate who was legitimately “Pro-Growth,” and that was the line, or the jargon, that struck him, and brought to mind the image of a small modest neat building, like some fourfloor prewar walkup in the Village, which with every vote for a Republican grew taller by the floor, until it became this big shiny tower that clockhanded all of Manhattan, and then, by association, his mind flashed below his belt, which was on its last notch, and below his gut, which hung like a panting tongue over it, to his bloodless dick, which—as if his heart had betrayed the party platform, “Pro-Growth”— dangled limp and useless.


Twenty Questions with Ursula K. Le Guin

Interviewed for the TLS

Ursula K. Le Guin is interviewed in the TLS:

Is there any book, written by someone else, that you wish you’d written?

No, my mind refuses to work that way.  Can’t separate writer and written.  I love and admire Virginia Woolf, but that doesn’t mean I want to be her, as I’d have to be to have written To the Lighthouse.

What will your field look like twenty-five years from now?

My field?  What is my field, I wonder.  My favourite field is the one below the barn at the old ranch in California.  I hope in twenty-five years it looks just the way it does now, all wild oats and chicory and foxtail and voles and jackrabbits and quail.

Which of your contemporaries will be read 100 years from now?

I can happily claim José Saramago as my contemporary, and do so, and hope he will be read as long as novels are.

What author or book do you think is most underrated? And why?

I don’t know which leads a long list.  Let’s say Grace Paley for the author and  H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn for the book.  Why are they underrated? Well, one was a Leftist woman and the other was an intransigent Westerner, to start with.

What author or book do you think is most overrated? And why?

At the moment, Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.  If only she’d stopped with the first volume.

If you could be a writer in any time and place, when and where would it be?

Here and now will do very nicely, thank you.

If you could make a change to anything you’ve written over the years, what would it be?

In The Dispossessed, I would mention the communal pickle barrels at street corners in the big towns, restocked by whoever in the community has made or kept more pickles than they need.  I knew about the free pickles all along, but never could fit them into the book.

Which is your least favourite fictional character?

Do you mean which one do I think is most unbelievable, or which one do I loathe most?  I guess God in the Book of Job would qualify for both.


Liu Xiaobo: The Man Who Stayed

Ian Johnson writing for the New York Review of Books

Following Liu Xiaobo’s death, Ian Johnson examines for the New York Review of Books the Nobel Laureate’s future place in Chinese history:

For gentlemen of purpose and men of benevolence, while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of benevolence, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have benevolence accomplished. 

—Confucius, Analects

In 1898, some of China’s most brilliant minds allied themselves with the Emperor Guangxu, a young ruler who was trying to assert himself by forcing through reforms to open up China’s political, economic, and educational systems. But opponents quickly struck back, deposing the emperor and causing his advisors to flee for their lives.

One, however, stayed put. He was Tan Sitong, a young scholar from a far-off corner of the empire. Tan knew that remaining in Beijing meant death, but hoped that his execution might shock his fellow citizens awake.

It wasn’t a modest decision. Tan was one of the most provocative essayists of his generation. He had published an influential book decrying the effects of absolutism. He had founded schools and newspapers, and advised other political figures on how to change the system. There was every justification for him to save his own skin so he could contribute to future battles. But these arguments also made Tan realize how valuable it was that he remain in the imperial capital: facing death proudly, at the hands of those resisting reforms, could make a difference; people might pay attention to China’s plight.

So as his friends boarded ships to Japan or fled to the provinces, Tan went to a small hotel in Beijing and waited for the imperial troops. They soon arrived and quickly condemned him to death in the inevitable show trial that followed. The trial itself was interrupted only by an order from above to get on with it: Tan was to be executed immediately.

Before his decapitation at Beijing’s Caishikou execution grounds, however, Tan was able to utter what today are some of the most famous words in China’s century-and-a-half effort to form a modern, pluralistic state: “I wanted to kill the robbers, but lacked the strength to transform the world. This is the place where I should die. Rejoice, rejoice!”

I couldn’t help but think of Tan these past few days as China’s best-known democracy activist, Liu Xiaobo, lay dying of liver cancer in a hospital prison. Death comes to all people and cancer is not the same as an executioner’s sword. But the deaths of the two seemed somehow to connect across the hundred and nineteen years that separate their fates. Like Tan, Liu threw his weight behind a cause that in its immediate aftermath seemed hopeless—in Liu’s case, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. But with time, history vindicated Tan; I wonder if it will do the same for Liu. 


Maggie Shipstead on Being Alone (But Not Lonely) in Paris

Maggie Shipstead for LitHub

Extract in LitHub from Maggie Shipstead’s text in the edited collection A Paris All Your Own:

I sat motionless at my desk, breathing shallowly, my fingers resting on my laptop’s keyboard. He knocked again, waited, knocked a little louder, waited. Under the apartment door, his feet cast shadows on the dark green linoleum. I didn’t make a sound. Finally, he went on his way, footsteps receding. After a minute, the hall lights, which were on a timer, clicked out, and there was only darkness under the door.

The phone had rung a few times the previous day, and I hadn’t answered. I knew who was calling. It was the same man who had just knocked: not a stalker or a creep, actually, but the Swiss composer who lived across the hall, an affable, fortyish guy with a mop of dark curls. I’d met him in the elevator earlier in the week. According to Google, he composed operas—not just any operas: underwater operas. (In related news, it turns out there are underwater operas. The world is a marvelous place!)

I had no friends in Paris and no reason to turn my nose up at someone who might or might not have been part humpback whale, but friendship, at the time, wasn’t something I was after. In fact, when faced with a friendly overture, I was capable only of evasive maneuvers. I was alone, you see, which for me isn’t a moment-to-moment condition, easily changed, but a way of being. Solitude is a well I fall (or jump) into from time to time and don’t try to climb out of. I sit down there and enjoy the quiet.

This was the end of January 2012. I had been in Paris for almost a month, with two more to go. The Swiss composer and I were both residents at the Cité Internationale des Arts, a complex of 270 live/work studio apartments for artists in the trendy 4th arrondissement neighborhood of the Marais. Most of the apartments, or ateliers, were underwritten by arts organizations or universities or entire nations that also chose the residents, though a small number were managed by the Cité directly. Mine belonged to Stanford University, where I’d spent the previous two years on a writing fellowship, but the plaques on the other doors along my hallway mostly identified chilly European countries not known for garrulous people: Norway, Finland, Austria, Switzerland. Being the standout hermit in such company was, I think, something of an achievement.


Nothing Will Go Back: An Interview with Dr. Andrea Pető of Central European University

Stephanie Newman interviews for LARB

Stephanie Newman interviews feminist scholar Andrea Pető about the current state of Hungary, for LARB:


STEPHANIE NEWMAN: What impact do you think the Trump administration has had in emboldening Orbán and influencing Hungary’s direction overall?

ANDREA PETŐ: As I see US politics from here, there’s much more resistance through the judiciary and the media than there is in Hungary. Our illiberal state is a new form of governance, not a backlash. Nothing will go back to the way it used to be. Because of independent media in the United States, there hasn’t been the same kind of takeover as in Hungary.

On the other hand, there is this transnational network of politicians and public intellectuals who are meeting and strategizing. The World Congress of Families is an American fundamentalist Christian organization, and, along with the International Organization for the Family, they’ll be meeting here in Budapest from May 25–28, 2017. They support banning abortion and promoting the family as a heteronormative unit. Last year, the conference was in the Caucuses, in Georgia, and there were lots of Russian delegates there. In 2015, the conference was in Salt Lake City, Utah. Of course, there is this very strange alliance between the fundamentalist Christians and Russian intellectuals, and now the honorary leader of this latest four-day conference is our Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The organizer is the state secretary for Hungary’s Ministry of Human Capital, which covers social affairs, education, and culture. So, the state secretary responsible for family affairs will be the keynote speaker at this extremely controversial “World Congress of Families.”

In one of your pieces for openDemocracy, you mention the government’s promotion of a more traditional family structure. Is this related? 

Yes, but this “traditional family structure” is not as traditional as you might imagine. The illiberal state has a very different family policy from Christian conservatives. Our government has the rhetoric of promoting all families, but not the practice. I wrote this article about the Polypore state with Weronika Grzebalska [a PhD researcher at Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences] comparing women’s politics in Poland and Hungary. The Polypore state is working with securitization, familialism, and constructing alternative NGOs that mirror existing institutions. The conservative values are only fig leaves. Behind them aren’t values, but power: economic, social, and symbolic power.

That said, if you look at the policies in Hungary, you can’t really see any government attempt to change existing reproductive rights. Abortion today is more or less freely available. Free abortion was introduced by a decree in Hungary in January 1945, after the massive rapes committed by Red Army soldiers, and it was constantly regulated by decrees until 1990, when the constitution needed a higher-level legal framework. In our System of National Cooperation (name of the document replacing the constitution), life must be protected from conception. But the government wouldn’t dare renegotiate how these values will be regulated — with good reason. The number of abortions is decreasing, even though health insurance does not cover pills. Polls are actually showing that more than 70 percent of Hungarian women want to protect the right to an abortion. At the moment, I think what we have is an acceptable compromise, as far as the practice is concerned, for all parties involved.

Another parallel between the United States and Hungary is the rising rate of xenophobia. What was the feminist response to the immigration crisis in 2015, as Syrian refugees crossed into Hungary through Serbia?

This was a transformative moment for everybody, especially for us here in this academic ivory tower. It was important for us that CEU opened its doors to the refugees. The faculty, staff, and students were collecting donations in shifts. In a sense, the non-response and ignorance of the state created space for various civil organizations to flourish. It was also interesting to interact with the Hungarian women who converted to Islam because they had married somebody practicing the religion. They have a very powerful association here in Hungary, and they were the driving force behind this kind of civic initiative, because they spoke the language and, being veiled, had more trust from the women refugees. These Hungarian women had two or three cell phones, and they’d be driving from one place to another to coordinate their humanitarian action. This also proved that the stereotype of the passive Islamic religious woman, who stays home taking care of the kids, is unsustainable. They were out there with their children, organizing and active. The migration crisis changed their position.


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