Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Safran Foer’

Are they overrated? Anis Shivani knocks the famous 15.

Saturday, March 30th, 2013
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Here comes da judge.

“Are the writers receiving the major awards and official recognition really the best writers today? Or are they overrated mediocrities with little claim to recognition by posterity? The question is harder than ever to answer today” – yet the fearless Anis Shivani takes a shot at it in the Huffington Post here.  A few days we wrote about the outspoken literary critic. Did you catch his post on “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers”?  Shivani roams freely among genres, condemning essayists, poets, novelists, journalists, you name it.

He writes:

“The ascent of creative writing programs means that few with critical ability have any incentive to rock the boat – awards and jobs may be held back in retaliation. The writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules (no threatening history or politics), there’s no incentive to call them out. (A politically fecund multiculturalism – very desirable in this time of xenophobia – is the farthest thing from the minds of the official arbiters: such writing would be deemed ‘dangerous,’ and never have a chance against the mediocrities.)

The MFA writing system, with its mechanisms of circulating popularity and fashionableness, leans heavily on the easily imitable. Cloying writers like Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, and Charles D’Ambrosio are held up as models of good writing, because they’re easy enough to copy. And copied they are, in tens of thousands of stories manufactured in workshops. Others hide behind a smokescreen of unreadable inimitability – Marilynne Robinson, for example – to maintain a necessary barrier between the masses and the overlords. Since grants, awards, and residencies are controlled by the same inbreeding group, it’s difficult to see how the designated heavies can be displaced.

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Collins – resting on his laurels? (Photo: Suzannah Gilman)

As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn’t know great literature if it hit them in the face. Their new alliance with the MFA writing system is bringing at least a minimum of readership for mediocre books, and they’re happy with that. And the mainstream reviewing establishment (which is crumbling by the minute) validates their choices with fatuous accolades, recruiting mediocre writers to blurb (review) them.”

Sounds a lot like what Dana Gioia was saying a couple decades ago in “Can Poetry Matter?”  (The controversial Atlantic article was eventually published in his book of that title in 1992.)  And Dana spared us the tedious little click-through of the line-up of the condemned writers and their photographs.  But still …

Shivani concludes:

“If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism.”

The list of the condemned includes: Amy Tan, Billy Collins, Antonya Nelson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Cunningham, John Ashbery, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jorie Graham, Michiko Kakutani, William T. Vollmann, and Helen Vendler.  Something for everyone.

Read it here.

You may not agree, but feel free to mount your defense in the comment section below.  We’ll be curious to know what you think. Truly.

Meanwhile, it’s proving an exceptionally busy weekend, what with editing interview transcripts, answering a backlog of letters, proofs to review, a visit to the East Coast to organize, and weekend engagements.  See you on Monday.

Charlotte Salomon’s “antidotes to indifference”

Monday, October 17th, 2011
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Yesterday I was one of the very last visitors to the six-month exhibition of nearly 300 of Charlotte Salomon‘s gouaches at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.  I almost overlooked the exhibition, ongoing since March 31, until John Felstiner reminded me during a reception last week.

I’m glad I caught it on its last day.  It’s an extraordinary show, of an extraordinary woman.

For those who don’t know the background, Salomon (1917-43) was a young German Jewish artist, hiding in the south of France after the Nazi takeover. Between 1940 and 1942, she worked feverishly, often without stopping to eat or sleep, to produce about 1300 paintings.

She hummed as she painted, and the gouaches often include titles or scraps of the music that accompanies these snapshots of her life.

They often, medieval fashion, show several thematically related or  sequential scenes on the same sheet of paper. Sometimes, like photography, she repeats the same image over and over on a sheet.  The total result was Life? or Theater? A Play with Music.

The Nazis caught up with her in 1943.  The 26-year-old was transported to Auschwitz, and probably killed the same day.

Her tragic story is not only an artistic triumph, however, but an existential one:  Her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt, and a number of other relatives died by their own hands.  In unimaginable circumstances, she fought the suicidal impulses of generations, choosing to do something “utterly crazy” – a somewhat fictional, largely autobiographical operatic series of paintings combining text and images and, by the extension of imagination, music, too.  She famously put the series in the keeping of a friend, with the instructions, “Take good care of it. It is my life.” It is more than that, really: it aims at Gesamtkunstwerk, a Wagnerian “total work of art.”

Mary and John Felstiner (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I have Mary Felstiners biography, To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era – part of my research for my article on both the Felstiner’s examination of “creative resistance” during the Holocaust.  But when I got home, I thumbed through it’s pages with a new understanding.  I hadn’t realized quite how gripping Mary’s book is.  I won’t try to review a book I haven’t read, but here are a few words from the reviewers:

“Ms. Felstiner tells this harrowing tale clearly and emotionally. . . . Her account will spread the word about a talented and tragic hostage to her family and her times.” – Peter Gay, New York Times Book Review

“Something truly remarkable, a work of art in its own right and a masterpiece in the field of Holocaust studies. . . . At times, To Paint Her Life achieves a certain songlike quality and poetic grandeur it’s a fugue of art and history, love and pain, sexuality and politics – and it reaches a shattering crescendo in the very last, speculative passage.” – Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times

The Salomon paintings at the Contemporary Jewish Museum return to Amsterdam’s Joods Historisch Museum.  I bought the catalogue – by the last day of the show, it was half off the listed price.

It includes a short essay by Jonathan Safran Foer, describing his discovery of Salomon’s work in Amsterdam.  He writes that “even more than praise, Life? or Theater? demands creation”:

Beautiful things are contagious, and no work of art has inspired me to strive to make art more than Life? or Theater? has. No work is better at reminding me what is worth striving for. The images I’ve selected for this exhibition [for the catalogue] are those I find myself most often returning to when nothing feels worth writing. They do not make sense as a thematic or stylistic group. They are simply my antidotes to indifference.

 

Jan. 31 deadline for Saroyan Contest. Go ahead. Try.

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011
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Maybe he changed his mind. (Photo: Library of Congress)

“I didn’t earn one dollar by any means other than writing… I have never been subsidized.  I have never accepted money connected with a literary prize or award. Once I was urged by friends to file an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship … My application was turned down and I began to breathe freely again.”

The words come not from William Saroyan, but from his protagonist, a young, starving writer in his 1934 story, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.

Nonetheless,  it is a teensy bit ironic that a writing award has been established in Saroyan’s name, given these well-known lines.  But then, he bagged a Pulitzer and Oscar, too – so irony abounds.

Here are the details of the fifth biennial William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, sponsored by the Stanford University Libraries.  The libraries  house the William Saroyan Collection, which includes manuscripts, personal journals, correspondence, drawings and other Saroyiana.

The most important part:  deadline is Jan. 31, 2012.

A prize of $5,000 will be awarded in each category – fiction and non-fiction – to encourage new or emerging writers.

Entry forms and rules for the Saroyan Prize are available online.

The fiction category includes novels, short story collections and drama. Literary non-fiction of any length will be considered for the Saroyan non-fiction prize.  Judges will be looking for strong literary merit that honors the Saroyan tradition, particularly in non-fiction memoirs, portraits and excursions into neighborhood and community.

Entries in either category are limited to English language books that are available for individual purchase by the general public.

Meow!

The Saroyan Prize was last awarded in 2010, when the fiction prize went to Rivka Galchen for her novel Atmospheric Disturbances and the non-fiction prize went to Linda Himelstein for The King of Vodka. Other notable winners include Jonathan Safran Foer in 2003 for his novel Everything is Illuminated.  George Hagen won in 2005 for his novel The Laments, and Kiyo Sato won in 2008 for her memoir Dandelion Through the Crack.

Go ahead.  Try.  $5,000 buys an awful lot of kitty litter.