Posts Tagged ‘Junot Díaz’

Junot Díaz: “Often our pain encourages us to isolate ourselves.”

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016
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Over at Lithub, an hour-long phone conversation with Pulitzer prizewinning Junot Díaz, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, and Paul Holdengraber. We always find the Dominican American author intriguing – here are a few excerpts:

On writing slowly

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Looking for the stories that death tells us.

Part of it is bad habit. But part of it is an attempt at a different kind of methodology. I have noticed that what matters to me is to reflect very, very long on what I might call my materials or very, very long on what I might call the sources of inspiration. Lately I’ve been thinking of my writing as—what interests me more than anything—is grinding these slow lenses. What I mean is giving events, giving history, giving people the time to unfold, the time to mean—to give forth their meaning.

On pain

Often our pain encourages us to isolate ourselves. The truth of it is our pain is a badge for how we are members of this larger community. Recognizing this and recognizing our shared humanity is not a small insight. The ego pushes us towards individual, pushes us towards fantasies of achievement of power… and all of those things pull us away from our common link, our common clay… We are made of a common clay, and among the most prevalent minerals in that clay is our fragility.

On stories from the dead…

There’s also the stories that death tells us. What are the stories that the dead tell us? That’s not a language that’s easy to crack. It’s a language that I’m trying to master—that I’m trying to become sensitive to the nuances, sensitive to the phonemes, but it has been resisting me.

Go here for more.

Salman Rushdie: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015
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Would people defend him today? He thinks not. With Timothy Garton Ash last year. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Charlie Hebdo has announced that they will publish no more cartoons featuring Mohammed, although every other religion and public figure will continue to be fair game. In other words, the terrorists have won. “We have drawn Mohammed to defend the principle that one can draw whatever they want… We’ve done our job,” said Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief.

It’s hard to be nostalgic about a fatwa, but Sir Salman Rushdie‘s recent comments in The Telegraph remind us that his Valentine’s Day card from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 were the good old days. Leading figures from around the world linked arms to express solidarity with him, and to protest any encroachment on freedom of speech. Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joseph Brodsky, Christopher Hitchens, Seamus Heaneyand others stood for Rushdie. There was no backing down. And today?

Said Rushdie, “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.” The author of the condemned Satanic Verses, told France’s L’Express. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”

Everblooming friendship

Thank you, Christopher.

In particular, Rushdie said he was dismayed by the protests that followed a decision by the American branch of the PEN writers’ association to award a prize for courage to Charlie Hebdo after a dozen of its staff were massacred in January. More than 200 writers, including Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, and Junot Díaz, signed a letter objecting to PEN rewarding the satirical magazine for publishing “material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

“It seems we have learnt the wrong lessons,” Rushdie told L’Express. “Instead of realizing that we need to oppose these attacks on freedom of expression, we thought that we need to placate them with compromise and renunciation.” Cole explained to him that his case was different – 1989 protesters defended Rushdie against charges of blasphemy; Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, he argued, were an expression of Islamophobia.

Rushdie thinks it’s a case of political correctness gone wild. “It’s exactly the same thing,” he said. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against The Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.” (To be clear, I find Charlie Hebdo cartoons tasteless and not very funny. That’s not the point.) 

Let’s remember Sontag, president of PEN, in that 1989 moment. Hitchens wrote: “Susan Sontag was absolutely superb. She stood up proudly where everyone could see her and denounced the hirelings of the Ayatollah. She nagged everybody on her mailing list and shamed them, if they needed to be shamed, into either signing or showing up. ‘A bit of civic fortitude,’ as she put it in that gravelly voice that she could summon so well, ‘is what is required here.’ Cowardice is horribly infectious, but in that abysmal week she showed that courage can be infectious, too. I loved her. This may sound sentimental, but when she got Rushdie on the phone—not an easy thing to do once he had vanished into the netherworld of ultraprotection—she chuckled: ‘Salman! It’s like being in love! I think of you night and day: all the time!’ Against the riot of hatred and cruelty and rage that had been conjured into existence by a verminous religious fanatic, this very manner of expression seemed an antidote: a humanist love plainly expressed against those whose love was only for death.”

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Thank you, Susan.

Sontag and Hitchens were famous people, of course, who lived in high-rise apartments and could go into hiding, as Rushdie did. But a lot of other people put their lives on the line. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was stabbed to death on the campus where he taught, the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was knifed in his Milan apartment, and in Oslo, William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, was shot three times in the back and left for dead.

Others at risk included bookstore owners, bookstore managers, and the people who worked for them. So let me take a few moments to recall the heroism of one of them, Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, which was bombed in the middle of the night two weeks after the fatwa was announced. On his own blog (he is now a literary agent) he wrote:

I spoke of the fire bombing that occurred at 2 AM. More troubling was that as we were cleaning up in the morning, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. … As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Literally hundreds. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. At this point I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent. …

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Cody’s in 2006. (Photo: Creative Commons/Pretzelpaws)

One-time heroism wasn’t enough. How were they to react to the attack? Would they continue selling the book? Would they put it at the front of the store, or hide it somewhere towards the back? Or would it, like 1950s pornography, be offered by request only, in a brown paper bag?

I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this. It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons. It was also the moment that I realized in a very concrete way that what I had told Susan Sontag was truer and more prophetic  than anything I could have then imagined. I felt just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

The story wasn’t over. Rushdie visits the Bay Area regularly (I wrote about his visit to Kepler’s here). And even while in official hiding, he insisted on calling on Cody’s several years later (Berkeley rents finally did what bombs could not, and the valiant bookstore closed its doors in 2008). Ross recalls Rushdie’s appearance at Cody’s:

We were told that we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence, had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole”. Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “well, you know some people get statues – and others get holes.”

Read the whole thing here.

Right about now, Adam Johnson is bagging a big prize in London!

Friday, April 4th, 2014
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ST Short story Award

With writers Tom McKay and Emma Hamilton, at a reading last night at Foyles bookshop in London (Photo: Tom Pilston)

It’s the world’s most valuable prize for a single short story – and Pulitzer prize-winning Adam Johnson has won it. Just about right now, Professor John Carey, the Sunday Times literary critic and prize judge, is presenting the award at an evening ceremony at the Stationers’ Hall in London.

The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story prize carries a £30,000 prize. The story that was awarded, “Nirvana,” has already been featured in the Book Haven here. (We’ve also written about Adam in a zillion other places – here and here and here and here, for example.) The prize caps Adam’s exceptional year, which has brought him a Guggenheim and a Pulitzer, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.  Which is why we won’t stop crowing about him anytime soon.

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Big boy gets big prize … again.

Adam’s only-slightly-futuristic story describes how a husband uses technology, a dead president, and Kurt Cobain to confront his own grief and to alleviate his wife’s suffering, as she deteriorates from a incurable, wasting disease. Adam built his reputation on the short story form, and although he has most recently been fêted for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, says he is still “deeply drawn to the short story form—its power, its focus, its mission of emotionality.”

Said Adam of “Nirvana”: “I was inspired by a combination of my wife’s struggle with cancer and a friend who took his own life. When my wife was going through chemo, and my friend shot himself, I began asking questions about what our duty is to dying people and the departed, where they go, what remains and how we speak to them and share what they go through.”

In his presentation speech, John Carey described “Nirvana” as “a mind-expanding, futurist story, and a story about redemption.” Another judge, novelist and comic David Baddiel, said, “I loved ‘Nirvana’. It was both sad and, rare in literary-competition-land, funny. Plus it proves that genre fiction – the story is, at heart, science fiction – can work, emotionally and artistically, at the highest levels.”

Adam is the fifth consecutive international winner of the prize, drawn from a shortlist that included Americans Marjorie Celona and fellow Pulitzer prize-winner Elizabeth Strout, as well as three British-based authors, Tahmima Ahnam, Jonathan Tel and newcomer Anna Metcalfe. Each received £1,000. Here’s the cool thing: all six stories will be published as an ebook Six Shorts, available on amazon.

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Last year’s winner … another familiar face.

Previous winners include Dominican-American Junot Díaz (we’ve written about him here and here and here) who won last year’s award with his story “Miss Lora”; Irish author Kevin Barry, whose story “Beer Trip to Llandudno” won in 2012; American Anthony Doerr, who won in 2011 for his story “The Deep”; and New Zealander C. K. Stead, who won the inaugural award in 2010 with “Last Season’s Man.”

Other judges, besides Carey and Baddiel, included Elif Shafak, internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist, columnist and speaker; Booker-shortlisted novelist and short story writer Sarah HallAndrew Holgate, literary editor of The Sunday Times, and Lord Matthew Evans, chairman of EFG Private Bank and non-voting chair of the judges.

Said Shafak: “Blurring boundaries and crossing genres, the Sunday Times Short Story Award has no doubt an unequalled place for both readers and writers, whether they are established or emerging. This is a truly international platform and the most valuable prize for a single short story. But these are not the only reasons why it matters so much. It is also, as I believe we shall see in the years ahead, a trendsetter in the literary world.

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.

Junot Díaz is now officially a f@$#ing genius.

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
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We knew it all the time.

Okay, I heard it first from David Palumbo-Liu on Sunday night.  He made a Facebook post that Junot Díaz had won the MacArthur “Genius” grant.  I asked him where he got the info.  He pulled the post – source unreliable, he said, he couldn’t be sure it was true.

It began leaking elsewhere.  According to the Los Angeles Times:

On Monday, news of who would be named the 2012 MacArthur Fellows leaked out early in reports by the Associated Press and elsewhere. Two writers are among the 23 artists, scientists and thinkers on the list: Junot Díaz and Dinaw Mengestu.

However it leaked, whoever knew it first, I didn’t want to let the day pass without saying how very chuffed I am that the 43-year-old author of the Pulitzer prizewinning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and, last month, the short story collection This Is How You Lose Her will receive a no-strings-attached “genius grant” of $500,000. All MacArthur Fellows are awarded $100,000 a year for five years.

I’ve written lots about Díaz.  Most recently, I’ve excerpted bits from his long Boston Review interview here.  I’ve also written about his recent appearance at Stanford here.

My source.

Díaz was understandably pleased, according to the New York Observer.  “I was so fucking stunned,” is how he expressed it.

“It’s like finding the fucking golden ticket,” Mr. Diaz said. “It’s like finding an extra bedroom in your New York studio apartment.”

He said he’s going to use the money for writing his “crazy monster book.”

It’s not surprising David learned the truth from … somewhere.  Díaz himself learned of the award on September 12 – one day after he began the book tour for his news.  Is he the source of the leak?

“Some motherfucker leaked it,” said Mr. Díaz. “Not me. I’m still convinced they’ll take it away from me.”

 

Junot Díaz on white supremacy, apocalypse, and the word that “could have saved him”

Friday, June 29th, 2012
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“White supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that it exists always in other people, never in us.”

I did a Memorial Day weekend blog post on Junot Díaz‘s recent talk at Stanford here.  Apparently he jettisoned his plans for a reading that afternoon to make his impromptu and provocative remarks.  Or, as he put it then: “Guess what?  No fucking lecture.”

Interlocutor

Paula Moya, an old chum from Cornell grad student days, was his interlocutor for a 2-part Boston Review interview that occurred after the two-day symposium on Díaz’s works.  He expanded on some of the ideas he touched on last May:

How can you change something if you won’t even acknowledge its existence, or if you downplay its significance? White supremacy is the great silence of our world, and in it is embedded much of what ails us as a planet. The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, or the Voldemort name which must never be uttered in the Harry Potter novels. And yet here’s the rub: if a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction. There’s that old saying: the devil’s greatest trick is that he convinced people that he doesn’t exist.

I loved  Díaz’s Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008.  But I was admittedly puzzled by the narrator Yunior, a figure who emerges in other of Díaz’s works.  The author spent some interview time explaining him:

Yunior, for example, uses the “n word” all the time and yet he is haunted by anti-black racism within and without his community. Haunted and wounded.  In Drown as a whole, the million-dollar question is this: are Yunior’s gender politics, his generalizations and misogyny, rewarded in the book’s ‘reality’? Do they get him anything in the end? Well, if we chart the progress of the stories in Drown it appears to me that Yunior’s ideas about women, and the actions that arise out of these ideas, always leave him more alone, more thwarted, more disconnected from his community and from himself.

 Though the “Part 1” of this interview is getting lots of buzz on Twitter, I rather liked the “Part 2” that explored this character more deeply – an alter ego, perhaps?

For me, the family fukú is rape. The rape culture of the European colonization of the New World—which becomes the rape culture of the Trujillato (Trujillo just took that very old record and remixed it)—is the rape culture that stops the family from achieving decolonial intimacy, from achieving decolonial love.

Yunior, in this context, is a curious figure. He’s clearly the book’s most salient proponent of the masculine derangements that are tied up to the rape culture  … he is its biggest proponent and its biggest “beneficiary.” He’s most clearly one of Trujillo’s children—yet he, too, is a victim of this culture. A victim in the lower-case sense because his failure to disavow his privileged position in that rape culture, to disavow the masculine discourse and behaviors that support and extend that culture, end up costing him the love of his life, his one best chance at decolonial love and, through that love, a decolonial self. But Yunior’s a victim in a larger, second sense: I always wrote Yunior as being a survivor of sexual abuse. He has been raped, too. The hint of this sexual abuse is something that’s present in Drown and it is one of the great silences in Oscar Wao. This is what Yunior can’t admit, his very own página en blanco. So, when he has that line in the novel: “I’d finally try to say the words that could have saved us. / __________ __________ __________,” what he couldn’t say to Lola was that “I too have been molested.” He could bear witness to everyone else’s deep pains but, in the end, he couldn’t bear witness to his own sexual abuse. He couldn’t tell the story that would have tied him in a human way to Lola, that indeed could have saved him.

At about the same time as his Stanford talk, Díaz’s story “Monstro” appeared in the New Yorker’s science fiction issue.  It’s a preview of his next novel. He talked about it with Paula:

Of course. Monstro is an apocalyptic story. An end of the world story set in the DR [Dominican Republic] of the near future. It’s a zombie story. (On that island, how could it not be?) It’s an alien invasion story. It’s a giant monster story. It’s about the Great Powers (China, the United States) attempting to contain the growing infestation by re-invading the Island for, what, the twelfth time? I always say if people on my island know about anything they know about the end of the world. We are after all the eschaton that divided the Old World from the New. The whole reason I started writing this book is because of this image I have of this fourteen-year-old girl, a poor, black, Dominican girl, half-Haitian—one of the Island’s damnés—saving the world. It’s a book is about this girl’s search for—yes—love in a world that has made it its solemn duty to guarantee that poor raced “conventionally unattractive” girls like her are never loved.

The interview is getting a lot of buzz. Read the whole thing here.

 

“Our privileges exacerbate the horrors of others”: Junot Díaz on race, privilege, and J.R.R. Tolkien

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012
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Junot Díaz, Pulitzer-winning author of 2008’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, always gives a scorching good show, and he did so again during a visit to Stanford earlier this month.

He did it all off the cuff:  “Guess what?  No fucking lecture,” he announced at the outset.

Díaz has a special license to mention the unmentionable – or what he says is the unmentionable.  His sensibility is divided between Dominican Republic, where he was born, and New Jersey, where he was replanted as a child.

Little of the Caribbean side was in evidence in Palo Alto: he wore preppy pullover and white collar, jeans and running shoes – and altogether more slender than he had appeared when I wrote about him in 2008.  The spellbinding author spoke about J.K. Rowlings, he spoke about H.P. Lovecraft, and he spoke most of all about J.R.R. Tolkien.  (Whether he especially favors writers who use only their initials is not known.)

“I write about race – by extension, I write about white supremacy,” he said, cutting to the chase.

He deplored the “rhetorical legerdemain” of “deforming our silences to fit in with the larger silences of society.” It’s a betrayal, especially, of the people “at the racially sharp end of the stick.”

“Our privileges exacerbate the horrors of others,” he said.

The idea of a post-racial society is a “happy delusion,” he said. “We are as hyper-racial today as we were two hundred years ago.”

He said that describing oneself as beyond race was as delusional as a man saying he isn’t sexist.  “These languages do not go away.  Heterosexual masculine privilege never goes away.”

How deep is the denial?  He recalled observing to a group of male peers that they were all dating white women or women lighter-skinned by themselves.  The predictable response:  “Oh, but it was love… we just met… it was random.”

No one ‘fessed up: “I date who I date because I was told people who are light-skinned are better.”

“Who wants to embrace that?” he asked.  Under such circumstances, “How the fuck do we bear witness to ourselves?”

“The default setting of universality” is white, he said.  Though writers of color often resist that categorization, he said he’d never encountered a writer who said, “You know what?  I don’t want to be a white writer.”

Díaz, flanked by Packer and Barry (Photo: Toni Gauthier)

People outside that default setting live in a “delusional space” of “specifying without signifying.” He referred to President Obama’s double message: “I’m not that black, but I will code some shit so you know I’m black.”

He, too, was asked to “signify without specifying” – “I ran from that as hard as I could.”  He wondered, as a writer, whether it was possible to capture in writing all the layers of denial and truth, avoiding the pitfall that would have been deadly for the writer, one in which “I’m going to blind myself so no one notices I’m not noticing.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was his attempt to use “all the nerd stuff” to portray “the hemispheric madness through the Dominican Republic.”

Science fiction and fantasy was an obvious source of inspiration. “Coloniality is the dark subconscious of the speculative genre,” he said.

For example, he commented on the different treatment of the ring in Wagner’s Rheingold and Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring.  In Wagner, “the ring just makes stuff go bad for you,” but in Tolkien, “the ring produces slavery” and functions racially, he said.  Tolkien was a survivor of World War I, and his Middle Earth is a post-apocalyptic world, said Díaz.  The Dark Lord Sauron is “a being that comes from outside Middle Earth,” from a race that dominates Middle Earth.

While the Harry Potter series pits “bad guys versus good guys, my power versus your power,” Tolkien’s p.o.v. offers a different take:  “Fighting power with power you lose.  Power breeds corruption,” he said.  “The more power, the more opposition.”  René Girard, of course, would add that you become the thing you oppose – which ought to be a major deterrent, but isn’t.

In the end, said Díaz, “power never destroys power.”

From a lawyer in Hawaii … more on the state of litcrit today

Saturday, August 14th, 2010
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The photo says it all?

My post on “More Heat than Light: Life is Too Short to Read Crappy Books” didn’t please everyone, and Anis Shivani‘s ability to piss people off seems pretty bottomless.  (He’s at it again today with “17 Literary Journals That Might Survive the Internet.”)  Jezebel responded with “Literary Critic Hates Vaginas, “Ghetto Volume” (also picked up by HuffPo here).

The debate over the post happened not in the comments section of this blog, but on my Facebook page.  This, from my friend Paul Achitoff in Hawaii: “I don’t know enough about him to know what he risked by writing a pissy, supercilious rant, but I’m not sure I agree it took guts. It got him what he wanted–a lot of attention, which he well knew would include a lot of negative attention. Sneering at allegedly poor writing takes little talent, and one can always roll one’s eyes at those who imagine the disparaged writing is worthwhile (his photo suggests just such a tendency). Writing even a second rate novel requires more skill than is displayed by his somewhat clumsily written column.”

From Hawaii

Someone has to weed the garden. Looking back, I often feel I have pulled too many punches in the misguided effort to be kind. This doesn’t serve the reader and throws the burden on someone in asbestos with a blowtorch to do a controlled burn. It’s hardly just me who wimps out. The whole reviewing gig has become largely gutless — critics don’t want to diss a colleague in their MFA program, or someone from whom they might need to get a blurb for their next book.

I don’t think any good writer has been broken by bad reviews. But many inflated, trendy writers have pushed good writers to the side for a generation or so.

This biting exchange between Dana Gioia and James Wood on Slate is 11 years old. This was before Dana was chair of the NEA, and before Wood joined the New Yorker.

In their epistolary columns, D.G. writes to J.W.:

From the New Yorker

And if you think that most new poetry is–what is the polite word?–“uneven,” then just look at the criticism. The innocent reader of fiction cannot comprehend how dull, esoteric, and pandering poetry reviewing has become. Most critics never give a negative review. After all, in the small world of American poetry the critic will eventually meet the author. And who knows what writers will be sitting on the next prize committee? It is safer to declare everyone a genius. Reading the smarmy acclaim that fills most literary journals, one would think we live in an age of unprecedented poetic achievement. Welcome to Potemkin Village, Mr. Wood.

It may bring gentlemanly tears to your eyes to learn that even so tenderhearted and soft-spoken a critic as yours truly is often castigated for giving books negative or mixed reviews. The assumption is that contemporary poetry is such an endangered art that no one should criticize it in public. That Chamber of Commerce claptrap doesn’t even constitute an adequate philosophy for public relations, not to mention literary criticism. I believe that one reason poetry has such a small readership, even among the literati, is that current criticism is so bad. There is almost no really engaging or reliable public conversation about new poetry–just paid publicity and unpaid hype. Academic criticism has become so parochial in its concerns that it no longer has much relevance to the general literary reader, and the little journalistic criticism that remains rarely goes beyond log-rolling.

From the NEA

The exchange is interesting and, of course, witty.  I reread it occasionally to keep my standards up, in a world where so much garbage is being treated like crème brûlée.

Paul liked it, too.  He wrote me:  ” Cynthia, thanks for forwarding that Woods/Gioia dialogue. I’m only halfway through it, but am enjoying it. I wouldn’t compare it to the other piece; they explain very clearly and specifically what disappoints them about the poets, with less arrogance than sadness. They make the critique about the poets, rather than about themselves.”

But Paul’s comments made a further point:  Has the drive to whacked-out, souped-up internet-style writing pushed aside the criticism the average reader might crave — reviews where the writing is elegant and takes its time, where claims are buttressed more substantially than hit-and-run internet journalism offers?   Must every line be a punch to keep the reader’s attention?

Isn’t this the very thing Shivani was criticizing in Junot Díaz?  Isn’t this the litcritic equivalent of someone who, as he wrote,  “replaces plot in stories and novel with pumped-up ‘voice’”?