Posts Tagged ‘Marilynne Robinson’

The movie: President Obama honors National Medal winners

Thursday, July 11th, 2013
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Yayyyyy Kay!

Yesterday we wrote about the National Medal for the Humanities winners.  And today we have pitchas.  Here’s Kay Ryan, looking spiffy, accepting the award at the White House ceremony.

But wait a minute!  We hadn’t mentioned the National Medal for the Arts yet … or rather we did, because George Lucas and Tony Kushner were in fact winners of the arts medal, not the humanities medal.

jennyJust to sort everything out, here’s the complete list for both:

2012 National Medal of Arts: Herb Alpert, Lin Arison, Joan Myers Brown, Renée Fleming,  Ernest J. Gaines, Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Kushner, George Lucas, Elaine May, Laurie Olin, Allen Toussaint, and the Washington Performing Arts Society, Washington, DC.

2012 National Humanities Medal: Edward L. Ayers, William G. Bowen, Jill Ker Conway, Natalie Zemon Davis, Frank Deford, Joan Didion, Robert Putnam, Marilynne Robinson, Kay Ryan, Robert B. Silvers, Anna Deavere Smith, Camilo José Vergara.

Another familiar face is buried behind the “Washington Performing Arts Society”:  President and CEO Jennifer Bilfield (not Jenny Bellfield, as the subtitle says)  accepts the award on behalf of the organization in photo at right – you can read more about the society here.

But bleccchhh… some of the bland clichés that were offered to presumably reward excellence and innovation in the texts!  Robinson writes about “universal truths about what it means to be human.” The Washington Performing Arts Society has “inspired generations of young performers to follow their passion” – and follow their bliss, too, I’ll bet.  Silvers, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, “elevated the book review to a literary art form.”  So what about Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, and a few others writing well before the NYRB launch in 1963?

We have the pitchas, but we also have the movie.  Kay accepts the award from President Obama at 28.05 below.  Jenny is at 20.42.

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.

Gwyneth Lewis on John Milton and The Twilight Saga

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012
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Gwyneth (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Who matches John Milton in modern letters today – at least in tracing the “drama of democracy right back to its first theological principles?” Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis nominates Stephanie Meyers, author of the Twilight Saga, and Philip Pullman. The Welsh poet Gwyneth finds the Saga to be “a profound meditation on incarnation and its hazards as well as a moving love story.”  A stretch, perhaps.  Can’t say I’ve watched the Twilight Saga, but I find it hard to believe it’s any kind of match for Milton, even in a moment of whimsy.

Gwyneth studied Milton with Geoffrey Hill, and the 17th-century bard became her hero, once she’d read his Paradise Lost: “No one ever lobbied more eloquently for permissiveness combined with the moral discipline not to be deceived by facsimiles of the good.” She marveled at the way he “melded theology with politics and human psychology.”

Her “Letter to Milton” was published in the online summer edition of the U.K.’s Poetry Review. While Milton is “not fashionable at the moment and neither is the epic,” she thinks he’d have much to say about political discourse today, and has a few questions to ask:

Would Milton turn over in his grave? And would that be entirely appropriate?

“You would be interested in the way religion has become a contentious issue at the centre of intellectual debate. I’d like to see your arguments contra Dawkins and, equally, against advocates of Intelligent Design. As Marilynne Robinson (a Calvinistic novelist) has written, ‘Creationism is the best thing that could have happened to Darwinism.’ Your moral clarity on the pitfalls of loose thinking would be of great value to us now.

“So, you’re not forgotten. And if you could speak to us from the dead, I’d have one other question to ask, aside from guidance about contemporary attacks on religious faith, free speech and democracy.This one’s personal: you were married three times and, though an advocate of divorce, you were widowed twice. How does the wife thing work in the afterlife? I’d love to know.”

Read it all here.