Archive for November, 2010

Lightning strikes back: Book wars and Bloodlands

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Is a critic ever being entirely “fair”?  Once my thoughts splash onto the printed page, I’ve agonized about whether the words that sounded so reasonable in my head would have been said to the author’s face.  On the other hand, when I’m being generous, I wonder if I’m doing the reader a disservice.  So I sat up straight when Jesse Freedman wrote over at Books Inq. last week:

“Readers of the LRB got a significant dose of honesty earlier this month when Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, offered a scathing review Timothy Snyder‘s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. …

“I have to say, I respect Evans for his review – not only because his arguments are well grounded, but because he fights the tendency among (a fair number of) reviewers to praise pretty much everything they are handed.”

Strong words indeed from Books Inq.  Bloodlands was discussed on The Book Haven a few weeks ago, along with Norman Naimark‘s Stalin’s Genocides.

In his review, “Who Remembers the Poles?” Evans begins:

‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ Adolf Hitler asked his generals in 1939, as he told them to ‘close your hearts to pity,’ ‘act brutally’ and behave ‘with the greatest harshness’ in the coming war in the East. It’s often assumed that in reminding them of the genocide of at least a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War, Hitler was referring to what he intended to do to Europe’s Jews. But he was not referring to the Jews: he was referring to the Poles. ‘I have sent my Death’s Head units to the East,’ he told the generals, ‘with the order to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the living space that we need.’”

Yet Evans castigates Snyder for failing to draw a clear enough distinction between the Holocaust and the concurrent genocides, distracting from what was unique:

“That uniqueness consisted not only in the scale of its ambition, but also in the depth of the hatred and fear that drove it on. There was something peculiarly sadistic in the Nazis’ desire not just to torture, maim and kill the Jews, but also to humiliate them. SS men and not infrequently ordinary soldiers as well set light to the beards of Orthodox Jews in Poland and forced them to perform gymnastic exercises in public until they dropped; they made Jewish girls clean public latrines with their blouses; they performed many other acts of ritual humiliation that they did not force on their Slav prisoners, however badly they treated them in other ways. The Slavs, in the end, were for the Nazis a regional obstacle to be removed; the Jews were a ‘world enemy’ to be ground into the dust.”

Snyder, he said, also fails to consider Hitler’s other victims sufficiently:

“Thus the eight million foreigners working in the Reich in the latter stages of the war were not all ‘from the East’ as Snyder claims – one and a quarter million of them were French, more than half a million were Italian, and nearly half a million were Belgian or Dutch. The killing of up to 200,000 mentally handicapped and sick Germans by Nazi doctors gets a brief paragraph; the hundreds of thousands of German and Western European Jews who were murdered are dismissed in a little more than a page; sites of mass murder that lie outside Snyder’s ‘bloodlands’ and where the killings were not perpetrated by the Nazis or the Soviets are dealt with in equally perfunctory fashion. The 300,000 Serbs slaughtered by the fascist regime in Croatia, the 380,000 Jews killed on the orders of the Romanian government, and further afield still, the tens of thousands of Spanish Republican prisoners executed by the Francoists and the hundreds of thousands more confined in brutal labour camps after the end of the Civil War, or the Gypsies killed in large numbers not just by the Germans but also by the Croatians and Romanians – all of these get barely a mention or no mention at all.”

Evans concludes:

“The fundamental reason for these omissions, and for the book’s failure to give an adequate account of the genesis of the Final Solution, is that Snyder isn’t seriously interested in explaining anything. What he really wants to do is to tell us about the sufferings of the people who lived in the area he knows most about. Assuming we know nothing about any of this, he bludgeons us with facts and figures about atrocities and mass murders until we’re reeling from it all.”

Reaction was swift and terrible in the Dec. 2 LRB.  Oxford’s Norman Davies makes the striking point that we are “emotionally conditioned” to observe the suffering of Hitler’s victims, not so quick when it comes to recognizing the victim’s of our ally, Jozef Stalin. Moreover, by emphasizing the uniqueness of the Holocaust, we fail to notice larger patterns in the concurrent genocides — a point akin to Naimark‘s contention in Stalin’s Genocides.  It is a point, Davies said, Snyder is better equipped than most historians to make.

But a reader in New York, Charles Coutinho, delivers the coup de grace:  “Richard Evans’s less than entirely positive review of Timothy Snyder’s book may or may not have been influenced by Snyder’s own less than positive review of Evans’s latest book in the New York Review of Books.”

Evans admits that Coutinho “does indeed put his finger on one of the many reasons Snyder’s book made me so cross, which is that Snyder devoted almost all of what was meant to be a review of The Third Reich at War in the New York Review of Books to making erroneous and unsubstantiated claims about my supposed ignorance of Russian and East European history.”

Return to the first sentence of this post. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Correction:  Thanks, Dave Lull, for pointing out that it was Jesse Freedman, and not Frank Wilson, who had made the original post at Books Inq. that brought the Evans article to my attention.  For the record, I certainly did not mean to fault Jesse F.  — it was the job of the LRB editor to make sure the reviewer doesn’t have an axe to grind or a fanny to kiss when writing a review.

Saul Bellow: “The name of the game is Give All.”

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

A few days ago, I posted an excerpt from Saul Bellow: Letters — an epistle from Saul Bellow to Leon Wieseltier, on the subject of Hannah Arendt.

I didn’t know till I was tipped off by Robert Hamerton-Kelly at lunch yesterday that Wieseltier had already reviewed the letters in the New York Times a few days earlier. The long, ebullient review of a friend by a friend praises the author’s “stunning, almost baffling plenitude”:

“Bellow’s letters are — as anybody who corresponded with him must have expected them to be, and here I must disclose, or confess, or boast, that the volume includes also some gorgeous letters to me, written in the fullness of our friendship decades ago, when we used to worry over metaphysics and the novel as we chopped wood — one of Bellow’s greatest books. [Editor] Benjamin Taylor records that it contains only two-fifths of what Bellow called his ‘epistling,’ but its riches are nonetheless immense. Taylor has selected and edited and annotated these letters with exquisite judgment and care. This is an elegantissimo book. Our literature’s debt to Taylor, if our culture still cares, is considerable.”

More excerpts, in case you missed it:

“In recent years, Bellow has been venerated primarily for his laughter and his language. His British admirers in particular, orphaned by the dreariness of their own postwar fiction and in abject (and rather boring) envy of American energy, have remade Bellow according to their need: a comic writer, a high mocker and essentially a stylist. There is some truth, obviously, to this worship of his ebullience, of the libertine vigor of his voice. Of all modern writers, Bellow somehow managed to combine intellectuality and vitality without compromising either of the indispensable terms. The life-force never deserted him, even as it was always attended by interpretation. The unruliness of existence was Bellow’s lasting theme; but while he studied it, he never quite ordered it. In his fiction and in his life, he seemed to believe in the fecundity of disorder.

“Yet something is missing from the chortling celebration of Bellovian jollity, and that is its foundation in gloom. ‘Bitter melancholy’ is ‘one of my specialties,’ he tells Edward Shils in 1962. About ‘the power to despair,’ he writes to a friend in 1961 that ‘having myself felt it, known it, bathed in it, my native and temperamental impulse is to return to sanity in the form of laughter.’ The letters show a man constantly wresting high spirits from low, and forbidding himself ‘the newest wrinkle in anguish.’ The charming and gregarious writer feels ‘almost astrally alone, but still “I’m out for sursum corda. Lift up the heart.’ … There is an almost erotic charge to Bellow’s endless affirmations; they are so affecting because they are so willed. Since they are deeply reflective, they do not seem merely manic. ‘Really,’ he writes to Lionel Trilling in 1952, ‘things are now what they always were, and to be disappointed in them is extremely shallow. We may not be strong enough to live in the present. But to be disappointed in it!'” …

“Bellow liked to scoff at serious people, but he never left their company. He, too, always had something urgent to say. … The view of Bellow as primarily a stylist, the pleasure-seeking reading of Bellow, the cult of his sentences, is inadequate. His manner was rougher and more controversial, stubbornly animated by ultimate questions, motivated by mind, an intervention in society as well as in literature. Even greater than how he said what he said was what he had to say. His writings, these letters included, are efforts in explanation, or in the hunger for explanation. He did not compose manifestoes or programs, and he despised ideologies — Norman Mailer is ‘such an ideologist,’ whereas ‘I do everything the hard way’; but his ridicule of intellectuals never led Bellow, as it did some of his contemporaries, to the barbarities of anti-intellectualism. …”

“One marvels for many reasons at the man who wrote these letters, but for no reason more than that he was a free man. I do not refer merely to his rebelliousness and his restlessness, to his ‘jail-breaking spirit.’ He is beset by cares and obligations; his friends die and die and die … but nothing ever robs him of the free and unfettered use of his powers. ‘A language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us,’ and in that palace Bellow was sovereign. ‘The only sure cure is to write a book,’ he advises Alice Adams. Only time, and the accidental ingestion of a poison fish in the tropics in 1994, dims him. Otherwise, for the duration of the long and unsinkable life chronicled in these pages, he is a large man growing larger, a spirit expanding, an unabating lightstorm, and ‘the name of the game is Give All.’ He never loses his constancy of purpose. In the penultimate letter in this volume, in the winter of 2002, he sums himself up for a distant relative in a casual Abschied: ‘Actually, I’ve never stopped looking for the real thing; and often I find the real thing. To fall into despair is just a high-class way of turning into a dope. I choose to laugh, and laugh at myself no less than at others.'”

Postscript from the “Great Minds Think Alike” Dept.:  Over at Anecdotal Evidence today, Patrick Kurp also has a post inspired by Wieseltier’s review of Bellow — it’s here.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn revisited: “I welcome your snowballs”

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

At the Hoover Institution archives in 1976: "silent, aghast, a simply endless witnessing"

Russia watcher and New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote in 2001: “In terms of the effect he has had on history, Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of the 20th century. Who else compares? Orwell? Koestler? And yet when his name comes up now, it is more often than not as a freak, a monarchist, an anti-Semite, a crank, a has been.”

I remember reading my silver-covered Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1, in the backrooms of the Pontiac Press where, as a brand-new intern in the hard, gritty little burg, I was supposed to be compiling the results of a reader survey.  I kept snatching a few minutes here and there to read more, and more.  It was, as author Richard Wirick wrote, “300,000 words of stupefying revelations — silent, aghast, a simply endless witnessing. Its didacticism, the repetitious parade of exclamations … we have to be reminded that quantity sometimes becomes quality, that the sheer numbers murdered — and of a country’s own people — requires a special category of inimitable evil.”

Somehow, the last few days of research in various and sundry brought me to Wirick’s excellent Bookslut piece on the author’s 2008 death, “Solzhenitsyn: The Last Giant.” Afterward I revisited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s much-criticized (“scolding,” “hectoring”) 1978 Harvard address.

On the contrary, I find it provocative, often prescient, and at the very least worth another look.

On a legalistic society…

“I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.”

On human freedom…

“The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. …

Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected. Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society.”

On the press…

“Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it does not happen, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.

Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in the readers’ memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it.”

On intellectual fashions…

“Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. … This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.”

I could go on:  “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die.”

One can’t help thinking that Solzhenitsyn’s remarks about Western cowardice, its colossal failure of nerve, were pretty much spot-on.  For example, in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger warned President Gerald Ford against a visit from the Nobel laureate, saying the visit would cause controversy, and that fellow dissidents found his positions an embarrassment.  Guess who didn’t get an invite.  One thinks more recently of the Dalai Lama leaving the White House by the back door, near the garbage.  Or the unseemly waffling of nations deciding whether to boycott the Nobels this year, in support of China against the imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo.  Or the modern inability to understand much more beyond branding, positioning, marketing, and public relations values — Jon Stewart‘s apparent inability to discern why inviting Cat Stevens to celebrate peace and sanity might not be such a red-hot idea.  Or… or … or…

Writing after Solzhenitsyn’s 2008 death, Wirick comments that the writer seems to have outscaled the criticism:

“And yet there he was. After Borges and Beckett, Calvino and Bellow, the man pretty much stood by himself out on the landscape: a chipped, fierce, creaking monument, taunting the wind for its shuddering fall. On the night it came, and a friend called with the news, I closed my eyes and saw my favorite photograph of him, I believe by Harry Benson. It’s the one where he is deeply breathing, hands on chest, the nearly Russian air of his whitened Vermont pastures. It’s a picture that shows a lot more wisdom and self-deprecation than most people see. The superficial view takes the smile on his face and closed eyes to be saying how ‘happy’ he is to finally be in a ‘free’ country. I see him saying something at once richer and lighter, playful and more complex: ‘I’m a writer. I’m a ham. I make mistakes. I just happen to straddle the age like Abi Yoyo. But it is always only a step, as Mr. Nabokov said, from the hallelujah to the hoot. I welcome your snowballs.'”

So you want to be a professional writer? Hunter Thompson’s helpful hints.

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Not into public relations...

James Scott Bell over at “The Kill Zone,” a blog run by mystery and thriller writers, has some pretty good tips for those who want to break into the writing biz, but Bill Peschel at “Planet Peschel” takes some reasonable exception to a few of the suggestions.  For example, this one: “Successful writers-in-waiting look professional. They do not come off as slobs or slackers. They dress sharply though unpretentiously.”

Peschel, author of Writers Gone Wild, replies:

… I’ve been reading advice like this for a long time, and sometimes, it gets to be too much.

* Be careful how you appear.
* Be careful what you say.
* Don’t piss anyone off.

At the same time, you’re supposed to sell your book, sell your writing, sell yourself. Learn how to promote, to market, to tweet, or bleep, blog, blurg and boast, all without annoying people, turning them off, driving them away or giving in your desire to brag, boast, flaunt, get angry, get petulant or act like a human being in any way.

As for courtesy and savoir faire, Peschel  cites this application for a newspaper position:

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity. If this is what you’re trying to get The Sun away from, then I think I’d like to work for you.

Most of my experience has been in sports writing, but I can write everything from warmongering propaganda to learned book reviews.

I can work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don’t give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.

That’s Hunter S. Thompson.  And you should see what the rude letters say…

Happy birthday, Bell’s Books!

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

I knew that downtown Bell Books on Emerson Avenue predated my own arrival in Palo Alto by at least a few years — but who would have guessed the family-owned bookstore is 75 this month? Bell’s still gives the younger generation a taste of an old-fashioned bookstore, pre-Kindle, pre-Amazon — back in the days when the proprietor knew the entire inventory without resort to the computer or shelves (none of this “Dante?  How are you spelling that?” stuff).  Back in the days when a bookstore was a dimly lit chamber of mysteries, with the musty smell of old paper and leatherbound volumes.

Bell’s Books is featured this week in Palo Alto Online News.  Store manager Faith Bell, daughter of owner Valeria Bell, recalls her childhood this way:

“For us, reading was like breathing — there was a nonstop flow of books through our lives. Even when we [Faith Bell and her husband and children] were up in Canada, my mother would send me enormous boxes on a regular basis. We had a tiny library in the town, and we read through it in no time.”

I remember when Chimaera Books was the big green house on Lytton Avenue, and you could browse, even read for hours in hidden rooms, among its exhausted couches with creaky springs.  When rent hikes threatened to oust it, Denise Levertov came to the rescue with a fundraising reading and a show of support that roused the city.  When the rents went up persistently, the store eventually moved to Redwood City. And now it’s gone.  I remember the California Avenue Printer’s Inc, where you could sip coffee on well-worn wooden chairs while perusing a new purchase.  Printer’s Inc boasted of a legendary bookstore cat (a skinny brown tabby — can’t recall its name).  Few other bookstores in the world have had several sonnets written in their praise.   From Vikram Seth‘s Golden Gate:

The enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular,
Fluorescent-lit, with Bach piped through
The glamorous alleys of its angular
Warren of bookshelves,the dark brew
Of French roast or Sumatra rousing
One’s weak papillae as one’s browsing
Lead to the famed cups, soon or late,
That cheer but don’t inebriate.
Magical shoe box! Skilled extractor
Of my last dime on print or drink,
Mini-Montmartre, Printers Inc!
Haven of book freaks, benefactor
Of haggard hacks like me, who’ve been
Quivering for years to your caffeine.

But Printer’s Inc is gone, too, subsumed by a clattery, trendy, not-so-hot cafe that has commandeered its name but not its memory.

Only Bell’s has survived.  Faith Bell apparently enjoys her clientele:

“I think Palo Alto has more multiple advanced degrees than anywhere in the nation — you never know who you’re talking to,” Bell said.

“I’ve had a very eclectic education. I’ve been to multiple colleges and universities and never got a degree in anything. This store was my education — and is every day.”

Saul Bellow on Hannah Arendt: The upshot? He didn’t like her much

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Letters out this month

Viking is publishing Saul Bellow: Letters this month.  It’s excerpted in Salmagundis 45th anniversary issue (Fall 2010/Winter 2011), which arrived in my mailbox a few days ago. Here’s an excerpt of Nobel laureate Saul Bellow’s March 12, 1982, letter to Leon Wieseltier. Clearly not a fan of political philosopher Hannah Arendt:

“The trouble is that her errors were far more extensive than her judgment.  That can be said of us all, but she was monumentally vain, and a rigid akshente [Yiddish: impossible woman, ballbuster] Much of her strength went into obstinacy, and she was the compleat intellectual – i.e. she went always and as rapidly as possible for the great synthesis and her human understanding, painfully limited, could not support the might of historical analysis, unacknowledged prejudices, frustrations of her German and European aspirations, etc. She could often think clearly, but to think simply was altogether beyond her, and her imaginative faculty was stunted.

German to the end?

“I once asked Alexander Donat, author of The Holocaust Kingdom, how it was that the Jews went down so quickly in Poland. He said something like this: ‘After three days in the ghetto, unable to wash and shave, without clean clothing, deprived of food, all utilities and municipal services cut off, your toilet habits humiliatingly disrupted, you are demoralized, confused, subject to panic. A life of austere discipline would have made it possible for me to keep my head, but how many civilized people lead such a life?’  Such simple facts – had Hannah had the imagination to see them – would have lowered the intellectual fever that vitiates her theories. Her standards were those of a ‘noble’ German intelligentsia trained in the classics and in European philosophy – what you call the ‘tradition of sweet thinking.’  Hannah not only loved it, she actively disliked those who didn’t share it, and she couldn’t acknowledge this dislike – which happened to be the dislike of those (so inconveniently) martyred by the Nazis.  The Eros of these cultures is irresistible.  At the same time assimilation is simply impossible – out of the question to reject one’s history. And insofar as the Israelis are secular, they are in it with the rest of us, fascinated and also eaten up by Greece, France, Russia, England.  It is impossible for advanced minds not to be so affected. …

“Anyway, your Arendt pieces are wonderful, even though the concluding sentence … but what else can one conclude but ‘on course; and ‘in the dark’? We mustn’t surrender the demonic to the demagogic academics.  Intellectual sobriety itself may have to take the powers of darkness into account.”

Casper discusses Arendt (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In his book, Donat recounts the entrenched pro-German mindset of most Jews, who were looking backward to the heritage of the German Enlightenment: “For generations, East European Jews had looked to Berlin as the symbol of law, order, and culture. We could not now believe that the Third Reich was a government of gangsters embarked on a program of genocide ‘to solve the Jewish problem in Europe.’”

But I rather wonder at his characterization of “Jewish passivity,” remembering the doomed heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Only since the Fall of the Wall are some stories of Polish (Jewish and Christian) resistance coming to light.  History changes.

I attended a conference on Arendt last spring and was moved by Gerhard Casper’s tenacious loyalty to the friend he characterized as “a very private person”:   “She was forceful, opinionated, never had any doubts about her views,” he said. “In certain circumstances she was willing to listen carefully and be convinced she was wrong. Those were rare.”

Piotr Nowak recommended I read her pages on ineradicable evil in The Origins of Totalitarianism when we were at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen two years ago, while taking the “powers of darkness into account.”

Pakistani poetry truck, making the rounds…

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

In America, we have National Poetry Month and a few scattered lines on subways and the buses. But we’re not a patch on Pakistan.

One of the lesser known sides of Pakistani life: the chaotic public transport blossoms in color with buses, trucks, rickshaws and taxi cabs that are decked out in bright paint and elaborate designs — and the best part for many is the poetry.

PRI’s Fahad Desmukh reports:

“This is in a very real sense a public conversation which is not in books, which is not in the type of middle class milieus – it’s on the street,” said Manan Ahmed, professor of Islam at the Free University of Berlin.

“The reason these things exist on public transportation is because these conversations are existing in places where the folks driving these vehicles hang out.”

Of course, the drivers aren’t writing these verses in a vacuum. Poetry plays a very prominent role in popular culture here – not just as a form of art, but also as a part of everyday conversation. People use couplets to explain a situation, something like the way proverbs are used. But for the owners of public transport vehicles, it’s also about defining your public identity.

Photos: Fahad Desmukh

Like the snippets that appear on U.S. billboards in April, the Pakistani poems are short — usually just a couplet, two lines with the same meter.

The PRI site translates a couple examples. Here’s one:

“Oh nightingale, why do you cry? Are you without a flower?
I should be the one to cry, for I have no peace in my life.”

Well, as they say, poetry is what gets lost in translation…

The non-award of the Wendy Wasserstein Prize … and the non-award of the Nobel to Liu Xiaobo

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

What would Wendy do?

The non-award this year of the Theatre Development Fund’s Wendy Wasserstein Prize for young women playwrights — the TDF considered no one up to snuff — has caused a great kerfuffle.  See New York’s Time Out here. She Writes reproduces the strident dialogue between Kamy Wicoff and TDF honcho David LeShay hereFeministing posts its reprise of the conflict here.  A Facebook petition is here.

The upshot:  The TDF is reconsidering.

The $25,000 award is named for Wendy Wasserstein, a popular playwright who died at age 55 from cancer — that’s a lot of money, and I yield to no one in understanding how hard a writer’s life is. I made my living as a free-lance journalist for a decade, and that when I was no longer young and also had a kid to support alone.  The award and recognition could make a big difference in a young playwright’s life.

Nonetheless, doesn’t an award have a right to determine its own criteria, however distressing that may be to the applicants? It’s always a punch in the face for a writer when a jury decides that no award was better than awarding you — especially if the criteria for judgment is bureaucratic, subjective, political, wrong-headed.  Still …

I have no doubt of the enormous gender bias in the theater world, and pretty much everywhere else. (Look at politics.  I’ll never forget the landmark misogyny of the 2008 elections, when the most accomplished woman ever to grace American politics was treated with truly ugly slurs, culminating in a major broadcast journalist called for her to be snuffed while the major feminist organizations were … silent.)

The Facebook page makes the strongest argument: “Your claim that ‘none of the plays were truly outstanding in their current incarnation’ sends a discouraging message to early career theatre artists at a time when these artists need more support than ever. The prize is not to support a production of the play, but the promise of the writer.” [italics mine]

Feministing‘s resorts to retro language, accusing the TDF of reproducing “hierarchies of privilege”  they meant to redress, though heaven knows its too true that “it’s often those who are already have many accolades who are likely to receive more of them.”  Wicoff resorts to a demanding tone and capital letters (“If you can’t figure out a way to give a prize to ONE WOMAN PLAYWRIGHT in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, YOU are the problem, not the applicants or the by-laws or whatever.”)

At the end of the Wicoff’s exchanges, she asks, “Anybody else feel a She Writes Prize coming on?”

Now there‘s an idea.

I understand that Wasserstein was a fabulous woman and a beloved friend to many.  But her plays always struck me as formulaic, built on TV models of short scenes and clincher lines, which were often blandly Gail Sheehy-esque:  “The real reason for comedy is to hide the pain.”  And sometimes not even true: “You’re the unfortunate contradiction in terms — a serious good person.”

In any case, the Time Out article hints that the award itself is having financial troubles, and may be discontinued:

But this apparent victory may be Pyrrhic. [Patrick] Healy’s article raised a detail that had not been a subject of general discussion earlier: that the Wasserstein Prize is a four-year project whose future funding is not assured. Toward the end of the piece is an ominous statement from Heidi Ettinger, a key figure in the establishment and funding of the prize: “This is the final year of the grant for the prize, and it will be up for reconsideration next year. All along, we have been changing and refining criteria to insure that the objectives of the prize honoring Wendy and her high standards were met. We have also managed to increase the amount of the award. As a funder, we must be able to insure the integrity of the prize and provide selection panels the freedom they need free of outside pressures.”

Would any of the 19 young playwright applicants wish to accept the award now, under such a cloud?  In a minute.


No prize after all

Non-prizes have a long history.  In 2006, the Pulitzer board gave no prize in the drama category in spite of having three nominees from the drama jury. As recently as 2008, it gave no prize for editorial writing.  In 1953, 1964, 1965 and 1981 it gave no prize for music.  In 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954, 1957, 1964, 1971, and 1977, it gave no award for fiction.  The Pulitzer board does not explain its sometime mysterious decisionmaking.

And it appears, in an unhappy development largely overlooked by the media, that there will be no Nobel peace prize this year for Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo.  The Associated Press notes: “Even Cold War dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Lech Walesa were able to have their wives collect the prizes for them. Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi‘s award was accepted by her 18-year-old son in 1991.”

The only precedent for the non-award is 1935, when the Nazi government forbade German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky to accept the award.  Imprisoned in a succession of concentration camps, Ossietzky had been hospitalized hospital for severe tuberculosis, but the Nazi government prevented him from leaving the country to accept the prize. Someone representing Ossietzky was allowed to receive the Nobel Prize money only.  On the books, it’s “no award” for 1935.

“World within reach”? We think not. Stanford replies to Albany

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

Safran knocks "disturbing" decision

Yesterday, we excerpted Gregory Petsko‘s  rather scalding letter to George Philip,  the president of the SUNY Albany, who recently announced that the university was cutting its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts departments.  Then we discovered Stanford’s own letter. Not as much fun, alas; nothing beats sarcasm — but still worth a look.

At a school whose motto is “The world within reach,” the elimination of modern languages other than Spanish indicates a confusion of purpose.  The study of modern languages at a high level offers a gateway to international business, diplomacy, and research in all fields.  The study of literature in foreign languages challenges students to cross cultural boundaries and teaches them how to do so effectively.  By rejecting these programs, SUNY Albany is reducing its students’ intellectual breadth and their competitiveness for a range of professions.  It is moving the world out of reach.

This decision is especially disturbing at a school that trains so many of New York State’s teachers.  Three of the programs cut – French, Italian, and Russian – are significant New York heritage languages, and a large French-speaking population lives right over the border in Quebec.  These are languages that New York K-12 students have motivation to study, and even to master.  By making it impossible for future Albany graduates to teach them, SUNY is reducing not only the education and competitiveness of its own students, but those of the state’s high school students as well.  In the case of Russian, where Albany houses the only major program in the SUNY system, this danger is especially real.

Edelstein signed, too

The elimination of modern language programs at Albany appears to be part of a larger reallocation of state funding.  Even while the university saves some $12 million by cutting these departments, $435 million in state funding is going toward a new Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery and Exploration, which has the stated goal of transforming the Albany region into a high-tech hub like California’s Silicon Valley.  Here at Stanford, located in the real Silicon Valley, it appears especially short-sighted to imagine that the way to foster innovation, investment, and job growth in our increasingly global economy is by rejecting the study of modern languages and cultures.  Rather than firing faculty who are experts in foreign languages, the university should turn to them for help in training students who are able to understand international consumers and investors.  Stanford has engaged its foreign language and literature faculty in creating new administrative structures that can respond effectively to the needs of students at all levels.  We challenge you at SUNY Albany to follow the example of Silicon Valley in deed, not just in words.

Signed by:  Gabriella Safran, Director, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages; David Palumbo-Liu, Director, Department of Comparative Literature; Carolyn Springer, Director, Department of French and Italian Literatures; Russell Berman, Director, German Studies Department; Jorge Ruffinelli, Director, Iberian and Latin American Cultures Department; Elizabeth Bernhardt, Director, Language Center; Amir Eshel, Graduate Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages; Dan Edelstein, Undergraduate Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages.

By the by, if you missed Stanley Fish’s column on this subject in the New York Times, it’s here.

Ouch! A scientist’s sharp letter about the Albany massacre

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Science nerd on the attack

Dan Edelstein brought this letter to my attention — a rather scalding letter to George Philip,  the president of the SUNY Albany, who recently announced that the university was cutting its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts departments.

The author, Gregory Petsko, a professor of biochemistry and chemistry at Brandeis, started out as a classics major.  Yet he writes, “Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.”

An excerpt:

“I’m sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn’t have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn’t required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy … You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it’s because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs – something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.

University prez on the defense

“Young people haven’t, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it’s hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky‘s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.

“That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I’m sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it – if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don’t.

Bye bye, Fyodor

“Then there’s the question of whether the state legislature’s inaction gave you no other choice. I’m sure the budgetary problems you have to deal with are serious. They certainly are at Brandeis University, where I work. And we, too, faced critical strategic decisions because our income was no longer enough to meet our expenses. But we eschewed your draconian – and authoritarian – solution, and a team of faculty, with input from all parts of the university, came up with a plan to do more with fewer resources. I’m not saying that all the specifics of our solution would fit your institution, but the process sure would have. You did call a town meeting, but it was to discuss your plan, not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend. In your defense, you called the timing ‘unfortunate’, but pleaded that there was a ‘limited availability of appropriate large venue options.’ I find that rather surprising. If the President of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don’t have much clout at your university.


“It seems to me that the way you went about it couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

“The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.  …” read more here.