Archive for March, 2013

Are they overrated? Anis Shivani knocks the famous 15.

Saturday, March 30th, 2013

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.


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.

He got an “A” from Nabokov

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Six feet tall and balding.

Delightful piece over at the New York Review of Books by Edward Jay Epstein, recalling his 1954 class with Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell.  We’ve written about Nabokov’s time at Stanford in 1941 here, but that was before he was quite the big-shot.

Here’s an excerpt:

The professor was Vladimir Nabokov, an émigré from tsarist Russia. About six feet tall and balding, he stood, with what I took to be an aristocratic bearing, on the stage of the two-hundred-fifty-seat lecture hall in Goldwin Smith. Facing him on the stage was his white-haired wife Vera, whom he identified only as “my course assistant.” He made it clear from the first lecture that he had little interest in fraternizing with students, who would be known not by their name but by their seat number. Mine was 121. He said his only rule was that we could not leave his lecture, even to use the bathroom, without a doctor’s note.

He then described his requisites for reading the assigned books. He said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines. He assured us that the authors he had selected—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Louis Stevenson—would produce tingling we could detect in our spines.

Read the rest here.  It’s very short and a lot of fun.

Au revoir, Marek Skwarnicki (30 April, 1930 – 12 March, 2013)

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Marek Skwarnicki, in the crowded apartment on Ulitsa Pigonia

For the last week or two, I kept thinking that I should drop a note to Polish poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, and translator Marek Skwarnicki   So I finally wrote him a friendly email on Saturday, inquiring about his well-being and that of his wife, Zofię.  Marek is another in the tribe of people I wanted to stay in touch with – but he was so easy to lose track of, even in Kraków, living way out on Prądnik Biały, in the most farflung northern outskirts of the city, in one of the highest floors of an anonymous apartment block on Ulitsa Pigonia.

I googled him yesterday, just to see what he might be up to, and had another shock:  according to the Polish media, he had died on the 12th of March, about the same time I began having the impulse to write him.  (This is the second time this has happened in two months, which is eerie to say the least.)  He was a month shy of his 83rd birthday. President Bronislaw Komorowski posthumously awarded him the Officer’s Cross of the Mark Skwarnickiego Polish Order of Polonia Restituta, for “outstanding contribution to Polish culture.”  The Polish media don’t list a cause of death (nor does Rome’s La Stampa), nor tell us whether his wife survived him.  Obviously, I didn’t attend the 20 March funeral mass at the Benedictine abbey in Tyniec, celebrated by Cardinal Franciszek Macharski – the eminent poet Julia Hartwig spoke afterwards at the event, which was attended by former colleagues at Tygodnik Powszechny and Znak.

So let this be my tribute to one of the kindest people I remember.

Moj-Milosz-Krakow-Bialy-Kruk-2004-CzeslawMarek was one of the contributors to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz – I don’t remember who suggested I talk to him.  This is what I had to say about him in the Contributors Notes:

Marek Skwarnicki—Polish poet, writer, and translator of poetry—was imprisoned in the German concentration camp Mauthausen in 1944. From 1958 to 1991, he was on the editorial board of Tygodnik Powszechny. He has written many volumes of poetry and memoirs from his travels with John Paul II, which he covered as a reporter. His correspondence with Miłosz is included in his book Mój Miłosz (My Miłosz).

I made the trek out to meet Marek and his wife Zofię in 2008, during my fellowship to Poland.  Did I bring flowers on this visit, or the second?  I can’t recall, but flowers always seemed plentiful in that apartment, along with the sweetish wine and store-bought pastries they served to guests.  At one point I brought an armload of bright yellow flowers – that I remember.

On my first visit, the devout Catholic writer told me cheerfully, “Miłosz was a heretic, like all great artists” – yet gave a nuanced portrait of the anguished religiosity of the Nobel poet. In Invisible Rope, he tells the story of his first contact with Miłosz:

“Because of the changes in the Soviet Union, Khrushchev coming to power and de-Stalinization, the year 1956 became pivotal in Polish political history. The publishing policies in my country experienced a “thaw,” an easing up of the state censorship that used to control not only every printed word, but also the size of periodical circulation and even the content of business cards. The name of Czesław Miłosz was now permitted to be mentioned in print.  Tygodnik Powszechny — a general-interest, political, Catholic, and sociocultural weekly — resumed its publication after a forced hiatus.

While still a student, I had written for the magazine under an assumed name. Later, I forged relations with the former editors and, in 1957, (since because I myself had started writing poetry), my poem titled ‘A Letter from Warsaw’ appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny; this poem was my way of thanking Czesław Miłosz for being the ‘daylight’ of my young years and the ‘rescue’ in Warsaw. Truth be told, the entire Communist press lashed out at me. Nevertheless, the poem was published.


In younger days (Courtesy the Skwarnicki family).

On Christmas 1957, I received a letter from Paris. The envelope carried no return address. Inside was a white card with a red-and-white border. In the top left corner, there was a little Christmas tree and a handwritten inscription ‘Merry Christmas’; and in the lower rightcorner, it was signed ‘from Czesław Miłosz.’ This was the beginning of our relationship, which deepened into a friendship between an older poet and a younger one (this is how Miłosz described it) and ended only  with his death in Kraków.”

The two had a mutual friend in their fellow Pole and fellow poet, John Paul II.  Marek met Karol Wojtyla in the late ’50s in the editorial offices of Tygodnik Powszechny – well, Kraków is a small town.  From that time onwards, he became a sort of literary counselor to the poet-pope, and was invited to Rome to assist the Pope in the final editing of Wojtyla’s Roman Triptych: Meditations.  Marek also translated the Psalms – curiously enough, so did Miłosz, teaching himself Hebrew to do so.

The only time I riled this gentle man, even a little, was when, on his manuscript, I politely inquired whether Polish authorities weren’t tracking his unconventional trip across America, where he finally met Miłosz face-to-face after years of correspondence:

“I like to add that you made me slightly angry on you with your remarks about my fear of Polish political police. I am and I was in your free country the free man, not slave, not afraid of  Polish KGB.  I did not made report to them after return to [my] country.  They did not know that I was visiting office of Polish Section of Voice of America, what was more dangerous than [visiting] Milosz. Sorry. Warm wishes to you.”

I remember my second and last visit to the tiny, crowded apartment on Pigonia in 2011.  As I left, they urged me to come back again before the end of my trip – I remember saying goodbye, not knowing if I had the time in my tight schedule to find my way to this apartment building again.  I suspected I would not, but looked at the generous, expectant faces of this hospitable, open-hearted, and thoroughly devoted couple – half-blind, half-deaf, yet waiting for me – and I said I would try.


“My music is better because I work harder”: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

Don’t mess with him. He messes back.

Last night – Lenten fare.  Stanford’s Schola Cantorum performed Johann Sebastian Bach‘s St. Matthew Passion, widely considered to be the master composition of the entire Western canon.  I attended the performance at Stanford’s magnificent Memorial Church with a friend – and with a good many others, too, since it looked to be a sold-out performance.

In my googlings, I found this lively and informative post from Princeton’s Bernard Chazelle at “A Tiny Revolution”:

“Bach thought highly of his St. Matthew Passion. He called it his best work. Alas, few of his contemporaries shared the sentiment. After a performance in St. Thomas Church on Good Friday, 1735, the powers-that-be in Leipzig whispered into Bach’s ear that, as long as he kept that theatrical crap out of the Lord’s House, everything would be all right. He took the hint and applied for a job in Dresden, 70 miles away, submitting his Mass in B Minor as part of his application package. He was turned down. Perhaps that’s because Dresden had high standards and, after all, the Mass in B Minor is considered by many to be only the second greatest composition in Western music. The greatest? For Seiji Ozawa, it is ‘without a doubt, the St. Matthew Passion.’

Bach’s two surviving passions (the other two were lost! Imagine literature without Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet…) fell into oblivion after a couple of performances. They were too hard, too long, too demanding, too operatic for Lutheran sensitivities. Ignoring friendly advice, Mendelssohn re-premiered the St. Matthew Passion 100 years later. By doing so, he invented what we term ‘classical music’ today, i.e., the modern view of a concert hall as both a school and a mausoleum. Music had never before looked to the past. On that day in 1829, Bach became immortal. …

Bach made it very clear he was writing neither for humans nor for posterity. He was writing ‘for God.’ (If I lost 10 children, as he did, maybe I’d be doing the same thing, too.) He never gave in to any pressure to appeal to the local musical tastes. He was a big, tough guy, who was known to brawl in bars in his youth. He was even jailed once. When the local authorities threatened to block his promotion (which they did) if he didn’t “simplify” his music, his only reply to them was a loud ‘Screw you!’ Bach was fearless. But his Leipzig years were not happy ones. He had a much easier life composing for the Court (as the Brandenburg concertos make it very clear). But he chose to move to Leipzig to work for the church and take a huge salary cut. That was his own decision: a very Coltrane-like spiritual awakening. Sure, he was convinced his music was superior, but it’s fascinating to hear his reasoning: ‘My music is better because I work harder. Anyone who works as hard as me will write music that is just as good.’ At least the first sentence is partly true: he did work harder than anyone. It took him one year to write the St. Matthew Passion, and it was performed only twice in his lifetime. It’s humbling to think I’ve listened to it more often than Bach himself.”


Van der Weyden’s 1445 triptych … with supernumeraries.

Humbling for Humble Moi as well. However, I’m ashamed to admit to my barbarism: last night was the first occasion I have ever listened to it, beginning to end, with the libretto in hand.  It’s quite an experience, and an exhausting one – not only because it is three-and-a-quarter hours long (actually, longer than that last night).

The composition, with all its interspersed hymns, entreaties, and prayers, reminds me of one of those Flemish paintings a few centuries before Bach – say, the Crucifixion triptych of Rogier Van der Weyden – where an event is witnessed by the painter’s pious contemporaries.  Usually the donors, often with supernumerary saints, are kneeling or rapturously praying among the Biblical figures.  They are in, but not of, the event.  And in their role inside and outside of time, they invite you to join them, in witness.  Bach’s Passion forces you back on yourself, to take a position about the music, the ideas, the words you are hearing – and not just to think about them, of course, but to feel them, so the pondering and the pity transform you in the process.  (That’s one reason why the program notes’ generic words about how the composition “speaks to us of conscience, courage, compassion, acceptance, and hope” are so impossibly banal.)


What he said.

I’ve always been especially fond of the haunting “Blute Nur,” and to a lesser extent the final bass aria, “Mache Dich.” But in later years, I’ve been especially attentive to the “Erbarme Dich” – not because Yehudi Menuhin called it the most beautiful piece of music ever written for the violin (Bernard Chazelle has lots to say about this aria, too).  My reason lies in the words of Adam Zagajewski.

The Polish poet wrote in his Another Beauty: “When asked if European music has a core, that is, if one work or another might be called its heart, B. answered, “Yes, of course, the aria ‘Erbarme Dich’ from Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew.'”

While corresponding with Adam Z. in 2006, I asked him to elaborate, fully expecting him to dodge behind the alias “B.”  But he didn’t:  “Erbarme Dich – Bach represents the center and the synthesis of the western music. To say, as I did, that this particular aria is the center of western music is a leap of faith, of course. I couldn’t prove it. I love this aria.”

Chinua Achebe: “Some people may wonder if, perhaps, we were not too touchy … We really were not.”

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Where was the Nobel? (Photo: Stuart C. Shapiro)

Critic Anis Shivani is better known for wit than reverence, so when I read this deferential tribute on his Facebook page, I sat up straight:

“I acknowledge with gratitude his profound influence. Things Fall Apart was as important a novel as any written in the 20th-century. I always thought he should have won the Nobel. Today a whole new set of figures have taken over the role of the Joyce Cary‘s of old: illegitimate appropriators of ‘third-world’ voices who give comfort to the propagators of new versions of colonialism.”

He’s talking about Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet, who died yesterday in Boston at 82.  Here’s what the Washington Post had to say:

thingsfallapartHis novel was nearly lost before ever seen by the public. When Achebe finished his manuscript, he sent it to a London typing service, which misplaced the package and left it lying in an office for months. The proposed book was received coolly by London publishers, who doubted the appeal of fiction from Africa. Finally, an educational adviser at Heinemann who had recently traveled to west Africa had a look and declared: “This is the best novel I have read since the war.”

In mockery of all the Western books about Africa, Achebe ended Things Fall Apart with a colonial official observing Okonkwo’s fate and imagining the book he will write: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. Achebe’s novel was the opening of a long argument on his country’s behalf.

“Literature is always badly served when an author’s artistic insight yields to stereotype and malice,” Achebe said during a 1998 lecture at Harvard University that cited Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson as a special offender. “And it becomes doubly offensive when such a work is arrogantly proffered to you as your story. Some people may wonder if, perhaps, we were not too touchy, if we were not oversensitive. We really were not.”

According to the Associated Press, the novel was repeatedly rejected, and even the Heinemann advisor’s enthusiasm resulted in an initial press run of only two thousand:

Its initial review in The New York Times ran less than 500 words, but the novel soon became among the most important books of the 20th century, a universally acknowledged starting point for postcolonial, indigenous African fiction, the prophetic union of British letters and African oral culture. …Things Fall Apart has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

Vivian Yudkin’s Washington Post review weighed in at just over 100 words.  Here’s the whole thing:

Customs and mores of other cultures are always fascinating. A 28-year-old Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, takes us inside his world in his first novel, Things Fall Apart (McDowell, Obolensky). Mr. Achebe, writing in English, tells us the story of Okonkwo in the deceptively simple language of folklore. Okonkwo, who yearns to be the great man of his tribe, is instead doomed to failure and exile, for he believes that cruelty and suppression of emotion mean strength.

When misfortune befalls him, Okonkwo blames his “chi,” his personal god, but author Achebe’s message is clear – that there is a parallel between Okonkwo in his 19th century Nigerian clan governed by gods and ritualism, and 20th century man in a moon-ridden world.

The decades since this 1959 review have seen a revolution in the book’s critical estimation, obviously.  From the New York Times:

“It would be impossible to say how ‘Things Fall Apart’ influenced African writing,” the Princeton scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah once wrote. “It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians.”

Mr. Appiah, a professor of African studies, found an “intense moral energy” in Mr. Achebe’s work, adding that it “captures the sense of threat and loss that must have faced many Africans as empire invaded and disrupted their lives.” …

In his writings and teaching Mr. Achebe sought to reclaim the continent from Western literature, which he felt had reduced it to an alien, barbaric and frightening land devoid of its own art and culture. He took particular exception to”Heart of Darkness,”the novel by Joseph Conrad, whom he thought “a thoroughgoing racist.”

Conrad relegated “Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind,” Mr. Achebe argued in his essay “An Image of Africa.”



Orwell Watch #23: Cliché alert! Be prepared for a “paradigm shift”!

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013
Rose from obscurity...

Rose from obscurity…

Ooo! Ooo! Ooo!  A cliché alert!  Via Facebook, Jennifer Howard of the Chronicle of Higher Ed (and formerly one of my editors at the Washington Post Book World) alerted me to the Washington Post Outlook Section’s banned phrases.  We’re happy to see “double down” made the cut; we’ve written about that here.  It also nails the “not un-” formation, but George Orwell jeered at that one decades ago.

The list comes from Carlos Lozada, editor of the Outlook Section, who passed it on to Jim Romenesko‘s blog about the media. There are so many doozies, we can only list a few and refer you to the original source hereA sampling:

Imagine (as the first word in your lede)
Hastily-convened [which shouldn’t be hyphenated, anyway – ED]
Little-noticed (that just means the writer hadn’t noticed it)
Paradigm shift (in journalism, all paradigms are shifting)
Unlikely revolutionary (in journalism, all revolutionaries are unlikely)
Unlikely reformer (in journalism, all reformers are unlikely)

Da Man

Da Man

Grizzled veteran (in journalism, all veterans are grizzled – unless they are “seasoned”)
Manicured lawns (in journalism, all nice lawns are manicured)
Rose from obscurity (in journalism, all rises are from obscurity)
Dizzying array (in journalism, all arrays make one dizzy)
Withering criticism (in journalism, all criticism is withering)
Predawn raid (in journalism, all raids are predawn)
Ironic Capitalizations Implying Unimportance Of Things Others Consider Important
Provides fresh details
But reality/truth is more complicated (oversimplify, then criticize the oversimplification)
The proverbial TK (“proverbial” doesn’t excuse the cliché, just admits you used it knowingly)

One Facebook poster asked if we could add “perfect storm” to the list.  A worthy suggestion.  At the Romenesko’s website, someone suggested that one offender –  “remains to be seen” – might be appropriate if you’re writing about an open-casket funeral.


Cat that heard “double down” once too often.

Lozada was prompted to send on the list when he read the blog entry about Milwaukee Journal Sentinel managing editor George Stanley‘s note to the newsroom (perhaps inspired by all the stories about Princess Diana‘s “iconic” dresses on the auction block this week:


It has been brought to my attention that we are seriously over-using the word “iconic.”

I could provide examples but would rather not.

It’s not a bad word but it is becoming a cliché. Let’s try not to use it unless it is truly the best possible word for that sentence.

Thank you!

His warning was timely: a search turned up 29 stories, blog posts, and photo gallery descriptions using the word in the last seven days.

Of course, Orwell’s whole point was to show how language is used to obfuscate, deceive, and hide meaning. So here’s a stinker offered by Erin Belieu, an associate professor at Florida State University (she also has a fourth collection of poetry coming out with Copper Canyon Press).  She’s written an open letter to editors who say that they aren’t publishing a representative percentage of women because they only publish “the best” work (and wow, look here, it’s pretty damning):

Dear Certain Editors, please stop saying in reaction to VIDA’s Count that you simply publish “the best” work. What you do is publish what you like. Both rhetorically and philosophically, my 5th grader can tell the important difference between these ideas. Either you actually don’t understand the difference or you choose not to. For your sake, I hope it’s the latter as the former isn’t something you can easily fix.

Good catch, Erin!