Author Archive

Nine seconds of Edgar Degas on the sidewalks of 1915 Paris – and Philip Hoy has written an exquisite book about it.

Monday, January 30th, 2023
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Eminent publisher now an acclaimed author, too!

Philip Hoy has been in the service of literature for decades, and I’ve been privileged to know him as a publisher and friend for the last 18 years of them. He’s the founding publisher of Waywiser, one of the leading poetry publishers in Britain. (My a book-length conversation with British poet Peter Dale was published by Waywiser in 2005, and I interviewed L.A. poet Timothy Steele for Three Poets in Conversation in 2006.)

Now it’s Phil’s turn for literary accolades for his own writng, with his new acclaimed book, M. Degas Steps Out.

The book-length essay is based on a 9-second 1915 film clip of the octogenarian painter Edgar Degas on the sidewalks of Paris. Author Julian Barnes called it “a fascinating forensic study and a scholarly tour de force.”

Phil begins his story this way:

In the autumn of 2011, I went to see Degas and the Ballet, an exhibition which had recently opened at the Royal Academy in London’s Piccadilly. Long an admirer of Degas’s art, I cherished this opportunity to see so many of his works – not far short of one hundred paintings, sculptures, pastels, drawings, and prints, as well as a number of the photographs he had taken in his later years. Although the exhibition was everything I could have hoped for, and more, my most vivid memory is not of the works on display, but of a grainy sequence of black and white film which was being shown in the exhibition’s last room. The sequence was very short, running for a mere nine seconds, but it was being played on a continuous loop, and I sat and watched it again and again, totally mesmerized. A notice to one side explained that the central figure in the sequence – a bowler-hatted man walking along a busy Parisian street, accompanied by a much younger woman – was the artist whose exhibition we had just visited. I don’t recall if it said anything else.

According to Matthew Reisz, writing in The Guardian, Phil Hoy was so mesmerized by the film clip of the elderly painter that he downloaded it onto his computer, slowed it down and broke it up into 250 stills – 42 of them are included in the book. Reisz continues: “Just before the screen fades to black, we witness what he describes as a ‘beatific’ moment as a passing young woman turns towards us, ‘we register how beautiful she is’ and she ‘positively beams at [the camera], and in so doing beams at us as well’ – and ‘the more than one hundred years which separate us are wholly annulled.’

“By subjecting this tiny sequence to intense analysis, Hoy shows how it reflects a tragic turning point in French life. Early in the first world war, the actor and playwright Sacha Guitry put together a short propaganda film showcasing leading figures in French culture. Friends such as Sarah Bernhardt and Claude Monet were happy to perform for the camera, but when Degas grumpily spurned his approaches Guitry was obliged to film him surreptitiously.”

Prof. Sherod Santos of the University of Missouri claimed, “I haven’t read a stranger, more original book in a very long time. It’s a wonder. I suspect that M. Degas, lover of privacy that he was, would have been delighted by the book, which it’s an understatement to call an ‘essay,'”

Dear Editor, why did you reject my piece?

Friday, January 20th, 2023
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Chris Fleming asks the eternal question…

It is what writers everywhere ask, submitting their work to journals and editors, risking rejection or, arguably worse … dead silence. Writer and philosopher Chris Fleming asks the eternal question in faraway Sydney, Australia: Dear Editor, why did you reject my piece? And he gets a few answers … kind of.

Dear Author,
Thank you very much for the submission of your piece for our consideration. You can be certain that we receive many submissions – too many, in fact. We’ve discussed at some length how we might cut down on these, but to no avail. (Few besides the successful know the true cost of success, but it would be in unnecessary – and perhaps in poor taste – to rehearse here these reasons, to you.)

Needless to say, we don’t write back to most submitters, which would be impossible in any case, but even if we could, we wouldn’t. And yet we write to you! That is the good news; please enjoy it, as instructed.

The bad news is that we will not publish what you have sent. While your argument is coherent and original and your knowledge of the literature sound, we have been forced to reject the piece on certain grounds, even if the precise nature of those grounds is not yet clear. How to account for this? Do you believe in intuition? It’s too easy to be mysterious about this word, which all sorts of mumbo jumbo is wont to hide behind.

But intuition is the better part of taste, even judgement. We decide first and later rationalize our responses, dignifying them with things we call “reasons,” which gives the impression – most of all to ourselves – of them being causes of a decision; they never are. They are articulations after the fact, fragments collected from a crime scene, momento mori, post-hoc generalizations which answer to some grasping for the explicit.

We could offer such to you, but we desire, above all, to be honest. Needless to say, we have rejected your essay intuitively. To put this another way, you have been rejected on the basis that we couldn’t publish what you have written. We rejected it unanimously. We were in no doubts about it. You had nobody speaking on your behalf: “No,” one of the editors said, after reading your piece, and moved onto something else; “no thanks,” another said. I chimed in, “agreed.” Only one editor spoke on your behalf, although the content of her intervention has been lost and was, in any case, immaterial.

Talmud, Levinas, and unanimity. (Photo: Bracha L. Ettinger)

Thank you, and best luck in your future endeavours. ~The Editors

***
Dear Editors,
Thank you for your letter. I must admit I’m at a loss, however. On the one hand you say that the piece was rejected “unanimously” and then say that an editor spoke on my behalf. This seems inconsistent with any reasonable sense of the term “unanimously.” ~ Author
***

Dear Author,
To be honest, it is not our habit to get involved in these sorts of drawn-out tête-à-tête, but we will make an exception here. It is partly a matter of dignity – not ours, but the correspondent’s. While of course the term “unanimity” in a mathematical sense entails an “all in” with respect to numeration, I was using the term in its ethical sense. In Emmanuel Levinas’s readings of the Jewish wisdom texts he speaks at one point of the Talmudic principle that in a case before a court, a truly unanimous verdict against the accused would, in fact, attest to the defendant’s innocence – whereas a majority decision, a 9 or 8 or 7 or 6 out of 10 in favour of convicting would suggest guilt. Why? – because a mathematical unanimity is less an indication of sincere judgement than a mindless piling on. That a majority convicted the person, and yet not a mathematical unanimity, attests to their guilt. Were we to all have found your piece wanting, it might have suggested that we were merely drones, bloodthirsty fashionistas looking for a scapegoat. If anything, the single voice who advocated for you in fact corroborates the deficiencies in your submission, rather than any evidence of its worth.

Ethically,
The Editors

***

Does Kant get a mention?

Dear Editors,
As far as I can tell “mathematical unanimity” refers to nothing whatsoever. What you are referring to here is simply a “majority decision,” and so your choice of terminology is misleading. That you choose to then turn this into a lesson about Jewish ethics seems entirely beside the point. And that you refrain from citing either the original Talmudic source or Levinas’s commentary adds little confidence in your judgement. Further, numerous majority decisions in courts of law have proved wrong and unjust. In any case, as a writer who is interested in improving their work I’d be interested in what feedback you might have. It may well be the case that not all things are capable of explication – but that nothing at all is simply doesn’t follow.

Regards,
Author
***
Dear Author,
We fear the Levinas reference may have been lost on you. And your request for further details is, however psychologically comprehensible, still undignified. You are like a lover who, after the relationship is terminated, continues to look for “reasons,” to “understand” – and yet all these pleas amount to is a lack of acceptance. You understand perfectly well, but maybe what is needed here is not explication of propositions, but an image or figure that would assist in your process of overcoming denial. To this end, perhaps, for the sake of comprehension, you should imagine an out of focus and long-faded polaroid of a decaying organic object of uncertain provenance.

Yours patiently,
The Editors
***
Dear Editors,
I’m afraid this helps little. Perhaps it is my powers of imagination that have failed me, and this is the reason why my piece has been rejected. But what sense can be made of a decaying polaroid. Not only is this a poor justification; it is terrible poetry.

Regards,
Author

Chris Fleming in Turkey!

***
Dear Author,
We do believe you may be onto something here, although nothing to do with us, this case, or your rejection. Needless to say, we think you might want to pursue it in your own time.

Yours advisingly,
The Editors
***
Dear Editors,

Why did you reject my piece? ~ Author

***
Dear Author,
Thanks for your question. We wish you’d asked it sooner. We are unsure ourselves. We have speculated – and then discounted, and then speculated again – that it may be your relentless use of Times New Roman, your occasional invocation of the perfect present tense, or your unusual abstention from using the word “radical.”

But we already fear we are saying too much. Why this need for reasons? – this ongoing, repressive auto da fé of justification? We resent having to defend ourselves, not only to you, who create so much labour for us, but our shrinking and intellectually dubious readership, our department heads, our wives, our children, our pets, indeed all the children of the earth.

We have problems here. One of the editors refuses to read anything anymore on the grounds that he “smells the jackboot of fascism in words,” while another reads everything but only ever writes a one-line review: “The author has not mentioned Kant.” (This is the case, even when the author mentions Kant.) Further, owing to a certain biochemical imbalance I cannot explain, your article prompted a relapse of several degenerative disorders in those close to me. What can I say? Have you not already done enough harm? Would you like to impose upon us botulism as well? Send us another piece of your writing and you may well get your wish. For now, please leave the editors and our families alone.

Thank you for considering our periodical. We wish you every future success. ~ The Editors

Postscript on January 23: The fun never stops. Read Chris Fleming’s piece in Turkish, “Sayın Editör, yazımı neden reddettiniz?, here.

Dana Gioia is having a party – and you can come, too! Celebrate his sixth collection of poems on Feb. 16!

Saturday, January 14th, 2023
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Award-winning poet and critic Dana Gioia‘s new collection, Meet Me At the Lighthouse, is out with Graywolf Press next month – and you’re all invited to the launch party! Sign up for the event at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, February 16 over at Eventbrite here. The reading and reception will be held at Arion Press/Grabhorn Institute at 1802 Hays Street in San Francisco. (And you can pre-order the book here.)

The poet’s filmmaker son Mike Gioia produced a short Youtube video to honor the occasion. The two-minute spot features Dana reading the title poem of the new collection. (It’s his sixth. His earlier 99 Poems: New & Selected was winner of the Poets’ Prize, and Interrogations at Noon won of the American Book Award.)

Dana Gioia is also former California poet laureate and a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and appears regularly in the Book Haven. You may have read about him here and here and here. And for that matter, Meet Me At the Lighthouse may strike a familiar chord with Book Haven aficionados. We wrote here about some of the poems in the collection: “The Ballad of Jesús Ortiz, “Psalm and Lament for Los Angeles, “Psalm of the Heights” and “Psalm for Our Lady Queen of the Angels.”

The poet was born in California, and is of working-class Sicilian and Latino descent, as is evident from the poems in this collection. He has degrees from Stanford and Harvard.

More on the title poem, from Dana himself: “Jazz fans will recognize the names of the ghosts sitting in with the Lighthouse All-Stars — Gerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderley, Hampton Hawes, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, and Art Pepper. Tartarus is the abyss of the Underworld.”

“I should point out that I am the only living person in the poem. It doesn’t matter for the reader to know, but I speak the poem to my dead cousin Phil, my best friend in childhood.” The cousin, Philip Dragotto, died at thirty-nine.

“The first two images show the jazz club, and at the end all of the musicians are shown.” The music is a song by Helen Sung for which Gioia wrote the lyrics.

The February 16 reading starts at 6:30 p.m. followed by a book signing with the poet. Come an hour early for a glass of wine at the reception! (Come say hello to me, too – I’ll be there!)

Meanwhile, since both Dana and I spend most of our days writing, what better way to celebrate the occasion of the sixth collection than with a poem about “Words, Words, Words”:

Is Sigrid Undset underappreciated? Ted Gioia makes the case (and includes diagrams, too).

Wednesday, January 4th, 2023
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It’s complicated. The author in 1928.

How Sigrid Undset Went from Secretary at an Engineering Firm to Nobel Prize Winner over at The Honest Broker on Substack. Ted Gioia explains why he’s reviewing a “100-year-old book that almost nobody reads.” And 1,200 pages (over three volumes) at that. He also explains how the Danish-Norwegian writer (1882-1949) went from being a secretary to a Nobelist, during a time when cutting such a career path was less common than it is today. He includes diagrams, too:

Romance fiction may delight, but it rarely surprises us—after the first chapter, you can almost predict everything that’s going to happen. They will soon train AI how to churn out these stories. In fact, it may already be happening, judging by some recent offerings on the streaming platforms.

But nothing is more tired and predictable than the medieval romance. This type of story has been a literary dead end for hundreds of years—so much so that Cervantes was already mocking it when he wrote Don Quixote (1605), the ultimate send-off of the genre. And to be honest, the medieval romance had mostly exhausted its narrow range of devices a century before Cervantes made fun of its clichés.

We all know the formula. It requires a bold knight and a lovely, highborn lady, passionate love, and high adventure—with sword fights and secret rendezvous along the way. But the incidents are so predictable, and the emotions so stylized that whatever reality that might have set these stories in motion in the Middle Ages has long been lost to us. Instead we have stick figures, faux Lancelots and Guineveres, perhaps suitable for parody (along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) but lacking in any psychological depth or plausibility.

That’s where Sigrid Undset enters the picture, and shakes everything up. Not only did she return to the medieval romance in the twentieth century in this epic work, published between 1920 and 1922, but she somehow reverses a thousand years of morbidity, bringing a long dead genre back to life.

He goes on to describe how deeply screwed-up and intense the characters are, and how the reader is begging them to reform or at least be reasonable. No dice.

The Honest Broker. (Photo: Dave Shafer)

Religion plays a large and recurring role in the plot, and we have some hope, or even expectation, that her main character will achieve a degree of saintliness. But few things are rarer than saints walking the earth—even in a spiritually-charged novel—and the tiny steps Kristin Lavransdatter makes toward a beautiful life, are almost always preceded or followed by stumbles, and occasionally complete reversals. Our hopes for her are never dashed, at least not completely, yet neither are they gratified by larger-than-life triumphs.

Yet we do well to remember that actual life, as we experience it, does not follow the narrative structure of a Netflix miniseries. And Undset’s seeming stubbornness in withholding expected cadences merely increases the verisimilitude of her finished work.

In fact, this novel is all the truer to its author’s worldview for its post-Edenic complexities. And perhaps all the more potent in its impact on readers, who may recognize themselves in its pages for the simple reason that Sigrid Undset does away with medieval figureheads and saintly lives. In this way, she somehow presents tales from the distant past that seem uncannily like the celebrity stories of our own time—but the resemblance is to the messy affairs from private lives (Kanye and Kim, Amber and Depp, etc.), and not the stylized formulas the stars present on screen.

Read the whole thing here.

Two million lights celebrate the season in NYC!

Monday, December 19th, 2022
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Zygmunt Malinowski, the Book Haven’s New York-based roving photographer, reports on Christmas in the Big Apple:

“Hudson Yards is the new go-to place in NYC The main attraction is ‘the Vessel,’ an impressive spiral sculpture situated in the main square. Adjacent is a super modern high-rise residence which offers “exquisite service, unique shopping and dining with the city’s most breathtaking views,” and a new separate center for the innovative arts. This year the holiday decor is radiant with two million lights – and documented in ‘The Most Instagrammable Moments.‘ Here is one spot overlooking hot air-balloon with flying Christmas trees on Levels 3 and 4. You can see ‘the Vessel’ outside. Grab a hot chocolate or coffee in one of the cafés and celebrate the season.

‘To get the city’s fuller Christmas experience, visit the celebrated Rockefeller Christmas tree, walk 5th Ave to  see window displays and at Herald Square, Macy’s widow displays are always popular with children.’

You can see a few hundred of the two million lights below.

(Photos copyright Zygmunt Malinowski – see more of his work here and here and here and here.)


“Bah Humbug!” Was Ebenezer Scrooge neurodivergent? Maybe…

Friday, December 16th, 2022
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Ebenezer Scrooge is a nasty misanthropic miser, unworthy of our sympathy. He’s cruel to everyone around him, right? Not so fast. One Notre Dame professor is turning the tables on who may be the victim in Charles Dickens‘s A Christmas Carol. “Is Scrooge experiencing his behavioral traits negatively, or is he experiencing the effects of the social stigma of these traits?” asks Essaka Joshua, associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.

But was this encounter *consensual*?

From Notre Dame’s Medical Xpress:

In a new analysis of Scrooge … Joshua offers an unexpected perspective, by asking a simple question: What if we were wrong about Scrooge? What if it is, in fact, the characters who surround him who may need more empathy for their fellow man—particularly if that man is neurodivergent?

Joshua, whose research and teaching focus on disability studies, is now researching how the reading of A Christmas Carol changes if Scrooge is seen in this way. 

“It does not matter what condition Scrooge may or may not have. These diagnoses change over time,” she said. “But what happens if we think of Scrooge’s lack of sympathy and other traits as a legitimate part of his personality? Does Scrooge cause harm to himself or others? And is his ‘cure’ consensual or desired?”

Scrooge’s personality is characterized by his lack of compassion, his solitariness, his reluctance to spend money and his frustration with the expectation that he should conform to societal behavioral norms. Examining which of those behaviors actually need correcting helps the reader understand how Dickens presents normative personality types and how non-normative behavior is stigmatized, Joshua said.

“In places, the text is quite explicitly nasty about his negative behavior, but in other places, there is more ambiguity,” she said. “He eats the same melancholy meal each day at the same melancholy tavern—and we have to join the dots on that one and say ‘because he’s mean.’ But it may well be that we shouldn’t infer that at all, and we should just say ‘because he has to, because that’s his routine and that’s what he needs.’  … In fact, Joshua argues, many of Scrooge’s behaviors can be seen as cognitive and behavioral coping strategies commonly used by neurodivergent individuals to reduce anxiety, by avoiding social interactions, sticking to routines and using verification rituals to calm himself.

Read the whole thing here. And Merry Christmas, Uncle Ebenezer! There’s a little bit of him in us all!