Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

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Reviewing the Review: May 14 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 14, 2006 09:17 am

Bookish readers of today's New York Times will turn first to the magazine, drawn in by Kevin Kelly's cover article about "What Will Happen To Books?" in the age of Google. Noting that there are currently thousands of hourly workers busily scanning books around the world to feed into various corporate and academic search engines (as well as a few robotic scanning monsters doing the same job at places like Stanford University), Kelly's article explains why book publishers are taking an automatic stand against this trend.

There's nothing new about this controversy, but Kelly offers some valuable historical perspective, pointing out that book publishers have been voraciously lobbying to strengthen copyright laws in the USA since 1976, amounting to a near land-grab:

As more intellectual property became owned by corporations rather than by individuals, these corporations successfully lobbied Congress to keep extending the once-brief protection enabled by copyright in order to prevent works from returning to the public domain. With constant nudging, Congress moved the expiration date from 14 years to 28 to 42 and then to 56.

Never before in human history have book publishers been able to throw so much legal weight behind their elongated copyrights, and Kelly presents the new search engine companies that are brazenly building the world's universal library as a corrective balance to this earlier sea change in publication law. I think it's a damn good argument, and I concur with Kelly on most points.

I only wish the New York Times Magazine hadn't chosen to hype the article with sensationalistic language on the cover ("Publisher, be very, very afraid" ... "A manifesto by Kevin Kelly"). Every article that supports Google does not have to be called a manifesto. Nothing in Kelly's well-reasoned article should make book publishers very afraid, but apparently the New York Times Magazine subsists on high drama and must present every debate in the starkest terms.

On to the Book Review, where Adam Begley makes a strong case for me to rush out and buy George Saunders' appealing new book of stories, In Persuasion Nation. But poetry critic Langdon Hammer's review of Franz Wright's God's Silence is disappointingly misdirected. It's a safe bet that most readers of the Book Review are not highly familiar with Wright's work, and an introductory approach would best serve the audience. Instead, Hammer busies himself by challenging Wright's notions of morality and religion, leaving the vast majority of us poor souls who have not yet read God's Silence out in the cold.

Roy Blount Jr. is supposed to be a good writer, right? Somebody explain to me how the hell to parse a sentence like this, in his review of Richard Lingeman's Double Lives:

Clemens' friend William Dean Howells, to be sure, was also a friend of Edith Wharton's friend Henry James (who didn't care for Clemens nor Clemens for him), but Howells spurned the overtures of H. L. Mencken's friend Theodore Dreiser, whose bodacious improprieties in life and art Howells deplored (as did Mencken, eventually).

Thanks for clearing that up, Blount. I think Stamford's book-digesting robot might even crash on that line.

But today's issue redeems itself with an informative endpaper by John H. Summers about late sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose The Power Elite was published fifty years ago and feels quite relevant today:

At the pinnacle of the government, the military and the corporations, a small group of men made the decisions that reverberated "into each and every cranny" of American life.

They did that fifty years ago too? Of course, the Power Elite was then known as the "military-industrial complex", whereas now we simply refer to it as "Dick Cheney".

Finally, let's move on to the Times' already-infamous list of the 25 best American books of the past 25 years which the newspaper has, for some unknown reason, decided to compile. This is too easy a target and I don't even want to take aim. I'll just refer to Mark Sarvas's excellent riposte, which points out that any selection process that produces a list this uninspired must be asking the wrong people. I also want to say that I'm becoming increasingly sick of the canonization of Philip Roth, who is undoubtedly a great writer but who did not write six of the twenty-five best books of the last twenty-five years. He just didn't, and you know this too. I may have more to say about this later.

Flash Mob Visits The Strand

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 8, 2006 05:56 pm

Some people think the Strand on Broadway and 12th Street in New York City is the best used book store in the world. Some other people hate it. And then there's the occasional flash mob that converges to create a spontaneous Cell Phone Symphony by planting 60 highly synchronized phones in bag check (read about it, then check the video). Amusing and pointless, like so much that is good in life. Thanks to Judih for the tip.

Because Everyone Loves Math

by Caryn Thurman on Wednesday, April 19, 2006 08:05 pm

In the beginning it was 5-7-5, then U2, then Sudoku ... now a whole different numerical sequence is sweeping the globe: the Fibonacci sequence, that is. After a call for poems based on everyone's favorite mathematical progression, Gregory Pincus' GottaBook Blog soon became "Fib" central, attracting hundreds of Fib writers from all walks of life. The phenomenon even caught the all-seeing eye of the New York Times. The combination of this quirky form and the wildfire buzz of online attention has resulted in upwards of a thousand Fibs written this month ... and counting. I hate to say that this seems to be much more successful and addicting than my brief run with writing verse based on the Side-Angle-Side postulate.

Poetry a Go Go

by Caryn Thurman on Sunday, April 16, 2006 08:28 pm

A few recent poetry newsbites...

-- The San Francisco Chronicle has a nice review of Book of Sketches by Kerouac.

-- The Loft Literary Center of Minneapolis has announced that it will cease publication of its print magazine, Speakeasy. The last issue is due out this summer. The center plans to expand its online presence as a way to continue its excellent standard of promoting and recognizing great poetry and prose.

-- British novelist and poet Muriel Spark died on Friday in Florence, Italy. Spark is best-known as the creator of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Her tightly crafted work is often noted as being bizarre or dark -- she remarked, "I'm often very deadpan, but there's a moral statement too, and what it's saying is that there's a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They're not important in the long run."

Philip Lamantia’s Last Interview

by Andrew Lundwall on Friday, April 7, 2006 10:48 pm

"Note: In July 2001, I was asked to interview Philip Lamantia for a local Bay Area magazine. It was meant to be a puff piece for a general audience, but Philip took it quite seriously as an opportunity to discuss his spiritual life and its relation to surrealism and poetry. He felt his views on Catholicism in particular had been misrepresented by a few unscrupulous journalists and wanted to set the record straight. But interviewing Philip was difficult. He spoke not in paragraphs but in volumes, with labrythine digressions which sometimes never returned to the ostensible subject at hand. We quickly had to abandon the ordinary Q&A approach in favor of his writing and phoning in various remarks, from which I reversed-engineered questions. While I assembled these discrete units into a plausibly conventional journalistic profile, he continued to refine his statements and, occasionally, change his mind, for he constantly interrogated his own beliefs. Paragraphs appeared and disappeared. As both deadline and word-count loomed, I managed to pull together a version that had his approval if not his entire confidence that I'd made him understood. The point, in any case, was moot, for the publisher deemed the discussion too esoteric for his target audience and promptly killed the piece. Not long afterward, in October, Lamantia fell into a lengthy depression from which he never fully recovered before his death on March 7, 2005 at age 77. To my knowledge, this is the last interview in which he participated." -- Garrett Caples

Action Poetry Still Lives!

by Levi Asher on Monday, April 3, 2006 11:07 am

Well, our beloved Action Poetry book didn't win the Blooker Prize. A book called Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest took the award in our category, and we're good sports so we'll just say "congrats" and smirk like Martin Scorsese does every three years at the Oscars.

This would be a good day, though, to call some attention to the current incarnation of our Action Poetry page, which remains the creative shining light of this website. Please check out the strong work that keeps rolling up on this page every day, and, of course, please consider uploading a poem or short prose piece yourself if the mood strikes.

The Action Poetry writing board was first launched in 2001 at the suggestion of a LitKicks member (the name came about, naturally, because I'd just seen the Ed Harris movie Pollock at this time).

We create a new version of the Action Poetry board every month; the current page is only three days old and already rockin'. Here are some prior pages for your enjoyment. Some of the writers who were published in the 2004 book are still posting new poems here; others may appear in future books that we may produce (who knows?).

Thanks to the amazing eternal LitKicks Action Poets for making us proud!

Brothers in Underpants

by Caryn Thurman on Thursday, March 16, 2006 05:44 pm

No, they're not the Baldwins ... they're not even and . I'm talking about Mopekey and Humkin, the two underwear clad, cereal-loving brothers who make up the central imaginary characters of Lincoln-Mercury's new viral marketing campaign of "webisodes" known as "The Neverything".

Say what?

Have I lost my mind, you ask? Possibly, but before I cross over into the hyperreality of absurdist fiction and car commercials, perhaps you'd like to come along?

Quite simply, "" is a tightly crafted, well-produced mini-film series (and associated interactive website, of course) with the ultimate goal of getting people to talk about the sheer bizarre-kooky-Napoleon Dynamitesque approach ... and Lincoln-Mercury products. But it's not just the oddball factor that makes this so appealing (and it is appealing). There are dark elements, humor and real intelligence driving the concept behind the story.

"The Neverything" revolves mostly around two brothers living on a ship in the middle of a field. They have no outside contact with anyone but the milkman who brings their "sustenance". They survive on cereal (which looks an awful lot like Kix) and run around in their underwear all day. Sounds a lot like college, I know. The trick is -- they don't actually exist -- they're fictional characters created by a struggling novelist named Marian Walker (who is also, for our purposes, fictional). While we learn about the strange world of Humkin and Mopekey out in their field of nothing, we also find out that Marian has started to blur the lines of what is real life and what is happening in her developing novel. Which makes sense as she intentionally creates one of the characters to have an awareness that she's writing about him ... Are you starting to catch the /Calvino-style drift here?

As if that weren't enough to pull you in and make your head spin at the same time, there's a movie and corresponding site that focuses on the perspective of the author, called , brought to you by Lincoln (while "The Neverything" is specifically attributed to Mercury.)

What does all this mean? What does it have to do with selling a car and furthermore what does it have to do with literature? I'll leave it to you to come up with your own answers, but the whole phenomenon has already started to generate some buzz, mainly by ad industry types and perplexed onlookers. I'm not sure what more to say ... and perhaps I've said too much already; however the convoluted, intriguing, highly addictive storyline and motivation behind it may just possibly be the most clever bit of writing and creativity I've seen in a long while.

And I'm not even in the market for a new car.


by Levi Asher on Thursday, March 9, 2006 11:59 pm

The LitKicks book Action Poetry: Literary Tribes for the Internet Age was chosen as one of five finalists for the Lulu Blooker Prize in the fiction category.

I'd like to thank the contest's esteemed judges for making this decision, and I'd also like to thank the great LitKicks writing community for making the book happen. More than anything else, I want to brag about the fact that I totally called this one, Babe-Ruth style, back in December over at Metaxu Cafe. I knew we'd at least make it to the final round, because the writing in this book is that good.

Will we go all the way? Well, some of the other finalists look pretty good, so I'm going to refrain from calling it a second time (even the Bambino knew better than to push his luck). If our book doesn't win, the book I'd most like to get beaten by is Keith Thompson's novel Gus Openshaw's Whale Killing Journal, an appealingly bizarre sendup of Moby Dick featuring a white whale with a scar in the shape of a double letter 'B' on his forehead, which his hunters believe stands for 'blubbery bastard'.

We didn't have the budget for any big whales or other special effects when we published Action Poetry in 2004, but we hope we still have a chance.

Nasdijj: Consult the Hyena

by Levi Asher on Thursday, January 26, 2006 09:09 am

Two weeks ago, we felt really proud that we managed to avoid adding to the media's repititive over-coverage of the James Frey memoir-hoax story. We figured we'd serve the literary community by talking about anything but James Frey (or J. T. Leroy), and that's what we did. Imagine our surprise at the new expose of acclaimed Navajo author Nasdijj, which brings the hoax craze into our backyard.

Nasdijj started participating in LitKicks discussions last July, first showing up to respond to a weekly critique of the New York Times Book Review with a post titled "yawn, indeed". I think we were all glad to see him here and certainly tried to make him feel welcome, but I was slightly peeved when I wrote an article about a favorite book of mine, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, only to have Nasdijj slam me and Charles Frazier in a message that seemed to me more inflammatory than rational.

For the next few weeks, Nasdijj would drop in on conversations and, whatever the original topic was, tie it back to his key themes: white oppression of native Americans, the tragedy of AIDS and the corrupted state of corporate publishing. I'm naturally sympathetic to all these causes, but I also have a litblog to run, and I occasionally sent Nasdijj private or public messages asking him to please try harder to stay on topic. He was clearly a talented writer and a deeply driven soul, and I was hoping we could find some way for him to participate on LitKicks without stomping over discussions that weren't meant to be about native Americans, AIDS or the corrupted state of corporate publishing. Finally, he stopped showing up, but kept me on his email list, and we exchanged a few halfway-friendly messages late last year.

I sent him an email last night asking if he had a response to the accusations that he is not a native-American at all, and that his critically-acclaimed memoirs should be categorized as literary hoaxes. The email (the same one he's used for the last year) bounced; the account is apparently closed. He left this message on his blog: "For those seeking Refuge consult the Hyena. Follow those directions to the Old Hotel. To find N, take the stairs to the roof. Bring your medication. The view is magnificent. And safe. You know who you are. Do not answer questions. Sealed. They do not care about you. You know that. Do not be fooled. Someone will. You will connect. Follow the Hyena's path."

I'm following, but the hyena's not talking.

Despite his generally hostile personality, I liked Nasdijj's writing, and I hope he's doing well, wherever he is. I understand Nasdijj is also involved in some type of recovery/crisis caregiving for AIDS-stricken children, and mostly I hope the kids are not suffering as a result of the latest news.

Talk of the Town: The New Yorker is a Litblog

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, January 4, 2006 12:22 am

I got the Complete New Yorker for Hanukkah. This impressive eight-DVD set contains digitized facsimiles of every page in every weekly issue of the New Yorker from 1925 to 2005. That's quite a mound of cultural signification. The boxed set is shaped like a monolith, and at first it feels like one too.

Digging in to a collection like this is not easy. I bet most people who buy this set or get it as a present just jump in and start breezing through, and then quickly find themselves gasping for air. That's the wrong way to use a set like this, and I'm not going to make that mistake. I'm going to plan my expeditions carefully, working towards specific goals. I've got a few missions in mind, most of them focusing on the magazine's first two decades. I will be posting reports of my discoveries here.

First, I'd like to figure out exactly what the the New Yorker was. It's interesting that this culture rag was born in the same era as Time magazine, both institutions brought to life by smart young entrepeneurs who understood the importance of advertising. The New Yorker and Time were both "indie" outfits of their era, and both drew readers in by printing punchy, highly opinionated articles.

Time became the pillar of a vast multimedia corporation, but the New Yorker has always kept a tighter focus and clung to a certain essence. What is this essence, exactly, and what is the nature of this beast? Well, let's click through to the earliest issues and see what we find.

The debut issues of the New Yorker had little substantial writing. The whole magazine was short bits -- talky gossip and humor items, mixed with a few longer analytical or creative pieces, most of it under either of the headings Talk of the Town or Behind the News. This, for instance, appears in the Talk of the Town section of the very first New Yorker, dated February 21, 1925:

As it grows throughout the rest of the country cross-word puzzling wanes in New York. At least it wanes in the small group that helped make it fashionable when it was revived a year or two ago. Not that Simon & Schuster, whose green, yellow, red, mauve, ochre and blue puzzle books flood the country, are worrying. This week they are publishing a new volume of the series. According to the advertisements "celebrities" contributed all the puzzles contained in it, and (business of blushing furiously) they tell me (oh, how my cheeks are burning) mine is one of the best in it. At least I think it is.

In the second issue, dated February 28, we find this extended anecdote:

"Well, young man," said the Great Editor, "I suppose you want to become a writer."

A timid bow signified assent.

"Have you lived?"

"I'm twenty-seven."

"Of course, of course. What I mean is, have you sinned -- sinned greatly? Have you tasted any of the dregs of life?"

"Not since my last class reunion. The cocktails were terrible."

The Great Editor frowned. It was evident my obtuseness made him impatient.

"I'm afraid you don't understand", he said, a bit sharply. "I shall explain. There is no field at present for imaginative works. The reading public wants actuality. You must write something that has happened to you. Now," he broke off, "let us consider your own life. Have you ever had an illicit romance; ever stabbed your mother-in-law with a bread knife -- great title for a story like that, 'The Bread Knife and the Butter-In' -- every poisoned your wife?"

"I'm not married," I interposed.

"Ever eloped with a married woman?" he went on. "Ever rolled drunk in the gutters; ever been divorced because of a duchess -- even a countess will do, if it's well-written; ever blackmailed anyone -- blackmail hasn't been done lately; ever fought a duel over a notorious adventuress; ever cheated at cards?"

He beamed expansively.

"These are a few examples of what I mean," the Great Editor concluded. "Go out and live, my boy, and when you have a real story to tell come back."

I am determined to accept his advice. I shall begin at the bottom and work up.

Accordingly, I wish to ask my friends not to become alarmed if they see me rolling around any of the town's better gutters. I shall be merely gathering inspiration. They will owe it to literature to leave me where I lie.

That's basically the kind of stuff the debut issues of the New Yorkers consisted of. Okay, let's add up the ingredients here:

-- Excessive use of irony
-- Rampant sense of exclusivity with small group of fabulous friends
-- Chronic self-pity mixed with compulsive fake-coy self-promotion
-- Jokes that don't make sense
-- Subtle but disturbing hints of true mental illness

Do the math. You see it as clearly as I do ... the original New Yorker was a litblog.

These days, of course, the New Yorker is more like public television with ads for Omaha Steaks. But it's good to know that, way back then, the proto-Alqonquin crowd was just as pointless, just as trite, and just as greedily insecure as we all are today. Okay, maybe not that bad, but close. The only difference I can see is that this stuff was printed on paper.

My first expedition into the New Yorker archives is complete. I'm now taking a deep breath before going back in for my second mission, in which I will unearth the earliest scribblings of a favorite writer of mine (though largely forgotten by literary critics): John O'Hara, who started writing for the magazine when he was 23.


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