Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Mo Yan's Fiery Nobel Speech

by Levi Asher on Monday, December 10, 2012 11:24 pm

Mo Yan, a writer from the Chinese countryside with a lurching, sharply whimsical narrative voice that might be compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut or Chuck Palahniuk, has won the Nobel Prize. This news was greeted with some outrage around the world, because Mo Yan is not a Chinese dissident like Liu Xiabo but rather a friendly presence within the Chinese establishment, He has flatly refused to speak out on behalf of dissidents like Liu Xiabo, and recently declared that literary censorship can serve a valid purpose. Nobel laureate has Herta Mueller called the choice of Mo Yan "a catastrophe", and yesterday Salman Rushdie called him a "patsy" of the Chinese government, which remains oppressive to its own citizens as well as long-suffering Tibet. The blog Moby Lives has also taken a few funny shots.

I don't have much sympathy for the government of China, since I've really never stopped reeling from the several books I've read about the long massacre known as the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong's masterwork, a manufactured famine that killed more millions of people between 1958 and 1961 than any of the nearly countless other holocausts of the 20th Century. The immensity of recent Chinese history is so overwhelming, in fact, that I'm sure I can't understand it in any meaningful way. Mo Yan was born in 1955, and suffered as a young child with his family through the notorious famine.

The great recurring topic of Mo Yan's historical fiction, though, is not the famine or the later Cultural Revolution but an earlier holocaust that took place before he was born: the vicious Japanese occupation of China before and during World War II. This is Mo Yan's primary subject, though he has also written about the famine and later Maoist and post-Maoist cataclysms. Mo Yan's pride in China and his refusal to play into Western ideas about Chinese history has clearly dented his popularity in my side of the planet. But when I read his sharp, acidic, furious prose, I sense that we can learn more by reading Mo Yan than by rejecting him, even though we may strongly reject his political stance.

Getting To Know Mo Yan

by Levi Asher on Thursday, October 11, 2012 06:39 pm

There really is only one literary award that awes me. The Pulitzer prize? Everybody gets one eventually. National Book Award? Too clubby for my tastes. But the Nobel Prize for Literature is usually something special, and has by far the best track record of every major literary award.

J. M. Coetzee. Orhan Pamuk. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Kenzaburo Oe. Mario Vargas Llosa. Seamus Heaney. Derek Walcott. Pablo Neruda. Doris Lessing. Jean-Paul Sartre. William Golding. Jose Saramago. Nadine Gordimer. Albert Camus. Harold Pinter. Gunter Grass. Dario Fo. Toni Morrison. Samuel Beckett. This is a list worth admiring for its originality, its global awareness, its dedication to a powerful standard of greatness. Today, Mo Yan of China joins the list.


by Levi Asher on Thursday, October 6, 2011 11:43 am

1. Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, includes pieces by J. G. Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Philip Roth, Rudy Rucker and Robert Crumb. Here's the full table of contents.

2. And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... some dude I never heard of! Which kind of surprises me, since I thought I sort of knew this space. Anyway, meet Tomas Transtromer of Stockholm, Sweden. Words Without Borders has him, of course.

3. I couldn't find any Tomas Transtromer at Asymptote, another new journal of international/translated literature I've started looking at, but they do have Robert Walser (translated by Susan Bernofsky), Lin Yoade and a new translation by Mani Rao of an old Upanishad.

The Sea of Possibilities

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, November 17, 2010 11:35 pm

1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.

2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)

Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:

3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.

Nobel Dreams

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, October 6, 2010 09:55 pm

1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.

2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.

3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.

Dinner Companions

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 11:36 pm

1. We told you about artist Malcolm McNeill's Ah! Pook Is Here, a vast extended collaboration with William S. Burroughs, two years ago. Great news -- the work is going to be published by Fantagraphics.

2. Sean Michael Hogan was one of the five winners of a writing contest we held on this site in 2003. He's an excellent writer, and also an opinionated sports nut, and he's combined both inclinations into an e-book, It's Not Just A Ballgame Anymore. Here, also, is a short story by Sean about the frustrations of being a writer.

Street Piano

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, June 30, 2010 10:29 pm

1. Sixty pianos have been placed around various New York City parks and plazas, providing a nice summer surprise. During the last five days I heard a soul ballad at Grand Army Plaza, Doo-wop in Washington Square, a klezmer melody at St. Mark's Place, and, at Fort Greene Park, an unusual performance of a classical piece by a young kid who was either using Schoenberg's twelve-note system or had his left hand in the wrong position. I also banged out some blues riffs of my own at Fort Greene Park before visiting the nearby Greenlight Bookstore. These pianos are part of a multi-city "work of art" called Play Me I'm Yours. I'm not sure exactly what it means to classify these pianos as an "artwork", but they sure are pleasing the people of New York City (I especially notice a lot of parent/child interaction at these pianos) and I hope they'll repeat it every summer.

2. "I do like a very quiet life," says W. S. Merwin, who has just been appointed the new U. S. Poet Laureate. What a boring choice. Well, I haven't felt a U. S. Poet Laureate since Donald Hall. The most interesting thing I know about W. S. Merwin is that he once got into a terrible battle with Allen Ginsberg and Ginsberg's Tibetan guru over an episode of forced nakedness at a poetry party (this weird history is chronicled in a previous Litkicks article, When Hippies Battle: The Great W. S. Merwin/Allen Ginsberg Beef of 1975). Beyond this, I just see Merwin as a poet who wins a lot of poetry awards without (as far as I've ever known) personally touching many people. And I can't help think of a recent article by Anis Shivani that eviscerates David Lehman's annual poetry anthologies, and says something about our contemporary academic poetry scene as a whole, a scene more obsessed with status updates than Facebook.

Herta Who?

by Dedi Felman on Monday, October 12, 2009 05:49 pm

Herta who? The news from Stockholm left, as usual, a lot of people scratching their heads. Who is Herta Müller and why haven’t we heard more about her? As someone who has spent almost a decade working to bring the best new international literary work to America, I felt a particular frustration at those first reports: once again, Nobel coverage seemed to be descending into churlishness rather than an eagerness to share important international voices. Not that one can count on the Nobel Prize in Literature Committee to be anything but unpredictable in their choices, but still, wasn’t this the year that one of the well-loved waiters-in-the-wings -- Amos Oz, Ismail Kadare, or, yes, even, Philip Roth -- might be rewarded? Couldn’t this year, at last, yield a global literary love fest? And, of perhaps even greatest frustration for an international literary activist, how had yet another great writer passed America by without leaving a deeper footprint at an earlier stage of their writing career, particularly a writer who clearly isn’t all that obscure?

Quick Hits

by Levi Asher on Friday, October 9, 2009 01:12 pm

1. I've never read 2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Mueller, but I know a few people who recommend her work (Harold Bloom, meanwhile, is unimpressed). The Literary Saloon has more substantial coverage.

2. Herta Mueller writes about Romania during the painful years of the Nicolai Ceausecsu regime, and coincidentally I've been reading a impressive new novel about the same subject, Velvet Totalitarianism by Claudia Moscovici. You can find an excerpt from the introduction on the author's MySpace page.


by Levi Asher on Thursday, June 4, 2009 12:56 am

(This is chapter 20 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

I went to San Francisco in March 1998 to attend the Webby Awards. Literary Kicks was a nominee in the Print/Zines category. I was up against Salon (a well-financed new content venture), the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (exciting stuff!), a compendium of electronic literature known as Labyrinth, and, finally, alt.culture (my friend Nathaniel Wice's site, hosted by Pathfinder).

It felt strange to be up against a site edited by my friend and hosted by the company I worked for, but Nathaniel and I both agreed that alt.culture didn't have a chance, and neither did Litkicks. Salon, a darling of the new media industry since its highly publicized introduction, was the clear choice to win.

I flew out to California to attend the awards ceremony at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, bringing the Enterzone crew, Christian and Briggs and Martha and Rich, as my guests. We showed up to the event in an ironic mode, enjoying the hyped-up red carpet atmosphere though we knew my site would lose, and feeling dubious about the crowd of fashionably dressed dot-commers that filled the auditorium. It wasn't until the Print/Zines category was presented and I saw an image of the Litkicks front page on the large theatre screen that I suddenly realized I wanted Litkicks to win.

This sudden epiphany that I wanted to win was quickly followed by the announcement of the winner: Salon. Dammit.


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