Kanye West on Christmas Presents


Christmas came early this year

But ultimately, this guy that was talking to me doesn’t make Christmas presents, meaning that nobody was asking for his [stuff] as a Christmas present. If you don’t make Christmas presents, meaning making something that’s so emotionally connected to people, don’t talk to me.

From his New York Times interview. A singular blend of pretension, insight, and stupidity—the everlasting Christmas present Kanye has given all of us. I can’t decide whether I should feel embarrassed for thinking this metaphor establishes a good metric for what we should be aiming at in the production of our art.


Miuccia Prada and Artistic Audacity


This profile of Miuccia Prada from a couple of weeks back, ostensibly about fashion, turns into a meditation on the creative process:

She was charming from the moment we sat down, and filled, you might say, with the easy laughter of strong conviction, the mirth of certainty. And yet Prada is pleased to live within her contradictions. It may be the thing that makes her able to create menacing, interesting work: in her core she is equally unafraid of failure and success…

…“When you create something that is ‘out there,’ ” I asked her, “like kitchen utensils hanging on a skirt, do you tend to know in advance that this might not be commercial?”

“Yes. But I have to do it. There is an understanding that, when I do a show, no one will tell me what to do. Once, at the beginning of my career, I tried to listen to others and it was all wrong. I have to do what I think is right, and now everybody is happy that it is like this.”

Reminds me a bit of Nabokov’s defense that he repeats himself in his work: “Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others, past and present. Artistic originality has only its own self to copy.”

Tao Lin: Hero or Knave?

Or jester?

Or jester?

This hatchet job in The Millions leans toward the latter. I am inclined to agree. Lin is, without a doubt, always trying to do something, I just seem to abhor whatever it is he is attempting to do. Lydia Kiesling, in her own attempt to put a finger on what she despises about his new novel Taipeibecomes delightfully negative—so unlike Lin’s colorless writing.

Speaking of inane remarks, reading Taipei came as close as anything can come to putting me on mute. I suddenly began hearing my own voice when I spoke within earshot of others, particularly people older than I. On the BART platform, I heard myself say “It was, like, not what I was planning to have happen,” and my voice trailed off as I became conscious of the poverty of my spoken expression, how much I must sometimes sound like the people in Taipei (“‘I feel like I’m unsarcastically viewing this as a major ordeal,’ said Calvin.”) I was born the year after Tao Lin; hearing our shared idiom come out of my own mouth, I realized that some of my loathing for this book is very personal. There is a fearful recognition of those things I want most to cleanse from my self-presentation, and self.

This realization brought another weak florescence of respect for Tao Lin…

…Only a real codger would say this, but if this is the output we can expect from one of our bright young things, we’re fucked.


Philistines or Luddites?

Luddites breaking a loom, boo ya

Luddites breaking a loom, boo ya

Dear Copybara,

Philistines or Luddites?


Dear James,

Luddites. Although this is a tough one—the Philistine Pentapolis (already awesome name) was, according to the Bible, the Kingdom of Israel’s most dangerous enemy, which is pretty badass. They also managed to capture the Ark of the Covenant at one point, similar to Indiana Jones. And they have a pretty definite link to Mycenaean culture too, points for that. However, there’s something way cooler about Luddites. Here is everyone’s favorite proto David Foster Wallace, Pynchon, discoursing on how awesome they were/are:

 …the Oxford English Dictionary has an interesting tale to tell. In 1779, in a village somewhere in Leicestershire, one Ned Lud broke into a house and “in a fit of insane rage” destroyed two machines used for knitting hosiery. Word got around. Soon, whenever a stocking-frame was found sabotaged — this had been going on, sez the Encyclopedia Britannica, since about 1710 — folks would respond with the catch phrase “Lud must have been here.” By the time his name was taken up by the frame-breakers of 1812, historical Ned Lud was well absorbed into the more or less sarcastic nickname “King (or Captain) Ludd,” and was now all mystery, resonance and dark fun: a more-than-human presence, out in the night, roaming the hosiery districts of England, possessed by a single comic shtick — every time he spots a stocking-frame he goes crazy and proceeds to trash it.

There is a long folk history of this figure, the Badass. He is usually male, and while sometimes earning the quizzical tolerance of women, is almost universally admired by men for two basic virtues: he Is Bad, and he is Big. Bad meaning not morally evil, necessarily, more like able to work mischief on a large scale. What is important here is the amplifying of scale, the multiplication of effect.

The knitting machines which provoked the first Luddite disturbances had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries. Everybody saw this happening — it became part of daily life. They also saw the machines coming more and more to be the property of men who did not work, only owned and hired. It took no German philosopher, then or later, to point out what this did, had been doing, to wages and jobs.

Philistines getting captured by ancient Egyptians. LAME

Philistines getting captured by ancient Egyptians at Medinet Habu. LAME!

Lost Generation Problems

Place Vendome

Dear Copybara,

Fitzgerald or Hemingway?


Dear Jan,

Neither? If forced to choose, we should first recall the famous (?) penis anecdote from A Moveable Feast and then probably decide on that basis which person we prefer—the contemptibly bashful neurotic or the contemptibly authoritative asshole. For my part I find Hemingway slightly less contemptible, though not for lack of trying, and he’s certainly a better writer. Anyway here is two of the greatest frenemies ever having a nice chat over lunch (Fitzgerald starts, and keep in mind Hemingway wrote this, caveat lector):

“Finally when we were eating the cherry tart and had a last carafe of wine he said, ‘You know I never slept with anyone except Zelda.’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘I thought I’d told you.’
‘No.  You told me a lot of things but not that.’
‘That is what I want to ask you about.’
‘Good.  Go on.’
‘Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements.  I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.’
‘Come out to the office,’ I said.
‘Where is the office?’
‘Le water,” [the men’s room] I said.
We came back into the room and sat down at the table.
‘You’re perfectly fine,’ I said.  ‘You are O.K.  There’s nothing wrong with you.  You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened.  Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues and then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile.’
‘Those statues may not be accurate.’
‘They are pretty good.  Most people would settle for them.’
‘But why would she say it?’
‘To put you out of business.  That’s the oldest way in the world of putting people out of business.  Scott, you asked me to tell you the truth and I can tell you a lot more but this is the absolute truth and all you need.  You could have gone to a doctor.’
‘I didn’t want to.  I wanted you to tell me truly.’
‘Now do you believe me?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said.
‘Come on over to the Louvre,’ I said.  ‘It’s just down the street and across the river.’
We went over to the Louvre and he looked at the statues but still he was doubtful about himself.
‘It is not basically a question of the size in repose,’ I said.  ‘It is the size that it becomes.  It is also a question of angle.’
I explained to him about using a pillow and a few other things that might be useful for him to know.
‘There is one girl,’ he said, ‘who has been very nice to me.  But after what Zelda said–‘
‘Forget what Zelda said,’ I told him.  ‘Zelda is crazy.  There’s nothing wrong with you.  Just have confidence and do what the girl wants.  Zelda just wants to destroy you.’
‘You don’t know anything about Zelda.’
‘All right,’ I said.  ‘Let it go at that.  But you came to lunch to ask me a question and I’ve tried to give you an honest answer.’
But he was still doubtful.
‘Should we go and see some pictures?’ I asked.  ‘Have you ever seen anything in here except the Mona Lisa?’
‘I’m not in the mood for looking at pictures,’ he said.  ‘I promised to meet some people at the Ritz bar.'”

A Philistine’s Tour of Russian Literature

I guess this has something to do with Russia. Lev Lagario, In the mountains of the Caucasus, 1879, Oil on Canvas.

Dear Copybara,
Yo can you send me a reading list of books by russian authors (and you’re [sic] recommended translations). Keep in mind I haven’t read a novel in a year.

Dear James,
You want the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of all these books if you can get them. I have read more than a few of the other translations— and the Barnes and Noble type shit in the public domain written by bored 19th century Princetonians between clay court tennis and the first scotch of the night just aren’t good enough/ worth mentioning in the same breath as these new guys, who have written the authoritative Russian canon for our time. Ok they may have copied a lot from Constance Garnett, who is also probably worth buying, but for me they are usually better than her. It is impossible to overestimate their impact, a husband and wife team who share a Wikipedia page, awkward, cute. According to many Russians they depart significantly from the originals. I think that’s kind of cool if it allows me to read these indisputably great works of art, whoever wrote them. Kevin Mahnken wrote intelligently about the Pevear/Volokhonsy team just recently.

War and Peace changed my life and reminded me that subjectivity is an incredibly diverse experience but also that no human is ever alone out there. It seems to me that it might be the best remedy for melancholia of all types that humanity has yet devised. Tolstoy’s world is populated by both knaves and heroines, sure, he says, some people are better than others. Some are a lot better. Would we expect otherwise? I think a lot of the fiction today stupidly fights against that—the domestic kind of thing (Tom Perotta? Franzen? I have no idea but I’m pretty sure this exists) where everyone is simultaneously a minor league villain and an equally bumbling hero. Anyway bad or good, all of the characters in War and Peace have similarly rich interior lives: hopes, secret doubts, swagger, etc. Though it is less democratic in many ways, I like it better than Moby Dick, which should end the conversation, but I will also add it is better/ a higher achievement than Anna Karenina.

Try Death of Ivan Ilyich if you want less of a time waster. That deserves to be read in a day. However to be honest dude I recommend you sit down and read War and Peace and you will find it to be totally unlike the stereotypically boring long book everyone says it is. Take a pen with you when you go in and you will find yourself nodding and highlighting sentiments you have felt a thousand times but never dared share with any other human being.

I am not a Dostoyevsky fan as I might have complained to you before. Dude is abstract as fuck and obsessed with things that aren’t particularly worthwhile (God) in a way that I think Tolstoy probably looked down upon—and it feels freeing to admit I don’t understand that famous conversation between the dudes in the cell in The Brothers Karamazov except as a meaningless intellectual exercise—I don’t have any fun doing those either.

We proceed past Gogol’s Dead Souls which I have not read but have heard uniformly excellent things about, and Pasternak who by all accounts is pretty bad, don’t quite understand why I brought him up actually; to the great Soviet novel The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov—how about a talking, upright, giant Satanic cat wearing an expensive suit wreaking havoc across an officially godless Moscow. Need I say more?

I’m missing a few probably worthwhile but from there we follow Russian literature into the new world, from pogroms and Berlin to the tight sweaters of Wellesley that seem to have obsessed the man, to Cambridge and finally to picturesque Ithaca, Montreux lite, where we meet Nabokov on a hillside somewhere, who in his tweed-suited bumblings and misanthropy I think will in time be seen as Tolstoy’s equal, and maybe during that gulf we will have forgotten about many of the intervening others and see them as fakers. His respect for the written word is so totally complete that talking to him after reading him must have seemed insultingly grimy and opaque. Damn I might go right from War and Peace to him, anything he wrote really.

Claire Messud Pwns All

…With an extemporaneous example smackdown in an interview at Publisher’s Weekly about the dearth of the ‘angry woman’ in fiction. Kerfuffle alert!

Messud’s riposte got picked up by David Daley in Salon, who saw an implicit gender bias to the question, and praised Messud for calling it out.

I think the question says more about the dull imagination of the interviewer than sexism, but hey, they aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m more confused about the reaction Messud’s response provoked from readers. Seriously, is this what passes for controversy now? By all accounts, pretty tame. We’ve come a long way from Vidal and Mailer slinging vitriol at one other in Beefeater-tempered cadence on live TV. Ah, the good old days.

Is it her honesty that surprised people? Or is it the novelty of an angry woman? So meta! Without further ado, the pertinent excerpt, while in conversation about (the protagonist of) her new novel, The Woman Upstairs:

I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

[Messud]: For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

On Thud and Blunder

With one stroke of his fifty-pound sword, Gnorts the Barbarian lopped off the head of Nialliv the Wizard. It flew through the air, still sneering, while Gnorts clove two royal guardsmen from vizor through breasplate to steel jockstrap. As he whirled to escape, an arrow glanced off his own chainmail. Then he was gone from the room, into the midnight city. Easily outrunning pursuit, he took a few sentries at the gate by surprise. For a moment, arms and legs hailed around him through showers of blood; then he had opened the gate and was free. A caravan of merchants, waiting to enter at dawn, was camped nearby. Seeing a magnificent stallion tethered, Gnorts released it, twisted the rope into a bridle, and rode it off bareback. After galloping several miles, he encountered a mounted patrol that challenged him. Immediately he plunged into the thick of the cavalrymen, swinging his blade right and left with deadly effect, rearing up his steed to bring its forefeet against one knight who dared to confront him directly. Then it was only to gallop onward. Winter winds lashed his body, attired in nothing more than a bearskin kilt, but he ignored the cold. Sunrise revealed the shore and his waiting longship. He knew the swift-sailing craft could bring him across five hundred leagues of monster-infested ocean in time for him to snatch the maiden princess Elamef away from evil Baron Rehcel while she remained a maiden — not that he intended to leave her in that condition … .

This article by Poul Anderson  is for anyone who is

a) interested in the role planning and research plays in writing fiction from a master practitioner of the art


b) frustrated by how fucking stale most of the tropes in high fantasy are


c) some combination thereof

Anderson is another giant, years ahead of his SF contemporaries. This piece is a sweet antidote to that oft-abused maxim, ‘write what you know’. Which for many mediocre (published) writers means ‘write nothing worthwhile’. Anyway here it is again, in its entirety on the SWFA website. Extra credit if you also get the feeling that George R.R. Martin keeps a copy of this on his desk.