Writer’s Corner: Dublin Writers Festival, Crime Time

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littlegirllost1One of the more interesting panel discussions at the Dublin Writers Festival was titled “The State of Crime”. In it, crime novelists Arne Dahl, Sinead Crowley, and Brian McGilloway held forth on everything from the state of Swedish society to whether or not they did any research with the police before writing their first books.

My writeup is at PopMatters:

As with many events at the Festival, the talk turned to writing mechanics. Moderator [Declan] Burke suggested that aspiring writers not try to put everything into a first draft. He preferred just banging it all out once, messy or not, and then going back and fixing anything from plot to characterizations on multiple later passes. Dahl suggested writing one short story a year in addition to novels, since the compressed space “sharpens your pen”. He also thought it helpful, and possibly even necessary, for crime writers to read Macbeth once a year…

Department of Weekend Reading: May 30, 2014


New in Theaters: ‘We Are the Best!’

Liv LeMoyne, Mira Barkhammar, and Mira Grosin in ‘We Are the Best!’ (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

A trio of disaffected 1980s Swedish punks form a mostly tuneless band with one great should-have-been-a-hit song in Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! It opens in limited release tomorrow after a batch of well-received festival dates.

My review is at Film Racket:

It’s assumed that the thorny flowers of punk need rocky, hostile ground to take root. Think of how the gone-to-seed, junkie-littered, class warfare cityscapes of late-1970s New York or Maggie Thatcher’s Britain bred those first mohawked shock troops. But that wasn’t always the case, as Lukas Moodysson’s slight but charming growing-up story We Are the Best! shows. Just as punk could flourish as easily in America’s sprawling, sunny suburbs as its bombed-out cities, its seething fury was also an enticing reaction to the complacent communitarianism of 1980s Sweden. The scrawny kids gelling their hair and scornfully twisting up their faces aren’t just angry about the miserable state of the world, they’re furious that nobody else seems to get it…

And here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Corner: Dublin Writers Festival, Day 1

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The annual Dublin Writers Festival, which just concluded this past Sunday, was an enjoyably low-key but nevertheless enthusiastic affair, mixing up writing workshops with talks and Q&As with authors and the occasional performance piece.

I covered a few days of it for PopMatters; here’s part:

This is Dublin, after all, which proudly carries its status as UNESCO City of Literature, and where the odd plaque on an undistinguished townhouse near St. Stephen’s Green reminds you that Bram Stoker lived there, and the Gate Theatre just happens to be staging An Ideal Husband by the Dublin-raised and -educated Oscar Wilde.
The event locations were mostly clustered within an easy walk of Temple Bar, making one conveniently never far from a restorative tipple. The offerings ran the gamut from workshop-like conversations with would-be writers to themed readings and music and poetry galas. By the end of even just one day, if you didn’t already have a novel or cycle of poems in the works, you would feel as though you were somehow missing out…

Other entries to follow soon.

New in Books: ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’

capital-cover1The most curious blockbuster book of 2014 has easily been Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s a French economist who wrote a nearly 700-page book about the Western world’s history (and probable near-future) of economic inequality.

My review is at PopMatters:

[Piketty] thinks it’s actually a good thing that economists aren’t treated with as much respect in France as they are in the United States. This refreshing humility doesn’t keep the book from over-relying on a few points and concluding in too narrow a fashion. But Piketty’s conviction that economists normally don’t get it—in part, he suggests, because many of them are much better off financially than the average citizen—goes a long way towards attracting a readership that would normally recoil as violently from brick-like economics texts as Fox News viewers would from kale. Even with Piketty’s occasional stumbles, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is easily the book of the year. With agreeably clear prose and an aversion to orthodoxy, it grapples with mountains of data and wrestles them into a more manageably daunting form…

You can see an interview with Piketty here:

Department of Weekend Reading: May 23, 2014


Quote of the Day: Office Edition

(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who learned something about office culture while working in a cubicle for nearly two decades, on who’s writing about business and the office:

Most business books are written by consultants and professors who haven’t spent much time in a cubicle. That’s like writing a first-hand account of the experience of the Donner party based on the fact that you’ve eaten beef jerky. Me, I’ve gnawed an ankle or two.

(h/t: Jill Lepore)

Readers’ Corner: The Death (and Life) of the Novel

U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942 (Library of Congress)
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942 (Library of Congress)

Point / counterpoint in the latest round of hand-wringing over the long rumored death of the novel.

First, Will Self in The Guardian, “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)“:

I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.

Granted, Self is taken the opinions of his teenaged son (his “canary” in the cultural coal mine, as it were) perhaps too seriously. Also, he seems to be arguing for the death of something that was already long dead. The novel as the primary cultural artifact was supplanted decades hence by movies, television, what have you. And today, yes, all the cultural elites reading The Goldfinch at the same time as all their friends are often just waiting to start nattering on about Game of Thrones.

goldfinch1David Ulin had a brief riposte to Self’s critique in The Los Angeles Times, that was notable for its lack of patience:

I’m tired of reading about the death of the book. It’s not true, in the first place, and in the second, it’s a lazy signifier, a way of addressing cultural import (or risk) that’s not really justified.

In other words, when people stop reading completely, then we have something to worry about. Nearly 200,000 copies of The Goldfinch have been sold so far this year. Say what you will about it, that’s a book that clocks in at nearly 800 pages and goes for $30 a pop in hardcover. Somebody is still reading out there.

Department of Weekend Reading: May 16, 2014


Reader’s Corner: The Murderer in the Book Club

Gregg Arlington, WPA poster, c. 1936 (image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Gregg Arlington, WPA poster, c. 1936 (image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Book clubs are great and all, but occasionally there’s that one member who’s just a little … off. Has too much sauvignon blanc, spoils the ending for those people who haven’t finished the book yet, and so on.

In his great and highly helpful piece for The Morning News, “Eat, Pray, Murder“, Matt Seidel points out some characteristics that could signal potential homicidal maniacs in the club.

A few of Seidel’s more helpful hints:

  • Did he show any guilt over spilling that spinach dip on your rug?
  • Does he borrow books and dog-ear the pages?
  • Do his digressions reveal key plot twists from Homeland?

Writer’s Corner: The Unbearable Whiteness of Creative Writing Programs

There has been a lot of talk over the past few years about the worth of creative writing programs. They’ve been long derided as factories for bloodless mediocrity, churning out legions of well-schooled kids told to write what they know, when often they just don’t know that much of anything yet.

In Chad Harback’s 2010 essay, “MFA vs. NYC“, he points out that much of the hand-wringing about the churning out of “cringing, cautious, post-Carverite automatons” is besides the point:

…even if the writer has somehow never heard of an MFA program or set foot on a college campus, it doesn’t matter, because if she’s read any American fiction of the past 60 years, or met someone who did, she’s imbibed the general idea and aesthetic. We are all MFAs now.

But though Harbach’s ultimate point (which he expanded into a book earlier this year) is a sound one: writing programs are here to stay, and the real question is whether or not one should take use of them or just up and move to New York to get a toehold in the publishing industry.

diaz1One point about creative writing programs that hasn’t been much explored, though, was just raised by Junot Diaz in a piece he wrote for the New Yorker: “MFA vs. POC” (“POC” for “people of color”). As usual, Diaz doesn’t mince words when talking about his experience, and that of his other “Calibans,” as a POC in almost entirely-white writing programs:

In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male … Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.

Even more depressing:

I remember one young MFA’r describing how a fellow writer (white) went through his story and erased all the ‘big’ words because, said the peer, that’s not the way ‘Spanish’ people talk. This white peer, of course, had never lived in Latin America or Spain or in any US Latino community—he just knew. The workshop professor never corrected or even questioned said peer either. Just let the idiocy ride.

It’s worth thinking about Diaz’s critique the next time you see the piles of new fiction filling the stores. Consider those slim volumes of short stories from the well-connected, fully MFA’d writers published in all the right magazines. A rainbow of diversity, it’s not. As Diaz says to the “students of color” who asks his advice about whether or not to stay in these programs:

…please hang in there. We need your work. Desperately.

New in Film: ‘The Double’

Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska in 'The Double' (image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska in ‘The Double’ (image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

In Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novel The Double, a St. Petersburg bureaucrat encounters an identical version of himself, who proceeds to take over his life. In Richard Ayoade’s hallucinogenic, picaresque adaptation, Jesse Eisenberg plays both halves of the office-drone doppleganger—one an ignored sad sack who can’t get the girl and the other a life-of-the-party predator who can get any girl. Frustration results.

The Double is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

If Wes Anderson immersed himself in Orwell, Kafka, and other high priests of chilly, bureaucratic horror, the result might look something like Richard Ayoade’s metaphysical nightmare The Double. That would never happen, of course, as Anderson is an optimist and fabulist who believes in the happy ending, warted though it might be. Ayoade is a colder fish, as he showed in his first film, Submarine, which had a little too much fun reveling in its young protagonist’s studied quirk for its own sake. But that directorial remove, coupled with a lack of desire to pretend that a character’s suffering in any way automatically creates nobility, helps make Avi Korine’s adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novella into a bracing, darkly crystalline film that isn’t easily shaken off. If there were ever such a thing as the nightmare comedy, this is it…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: May 9, 2014


New in Film: ‘God’s Pocket’

Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in 'God's Pocket' (image courtesy of IFC Films)
Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in ‘God’s Pocket’ (image courtesy of IFC Films)

For his directorial debut, John Slattery (Mad Men) chose to adapt a seamy crime novel by Pete Dexter, stock it with a couple Academy Awards’ worth of talent—Richard Jenkins, John Turturro, Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his three posthumous roles to hit theaters this year—and then play the whole thing as a kind of cosmic gag. It very nearly works.

God’s Pocket is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The title comes from the neighborhood where all the action is set. It’s a scabrous, Southie kind of place where the bars are packed, the walls are covered in wood paneling, the air is thick with cigarette smoke and barely controlled rage, the mood black, and the faces white. As the beautiful wounded bird at the center of all the story’s ugliness, Slattery’s “Mad Men” co-star Christina Hendricks plays Jeanie Scarpato. She’s the blinded-by-love mother to Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), a drugged-out, scrubby kid who doesn’t make it too far into the film. He’s so busy at his job one day ranting and raving and spitting racial slurs that when his sole black co-worker clocks him with a lead pipe, it’s a complete surprise…

You can see the trailer here: