Readers’ Corner: The Scary Printed Word

From the Duke Chronicle, regarding the school’s decision to have students read Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home:

Several incoming freshmen decided not to read “Fun Home” because its sexual images and themes conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs. Freshman Brian Grasso posted in the Class of 2019 Facebook page July 26 that he would not read the book “because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality,” igniting conversation among students. The graphic novel, written by Alison Bechdel, chronicles her relationship with her father and her issues with sexual identity.

“I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” Grasso wrote in the post.

funhome1And from a report by the American Association of University Professors on “trigger warnings” and letting students opt out of materials they find offensive or troubling:

The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and … it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.

Granted, some of us who are great fans of Bechdel’s work will object to these objections on strictly aesthetic grounds. But it could also be seen as a troubling trend toward absolving students of dealing with any subject matter which they would prefer to ignore. True reading, true intellectual discovery comes frequently from the new, the unusual, and even the disturbing. Coziness should never be confused with education.

Weekend Reading: August 28, 2015

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Screening Room: ‘Z for Zachariah’

Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Margot Robbie in 'Z for Zachariah' (Roadside Attractions)
Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Margot Robbie in ‘Z for Zachariah’ (Roadside Attractions)

Z for Zachariah is a quiet but intensely melodramatic story about three people trying to make a go of things after the end of the world. Unlike most of your post-apocalyptical adventures (and there are at least two more young adult ones due to hit theaters this year),  has threats aplenty but there of a more elemental nature: loneliness, boredom, starvation, bothering to go on.

It’s a smart piece of work and thusly more than likely to get lost in the end of the summer cinematic shuffle.

Z for Zachariah is opening this weekend. My review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘We Are Your Friends’

Zac Efron feels the beat (Warner Bros.)
It’s been about 40 or so years since DJ Kool Herc started spinning in the Bronx, but every few years the culture wakes up to the idea that, Hey, this DJing thing might be its own kind of creative expression. Thusly, ever so earnest films like We Are Your Friends, with Zac Efron as a striving DJ from the San Fernando Valley trying to make it in a cold, cruel world.

My review of We Are Your Friends, which opens this week, is at Film Journal.

The trailer is here; dance on:

Writer’s Desk: Inspiration Close at Home

Sometimes it comes easily. The words flow and the paragraphs and plot lock together with smooth and powerful precision like girders in a swiftly-built tower.

'A Woman Reading' by Camille Corot (c.1869)
‘A Woman Reading’ by Camille Corot (c.1869)

Other times (most times), it’s a struggle to get even a good page done after a full day spent at the writing desk. That’s where inspiration comes in.

But where do you find it when it goes hiding? Usually, you can’t wait, you have to just keep plowing ahead.

In a long, sprawling piece for the New York Review of Books called “Inspiration and Obsession,” Joyce Carol Oates describes how what can seem casual and inspired is really the result of hard labor:

[Emily] Dickinson’s poems, and her letters as well, which seem so airy and fluent, give the impression of being dashed off; in fact, Dickinson composed very carefully, sometimes keeping her characteristically enigmatic lines and images for years before using them in a poem or in a letter.

Sometimes it can help to simply look to one’s own life. That of course can lead to too much of the bildungsroman we see in modern fiction (one of the reasons we see so many wealthy, educated characters and so few poor, unless it’s crime fiction). But sometimes it can open the spigot; Oates calls it being “a time traveler” in your own life. She quotes Virginia Woolf, who found great success this way:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in.

So there’s one road to inspiration, when all else fails. Look at your own life, but from an angle.

Weekend Reading: August 21, 2015

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Screening Room: ‘Mistress America’

Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke take Manhattan in 'Mistress America' (Sony Pictures Classics)
Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke take Manhattan in ‘Mistress America’ (Sony Pictures Classics)
For his second film of 2015, Noah Baumbach left aside the dyspepsia of his Ben Stiller aging comedy While We’re Young for the fizzier retro ’80s irony of Mistress America, the latest of his off-kilter comedies with his partner Greta Gerwig.

My review of Mistress America, which opens Friday, is at Film Journal:

Like its hero-villain, Brooke, Mistress America tries on many styles in an effort to make something stick. There’s a bleak coming-of-age story here, a breathless escapade through glorious neon Manhattan, a manic-pixie giggle-montage, a satire on writers mining their lives for material, high-toned irony, and a stagy farce. It’s a busier film than Noah Baumbach usually delivers, and not always a cohesive one, with its disparate plot shards often crashing at right angles to each other. Sometimes those collisions make for stinging, loopy, oddball comedy. At other times, they simply confuse…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Theroux on Travel Writing

TheOldPatagonianExpressFor the 2011 release of his bibs-and-bobs collection The Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux had an interview in the Atlantic where—after noting that “Blogs look to me illiterate, they look hasty, like someone babbling”—he dispensed some advice to those in the travel-writing game:

The main shortcut is to leave out boring things. People write about getting sick, they write about tummy trouble, they write about having to wait for a bus. They write about waiting. They write three pages about how long it took them to get a visa. I’m not interested in the boring parts. Everyone has tummy trouble. Everyone waits in line. I don’t want to hear about it.

It’s probably not advice that most travel writers want to heed. After all, once you’ve spent three months in Siberia racking up expenses, you sure as hell better have something that the magazine is going to want to print. If nothing happens, embellishment or poetic license might seem more enticing.

Theroux also suggests to travel light:

The minimum is a change of clothes, a book, a toothbrush, notebooks, an extra pen. I don’t bring extra shoes. Just the necessities. I travel with a small duffel bag that fits under a seat on the plane, as well as a briefcase. The briefcase is my office. I’m always happier when I don’t have a lot of stuff.

The fewer things you have, the less you’ll pay attention to them. A pen, some paper, and your eyes and ears are all you need.

Weekend Reading: August 14, 2015

British Museum Reading Room (Diliff)
British Museum Reading Room (Diliff)

Writer’s Desk: The Not-So-Solitary Art

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Anybody who knows anything about writing knows about that the gig requires a lot of alone-time. Unless you’re one of those people who can compose lucid prose on a crowded subway train, most writers need to have that space they can get away to in order to put their minds in the right space and put together something that won’t entirely embarrass them.

There is, though, always the problem of the outside world. It intrudes on some writers in the simple matter of making a living. The day job, whether writing-related or not, by definition puts the writer out in the world whether they like it or not. Most writers put up with this because, well, rent.

But these days, it seems like the actual practice of just plain writing, not working to be able to afford to write, has been getting awful social. Part of it is that tic of the modern age where every activity must be shared and turned into an online discussion group. But part of it is simply the business of writing. Attending workshops, participating in panel discussions, even getting up in front of people and teaching a class.

Meghan Tifft laments this turn of events:

History has typically not been generous to the writerly recluse. It’s usually only a lucrative position after the fact of your success—and it works best if you’re a man—Salinger, Pynchon, Faulkner all have that esoteric aura about them that’s quite different from poor old Emily Dickinson, that self-imposed shut-in, or Flannery O’Connor, whose excursive limitations were a sad matter of physical ailment. Even Donna Tartt has to go on 12-city tours. And then there’s me. I’m not Donna, or Emily, or Flannery. I’m not getting anywhere as a young, reclusive, female writer….

So, keep that in mind all you introverts and recluses as you write the Great American Novel. At some point, if you’re lucky, you’ll have to go out there and stand under glaring lights and read your prose to a dozen or so people half paying attention to you over the hiss of the nearby cafe’s espresso machine. It’s a reward, of sorts.

Screening Room: ‘Cop Car’

Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson have a good old time in 'Cop Car' (Focus)
Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson have a good old time in ‘Cop Car’ (Focus)
Two kids come across a police cruiser in a clearing, seemingly abandoned. They’ve already run away from home, so why not one more transgression? While they joy ride across the prairie, the car’s owner, a corrupt and drug-addled sheriff (Kevin Bacon) who’s just buried a man is coming after them.

Cop Car is playing now. My review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Gift’

Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman, and Rebecca Hall get real uncomfortable in ‘The Gift’ (STX)
When we last saw Jason Bateman, he was deadpanning his way through the reboot of Arrested Development and doing (as always) a crackerjack job of it. Now, with actor Joel Edgerton’s debut film as writer/director, Bateman is playing against type as one half of a threatened couple in a stalker story with a twist.

The Gift is playing now. My review is at Film Journal International.

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: August 7, 2015

British Museum Reading Room (Diliff)
British Museum Reading Room (Diliff)

Writer’s Desk: Beerbohm on Writing’s Weakness

Max Beerbohm, self-caricature, c.1897.
Max Beerbohm, self-caricature, c.1897.

Caricaturist of some note and essayist beyond compare, Max Beerbohm (1872–1956) was one of those serenely talented Victorian aesthetes one not only doesn’t see anymore, one can barely imagine walking the planet. He understood that one of the great rules of writing is this: Never let them see you sweat. If you make it seem easy, that relaxes the reader.

Not that it wasn’t work. Beerbohm:

Writing, as a means of expression, has to compete with talking. The talker need not rely wholly on what he says. He has the help of his mobile face and hands, and of his voice, with its various inflexions and its variable pace, whereby he may insinuate fine shades of meaning . . . but the writer? For his every effect he must rely wholly on the words that he chooses, and on the order in which he ranges them, and on his choice among the few hard and fast symbols of punctuation. He must so use those slender means that they shall express all that he himself can express through his voice and face and hands or all that he would thus express if he were a good talker…

When talking, we have all the senses to work with. With writing, there is really just one. But great writing, even with such a narrow toolset to work with, can nevertheless excite every single one of the senses.

(h/t Gopnik)