Writer’s Desk: Write to Write

In 1953, writer Aidan Higgins sent Samuel Beckett one of his short stories, hoping for some feedback. Beckett sent a long, constructive, and very generous critique.

As part of his response, Beckett included this aside:

Work, work, writing for nothing and yourself, don’t make the silly mistake we all make of publishing too soon.

Publishing too soon might seem like a small price to pay for getting one’s work out there—what struggling writer would complain? But Beckett’s advice is solid, nonetheless: Best to first be satisfied with what you’ve written before you send it out into the world.

Reader’s Corner: Why Does Arkansas Hate History?

The word “censorship” gets thrown around a lot these days, not always responsibly. But every so often you see a case that seems to fit the textbook definition.

One of those instances happened this week in Arkansas, which you may also know as Missour-ah’s underachieving and even more miserable neighbor. The state legislature there is considering a bill that would actually make it illegal for schools to teach the books of Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States.

As Melville House noted:

[The bill] would force Arkansas educators to pretend that Howard Zinn had never written a single book, and furthermore (and this is the really crazy part) would require that they systematically ignore any secondary texts addressing Zinn’s scholarship.

By the logic of the law as written, even materials critical of Zinn’s approach to American history, of which there are many, may be prohibited. Teachers must simply pretend that one of the most influential and most discussed historians of the twentieth century never existed.

Making it illegal to teach from a historian known for his progressive political viewpoint? Sounds like censorship, plain and simple.

Weekend Reading: March 10, 2017

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Screening Room: ‘Personal Shopper’

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Equal parts behind-the-scenes fashion narrative, thriller, and improbable ghost story, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is one of more curious and rewarding movies of the spring.

After playing a few festivals last year, it’s opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The year is young still, but you probably won’t see a wiser, more headlong dive into the world of high fashion and celebrity than Olivier Assayas’ slippery, darkly glamorous Personal Shopper. With a cool and yet intimate approach, Assayas shows a deeper awareness of the seductive, boundary- and identity-blurring compromises than other more surface-sailing chroniclers of the beautiful life like Nicolas Winding Refn or Sofia Coppola. He also manages to string a taut thread of tension through the unlikeliest of narratives for this generally straightforward filmmaker to tackle: a ghost story…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Kong: Skull Island’

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It’s been a few years since King Kong was smashing up the planet. Fortunately, the makers of Kong: Skull Island have remedied this problem with a half-gonzo reworking of the old giant apt smash-’em-up material set in the waning days of the Vietnam War.

Kong: Skull Island is opening wide this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

This is a movie so eager to show off its skyscraper-sized primate that it trots him out before we’ve even gotten to the credit sequence. In this iteration’s 1944-set opener, two downed fighter pilots (American and Japanese) parachute onto a tropical island beach and set about trying to kill each other before being interrupted by Kong’s glowering eyes…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Iraq + 100’

iraqplusahundred-coverWhen it comes to science fiction from the Arabic world, there isn’t much to speak of. The new collection, Iraq + 100, in which authors were asked to set their stories in an Iraq 100 years in the future, is one of the few additions to that limited canon.

Iraq + 100 is on sale now. My review is at The Millions:

Unlike almost every other book you will find out there about Iraq right now, the ambitious new short story collection Iraq + 100 has little to say directly about all the nation’s recent wars. This is somewhat remarkable. As noted in the introduction by the book’s editor, author Hassan Blasim (The Iraqi Christ), “Iraq has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914.” Still, any opportunity for Iraqi writers to get together and write about something besides the wars, even if that trauma shadows each word in this book to some degree, must be seen as a kind of victory…

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Forget to Read

literarywonderlandsBrilliant, longtime critic Laura Miller was interviewed recently by Poets & Writers. One of their first questions was about a statement she’d made about preferring reading to writing.

Her response, in part:

We live in a time when everyone wants to write and seemingly no one “has time” to read. Everyone wants to speak and increasingly few people want to listen. People sometimes scoff when I make this observation and claim that aspiring writers read more than anyone else, but that is not my experience. I’m constantly meeting people who, when they learn what I do, always want to talk about the book they plan to write despite the fact that they seem to find no books worth reading. We fetishize the idea of being a writer in a variety of ways, most of them narcissistic. So when I meet a big reader who professes no desire to write, I think of them as a beautiful, almost mythical creature, like a unicorn, to be celebrated.

So while writers of course need (always) to get back to work (speaking of which, why are you wasting time on this?), it’s also helpful that they remember something. Save time to read, because if you don’t, you could well forget the joys of reading and thusly the reasons why anybody would want to pick up and devour what you yourself are spending so much time to create.

In other words: Write for the reader inside you.