Writer’s Desk: Create Dangerously

Albert Camus did not approach the act of writing lightly. Although he gets lumped in with a certain class of French intellectuals whose headiness got in their way, Camus used a clean and light touch in his work. Any of us who have gone back to his unnervingly relevant novel The Plague these last few weeks have rediscovered just how brisk and energetic he can be.

But Camus also thought risk was a necessary part of the writing life. In his lesser-known 1958 tract Create Dangerously, Camus stated that the role of the artist was to place themselves directly in the toss and tumult of modern life. To invite rather than shy away from risk and critique:

Every publication is a deliberate act, and that act makes us vulnerable to the passions of a century that forgives nothing.

If that was true in the 20th century, it is doubly so now.

Write like nothing else matters. What else makes sense?

Screening Room: ‘Capital in the 21st Century’

Six years ago, a 700–ish-page economics tome by a French academic with a Marxian bent became a surprise bestseller. Now, Capital in the 21st Century is a documentary.

My review is at PopMatters:

Justin Pemberton’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century takes the fundamental arguments of Piketty’s book and presents them in an engaging, visually brisk manner that has the gleaming appeal but somewhat narrow one-sidedness of a TED Talk. The author himself lays out his thesis: Modern capitalism has created a concentration of capital that is ultimately unsustainable. He references the “misery” of communist rule to show that despite his being well-versed in Marxist analysis, he is no doctrinaire Red demanding state control of industry. Rather, he is more interested in laying out a modern history of capital to show how pre-modern economic models, replete with tiny cliques of aristocrats distant from the teeming masses, are reestablishing themselves in our time…

Capital in the 21st Century is available through virtual cinemas starting May 1.

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Throw Most of It Away

There are times when your writing project takes forever. You head to the keyboard each day, knowing that you will emerge on the other side with naught but a few sentences, as fought-over as a few square yards of Flanders mud during an interminable battle in the First World War. But that can be worth it in the end.

There are other times when the fight means that you’re not going where you need to go. In that instance, consider the “inspired demolition job” Jenny Offill did on her novel Dept. of Speculation:

After spending years on a longer, more traditional novel that refused to come together, Offill stopped trying to force it; instead, she wrote out what she considered the best bits on index cards, then shuffled them around until she arrived at something she was happy with. The streamlined version, made up of elliptical yet propulsive fragments, many of them no more than a sentence long, tells the story of a marital crisis with the efficiency of a comic strip. Suggestive snippets of dialogue and description are juxtaposed with surreal factoids and literary quotes; Offill trusts the reader will know how to put these pieces together.

Giles Harvey, The New York Review of Books

Trust the reader. Trust yourself. Leave out everything you do not absolutely need and let the reader figure it out.

Screening Room: Still a Big World Out There

I reviewed two great new documentaries for Eyes Wide Open:

Good documentaries tell you a story; the great ones open your eyes. But even the most mediocre nonfiction movies serve a purpose: They provide a snapshot in time for what people in a particular place were doing, thinking, and planning. Or, to use another metaphor, they open a window into lives different than our own…

Reader’s Corner: Trading for Books

A Vancouver resident had too much sugar (the 10kg bag was all Costco had) and was interested in letting somebody else partake.

Meanwhile, a friend of Christopher Brayshaw, the owner of the Pulp Fiction bookstore, needed some sugar for baking.

Answer? They worked out a trade:

…two kilograms of sugar, for one brand new book that she’d been on the waitlist for.

Sometimes things work out for the best.

(h/t: Shelf Awareness)

Screening Room: 20 Years of IFC Films

Given the extra time that so many of us have on our hands right now to catch up on movies, the issue tends to be narrowing down our choices.

IFC Films just had their 20th anniversary and wouldn’t you know, there’s a 30-day free trial of their streaming service. My survey article at Slant runs through a quick history of the distributor’s varied output (Linklater to Soderbergh to Herzog to…) and then rounds up 20 of their movies worth seeking out:

IFC Films has spent the last two decades championing some of the world’s most innovative cinema in a no-fuss, under-the-radar manner. Less attention-grabbing than distribution houses like A24, IFC also cast a wider net of aesthetic styles than distributors such as Grasshopper and Oscilloscope. Across its 20 years, the company has continued to release a fairly eclectic grab-bag of movies—from mumblecore to earnest kitchen-sink drama to more unclassifiable what-the-fuckery—that other labels would likely have passed on…

Reader’s Corner: Sometimes You Need that New Louise Erdrich Book

Novelist Ann Patchett wrote in The Guardian about what it’s like at the bookstore she co-operates in Nashville after closing the doors but trying to do their best keeping up with orders:

I understand now that we’re a part of our community as never before, and that our community is the world. When a friend of mine, stuck in his tiny New York apartment, told me he dreamed of being able to read the new Louise Erdrich book, I made that dream come true. I can solve nothing, I can save no one, but dammit, I can mail Patrick a copy of The Night Watchman.

Reader’s Corner: Keep City Lights Open

A lot of businesses are closing down during the shelter-in-place order. Among them is San Francisco’s storied City Lights Bookstore. Very simply put, it’s one of the finest book emporiums in the country, if not the world. It’s hard enough keeping a low-margin indie store open in the Bay Area these days, much less post-pandemic. They need help in order to get back in business once the state gives the OK.

A GoFundMe page has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Throw a few bucks in.

You can also buy books from them via Bookshop. Check out some of the offerings from their decades-old publishing line, particularly the Pocket Poets Series titles like Ginsberg’s Howl or O’Hara’s Lunch Poems.

Writer’s Desk: Snoopy’s Rules

In the 2002 collection, Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life, a stellar line-up of scribes from Ray Bradbury to William F. Buckley, Jr. responded to a Peanuts strip featuring Snoopy writing. 

One of the contributors was Charles M. Schulz’s son Barnaby Conrad, who provided these six rules for writing:

1. Try to pick the most intriguing place in your piece to begin.
2. Try to create attention-grabbing images of a setting if that’s where you want to begin.
3. Raise the reader’s curiosity about what is happening or is going to happen in an action scene.
4. Describe a character so compellingly that we want to learn more about what happens to him or her.
5. Present a situation so vital to our protagonist that we must read on.
6. And most important, no matter what method you choose, start with something happening! (And not with ruminations. A character sitting in a cave or in jail or in a kitchen or in a car ruminating about the meaning of life and how he got to this point does not constitute something happening.)

It was a dark and stormy night…

(h/t: Maria Popova)

Screening Room: ‘Slay the Dragon’

The new documentary Slay the Dragon is a timely reminder of the importance of decennial elections because years like this one are when census results can be leveraged by gerrymandering politicians to redraw districts in anti-democratic ways.

My review of Slay the Dragon, which opens On Demand today, ran at PopMatters:

Directors Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman are pursuing two goals with Slay the Dragon. One is a portrait of modern resistance to gerrymandering. The other and perhaps more pertinent is to provide a short modern history of gerrymandering itself. They do this in large part by going to one of the best sources: David Daley’s pungently hard-nosed 2016 expose: Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count. Daley is one of the many experts corralled by the directors to lay out this history…

Here’s the trailer: