Reader’s Corner: Another Prize for Colson Whitehead

This must be some kind of record. But after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the Orwell award, Colson Whitehead (The Nickel Boys) was just awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. In a statement, Whitehead said:

I hope that right now there’s a young kid who looks like me, who sees the Library of Congress recognize Black artists and feels encouraged to pursue their own vision and find their own sacred spaces of inspiration…

In related Whitehead news, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of his alternate historical novel The Underground Railroad is supposedly still set to air at some point on Amazon.

Writer’s Desk: Write Like it Matters

New York, New York. Library of the New York Times newspaper. Editors and writers can look up every conceivable subject and get information not available in the "morgue"

This week, Harper’s published a piece from a list of writers ranging from J.K. Rowling to Malcolm Gladwell, Todd Gitlin, Dexter Filkins, and Dahlia Lithwick – as well as a range of other public intellectuals and artists (Zephyr Techout to Bill T. Jones and Gloria Steinem) – titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”

Here’s the gist:

We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us…

Harper’s

Remember your Ray Bradbury: “If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.”

Don’t think about what people will think. Use your judgement. Be thoughtful, yet unsparing. Write what is true. Put your soul into it.

If not, why bother?

Screening Room: ‘The Truth’

Poster image for The Truth

In the latest family drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche play a battling mother and daughter whose versions of the past are dramatically different.

The Truth is streaming now here.

My review is at PopMatters:

For Koreeda’s first non-Japanese movie, The Truth is not the sort of film that will likely introduce him to a broad new audience, even in a world where movie theaters were still open. Funny, thoughtful, and occasionally wicked, it feels closer to his more genial entertainments like Our Little Sister (2015) than his sharper and more barbed pieces like Shoplifters or Like Father, Like Son …

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth’

Chad Freidrichs’ 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth challenged some long-unchallenged myths of the debate over public housing, not to mention the systemic racism embedded in some of the more infamous complexes, such as St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe (seen here being demolished in 1972). It is still an incredibly relevant piece of work.

My article on The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is at Eyes Wide Open:

As Freidrichs shows, the lessons supposedly learned from this ignominious episode weren’t entirely wrong but they certainly weren’t all correct, either. As usual, it was the poor and powerless who received the blame, while the powers that be escaping censure and pointing fingers back at those whom they were to have been helping…

You can stream the movie for free this month at Vimeo:

Writer’s Desk: Ignore Success

As a writer, one generally understands that your work is most likely going to be overlooked by the vast majority of humanity. That doesn’t mean you don’t hope for some vindication in the form of some nice reviews and maybe even a royalty check every now and again. But expecting any kind of reward like that is a recipe for disappointment.

On the other end of the spectrum is the recently late Charles Webb. The author of The Graduate and Hope Springs, he spent most of his career doing everything possible to avoid success. Per The New York Times, Webb:

gave away homes, paintings, his inheritance, even his royalties from The Graduate, which became a million-seller after the movie’s success, to the benefit of the Anti-Defamation League. He awarded his £10,000 [about $12,530] payout from Hope Springs as a prize to a performance artist named Dan Shelton, who had mailed himself to the Tate Modern in a cardboard box…

That does not mean that if you are so lucky as to have a book that gets made into a generational classic movie you should give your money to a performance artist. But if you are waiting for a big (or any) payday, you may have chosen the wrong profession.

(h/t: Shelf Awareness)

Screening Room: ‘The Old Guard’

Based on Greg Rucka’s comic-book series, The Old Guard is a big-budget attempt to start a new action franchise, this one centered around a band of centuries-old mercenaries who are (mostly) immortal.

The Old Guard launches today on Netflix. My review is at Slant:

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts…

Here’s the trailer:

Nota Bene: Shirley Jackson and Lucille Ball

Via A.M. Homes’ introduction to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery:

When reading Jackson, I can’t help but think of the stories of Raymond Carver, who had a similar ability to create a sort of melancholy emotional mist that floats over his stories. But Jackson also had the ability to be savagely funny: at one point in her career, Desi Arnaz reportedly inquired about her interest in writing a screenplay for Lucille Ball…

Somehow this is actually true. Jackson’s son confirmed it to Michael Schulman at the New Yorker, who couldn’t help noting:

Jackson declined, but one imagines a vial of poisoned Vitameatavegamin…

A world where this had come to pass would be a better one for it.

Writer’s Desk: Move to Paris

Sometimes you just want to chuck it all and move to Paris. That’s how travel writer Edwina Hart ended up there after reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in her twenties (a dangerous thing to do when young and unmoored from adult responsibilities). She got an attic studio apartment in Montemarte and proceeded to fall in love with the city, particularly Hemingway’s beloved Shakespeare and Company bookstore.

After losing her apartment, Hart blew into the bookstore as one of its resident “Tumbleweeds” (“a title given to fledgling writers that live in the bookshop for free based on the proviso they ‘read a book a day'”). According to Hart:

Although little writing was ever done, I began to truly feel like a writer. I adopted the French art of flaneuring – wandering around without intention or direction. Armed with observations of Parisian life, I would scribble my thoughts down at street-side cafes or in the shade of chestnut trees in Jardin du Luxembourg (where Hemingway used to hunt pigeons to feed his family). On weekends, Tumbleweeds would make crepes in the kitchen of George’s apartment above the shop. Sunday afternoons were spent attending tea parties run by an octogenarian Welsh poet who regaled us with stories of how George used to cut his hair by setting it alight with a candle, or leave his shop entrusted to an unwitting customer, only to return a week later…

Little writing was ever done. Nevertheless, sometimes it helps to just feel like a writer.

Reader’s Corner: Faulkner and the Trumps

Late next month, Simon & Schuster will publish Too Much and Never Enough, the inside story of the creation of Donald Trump from a close source: his niece Mary.

Unlike her uncle, Mary seemed to enjoy school, earning several degrees in psychology. While attending Tufts University, she studied William Faulkner, whose novels became a favorite. She appeared to be drawn in particular to his stories of the Compsons in novels like The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! According to the Washington Post:

The Compsons bore some similarities to her own family: Like Donald Trump’s mother, the Compsons immigrated to the United States from Scotland, and the family was riven by dysfunction. At the time, Donald Trump was running his Atlantic City casinos, which went into bankruptcy, and preparing to divorce his first wife, Ivana, and marry Marla Maples…

She may still see a connection. Last year, she created a company named Compson Enterprises. In order to maintain secrecy, her byline for her bombshell book was originally listed as Mary Compson.

Screening Room: Docs to Watch Out For

Last week’s online edition of the AFI DOCS film festival featured premieres of several documentaries that will be worth keeping your eyes peeled for later in the year when they hit broader release. I reviewed two of them for The Playlist.

  • 9to5: The Story of a Movement (pictured above): “Even in our supposedly more enlightened times, when people hear the word ‘labor,’ they are likely to conjure up a predictable set of mental images: Burly white guys in hard hats…”
  • White Noise: “A queasily riveting documentary that puts the audience far closer than comfort to some of the worst people in the world…”

Screening Room: ‘Irresistible’

In Jon Stewart’s new political comedy, two high-powered political consultants turn a tiny mayoral race in Wisconsin into an absurd battle for national attention.

Irresistible opens this week in VOD. My review is at Slant:

The film doesn’t focus its ire on Trump, conservatives, and the like, but rather on the cable news and consultant infrastructure that was accelerating America’s collapsing democratic polity long before anybody in a red baseball cap screamed “Lock her up!” and will continue to do so after Trump leaves the White House. This makes sense from Stewart, who went after Glenn Beck back in 2010 not through white-hot invective, but by holding a rally dedicated to polite, level-headed disagreement. These are desperate times, but if Stewart wants to tack toward a more Frank Capra vein, that’s just fine. We already have one Adam McKay…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Give It Time

In 1948, Evelyn Waugh sent a letter to Thomas Merton in which he offered the following bit of advice from one writer to another:

Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later and re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask “Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliché where I could have invented a new and therefore asserting and memorable form? Have I repeated myself and wobbled round the point when I could have fixed the whole thing in six rightly chosen words? Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way?”…

Wall Street Journal

You might disagree with Waugh’s usage of “plebeian” here (he was, after all, one of the great snobs of English literature, a genre already replete with the type). But the point remains solid: Take a second. Look again. That sentence you thought was carved with beautiful simplicity like a jewel could now show itself to be a bit baggy, in need of a little more carving.

Screening Room: ‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’

To celebrate Juneteenth, and also to act as a kind of counter-programming for tomorrow’s Trump rally, Dawn Porter’s new documentary about civil rights legend John Lewis (who will be also the subject of a new biography by Jon Meacham coming out this fall) is having a free screening in Tulsa today.

John Lewis: Good Trouble opens elsewhere on July 3. My review is at The Playlist:

Like any successful politician, John Lewis has a supply of anecdotes and applause lines to pull out whenever he is needed. One of the go-to bits we hear in the movie involves a memory from his childhood on a farm where, as a deeply religious and studious boy, he would preach to the family chickens. They would nod along, he says, but could never quite get to “Amen.” He more frequently pulls out a line that serves as his call to action. Arrested dozens of times over his career, Lewis cites the need for people to get into what he calls “Necessary trouble. Good trouble” in order to enact change…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Wasp Network’

Wasp Network

In the 1990s, the Castro regime sent several operatives to infiltrate the Cuban-American emigre community in Miami. Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network is a fictionalization of that somewhat forgotten sidenote of the post-Cold War years.

Wasp Network is available on Netflix today. My review is at Slant:

Based on Fernando Morais’s 2011 book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the film starts out as a crisply paced, lavishly photographed, and character-based study of what the members of the so-called “Cuban Five” spy ring did and how they did it. Unfortunately, it spreads its attentions so wide and at times without consequence that the import of the events it depicts starts to get lost…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Babyteeth’

Babyteeth

Shannon Murphy’s stylized melodrama captures a terminally ill teenager raging against the dying of the light.

Babyteeth opens this week. My review is at Slant:

Babyteeth neatly threads the needle between tragedy and comedy. The film follows Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a teenage cancer patient who’s mostly given up on life when Moses (Toby Wallace), a slightly older drug dealer, bumps into her on a train platform. For her, it’s deep crushing love at first swoon and a reason to keep getting up in the morning. For him, it’s having an adoring fan to goof around with—especially when he discovers that her father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), is a psychiatrist who happens to have lots of pharmaceuticals lying around…