Reader’s Corner: ‘Caste’ and the Other American Exceptionalism

In the newest book from Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns), she brings a sweeping narrative scope and pointillist detail to her argument that three societies in modern human history have established strict caste systems: Nazi Germany, India, and the United States. It’s a bracing stance and one that is likely to cause some heated debate.

Caste will be published next week. My review is at PopMatters:

…as Wilkerson writes, race is not only important to understanding the American class system, it is crucial. Talking about America’s “shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid”, she says there are essentially only two notable corollaries in human history: Nazi Germany and “the lingering, millennia-long caste system of India.” For Wilkerson, each system relied on stigmatizing people deemed inferior “to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement.”

The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt here.

Nota Bene: Patricia Highsmith and Stan Lee

During World War II, Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee was working as an in-house writer for the U.S. Army (training movies about organizing your footlocker or field-stripping your rifle). He was still moonlighting for Marvel (then called Timely Comics), where the editor who replaced him, Vince Fago, was intrigued by another of their writers: Patricia Highsmith.

According to Highsmith’s biographer Joan Schenkar:

Vince Fago took Lee up to Pat’s apartment “near Sutton Place,” hoping to make a “match” between Pat and Stan Lee. But the future creator of the talented Mr. Ripley was not fated to go out on a date with the future facilitator of Spider-Man. “Stan Lee,” said Vince Fago, “was only interested in Stan Lee,” and Pat wasn’t exactly admitting where her real sexual interests lay…

Which raises the question: Who would win in a showdown: Captain America or Tom Ripley? Discuss.

Writer’s Desk: Story Over Style

The late graphic designer Milton Glaser was respected not just for his iconic creations (everything from DC Comics’ “bullet” logo to “I Heart New York”) but for what he had to say about creativity.

One of his best-known advice essays was a talk he gave called “10 Things I Have Learned.” While some are likely more relevant to the design business than other creative endeavors, lesson six is one that writers will want to keep in mind: “Style is Not to be Trusted”:

It’s absurd to be loyal to a style. It does not deserve your loyalty.

There are many writers who may unthinkingly box themselves in. Because they have always written narrative essays, they may think they cannot try fiction. Or a writer of cozy mysteries may not follow an idea for an autobiographical sketch dealing with family trauma because that is not “their style.”

Glaser’s point was more about not chasing trends, which is also valuable advice for any artist.

But in the end, it’s the story that counts, not your style.

Reader’s Corner: Add Your Favorite Book

James Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die is one of those books that some readers eye with interest but trepidation. On the one hand, is there anything better really than poring over a compilation about the greatest books ever written? On the other hand, doesn’t this just end up adding to the already untenable pile of unread books in the corner?

It’s a challenge.

Either way, it’s worth going over to Mustich’s website. In addition to letting readers categorize the 1,000 books into three groups (Agree / Life’s Too Short / Want to Read), it also has the “Add a Book” function. Don’t see your favorite book? Suggest that he add it. (For instance: He has William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition but not Neuromancer and nothing by Roddy Doyle or Junot Diaz; however, he does have some welcome but less-expected choices like the first Nancy Drew mystery The Secret of the Old Clock and Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis.)

And by doing so you can add to somebody else’s untenable pile of the unread.

Reader’s Corner: John Lewis and Thomas Merton

On Bloody Sunday in 1965, the late civil rights icon John Lewis (who passed away last Friday) was marching with other voting-rights activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama when they were attacked by a mob of police and vigilantes. Many marchers were hospitalized, including Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull.

Lewis had planned to be arrested, so he had a backup with a few essentials: fruit and some books. One of the books was The Seven-Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer whose work Lewis studied during the civil rights movement.

Later, Lewis said the books were never recovered:

I just wished I had them. The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress are always asking me what happened to them and I tell them I really don’t know.

Writer’s Desk: It’s All Material

A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser. A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.

Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out

There is one rule that should be learned by everybody who knows or is related to a writer: Beware. Everything that happens and is said is fodder for the printed page.

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?

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)

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.

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.

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.

Writer’s Corner: Maintain Momentum

Waiting for inspiration is no way to write. One has to have a routine. Granted, that routine is likely to be a messy one. Take Lionel Shriver’s glimpse into her daily writing schedule:

Start with large, strong coffee. Read paper, doesn’t much matter which one. Concentrate on little stories. Dostoevsky snatched scads of ideas from newspapers. Self could not make this stuff up, so why bother?

…DO NOT LOOK AT EARLIER CHAPTERS. Do not pour through thousands of words searching for whatever Self called some character’s yappy dog several chapters back. First drafts rely on MOMENTUM. Refining adjectives does not count as work. Solving what-does-she-say-next and why-would-he-do-that, or making daily effort to construct at least one paragraph justifying stupid book’s existence – one paragraph other people might conceivably want to read in sloshing sea of unnecessary, look-at-me prose in which whole world is drowning – this is work.

There are writers who do not feel comfortable unless their prose has been raked over a dozen times until it is clean and sparkling bright. That can be done at one’s leisure, but as Shriver notes, momentum is all. If you don’t maintain a steady pace (helped along by routine) then you will not have anything to review later.

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Kill Chain’

In Christian Brose’s position-paper-ish book The Kill Chain, he lays out a strong argument for why the Pentagon’s complacency and ineptitude could very well doom the American military the next time they engage in a shooting war with a world power.

Here’s his scenario for what would happen in a Pacific conflict:

Cyberattacks would grind down the logistical movement of US forces into combat. The defenseless cargo ships and aircraft that would ferry much of that force across the Pacific would be attacked every step of the way. Satellites on which US forces depend for intelligence, communications, and global positioning would be blinded by lasers, shut down by high-energy jammers, or shot out of orbit altogether by antisatellite missiles…. [As] China’s hypersonic weapons [reaching five times the speed of sound] slammed into US bases, they would destroy fighter jets and other aircraft on the ground before US pilots could even get them airborne

The Kill Chain is out now. My review is at PopMatters.

Writer’s Desk: Who Cares What They Say

The ineffably brilliant John Berryman was never a popular poet. But those who know his work tend to be, shall we say, highly committed to singing his praises. His style was raw and jangled, symphonic and bluesy, the sort of thing that hits you in the heart and makes you imagine everything terrible and beautiful in the world.

Of course, that also makes him not everybody’s cup of tea. His advice to young writers who are trying to make a go of it, and facing some resistance?

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

The Paris Review