Fiction

Reading Versus Watching: Science Fiction Picture Show

The problem is that the very things that appeal to the core of this subculture are the selfsame things that turn off those outside of it. Consider, for example, that staple of Sci Fi, Star Trek.

Neal Stephenson on "Beowulf" writers versus "Dante" writers

While I'm finishing up this week's Reading Versus Watching column, go read the second question in this interview with Neal Stephenson conducted by SlashDot. In it he talks about the traditional division between popular ("Beowulf") writers and literary ("Dante") writers, and towards the end mentions how they seem to be converging these days.

Of course, what Neal Stephenson doesn't mention is the fascinating flipside of the situation as he outlines it, which is that while fans of Dante fiction, the high culture taste makers also known as literate readers (ourselves included) don't pay much attention to the stuff readers of Beowulf fiction like, it's even more telling that Beowulf readers don't pay any attention to the stuff that Dante readers like. I mean, I like Neil Gaiman as much as the next guy, but he's hardly of the same caliber as, say, David Foster Wallace or Colson Whitehead. But you'll never see Wallace or Whitehead swarmed with 18 to 32 year old males who want their autograph. I'd be willing to bet that not as many of their fans are overweight computer programmers willing to shell out fifteen hundred bucks on a leather trenchcoat so that they can look like Neo from The Matrix, only to shoot the whole project in the foot by capping off the look with a pair of ten dollar faux leather velcro sneakers, or worse, sandals, that their mom bought them at payless when they were fifteen. Which is to say that as much as we like the idea that there's no division between patrons of "high" and "low" culture, in modern day America, the fact of the matter is high culture has become valued by bohemians with refined tastes whereas the patrons of "low" culture are a bunch of overfed hayseeds. What's interesting in this is that all of a sudden good taste is, and has been for some time, disconnected from socio-economic status in America, giving the lie to many Marxist culture studies analyses imported from Europe. I mean, alright, I'm generalizing, but it seems to me that we've reached a cultural moment where it is no longer sufficient to either view the state of things as a polar spectrum and it's also no longer good enough to collapse the one end into the other and say it's all the same thing. There are differences here, and they are important, and they need more teasing out than these simple sorts of analyses can offer is, I think, the point. --J F Quackenbush

Reading Versus Watching: Whither Superman?

What a joyless, uninspired, heavy-handed and dead thing this new movie turned out to be. What we wanted was something that returned the franchise to its solid foundations, both corollary and flip-side to the excellent Batman Begins. What we got instead was one scene after another lifted directly from the original movies in what seems intended to be an homage, but instead comes off wearyingly unoriginal. Scene after scene of Superman bearing things cross-like on his shoulders, overdubs of Marlon Brando from the first movie ("And so I gave my first born son..." et al), Superman getting stabbed in the side, falling through space in a crucified posture, dying and being reborn, the whole Jesus analogy so unsubtle it's almost surprising the movie isn't in Aramaic. Scene after scene of long, drawn-out shots of characters on the verge of tears. We get Superman as a creepy guy who loiters outside Lois Lane's house, spying on her and listening in on her conversations. We get a "mad genius" scheme from Lex Luthor that doesn't even pretend to make sense. We get at least a dozen tiny plot-holes. About half-way through I just wanted god-like Superman villain Darkseid to show up out of nowhere, laugh at this annoying pussy calling himself super and lay waste to the Earth.

Something that made me smile today

Go read this.

Do it right now.

No, don't put it off you lazy goon. Do it now. Right now.

Want to know what's wrong with American Letters?

Read Silliman's blog and his complaints about the School of Quietude. Read anything critical John Hollander or Robert Pinsky have ever written. Read Dana Gioia's infamous essay "Can Poetry Matter?" and the various responses to it. Hell, read the complaints of my co-editor Eric Rosenfield about the decline of readerly culture in North America. Read any number of complaints on various blogs and in various book arts pages of the nation's newspapers, liberal or conservative. One thing they all agree on is that something is wrong with American Literature. They all have their various candidates, be it conservative forces within academia or the encroaching politically correct daintiness of the academic left, the decline of free verse or the exclusion of the post-avant poets from mainstream publication. I would like to take the next 60 seconds of your life to present my candidate: the fact that idiots are in complete control of public education.

The policy states that acceptable books should provide a "Fair balanced socially appropriate portrayal of people with regard to race, creed, color, national origin, sex and disability."[sic]

I think that "Fair balanced" clause is the tipper.

I give you their agenda:

Books now cannot depict drinking alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, including "negative sexuality," implied or explicit nudity, cursing, violent crime or weapons, gambling, foul humor and "dark content."

These people are sour faced bigots who want sanitized, boring, vanilla culture full of productive, mindless worker bees. And if they can't have that, and they can't, then they want to make damn sure that everybody else is as miserable, ignorant, and awful as they are. Toward that end they have hijacked public education while the rest of us were asleep and are now busy bleaching out anything that they consider "naughty" or "unseemly" from the world. American culture is under attack by a group of rabid reactionaries hell bent on a form of cultural cleansing intended not to achieve their disingenously stated aims, but rather to drag us all kicking and screaming back to the nineteenth century world in which these deluded fools believe that everything will be better. These people are the enemy. This is red America.

Reading Versus Watching: Wuxia

My question is this: if Jin Yong is the most widely read contemporary Chinese author, not only in China but all over Asia, and thereby certainly one of the most widely read authors in the world, why is he so sparsely translated into English?

Reading Versus Watching: Fantastic Voyage

Kelly Link is an extraordinary fiction writer. She will take an old saw like the ghost story or the fairy tale or the girl with latent, supernatural powers, and completely reinvent it in a startling way; this always with a depth of character and emotional complexity that is lacking in so much genre fiction. Even people who are totally turned off by the fantastic and the supernatural should find themselves absorbed by her use of genre methods to get at what it means to be human.

Reading Versus Watching: Episodic Characters

One thing that surprised me about Cervantes' classic was it's episodic nature. It doesn't have the overarching narratives that have been been imposed on it by countless adaptations in other media. Instead it moves smoothly from one vignette to another, much like a television show. And what a television show!

In Defense of Roth

I really wanted to like Levi Asher's overrated writers list because he knocks some of the same people we like to knock, but his criticism of Philip Roth is so completely wrong-headed, I'm a little baffled.

I think it all comes down to this:

Paranoia became Roth's central theme, and it permeates most of his novels, from Portnoy's Complaint to American Pastoral to The Plot Against America. Roth's paranoia is different from the cold high-tech creepiness of Don DeLillo or the proud anti-establishment defiance of Ken Kesey. In Roth's world, it's the ones we know best and love most who are trying to oppress and destroy us: our parents, our friends and neighbors, our lovers, our children. This is a harsh and depressing world view, and while I don't begrudge Roth the right to call the shots the way he sees them, I do not find his theme very universal. Even less do I find it edifying. This is why I find it difficult to agree when he is described as a great writer of our age.

Excuse me, if in this "If You See Something, Say Something" contemporary world, I find Roth's particular brand of paranoia and misanthropy not only edifying, but frighteningly relevent. The rest of his criticism stems from this basic complaint; Asher does not identify with Roth's view, therefore Roth's view is not universal. He goes on to say:

I must make this clear: I really do like Philip Roth. I just can't abide by the current meme that calls him a relevant spokesperson for our current time. I'm especially bothered by the fact that Roth is often called a representative voice for modern American Jews; I'm a member of that group, and Roth's bitter message of fundamental separatism does not speak for me.

I honestly think that if Asher could crawl out of his hole for half a second and take a look around, he would see a growing sense of persecution and betrayal, that extends from world events into the home and family. This is best represented for me in Roth's The Counterlife, when Roth's (or "Roth's") own brother becomes part of a militant pro-Israeli cult holed up at Masada and attacks Roth for being part of the problem and not the solution. We all tear each other apart all the time for ideologies, for sex, for money, for a thousand tiny things that we can never number, and this is something deep and fundamental and universal that Roth taps into better than, I think, anyone else. And it's something Asher just doesn't seem to understand.

Reading Versus Watching: An Introduction

Is there a difference between what we read and what we watch? A new column by Eric Rosenfield attempts to answer the question.