Thursday, May 28, 2009

Quotes from My Morning Meeting Taken out of Context and Posted for Your Amusement

"The rocket ship is a little too fun."

"It's too cosmos-spiritual."

"The idea of the dog and the woman looking out over the water is just right."

"Maybe if she was sitting it'd be less like, 'I'm standing there and someone's taking a picture of me.'"

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Segregated Proms

It's hard to believe, but in some parts of the South, there are still privately organized segregated proms. Sunday's NYT Magazine had a good article about the proms of one such high school in Montgomery County, GA.

“My best friend is white,” said one senior girl, a little glumly. “She’s in there. She’s real cool, but I don’t understand. If they can be in there, why can’t everybody else?”

It's a depressing state of affairs, but rather than moralizing, the story's writer, Sara Corbett, does an excellent job of capturing the tension between so-called tradition and social realities of the school. I recommend reading the whole thing. The audio slide show is also well worth watching.

Wednesday Music Video

Jessica Lea Mayfield, "Kiss Me Again"
Jessica Lea Mayfield is 19. Damn musical prodigies. They make the rest of us look so lazy and untalented. If anyone asks, I'm hording away my talent for use on an unprecedented work of genius that will only be unveiled upon my passing from this world.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Music Video

Blur, "Bank Holiday"

Thursday, May 21, 2009

One Small Step for . . . ?

We're going to let the Hubble fall into disrepair and die, but isn't it reassuring to know that NASA is making great strides in developing technology that allows astronauts to drink their own pee?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Quote of the Day

Laura Miller on evocriticism:

If sociobiology has yet to come up with a truly persuasive evolutionary explanation for homosexuality (and it really hasn't), then it's certainly not in a position to explain Shakespeare.

Wednesday Videos: Telekinesis

Telekinesis, "Tokyo"
"Coast of Carolina"
Hat tip to Monitor Mix.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

David Foster Wallace

A couple weeks ago, my friend Brian wrote a short post at The Fiction Advocate in response to David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College (now published as This is Water). I've been thinking a lot about Wallace lately, probably more than is healthy, and I intend to post more later, but for now, I'm going to stick to countering several points in Brian's argument.

According to Brian, the thought processes that made Wallace's life so hellish were also those that made his writing great. On this much, we agree. Wallace's great talent was being able to make sense of a great deal of chaos. On a basic level, all narratives are about ordering facts and creating meaning, and no one needs narrative and meaning more than a depressive.

The general thrust of Wallace's Kenyon speech is that it's crucial and yet very difficult to stay fully attentive to the world around you. This has been a theme in much of Wallace's writing, though the distractions are often externalized. Wallace was very interested the way individuals filter through the barrage of often conflicting messages delivered through various media, an experience he tried to recreate in his writing through his liberal use of endnotes, footnotes, digressions, and asides. The Kenyon speech, however, is concerned specifically with the problem of getting lost in one's own thoughts and losing track of what's occurring in reality. This is also a feature of Wallace's writing, one that takes the forefront in his essays and many of his short stories, but it's clear that in the Kenyon speech Wallace is speaking more candidly than in much of his other writing if for no other reason than that he directly addresses one of the most common criticism lodged against Wallace's work.

Where I perceive candor, however, Brian sees "someone who's been exposed to too much clinical therapy and prescription drugs." My problem with Brian's assertion is, first, that it misconstrues the main point of the the speech and, second, that it seems emblematic of a certain knee-jerk disdain for modern psychiatry that both glorifies and oversimplifies depression.

As Brian sees it, the speech employs "psychotherapy jargon" to "implor[e] the graduating class to regulate their lives to the point of normalcy." Here's the passage he cites:

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education—at least in my own case—is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

That sounds vaguely academic, but it's hardly full of psychological argot. Moreover, the point isn't to regulate one's life but to simply pay attention and try not to be a self-absorbed asshole. Sure, self-absorption is a problem that depressives struggle with more than most, but the tendency to get lost in one's own world to the exclusion of other people is natural and plagues everyone. It's as universal a theme as you'll find anywhere in his work.

The issue I take greater umbrage with is the claim that Wallace had undergone "too much" treatment for his clinical depression. While it may be arguable that Wallace could have been better served by different treatment, had he not received treatment at all, he'd have died much earlier. What the D.T. Max's profile in the New Yorker makes clear is that neither Wallace nor his wife and family believed his treatment was the problem. His widow, Karen Green put it bluntly: "The person who would go off the medications that were possibly keeping him alive was not the person he liked."

Toward the end, of course, Wallace, did choose to go off medication. He had been struggling with writer's block for a long time, and if the naysayers of therapy had been right, he'd have begun working on a new opus. Instead, it exacerbated his paralysis. David Foster Wallace penned his last words in a private letter to his wife on September 12, 2008, and while there may still be writing to be found in his personal records, there certainly won't be anything new. He finally got lost in his own head for good.

The Kenyon speech's main theme is that one should try, against all obstacles to avoid too much indulgent and abstract navel-gazing. It's a very simple, even common idea, but it's important. That Wallace struggled to extract himself from the labyrinth of his own mind is not lost on me, but the struggle itself wasn't what made his writing great. Rather, it was his frequent triumph. Had he merely succumbed to it, he'd have never written a word. That Wallace was capable of talking opening about the difficulty of trying in the most basic way to be good—that is, by simply paying attention to other people and the world around you—without resorting to platitudes nor skirting the complexity of the problem is miraculous. The result is a sort of secular homily for our age. That it's central theme can be dismissed out of hand seems like a great shame.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


My friend Jane Berentson, who just published her first novel Miss Harper Can Do It, is reading this coming Monday at McNally Jackson.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Put the Cobwebs Back in Place

Over at his new blog the Fiction Advocate, my friend Brian has a post about his distaste for instant memoirs.

I'm a bit hesitant to rebut Brian here. After all, despite having written and published one, I do find instant memoirs a bit gimmicky. Still, I think they're good exercises that teach writers to distill what's essential about their narrative, and in any case, I think Brian's argument needs some unpacking.

We dislike these instant memoirs because they are not long enough to be confessional or revelatory; because nobody is more than pruriently interested in the confessions of an unremarkable stranger, and because the internet makes these writers too self-conscious to be both honest and objective. The amount of contrivance that goes into an instant memoir brings it more in line with fiction than autobiography, and yet it’s a terrible kind of fiction, designed to make the writer sound witty, and to make a cynical reader chuckle, briefly. Instant memoirs do not set the record straight.

Earlier, Brian argues that instant memoirs "have more in common with the 'About me' paragraph on a MySpace page than with the literary form of the memoir," but instant memoirs bear a closer resemblance to the submissions at PostSecret, and at their best, they are inherently confessional.

According to Brian, instant memoirs are too short to be "revelatory," which is true to an extent. Some instant memoirs, however, can evoke recognition of shared experience. Instant memoirs may not be able to deliver the insight of longer narratives, but empathy itself is a kind of revelation.

As for contrivance, memoir has always been a dirty form of autobiography, and it pays to be skeptical of all narratives. What makes instant memoirs different?

It's unfortunate, that most instant memoirs are just plain awful, but the same can be said of any genre of writing. And yes, they are a bit too of-the-moment. Still annoying or not, they shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Monday Music Videos

Deerhunter, "Hazel Street"

Crystal Castles, "Vanished"

Beat Happening, "Black Candy"

Pavement, "Here"

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Miss Harper Can Do It

My friend Jane Berentson's new book Miss Harper Can Do It is now on sale. For more info, please check out her website.