Amtrak is trying something new. No, it didn’t turn a profit or decrease late arrivals. But it will begin offering writing “residencies” on selected long distance lines.
I love trains and wrote on how trains offer a “poetic” way to see the world a couple of years ago for TAC, so naturally I think this is a great idea.
Details have not been released yet, but The Wire reports that Amtrak will favor writers with a strong social media presence. Last night, Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s Director of Social Media, got on Reddit to give a few more details and answer questions. Quinn noted that the company will set up on online application form soon and that “residents” will be selected by a panel of individuals “from Amtrak and the literary community.” Writers of all genres will be allowed to apply.
The idea for the residencies came about when novelist Alexander Chee told PEN America that he loved writing on the train and wished “Amtrak had residencies for writers.” This made the rounds on Twitter and ended with Jessica Gross—who asked Amtrak on Twitter “How much momentum do we have to gain for this to become real”—doing a “test run” for the passenger rail service on its New York-Chicago line.
Gross traveled with her brother and wrote on the experience at The Paris Review. “Writing requires a dip into the subconscious,” she writes, and a train provides a space that is both public and private. Moreover, there is a comfort in being surrounded by fellow travelers while “ensconced” in a sleeper cabin, where a writer can plumb her “secret desires” and “fantasies.” Gross also suggests that a number of writers like working on a train because it provides them with, in the words of critic Evan Smith Rakoff, “a set, uninterrupted deadline.”
From a 1915 letter to English poet Edward Thomas explaining why Americans were (at the time) against fighting Germany:
But few consider the war any affair of ours. No one goes to war on general grounds of humanity. We extend sympathy on general grounds of humanity. We fight only when our material interests are touched. Yours were when Belgium was invaded; ours weren’t.
From the first volume of Frost’s letters, just released by Harvard.
The Guardian reports that the Vampire Chronicles author has signed a petition asking Amazon to do away with anonymous reviews to protect mainly self-published authors from “bullies.”
The petition states that there is “an incredible amount of bullying and harassment of some…self publishing authors” and that “the reason this bullying and harassment is able to take place is because of the allowance of anonymity on Amazon.”
On her Facebook page, Rice wrote:
Anonymity on Amazon, in book reviewing, and in the Amazon Discussion Forums has been much abused by anti-author bullies who maliciously attack writers with a venom that can be stunning. Some of these bullies are organized, and gang up on authors apparently for fun. I’d love to see the system cleared of these unconscionable abusers.
And she told The Guardian that:
I think the anti-author gangster bully culture is made up of individuals who desperately want a place at the table in the world of books and readers…I hope Amazon and other book websites do eventually clean them out. They certainly don’t serve the true book buyers and readers of this world. And they are gratuitously destructive towards the creative community. They are like termites in a beautiful wooden building, there for what they can get for themselves, quite oblivious to the building’s purpose or beauty
I dislike gratuitously mean-spirited comments or reviews as much as the next person, but harsh, unfair criticism is part of writing. It has ever been so, and anybody who wants to be a writer needs to be ready to deal with it. Period.
But let me say a bit more. The petition is also poorly worded, and Rice’s statements in its favor do it more harm than good.
One problem is its vagueness. What constitutes ”harassment,” “bullying,” and making “life miserable” for writers in a review? No examples or explanations are given, and Rice’s own interaction with “bullies” (linked in The Guardian piece) seems rather tame–at least in the excerpts provided. If an anonymous Amazon reviewer threatened a writer with violence, that’s a matter for the police, not a petition. So, are we talking about meanness here–of which people have differing definitions, especially regarding criticism–or multiple negative reviews by a single reviewer intended to harm sales? Both? Something else?
Another problem is that it makes self-published writers seem even more entitled than they already (rightly or wrongly) have the reputation of being. Rice’s comment here that “anti-author” Amazon reviewers “are like termites in a beautiful wooden building” is a tad overcooked. No doubt, some works add to the “beautiful wooden building” of literature, but others are merely rotten planks.
Listen, if you are unable to get a publisher for your book, and you want to give self-publishing a go, Amazon is a great option and one that offers a higher chance of mainstream success (though still relatively low) than printing your own book at a vanity press. But if you can’t handle negative reviews or the possibility that folks may (fairly or unfairly) mock your book, publish it anonymously. Don’t complain about “anti-author..termites.”
Good food, craft beer and bourbon, live music, and a great time talking about books and Southern culture under the live oaks: That’s what the inaugural Walker Percy Weekend has to offer. The Walker Percy Weekend will be a literary festival to celebrate the acclaimed novelist’s life and work, June 6 – 8 in St. Francisville.
• Crawfish & Craft Beer Dinner: A Friday night film screening of Walker Percy: A Documentary by Win Riley presented by Louisiana Public Broadcasting. With a Crawfish boil and Craft Beer dinner catered by Hot Tails Restaurant. 6 pm–9 pm in Parker Park. $25
• A Saturday series of Panel Discussions on themes explored in Percy’s books including The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, Lost in the Cosmos and The Thanatos Syndrome. Events held at historic district locations including the Old Courthouse and newly restored Temple Sinai. Participating panelists include Peter Augustine Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College, Bill McClay, Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, University of Oklahoma; and Ralph C. Wood, Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor. Free; registration required.
• A Saturday-afternoon Progressive Front-Porch Tour and Bourbon Tasting with readings, inspired by Percy’s essay on Bourbon. 4 pm–6 pm at various locations in St. Francisville’s Historic District.Must be 21 or over to attend. $25
• A Saturday night Louisiana Flavors gala dinner catered by Hot Tails Restaurant in New Roads. (Think cochon de lait and an oyster grilling station.) With a cash bar, and music by Ben Bell & the Stardust Boys. 7 pm–10 pm in St. Francisville’s Parker Park. $50
• Guided tours to sites familiar to fans of Percy’s fiction: Entergy’s River Bend Nuclear Plant and Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola (The Thanatos Syndrome). Free; registration required.
We’ve decided to make a family trip out of it. We’ll pack the kids in the van, drive down to visit some friends in Baton Rouge, shoot up to St. Francisville, and maybe visit a few other places in Louisiana. We lived in Alexandria briefly and would often stop in Baton Rouge on our long drives from Houston to Ashe County, but we haven’t been back in a year. It’s one of our favorite places in the country–great people, great food, and an old-world atmosphere that’s hard to find anywhere else in the States.
If you’ve never been to Louisiana, you’re missing out, and what better excuse than a Walker Percy celebration to make the trip. Do it.
In The New York Review of Books, Edward Mendelson writes about a mostly unknown side to W.H. Auden:
W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.
I learned about it mostly by chance, so it may have been far more extensive than I or anyone ever knew. Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in New York. She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.
Someone else recalled that Auden had once been told that a friend needed a medical operation that he couldn’t afford. Auden invited the friend to dinner, never mentioned the operation, but as the friend was leaving said, “I want you to have this,” and handed him a large notebook containing the manuscript of The Age of Anxiety. The University of Texas bought the notebook and the friend had the operation.
From some letters I found in Auden’s papers, I learned that a few years after World War II he had arranged through a European relief agency to pay the college costs for two war orphans chosen by the agency, an arrangement that continued, with a new set of orphans every few years, until his death at sixty-six in 1973.
And on and on. These acts of compassion, Mendelson suggests, were motivated in part by Auden’s sense of his own egotism:
He was disgusted by his early fame because he saw the mixed motives behind his image of public virtue, the gratification he felt in being idolized and admired. He felt degraded when asked to pronounce on political and moral issues about which, he reminded himself, artists had no special insight. Far from imagining that artists were superior to anyone else, he had seen in himself that artists have their own special temptations toward power and cruelty and their own special skills at masking their impulses from themselves.
And Auden moved away from political poetry, Mendelson writes, to avoid making claims of ”moral or personal authority” in his work.
Mendelson goes on to suggest that we need to be more like Auden. There are, he writes, two “sides” to the current “modern intellectual climate”:
On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.
This does not mean that Auden did not write against evil, Mendelson notes, but that he attempted to avoid the overly simplistic dichotomy, to take one example, of evil dictators, on the one hand, and a wholly innocent populace on the other.
It’s a beautiful essay, and it is instructive and challenging to learn about this side of Auden, though I wonder if Mendelson slightly oversimplifies the problems of speaking publicly on evil.
First, and not to detract from but add to Mendelson’s argument here, there is a danger in being too egalitarian in dealing with evil in that it can dilute real differences of magnitude. The selfishness of the dictator, which leads him to slaughter millions of people, is far worse than the self-absorbed activist who tub-thumps to increase his popularity. And always noting the shared motivation in the two acts can blur real differences. (Mendelson notes this when he writes that Auden did not believe that there was “no difference between himself and Hitler”)
Second–which I don’t think contradicts the above, but I could be wrong–I would add that the compassion of those on what Mendelson has somewhat awkwardly labeled the Auden side of the dialectic (Auden must be rolling over in his grave right now) is not so much motivated by the evil they sense within but have never “unleashed.” Rather, it is based on the evil they have unleashed in thousands of small ways and a sincere–but unfortunately always temporary–recognition that these evils are at root, if not in extent, the same as the Hitlers of the world–limited, as they are, by occasion and other things.
Anyway, read the whole thing, if for nothing else than the wonderful Auden anecdotes.
Over at The Daily Caller, Mark Judge reports what may be the latest bit of Hollywood revisionism.
In 1944, Lucien Carr—a 21 year-old Columbia University student and friend of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac—killed David Kammerer with a pocketknife and dumped his body in the Hudson. In the film Kill Your Darlings, which came out last year and was billed as “a true story of friendship, love and murder,” Kammerer’s murder is presented as the result of Carr’s conflicted homosexuality and the stigma attached to homosexuals at the time.
According to Carr’s son, however, this is false. He tells Judge that his father killed Kammerer, who was 14 years older than Carr, because the older man had abused his father as a youth and continued to make unwanted advances. (Kammerer first met Carr when Carr was twelve.)
The version of events presented in the film, Carr writes, was invented by Allen Ginsberg:
[I]t was this heavy crush, intellectual as well as romantic, that Allen developed on my father — which would endure for the whole of their lives, though it was never made physical — that led Allen to develop the deliberately distorted version of the murder story that he periodically propagated in an attempt to (successfully) injure my father as retribution for his failure to return Allen’s affections.
As I noted on Monday, the standard line on the Swiss February 9 vote against unrestricted immigration–that it is the result of a growing xenophobia and nationalism, stoked by a fear-mongering, far-right People’s Party–is overly simplistic.
One detail that the American media have missed is that one of the unexpected supporters of the anti-immigration bill was the Green Party of Ticino in Switzerland’s only entirely Italian-speaking canton. While the national Green Party opposed the referendum, Ticino’s chapter sponsored a resolution in 2010 requesting the authority to fight the “harmful” effects of what it called “economic colonization.” Ticino borders Italy and is host to many Italian businesses and 60,000 Italian citizens, which make up nearly a third of the population. Switzerland as a whole has one of the highest percentages of foreign national residents in Europe.
That resolution was resubmitted to the federal government yesterday in light of the February 9 vote. While some members of the cantonal parliament viewed the request as moot, others, such as Sergio Savoia, were hopeful that request would be approved, opening the door for Ticino to tailor federal immigration policy as it sees fit.
The Green Party across Europe is strongly in favor of more open immigration policies, but, as in Ticino, some local chapters and individual members are concerned about the effects of overpopulation on the environment. In England last year, Green party members lamented a strongly worded statement by their Party’s leader against immigration caps. And the Green Party in Scotland has come out in support Scottish Independence in part because decentralization would allow them to better manage natural resources.
Again, viewing the Swiss vote as a vote motivated by xenophobia misses the fact that it was also motivated by strong anti-multinational sentiment as well.
I like The Boston Review and have friends who have written for the magazine, so I am not picking on it when I say that Drew Gardner’s defense of Flarf earlier this week using evolutionary theory was lyrical but dumb. Gardner:
Poetry and music are both human behaviors. All living things, plant and animal, are related, and in this sense all behaviors, including poetry and music, are ultimately related. All this works within an ecosystem. Sunlight is the power source for this ecosystem. A rain of photons falls to earth and some of them hit green leaves, which use photosynthesis to manufacture organic fuels—sugars. Photosynthesis is a technology innovated by bacteria that was then appropriated by plants for this fuel manufacturing. Evolution is full of this type of appropriation. These plants are eaten by animals and the sugars are used as fuel. Mitochondria in our own cells uses this energy and mitochondria also used to be bacteria. It was also appropriated. The history of how we got where we are as humans is full of appropriation. It is a key process in the larger system of evolution, and in the fast moving evolution of memes we know as culture. Animals employ appropriated technology using transcribed sunlight to power things like muscular contractions and the running of a nervous system. Sunlight makes animals possible. Through evolution and with the eventual development of culture, sunlight stored by plants made behaviors like poetry possible. What starts as photons emanating from a star ends up as a poem. All poetry comes from the sun.
Yes, well. Gardner goes on to breezily assert that the sounds of poetry add to the “database of the gene pool,” which makes it an adaptation, an “emotional tracking,” that has helped humans survive:
Humans are social animals, so it is not only important to track the world around us, it is also important to track the other people around us. They are part of our environment, and are central to our survival and to flourishing in our particular way of living in groups. We work and live and survive and feel and question and think in groups.
I have written on evolutionary explanations of art elsewhere at length and won’t rehash all the arguments against it here. Particularly since Gardner does not offer any strikingly new arguments in its favor.
But let me state, in a nutshell, the two main (and perhaps insurmountable) problems facing the critic who wants to give an evolutionary explanation of art.
The first has to do with data. It ain’t that it’s bad. There is none.
While traces of biological evolution might be found in fossils or rocks, there are no imprints of the human mind. But an explanation of the origins and development of art is nothing less than an explanation of the origins and development of human consciousness. That’s a tall task given we are not even sure what consciousness is exactly.
In the absence of any real data, what do apologists for the evolution of art provide? Anecdote. Butterfly anecdotes, dolphin anecdotes, peacock anecdotes, chimpanzee anecdotes, and so forth. None of which prove anything because animal art is nothing like human art. Even Denis Dutton recognized this.
In Gardner’s case, he ironically (because the piece is against lyricism) uses lyrical phrases, Emersonian assertion, and extended metaphor to support his argument. Did the sound of poetry improve social cohesion? Who knows? All Gardner provides as proof are a few well-turned phrases and a handful of outdated footnotes.
This is a fatal problem for evolutionary explanations of art, I think, because what makes them different, in theory, from other treatments of art is their supposed empiricism.
The second problem has to do with semantics and plausibility. Again, because there is no data, whenever a critic offers an evolutionary explanation of art, what he is always offering is a plausible materialist explanation of art—an argument that, in its premise, excludes any non-material, non-biological explanation.
What’s the problem here? Well, so far no explanation has even met the rather low criterion of plausibility. Spending scarce resources on resource rich activities like painting and poetry helped increase attention span, empathy and cooperation? Or, in Gardner’s case, poetry contributed to emotional tracking via sound, which in turn improved survival? And to such an extent that it was worth passing on the morning hunt? Really? Is this likely? It may be possible, but is it probable?
And on a more practical note, evolutionary explanations of art reduce the meaning of all works, all texts, to adaptations, and so all works of art ultimately mean the same thing. They improve attention span, empathy, social cohesion and so forth, which supposedly assist in the survival of the species. Yawn.
In the March issue of Harper’s, Arthur Krystal offers a defense of excellence in literature. One does not need to believe, he writes, in an unchanging category of Great Books to argue that some books are better than others:
Here’s the trick, if that’s the right word: one may regard the canon as a convenient fiction, shaped in part by the material conditions under which writing is produced and consumed, while simultaneously recognizing the validity of hierarchical thinking and aesthetic criteria. Writers may not be able to “escape from contingency,” as the new historicists used to say, but those sensitive to their prisons can transform the walls that confine them — a transformation that requires an awareness of the great poets and novelists who preceded them. Artists look backward in order to move forward. Which is why hierarchical rankings of writers are as natural as those teeming lists of great boxers, tenors, composers, and cabinetmakers. The canon may be unfair and its proponents self-serving, but the fact that there is no set-in-stone syllabus or sacred inventory of Great Books does not mean there are no great books.
The idea that “hierarchical rankings” are natural is also worth highlighting. The inescapability of hierarchies can even be seen in the post-structuralist critique of them in which the old hierarchies (West over East, for example, or “presence” over “absence”) are replaced by one hierarchy to rule them all: anti-hierarchy over hierarchy.
The problem is not so much the contradiction of this critique, which has been noted a thousand times (though it is still a problem), but the dogmatism of approaching literary works in light of this one idea alone, style be damned. It has done a good deal of damage to reading, the study of books, and contemporary literature. Of course, ideology and aesthetics cannot always be entirely disentangled (if ever), but do they need to be for me to take into account one more than the other?
On February 9, the Swiss voted on a popular referendum to limit the free circulation of citizens from European Union countries. The referendum passed with a slim majority—50.3% in favor—with French-speaking cantons and urban communes mostly voting against it and German-speaking cantons and more rural communes voting in favor of it. The referendum, which the Swiss government has three years to enact as law, will reintroduce immigration quotas. (Switzerland is not part of the European Union, but it has signed a number bilateral agreements with the EU.)
This weekend, the Swiss government refused to sign a free-movement accord with Croatia, the newest member of the European Union, citing the February 9 vote. In response, the EU announced that it would suspend negotiations with Switzerland on the country’s participation in the Horizon 2020 research program and its participation in the Erasmus exchange program for university students and researchers. Last week the EU had already suspended talks on a Swiss-EU electricity accord and more wide-ranging institutional discussions.
I think the vote was a mistake, and many of my Swiss friends, who are mostly from the French-speaking cantons, were disappointed. One—who is an elected official in his commune—wrote: “This grand party [Swiss People's Party] that cultivates fear annoys me. I don’t understand how the Swiss can participate in such stigmatization. To welcome strangers because we need them and according to quotas is to is not to welcome. It’s resource utilization. And if a foreigner takes my job, maybe it’s time for me to reevaluate or do better.”
In the American press, the general line is that the vote was carried by right-wing voters worried about national identity. That’s true an extent. But the vote was also motivated by a sense—right or wrong—that further integration in Europe does not help local farmers or local highly skilled manual laborers and that it is bad for community and local culture. The Swiss Minister of the Economy, Johann Schneider-Ammann, blamed a ”culture of excess” among the political and business elite and a lack of attention to “the common good” for the vote.
The initial response of the EU unwittingly reinforces the impression that European integration benefits the elite alone. Three of the four accords suspended—participation in the Horizon 2020 research program, Erasmus exchanges, and the Swiss-EU electricity accord—would have benefited highly educated, urban Swiss, not workers in small towns.
The idea that the vote against immigration in Switzerland pits the xenophobic, nostalgic right against a future-looking left (see this weekend’s New York Times) is unhelpful to the extent that it fails to address the real concerns—again, justified or not—of skilled laborers in wealthy European countries. This problem will continue to arise elsewhere in Europe—in England, Norway (which is part of the EEA, not the EU), France, the Netherlands—unless these fears are addressed in some concrete way.