Monthly Archives: September 2008

The bad guys

I’m pleased to see Steerpike, the upwardly mobile troublemaker of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, included in this list of the fifty greatest villains in literature, but for every good one it includes the list misses a couple of great ones. Instead of Sauron, who is chiefly a looming presence in the background of The Lord of the Rings, they should have included Gollum, whose short-lived return to decency under Frodo’s care makes his return to evil all the more interesting. Or, for that matter, Saruman, whose motives as laid out by J.R.R. Tolkien make him a symbol of a recognizably modern form of evil that’s far more persuasive than a big flaming eyeball.

Since this is a list by Brits, the name-checks for Christopher Marlowe and George du Maurier are understandable, but they really missed a trick by omitting John Charity Spring, the Latin-spouting psychopath who enlivens Flash for Freedom and Flashman and the Redskins. And opening the list up to comic books (and comic book movies) also opens an only slightly smaller can of worms. Yes, Heath Ledger’s Joker was everything the Joker should be, but if he’s on the list then why not Darth Vader, or the lethal fop Archibald Cunningham from Rob Roy, or fearsome Aunt Livia from I, Claudius, or Chris and Snoop, the deeply sinister drug lieutenants in The Wire? The list could be endless.

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Blue Monday (‘Three Wishes’ edition)

Thelonious Monk composed “Coming on the Hudson” (see the clip) while watching ships from her window. Charlie Parker died while watching television in her Stanhope Hotel suite. She hosted jam sessions, wrote liner notes, lined up gigs and even took a drug charge when she and Monk were caught with marijuana by police in Wilmington, Delaware. Monk, Horace Silver, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Gigi Gryce all dedicated songs to her. Not for nothing was Pannonica de Koenigswarter nicknamed “The Jazz Baroness.”

The baroness spent the better part of a decade asking jazz musicians to make three wishes, and she recorded their answers in a set of leather-bound notebooks that included Polaroid pictures of each player. Those notebooks are the core of Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats, a new paperback of the fascimile from Abrams.

If you’re a hardcore jazzbo, Three Wishes is a must-buy. If not, it’s simply a curio. I fall into the first category, and I find it a fascinating window into the past.

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Friday finds

I’m thrilled right down to the soles of my Buster Browns at the thought of the screenwriters behind the Olsen Twins movie New York Minute doing an adaptation of Moby-Dick. Aren’t you?

I’m even more thrilled at the thought of realizing my long-held ambition to see fungi firing their spores to the tune of the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore. Click here and let Carl Zimmer show you how to make that dream come true.

But at the end of the day, the biggest and best thrill comes from contemplating which of the warrior-theme bath gels I’ll take into the tub with me tomorrow morning. Jeff says the Charlemagne gel, which “offers the natural astringency of chestnut seed, totally conquers the citrusy, skin-softening properties of Caesar,” but he’s prejudiced — for an obvious reason.

Chris Offutt offers a handy guide to literary terms, such as “chick lit,” defined as “A patriarchal term of oppression for heterosexual female writing; also, a marketing means to phenomenal readership and prominent bookstore space.”

You might want to cover your ears — or, at the very least, hold your nose — as Scott McLemee sticks a long pin into a methane-pumped dirigible named Bernard-Henri Levy.  

Tim Lucas pays long and eloquent tribute to These Are the Damned, an overlooked science fiction film from the early Sixties that ought to be much better known. Lucas goes into great detail about the film’s thematic ambition and dark social commentary. I saw the film ages ago, when a hacked-up cut appeared from time to time on late-night television, and I can still remember the impact of its deeply disturbing conclusion. (Bird-dogged by Glenn Kenny.) 

On a related note, John Scalzi lists science fiction films that were made immortal by their music. Of course he lists 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while none of his other choices surprise, his arguments are sound.

Geoff doesn’t have to watch The Wire. He lives it. The fourth season, to be exact.

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Agent intelligence

Yes, you need a literary agent. A personal referral is a good way to get one. Another good way is to do some research into which of the agents out there might be interested in your work. Here’s a video on how to do it.

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Poetry in motion

Mark your calendars for the eleventh annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, which this year is spread over two days late in October. The setting is lovely and the poets — all chosen by a couple of the marquee names from previous festivals — are bound to be worth hearing.

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Death by column inches

Newspapering makes demands on its employees that are well beyond anything required by most other jobs, and the people drawn to newspapering bring a higher level of personal commitment to what they do. That makes it all the more painful that the managers who were happy to make money off your commitment and idealism are just as happy to pull the plug when it suits them.

Nick DiGiovanni looks on as the plug gets pulled on the Delaware Valley News, the community paper he worked at for over two decades:

The demise of the Delaware Valley News was something I tried to fight for quite a while and expected to happen sooner than it actually did. It bothers me no end to think that some pointy headed little accountant with his or her pointy little red pencil could just cross out a line item that represented a 129-year chronicle of the life — the births and deaths, the joys and sorrows, the good and bad, the tragic and gladsome – of a community.

And I’m also angered. I still know people who work for the Delaware Valley News and its sister publication, the Hunterdon County Democrat (which is still there but took a major personnel hit itself). When my wife heard about the demise of the Delaware Valley News, she commented that one of the DVN reporters who is being transfered to the larger paper is ‘lucky to still have a job.’ What she meant was that he’s ‘lucky’ in the sense that so many people in this greed-driven economic tailspin are just flat-out losing everything — their homes, their retirement, their medical insurance, their jobs. So Annie’s right in that regard.

But my response was that ‘lucky’ should not be part of the discussion. Someone’s ‘lucky’ because they worked hard and did a good job and some corporate deity smiled down upon them and decided to let them keep their job? The real response , the real question, should be how it is that the elite, the people who don’t have a thing to really worry about financially — Will they have to sell their Manhattan penthouse? Will their investments drop in value from, say, $800 million to $600 million?  Will they have to let go of some of the help? Will they have to sell the villa in the south of France? — are able to screw around so cavalierly with the lives of ordinary people.

I said my own goodbyes to the newspaper industry several years ago. I’ve made several tries to recruit some of my old newspaper friends to the niche company I now work for. Their response, for the most part, reminds me of the abused spouse syndrome, in which the injured party clings to the idea that the marriage is worth saving and will be fine if only she (or he) can do something extra to placate the domestic tyrant. They’ve all seen this juggernaut bearing down on the industry, but they’ve clung to the hope that if they score some more big stories then all the doors will open and they’ll be able to have a real newspaper career.

Maybe you think that’s pathetic. If so, go fuck yourself.

It’s not masochism. It’s the residue of the idealism that brought them into journalism in the first place, and it’s the idealism that has been betrayed on a daily, even hourly basis by all the corner-cutting, short-sighted, hare-brained management dimwits who have led an entire industry over a cliff.

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Robert’s rules

Fred K. reminds us of the five simple rules for writers, as laid down by Robert A. Heinlein. Now, Heinlein was hardly the fount of wisdom too many of his fans take him for — “An armed society is a polite society” is one of the dumbest statements ever made by an apparently intelligent person — but he was invariably shrewd and reliable when he talked about writing. I don’t know when he first laid down his five rules for writers, but they’ve never been bettered:

1) You must write.

2) You must finish what you write.

3) You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand.

4) You must mail your story to an editor who will pay you money.

5) You must keep it in the mail until someone buys it.

Because writing is a process so fraught with ego traps and personal quirks, the utter simplicity of these rules is one of their greatest strengths. “Aspiring writer” is one of the most hilarious contradictions in terms ever framed by the human mind. One does not aspire to write. One simply writes. Until you have written something, you are not a writer. You have to have a completed manuscript of something that emerged from your own mind, put there and shaped by your will and determination. What happens next is another matter.

The third point is the debatable one, for me. I’ve never written anything that wasn’t substantially improved by at least one bout of revision, usually after a cooling-off period of at least a month. If your first-draft ideas have any strength in them, they’ll be able to withstand a bit of rewriting. More to the point, they’ll be all the stronger for the extra work. What you can’t do is let yourself get mired in endless second-guessing and revisions.

The fourth and fifth rules are, like the first two, as self-evident as the existence of gravity. I’m aware that Heinlein wrote in an entirely different commercial era: the mid- to late-twentieth century, when there was a thriving magazine market and it was feasible for a writer to earn a small but comfortable living from short stories. In this straitened commercial environment, you may end up placing a short story with a nonpaying literary magazine simply to get some exposure. I would count that as a paying transaction, of sorts, as long as it’s done with a greater goal in mind.

But keeping an unsold story or a novel manuscript in circulation is simply a practical necessity: if nobody’s getting a chance to look at your work, then you’re not getting a chance to sell it. Believe me, I’m quite familiar with the feeling of futility that comes with too many rejection slips, but you have to shake it off. You’ve already done the hard work of writing the thing. Sticking the manuscript into a fresh envelope is a piece of cake, and doing the research for new editors and magazines to contact can only help you in the long run.

Robert J. Sawyer adds a sixth rule: Start working on something else. Absolutely true. Every finished writing project is training for an even better new project. A work-in-progress makes rejection easier to take, and it means you can answer “Yes” if an editor asks if you have anything else he can look at.

And, just to keep you going, here’s Lynn Viehl’s 25 reasons why you shouldn’t give up writing.

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At the very least, Gary Dexter’s collection of literary anecdotes — Why Not Catch-21?: The Stories Behind the Titles — sounds like a great stocking-stuffer. I hope the book is at least as entertaining as Nicholas Lezard’s review:

Dexter’s tone is consistently, and never irritatingly, droll. There are a few books that try to be funny about literature and don’t ever really get it right; Dexter always does. He has a fondness, and a gift, for the right kind of anecdote: such as the list of unsuitable words from The Sun Also Rises (“shit fuck bitch piss”) that the publisher Max Perkins wrote down. “Unfortunately, the heading on the pad was ‘Things to do today’. Charles Scribner came into Perkins’s office, saw the pad, and said to him: ‘You must be exhausted.'” Dexter, always conscientious in his search for the facts, adds a footnote telling a variant anecdote: Scribner says, “If you need reminding to do those things you’re in a worse state than I thought.”

I’d always heard that Heller’s title was originally Catch-18, but the number was changed to avoid confusion with the Leon Uris novel Mila 18, which had been published earlier in 1961. I guess now I’ll be able to cross-check that reference.

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The products

I’ve had innumerable battles with The Divine Miss T over letting videos and books featuring the hooched-out Bratz dolls into the house, so I’m happy to see that Scholastic Books is dropping Bratz products from its catalogs and fairs. There’s too much good stuff out there for Scholastic to be wasting space on training manuals for the Little Lolita League, and any Humbert Humberts who are disappointed by the news can console themselves with Internet porn.

I realize that this is a complicated situation for a company like Scholastic. The field of children’s books has been fully colonized by toy companies, and I’m not sure at what point one can argue with any consistency that a series or its characters are beyond the pale. I thought I could draw the line by supporting only things that originated as books or movies and otherwise wouldn’t exist, which allowed Harry Potter and Star Wars through the gate. But when I saw Dances With Mermaid’s instant rapture at her first sight of a Barbie doll, I capitulated without firing a single shot. There really is no rule of thumb. Even products that started out as crassly obvious marketing campaigns disguised as children’s stories, such as the Smurfs or Transformers, now have lots of people who remember them with affection and nostalgia. The Divine Miss T has a Blue’s Clues pillow and a Powerpuff Girls backpack and no doubt they will be her totems of childhood forevermore.

At least the Bratz crew were so out-and-out creepy that parents could line up against them. There are plenty of other battles ahead, and I know the issues won’t be nearly as clear-cut.

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Blue Monday

Renee Fleming sings “September,” the second in Richard Strauss’ cycle of Four Last Songs, composed less than a year before Strauss’ death in September 1949. The lyrics are from Herman Hesse:

The garden is in mourning;
the cool rain seeps into the flowers.
Summertime shudders,
quietly awaiting his end.

Golden leaf after leaf falls
down from the tall acacia tree.
Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
in his dying dream of a garden.

For a while beside the roses
he remains, yearning for repose.
Slowly he closes
his weary eyes.

Or, if you prefer the German original:

Der Garten trauert,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
still seinem Ende entgegen.

Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt
In den sterbenden Gartentraum.

Lange noch bei den Rosen
bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh.
Langsam tut er
die müdgeword’nen Augen zu.

Fleming has just released a new edition of Four Last Songs, and I haven’t yet decided if it’s superior or even equal to the 1995 recording I’ve always sworn by.

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