A blog on reading, writing and life

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Whom should we killed? We should kill "Whom"

The more I learn about linguistics, the more illogical clinging to grammar “rules” seems. Let’s take whom for example. I understand how to use it and what distinguishes it from who, but I still never used it myself. A brief refresher: who ask what the subject of the sentence is, (“Who threw the ball? Jane threw the ball.), while whom ask what the direct object of the sentence is (Whom did the ball hit? The ball hit Tom.). 

Why do I never use whom? Because I don’t think about whether what I'm talking about is a subjects or a direct object. In English, the only time we make a grammatical distinction between the two is with certain pronouns, which is why English teachers will suggest trying to answer the question with he/him or she/her. (Who threw the ball? She threw the ball. Whom did the ball hit? The ball hit him.) But it isn’t natural to convert what you’re talking about into a pronoun in the heat of conversation. 

In Standard English*, we always make a distinction between possessive nouns and subjects, which is why Standard English natives never mistake whose and who (No one would ever ask “Who ball is this?” when the answer is “It is Jane’s ball”). 

The reason why I was thinking about this is because I'm learning Latin, which always make a distinction between nouns in that are the subject of the sentence and nouns that are direct objects (plus several more distinctions that are totally foreign to me). But it seems natural for a language like that to have different question words for who and whom since the role that a noun is performing in the sentence is an inherent part of the noun. But in English, imposing this rule just seems forced and archaic.

*Black English Vernacular has different usage regarding possessive nouns. It’s not wrong; it’s just different. Remember kids, grammar rules are inherently classist!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Conversations I'd Like To Have

A few months ago someone in my (former) MFA program’s Facebook group posted a link to a list of 10 new literary journals. I spent some time examining the list and visited the website for each of the journals on the list, reading some of their material if it was available online, and looking at the format and guidelines for each one. Then I responded to the Facebook post, first thanking the person for sharing the link, then saying that I was glad that some of the new online journals were doing a Monday-Friday content, and ending with “A big problem I have with most online literary journals is that they try to resemble print journals as much as they can, rather than responding to the unique way people interact with the web.”


My opinion on this matter is something I feel passionately about, and is something I’d love to discuss with other people who love writing and care about the future of literature and publishing.


Instead I was met with radio silence.


If this was a singular event, I’d think I was being paranoid. But this has been a regular occurrence among people in or have graduated from my writing program. Every time I express an opinion that is even slightly out of line, even when I go out of my way to be civil about it, I get ignored.


My junior year of college, I literally spend dozens of hours a week arguing with a street preacher in public. I get that my idea of “constructive discourse” isn’t necessarily the norm. It has taken me some time temper my speech for people who aren’t secure enough in their opinions to yell them at strangers. And though I understand shouting-matches are generally taboo, I can’t understand why MFAers are unwilling to have any debate on vital issues affecting what they claim to care about.

Those were the days.


In my undergraduate community, I was encouraged my peers to express my ideas, even if they were unformed, because I might learn something by the process of putting my thoughts into conversation, and that by having a debate, not only would I learn about the other person’s position, but they might ask me questions to consider my own views in a new light. In a good debate, even if neither side changes their position, they might gain a deeper understanding of their selves and the world. I was surrounded by people who cared about rhetoric—which I should mention, is one of the foundations of a classical liberal arts education.


My experience as an MFA student and alumni has been the opposite of this. Anything that whiffs of contrary opinion is ignored. I have a lot of thoughts on contemporary literature, publishing, and writing programs. I'm sure many of my ideas could be wrong. But unless someone is willing to provide me with insight I haven't considered, I have no way to correct my mistakes.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Nobel Judge Yearns for Mythical Epoch When Writers Were Oliver Twist

Certain corners of the internet have been abuzz with the words of one Horace Engdahl, a member of the Swedish Academy and judge for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In an interview with French paper La Croix, Engdahl said that the “professionalisation” of the job of the writer, via grants and financial support, was having a negative effect on literature. “Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions,” he told La Croix. “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard - but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”

Obviously, many people who work as professionals in the creative writing field have been writing rebuttals of this, but really I don't know why the bother. All one has to do is take a look at history to see how all writers of the past had quirky poverty level-careers that somehow granted them the energy for thankless and emotionally draining literary pursuits.

If it wasn't for Edith Wharton's hard knocks as a heiress, she would have never been the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize of literature. It is amazing she even found time to write between interior decorating and having tea with Teddy Roosevelt.

Aurthur Rimbaud's accomplished career being a narcissistic teenager allowed him to prefigure Modernist poetry and invent the French free verse. As he once wrote to Paul Verlaine, "Work is further from me than my fingernail from my eye. Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck me. [...] You won't think I'm too expensive to feed when you actually see me eating shit." Hey Verlaine, your teenage lover already had three jobs: brat, poet AND extortionist. And Verlaine himself worked really hard to marry a rich woman.

Emily Bronte's years of experience as a shut-in inspired her passionate Gothic Romance. Ironing, sewing, refusing to speak to anyone outside her immediate family--you can really see how the revengeful anti-hero Heathcliff was born here.

Shakespeare never had to please any institutions. That's why he wrote 8 plays of straight-up Tutor propaganda, because usurping the English throne is evil, unless some guy named Henry does it. Plus, he traveled nearly 100 miles in his lifetime, all the way from Stratford to London, encountering English people of all cultures, which really helped him write all those plays set in Italy.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Why I hate the term "Literary Fiction"

According to a 2013 study reported here by the Guardian, reading literary fiction like Charles Dickens, Don DeLillo or  Téa Obreht inspires empathy in readers in a way that reading popular thrillers or romances don't. But one of those names I listed is not like the others. One of them was a bestselling serial novelist who modified his plots and characters based on reader responses, unashamedly pleasing the unwashed masses--Charles Dickens.

The term literary fiction did not exist in Dickens' day. In first emerged in the 1960s and increased in use during the 1980s with the boom of MFA programs which promoted writing literature for the purposes of high art over appealing to popular taste. But Dickens was a popular writer. If his novels inspire more empathy than modern thrillers or romance novels (which I am suspicious of until I see this study replicated), then it could be his novels are better written than the other examples they were using, but it definitely wasn't because he was aiming to be high culture. (The results could also be caused by experimenter bias, study participants who preferred literary writing, or a few other errors, which is why scientist replicate studies.) And to be clear, when I use the term "better written," I mean they have well-developed characters and complex inter-personal and moral conflicts. Dickens excelled in this sense, that is why some modern critics might label him literary fiction. Edward Bulwer-Lytton was popular in the same time period and wrote realist social satire similar to Dickens, but today rather than getting labeled "literary fiction" people create contest making fun of his florid prose style. In other words, he wasn't as good.

But when talking about contemporary literary fiction, we no longer use quality as the ruling metric, we use intent. In other words, a popular 19th century novel may be literary fiction if is is good, but a modern science fiction novel is a science fiction novel no matter how good it is, a modern fantasy novel is a fantasy novel no matter how good it is, but any time a living author claims she is writing literary fiction, her work gets labeled literary fiction whether it is good or bad. 

Thus, for contemporary writing, "literary fiction" becomes a marketing tool, a way to advertise to a certain highly-educated audience. We all know people who come out of college with the opinion that only literary fiction deserves to be read. But so much of what falls under this umbrella is appallingly bad. A well-written piece of fiction intricately weaves characters with different moral positions in such a way that highlights complex issues about human nature. If certain literature has an affect on empathy more than others, this seems to me a likely cause. When I read a  terrible book that's been listed on several literary "best of the year" lists, I begin to suspect that reading only self-proclaimed literary fiction erodes some people's ability to judge good writing from bad.

To summarize, because the term "literary fiction" is applied by unequal metrics, it is meaningless buzzword, and leads to a lot of poor-quality writing being mislabeled as valuable.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Information Overload in the Literary World

Every few months some new list of a zillion books is passed around on social media with the warning, sometime explicit, that if you don’t spend hundreds of hours reading these you’re a bad literary citizen and should feel ashamed. If you don’t know the classics, you’re ignorant. If you don’t know the latest authors, you’re out of touch. If you yourself are a writer, you’re selfish for not supporting enough of your peers.

According to my Goodreads count, I’ve read 84 books since the start of 2014. Even though this list includes a few poetry chapbooks and volumes of manga, you can’t deny that this is a lot of reading. Many of these books I could have gotten more out of, intellectually or emotionally, if I had spent more time with them. But still, I feel this push for more, more, more.

When people in the literary field complain about easy, fast, consumer experiences ruining reading, they blame the TV, fast food, and Amazon reviews, but maybe they should also be looking at themselves.

Literature is a form of media. We give it a higher status in our society because it has been around longer that movies, TV or social networking, but it is just as much a part of our media saturated landscape as anything else. There are, by some counts, 100,000 new works of fiction released in the United State every year, and each work has its own champions, demanding that it deserves your attention more than the millions of books that are already out there. 

When a work of art is advertised, promoted, touted as “the next new thing” that you need in your life, it ceases to be a work of art and becomes a commodity. There is no difference between telling someone they must read the latest books and telling someone the must buy the latest fashion. What is a book review but a creation of a new false need? As a writer, I must be reading whenever I’m not writing, in other words, I must be consuming whenever I’m not producing. Sure I believe, it is possible to experience transcendence from literature, but I could also experience transcendence from taking a walk, meditating or having a good conversation--you know, living the the present moment.

Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” begins: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

According to Debord, capitalism shifts are values from being into having and from having into the representational--in other words consuming media. High art and low art are equally part of this same system of consumption.

Yes, even literature is one way that human experiences, from walks in the woods to struggles with ailing parents, are turned into commodities, which can be sold in place of lived experiences. There are provable benefits to writing about one’s life experience, and provable benefits to reading about others experiences, but when books are promoted as a never-ending stream of new needs, literature moves away from something life sustaining and becomes a source of anxiety. 

In the future I hope to read fewer books: slowly, deliberately, and for my own reasons. After all, as Ezra Pound said, "Man can learn more about poetry by really knowing and examining a few of the best poems than by meandering about among a great many."

Monday, September 29, 2014

Words of Warning: An Unscientific Assessment of Literary Blurbs

My idea of the worst book in the world.
Lately, I’ve noticed some similar terms being used in literary blurbs, so I thought I’d note which ones tend to correlate with books I like and dislike. To me, these words signify shallow, purple-prose driven books:

Brave, confront, human heart, childhood, vision, redeeming, New York Times Notable Book of the Year, painfully beautiful, voice, musical, truth

And these words usually mean good things to me:

Compelling, modern man, intelligence, philosophical, challenge, metafictional, mysteries, humor, our century, decisive, biting, mythical

But of course for someone else, those might mean pretentious dribble. Different strokes, I guess.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Who is too old to be a writer?

It seems like every few months, the literary magazines are hailing a new 22-year old as the next big thing. I know a lot of people who get discouraged seeing incredibly young people praised again and again, and I began to wonder how how old history's most critically-respected novelists were when they were first published.

For this sample, I used the authors from Modern Library Board's list of best 100 novels. It is far from a perfect list--of the 75 writers on this list, only 8 are female--but the important thing was that the all novelist here were chosen by group of independent editors.

The purpose of this list is not to prove that most writers were accomplished by a certain age, but rather to demonstrate the range of ages that authors published their first novels. Certainly a large cohort were first published in their mid or late-twenties, but there are many respected writers who didn’t get a book published until well into their thirties or forties. This particular list doesn't have anyone beyond that, though they are abound.

This list notes the age the author published their first work of long-form fiction, which in most cases is not their best known or most respected work. In fact, in my research I found that a few of these writes later disowned their first books. Also, Short stories, nonfiction and poetry are not counted here. Many of these ages are likely off by a few months due to when birthdays fall in relation to publication dates. Since many writers appear multiple times on the Modern Library list, I ordered them by their first appearance.


James Joyce: 34
F. Scott Fitzgerald: 24
Vladimir Nabokov: 27
Aldous Huxley: 27
William Faulkner: 29
Joseph Heller: 38
Arthur Koestler: 29
D.H. Lawrence: 26
John Steinbeck: 27
Malcolm Lowry: 24
Samuel Butler: 37
George Orwell: 31
Robert Graves: 30
Virginia Woolf: 33
Theodore Dreiser: 29
Carson McCullers: 23
Kurt Vonnegut: 30
Ralph Ellison: 38
Richard Wright: 30
Saul Bellow: 29
John O’Hara: 29
John Dos Passos: 24
Sherwood Anderson: 40
E.M. Forster: 26
Henry James: 35
James T. Farrell: 28
Ford Madox Ford: 18
Evelyn Waugh: 24
Robert Penn Warren: 34
Thornton Wilder: 29
James Baldwin: 29
Graham Greene: 26
William Golding: 43
James Dickey: 47
Anthony Powell: 26
Ernest Hemingway: 27
Joseph Conrad: 38
Henry Miller: 43
Norman Mailer: 25
Philip Roth: 26
Jack Kerouac: 28
Dashiell Hammett: 35
Edith Wharton: 38
Max Beerbohm: 39
Walker Percy: 45
Willa Cather: 39
James Jones: 30
John Cheever: 45
J.D. Salinger: 32
Anthony Burgess: 39
W. Somerset Maugham: 23
Sinclair Lewis: 27
Lawrence Durrell: 23
Richard Hughes: 29
V.S. Naipaul: 25
Nathanael West: 28
Muriel Spark: 39
Rudyard Kipling: 26
Wallace Stegner: 28
Elizabeth Bowen: 28
E.L. Doctorow: 29
Arnold Bennett: 37
Jack London: 27
Henry Green: 21
Salman Rushdie: 28
Erskine Caldwell: 26
William Kennedy: 41
John Fowles: 37
Jean Rhys: 38
Iris Murdoch: 35
William Styron: 26
Paul Bowles: 38
James M. Cain: 42
J.P. Donleavy: 29
Booth Tarkington: 30

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Couldn't help myself


I couldn't help but vandalize this poster with nerdy, nerdy graffiti. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thoughts on Borges: Fictions VS Stories

I've been reading the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges for the first time. I checked out Labyrinths, an American anthology of his work, from the library. Borges is associated with magical realism, but his work is a far cry from the modern north American developments in the genre, which in my experience are often just conventional stories with a monster thrown in. By contrast, the strangeness of Borges is as intricately constructed, with layers of modernism and metafiction, as the labyrinths that haunt his work.

Labyrinths is divided into three sections, Fictions, Essays and Parables, but these distinctions are more or less irrelevant. This is because to describe his fictions as stories, in the conventional sense, would be a misnomer. They are in a way essays, and in a way parables.

Few of his fictions have characters we can hold onto or dramatic conflict between two parties. Many involve narrators discovering  mysterious philosophical treatises or recalling distant conversations. Meta ideas appear throughout the book, such as in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote'" where a 20th century French writer tries to recreate Don Quixote, not by copying the text, but by writing until he came to the same ideas as Crevantes. This piece is not, like a story, made up of scenes, but follows the conventions of a literary review, sketching out Menard's publication history and influences. Though the narrator is a friend of Menard, he reveals no personal details and provides no images or flashbacks on their friendship. Meaning in this piece is construed through the metaphysical ideas examined by the narrator and his subject, not from action or conflict. This is how "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is both fictional, yet not a story.

Still, at times Borges demonstrates he does know how to tell a story when he goddamn well wants to, like in the existential detective tale "Death and the Compass."

I'm still not sure how I feel about Borges on the whole, but I appreciate reading anything that expands my view of how literature can act and what it can accomplish.

Photo credit: Grete Stern, 1951; via Wikipedia.

Shakespeare on Screen: Hamlet (1996)

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count 
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I 
have bad dreams.
—Act 2, scene 2


In the mid '90s, Kenneth Barnagh had a dream. A dream to make the biggest, longest, most spectacular, incredibly long Hamlet film for decades to come. Directing and starring in the film himself, and with a budget so huge, there was no way a four-hour production of an Elizabethan tragedy could ever hope to turn a profit, Barnagh created a luscious and delightful, albeit contentious film.

Casting: 8/10

Kenneth Branagh is the most controversial Shakespearean since John Wilkes Booth. You either love his fresh interpretations of the Bard, or you wish him in a burning barn being fired upon by Union soldiers. Branagh's Hamlet falters in some of the long monologues, but he has a truly brilliant interpretation of Hamlet's sense of humor, which of course angers people who don't have a sense of humor.


Branagh's non-traditional choices for some of the bit parts met with mixed results. Billy Crystal as the gravedigger is maybe the best Shakespearean clown ever on the screen, while Robin William's remained flat as the brown-nose courtier Osric. Luckily, the rest of the cast was helmed by veteran Shakespeareans. Derek Jacobi, who plays the king, performed the role of Hamlet in his younger days and was a major influence on Branagh's interpretation of the character.

Little known fact: Much like Booth, Branagh also killed a man in Ford's Theater.

Cinematography: 10/10

Branagh transports Hamlet to a 19th century palace. The clean, brightly lite halls lack the gloom of prior film adaptations, but present a more decadent view of King Claudius' court. Each shot is decked in lavish colors and framed like a painting.

Some people just have a hard time accepting a bleach-blond Victorian as Hamlet.

Interpretation: 9/10

This is the only word-for-word film of Shakespeare's longest play. Branagh seemed to be fearful of trying audience's patience, and so added a number fast-pace action scenes. The fencing scene, typically point in the play where the spectacle gets ramped up to 11, goes way over the top with Hamlet hurling a chandelier at his step-father. Much more radical is his decision to have the castle invaded by the Norwegian prince Fontibras during the duel.

Overall: 9/10

Despite a few flaws, this movie is still the definitive adaptation of Hamlet. It's beautiful to watch, a real treat, provided you aren't one of those people who want to see Baranagh tried for treason.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Shakespeare on Screen: Julius Caesar (1953)

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves.
—Act 1, Scene 2

MGM presents this star-studded Hollywood classic of Shakespeare's drama of political corruption and power. A group of Roman senators suspect Caesar might seize the power of a monarch. Through flattery and deceit, even Caesar's friend Brutus is roped into the scheme. The complex characterizations that make viewers unsure who to root for mark this as one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, and MGM's production brings it to life as one of the greatest Shakespeare films.

Casting: 10/10

Each actor brings remarkable depth to their character. Shakespeare veteran John Gielgud's portrayal of Cassius, the sour and jealous conspirator, brings sensitivity to this otherwise unsympathetic character during the tense final scenes of the film. James Mason is equally brilliant as the honorable but tormented Brutus. But the real break out performance of the film is Marlon Brando in an Oscar-nominated role as Caesar's avenger, Marc Antony. Just watch this clip from the famed "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech.




Cinematography: 8/10

The vast and historically accurate sets of this film, which won the Oscar for best black-and-white art direction, are old Hollywood at its finest. They are beautiful without asserting their presence over the fine acting. The streets, busy with construction and bustling crowds, create a realistic atmosphere in that classic "cast of thousands" sort of way. One major drawback however, is the long unbroken shots in the early scenes that gave off a stagey vibe.



Interpretation: 8/10

Like many Shakespeare films, it is true to the text but with substantial cuts. The most noticeable change is the shrinking of Octavius's part. By reducing the role of Caesar's adopted son and cutting out the power-plays between him and Marc Antony, the film minimizes the cracks already appearing in the Triumvirate. We also miss Octavius gradually assuming the name of Caesar—the event that sounds the death toll for the republic the conspirators bloodied their hands to save, and reviles that Caesar's spirit, the spirit of a tyrant, will never die.

Overall: 9/10

This movie is easy to understand and watch. Great for any fan of Shakespeare, Brando or classic Hollywood.

Image source: IMDB

Murakami's "After Dark"

So this is the third Murakami book I've read. I loved Kafka on the Shore, but this one and After the Quake were kind of meh.

In After Dark we (the narrator) are watching a group of semi-connected characters out all night in a Tokyo entertainment district. The main character is a 19-year old student named Mari who is willfully avoiding home. After a chance encounter with a one-time date, she is forced out of her comfort zone and into a love hotel, where she has to translate for a Chinese prostitute who has been beat up by a john. The set up is pretty interesting. Like a typical Murakami novel, there are jazz references and philosophical conversations aplenty.

And also like a Murakami novel, the story quickly becomes surreal. We (the reader) become increasingly aware of the voyeuristic nature of "we" (the narrator), a disembodied being whose sight is bound like a movie camera. People's reflections are staying in the mirror after they leave the room. Mari's sleeping sister is transported to a room guarded by a man with no face. Ultimately, I didn't feel any resolution for any of these elements, which left me disappointed at the end of the book.

If anybody has any suggestions for a more satisfying Murakami novel, I'd love to hear them.