Tag Archives: The New Yorker

Saul Bellow to Joanna Newsom

As so often happens, 24 hours after blogging about Joanna Newsom’s “Good Intentions Paving Company,” I read this:

I thought to do some good by giving an interview to PeopleI, which was exceedingly foolish of me. I asked Aaron [Asher] to tell you that the Good Intentions Paving Company had fucked up again.

From The New Yorker, that was Saul Bellow writing to Philip Roth, 26 years ago. The series of letters, all written by Bellow, are only for subscribers, but would be worth your while. I found myself struck by how open the letters were. Do people send e-mails like this? I suppose they might. To Cynthia Ozick:

I have become such a solitary, and not in the Aristotelian sense: not a beast, not a god. Rather, a loner troubled by longings, incapable of finding a suitable language and despairing at the impossibility of composing messages in a playable key – as if I no longer understood the codes used by the estimable people who wanted to hear from me and would have so much to reply if only the impediments were taken away.

There was also this, to Roth again:

I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do about the journalists; we can only hope that they will die off as the deerflies to towards the end of August.

So true!

Replacing Glimmerglass Eyes

The University of Texas recently landed the archive of David Foster Wallace. It seemed like a random location to me, until I read this, by D.T. Max in The New Yorker a few years back:

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the literary archive of the University of Texas at Austin, contains thirty-six million manuscript pages, five million photographs, a million books, and ten thousand objects, including a lock of Byron’s curly brown hair. It houses one of the forty-eight complete Gutenberg Bibles; a rare first edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel, thought poorly printed, and which they suppressed; one of Jack Kerouac’s spiral-bound journals for “On the Road”; and Ezra Pound’s copy of “The Waste Land,” in which Eliot scribbled his famous dedication: “For E. P., miglior fabbro, from T. S. E.” Putting a price on the collection would be impossible: What is the value of a first edition of “Comus,” containing corrections in Milton’s own hand? Or the manuscript for “The Green Dwarf,” a story that Charlotte Brontë wrote in minuscule lettering, to discourage adult eyes, and then made into a book for her siblings? Or the corrected proofs of “Ulysses,” on which James Joyce rewrote parts of the novel? The university insures the center’s archival holdings, as a whole, for a billion dollars.

There are some delightful author-related nuggets. Here’s Don DeLillo:

The painstaking nature of DeLillo’s method can be seen in his drafts for “Underworld” (2001), which began as a novella, “Pafko at the Wall,” composed in 1991. He goes through a dozen pages to settle on the language of the opening two paragraphs, in which a Harlem teen-ager named Cotter Martin gets ready to jump the turnstile at the Polo Grounds to see the famous 1951 Dodgers-Giants playoff game. The first page in the folder already captures the agitated mentality of a hurrying city: “It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom. The longing to be here, standing in the shadow of this old rust-hulk of a structure, is too hard to resist—this metropolis.” DeLillo breaks off and starts again: “It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom, the box of forty blank faces.” He pauses, then alters the image to “the box of forty mismatched heads.” He returns to his original riff: “It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom and it’s not a matter of midweek blues.” Then he drops “midweek blues,” but introduces the idea of melancholy in a lovely pair of sentences: “Most longings go unfulfilled. This is the word’s wistful implication.” He transforms these two sentences into one: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history.”

Five years later, DeLillo turns to these words again, for the prologue to “Underworld.” He wants a new first paragraph to precede the earlier one. “Look at the kid with the empty pockets” becomes “Look at the kid with the lively eyes”; he then changes “lively eyes” to “glimmerglass eyes.” (Glimmerglass eyes? He amends it in pencil: “shine in his eyes.”) A few pages later, he returns to the image: “He speaks in your voice, American, and has a shine in his eyes that’s half hope, half fear.” DeLillo replaces the end of the sentence with the smoother “halfway hopeful.” After a few more tweaks, he has merged Bellow with Gershwin: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful. It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom. He wants to be here instead, standing in the shadow of this old rust-hulk of a structure, and it’s hard to blame him—this metropolis of steel and concrete and flaky paint and cropped grass and enormous Chesterfield packs aslant on the scoreboards, a couple of cigarettes jutting from each. Longing on a large scale is what makes history.”

Red the full story here.

Political dope

I just stumbled upon David Grann’s 2004 profile of Mark Halperin, he of the latest gossip-fest about the 2008 campaign. If you avoided the story, just read this to know everything you need to know about the concerns over the book – and Grann wrote this five years before the book came out!

“There is always some new tidbit,” Mark Halperin said. “You just have to ferret it out.” It was the first day of the Republican Convention, in New York, and although the sun had not yet risen, he had already laid out all he needed for his peculiar trade—three television monitors, a laptop, a BlackBerry, a cell phone, a pager—in a makeshift space on the fifth floor of Madison Square Garden. Outside the Washington establishment, Halperin is known, if at all, as a journalist (his official title is political director of ABC News), but within it he is considered the leading purveyor of inside dope. As the founder of The Note, a political news digest that appears on the ABC News Web site each weekday morning by eleven o’clock, he collects information the way bookies keep tabs on the latest odds, or photographers chase the fading light. He collects polling data, no matter what the time of year or the size of the sample. He collects any rise or fall—even the smallest blip—in the projected electoral count. He also collects dirt, such as the unsealed divorce records of Jack Ryan, a Senate candidate from Illinois, which detailed visits to an alleged “sex club,” and which forced Ryan out of the race. He collects other things, too: arcane statistics from documents that government agencies churn out but few read; embargoed political books (The Note footnoted Kitty Kelley’s gossipy portrait of the Bush family twenty-four hours before it was released, beneath the teaser “Here Kitty, Kitty”); wire reports; radio transcripts; pieces of legislation; the guest lists of Georgetown dinner parties; and other minutiae that are of little interest to the ordinary citizen but are essential to his calling (“2:00 p.m.: Sen. John Kerry and his family hold a barbeque at the Heinz Farm, Fox Chapel, Pa”). Mostly, though, Halperin collects leaks and scuttlebutt from the campaign consultants, strategists, pollsters, pundits, and journalists who make up the modern-day political establishment, or what Halperin calls “the Gang of 500.”

The story gave me a building sense of horror as it went on – sort of like The Hurt Locker, without actual bombs. Here’s to reasoned, thoughtful, narrative argumentation.

Chris Ware in The New Yorker

In other cartoon related news, I’ve never read The Watchmen, or any graphic novel for that matter. I may now, after reading Chris Ware’s brief, startling graphic short-story for The New Yorker’s cartoon issue. He did the cover, which feeds into the two-page story he tells. It’s worth a subscription alone:

Click through to experience the whole thing.

This Week’s Best Profile

A classic. One of the best, simply. It’s Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, with his article “The Last of the Metrozoids”:

In the spring of 2003, the American art historian Kirk Varnedoe accepted the title of head coach of a football team called the Giant Metrozoids, which practiced then every week in Central Park. It was a busy time for him. He had just become a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, after thirteen years as the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and he was preparing the Mellon Lectures for the National Gallery of Art in Washington – a series of six lectures on abstract art that he was supposed to deliver that spring. He was also dying, with a metastasis in his lung of a colon cancer that had been discovered in 1996, and, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, he was running through all the possible varieties of chemotherapy, none of which did much good, at least not for very long.

The Giant Metrozoids were not, on the face of it, much of a challenge for him.

You really should subscribe, you know? Then you could read this opus from beginning to end, straight through, here. As it is, you’ll have to settle for working through it in fits and starts thanks to this blog. Start from the bottom, ya cheapskates.

This Week’s Best Profile(s)

Two for one this week, an oldie and a newbie, both goodies. There’s a theme, too. First, the oldie – Charles Pierce on the 21-year old deity that was Tiger Woods, for GQ (reprinted here, for a rather unexplained reason, at Esquire):

There is no place in the gospel of the church of Tiger Woods for jokes like this one:

Why do two lesbians always get where they’re going faster than two gay guys?

Because the lesbians are always going sixty-nine.

Is that blasphemous?

Is it?

It is an interesting question, one that was made sharper when Tiger looked at me and said, “Hey, you can’t write this.”

“Too late,” I told him, and I was dead serious, but everybody laughed because everybody knows there’s no place in the gospel of Tiger for these sorts of jokes. And Tiger gave the photographer his hour, and we were back in the car with Vincent and heading back toward Tiger’s mother’s house. “Well, what did you think of the shoot?” Tiger asks, yawning, because being ferried by a limousine and being handled by beautiful women and being photographed for a magazine cover that will get him laid 296 times in the next year, if he so chooses, can be very exhaustive work. “The key to it,” he says, “is to give them a time and to stick to it. If I say I’m there for an hour, I’m there, on time, for an hour. If they ask for more, I say, ‘Hell, fuck no.’ And I’m out of there.”

Hell, fuck no?

Is that blasphemous?

Is it?

And from last week, Kelefa Sanneh on the pretty racist, mostly fascist, sort of hatemongering, definitely crazy-sounding Michael Savage in The New Yorker (subscription required…just go buy it):

Savage abhors animal cruelty (though not as much as he abhors the animal-rights movement), and, as many listeners know, his interest in the natural world predates his identity as a firebrand: he is a scientist by training, and before he became a talk-show host he was the author of more than a dozen books on alternative medicine. Somehow, the years of research made him not a chipper health nut but a melancholy fatalist, all too aware that every day brings with it a new dose of poison fore his beleaguered body. “Theoretically when I get off the air I should go run, I should walk, I should bicycle, I should do a treadmill,” he told his listeners, while lamenting that he never followed his own advice. He offered a synopsis of the night before: “The worst thing you could do is go to dinner. I went to dinner. The second-worst thing you could do is have two drinks. I had two beers. The third-worst thing you could do is come right home and watch television. I came right home and watched television. I didn’t sleep another minute last night. One nightmare after another.” He sighed. “I’ll do the same thing again tonight.”

What do they both have in common? Neither was particularly well-received by certain groups: Tiger-lovers (i.e. everyone) were miffed by Pierce’s construction of the theretofore untouchable Woods as a regular 21-year old frat brother with an ungodly smooth backswing; liberals can’t much stand thinking that a conservative talking head of undeniably vulgar quality (Sanneh notes as much) could possibly have a, well, human side. He does. Tiger did too. That’s what makes these profiles so illuminating and engaging and enlightening.

It’s one thing to just go write contrarian profiles for the hell of it (Esquire, for all its wondrous experimentation, is a prime offender). It’s quite another to write a story that actually tells us something about a people and the truth and life.

Can you teach it?

Writing, that is. Louis Menand asks that question in this week’s New Yorker, the summer fiction issue:

Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem.

Eek. He’s talking about writing workshops, which seems a pretty apt description. I would tend to fall on the side that says creative writing classes are great…to a point. It has certainly helped me think more critically about my own writing, but a class or workshop or professor can’t give me something insightful or meaningful to say. That’s the hard part.

So, take those writing classes. But do some other learnin’ too.