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Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

An Interview with Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style

“Sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.”—Jenny Davidson

The following is an interview with Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

Q: You’re a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature, a novelist, and a blogger; how did these three hats you wear inform your approach to writing Reading Style?

Jenny Davidson: From my point of view, those three hats—scholarship, fiction-writing, blogging—are part of a single fully integrated set of activities, and I wrote this book partly to show what that means for me as a reader and writer. The separation between scholarship and fiction-writing has always seemed to me largely artificial—I will write a novel because there’s a problem or topic that I’ve pursued as far as I can by scholarly means and want to think about further in a different medium, and the same thing goes in the other direction. Blogging is something I took up about ten years ago: it was largely for my own enjoyment, with some minor self-promotional aspect I suppose, but I found as I continued to do it that it became an excellent way to develop and refine an easy, fluent critical voice that I could then take back into the more formal kinds of criticism I also write.

Q: In an age of “big data” and “distant reading,” why have you decided to focus on the sentence?

JD: Not so much a choice as a compulsion, I think. Work by new media theorists and literary scholars like Lev Manovich and Franco Moretti is motivated in part by a sense of the insufficiencies of the kind of mainstream historicist literary criticism that predominates inside the academy in the United States. My own dissatisfaction with that kind of criticism increasingly stemmed from the sense I had that the kinds of interpretation I practiced in the classroom were at least as exciting and revealing as anything I was doing in my published scholarship, but that for some reason the professional protocol seemed to be that I couldn’t just “do” that kind of very close work with sentences in print. I’m kicking back against that here, and I’m interested in thinking more about how to explain and defend a methodology that is related to some older kinds of formalism—as practiced by critics like Roman Jakobson and Victor Shklovskii—and even to the New Criticism or Cambridge-style practical criticism in the tradition of I. A. Richards, but that also benefits from the insights of other more obviously historicized and politicized schools of criticism.

That is a fancy way, though, of saying that sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.

Q: You begin the book by acknowledging that you’ve always been bothered by the notion that literature can “teach” us about life. What do we miss out on when we focus on the “lessons” of literature?

JD: That opening is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, in that obviously we do learn things about life from literature, and I have hugely enjoyed books like Alain de Bouton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, Sarah Bakewell’s Montaigne biography and Rebecca Mead’s recent book about a lifetime of reading Middlemarch. But when it’s done with less sensitivity than these authors muster, it often leads to a kind of oversimplification—a lack of attention to what the books are actually doing, how they work—that makes me really annoyed. I will read novels by Austen or Henry James again and again neither because of the psychological insights they offer nor because of how those insights might illuminate aspects of my own experience in the world, but rather because the sentences are utterly ravishing, and because there is nowhere else on earth I can learn the things these books teach about narration and the techniques and conventions by which human experience is translated into language.


Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Book Giveaway! Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, by Jenny Davidson

Reading Style: A Life in Sentences

This week our featured book is Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, by Jenny Davidson.

In addition to features on our blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Reading Style to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, June 27 at 1:00 pm.

“Jenny Davidson has the rare gift of being warmly analytical—highly intelligent but never mandarin, authoritative and intimate at the same time. Reading her discussions of writers ranging from Marcel Proust to Wayne Koestenbaum—by way of Jonathan Lethem and George Eliot—is like being in the company of a very clever friend as she unfolds the treasures of her bookshelf.” — Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch

Read the chapter, “Lord Leighton, Liberace, and the Advantages of Bad Writing: Helen DeWitt, Harry Stephen Keller, Lionel Shriver, George Eliot”:

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Laura Frost on Bloomsday, James Joyce, David Foster Wallace and the Pleasures of Unpleasure

James Joyce, Bloomsday

“The modernist legacy, its essential ambivalence, continues, and let us hope that it does, for it signals not only the continuing problem with plea­sure but also pleasure’s continuing potency.”—Laura Frost

In honor of Bloomsday, we offer an excerpt from the coda to The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents by Laura Frost. In the excerpt Frost notes the popularity of Ulysses beyond the confines of academia but also recognizes the popular perception that it is a difficult, unpleasurable book more talked about than actually read. She goes on to explore how Ulysses exemplifies modernism’s relationship to both difficulty and pleasure and how this dichotomy has been explored more recently by David Foster Wallace:

While general audiences, living through a time of political and social upheaval, dazed from one war and about to enter another, embraced mass culture amusement, modernist writers took up the mantle of arduous, deliberate pleasure as a defense of language, con­templation, and the autonomy of art. As their work confirms, even as they expounded the charms of unpleasure, they were constantly aware of the attractions of “the tepid bath of nonsense,” as Huxley put it.

Cut … to the Upper West Side of Manhat­tan in our time, to Symphony Space, a venue known for its annual live reading of selections from Ulysses on June 16. The Bloomsday celebra­tion, like others around the country and the globe, indicates how mod­ernism—even high modernism—has been embraced and absorbed not just into the academy but into contemporary culture. And yet on the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday in 2004, British and American newspapers noting the event found a way to emphasize Ulysses’s repu­tation as the most famous unread novel of the twentieth century. The New York Times observed that Ulysses “has come to stand as the apogee of ‘elitist’ literature” because of its “byzantine difficulty.” NPR pointed out that “the difficulty of reading Ulysses is as legendary as the novel itself.” And the BBC commented that “for all its renown and notoriety, it is a book that few have read and even fewer comprehend.”…

Clearly, modernism is alive in and outside the academy. However, it is worth noting which parts of modernism are foregrounded and which are sidelined or minimized. While the generation that canonized modernism and New Criticism promoted it as a thorny, complicated body of work, those features are not emphasized as much in recent modernist studies, which has notably sought to integrate the vernacu­lar modernisms of “Gertrude’s Paris” into the field. Perhaps it is inevi­table that once we have mastered modernism’s maneuvers, its knots are unraveled and its edgy energy is diminished. Modernist unplea­sure, a defining feature of this literature, may register most forcefully with the first-time reader who struggles with linguistic and narrative innovation. To sense this textual unpleasure is to recover what made modernism surprising, shocking, and challenging in its own time….


Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Excerpt from The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s by Mary Helen Washington

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington.

In this excerpt Washington discusses the important, but often overlooked, role of the Communist Party and the radical left in both supporting Black writers and artists as well as shaping the themes and aesthetics of their work:

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Video: Mary Helen Washington on African American and the Communist Party

In the following video, Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, explains how her Catholic upbringing in the 1950s led to an interest in the relationship between African Americans and the Communist Party. She describes how Communist newspaper in the United States became one of the few venues to provide serious discussions and coverage of African American literature during the 1950s. She also talks about her desire to see the work of radical African American artists and writers from this period become part of the canon:

Mary Helen Washington Video from UMD College of Arts & Humanities on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s

Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist

“I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of ‘integration’ but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.”—Mary Helen Washington

The following is an interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s:

Question: Why did you choose to focus on the 1950s?

Mary Helen Washington: I came of age in the early 1950s in Catholic schools in Cleveland, Ohio, fed on a steady diet of anticommunism at school, and, at home, a steady diet of integration, but both of those prescribed lessons—anticommunism and integration—separated me from the story of radical civil rights activity. While the black left of the 1950s was protesting discrimination on every front, from residential segregation to unions and factories, we black kids were being taught that integration meant blacks becoming acceptable to the white mainstream. When the left-leaning National Negro Labor Congress (NNLC) came to Cleveland for their 1952 conference, they staged a protest downtown against the airlines for refusing to hire blacks. Since stories like these were blacklisted by the anticommunists as well as the integrationists, black kids grew up in the 1950s with no access to a critical discourse on race. Radicals used terms like white supremacy and racial justice, not integration, while black kids were learning that we should dress, act, and speak a certain way as a marker of acceptability, radicals were defining integration as claiming the rights of citizenship—as you can see from the NNLC poster featuring the Statue of Liberty as a black woman.

Q: Why did you call the book The Other Blacklist?

MHW: Most of what we know about the McCarthy era focuses on the white left. Communism is seen as a white left radicalism, though black civil rights activists were deeply involved in radical movements in the 1940s and 1950s. People who were investigated by J. Edgar Hoover for being communists were routinely asked if they were involved interracially because civil rights activity was considered radical. This is a very powerful and commendable radicalism that black people don’t get credit for. They weren’t the Hollywood Ten, but they were the New York/Chicago 100. There’s a fine documentary on screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo and his admirable resistance to HUAC, but there’s no documentary on black radicals like Alice Childress, Lloyd Brown, Julian Mayfield, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett or Lorraine Hansberry [some of the figures in my book], who also paid a price for their radicalism. I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of “integration” but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.

Q: You have a chapter called “Spycraft and the Black Literary Left.” Can you talk about the connection between government agencies, politics, and art?

MHW: Keep in mind that the Left and the Communist Party supported black artists when no one in white mainstream culture (with the exception of J. Edgar Hoover) showed any interest in black culture. They came to the defense of black culture because they saw art as a means to effect social and political change. One critic Willliam Maxwell says that Hoover should be considered an important historian of black culture becaue he always took black literary production seriously. The FBI files are thus a mixed blessing—a gold mine for biographical material because the FBI kept close track of the activities of radicals, and also a record of governmental abuse of artists and intellectuals. There’s a current play on Broadway about the life of Lyndon Johnson called All the Way that shows how relevant these issues still are. The character playing J. Edgar Hoover asks LBJ to justify his relationship with Martin Luther King because, Hoover claims, King is being advised by communists. The government, particularly in the age of McCarthy and Hoover, created the tradition of demonizing the Left that is still with us and that has resulted in the dismissal of an entire generation of black intellectuals and artists.

Q: Why is radicalism of the 1950s still relevant?

MHW: We’re grappling with the same issues today but without that radical perspective. I’m thinking about Rachel Jeantel in the Trayvon Martin case and all the discussion that was generated about Jeantel’s appearance and speech—the way she looked rather than the case itself. Another example is Paul Ryan saying “inner city” people live in a culture that doesn’t value work or doesn’t have a work ethic. And here we see how “inner city” becomes a code for “black.” The jurors from the Jordan Davis case in Florida, one white and one black, said that the Davis case, in which a black man was shot and killed because a white man thought his black music was too loud, was not about race. This kind of political illiteracy shows how and why we need what I call a critical racial discourse. As Boston Governor Deval Patrick said—“words matter.” Even more than words, the radical left—and, yes, I include communists– gave us examples of a powerful resistance. The Rosa Ingram case and the Trenton Six—which were also about racial violence inflicted on blacks– were fought in the courts, in the streets, and in African American artistic production. When Rosa Ingram was sentenced to death along with her two sons for killing a man she claimed had violently assaulted her, the left and civil rights groups organized the protests that eventually freed them, and, as part of that protest, artist Charles White made the Ingram case the subject of his 1949 drawing.


Monday, April 7th, 2014

Book Giveaway! The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington

The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, Mary Helen Washington

This week we will be featuring The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Other Blacklist to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and indicate your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 11 at 3:00 pm.

In The Other Blacklist, Mary Helen Washington recovers the vital role of 1950s leftist politics in the works and lives of modern African American writers and artists. While most histories of McCarthyism focus on the devastation of the blacklist and the intersection of leftist politics and American culture, few include the activities of radical writers and artists from the Black Popular Front. Washington’s work incorporates these black intellectuals back into our understanding of mid-twentieth-century African American literature and art and expands our understanding of the creative ferment energizing all of America during this period.

For more on the book, read an excerpt from the introduction.

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

William Gass

William Gass

Now that we are distributing Dalkey Archive Press, we are familiarizing ourselves or reviving our admiration for a variety of the authors on their list. One of these writers is William Gass, whose Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife is now available again.

Gass, of course, has been one of the most important writers of the past forty years and his work while always compelling can also be challenging. For those interested in exploring more about Gass’s work, here are three very different resources. First up is the aptly title Reading William Gass , a site curated and created by Stephen Schenkenberg, which collects recent news and reviews about Gass.

Two recent, but very different, interviews are also worth pointing out. In the How I Write Feature on The Daily Beast , Gass talks about, among other things, his morning routine, what makes him cry, what makes his laugh, his love for Westerns, and some of his favorite books. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
The manuscript of Omensetter’s Luck was stolen, and I had to rewrite it. But that story is not behind its publication. It fell into the hands of a wonderful agent and terrific editor, after it was rejected a dozen times.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
Not really, but the day I saw a stack of my books in a window of the Sorbonne comes close.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
Having passed the morning without scrapping the previous day.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
That they take place.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Don’t take my advice.

Also of interest are Gass’s instructions for the design of his epic masterpiece The Tunnel.

Finally, here is an extraordinary interview with Michael Silverblatt:

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: Zulfikar Ghose on Machado de Assis


“The modern short story as created by Chekhov, Kafka, Henry James, Conrad and Joyce is a marvel of world literature. Add Machado de Assis to that list and you will find yourself in a world of sheer magic.” — Zulfikar Ghose

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! In today’s edition of Thursday Fiction Corner, we have an excerpt from an article at Dawn.com by poet, novelist, and literary critic Zulfikar Ghose. In “The Real Magicians of Latin America,” Ghose discusses the writing of some of the great authors of Latin America, and argues that no such list could be complete without Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, whose newly translated Stories is newly available from Dalkey Archive Press. You can read the article in its entirety here.

The Real Magicians of Latin America
By Zulfikar Ghose

As has happened before in literary history, posterity’s impartial eye sees among the neglected shadows what a past age, blinded by the intense light in which it stared at the illumined famous, had all but completely missed. As our enchantment for the likes of Márquez and Vargas Llosa, which has been nourished and sustained by the publishing industry’s need to project writers of little more than ordinary stature as giants, diminishes, a more fastidiously discriminating perception shows us the figures who had been cast in the shadows. In South American fiction contemporaneous with Márquez is the remarkable Álvaro Mutis; before him Felisberto Hernandez, María Luísa Bombal, and Graciliano Ramos; and before them all, writing his best work at the end of the 19th century, the truly great Machado de Assis (1839-1908).

An unprecedented literary feast awaits readers for whom these names are new. Forget the thirdraters you were sold as geniuses, forget your Forsters and Hemingways, your Bellows and Lessings. Reader, come out of the tapas bar where you’ve been nibbling at stale, over-salted snacks and deluding yourself you’re at a banquet, come where your taste buds may experience ecstasy. A new English translation of the stories of Machado de Assis provides us with an occasion to commence this feast.


Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Interview with Caren Irr, author of Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

Toward the Geopolitical Novel, Caren IrrIn a wide-ranging interview with Critical Margins, Caren Irr discussed her new book Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century. In the book, Irr argues that one of the dominant trends in twenty-first century American fiction are works that have a multinational or global reach. More precisely the works of writers such as Edwidge Danticat, William Vollman, Junot Diaz, Chris Abani, Susan Choi, and others are geopolitical in the sense that they explore issues arising in international disputes, travel, or networks.

Irr contends that the work of these contemporary writers differs from twentieth-century political novels not only because of the preponderance of interest in the global but because of its more skeptical attitude toward ideology or political doctrine. Irr explains:

The internationalism of the Old Left is an important source for some of the writers working in a contemporary geopolitical vein, but the concern with ideology and political conversion so apparent in mid-20th century works is usually absent in the new writing. The newer authors almost never position themselves as part of an international political movement, and very often they seem to be more concerned with documenting global processes rather than urging readers to adopt particular positions on them. In that sense, they tend to be problem novels rather than persuasion novels.

In the interview Irr also discusses the different genres that make up the twenty-first century geopolitical novel:

The genres I used to organize my project are all modifications of important existing forms. The digital migrant novel emerges out of immigrant assimilation narratives. The Peace Corps fugue is a variation on the political thriller. Neoliberal allegories develop out of the national allegory, while contemporary revolutionary fiction fuses the historical novel with apocalyptic near future fiction. Expatriate satires largely build on and invert conventions of the classic expatriate narratives of the 1920s.


Thursday, February 20th, 2014

The Post-Book


As close readers of our blog might have noticed in our recent New Book Tuesday posts, we are now distributing Dalkey Archive Press. Needless to say, we are very excited to be working with one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation. Today, we have a fascinating excerpt from a conversation in BOMB Magazine’s BOMBlog between S. D. Chrostowska, author of Permission, and Kate Zabreno. The two “discuss Permission, the vagaries of readership and publicity, rag-bags, and the transgressive novel as essay, commodity, and monster.” You can read the interview in its entirety here.

The Post-Book
S. D. Chrostowska

… By semi-public I did not mean small presses and poetic novels. I am not arguing for writerly oblivion, for self-mortification for the sake of Literature, unless as a ritual of asceticism. The existence of this literature is, as you point out, largely funded, dependent on grants and academic support. I am not romanticizing this. And I share what I take to be your concern over the increasingly public nature of writing as encouraging automatic over-sharing and self-indulgence. I think the book industry still keeps a tight rein on this, but not for long as literary publishing continues its transition to the digital. The blog and the book each have something to offer us. The blog is great for unlacing, for defining oneself by overstepping limits normally in place or, in the way you conceive it, as a counterattack against self-censorship, against the self-discipline that leads to partial self-erasure. The idea that no one reads us does, as you say, liberate, and publicness constrains. Anonymity is not the answer because we identify with Anon too. Nor is the answer to the problems that come with publicity to be found in the handwritten diary—not, anyway, for the self-aware writer who expects his/her private work to fall into the hands of others. As the standards relax thanks to the fluidity of written communication, professionalism and relative formalization catch up with us in the permissive online environment, which is neither a womb nor a solipsistic mind.

I am trying to highlight that there is no escape from publicity if you are a dedicated writer. Giving it up is not an option. One can resist some of it, discipline oneself spiritually for being overly invested in one’s public self, distracted from core concerns. And one can certainly fight against its pernicious systemic effects. This is what I find so refreshing and valuable in your work.

Isn’t it possible for the tide to turn? For certain writers to become semi-private without feeling they are sacrificing something—ambition, praise, recognition? For writers to go underground, where it is safe to say that with the aid of modern technology their work will be preserved for those who come later when the tide turns again? For writers to embrace ephemerality, not as preparatory for the real work of writing, not as a means of working up to the world of the book, but as valid in itself? For writers—some writers at least, or for some of the time—to self-semi-publish? (more…)

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Marianne Hirsch on the MLA’s Resolution on Israel and Palestine

“When it comes to the topic of Israel and Palestine, discussion is curtailed before it begins. In a debate that is structured to allow only two clear-cut sides, words lose their meaning.”—Marianne Hirsch

Recent resolutions from the American Studies Association and the Modern Language Association have generated a lot of controversy as well as a lot of misunderstanding. In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marianne Hirsch, author of The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust clarifies not only the terms of the debate but what’s at stake.

In her essay, “The Sound of Silencing in American Academe,” Hirsch points out that the MLA’s recent resolution has been mischaracterized and was not a call for a boycott as some have suggested but rather “concerned restrictions on the freedom of travel for American students and faculty members of Palestinian descent to universities in the West Bank. Those restrictions are documented on the U.S. State Department website, and the resolution asked the MLA to urge the State Department to ‘contest’ them.”

Even before the discussion on the resolution at the recent MLA conference, Hirsch, who is the organization’s president, was subject to intimidation and received several e-mails and messages from American Jewish groups and others who (incorrectly) framed the MLA resolution as a boycott of Israel. These critics accused the MLA of being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, even going so far as to evoke the Nazis in their criticism of the organization. As Hirsch points out, this kind of hyperbole, which comes from both supporters and critics of Israel’s policy on Palestine, does little to advance the debate. Hirsch writes:

When it comes to the topic of Israel and Palestine, discussion is curtailed before it begins. In a debate that is structured to allow only two clear-cut sides, words lose their meaning.

Hirsch argues that in such an environment, words like “boycott” become especially inflammatory and their meaning becomes distorted. It is just this type of distortion, Hirsch argues, in which an organization like the MLA can actually help to further such a political debate. In the conclusion to her essay, she explains:

Many people have questioned the MLA’s right to intervene in politics. But isn’t it precisely our linguistic expertise that could help sort out the irreconcilable meanings of words, their irresponsible deployment, and the practices of silencing that ensue?

To create the space for the difficult conversations we need to have now and in the future, we must get beyond the silences imposed in the name of academic freedom. We need our academic leaders, our university presidents, not to condemn our scholarly associations, but rather to protect our right to have and to sponsor those important conversations free from harassment campaigns and pre-emptive threats.

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Salman Rushdie on the Role of Religion in Literature and the Literary Imagination

Salman Rushdie

Below is an excerpt from an edited transcript from the public discussion Salman Rushdie had with Gauri Viswanathan. The full transcript was recently published in the new book Boundaries of Toleration, edited by Alfred Stepan and Charles Taylor as part of our series, Religion, Culture, and Public Life. You can read more of the conversation here.

Gauri Viswanthan: Let me begin by asking a simple question, not about religion and the imagination, the title of this session, but about religion as imagination. If, as could be argued, conceptualizing an unseen power inherently involves human imaginings of the divine, what does the literary imagination add? Or what work does it do that is different from the religious imagination? Do you see yourself trying to recover, through literature, the impulses of a religious imagination before it freezes into theology, before experi­ence turns into a theological, ethical construct?

Salman Rushdie: Well, the first thing to say is that all literature began as sacred literature. That is to say, the beginnings of writings are religious, that the oldest written material that we have is all the product of one or another religious experience. It’s a long time, if you look at the history of literature, before literature separates itself from that articulation of religion. So there is something profound in the origins that link them.

The other thing is that religious language has had such a powerful effect, I think, on all of us, whether we are religious or not, that there aren’t words to express some things except religious words. For instance, if you think about a word like the soul, what does that mean if you are not a religious person? I don’t believe in an afterlife or a heaven or a hell and so on, and yet I feel that when I use that word it has some meaning. What could that meaning possibly be? There isn’t a secular word for that feeling that we are not only flesh and blood, that there is, as Arthur Koestler, said “a ghost in the machine.” Whether you are religious or not, you feel obliged to use language that has been shaped by religion in order to express things that may not have a religious purpose. So that’s a constant battle. But I think you are right to say that I’m not interested in devotion, and in that sense I’m not interested in writing books that express anything other than interhuman devotion, which is temporary.

Viswanathan: At the same time, I’ve read several writings of yours where you talk about both the beauty and the terror of religion, the ability of religion to inspire profound feelings of great beauty and maj­esty as well as to incite great bloodshed.

Rushdie: Yes, I was being polite.

Viswanathan: But I remember that you wrote this very evocative pas­sage—I think this was when you were in King’s College. You had gone to give a talk and you spoke about the architecture . . .

Rushdie: Yes, that’s true. You know, I grew up as a student looking out of my window at King’s College chapel, and it’s hard not to believe in the capacity of religion to create beauty when King’s College chapel is out­side your window, this exquisite thing. Then I was asked to speak there, and one of the things that I thought would never happen to me in my life is that I would deliver the sermon in King’s College chapel. There are moments when your life surprises you.

And I have to tell you, apropos of nothing, I learned from doing that why priests speak the way they do. It’s because of the echo. They said to me, “You know, it’s ninety-two feet high, it’s stone, there is no carpet, and if you speak in an ordinary speaking voice then your echo comes back at you and no one can hear a word you are saying.” And—so you have to—speak—like this. You have to say—what you have to say—in this way. And suddenly you understand how preachers do it, and it’s because of the echo. There is a metaphor lurking in there somewhere.

Viswanathan: So do you see something about aesthetics that does have that religious sensibility?

Rushdie: Yes, what I’m saying is, I think there are different ways of getting there. It’s quite clear that religion has inspired people to cre­ate things of incredible beauty and also that people of no religion have created things of incredible beauty. So there is nothing intrinsic about religion that makes it the way of getting there, but it is a way of getting there. I think it’s true that you can listen to great religious music, for example, you can look at icon painting, you can read Milton or Blake, and you can easily see the power of religious belief to create or to help to create beauty. And for me the great, the most useful thing has been the power of religion to create very strong metaphors. I’ve gone back often to what I call dead religions, what’s more commonly called mythology. But remember that the great Greek myths were once the religion of Greece, and Roman mythology was once the religion of Rome. It had all the apparatus of priests and anathemas and so on to defend it. Now that it doesn’t have that, we can simply look at it as text and, of course, you find in these stories astonishing amounts of meaning compressed into very, very small amounts of words.

When I was writing The Ground Beneath Her Feet, for example, I was studying the Orpheus myth. Now, you can express the whole story of Orpheus and Eurydice in less then one hundred words. It doesn’t really require more than five or six, what, ten sentences maybe, and yet the amount of complexity pushed into that very small story is almost inexhaustible. You have this very complex examination of the relation­ship between love, art, and death, and you can turn it this way and that way. You can say that this story tells us—shows us—the power of art inspired by love to overcome death. Or, if you are feeling more pes­simistic, it can show us the power of death to destroy love, even when love is guided by art.

There isn’t a single reading; there are many readings. That’s some­thing that living religions also have in common. There is not a single way of reading the text; there are very rich and complex ways of reading these texts. If you’re in the text business, you’re very interested to see how much power can be concentrated in how little in these ancient works. So it’s been very important for me to examine that.


Monday, January 13th, 2014

Kenneth Goldsmith on Shia LaBoeuf

Shia LaBoeuf    Kenneth Goldsmith

“Anyone who has worked with shared and borrowed materials for a long time knows that there is a certain degree of craft involved, something LaBeouf has no clue about. Plagiarizing well is hard to do. Had he done it well, he might not have gotten the blowback that he has.”—Kenneth Goldsmith

Perhaps, it was only a matter of time before the controversy surrounding Shia LaBoeuf’s plagiarizing of Daniel Clowes would circle back to Kenneth Goldsmith, author of Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age.

In an e-mail interview with Bleeding Cool about his use Clowes’s work, LaBoeuf used the published words of several thinkers including Goldsmith to explain his actions. Quoting Goldsmith, LaBoeuf wrote, “It’s not plagiarism in the digital age – it’s repurposing” In light of LaBoeuf’s interview, the controversy surrounding his various apologies, including the use of both Twitter and sky writing, Nailed interviewed Goldsmith to get his take on the various issues raised by the controversy.

Goldsmith believes that the LaBoeuf scandal has been helpful in “jump-starting a conversation that needs to happen” regarding notions of authorship and originality in the digital age. He also believes that LaBoeuf’s unorthodox round of apologies and non-apologies has been interesting and productive. Goldsmith explains:

Instead of the usual rounds of apologies and promising to do better next time, he’s had a change of mind, one that says, hey, maybe what I did wasn’t so bad if I could frame it properly. So, in the aftermath, he’s scrambled to cite folks who have thought long and hard about how to view cultural materials as shared, rather than proprietary, as befits the digital age.

However, Goldsmith also believes that LaBoeuf’s methods did not work quite so well:

That said, [LaBoeuf's] plagiarizing of those materials and apologies and so forth, have been very sloppy, and as such, not tremendously convincing. Anyone who has worked with shared and borrowed materials for a long time knows that there is a certain degree of craft involved, something LaBeouf has no clue about. Plagiarizing well is hard to do. Had he done it well, he might not have gotten the blowback that he has.


Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Interview with Gaurav Desai, author of Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India, and the Afrasian Imagination

Commerce with the UniverseThe following is an interview with Gaurav Desai, author of Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India, and the Afrasian Imagination:

Question: The subtitle of your book refers to the “Afrasian” Imagination. Can you explain the term “Afrasian”?

Gaurav Desai: My book is concerned with the ways in which a number of individuals and communities that have historically traversed the Indian Ocean have imagined their lives and their interactions with communities that have been ethnically and culturally different from their own. The book, for the most part, looks at narratives of South Asians in East Africa writing in the twentieth century, but I frame their lives in the longer history of commerce across the Indian Ocean ever since antiquity.

I dedicate a chapter on Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land which itself provides a theoretical and methodological model for reading such lives contrapuntally. Here the life and travel of a twelfth century Tunisian Jewish merchant and his Indian slave Bomma gets read against more contemporary travels across the Indian Ocean. In invoking the term “Afrasian,” which, incidentally I borrow from Michael Pearson, I hope, like him, to signal an inclusive space of exchange that is not ethnocentrically delineated. My usage of the term “Afrasian” is meant not to delineate a particular ethnic community – such as South Asians in East Africa – but rather the entire nexus of individuals who have historically crossed (and continue to cross) what we have conventionally called the “Indian” Ocean. Thus, the Tunisian Jew Ben Yiju is as much of an Afrasian as the twentieth century merchant Kalidas Nanji Mehta who is also the subject of one of my chapters.

Q: In some senses, your own biography interests with the concerns of the book. Reading through your book, one gets the distinct sense of an author who is working with lived knowledge, presenting a first-hand account of the lives and texts of South Asians in Africa. Yet, you only address this in the last few paragraphs of the book.

GD: I chose not to situate my personal history upfront, since I didn’t want the book to be read as being about me. But in a way, it is true that my readings of both the fictional and autobiographical narratives by South Asians in East Africa draw on my experience as an Indian teenager moving from Bombay (now Mumbai) to East Africa (first Nairobi and then Dar es Salaam) in the early eighties. I am sure that even the texts that I chose to focus on address questions and concerns that I have privately pursued for a long time.

To give just one concrete example – one of the prevalent stereotypes that I challenge in the book is that of the Indian businessman or corporate manager as being someone completely lacking interest in literature and the arts. This stereotype has always wrung false to me since my own interest in literature and theater was most enthusiastically nurtured by my father who happened to be one of those corporate types. When I turned in the book to what some might call CEO narratives – those of Mehta, Madhvani and Manji – I was more interested in looking at the role of literature, art and the imagination in shaping their lives than in any practical wisdom that they might have to offer to aspirant CEOs. In a broader framework, I was keen on exploring the connections between the world of commerce and the imaginative world of literature in order to suggest that what many consider to be antithetical pursuits may not necessarily be so.


Monday, January 6th, 2014

C. T. Hsia, 1921-2013

C. T. Hsia

We were very sad to learn of the death of legendary Chinese literary critic C. T. Hsia at the age of 92. Columbia University Press was fortunate to publish several of Hsia’s works including C. T. Hsia on Chinese Literature and the forthcoming The Columbia Anthology of Yuan Drama, which he co-edited with Wai-yee Li and George Kao.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Harvard professor and literary scholar and editor of our series Global Chinese Culture, David Der-wei Wang discussed the work and legacy of Hsia and his lasting impact on the study of modern Chinese literature. Hsia, Wang suggests, is responsible for introducing modern Chinese literature to the West and championing such writers as Qian Zhongshu, Shen Congwen, and Eileen Chang.

Hsia’s career as a scholar of modern Chinese literature was in many ways a result of Cold War politics. In the interview, Wang explains:

[Hsia] wanted to pursue a degree in English literature and was caught in the so-called Cold War cultural politics of the 1950s. This was a young man with great expectations. He loved English literature and European culture. He grew up in cosmopolitan Shanghai, then the civil war happened in China and he got stranded and couldn’t go back. And couldn’t find a good position in the U.S. at a college…

In 1951, David Rowe [a professor of political science at Yale University] hired him to compile a manual for the Korean War: “China: An Area Manual.” He got bored and left, but along the way he gathered a real knowledge of Chinese literature, something he didn’t have before that. Eventually he became more and more involved in Chinese literature studies. In the 1950s, there was no field called modern Chinese literature, so the publication of his book in 1961 [History of Modern Chinese Fiction], that was a big thing. That was a book that made him famous in the West. As a result, a discipline was established.

Hsia’s career was not without controversy. He was often criticized for his Euro-centric, anticommunist stance as well as his New Critical criteria. He also advanced the provocative and influential perspective that Chinese writers have had an “obsession with China,” sometimes to the detriment of the literature. Again, Wang explains:

[Hsia] reviewed the development of Chinese fiction to the end of the 1960s and how people were obsessed with the malaise in their own nation. They didn’t have the energy or the mind to turn their attention to anywhere outside China. And they saw China as a center of malaise and injustice. He felt it was a self-defeating attitude that cut two ways. In one way it could produce a true sense of urgency in an old empire, an old civilization. But he found all that an almost sadistic culture, and he used the term to critique Chinese modernity.

He argued, we need to look beyond China to really engage with the world, with Western civilization, even if was sick too. Kafka, Joyce and Proust would never have ghettoized the problems of their own civilization. He argued, if only Chinese writers could have the magnanimity to look beyond their own culture. Parochialism is the word he liked to use.


Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Natsume Soseki: The Merits and Flaws of -isms

Light and Dark

This week our featured book is Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Sōseki, translated with an introduction by John Nathan. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book, its author, and its translator on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have an excerpt from our earlier Sōseki publication, the nonfiction collection The Theory of Literature. In this essay, Sōseki addresses the use of “-isms” in literature and literary theory.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Light and Dark!

The Merits and Flaws of -isms
Natsume Sōseki

This brief essay, first published in the Asahi newspaper on July 23, 1910, constitutes one of Sōseki’s most direct responses to the literary theories of the Naturalist (shizenshugi) school of fiction, which held sway in Japanese literary circles at the time. While Naturalists advocated a confessional literature that sought to represent even the ugliest truths about human existence, Sōseki here advocates a more fluid view of literary value.

Generally what we call -isms or doctrines refer to something that a man of meticulous character has conjured up by sorting through an infinite number of facts, thereby making it easier for us to abstract them and store them neatly in the drawers of our minds. Because they are tightly bound and nicely tucked away, it is rather tedious to take them apart and tiresome to pull them out; as such, they often prove useless when needed. In this respect, most -isms are unlike the compass chariots that provide direct guidance in our daily lives and instead are mere filing cabinets created to satisfy our intellectual curiosity. They are not so much a composition as an index to one.

Simultaneously, many -isms take shape when a number of arbitrary yet similar examples are filtered through a relatively sophisticated mind and are further condensed by it. It isn’t exactly a form but more like the contours of one. It has no substance. We preserve only the contours of things and discard their substance for the same reason we carry paper money instead of coins—it is convenient for small human beings. (more…)

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

John Nathan’s Introduction to Light and Dark

Light and Dark

This week our featured book is Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Sōseki, translated with an introduction by John Nathan. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book, its author, and its translator on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. John Nathan is an internationally renowned translator and schoalar who has brought the novels of Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe to English-speaking audiences. Today, we provide his Introduction to Light and Dark, in which he puts the novel into historical and literary context.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Light and Dark!

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Philip Kitcher on beauty and love in Death in Venice

Deaths in Venice

This week our featured book is Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher. Today, we have an excerpt from “Beauty,” the second chapter of Deaths in Venice, in which Kitcher discusses the philosophical concepts of love and beauty Thomas Mann deals with in his novella.

Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Deaths in Venice!

Philip Kitcher

Aschenbach, von Aschenbach, is introduced to us as one who has dedicated his art to moral education, although we do not know the extent to which he has refined the norms current in his society. His life, too, insofar as it is lived in public, moves gracefully through the bourgeois world. We might worry a little about the circumstances under which the finely chiseled prose is generated—and not just that final page and a half on the beach—the hours of dedicated and often painful struggle. Perhaps the contrast between the grace of the surface and the austere discipline behind it is itself a kind of confidence trick. The major question to Aschenbach’s successful reconciliation of the roles of ideal artist and ideal citizen is, however, posed by the embodiment of beauty in Tadzio not, in the first place, because of the direction of the longings evoked but because of the moral obfuscation to which it leads. One moved by beauty to perceive the good would not connive at the venal deceptions of the Venetian authorities.

The perception of the boy convinces—or perhaps reminds—Aschenbach that there is a kind of beauty—call it “higher beauty”—to which his prose has hitherto been inadequate. Even in the presence of that higher beauty, Aschenbach fails to capture it—and recognizes his own failure. On the evening when he waits anxiously for the Poles to return, the evening that will extort from him the self-confession of his love for the boy, that awareness is painful. “He [Tadzio] was more beautiful than it is possible to say, and Aschenbach felt, with pain as on many previous occasions, that words can only praise the beauty conveyed through the senses [die sinnliche Schönheit] but cannot fully reproduce it.” The struggles of the past decades have been so hard precisely because Aschenbach has striven to find the closest verbal approximation to higher beauty, persevering even though his efforts always disappoint (“Durchhalten!”). Tadzio’s presence is an opportunity to pursue this task, perhaps an impossible one, yet further, and the newly felt pain is not merely the result of a lover’s fears (Has the beloved left Venice?) but the realization that his words cannot match what is directly before him.

A very specific conception of the artist-educator, the Erzieher, is at work here. Art, at its greatest, is not simply the free creation of beauty but the creative response to a prior perception of higher beauty, a response that itself makes beauty accessible to those who have not had such perceptions. To play the role fully, a writer must reproduce higher beauty completely. Even though gestures and approximations may convey something, more is always demanded.

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Philip Kitcher on Luchino Visconti’s Morte a Venizia

Deaths in Venice

This week our featured book is Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher. Today, we have a couple brief excerpts from Deaths in Venice, in which Kitcher discusses Luchino Visconti’s film version of Mann’s novella, focusing particularly on the film’s ending and on the ways that the film differs from the novella and Britten’s opera. We’ve included a couple of clips from and about Visconti’s film, as well.

Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Deaths in Venice!

“Luchino Visconti’s film Morte a Venezia ends with Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach, hair dye and makeup streaming down his face, apparently suffering cardiac arrest on the beach–from which he is carted unceremoniously away by two attendants, The slow zoom out, with the figures becoming ever smaller and more anonymous, adds an ironic touch of Visconti’s own, a homage to Mann’s manner, even though both the ungainly configuration of the body–more like a heavy sack of fertilizer than the remains of a respected visitor–and the reduction of Aschenbach to a small speck seem quite at odds with the writer’s regained dignity in the novella’s final sentence.” — Philip Kitcher

Final scene