Satire and the Question of Taste

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In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a lot of takes on the tragic Charlie Hebdo massacre (see the Round Down for a good selection). One of the most common, and understandable, reactions from writers and thinkers has been the attempt to parse the sensitive cultural issues involved—this stems from the fact that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were often racist, specifically anti-Muslim. Add to this tangle the question of privilege: To whom does free speech really belong?

In this post, however, I will not lament the case of cartoons versus mass death. Many others have done it better before me. The issue I am interested in concerns the content of the cartoons. It is one of taste, and one of offense.

In 2006, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the controversial Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed: “As it happens, the cartoons themselves are not very brilliant, or very mordant, either.” The same could be said of the Charlie Hebdo illustrations that spurred the attack. They are not subtle. They are in fact so sophomoric that they seem to have found the low bar set by MAD magazine and ably limboed under. The drawings are emphatically not in good taste.

But why does good taste matter?Continue Reading

Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past: Visiting Authors’ Graves

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I’ve always liked cemeteries. Not in a morbid or macabre way. I’m not really a graver, a tombstone tender, stone stroller, death hag, or taphophile, I just like the quiet peace of cemeteries, those simple records of lives that came before.

My daughter has spent much of her childhood in cemeteries, giggling inappropriately over stones like those for women named “Tootie” and “Thankfully Dick” or the angel-wing–shaped monuments that resemble boobs. It was in a cemetery that she learned the word “phallic.” I, on the other hand, am fascinated by the eloquence of gravestones for the spare ways that they capture the characters of the dead.

That’s especially true of writers’ graves, which often strike me as peculiarly wordless monuments to lives lived by words. There is nothing, for instance, on the Cavendish, Prince Edward Island grave of Lucy Maud Montgomery that acknowledges her as the author of Anne of Green Gables. Scrollwork on the cemetery archway does proclaim it “The Resting Place of L.M. Montgomery,” as if another hundred people aren’t also buried there. Two pines guard her stone and a flower garden spreads out in front. A fence and chain provide added measures to keep tourists at bay. Montgomery’s husband, The Reverend Ewen MacDonald, is listed first, followed by “Lucy Maud Montgomery MacDonald,” identified only as “Wife of Ewan McDonald”—the more famous writer wife subsumed under her husband’s identity. In what strikes me as an amusingly passive aggressive move, his name has been misspelled in the second reference.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Night Island” by Mary Helen Specht

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I’m a believer that some story shapes lend themselves more readily to pieces of different lengths. The shape of Mary Helen Specht’s story, “Night Island” (Prairie Schooner, Winter 2014), is risky and surprising, and might not work as well in a longer story or novel. But it’s what allows her six-hundred-word flash fiction piece to resonate at the depth of a much larger story.

The author quickly situates us in tropical Panama using rich sensory details. We find Isabella and Billy, two environmental researchers, on a tropical beach stalking a leatherback turtle, “phosphorescent plankton throwing off light in response to each footstep.” They’re hoping to recover the turtle eggs from the mother’s nesting site, then move them to a more suitable place to bury them—one not easily found by poachers.

While they go about their task, we get hints of Isabella and Billy’s attraction to each other: their arms touching, their legs touching. It’s also revealed that Isabella’s mother is worried about their future together far away in Texas, and that Isabella dislikes the way Billy can become completely immersed in their conservation work to the point of forgetting her completely. The culmination of these details forms an obvious question in the reader’s mind: Is their relationship going to work out?Continue Reading

Literary Blueprints: The Mad Woman

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In this second installment of the Literary Blueprints series, we’ll look at the Mad Woman. Don’t forget to read the first Blueprint, The Byronic Hero.

Origin Story: Also referred to as “The Mad Woman in the Attic,” this character type hails from the dark side of Jane Eyre. Bertha Mason, the mysterious Mr. Rochester’s first wife, barely appears in the text, popping up only to terrify the sweet and unsuspecting Jane. She is violently insane, and is kept away from the world, the badge of shame in Rochester’s life. Her irrational behavior somehow justifies him almost becoming a polygamist when he attempts to marry Jane. Only after Bertha literally burns Rochester’s estate, Thornfield, to the ground, dying in the process, are the lovebirds free to pursue their happy ending. Crazy women are so inconvenient while they’re still alive.

Characteristics: Part of the Gothic world, the Mad Woman is not just crazy–she is crazy and isolated from society. In many cases, she is locked away by a male figure, usually a husband or other family member. It may be in an attic, a bedroom, or a basement, but, regardless, the character is separated from the world by a door and a key.Continue Reading

Since Feeling is First: Elements of Craft to Express Emotion

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Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling?

There are countless elements of craft to aid the expression of emotion: sensory details, and the diction one uses to describe the world, can speak volumes about the inner landscape of a narrator or character, as can establishing background and setting the stakes.

Take, for instance, Paul Harding’s Enon. The novel follows Charlie Crosby for a year as he reels from the untimely death of his only daughter—an event revealed in the opening paragraph of the book. Immediately, Harding establishes this event, this background, and the reader waits to see how—or if—Charlie can recover. Knowing that his only daughter has died validates anything emotional the character expresses, ranging from numbness to excruciating physical pain. Grounded in what happened, none of his internal monologues wax melodramatic.

The landscape of the book also lends itself to Charlie Crosby’s grief. Enon is set in the fictional town of Enon, Massachusetts, where Charlie was born and raised. The rich bank of memories he has in this place confront him wherever he goes, re-experiencing and renewing the loss. His wanderings afford him reflections that lead to expression or repression of emotions. There is a depth and dimension to his grief because it’s inescapable.Continue Reading

Between Optimism and Pessimism: How to Set Our Baby Monitors?

Adolf_Hiremy-Hirschl,_Die_Seelen_des_AcheronPessimism is not particularly hard. I thought of this last month when I spent an hour in my brother’s kitchen near the baby monitor through which I could hear my poor twenty-two-month-old niece hacking up phlegm. After an hour I began to mistake this noise for the wind, or for my own thoughts. Moments of quiet could only mean she had stopped breathing. This might as well have been the soundtrack to pessimism, or perhaps a microcosm of how it overtakes anyone who has lived long enough.

Colum McCann knew this well before and more keenly than I ever did (and better-scarfed). In his masterpiece Let the Great World Spin, the preacher at young Jazzlyn’s funeral declared that “goodness was more difficult than evil.” Goodness “had to be fought for.” And the fight is difficult, indeed—it took a funeral preacher to speak the words.

Let’s face it: there’s not a single day that the flag of any sensible adult should be above half-mast. Which is why I think being called optimistic is a gentler way of being asked, “So are there just no newspapers where you live?” McCann tells Nathan Englander in their postscript conversation: “The cynics of this world—the politicians, the corporations, the squinty-eyed critics—seem to think that . . . it’s cooler, more intellectually engaging, to be miserable, that there’s some sort of moral heft in cynicism.”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Taxonomy” by Alix Ohlin

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The opening sections of Alix Ohlin’s wonderful short story “Taxonomy,” (TriQuarterly 146) shows how a simple plot can open into a compelling mystery through just a few quick descriptions.

In the first scene, the narrator Ed stops at a roadside Amish gift shop to try to find an appropriate gift for his daughter. As you might have experienced this holiday season, the more you know someone the more difficult it can be to buy a good present.

“At twenty-four, Meredith hasn’t cuddled a teddy bear in years, but the selection here is startlingly varied: gorillas, monkeys, snakes, and something that, if he squints and holds it at an angle, might be a lemur. What these animals might have to do with the Amish, he doesn’t know, but a lemur is a perfect gift, since that’s the animal Meredith is studying, in Madagascar. Studying and saving, or trying to save. As a budding conservation biologist, she’s researching the many species and subspecies of lemurs, along with their vanishing habitat. So she has explained to Ed—in, frankly, a bit too much detail—in passionate, jargon-heavy emails.”Continue Reading

The Millenial-Gen X Rift And The Trouble With Latina/o Letters

 Tilde“Hector Tobar is our new hero,” a close friend of mine, a well known Chicano writer, proclaimed to me last week. I was back home in Austin. We were at the Whitehorse. He said it as if it were up for discussion in the first place. “I’m totally with him,” he said. This conversation in reaction to a quote Tobar gave to the Latin Post in an interview earlier this month:

“I really believe we are living through the beginning of a Latino Renaissance that will one day be compared to the Harlem Renaissance. Having said that, every literary culture produces mediocrity. Our mediocrity is populated by Isabel Allende imitators and lots of magical realism rehash written by authors who sell a vision of Latinos as colorful people of simple (and predictable) pleasures, a kind of shallow exoticism. I think our readers are way ahead of the game in their tastes, which explains the popularity of novelists like Roberto Bolaño, who a decade ago would have been seen as a fringe writer.”

The quote not only hit on the third rail of contemporary Latina/o literature. It struck it with an iron sledgehammer.

“The problem with latino letters after 2000,” my friend said, “is that it’s all written with so much heart. So much heart; so little substance.”

“Where is the virtuosity?” he asked. “The hard-mined narrative grit? The incredible research? The complex latina/o characters that aren’t cardboard victims? And this is really gonna hurt,” he said. “Where is the editing?”

It was as if he’d sliced the air in two. Or shattered crystal glass on tile. Or asked my mom out on a date. And then said he was going to be my dad.

“Are you simple or something?,” I said to him.Continue Reading

Round Down: The Complicated Response to Charlie Hebdo

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As anyone paying even the remotest of attention to the news this past week, we all know this is a sobering time for journalists, satirists, publishing professionals, and supporters of free speech. The brutal murder of staff and police at Charlie Hebdo magazine offices by Muslim extremists, along with violent ricochets all over the greater metropolitan area of Paris in following days, has spurred a complex discourse around the issues of freedom of expression, satire, and inter-religious/cultural relations.

The discourse has volleyed from simple displays of solidarity (using #JeSuisCharlie hashtags) to more nuanced (using #JeSuisAhmed tags, which reference the French Muslim police officer who responded to the scene at the Charlie Hebdo offices and who died responding to the aid of those journalists who, as many pointed out, mocked his culture and religion). The latter spurred many to recall the oft-attributed Voltaire quotation, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.” It also reminded many of the quotation attributed to Salman Rushdie, an Indian author who had an Iranian fatwa put upon him for his book, The Satanic Verses: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”Continue Reading

The Five Families of Mob Literature

There aren’t many books that are the best. I have favorites; we all do. Awards committees and English departments do. There are classics and The Best American Short Stories and all the rest, but how many books can you say, without second-guessing yourself, without blushing or adding, “I think,” are the best of their type? It takes a very specific type, as far as I can tell. The Western novel, for instance. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, is the best Western out there, and I’m going to write about it soon enough. But this is my first Literary Family, and I want to start with books about families. Well, Mafia families. And no one has ever written a better Mafia novel than Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

The writing is beautiful, first of all. Every sentence is clear and elegant, not a word out of place. Second, the characters are wonderful, and very well drawn. I’m the only person in the modern world who read The Godfather before I saw it, and when I finally watched the movie my first thought on seeing Al Pacino in his army uniform was, I know you. But here’s why The Godfather is not just good, but the best: Mario Puzo takes all the big themes of American literature, all the contradictions of the American dream, and makes them an exciting read. The Godfather is about religion and immigration, family and money, tradition and change. It’s about service and loyalty, and it’s about getting what you want and fuck everyone else.Continue Reading