Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The New Yorker Examined

(Originally published as an Opinion piece on 2/2/2018 at New Pop Lit.)

THE LEADING forum for fiction and poetry, still, is The New Yorker magazine. Stodgy and tottering, waiting to be knocked off its pedestal. Eventually it will collapse by itself, from exhaustion and irrelevance. Until then we don’t mind giving it a push. So, bravely, we decided to review the January 29 issue– which meant having to read it! (Aaarrgh!)

Usual cover. Turn the page. Everything is boring. Everything is bland. We’ve heard of The New Yorker‘s house style. Their house style might’ve worked in 1938. It doesn’t work now. The publication is as predictable as oatmeal.
Muldoon,_Paul_(1951)2(Professor Muldoon.)
Should poetry be dull? When’s the last time The New Yorker published a striking, noteworthy poem? The poem by Paul Muldoon isn’t bad, it’s blah. Mildly stimulating. Muldoon, who teaches at Princeton, speaks of “dumbstruck oaks,” Japanese maples and papal bulls. Pretentiously intellectual. Presumably his students like it.
Jhumpa_Lahiri_Mantova(Jhumpa Lahiri.)
The issue’s short story, “The Boundary” by Jhumpa Lahiri, is all narrative– a simple listing of details which are supposed to have meaning, but don’t.
“I show her where the mouse poison is hidden. Kill the flies before going to bed, I suggest, otherwise they start buzzing at dawn and become a nuisance. I explain how to get to the supermarket, how to use the washing machine behind the house, and where to hang the laundry, just on the other side of my father’s garden.”
It’s insipid, but this is the kind of fiction the magazine’s editors like. There’s one moment of drama two-thirds of the way in. Don’t know if many readers will stick with it that long.
The chief feature of the story for the magazine’s editors is that it’s written by an Indian-American and translated from Italian, which gives it the veneer of the cosmopolitan, though the story itself is boring. Hit the diversity buttons!
Jhumpa Lahiri is one of those well-connected establishment writers who’s won multiple awards and has multiple degrees, teaches at Princeton, won a Pulitzer, member of numerous committees, VP at PEN America, etc. etc. etc. With her resume you can write mediocre stories and still be published in The New Yorker.
This issue has a critical essay by house literary critic James Wood, a Brit who teaches at Harvard. Gotta be good, right? Uh, no.
The James Wood essay gives the New Yorker‘s game away.  Most journals have a word-count limit. A maximum length for essays and stories. The New Yorker has a minimum word count. Writing is required to be lengthy and verbose, whether the topic justifies it or not.
Think I’m joking?
Wood’s essay, on Scottish author Ali Smith, could be edited down to four words. “Ali Smith uses puns.” The challenge for Mr. Wood was to see how many variations of this thought he could come up with. Well-padded paragraphs devoid of insight but filled with flatulence.
“Is Smith drawn to creating wordy, precocious characters because she is so fond of puns, or do her intelligent characters naturally lead their author toward such word play?”
“Puns are delightful because they are at once deep and shallow. Still, some are more significant than others. A superabundant art naturally produces superfluity– lexical runoff, weak in nutrients.”
The essay is impossibly tedious. An obscure Scottish author presented in the most monotonous way possible. Continuing to read it is like banging your head against a wall, again and again. Over and over. The editors told James Wood his assignment was to put airline passengers, or others who purchase the magazine, quickly and efficiently to sleep. Or to make Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story in the same issue appear by contrast swift and exciting.

The big art essay, by Calvin Tomkins, designed to show New York City as the capital of the art world (it’s long been the capital of the scam art world) is about found object artist Danh Vo. Another expat– more p.c. points scored. Vo is one of those characters who collects such things as “kitchen appliances, furniture, tombstones,” and by daring to put them together creates for the incurably clueless faux significance. Vo’s works sell for as much as a million dollars. In the article he seems as perplexed by his success as we are.

Further proof that The New Yorker is about hitting p.c. touchstones is found with the essay by Kathryn Schulz on forgotten black author William Melvin Kelley.
Like many such articles it’s as much about Kathryn Schulz as about the ostensible subject. A kind of exhibitionism: “Look at me! I found a book with an inscription to William Kelley in it and I’m introducing him to the world and I have a partner I’m liberal and progressive and me me me me–” The message Schulz is actually selling is a Sally Fields kind of message: “Please like me!”
Which, really, is the thrust of the magazine and the appeal for its affluent readers. They catch the markers of political correctness, and because they subscribe they can pat themselves on the back for being enlightened and superficially intelligent– they buy this renowned intellectual periodical, after all– and they keep the latest issue on their coffee tables so guests can see, “Yes, we are among the good people!” who voted the proper way, went to the right schools; Brown, Princeton, Harvard or Yale; have the correct breeding to never say or think the improper unapproved thing, and they never get too excited about anything– they like to express mild outrage on occasion; some will even write a letter to the editor to say they scanned that article on bees in Peru, they really did! and the one about poor Mr. Melvin Kelley it was really too bad though they likely won’t buy his books because they might be upsetting– and in their bubble world everything is fine I’m okay you’re okay though outside the carefully closed doors of their condos and their minds things are crazy.
(A Danh Vo artwork.)

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

The Multidimensional Short Story

What have I been up to the past months?

For one thing, helping to develop the "3-D" multidimensional short story. One has been released here:

"Vodka Friday Night"

Monday, February 11, 2019

Behind the Wall

RECENTLY I made a post at the New Pop Lit NEWS blog about multi-dimensional thinking. (Read it here.) We at NPL intend to soon apply these ideas to art.

IN SO DOING, we've been scouring through a host of obscure stories, novels, and movies searching for elusive examples of the point we're trying to make.

Among the more obscure works we've found is the 1966 remake of Beau Geste, written and directed by pulp novelist Douglas Heyes.


Yes, the film is cheap, melodramatically acted, and scantly true to its original source. BUT, its structure consists of some fairly imaginative thinking.

The setting: an isolated fort of the French Foreign Legion in North Africa. A patrol approaches the fort. All they see: a wall, with smoke coming from behind it. A member of the patrol fires a rifle in the air. In return: shots, from the fort. Then they hear more shots.

A survivor is found inside the fort. He takes the story back to the beginning-- and the narrative progresses to the present. The scenes from the opening of the movie are replayed, but, simultaneous to the approach of the patrol, we see what happens inside the fort. Behind the wall.

Why is this important? Because the movie asks the question we ask of a person, and of events, in fiction and in life: What's behind the wall? WHAT is the full story? Then the movie answers the question. Simple, but basic. A template upon which to build similar ideas.

A mark, by the way, of the movie's obscurity is that only eleven reviews of it are posted at the popular IMDB website.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Karl Wenclas Reads from "Hamlet"

YES, I thought, why not tackle the best? In this recording I start out with one of the lesser-known soliloquies-- after Hamlet has just seen the ghost of his father. Needless to say, the young man is shaken and angry. Anyway, this is my interpretation--


(Painting by Benjamin West.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Bad Poetry"


I've just started getting back into spoken word (we have a new Open Mic feature at the New Pop Lit site). I did quite a few open mics when I lived in Philadelphia; read against some dynamite underground poets, Frank D. Walsh and Michael Grover among them. I wasn't always consistent-- but tried to make it difficult for someone to follow me in the lineup.

Here's something I recorded today for World Poetry Day-- partial reworking of something I wrote several years ago. A bit over-the-top! I'll be doing better. . . .

"Bad Poetry"

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Rock and Roll History: The Harvard Viewpoint


AFTER a twitter exchange with a defender of Current Affairs magazine, I agreed to look at essays by one of their lead writers, Briahna Joy Gray, to see if they represented a tops-down, Harvard-oriented viewpoint. I selected her 9/6/2017 essay, "The Question of Cultural Appropriation." Rock and roll music has always been an interest of mine. From my earliest memories, I grew up listening to scratchy 45 rpm recordings by Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, and other early rock luminaries.

THE QUESTION isn't whether Briahna Joy Gray's article makes sense, and speaks some truth. The question is the viewpoint. Or: Does the essay give the full story, or only part of the story? It's looking at a mountain from one angle and thinking you understand it. But we live in a three-dimensional world.

I've covered Gray's chief example of cultural appropriation in a separate blog post, "All About 'Hound Dog.'" The one point I didn't bring up there was that Big Mama Thornton's recording sold 500,000 copies across America, to consumers black and white. For a small record company, Peacock Records, this was an astounding achievement. The record could've sold more if promoted by one of the major record companies. Elvis Presley faced a similar, or worse, situation in the early days of his career, in 1954 and 1955 when recording with a tiny but ambitious outfit, Sun Records. Not until he hired Tom Parker as manager, and his contract sold to one of the majors, RCA, did his career become a phenomenon.


The Harvard Viewpoint sees the world in simplistic terms-- the terms of neo-Marxist ideology. The caricatured lens of a Howard Zinn-style history. Tops-down in view and one-sided.

In this view, America's economy is a static, stratified thing, rigidly in place, with inflexible hierarchies based primarily on race. No understanding that this complex dynamo is in constant flux, absorbing influences and undergoing continual change.

To the Harvard-based-or-educated commentator-- the staff of Current Affairs, say-- there's the Music Industry. Run by plutocrats and highly placed. The Industry decreed that black performers were to be shut out. (Countless counter-examples from Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole need not be considered, as they don't fit the narrative.)

Under the Harvard Viewpoint, black musicians and white musicians were separate entities, with strictly separate musical styles. There's enough truth to this to make Briahna Joy Gray's essay believable. When performers like Chuck Berry invented rock music (and he did help invent it), the Industry needed a white face to slap onto the genre-- and lo!, Elvis Presley was plucked from obscurity, through no effort of his own, to become the acceptable face. Thereby benefiting immensely.

This is the impression given by the Current Affairs essay.


In 1955, when rock music exploded onto the larger cultural scene, the industry was something of a monolith, dominated by the "Big Four" of RCA, Capitol, Decca, and Columbia. (Similar to the "Big Five" publishing conglomerates of now.) At the same time there was enormous musical excitement on the margins of the industry.

Roots music from the poorest segments of American society had been creeping into public consciousness at least since the 1930's, from the folk music trio the Carter Family, sprung from the wilds of Virginia, to seminal blues guitarist Robert Johnson in Mississippi.


Rock music would never have happened without business pioneers. The first black recording business upstart was Don Robey, of Peacock Records (founded in Houston, Texas, in 1949), and later, Duke Records. Robey recorded Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton's original version of "Hound Dog" in 1952.


At about the same time, 1950, Leonard Chess and his brother Phil started Chess Records in Chicago. (Leonard's original name was Lejzor Czyz. "Chess" was an appropriation.) In 1951, Chess Records released what many consider to be the first rock n roll record, "Rocket 88," performed by the Ike Turner band, though the record was credited to the vocalist, Jackie Brenston. Another appropriation?


In the same year, a low-rent country-western band, Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, recorded a cover of "Rocket 88." An appropriation. Haley, one of the top cowboy yodelers of the 1940's, had become increasingly interested in rhythm and blues, though his previous recordings had been of songs like "Ten Gallon Stetson." In 1952, he dropped the cowboy hats and changed the name of his band to The Comets.


While Bill Haley performed rhythm and blues with a country-western flair, fledgling rhythm and blues performer Chuck Berry began adding country songs to his repertoire. See my separate blog post about Chuck Berry.

(WHILE rock music's roots were in the blues, it was way more manic.)


The populist narrative views American culture as not imposed from on high by conglomerates, nor by Harvard-trained culturati in Cambridge. Populism means genuine culture springing from a land and its people.

In this narrative poor whites and blacks in the South were experimenting with a variety of musical styles-- extensions of their original homelands; whether folk traditions in Scotland, England, and Ireland, or folk traditions in Africa. With the invention of the phonograph and the rise of radio, increased mixing of styles took place. Cultural integration. Integration that had been happening anyway. Technology increased its pace. As a teenager, Elvis Presley watched B.B. King playing on Memphis streetcorners, but he also listened to the radio.

Culture-mixing wasn't a one-way street, and the exchange was more horizontal than many believe. One of the few commentators to cover the topic has been Thomas Sowell, courtesy of a controversial essay, "Black Rednecks and White Liberals," in a provocative book of the same name.

Neither rhythm and blues nor country and western music were mainstream or pop enough to capture middle-class America's full attention. Only when performers like Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley synthesized influences and added a pop sensibility did rock n roll move on from its stray beginnings to become a truly separate entity. The result was a cultural earthquake.


More than a musical revolution, though, it was a business upheaval. Do-It-Yourself versus Monopoly. At the dawn of the rock era, the Big Four, along with mid-majors Mercury and MGM, controlled close to 90% of the record-selling market. Within a few years they lost nearly half their market share to many hundreds of new record labels. Unprecedented business change. This was with RCA buying Presley's contract from Sun Records.

The reaction came in 1960 when Congress, prodded by big business, held "payola" hearings in Washington designed to reign in free booting music tycoons. Alan Freed was destroyed. Dick Clark, more cooperative, later claimed he was forced to dissolve 200 corporations in one day. The two disc jockeys had owned or controlled hundreds of new labels.


Yet sharp Do-It-Yourselfers able to spot talent continued the wave. Prominent among them was Berry Gordy Jr. in Detroit, who founded Motown (first called Tamla) Records in 1959 with $600 borrowed from his sister. Gordy created another synthesis-- well-produced and structured rhythm and blues with a pop style-- "The Sound of Young America." Gordy deliberately sought to appeal to a very broad audience-- and succeeded, turning his upstart enterprise into a billion dollar empire.


In the real world, as opposed to Marxist-leaning textbooks, this is how change is made. By hustlers, of any color. Wannabe capitalist tycoons with over-the-top dreams. In changing the business-- and making money as a by-product-- they also went a long way toward integrating and changing American society.

(Be sure to read the rest of this analysis, "All About Chuck Berry" and "All About 'Hound Dog.'"