Archive for September, 2015

“Die mense daar buite”

Posted on: September 16th, 2015 by admin No Comments

Meer en meer hoor ek dit: “Die mense daar buite.”
Dis ’n nuwe Afrikaanse sêding, soos “aan die einde van die dag” ’n klompie jare gelede ook op die taaltoneel verskyn het (maar genadiglik deesdae minder voorkom, dink ek).
Nou die dag (amper aan die einde van daai dag) sê ’n ekonoom weer oor die radio: “En die mense daar buite besef nie in watter ekonomiese verknorsing dié land is nie.”
Wie sou die mense “daar buite” wees?
Onmiddellik kom die prentjie in my kop op van die ekonoom wat peinsend by sy kantoorvenster uittuur oor die mense onder in die straat. Dan skud hy sy kop nadenkend. Die arme mense daar buite besef nie wat op hulle wag nie. Ellendes is hulle voorland. Hulle is nie so bevoorreg soos die mense hier binne om te weet die ekonomie is op die randjie van ’n ineenstorting nie.
En dan bevraagteken ek myself onmiddellik: Is ek van die mense daar buite of van die mense hier binne?
Dit het my die hele bleddie nag wakker gehou. Toe wonder ek onwillekeurig of die mense daar buite ook slapelose nagte oor sulke nietighede beleef?

RvR – 16 Sept. 2015

11 Things You Didn’t Know About Ernest Hemingway

Posted on: September 15th, 2015 by admin No Comments

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Ernest Hemingway took his life on this day, July 2, back in 1961.

Below are obscure facts about the novelist’s life, pulled from old interviews and personal accounts by the writer.
1. Hemingway apparently once lived, got drunk and slept with a bear.

ernest hemingway

Former New Yorker staff writer Lillian Ross had a long profile of Hemingway published in 1950.

During a section of the story where she’s at a bar with Hemingway, talking about bears at the Bronx zoo, Ross includes an aside about how the writer gets along well with animals, writing, “In Montana, once, he lived with a bear, and the bear slept with him, got drunk with him, and was a close friend.”

As this fact simultaneously seems insane and doesn’t readily appear elsewhere, it’s unclear whether Ross’ aside was an exclusive for her interview or if the story is more of a legend.
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald once had Hemingway look at his penis to judge if it was adequate.

hemingway fitzgerald

In Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast — a collection of stories about his time in Paris as an expat during the 1920s — there’s a long interaction with the Great Gatsby author, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In this exchange, according to Hemingway, Fitzgerald confesses that his wife, Zelda, said that his penis is too small or exactly, “She said it was a matter of measurements.”

Hemingway tells Fitzgerald to follow him to the men’s room and then says, “‘You’re perfectly fine,’ I said. ‘You are OK. There’s nothing wrong with you.” He continued reassuring Fitzgerald, “You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues and then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile.'”
3. Hemingway once said that he can’t think of any better way to spend money than on champagne.

ernest hemingway
Image: Getty

In the New Yorker profile from 1950, Hemingway gets frustrated at the group he’s having lunch with for thinking they can leave the table before all of the champagne is finished.

“‘The half bottle of champagne is the enemy of man,'” Hemingway said. We all sat down again,” writes Ross in the New Yorker.

Hemingway is then quoted while pouring more champagne as saying, “If I have any money, I can’t think of any better way of spending money than on champagne.”
4. The KGB secretly recruited Hemingway to be their spy, and he accepted.

ernest hemingway

According to a 2009 story in The Guardian, Hemingway went by the code name “Argo,” while somewhat working for the KGB. The article talks about the publication of Yale University Press’ Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, which claims that Hemingway was listed as a KGB operative in America during Stalin-era Moscow.

According to the documents obtained by the book, Hemingway was recruited in 1941 and was fully willing to help, but never actually provided any useful information. It’s unclear if that’s because Hemingway was doing this all as a lark, or if he just wasn’t that good of a spy.

“The name’s Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway,” is a lot of syllables.
5. While in his later years, the FBI conducted surveillance on Hemingway.

ernest hemingway

Hemingway biographer and personal friend of the author for 14 years, A.E. Hotchner, wrote a New York Times opinion piece in 2011, claiming that Hemingway spent his last days incredibly paranoid that the FBI was following him and that this paranoia ended up being justified.

“It’s the worst hell. The goddamnedest hell. They’ve bugged everything. That’s why we’re using Duke’s car. Mine’s bugged. Everything’s bugged. Can’t use the phone. Mail intercepted,” Hotchner quotes Hemingway as telling him shortly after the author’s 60th birthday. Hotchner remembered thinking Hemingway was losing it as the author went on and on about how his phones were being tapped and his mail intercepted.

Hotchner was then shocked when the FBI released its Hemingway file due to a Freedom of Information petition, where they admitted Hemingway was put on the surveillance list in the 1940s by J. Edgar Hoover. “Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones,” Hotchner wrote. According to Hotchner, he’s had to find a way to reconcile his memories of Hemingway losing it in his final years — which partially led to extensive electroshock therapy — with the author actually being right.
6. Hemingway felt it “would be very dangerous” for someone to not attend multiple fights a year.

ernest hemingway

In that same New Yorker profile from 1950, Ross writes about what happened when she suggested what Hemingway thought was a lackluster fight:

Hemingway gave me a long, reproachful look. “Daughter, you’ve got to learn that a bad fight is worse than no fight,” he said. We would all go to a fight when he got back from Europe, he said, because it was absolutely necessary to go to several good fights a year. “If you quit going for too long a time, then you never go near them,” he said. “That would be very dangerous.” He was interrupted by a brief fit of coughing. “Finally,” he concluded, “you end up in one room and won’t move.”

7. James Joyce would get in bar fights and then have Hemingway beat the person up.

joyce hemingway

Kenneth Schuyler Lynn has a quote in his book, Hemingway, from the novelist about Hemingway and James Joyce’s hangouts together.

“We would go out for a drink,” Hemingway told a reporter for Time magazine in the midfifties, “and Joyce would fall into a fight. He couldn’t even see the man so he’d say: ‘Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!'”

8. According to Hemingway, his eyelids were particularly thin, causing him to always wake at daybreak.

ernest hemingway

This also comes from the New Yorker profile, where Ross wrote, “He always wakes at daybreak, he explained, because his eyelids are especially thin and his eyes especially sensitive to light.”

Hemingway is then quoted as saying, “I have seen all the sunrises there have been in my life, and that’s half a hundred years.” Hemingway continues, “I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast — talk them or write them down.”
9. His daily word count was tracked on a slab of cardboard on his wall.

ernest hemingway

American journalist George Plimpton interviewed Hemingway in a Madrid café during May, 1954. In his piece, Plimton writes:

He keeps track of his daily progress — “so as not to kid myself” — on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.

10. The ending of A Farewell to Arms was rewritten 39 times.

ernest hemingway

Also in the Madrid café in 1954, Plimpton got a quote from Hemingway about rewriting the ending to one of his most famous works.

Plimpton asked how much rewriting Hemingway does, to which the novelist responded, “It depends. I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.”

The interviewer wondered, “Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?”

Hemingway responded, “Getting the words right.”
11. This is how Hemingway said he wanted to spend his older days …

ernest hemingway

From the New Yorker profile, here is an extended description by Hemingway of how he would have ideally spent his older days:

“What I want to be when I am old is a wise old man who won’t bore,” he said, then paused while the waiter set a plate of asparagus and an artichoke before him and poured the Tavel. Hemingway tasted the wine and gave the waiter a nod. “I’d like to see all the new fighters, horses, ballets, bike riders, dames, bullfighters, painters, airplanes, sons of bitches, café characters, big international whores, restaurants, years of wine, newsreels, and never have to write a line about any of it,” he said. “I’d like to write lots of letters to my friends and get back letters. Would like to be able to make love good until I was eighty-five, the way Clemenceau could. And what I would like to be is not Bernie Baruch. I wouldn’t sit on park benches, although I might go around the park once in a while to feed the pigeons, and also I wouldn’t have any long beard, so there could be an old man didn’t look like Shaw.” He stopped and ran the back of his hand along his beard, and looked around the room reflectively. “Have never met Mr. Shaw,” he said. “Never been to Niagara Falls, either. Anyway, I would take up harness racing. You aren’t up near the top at that until you’re over seventy-five. Then I could get me a good young ball club, maybe, like Mr. Mack. Only I wouldn’t signal with a program—so as to break the pattern. Haven’t figured out yet what I would signal with. And when that’s over, I’ll make the prettiest corpse since Pretty Boy Floyd. Only suckers worry about saving their souls. Who the hell should care about saving his soul when it is a man’s duty to lose it intelligently, the way you would sell a position you were defending, if you could not hold it, as expensively as possible, trying to make it the most expensive position that was ever sold. It isn’t hard to die.” He opened his mouth and laughed, at first soundlessly and then loudly. “No more worries,” he said. With his fingers, he picked up a long spear of asparagus and looked at it without enthusiasm. “It takes a pretty good man to make any sense when he’s dying,” he said.

All images WikiCommons unless otherwise noted.

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Wêreldbeker-rugby is nie vir sissies nie

Posted on: September 14th, 2015 by admin No Comments

Onberekenbare skade word aan stembande aangerig; huilerigheid onder groot mans breek uit; vloekwoorde vlieg rond; harte galop; humeure vlam op; beledigings weerklink; emosies kook oor; sielsverdriet vier hoogty; spanning bereik breekpunt; nikotien- en alkoholverbruik skiet die hoogte in; goeie maniere kies koers; sielkundige letsels word opgedoen; ophitsing vind plaas; gramstorigheid kom voor; hartverskeurende smart word ervaar . . .
Skeidsregters word gediskrediteer, met snedige opmerkings gekastreer en selfs met onnoembare woorde verinneweer.
Geringe foute van eens gunsteling-spelers word vergelyk met tsoenamis, kernkrag-ontploffings en rioolstortings.
Ek weet van ’n oom met ’n swak hart wat sy laaste asem saam met die eindfluitjie uitgeblaas het.
En almal het seker gehoor van die ou wat soveel vodka gedurende ’n spannende wedstryd gedrink het dat hy dae daarna nog met ’n Russiese aksent gepraat het.
Dan was daar die vrou wat so hard geskree het ná ’n Bok-drie dat ADT met gasmaskers en masjiengewere haar huis binne ge-leopard crawl het.
Dis ’n moeilike tyd wat voorlê – dié Wêreldbekerstorie. Beslis nie vir sissies nie.

RvR – 14 Sept. 2015

Omission – Choosing what to leave out. -The New Yorker

Posted on: September 13th, 2015 by admin No Comments


At Time in the nineteen-fifties, the entry-level job for writers was a column called Miscellany. Filled with one-sentence oddities culled from newspapers and the wire services, Miscellany ran down its third of a page like a ladder, each wee story with its own title—traditionally, and almost invariably, a pun. Writers did not long endure there, and were not meant to, but just after I showed up a hiring freeze shut the door behind me, and I wrote Miscellany for a year and a half. That came to roughly a thousand one-sentence stories, a thousand puns.

I am going to illustrate this with one, and only one, example. A person riding a bicycle on a street in Detroit fell asleep at the handlebars. My title was “Two Tired.”

If a writer were ever to look back on many decades of pun-free prose, Miscellany was a good place to be when you were young. Words are too easy to play on. When I joined The New Yorker, in 1965, I left puns behind. Not that I have never suffered a relapse. In the nineteen-seventies, I turned in a manuscript containing a pun so fetid I can’t remember it. My editor then was Robert Bingham, who said, “We should take that out.”

The dialogue that followed became part of a remembrance of him (he died in 1982):

I said, “A person has a right to make a pun once in a while, and even to be a little coarse.” He said, “The line is not on the level of the rest of the piece and therefore seems out of place.” I said, “That may be, but I want it in there.” He said, “Very well. It’s your piece.” Next day, he said, “I think I ought to tell you I haven’t changed my mind about that. It’s an unfortunate line.” I said, “Listen, Bobby. We discussed that. It’s funny. I want to use it. If I’m embarrassing anybody, I’m embarrassing myself.” He said, “O.K. I just work here.” The day after that, I came in and said to him, “That joke. Let’s take that out. I think that ought to come out.” “Very well,” he said, with no hint of triumph in his eye.

Robert Bingham was my editor for sixteen years. William Shawn, after editing my first two pieces himself, turned me over to Bingham very soon after Bingham came to The New Yorker from The Reporter, where he had been the managing editor. I was a commuter, and worked more at home than at the magazine. I had not met, seen, or even heard of Bingham when Shawn gave him the manuscript of a forty-thousand-word piece of mine called “Oranges.”

A year earlier, I had asked Mr. Shawn if he thought oranges would be a good subject for a piece of nonfiction writing. In his soft, ferric voice, he said, “Oh.” After a pause, he said, “Oh, yes.” And that was all he said. But it was enough. As a “staff writer,” I was basically an unsalaried freelancer, and I left soon for Florida on his nickel. Why oranges? There was a machine in Pennsylvania Station that cut and squeezed them. I stopped there as routinely as an animal at a salt lick. Across the winter months, I thought I noticed a change in the color of the juice, light to deep, and I had also seen an ad somewhere that showed what appeared to be four identical oranges, although each had a different name. My intention in Florida was to find out why, and write a piece that would probably be short for New Yorker nonfiction of that day—something under ten thousand words. In Polk County, at Lake Alfred, though, I happened into the University of Florida’s Citrus Experiment Station, five buildings isolated within vast surrounding groves. Several dozen people in those buildings had Ph.D.s in oranges, and there was a citrus library of a hundred thousand titles—scientific papers, mainly, and doctoral dissertations, and six thousand books. Then and there, my project magnified. Back home, and many months later, I sent in the manuscript. Mr. Shawn accepted it, indicating gently that it might need a little squeezing itself before publication.

Mr. Shawn seems to have instructed Mr. Bingham to hunt for a few galleys’ worth of information and throw the rest away. At any rate, what reached me in New Jersey was more than shocking, let me tell you. The envelope was large but thinner than a postcard. After glancing through Bingham’s condensation, I called the office, asked if I could see Mr. Shawn, got on a train, and went to the city. Shawn was even smaller than I am, which is getting down there, but after going past his moats and entering his presence you were looking across a desk at an intimidating sovereign. Pathetically, I blurted out, “Mr. Bingham has removed eighty-five per cent of what I wrote?”

Shawn (incredulous, innocent, saucer-eyed): “He has?”

I responded affirmatively.

He said perhaps I should have a conversation with Mr. Bingham. He would arrange it. Mary Painter, his quiet Cerberus, would be in touch with me.

Five days later, I returned to the city to meet Mr. Bingham. I remember hating him as I drank my juice in Penn Station. In Florida, in orange-juice-concentrate plants, there was a machine, made by the Food Machinery Corporation, called the short-form extractor. I thought of Bingham as the short-form extractor, and would call him that from time to time for years. He came down the hall to an office I had at the magazine, in a row of writers’ tiny spaces that one writer called Sleepy Hollow. This man who came through my doorway was agreeable-looking, actually handsome, with a bright-blue gaze, an oscillating bow tie, curly light-brown hair, and a sincere mustache—an instantly likable guy if the instant had not been this one. He said he was not sure how to begin our conversation, but he wondered if I would prefer to add things back to the proof that was sent to me or start with the original manuscript and talk about what might be left out.

He talked with me for five days. Enough of the manuscript was restored to make a serial publication that ran in two issues, but by no means all of it was restored. Citrus is citrus first and Sweet Orange of Valencia or Washington Navel second. The sex life of citrus is spectacular. Plant a lime seed and up comes a kumquat, or, with equal odds, a Seville orange, not to mention a rough lemon or a tangerine. “Character Differences in Seedlings of the Persian Lime” was the title of the scientific paper that described all that—a perfect title for anyone’s seven-hundred-page family history, and one item among many that expanded my manuscript to the size it reached as themes spread into related themes.

Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. Forget market research. Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.

Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more. Many, if not most, of my projects have begun as ideas for The New Yorkers section called The Talk of the Town, and many of them have grown to greater length. In the nineteen-seventies, observing the trials of an experimental aircraft, I intended at first to tell the story in a thousand words, but the tests and trials increased in number, changed, went on for years; a rich stream of characters happened through the scene; and the unfolding story had a natural structure analogous to a dramatic plot. The ultimate piece ran at fifty-five thousand words in three consecutive issues of the magazine. “Oranges,” seven years earlier, had grown in the same way, but my aptitude for selection needed growing, too. Bingham, after restoring much of what he had cut (and suggesting to Shawn that what we were doing made sense), insisted that substantial amounts of text remain down and out. Even I could see that for magazine purposes he was right. Four or five months later, as the piece was being prepared for publication as a book, I asked my close friend Mr. Bingham to help me choose from the original manuscript what else to restore, and what not to restore, to the text. In other words, the library at the Citrus Experiment Station had beguiled me so much—not to mention the citrus scientists, the growers, the rich kings of juice concentration—that I lost the advantage of what is left out.

Anne Fadiman, whose 1997 book, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award and is a demonstration of the potentialities of nonfiction writing, teaches her craft at Yale. Some years ago, she e-mailed various writers she knew asking each if he or she would answer just a single question if it was asked by one of her students. Who could refuse that? I have been writing replies to her students ever since, most recently to Minami Funakoshi, whose question had to do with my book “The Pine Barrens” and a couple of people in a tarpaper shanty. Minami said, “You have many quotes in the story that capture Fred and Bill’s voices and personalities as well. Some of my favourites are: ‘Come in. Come in. Come on the hell in’ and ‘I didn’t paper this year. . . . For the last couple months, I’ve had sinus.’ I was curious—do you know right away when you hear a quote you want to include in the story, or do you usually mine for it through your notes?”

Dear Minami—Across my years as a writer and a writing teacher, I have been asked myriad questions about the reporting and compositional process but not before now this basic one of yours. And the answer comes forth without a moment’s contemplation: I know right away when I hear a quote I’ll want to include in the story. . . . In interviews, I scribble and scribble, gathering impressions, observations, information, and quotes, but not altogether mindlessly. Writing is selection. From the first word of the first sentence in an actual composition, the writer is choosing, selecting, and deciding (most importantly) what to leave out. In a broader, less efficient way, that is what goes on during the scribbling of interview notes. I jot down everything that strikes me as having any potentiality whatever to be useful in the future composition, and since I am learning on the job and don’t know what the piece will be like, I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use. But when Fred Brown says “Come in. Come in. Come on the hell in,” I come in, sit down, and soon jot the line. I don’t have to be Nostradamus to sense that his form of greeting will be useful, any more than I could resist his remark about papering and his sinuses. Factual writing is also a kind of treasure hunt, and when the nuggets come along you know what they are. They often provide beginnings and endings, even titles. In interior Alaska, non-native people often describe one another in terms of when they “came into the country.” That phrase is repeated so much it is almost a litany, and I heard it so often that I had a title for “Coming Into the Country” long before any of it was written. That was lucky and rare, because titles are usually very hard to choose.

Among the three or four dozen pieces that Woody Allen has contributed to The New Yorker, the first one seemed to his editor, Roger Angell, to contain an overabundance of funny lines. He told Allen that even if the jokes were individually hilarious they tended cumulatively to diminish the net effect. He said he thought the humor would be improved if Allen were to leave some of them out.

Sculptors address the deletion of material in their own analogous way. Michelangelo: “The more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows.” Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Michelangelo, loosely, as we can imagine him with six tons of Carrara marble, a mallet, a point chisel, a pitching tool, a tooth chisel, a claw chisel, rasps, rifflers, and a bush hammer: “I’m just taking away what doesn’t belong there.”

And inevitably we have come to Ernest Hemingway and the tip of the iceberg—or, how to fashion critical theory from one of the world’s most venerable clichés. “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” The two sentences are from “Death in the Afternoon,” a nonfiction book (1932). They apply as readily to fiction. Hemingway sometimes called the concept the Theory of Omission. In 1958, in an “Art of Fiction” interview for The Paris Review, he said to George Plimpton, “Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.” To illustrate, he said, “I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.”

In other words:

There are known knowns—there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Yes, the influence of Ernest Hemingway evidently extended to the Pentagon.

Be that as it might not be, Ernest Hemingway’s Theory of Omission seems to me to be saying to writers, “Back off. Let the reader do the creating.” To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.

Creative nonfiction is a term that is currently having its day. When I was in college, anyone who put those two words together would have been looked on as a comedian or a fool. Today, Creative Nonfiction is the name of the college course I teach. Same college. Required to give the course a title, I named it for a quarterly edited and published by Lee Gutkind, then at the University of Pittsburgh. The title asks an obvious question: What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.

When I worked at Time, after at last escaping Miscellany I wrote for five years in a back-of-the-book section called Show Business. In a typical week, the section consisted of three or four short pieces probably averaging nine hundred words. After you finished a piece, it entered the system in a pneumatic tube. When you next saw it, it bore the initials of your senior editor. It also had his [sic] revisions on it. You left your cubicle, paper in hand, went to the senior editor’s office, and, in a mealy way, complained. Revisions might ensue. The piece then went to the managing editor, whose initials usually joined the senior editor’s without ado, but not always. At last, with both sets of initials intact, the piece went to a department called Makeup, whose personnel could have worked as floral arrangers, because Time in those days, unlike its rival Newsweek, never assigned a given length but waited for the finished story before fitting it into the magazine.

After four days of preparation and writing—after routinely staying up almost all night on the fourth night—and after tailoring your stories past the requests, demands, fine tips, and incomprehensible suggestions of the M.E. and your senior editor, you came in on Day 5 and were greeted by galleys from Makeup with notes on them that said “Green 5” or “Green 8” or “Green 15” or some such, telling you to condense the text by that number of lines or the piece would not fit in the magazine. You were supposed to use a green pencil so Makeup would know what could be put back, if it came to that. I can’t remember it coming to that.

Groan as much as you liked, you had to green nearly all your pieces, and greening was a craft in itself—studying your completed and approved product, your “finished” piece, to see what could be left out. In fifty years, The New Yorkers makeup department has asked me only once to remove some lines so a piece would fit. The New Yorker has the flexibility of spot drawings to include or leave out, and cartoons of varying and variable dimensions, and poems that can be there or not be there. Things fit, even if some things have to wait a week or two, or six months. Greening has stayed with me, though, because for four decades I have inflicted it on my college writing students, handing them nine or ten swatches of photocopied prose, each marked “Green 3” or “Green 4” or whatever.

Green 4 does not mean lop off four lines at the bottom, I tell them. The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed. Easier with some writers than with others. It’s as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train—or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for reasons of aesthetics or plant pathology, not to mention size. Do not do violence to the author’s tone, manner, nature, style, thumbprint. Measure cumulatively the fragments you remove and see how many lines would be gone if the prose were reformatted. If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.

I give them thirty-two lines of Joseph Conrad “going up that river . . . like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.” Green 3, if you dare. I give them Thomas McGuane’s ode to the tarpon as grand piano (twenty lines, Green 3), Irving Stone’s passionate declaration of his love of stone (nine lines, Green 1), Philip Roth’s character Lonoff the novelist describing the metronomic boredom of the writing process in prose that metronomically repeats itself to make its point (try greening that), twenty-five lines, Green 3. I ask them to look up the first three pieces they have written for the course, to choose the one they preferred working on, then green ten per cent. And I give them the whole of the Gettysburg Address (twenty-five lines, Green 3). Memorization and familiarity have made that difficult, yes, but scarcely impossible. For example, if you green the latter part of sentence 9 and the first part of sentence 10, you can attach the head of 9 to the long tail of 10 and pick up twenty-four words, nine per cent of Abraham Lincoln’s famously compact composition:

9. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here

10. to the great task remaining before us . . .

At Time, Calvin Trillin was a colleague, as he has been throughout my years with The New Yorker. In a piece for The New Yorkers Web site, he wrote about his own memories of greening and the lessons it imparted:

I don’t have any interest in word games—I don’t think I’ve ever done a crossword or played Scrabble—but I found greening a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle. I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten per cent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself “Green fourteen” or “Green eight.” And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.

Aaron Shekey, an app designer out of Dane County, Wisconsin—a rock composer and bandleader, too—works in Minneapolis now, but is more than evidently nostalgic for the arresting silhouette of his boyhood city. Madison, the Wisconsin capital, stands on a morainal isthmus between two glacial lakes, which are not small. The hotels, office buildings, and apartment complexes of central Madison rise no more than a hundred and ninety feet, forming an accordant skyline. On his Web site, not long ago, Shekey described it in a short essay, called “It’s What You Leave Out.” Only the dome of the capitol of Wisconsin projects above all other structures. It’s like El Greco’s Toledo but without the exaggeration. It’s as striking as Mont-Saint-Michel. How has that come to be? In 1915, while the building was under construction, the City of Madison decreed that no new structure could rise higher than the base of the dome and the Corinthian columns of the capitol’s façade. No variance has ever been granted. The scene is spectacular across water. Shekey the musician closes with a quote from the script of the movie “Almost Famous”: “It’s not what you put into it. It’s what you leave out. . . . Yeah, that’s rock n’ roll.”

Or, in the words of the literary critic Harold Bloom, writing on Shakespeare: “Increasingly in his work, what he leaves out becomes much more important than what he puts in, and so he takes literature beyond its limits.”

When I was a sophomore in college, I went to Scarsdale, New York, a few days before Christmas to visit a roommate named Louis Marx. In the nineteen-twenties, his father—also named Louis Marx—and his uncle David Marx had founded Louis Marx and Company, maker of toys. Now, in 1950, it was, as Louis, Sr., seemed to enjoy saying, “the biggest toy company in the world—bigger than Lionel and Gilbert put together.” Having grown up making architectural structures from A.C. Gilbert Erector sets, and with Lionel O-gauge streamliners running all over my attic, I was much impressed. On various occasions in Scarsdale, I had also been much impressed by the sorts of people who dropped in at the Marx house—General Omar Bradley, for example, and General Curtis LeMay, and General Walter Bedell Smith. This was five years after the end of the Second World War, in which Omar Bradley, five stars, supervised the invasion of Germany, and Walter Bedell Smith, four stars, was the chief of staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, and Curtis LeMay, U.S.A.F., four stars, organized the bombing of Japan. Marx toys were inventive windup machines—little tinplate tanks, cars, fire engines, boats, a fourteen-and-a-half-inch G-man pursuit car—logoed with a large “X” over the letters “M A R.” Like his son, Louis, Jr., Louis, Sr., was a swift quipper, and I loved just listening to him talk. I had to be in New York City later on this particular day, and Louis, Sr., offered me a ride, saying that he had an errand there, too. I said goodbye to my contemporaries (I had dated one of my roommate’s sisters) and went down the driveway in a chauffeur-driven town car with his father and stepmother.

So this is the situation: Two-thirds of a century later, I am describing that ride to New York City in an article on the writing process that is focussed on the principle of leaving things out. I am with Mr. and Mrs. Monarch of Toys, whose friends a few years ago led various forms of the invasion of Europe. Do I leave that out? Help! Should I omit the lemony look on General Smith’s face the day he showed up late for lunch after his stomach was pumped? I am writing this, not reading it, and I don’t know what to retain and what to reject. The monarchical remark on being greater than the sum of Lionel and Gilbert—do I leave that out? I once saw Mr. Marx toss a broiled steak onto a rug so his bulldog could eat it. How relevant is that? Do I leave that out? Will it offend his survivors? In a recent year, his great-granddaughter was a sophomore in my college writing course. Her name was Barnett, not Marx. I did not know her beforehand, and had not even learned that my old roommate’s grandniece was at Princeton when her application for a place in the course came in. “You gave my grandmother her first kiss,” it began. How relevant is that? Should I cut that out? Mrs. Marx—Idella, stepmother of my roommate—was rumored among us Princeton sophomores of the time to be the sister of Lili St. Cyr. In the twenty-first century, in whose frame of reference is the strip dancer Lili St. Cyr? Better to exclude that? Best to exclude that Idella danced, too? This is about what you leave out, not what you take off. Writing is selection.

A glass partition separated the chauffeur from his passengers, soundproofing our conversation. Mr. Marx said the driver was new. Chauffeurs are good for about six months, he said. For two months, they are learning to work for you. Then for two months they are excellent. Then they start to steal from you, and two months later you fire them. Please! How much of this is germane? The car, meanwhile, has slid down the Hutchinson River Parkway and turned west on the Cross County Parkway and south on the Saw Mill and the Henry Hudson Parkway to the city. It exits at 125th Street and before long draws up at 60 Morningside Drive. Until this moment, I have had no idea where Mr. and Mrs. Marx are going. At 60 Morningside, Mr. Marx asks me if, before I continue on my way downtown (by subway), I would like to meet General Eisenhower.

This was President’s House, Columbia University, and Eisenhower was the eponymous resident. Inside, under a high ceiling, was a large, lighted Christmas tree, the Eisenhower family milling around. Soon after we had all been introduced, Mr. Marx and General Eisenhower moved toward an elevator that would take them to the highest of six floors, where Ike had a studio in which he painted. The purpose of Mr. Marx’s visit, it became clear, was for him to choose one of Ike’s paintings, which Ike would give him as a gift. Merry Christmas. Mrs. Marx stayed downstairs with Mrs. Eisenhower. Mr. Marx and the General told me to come along with them. The three of us ascended to the studio—a spacious attic awash in natural light. Ike had lined up half a dozen finished pictures for Mr. Marx to consider. Near them, on an easel in the center of the room, was Ike’s current project, an unfinished still-life. The subject was a square table covered with a red-checked tablecloth and a bowl of fruit—apples, plums, and pears, topped by a bunch of grapes. After studying for a time the paintings from which he was to choose, Mr. Marx said that he needed to pee. He would choose, eventually and shrewdly, a large canvas of the principal buildings of the United States Military Academy from across the parade ground. Meanwhile, Ike told him where he could find a bathroom on a lower floor. Mr. Marx went to the elevator and disappeared.

Now General Eisenhower and I were alone in his studio. What on earth to say—with those five stars in pentimento on his shoulders, me a nineteen-year-old college student. The problem was more his than mine, but for him it was not a problem. He began to talk about the red-checked tablecloth and bowl of fruit. He said that when he was growing up in Abilene, Kansas, his world was symbolized by tablecloths just like this one, and that was why this current project meant so much to him. The still-life was well along—the apples, plums, and pears deftly drawn and highlighted. Pretty much tongue-tied until now, at last I had something to ask. Despite the painting’s advanced stage, it did not include the grapes.

I said, “Why have you left out the grapes?”

Ike said, “Because they’re too Goddamned hard to paint.”

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Ebooks are changing the way we read, and the way novelists write

Posted on: September 13th, 2015 by admin No Comments

By Paul Mason (in The Guardian)

If you hand me the original paperback edition of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow I can, quickly and without too much scrabbling, find you the page where the hero loses the girl. My disappointment on his behalf has lingered physically on that page for the past 20 years. Likewise, in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, there is a long section where a platoon of the Red Army defends “House 6/1”, establishing a temporary zone of political freedom there. For me, this freedom seems to live in that chunk of pages. If I look at the book end-on, I can see, roughly, where House 6/1 exists.

Yet with the coming of ebooks, the world of the physical book, read so many times that your imagination can “inhabit” individual pages, is dying. I’m not the only person in my circle who has stopped buying new books in anything other than digital form, and even the cherished books described above are now re-read, when I need to, on Kindle.

But what is the ebook doing to the way we read? And how, in turn, are the changes in the way millions of us read going to affect the way novelists write? This is not just a question for academics; you only have to look at people on a beach this summer to see how influential fiction remains, and how, if its narratives were to change radically, our self-conception might also change.

In Words Onscreen, published this year, the American linguist Naomi Baron surveyed the change in reading patterns that digital publishing has wrought. Where the impact can be measured, it consists primarily of a propensity to summarise. We read webpages in an “F” pattern: the top line, scroll down a bit, have another read, scroll down. Academics have reacted to the increased volume of digitally published papers by skim-reading them. As for books, both anecdotal and survey evidence suggests that English literature students are skim-reading set works by default.

The attention span has shortened not just because ebooks consist of a continuous, searchable digital text, but because they are being read on devices we use for other things. Baron reports that a large percentage of young people read ebooks on their cellphones – dipping into them in the coffee queue or on public transport, but then checking their work email or their online love life, a thumbswipe away.

In turn, in so far as form and business models has reacted to such behaviour, fiction has become shorter. Every major publisher has experimented with short stories, serialised fiction, anthologies and mid-range “e-only” books. By contrast, experiments with fictional forms that only work for ebooks and hypertext have failed to make the big time.

Predictably there is a literary backlash – not just against the ebook, and the short attention span, but against writing styles that authors have evolved in the post-Kindle world. The American novelist Joanna Scott last month bemoaned the tendency, even in award-winning serious fiction, to produce a “good read” with a gripping plot and unfussy writing, “instead of a work of art”.

I think such complaints are missing the point. The addition of an “information layer” to everyday life is transforming the way we react to stories: both for the creators and the mass audience.

Our lives are already impossible without summarisation. Just as the first encyclopaedias were written in response to the problem of too many books, so we, too, have evolved new, instant reference tools.

Any word in an ebook can invoke its own dictionary definition, simply by selecting it. If a passage in an ebook strikes you as cogent, beautiful or profound you can bet – once you’ve switched the highlight-sharing function on – hundreds of other people have already highlighted it. It’s a short hop from realising that to paying special attention to the highlighted bits – not out of laziness but as a wise learning strategy.

And while the academic study guides to major novels are usually worthless, the Wikipedia pages devoted to them can be invaluable. That is because study guides are often the work of a single, low-paid hack and the Wikipedia page contains the real-time wisdom of crowds: often wrong, but rarely worthless.

What I think the literary academics are worried about is the loss of immersiveness. If I list the books I would save from a burning house – or an exploding Kindle – they all create worlds in which one can become immersed: Pynchon, Grossmann, Marquez, Lawrence Durrell in the Alexandria Quartet, Peter Carey in almost everything.

In the 20th century, we came to value this quality of immersion as literary and to see clear narratives, with characters observed only through their actions, as sub-literary. But a novel such as Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch, subtly derided by the literary world for its readability, is not the product of the Kindle – but of a new relationship between writer and reader.

Pre-digital people had a single “self” and they hauled its sorry ass through the pages of the literary canon in the hope that it would come out better. Digital people have multiple selves, and so what they are doing with an immersive story is more provisional and temporary.

So writers are having to do different things. But what?

It’s probably too soon to generalise but my guess is, if you scooped up every book – digital and analogue – being read on a typical Mediterranean beach, and cut out the absolute crap, you’d be left with three kinds of writing: first, “literary” novels with clearer plots and than their 20th century predecessors, less complex prose, fewer experiments with fragmented perception; second, popular novels with a high degree of writerly craft (making the edges of the first two categories hard to define); third, literary writing about reality – the confessional autobiography, the diary of a journalist, highly embroidered reportage about a legendary event.

Somewhere among them is probably a novel that will impact as indelibly on the teenager reading it as Pynchon and Grossman impacted on me. But here’s the difference.

I remember reading novels because the life within them was more exciting, the characters more attractive, the freedom more exhilarating than anything in the reality around me, which seemed stultifying, parochial and enclosed.

To a kid reading Pynchon on a Galaxy 6 this summer, it has to compete with Snapchat and Tinder, plus movies, games and music. Sure, that kid can no longer see what other people are reading on the beach – whether its Proust or 50 Shades – but they can see in great detail what people in their social network are recommending. Life itself has become more immersive. That’s what writers are really up against.

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That’s Too Much: The Problem with Prolific Writers – MM

Posted on: September 13th, 2015 by admin No Comments

By posted at 6:00 am on September 2, 2015

On Thursday, The New York Times published an op-ed defense of prolific writers by one of the modern era’s most prolific writers himself, Stephen King. It was a timely bit of writing for me, a non-prolific writer with a first book deal in the works, for whom the question of appropriate literary output is often debated.

covercoverIn King’s take, which is certainly worth a read, he basically argues two things. One, that there are great works buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of some writers. (i.e. “Alexandre Dumas wrote ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’ — and some 250 other novels.”) And two, that for some authors, like him and Joyce Carol Oates, “prolificacy is sometimes inevitable.” He describes the crazy-making clamor of the voices in his head since his youth, all the stories crying out to be written.

covercoverThe potential for those unwritten works is an interesting point of entry. Like most everyone, I’ve always found a particular romance in the notion of lost works of literature. There are so many different kinds, aside from those that never manage to be written. There are the truly lost, like William Shakespeare’s missing play The History of Cardenio. The nearly lost, like the poems of Emily Dickinson. There are the mostly-lost works that could have died with their authors but were published anyway, like Vladimir Nabakov’s The Original of Laura or David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

But lately I’ve been struck by the notion that there might be no books more lost than those buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of authors who have simply published too damn much.

covercoverWhat’s your opinion, for instance, of the William Faulkner novel Pylon? How about Joyce Carol Oates’s Solstice? Larry McMurtry’s incredible doorstop of a novel Moving On? Or the only book in which Philip Roth wrote of a female protagonist, When She Was Good? Any non-John Updike scholars out there recall A Month of Sundays?

No? Well, who can blame you? Faulkner wrote 19 novels. You could hardly be expected to read them all. Larry McMurtry has written over 45 books. Roth, nearly 30 novels and novellas. Updike, more than 20 novels and almost as many short story collections.

Joyce Carol Oates, as King points out is “the author of more than 50 novels (not counting the 11 written under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly).” But that’s just the novels. I stopped counting the short story collections listed on her Wikipedia bibliography entry after 20 — which just brought me to the early 1990s. Oh, and that entry is listed as “incomplete.” Wikipedia would be grateful for your help in expanding it, though it’s unlikely you could do so faster than Oates herself.

Seeing a bibliography like that I can only wonder, isn’t it possible — even likely, perhaps — that Oates’s best novel is some forgotten, out-of-print book she wrote in, say, 1982, maybe one that hasn’t even landed on that incomplete bibliography yet? If so, most of us will never know it, because her massive output has built a body so forbidding that it deprives us of the experience of her books.

This kind of output isn’t limited to the literary scene, as King’s piece clearly illustrates. In fact, things only get really wild when you start talking about genre. There’s King himself, of course, who is at around 70 books all told. Agatha Christie who, as he points out, published 91 novels. Isaac Asimov, who, King says “hammered out more than 500 books and revolutionized science fiction.” James Patterson — also name-checked by King — has produced (mostly co-authored) nearly 150 books. He released about 15 in 2014 alone. And where would Modern Culture be without Nora Roberts, who has written more than 200 romance novels?

Maybe King is right that this kind of output is a good thing. But something about it still makes me uneasy. Maybe it’s because, upon discovering a book I love, I invariably feel compelled to track down and devour everything else by the same author.

covercovercoverWith some it’s simple. Flannery O’Connor’s entire bibliography basically consists of four books, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Then, if you’re really hungry, there are her letters, interviews, whatever remains of her collected “uncollected” marginalia, and, most recently, a prayer journal. Finish those, and you’ve done it. You know Flannery all the way from “The Geranium” to “Judgment Day,” and whatever else she thought, wondered, or murmured to the heavens. There’s something wonderful about having seen all that an author has to offer, following the progression of her skill, obsessions, the recurring tropes and themes, the trails of subconscious leakage.

The problem comes when I happen upon an author, like one of the above — King included — whose body of work defies, by its sheer heft, that kind of close study without lavishing a truly abnormal amount of time and devotion upon it.

It’s not as if reading a novel is the same as watching a movie or viewing a piece of art. After all, one could see all of Vincent Van Gogh’s 860 oil paintings in a few days if they were physically available. And a cursory appreciation of Johannes Vermeer’s 34 mightn’t take longer than an hour. Stanley Kubrick’s filmography amounts to 13 feature films I could watch in a few of days if I felt like a binge. But it’s not so simple for writers, unless I want this to become my own personal Year of John Updike, Two Years of Philip Roth, or Decade of Joyce Carol Oates.

King concludes his op-ed by saying that he’s glad Ms. Oates continues to write new books “because,” he says, “I want to read them.” I wonder if he really has. If anyone has read them all. Or truly does anxiously await the next one’s arrival. Whoever has or does is in possession of far more free time than I. If we were immortal, if our time on the planet was infinite, I’m sure I’d feel differently, but as King wisely points out in his own piece, “life is short.”

And let’s say I wasn’t an obsessive completionist. When considering huge bodies of work, there’s still the uncertainty about where to enter and where to go next once you’ve found a way in. If I wish to dig into the oeuvre of Oates, McMurtry, Updike, Roth, or even James Patterson, I’m forced to either choose at random or rely on others to tell me which work is most important and worthy. Which might be fine if the people on whom I were relying had read all of the work themselves, but of course they haven’t — with the exception perhaps of King’s devoted fan base.

I experienced a similar anxiety many years ago at a record store. I had gone there determined to finally delve into Frank Zappa’s music. Unfortunately, it was quite a good record store, and they stocked most of his 100 albums. Finally, after trying to make a decision based on the album art, I gave up and decided to get into punk instead, a lot of short-lived bands that self-destructed after just an album or two, tidy discographies I could learn by heart. Of course there were probably some truly great albums buried in Zappa’s discography, as in the Grateful Dead’s 144-plus record output. But I’ll never know. The volume of work becomes a barricade, a wall that one cannot reasonably scale even if one wishes to.

So it is with novels. It’s true that telling Oates, et al., not to write so much might deprive us of great works, but the net effect is the same either way. Each new book is, for me anyway, another lost in the flood.

Image Credit: Flickr/library_mistress.

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Changing Reader Habits in a Digital World – DBW

Posted on: September 13th, 2015 by admin No Comments

By: |

I have been trying to pinpoint the exact moment, or indeed the book, when I became a digital reader. I’d bought my ereader years earlier and had a handful of titles on there, but I was still predominantly a paperback girl, picking up most of my books on the high street. The shift must have been subtle at first, a gradual onset until I realized this month that I haven’t read a physical book in more than two years.

The realization came when I heard that one of my favorite authors was having a book signing in London. An orderly queue and a lovely chat later, I had her autographed paperback proudly displayed on my shelf at home. When I finally got around to picking the book up, though, it struck me how much more I had come to rely on functionality than, well, ink on paper.

For one thing, I was suddenly uncomfortable with seeing two pages at a time;  it felt like I was cheating by seeing further ahead than a couple paragraphs, and my eyes kept skimming the opposite page. Because the book was a few hundred pages long, bending at the spine made the light fall unevenly across the page, and within a few minutes I found myself squinting and trying to focus my eyes better. My usual go-to solution, increasing the font size slightly, was out of the question, and I found myself continuously looking toward the corner of the page to see how long I had left to go in the chapter.

In short, it felt like someone had handed me a ‘90s flip phone after years of using a smartphone. Halfway through chapter four, I gave up and bought the ebook.

As nostalgic as we might sometimes get for the days when all our phones did was make calls and send messages, the truth is that years of conditioning have forced us to rely on all the bells and whistles that are standard on today’s smartphones. Similarly, our consumption habits of music, films, TV and video games have evolved as well, and you’d be hard-pressed to find people who wished that the innovation in those spaces could be rolled back. To borrow a phrase from software and product design, the “user journey” from discovery to consumption to sharing was improved by digital, and despite my anecdote about the wonderful perks of ereading, the same cannot yet be said about books.

Books are unique. The printed word, the sensory delight, the smell and feel of a new copy—these are tangible advantages over the ebook as a format. We attach romanticized sentiments to buying a book:  browsing the shelves of our local bookstore or visiting a beloved library, serendipitously finding the next great read. This is why the physical book will never be entirely replaced by the ebook; the two formats can only ever be symbiotic.

But what we can learn as we strive to widen the digital consumption of books is how to improve the user journey—how to best not only what is out there digitally, but to improve on how books are discovered, bought and read in the offline world as well. We must remember that the digital experience is not restricted to ebooks, and that new ecommerce models can impact and improve the matching of readers to physical books.

From a technological standpoint, we have come a long way in improving the standard of the ebook as a format. Healthy competition in the ereader and reading app space means we have nearly perfected the functionality of ereading, but we are still missing huge pieces of the entire journey, and there is much room for innovation in how users browse and buy books digitally beyond what we have come to accept as standard.

As the industry continues to innovate, reimagining and enhancing how readers find, read and share their books, the wider consumer base will slowly but surely nudge closer to an ecosystem that is inherently more digital. The day will come when we will all look back at how books are digitally distributed today and wonder how on earth we thought this was the best we could offer.

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