books music

Weekend Reads, Plus Some Thoughts on E-Books and MFAs.

  • Barbara Jane Reyes on teaching America Is In The Heart and Dogeaters (
  • Marathons, not binge-watching. Rex Sorgatz on “How Netflix Broke the Unbreakable Spoiler Alert” (The Message)
  • “‘Is the Philippines trying to kill me?’ I ask.” Laurel Fantauzzo, in “The Animals in My Home” (The Rumpus)
  • Wattpad infographics, an essay by Laura Miller, Steven Soderbergh’s edits, One Direction, and where the Philippines ranks in all of this: a guide to fan fiction (Vulture)
  • “I was supposed to use this trip to grasp something essential about the U.S., perceive something with my foreign gaze that Americans couldn’t see for themselves. Instead, I saw nothing. I experienced nothing.” Karl Ove Knaussgard’s “My Saga, Part 2” (The Sunday New York Times Magazine). This is huge mainstream exposure for Knaussgard, though I doubt it’s going to inspire the casual reader to pick up My Struggle because of it.
  • So that rather mean-spirited Ryan Boudinot essay has had an unexpectedly protracted shelf life, and I think it partly comes from the cyclical nature of the debate, if it can be called such, on the utility of a Creative Writing MFA. I seem to recall a similar brouhaha a few years ago, and another before that. Some (okay, maybe two) of Boudinot’s observations do seem spot-on, like what he says about shelving early work, though I’m not sure how one actually learns to write if said early work remained in the stale air of the lonely garret in which it was composed. And what he writes about woefully unprepared graduate students can be extended to that whole extended playing-out of neuroses that is called graduate school life; there are “good” grad students, and “bad” grad students, who have different levels of commitment to doing the work, and I’m sure I was a mix of both when I was a young pup in grad school. Anyway, there are a couple of good pieces in Electric Literature, one by Adrian Van Young, and another written anonymously; the latter’s title is “How the MFA Glut Is a Disservice to Students, Teachers, and Writers,” which goes a long way to explain the writer’s refusal to be identified. I actually had no idea that there were programs out there with “nearly 100% admittance rates.” I’ve been following all this with interest because I occasionally wonder — ok, I confess the correct term is “fantasize” — about an MFA. Whether I can even get in, what I can do with the degree, how I would spend those two glorious years doing nothing but writing and reading. In practical terms anyway, the prospect of debt terrifies me, so going back to school is really off the table. (I was told by a writer who I hold with the highest esteem that I didn’t need an MFA, and she told me why. To this day I still count it as one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me; it’s one of the things that keeps my butt in this chair every day.)
  • Rick Moody and Scott Timberg have a fascinating and digressive conversation — actually, Timberg’s phrase is “a lively and grimly enjoyable conversation” — on Dylan, Sinatra, Swift (Taylor, not Jonathan), James (Richard D., not Henry), and the paradox of aesthetic relativism and its coexistence with some Platonic ideal of quality (The Rumpus)
  • Colson Whitehead on how the filmic vocabulary of the reality show “has become a limber metaphor for exploring our own real-world failures,” in “The ‘Loser Edit’ That Awaits Us All” (The New York Times). There’s a hazy bit of grad school theory that this reminds me of — Paul Ricoeur? Hayden White? something about “narrativity” and “emplotment” — but that was too long ago for me.
  • And finally, Robin Reader, “So What’s Up (and Down) with Ebooks?” (Dear Author). I link to this latter piece with some misgivings because my reaction to it has swung from “appalled because writers need to be paid, dammit” to “of course I wait for everything to go on sale” to recognizing my complicity in a $9.99 price point (and lower) for an e-book because I’ve been conditioned by all-you-can-eat forms of consumption (Netflix, Spotify, your local Sizzler — though I haven’t been inside one since maybe 1996). The article also recycles that old debate about the price of print books is justified because of the physicalness of it, its resale value, the fact that you can lend it, etc. — a perfectly legitimate reasoning — versus e-books are just electrons and bits that cost nothing to store or ship and they should by nature be cheaper. I totally get that, because the very bookness of the book — the smell, the tactility of the pages, and don’t get me started about how much I love deckle-edged pages, my god — is something you pay for too. But I’d like to think that the value of a book inheres less in its resellability or the physical space it occupies on a bookshelf, but more in the book’s content regardless of how it’s delivered to the reader. Surely buying an e-book for a few dollars more — or a print book for full price at my local indie bookstore — constitutes some form of support that returns to the author at some point. (The fuzziness of “at some point” is another problem altogether.) Odd though how some of the readers’ umbrage — $12.99 makes the blog entry writer “feel so disrespected and exploited” — is more likely to provoke a response like “Fine I won’t buy your book you greedy publisher / author you” versus “Guess that means I’ll just buy the paperback then.” That doesn’t really make sense to me.




Nick Cave, on Limitations

– Nick Cave, in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

I should post his quotation in context; he follows this up with:

For me, that’s where collaboration comes in. To take an idea that is blind and unformed and that has been hatched largely in solitude and allow these strange collaborator creatures that I work with to morph it into something else, something better, well, that’s really something to see.


On Van Halen’s “1984.”

Yesterday (January 9), Van Halen’s 1984 album turned 30 years old.


On Scott Heim’s “The First Time I Heard The Smiths.”

What a great name for a series — it’s an announcement and, at the same time, a question to the reader: what was your first time like? I must have encountered the Smiths as the last song on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack (the wonderfully maudlin “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”) or by way of “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” played on NU 107, a Manila-based FM radio station that specialized exclusively in the alt-radio format and forever changed my life.


My Favorite Albums of 2011.

Heard any exciting new music this year? I mean, genuinely exciting, can’t-wait-to-tell-everyone-about-it music?

My friend Jane and I were talking the other day about how this year* seemed to be a particularly bland one for music. Is it the recession? The splintering of musical audiences? Or was everyone waiting for the holiday season to release their good music, the way movie studios release their Oscar hopefuls close to the winter holidays?

In a separate conversation, my friend Jens and I also wondered if it was because there was too much access to too much music in general. Back in the day, I’d play Remain in Light and The Joshua Tree and Wish You Were Here and Synchronicity and The Head on the Door and Hatful of Hollow over and over because those were all I could afford on a high schooler’s allowance, and those became, by default, the albums I was most excited about. Now, every musical obscurity could practically be had for free on the internet, each new release streamed on demand.

Or maybe I’m just getting old.

But really, what is going on? For the last few years now, Pitchfork seems to be hyping one unGoogleable band from Brooklyn after another, their music interchangeable and forgettable. I look at the lineup of the shows at the Independent and I don’t recognize half of the bands anymore.

The other month I preordered a bunch of fall albums from bands/singers I love — Wilco, Tom Waits, Bjork** — and realized I couldn’t even remember a single track from their previous albums. And that goes for my highly anticipated releases this year that I should have loved: The King of Limbs? Gloss Drop? Stone Rollin’? Let England Shake? Cannibal Courtship? Watch the Throne? They’re all from folks I love, in varying degrees (Radiohead, Battles, Raphael Saadiq, PJ Harvey, Dengue Fever, and Jay-Z / Kanye West, respectively), and the albums aren’t dull or bad by any means, but they suffer from the affliction of being merely… okay. (Back in the day I thought Polly Jean Harvey and Bjork were these two twin goddesses of music, but only recently I realized that their really good albums — and I mean really good — were released in 1995 and 1997 respectively.)

Nonetheless, there were numerous bright spots in 2011, and I’m happy to share what tickled my ears this year. Here they are in no particular order, with a Spotify playlist to accompany your reading.