Yann Martel Off the Deep End

The Globe and Mail: “Martel shrugs when asked whether he’s become downright smug because of his recent success. But he follows this shoulder roll with diabolical laughter, sticking his tongue out before answering the question.

“‘You know what? You get used to anything,’ he said. ‘You can get used to being kicked repeatedly in the crotch and you can get used to getting random blowjobs from bookstore groupies. I know about these things because I’m Yann Martel and you’re not. Do you want me to show you the two tattoos on my ass? There’s one for YANN and one for MARTEL. Perfect symmetry! Of course, if that’s not appropriate for a Canadian newspaper, then I’ll be more than happy to offer a tasteless comparison to the Holocaust. Anything to sell more books!'”

Comics as Literature — Some Starting Points

Superhero Comics as Literature: “It was precisely this pathos that made the potential literary quality of superhero comics almost impossible. Before Starman, comics like the aforementioned Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns took the “reality principal” found in the early Marvel Comics, (Spiderman is really a nerdy shy high-schooler that can’t get a date) and gave it an edge that infused the comics with a real relevance. But quickly this “reality principal” itself became formulaic: Marriage (Superman!), divorce, death, alcoholism (Iron Man!), violence, are certainly things that people experience, but when they happen in a cape it is almost impossible to control. You end up with worse caricatures than before, as when the superheroes only had secret identities so they could pay their rent.”

A New Frame for Comic Books: “It saddens me that, by and large, Americans still don’t know the literary value of comic books. Much of the world and certain domestic pockets already know that the cultural stereotypes on comic books is long past over and a new generation of exceptional works awaits our discovery.”

Are Comic Books Literature? “I, for one, am not ashamed to say that comic books are a form of entertainment no different than any other form of popular entertainment. As such, thereís about as much crap and as much good stuff in it as in any other entertainment medium. Comics can be clever, well-written, involving popular entertainment, but theyíre pop entertainment nonetheless. Thatís as should be. Comics arenít meant to be literature, appealing only to those with cobwebs in their brains. Comics are meant to be enjoyed by all.”

Eddies in the Mainstream: “Clearly, repeating the past is a poor strategy to rejuvenate an art form. Nevertheless, the alternative that is most often offered, that comics adopt the subject matter and techniques of High Art, runs into a problem that is equally obvious at this point. ”

The Difference Between Comics and Literature: “The BOE claims that comics produced by Mavrides and other artists are not literature, but camera-ready commercial art, which is taxable. “

Someone Cuts Through the Swath

Rasputin gets to the heart of the matter: “What it comes down to is this: Comics began as a populist artform. They belong to the uneducated lower classes. No self-appointed defender of literature is going to let some underdressed raggamuffin into his club house — good lord, what would the neighbors think? Artistic writing got its start during a time when only the wealthy and the clergy could actually read. It’s a high-class artform that has never purged itself of its utter contempt for the common man, even when advances in public education began to allow the masses to crawl their way out of illiteracy. Comics, on the other hand, have always belonged to groups at whom the upper-crust have traditionally pinched their noses — immigrants and adolescents.”

[UPDATE: Brian offers his candidates for the Ulysses and Canterbury Tales of comic books, among many other thoughts.]


King Wenclas writes in to report that Snobs Revisited Part 1 and Part II has been posted at the ULA site. This time, the ULA’s main targets are Bookforum, Sven Birkets, and even Dale Peck. Note to the ULA: your huge typeface draws unfortunate comparisons to a hideous large print book.

In Defense of Rebecca Walker

Deborah Solomon & Rebecca Walker: You’re the daughter of the novelist Alice Walker. Why did you decide to take her name instead of your father’s, who is a lawyer?

“It’s not that important for me right now. Can we talk about something else?”

rwalker.jpgThree Possibilities:

1. Using her mother’s name had nothing to do with capitalizing on nepotism, but everything to do with rejuvenating the career of Jimmie “Dy-No-Mite” Walker.

2. The Dreaded Lawyer Incident of 1998. While walking one afternoon under the bright cherry trees of entitlement, Ms. Walker accidentally collided into a young law student with a bad case of eczema. The student’s blotched skin reminded her of Jell-O, which she hadn’t been particularly fond of as a young humorless girl. But there was one horrible side effect. Any time anyone would mention the word “lawyer,” Ms. Walker would demand all parties to cease conversation. So serious is Ms. Walker’s affliction that you might be having an amazing conversation with her about the influence of dadaism upon current advertising, finally coming up with a few angles that the bright young things at Brown hadn’t tossed around, only to have the dialogue halted midway. It should be noted that earlier responses were more extreme. Two years ago, Ms. Walker used to scream on cue whenever anyone mentioned the word “lawyer.” But with the help of a therapist, Ms. Walker now calmly replies, “Can we talk about something else?” Not only does this phrasing carry the illusion of sangfroid, but it is also an homage to Joan Rivers’ infamous catchphrase (now forgotten by those nimble NYT Magazine readers who’ve never left upstate New York).

3. An appeal to those suffering from speech impediments. It’s not very widely reported, but one of Ms. Walker’s high school friends had a speech impediment. It took years of linguistical therapy for this friend to stop confusing her Ws with her Rs. Consequentially, Ms. Walker figures that the name Rebecca Walker may possess a special alliterative quality when pronounced “WEBECCA WALKER.”

Drifting Inside for a Mite

As can be gathered from the slipshod updates, and my firm resistance to the idea of giving up blogging during this quasi-hiatus period, current life has reached levels beyond hectic. But I did want to weigh in on a couple of pieces of news floating through the rivulets before morphing momentarily into driftwood.

  • The Rake, if it isn’t clear enough, is a fantastic human being. I’ve been meaning to get back to him privately on this, but I’m hopelessly behind on email (assorted apologies to all on that score). For now, I’ll just state my kudos here publicly. That’s about all I’m capable of right now.
  • As the Literary Saloon points out, Hamish Hamilton has eviscerated the latest McSweeney’s. Having not yet had the pleasure of checking out this momentous comics issue, I agree in part with the Saloon’s assessment. There have been too many insalubrious suggestions from the “comics as literature” crowd without justification or solid arguments. It’s one thing to state it, but it comes across as a callow undergraduate announcing for the umpteenth time that God is dead. It’s another thing to have someone like James Wood or Christopher Hitchens weighing in on the matter and offering a proper historical or critical perspective. Ergo, it’s nice to see someone rock the boat (with admittedly too much gusto), if only to get the pro-comics crowd reconsidering their arguments. I’ll only say that safe ‘n sane hero worship seems steeped in the same “anti-snark” rhetoric that amounts to inexorable backpatting rather than genuine criticism. Why, for example, has the subject of Dave Sim’s decline remained curiously unmentioned? I’m as much of a Chris Ware fan as the next guy, but if the comic book is a form of literature, where is its Ulysses or Canterbury Tales? Get cracking, people. Offer real arguments outside of the Scott McCloud facsimiles.
  • The Complete Review has also reviewed James Cain’s overlooked Sinful Woman.
  • I caught The Red Elvises at Slim’s on Saturday. They have to be one of the hardest working bands around. (The band, apparently, is crazy enough to play in twelve completely different venues for twelve straight nights.) While I was more impressed with their scatological riffs on 1950s be-bop rather than their tired Yakov Smirnoff misunderstandings (they have, after all, been based out of Santa Monica for several years), outside of the ho-hum neverending solos, you’d be hard pressed to find a more endearingly kitschy show. Their new songs, “Love Rocket” and “Juliet” appealed to the fourteen year-old within and have siingle-handedly made Lunatics & Poets a must-buy. Imagine if the staid Stray Cats were tainted by a much-needed dose of burlesque and you have the Red Elvises in a nutshell.

[UPDATE: Since a certain someone apparently seems to think that everything I write on my blog is about her (when I merely alluded to the “comics as literature” crowd, bandied about for several years pre-certain someones and before McCloud), and since this certain someone would like to use enigmatic argot like “certain someone” rather than get involved with an adult and civil discussion on a very interesting issue, I only wish to add that the wholesale subscription to an argument without examples, initiated only by how a particular article enrages, is balderdash. It deadens the discussion and gives ammunition to detractors. It’s no better than a Green Party supporter hassling you at the Haight Street Fair without citing a single reason why. (“Because we’re the Green Party, man!”) What better way to nip these issues in the bud, so to speak, than an all-encompassing response that stands as sui generis? Something which takes McCloud and Ware’s points and hits the ground running. This is the kind of interesting issue that literary blogs can look into. (For example, I’d love to see Mr. Green’s thoughts on the matter.) Fortunately, Maud has looked at this issue from reverse, citing a Rani Dharker article that compares pomo novels with comic book technique. ]

[UPDATE 2: Also, Mr. Sarvas has interviewed Swink Editor Leelia Strogov.]

The Secret to Being Shamelessly Lionized? Convince the Public That You’re Real

Patricia Harrington of Nashville, TN: “He was an honest man — very honest — and a real man.”

John Morton of Cumming, GA: “That’s what impressed me, that he was a real person.”

F. Lyman Simpkins, Mayor of Pemberton Borough, NJ: “As farm [sic] as I’m concerned, he was a real man to look up to as I went through the political end of it.”

Katie Heideman of Littleton, CO: “He was a real person.”

Gary Mervis of Rochester, NY: “[H]e was just a real person, a very nice person.”

Donny Lingle of Manheim, PA: “He was just a real person.”

Actors/Volunteers for “Wrestling”

Apologies for corrupting Return of the Reluctant business with the play business. We will have a separation between church and state firmly in place next month.

But if you are an actor in the San Francisco area, and you’re looking to be involved with a nutty Beckettesque kind of play (with bad puns and unapologetic jokes about Preparation H), then please note that we will be holding auditions for Wrestling an Alligator on July 17 and July 18, with callbacks to be held on July 24. We have four roles, two male and two female. (To the Demolishing Crew: Yes, that’s right, a character’s gender has changed over the last couple of days, along with several other things, thanks in part to your valuable input. But please keep the feedback coming.) Feel free to email me at ed@edrants.com for details.

Also, we will be looking for crew volunteers for the months of August and September. More details to come.

Tanenhaus Watch

Under Tanenhaus’s firms hands, it appears that the NYTBR has begun issuing corrections. The corrections, as usual, are laced with the kind of minutiae that will prevent merely a handful of fulminating fanboys from slashing their wrists. However, given the pedantic obsessions, we here at Return of the Reluctant encourage Tanenhaus & Friends to continue. Here are a few that we suggest:

“A review by Michael Kinsley suggested that David Brooks be bitch-slapped three times. Mr. Kinsley actually intended for Brooks to be bitch-slapped four times, not three. In addition, Kinsley would like to kick Brooks’ ass while he is being simultaneously humiliated by a Girl Scouts troop.”

“When pressed by editor Sam Tanenhaus for an ‘innovative’ idea for her column, Laura Miller referred to ‘lingering headaches’ and turned out a silly column about spy stories. She followed this up with an epileptic fit and demanded a Ritalin prescription. The Times regrets any misinterpretations caused by Miller’s histrionics.”

“Lizzie Skurnick intended to use ‘fuck’ in her review, but it was gently suggested to Ms. Skurnick that the Times was a family newspaper. The Gray Lady hopes to let down her guard, however, in the event that Mr. Bush is re-elected in November.”

My Unilateral Country: Right AND Left

Here in the City, there’s a big brouhaha going down because of a Biotech conference happening at the Moscone. In one corner, there’s Mayor Gavin Newsom and the business sector heaping dinero on glitzy gilded booths, using every technique at their disposal (including well-practiced sycophantism) to woo industrialists. Because unless you’re living off a trust fund, it’s still a perrenial juggling act if you want to live in this town and do your own thing. So what better way to upgrade the overall standard of living and spark up the sulfur of plentiful jobs and affordable apartments then to pivot your head like an aspiring socialite at any ol’ big boy looking to get inside your pants? (And in this case, the fact that the big boy’s all “biotech” pounds the crude and distasteful metaphor in further, along with all subsequent explanation of same.)

In the other corner, we have protestors! From what I’ve been able to conclude from my morning commutes, most of the protestors are pockmarked teenagers whose working definition of instilling change involves dumping rotten fruit into intersections, rather than having civil discussions with the right people or the citizens about the issues. (You know, those trivial bystanders who might be responsible for exercising conscious consumer choices? Well, like many protestors in this cartoonish town, the protests in question are about aggravating these bystanders, rather than informing them. And what better way to vex than to block intersections at rush hour, thus causing regular working Joes and Janes to explain to bosses why they are late for work, and subsequently throwing a small monkey wrench into their job security during one of the worst economic periods in the last twenty years? Way to go, team!)

The protestors have declared the Biotech conference to be a bad thing because the biotech sector is responsible for genetically modified food. Never mind that the Frankenfood industry can be put out of commission if enough people were to consciously reject it (i.e., read labels before sliding credit cards). Never mind that, well, economic circumstances being what they are, the pickens are slim on the job front.

Do I come across as cynical? On the contrary. I actually sympathize with both camps here. But where I have the problem is that neither the Newsom camp nor the protestors are mature enough to address or understand each other’s points. What we have here is the potential for a fantastic debate over a major issue. Where do we draw the line in the sand? How do we balance shaky economics with moral principles? It’s an important question that deserves serious consideration as our unemployed road warriors put the pedal to the metal to pick over the small morsels dropping from the wilderbeast’s maw, at least until the economy picks up. But like all political skirmishes, neither side wishes to compromise. Unilateralism, that wonderful political principle still in vogue thanks to the cowboy on Pennsylvania Avenue, has become so indoctrinated through almost every sliver of the political spectrum that it is now virtually de rigueur for politicans and protestors to do likewise.

Is this democracy at work? We all remember how effective those Five Year Plans and Great Leaps Forward were, right? What makes the current political atmosphere in this country any less different from that of the Soviet Union? Rather than world leaders deciding for us the policies and dicta we should believe in, perhaps in response to the current frustrating atmosphere, we’ve now deferred this duty to ham-handed small-time politicos and the barker-like protesters who follow them. The overall contentment by anyone to believe so fundamentally in their own points without listening or considering the other side is perhaps the worst aspect of political discourse that this nation has seen in the past twenty-five years. Sure, I could blame television or the Limbaughs and Moores. But consider the following statistic:

In a global study comparing voter turnout in a parliamentary election over the past several years, the United States scored 93rd out of 100.

You could blame the people for this appalling placement. Me? I blame the early advent of unilateralism, which has transformed politicans and protestors alike into living cartoons. The folks at the top of the food chain are rolling in their oversized sties, but my guess is they’d be scared shitless if we actually started listening to each other.

San Francisco — Third City?

Bay Area improv gets a big cover story in this week’s Bay Area Guardian, with the usual suspects cited (including True Fiction Magazine and Diane Rachel, whom I was fortunate enough to take classes with last year), just in time for the San Francisco Improv Festival, now playing through June 26. If you’re looking to take a plunge into improv, I highly recommend taking classes at BATS or experiencing some of these fantastic groups live.

On Presidents

Right after Ronald Reagan died, I began reading Joseph J. Ellis’s fascinating biography American Sphinx, which attempts to log the duplicities and conflicting character of Thomas Jefferson. I had long been interested in the book, but when I saw the endless column-inches painting Reagan as a grand hero, as a man no less holier than the Messiah himself, I grew despondent over how the role of the President has remained decidedly unpresidential in recent years. I became ired over two ideas: (1) that the current editorial clime remains so fundamentally immature and dishonest that it cannot offer a portrayal that shows Reagan’s strengths and weaknesses (if only Lytton Strachey or H.L. Mencken were around to weigh in) and (2) that we now have a President as comparatively active on the culture front as a rotting rowboat tied to a quay leading up to some marvelous museum. As if in answer to these issues, Ellis’s bio fit the bill. American Sphinx profiles a man who was, without a doubt, presidential material, but it has (so far) done so in a way that has allowed me to keep my hero worship in check while presenting additional mysteries.

I won’t offer yet another tired dirge that either celebrates or condemns Reagan. There’s enough of that floating around on the blogosphere and elsewhere. I’ll only say that for as long as I can remember, I’ve admired Thomas Jefferson. When I was a boy first learning about this lanky Virginian, the fact that the two of us shared a dark reddish head of hair was always a plus. The fact that he was an intense reader and a man of many interests also attracted me. And when I heard that this was the guy responsible for the swivel chair, which I had always thought was one of the handiest pieces of furniture ever created, I knew that this was the horse I should bet on.

And when I learned as a teenager that this slaveowner had simultaneously written against slavery while keeping the issue on the q.t. during his political career, I was more intrigued than ever.

But I think Ellis pointed me closer to the answer when he recalled Jefferson’s infamous 1786 relationship with Maria Cosway. Jefferson was in Paris at the time and Cosway was married. Jefferson had promised his wife Martha at her deathbed that he would never marry another woman. (He didn’t.) But that didn’t stop him from becoming completely smitten with Cosway. During their six weeks together, Jefferson injured his wrist — for what reasons, we do not know. To this very day, on the romping front, scholars have been unable to determine precisely why, how, or if it happened. (Jefferson was very scrupulous with his private affairs, which makes Ellis’s job considerably tougher.) But what we do know is that from that affair, Jefferson wrote what had to be the most passionate letter of his career. For a brief moment, the assiduous Jefferson let down his guard and authored a 4,000 word letter in which he carried on a dialogue with his Head and his Heart.

Read (or reread) it. This, and not the ability to woo over everybody on television (a mere parlor trick), is the stuff of great men. And in light of the November race, it seems a pity to me that this year, we have two candidates who, like the last race four years ago, who can’t come nearly as close.

It’s also worth noting that Jefferson was a lousy orator.

Major Newspaper Introduces Book Spoiler Policy

USA Today has spoiled the ending to the next Dark Tower installment. I won’t even bother to link to the article, but, needless to say, seeing as how I was five books into the Dark Tower saga, I was planning on reading the other two as comfort reads. And, of course, I accidentally read the piece of information. But this throws a new monkey wrench in the grand book coverage debate. What kind of evil bastard kills a book by revealing the ending?

Be a Winner at the Game of Life

Jonathan Heawood has attempted to take advantage of Penguin’s recent findings. Apparently, Penguin Books has determined that men seen to be reading a book are more attractive to the opposite sex. I find this conclusion problematic on multiple levels. For example, how does the power of reading transcend offset teeth, bad body odor, unruly hair, and an adenoidal laugh? Does this rule apply to Tom Clancy novels? And if the book is really good, is the man capable of shifting his short attention span to notice the hypothetical lady who is staring at him? And if the woman is initially attracted to the man reading the book, how will she react when he opens his mouth and she realizes that he’s more capable talking about how some stirring streetcar advertisement that has caught his eye? Or is it best for the attractive male reader to simply remain silent and thus momentarily intellectual before the grand journey to the lady’s flat?

Turning the issue to more private millieus, if clandestine copulative activity is going badly, can the man redeem himself by putting Jennifer Weiner between he and his lover? Is holding the book a new way to resolve relationship issues? Can the man can now simply hold up the book, receiving a Charisma +2 mod while rolling the ten-sided die in the grand RPG of life, instead of listening? Will men be seduced into laying down their money for books instead of beer? More importantly, how does this translate into actual sales?

Weekend Update

  • The play is progressing. Early feedback has produced some very thoughtful conversations in email and in person, one of which went down today with close members of the crew at a Chinese dive. The fact that folks have been both honest and enthusiastic about the play has seriously overwhelmed me. I’m astonished by the passion and the generosity. People have been open, forthright and very constructive, responding in ways that demonstrate that theatre is far from dead, that rewriting is far from over, and that this thing will mesh together in ways that leave me convinced that we’re tapping into something that people really want to talk about, and that, even with a few misplaced over-the-top moments that will be honed this week, people from all walks of life have very valuable thoughts on how the business world has influenced and transformed human behavior.
  • Jonathan Safran Foer has responded to the PEN imbroglio previously reported here. He writes, “Hi. A friend made me aware of this discussion. Just wanted to let you guys know that I completely agree with most everything you said about monetary awards and whom they should go to. That’s why I gave the money—every cent of it—back to PEN, which is as deserving as groups get. I didn’t make a big deal about it, because it didn’t seem fair to any other winners, who might have needed the money at the moment. But on the other hand, I’d had to take flack for something I didn’t do.” If this is indeed the case, then I am in full support of Mr. Foer’s gesture, particularly after the post-deal bonanza missteps of Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody. I hope to draw upon the subject of meritocracy and the obligations of authors with pre-award windfalls in a future post.
  • Dan Green responds to Sarah’s post about the publishing industry. The Literary Saloon also weighs in. Dan notes that the publishing business has been the least business-like of businesses and, quite rightly, points out that the pulps were a beneficial component of staying power, and the Literary Saloon points out that countless “literary” authors could have been marketed for the price of the Ronald Reagan memoir flop. My own quick take on this is that we won’t have an answer until authors and publishers fully understand the human impulse to read, and actively work to encourage it, responding to this desire in ways that transcend both popular and literary trappings. For example, if the previous magazine conduits are, for the most part, dead and the average bookstore browser makes his decision by flipping through the first few pages, instead of book excerpts, why not offer a free buckram-bound, promotional sampling of emerging authors in lieu of a book tour? Furthermore, I don’t believe that a bridge between popular and literary is possible without getting the word out to both camps that both can be acceptable on their own terms, while maintaining a certain standard. But such a position presumes idealism, an editorial team passionate about literature, and an openness to new choices on behalf of the reading public;. However, word of mouth often gets an otherwise obscure author read. I don’t believe that publishers have taken full advantage of this. But then again, who has the resources to take a chance?
  • On Saturday, I went to an open studio exhibit run by Marisa Williams in Oakland. If you’re into photography and calligraphy, check Marisa’s stuff out. Beyond being an exceptionally nice person, Marisa has a good photographic eye for still life and architecture and offers lovely handmade cards for purchase. She even offers some nify thank you cards.
  • It is possible to play Taboo with sixteen or so people at one time. However, the more people you have, the greater the possibility that communications will be more harried. Factor caffeine into the equation and you have a fait accompli involving destroyed egg timers and nearly every card used up within a matter of three hours. I urge the folks at Milton Bradley to pay more care to how they construct their game components. Able board gamers have more adrenaline than the R&D boys have accounted for.
  • Ronald Reagan’s passing. To paraphrase the Gipper himself, if you’ve seen one dead President, you’ve seen them all.

No Sex This Time…Really.

Due to a number of exciting things going down, it will be silent around these parts until maybe Sunday. Until then, check out Mark and Ron’s outstanding coverage of BookExpo, read the Cinetrix’s hilarious takedown of boomer music, and hope for the Hag’s swift return.

Failing that, get your hands on a copy of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas immediately.

Also, Danny Shorago was kind enough to write in and clarify important allegations. Not only does the man not munch on supplemental proteins, but his other band, the Fuxedos, will be playing at the Odeon Bar on the 19th. The show’s a mere $6. Be there and experience Shorago’s stunning acrobatics for yourself.

Michiko: A Homebody Toppled Over the Edge?

The first paragraph of Michicko’s review of the new post-Bridget Jones Helen Fielding book features a very disturbing segue: “As Bridget Jones and most single women well know, there’s nothing worse than falling head over heels for a man, only to discover that he is not only the Wrong Man, but the Very Worst Sort of Man, a True Cad and Charlatan, or Someone Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. (O.K., there are worse things, like being half-eaten by your Alsatian dog and being found dead in your apartment three weeks later, but that is another story.)”

Actually, there are worse things than that. Perhaps more disturbing than its cavalier comparative placement is the fact than the Alsatian dog was actual news. Two years ago. So what we have here is the case of an overworked book critic who has been dwelling on this disturbing informational nugget for some time, just waiting to sneak it into a review.

We only hope that Michiko leaves her house sometime soon and that, if she has a pet Alsatian, the dog is friendly.

Book Babes Smackdown

It looks like you’ll have two shots to watch Mark and Ron vs. the Book Babes. Book TV reports that they will be airing the Saturday coverage (which will include a recording of today’s Book Babe panel) on June 5 at 1:00 PM and at 8:00 PM. The Book Babes panel will happen at 4:30 PM-5:30 PM ET/3:30 PM-4:30 PM CT. By my caluclations, that means that it will happen again at 11:30 PM-12:30 ET/10:30 PM-11:00 PM CT.

And for those (like me) who don’t have cable, you can actually watch the broadcast “live” as it’s aired.