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Quarterly Conversation Issue 41

Here it is, your fall 2015 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.


A Chorale of Dead Souls

A Chorale of Dead Souls

“An influence on Finnegans Wake!” was one commonly heard refrain concerning this as-yet obscure object of desire, never mind that the two novels’ respective dates of publication make this a strained point at best. “In a league with Flann O’Brien!” was another, more reasonable, certainly more accurate line. To complete the trifecta, I even heard a few variations on “Beckett loved it!”—presumably unsubstantiated, but nonetheless tantalizing. Whether or not Ó Cadhain’s prose could really match or anyway trot sans embarrassment alongside the mighty strides of this Holy Trinity, the book’s premise was enough to lend credence to the rumors. Cré na Cille comes with an unbeatable “elevator pitch” that rhymes most deliciously with the work of its author’s best beloved countrymen: it’s none of your garden-variety narratives, following a protagonist or protagonists through which- and whatever conflicts and experiences, no. It’s 100% dialogue, and not just any dialogue, but a chorale of dead souls, every character already having snuffed it and been stuffed into their graves. À la an Our Town or Spoon River cross-pollinated with No Exit, however, these corpses are perpetually, rather hellishly awake, aware, and gabbing in Ó Cadhain’s wonderfully unsplendid hereafter.

The Popularizer of Pessimism

The Popularizer of Pessimism

For more than a decade, Houellebecq has enjoyed unusual notoriety: his dismissal from the board of the review Perpendiculaire for the retrograde views allegedly expressed in The Elementary Particles made the front page of Le Monde; his portrayal of Islam in Platform, as well as his subsequent description of it in an interview as “the most moronic religion,” landed him in court on charges of inciting racial hatred; in 2011, he went missing, stoking fears he’d been snatched up for ransom. He would dramatize his disappearance in the faux documentary The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq. Yet nothing was comparable to the commotion that would arise when Submission, Houellebecq’s most recent novel, hit the shelves on January 7 of this year, a few hours before Chérif and Saïd Kouachi would burst into the offices of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and murder members of its staff.

Pitol’s Wounds

Pitol’s Wounds

Pitol writes early in the first volume of his “Trilogy of Memory” that “Lately, I have been very aware that I have a past. Not only because I have reached an age when the greater part of the journey has been traveled, but also because I now know fragments of my childhood that until recently were off-limits to me.” What results from this declaration is a very unusual book that diverges from the standard tropes of memoir. Rather than attempt to divulge personal details or set the record straight, Pitol seeks to do something more personal and internalized: to fill in the gaps and holes of his memory before they grow bigger and deeper. The end result may have been aestheticized after the fact, but we are ultimately reading something that was written for the author alone. We are invited to forget ourselves, to put on the persona of Pitol himself and close up the wounds of time and memory by reading these words of his various travelings, readings, and meetings across the Western world.

Barstool Stories

Barstool Stories

In the Czech Republic, Hrabal is a mythic figure. The website for his favorite pub, U Zlatého tygra, has six tabs: Home, Beer/Cheese, Menu, Bohumil Hrabal, History, and Contacts. His 1994 meeting with ambassador Madeleine Albright and then presidents Havel and Clinton has been archived as both legend and link. The man and his work are preservations of Czech history, connecting old Prague, the “glory and downfall of the cultural boom of the ’60s” (to quote the Tygra’s website), and the city’s globalization under capitalism. Hrabal has come to represent a kind of nostalgia for a lost Czech time, somewhere back in the post-Soviet ’80s, or the pre-crackdown ’60s, or maybe even the democratic ’20s—anytime but now. In his intro to The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Joshua Cohen identifies this nostalgia as Bohemian in general and Hrabalian in particular: “To feel born too late for a true life (whatever that is), and to feel that as a failure and that failure as ennobling, are very Czech emotions.” This complex blend of feeling—a yearning for the past that invigorates the presence of the present—courses through Hrabal’s best work, and is on full display in The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult.

On Stéphane Mallarmé

On Stéphane Mallarmé

His relatively uneventful personal life and sizable artistic and intellectual cosmos have, in the century since his death, largely kept him out of biographies (which are then turned into Hollywood films) and on the tongues of poets and intellectual historians. But then, without the flashy headlines and under the burden of agonizing translation, Mallarmé is frequently cited but seldom read. Whether this new edition of Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), his final and, until now, incompletely translated textual experiment, marks the beginning of a Mallarmé renaissance is unclear.

In Translation

Excerpt from The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

Excerpt from The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

It looks impossible to get out,” he says. And also: “But we’ll get out.”

To the north, the forest borders a mountain range and is surrounded by lakes so big they look like oceans. In the centre of the forest is a well. The well is roughly seven metres deep and its uneven walls are a bank of damp earth and roots, which tapers at the mouth and widens at the base, like an empty pyramid with no tip. The basin gurgles dark water, which filters along faraway veins and even more distant galleries that flow towards the river. It leaves a permanent muddy peat and sludge specked with bubbles that pop, spraying bursts of eucalyptus back into the air. Whether due to pressure from the continental plates or the constant eddying breeze, the little roots move and turn and steer in a slow, sad dance, which evokes the nature of all the forests slowly absorbing the earth.


The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

At once a meditation on queerness, language, and family, and in part a spiritual follow-up to the melancholic Bluets, Nelson’s book traverses the gap between theory and the lived experience that it so often abstracts into oblivion. She traces her relationship with artist Harry Dodge, and memories pass through critical-philosophical cogitation. We often find Nelson and Dodge in conversation, or sharing passages from Wittgenstein or Barthes, and the two spar on the function of names and categories, assimilation and resistance in X-Men, and Nelson’s neglecting the queer part of her life in her writing until now, which is effectively the starting point of this project.

Counternarratives by John Keene

Counternarratives by John Keene

With black and brown bodies being murdered daily from Cleveland to Cincinnati, Baltimore to Oakland—the riotous specter of Ferguson looming always—by an assortment of systemic forces shrugging off protest when they are not stamping it out, the stories of these lives, or ones like them, are the stuff of histories untold by History. This is, of course, nothing new to 2015, no matter the number and volume of white people (like myself) now paying attention. History is nothing if not resourceful. This is the context of John Keene’s ambitious collection of stories and novellas, Counternarratives. Though many of these were published elsewhere, together they read very much like the multi-genre, patchwork novels of Alexander Kluge—or perhaps more grandly still, László Krasznahorkai’s recent Seiobo There Below, a work bound not by plotted coherence but by a conceptual aesthetic thriving on difference.

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov

By the standard of an author’s handling of complex thematic ideas, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, beautifully translated by Angela Rodel,is an excellent book. Gospodinov takes the conceptual framework within his novel as the ability of literature to overcome the restrictions of memory. Taking major cues about this subject from both Borges and Sebald (see Gospodinov’s extensive use of diagrams and photographs throughout the text), the author explores memory through a tightly woven set of fantastic experiences among the ever-changing society of Bulgaria in the 20th and early 21st centuries, and does so profoundly.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

This strong psychological relationship between teeth and our sense of self contributes to the expressive clout of Valeria Luiselli’s “dental autobiography” The Story of My Teeth. Here, the motif of teeth best aligns with Jung’s description of them as the “gripping organ,” providing not only our ability to properly eat and speak but also the figurative representation of personal agency, and even a marker of success. However, Luiselli’s charming, funny, and moving novel transcends this dental narrative, and is, at its heart, a profound commentary on the power of storytelling, both as a creative force and a way to instil value.

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

For a country as vast as it is, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has not produced much literature. (Ruthless oppression and exploitation will have that effect.) Tram 83 may not be a novel in the usual sense—it is more of a francophone triumph of style over substance—but it is a welcome voice from that quarter, and a promise of lively works to come.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt

Although Naja Marie Aidt made her English-language debut just last year with a short story collection entitled Baboon (Two Lines Press), in Denmark she has been required reading in most middle school and high school classes since the 1990s. A poet and author with nearly 20 works in various genres, Aidt has received numerous honors, including the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for Baboon in 2008. Aidt debuted in Denmark in 1991 with the poetry collection Så længe jeg er ung, and since then she has mainly been known for her poems and short stories. Her first novel, Sten, saks, papir, came out in Denmark in 2012, some 21 years after her first poetry collection. Now that novel has been published by Open Letter Books as Rock, Paper, Scissors, in K.E. Semmel’s translation.

Dinner by César Aira

Dinner by César Aira

It has been a good year and some months for César Aira readers, as New Directions has released translations of a collection of short stories, The Musical Brain and Other Stories (spring 2015), and two of his novels: Conversations (summer 2014), and, this fall, Dinner. Some of Aira’s novels start out with a wild premise, while others lull readers for a while before changing into something unexpected. We are a fair number of pages into his newest work before the unnamed male narrator, an almost sixty-year-old bachelor, tells us what he witnesses on a live television news program in his hometown of Pringles, Argentina (Aira’s birthplace), as a small news crew investigates a rumor: “They were on their way to the Cemetery, because they’d been told that the dead were rising from their graves of their own accord.

On Hype and “Litchat”


It seems like Laura Miller’s recent piece on “litchat” has been getting a lot of play. I don’t quite get it. My take is that it’s a bunch of straw men recruited to help carry a preconceived and pretty standard-issue idea about the “perils” social media.

First, let’s get one thing clear. People in industries gossip. I would guess that this is probably truer of the arts than most industries, but whatever, that’s what people do. The Internet did not create this. The difference is that now you can catch more of that conversation over social media; albeit, a very, very small fraction more, and one that’s pretty well watered down of the best material. But there’s no doubt that some the shiving and axe-grinding does make it on the the Twitter-sphere, etc.

To leap from that to social media gossip “absolutely shapes the formal reception of a writer’s work” seems a tad bit much. Yes, I’m sure that at some point some critic somewhere read a thing on Twitter that pissed him or her off and lent a tiny bias to a critique. But I really doubt that all the crazy pullquotes from whatever latest thing Jonathan Franzen said has unduly influenced the critical reception of his novels. For one thing, the gaffe of all gaffes—the Oprah “snub”—far from impacting Franzen negatively took his career into the stratosphere. And for another, all the vitriol spewed against Franzen on social media hasn’t stopped his latest book from getting stupendous raves from many, many leading venues.

But more to the point: does the massed gossip on social media really stack up against things like: hundreds of thousands of dollars in publicity budgets, billboards on Times Square, major media appearances with audiences in the millions, or even just your garden variety Times Book Review cover story? Just to give a little perspective: Laura Miller has roughly 30,000 Twitter followers. The weekday circulation of The New York Times is a tad under 2,000,000. So let’s not forget how provincial, obscure, and limited is our corner of the social media world.

The tendency that I see most often—social media be damned—is toward evaluating a writer on the basis of the books. Yes, many a conversation with friends has digressed at some point into that latest thing Franzen said, but I almost never see people generalize from that to an opinion on his books. No, the people I know who talk about Franzen (or whomever) have read his books; they discuss him on the merits of his writing and wouldn’t dream of evaluating him based on some tabloitesque headline. They’d look like fools if they did. It may be that my friends and acquaintances are just an unduly enlightened species of litchatter, but I doubt it.

Miller also talks about the backlash she sees on social media over authors that are over-hyped, and this is where she gets back to Wallace. Well, it’s true, there is plenty of envy to be seen on the Internet, and there are also plenty of high-fives, earnest praise, and well-wishes. I’d say much more of the latter than the former, by my count. In fact, I’d say that, if anything, the “litchat” that I tend to see is more toward the purpose of bringing unfairly neglected writers to better attention than toward deflating the famous.

Moreover, is it really such a bad thing that readers are skeptical in the face of marketing hype? Miller takes the case of young writers who doubted that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest could really be as good as the hype claimed, but what damage did this do to his reputation, reception, or career? The fact that Wallace was so clearly not forgotten must surely give some evidence that whatever the skepticism exhibited by the literati of the day, the quality of Wallace’s work managed to prove them wrong. All great writers should be so fortunate.

On the whole, what strikes me as the strangest thing about this piece is this idea that David Foster Wallace wasn’t thought of terribly well before his suicide—and that this was somehow the doing of “litchat” pre-ordaining a reaction to his work. That seems to give far more importance to gossip than it’s worth. The piece starts with Miller explaining how, before Wallace’s suicide, few people could possibly believe that David Foster Wallace was her favorite living writer. And then, later on, Miller proceeds to recount the many people who dismissed him to her face without ever having read the books as too cold, too intellectual. Maybe this says more about the company Miller keeps, or the conversations she chooses to remember, than the prevailing notions about Wallace and his work. After all, Jay McInerney compared Infinite Jest to Zola in the New York Times Book Review—not exactly the stuff of overly cerebral writing deprived of humanity and emotion. Likewise, David Kipen in the LA Times mentioned its well-developed characters, called Wallace a genius, and predicted that posterity would be kind to the book. And for another thing, I don’t quite understand how Miller’s claim that “Wallace was not widely regarded as ‘great’ during his lifetime” can be squared with the later claim that the Times called him the “voice of a new generation,” nor the enormous crowds that would turn out for Wallace’s appearances and his enviable sales.

For my own part, the people I have spoken to about Wallace, both before and after the suicide, have evidenced very different impressions of him than those that Miller recalls. Certainly by the time I began paying attention to such things, my impression of the conventional wisdom of the literary world was that he was a big deal. He had been compared to Pynchon endlessly, won the acclaim of Don DeLillo, was published in major national magazines, and was backed by editors for a string of lengthy, often dense books that weren’t exactly prototypical bestsellers. Very few writers get that treatment.

Dog Days


I’ve been traveling, and when not traveling knee-deep in various forms of work, so apologies for the silence ’round these parts. With some luck that will abate in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, read one of these books, or check some of my latest work below.

My review of the fourth and final book of the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, at the San Francisco Chronicle.

And for The Paris Review I interview Ben Moser about all things Lispector.

And also, I’ll recommend to you The Wake by Paul Kingsworth. This is being billed as “a postapocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past,” about an Englishman who experiences the destruction of his civilization when William the Conqueror, well, conquers in 1066. It’s written in a sort of Old English dialect (Kingsworth modernizes it so that you don’t need a Ph.D. to read the book), and it’s quite good; some slight overtones of Krasznahorkai here, as well as the Oulipo, given the nature of this literary endeavor and the radically condensed alphabet/vocabulary that Kingsworth gives himself to work with. I’m hoping to write on it more in the future.

Support Your Literary Community


Dan Green asks a lot of important questions about “literary citizenship” and makes a lot of really good points. (And when I think of members in good standing of the “literary community” I certainly think of him.) I don’t have any answers to his questions, but I do have some responses to some of the points he raises.

First of all, I think the basic idea of a literary citizen is pretty simple. Don’t trash the community that nourishes you and gives you a place to exist. Don’t shit where you live. Do some good deeds for your people. Try to leave your place a little better than you found it. If for no other reason, it’s in your own self interest to make the ecosystem you live in a beautiful, interesting, healthy place to be.

As to the free riders and the gamers. Yes, there will always be a tiny percentage of community members who are transparently participating only for their own interests, just as there will also be a few saint-like figures who seem tireless in the good deeds they’ll do for others, with seemingly no regard whatsoever for their own careers. The cynics are easy enough to pick out and avoid, and the saints are welcome. That leaves the rest of us, the vast vast majority of or less decent people trying to do a little good while also trying to carve out a life for ourselves.

Social networks have, of course, become hugely important in the ways we interact as members of this community. But despite everything that social networks have changed, I find things like this a little overblown:

Corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves, who must relentlessly promote their own work through book touring and maintaining a social media “presence.” Should writers aid and abet this process by voluntarily enabling the system in the name of literary citizenship? As Becky Tuch has written on this subject, “Today’s writers are expected to do more marketing work than ever before while not expecting much in the way of compensation or benefits. It’s what we are being ‘trained’ to do.”‘

First of all, it’s flat-out wrong that “corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves.” There’s a pretty huge difference between what a career publicist can accomplish (and the work involved in getting it done) and the author who’s recruited to do a book tour.

Yes, the author is being asked to participate to a greater degree in publicity than, say, 30 years ago, but c’mon. I don’t know of any “corporate publishers” who ask their authors to print and mail out hundreds of galleys, cultivate relationships with scores/hundreds of critics nationwide, book nationwide bookstore tours (which are generally paid for in total by the publisher, and are not cheap), create and place advertising, and generally build the kind of market presence that can turn an author from completely unknown to semi-famous in a single season. I just don’t think it really helps this conversation at all to confuse the work a publicist does with the expectations that an author be part of a literary community.

As to the social media presence, yes, some authors really get social media and love it and have built sizable followings. But have a look at the number of Twitter followers for many of your favorite authors, and I guarantee they will be tiny (if they’re even on Twitter). Then compare that to the social media presence for his/her publisher. Yes, our media environment has changed quite a bit, but in large it’s the publicists and the publishers who have adapted to build sizable presences in the new online media, not the authors. And let’s not overstate what a Twitter presence can do for a writer; yes, it will help a bit, but it’s not a panacea for sales and publicity by any means.

Just one example out of many: Garth Risk Hallberg got himself a $2 million book deal with a leading publisher despite having no social media profile to speak of, having pretty much gone into hiding from the work he used to do at The Millions (or anywhere for that matter), and barely even having email. So, I mean . . .

The authors that have built sizable social media followings are generally in it for reasons other than to publicize their next book (and if they do also use it to publicize their work, I’m not going to fault them—see above). They probably get a lot out of being on Twitter, are well-suited enough to the environment that it doesn’t destroy their mood, and maybe just like being able to share information on cool books with thousands of people.

Bottom line: having been working in publishing for a while now, and having been in touch with all sorts of publishers and authors all over the place, I just don’t see any real evidence of what people like Becky Tuch say, and I think statements like hers are far too cynical and don’t consider the nuances that exist in the real world. It’s my experience that people who participate in the literary community via social media want to be there, and are doing it for a variety of reasons. The very last reason of all is that they’re being forced there by their publisher.

Dan also raises this series of important questions:

Although, to again assume the sincerity of those advocating for a writing community built around literary citizenship, presumably “business” would not be the center of activity: payment comes in “kindness and skill,” receipt of which cumulatively allows everyone to “learn, engage, and grow.”

But would real growth actually occur if all that was “paid forward” was “kindness”? Would the “skill” also offered in payment include a critical skill, an ability to honestly assess what a writer has produced, even when that assessment might be negative?

Honestly, I think the answers are “yes” and “yes.” When I look at the amount of coverage afforded today to small/indie press titles and authors in very mainstream publications with huge audiences (and it has increased a lot), I think that’s a direct result of the small/indie community that has been built in the decade-and-a-half since the Internet came into its own. Many people from that community have been enabled to crash the gates of the venerable mainstream, and they have brought along their friends with them. A lot of the people I consider peers today started out as nobodies with nothing more than shitty blogs (myself included), and now many of them are in places of power ans prestige. They still remember their old friends, and they’re still parts of the communities they started with. All of this has very substantively affected the sorts of books and authors that are taken seriously these days.

As to the honesty factor—yes, there’s tons of fluff out there. Every day we all see people passing along links to articles they haven’t read past the headline and promoting books they probably haven’t read. This is obviously not a good thing, and I think it can in part be attributed to the pressure to “keep up” and to be a “good citizen,” as well as to the list-making tendency of Internet media. Obviously these aren’t good things, we can all agree. But, two things: 1) This all existed before the Internet, and I think the Internet has only magnified it and brought it more into the open; and 2) Amid all this bullshitting I also see a lot of very genuine criticism and discussion happening.

Because, the fact is, if you really do want to start an indie press and make it live, you need to be able to handle people giving you real talk, or else you won’t survive. And if you really want to be a good writer, you have to deal with honest responses to your work, or else your writing will suck and nobody will actually respect you, regardless of what they say on Facebook.

Maybe this is just a reflection of the people I know, but I tend to see a lot more people in my community who are interested in honest feedback and improving their skills than wanting to accumulate a bunch of skin-deep praise. And, it’s my genuine belief that a ream-full of superficial praise doesn’t sell books so much as create a short-lived buzz on social media that everyone will have forgotten in a week. By contrast, my experience is that what really sells books and makes careers is the deep, extended engagement, where people are giving word-of-mouth recommendations for months/years to come, and where the analysis of the book goes so deep that said book begins to sound really, really compelling. And social media has made it possible to do this in ways and across geographies that we never could have before.

I don’t have all the answers, but I will say here that I think the image of the literary apostate is just that—an image, oftentimes cultivated by a canny and well-connected individual for careerist reasons. Even someone as genius as Samuel Beckett was a virtual nobody in the U.S. until his publisher at Grove figured out how to make him a mainstream commodity (and he wasn’t so much of an outsider as his image would have it). Even a complete misanthrope like Thomas Bernhard recognized the necessity for people to be connected to other people. Yes, writers tend to be solitary people, and some parts of the literary community will tend to turn writers off. A healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing—but neither is finding the people in the world who get you and forming relationships with them. When you get right down to it, that’s probably 90% of what the words “literary community” mean to me.

Artist’s widows, from “Speck’s Idea” by Mavis Gallant


Mavis Gallant on artist’s widows, from her story “Speck’s Idea” found in the collected stories. (Sadly, this one-stop-shopping, with a wonderful preface by the author herself, is no longer in print, but NYRB has three volumes of spendor for you.)

Mavis Gallant is true greatness. Before you read one of this fall’s trend novels, read a few of her stories to calibrate your expectations. It may help you avoid some embarrassment down the line.


The Coming Lispector Tidal Wave


I have the feeling that years of hard work and dedication are about to pay off in a very, very big way, as we approach the publication of Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories. See the front page review in The New York Times (the first time a Brazilian’s been so honored, so I’m told) and gushing praise in The New Republic. And that’s just the start.

(As an incidental note, I’m hoping to add my voice to the mix in September, if my priorities will allow it.)

This is really the story of many people working selflessly for a common goal, along them some remarkable translators, a legendary publisher and her staff, and, most of all, the impassioned Benjamin Moser, who got the resurgence of Lispector off the ground with his biography, Why This World, and kept things going with a re-translation of what many consider her masterpiece, and then spearheaded re-translations of four more essential Lispectors. And now this, the years-long work of translator Katrina Dodson (with Moser again providing must help and guidance).

And the wonderful thing is that few authors would be so worthy of this treatment. Lispector is genuinely original, and her work is so genuinely weird and against-the-grain that she would need champions to get her right in translation and make people pay attention.

For your reading pleasure, we have three pieces on Lispector at The Quarterly Conversation: The Lispector Roundtable (featuring Barbara Epler and Benjamin Moser, among others); an essay on The Hour of the Star, and Colm Tóibín’s introduction to said book.

Here’s a little piece of Clarice’s infinity.


Do Your Own Thing


There is an interview here with Jon Baskin, who is one of the is co-founders and editors of The Point magazine. You should definitely check it out, as The Point has impressed me as one of the most interesting and worthwhile of the literary magazines to begin in the Internet era, and Jon et al. have impressed me more personally as editors.

One thing I wanted to highlight from this interview is one of the pull quotes, which reads:

We were in this program The Committee on Social Thought, kind of like a ‘Great Books’ Ph.D. program, where you sit and discuss the relevance of Plato and Hegel and Hannah Arendt for contemporary life. That sort of ethos was so attractive to us, but we found that when we went to write about these topics, we were forced or encouraged to do so in a way that was academic, that didn’t speak for the relevance they actually had for us. That was the impetus behind deciding ‘Maybe we should start a magazine where we can do the kind of writing that we want to do.’

It seems like right now we are in a golden era of social media-enabled identity politics, where you can very quickly and easily register your support for a certain brand of ideological argument with a simple, painless “Like,” “Retweet,” or “Favorite” (sorry Google Plus, you don’t count). That’s all fine, and I’m not arguing that people should stop doing that (I do it too), but I do think there’s a problem where people think that doing these things, and/or applying greatly over-simplified cut-and-paste rebuttals to extraordinarily complex questions, suffices for engagement.

I guess that on the whole I’d rather that people did this than nothing whatsoever, but nobody should think that this suffices. It’s just not that easy, and I’ve come to recommend to people who really want to help their cause do what Jon has advocated in this quote: start your own thing. Badgering people who don’t agree with you and may well never get it is fine and probably does some good, but an even better thing to do is to start your own publication/website/award/campaign/etc/etc in support of your own cause. And I do think what’s happened with The Point is a good case in (err) point. To wit:

The first issue of The Point we sold out the initial print run and that was great. In terms of the lows, there was a time around issue 6 or 7 when we all thought ‘Is this worth it?’ That was when we decided to do a Kickstarter campaign which ended up bringing in over $100,000. It’s been exciting trying to see how far we can take this and to what extent we can grow.

If what you’re doing resonates, and if you do it well and stick with it, you can achieve great things, like finding enough support to raise $100,000 and getting the sort of relevance and influence that comes with that level of support.

On an unrelated, and more personal, note, I had to smile when I read this pull quote from the interview:

So much a part of the early magazine that I loved was that we [Baskin and the two other founding editors, Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick] would meet on the weekends and literally go through every article, almost sentence by sentence, arguing, bringing up objections, fighting (especially if it was one of us who had written the article). It turns out the three of you don’t have the same image of what the magazine is going to be.

Anyone who has been edited by The Point knows that it’s some of the most rigorous editing you can get. At times it really does feel like they’ve discussed every single sentence in your piece (and these tend to be essays ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 words and more). It’s impressive, and extraordinarily dedicated, and my writing has gotten better because of it.

Adorno’s Essay on “Free Time”


One of my favorite essays of Adorno’s—and one of his most accessible—is his essay on “free time.” It’s short—just 11 pages in my copy of The Culture Industry—and I think it’s one of his more readable pieces. It’s also a very prescient piece, an essay that has grown more and more relevant as our relationship to free time has grown increasingly fraught.

Adorno begins by noting that the phrase “free time” is a recent coinage, as its precursor “leisure” denoted a completely different way of life that was (and is) well out of reach of nearly everybody who has some measure of “free time.” (For context, I believe this essay was written in 1969.) Almost immediately after that, he declares that “free time is shackled to its opposite.”

This is the main theme of the essay: the extent to which the hours what we consider to be ours are not really ours, and the ways that the culture industry attempts to colonize that time that us members of the middle class believe to be our free time. He puts it plainly when he says “unfreedom is gradually annexing ‘free time,’ and the majority of unfree people are as unaware of this process as they are of the unfreedom itself.”

Of course, in a culture where people regularly work 60- to 80-hour workweeks, and where we are all chained to the office by the Internet and mobile devices, these sentiments seem rather obvious. Adorno’s ideas go far deeper than this. At root, he sees our leisure activities as mere appendages of our work lives: “in accordance with the predominant work ethic, time free of work should be utilized for the recreation of expended labor power, then work-less time, precisely because it is a mere appendage of work, is severed from the latter with puritanical zeal.” Adorno goes on to argue that the real point of free time is to offer us rest and recuperation so that we may be prepared to do more work.

Adorno also presents the rather dark idea that our free time has merely become another thing for capitalism to monopolize. He mentions how travel has become a profitable industry, and he also invokes the idea of a “leisure industry” dedicated to finding ways of monetizing every last moment we spend outside of the office. Then he goes on to remark on our inability to opt out of such a state of affairs: “woe betide you if you have no hobby, no pastime, then you are a swot or an old-timer, an eccentric, and you will fall prey to ridicule in a society which foists upon you what your free time should be.” And, of course, it is not enough that we exploit our free time in approved manners—we must also demonstrate in culturally approved ways that we have used this time well: “if employees return from their holidays without having acquired the mandatory skin tone [i.e., a sun tan], they can be quite sure their colleagues will ask them the pointed question, ‘Haven’t you been on holiday, then?'”

Having laid out all of this, Adorno gets to the root of the matter: our concept of boredom, which he sees as purely an emanation of the prevailing capitalist order. “Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labor. . . . If people were able to make their own decisions about themselves and their lives, if they were not caught up in the realm of the eversame, they would not have to be bored.”

Boredom is closely related to imagination, which Adorno sees as being stamped out as we grow into maturity:

Those who want to adapt must learn increasingly to curb their imagination. For the most part the very development of the imagination is crippled by the experience of early childhood. The lack of imagination which is cultivated and inculcated by society renders people helpless in their free time. The impertinent question of what people should do with the vast amount of free time now at their disposal—as if it was a question of alms and not human rights—is based upon this very unimaginativeness.

As he closes the essay, Adorno notes a slight reason for optimism: “what the culture industry presents people with in their free time . . . is indeed consumed and accepted, but with a kind of reservation.” In other words, people have some idea of how their free time is monetized, how their “desires” are not really theirs but rather wants and needs created by advertising and propaganda.

I think it’s rather uncontroversial to say that this awareness has only grown in the decades that followed Adorno’s writing of this essay. Many subsequent individuals have discussed precisely how aware we are of this now—for instance, David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” where he breaks down how we are taught that we become individuals by consuming mass-commoditized products. Or we might think of Richard Linklater’s unexpected hit Slacker (1991), which celebrated people who had opted out of using their lives and free time in socially approved manners.


Undoubtedly, there’s a rather loud and pervasive critique that has come out of the sort of ideas Adorno lodged in his essay on free time. People these days are very savvy about the ways profit-seeking industries try to impose themselves on their lives, and there’s a very serious discussion of how to separate one’s free time from one’s productive life. There’s even been a backlash against the ideas of conformity and utility that have monopolized our education system.

I do think, though, there’s quite a way to go. The ideas that Adorno critiques are still the prevailing ideology that we are all inculcated in as a part of childhood and adolescence (to see how deep they reach, just try watching Slacker without feeling that its characters are losers or oddballs). There’s still plenty of guilt over “wasting” one’s time (just see how many people write posts on Facebook about how they wish they weren’t so addicted to Facebook). And, of course, the economic productivity of the American workforce continues to rise to unprecedented levels (while compensation remains stagnant, or decreases). The counter-strains presented by people like Wallace and Linklater are still a part of the counter-culture, not the culture at large. Which is to say, Adorno’s essay “Free Time” is still extremely relevant, and very much worth reading.

Happy 4th


In traditional American fashion, I’m celebrating the 4th by reading the concluding volume in the lifelong saga of an Italian woman who becomes a writer.

What are you reading this weekend?

Cess by Gordon Lish


Gordon Lish’s latest book is basically a very long list, composed of words that are generally obscure and not-known-offhand.


Ballsy move. Props to OR Books for publishing it.

The Latin American Mixtape

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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