Essays

April 23, 2013

Less Mo Yan, More Ah Cheng 4

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Fans of Chinese literature all have their personal favorites, and none of them have ever resonated with me. I think I like Ah Cheng because he is crazy, and crazy people transcend the cultures that produce them.

April 23, 2013

The Wisdom of Crowds: Reddit, Twitter, and the Hunt for the Wrong Man 6

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Thursday night’s abhorrent online vigilantism — in which Reddit and Twitter users seized upon police radio chatter to accuse a missing (and completely innocent) Brown University student of bombing the Boston Marathon — reminded us of one of the most under-acknowledged facts of the internet: that beyond the sleek, profitable edifices of Web 2.0 there remains the humming, virtual presence of an online crowd that is restive, unpredictable, and hungry for a cause.

April 22, 2013

Losing Iain Banks 7

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Watching news of Iain Banks’s diagnosis spread was remarkable. He had meant a great deal to many discerning readers. A feeling of sudden urgency surprised me. The only response that seemed appropriate was to read his work.

April 22, 2013

Composition Lessons: Learning About Your Own Book From Other People’s Paintings 5

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The moment when I can work no more, when the novel or collection of short stories or book-length essay is as done as it’ll ever be, I go looking for works of art that match it tonally. I listen to music with an acquisitive ear. I watch pieces of movies whose titles intrigue me. Most of all, I scan through dozens of websites that collect images by contemporary artists. And then I try to solidify the relationship by using those works as my cover art.

April 19, 2013

Lessons of Hollywood: On the Fate of “Middle Class” Art 3

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If there were no more “middle class” movies, then in what other arenas would an ostensible middle class suffer? Publishing, for sure. But what about . . . everything else?

April 17, 2013

The Slow Language of Sculpture, the Fast Language of Words 9

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My husband is a sculptor and he worships stone. Travertine, granite, marble, onyx – these are the other women in my married life. A writer can learn a lot from a stone carver, and I’ve been watching him a long time.

April 16, 2013

Counter and Strange: Contemporary Catholic Literature 13

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Catholic literature is thriving. Some are Catholic, some write about Catholic themes and characters, and some react against Catholicism.

April 10, 2013

Barry Hannah’s “Lost” Novel 4

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Barry Hannah sometimes jokingly referred to Nightwatchmen in third-person as “Barry Hannah’s ‘lost’ novel.” Published by Viking in 1973, it was widely disparaged by critics, sold poorly, and, at the author’s wish, has never been back in print. That the book was a failure isn’t as important, I believe, so much as that it was a necessary failure, one that deserves to be read.

April 9, 2013

Paucity of Art in the Age of Big Data: A Dispatch from San Francisco 32

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My quest to find the great tech novel — something sprawling and social and occurring inside the Teach-Up and outside the restaurant and around the home of the displaced shopowner and the H1B-visa programmer — is in itself a kind of solutionism. Novels are captured social data. You want a snapshot of nineteenth century French provincial bourgeois life? There’s an app for that: it’s called Flaubert. And that’s before we consider the novel as an aggregator of human data of the biggest, most nebulous kind. You want a map of the human heart? Whose heart? What century? There’s an app for that too.

April 4, 2013

A Hybrid, Trapped: On Being a Writer in the Classroom 8

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I wrote all day and late into the night. There was something magical about this time. I was suspended, insulated, cared for, and writing — all in the privacy of the Virginia countryside. My teaching job and the staring eyes of my students seemed very far away. I started to feel like the wood-nymph Daphne, transformed into something that would confound my pursuers.