Tuesday, November 8, 2011

LULU by Lou Reed and Metallica

The new record by Lou Reed and Metallica has been universally panned. It's a crazy idea done with a fuck-you attitude. Of course, it's brilliant. Many moments of overweening pretension, hostility, repetition, and bad behavior, and just amazing. Who cares that Reed adapts Wedekind's Lulu plays? Who cares that Metallica sounds like they're in a cage?

Who sounds like this? Who dares? How can you deny lyrics like "I wish that I could kill you/But I too love your eyes." Who can resist Lars and Kirk's crunch?

Check it:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Anna Solomon's debut novel THE LITTLE BRIDE

My friend Anna Solomon's amazing debut novel THE LITTLE BRIDE comes out this week.

You can get all information about it at http://www.annasolomon.com. Check it out!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Kate Christensen Interview, Part One

Kate Christensen is the PEN/Faulkner Prize winning author of The Great Man, Epicure's Lament, and other lauded novels.

Her newest, The Astral, follows Harry Quirk, a Brooklyn poet in his mid fifties whose marriage and professional reputation are in decline. Set in contemporary Greenpoint, the first-person narrative captures the texture of Harry's consciousness with an uncanny facility and truth to life.

PH: To me, Harry Quirk represents New York bohemianism before it became irrevocably self-conscious. What about his aspirations and struggles moved you to portray this man so carefully, so inventively?

KC: There's a certain kind of New Yorker I don't see written about much -- the artist who keeps making art without any reward of money or fame -- the artist who reaches middle age in a state of scruffy, striving dedication. Successful artists of any stripe interest me far less than struggling ones. I know so many people -- painters, photographers, poets, novelists, musicians -- who are still in that state, middle-aged, living hand to mouth, no insurance, no savings account, still paying rent, trying to survive, but not giving up -- their lives have been shaped around their art. It's a quiet heroism. I'm inspired and moved by artists who do it because they have to -- because it's who they are -- and for no other reason. I admire their integrity, authenticity, and deep dedication. They are an unsung and crucial part of the city's character.

PH: What was the biggest piece of editorial advice you accepted on this novel, and the biggest piece of editorial advice you rejected?

KC: After he read the first draft, my editor, Gerry Howard, told me he wanted more back-story and history. He wanted to know more clearly who Luz was, and he wanted me to flesh out Harry's marriage, family, and friendship with Marion. His idea was to make Luz more sympathetic, to let us see her side of things as clearly as we see Harry's. I agreed with the first suggestion and rejected the second. I added seven or eight full scenes from Harry's past, which I felt helped deepen and shape the book -- but rather than making her sympathetic, I showed Luz as a controlling, cold, histrionic bitch. This was completely necessary to the novel; my editor agreed with me when he read the next draft.

PH: What have been turning points for you in terms of craft? What were the lessons you learned, the breakthroughs you made, the epiphanies? Did they come from your Iowa MFA, or a novel you read, or essays on craft, or elsewhere?

KC: The major turning point for me came when I was almost 30. I had spent the entire decade of my 20s writing stories and novel chapters that were simultaneously earnestly overwrought and callowly underdeveloped, an attempted imitative amalgam of Ann Beatty and William Faulkner. These were not terrible stories and chapters; I was encouraged to keep going in this vein by getting into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, winning the 1988 Mademoiselle fiction contest, and then, after I'd moved to New York, getting a series of handwritten New Yorker rejections asking me to keep submitting -- I thought I was on the right track.

But one day -- I remember this so clearly -- I looked over the thing I was working on and felt a profound revulsion, an aesthetic nausea. I couldn't stand it another minute. That was the day I started writing "In the Drink," the day I realized that my own voice was not the one I'd been writing in all these years. I realized I'd been faking it; I had a flash of what my writing was going to be. It felt so good to switch to my real voice. It felt like taking off the training wheels and flying down a hill for the first time with no hands -- freeing, euphoric, subversive.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fiction's For Fools?

A dean of American novelists just announced publicly that reading fiction is for fools. What has the response been from his peers? Nothing so far. According to a June 24 Financial Times interview, Philip Roth now reads history and biography instead of fiction. Asked why, he says "I don't know. I wised up."

Can we ascribe Roth's statement to his well-known eccentricity? Unfortunately, no. Roth speaks for the general readership , as increasing numbers of readers have turned to non-fiction. The utility of spending one's time reading facts can't be disputed in the Information Age. That humanity believes we have little need for the humanities these days cannot be in serious doubt either.

Considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, Philip Roth might be expected to stand as a partisan for the value of reading fiction. One could inquire, again somewhat flippantly, whether Roth has nothing left to learn from Melville, Woolf, Tolstoy. I'd argue that Roth has not absorbed the full richness of Cervantes, or of the greatest of Cervantes' heirs.

Nor have any of us, whether readers or writers. But why stop trying?

Readers are turning away from fiction for good reasons, many of them having to do with writers. With some exceptions, contemporary writers have not made available the best of Quixote's infinite possibilities to readers. How might they do that? Through passionate essays that confront greatness and make it our own, and through the creation of ambitious new novels that benefit from that confrontation.

Instead, as society shunts them aside, novelists and other artists seem to have accepted a peripheral, decorative function. Roth's old friend Milan Kundera refuses that position. He considers art vital to our humanity, and continues to publish impassioned essays on the inexhaustible depths of Kafka, Cervantes, and Broch, as well as on more contemporary writers such as Cesaire, Chamoiseau, and Marquez. I've never read essays by an American novelist with as much vitality and insight into the novel as Kundera's, as Vargas Llosa's, as Calvino's, as Woolf's.

Mightn't it behoove every novelist, when readership is dwindling, to extol the virtues of our medium strenuously, with greater boldness and vigor than ever? What was the last contemporary essay or novel you read that made you think "The ambition of this amazes me. This person has taken on Melville, or Joyce, or Woolf. This is an attempt at a masterpiece."

Joshua Cohen's WIT has some of that hubris. We know Jonathan Franzen has it, and have learned that Jennifer Egan has it. David Foster Wallace had it. Grace Krilanovich has it in ORANGE EATS CREEPS, though she expresses it less overtly, with more subtlety than some. There are other examples. But show me the novelist who reads brilliantly, and I'll show you the form's best defender, and potentially one of its greatest writers.

Is there anything less productive than a leading novelist pronouncing useless all of imaginative fiction? Perhaps only our failure to refute him thoroughly, emphatically, ceaselessly.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Walt Whitman Saved My Life Too

At the consistently amazing lit site called themillions.com, I read a July 4th post about America's bard saving the life of the article's author Michael Bourne. Amazing piece, and more like it I would welcome.

Whitman saved my life too.

When 2010 began, I still disliked Whitman, and held a fierce grudge against myself, not just for failing to grasp his barbaric yawp, but for a lot of scarier stuff too. Then I began to understand that Walt was not just trying to write uplifting arias to the self. He was renovating the stale soul of humanity.

After a few passes through Leaves of Grass, the poems that struck me hardest were Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and So Long. "I say you shall yet find the friend you were looking for."

More on this to come, but I ended the year a Whitman devotee, happier than I've ever been, and highly recommend this book on the poet's impact on his contemporaries.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Literary Confessions, Part One

Dark secrets no more, these ... (literary category)

I've never read (and feel ashamed about it)
* Anna Karenina OR War and Peace
* Madame Bovary
* More than 10 pages of Saul Bellow
* lots more to come

I can't stand (and feel ashamed for it)
* Ulysses
* A Catcher in the Rye
* Lolita
* John Steinbeck
* Infinite Jest (though I keep trying)

I really like (and feel ashamed for it)
* Larry McMurtry, that popular yarn-spinner
* quoting Shakespeare, even at work
* almost all of Milan Kundera, that sexist pig

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Naïveté of Gilles Deleuze

The hip literary and philosophical kids, such as those at HTMLGIANT, love the 20th century French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze was a good writer, judging solely from the translations I've read, and had some decent ideas, but he was extraordinarily naïve. His naïveté resembles that of philosophers of various nationalities, especially these days.

For example, Deleuze says in his book Dialogues II that asking questions is pointless. He means particularly in the context of an interview or public dialogue, but this is just nonsense. He makes a subtle distinction, or twenty, about framing problems and the importance of doing that carefully. I understand what he's saying. But really, somebody who refuses the format of an interview is just a twit.

When my favorite writers (Kundera, Woolf, Rushdie) offer a new idea, they try to draw the reader in, use simplicity and directness, and sometimes present their notions in familiar formats. From Kundera's interviews, to the Socratic method, to the tabloid five-question format, humanity likes Q&A. Deleuze posits a world beyond that. Really? How about a world beyond bullshit like that?

Let's set our sights on getting some good questions answered well (can literature change humanity?) and then we'll address the format of Q&A. In Deleuze's world everyone sits around asking themselves what it means to ask themselves these questions, etc. Utopianism like that is impractical at best, and dangerous at worst.

Where's the danger? It's in good people doing nothing but writing or reading stuff like Deleuze. Important work needs to happen, ignorance-slaying work requires cycles of thought to accomplish, and Deleuze is telling us that Q&As don't suit him? Whatever.

I want to move the conversation forward too, but I don't think we need to redefine the meaning of the word conversation.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Poets <> Mathematicians

In writing a novel about a mathematician and his computer scientist son, I've begun thinking about literature in terms of equations.

For instance, I thought about the famous phrase by John Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." I decided that his equation is imbalanced. Truth is rare. Beauty's cheap. Any jerk can flatter people. What do you think?

Separately, as part of my novel, I rendered the first scene of King Lear as instructions in an Apple BASIC program, the first programming language I learned and still one of my favorites.


The above lines mix BASIC's structure with function call syntax from the C programming language, but they get the point across. I didn't include every line I wrote to summarize Lear I,i in the novel. But I liked the typo KINGDOOM, and thought that line (80) condensed the play decently in one command.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

More about the Role of the Writer

The literary community often debates its relevance, debates whether reading/publishing/writing are dying. Are you surprised that writers can't agree that literature, that reading and writing ourselves and each other, is the essence of life? Of course, people do almost everything in life for metaphors. Not just writers, but all of us work, marry, live, and kill for metaphors.

It's always fascinated me that Islamic leaders issued a fatwa on an author of fiction, as opposed a writer of polemics or religious tracts. Though I've read many more articles announcing the irrelevance of fiction than its relevance, little was made of Rushdie's status as a mere novelist (as opposed to a theologian or politician, or writer of another form than novels.) That's because we know deeper down that fiction is relevant; people kill for Bibles and Korans. The Ayatollah realizes that the old metaphors cannot be supplanted except by new ones.

The new metaphors, topic of a future blog post.

Provocative Essays on Literature

I don't think that spurious controversy is helpful, and Jess Row's essay that I mentioned in my previous post has generated its share of that. What I prefer is outrageous essays making enormous claims for literature. Mainly, I'm surprised that writers of every stripe can't agree that literature is the central human activity, the key to our evolution, the engine of human progress.

What else is there? As a technologist, I submit that technology offers us apocalypse and immortality, but our imaginations incline toward apocalypse. The humanities have to catch up, we have to mature faster so we don't destroy ourselves with the power technological progress has given us. We need to forgive us our grudge against ourselves.

I'm currently condensing my ideas on this subject in to 250 words. But I'd argue that if you're a writer and you don't think along the lines of what I'm saying above, you should be doing something else that you think will help us all more.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Jess Row on the Novel at Boston Review

Jess Row has published an essay here, courtesy of Boston Review, declaring critics to be in thrall to false dichotomies of new and old for the novel.

His piece is provocative. Row brings up some of the canards of the theorists and practitioners of fiction before and after Mikhailovich Bakhtin and Virginia Woolf. What I am surprised to find is that the argument does not include one of the leading lights of the novel in recent years, Milan Kundera. For all his male bias, Kundera remains one of my favorite guides to the overlooked possibilities of full length fiction, in his Art of the Novel and The Curtain especially.

But Row's arguments cover lots of ground and demonstrate, among other things, the reductiveness of Zadie Smith's widely cited and persuasive essay in NYRB, that set up a split between novels like Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (presented by her as lyrical realism, the past of the novel) and Remainder by Tom McCarthy (presented by her as avant-garde, the future of the form.)

More on what I think specifically about all this in my next post.

The Two SEERs

FYI - there were two concurrent code bases used for SEER, the artificial intelligence with which I co-wrote my latest novel. For now I call them SEER1 and SEER2, like creatures from Dr. Seuss, and might change those names to something more creative and distinguishing.

SEER1 I fed the words and concepts for my scenes, and let it process those before writing output that I never altered before inserting in my book. For SEER2 I used some concepts around processing large text files and summarizing them to digest all of William Blake, all of Don Quixote and all of Moby-Dick, for instance.

This approach I used for the narrator's quest to understand his wife, a literature professor, with a computer's help because he doesn't grasp literature well on his own.

More soon.

SEER and Novel Writing

I created an artificial intelligence called SEER (Sentient Electronically Engineered Recounter) to help me co-author my novel Love Song of Zero and One, but I'm not the first to use AI or randomness to help me write.

Last year Zachary Mason's excellent novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey came out on Farrar, Straus & Giroux after moving sideways for awhile on Starcherone Press. For that book, he used AI to generate ideas for alternate endings to Homer's epic, but did not include its text in the book, or credit it with co-authorship. Before him, David Ferrucci and collaborators created BRUTUS, an AI for writing novels. And before them, Philip K. Dick threw the I-Ching to ignite his sense of possibility while writing novels. Before him, William S. Burroughs cut up pages and tossed them in the air, reassmbling the fallen words into new sentences. The list goes on.

For my AI, I used Java and researched Markov n-gram models, Bayesian belief networks, and machine learning algorithms. I talked for guidance to people I know who grasp AI a little better. I will post more about the process soon.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Love Song of the Infinite Machine and new family!

Well, I've not been blogging for awhile. The main two reasons (three?) have been the birth of our twins Finnegan and Faye thanks to my lovely wife Erin, and my progress in co-authoring my new novel with an artificial intelligence I created.

The AI is called SEER, and unlike my new twins, it's not very cute. But it can talk. The approach I've taken has had its complexities, as you'd imagine. First, I've tried to use SEER to interpret and synthesize texts that are important to one of the novel's characters, a professor of English poetry who is the narrator's wife.

Secondly, I've tried to feed it words and concepts from my novel, to see what it will write with them. More details on these approaches later.

Meanwhile, a pic of the babies!