Vollmann in His Studio

Literature, Writers


There’s a great big fat long profile of William T. Vollmann by Tom Bissell at The New Republic—it’s one of the better pieces I’ve read on an author who is more widely read about than, you know, read.

From the profile, details of a visit to Vollmann’s studio:

Half of Vollmann’s studio felt like a proper gallery, with finished pieces handsomely framed and displayed. The other half was split into what looked like a used bookstore on one side and a struggling industrial arts business on the other. I imagined Vollmann had a gallery somewhere that showed his stuff, yes? Actually, no. “I’ve had a couple of photographer friends who have shows,” Vollmann said. “Every time, they always end up impoverished.” He employs “a couple dealers” who sell his work to various institutions, but he considers his studio a “perpetual gallery.” Vollmann gets additional income from Ohio State, which has been buying Vollmann’s work and manuscripts for several years. Vollmann has no idea why Ohio State has shown such interest in his work, but he’s grateful to the institution, which has been paying the mortgage on his studio for the last decade.

He began our tour proper while a dinging train from the city’s light-rail line rumbled by, just feet from his curtained windows. Woodcuts, watercolors, ink sketches, silver-gelatin black-and-white photographs, portraits. “Gum-printing is a nineteenth-century technique,” he told me. “It’s the most permanent coloring process. But it’s slow, and toxic. … I also have this device here, which is based in dental technology. … It’s like a non-vibrating, very high-speed Dremel tool. … This was originally drawn with pen and ink, and then I had a magnesium block made with a photo resist.” Some of the pieces he showed me were complete; most were not. He estimated that he has “dozens and dozens” of pieces going at any one time.

Vollmann’s most important artistic influences are Gauguin and what he described as the “power colors” of Native American art. His other inescapable influence is the female body. The majority of Vollmann’s visual art centers upon women generally and geishas, sex workers, and those he calls “goddesses” specifically. Usually they are nude. From where I was standing I counted at least two dozen vaginas, their fleshy machinery painstakingly drawn and then painted over with a delicate red slash. Vollmann uses live models, so every vagina within sight is currently out there right now, wandering the world.

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Kevin Thomas Discusses His Illustrated Book Reviews with Biblioklept

Art, Books, Interviews, Literature, Reviews, Writers

Kevin Thomas’s new book Horn! (from OR Books) collects the book reviews he’s been doing for the past few years at the Rumpus. Kevin reviews new books (and occasionally reissues) in comic strip form. Over a series of emails, Kevin talked with me about his process, how he got started, the books that have stuck with him the most over the years, and his theory that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a secret remake of Three Amigos!  Find Kevin on Goodreads,Twitter, and Tumblr.

Biblioklept: You’ve been reviewing books at The Rumpus for a couple of years now in your strip Horn! How did the strip start? Did it start with The Rumpus, or before?

Kevin Thomas: I had been making these primitive autobiographical webcomics under the “Horn!” moniker for about a year when The Rumpus Book Club started. One of the selling points of the book club was that if you reviewed a book and the editors liked it, they’d publish it on the site. So I dedicated one comic a month to reviewing these books, and after the third submission was accepted, The Rumpus asked me if I wanted to make it a regular strip.

Biblioklept: What other kinds of comics did you make before that? Did you have any training or background in cartooning?

KT: No, I was trained, to put it generously, to be a composer. Before that I wanted to be a poet. I had great teachers in both of those fields, but never even thought about taking a studio art class. Maybe the fact that I hadn’t yet tried and failed at comics was what drew me to it.

The BFG, Roald Dahl’s Love Letter to His Lost Daughter

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

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Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic The BFG begins with a dedication to the author’s daughter: “For Olivia: 20th April 1955 — 17th November 1962.”

If I had noticed the dedication when I first read The BFG as a child, I certainly didn’t think about it then. The slim sad range of those dates would have meant nothing to me, eager as I was to dig into a book about child-eating giants, secure in my own childish immortality. However, when I started reading the book with my daughter, the dedication howled out to me, thoroughly coloring the lens through which I read.

Had Olivia Twenty Dahl not died from measles encephalitis at only seven, had she continued to live to be alive now, she would be approaching her sixtieth birthday. But because she died as a seven-year-old little girl, she remained a seven-year-old little girl to me, the reader, who saw her spirit under every page. 

I believe she remained a seven-year-old little girl for Dahl as well—at least in the imaginative world of The BFG where she is recast as the hero Sophie. Reading The BFG, it was impossible for me not to immediately connect Sophie to Olivia, those names with their Greek roots and their long O‘s. It was also impossible for me not to connect these two girls to my own daughter Zoe, who is also seven.

(Parenthetically, I’ll admit that biographical interpretation of literature is often a terrible practice—especially when combined with a touch of reader-response criticism—and that what I am doing here is not something I think advisable, let alone commendable. And yet the central affective power for me in reading The BFG—as an adult to my little girl—rests in my inescapable intuition that Dahl wrote the book to make his daughter live again, to live forever).

RIP Walter Dean Myers

Literature, Writers

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RIP Walter Dean Myers, 1937-2014

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

–From a March, 2014 piece Myers published in The New York Times entitled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”

I taught for seven years in an inner city high school. I cannot overstate how important Myers’s books were to my students. His novel Monster—a classic—was one of the first books I wrote about on Biblioklept. I love the book, and I loved reading it with my students. Monster was an especially effective bridge to others by Myers–Slam!, HoopsBad BoyThe Beast—and one of my favorites, Fallen Angels—but I also saw it turn kids who hated reading into voracious readers. I read Myers myself as a young teen (his book Scorpions is especially good), but reading them again with my students revealed a depth and precision I hadn’t detected as a kid. Those books are all true, even the ones that are made up. RIP Walter Dean Myers.

William Faulkner Reviews Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea

Books, Literature, Writers

His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.

William Faulkner’s review of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea was first published in the Autumn 1952 issue of Shenandoah. The review is collected in Faulkner’s Essays, Speeches & Public Letters.

“The Declaration of Independence — In American” — H.L. Mencken

Writers

The Declaration of Independence
in American

by H. L. Mencken

1921


WHEN THINGS get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody. All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, me and you is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time whichever way he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man them rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to give it the bum’s rush and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day like them South American yellow-bellies, or every time some jobholder goes to work and does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons, and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I.W.W.’s would say the same. But when things get so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal so much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more. The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the start, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work. Here is some of the rough stuff he has pulled: He vetoed bills in the Legislature that everybody was in favor of, and hardly nobody was against. He wouldn’t allow no law to be passed without it was first put up to him, and then he stuck it in his pocket and let on he forgot about it, and didn’t pay no attention to no kicks. When people went to work and gone to him and asked him to put through a law about this or that, he give them their choice: either they had to shut down the Legislature and let him pass it all by himself, or they couldn’t have it at all. He made the Legislature meet at one-horse tank-towns, so that hardly nobody could get there and most of the leaders would stay home and let him go to work and do things like he wanted. He give the Legislature the air, and sent the members home every time they stood up to him and give him a call-down or bawled him out. When a Legislature was busted up he wouldn’t allow no new one to be elected, so that there wasn’t nobody left to run things, but anybody could walk in and do whatever they pleased. He tried to scare people outen moving into these States, and made it so hard for a wop or one of these here kikes to get his papers that he would rather stay home and not try it, and then, when he come in, he wouldn’t let him have no land, and so he either went home again or never come. He monkeyed with the courts, and didn’t hire enough judges to do the work, and so a person had to wait so long for his case to come up that he got sick of waiting, and went home, and so never got what was coming to him. He got the judges under his thumb by turning them out when they done anything he didn’t like, or by holding up their salaries, so that they had to knuckle down or not get no money. He made a lot of new jobs, and give them to loafers that nobody knowed nothing about, and the poor people had to pay the bill, whether they could or not. Without no war going on, he kept an army loafing around the country, no matter how much people kicked about it. He let the army run things to suit theirself and never paid no attention whatsoever to nobody which didn’t wear no uniform. He let grafters run loose, from God knows where, and give them the say in everything, and let them put over such things as the following: Making poor people board and lodge a lot of soldiers they ain’t got no use for, and don’t want to see loafing around. When the soldiers kill a man, framing it up so that they would get off. Interfering with business. Making us pay taxes without asking us whether we thought the things we had to pay taxes for was something that was worth paying taxes for or not. When a man was arrested and asked for a jury trial, not letting him have no jury trial. Chasing men out of the country, without being guilty of nothing, and trying them somewheres else for what they done here. In countries that border on us, he put in bum governments, and then tried to spread them out, so that by and by they would take in this country too, or make our own government as bum as they was. He never paid no attention whatever to the Constitution, but he went to work and repealed laws that everybody was satisfied with and hardly nobody was against, and tried to fix the government so that he could do whatever he pleased. He busted up the Legislatures and let on he could do all the work better by himself. Now he washes his hands of us and even goes to work and declares war on us, so we don’t owe him nothing, and whatever authority he ever had he ain’t got no more. He has burned down towns, shot down people like dogs, and raised hell against us out on the ocean. He hired whole regiments of Dutch, etc., to fight us, and told them they could have anything they wanted if they could take it away from us, and sicked these Dutch, etc., on us. He grabbed our own people when he found them in ships on the ocean, and shoved guns into their hands, and made them fight against us, no matter how much they didn’t want to. He stirred up the Indians, and give them arms and ammunition, and told them to go to it, and they have killed men, women and children, and don’t care which. Every time he has went to work and pulled any of these things, we have went to work and put in a kick, but every time we have went to work and put in a kick he has went to work and did it again. When a man keeps on handing out such rough stuff all the time, all you can say is that he ain’t got no class and ain’t fitten to have no authority over people who have got any rights, and he ought to be kicked out. When we complained to the English we didn’t get no more satisfaction. Almost every day we give them plenty of warning that the politicians over there was doing things to us that they didn’t have no right to do. We kept on reminding them who we was, and what we was doing here, and how we come to come here. We asked them to get us a square deal, and told them that if this thing kept on we’d have to do something about it and maybe they wouldn’t like it. But the more we talked, the more they didn’t pay no attention to us. Therefore, if they ain’t for us they must be agin us, and we are ready to give them the fight of their lives, or to shake hands when it is over. Therefore be it resolved, That we, the representatives of the people of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, hereby declare as follows: That the United States, which was the United Colonies in former times, is now a free country, and ought to be; that we have throwed out the English King and don’t want to have nothing to do with him no more, and are not taking no more English orders no more; and that, being as we are now a free country, we can do anything that free countries can do, especially declare war, make peace, sign treaties, go into business, etc. And we swear on the Bible on this proposition, one and all, and agree to stick to it no matter what happens, whether we win or we lose, and whether we get away with it or get the worst of it, no matter whether we lose all our property by it or even get hung for it.

A kind of literary cinema where the roles of audience and reader are collapsed by a hybrid prosaic-filmic lens: a sentence

Books, Literature, Writers

A fiction whose mission is to stage the journey of a woman fighting her way out of male-directed gazes and discourses cannot even feel like a “novel” and the established definitions that the term evokes. Maybe the novel as a form, as a genre of literary being, is a fantasy too. Perhaps the personage who creates must also come undone. Employing essayistic and filmic techniques, Zambreno implies an author as narrator-character first before Ruth’s entrance into frame. “I try to sketch her face, over and over and all I come up with is a furious pencil cloud. … She forms. Yet she is an indistinct blur. … My wonder child, wandering child. I am trying to push her out into the world.” An attempt to write the green girl eschews linear plot in favor of the anxious thrill of the present tense of writing (I think of Robert Walser’s The Walk); Zambreno places an implied author as the lens through which we perceive Ruth at the center of the narrative. The epigraphs that begin each scene also frame the shot we will witness — this is someone’s projection of an ego, a kind of literary cinema where the roles of audience and reader are collapsed by a hybrid prosaic-filmic lens: a sentence.

Frequent Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang reviews Kate Zambreno’s novel Green Girl at Berfrois.

The Cranky Brilliance of Dwight Macdonald | Masscult and Midcult Reviewed

Art, Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

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Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain
 (NYRB) collects ten pieces by cultural critic Dwight Macdonald. First published between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, the essays here feature varied subjects, always attacked through the same critical lens. Whether he’s excoriating late-period Hemingway, deriding structural linguistics, lamenting the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, or chewing up a now-forgotten bestseller, Macdonald centers the brunt of his attack on the creeping “impostures and vulgarizations” of what he called Masscult and Midcult.

In “Masscult and Midcult,” the longest and perhaps most effective essay in the collection, Macdonald defines, illustrates, and analyzes his neologisms against the historical backdrop of a rising commercial culture. “Masscult is bad in a new way,” he tells us,” it doesn’t even have the theoretical possibility of being good . . . It is not just unsuccessful art. It is non-art. It is even anti-art.” He continues:

Masscult offers its customers neither an emotional catharsis nor an aesthetic experience, for these demand effort. The production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment, for this too implies life and hence effort, but merely distraction. It may be stimulating or narcotic, but it must be easy to assimilate. It asks nothing of its audience, for it is “totally subjected to the spectator. And it gives nothing.

Macdonald views Masscult as the unfortunate inevitability of capitalism and the burgeoning middle class—or, more appropriately, Middlebrow class. Macdonald is deeply concerned with the location of brows, referring to himself as Highbrow throughout the collection (even once casually dropping We highbrows, a little bone to the reader, perhaps). He repeatedly points out that the virtue of Lowbrowness is that the Lowbrow know where their brows are in relation to higher brows. Folk art is not just acceptable, it’s good stuff, important in its hierarchical relationship to High Art. It’s those damn Middlebrows that cause confusion. For Macdonald, Midcult is thus the real threat:

…the danger to High Culture is not so much from Masscult as from a peculiar hybrid bred from the latter’s unnatural intercourse with the former. A whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents. This intermediate form—let us call it Midcult—has the essential qualities of Masscult—the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity—but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf. In Masscult the trick is plain—to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them. 

Macdonald uses case samples from Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Archibald MacLeish, and Stephen Vincent Benet to demonstrate the creeping vulgarity of Midcult posing as High Art.  

Indeed, Macdonald almost always focuses on negative examples, perhaps taking for granted that his audience will be guided to a better understanding of High Culture through…I don’t know? Osmosis? He clearly shows a strong affection for the Modernists (up through Faulkner, with a special love for Joyce and Picasso), but the essays in the collection rarely explore in detail exactly why the good stuff is so good. He comes closest in “Updating the Bible” when he points out that the Revised Standard Version strips too much of the King James Version’s poetic strangeness, poetic strangeness that startles, engages, and demands the attention—the work—of the reader. Elsewhere, he connects the avant-garde of the Modernists to an aesthetic tradition going back to the Renaissance (and Periclean Greece before it), and while these moments are satisfying, they are hardly explored with the same vigor Macdonald applies to pulling away Midcult’s figleaf.

Neither does Macdonald prescribe medicine to go along with his devastating diagnoses. To a reader who felt his criticism should be more constructive, Dwight Macdonald replies: “I’ve always specialized in negative criticism—literary, political, cinematic, cultural—because I’ve found so few contemporary products about which I could be ‘constructive’ without hating myself in the morning.” A succinct summary of the entire book, that.

Something of the force of Macdonald’s personality evinces in that reply, a combative, cranky, brilliant personality that asserts the nuances of its own subjectivity as if they were Aesthetic Law. And Macdonald is so, so, so perceptive, building each case thoroughly on textual grounds—citation, history, context—that make me blush here for not attempting his thoroughness in kind. But that would take more space and time than We Postmoderns should like to allot, no? (Maybe this review would gain more rhetorical force were I to simply make it a list of cat gifs).

Macdonald’s diagnoses remain prescient. His 1958 annihilation of James Gould Cozzens’s novel By Loved Possessed takes to task not just the author, but also the Masscult audience that made the book a best seller and the Midcult critics who sanctified the book’s artistic merits. With a few simple substitutions, the essay might be updated to critique Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. In “The String Untuned,” ostensibly a review of the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Macdonald complains that the influence of structuralism, whatever merits it may have, has crumbled the authority of lexicography to the point that they “have untuned the string, made a sop of the solid structure of English, and encouraged the language to eat up” previous authorities. Essays like “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club” and “The Triumph of Fact” critique the increasing American tendency to look only for self-improvement in Art—to look for not just the digested form, but the predigested form. A footnote to “Masscult and Midcult” puts it plainly: “the Midcult audience always wants to be Told.” Ours is a time of explainer sites, listicles, speed-reading apps, and “curators” who boil entire works of philosophy down to feel-good quotes aimed at the reader’s desire for self-improvement and self-satisfaction.

Some gaps and miscalculations mar Masscult and Midcult. There’s no reckoning with the approach of postmodernism—or if there is, such a reckoning only evinces in the denial that an artful synthesis of the High and Low might be possible. (It’s worth noting here that Macdonald views Ulysses as a critique of vulgar culture, not a synthesis of vulgar culture. What would he make of Pynchon?). And while Macdonald beats up on poor Norman Rockwell, there’s nothing in the collection that deals with the nascent Pop Art movement. (Perhaps Warhol was too Midcult to merit mention; perhaps Macdonald did write about Pop Art somewhere else). His hatred for rock and roll feels purely reactionary, and his insistence that rock’s superior jazz is a folk art (and not a High Art) is just plain wrong. Also, Macdonald, for all his talk of the avant-garde and challenging comfortable conventions, writes exclusively about white men. There are few mentions of persons of color or women in the collection. I wonder what Macdonald thought of Flannery O’Connor, say, who succinctly echoed his own views when she wrote: “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.”

At the core of these essays though is a cranky brilliance, a burning, engaging intelligence that seeks to upend simple, comfortable assumptions about how we view, interact with, and think about art. Are we to be mere consumers—and not just consumers, but infantilized consumers, baby birds gulping down material that’s already been predigested for us? Or are we willing to put in the work, to dare strong strangeness—to be confused, to not know, to feel discomfort, alienation, newnessMasscult and Midcult doesn’t just evoke these questions, it formally answers them by challenging and provoking, offering a critical rubric for winnowing the wheat from the chaff, or, to use Macdonald’s metaphor, escaping “not only from the Masscult depths but also from the agreeable ooze of the Midcult swamp.” For all the apparent bitterness, there’s something nourishing here. Macdonald’s essays retain a critical power that transcends their ostensible subjects, a power that rips the poseur’s figleaf away. Great stuff.