All posts filed under: Literature

The Death of the Author and the End of Empathy

In 2015, President Obama described the Nation as “more than a magazine—it’s a crucible of ideas.” If it was ever entitled to this descriptor, it isn’t anymore. Academic identity politics may be importing an obsession with phantom victimhood into the business world and the media, but The Nation’s editors are now taking aim at language itself, reducing the complexity of human communication to a primitive understanding of words. In late July, the magazine’s poetry editors issued a groveling apology for a poem they had published earlier that month. “How-To,” by Anders Carlson-Wee, was an ironic critique of social hierarchies, couched as a manual for successful panhandling: “If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,/say you’re pregnant,” the poem opened. It went on to suggest begging gambits for other presumed outsider groups, including the handicapped: “If you’re crippled don’t/flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough/Christians to notice.” The poem, in its entirety, reads as follows: If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl, say you’re pregnant—nobody gonna lower themselves to listen …

Cultural Appropriation and the Children of ‘Shōgun’

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the completion of James Clavell’s epic Asian Saga—six novels, totaling 6,240 pages in paperback, published between 1962 and 1993. The high point of the saga was the publication in 1975 of Shōgun. Set in the year 1600, it chronicles the exploits—nautical, martial, political, and erotic—of John Blackthorne, a British seaman who finds himself shipwrecked in feudal Japan along with a few other survivors of the Erasmus, a Dutch pirate ship he helped pilot. By order of publication, Shōgun is the third book of the series, but by internal chronology it is the first. It is also, far and away, the most commercially successful book in the series. By 1980 it had sold more than 6 million copies and become the source of one of the most successful TV miniseries in history. It was preceded by King Rat (1962) and Tai-Pan (1966). It was followed by Noble House (1981), Whirlwind (1986) and Gai–Jin (1993). Grady Hendrix’s 2017 book Paperbacks From Hell admirably chronicles the way that a single novel—Ira Levin’s …

A Literary Inquisition: How Novelist Steven Galloway Was Smeared as a Rapist, Even as the Case Against Him Collapsed

On August 8, 2015, a day after the University of British Columbia announced the sudden resignation of its president, Arvind Gupta, UBC’s Jennifer Berdahl, professor in Leadership Studies in Gender and Diversity, published a blog post in which she opined that “Gupta lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.” Berdahl held the Montalbano Professorship, a position financed with a $2 million (all figures Canadian) donation from Board Of Governors Chair John Montalbano, specifically focused on “the advancement of women and diversity in business leadership.” Montalbano called Berdahl directly and accused her of making him look like a hypocrite. He also told her that he had contacted her dean about the issue. Berdahl shot back with a second blog post that accused Montalbano of trying to silence her. “I have a right to academic freedom and expression,” she wrote, “free of intimidation and harassment.” On August 18, the UBC board of governors convened a meeting to deal with the controversy. As Montalbano …

The Stifling Uniformity of Literary Theory

In 1976, the Nobel-prize winning economist, F.A. Hayek, published The Mirage of Social Justice, the second volume of his magnum opus Law, Legislation and Liberty.1 Despite being widely regarded as the definitive critique of social justice, today one would be lucky to find advocates of social justice in the academy who are familiar with the name ‘Hayek’, let alone those who have read him. Among classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives alike, Hayek is one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century whose The Road to Serfdom represents one of the most powerful arguments against socialism ever written.2 But those in the academy who have perpetuated socialist ideas since the 1980s have practically ignored it. In this article, I will argue that this unwillingness to engage with the ‘other side’ is not only endemic in the radical intellectual schools that have overtaken literary studies, but also that it is symptomatic of their entire way of thinking which, being hermetically sealed and basically circular in its argumentation, has no language to deal with critics beyond …

With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part IV: The Sadia Shepard Incident

This is the final part of a 4-Part series of essays by the author, entitled “With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent?” Part Three can be found here. The New Yorker was founded in 1925 as a humour magazine with an arch, self-consciously sophisticated, cosmopolitan tone. It soon evolved into a general-interest weekly with a focus on fiction, literature, ‘high culture’ in general, and what is now known as long-form journalism. Under William Shawn (1907-1992), who edited the magazine from 1952 to 1987, the New Yorker became the best-known, most prestigious venue for short stories in the English-speaking world. Writers still aspire to have their work published there, even though fiction now rivals the poetry as the element of the magazine most frequently skipped by its 1.2 million readers. Occasionally the New Yorker features stories by authors of genuinely classic stature: Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), Italo Calvino (1923-1985), Alice Munro (1931- ), Sir V. S. Naipaul (1932- ), and – most recently – Primo Levi (1919-1987), whose “Quaestio de Centauris” was published in the annual Fiction …

With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part III: The Spirit of the Age

This is the third part of a 4-Part series of essays by the author, entitled “With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent?” Part Two can be found here. Ben Lerner is arguably the most distinguished young writer in America, equally well-known as a poet, critic, essayist, and novelist. His oeuvre may be the single most critically-acclaimed, award-winning, institutionally-validated body of work by any living English-speaking writer under the age of fifty. Lerner was born in 1979 in Topeka, Kansas. His parents are well-known psychologists; his mother Harriet Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger (1985; revised 2005) has sold millions of copies. Lerner earned a BA in Political Science from Brown University, as well as an MFA in poetry from the same institution. He won the Hayden Carruth Award for Emerging Poets for his first book (2004); a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to Spain to write his second book of poetry; the Believer magazine’s Believer Book Award for his first novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011); the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Prize (2011); a …

With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part II: English as a Dead Language

This is the second part of a 4-Part series of essays by the author, entitled “With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent?” Part One can be found here. It would be fair to characterise poetry as dead, at least in English-speaking countries. Right now it might be easier to meet people who write poetry as an emotional outlet than it would be to encounter anyone who regularly buys books of poems or reads verse for pleasure. Amateur poets rarely entertain any reasonable hope of being read by anyone; but nor do ‘professional’ poets, whose readers tend to number in the dozens at best rather than the hundreds. Most of these readers end up being other poets. Poetry occupies a diminished status in ‘high culture.’ Very few educated people under seventy have been compelled to learn poems by heart at school; committing even stray lines of Shakespeare or Shelley to memory has become a rare, eccentric habit. This means that contemporary poets can rely on little or no shared poetic tradition with such readers as they …

With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part I: A Cautionary Tale for Writers

This is the first part of a 4-Part series of essays by the author, entitled “With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent?”  Contemporary American literature has been transformed into a university-based activity which is increasingly alien to the needs, desires, or tastes of readers and audiences not directly involved in academic culture. The practices of institutionalised Creative Writing workshops decisively influence the style, form, and format of literary works; intellectual trends in universities determine the worldviews of writers long after they have finished formal studies. Most major professional writers now teach ‘Creative Writing’ in colleges and universities, and this has serious repercussions for literature. Not merely in terms of what is published and circulated, but even with respect to the work that fledgling authors aspire to produce. Literary writing has always been a precarious means of earning a living. The slow collapse of the newspaper and magazine industries since the 1990s has reduced journalism’s potential as a reliable source of regular income for writers. Creative Writing might seem at first glance like an ideal solution …

Why They Hate Margaret Atwood

On March 9, a University of Alberta English professor named Julie Rak headlined a speaking event that was billed as a showdown on the issue of “bad feminism.” A promotional poster done up in a boxing motif included a picture of Rak on one side, and legendary Canadian author Margaret Atwood on the other. If you live outside Canada, and recognize Atwood as the author of such renowned feminist works as Cat’s Eye, you might assume that she’d be representing the side of sound feminist doctrine in this metaphorical bout. As literary critic Carmine Starnino once noted, Atwood is the “best-known English-language novelist of contemporary sexual politics.” She more or less invented the modern Anglo Canadian feminist fiction genre, specializing in what Starnino aptly describes as “salty post-Freudian satires on gender inequalities, the oppressiveness of marriage and the historical animosity of women.” In the 1980s, when I studied North American Literature as a high school elective, Atwood was the only writer with two books on our reading list. She also was the youngest writer on …

Incomprehension 501: Intro to Graduate School

Like any responsible book collector, I’m often forced to decide which books deserve a spot in my limited shelf space. During these purges, one type of book always gives me pause. These are the books I acquired during the two years I was a graduate student in comparative literature; books unheard of by most people outside of academia but, to many inside, akin to scripture; books by Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, György Lukács, and Slavoj Žižek, to name just a few from the pantheon. I’ve held on to some thinking one day I might return to graduate school to complete a PhD, and what would a graduate student be without his copy of The Origin of the German Tragic Drama? But with a tenured teaching position, two kids, and a mortgage, I no longer entertain such fantasies. Now I’m free to finally make a confession: I never knew what these books were talking about. The demands of my bourgeois existence grow with each passing year, and I didn’t want this little …