Tag: literature

RIP Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe died today at the age of 82. He was a great writer; probably the most important African writer of the 20th century.

To learn more, please read the Wikipedia Featured Article about Mr. Achebe. It is remarkably well-written.

McCarthy and the Coens

You are hereby ordered to read the conversation between author Cormac McCarthy and filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen published by Time in 2007, when the Coens made a film adaptation of McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men.

My favorite bit is about the scene where Josh Brolin is chased by the dog.

J.C. It was a scary dog. It wasn’t a movie dog.

C.M. It was basically trained to kill people.

J.C. It was basically trained to kill people.

E.C. The trainer had this little neon-orange toy that he would show to the dog, and the dog would start slavering and get unbelievably agitated and would do anything to get the toy. So the dog would be restrained, and Josh, before each take, would show the dog that he had the toy, he’d put it in his pants and jump into the river …

RIP Maurice Sendak

Thanks for helping us be children. (NYT)

RIP Adrienne Rich

Today the US lost a visionary. Here she is reading her poem “What Kind of Times Are These?”

Why I Dislike Jane Austen

When a student asked recently, I mentioned that I find Jane Austen’s writing style to be insipid. My conversational partner asked what this word means and I had trouble defining it. So I looked it up in Merriam-Webster:

  1. lacking taste or savor : tasteless <insipid food>
  2. lacking in qualities that interest, stimulate, or challenge : dull, flat <insipid prose>

The mention of “insipid prose” in the second entry is particularly fitting. I suppose we can’t say that Austen does not challenge the 21st-century reader in the US, but it is precisely the opposite sort of challenge that good writing ought to provide.

As Ludwig Wittgenstein made clear, language carries inherent difficulties due to the abstract nature of each word. Thus we readers are instantly confounded upon our very first encounters with a story’s opening sentences. Obviously authors have poetic license — in fact, must employ creative diction — to vivify a psychologically realistic narration. If Ms. Austen achieves this goal, the banality of her prose is a mere reflection of the banality of the world it depicts.

To wit: On a regular basis, Austen’s characters will speak of a relation visiting a particular house on a regular basis. Rather than communicate this directly, however, the author will write — in a way which adds nothing substantive to our conceptual imagination — in a manner which is deliberately obtuse. “It was not uncommon for our dear Uncle Henry to stay away from Poshcrustyshire Manor for a period of no more than two days at a time.” Consequently we readers finds ourselves spending valuable moments untangling this confounding web of double-negatives to arrive at a simple point of chronology: “Uncle Henry visited the house every two days.” Perhaps Ms. Austen’s contemporaries had nothing better to do with their time, but I most certainly do.

(I recognize that this may be an inevitable consequence of changing fashions among literary epochs; will it be said in fifty years that my own writing is tedious and cumbersome, because I insist on spelling out words like “you” and “are”, which could easily be replaced by single letters?)

If all of these stylistic headaches operated in the service of an intriguing, important, or engrossing plot — or to narrate the lives of intriguing characters — I would be inclined to complain a great deal less. Balzac’s magnum opus La Cousine Bette, after all, can hardly be accused of having a simplified narrative style. The difference here is that Balzac is ruthlessly efficient with his language, and creates characters cut from the pure stuff of relevant existence.

And perhaps we have now reached the heart of my distaste for Austen’s work: she is writing almost exclusively about the British upper-class. The supposedly dramatic twists and turns of the Bennet family are no doubt thrilling for girls and boys and women and men of similar situation and orientation. But for those of us who have to work full-time in order to make a living; for those of us who are immersed in the global struggles for post-colonial democracy; for those of us who seek to deconstruct and abolish patriarchal hierarchies; for those of us who devote free time to writing letters on behalf of political prisoners being tortured by autocratic regimes; for those of us who seek to resolve unjust power dynamics of economy, government, and society; indeed, for those of us who must wrestle with the minute vagaries of familial embarrassment alongside all of the aforementioned stressors and aggravations. For us, the lives of the Bennet sisters appear simplistic, mediocre, and — above all — insipid.


Check out this excellent attack ad made by FlackCheck, against Abe Lincoln:

Today I’m listening to: Lowkey!