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April 8, 2014

Salinger, “Esme,” Squalor

J. D. Salinger    (1919 - 2010)

J. D. Salinger
(1919 – 2010)

By Steve King.

On this day in 1950, J. D. Salinger’s “For Esme — With Love and Squalor” was published in The New Yorker. Though still fifteen months away from The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger had many stories published in the high-circulation magazines at this point; “Esme” would help push him into the spotlight, and accelerate his flight from it.

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December 11, 2013

SA’s literary giants offer diverse views on Mandela

JM Coetzee

JM Coetzee

By Siyabonga Sithole

South African Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, as well as acclaimed author Zakes Mda, have all written high-profile reflections on Nelson Mandela this week.

The most talked about is The Contradictions of Mandela, an opinion piece by Mda in the New York Times.

Mda recalls Mandela as a fiery, disciplined young lawyer who would visit his family home.

“I remember Nelson Mandela. No, not the universally adored elder statesman who successfully resisted the megalomania that comes with deification and who died Thursday at age 95, but the young lawyer who used to sit in my parents’ living room until the early hours of the morning, debating African nationalism with my father, Ashby Peter Mda.”

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October 16, 2013

Unusable Words

Awan-580 by Brad Leithauser

I was seeking a replacement for “unfathomable.” I thought of “depthless,” but, feeling a bit iffy about it, I consulted my old Webster’s Second. Yes, it was a synonym for “unfathomable” (“Of measureless depth … unsoundable”) but also for “fathomable” (“Having no depth; shallow”). The word was what I think of as an auto-antonym (a term that doesn’t appear in Webster’s Second): it’s its own opposite. Which is to say, it’s a mostly unusable word.

Suppose in a novel you encounter the phrase “Rick stared into Sheila’s beautiful, depthless eyes.” Rick has clearly met a babe—and she is either superficial or profound. No telling which, outside of context. In its flexibility, its complaisant wish to go both ways, the word loses its independence and leaches away most of its efficacy.

I don’t know how many auto-antonyms English offers, but the list includes “cleave” (unify or sever—the butcher’s wife cleaves to the butcher, who cleaves the cow’s carcass), “overlook” (oversee or fail to notice), “let” (allow or, as in the legal phrase “let or hindrance,” obstruct), “enjoin” (encourage or prohibit), and “sanction,” as in any sanctioned imports are either approved goods or contraband. A lengthy, but not exhaustive, list of auto-antonyms can be found on Wikipedia.

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October 14, 2013

Muriel Spark, Miss Brodie, Miss Kay

Muriel Spark    (1918 - 2006)

Muriel Spark
(1918 – 2006)

By Steve King

On this day in 1961 Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published. The real Miss Brodie was Spark’s high school teacher in Edinburgh, Miss Kay. She loved Mussolini, and her creme de la creme girls, and “would have put the fictional character firmly in her place.” MIss Kay was also so emphatic about Spark being a writer that “I felt I had hardly much choice in the matter.”

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July 5, 2013

Video: A Visit with Joyce Carol Oates

storiesBy Kristina Budelis
“Joyce Carol Oates is the rarest of commodities, an author modest about her work,” wrote Robert Phillips in The Paris Review in 1978. Though she has since won the National Humanities Medal, been nominated for a Pulitzer, and written dozens more books and short stories (including one published in the magazine this week), she remains unusually self-effacing. When we visited her earlier this month, at her home in New Jersey, she told us, “I haven’t the faintest idea what my royalties are. I haven’t the faintest idea how many copies of books sold, or how many books that I’ve written. I could look these things up; I have no interest in them. I don’t know how much money I have. There are a lot of things I just don’t care about.”

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June 26, 2013

Burn Your Letters?

burn-letters-290By Roxana Robinson

Why is it that, when an author says very explicitly that she does not want her work published, we publish it? Willa Cather’s letters have been restricted since her death, in 1947. She may be spinning in her grave now that a fat volume of those letters has been published. But she’s not the first person whose wishes have been disregarded: it happens to lots of writers, sooner or later.

Ernest Hemingway’s estate decided to publish posthumously his late work “The Garden of Eden,” which Hemingway himself had (wisely) never published. Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, were unavailable, even to scholars, for twenty-five years after her death. Now they’re online, accessible to anyone with a laptop and fifteen minutes.

Maybe the only way a writer can prevent this is to do what Somerset Maugham did: he burned his letters in the fireplace, making a roaring pyre as his horrified secretary stood by. His secretary hid some of the letters, trying to save them, but Maugham caught him. Those, too, he said, and the secretary had to put them into the flames with the rest. Those Maugham letters were never published and they never ever will be.

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April 11, 2013

Dorothy Parker Closes

Dorothy Parker   (1893 - 1967)

Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967)

On this day in 1931, Dorothy Parker stepped down as drama critic for The New Yorker, so ending the “Reign of Terror” she endured while reviewing plays, and that others endured while being reviewed by her. Parker was a drama critic for only a half-dozen years in a 50-year career, but her Broadway days brought her first fame and occasioned some of her most memorable lines.

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March 27, 2013

A Note on Nerdfighters

nerdfightersBy Michelle Dean

In her article about transgender teens in the magazine this week, Margaret Talbot quotes Annette Bening and Warren Beatty’s son Stephen calling himself, among other things, a “nerdfighter.” It might escape the average reader’s notice that this term is more than the sum of its parts. In the teen-age population, “nerdfighter” has a very specific meaning and etymology. Primarily, it identifies the teen-ager in question as a follower of John Green. Green is a former divinity student who dropped his plans to join the ordained ministry after a stint as a hospital chaplain. But you could say that, in his career as a young-adult novelist, he’s become another sort of evangelist. His “A Fault in Our Stars” débuted at No. 1 on the children’s best-seller lists about a year ago. It is about a love affair between two teen-aged cancer sufferers, and was drawn, in part, from his experience as a chaplain.

Green has been writing about teen-agers who don’t quite fit in, albeit in less epidemiologically significant ways, for some time. His first novel, “Looking for Alaska,” in which a boarding-school student puzzles out what happened to his friend when she died in murky circumstances, showed a knack for the alienated-whip-smart-teen-ager genre. Some people might mutter something here about formula. But, for his readers, Green did what David Foster Wallace said good fiction did: he made them feel less alone. The book was not an instant best-seller when it appeared, in 2006, but it was something almost better: a cult hit. And, as such, it gave Green the beginnings of an online following.

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March 12, 2013

The Turn Against Nabokov

LolitaReading-465By Michael Idov

Leonid Mozgovoy, the owl-eyed seventy-one-year-old actor, has played Chekhov (goatee), Hitler (mustache), and Lenin (goatee, bald cap), all in films by the famed Russian director Alexander Sokurov. And sometimes, in his natural hair, he becomes Humbert Humbert in “Lolita,” a one-man show featuring Humbert reading his own story out loud, that has played in Saint Petersburg on and off over the last two decades. When it was first staged, the monologue had to pass muster with the khudsovet, a Soviet censorship organ. It did. “They said I perform it rather chastely,” Mozgovoy recalled in an interview.

On a snowy night in early 2013, “Lolita” went up once again, unchanged, but it had suddenly become the most scandalous show in town. The performance had been postponed since last October amid threats to Mozgovoy and others. In January, three men jumped the play’s twenty-four-year-old producer, Anton Suslov, giving him two black eyes and a concussion while calling him a “pedophile”; a murky video of the beating was posted online. The same libel was slashed in spray paint across the walls of the Nabokov museum in St. Petersburg and the writer’s ancestral estate in Rozhdestveno, about fifty miles from the city. Anonymous activists had petitioned to have the play banned, the museum closed, and Nabokov’s books purged from stores.

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January 28, 2013

Video: Daniel Mendelsohn Discusses Mary Renault

MaskEarlier this month, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote a piece in the magazine about his life-changing correspondence with the novelist Mary Renault, who became his literary mentor.

In this video, shot at his apartment in Chelsea, Mendelsohn discusses why he became so attached to the Renault books, and reflects on the other influences—both literary and personal—that shaped him as a young writer.


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