WRB—October 11, 2023
People get stuck. Brains are no guarantee. Hope is slim.
It isn't here. You must have dreamed you put it there. Are you suggesting that this is a Print Edition of the Washington Review of Books I hold in my hand? Have you gone mad, my husband? Or is it I who am mad?
On Saturday, the Managing Editors were lamenting that the WRB had passed 200 cumulative newsletters and Supplements without so much as a celebratory notice to you, the loyal readers who have made it possible. This isn’t true though! The Substack count is off, and by exactly one. [This is because a long time ago I wrote this post, our one excerpt from the print edition. I forget what inspired it. —Chris] There’s only one conclusion: you’re reading issue 200 right now! In order to celebrate, properly, in the glow of second chances, we’ve made available a new tote bag, which Hannah [Our essential social-media person. —Chris] has described as “really cute” and several readers have praised as having a “great color palette for a fall look.”
I remember sitting on red stairs in the lobby with Dara and wishing I could turn eighteen during high school instead of after. I remember leaving the Rock Hotel after the senior dance when I was a junior and making out with Krisztina and thinking, “Ah yes adulthood has begun I should make business cards.” I remember typing up all of the Velvet Underground’s lyrics on my dad’s IBM Selectric. I remember going to the emergency room in Providence with a Cornish game hen bone in my throat and telling the nurse I loved her after she gave me intravenous valium. I remember Butthole Surfers played a show at 6:00 PM just to confuse people and being grateful someone at the Living Room tipped us off. I remember someone writing that Kool G Rap and Kane and Rakim were equally important contemporaries and thinking, “No, that’s wrong” and wondering if I should write about it.
Two in The Nation:
Rachel Vorona Cote on Wilde’s desire to expand the role of the critic beyond where other Victorians had taken it and make criticism its own form of art [If only he could have seen the WRB. —Steve]:
Here is a defense of criticism that refuses all prior terms and is shaped instead by Wilde’s own pleasure-centered metric. Loath to accommodate an industrializing empire’s fetish for productivity, he casts the writing of criticism in opposition to exertion of any sort. As Gilbert and Ernest debate, they gaze at the night sky, where “the moon…gleams like a lion’s eye”; Egyptian cigarettes dangle from their fingers. As Frankel notes in his introduction, “The critic is an artist, to be sure, but he is also a corporeal creature, whose thoughts and ideas are extensions of his physical life, not a repudiation of it.” In the domain of Wilde’s dialogues, his speakers are at liberty to enact the conditions that Wilde understands as central to creative work. If it is the critical instinct, not the creative one, that breeds innovation, then the critic requires the stillness afforded by “doing nothing”—by settling into one’s flesh and heeding one’s own impressions, wherever they meander.
Dan Sinykin on the forces in the publishing industry that made “literary fiction” possible and the forces that killed it:
The categories of literary and commercial fiction were further scrambled when Oprah launched her book club in 1996. She casually mixed middlebrow culture (Pearl S. Buck, Ken Follett, Anita Shreve, John Steinbeck) with high culture (William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison), thereby diminishing the distinction between them, making all of it literary fiction and turning literary fiction into mass culture. Oprah’s role in the expansion and commercialization of literary fiction helps explain Jonathan Franzen’s ambivalence when she decided to add his 2001 novel The Corrections to the book club’s reading list. He said his work belonged to the “high-art literary tradition” and that she’d chosen enough “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” books that he cringed to join their company. His ambivalence famously led to Oprah withdrawing her invitation to Franzen to join her as a guest on her show.
[A reporter once asked Gandhi what he thought of literary fiction. “I think it would be a good idea,” he said. —Steve]
[Sinykin’s book on the publishing industry, Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, came out Tuesday and was an Upcoming book in WRB—October 4, 2023.]
- interviews Sinykin about writing the book on his Substack.
You won’t believe it, but there’s a piece out there about the Pythagoreans that doesn’t mention beans. James Darnton wrote it in Engelsberg Ideas:
The world of numbers was also a world of mysticism, and there was no firm distinction between mathematician and magician. Despite this, or rather because of this, numerical mysticism was not a trivial matter in the ancient world and Pythagoreans could go to great length to preserve their mystical mathematical knowledge: Timycha, a fourth-century Pythagorean, threatened with torture, bit her own tongue off rather than spill Pythagorean secrets. Even states could act in ways shaped by numerical mysticism. When the Romans were defeated at Lake Trasimene, their dictator consulted the sibylline books and arranged for 333 sestertia and 333.3 denarii to be spent on a festival in honor of the gods, seeing three as a most perfect number, “the first odd number… containing the first differences and the elements of every number” and one suited to regain the god’s favor.
Decadence isn’t entirely cultural stagnation. It lets a hundred flowers bloom to explain and analyze said cultural stagnation. Jason Farago has the latest in the NYT Magazine:
But more than the economics, the key factor can only be what happened to us at the start of this century: first, the plunge through our screens into an infinity of information; soon after, our submission to algorithmic recommendation engines and the surveillance that powers them. The digital tools we embraced were heralded as catalysts of cultural progress, but they produced such chronological confusion that progress itself made no sense. “It’s still one Earth,” the novelist Stacey D’Erasmo wrote in 2014, “but it is now subtended by a layer of highly elastic non-time, wild time, that is akin to a global collective unconscious wherein past, present and future occupy one unmediated plane.” In this dark wood, today and yesterday become hard to distinguish. The years are only time stamps. Objects lose their dimensions. Everything is recorded, nothing is remembered; culture is a thing to nibble at, to graze on.
[“As for the influence of digital media, as early as 1989 the cultural theorist Paul Virilio identified a ‘polar inertia’—a static pileup of images and words with no particular place to go—as the inevitable endpoint for culture on a ‘weightless planet’ constituted of ones and zeros.” “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” —Steve]
[Behind the paywall: the Managing Editors reminisce about Classified ads. But you know what your romantic interests would really love? If you subscribed to the WRB. And maybe bought a tote bag, as mentioned above.]
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