Reading, Writing, and Publishing

The Painful Sum of Things

The Painful Sum of Things

On V. S. Naipaul

I have admired Naipaul as much as I have found him difficult to admire, a murky admixture that I find difficult to explain or clarify, and which I find with no other writer, to anything like the same degree. (Edward Said referred to his “pained admiration,” and dissonant phrases of that kind are scattered through appreciations of his work.) I know, too, that you knew him, which I did not. I don’t know if that makes him more or less difficult to appraise.

The New Reading Environment

The New Reading Environment

 Each this is not to say or in other words a dull sword wielded against willful misunderstanding

The irony of the op-ed’s depressing reemergence is that everything is an op-ed now. The op-edization of all writing should have rendered its traditional purveyors redundant. Why read a Times columnist when you can read the same opinion delivered with more style and energy almost anywhere else? But even as internet writers refine and defend and reiterate their opinions—an archipelago of converging takes—so-called traditional outlets have consolidated their influence.

Bad Atrocity Writing

Bad Atrocity Writing

“What’s the difference between a baby and an onion? No one cries when you chop up the baby.”

Why does writing well about atrocity matter? Because the history of the world, a history that is morally unimaginable without atrocity, needs to be written, rewritten, well written. To know what really happened, to know what it really felt like, we need more sentences that are capable of opening readers to events so horrible that the senses and the memory close down; sentences that open multiple perspectives on those atrocities, even if they seem to allow for only one perspective — sentences that do all this without losing their hold on logic and grammar and, for that matter, their rhythm

The Distracted State of the Union

The Distracted State of the Union

To live in America today is to sit slackjawed at a helpless recline.

I began writing nonfiction in the wake of September 11—and was published in print, in hard copy, by newspapers and magazines that would go on to cut pages, wages, and staff, if they didn’t fold altogether. Meanwhile, online was busy revising responsibility for the attacks: Bush II ordered them, Cheney let them happen, the American Deep State colluded with the Israelis, the Israelis colluded with the Saudis.

A Pile of Kleenex

A Pile of Kleenex

"You know, everything that we’ve been doing together actually is the plot of ‘Goodbye, Columbus.’ "

But it turns out that I love those books. They have that same quality of being unrepentant. And the idea that you can write a novel that very clearly, unabashedly, unrepentantly has autobiographical elements, a novel that says, “What, fuck you, who even cares? This is what a novel is, and you can like it or you can get off the bus”—I appreciated that.

The Refusal to Make Things Easy for Anyone

The Refusal to Make Things Easy for Anyone

On Philip Roth, 1933–2018

For an age where more people are porn-literate than literature-literate, the nerdy Roth may prove to be his most transgressive persona in posterity, although there’s another candidate for the role. As all the tributes pour in and multiply in thousands of bytes on our screens, there’s another thing that no one has really mentioned: his political astuteness.

Peter Stories

Peter Stories

On Peter Mayer, 1936–2018

His indifference to luxury distinguished him from his peers and seemed to ground him in the present tense. An often ancient-seeming man who spoke with the long vowels of the American midcentury, he always kept moving. He invested in young people—in us—a remarkable degree of trust and authority. The past was invoked often, but always as the punchline to a good story: his sordid adventures in the Merchant Marines; the time Allen Ginsberg got into the cab he was driving and asked him to take him cross-country (Peter of course obliged); a visit with Yukio Mishima in Tokyo too bizarre and nightmarish to explain with any succinctness. He once said he published a photography book, New York in the ’70s, because he had spent that decade in his office and needed a visual guide. But the stories suggested otherwise.

The Blaze

The Blaze

On Daniel Quinn, 1935–2018

I persuaded my three best friends to read Ishmael, and they were similarly affected. At night we convened a kind of book club in a motorboat parked in my friend Matt’s garage, smoking cigarettes and stacking empties of Milwaukee’s Best Ice, discussing how best to spread the word about the Civilization problem.

I Write Because I Hate

I Write Because I Hate

William Gass, 1924–2017

It is not hard to imagine young Gass chafing at the bit that midcentury analytic philosophy had sought to place in his mouth. In interviews he sometimes compared metaphor to junk food, which is of course dangerous, but also hard to define. In a broad sense any food is junk if you eat too much of it, or at the wrong time; in a narrower sense, junk food is delicious, and can be very good for the soul.

In the Maze

In the Maze

Must history have losers?

Behind every brave outing I saw a legal liability. I suppose that’s what happens when you know enough men with money. Such men are minor kings among us, men with lawyer-soldiers at their employ who can curtail certain kinds of talk. While I do believe in false allegations, and I do believe that women can be bullies, it’s hard, sometimes, not to be cynical about the defense. Some men love free speech almost as much as they love libel lawyers.