Wilfred McClay’s new history of America is a masterwork of storytelling: “Because the multivocal account of American history necessarily undermines a meaningful single narrative, the ideological reader rejects the very idea that this national story can be meaningful except as iconoclasm. The only moral imperative left is to overcome the past in search of an abstract, clean, and universal ideal—social justice. Morally the idea is to step outside of history. It is partially in response to this disordered state of historical understanding that McClay wrote Land of Hope. The theme of hope captures the blend of simplicity and complexity that makes this story relatable and useful, truthful and morally understandable, loving but unsparing.”
“Be a Leader, Not a Liter”: James Panero against the metric system. “World Metrology Day is Monday. Forgive me if I don’t raise a pint—sorry, 473 milliliters—in commemoration.”
The political function of the lavish Roman banquet: “The Roman banquet may well have been the original staging ground of gastronomic excess — think platters of peacock tongue and fried dormice, chased down with liters of wine poured by naked waiters. But at the heart of all that gluttony was cold calculation. For the aristocrats who ruled this sprawling ancient empire, which, at its peak under the soldier-emperor Trajan (A.D. 98 to A.D. 117), stretched all the way from Britain to Baghdad, the banquet was much more than a lavish social meal. It was a crucial power tool.”
The “triumphant failure” of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: “Fifty years ago, Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time, and a classic 20th-century novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, was born. Published in 1969, the novel catapulted the 47-year-old Kurt Vonnegut into the popular and literary mainstream by speaking directly and poignantly to the anxieties of the rising countercultural generation about technological progress, the Vietnam War, and nuclear holocaust. But as novelist and Iraq War vet Kevin Powers notes in his excellent foreword gracing Modern Library’s 50th anniversary edition, the book still speaks about the horrors of war in a way that today’s veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the rest of us, can understand and appreciate. Re-reading it half a century after its publication, I was struck by the fact that in the very pages of the novel that cemented his literary reputation Vonnegut calls the book a big, fat failure.”
Let’s end crazy copyright disputes: “Ryan Tedder has written some of pop’s biggest hits, including Beyonce’s ‘Halo’, Ed Sheeran’s ‘Happier’ and, for his own band OneRepublic, ‘Counting Stars’. But he says pop is in danger of being stifled by the rise in copyright cases.”
Take a vacation: “If you feel like you need a vacation, you’re almost certainly right. Americans get far fewer paid days off than workers in pretty much any other industrialized democracy, and the time we actually take off has declined significantly, from 20.3 days in 1987 to 17.2 days in 2017. Beyond souvenirs and suntans, the best reason to take a break may be your own health. For the Helsinki Businessmen Study—a 40-year cardiovascular-health study that also happens to be the working title of the solo album I’ll probably never get around to recording—researchers treated men at risk of heart disease. From 1974 to 2004, those men who took at least three weeks of vacation were 37 percent less likely to die than those who took fewer weeks off.”
Essay of the Day:
James McElroy argues in American Affairs that novelists have given up on making bold moral statements. Instead, stories today offer little more than flattery:
“[T]he use of free indirect style spread in order to emphasize thought, yet this progression is often reframed by two myths which share a single purpose. The first myth deals with literature’s ability to respect the plurality of human experience and centers around the artistic retreat of omniscient third-person narrators. In How Fiction Works, James Wood links this style of writing with the religious worldview. He tells us that head-hopping narrators, like those found in Jane Austen novels, are a dead, or irrelevant, tool of an older era. ‘Authorial omniscience, people assume, has had its day, much as that ‘vast moth-eaten musical brocade’ called religion has also had its.’ This antagonism towards religion is born out of a desire to claim that literature is positioned to navigate subjectivity, and a world beyond moral truth. Yet attempts to position literature as a secular gospel fall flat because the exact same themes appear across all media.
“The second myth goes in the opposite direction and recasts the novel’s emphasis on interior life as a moralizing quest for empathy. Author George Saunders once said that ‘Prose, when it’s done right, is like empathy training wheels.’ Empathy is a vague word, so it’s important to note that it is popularly used to restate basic moral lessons for those who are too cool for religion. In the vernacular, it just means compassion. In fact, George Saunders has also called good prose ‘compassion training wheels.’ This narrative seems to take literature’s marketing too seriously. Despite the ‘scientific studies’ linking reading with empathy, the aspects of great storytelling do not inherently promote compassion.
“Writers should obviously be concerned with compassion, just as they should be attuned to moral complexity. Yet notice that these seemingly contradictory myths are two different ways to flatter readers and writers: the combination is purported to be less dogmatic than the narratives of the past, plus it’s super moral. There is a fundamental contradiction, however, between these myths and how free indirect style functions.”
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“Contemporary American literature is creatively exhausted because free indirect style places the reader above the characters. In both my example and the Henry James example, the reader is more perceptive than the protagonists. More importantly, this has to be so in order for this type of irony to function. This puts pressure on the writer to create situations where the reader can easily interpret something that the characters cannot see about themselves. The worst trope in horror movies is that the characters enter the basement. Haven’t the characters ever seen a horror movie? Free indirect style is exhausted because it creates characters who always go into the basement. Characters have to be blind to the obvious for the story to work. We are told this style is all about engendering empathy, but in actuality it functions by creating stunted characters. The reader is trained to look down at others, and the writer becomes obsequious to the oh-so-intelligent readers’ egos, always telling them, ‘Look how smart you are.’”
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