Is Genre Fiction Second-Rate?

One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals. Why say otherwise? Elmore Leonard, Ross Thomas, and the wonderful George MacDonald Fraser craft stories that every discerning reader can enjoy to the hilt—but make no mistake: good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction in the same way that Santa Claus is inferior to Wotan. One brings us fun or frightening gifts, the other requires—and repays—observance.

— Arthur Krystal, in It’s Genre Fiction. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It!

Krystal’s graceful, highly intelligent, and blithely condescending and snobbish (get Maggie Smith for the audio version!) post at The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog is a bracing blast of reaction against the current perceived ascendancy of genre fiction. And it’s a naive and provincial symptom of one of the great absences in literary discourse: Northrop Frye’s, especially the Frye of Anatomy of Criticism. Krystal shakes his head at Ursula K. Le Guin’s dictum that literature “is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it” — which is exactly right, and periodically needs to be re-argued and re-learned, although Frye proved it.

[N.B. The title of my post is a shameless instance of Betterridge’s Law of Headlines: “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’”]

October 24, 2012 at 9:21 pm

New Orleans Bump

Memo to David Simon and Treme: Turn it up!

Turn it the fuck up.

I’m loving more or less every second of the second season of HBO’s tortured love song to New Orleans music, cooking, African-American genius, cultural gumbo, and much else, and the successor to Simon’s transcendent Baltimore epic, The Wire. Among other things it’s the best portrait of jazz and jazz musicians and the glories of musical miscegenation in the history of television. (I bet even David Simon is getting tired of the phrase “in the history of television.”)

My one giant peeve about the show is that whoever’s doing the sound recording and mix is failing miserably when it comes to serving up presence and punch. I’d almost swear that the frequent anemic-sounding musical interludes are set at a lower volume than the spoken dialogue. I’ve got my TV sound running through a receiver and feeding Epos speakers and a big, fat subwoofer, and I watch the entire show gripping the remote in order to drastically crank up the sound during the music, and then instantly tone it down when the dialogue resumes to avoid having the voices blare. Even at high volumes there’s a notable absence of low-end and mid-range muscle when the music’s playing.

There was a recent joke on Glee about “hate-watching” Treme. I’d never go that far, but Treme‘s sound design is (softly) begging for a severe ass-whupping.

October 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Quammen in a World of Wounds

The sometimes under-lionized natural-history journalist David Quammen is reaping some fantastic reviews and writerly canonization for his new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, in which he busts a Richard Preston/Hot Zone move by merging stylish non-fiction storytelling with a horror-movie promise to scare the shit out of readers. This weekend in the New York Times Charles McGrath bestows a well-deserved major-writer treatment on Mr. Quammen with “The Subject is Science, the Style is Faulkner.”

I’m looking forward to reading Spillover with, as always in the case of Quammen, a bit of trepidation. My professional experience with David has been a somewhat melancholy one. When I arrived at Outside as features editor at the end of 1996,  he was winding up a decade-and-a-half championship run as the magazine’s Natural Acts columnist, and Outside never quite recovered that brainy, crunchy, opposite-of-extreme-sports corner of its soul after his departure. As a columnist, he was like some updated manifestation of the heroic naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin of the Patrick O’Brian novels, alternately courtly, clinical, and besotted with the amazing systems and architecture of living things.  (Quammen’s collections Natural Acts, Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, and The Flight of the Iguana are simply wornderful.)  I felt like I’d arrived on a baseball coaching staff on the eve of a Hall of Fame hitter’s retirement. He subsequently contributed only a few more features to Outside before beginning a distinguished affiliation with National Geographic.

I’m more ambivalent about the big-picture Quammen, in The Song of the Dodo (1996) and now, presumably, in Spillover. About his accuracy, narrative skill, and sense of big, important story there is no doubt. My problem with David is that he has an essentially pessimistic and tragic vision of environmental issues, and declines to be any kind of crusader or hopeful advocate. His view is probably far saner and more realistic than the evangelizing stance of someone like Bill McKibben. But after all the cool science and alarums, David Quammen tends to leave me with a counsel of despair. When The Song of the Dodo, his magisterial epic of conservation biology and extinction, was published, he did an Op-Ed piece for the Times about why national parks are “nature’s dead end,” far too small and isolated to function as tools for wildlife conservation. And…? “This approach won’t do” — the end.  “Lively writing about science and nature depends less on the offering of good answers, I think, than on the offering of good questions,” he writes in Natural Acts. His sensibility inclines him to lead us through the jungles and thickets and swamps of a dilemma, and then part company with us on the brink of the place where solutions and amelioration  might begin. My worry about the new book is that it brilliantly portrays how the damage that’s been done to the borders between the wildlife kingdom and humanity, and how lethal threats are crossing from animals to people, but that it also leave us with a implicit message that wildlife are vehicles of contagion — our enemies, not our victims.

Aldo Leopold’s famous, very Quammenesque formulation comes to mind:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds… An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

The analogy implies that a search for cure must follow diagnosis.

October 20, 2012 at 12:45 pm

How to Restart a Blog


Rebooting a blog isn’t easy, but it’s more psychologically challenging than technically daunting. A lot of people have done it, so there’s some good, hard-won wisdom on how to pull it off floating around out there. I’ve been contemplating some of this advice over the past few weeks while working on the relaunch of this blog. Always a late adopter, I started this site two years ago with a flurry of enthusiastic posting, but went on to make an epic number of mistakes and missteps on my own downward spiral toward distraction, discouragement, and finally letting my blog languish.

A famous 2008 survey by the blog-indexing service Technorati reported that 95 per cent of blogs are sooner or later abandoned. This vast winnowing stands in sharp contrast to the hundreds of millions of users who plant their flag in the thriving realms of Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and Foursquare and all the other social sites and services. Meanwhile, the blog/social hybrid that Tumblr offers and the various instant blog hosting services like Squarespace have blurred the distinction between the kind of writing that blogging entails and the short-sharp-link-and-quip posting that characterizes tweets and Facebook updates. In certain respects, blogs have become the new business card, or a brand-of-you storefront, or a backdrop for macro-tweets, not a revolutionary publishing medium where a billion new Boswells and Dorothy Parkers craft gemlike essays and stylish memoir.

In 2009 the New York Times Style section diagnosed an epidemic of exhaustion that strikes “when the thrill of blogging is gone,” ensuring that “blogs have a higher failure rate than restaurants.” People with big dreams of monetization and glory — “to build an audience and leave their day job, to land a book deal, or simply to share their genius with the world” — were having their hopes dashed. Also, tl;dr: “You want to write, like, long entries, and no one wants to read that stuff,” one downed blogger said. And to think that all of this disillusionment was already a done deal by the time I first started this blog.

I, too, suffered the heartbreak of “blogathy” — yep, it’s a word. Well, I’m back, unbowed and with the wind at my back, and ready to stand up for old-school blogging. One of the topics I’m going to be exploring in upcoming posts is the thoughtful, long-form, un-weblike counterforce that is pushing back against the ephemeral, bite-sized, salty-snack model of social posting that leaves souls and minds hungry for perspective and satisfaction. The “dark social” underground is the new vanguard! Or something. Stay tuned.

For now, however, I’ll offer a few words of reassurance and inspiration and a few therapeutic links.

1) Don’t waste emotional energy staying embarrassed about the stagnant, non-updated, stale blog you’ve neglected for so long. Keep your eyes on that shiny new blank slate, and embrace your archive for its strengths and achievements.

2) You’re now a smarter and much more savvy veteran. Lots of blogs bog down because the learning curves and demands of design, webmastering, tweaking, and bug-fixing took their toll. The bright side is that after a break, you’re no longer a rank beginner, and you can move much faster and with less friction toward the actual work of posting.

3) Consistency, dedication, and discipline will make any gaps in your past blogging irrelevant.

4) Relax and take your swings while no one is paying much attention, and it’ll be much easier to gain loyal readers and keep them when you’re in the groove.

Lastly, here are a few posts that I found helpful to one degree or another:

Guide to Restarting Your Blog

How to Restart Your Blog After a Long Break

How to Restart a Dead or Dormant Blog

The Blogging Dip

4 Biggest Blogging Myths That Lead to Bloggers Giving Up


10-22-2012: I found another useful post on Deborah Ng’s insightful blog, Kommein, offering a proactive argument for a healthy and positive sabbatical from blogging.

In 5 Reasons to Take a Break From Your Blog, Ng observes:

 I’m now of the mindset that a blogger needs to take a break now and then to keep fresh, stay sane, and not have to resort to posting the same dang things everyone else are posting to their blogs. Just as we need a break from our jobs, our homes and our kids, we also need a break from our blogs.

Photo: the caped author at bat sometime in the 1960s

October 19, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Circumnavigating Neil Young

Alec Wilkinson has a post up on The New Yorker site about reading Neil Young’s new memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, and about interviewing Young a few years ago:

Young’s book…is a strange, rambling, cramped, sometimes goofy, sometimes sentimental, and sometimes moving document. It consists mainly of talk about cars and advanced audio equipment, episodes of his childhood and life as a young man, a couple of medical emergencies, his working practices, and recollections of people he knew, some of whom he has outlived.

My longest encounter with Young was several years ago, when I wrote about him for another magazine. I had read “Shakey,” the fanatically specific biography of him written by Jimmy McDonough, and had encountered the remark made to McDonough by Young’s manager when McDonough had asked to spend time with Young. Neil doesn’t hang, McDonough was told. The magazine I was writing for had arranged for me to receive the engagement Young offers to journalists. A driver delivers you to the parking lot of a restaurant in the hills south of San Francisco. (The restaurant, when I arrived, was closed for the season.) Redwoods surround the parking lot and tower over the restaurant. Shafts of light come through the tops of the trees, and the trees are so tall that the scale of what you can see seems altered, so that you feel the disproportion of size that a child feels in a room where a table, occupied by adults, seems to loom above him or her. Eventually an old jalopy shows up with Young, who collects and restores old cars, especially cars from the period of his childhood, at the wheel. Over the course of about two hours, he drives you in a circle that goes down to the Pacific and along it, through a couple of small towns and back up into the hills, past the house where Ken Kesey lived in La Honda and the early acid tests were held and the sixties began, and a bar where Young used to play with his band Crazy Horse, where he would announce to friends in the afternoon that they would play that evening, and the place would fill up mostly with people the band knew. What Young is doing is driving you around the borders of his ranch, which run from the redwoods down toward the water.

On the ride Young told me that he didn’t read, but I might have guessed anyway. He was a reserved and slightly grave figure, and talking with him was like being trapped with someone whose mind had no reach.

He goes on to portray Neil as an incurious, narcissistic, extremely limited idiot savant. Which feels partially true — this is a rock star we’re talking about, and a famously ruthless egotist — but also like an exaggerated literary conceit  and something akin to  a strange act of psychological projection by a journalist who succeeded only in getting Neil’s interview schtick in a two-hour encounter. But still a fascinating review/essay.

Photo by Henry Diltz

Update 10-24-2012:

via ]

October 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Bluestem Wolf Howls

Another beautiful field recording — this one of the ethereal howling of the Bluestem Mexican wolf pack, near the west fork of the Black River in the White Mountains of Arizona, on October 7, 2009, by John and Mary Theberge. Despite innumerable setbacks and constant illegal killing of the reintroduced Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, the Bluestem pack, with five of its members wearing radio collars, was reported to be still traveling through its traditional territory last month with at least four pups.

Image: Canis lupus, circa 1819-22, by Titian Ramsay Peale, National Museum of Wildlife

October 15, 2012 at 2:56 pm

The Sounds of Shangri-La

In October 2000, a reporting team from the NPR-National Geographic program Radio Expeditions traveled to the high mountains of western China, near the Tibetan border, to document the Yunnan Great Rivers Project. NPR engineer Bill McQuay roamed the region for two weeks by car, horseback and on foot, through 12,000-foot passes and forests of giant rhododendron, recording villagers herding yak and cattle, Buddhist pilgrims offering prayers to mountain gods, and musicians performing on traditional instruments.

October 12, 2012 at 2:26 pm

The Light Fantastic

I detest sodium-vapor streetlights, whose yellowish glow now colors the night and stains metropolitan horizons everywhere. When I was growing up in suburban California in the 1960s and ’70s, the world after dark was lit by warm incandescence and whitish mercury-vapor street light. Although the latter had a spectral signature with vampiric overtones, turning reds to black and casting a blood-drained pallor on white skin, it still approximated something akin to plain white light.

But after the energy shocks of the 1970s, high-pressure sodium lights gradually took over the night. Following the economic imperative to use the most cost-effective lighting—high-pressure sodium lights consume half as much energy as mercury-vapor lamps and can last up to 16,000 hours longer—transportation departments and cities embraced sodium light. It was as though someone said “Fiat lux sulfurea—“Let there be light from hell.” The relentless spread of sodium streetlights is documented in NASA night photographs from space: New York City and Los Angeles are circuit boards of glowing orange, and Long Beach, one of the world’s busiest ports, is a flare of tarnished gold. It’s even worse in the United Kingdom, where 85 percent of streetlights use sodium. The jaundiced weirdness of sodium light has become a vexing challenge to photographers (one filmmaker, Tenolian Bell, called it “the ugliest light known to the cinematographer”); movie cameras simulate its color by using a gel filter named Bastard Amber. Significantly, retailers have avoided inflicting the unpleasantness of sodium lights on their customers—most commercial parking lots and shopping malls use the costlier white metal halide lights.

Our forced acceptance of sodium light’s ghoulish tint, an accident caused by the electrical vaporization of sodium metal in a gas-filled tube, makes outdoor lighting an example of a “bossy technology,” to borrow a term from Kevin Kelly’s recent book, What Technology Wants. Even worse than this inherent bossiness is the larger problem of light pollution. “Mankind is proceeding to envelop itself in a luminous fog,” wrote the authors of a paper on artificial night-sky brightness in 2001. This “perennial moonlight” that we’ve created enhances our safety and security, but it also dims our view of 10,000 stars and destroys the dance of light and dark.

But now we have a chance to bid good riddance to sodium vapor, and perhaps even resist the heedless trend of adding more and more light. The color of night is changing again.

In the next decade, a large percentage of America’s 37 million streetlights will be equipped with light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, and other kinds of solid-state lighting. Once again, energy-saving is the driving force. “We’re still at the front end of the wave,” says Mark S. Rea, the director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “but LEDs are inevitable as a replacement technology.” He predicts that LEDs, which are already 10 to 20 percent more energy-efficient than high-pressure sodium lights, will have a 40 percent advantage within a year or two.

Large-scale streetlight-upgrade programs have already begun in New York, Anchorage, San Jose, Pittsburgh, and many other cities. In Los Angeles, a $57 million project backed by the city’s Department of Water and Power and the Clinton Climate Initiative will replace 140,000 of the city’s 209,000 streetlights. Michael Siminovitch, the director of the California Lighting Technology Center at UC Davis, argues that the true potential and savings of the new lighting are less a matter of the source than of digital “adaptive controls.” Unlike sodium lights, LEDs and other next-generation lights can be tuned to various colors, easily dimmed, arranged into luminous surfaces and shapes, and turned on and off instantly.

Will this versatility translate into self-restraint? “We have the technology to make beautiful, modest night lighting,” says Jane Brox, the author of Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. “But our relationship to light is not rational. To ask people to live with less light, even if it’s well designed—a lot of people feel like that’s going backward.”

We’ve learned to be that neighbor who leaves a yellow porch light glaring all night long. Perhaps we can now learn, in the words of the lighting designer Rogier van der Heide, “why light needs darkness.”

[This post originally appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of the Atlantic.]

July 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm

3D Audio at Princeton

I’m standing in the confined space of a custom-built anechoic chamber at Princeton University’s 3-D Audio and Applied Acoustics Lab, bathed in green light and surrounded on all sides by wedges of melamine acoustic foam. I’m facing a pair of Ascend Acoustics speakers set on tall stands about a foot and a half apart. And I’m considering the advice that professor Edgar Choueiri has just offered, in a voice curiously deadened by a total absence of room reflections.

“You may want to close your eyes,” he said. “If you clear out the visual cues, you get even more realism.”

I’m about to hear a demonstration of Choueiri’s Pure Stereo filter, which promises “truly 3-D reproduction of a recorded soundfield.” Only a handful of people have heard his 3-D demo, but it’s already spawned awestruck hype, as well as preemptive rumblings of audiophile skepticism.

Choueiri leaves. A few seconds later, the sound of flowing water fades in and rises in both volume and presence. I have the uncanny sensation of standing neck-deep in a river, with its plashing surface spreading around me. Next, a buzzing fly circles my head. Then an aural nightscape of crickets and the loud croaks of a frog, precisely over there. An excited crowd, children shouting. A train chugs in from the right and comes to a halt across the platform.

Musical selections follow—an a cappella choir in some vast reverberant space, a New Orleans street band, a quartet of classical guitars—featuring shockingly expansive soundstaging, exact source positioning, and vivid ambience. Then Choueiri’s virtual voice is speaking in my left ear, my right ear, behind my head, and lastly he’s simulating giving me a haircut, with scissors snipping sides, top, and back.

Choueiri reappears at the door. “That was absolutely fantastic,” I tell him.

Spatial hearing in three dimensions depends on subtle differences in timing, sound level, and the shape of our heads and ears, among other factors. Binaural and even conventional stereo recording incorporates rich 3-D information. But “crosstalk” collapses the 3-D illusion: during playback, the left ear hears not only sound from the left speaker, but also some of the right-speaker sound, and the right ear likewise hears spillover sound from the left speaker.

A technique called crosstalk cancellation—processing the audio signal so that the left ear hears sound from only the left speaker, and the right, from only the right—can reveal the inherent 3-D sound in stereo. But crosstalk cancellation has always introduced audible spectral coloration. It’s this problem, applied to two-speaker playback, that Choueiri says he’s licked. He wrote a fiendishly abstruse 24-page technical paper explaining his theoretical work, and then spent several years coding and designing his Pure Stereo filter.

Manufacturers and producers sense enormous profits looming in 3-D audio for TV, cinema, and gaming. Compared with 3-D, the sales pitch goes, surround-sound systems are unwieldy and offer crude spatial definition. Princeton is now negotiating with various consumer companies to license Pure Stereo, and Choueiri also hopes to improve on hearing aids, which currently are not very good at pinpointing where sound is coming from.

In a sense, Choueiri’s adventures in audio represent a hobby that’s spun out of control. His real job is teaching applied physics at Princeton and developing plasma rockets for spacecraft propulsion. Visiting Europe to attend a conference in 2003, Choueiri decided on a whim to detour to Amsterdam and crash a meeting of the Audio Engineering Society, where several sessions explored the technical challenges of 3-D audio. “Within a few weeks, I read pretty much every paper in the field,” Choueiri recalls. Funding for his 3-D audio lab came from Project X, an initiative to encourage unconventional engineering research at Princeton.

Later during my visit, Choueiri invites me to his restored 1834 home near campus, where we spend hours sampling his enormous collection of vinyl LPs, reel-to-reel tapes, and high-definition audio files. Choueiri has a Jerry Garcia beard, a high forehead topped with stray tendrils of disorderly hair, and the dark-circled eyes of a nocturnalist. He puffs on a pipe while he roams the shelves.

“The most tiring part of stereo is the fact that the image spatially doesn’t correspond to anything that you ordinarily hear,” Choueiri tells me. “That’s what drove me to create this thing. Your brain is getting the right cues, and you relax. Your brain stops trying to re-create reality.”

[This post originally appeared (as “What Perfection Sounds Like”) in the March 2011 issue of the Atlantic.]

March 1, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Death as Metamorphosis

Via Andrew Sullivan (“Death as Metamorphosis”), a previously unpublished interview in which John Updike talks about death in Vladimir Nabokov’s writing and says, “I take dying to be for a lepidopterist like him a kind of entry into immortality, just the way a butterfly on its pin becomes deathless, in a sense, and is preserved.”

I’m not sure whether the reassurance that Updike found in a lepidopterist’s metamorphic rather than terminal vision of death has much of a real basis in Nabokov’s work, but I’ve always found a very different kind of comfort regarding mortality in the writing of the Russian master, especially in this passage from the opening of Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence… But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

The first time I read this, I realized I’d never feared “the prenatal abyss” in the same way I instinctively dreaded the possibility of permanent extinction after this life. If there is a God, I thought, then the Creator who cared enough to bring me into being out of an eternal and untroubled preexistence might have something equally benign and purposeful in store after I’m dead. And it is Nabokov’s smiling imaginative eloquence, rather than the Gothic spookiness of that empty baby carriage, that has stayed with me.

November 21, 2010 at 4:51 pm

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