Saturday, September 18, 2010

Aesthetic Ethics

I was trying to explain to a friend today why I thought a particular short story was bad (doesn't matter which one; all right, if you must know
it's this one by James Franco, the actor turned...[I can't bring myself to type word "writer"]) and then I read this startlingly thoughtful essay by Matthew Zapruder over at The Rumpus in which he writes:

"'Bad' is a moral judgment masquerading as an aesthetic preference. We reserve the term for art that doesn't just bore or displease, but somehow offends...these poems are 'bad' because they are unethical. And they are unethical because they are dishonest."

Which is what I wish I had been able to say to my friend.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Getting Closer

Two blocks away from my Portland apartment, there is a wonderful secondhand store with a wonderful name: Rerun. Beyond the eclectic array of inexpensive knickknacks, it maintains a respectable books section, too. A few days ago, I bought two hardback memoirs—Jamaica Kincaid's My Garden (Book) and William Kittredge's A Hole in the Sky—for a total price of $3.75.

I wasn't familiar with Kincaid's testimonial to gardening—I was mostly interested in the subject matter—but I had read an excerpt from A Hole in the Sky several years before, and had wanted to read it ever since. Since picking it back up, I've been far from disappointed.

An excerpt:

"I want this to be a story about the way a sense of connection to the energies of everything can sweep over us; and why I think that sense of connection is supremely valuable.

Through all of this I am most concerned to examine the possibility that I may come to die and feel myself slipping back into everything. I hope I may feel that such slipping back into things is proper while it is happening. I hope I will be happy in the going, though sometimes that seems only like another way of saying I'm frightened and furious. I want to be like the child for whom it was so simple to let himself go into affection for what we are. He loved it as we seem to in the beginning, on the doorstep of life, with a future so thick in second chances.

What a release it might be, falling back into the world as if through some gate that was reopened, into that time in which we felt ourselves seamlessly wedded to every thing, and every other thing, getting closer."

Thursday, September 2, 2010


I have not yet read Jonathan Franzen's new novel which seems to be all the rage, but I did recently read the review by New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, who calls it "a masterpiece of American fiction." It is a brilliant, dynamic, sweeping essay that might be called a masterpiece of American criticism. Two quotes stuck with me, which I would like to reproduce here:

1). "Franzen grasps that the central paradox of modern American liberalism inheres not in its doctrines but in the unstated presumptions that govern its daily habits. Liberals, no less than conservatives — and for that matter revolutionaries and reactionaries; in other words, all of us — believe some modes of existence are superior to others. But only the liberal, committed to a vision of harmonious communal pluralism, is unsettled by this truth."

2). "Franzen makes us see, as the best writers always have, that the only pathway to freedom runs through the maze of the interior life."