American network television likes to ring in the season with the “Christmas episode,”— every show’s individualized take on the holidays. These episodes typically incorporate reconciliation, romance, the disintegration of social boundaries, and occasionally some supernatural element involving Santa Claus or angels. We look forward to these specials because they reaffirm our secret belief that the phenomenon of Christmas provokes a miraculous and all-encompassing harmony that infects all of humanity, regardless of individual beliefs.
In the spirit of the season I unearthed my Twilight Zone DVD collection to see how Rod Serling responded to the holidays. Among the Bing Crosby and Jack Benny Christmas specials of the early 60s, the Twilight Zone produced two Christmas-inspired episodes: “Night of the Meek” (1960) and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (1961). The first is fairly conventional: drunken Santa gets fired for inebriation, stumbles upon a strange sac that inexplicably yields endless goods, begins handing out said merchandise to derelict neighborhood folk, realizes the value in charity, gets arrested for supposed stolen goods, watches as mysterious bag fools cops by producing only empty cans and a stray cat, learns the meaning of selflessness, and assumes bizarre destiny as the real Santa.
The second episode is far more cryptic and far less Christmas-y. Five stock characters — a soldier, a ballerina, a clown, a hobo, and a bagpiper — find themselves in a bizarre round room without doors or windows. The only concrete clues about their surroundings are a distant open ceiling far out of their reach and the sound of an epically loud bell ringing. They lack any recollection of who they are or how they got there, but they possess the faculties to speculate on the nature of their circumstances, which they guess is anything from insanity to space travel to hell. They develop a plan to stack their bodies up the wall so one of them can reach the top ledge and gain some perspective. After one failed attempt they succeed, but the soldier leans too far and falls over the side, stiff bodied, into a pile of snow. The perspective shifts and we’re on a city street; turns out the five characters are actually dolls and the round room is a donation barrel for an orphanage Christmas toy drive.
A child standing nearby picks up the soldier doll and throws him back into the barrel. She leans her body down into the opening. “You don’t have very many, do you?” she asks the woman ringing the donation bell. The volunteer expresses hope for a good donation season, and the camera pulls back leaving us with Rod’s epilogue.
This episode falls comfortably under the Twilight Zone sub-category of imagined-personal-hell-that-turns-out-to-be-a-weirder-reality (i.e.: “The After Hours,” “Eye of the Beholder,” “The Midnight Sun”). It’s also refreshingly self-reflexive, particularly when the characters list off potential explanations for their bizarre situation in a way that echoes the viewer’s analytical experience. In the grander Twilight Zone repertoire, though, “Five Characters” falls flat. It’s not particularly shocking or memorable and at first appears to be haphazardly thrown together and hitched onto the Christmas bandwagon. One fan blogger called it “a half-assed concept Serling got while staggering home drunk past a bell-ringing Salvation Army major.” The Christmas reference doesn’t come until the last 90 seconds of the episode and could easily be removed, leaving the narrative intact.
But the Twilight Zone often operates on a multiple esoteric planes. On a superficial level, this episode is about the realities we take for granted and the supernatural forces we believe control our fates (in this case, the god-like child figure). On a social level Rod is making an elementary comment about consumerism. The characters, as people, are lost and purposeless, but as dolls they are part of a system: bought, discarded, recycled. They are destined for the hands of poor orphans, so they have more value as an object than they do as human beings. “Perhaps they are unloved only for the moment,” Rod postulates in his epilogue. “In the arms of children there can be nothing but love.” Et cetera, et cetera.
On a Christmas episode level, though, something more profound is at work. Christmas itself is only an afterthought, tacked onto the end like a distant relative uncomfortably squeezed into a family portrait. Unlike its contemporaries, there is no transcendental spiritual experience or renewed faith in humanity. In their absence you’ll find a truer image of Christmas: a measly five dolls in an ambitious donation barrel as observed by an ignorant, privileged child. In faithful Twilight Zone spirit, Rod peels a corner back to expose the underbelly of Christmas — in this case, a rather ordinary snowy street where the only miracle is the irony of an orphan being gifted a doll that resembles a hobo.
The imminent release of Zero Dark Thirty, the new film from Kathryn Bigelow and Marc Boal, the Oscar-winning director and writer of The Hurt Locker, has unleashed a maelstrom of debate about America’s use of torture in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden. For some reason, any number of writers who have not actually seen the movie have felt qualified to denounce the film as morally unjustifiable, chief among them the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, who wrote last week that “this film is [not] being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture. It’s more accurate to say it’s so admired because of this.” (He’s since seen the film, and he didn’t like it.)
America’s foreign policy, which has so dominated political discourse post-9/11, was barely relevant in this most recent election cycle: according to the Pew Research Center, only 7% of voters considered foreign policy the most important issue at stake in the election as of March 2012, and I seriously doubt that figure rose much between March and November. Mitt Romney and Fox News tried to make it a big issue — Benghazi, anyone? — but the simple fact of the matter is that we just don’t care much, anymore, about what happens in the Middle East, as long as it doesn’t directly affect us.
In the past few months, the cultural discourse has picked up the slack the political discourse offered on foreign policy. The most buzzed-about show on television and two of the most buzzed-about movies of the year all deal with America’s role in the Middle East. The discourse that has surrounded Homeland, Argo, and now Zero Dark Thirty reveals that if we don’t care much about what we’re actually doing in the Middle East, we care very deeply indeed about possessing the moral high ground when it comes to discussing it.
I have seen Zero Dark Thirty, and Greenwald is right in saying that it’s sort of ridiculous for Bigelow and Boal to argue that they have made an apolitical film. I’m sure that’s what they were, broadly speaking, trying to do, but the idea that a movie about the hunt for and subsequent murder of Osama bin Laden could avoid politics is fundamentally ludicrous. Many critics have described the movie as being documentary-like, but of course even documentaries are shot, and edited, by fallible human beings with opinions, like all the rest of us.
But unlike Greenwald, I believe that Zero Dark Thirty is a profound condemnation of what George W. Bush called the War on Terror, but it is a slippery, opaque movie that avoids espousing any one point of view for very long. The fact that it stubbornly refuses to make moral judgments about any of its characters works in its favor artistically, but probably has a lot to do with the fact that so many people are convinced that it endorses torture. Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA operative whose single goal in life is the elimination of bin Laden from the face of the earth, is certainly the movie’s protagonist; whether she can also be accurately described as its hero is a much murkier question. Even the man whose brutal torture of suspects at a CIA black site winds up being a sympathetic figure.
But Bigelow and Boal are not interested in the deep psychological nuances of the men and women conducting this manhunt. We find out almost nothing about Maya’s personal life — partially because she doesn’t really have one — and the other characters are equally obscure. The movie is not about them: it is about what they are doing, and the global and moral implications of their actions.
Though I would argue that the politics of Homeland are far more complex than an idle glance at the show would suggest, its basic stance is fairly straightforward: Vice President sends drone to kill terrorist, kills children; terrorist gets mad, retaliates; CIA stops terrorist because killing people is always bad (especially if they are Americans!). As a liberal American watching the show, you can therefore get self-righteously outraged about the immorality of drone strikes while simultaneously rooting for the good (white American) guys to get the bad (foreign Arab) guys — Damian Lewis’ (white, American) character may be a terrorist, but I’m pretty sure nobody in the audience wants him dead.
Meanwhile, Ben Affleck’s Argo makes Homeland look like a masterpiece of political ambiguity: as Eric Van Hoose wrote on this site last month, the movie is shockingly conservative underneath its glossy Hollywood surface. It may be masked as an action thriller — though I personally found the thrills cheap — but ultimately it glorifies the CIA without having a single damn thing to say about what the CIA actually does, or about our role in Iran and the rest of the Middle East.
Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t ever say that we should or shouldn’t be doing something. It makes no attempt to justify our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to condemn it. And yes, when Maya and her colleagues torture people, they get information out of them. But it would be a mistake to insist that simply depicting torture as effective is somehow an endorsement of the practice. It does not matter that these methods get results: it is so grossly morally indefensible that no information is worth it, and the movie makes this clear.
Though the film may say nothing explicitly, Bigelow speaks eloquently and at length with her camera, and her gaze is unsparing. The torture scenes are so brutal to watch, and filmed with such a sense of horror, that it is impossible for me to believe that she was not trying to convey her own horror at what she was staging. At one point, the camera passes over dozens and dozens of detainees in orange jumpsuits being held in wire cages like chickens ready to be killed. Later, once bin Laden’s body has been moved, it lingers on the smear of blood his corpse has left on the floor, while the children in the compound cower in the corner.
Bigelow and Boal do not condemn their characters; they condemn the entire system within which they operate. This is a movie about a global network of evil, and I’m not talking about al-Qaeda. We are supposed to be better than this, than them — and we’re not, right now. Whether we like it or not, we’re all complicit participants in what our country is doing out there, in those black sites that don’t officially exist, and that insight is why Zero Dark Thirty is an important film, and why it has drawn the ire of so many critics while Argo has sparked almost no political discussion whatsoever. Zero Dark Thirty does not make you proud to be an American, even a nobly dissenting one. It makes you sick, instead.
With the so-called end of the Mayan calendar upon us — and the associated predictions, which range from an apocalyptic scenario of fireballs and volcanoes, to a more gentle “new age of transformation” or opening of consciousness — I cannot help but wonder about our attraction to doomsday fiction.
Because it is a fiction. Even the Mayan story is a fiction, born of cultural misunderstanding and faulty translation, seeded half a century ago by an American anthropologist and author, Michael Coe. While other workers have since discredited Coe’s apocalyptic interpretation of the Mayan calendar predictions and the December 2012 date, our culture seems to want to latch on to these doomsday stories anyway.
And it is not only the Mayan doomsday fiction that attracts us. Last year, there was Harold Camping, whose May 21, 2011 end-of-the-world date (believers would enjoy the Rapture and ascend to heaven, while the rest of us sinners would suffer months of natural disasters before the planet finally ignited in a fireball) came and went without incident. It’s not Camping’s predictions that surprise me so much — there are a lot of nutcases out there — it’s the attention we all granted him.
We love the doomsday story. Look at the novels we read, the films we watch, even the stories we give to our children. Doomsday or apocalyptic fiction has been around for a century or more (with early authors such as Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Jack London; and mid-century adopters such as Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood).
However, it seems to me that the doomsday story has moved from being one genre of many, to becoming a major theme in our story-telling. There are the stories where a pandemic has reduced much of humanity: Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2007), or films such as I am Legend (2007; adapted from the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson) and Contagion (2011). And there is Cormack McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road (2006 novel, 2009 film) — we’re not sure what happened to the planet, but it was bad.
What is disturbing to me is that we are telling these stories to our kids. Not that dystopic fiction should be censored, not at all. But it just seems that children’s narratives should be more, well… happy. The Hunger Games is the obvious example here: Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of novels published in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and the film released in 2012, replete with child-on-child violence and cute little girls being killed. But there are more: Moira Young’s 2011 YA novel Blood Red Road, and Meg Rosoff’s 2004 YA novel How I Live Now, which is scheduled for film release in 2013.
The stories that speak to us most are those that reflect our own reality. And that, I believe, is where our current fascination with doomsday or the apocalypse comes from: a (possibly subconscious) awareness our own reality.
This September, Arctic sea ice hit its lowest areal extent since measurements began (and probably its lowest level in at least 6,000 years). This November was the 333rd consecutive month with higher-than-average global temperature. (Perhaps it is time for us to recalculate what we call “average”). Research published last month shows that sea level is actually rising 60% faster than IPCC predictions.
Even for those who don’t read the studies, or who don’t trust the scientists, the facts are becoming too difficult to avoid: as the USA suffers through the hottest year in its history, and with nearly half of the country under “severe” drought conditions (yes, even in December!), and with thousands of people still displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Fiction is fine. I worry, though, that some people use fiction not as a reflection of our reality, but as an escape from reality. Because if you are looking for a doomsday story, you need look no farther than out your window.
You can find more from Jacqueline Windh at www.jacquelinewindh.com or www.twitter.com/jwindh
Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and I feel pretty for no real reason and I swear, after that my entire day is made. Nothing can do me wrong, as long as I feel at least a little bit beautiful, whatever that means.
Some weeks ago I encountered two very different discussions of aesthetic ideals: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and glitch art.
On Beauty is interesting in that Smith knows exactly what she’s doing, and she knows exactly what beauty — and perhaps the definition of it is hazy, but its effects certain — can do:
“And all the time, while he spoke, and she tried, bewilderedly, to listen, his face was doing its silent voodoo on her, just as it seemed to work on everybody passing by him in this archway. Zora could clearly see people stealing a look, and lingering, not wanting to release the imprint of Carl from their retinas, especially if it was only to be replaced by something as mundane as a tree or the library or two kids playing cards in the yard. What a thing he was to look at!”
Maybe there’s something caustic about this particular kind of beauty. This brash, in your face, b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l. Smith knows what beauty can do, what it means, how dumb and tongue-tied and fuzzy-headed we all get in the face of something or -one we just can’t stop looking at. Yet that “silent voodoo,” Carl’s “well-madeness as a human being” is not the crux of aesthetic desire; it is not perfection, not in this novel. On Beauty has no argument, no neat nexus: we see the characters rise and fall, gloat about triumphs and hit astounding lows. They simply exist. What is woven throughout the novel are varying kinds and depths of beauty. On Beauty is true to its title: it is a discussion, not a resolution. And in this discussion beauty is found to contain multitudes.
The first time I saw glitch art, I loved it immediately. It made sense to me: the stretch, the warp, the smeared pixels, the subversion of what I have been coded to think is perfect and beautiful. Glitch art has been around for some years now, but it’s been recently making its way into more popular forms of visual culture — graphic design, for example. The appeal of glitch lies in its key component: the flaw. It’s messy, and it’s complex. It comes about in different forms — switching pixels, corrupting data, but the principle is the same: A subversion of what’s conventional and an aestheticization of flaws. Glitch exists in randomness. And a glitched specimen is far more interesting than a “perfect” one.
We’re taught how to see from a very young age and we learn what’s supposed to matter while we’re looking. But nothing is objective, regarding beauty — forget what anyone’s ever told you about nature’s secrets or the golden ratio or divine proportions because someone’s apathy will be someone’s excess and the only thing consistent about beauty is how homogenized the media representations are that exist. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but: mainstream media all too often likes its beauty thin, white, and standardized.
And like a breath of fresh air, On Beauty’s beautiful characters break out of that homogeneity. Most of them are not white. They are black; they are different degrees and variations and complexities of blackness; they are multifaceted. They deviate from the norm of “beauty” as it’s so often written about and presented.
These representations of beauty matter because we are constantly surrounded by all these standardized ideals of beauty, and the answer to “what is beautiful?” becomes so narrow young people don’t even know how to fit into it.
It’s important to present ideas and kinds of beauty that don’t fit into the monolith, and also represent characters as flawed, as complex, as human. Because people of color are allowed to fuck up too and they’re allowed to be beautiful while they do it and they’re allowed to also be more than fuck ups and we are forever in need of these stories, of these reminders. We are allowed to be human and we are allowed to be beautiful and we are allowed to make mistakes.
Glitch subverts the dominant idea of beauty by letting us see variations and complexities. It’s another, better way of seeing beauty; it lets us examine multiplicities — all the things that beautiful can be. It’s addictive because every piece of glitch is a little bit different. Glitch highlights the things that one can’t control, the randomness of something made and made manifest; it is a celebration of all the facts and features that make one thing different from the rest.
I liked On Beauty so much because all of its characters are flawed, and they are allowed to be such. They are all a little bit imperfect in one way or another, but they are beautiful — Kiki’s radiance, Carl’s athletic perfection — but also in their earnestness as characters. They have desires, noble or ig-, but they are honest. As the novel is told from multiple perspectives, so do we get to experience the entirety of each character: their wants and their goals. Some go backward and some go forward and some fall into the wrong trajectories and make horrendous decisions but honestly, that’s how life works.
We like glitch because it’s a little bit messed up, just like us. It’s taking the parts that we might consider mistakes or flaws and illuminating them and saying, hey, this is beautiful. And it is beautiful, and it’s interesting. It breaks from the monolith. It opens our eyes to more than just mass expectations of beauty.
On Beauty works because Smith is unrelenting in the pain her characters experience and inflict. They aren’t perfect. Nothing about them is perfect but they are allowed to be beautiful. It is celebrated. It shows us a kind of beauty — whatever that elusive concept might be, whatever it can be — that is flawed and honest and diverse.
At this point in writing this, I’m not even sure what beauty even means anymore; I’ve written the damn word so many times. I woke up late this morning and realized I’d forgotten to take off my eyeliner from the day before. It was smeared and messy, as if I’d gotten into a fight. But I kind of liked it. I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, “All right.”
There’s not a lot of work out there for an amateur eschatologist like me, even pro bono. So when a friend asked me to sit on a panel to discuss the apocalypse during an end-of-the-world house party, I immediately agreed.
My fascination with apocalypses started early, first with B-movies and Arthur C. Clarke short stories, and then blossomed as I finished my degree in English literature. I’ve since cultivated a reputation as an expert on all things Armageddon among friends. Wonder how Eastern Europeans thought the Kingdom would come during the Cold War? I have four book recommendations for you. Needless to say, on more than one night at the bar, I’ve ruined my chances for dates by rambling about the architecture of ’50s-era fallout shelters to bored women.
A small bookcase next to my bed holds a modest library of apocalyptic texts. Don DeLillo paperbacks are stacked on top of virology studies, post-Peak Oil handbooks, and zines cobbled together by schizophrenics. Tony Kushner bumps elbows with Chinua Achebe and Tim LaHaye. Zombies, jökulhlaups, Christian Zionists—name the end-times scenario, it’s crammed onto the shelf somewhere.
Impressing the audience of the apocalyptic panel—or at least passing on some esoteric information—should be a cinch, I thought, and, like all easy tasks, I put it off. Very un-apocalyptic thinking. But about a week ago, I started to worry. The party, the roundtable, and the most recent alleged doomsday were nigh. I plopped down on my bedroom floor and started pulling books off the shelf one after another, hunting for a discussion topic.
I started with what I know best: classic sci-fi and the atomic era, Robert A. Heinlein and Hiroshima, “The Martian Chronicles” and the Manhattan Project. The twentieth century is the origin of our current apocalyptic preoccupations, but it also seems anachronistically genteel. Quaint, even. I wanted discuss broader ideas, so I went farther back in time.
Part of me really wanted to present something inherently spiritual: the Enuma Elish or the Book of Revelation or another apocryphal jeremiad. The language of scripture is evocative and important, but I worried that yammering on about ancient theological texts to a room full of half-drunk college grads would swiftly rapture them off to the refrigerator’s dwindling stock of beer bottles. Perhaps something more contemporary but still religious in nature? I considered A Canticle for Leibowitz: too Catholic. Then “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”: too preachy. Then the Left Behind series: no matter how little time is left on earth, I rationalized, there’s never a bad time to take a few potshots at Kirk Cameron. Right?
Ultimately, I decided against a theological focus too. When most people imagine the apocalypse these days—especially the types that would be attending this party—they’re more concerned with secular explanations. Ask a roomful of people how they think the world will end and ninety-five percent believe it’ll be at the idle hands of a dozing nuclear silo operator, on the heels of human-induced climate change, or synthesized in a corporate pharmaceutical laboratory. But the media is full of technological and environmental doom and gloom. Who needs more of that?
I knew I was dead-set on avoiding the Mayan apocalypse, even if the last few days of the Mayan long-count calendar were the excuse for throwing an end-of-the-world party in the first place. But there’s something sterile, artless, and unthreatening about this particular apocalyptic story. Even if Nibiru were demonstrably careening toward Earth, it doesn’t have the same moral or existential urgency that has kept writers from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Ray Bradbury to Thomas Aquinas awake at night. It’s too New Age, seemingly prefabricated to sell movie rights and hog the cover of Time magazine.
In short, nothing seemed appropriate.
I had pulled nearly all of my books out of the case, as well as a handful from another bookshelf, and was now surrounded by a small sea of apocalyptic literature. I felt like Noah on the deck of his ark: water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. As I held each book, I heard T.S. Eliot’s raspy voice in my ear repeating, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” I couldn’t commit; it felt like my expertise had been obliterated along with my capacity for decision-making. Why did I procrastinate so long? Time is running out, I thought morbidly.
But then I remembered a line from the third canto of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: “But yet the end is not.”
Those six words are one of the most powerful and blatant utterances of apocalyptic deferral in Western literature. Similar to procrastination, apocalyptic deferral is the moment when a prophet, doomsayer, or otherwise paranoid individual acknowledges that the planet is still spinning and abundantly populated, and needs to explain why. Save the occasional Kool-Aid-drinking cult, so far every apocalyptic prognosticator has been required to make an apocalyptic deferral. Better luck next time!
Deferral is certainly a relevant concept to the people who’ll be attending the end-of-the-world fandango. They’re deferring their careers while working at bookstores or upscale farm-to-table restaurants. Deferring student loans until they stop deferring their career. Deferring a family until they don’t need to defer their loans.
And isn’t that the party’s raison d’etre? To defer the revelation of adulthood? To laugh about everyone else’s hysteria after midnight and pretend a little longer that our post-college purgatory will last? Or, maybe, to say something clever to a cute religious studies grad student moments before the Earth is smashed to smithereens? Or to indulge in a full lowball as our friends are raptured, leaving tidy piles of thriftstore-bought clothes on the kitchen floor?
I could say that there’s still time for one more drink, I thought as I started thumbing through The Faerie Queene. There’s at least one more chance to impress that grad student, at least one more month before the loans start coming due, at least one more end of the world to celebrate. We’re in for the long haul tonight, I could say. The canon of apocalyptic literature is proof.
Like many people, I spend as much (if not more) time thinking about the future of reading as I do actually reading. I’m not proud of this situation, this meta-reading. Most of the time it seems like just another self-created obstacle to getting real reading done.
Nevertheless, it’s been a good week or so for reading about the future of reading — specifically how magazines might publish more enjoyably and potentially profitably via Apple’s Newsstand application in iOS. It got kicked off by a guy named Craig Mod, who used to work for Flipboard and who now writes mostly about the future of publishing. He’s one of the various end-of-print gurus who have arrived on the scene to explain how things might/will/are changing and what shape books and other writing should take in the future. His latest essay, and the prompt for this blog post, was “Subcompact Publishing,” his name for a kind of streamlined publishing approach to magazines. Some of the ingredients of this approach include: smaller issues, smaller files that download easily, intuitive navigation, no more false article pagination, smaller subscription prices, and a more fluid publishing schedule.
The most prominent (and first?) example of this approach is The Magazine, a new iOS-only publication run by Marco Arment, the proprietor of Instapaper and general promoter of more rewarding online reading. Mod uses Arment’s pub as a springboard into ruminating about how Arment is doing everything right: The Magazine is quick to download, easy to use (no cutesey instructional videos necessary), compact, etc. It’s a publication that makes productive use of the distribution mechanism of the Newsstand and how we often find ourselves reading these days, bent over our phones while we wait for life to get rolling again.
(For more generalized context, see Mod’s own post-op post on the essay’s immediate aftermath, with enough links to wipe out at least half of your work day.)
After reading the article and all of the subsequent online re-statements and slight filagrees, I thought: this is the literary magazine of the future, both a way for lit mags to remain relevant and also pay their rent more efficiently. I realize that there are online literary magazines already but I must admit that I don’t read them that often. I think this is for two reasons. First, I have to remember to go to the online lit mag site; it’s a part of Internet Town I always forget is actually there, while I get stuck in Blogville traffic pretty much every day.
Second, and somewhat related, I have a perhaps old-fashioned notion of fiction as ideally separate from the online sprawl of news and posts and the overwhelming barrage of photos and all of the roadside blight we cruise by on a daily basis. Art, in this context, feels designed as a deliberate escape from this roiling flux, a momentary stay against confusion.
Now this subcompact idea may not be the best for most regular, general interest magazines — the result is an awfully denuded conception of a magazine, a definition so small it might squeeze our current notion of a magazine down to an unrecognizable jam — but it seems ideal for niche publications, and there are many more niche magazines than there are general interest magazines. And what is a literary magazine but a niche publication?
I see several advantages. First, it seems like a convenient way to eliminate the ideological and institutional cruft that has attached itself to many literary magazines. (I’m generalizing recklessly here, I realize, but go with me.) For example, currently only the bravest, most well-funded magazines come out a whopping four times a year. And when they do come out, they’re too big, little paperback books rather than something more like a periodical, something to shelve rather than browse-on-the-go. They’re magazines experiencing an obesity epidemic. Plus, unless you live in a big city with an insanely well stocked periodical section, you’re still only getting a random snatching of what’s available out there.
But if magazines were to forego print for a relatively straight-forward app, they could spend a little less time on design and on the burden of distribution while focusing the majority of their attention on the content. Most (remember: generalizing) lit mags that include art or photos make that art feel kind of perfunctory. It just doesn’t really ever look that good or feel integral to the overall gist of an issue.
Also, you could publish more often, maybe even — gasp — monthly. Most lit mags come out too infrequently to have any kind of blip presence on the radar. I think that despite the internet’s tendency to disintermediate everything, there’s still value to creating an issue — or, as Mod calls it, edges — as a way to preserve the edited and ordered mass that is a serial publication, the constructed artifact, while preserving some of the porousness of the web and presenting it in a setting that’s always with you.
Now this doesn’t mean I don’t love the keepable artifact lit magazines we already have, best exemplified by all of the McSweeney’s publications. But their relentless design novelty does make me wonder if a lit mag is supposed to be kept and presented like a book? It seems like a magazine’s main duty is to do the pioneering work of finding new tunnels of literature. And sometimes, admittedly, this won’t pan out. I like these well-designed bundles of paper, but to exert such a design effort at this initial, exploratory stage of future literature reconnaissance seems like a possible misdirection of human energy. Or to put it another way: the web/app is the street art; the book is when you decide that graffiti is worth housing in a museum.
Of the 366 days this year, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes picked Memorial Day to admit on live camera his discomfort with the term “war hero.” John McWhorter, a linguist, expressed sympathy with his position. But the Internet backlash was swift and Hayes apologized. “As many have rightly pointed out, it’s very easy for me, a TV host, to opine about the people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots.”
The Hayes incident was indicative of a few persistent facts of American life. No matter how many unpopular “bad” wars we fight, we remain fiercely loyal to the young men and women we send to fight them. No matter how many war movies tell us about the horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder or the many ways men wearing the American uniform have sometimes behaved un-heroically in combat — think of the atrocities we see Americans commit in Saving Private Ryan and Letters From Iwo Jima — we still wish to believe that every single person who wears this uniform is a hero, someone we should emulate. Harvey Kurtzman, who served stateside in the Army during World War II and never saw a day of combat, would have none of that.
You know Kurtzman as the legendary humorist, the creator of Mad. But he was more than an anarchic humorist. Last October, as part of a new series of EC Comics reprints, Fantagraphics released a new collection of Kurtzman’s war comics, Corpse on the Imjin. The book includes the comics he wrote for two EC Comics titles Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat between 1950 to 1953. He illustrated about half of them. Most of them focus on the then very-contemporary Korean War, but there are some striking historical tales as well. They are all from the pre-Comics Code era, and the stories are gruesome. Kurtzman was heavily influenced by O. Henry’s twist endings and a good number of his stories are told from the point of view of dying or dead men. A story about Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders ends with a man being eaten alive by land crabs. The title story depicts a man drowning his opponent with his bare hands over the length of six panels. His face stretches, elongates. His body emerges from the water, strange and deformed.
And yet despite these grotesqueries, something surprising shines through, a relatively humane depiction of the Americans’ Asian adversaries. The image of the Yellow Peril was persistent. A few years before these comics appeared, the Sub-Mariner and Captain America would do battle with long-toothed Japs. A few years later, Iron Man and the Hulk would battle slant-eyed generals from Red China. But here, the Chinese and North Koreans are human beings with the same capacities for stupidity as the Americans.
If there’s humor in here, it comes without laughter. I’m tempted to compare these stories to The Hurt Locker, but the drawings are too grotesque for that analogy to work. The inks in these stories are black and cold. You can, if you look closely, connect the Mad satirist with the grim war storyteller. While reading them I kept imagining something that we haven’t seen: a “serious” dramatic cartoon about the Iraq War as told by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
If your musical taste is reprehensible, there’s no need to be shy about it. So what if you’ve danced, earnestly, to top 40 pop hits, shuffling your feet around your apartment while no one is there? You may have watched and enjoyed Justin Bieber’s newest music video more than a few times (what youthful bliss!). And sure, you may think it’s not all good, at least not good in the same way as that last novel you read, but it seems that no level of misogyny, violence, self-absorbtion, or homophobia (all on non-stop repeat across nationally syndicated radio) is enough to make you turn off that catchy tune. Quite simply, you know these songs are awful, and you like them anyway.
A bit of good news: it’s possible, probably even ideal, to be critical of these songs (of how they’re produced, marketed — of their lyrical content and their representations of things) without losing the ability to take pleasure in them. If you want a good essay on how thoughtful criticism goes hand-in-hand with pleasure and enjoyment, check this out.
There are, however, some places in the musical landscape that are unforgivable, that showcase a wretchedness beyond the thoughtless, market-driven lyrics and forever-grinding standard tempos of pop-music machinery. I’m talking about knock-off pop music.
Imitation products are nothing new. Imitation designer clothes and jewelry are economic staples, and less expensive food products designed to mimic the appearance of higher-priced brand name foods (the thought of food being branded is strange) are on the shelves in every grocery store. The different price points of these products are presumably designed to appeal to various segments of the consumer market; whatever your class, however desperate you are, there’s a corresponding part of the flea-market designed to help give you the proper external appearance, for a price. My favorite is the thick plastic flatware with a silver (or gold—take your pick) finish (it looks so real!).
But things are different when it comes to this imitation pop music. Even though it’s readily available and cheaply priced on iTunes, I didn’t know it existed until Spotify was finally approved for business in the U.S. I can’t remember what song I was searching for when I first stumbled across one of these knock-offs. The title matched what I was looking for, so I hit play, and a few seconds went by before I realized something was wrong. Could it be that there was a whole business model based, in part, on the idea that people would accidentally listen to or purchase these songs?
These songs are certainly not honest about what they are. Labeling themselves as “tributes” to certain chart-topping artists, these imitation songs hide in plain sight. They aren’t creative new renditions, they don’t offer a new take on the original, they aren’t sung or played by anyone you’ve ever heard of; they are performed by people who aren’t given credit for their work (the artist listed as Hit Makers 2012, for example) and are meant to mimic the sound of the original.
The existence of these songs helps to make a few things clear. It does a good job of showing how blatantly predatory the market can be, how it is designed to trick people into doing things they shouldn’t or might not want to do if they knew the whole story. The ubiquity of such shady transactions might give us cause to re-examine the tools we use to motivate ourselves and why some of us are so willing to take advantage of others. For a good essay about the pressure the market puts on artists, check our rapper K’naan’s essay in the New York Times.
It’s also clear that the question of art and artistic meaning is entirely off the table. What these songs help us to see is that for the people who produce and distribute them, they aren’t anything more than a product to be sold as widely as possible, like laundry detergent. While this is obvious, it’s also easy to forget.
But what about the people making these recordings? Is there something dehumanizing about being the singer of an imitation song, about being the engineer behind the boards? What does the production and presence of this kind of imitation do to people, on the small scale, but also on a larger scale (as droves of people are forced to imitate the looks, manners, and tastes of the parts of the cast system to which they aspire to belong)?
Even the most well known musical artists have to record alternate versions of their songs to clean up the lyrical content for expanded mass consumption alongside advertisements. Maybe they view recording the radio/ad-friendly versions as a saddening artistic compromise, as just another part of their job. Maybe they don’t think about it much at all. Even these ad-friendly changes to lyrical content can seem insignificant when entire acts seem to be built on imitation (Ke$ha as a repackaged Uffie, One Direction as a re-packaging of 90s boys bands, which were themselves imitations of each other, and so on and so on). In 2011 Hollywood released a record-high number of sequels, prequels, and series reboots. In short, these don’t seem to be good conditions for people who’d like to try new things.
The future is always uncertain, and it seems clear that many industries are happy to stick with what works and find new ways to exploit successful formulas rather than try anything new. But I’m not suggesting that there’s no good music, good film, or good writing going on. There’s a ton of it, and a lot of it responds directly to these stultifying, isolating conditions. And I’m also not saying it’s impossible, or even difficult, to enjoy the stuff that’s out there and popular now. Put on some Chris Brown and dance your heart out. But don’t stop wondering how much better things might be in a different set of circumstances, and definitely keep thinking about how to make and support art that addresses this situation directly.
I was a Poet (capital P). An Artist (capital A). I was, therefore, an A-hole (another capital A) who thought himself a Poet Artist. It happens to us writers right after college. All that book-learning — recitations of Poe and Dickinson, Shakespeare and Sandburg. Indeed, upon my graduation I returned home to Olympia, Washington and my mom’s house. I returned to my room, in the back of the house, my dad’s old study that still had his Civil War posters on the walls (the ones I marked up with pens, giving mustaches to those that needed them). It was there that I wrote poetry. It was there that an Poet Artist A-Hole, who thought himself worthy of literary prestige, resided.
That is why, of course, I commandeered many a poetry reading at the nearby strip mall Barnes & Noble (the one near Petco). Indeed, sirs and madams, after all the blue hairs cadenced off their brain-numbing poetry about cats and gardens and mist and crap, I, nimble-witted, words glorious, would stand before the crowd (maybe 8 of us in total. Some blue hairs, a couple hot college girls) and regale them with my wondrous poetry. By “wondrous” I mean “self-indulgent crap” from an a-hole.
The poetry that would cascade from my lips like a melancholic butterfly, would be about depressing subjects — suicide; WWI vets getting gassed; broken hearts; suicidal WWI vets with broken hearts getting gassed). It would be about noble stuff (a father caring for a sick child; a sick child dying of a broken heart while getting gassed). The blue hairs would sniff upon my completion of my vigorous heartfelt soliloquizes, by the Starbucks baristas whipping up no-foam lattes. The hot girls would clap, whisper to me as I sat back down, “Good job.”
“You want to go to Denny’s after?” I asked.
One of the girls, maybe a year younger than me, was named Julie. I liked Julie. She was pretty, for one. She appreciated my poetry, for two. There is no three, those two are good enough. Me and Julie would meet at the poetry readings and then would go do Denny’s. We did this for awhile.
I wrote crappy William Stafford-esque poetry at the time. Stafford was my favorite poet at the time. He was a Northwesterner. He taught my mom at Lewis & Clark College. He liked referencing the outdoors. “Now our trees are safer than the stars,/and only other people’s neglect/is our precious and abiding shell.” Stuff like that.
So, seeing as how Julie liked my Stafford-esque poetry, I wrote it for her and recited it to her and her alone. “The tidal pool of the moon/shores reaching back long/don’t hold sway over you and I/me and you in the dusk of 1,000 tomorrows.” Stuff like that.
It worked! The poetry worked! We kissed. We kissed some more. We held sway over one another for several dusky tomorrows.
There was this girl I worked with, Marie. She was pretty, perky, funny. She said she loved Jim Morrison. Knowing nothing about Jim Morrison I went to the library and read all I could about the man. His poetry sang to me. “Monarch of the protean towers/on this cool stone patio/above the iron mist/sunk in its own waste.” Stuff like that.
So, naturally, I started writing terrible Morrison-like poetry and recited them for Marie. “At the bus stop/two women fought/over 2 dimes/on the ground/crows fly in spoked trees.” Stuff like that. “This Bible/the one I’ve carried/since that Motel 6/isn’t dog-eared/panting Messiah.” Stuff like that.
What side of me would win the girl the quickest? The nature loving pacific Stafford type guy? Or the roustabout Morrison type?
Stafford wrote, “What you fear/will not go away. It will take you into/yourself and bless you and keep you./That’s the world, and we all live there.”
Morrison wrote, “I can make the earth stop in/its tracks. I made the/blue cars go away.”
I wrote poetry but nothing good. I’m not William Stafford. I’m not Jim Morrison. I was a college guy living at my mom’s house picking up chicks at Barnes & Nobles located in strip malls.
The thing is, they both worked. My Stafford poetry got me loving over the teriyaki place with Julie. Morrison’s drunken haiku got me drunkenly in love with Marie. But, of course, passions fade. So do the poems we memorize in college. Julie and Stafford and me drifted. Barnes & Noble became a bland exercise and after she took a morning after pill at my request, things soured.
Me and Marie got married (I wrote my own vows as the Groom [capital G]). We had a few good years, a great kid, a few bad years. Things soured. We eventually divorced.
Things are okay now. I don’t write much poetry anymore (do Yelp reviews in haiku form count?), but I do still read it. And I’d read Stafford’s “At the Un-Natural Monument Along the Canadian Border” any day over Morrison’s “Lamerica.” I don’t know what this says about the poetic women I fell in love with but it does that Stafford, to me, was an actual poet. Morrison was a Poet Artist.
On December 3, a relatively unnoticed bit of news appeared in the “Style” section of the Washington Post. Penned by legendary journalist Bob Woodward, the piece was headlined, “Fox News chief’s failed attempt to enlist Petraeus as presidential candidate.” The gist of it is this: In 2011, while General Petraeus was heading the war in Afghanistan, Roger Ailes — the chairman of Fox News — sent Fox News analyst Kathleen McFarland to ask Petraeus to run for president. Ailes would consider running the campaign, and News Corp. baron Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, would “bankroll” it.
Now, if Murdoch and Ailes are trying to destroy whatever is left of Fox News’s credibility, then they’re doing a pretty good job, but that’s not really the story here; Fox News behaving like a political operation rather than a journalistic one is hardly news. The most newsworthy part of McFarland’s and Petraeus’s conversation is the future-CIA director’s candid diagnosis of the of American national security state: Woodward writes, “[Petraeus] went on to say, ‘We’re going to be retrenching militarily.’ In contrast, the CIA and the intelligence agencies, ‘I think, are going to be a growth industry,’ Petraeus said.”
Putting aside all of the tired tragic hero pathos and tawdry appeal of the recent sex scandal, General David Petraeus is a fascinating man. He handily manipulated the media, which, in the height of Petraeus-mania, meant adulatory profiles in pretty much every major news outlet. (In my personal favorite, Vanity Fair’s “The Professor of War,” Mark Bowden writes — as best as I can tell without a trace of irony — that “Beyond his four-star rank, he possesses a stature so matchless it deserves its own adjective—call it ‘Petraean,’ perhaps.”)
Now that Petraeus has resigned, the press has started to realize that they might have been a little star-struck. CNN and Newsweek’s Howard Kurtz writes that:
As questions swirled about the CIA’s role in the Benghazi tragedy, he said nothing publicly. A CIA director without the deep media relationships that Petraeus enjoyed would have faced a torrent of stories about why he was missing in action and whether he had bungled the job of diplomatic security. Instead, the press gave Petraeus a pass.
But old habits die hard, and Kurtz can’t quite make it through the article without saying something about Petraeus’s Roman Triumph-worthy performance in Iraq:
This is not to say the plaudits weren’t deserved. Petraeus literally wrote the manual on counterinsurgency, made important gains while leading George W. Bush’s surge in Iraq, and adjusted strategy when President Barack Obama asked him to oversee the war in Afghanistan.
“Adjusted strategy,” if you’re wondering, is Kurtz’s way of saying “counterinsurgency didn’t work in Afghanistan.” Michael Hastings (who accidentally got Petraeus the Afghanistan job by quoting in Rolling Stone Petraeus’s predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, and his aides being insubordinate) puts it another way: “Petraeus didn’t win in Afghanistan … [r]ather, he proposed and followed a counterinsurgency strategy that was expensive, bloody, and inconclusive.” Hastings sees even less to love about Petraeus’s work in Iraq:
We took the Shiites’ side in a civil war, armed them to the teeth, and suckered the Sunnis into thinking we’d help them out too. It was a brutal enterprise — over 800 Americans died during the surge, while hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives during a sectarian conflict that Petraeus’ policies fueled.
But regardless of what you think about Petraeus’s work in Iraq (where fatalities dropped during his stint) or his failures in Afghanistan (where, according to Hastings, there were more attacks this summer than in the summer before the surge) the general-turned-spymaster has touched nearly every facet of the new American national security state. As the Washington Post put it:
Petraeus has served as commander in two wars launched by the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. If confirmed as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Petraeus would effectively take command of a third — in Pakistan.
The Post is, somewhat surprisingly, talking about the drone war, wherein our military and intelligence services team up to send unmanned planes to kill suspected terrorists and whoever is standing next to them. That, if you’re wondering, is the “growth industry” Petraeus was talking about.
Now the Petraeus’s star is waning and parts of the media aren’t actively begging him to run for President, you’d think that we might be able to have a quick chat about the national security state he represented — the erosion between the military the traditionally civilian-controlled CIA. Alas, we didn’t get that. Instead, as Frank Bruni points out, we got the Daily Beast telling us about Paula Broadwell’s “expressive green eyes,” and the Washington Post telling us about her form-fitting clothes. We heard about her 13 percent body fat, “and like so much else about her — her long-ago coronation as homecoming queen, her six-minute mile — it was presented not merely as a matter of accomplishment, but as something a bit titillating, perhaps a part of the trap she laid.”
The real scandal of the Petraeus affair has very little to do with the fact the Petraeus was sleeping with his biographer. It has everything to do with the fact the media desperately wanted to sleep with Petraeus and so missed, at every turn, the chance to finally discuss Petraeus’s — and our — third war.