The Search for William Troy

William Troy was, says the editor of the only book of his collected lectures and essays, a towering critic of the 30s, 40s and 50s. He wrote many book and film reviews for The Nation, but no books of his own.

I’m reading the collection William Troy: Selected Essays slowly. It’s long out of print but very gettable. His style is expert and delightful. He’s fighting, at this point of history, for literature to be enjoyed and interpreted as art, rather than subjected to the sorts of inappropriate scientific methods that have since subjugated the critical appreciation of the creative arts to some mad quest to view everything within the context of the social and economic sciences, if not even to physics and chemistry.

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Here he is on the growing popularity of Henry James:

“At a moment where loss of continuity is our gravest threat, when personality is everywhere at a discount, when all consequent values dissolve in general terror, it is probably no great wonder that more and more people are turning to Henry James.”

Troy celebrates clarity in art and it’s darned refreshing.

Quantity not quality of Content

“Why don’t we just call them stories?” said an editor of mine, back in the day when journalists could still make a living and when pushing back against the word “content,” as another example of mangled corporatese to be discarded along with “synergies” and the phrase “out of the box” made sense.

I think he’s in the content biz now, and I’ve spent some time there myself.

The answer, of course, is that “content” and “stories” are very different things. A story has structure, Jungian significance and quality. Content can be any old thing from the self-justifying ramblings of a hedge fund manager to the self-justifying ramblings of their flacks to the self-justifying ramblings of bankers to cat videos.

And it’s taking over the world.

That’s a lot of Tik Toks!

That’s right, not just our minds, but the physical world.

What we need, though, are more stories.

Oh, Comic Books

I stopped collecting comics when I was around 16 because my father, who I was visiting for the summer, said they were for children. Though, the best parts of visiting “Dad in New York” during the 1990s were our trips to the comic book shops in Manhattan and Westchester that were hugely better stocked than those in New Mexico. Heck, I bought most of my comics at convenience stores.

Anyway, as I got older, Dad in New York got annoyed that I was reading comics and Star Trek novels and stilled seemed to like toys. That trip, along with massive inflation in books prices from 75 cents to a buck fifty a pop, caused me to give up on them. Though I guess I never really did and with Amazon Prime, a bunch of comics from that era in the 90s, right when I stopped reading, are now available for “free” browsing.

It’s funny… a few years earlier, Dad in New York said he liked the comics because they inserted fun words into my vocabulary like “Uncanny,” the moniker of the mutant X-Men. I always aspired to the witty banter of Spider-Man. When taunted, “You cannot avoid the Sabretooth” the Wallcrawler quipped, “Sure I can, I just brush between meals” and then kicked the furry, musclebound oaf right in his surgically enhanced fangs.

X-Men Vol 2 6 | Marvel Database | Fandom
That woman is a ninja and that is how woman ninjas dress, I’m sure of it.

Anyway, I’m reading some post mutant massacre Jim Lee/Chris Claremont X-Men and it is fun how imprecise some of the writing is. There’s a pointless discourse, for example, about how the Earth’s atmosphere dissipates around 50 miles from the surface and that no human can fly through that but the X-Men are anything but human! There’s mentioned of a “parameter alarm” sounding. It’s not tight writing. It’s not Ta-Nehisi Coates on Black Panther. It’s just fun, full of error and indulgence. This ain’t “prestige graphic novel” reading. This is Marvel back when Marvel wasn’t Disney and we’re still 10 years out from Sam Raimi making the first good Marvel movies and setting the course for consolidation, ther MCU and Roberty Downey Jr. as your action hero.

Nuff said!

Jaws!

Last night we saw Jaws at the Saco Drive-In, just outside of Portland. It’s a fun, kitschy movie that’s eerily prescient these days, as the Mayor of Amity grasps at every wish and hope to save his economy as a 25-foot Great White Shark has moved into local waters, intent on consuming swimmers.

It’s a well told story by now that keeping the mechanical shark operating was both difficult and expensive but that direct Stephen Spielberg turned this into an advantage — you don’t see much shark in the movie. The John Williams score does a lot of the work, or you see the shark pulling a dock off of its base when some village idiots try to catch it with a pot roast, or pulling barrels around the water when Quint, the professional shark hunter harpoons the beast. Restrained footage of the shark creates mystery and tension and saves the movie from looking hokey.

Jaws holds up well as a disaster/horror film and from the distance of a drive-in, the effects are just fine and even refreshing in an era where the shark would probably be CGI’d into a dinner scene on the boat, sitting in the chair with a top hat and smoking a cigarette.

Jaws at 45: Joe Alves designed Bruce the shark — and kept Jaws ...
I swear Quint said the sharks have dead black eyes, not these gray ones…

The one thing that really shows, though, is how few parts for women there are in the movie. Police Chief Brody has a wife, but her only job is to worry about him and their kids. Her curiosity about sharks and suddenly fearful reactions to what fierce predators they are serves the movie’s exposition. There’s one angry mother of a boy who the shark eats. She gets her moment.

Every other woman is background — girls in swimsuits screaming or nagging wives. This movie is about three guys who don’t much like each other at first taking a boat into the ocean to do battle with sharks. They also compare scars and sing drinking songs. I love how willing they are to get blind drunk while battling a dangerous, prehistoric predator.

Another thing I noticed is that Quint is clearly the prototype for big game hunter Roland Tembo in Jurassic Park. This makes sense not just because the two films share Spielberg as a director but because Michael Crichton and Peter Benchley were contemporaries as novelists, working in a thriller genre that borrowed heavily from both horror and science fiction.

I can’t believe the “looks like you’re going to need a bigger boat” line is actually repeated. But I guess you don’t know you’ve written an iconic line until you do. I can barely listen to the “Man goes into water, shark in the water, our shark…” bit because to me it’s the salsa shark routine from Clerks.

Was nice to see Roy Scheider at work. Though All That Jazz will always be his master performance in my book.

A Return to Science Fiction

In high school I desperately wanted to write science fiction, to the point that writing in other genres hardly seemed worth the time. In middle school I wrote hard boiled detective stories, which must have been laughable, given that I was 12, but Star Wars and Star Trek were always around and those Pocket Book Star Trek novels were my friends apart from comic books. I think I tried to write my first Star Trek novel by freshman year in high school. I even submitted it to Pocket Books. I forget what it was about but I’m sure it had Klingons, Romulans, the original cast and explosions. I did think to solicit the guidelines and tried to follow it closely, so there were no crossovers with The Next Generation.

Soon after, I was reading Isaac Asimov, partly because he wrote not only stories but about how he got them published, how much he was paid and how he trekked from Brooklyn to Manhattan to bring his carbon copies right to the offices of Astounding Science Fiction. I even subscribed to the digests of the 1990s — Analog and Amazing Stories. This was the life I saw for myself.

An English teacher in high school broadened my horizons a bit. To be fair, they all did, but one in particular turned me on to Woody Allen, which led me down the path of playwriting, humor writing, and telling stories about real people, even if magical things happen to them.

During our junior and senior years, my best friend and I still wrote a science fiction novel, but then we went off to separate universities where we both found more grounded literature and I pursued journalism and playwriting and by the time we got back together in Ireland after graduation, I think I wanted to be a cross between Hunter Thompson and Mac Wellman.

GOLDEN AGE SCI-FI: 1934–1963 – HILOBROW
Just a pair of dimes!

But science fiction was always around. The cool kids at the college paper got me to read Snow Crash. The cool kids in theater got me to read The Illiminatus Trilogy and just what was Infinite Jest, anyway, if not science fiction? Also, in high school I learned that I could read any Vonnegut, as fantastic as some of its premises were, and get credit for reading literature. I even have Kilgore Trout’s Venus on the Half Shell.

These days, it’s creeping back into my life. I just read Scalzi’s first entry into his Collapsing Empire series and rather loved it. I just downloaded a cheap copy of Samuel R. Delaney’s Nova and I enjoyed reading the first two of the Murderbot books last year.

While I’m not feeling an itch to write science fiction, I think I am looking to it to inspire some high concept contemporary fiction. Not that you asked. I just have stars and robots, intergalactic empires and artificial gravity on my mind.

Quarantine Theatre

On July 4th I was fortunate to be able to collaborate with London theatre-company “The Undisposables” for a “Digital Scratch Night” of new writing. It was an absolute pleasure and their production of my short play “The First Poet in Space” was dreamy and great.

My wife Natasha wrote about it the entire bill of plays for Forbes, where I once used to work, rushing from late night fact checking assignments to rehearsals in midtown and lower Manhattan as I tried and tried to establish myself as a playwright.

It’s funny how the world goes. For plays, I very much hope to concentrate on London going forward. Theatre has survived all manner of pandemic and it always comes back.

Soon!

Everybody Missed the Point of “Apropos of Nothing”

Finally finished Woody Allen’s engrossing and hilarious memoir and have been reading the reviews along the way, as well. The press has focused on the issues between Woody and former lover Mia Farrow and yes, the last third of the book is about what it’s like to live falsely accused of a horrible crime. But that’s not what the book is about and it’s too bad that we now lack popular reviewers who can read more deeply.

Apropos of Nothing is the tale of Allen’s artistic success and his loves along the way, for sure. Woody’s taken uncanny heat in the press for describing attractive women as attractive women, particularly for his jokes and poetic license. He’s even breen criticized for enthusiastically participating in the free love decades, as if the right thing to have done would have been to abstained in preparation for pruder times. But even this is really not what the book is about.

The heart of the memoir is Woody’s description of his character Zelig, the human chameleon who takes on the beliefs, appearance and mannerisms of anybody he’s with:

Zelig was about how we all want to be accepted, to fit in, to not offend, that we often present a different person to different people knowing which person might best please. With someone who loves Moby Dick, for example, the protagonist will go along and find things to like and praise about it. With one who dislikes the book, the Zelig character will get with the program and dislike it. In the end, this obsession with conformity leads to fascism.”

Zelig, trying too hard to fit in…

This is a memoir about the virtues of self-direction, without deference to the opinions, desires and morals of others not because there’s anything wrong with other people or the way they think, but because it’s dangerous for society when individuals cave to what they perceive as the whims of others.

Allen’s movies have never been for everybody, and that’s intentional. He remarks in the book that he has no interest in collaborating with his audience on his films, so he’ll allow his backers to hold focus groups to inform their marketing but he won’t change his films based on some sample audience reaction. In an age where technocrats think they can quantify creative success, Allen’s story is a refreshing counterpoint.

In the end, his insistence on being himself is why he’s such a polarizing figure. Too few people are willing to do that in a world designed to reward those who merrily go along. This is the tale of a great iconoclast.

Brian Greene’s Thermodynamic Miracles

I don’t read enough popular science, which is too bad because a few writers, like the late Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene elevate the form to art.  Greene has been a hero of mine since I wrote a feature about him for Forbes back in 2002.  Then, Greene told me of his admiration for Carl Sagan, one of America’s most important and effective public intellectuals.

In his latest book Until the End of Time, Greene charts the history of the universe from the Big Bang until today and then forecasts what might become of it all as the “entropic two step” that’s produced ordered forms like stars, planets, DNA and higher intelligence inevitably breaks down.  Now, Greene doesn’t share this conclusion, but along the way he’s almost convinced me that, since in an infinite universe all things are not only possible but will inevitably happen, that we’re all Boltzmann Brains anyway (kind of like Descartes’ brains in a vat).

In his latest book, Greene sets out to explain the fundamentals of physics, chemistry and biology to support a sophisticated materialist view of everything from intelligence to creativity and spirituality and along the way, hopes to give us a path to finding meaning and solace in a necessarily indifferent universe that will not only extinguish all of our lives, but will eventually extinguish all life and thought.

He very much succeeds but does so in the only way available – which is to celebrate the wonder of it all.   His conclusion is the same as Dr. Manhattan’s in The Watchmen – from all this chaos, chance and indifference, each of us has emerged as a thermodynamic miracle that makes it all worthwhile.

Get this book.  It’s ecstatically brilliant.

Publisher with History of Defying Censorship picks up Woody Allen’s Memoir

Arcade Publishing, the press that brought out Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing in a surprise drop today, has a venerable record of fighting censorship and prudery. Its founder, the late Richard Seaver, brought D.H. Lawrence’s suppressed novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover to the public in the 1950s.

Suppressed book finds a home!

From the 2009 New York Times obituary:

“Richard Seaver, an editor, translator and publisher who defied censorship, societal prudishness and conventional literary standards to bring works by rabble-rousing authors like Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, William Burroughs and the Marquis de Sade to American readers, died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.”

As editor in chief of Grove, he also published The Story of O as well as work by William Burroughs, Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade. Arcade, the publisher he founded and grew into one of the most important independent publishers in the U.S. has an impressive backlist that includes the memoir of director Ingmar Bergman, for which Allen provided an introduction.

How appropriate that this daring publisher has stepped up to douse the flames of 2020’s virtual book burning.

Brett Easton Ellis’ White is a Necessary Manifesto

I don’t recall Brett Easton Ellis’ first nonfiction book getting all that great a reception when it was released last year, but the Goodreads ratings come in at a strong 3.5 and there are themes in this book that the legacy media might be reluctant to support. White is about people self-censoring in the post-Empire age of American public life where we are all subject to sudden mass judgment and expulsion based on musings, wisecracks and opinions uttered on social media or in print. Ellis’ book is a fun lamentation of the death of Open Society and should be read as a warning, not dismissed as reactionary.

Though Ellis doesn’t say it outright, I think he’s understanding that the First Amendment, as a legal term, cannot encompass everything that’s demanded of a society that truly celebrates freedom of expression. If you tell somebody say, protesting a speech on their college campus or demanding that a publisher doesn’t release a book that they’re working against free speech they will argue back that they, too, have a right to criticize, to make demands and to shape the culture.

No adult should be afraid of a writer.

Of course, they do. But how they exercise that right matters. As the author of American Psycho, which has its original publishing contract canceled at the last minute after people who had not even read the book protested against what they assumed were its themes, Ellis knows full well that there’s a big difference between a civil society that says “Sure, publish it and then I’ll argue against it” and one that seeks to suppress creative work that might be challenging or, in contemporary parlance, “triggering.”

Ellis got a lot of attention for calling Millennials “Generation Wuss” and so the response to White was that the former literary brat packer had become an old man yelling at the kids. But he’s really trying to save the kids by bringing them back to a culture of aesthetic appreciation where, yes, you can watch and enjoy Roman Polanski film without concerning yourself with the director’s life, if you so choose.

From my vantage, the Millennials are not really to blame for the emergent anti-speech culture. They were children and toddlers or unborn when “political correctness” became prominent in the 1990s. Around that same time, we were slapping warning labels on popular music and people were threatening to outright censor sexual content on MTV and violent content in video games (after the Legend of Zelda massacres, of course, I kid).

There’s always been a tension between speech and society’s stability (just ask Socrates) but Ellis is refreshingly blunt about the mental illness of adults who allow themselves to be psychologically triggered and disrupted by other people’s opinions and aesthetics.

There’s a lot of art and opinion I don’t like in the world and some of it makes me mad and some of it makes me uncomfortable. Ellis, for example, loved horror movies in his youth while I’ve always hated them and scenes of even absurd horror violence can still worm into my mind and rob my sleep. But I don’t agitate against horror movies. I don’t demand that they aren’t distributed or made available to others, though I surely have every right to do so.

There’s ultimately a difference, and it’s deeper than a legal one, between saying “I don’t like something or somebody,” and saying, “Those things should not exist, those people should not be allowed employment in industries where I can see them.” It’s also funny and telling that our society is highly judgmental over who gets to be an actor, director or writer for a living but that we’re almost entirely unconcerned about who foams our cappuccino. Some of those baristas probably have hair curling opinions.

Ellis fans will also want to read White because there’s a lot of cool detail about the mindset that led to Less Than Zero and the creation of the Ellis-verse that includes all of his books. I was only a little disappointed that Glamorama isn’t mentioned at all.

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