Archive for the "Column" Category

Idolatry

This season of American Idol is closing with Jessica Sanchez, the girl from Chula Vista whom the judges marked early on as the finalist, in position to win. It’s true she’s talented, but so are the others. What makes Sanchez a favorite with the judges is not that she’s the best singer, but rather that she presents the most complete commercial package: talented, technically excellent, glamorously sophisticated, and still super young. But. Six or seven weeks ago, the audience wanted to send Jessica home. This is interesting on many counts and I want take a moment to celebrate “America’s” rare antinomian mood and to think about what voters were saying.

What makes American Idol unusual and modern is its dependence on audience participation: the voters, not the judges and experts have the final say over who goes home. But this democratic-style selection is tempered by the judges weekly opportunity to shape the final results and when their attempts to manipulate the voting became too obvious, “America,” as the show calls its voters, rebelled.

I voted for the first time ever-this is the first season I watched regularly– for Elise Testone’s performance of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. She had everything that night: the voice, the edge, the energy, and the sparkling pants. She should wear those pants again. She should wear fun pants more often.

Elise Testone’s biggest problem was the judges. They were impatient to get on with the show and did their best to influence voters with comments that put her where they wanted her, in the bottom three. That she remained in the show despite landing bottom most weeks speaks to her voice, it’s raw emotion, its credibility. She is a singer-songwriter and musician more exciting and perhaps as talented as Philip Phillips–Her voice and onstage vulnerability moved me in ways Phillips never could. Though he is rather cute, I am not among the thousands of teen-age girls in love with him.

Elise didn’t get the credit Phillips does perhaps because she did not project a polished image, was not always put together in ways that made her shine, did not come blessed with the perfect body and perfect legs; she is not the complete commercial package that Sanchez is. Of interest in this discussion is big-voiced Skylar whose performances were confidently energetic, yes, but not heartbreaking the way Elise’s were. Skylar too is not a polished package, but she didn’t give the judges a chance to get to her: with her brash self confidence she stepped out boldly every time, sang her ass off, and the judges couldn’t help but hand it to her. Elise’s raw tenderness, which makes her so attractive as an artist, also makes her vulnerable to criticism and the judges comments week after week broke her. She became less sure in her choices, more half-hearted, as she finally admitted onstage, and this finally did her in.

The judges got their way, Jessica performed in this week’s finale against Phillip Phillips but there was no energy in this near final episode because there was really no contest: Comparing Jessica and Phillip, as Jennifer Lopez said, made no sense, while a finale of Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez would have sizzled. In some ways this problem emerged weeks ago. The seven or so finalists on the stage these last weeks are all talented in different ways, and what the judges and audience were comparing were really apples and oranges, male and female, country and rock, soul and r&b. In other words, it doesn’t finally make much sense to choose one idol, but the show must go on to the end. For the sake of American Idol, for Freemantle Media, the corporation. For the judges. Before the season’s over, you might then ask who is the real idol worshipper? Not “America”, it would seem.

On the Romance Novel

Here’s a recent interview by Lucia Hannau of the UK’s Lost in Fiction website. Read here.

Transparency and Democracy: What readers really want

To listen to this latest column for WAMC’s BookShow, click here.

“The Death of the Reader”

Another piece for WAMC’s Book Show. To listen click here.

The Death of the Reader

LIsten to this recent essay, “The Death of the Reader,” which aired on WAMC/NPR’s Book Show on March 30. Click Here.

Auto-Incorrect English

Here’s the link to my most recent WAMC essay, titled “Auto-Incorrect English:” CLICK HERE

Judging Books by their… Authors

Listen to this short essay which aired on WAMC’s (NPR) Book Show on Dec 1, 2010, “Judging Books by their…Authors,”.

Bullying the Novel

In academia, courses in Women’s Literature qualify as fulfillment of a requirement that we teach literature by minorities that have been under-represented.  Of course women are hardly a minority since we make up more than half the human population, but we have been and are under-represented both in academia and elsewhere.  The literary media, hiding behind its ethic of independence, is especially tight-lipped about what it covers and why.  The recent raves in The NY Times and elsewhere of Jonathan Franzen’s largely domestic novel Freedom and its placement on front and cover pages everywhere has created a stir about the inequality in the media’s coverage of women’s writing.  As a result some useful and damning statistics have emerged.

No one who reads and writes can honestly doubt that the literary media is partial to work by men, and that this is indeed a story of injustice and inequality enabled by patriarchal stereotypes often excused as an unconscious bias.  Unconsciousness on this subject this late in our history is unconscionable, and therefore unforgivable.  But this conversation about gender inequality obscures the more important one we should be having if we care about the novel as a living form.

As it happens, I am teaching a Major Author’s course on Virginia Woolf this semester and my students and I read “Modern Novels,” her essay about what makes a novel great.  For contrast, we also read the recent NY Times review of Freedom in which the reviewer rejoices because this work “gather[s] up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life,” “abound[s] in journalistic touches,” “teem[s] with information,” and “data flow[s] through the arteries of narrative,” as if this kind of sweep guarantees greatness.

Woolf would say: “He is a materialist…taking upon his shoulders the work that ought to have been discharged by Government officials, and in the plethora of his ideas and facts scarcely having leisure to realize…the crudity and coarseness of his human beings. Yet what more damaging criticism can there be both of his heaven and of his earth than that they are to be inhabited here and hereafter by his Joans and Peters?”

Or, I might add, Franzen’s Pattys and Walters, the characters that the NY Times reviewer goes on to describe with surprising approbation as “caricatures,” that finally emerge “misshapen and lopsided,” not “rounded characters, in the awful phrase.”  The phrase, by the way, is from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and you and I might ask when the novelistic call for full or round characterization has turned “awful”?  And since when is an inserted diary written for therapeutic purposes an “ingenious device” in literature?  Throughout the review, you can hear the heavy breathing that such heavy lifting brings forth.  The point of this detailing is to bring us back to the main question: What makes a novel great?  And what makes a novelist great?  The Russians, Woolf writes, interested as they were in “the dark region of psychology,” in the soul and heart, got at the essence rather than the externals of life.  “No one but a modern, perhaps no one but a Russian, would have felt the interest of the situation…one of a shipload of ill Russian soldiers dies and is taken away; the talk goes on among the others for a time; until Gusev himself dies and, looking like a carrot or a radish, is thrown overboard.”   Woolf is describing the plot of Chekhov’s Gusev, which is interested in a mere passing moment.  Chekhov places the emphasis on evanescence, an image; we learn nothing about the ship itself, are given no details about the soldiers’ lives, nothing about Gusev, but the story haunts the reader with an experience that has more life in it than many a thousand-page doorstop filled with things, hard objects with firm outlines, easy certainties, but with none of the wavering, surrealism of our inner lives, our essence.

You might well ask why this sense of urgency, why do we have to choose between realism and essence?  At a time when the novel is threatened on all sides, when the majority of readers has come to expect from fiction only escapist entertainment, offering them more of what they know, the realist materialism of the materialist culture they already live in, gives them every reason to turn around and ask what does fiction tell me that I don’t already know.

Woolf’s conclusion is that fiction asks of us to “honor and love her” by “break[ing] and bully[ing] her…for so her youth is perpetually renewed and her sovereignty assured.”  Loving and honoring the novel means pushing and stretching the envelope to force the form to new places, while promoting conventional work that merely offers a facile though sometime eloquent caricature of our very real, materialistic lives most certainly is not.

The question must be asked, and my students and I asked it:  Do these reviewers of fiction truly love the novel, or are they more comfortable with hard facts, hence with realism rather than the profound uncertainties of life?  We looked up Sam Tanenahaus. Wikipedia informed us that he is an American historian, biographer, journalist, and though he studied literature, his work has been in non-fiction, writing for The New Republic, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and now The NY Times.  We think the answer is rather clear, and it therefore comes as no surprise that review pages for fiction keep getting cut in favor of non-fiction, and the fiction that gets top placement is often work that does less than it should to help the novel live and breathe.

The Metaphysical Matters

When Leonard Nimoy playing Spock separated the middle and ring fingers of his hand in what became his signature Vulcan greeting, he was taking up an ancient Jewish ceremonial ritual in which the priests (Kohanim in Hebrew) blessed the nation. Not everyone has the agility to perform this finger trick. Zachary Quinto, who played the role of young Spock in the 2009 film Star Trek had to resort to rubber bands, which Trekkies argued proved that he was not a true Vulcan and didn’t deserve the role.

In contemporary synagogues, when there is a qualified priest—a direct patrilineal descendent from the tribe of Aharon—he performs this ritual while the members of the congregation cover their eyes and their children’s eyes to protect them from what are said to be blinding magical powers this finger trick conjures. I couldn’t have been the only child who peeked and survived. My friends and I practiced the finger tricks and concluded that those who could were daughters and sons of priests. I, granddaughter of a priest, can easily separate the middle and ring fingers of both my hands.

My grandfather, who is said to have had written proof of priesthood, blessed the members of the renowned Breslover synagogue in Jerusalem every Sabbath and holiday. On Friday nights, after candle lighting, he also blessed all his grandchildren (there are a lot of us) who lived within walking distance. When I moved with my family to America, opportunities for his blessings diminished, a loss of biblical dimensions for a child raised on the stories of Isaac and Ishmael, of Jacob and Esau, who for a bowl of pottage sold his birthright, which was his right to the first-born’s blessing.

Perhaps to make up for this loss, my father provided us with alternate opportunities: Family trips took us to the homes of significant scholars and grand rabbis and the visits would end with each of us receiving blessings. And every September, for the Jewish New Year, my father blesses each of us. When I’m unable to be there in person, he offers the blessing over phone lines and though his voice and the whispered words of the prayer— May you be as the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah—convey the heat of his passion, I have to imagine his warm hands on my head.

The notion that one needs more than the genetic gifts and abilities one is born with can be off-putting. It means that persistence and hard work aren’t enough. It means that complete independence is a disadvantage. It might require that you stay in the good graces of the patriarch, whose hovering hands can hold sway over your future. Most startlingly, it informs you that the metaphysical matters.

Of course respect for magic, superstition, miracles, and the extraordinary are all part of religious life and came to me as a birthright practically. So that if more than one thing goes wrong on a given day, if disaster strikes too often, I can’t help but give myself up to an accounting of my sins, or think of Job, hapless pawn in God’s plan. Though in modern life we might call such behavior paranoid, a persecution complex, I’m not entirely ungrateful for my built-in overinvestment in meaning. Some days I might go so far as to say that my early indoctrination was a sort of blessing. It’s taught me how to read literature, alert to pattern. It’s taught me that humans are endowed with imagination as well as intellect for a purpose, because we are meant to rely on both. In our attempt to grow beyond superstition, in our enlightened embrace of the rational, we’ve abandoned knowledge of the extraordinary, the hidden, the transcendent, blessings that make for human excellence.

American Muslims Fear 9/11 Anniversary

It’s not unusual for a bad economy with no jobs to bring out the worst in people, but taking advantage of this fearful mood by fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia is shameful and dangerous. But this is precisely what the politically-motivated Republican party has engaged in. It might be useful to remember that Hitler got himself elected by ranting about the failings of the Weimar Republic and jeering at the “Liberals” who ran it. Sound familiar? Read More.