Sunday, October 31, 2010

Adventures in Heidireality - A Guest Post by Scott Andrews

OUR MOST FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR, Scott Andrews, is back again with another provocative guest post.  This time, he's talking about boobs.  Why don't we feature him more often, you ask?  Excellent question.  Perhaps now we will.  What we like about Scott's essays is his uncanny ability to apply high minded theoretical ideas to the poppiest aspects of pop culture.  Here, he merges the ideas of the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco and Heidi Montag's breasts.  And you thought about quitting TWR . . .

Adventures in Heidireality - A Guest Post by Scott Andrews

I have been thinking about Heidi Montag’s breasts lately.
Cultural criticism is hard work, isn’t it?
She is famous for a variety of reasons (none of which involves talent).  One reason she is famous is her participation in an MTV reality series known as The Hills, which followed the life of several trendy young women in Los Angeles.  Two other reasons for her fame are her G-cup breast implants.
Ms. Montag was recently in the news when she announced she would be reducing her breasts to perhaps a humble D or double-D.  It seems these Marmadukes (you can’t call them “puppies”) cause her some discomfort and require her to buy custom-made clothing.  Also, the G-cups are no longer necessary now that she is off The Hills.

This last bit of news, scanned from the cover of a tabloid magazine at the supermarket, made me interested in her breasts.  Honest.  Before that, I hadn’t given them much thought.  Honest. 
I was struck by the irony of Ms. Montag needing fake breasts in order to be on a reality TV show.
Looking at Ms. Montag’s picture on the tabloid cover, my mind turned immediately to Umberto Eco.  Honest.
Eco is the author of a famous essay from 1975 titled “Travels in Hyperreality,” which discusses his visit to several tourist attractions in the United States.  Each of these attractions involved the imitation of reality, ranging from wax museums to Main Street USA at Disneyland.  He was fascinated by the desire to create duplicates of real-world objects, such as a wax museum’s replication in 3D of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”  He was more fascinated by the extension of that desire into creating duplicates that an audience feels improves upon the real-world objects and eventually prefers over the real-world object.  That is, when the fake becomes the new real.  The hyperreal.
Eco links this desire for a real that surpasses reality to American consumerism and a desire for excess, for what he calls “insane abundance.”  That may help explain why breast implants so often are used to make breasts larger rather than to alter simply their shape, especially when those breasts are going to become a sort of commodity sold to an audience. 
In other words, Ms. Montag has been “super-sized.”
The hyperreality that Eco describes also involves the awareness that the fake is a fake.  The audience marvels at its creator’s ability to make such a wonderful fake, a fake that seems perfect, because what is not reproduced are the flaws of the original.
In this sense, there is a difference between the counterfeit and the fake.  The counterfeit is designed to be mistaken for the original, and therefore it must recreate the flaws in the original to fool an audience.  The hyperreal, on the other hand, calls attention to itself as a spectacular fake, as realer than real.
For example, who wants to watch a reality TV show that faithfully recreates our real, BORING lives?  (It started all started with a show called, ironically enough, The Real World.) No, we want a show is that real but somehow better than real.
We cannot say that using breast implants to enhance a Hollywood career is anything new.  Pamela Anderson has altered the size of her “talents” several times, sometimes up, sometimes down.  What has changed, though, is the recent advent of talking openly about the surgeries, which Ms. Montag has done.  A lot.
In fact, there are reality TV shows about cosmetic surgery, such as Dr. 90210.  It is about the various cosmetic surgeries performed for women who are pursuing some type of ideal body.  Women are shown in every episode talking about the various procedures they desire, and the audience sees many “before” and “after” images.  The women are obviously proud of the results, and having those results attained through surgery is a source of pride as well.
Cosmetic surgery has become a type of conspicuous consumption.  The women in the show want the physical “enhancements,” but it is important that people know their new bodies have been purchased.  The wealthy can have their imperfect, natural bodies made perfect with a master surgeon and a MasterCard -- but why spend all that money if no one knows you spent it?
There was a time when breast implants were kept quiet, because the desire was to make people think one’s breasts were “natural.”  There was some potential stigma attached to having had cosmetic surgery.  It was a sign of conceit or a lack of self-esteem.  That is not true now. 
So, there is Heidi Montag on the cover of a tabloid magazine discussing the size and shape of the breasts she had purchased and those she plans to buy for the future.  (I wonder if there is trade-in value for implants?  Is there treadwear on silicon?)  Everyone knows her breasts are artificially enhanced.  Their fakeness is part of their attraction to the people watching The Hills, looking for her next appearance on TMZ, or visiting her new website (hyper and cyber were made for each other).  In fact, the audience possibly prefers her fake breasts over the real, over those she had been born with.  It is as if her surgically enlarged breasts are saying, as Eco imagines a wax museum saying, “We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original.”

Scott Andrews, who contributes to The Weekly Rader from time to time, has published book reviews, essays, fiction, and poetry.  He teaches American and American Indian literatures at California State University, Northridge.  He has never watched an episode of The Hills.  Honest.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Juan Williams Saga: An Interview with Jonathan Silverman

WE'VE BEEN FOLLOWING THE Juan Williams firing closely here at TWR, and we've remained profoundly interested in how various groups are responding to and spinning his termination from National Public Radio and his subsequent hiring by Fox News.  We were curious how journalists and students around the country were reacting to this weird turn of events, so, we decided to contact our friend Jonathan Silverman, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and author of the recently released Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture.  Silverman also curates the Media/News section of The World Is A Text.   

Jonathan Silverman

Juan Williams
TWR: Have you talked with your journalism classes about the Juan Williams saga?

Silverman: Not yet. We're in a wonky writing phase in the classroom.

TWR: Oh, maybe we should just stop right here and watch The World Series.  No wait, another question. What would you say to them?

Silverman: I probably would ask them what they thought of the issue, but I don't think it's a big deal one way or the other.

TWR: There are a number of issues wrapped up into one big controversy.  The first involves Williams working as a reporter for National Public Radio and as a commentator for Fox News.  In your mind, is this a violation of basic journalistic notions of objectivity? The NPR Ombudsman sure thinks so.
Silverman: I'm not sure I would call Juan Williams a reporter any more--a commentator perhaps, though he certainly has written very well. I really loved his Thurgood Marshall biography in particular. But he has mostly been a type of down-the-middle commentator for NPR for a while. And while I respect NPR immensely, I found him and Cokie Roberts to be increasingly insular in their opinions. As someone who reads a lot of thought-provoking political material, I find conventional wisdom tiresome.

And I don't believe in objectivity anyway. I think the objective voice can be useful at times in describing things like fires and car accidents and recounting lots of details about a particular subject. But in politics, without a strong sense of truth seeking, trying to be objective, to see "both sides" when there are many, seems like a fool’s errand. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil's The Elements of Journalism and Jay Rosen's work--in which he calls the objective voice and Washington savvy as practiced by commentators like Juan Williams "The View from Nowhere"--absolutely shapes my ideas here.


TWR: The other issue is whether Williams should have been fired from NPR for being honest about boarding a plane when he sees passengers in "Muslim garb."  Do you think that was an offense that deserved termination?
Silverman: I don't think it violated any standards of objectivity. But jobs at places like NPR require  a pretty conservative way of speaking about issues as a way of maintaining moderate respectability, and I think Williams violated that, as did Helen Thomas for her remarks on Israel not long ago. If people think you are a journalist, it's important to couch almost all your speech in a type of neutral distance that does not betray personal thoughts or ideas. I don't think it's right necessarily, but journalism is a type of game--as is any profession--that requires its practioners to play by rules that have been established over time.


TWR: A few days later, the NPR CEO admitted that Williams' termination was handled poorly.  That someone should have just told William that his work for Fox was not going down smoothly for the NPR Folks and that he should choose: Fox or NPR.  That suggests the real cause of his termination was not his comments but rather his work for Fox.   However, NPR seemed to need something obviously transgressive to fire him for, and after a couple of days of deliberation, NPR decided this was it.  What do you make of that?

Silverman: That account wouldn't surprise me.


TWR: I guess me either but it annoys me. The most troubling aspect of this as far as TWR is concerned is that Fox, somehow, comes off looking like the real defenders of Free Speech. Does this anger you?
Silverman: Fox News has consistently used the rules practiced by journalists as a way of thumbing its nose at them. For a while now, Fox has used "fair and balanced" as a deliberate comment on journalistic concepts such as objectivity, fairness, and balance to make political reporters resort to the "View from Nowhere," reporting without actually determining what is true and not true (or as close to as it gets). So it becomes Democrats say this, and Republicans say this, and the casual observer might not know what to think. Fox always wins these battles because it understands the game while not playing it the same way the other networks and media outlets do.

Though I’m not sure how I feel about Juan Williams being fired, I do think that free speech as a concept is not outside the journalistic marketplace; in other words, you can say what you want as long as you don't care about being employed (or who employs you).


TWR: If Steve Inskeep and Bill O'Reilly got into a fistfight, who would win?

Silverman: You? :)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Poetry & Pop Culture: An Interview with Todd Swift

ONE OF OUR FAVORITE blogs is the British project Eyewear. It was one of the first blogs to explore the intersection of poetry and popular culture, and it remains the best.  The founder, Todd Swift, is a particularly interesting guy.  Poet, professor, blogger, and cultural critic, Swift makes poetry available and accessible.  His blog posts on the The Best American Poetry Blog are always smart and funny.  So, we sat down, sort of, with Swift and asked him about Eyewear.

TWR: You started Eyewear 2005.  How has blogging changed for you since then?

SWIFT: I think blogging is dying out, as a mass fad, replaced by social networking, and other briefer fast-paced systems, like Tweeting or whatsit, but better blogs, that supply excellent content, are actually improving.

TWR: Along with Mike Chasar's site, yours is pretty much the only blog that looks at the intersection of poetry, politics, and popular culture.  How do you see these three forces intersecting at this point in history?

SWIFT: I wish there was more intersection.  Where is the poetry magazine like Entertainment Weekly, or Vanity Fair, showcasing the glamorous lives of poets?  Seriously, though, the ways that film and music now inspire poets as much as literature once did demands more engaged intertextual readings of our culture.  As for politics, that discourse has been shockingly cheapened of late in America, and to a degree, in the UK, by interventionist-media like Fox.

TWR: Though the feeble reach of The Weekly Rader extends across the pond, most of its readers tend to be bored Americans.  What's it like writing about poetry, politics, and popular culture in England? What would surprise American readers?

SWIFT: England is awash with pop culture, of course: fashion, pop and rock, movies, TV, radio.  What I find astonishing is that British people are really like their comedies, in a way that Americans aren't.  By this I mean, British people really do tend to have those accents, and drop highly ironic and acidic comments all the time.  Substance abuse, sex, and atheism are quite normal in the UK (what people aspire to, the celebrity life), so there is less piety than in American culture - only the Queen and the troops are sacred.  There is a resistance to sentiment, and also to sincere expression of emotionality, so the poetry, and TV, here, is far less filled with gestures of hope or transcendence.  Love poems are more likely to end with a gag than a rose.  Also surprising would be, I think, the high esteem American TV is held in, and the low esteem Americans themselves are, including most poets.

TWR: Who are some of your favorite British poets?  Who are some folks Americans may not know about?

Giles Goodland
SWIFT: Too many to really reel off.  The best experimental mid-career poet is  Giles Goodland.  The wittiest younger poets would include Luke Kennard, Joe Dunthorne, Emily Berry and Lorraine Mariner, whose styles are becoming hugely formative.  Keston Sutherland and Andrea Brady are the leading avant-garde poets from the Cambridge school.  Older excellent poets would include Anthony Thwaite (now 80), and Sheila Hillier.  But I have many favorites.

TWR: What's the strangest reaction you've received to one of your blog posts?

SWIFT: Some weirdo posted a comment about my anniversary, suggesting my wife was a closet lesbian and I was gay.  I mean, wonderful if true, but, since not - why go so far to attack?  I assume it was an attack.

TWR: I'm glad you never found out that was me. How close have you come to bagging-or is it sacking-the whole sodding blog project?  What keeps you going?

SWIFT: Every day I plan to quit.  Having over 240 followers, and tens of thousands of hits a months keep me going.  I feel obliged to do this.  No other blog over here so fearlessly takes on the vested interests. But it has its costs.

TWR: In what way do you wish the discourse of American poetry was more like that in Britain? And, in what way to you wish the discourse of British poetry was more like that in the Colonies?

SWIFT: I like how British poets all know each other. How they still like form,  and admire poets like Thomas Hardy.  How tone still matters, and very fine nuance.  I wish British poetry was more open to radical forms, and more shifting levels of diction and discourse, away from ordinary language and plain narrative.  There is a great fear of high language now in the UK, most mainstream poems are written in some version of middle-class or working class colloquial speech.

TWR: If Geoffrey Hill and John Ashbery got into a fistfight, who would win?

SWIFT: They're both on the same side - they both come out of late, high Forties modernism, via FT Prince and Terence Tiller.  They both understand intelligence and eloquence and surprise in poems.

TWR: What American writer would you most like to make a cross-country road trip with?

SWIFT: Nicole Blackman.  Read with her before. She is the coolest.  Least want to - Franzen.  He bores me silly.

TWR: What question do you wish I had asked? And, what would your answer have been?

SWIFT: My greatest desire in poetry.  To have a Selected stateside, in hardcover. And yes, I am an eyewear fetishist.

Friday, October 15, 2010

On The Recent Book Awards

OKAY, SO WE WERE wrong about the Nobel.  So what?  Mario Vargas Llosa!  Exciting.  I remember when I was teaching one of his novels back in the early 90s, he had recently mounted a bid for the presidency of Peru as a member of the neoliberal Frente Democratico party.  Never a conservative, Vargas Llosa and his politics--if not his literary style--have, nevertheless, inched to the right.

But, he's a deserving winner of the prize, especially since the Nobel committee has been rather forthright about their barometer for literary merit.  Less about aesthetic and more about "the big dialogue of literature," the Nobel Prize has, ironically, gone the opposite direction of Vargas Llosa and made a move to the left.  Citing his "trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat," the Nobel Prize Committee, yet again, advances theme over craft

This is not to say that Vargas Llosa is not a fine writer.  He is.  But, His style, his literary technique, his project of prose, was less interesting to the committee than his thematic trajectory.

In a bizarre moment, humorous on many levels, Bill Maher suggests that Vargas Llosa's victory indicates that the name of the prize should officially be changed:

On other book prize fronts, there was shock and awe and surprise and disgust and glee when it was announced that Jonathan Franzen's overly celebrated fourth novel, Freedom, was not a finalist for the National Book Award.  Is it reverse discrimination?  A punishment for two back-to-back glowing articles in The New York Times? A backlash against being hailed as the greatest American novelist?

Meanwhile, no one was upset by the poetry finalists, though Kay Ryan's collected poems, The Best of It is a notable absence.  Personally, I'm rooting for Terrance Hayes (who I thought would have been a really exciting inaugural poet). 

On a positive note, I was encouraged to see two books I love--Dan Beachy-Quick's The Nest, Swift Passerine and Rachel Loden's The Dick of the Dead named as finalists for the PEN USA Prize.

Lastly, a call for submissions: I'm looking for short posts 200-300 words on who you think the next poet to win the Nobel Prize should be. Email me ( with queries and suggestions.  We'll post the best ones later in the year.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Handicapping the Nobel Prize for Literature

Cormac McCarthy
Tomas Transtromer


NO AMERICAN POET HAS won the Nobel Prize for literature.  If you think of Eliot as American or his poetry as American, you might be able to quibble with my brash opening hook, but otherwise, not.  Eliot had already been a British citizen for 30 years when he won the Nobel in 1948, making "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" over 30 years old and the even creakier The Wasteland a Twenty-Something.

Chances are, an American poet will not win the 2010 prize, despite some impressive candidates.  Oddsmakers are bullish on South Korean Poet Ko-Un, the Sweedish poet Tomas Transtromer, and the American novelist Cormac McCarthy.  All are good choices, though, I think the smart money might go on Ko-Un.  I mean, who can say no to that smile?

Why impressive American poets like W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, and Charles Wright get lower seeds in the March Madness of the Literature Nobels remains somewhat of a mystery.   And yet not.

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Nobel prize jury, wagged his finger at American writing for its American-centric-ness. "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."

Merwin, in particular, obviates Engdahl's claim.  He has translated countless authors, though, agreeably, most are rather obscure: Pablo Neruda, for example, Osip Mandelstam, Jean Follain, Antonio Porchia, Roberto Juarroz, oh, and, like, Dante.  His work has always carried heavy political water, and recently, he's become particularly active as a poet of and a voice for environmental awareness--in particular the rain forests of Hawaii.  He's won the Pulitzer Prize and just about every other award, and he's the current Poet Laureate.

But, even so, I wonder if Mr. Engdahl and perhaps the entire Swedish academy defines "big dialogue" as "externally political."  For someone like Charles Wright, the big dialogue is "landscape, language, and the idea of God," which, I think, is pretty big.  Graham and Ashbery both are legendary for taking on complex issues about knowledge, language, communication, history, and the self in finely-tuned language that forces the reader to reorient how she sees the world and his place in it.

American poets, even Eliot--especially Eliot--have generally excavated the universal in the particular.  They locate the public deep within the private. Think Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens.  And, they often help translate America's Americanness--perhaps the world's most complex text--for the rest of the world.

I'm always happy when writers whose work I don't know win major awards like the Nobel, but I would also like to see some of this country's best voices be given a chance to articulate what they are working through here on the world's biggest stage.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Tarantino's Real Co-Author Dies--A Sally Menke Tribute

ONE OF MY FAVORITE films to teach is Pulp Fiction.  I like to screen it in writing classes when I'm talking about editing and/or authorship.  Who, I ask the students, is the author of Pulp Fiction

Sure, Quentin Tarantino is the director, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Roger Avary, but the most enduring authorial detail of that movie is the editing.  There is not a slow moment in the entire picture; the pacing is flawless.  The funky camera angles, the quick edits, the long shots, even the animated square Mia Wallace draws involve directing of course, but how they work in relation to each other, how they fit together to form the puzzle of Pulp Fiction is all editing.

Tarantino has acknowledged that his editing partnership with Sally Menke was a true collaboration.  He said it was impossible to know whose ideas were whose and who is responsible for what decision.  They worked closely on all of his films, but her work on Pulp Fiction is legendary.

Menke's body was found Wednesday at the bottom of a ravine in Griffith Canyon, likely the result of a fatal fall or a heatstroke.  It was around 113 degrees.

Nominated for an Oscar for her work on Pulp Fiction, Menke was loved by pretty much everyone.  In the "Extras" section of some of Tarantino's DVDs, one can find "Hi Sally" montages, where cast members look into the camera and greet the famed editor.

Editors of novels rarely get the props they deserve, except from the authors themselves.  Film editors may have it slightly better, but not much.  The star actor and the star director get so much attention, there is really none left over for the editor. 

In the case of Menke and Pulp Fiction, though, Menke's editing work functions not simply as a form of narrative but as its own kind of genre.  In addition to "dialogue," and "plot" and "character," one must, when viewing Pulp Fiction, consider the degree to which the editing actually makes the magic of the movie happen.  The editing becomes the movie's grammar; its mode of communication.  

I would argue, then, that the Tarantino style, the Tarantino voice, the Tarantino signature, is really less Tarantino and more Menke.

When Michael Dorris committed suicide, readers of his and Louise Erdrich wondered if Erdrich's novels would read any differently.  Both were up front about co-authoring everything.  One wonders now about future Tarantino films.  Will the death of Menke mean the death of Tarantino's Tarantinoness?

I doubt it, but I also fear that some of the best work in Tarantino films was not done by Tarantino.