Category: Reading & writing

On Stephen Brophy

I knew Stephen Brophy for about fifteen years, but I only knew him well in the past three or four. It was my great pleasure to have coffee with him several times a month at Pavement and later in his apartment at our co-op. He was my neighbor, my friend, my mentor in radical politics, and my advisor in love and life. So I want to tell you a little about my experience of this extraordinary person. Read more

Trump hates literature!

This is what has befallen the Little Free Library near my house since it was erected by the Mass Historical Society about two months ago.

  1. Its glass door was broken.
  2. Its replacement Plexiglas door was broken.
  3. Its replacement cellophane door was ripped from the staples.
  4. A large quantity of water was dumped into the library, damaging its floor as well as the books inside.

Who does this to a little free library? Who?

(a) Drunken Red Sox fans?
(b) Trump!

I consulted T, who replied, “I’m thinking either someone who hates libraries, or someone who hates free things. An illiterate capitalist.”

Me: A nice segue into the title of this post.
T: It could be someone who hates little things too.

Artistic responsibility

I wrote this originally for the Race & Fiction Writing member page, but I’m moving it here since it’s something I really care about. Emoji smiley face.

A few of us discussed the matter of Dana Schutz’s painting at the April meeting. For me, the issue comes down to artistic freedom versus artistic responsibility. (One of our values being “both/and,” I’ll note that these are not necessarily in opposition.) Something I realized after the meeting was that while I had taken pains to present both points of view in the handout posted here, in fact the artistic freedom (“for the painting”) argument is amply represented in our white-dominated culture. What’s lacking, I feel, is a broadly understood argument for artistic responsibility. Therefore, I recommend that interested folks check out “The Case Against Dana Schutz” by Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye at The New Republic. Speaking personally, the great effort it took to open my mind to the idea that I should, need and ought not to write on whatever subject inspires me—to take on board that I might not have a right to do that, and, perhaps more to the point, that I can lovingly and thoughtfully choose not to—the very difficulty of taking that step reminds me how powerful white supremacy is.

Edit: A letter from L.M. Williams in the April 24 issue of The New Yorker makes the point with clarity.

Much has been said in Schutz’s defense about art as empathy and the importance of resisting self-censorship. These are fail-safe points in discussions of artistic freedom, and they sidestep a foundational problem: the decision to make art without regard for the lives involved, and no matter the consequences. Even well-intentioned artistic empathy can become a form of trespass when it comes uninvited and replays the damage done to the people with whom the artist seeks to stand. The kind of racist violence depicted in “Open Casket” still happens, and still goes unpunished. Protesters, in asking, “Where are the images of Till’s murderers?,” are asking why America memorializes hate crimes against its black citizens by gazing at the victims instead of by holding the perpetrators accountable.

My bridge was gapped

In Austin in 1995, when I was twenty-four, I knew a vivacious young woman with black hair and black eyes, L., who was the object of many a crush. You either were crushed on her or resented her, or both (I was of the first party). It was also at this time that I carried on a strange flirtation with a curly-headed blond guy named M. who was in a relationship with another girl. Hard as it is to believe now, I was ignorant of the politics of relationships and didn’t know things were going to get complicated. Read more

The horrifying digi-children of the future

No, I like small children. I really do. I’m always staring at them out in public, grooving on how these teacup humans are transparently emotional, so openly interested in the world. Then one day I was walking down the street and I saw a kid in a stroller, couldn’t have been more than ten months old. And I could see her little pudgy hands up in front of her face, and I thought, “How funny, she looks like she’s holding a phone.” Until I got closer and saw she really was holding a phone. I went around the corner and into a café, where I met the husband of a friend, who was breakfasting with their two-and-a-half-year-old son. At a certain point he gave the boy his phone to keep him quiet. “He’s better at using it than I am,” he observed to me. The next weekend I was on a bus behind a mother in her thirties and her lively toddler son. I was impressed by how present she was with him, how intelligently they conversed. But she started talking with another adult, and when he kept interrupting she dialed up a game on her phone and gave it to him. Read more

Doesn’t anyone know what a typewriter is anymore?

FYI, I have been thinking about race and fiction-writing a lot a lot.1 And I started what was going to be a very authoritative blog entry on two books by white authors with a lens on white supremacy, A Free State by Tom Piazza and Charlie Smith’s brutal masterpiece Ginny Gall. I spent a couple-three hours on that one. But I couldn’t seem to circle in on what I really wanted to say, and I realized for the umpteenth time that I’m not a nonfiction writer and decided to go watch “House of Cards.” Read more

The Trojan horse of Ice Cream Star

Last weekend I had the strange and wonderful experience of reading The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman. I had put off starting it because the whole thing is written in an invented post-apocalyptic dialect and sometimes you just don’t feel like doing all that work. Well, it was work, in the best possible sense—immersive, rewarding and exhilarating, the best kind of reading there is. In fact, you can get a feel for Ice Cream’s language and grammar within a few pages; what’s really dangerous about the book is the way it gets a feel for you. My truest life is reading and writing fiction. I read a new novel every few days, but this one reached me in a place where books don’t usually go. I think that’s in part because the half-alien language is a Trojan horse that carries the book’s beauty and despair straight into your heart. Read more


I normally confine my quotation mania to my Tumblr. But this one required a bit more formatting than Tumblr allows.

The literature is not clear on whether R2m–1 may be replaced by W2m–1 but presumably the answer is well-known to experts.

—Howard Jacobowitz, “Convex Integration and the h-Principle” (Research Institute of Mathematics, Seoul)

I particularly like the absence of a comma. It somehow transmits my father’s happy combination of meticulousness and insouciance.

Some real machinery inside our guts

I had a day where I saw two movies. It was a Sunday in August, and a life-change sort of thing was happening, or continuing to happen, that made me want to get out of the house. My priority was “Hitman: Agent 47,” which unfortunately proved quite negligible. But first I went to a 10:25 AM showing of “The End of the Tour.” This two-hander about David Foster Wallace was so moving to me, I started to cry about fifteen minutes in. Read more

This author gets it

Tomorrow in Race and Fiction Writing we will discuss the question: How Do We Write Characters Whose Race Is Different Than Ours? Meanwhile, I struck gold on the reading-copy shelf a few weeks back. I got fourteen books! Plus Charles Bukowski, On Cats, which I gave to a friend.

One you can’t see in the picture is The New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott. Romie is a South Carolina taxidermist who undergoes a sort of flowers-for-Algernon experiment and emerges with greatly enhanced mental capacity. He throws himself into creating avant-garde animal dioramas that illustrate “the trans-human ecology,” hunting down a mutant monster known as Hogzilla, and the odd drunken funk. The writing is great. I was going along enjoying the book well enough, and then I came across something I’ve never seen before. Read more