Thursday, February 28, 2008

Current Media

On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Best Food Writing 2006 & 2007 edited by Holly Hughes
Food for Fifty by Molly Molt
Best American Magazine Writing 2004

Goldfrapp's Seventh Tree
Lucky Soul
Jens Lekman - Oh You're So Silent Jens; Night Falls in Kortedala
The Archives

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Word About Porn

(I can see the hits increasing already.)

I am prudish when it comes to the inner workings of relationships. But I am open-minded about ideas, which include ideas about sexuality, sex, gender, and porn. This doesn't mean I condone everything or even most of what's out there. And there is some weird stuff out there, which I get somewhat filtered via Warren Ellis's website. While he finds the often horrific extremities of porn and body modification as part of his research, Susannah Breslin finds these extremities in the business of porn and in the people who work in it. Her blog, The Reverse Cowgirl, is one of the best sites I've come across that looks at the porn and the sex industry shrewdly and from a perspective that doesn't stem from hysteria or a religious agenda. I've been following her writing for half a decade now and it is incisive and unrelenting. I mention her blog now because her recent book proposal fell through, which is a damn shame. I was looking forward to what she had to say about her time in Porn Valley. Thankfully, Breslin is working on her next projects, which can be found here and here, and she also continues The Reverse Cowgirl. If you want to track America's culture of porn and sex, Susannah Breslin is the person to read.

Educating the Younglings

I've started teaching a class on comics again, only this time it is for a class of 5th-8th graders in a small town in the middle of the desert. (I last taught this course to peers my age in a small town in the middle of farmland.) I try not to let the fact that I am twice as old as them bother me since I get to expose them to the wider world of comics. (The phrase "literary terrorist" comes to mind as I plan the semester for them. [Welcome NSA! Please alert the FBI of your findings here.]) Finding appropriate material among my personal library is proving to be more difficult than I expected. I'm discovering that I'm reduced to using excerpts that I may have to scan on my own time. But that's not the most interesting part about the first class. What surprised me was how they couldn't wait to rip the comics out of my hands, tearing my arm off in the process. My revenge will come in the form of the work I have in mind for them.

However, in order to get my revenge, I'll need resources and comics. So I am in need of suggestions. Anything come to mind?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Reading white noise in America

I've been on a literary kick lately. I've been cutting my way through the National Book Critics Circle's blog, Critical Mass, semi-regularly since discovering it a few months ago. (They have such an awkward name for a literary organization.) What got me over there was a review of a book on book reviewing (yes) written by Gail Pool, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (via Bookslut, also a good blog covering parts of the literary world). There's a good essay/review of Pool's book here.

There's also NEA's grim report on reading habits in the USA and Ursula Le Guin's sobering response in Harper's Magazine (subscribers only unfortunately).

The NEA's report seems much more pessimistic than it should be. And I think Le Guin is right in her suspicions about the report's so-called decline in reading. She points out that there have been factors contributing to the current state of reading habits, chief among them is the social aspect. During what she calls the "century of the book" (1850-1950):
Literacy was not only the front door to any kind of individual economic and class advancement; it was an important social activity. The shared experience of books was a genuine bond.
This experience consisted of a private and, more importantly, a public aspect wherein people talked with each other about what they read. Then there's this great quote:
Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it. They barely even noticed book clubs until Oprah goosed them. But then the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.
Le Guin notes that until recently (a decade or three?), most major publishing houses and bookstores were happy with what might be called mid-sellers, books that had steady sales over the years while in print, with the occasional bestseller to help finance the mid-sellers and smaller imprints. Having annual flat sales was not seen as an anathema on the industry. Once restrictions on mergers were lightened or disappeared altogether, the major publishing houses and chain bookstores began to be run by profit- and growth-minded executives who did not care about the quality of their stock nor their backlists. (Sadly, there are many parallels here with the music and comic book industries.)

The rest of the essay is great, though I have some problems with some of the comparisons Le Guin makes, especially regarding some of the unique qualities of books over other media.

In any case, this all seems symptomatic of my generation and the ones that follow at my heels: we have to learn how to make decisions about what information we take in and how to process the information before us. Critical thinking skills are probably the most important thing we all need to learn in this and every century.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Among the Critical Living

Apologies for the lack of presence; my current semester is slowly solidifying itself.

January is normally a dead month for the music industry. Very few albums that come out this month do well in sales and within the critics' circles. (The Strokes come to mind.) So I've used January as an opportunity to catch up on older music and new music I missed the first time around, and it gives me a chance to look through the "best of" lists that flood December. (Thank you Metacritic.)

I admit to being a regular Pitchfork reader (no need for a url there) for the past 5 or 6 years, a witness to Brent DiCrenscenzo's then ongoing meltdown as a writer. I miss the nonsensical writing littered with inaccuracies and laced with snark, though, but not that much. Thankfully, they've improved in the last few years, both in terms of overall content and with their reviews. This year's lists had some surprises that I'll have to check out. Elsewhere, the Village Voice published their annual Pazz and Jop poll results along with the usual essays commenting on music culture and music criticism. The usual gripes about the commercial appeal of artists from the non-mainstream arena were there (Feist is representative of the present Age of Accessible Hotness? I must be living in a wholly different era and country then.)

Some of their essays did manage to change my mind about certain artists, though; Amy Winehouse and Miranda Lambert will have some attention along with Britney Spears.

My reconsideration of Spears came from Tom Ewing's often brilliant Poptimist monthly column on Pitchfork (no fixed url unfortunately). His comparison of Spears latest album (and possibly her last until the personal life/career reboot) with Twin Peaks' central mystery and off-screen focal point, Laura Palmer, gave me pause in my dismissal of Blackout. The album will get a few listens.

Ewing's recent column addresses something that annoys me occasionally and relates to my friend Matt's question about my "singles vs. album" listening perspective. Matt wanted to know what constituted a single for me. Listening to an album on its own terms can make it difficult for him to separate the potential singles and from just the album songs. I grew into my teen years with the radio and the DJ setlists at school dances (I recall house party DJs or mix CDs played during parties being barely tolerable or being as awful as the music at school dances). I had distinct tastes at the time: mainly hip-hop and R&B with the occasional Top 40 or old rock and pop thrown in. Then, and even now, it's hard for me to say what a good single is. I can break down the common components possibly (strong, clear melodies; good rhythm; discernible lyrics that can be said without music; and so on), but I don't know if others see it the same way. (The Village Voice's pollsters often didn't.) Ewing talks about how people would choose their best song or album based on what would "stand the test of time". He argues that that criterion is functionally useless, especially if you're engaged in pop music and its culture. The best that anyone can say, according to Ewing, is that the music you choose satisfies some present need you have, that it fires up some sort of music-culture dependent pleasure centers residing in your brain for this period of time.

And I agree with him. You and I can't tell if new music will sound dated in the future until the music and us reach that future. The exception to this would be new music that already sounds dated and sounds terrible at its release. (Then again, history and future generations of music critics can change public opinions.) So if you like a song or an album, then great. Enjoy it and pass along your recommendation. Don't worry about whether it will stand the test of time. Let time (and future generations) take care of that. Think about how important the music is to you right now and how it fits into your life.

This may explain why I have an affinity for pop and singles: moments of music intertwined with formations of memory.