Friday, April 28, 2006

How Oprah will save us

I am coming to the conclusion that Oprah Winfrey is the future of literature in the United States. And that's a good thing. We talked in my class yesterday with Josh Landy, our guest speaker who's written about ethical criticism (he's against it). Yet he led us to conclude that it's imperative that people read good literature. We defined "good" as having moral complexity, bringing about surprise and the promise of happiness. Reading literature makes us open to becoming happy in unexpected ways, and this (we decided) is what makes "us" better people over time. As compelling as populist arguments for the equality of genre fiction may be--and when we come to power we wouldn't ban people from reading it--genre fiction does not really create surprise. Yes, on the level of plot it can, but not on the level of surprise about people or life or language.

But how to get people reading the good stuff? Academics can't do it, by definition. As soon as we assign it, it becomes a task, a pill, a leafy green vegetable (at best). It has to be done on TV and be administered by a powerful yet non-threatening and fun person. OK, Oprah was threatening to James Frey, and this is a symptom of her current obsession with memoir, which needs to stop. No surprise in memoir, not the kind we're talking about--only the surprise of being lied to. But as Cecilia Konchar Farr says in Reading Oprah, a very interesting book (and very poorly produced, as if on a Xerox machine, by SUNY Press) , Oprah's self-improvement approach to literature is the key. Oprah tells readers, This is difficult, but you can do it. She alternates--or used to alternate--easy books with more difficult ones, building up readers' stamina and confidence. And she did get tons of people to read Faulkner, though they didn't buy his work in as many truckloads as the others. But it doesn't have to be Faulkner; an emotionally difficult text is good enough. She's developing this capacity for literature, which means a capacity for calm and complex reflection. (I'm grabbing the term from Empson, who uses it in a slightly different way in 7 Types of Ambiguity.) I don't think this is the same thing as the "critical thinking" argument, which means literature teaches you how to seize a pen and start marking as soon as a politician or product pitcher opens his mouth. The capacity, as I see it, is for a kind of stillness. Wonder, maybe.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sue Lyon

I just did a little research about Sue Lyon, who played Lolita in the 1962 Kubrick film. The most detailed, and also most sleazy, account is on E! online:
[See update, below.] The E! story is yet another small act in the series of exploitations that began before the movie and exploded after it. Lyon was the youngest of five children in a poor family (her father died when she was a baby), and she was sent out to model as a pre-teen in order to bring in some cash. She won the role of Lolita when she was 13 or 14--the actual age of Lolita--but was, I gather, fifteen when the film was shot. So she was only a tiny bit older than the character, but was cast because she looked more adult than others her age. She had large breasts, unlike Nabokov's Lolita. So much effort went into confounding the audience's prurient/moral expectations about filming this story. How do you film it without doing damage?

Lyon went on to have a fairly terrible life. Divorced several times, she married a man in prison for murder at one point; before that she had married an African-American man and fled with him to Spain due to the uproar. She is now married to someone else and doesn't grant interviews. She's been diagnosed as bipolar but apparently found treatment later in life.

Incarnating Lolita appears to have done her no good. She received much of the lurid attention that the fictional Lolita did, and it should be remembered that the tendency then and even now was to portray Lolita as the seductress of a relatively helpless "middle aged man." E! Online says as much. The entwined artistic and commercial imperatives to film Lolita, combined with Lyon's poverty, the lure of celebrity, and finally the ageless pleasure of condemning girls for arousing sexual desire in others: the same cultural constellation trapped Lyons and Nabokov's Lolita, another fatherless child.

UPDATE 10-1-12: Sorry, folks, looks like E! has taken the story down. If anyone has other links they'd like to share, please do so in the comments.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Harvey Pekar and Josh Kornbluth

Trev and I went with our friend Amy to see Harvey Pekar interviewed by Josh Kornbluth at City Arts and Lectures last night. Last time we went we saw Josh Kornbluth interviewed, and I was wondering if he'd be able to stop talking long enough to let the interviewee speak. In many ways that would have been better. Josh was charming and funny where Harvey was irascible but not charmingly so. The problem is that Harvey *does* have the David Letterman problem; that is, people expect him to perform himself as Harvey, Irascible Cleveland Working Stiff. Which he both is and is not. But one wants to see how he will behave rather than hear what he has to say about comics, literature, etc. And maybe he doesn't want to talk about comics either--he'd rather talk about himself and his still painful memories about his parents, which is what his comics are about, after all. He's had a strange life, a professionally obscure celebrity, celebrated (by Letterman especially) for being obscure. He was very straightforward about how much approval, good reviews, and acclaim mean to him. He answered nearly every question with a reference to money--how much the artists who draw for him get paid, how many books he's selling, how many he needs to sell (which was why he was with us last night). It was not really funny or pathetic or anything, just a flat statement that he wants money. Maybe his shtick is getting old, or he's stuck in the middle of a shtick, no longer an obscure working stiff but a real celebrity now, worried about letting go of the act that got him here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


I am strangely giddy today, to the point of being disruptive. I was a jack-in-the-box at a colloquium when I really ought to have kept my mouth shut; it was not for me, but for students, and not my students either. I woke up as I have all week with my stomach in a knot, realizing how far behind I am on editing this divisional newsletter that's coming out in just a couple of months. (It's much, much worse than it sounds--editing text from over 50 faculty members, and that doesn't include *collecting* said text.) Every day I think, "I will set aside the whole afternoon and work on the newsletter," and then I do precisely zero on it because I'm either putting out fires, or...putting out fires. Or blogging. Also I wrote a story for two hours this morning instead of "working," and I did that deliberately. I thought it would calm me down, like meditation, and it did--so I think that's probably the source of the giddiness. The defiant calm in the face of calamity. The insistence on still doing *my thing* despite the strong pressure to just give up writing until summer when everything's over. Or I could just be freaking out.

I talked to a campus newspaper reporter today about the blog I'm doing with my students. I'm obsessed with that blog; it's all I can do to keep from looking at it every fifteen minutes. The reporter seemed to share my enthusiasm, but maybe she was just trying to placate me while looking for an opportunity to edge away.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


Despite the electromagnetic fascination that cults of the 1970s have always held for me, I somehow missed, entirely, Synanon. But yesterday Trev and I visited the grounds of its former headquarters, now the Marconi Conference Center in Marshall, north of Pt. Reyes. The grounds are actually state parkland with public trails and a spectacular view of Tomales Bay. In 1912 the land was purchased by the Marconi Telegraph Company as a wireless telegraph station, later acquired by RCA and then sold several more times before coming into Synanon's hands.

Synanon started as a rehabilitation program for drug and alchohol addicts, an alternative to Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous which emphasized self-reliance as opposed to reliance on a higher power. The Synanon prayer includes lines like "Let me understand rather than be understood," which I rather like. But Synanon itself then became a church; there was the usual partner-swapping and brutally honest encounter groups (known as Games), and then, as always in these stories, the time arrived to amass weapons. They never killed anyone but they did leave a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer who'd sued them. The Point Reyes Light reporters who exposed the operations received Pulitzers.

You can still see the dormant antennas from the Marconi days, and one imagines the Games and halluncinatory "Dissipations" and the paranoia growing on the silent, occult hum of radio waves.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Things take us hard, no question

Things take us hard, no question.
--Adrienne Rich, "Demon Lover"

I will now take this line completely out of context to reflect on a weirdness of mine, which I've discovered could also serve as a principle of sustainable living. I've always thought of things as having feelings. Stuffed animals, it goes without saying, but also computers, cups, plastic bags blowing across the highway, clothes...just about everything. I suppose I attribute feelings to them mostly when they're being treated badly, i.e. thrown away or tossed unthinkingly aside. This has led to some problematic hoarding behavior on my part, and a tendency to apologize to whatever I do throw away. (OK, I don't always apologize to the coffee grounds.) The tendency is also stronger when the thing was a gift, but I don't think my sense of a soul in a thing has only to do with the person who gave it, or the (unknown) person or people who made it. Anyway I read somewhere awhile back that having a sort of animistic belief system like this can lead to conservation--a resistance to disposing of items at the first sign of trouble with them. But at the same time one needs to be less attached to things, less willing to drag home crap because you feel sorry for it.

I'm reading Rich's line to mean that we're hard on things and they feel it. But I don't think that's what she meant. I wonder if cruelty to things extends to misinterpreting words.