As I processed a dominant Euro-American writing pedagogy from the perspective of an aspiring fiction writer and an immigrant critic of color, I couldn’t stop wondering: are we, in 21st-century America, overvaluing a sight-based approach to storytelling? And could this be another case of cultural particularity masquerading itself as universal taste?

Despite the title, I think the line of argument in this piece is largely orthogonal to the intent of the “show, don’t tell” aesthetic. Regardless, nice to see attention to “cultural particularity masquerading itself as universal taste,” and it’s worth a read.

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I must admit that I am completely flummoxed by this article. The following paragraph, in particular, confuses me:

If classical Chinese poetry is going to reinvigorate English anew, though, it will need to come to terms with Ezra Pound’s Chinese, and what his translations and poetry did for poetry and translation, as well as for our understanding of China. Pound was a fascist and anti-Semite and translated from Asian poetry without knowing the language in question, so it makes sense that an uneasiness would come from both curmudgeonly specialists in Asian literature repeating the Arnold line of displeasure at his inaccuracies, as well as from Newman-like purveyors of poetic taste who’d rather deny that Pound’s contributions to English have anything to do with his representations of other cultures. Some might even imply that the discursive style into which East Asian poetry has been translated since Pound only reveals the racism behind the enterprise of translating Chinese into English (how many times was Pound mentioned, for instance, as paving the way for “Yi-Fen Chou” and Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker poem?).

I happened to run across the phrase “cultism and aesthetic compromise with the representatives of oppression” this morning; possibly relevant here.

 

More about memoirfrom The Guardian. I’m not sure the analysis in the piece makes its case very convincingly, but the title asserts something worth thinking about. Meanwhile, on the fictional side, I’ve just discovered Tessa Hadley; The Past has some women looking at themselves and noticing things that don’t get a whole lot of play in popular culture.

Edit: Compare this conversation.

I’m not sure exactly how I ended up there, but I just reread a New Yorker article from 2013 that makes “the case against empathy.” I remember being struck by the article the first time around; it dovetailed with some thinking I was doing about social media and tragic narratives, and I’m pleased to be led back to the same area. The line of reasoning in the article is relevant to inspiration porn (see also here, in Ted-talk form) and feminism as well. Hard, good stuff.

 

Still trying to plow my way through A Little Life (I paid full price for the hardcover, so I feel obligated to finish the thing). So–it’s a spoof of JT LeRoy, right? There’s no other reasonable explanation.

It can’t be a coincidence, right? The logistically impossible academic and personal achievements—there simply would not have been enough hours in the day (in between being raped, whipped with a lash dipped in vinegar, and so on) to study French, German, calculus, piano, choral singing, horticulture, animal husbandry, etc. etc., even positing the improbable presence of qualified teachers with time to spare (in between raping and torturing him) or his own presence of mind (in between being raped and tortured) to absorb the material. Brother Luke travelling around with him, pimping him out, always with the promise of the cabin in the woods later; but somehow finding clients, shady doctors, whatever else is needed, effortlessly, while also finding time and materials to continue Jude’s excellent education. Later, the concurrent law degree and masters in math? Seriously? Law students at prestigious schools don’t sleep as it is; no saying what the MIT math department’s masters program is like, I guess, since it doesn’t exist. (“What’s your favorite axiom?” Does Yanagihara imagine this is how conversations go at MIT? Jesus Christ.) Then somehow–the icing on the proverbial fucking cake, a little on the nose, don’t you think?–he’s become a professional cake decorator, and he’s doing that on the weekends, perfectly, of course, at the same time.

The weirdest part is that it’s not simply improbable: it has the specifically unverifiable improbability of a JT LeRoy or a Tony Johnson. The absence of birth records, foster care records, academic records. The social worker with boundary/professional ethics issues, taking Jude home with her—then conveniently dying, so she can’t be interviewed later. Brother Luke hanging himself, so he never goes to a trial that could be verified in court records. The doctor who sees Jude after hours, at his home, and doesn’t bill him or accept insurance. The vagueness of the actual injuries. Jude’s concealing clothing, with what is concealed never questioned by, and never accidentally exposed to, people who actually share a bedroom with him. For years. The invisibility of Jude himself—we see his undeniable charismatic effect on others, but we never see him, his physicality, as it appears to others, even down to an ethnicity that would allow us to picture him in the broadest outlines; we see only the scars, that parts that are concealed, and those through the lens of Jude’s awareness. Jude is an absence at the center of his own story.

If this what Yanagihara intended, kudos for conceiving an interesting project and carrying it through. I am still unimpressed by her writing on a sentence-by-sentence level, but the project would explain many of what would otherwise be the book’s most egregious flaws. If it’s intended as a spoof, that is–as a commentary on the literary audience’s appetite for grue, or as a statement about the othering and consequent secondary victimization of actual survivors of abuse that the commoditization of these themes produces. I suppose it’s possible that she simply admires Laura Albert’s work, finds it powerful, and wishes to emulate it. Or that she recognizes the commoditization and her potential to profit from it.

In any case, Yanagihara’s intentions wouldn’t excuse the pronoun thing:

Passages in which Jude is the point-of-view character never use his name; he is always identified by a third-person pronoun (except within dialogue). Combine that with the fact that the dramatis personae is almost exclusively male (this thing scores negative infinity on the Bechdel test) and you’ve got some serious challenges for resolving pronoun reference. Passages with different POV characters don’t show the same mannerism; Yanagihara seems to be using it to say some specific thing about Jude. I don’t know what that thing is, though, and the result is a failure, as far as I’m concerned; it’s confusing and intrusive–an object lesson in the shortcomings of high-concept syntax.

 

 

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