Keeping a private language

May 30 3

Quantum entanglement is perhaps the loveliest phrase in English. That’s my humble opinion. I heard that at one time a survey revealed that among English speakers and non-English speakers researchers were somehow able to determine among the respondents the phrase “cellar door” was the most beautiful in all of English. How they decided, among every syllable and permutation possible, is a mystery, but I do recall some teacher in my past discussing this anecdote and its disappointing result — “cellar door,” this image that brings to mind the entryway to dimly lit dirty spaces.

If this kind of survey ever goes out to the world again, “cellar door” is going to have some newfangled competition in the form of “quantum entanglement,” this technical phrase that unlocks its beauty like a lotus, seeming to speak its exact meaning hinged with mysteries within mysteries from one clear syllable to the next. I’m sure it doesn’t speak the same kind of thing to other people. Everyone has their own pet phrases and secret languages from the past that evoke memories we’re happy to keep inside these personal worlds within words, and of course there are deep horrors locked in everyday language that we wish we could filter out completely.

I’m happy to stand up for the beauty I hear and feel in the possibilities inspired by the words quantum entanglement. But there are others I’ll never discuss. Like the secret tree language characters use in Christina Rivera Garza’s novel, “The Iliac Crest,” and as Yoko Tawada wrote in her novel, “Portrait of a Tongue,” as translated by Chantal Wright, “You don’t always want to share a language with the anonymous masses.”

The Critic, continued

Freedom Factory

In 2014, I wrote my first experimental book review and I’ve since written seven more, with plans to write as many as I can so long as people keep finding them interesting. Each one is a puzzle to write but I like what they allow me to do, as a form, compared to more traditional criticism. They’re written in third person about a critic, rather than as a critic. Each piece can stand alone, but if they are read sequentially, they show time passing for the critic, and her family, as her career goes on.

The latest review is about Russian author Ksenia Buksha’s novel, “Freedom Factory.” It was published this spring in the online cultural journal, The Critical Flame. Here’s an excerpt, with a link to the full piece below.

The next one will appear this summer in Textshop Experiments. It’s focused on “Aviaries,” a novel by the late Czech author Zuzana Brabcová.

Party On: An experimental review of Freedom Factory

The critic had missed her deadline and couldn’t bring herself to care.

On her couch, with her laptop on the coffee table, she looked at her notes about the book and read a quote: “The factory is a continuation of my father.” Ksenia Buksha had placed it near the end of her book, in one of the more experimental chapters. It had been meant, the critic thought, to convey a sense of something spiritual about the way the place a person works can enter their lifeblood. Continue reading

300-page gorilla

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I recently shared the above photo of a tall stack of small books on Twitter. I enjoyed most of them and think my tastes lately have been running toward the sort of things writers do in a short book versus a long book.

There’s no use in trying to define short book or long book. Yes, there’s its size and page count but that hardly defines it as a book. Reading defines books. In terms of heft and the realities of production costs and potential film rights, in the U.S. so much of the market (we’re told) depends on the 300-page book that anyone who writes fiction is forced to grapple mentally with the meaning of this demanding animal for at least a little while as some kind of arbitrary standard.

The 300-page book’s magical powers are a mystery. If every writer could write one, they would, we are told. Meaning it’s foolish to take it lightly.

Every reader knows what their favorite big-name fantasy, romance, literary fiction, and crime authors will do in a 300-pager. The respective expectations are set. There are infinite possibilities within these templates and I enjoy them. Even if they’re an extra hundred or two hundred pages long, you still know you’re reading a 300-page book when you open it, and if you cross the 600-page mark, no worries. It’s still written in that enjoyable 300-page book prose and the extra 300 pages are probably good for the endurance.

Still, the absurd mystery of why 300-page-books are revered is bound up in money, but only for about 1 out of 10,000 novels. For my money, I can’t get away from liking the shorter books. Most of the very good long books usually could’ve been whittled down to 200 pages and really done something special. Or been pared down drastically into one good essay that cracked a fascist regime in half. Or a poem that led soldiers worldwide to abandon their posts. But these are not lucrative goals.

“Little books” are doing fine, of course, in terms of appearing often on Twitter and in blog posts. I hope their authors are, too. Here’s another photo of a few more.

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Microinterview with Nell Zink

Photo credit: Fred Filkorn

I interviewed Nell Zink, author of The Wallcreeper, for The Paris Review’s blog. It’s one short question from me, one long lovely answer from her. (That’s not the whole story, of course, but it makes for a good one.)

What kind of jobs have you had? Do you write full-time now, “living the dream”?

I was always a bit concerned about purity of essence. I never wanted a job that might affect the way I wrote or thought. I remember how in college I was very proud of having finagled a job in the English department, where I spent most of my time collating and stapling. I didn’t major in English, obviously, because I preferred being challenged in courses where I might get bad grades. Once, Gordon Lish came to speak there and warned us explicitly against going to work in publishing, because it forces wallcreeperyou to read bad prose all day every day and spoils your style. After his talk, all the other student writers jumped up to beg him for jobs in publishing while I wandered off strengthened in my resolve to do manual labor.

Read the whole thing at The Paris Review: Purity of Essence: One Question for Nell Zink.