Sunday, May 27, 2012


It is truly stupid how many times I am taken aback by the simple fact that planning is a good thing.

I'm not talking your refinancing your mortgage or doing over your bathroom.  I'm talking simple, everyday stuff.  Slipping herbs into the water pitcher, packing homemade lemonade and some edamame for a long drive down to Phoenix, always remembering to keep lotion and lip balm by your bed.

These are the things that make a day work.  These are the things that prevent fast-food stops, bottled water purchases, late fees, headaches from happening.  These are the tiny doable actions that will make life run smoothly.  More than that, they're the best way to plan change into your life.  A menu plan and grocery list will do more to get that ayurvedic diet started than reading through a bunch of magazine articles and books about your dosha. 

Go do one tiny thing that will pay off later now!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Old Genre Fiction Puzzler

“Somewhere in its history,” Lev Grossman writes, “reading novels has gotten all tangled up with questions of social status, and accepting the kinds of pleasure that genre novels offer us has become — how perverse are we? — a source of shame” ( ). He produces this “gem” in the middle of an essay on the ways in which genre fiction acts disruptively towards modern literary fiction. And while what Grossman says is undeniably true, it also demonstrates a really frightening ignorance towards the origins of the novel.

“Somewhere in its history?” Try always. Try the prose romances written by women in the seventeenth century that were obviously not literature because they weren't poetry. Try Daniel Defoe and his uneasy relationship with “real-life” crime literature. Try Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding sniping at one another about what, exactly, the novel was supposed to be.

It's this last that's particularly instructive. Both Richardson and Fielding were invested in inventing “the modern novel,” despite the fact that neither of them really did so. Richardson's novels were morally sententious, painfully realistic (to the degree that Pamela can be considered realistic, which is certainly arguable), and (sorry) boring. So really, if Grossman wants someone to point his finger at for the way we think of literary fiction: serious, stylistically ambitious, and coded with a kind of moral valence, it's Richardson who deserves to take the brunt of that blame.

Fielding, on the other hand, wrote in a tradition that was much closer to the romances that were the novel's true origins. His work had a picaresque, postmodernist quality. Nonetheless, casting him as a kind of anti-hero of the novel's development is stupid. He was just as invested as Richardson in making himself the “father of the novel” (which had so many forgotten mothers...), and therefore in codifying literary genre.

What does this mean for the novel today? It means that we are still doing what we always do. We always want to ask ourselves, “But is it art?” Maybe that's not a bad question. Grossman lists authors like Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, and Catherynne Valente to demonstrate that art abounds in the genre fiction ghetto. And I'm not inclined to disagree. Novels like American Gods or Deathless are art, whether they are slapped with a genre fiction label or not.

But I do see a difference between literary and genre fiction. Practically, there's a difference in the ways these things are produced and sold. There's no MFA mill for genre fiction writers, which means that their understanding of conventions and the creative process is distinctively different from that of literary fiction writers.

For the reader, however, I believe the main distinction is one of investment. A reader who picks up a mystery, a sci fi romp, a romance, has different expectations than a reader of literary fiction. They aren't preparing themselves to seriously engage with the prose in order to appreciate it, they're preparing for the payoff. If the payoff takes too long, they put the book down.

And literary fiction could absolutely benefit from a stronger “philosophy of the payoff.” Too many modern writers seem to feel they need to beat the audience with sticks and leave them bleeding in order to demonstrate their “seriousness.” But there's still a value to something that makes readers sit down and suspend their desire for immediate gratification and comprehension. There's value to a novel that demands study.*

And, finally, I think that Grossman's article demands a greater transparency. The reader has a right to ask whether he is responding to the reception of his literary works, which could perhaps best be classified as fantasy fiction, and demanding a larger share of the “art” pie. Merely excising the personal from the critical does not in itself equate distance. Grossman should be open and honest about what the stakes are here for him personally.

*Please don't point me towards the Tolkien scholars. The fact that a thing can be studied does not mean it needs to be studied.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Why I Will Never Be Cool

Tennessee Ernie Ford

I was not a popular child. That's the only real explanation I can come up with for my musical tastes. I liked Madonna as a child, and Oingo Boingo, but by fifth grade I didn't even know which New Kid on the Block was which. In junior high, I pretended to like Boyz 2 Men, but realistically, I spent most of my time at home, where my mother's boyfriend was playing his Johnny Horton records.

Thus an unusual ear was formed. Most popular music slid right off it, but a song like Bobbie Gentry's “Ode to Billie Joe” had me mesmerized for days. The positive effect of this is that I can out-hipster the hipsters. I dug into the history of popular music with idiosyncratic and insatiable appetite. There's always something new out there to find, you just have to hear it at the right time. I listened to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen and the fucking Carter family and Dylan and Joni Mitchell. But the list doesn't stop there. Because there's John Denver too, and Glenn Campbell and Conway Twitty and Vera Lynn and everybody you wouldn't be caught dead listening to.

This is why I will never be cool.

Coolness is primarily humanist in perspective, which is to say it has to do with canon-making. It's cool to like old music so long as it's not music your grandmother liked. She was never hip enough to dig Chuck Berry.

I don't care if my grandmother liked it. I don't care if nobody but my grandmother liked it. I will listen to blues, to funk, to country hits that they sell on tv, to folk rock, to novelty music. I will listen to Harry Chapin singing about the “wild man wizard” inside of him when he gets high. And not for the pleasure of being different, because I mainly hide these tastes like leprosy.

With all that said? Led Zeppelin still sucks. I guess it must be music for cool people.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Tale of Two Cooks

My mother is a very good cook.  In terms of technical know-how and reliability, her cooking expertise far exceeds my own.  On her watch, everything gets cooked correctly.

So why do I hate her cooking?  The answer is simple: style and preparation.  My mother primarily relies on the same recipes she's been using for thirty years.  Do you remember what American cuisine was like thirty years ago?  That was the era when frozen vegetables were "fancy" for most people, and fresh vegetables virtually unheard of.  The majority of her meals involve an enormous slab of meat.

Personally, I am not a good cook.  I'm terrible at frying things.  I'm an indifferent baker.  Yet I like my own cooking better than anyone else's, and the reasons are the same I cited above: style and preparation.  I like to peruse recipes for inspiration.  A lot of my specialties are very simple and simply cooked foods that, in combination, become something more.  Example:  One of my favorite breakfasts involves sliced Spanish chorizo, chickpeas, tomatoes, and torn parsley all tossed together in a skillet.  It's an idiot proof dish--anyone with minimal cooking skills could prepare it.  But the dish itself has a taste that's to die for.

My point here is not that technical skill in the kitchen isn't important!  And with practice and attention to detail, anyone can overcome natural deficiencies in skill.  My point is, rather, that taking the time to assemble a meal--with main dish and sides that harmonize or a fantastically pulled-together single dish--can work wonders, and you don't have to have a lot of skill to do it.

So experiment.  Find out what foods go together, what you like, and don't be afraid to take things to the next level with a dash of freshly grated cheese, green herbs, or chopped nuts.  Little things like that have a big impact on a meal, and they're delightfully easy.