Tag Archives: journalism

The Personal “I” in Literature: Narcissus & Literature at the Onassis Festival

12 Oct

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Is writing inherently narcissistic? Even when writing in the third person, can the writer ever fully disappear from the page? Is the personal “I” more trustworthy in journalism because it acknowledges the reporter’s presence? Is the personal “I” in literary fiction more prone to becoming an unreliable narrator than a third-person narrator?

Lorin Stein, editor in chief of The Paris Review, sat down with Donald Antrim, Elif Batuman, and Jessica Moss to tackle the question of how writers interact with the mirror of the page in the panel Narcissism & Literature at the Onassis Festival‘s Narcissism Now: The Myth Reimagined on October 10, 2015.

Jessica Moss, professor of philosophy at NYU, opened the dialogue up by discussing Plato’s RepublicShe discussed Plato’s thoughts on writing in the first person versus the third person, literary concepts that didn’t quite yet have terms at the time. She revealed that Plato believed that a first-person narrator should be “a good, noble person.”

The author of The PossessedElif Batuman is also well-known for her journalism for n+1 and The New YorkerShe related that she likes putting herself into her journalism pieces because she feels she will be perceived as more trustworthy. Her editor, at times, disagrees, telling her to remove herself from the story. Batuman transitioned the conversation from the Greek Plato to the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky. She told how Dostoyevsky — or as Jack Kerouac would call him, Dusty — originally wrote Crime and Punishment in first-person diary form before switching to the third-person narrator of the published version. In discussing this, the panelists agreed that the third-person showed the story through more action.

Donald Antrim, who also frequently writers for The New Yorker, is the author of the memoir The Afterlife, which deals with his relationship with his mother, Louanne Antrim, and resulted in him writing in the third person to tell her life story. Antrim explained that one of the pitfalls of the first-person narrator is that he or she is constantly in the reader’s ear, justifying his viewpoint. Antrim said, “We’re not interested in a narrator who’s telling us all the time what to think.” Antrim brought the conversation from the Greek Plato and the Russian Dostoyevsky to the English Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, an interesting exploration of narration, which starts out as a letter from a sea captain, transitions into Victor Frankenstein telling his story, and then transitions into the story of the monster.

Antrim said, “The third person doesn’t require having things figured out”; he explained that, in contrast, a first-person narrator either is telling the reader exactly how he or she feels in that moment or is reflecting on that moment. Stein said the first-person stories that interest him are the ones where there is dramatic irony because the narrator doesn’t know something. He suggested French novels use more immediate first person than American novels do. That reminded me of how Darcey Steinke once said French authors think American writers write “close to the house,” an expression, if I remember correctly, that suggested American authors over-explain themselves. As a memoirist, this is something I’ve spent significant time thinking about and working out in my writing. I once had someone in a workshop come up with what they thought was a revelation about why I acted and thought the way I did and she asked me if I realized that thing about myself, and I, frankly, was surprised that she’d asked me that because I had purposely written to reveal that very same thing. I had thought my subtlety was a sign of good writing, but their question made me wonder if people would think I’m not self-aware if I don’t spell things out for them. Unfortunately there wasn’t a Q&A for the panel because I would’ve been quite curious to hear the panelists thoughts on immediacy and self-awareness in memoir writing. I was surprised there wasn’t more talk about memoir, personal essay, semi-autobiographical writing, and the insertion of the personal “I” in journalism in a panel on narcissism. The discussion of narration in literature, however, was riveting.

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Happy 77th Birthday, Hunter S. Thompson!

18 Jul

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Hunter S. Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on this day in 1937. (Fun fact: the S. in his name stands for Stockton.) He’s known as the originator of “Gonzo” journalism — a type of journalism where the reporter gets so involved in the story, he ends up part of it! Oh, and he wrote a little book called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. The film adaptation starred Johnny Depp. Maybe you’ve heard of it?

Beat Connection::: Thompson shot to fame in the literary world in 1967 with Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang. Immersing himself with the Hell’s Angels for a year, Thompson wrote about the time Beat Generation icon Neal Cassady got into a verbal fight with police at a Hell’s Angel party at Ken Kesey’s pad in La Honda, California.

The British Are Coming!: The Beat Generation’s Influence on The British Invasion

11 Nov

In her fascinating article “Won over by the West: The irresistible allure of Americana for post-war Britons” for the November 2013 issue of British GQ, Olivia Cole posits that imported media of post-World War II America attracted the British to the United States—and specifically points to influence of the Beat Generation.

This week I’ll be talking about Cole’s thesis in greater depth, but I think it’s important to kick this off with the relevant background information. My reasoning for this isn’t just that a lot of people may not be familiar with pop culture history but rather that by stressing the history we may actually come to a stronger argument in support of her thesis.

First things first, a mini timeline:

  • 1922: Jack Kerouac was born
  • 1939-1945: World War II
  • 1947-1991: The Cold War
  • 1955: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl published
  • 1957: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road published
  • 1964: The British Invasion

World War II and the Beat Generation

Born in 1922, Jack Kerouac was college-aged during World War II. As Paul Maher Jr., my coauthor for the book Burning Furiously Beautiful, writes:

Jack Kerouac set sail for Greenland on July 18, 1942 aboard the S. S. Dorchester. He had enlisted in the Merchant Marines and, if we take the romantic view of things,  was looking for intense experiences that could possibly stimulate him as an emerging writer.

Kerouac served in the Merchant Marines and in the United States Navy and was honorably discharged. England and the US were allies. I specifically wanted to reference Greenland, though, because it reminds me of the famous Beatles quip when a reporter asked the Beatles how they’re enjoying their 1964 tour of the United States:

Reporter: How do you find America?

Ringo Starr: Turn left at Greenland.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Kerouac’s novel was indeed an overnight success and influenced the culture of the time period. However, many derided the Beat Generation as tearing at American values. In 1958, the derogatory term “beatnik” was coined by journalist Herb Caen. It was an amalgamation of the word “beat” and “Sputnik.” Sputnik was a Russian satellite. Remember: this was during the Cold War, and Russia was not our ally. I’m belaboring this point for a reason:

The United States was invaded—culturally—by its ally. We had a British Invasion—on our music.  We did not experience a feared political Russian invasion.

While Beatles record burnings would occur in the years to come, the Beatles—the forerunners of the British Invasion—arrived in the United States, wearing dapper suits and singing about wanting to hold hands. Our allied invaders appeared (though anyone who actually knows their Liverpool and Hamburg start will laugh at this) much more squeaky clean than our own author, Jack Kerouac, who was writing about drugs and s-e-x.

After all the patriotism surrounding World War II and the “beatnik” fad had played out by the sixties, America was primed to look elsewhere—as long as elsewhere was still “safe.”

The British Invasion

The British Invasion occurred less than a decade after Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel On the Road was published, but it was not an immediate reaction to the Beat Generation.

The year 1964 is the year The Beatles landed in America. This set off the British Invasion. The British Invasion refers to British bands such as The Beatles and The Kinks (who were formed in 1964) but also The Rolling Stones (who were formed in 1962) and The Who (who were formed in 1964), not to mention bands who may be less familiar today but still influential such as The Animals, Peter and Gordan, and Herman’s Hermits, who dominated the music scene and wildly impacted the culture of the United States in the mid-60s.

Cole’s article begins with The Kinks’ Ray Davies’ new memoir, mentions the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards’ memoir, and concludes with Iain Sinclair’s new memoir. A little background information to tie them together: Richards and Sinclair were born in 1943, Davies was born in 1944. Davies and Richards were born in the greater London area, and Sinclair in Wales. In other words, all were born in the UK within a year of each other. While Sinclair is writer and filmmaker and not technically part of the British Invasion, and while Cole herself does not use the phrase, it is central to her themes. Let me state the obvious: These Britons were not peers of Kerouac’s. In fact, they were about twelve or thirteen when On the Road came out.

It’s reasonable to conjecture that it takes a generation for ideas to create momentum and impact culture. Beatnik shtick around the height of the Beat Generation—itself a marketing tool—was gimmick.

The ideas presented by the so-called Beat Generation took hold perhaps in a more powerful way as it basted in young, impressionable minds, who were more willing to see things from a fresh vantage point and implement change. The new generation of creatives could actually impact culture in a much more meaningful way. This is how we see that the bands that rose to prominence during the sixties were more directly impacted by the Beat Generation than perhaps the Beat Generation’s own peers. This is evident in American music of the time as well: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, born in 1931, was influenced by Kerouac, and Bob Dylan, born in 1941, was encouraged by the Beats.

Now, whether they all truly understood the message behind the different Beat writers works is a different story—as is that hopefully not-too-subtle remark I just made that the writers associated with the Beat Generation can’t all be lumped into one category with one thought. They were individuals and did not always agree with one another’s politics.

The British may have been inspired by the Beat Generation and their work may have resonated with the American audience in the mid-1960s, but Jack Kerouac wanted no credit for the hippie movement that followed. He felt that they distorted his views. If You Walk in Your Sleep…’s “Collective Memory: Kerouac Hated Hippies” speaks to this.

The British are coming! The British are coming! Tune in tomorrow when I talk about the relationship between The Beatles and The Beat Generation.

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

The Great Valhouli Fauxlore: Atlantic Uncovers Truth Behind Kerouac-Burroughs Fight

9 Aug

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Those of us who devote our time studying the life and work of Jack Kerouac and yet who simultaneously spend a lot of our time on Facebook already called “hoax” on that photograph that was being circulated around about a plaque on how Kerouac and William S. Burroughs got into a drunken fight over the Oxford comma. I assumed it was a digitally manipulated photograph. As it turns out, though, it has a fascinating back story. Alexis C. Madrigal uncovered the truth behind the plaque — which actually exists — in the story “Facebook Fauxlore: Kerouac, Burroughs, and a Fight Over the Oxford Comma That Never Was” in The Atlantic.

It’s a great piece — minus the odd portrayal of the Greek American behind the plaque. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Hot on the trail of something fishy, Madrigal contacted sources Paul Marion; The Morgan Center; Martha Mayo, head of the Center for Lowell History; and Tony Sampas. Marion, author and employee at UMass Lowell Center for Arts and Ideas, had seen the plaque and knew that it was created to promote Mill No. 5 at 250 Jackson Street in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Marion referred Madrigal to Ted Siefer’s article “Mill No. 5 brings transformation to Lowell” in The Boston Globe, which explained that developer Constantine Valhouli, with business partner Jim Lichoulas III, was transforming the former textile mill into an office building:

with a kind of fun-house brio to attract the eclectic, off-beat, and hip: boutique movie theater, yoga studio, farm-to-table restaurant, a lounge/library in the style of an English manor — the whole thing decorated with architectural materials salvaged from the likes of Dr. Seuss’ house.

It would appear that Valhouli ascribes to the same Beat philosophy of improvisation as Kerouac. Siefer says:

Valhouli likens the development of the project to how jazz musicians build a song. “We’ve not built from a plan,” he said. “You play a theme, and you just keep playing improvisations over it.”

Madrigal points to the pivotal paragraph in The Globe story for proving the plaque is a fake:

And there, in the 13th paragraph, was proof that we were looked at a false sign: “Inside the entry hall will be a reconstructed early 19th-century New England schoolhouse,” the Globe wrote, “an exhibit that will be part of what Valhouli calls the Lowell Atheneum [AHA!], which will also feature a collection of hand-painted pseudo-historical plaques from New England history [DOUBLE AHA!].”

Madrigal, who went on to interview Valhouli, then explained that Valhouli and Lichoulas thought up the idea of creating “a series of plaques commemorating events that never happened” to support Mill No. 5. They hired Ould Colony Artisans‘ Robert and Judy Leonard to paint the plaque by hand. The artists had created many other historical signs in the Massachusetts area.

I found Madigral’s investigative reporting enthralling.

Still, I was put off by this aside:

I had to get in touch with this Valhouli character, who was, no doubt, swirling his mustache near some railroad tracks looking for damsels.

Okay, I’ll concede that Constantine Valhouli certainly sounded like a “character” for faking people out — although I’m not sure we generally refer to conceptual artists or those who come up with brilliant marketing schemes as “characters.” Instead, I think we tend to use terms like “inspired” and “business-savvy” to describe people who manage to get others talking about their work. A quick look at Mill No. 5’s Facebook page, and the tongue-in-cheek branding is evident:

We’re working on the bathrooms at Mill No. 5 today. Which made us think of the central question of paleontology:
Q: Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom?
A: Because the P is silent.

Brilliant Subway Panhandling Prank Flips the Script

Hahahahahaha. This. Oh this. The Hipster Logo Design Guide.

But there was “no doubt” in Madrigal’s mind that Valhouli had a mustache and that he swirled it, like some sort of old-timey Western villain? Is the mustache assumption because he’s Greek American or because The Boston Globe article referred to his work as “Disneyland for hipsters”? Where did the leap from real-estate developer to someone who hung out at a train station get made? Was this supposed to tie him closer to Kerouac — or make him sound like some sort of train-hopping hobo? He was out “looking for damsels”? What??

With today’s access to personal information on the Internet, it took only seconds to find Valhouli’s LinkedIn page, and — unless it too is a hoax — discover he (fittingly) received his BA in English and fine art from Georgetown University, where he went on to get his MA in interactive technology. From there, he got his MBA from Columbia University’s Business School. He received the Charles G. Koch Fellowship and was a Peter Agris Fellow. He did equity research for Morgan Stanley and was director of business development for Incogniti before becoming principal at The Hammersmith Group, which describes itself as “a boutique strategy consulting firm with concentrations in real estate and technology.” His LinkedIn summary reads, in part:

Constantine has been featured in the BBC, Businessweek, CNN, Forbes, Fortune, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal. He has guest lectured at Columbia Business School, MIT, New York University, and has served as a panelist on internet industry events and at the U.S. Department of State.

There wasn’t a profile picture to verify him peeking out of a train tunnel to leer at women. The Atlantic has created its own “fauxlore” about Constantine Valhouli. Oh, how the tables have turned.

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This post has been updated to correct the publication to The Atlantic.

10 Things You May Not Know about Jack Kerouac

27 Sep

Here are ten things you may not know about Jack Kerouac.

  1. His parents were French-Canadian immigrants, and he didn’t learn to speak English until he went to school.  It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he began feeling comfortable conversing in English.
  2. He was the baby of the family.  He had an older sister named Caroline (nicknamed “Nin”) and an older brother named Gerard, who died when he was just a boy.
  3. He was a Classicist.  He used to skip school just to go read the Classics in the library.
  4. He attended prep school.  Graduating a year early from high school, he had a scholarship lined up to attend Columbia University, but they required him to attend Horace Mann Preparatory School first.
  5. While in school, he wrote music reviews.  He also had a job as a sports writer for his hometown paper.
  6. He joined the US Navy and the US Merchant Marine.
  7. His go-to food while hitchhiking across the country was apple pie.
  8. His first book, The Town and the City, was published under the name John Kerouac.  When he drew the cover he envisioned for On the Road, he also wrote his name as John Kerouac.  His parents had given him the name Jean-Louis, and John was the closest Americanization of his name.
  9. His first marriage took place in prison.  He had been arrested as a material witness after his friend murdered a man who had been stalking him.  Kerouac’s girlfriend agreed to post bail if he married her.
  10. In addition to writing, he also was a painter.

Greek Journalists Strike against the War on Words

20 Oct

I believe in the power of words.  I believe words inform, enlighten.

I also believe in the power of silence.  Silence can sometimes be more powerful than words.

On Tuesday, October 17, about 2,000 Greek journalists went on strike.  The Greek journalists protested the layoffs resulting from Greece’s poor economy and the austerity bill stipulated by creditors.  Unemployment in Greece in general is up to 16%.  Unemployment in Greek media is up 25%.  The result of the strike was that internal Greek news coverage came to a halt.  (You can read more about the details here, where I obtained the statistics.)

The media professionals on strike in Greece sent a message about the critical role of news journalists in disseminating information.  Journalists are liaisons between the government and the general public, the protesters and the general public, the protesters and the government.  They go to the front lines of protests; they gain access to interviews with politicians; they give a voice to the villager whose pension has been cut to the point that he is having trouble making ends meet.  They are spokespeople.  They are advocates.

The 25% unemployment rate in the media sector of Greece is a war on words.  The pay cuts and layoffs indicate the devaluation of research and reporting.  We see similarities in the United States, as the media sector here has yet to find an effective way of monetizing content.  Try to find employment in journalism, and the majority of the ads you’ll read list “experience,” “exposure,” and “a byline” as your compensation.  If you’re lucky, you’ll find a job that pays 2 to 10 cents a word.  The result is that we read the work of bloggers who simply aggregate content, instead of conducting research and interviews, and spout opinions.  Those inclined toward professional journalism may see the low wages and long hours and redirect their editorial skills toward, say, writing advertising copy—because, you know, we live in a society that likes to consume and be entertained, not informed.

While I understand why the Greek journalists went on strike and shut down news, it is imperative that they find ways to report on the current events taking place in Greece.  The citizens in Greece need them.  Greece should not become like North Korea, where the government controls the distribution of “information.”

Burlap to Cashmere Drops New Album Today

19 Jul

 

Back when I worked for a little indie newspaper in Los Angeles County, I had the incredible opportunity of interviewing the band Burlap to Cashmere.  They were one of my favorite bands at the time, making the whole experience of calling them up to chat — I remember I interrupted percussionist Scott Barksdale’s breakfast — and seeing them play live at Hollywood’s Key Club intensely exciting.  I was a real journalist, reporting on real stars!

I felt an immediate connection to Burlap to Cashmere.  The fast guitar, the earthy drumbeats, the yelps, the ethnic undertones — it was all so reminiscent of the Greek folk music I grew up listening to at family gatherings … and yet it was modern and lyrical too, preceding the whole indie folk rock movement.  The two founding members, cousins Steven Delopoulos and John Philippidis, were Greek like me.  Not only that, they were from New Jersey like me.  Their songs were poetry.  Their songs were full of Truth and Beauty and Love.

That was more than a decade ago, and they hadn’t put out an album since their Dove Award-winning Anybody Out There? (1998) until now.  Today, they release their new self-titled album.  The line up of the band has changed a bit, but Delopoulos, Philippidis, and Theodore Pagano are still in it.  The new album, Burlap to Cashmere, features songs like the heavily Greek-influenced “Santorini,” the sixties folk rock-sounding “Love Reclaims the Atmosphere,” and the hopeful and faithful “The Other Country.”  Watch videos here.

Hopefully, they’ll be at the Bitter End this summer!