Nov 232014

I don’t know why I am always the last to know about these things. Bruce Stone just told me about the background to the recent demise of HTMLGiant. I’ve been paying too much attention to the Jian Ghomeshi scandal in Canada. And the news here is old.

The only gossip around NC is about things like Rich’s dog Petunia throwing up or the meme jokes about the Talisker locker. We are such a tame bunch. One of our writers used to have purple hair and wear a spiked dog collar, but he is in law school now. Another used to post links to his NC pieces on his dating site profile. Nepotism. We have nepotism, several parent and child writers/artists, sometimes contributing separately, sometimes together. Brothers. Even my mother has been in the magazine! Gawker, check us out.

We also don’t have a cool genre name. Alt lit.

We’re going to have to do better.


Alt lit is caving in on itself. After a week of multiple rape and abuse allegations against prominent authors and editors, the earnest, internet-obsessed literary scene is in full crisis: Today, the alt lit criticism site and scene blog of record Htmlgiant announced that it’s shutting down. Meanwhile, in a private Facebook group associated with the blog Alt Lit Gossip, women writers have suggested forming an entirely new scene, “no boys allowed.”

Keep reading at Alt Lit Is Dead and Its Women Writers Are Creating Their Own Scene.

Nov 232014

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Stumbled on this in my researches. Nevermind what researches. A little gem of an early addiction movie that uses the Law of Unexpected Consequences to poke fun at the legendary roots of the soda pop industry in the legions of 19th century quack remedies that usually included hard drugs like cocaine, heroin and opium. The overture is quite upbeat for the subject matter. Aside from the music, it’s a silent movie, short, made by D. W. Griffith in 1912. The acting is strange to us, telegraphic (or cartoonish), faces almost masked to project the large emotions, even thoughts. I love the gestural decline of the son and secretary into degradation and death, the madcap crowds swilling Dopokoke (yes, that’s what it’s called) at the drug store (they really were drug stores in those days). Also, that secretary has just bags of hair. Amazing. (She went on acting right into the 1950s.) As an added  delight, I include a soda pop ad (above) from, I think, the 1950s. It’s clearly a Coca-Cola bottle, right? Also a brief (possibly truncated) docu-history of drugs in America).

(It’s Sunday, I have student packets, there are STILL leaves to be raked — I had to think of something to do to keep from actually working.)



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Nov 222014

It is, yes, the artist’s duty, as the Rancière to respond to the challenge of catastrophe and render the human visible again. In this, it would be remiss of me not to remind you of Bruce Stone’s brilliant short story “FPS,” his fictional recreation of a school mass shooting from the point of view of the shooter, just published in this issue on NC, a story that takes up the challenge and puts words to what cannot be said.


Rancière ties this challenge for art to the extermination of the Jews specifically to connect between the vexed question of representation and extreme violence (a connection he has addressed elsewhere, most notably in The Future of the Image, and the chapter “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?”). As he notes in Figures, it is

sometimes too easily drawn that the extermination is “unrepresentable” or “unshowable” — notions in which various heterogeneous arguments conveniently merge: the joint incapacity of real documents and fictional imitations to reflect the horror experienced; the ethical indecency of representing that horror; the modern dignity of art which is beyond representation and the indignity of art as an endeavor after Auschwitz.[iv]

Countering this problem of representing humanity’s negation, Rancière resurrects what is for many cultural theorists an all-too-familiar (if unresolved) debate:

So we have to revise Adorno’s famous phrase, according to which art is impossible after Auschwitz. The reverse is true: after Auschwitz, to show Auschwitz, art is the only thing possible, because art always entails the presence of an absence; because it is the very job of art to reveal something that is invisible, through the controlled power of words and images, connected or unconnected; because art alone thereby makes the human perceptible, felt.[v]

Rancière’s revision of the Adorno question should be taken seriously. Its purpose is to rethink the political function of art, and, in doing so, start the process that will allow us to reimagine a more artistic conception of the political that is not simply tied to perceptions of endangerment and the pure task of human survival.

Keep reading @ Facing the Intolerable: Jacques Rancière @ LA Review of Books.




Nov 212014


I was thinking the other day about stereotypical situations that pop up in movies and novels. One minor sub-genre is the writing class, which either makes a sad joke of the students or reaches for kitsch. A quick scout around the Internet netted the following scenes. If you can think of/find more, pop the link into the comment box below.

First, from Finding Forrester, we have just an awful, idiotic, sentimental, condescending Sean Connery teaching an African-American kid to write (um, by automatic typing?) and defy his teacher (this is a classic teacher rhetorical gesture in movies, BTW; one teacher sets up the other teacher is the authority figure and primes the students to rebel). In this scene, Connery sets himself up as another authority figure, an old white guy possessed of mysterious wisdom. Ugh.

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Then we have two writing class scenes from Throw Mamma From the Train, a pretty awful movie redeemed by the incredible Anne Ramsay. In both these scenes, Billy Crystal (the young writer/writing teacher) — blank,vapid — suffers before his awful students. Easy to make fun of students because writing classes do attract a certain number of people with grandiose self-images and blindness to their own deficiencies. They are everywhere in life, but in writing class they get to display themselves. Too easy to lampoon them though. And I wince for the large majority of students who are decent people with a dream, often very smart, trying to make themselves better writers.

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But here we have a brief 21-second clip that flips the false humour of the classroom scenes. Teacher and student are arguing about the “right word” and Anne Ramsay, with that bubbling, catastrophically corroded voice, comes up with the right word. Very funny.

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The Sure Thing is a cute, witty movie that I use to teach narrative structure. There are some lovely writing class scenes early in the film (which I can’t find on the Internet, so get the movie). These early scenes are much funnier than the scenes from Throw Momma From the Train because the teacher is deliciously acidulous. And the movie is poking fun at a particular student, John Cusack, who has no intention of being a writer.

In the first scene (that I could find), John Cusack’s love interest has agreed to coach him with his essay writing. Cusack doesn’t care about the writing; this is just an excuse to spend time with the girl.

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And this is the final scene from the movie, back to the writing class, and the teacher reads out Cusack’s last essay, which is an improvement on what he written before and gets him the girl. A bit sentimental, better in the context of the rest of the movie, the earlier writing scenes.

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Finally, here is a segment from the animated series Home Movies.  Coach McGuirk goes to journal writing class (to meet girls — another creative writing class cliché). I dunno. North Americans seem to find stupid, offensive people funny, which I suppose is a reflexive gesture of self-doubt. But I enjoy McGuirk trampling every single workshop piety (stereotypes all) he can get a foot on.

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As you will no doubt have observed, none of this has anything to do with writing.



Nov 202014


This piece from Open Culture is a few months old, but somehow relates in my mind to the small rumblings on this blog regarding MFA programs, creative writing, and tradition. Instead of teaching creative writing (something I take from the original piece on Open Culture Burroughs hated doing) he advocated for creative reading.

From Open Culture:

Burroughs’ lectures are heavily philosophical, which might have turned off his New York students, but surely turned on his Naropa audience… Burroughs offers creative writing instruction in each talk. His discussions of writers he admires—from Carson McCullers to Aleister Crowley to Stephen King—are fascinating, and he uses no shortage of examples to illustrate various writing techniques…. [T]he course required no student writing, no office hours or admin. Just Burroughs doing what came naturally—holding court, on literature, parapsychology, occult esoterica, violence, aliens, neuroscience, and his own novels.

Part 1

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Part 2

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Part 3

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—Jason DeYoung


Nov 192014


Just a community FYI. The site has looked the same since the last rebuild. We’re now changing some aspects of the site. Nothing huge. But the contents buttons down the righthand side of the page have been refurbished, replaced and added to. Just about all the content of the magazine can easily be accessed through the righthand navigation buttons or the BACK ISSUES button in the top navigation bar. (There are some ancient, buried things, like the wonderful if short-lived NC writing contests, that are still difficult to find — and may remain so.)

We also rearranged the top nav bar somewhat. The LINKS button has disappeared and migrated into the drop-down menu under SPECIAL FEATURES/WRITING RESOURCES. And we added an INDEX button that also has a drop-down menu that will take you anywhere in the archives by genre or category.

One of the strengths of NC is the way we honour our creators (authors, artists, curators) by having a very logical archive systems that can be accessed in multiple ways. You can easily browse all our issues by clicking on the BACK ISSUES button. But you can also explore the contents by genre (fiction, memoir & essay, reviews, poetry, etc.). And all our special features have their own page, accessed by the SPECIAL FEATURES button.

We also enlarged the front page thumbnails that go next to the headlines in in the excerpt boxes.

More to come.

Editor’s Note

Nov 192014

Here’s the third in our little catchup mini-series on the MFA debate, Chad Harbach’s response to the Mark McGurl book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. See our earlier posts: David Foster Wallace’s essay on creative writing (We might well end up with a McStory chain that would put Ray Kroc to shame) and Elif Batuman on Mark McGurl in the London Review of Books (Get a Real Degree: Elif Batuman on The Programme Era by Mark McGurl).


In his 2009 book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl describes how American fiction has become inseparable from its institutional context—the university—as particularly embodied in the writing workshop. The book is remarkable in many respects, not least for McGurl’s suggestive readings of a host of major American writers, not just Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, the compact form and ashamed contents of whose work have made them program icons, but also verbally expansive writer-professors like Nabokov and Joyce Carol Oates. In terms of the intellectual history of the writing workshop, The Program Era marks a turning point after which the MFA program comes to seem somehow different than it had previously seemed. It feels, reading McGurl, as if the MFA beast has at last been offered a look in the mirror, and may finally come to know itself as it is.

This may seem paradoxical, or backward: The writing program, after all, has long existed as an object of self-study for the people who actually attend such things, or teach in them, usually in the form of satire—David Foster Wallace’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, that movie with the Belle & Sebastian soundtrack, and on and on. But (to borrow one of McGurl’s many ideas) the program writer, even if he’s been both student and professor, always wants to assume, and is to some extent granted, outsider status by the university; he’s always lobbing his flaming bags of prose over the ivied gate late at night. Then in the morning he puts on a tie and walks through the gate and goes to his office. In the university, the fiction writer nevertheless managed not to think of himself as of the university.

via MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?.

Nov 182014

BenedictPinckney Benedict via

Here’s a lively book you all ought to read. I reviewed it in 1992 for The Chicago Tribune, which at the time had a wonderful weekly book section and sponsored the annual Nelson Algren Short Story Award. Again, this is one of those Lazarus texts, not quite dead and gone but hibernating on a hard drive. Some aren’t worth keeping, but others, like this one, serve at the least to remind me of good books that I once carefully read. You’ll have to pardon the anachronisms. Pinckney Benedict can no longer be described as a young writer. And Cormac McCarthy is much better known that he was then.



The Wrecking Yard
by Pinckney Benedict
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday


Pinckney Benedict is a young writer who hails from the hills of West Virginia and is blessed with a natural gift of southern Bible-belt oratory, part-lyric and part-hammer-and-tongs sermon. He doesn’t write like one of those precious minimalist or K-Mart realist northerners — his stories rise in the heart of a non-existent, mythic America, a no-time and no-place of elemental characters and pure narrative.

At his best, he reads like a cross between Barry Hannah (at his best) and the great, though lesser known, Cormac McCarthy of, say, Blood Meridian or Outer Dark. All three are inheritors of the southern (Faulknerian) tradition of violence and bombast. All three work a vein of exaggeration and hyperbole that is a kind of pure macho poetry.

The Wrecking Yard, Benedict’s second story collection (his first included “The Sutton Pie Safe” which won him the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award), runs the gamut from a Hemingway homage set in Nicaragua to a tale in the form of a radio play about a sideshow freak who was once struck by lightning and kills her lovers by electrocution.

The aesthetic keystone of The Wrecking Yard is “Washman,” a long story about a crippled hunchback killer, a limping evil, who shoots down a man in a gunfight over a mule, steals his girl (previously stolen from someone else) and leads a posse of upright citizens to a strange and terrible fate.

Of the twelve men who chase Washman into the mountain fastness where he lives, five die before they find him — two in avalanches, two to drowning and one to a diamondback rattlesnake. Five more die in a forest fire after they hang Washman, and the last two go mad.

The girl reaches the valley town with her hair burned off and lungs scorched, and pregnant, though she is not sure who the father is. “It will be a monster,” she says. “I’ll be mother to a monster that has eyes but no other part of a face. The flames sang it to me when their curtain passed over. They took my hair but they left me alive.”

This story takes place in a country of the imagination, not any place recognizably real. It is a peculiarly American country, a country invented by Ambrose Bierce and Bret Harte — white, poor, rural, southern and western, just at the edge of civilization (represented by women, sheriffs and doctors), just at the edge of the twentieth century (cars mix with mules and horses).

It is an eerie country of aimless, spectacular destruction, of gruesome and obsessive (or mechanical) evil. It is a place where fine speech goes for nought, where sly understatement and violence are the preferred modes of human intercourse, where retribution outweighs self-preservation, where insult and death are one, and where women are either absent or occasions for volcanic testosterone explosions.

In “Odom,” a pair of hillmen, father and son, clearing a piece of land for a new house, slowly become obsessed with blasting their parcel of forest to smithereens. The house, the original point of the exercise, is forgotten in an orgy of destruction, of pine and hemlock rocketing skywards, impelled by explosions of contraband dynamite.

“Farther away, the trees are down, but they have not been cut. They have been blasted wholesale from the ground, and the seared trunks lie at startling removes from the tangles of their roots. The trees are tumbled pell-mell over one another, two and even three deep, in a welter of sap and pith and broken wood. Odom has cleared enough space for a mansion, for the home of a giant.”

Odom even blows himself up in a premature blast — though this doesn’t stop him. At the end, bandaged head and hands, he is starting on the bedrock of his lot, hand-drilling a blast hole, father and son joined together, driving “a narrow shaft toward the hidden bitter heart of the rock.”

In Pinckney Benedict’s imaginary universe, life is a constant Coyote and Road Runner cartoon of despair. And Odom is a typical Benedict hero — obstinate to the point of stupidity, half-cartoon, half-god, huge, terrible and funny.

In “Bounty,” a gruesome shaggy dog story, a piece of poor white mountain trash named Candles drives into town with a rusty truckload of dead animals claiming a five-dollar-apiece wolf bounty from the sheriff. Candles drags the sheriff out to his truck and starts dropping the bodies of dogs on the street. It slowly dawns on the sheriff (and the reader), as the bodies accumulate, that these are family pets, mostly snagged in steel leghold traps — hounds, Alsatians, beagles.

“When Candles opened his mouth to speak, the sheriff held up a forestalling hand. ‘I don’t need to hear it,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure exactly what went on here.’ he said, indicating the back of the truck, ‘and I don’t believe I care to know.'”

Benedict’s style is laconic and deadpan. He gets comic mileage from the tension between the dry, matter-of-fact way he writes and the terrible and outlandish things he describes — from three men crawling up Washman’s hanging body to snap his neck to Odom’s blast-blackened fingers to the come-hitherish whispers of the deadly Electric Girl (whose boyfriends are all suicides).

It is not clear that Benedict has a message to get across. Rather, I think he has tapped into a deep lobe of the American psyche, a fragment of that lawless and ambiguous frontier that the nation has internalized and repressed but not forgotten.

He is weakest when he moves away from this vein of material, when he strays into the present or the real — that Hemingway homage or the title story in which a junkyard employee muses over the people who die in the cars he cannibalizes.

He is at his best when he ignores the contemporary Siren calls of sentimental realism and interpersonal sensitivity and simply lets the violence overflow, propelling his reader into a world of strange and macabre beauty.

—Douglas Glover (Published first in The Chicago Tribune Books, January, 1992)


Nov 182014

This is a photo of Black Kettle and other Cheyenne chiefs during peace talks with Major Edward W. Wynkoop at Fort Weld, Colorado (September 1864). Three months later in November, Black Kettle and his people were massacred at Sand Creek.

Difficult to read, but sometimes we have a duty to read difficult things. Alan Gilbert gives a detailed account of the run-up to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, and then tracks the collective amnesia that has allowed some of its perpetrators to maintain historical reputations unblemished. Among other things he quotes this letter, an eyewitness account by Captain S. S. Soule, who commanded a company.


The massacre lasted six or eight hours, and a good many Indians escaped. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees, have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One Squaw was wounded, and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, she held her arms up to defend her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand, and dashed the hatchet through her brain. One Squaw with her two children, were on their knees, begging for their lives, of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all firing—when one succeeded in hitting the Squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children, and then killed herself. One old Squaw hung herself in the lodges—there was not enough room for her to hang and she held up her knees and choked herself to death. Some tried to escape on the Prairie, but most of them were run down by horsemen. I saw two Indians [take] hold of one anothers hands, chased until they were exhausted, when they kneeled down, and clasped each other around the neck and were both shot together, they were all scalped, and as high as half a dozen taken from one head. They were all horribly mutilated. One woman was cut open, and a child taken out of her, and scalped.

Read the rest as Amnesia: Spain, Sand Creek, Oklahoma, Germany » 3:AM Magazine.


Nov 162014


I don’t know how many of you have been following the story of Kaci Hickox, the amazing nurse who went to Africa to treat Ebola patients then was jumped on by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and her home state Maine Governor Paul LePage. She was locked up, then quarantined and threatened with jail, despite having no symptoms. She was quite outspoken in her disdain for the efforts to control her behaviour.

I put this story next to another, the recent Canadian decision to simply revoke the citizenship of Canadians deemed to be behaving inappropriately. One used to thing that citizenship was irrevocable. Clearly not.

These stories reminded me of Giorgio Agamben’s concept of State of Exception, an idea I am only loosely beginning to understand (something like the gambit by which so-called modern democracies unilaterally exclude citizens from the bare rights to citizenship, make them non-people, and thus tend ineluctably toward totalitarianism — okay, tell me how wrong I am).

So I put together a couple of items. First, a little animated explanation of Agamben’s concepts of Homo Sacer and State of Exception. Then a lecture by Slavoj Žižek, at the beginning of which he takes a wild detour into an explanation of how western liberals mistakenly interpret the concept to State of Exception to refer to people traditionally thought of as dispossessed and voiceless. No, Agamben says. We are all in a State of Exception.

The case of Kaci Hickox just proved it.



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Nov 152014


Scraps of news on throwaway newsprint, written by an obscure French figure from the previous century — you’d think you could safely consign these to the literary trash heap. But what if they happen to be marvelous, mocking scraps, written with style and concision? “They’re leaving, those Laotian dancers who graced the fair at Marseille; they’re leaving today aboard the Polynésien.” Or this beauty of an epitaph: “There is no longer a God even for drunkards. Kersilie, of St.-Germain, who had mistaken the window for the door, is dead.”

The wry, zinging voice of one Félix Fénéon would leap out of any form, even news bulletins. In “Novels in Three Lines,” Luc Sante has translated more than a thousand of these miniature dispatches, which run in French newspapers grouped under the rubric faits divers. Not quite fillers, faits divers resemble the squibs that USA Today publishes under the name of each state, for people who are stuck on runways without a book: quick word snapshots of news from the provinces; other people’s (usually) bad news, served on hors d’oeuvre picks. In Fénéon’s hands, early-20th-century France appears as a slide show, flashing scenes both homely and bizarre. “Lit by her son, 5, a signal flare burst under the skirts of Mme. Roger, of Clichy; damages were considerable.”

via Marilyn Johnson in the NY Times.



Here are four (4) examples of the novels in three lines. Most of them are in two lines, which is a bit odd, but I appreciate the author’s effort to trim back the gushing & effusive prose of the longer piece.


M. Jonnart denied to the commission that the new tax
plan was a scheme to make the budget’s ends meet.

A criminal virago, Mlle Tulle, was sentenced by the Rouen
court to 10 years’ hard labor, while her lover got five.

Because of his poster opposing the strikebreakers, the
students of Brest lycee hissed their teacher, M. Litalien,
an aide to the mayor.

Nurse Elise Bachmann, whose day off was yesterday, put
on a public display of insanity.

via Excerpt: ‘Novels in Three Lines’ : NPR.

Nov 152014


Walter Benjamin

While we tend to vacillate schizophrenically between a kind of techno-futurist cheerleading (“The future’s so bright!”) and reactionary, apocalyptic jeremiads (“The future is doomed!”), Benjamin offered another attitude towards history — one in which we walk among the ruins of an already-present catastrophe, and the highest grace is a kind of vigilant mourning. “In all mourning there is a tendency to silence, and this infinitely more than inability or reluctance to communicate,” he wrote in 1925, but if “Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge,” in its “tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in its contemplation, in order to redeem them.”

via Shoring Against the Ruins | The Los Angeles Review of Books.


LO28906_AngelusNovusPaul Klee, Angelus Novus

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin had the curious notion that we could change the past. For most of us, the past is fixed while the future is open. Benjamin thought that the past could be transformed by what we do in the present. Not literally transformed, of course, since the one sure thing about the past is that it does not exist.

There is no way in which we can retrospectively erase the Treaty of Vienna or the Great Irish Famine. It is a peculiar feature of human actions that, once performed, they can never be recuperated. What is true of the past will always be true of it. Napoleon will be squat and Einstein shock-haired to the end of time. Nothing in the future can alter the fact that Benjamin himself, a devout Jew, committed suicide on the Franco-Spanish border in 1940 as he was about to be handed over to the Gestapo. Short of some literal resurrection, the countless generations of men and women who have toiled and suffered for the benefit of the minority – the story of human history to date, in fact – can never be recompensed for their wretched plight.

What Benjamin meant was that how we act in the present can change the meaning of the past. The past may not literally exist (any more than the future does), but it lives on in its consequences, which are a vital part of it. Benjamin also thought this about works of art. In his view, the meaning of a work of art is something that evolves over time. Great poems and novels are like slow-burning fuses. As they enter into new, unpredictable situations, they begin to release new meanings that the author himself could not have foreseen, any more than Goethe could have foreseen commercial television. For Benjamin, it is as though there are meanings secreted in works of art that only come to light in what one might call its future. Every great drama, sculpture or symphony, like every individual person, has a future that helps to define what it is, but which is beyond its power to determine.

via Waking the Dead | The New Statesman.

See also:

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry

Benjamin: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Benjamin: “On the Concept of History”

Benjamin: “The Storyteller”

Nov 132014


Eric Foley’s comment on the David Foster Wallace post yesterday (“We might well end up with a McStory chain that would put Ray Kroc to shame” — David Foster Wallace on Creative Writing Programs) sent me to read this piece by Elif Batuman from the London Review of Books from four years ago (I know, I know, I am plowing up old ground, but I have restrained myself till now, and it’s an internal debate in the backrooms of NC these days). Batuman got a “real” degree, a doctorate at Harvard. She published a wonderful little nonfiction book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, much of which appeared in the New Yorker. Read this excerpt, read the whole piece. But these sentences stand out: “Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves?” If there is one single thing lacking in the way creative writing is taught, it is the radical separation of creative writing schools from the systematic study of literature. Whether they want to or not, students and faculty often seem to exist in a bubble that consists of the last five to twenty years of literary production. Often this is narrowed to literary production in just one country, just one genre, just one style or tradition.

If you want to read a terrific contemporary story that is clearly, as Batuman suggests, “in conversation” with the greats, check out Caroline Adderson’s Chekhovian short story “Your Dog Makes Me Smile.” Or, in a different vein, read Wayne Hankey’s amazing trip through philosophical cultural and literary history “Conversion: Ontological & Secular from Plato to Tom Jones | Essay — Wayne J. Hankey.”


In the greater scheme, of course, the creative writing programme is not one of the evils of the world. It’s a successful, self-sufficient economy, making teachers, students and university administrators happy. As for literature, it will be neither made nor broken by the programme, which is doubtless as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one. That said, the fact that the programme isn’t a slaughterhouse doesn’t mean we should celebrate, or condone, its worst features. Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves? Why can’t it at least try? The programme stands for everything that’s wonderful about America: the belief that every individual life can be independent from historical givens, that all the forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch. Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. One isn’t stating conclusively that Father Knows Best, but who knows whether Father might not have learned a few useful things on the road of life, if only by accident? When ‘great literature’ is replaced by ‘excellent fiction’, that’s the real betrayal of higher education.

via Elif Batuman reviews ‘The Programme Era’ by Mark McGurl · LRB 23 September 2010.

Nov 122014


I kept seeing quotes from David Foster Wallace’s “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” and finally found a copy on the web courtesy of Evan Martin. Click here to go to his site and download the whole essay as a pdf. The essay originally appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction Vol. 8, No. 3, 1988. I am mulling this over. Many basic questions need to be answered. Why has there been such a proliferation of writing programs? A way for institutions and underemployed writers to make money? A sudden new need for writers in the economy in general? Do writing programs satisfy from spiritual thirst? Are there, in fact, more writers since the proliferation of writing programs? Do writing programs, in fact, have any statistical effect on the amount of good writing published? To me the single more telling remark DFW makes is about the generally unprepared state of most students entering writing programs (underprepared in terms of reading background, awareness of tradition, cultural history, etc.).

See also NC’s Holy Book of Literary Craft & DG’s eccentric, highly personal list of Necessary Books.



Most Programs, then, produce two kinds of students. There are those few who, whether particularly gifted or not, have enough interest and faith in their fiction instincts to elect sometimes to deviate from professors’ prescriptions. Many of these students are shown the door, or drop out, or gut out a couple years during which the door is always being pointed to, throats cleared, Fin. Aid unavailable. These turn out to be the lucky ones. The other kind are those who, the minute fanny touches chair, make the instructors’ dicta their own—whether from insecurity, educational programming, or genuine agreement (rare)—who row instead of rock, play the game quietly and solidly, and begin producing solid, quiet work, most of which lands neatly in Dreary Camp #3, nice, cautious, boring Workshop Stories, stories as tough to find technical fault with as they are to remember after putting them down. Here are the rouged corpses for Dr. Gass’s graveyard. Workshops like corpses. They have to. Because any class, even one in “creativity,” is going to place supreme value on not making mistakes. And corpses, whatever their other faults, never ever screw up.

I doubt whether any of this is revelatory, but I hope it’s properly scary. Because Creative Writing Programs, while claiming in all good faith to train professional writers, in reality train more teachers of Creative Writing. The only thing a Master of Fine Arts degree actually qualifies one to do is teach Fine Arts. Almost all present fiction professors hold something like an M.F.A. So do most editors of literary magazines. Most M.F.A. candidates who stay in the Business will go on to teach and edit. Small wonder, then, that older critics feel in so much current C.Y. fiction the tweed breeze that could signal a veritable storm of boredom: envision if you dare a careful, accomplished national literature, mistake-free, seamless as fine linoleum; fiction preoccupied with norm as value instead of value’s servant; fiction by academics who were taught by academics and teach aspiring academics; novel after critique-resistant novel about tenure-angst, coed-lust, cafeteria-schmerz.

Railing against occluded subject matter and tradition-tested style is one thing. A larger issue is whether Writing Programs and their grinding, story-every-three-weeks workshop assembly lines could, eventually, lower all standards, precipitate a broadlevel literary mediocrity, fictional equivalents of what Donald Hall calls “The McPoem.” I think, if they get much more popular, and do not drop the pose of “education” in favor of a humbler and more honest self-appraisal—a form of literary patronage and an occasion for literary community—we might well end up with a McStory chain that would put Ray Kroc to shame. Because it’s not just the unhealthy structure of the Program, the weird creative constraints it has to impose on instructors and students alike—it’s the type of student who is attracted by such an arrangement. A sheepheaded willingness to toe any line just because it’s the most comfortable way to survive is contemptible in any student. But students are just symptoms. Here’s the disease: in terms of rigor, demand, intellectual and emotional requirement, a lot of Creative Writing Programs are an unfunny joke. Few require of applicants any significant preparation in history, literature, criticism, composition, foreign languages, art or philosophy; fewer still make attempts to provide it in curricula or require it as a criterion for graduation.

—David Foster Wallace


Nov 112014

lynne_tillman_by_david_shankboneLynne Tillman by David Shankbone.

Here’s a review I wrote of Lynne Tillman’s 1992 novel Cast in Doubt. Those were the days when I was a young, hungry whipper-snapper trying to review in all the notable places. It was also my introduction to a lot of amazing writers, including Lynne Tillman. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post Book World, then, as is the nature of these things, it more or less disappeared. Kirkus Reviews called the book “Beach reading for the John Hawkes set.” Which is pretty funny actually, stupid and smarmy and quite smart all at once. Would that all readers were of “the John Hawkes set.” The novel was originally published by Simon & Schuster’s Poseidon Press and finally reprinted by Red Lemonade. We have published a story by Tillman on Numéro Cinq. You can read it here.



Cast in Doubt
By Lynne Tillman


Cast in Doubt is a clever, witty, passionately written act of postmodern literary prestidigitation — a mystery novel without a body, a murder, or crime of any kind.

Not only that, but the novel’s hero-narrator, significantly a writer of detective mysteries, temporizes, delays, makes false starts and detours, searching for clues in old books, then completely muffs his investigative quest, and finally abandons it without solution.

Yet Lynne Tillman, the author of four previous books, writes with such elan, such spirited delight and comic intelligence, that it is difficult to take anything but pleasure in the jokes, aphorisms, potted etymologies and digressions which are the real substance of this book.

Tillman’s point is that the traditional mystery novel is an old-fashioned rationalist project, offspring of an outmoded epistemology. The crime is always soluble, the resolution a neatly logical tying up of motives and loose ends. A postmodern mystery novel, on the other hand, is about what Ludwig Wittgenstein called the “dark background” of our thoughts and words. As Horace, Tillman’s sixtyish, gay narrator says, “I am drawn to the mystery and inconclusiveness of life…”

Cast in Doubt begins on Crete, in a fishing village where a gossipy community of artsy expatriates dwells in restive seclusion. Horace, a New Englander by birth, lives with a Greek boy named Yannis and bickers fitfully with his fellow denizens — an insane South African poet, a former child movie star turned into a hermit who worships electricity, and a retired opera diva.

Helen, an American girl with a pierced nose, arrives one day to disrupt Horace’s complacency. Helen is beautiful and aloof. She carries a diary with “analyst” printed on its cover. In her wake trails a would-be lover named John who promptly attempts suicide by cutting his own throat. Like language itself, she seems pregnant with meaning.

Horace befriends Helen, toys with the idea of falling in love with her (as bizarre as this seems, even to him), then offends her with his nosy intrusiveness when he goes to visit John in the local hospital. As suddenly as she appeared, Helen departs, possibly in search of a mysterious Gypsy woman she has mentioned meeting.

Horace suspects Helen needs saving from something — her past (John mentions a twin sister who may have killed herself), or Gypsy con artists. He decides to search for her but falls under a spell of doubt and lethargy upon the arrival of his friend, Gwen, from New York. Gwen is a hip, cynical black woman, a famous scene-maker in the Village. She deflates Horace’s odd passion for the slender Helen, then makes a pass at the recovering John.

Eventually Horace does drive off, secretly, and in the wrong direction. He meets a Gypsy caravan, gets drunk, stays the night and has his fortune told — “You can’t see,” the fortuneteller intones. “You do not learn. You only look for the right things.” The next day, on a beach, he meets Stephen, the child-star-hermit, who happens to be carrying Helen’s diary, which Horace steals. Having found her private narrative, the story of the story, he loses interest in Helen herself and races home again. But the diary is enigmatic and fragmentary. It ends with a list:

Do laundry
buy glue
meet S
phone W
toilet paper

Horace’s attempt to solve a real mystery, not just one in a book, comes to nought. Helen never reappears, nor is there any hint that anything untoward has befallen her. Years intervene — during which Horace writes a new crime novel appropriately entitled The Big Nothing. At the book’s close, he is bemused, philosophical, and contemplating a trip to the market.

Cast in Doubt is about meaning and the writing of books — and the impossibility of both. (Horace is always planning a magnum opus called Household Gods which never gets finished.) It takes language, not as a device for communication, but as a limiting concept characterized by what the post-mods call slippage (puns, double entendres, Freudian slips, etc.).

It says that things are not what they seem, that life is wayward and uncertain, and that there is high comedy in the collision between our over-weaning confidence in words and life’s mocking inconclusiveness. And when, as happens, Horace gets drunk and begins to vamp and dance, he becomes for us a precious image of all humans, not as wounded and alienated, but as fumbling, playful beings, essentially at home in and absorbed by the shifting messages and meanings that make up the world.

—Douglas Glover
(Originally published in Washington Post Book World, 1992)


Nov 082014

I can’t resist posting this on the blog if only for the line in the title bar and for this shining anecdote about the vapid ex-writing program student. It’s from a review of Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters in the NY Times today drawn to my attention by Marina Endicott on her Twitter feed.


On the plane I was reading this book.

“Do you like Denis Johnson?” the woman beside me asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“I’ve always felt he doesn’t like his characters very much,” she said.

“O.K.,” I said.

She had gone to a writing program, had graduated from a writing program but no longer wrote, possibly because her characters’ demand for respect and compassion became too onerous. She had become an acupuncturist and had a child. Now she and the child were coming back from Cabo San Lucas, where she had attended some sort of acupuncture conference, I think. That part was a little vague, but we didn’t talk much after the child spilled juice all over us.

via ‘The Laughing Monsters,’ by Denis Johnson –

Nov 052014

CaptureYves Klein via Wikipedia

YouTube Preview Image

This guy mystifies me, makes me think. Dead at 34 (multiple heart attacks), three years after this picture was taken in 1959, considered one of the early performance artists and a pioneer of the so-called New Realism in France, by which was meant a kind of super-realism that saw art as gesture, not representation, a daub of paint on a white board (no, that’s not right, more like instead of painting a woman you use a woman’s body to put a daub of paint on a white board). A little old hat now. You watch the video (whoa — in the second half watch the naked women and the FLAME THROWER). Naked women used as sponges and brushes by the formally attired artist, men in suits in chairs around the painting area. I am amused by his stiff earnestness as he nudges and guides the naked women into place. I am amused by the stiff old guys along the wall. I remember André Breton’s autobiographical novel Nadja, about the narrator, his wife and the neurotic, wild woman he falls in love with (neurotically — really, it’s the right word — and wildly). What is exposed in art SO OFTEN is the male assumption that women are the instruments and objects of art not artists, that men find wisdom or redemption through women (the flip side of this, of course, is the classic male fear that women ALREADY KNOW). Look at Klein’s photograph again. He is so young, so earnest, and so naive (and well-dressed despite the paint spatters). Pathos here. Not just for him, but for the women, also for the men sitting along the wall watching. Everyone so locked in his or her own (permitted) adventure, not the real adventure. Now watch the video again, look at the photograph, everyone near death, full of life, youth, enjoying the moment, even the women (dutiful, practical, earnest — interesting how aseptic, non-erotic the film is). I write this not to condemn Yves Klein. Not at all. We are so quick to condemn people for their false ideas with the same naive earnestness, the same belief in our own righteousness. The trouble with human beings is that they are all so well-intentioned (except, you know, for the psychopaths and narcissists). What is the real adventure?


Nov 022014


Dzanc Books has just brought out Philip Graham’s entire fiction backlist in ebooks, two fabulous story collections, The Art of the Knock and Interior Design, and Graham’s amazing first novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language. Each book has a new introduction, each is beautiful. From this embarrassment of riches, we have chosen to tease you with only a sample. Here is the story “Light Bulbs” from The Art of the Knock.  The story originally appeared in The New Yorker. Also Kyle Minor’s splendid introduction to the book.

Philip Graham is an old friend, a constant supporter of the work we do at NC. He is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being Braided Worlds, the second volume of a memoir of Africa (co-written with Alma Gottlieb) published by the University of Chicago Press. He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the fiction editor.  He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His continuing series of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at


PhilipGrahamPhilip Graham


An Introduction to Philip Graham’s The Art of the Knock

Chinese boxes. Russian matroyshka dolls. The thing within the thing within the thing. The thing opening out onto the other thing opening out onto the other thing. “We seem to have been digging for a very long time,” say they who narrate the first words. “Everything gets darker, and darker, and while with our shovels the path constantly gives way, it never breaks into a clearing.”

Are these people talking about “The Road to China,” the distance from here to the other side of the world, or about everything, the groping in the darkness of the every day, and the possibility, the mystery, just beyond what can be seen?

“We chip away,” they say, “at what we hope to be behind it: the possibility of an exotic marketplace, intrigue and its attendant court, intense voices that reject our alphabet.”

Only one paragraph separates the word “alphabet” from the sentence about shovels that reads, in its entirety: “These dull tools.” Then: “After all our careful and devoted sharpening, all they do is shrink away. Soon they’ll be nothing but exposed necks, wooden phrases against this hard silences.”


“Yet if we’re lucky, if we’re really lucky, we’ll end up scraping our hands—our shovels long gone—against the first root tips, those same root tips that have been growing toward us for such a long time.”

Are we talking about the distance from here to there, or the realization of something circular? When we get there, will the path through the darkness have led to a new light or to the same light we fled in the first place?

Soon the story changes, and so does the speaker. Now the we has become the I, and the I is telling us what to do. “First rule: don’t deny the knock its pleasure, play with it.” Our speaker is a traveling salesman, and what he’s selling is The Dissolving Toothpick, the All-Peel Orange, the Beanless Bags, the Chilly-Pepper Doggy Bones. “Me, I sell anything,” he says, “and so I’m an adaptive knocker.”

(Like our speaker, like many writers and human beings of my acquaintance, I, too, have become a developer of the antiknock. “I rap very forcefully, stopping just a half-inch shy of the door . . . I’ve been known to terrify a door with implied threats for hours while waiting for the residents to chance out on an errand.”)

What has one speaker to do with the other? And what do either of them have to do with the we who have “banished the voice,” the we of the printed hands, the we with the Granny who will “silently move her lips, designating her desire”?

And what has that we to do with the I who was the young girl when she first found the binoculars, or the daughter who wants to know “Why is the wall dirty?” or the woman who wakes to “the sound of her husband’s fingers tapping against the mattress”?

As the reader moves through Philip Graham’s The Art of the Knock, it takes some time to realize how misleadingly the book has been packaged, because we begin in the idea that we’re reading detachable “Stories,” yet we soon realize we’re in the midst of a terrible, fearful, and ultimately wonderful design, which emerges slowly as we move through it, which has direction and symmetry, in which the preoccupations recur and recur, and in which all the parts are in conversation.

We begin on “The Road to China,” and we end in “China.” The three sections titled “The Art of the Knock” (One, Two, and Three) are equidistant, as parts II, IV, and VI. The bulk of the book’s pages, the little stories, are nestled between knocks, and they are mirror images of the same catalog of twinned mysteries and wonders: sounds and silences, distances and nearnesses, oldnesses and newnesses, light and dark, the inhabited and the deserted, the shadows and the substantial, the inside and the outside, the here and the there, the living and the other-than-living, the she and the he.

After all that digging, when China is nearly in reach, we realize that the we of the diggers and the I of the knocker and all the other he’s and she’s and I’s and we’s and they’s have become a vast parade in which we, too—the reader, the writer, you and the I and the we we have become together—are one we, even as we imagine ourselves into isolatingly particular I’s. This is Philip Graham’s special magic, to bring close to us a thing we have already been experiencing. And so it means so many different things, all at once, to hear how “The dark walls had come to a comfort,” and “only then did we begin to fear our tunnel might actually reach to the other side, to China.”

And what then?

Perhaps you already know, or perhaps you are finding out, or perhaps, like me, you’re still a few feet away from those same root tips that have been growing toward us for such a long time.

 —Kyle Minor


Light Bulbs


Mother and Father seldom hear from the children. Their daughter, living alone in Asia, writes letters in a calligraphy so beautiful that they have stopped having them translated. Instead, Mother laminates them for use as place mats. The graceful characters enhance the irregular swirls of spilled gravy, the random drips of coffee. And the twins, who recently swapped spouses and are fighting over custody of their children, rarely call.

Home remains quiet. Mother and Father never were great talkers and they still aren’t; they keep busy in other ways. Mother continues to knit her afghan for the children—each knitted row another line of a sad, undelivered letter that has long since grown out of the sewing room and lies in neat folds along the sides of the hall. Father continues to repair the abandoned toys, remembering with amusement how the twins would insist on identical toys and how they would always break them in the same way. Now the old playroom seems like a convalescent home, where fewer and fewer visitors come. Waiting for the return of something they perhaps can’t name, Mother and Father keep the curtains open in the evenings and all the lights on. Sometimes they stand together at the bay window and stare out at an impenetrable darkness—a darkness like a photographic negative, which reflects back their lonely, peering faces.

Lately, the light bulbs have begun to go out in an unpredictable and alarming way—in the study, over the stairwell, in the middle of a recipe in the kitchen. Some nights, Mother and Father have to stalk from room to room, fresh bulbs in hand, seeking to transform every dim corner. From the outside, their home seems to have a nervous blink.

Father finds himself attracted to the sound of the bulbs as they go out—some with a kind of smoky burst, some with a faint, regretful pop. It’s as if they all had their own secret reasons for leaving. He also can’t avoid noticing the way the old bulbs fit into the palm of his hand like the warm head of an infant. Father keeps this to himself. He has begun to spend more of his time at night watching the lights and less with Mother at the bay window.

Father stands in the hallway, peering around a bookcase, waiting for a room to be enveloped in darkness. When it happens, he untwists the bulb and listens to the death rattle of its tiny filament. He stares at its pale face, dimly lit from the next room, and notes the smudgy bruise on its forehead: a fatal inner injury. Then he holds the bulb up to his ear in an attempt to hear any last words. Mother watches him from a corner. She follows him from room to room. She notices how he replaces each used bulb with a fresh one from his supply. “Soon,” she murmurs to herself,“ all the lights in the house will be his.”

One night, when Father returns to the bay window, Mother isn’t there. He calls her name, but there is no answer. Almost without knowing it, he feels a satisfaction slipping away inside him. He hurries down the halls, peering into every doorway. There, in the bedroom, standing on a chair, replacing a ceiling light with one of her own, is Mother.

“What are you doing?” Father cries out.

“I don’t trust your light bulbs,” she replies.

After this, Mother and Father avoid each other. They brood in separate rooms, each of them alone with a single lamp and its sympathetic light. Quietly, without formal declaration, they agree to split the house between them. Father claims the study, the guest room, the twins’ bedroom, the playroom, the basement, and half of the hallways. Mother claims the master bedroom, their daughter’s bedroom, the dining room, the living room, the attic, and the other half of the hallways. The bathrooms are disputed and the kitchen is neutral.

Days pass and the mail accumulates. Bills, catalogs, and even a beautiful letter from overseas lie unopened on the kitchen table. Father spends his afternoons in the basement, where he attempts to repair the broken bulbs. The useless vacuum, the trapped filament, the untouchable interior all serve to hold him at bay. When he inspects his rooms in the evenings, he half-hopes he won’t find still another lifeless bulb to add to his defeats.

Mother continues to knit. When a bulb dies with a silent sigh in one of her rooms she rushes to it with open palms, unscrews it, and then carries it to the afghan, which now lies along her side of the hallway. Her sad, used bulbs are tucked under the folds of the blanket, with the names she has painted on their foreheads: Buzzy, Janet, Spencer, Darlene, Kevin, Tia—names she always wanted to give to children she never had. Now Mother places the latest—Charles—under the warm fold. When she tucks him in, he stays tucked: a little sleeper who will never awake.

Father, far from content, begins to plan sabotage. In the afternoons, while Mother nods over her latest stretch of afghan, Father untwists her bulbs slightly in the sockets until they go out. Later, drowsy but then anxious, she hurries to replace them, not noticing Father’s trick. In the evening, Father switches his used bulbs, his failed patients, for the good ones that Mother has unwittingly laid to rest under the blanket. In this way, Father begins to light his rooms with her bulbs. One afternoon Mother dreams that her little sleepers are restless, rattling their filaments as they doze. But she wakes to see it is Father, unscrewing one of her bulbs. Mother is startled, but remains silent. “Soon,” she whispers to herself, no longer fooled, “all the bulbs in the house will be mine.”

But this plan fails too. When lit, Mother’s painted bulbs begin to melt their names, which, drop by drop, gather in puddles on lamp stands, chairs, and rugs. Father stares for a long time at the stains, difficult script of another language. Though disappointed, Father now launches further raids on Mother’s territory, searching for broken bulbs, bulbs without names. Mother, her half-closed eyes ever alert, keeps watch through her nap. When he passes down the hall, she lays aside her knitting and, bulbs in hand, explores his dark rooms. Father hears her light footsteps overhead, in the study. Like Mother, he now begins to understand that each bulb could be a friend or an enemy. Boundaries disappear, and Father and Mother enter the rooms like guerrillas, ever on the alert.

One night, the light in the playroom goes out, and Mother and Father arrive there at the same instant, through different doors. Each convinced that the other is about to seize the dead bulb and twist it from its socket, they circle each other in the dark, crushing toy soldiers and porcelain dolls under their feet. Little wooden helmets and tiny, unblinking glass eyes roll about on the floor. Mother and Father try to step around these as they tiptoe silently, listening for the dry squeak of a turning bulb.

The phone rings. Who could it be? One of the twins? Gripping their bulbs tighter, Mother and Father each wait for the other to break and run to the telephone. Perhaps it’s long distance from their daughter! Both Mother and Father are close to giving in, when the ringing stops, just before the tenth bell. Mother and Father stand very still, facing each other, eyes now accustomed to the darkness. The bulb above them waits patiently in its socket. They each take two steps forward, and then, without speaking, Father lifts Mother up and she replaces their bulb.

Now Father and Mother live silently together. They have disconnected the phone, they continue to leave the mail unopened, and they do not answer the doorbell. Mother and Father are busy with their bulbs. Mother knits shades for all the lamps in the house, choosing a different stitch for each—a special pattern of light on every wall. Father builds cabinets to hold the new bulbs—a honeycomb of unborn lights. Now when a bulb goes out, the feeling for Mother and Father is bittersweet: the gift of light has given way to the gift of darkness. When the bulb over the dining room table goes off, right in the middle of dessert, the last few spoons of tapioca seem to taste better in the dark. Then they rise and take that bulb slowly out of its socket, Mother standing on a chair and Father holding the chair steady. They place the still-warm bulb in a potholder Mother specially knitted, and together they climb the stairs to the attic.

Once there, they open a large hope chest. Even in the dimness they can see rows and rows of bulbs laid to rest. Mother and Father stand quietly a few moments, respecting each other’s thoughts. Then they carefully place the bulb with its companions. The new addition sends a staggered chorus of sympathetic clicks throughout the rows of bulbs, and this slight song is heard by Mother and Father long after they close the hope chest and descend the stairs to their brightly lit rooms.

—Philip Graham


Here are Philip Graham’s personal book pages:
Also an essay on the use of objects in his fiction:
And finally, a collection of recent interviews and articles that have appeared in support of the reprints: