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Happiness studies (Is that a legitimate category of research now? I think yes) have produced results that often surprise me and feel counterintuitive. One well known study from a few years ago found that happiness is not just the product of a proactive program of self help books and positive thinking. It also is impacted by the collective. The phenomenon of happiness spreads through social networks like an emotional contagion. As one researcher put it, “How happy you are may depend on how happy your friends’ friends’ friends are, even if you don’t know them at all…And a cheery next-door neighbor has more effect on your happiness than your spouse’s mood.” (An earlier post, Catching Some Happy, addresses some of the findings of that study.)

This phenomenon has naturally led to thoughts about what else might be operating in that emotional contagion model. What other emotions (or memes) are spilling over invisibly into our lives? Given the highly bipartisan state of our nation, it doesn’t seem to apply to political beliefs and our interpretive spin on reality. But what about the sought after qualities—bravery, inventiveness, resourcefulness, creativity, moxie–that are, like happiness, held in high esteem by everyone regardless of political affiliation?

I am operating in the zone of imaginative conjecture here but only because I am frequently inspired—deeply—when someone I know steps up and out of the quotidian and does something extraordinary.

I had just that experience this week when I received a copy of David B. Marshall‘s newly published book, The Lost Work of Wasps. Marshall became one of my favorite online connections when I discovered one of his blogs several years ago. He is a writer, artist and a teacher, and his posts on his most recent site Signals to Attend are full bodied, exquisitely wrought and always thoughtful. What I didn’t foresee was how transformed his jeweled insights—which I have been experiencing in serial form over time—are by taking up residence in book form.

Using the template first used by Yoshida Kenko, a 14th century Buddhist monk who assembled a collection of his brief essays into a book called Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idelness), Marshall has found a container for his wide angle mind and eye. By combining words with his own drawings—he calls them “doodles”—The Lost Work of Wasps can be read in a linear fashion or in random access, Hafiz style. (In the Persian tradition, personal questions are answered by randomly opening the Oracle of Shiraz’s book of poems to find the answer.)

The idea of borrowing Kenko’s format may sound like a bit of cleverness, but it is neither manipulative nor misused. It is actually a perfect fit for the way Marshall’s mind moves from one concept to another. And having his thinking flow in my hand feels very different than scrolling down through his posts online. Blogs have their own footprint. So does a book.

I know this is obvious but I keep being surprised when I am reminded once again of how forms affect content. It’s like the experience of trying to move a small artwork into a large format and finding that it just won’t translate. Lyric isn’t epic, intimate isn’t high drama, and a book feels and reads differently than a blog.

And what a boost all of us get from Marshall’s bravery and vision. The spillover of creative resonance is like getting order for free in chaos theory. Thanks David, and congratulations.


Colson Whitehead‘s contribution to the New York Times Book Review’s “How To” issue on Sunday is titled How to Write. You know, a topic that fits neatly into 11 easy-to-follow rules. Well, sort of.

It’s a funny piece. Famously smart and clever, Whitehead’s novels include The Intuitionist (which I loved) and most recently, Zone One.

And as is often the case, advice for writers (even when tongue in cheek) can also be be good advice for painters and other makers. Here are a few of Whitehead’s rules that may speak to the rest of us:

Rule No. 2
Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration…Once your subject finds you, it’s like falling in love. It will be your constant companion. Shadowing you, peeping in your windows, calling you at all hours to leave messages like, “Only you understand me.” Your ideal subject should be like a stalker with limitless resources, living off the inheritance he received after the suspiciously sudden death of his father. He’s in your apartment pawing your stuff when you’re not around, using your toothbrush and cutting out all the really good synonyms from the thesaurus. Don’t be afraid: you have a best seller on your hands.

Rule No. 8
Is secret.

But of course!

Rule No. 9
Have adventures. The Hemingway mode was in ascendancy for decades before it was eclipsed by trendy fabulist “exercises.” The pendulum is swinging back, though, and it’s going to knock these effete eggheads right out of their Aeron chairs. Keep ahead of the curve. Get out and see the world. It’s not going to kill you to butch it up a tad. Book passage on a tramp steamer. Rustle up some dysentery; it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone.

The last and arguably most important:

Rule No. 11
There are no rules. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too? No…Most of all, just be yourself.

The “rag and bone shop” barn studio of my (nearly) lifelong friend, artist George Wingate. Our conversations here and in other venues over the last 40 years have been some of my favorites.

My friend Robert Hanlon recently wrote me and said, “You are an expensive friend: you make me buy books!” Sorry Robert, but here’s another one I know you are going to want to read and mark up as your own. It’s a fortunate thing you are so good at selling your art.

Between Artists: Twelve contemporary American artists interview twelve contemporary American artists is a simple idea but oh so valuable. Reading these artists conversing with other artists (who are, in most cases, already good friends) is a bit like listening to really good mechanics talk shop with other really good mechanics—a lot of under the hood chatter, sharing of tips and the undefended discussion of the practical as well as the intuitive. In these conversations both the art and the craft of a body of work are worthy topics. Of course some exchanges are more resonant with me (I will be sharing some highlights later from my favorite, Chuck Close interviewing his graduate school buddy Vija Celmins) but all in all this is a volume I’ll be referring to many times in the future.

As a teaser, here’s a few lines from the introduction, written by the inveterate trickster king Dave Hickey:

The speakers in these interviews are saddled with the tragi-comic injunction to talk about that which they cannot: their art—to discuss that practice, which, were it explicable, they should not be pursuing, to explain those objects which, had they known what they were making, they almost certainly should not have made. Thus, Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog and the fox is applicable here. “The fox knows many little things,” Berlin explains, “the hedghog knows one big thing,” and artists, as artists, are almost always hedgehogs. They know one big thing, the thing that drives the engine, that perpetually eludes articulation. So what we have here, between these covers, is the conversation of hedgehogs playing at being foxes. We do not get that one big thing, nor could we expect it. But we do get the atmosphere, the filigree of little things, of accident and incident, of nuance and desire, that surrounds the enormous absence that the work of art must, necessarily, fill in our lived experience.

A shelf of visual stimulants in my studio

The artistic value of hermiting and the need for isolation has been an ongoing theme on this blog, so of course I was intrigued reading Tony Perrottet‘s essay in the Sunday New York Times Book Review about writers, isolation—self-inflicted and otherwise—and the discipline needed to work. (Curiously, the piece is titled Serving the Sentence in the print version, Why Writers Belong Behind Bars online.)

Perrottet, author of The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, researched the life of that legendary “sinner”, the Marquis de Sade, and came to the conclusion that, based on output, “prison was the best thing that ever happened to the Marquis de Sade. Other writers should be so lucky…By 1788, after only 11 years behind bars, Sade had churned out 8 novels and story collections, 16 historical novellas, 2 volumes of essays, a diary and some 20 plays. Whatever you make of Sade’s oeuvre, you have to envy his productivity.”

Other writers found their own way of creating isolation and inviting productivity. Annie Dillard pushed her desk away from the windows looking out on a verdant forest in Cape Cod to face a blank wall. Her warning: “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” John Cheever worked in a dark basement of his New York apartment building. Edna Ferber of Algonquin Round Table fame looked onto the “blank brick wall of a cold-storage warehouse.”

Blank walls don’t serve the same purpose for a visual artist that they might for a writer. The eye needs to be fed, and sometimes it can be delighted by a twig’s shape or a pebble’s surface. But the demons of distraction for artists are still real, and as for writers they are ubiquitous, clever and constantly morphing. The 21st century has made it possible for them to find us whenever and wherever we may be working:

Being chained to the desk, as the expression goes, is no longer a guarantee of productivity. Who can stick with the blank page when the click of a mouse opens up a cocktail party of chattering friends, a world-class library, an endless shopping mall, a game center, a music festival and even a multiplex? At once-remote literary colonies, writers can now be spotted wandering the fields with their smartphones, searching for reception so they can shoot off a quick Facebook update. These days, Walden Pond would have Wi-Fi, and Thoreau might spend his days watching cute wildlife videos on YouTube. And God knows what X-rated Web sites the Marquis de Sade would have unearthed.

Jonathan Franzen has famously described how he wrote The Corrections wearing “earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold”, and for his latest novel, Freedom, he shut down his Ethernet port with Super Glue.

Honoré de Balzac had no ports to plug up, but he found other ways of staying focused on his work:

[Balzac] felt that the most effective spur to productivity was abject poverty. As a best-selling writer in his early 30s, Balzac looked back fondly upon his younger days as a bohemian, living in a garret and gnawing on a diet of bread, nuts, fruit and water. (“I loved my prison,” he wrote, “for I had chosen it myself.”) Even when successful, he would wake at midnight, symbolically don the habit of a medieval monk, and write for eight hours straight, fueled by pots of coffee. His biographer Graham Robb suggests that Balzac went so far as to deliberately run up debts to force himself to churn out the pages. Given the dwindling amounts writers are paid these days, the fear of bankruptcy—the modern debtor’s prison—remains an inspiration to us all.

Some artists thrive by living and/or working in artist buildings and by being part of lively communities of like-minded folk. Others need isolation, lots of it, and seek it with a spiritual hunger. Maybe it is just figuring out what works for you, be it a blank wall, the spur of poverty or a disabled Internet. For me, it is just quiet. Lots of it.

Image from a recent show in Boston by artist and printmaker (and one of my favorites) Fred H. C. Liang that suggests a particular kind of enchantment of the visual type.

This is a continuation of the post below since I am letting myself fall under the spell of Borges, the Borges of these 7 lectures. (There are, after all, so many versions of him, which is part of the mystique.)

Something in me is having this experience of feeling as if I am encountering my own feelings. But they are so much more eloquently expressed.

For example, on the topic of traveling:

In Buenos Aires, one day is much like another…But when I travel, I move from one comfortable armchair to another, a kindly ghost materializes and talks to me, very informedly, about my writings, then vanishes, to be replaced at once with another. It makes for great variety.

Kindly ghosts coming and going, talking informedly. I know about this!

From the short but excellent introduction by Alistair Reid:

The lectures in this book all reveal these connected shifts in Borges’ attention, the flow of his mind and memory. In understanding Borges, it is important to remember that, for him, literary experience has been more vivid an affecting than real experience, or better said, that there is no sensible difference between the two; so that when Borges is talking about books and writers, it is like talking of landscapes and journeys, so vivid has his reading been to him…

Criticism, he has reminded us, is simply a branch of imaginative literature…

For him, literature at its highest point generates awe, the disquieting astonishment that arises from a poem, a deep image, a crucial paragraph, what he calls either asombro or sagrada horror, “holy dread.” The writers he reaches for are those who have given him this essential experience; and it is what most distinguishes his own work, when, in a few phrases, the sharp edges of reality quiver in doubt, the awe is tangible.

Regarding The Thousand and One Nights:

The Orient is the place where the sun comes from. There is a beautiful German word for the East, Morgenland, the land of morning. For the West it is Abendland, land of afternoon. You will recall Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes, that is, the downward motion of the land of afternoon, or, as it was translated more prosaically, The Decline of the West. I think that we must not renounce the word Orient, a word so beautiful, for within it, by happy chance, is the word oro, gold. In the word Orient we feel the word oro, for when the sun rises we see a sky of gold. I come back to the famous line of Dante: “Dolce color d’oriental zaffiro.” The word oriental here has two meanings: the Oriental sapphire, which comes from the East, and also the gold of morning, the gold of that first morning in Purgatory.

While talking about Dante’s Divine Comedy:

Enchantment, as Stevenson has said, is one of the special qualities a writer must have. Without enchantment, the rest is useless.

Is it just me or is this man a conjurer, a magician? I don’t ever want to exit his spirited zone. Please, let me stay in Borgian flotation forever.

Green glass in my studio window

Continuing on a theme of Fitzgerald…

To have something to say is a question of sleepless nights and worry and endless ratiocination of subject – of endless trying to dig out the essential truth, the essential justice. As a first premise you have to develop a conscience and if on top of that you have talent so much the better. But if you have talent without the conscience, you are just one of many thousands of journalists.

–F. Scott Fitzgerald

And one more companionable thought:

The writing itself is no big deal. The editing, and even more than that, the self-doubt, is excruciatingly impossible. Profound, bottomless self-doubt: it has no value, what’s the point? In a way, that takes up as much time as anything else.

–Jonathan Safran Foer

All of this of course maps over into the other métiers. “Profound, bottomless self-doubt” takes up space in painting, poetry and music just as easily as it does prose.

Malcolm Gladwell is a phenom to be sure. His books always end up on the best seller list (there are two of them on now, Outliers and What the Dog Saw) and he is a popular inspirational keynote speaker. I admit, I imbibe. I read his New Yorker pieces religiously. I’ve read all his books. He’s got something in his approach to reportage that is terribly attractive, like the literary journalism equivalent of the salt, sugar and fat that food manufacturers knowingly combine to make it impossible for us to eat just one potato chip. Is his flavor edge that he takes an easy open approach to problem solving? Is it the comfort of finally thinking I understand why mammograms are so hard to read and why John Kennedy Jr’s plane crashed off Martha’s Vineyard? Am I being too harsh? Because the truth is, some part of me enjoys reading Gladwell. It goes down easy, like comfort food. But then there is that nagging sense at the back of the throat that I’m not getting a full meal.

Some of that discomfort is captured in a thorough and extremely intriguing article, “Gladwell for Dummies,” by Maureen Tkacik in The Nation, which begins with this summary of the Gladwell critique problem:

That success is in the eye of the unsuccessful would seem to be the great unspoken dilemma dogging critics asked to consider the work of the rich and famous author and inspirational speaker Malcolm Gladwell. No matter how well intentioned or intellectually honest their attempts to assess his ideas, the subtext of Gladwell’s perceived success, and its implications for their own aspirations in the competitive thought-generation business, obscures their judgment and sinks their morale. Nearly a decade has passed since the New York Times dryly summarized Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), as “a study of social epidemics, otherwise known as fads,” and yet, each Sunday, it still taunts perusers of the paperback nonfiction rankings, where it currently sits in sixth place. Gladwell may be merely “a slickster trickster” who “markets marketing” (as James Wolcott put it), or a “clever idea packager” who “cannot conceal the fatuousness of his core conclusions” (science writer John Horgan); he might even be an “idiot” (Leon Wieseltier). But one thing is clear: Gladwell is no fad. He is a brand, a guru, a fixture at New York publishing parties and in the spiels of literary agents hoping to steer writers toward concepts that will strike publishers as “Gladwellian.”

(This article is well worth reading in its entirety.)

But here’s a perfect example of Gladwellian writing that stimulates and inspires. From his piece, “The Ketchup Conumdrum,” Gladwell explains why mustards can come in many styles but ketchup is ketchup:

After breaking the ketchup down into its component parts, the testers assessed the critical dimension of “amplitude,” the word sensory experts use to describe flavors that are well blended and balanced, that “bloom” in the mouth. “The difference between high and low amplitude is the difference between my son and a great pianist playing ‘Ode to Joy’ on the piano,” Chambers says. “They are playing the same notes, but they blend better with the great pianist.” Pepperidge Farm shortbread cookies are considered to have high amplitude. So are Hellman’s mayonnaise and Sara Lee poundcake. When something is high in amplitude, all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt. You can’t isolate the elements of an iconic, high-amplitude flavor like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. But you can with one of those private-label colas that you get in the supermarket. “The thing about Coke and Pepsi is that they are absolutely gorgeous,” Judy Heylmun, a vice-president of Sensory Spectrum, Inc., in Chatham, New Jersey, says. “They have beautiful notes—all flavors are in balance. It’s very hard to do that well. Usually, when you taste a store cola it’s”— and here she made a series of pik! pik! pik! sounds—”all the notes are kind of spiky, and usually the citrus is the first thing to spike out. And then the cinnamon. Citrus and brown spice notes are top notes and very volatile, as opposed to vanilla, which is very dark and deep. A really cheap store brand will have a big, fat cinnamon note sitting on top of everything.”

Amplitude has become a common term being put to work in every industry, from book publishing to digital marketing campaigns. And after reading this passage I too wanted to claim it for that aha! experience we have all had with a work of art. Who can explain why it is that everything comes together to make a painting sing? One of my college professors described a great painting as one that almost doesn’t work, but it does. The teetering edginess, that amazing balancing act of composition, color, texture, content, intent—unlike ketchup, that is not a recipe or prescription that anyone can pass along. But amplitude is an apt term nonetheless.

Maybe Gladwell’s writings are best employed as a condiment. I don’t mean that as a put down. I have a fridge full of fine condiments, the absence of which would seriously detract from the flair and fun of our household culinary journey. But condiments work best in smaller doses, offering those high points in the company of the basic food groups.


Wallace Shawn has been a figure of admiration for me ever since I saw My Dinner with Andre, a movie that exemplifies Robert Benchley’s claim that the world is divided into two groups—those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t. My experience is that anyone who knows the film either loves it or hates it. I am passionately in the former camp.

Oddly enough, my admiration for Shawn has not driven me to familiarize myself with his other writings. Every once in a while I find a snippet from him that delights, and I remember the soft spot I have for him.

Case in point: Finding an essay by him in the Guardian talking about why he writes about sex. He begins with this: “I am now what people call ’64 years old’, and I have to admit that I started writing about sex almost as soon as I realised that it was possible to do so – say, at the age of 14 – and I still do it, even though I was in a way the wrong age then, and in a different way I guess I’m the wrong age now.”

And it just gets better. The essay is worth a full read, but here is a section worth highlighting. Shawn suggests a variation on a creativity model that I have often expounded—the theory that each of us has certain paintings, poems, music, novels that we are called to bring into existence. If you’re lucky, they are popular. And if you are not, you labor in obscurity. But labor you must. It’s your offering, and yours alone.

Here’s Shawn’s take:

I suppose it goes without saying that James Joyce, DH Lawrence and others were expanding the scope of literature and redrawing humanity’s picture of itself when they approached this subject in the earlier part of the 20th century. But by the time I came along, many of my friends were embarrassed on my behalf precisely because the topic I was writing about seemed so closely associated with an earlier era.

So why have I stuck with it? I suppose it has to do with the point I’ve heard boringly expressed by writers in one way or another all of my life – the thing they always say, while in a way always hoping that no one will believe them, though what they’re saying is true – some variation of “I don’t do my own writing”. I personally sometimes express the point, when pressed, by saying that I see my writing as a sort of collaboration between my rational self (“me”) and the voice that comes from outside the window, the voice that comes in through the window, whose words I write down in a state of weirded-out puzzlement, thinking, “Jesus Christ, what is he saying?”

The collaboration is really quite an unequal partnership, I’d have to admit. The voice contributes everything, and I contribute nothing, frankly, except some modest organising abilities and (if I may say so) a certain skill in finding, among the voice’s many utterances, those that are most interesting.

Obviously, society has asked writers, as a group, to take time out from normal labour to do this special listening and transcribing, and each writer has been assigned a certain part of the spectrum. No writer can know whether the section that’s been assigned to him contains the valuable code that will ultimately benefit the human species or whether his section consists merely of the more common noise or chatter. But obviously, the system can only work if everyone dutifully struggles to do his best with the material that’s been given to him, rather than trying to do what has already been assigned to somebody else.

The voice outside my own particular window has repeatedly come back to the subject of sex. And sure, I regret it in a way, or it sometimes upsets me. But if I were to conclude that the voice is fundamentally not to be trusted, where would I be then? The enterprise of writing would have to come to an end for me. So at a certain point – and with a certain sadness, because of how I knew I would be seen by other people – I decided I was going to trust the voice I was hearing.

And in this closing passage, sex can also be a stand in for whatever passion consumes us completely:

Sex really is a nation of its own. Those whose allegiance is given to sex at a certain moment withdraw their loyalty temporarily from other powers. It’s a symbol of the possibility that we might all defect for one reason or another from the obedient columns in which we march.


While Edith Wharton had the good fortune to be born into a family of privilege, her native intelligence was another lucky card she drew from the pile that is a person’s intended lot in life. Rebecca Mead’s article about Wharton’s letters to her German governess, Anna Bahlmann, appeared in the June 29th issue of The New Yorker. After you read the article, you have to ask yourself how Wharton’s gifts could be unnoticed by her family and social class. Well, quite easily it seems. Later in her life she wrote, “I have often sighed, in looking back at my childhood, to think how pitiful a provision was made for the life of the imagination behind those uniform brownstone facades.”

At the age of fourteen, she wrote this to Bahlmann regarding Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, a book she read by sneaking it past her fiction-disapproving mother:

“But the thoughts with which it overflows are wonderfully clever—& I don’t think as ill of the hero as most people do. To be sure, he is a parcel of theories, loosely tied up, a puppet so badly stuffed that the sawdust shows—but the contents of the parcel & the doll—the theories, or sawdust—are good.” She goes on to dismiss the character of Mirah Lapidoth, the woman Daniel Deronda eventually marries. “I don’t care for your pieces of faultlessness, like the good girls of such extravagant saintliness in Sunday school books. Mirah is of that type–like diluted rose-water.”

Clearly this young woman was not Cotillion material. Edith was an early stand out in her tribe just as Florence Nightingale was in hers. She had no formal schooling and said what education she had came by way of her father’s library. When her engagement to one Mr. Stevens ended, a gossip sheet at the time wrote, “the only reason for the breaking of the engagement…is an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride.” Inexcusable, clearly.

And yet Edith Newbold Jones does give the old college try to meeting the demands and norms of her social class. It isn’t until later that her genius voice comes to through, after she has engaged in the expected ritual of mating, matrimony and subsequent marital disappointment.

Mead’s article is another of those long word feasts that writers in The New Yorker get to do, rich in detail and depth. Although I haven’t read a Wharton novel for years and have never been moved to read her autobiographical work, I’m freshly engaged once again. These letters are fascinating for a number of reasons but most particularly because they escaped Wharton’s redacting control. She had asked for them back while she was alive but was unable to obtain them. Now that they have surfaced (and were recently sold at Christie’s for $182,000) we can read the youthful words that escaped a legacy-conscious older writer. And what we get to view is a young woman who was preternaturally gifted, extraordinarily witty, and destined for greatness.

Mark McGurl (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)

Louis Menand has written a provocative piece in this week’s New Yorker magazine that asks the question, should creative writing be taught? And perhaps even more importantly, can it be taught? His discussion wraps itself around a new book by Mark McGurl called The Program Era which is definitely the newest addition to my “to read” list.

The argument is ageless and continues to get rattled back and forth. But I still find the topic a fascinating discussion. Maybe that is because I don’t think there is an answer, and I like its indeterminateness. Certainly Menand’s piece demonstrates that some writers are enhanced by the workshop culture while others doggedly maintain a safe distance from the gravitational pull of institutionalized, academicized, legitimized, canonical, fictionalizing endeavors.

I asked my reliably cut to the chase/bottom line friend Lisa the Poet what she thought of the article. Lisa takes no prisoners on any topic, so of course she didn’t mince for words, having survived her own firsthand experience with a leading creative writing MFA program on the West Coast. Here’s how she contextualized her experience:

Menand seems to presume that people in or running programs believe that they are in the business of teaching writing. In our program at least, everyone announces up front that they aren’t teaching at all, that we are all just there to think and talk and breathe and work and read and hopefully that good stuff will come out of it. Only the shittier programs, it seems to me, announce that they’re “teaching” creative writing. Of course that can’t be done–not on any kind of level above a baseline proficiency. The benefit of any decent program is in funded time to work on what you love while being around other people who love it too.

Parallels with visual art? Of course. I’ve written here many times about art pedagogy and my discomfort with much of the way teaching art is approached. But that really isn’t where I want to go with this right now. In addition to dealing with the issue of the teachability of creativity, Menand highlights some of McGurl’s more insightful ideas. As Menand states, “McGurl’s book is not a history of creative writing programs. It’s a history of twentieth-century fiction, in which the work of American writers from Thomas Wolfe to Bharati Mukherjee is read as reflections of, and reflections on, the educational system through which so many writers now pass.”

In the spirit of that historical perspective, here’s a sample of how Menand interprets McGurl’s approach:

“The Program Era” is an impressive and imaginative book. It does three things unusually well. First it interprets works of fiction as what philosophers of language call illocutionary acts. The meaning of one of Raymond Carver’s stories is not only what the story says; it’s also the way the story says it. The form of a Carver short story—ostentatiously brief, emotionally hyper-defended—expresses something. McGurl thinks that the style represents the “aestheticization of shame, a mode of self retraction.” Literary minimalism like Carver’s—McGurl calls it “lower-middle-class modernism”—is a means of reducing the risk of embarrassing oneself, and is one way that students from working-class backgrounds, like Carver…deal with the highbrow world of the academy.

Rather ingeniously, McGurl reads the wok of Carver’s exact contemporary Joy Carol Oates as an expression of the same class-based self-consciousness…Oates is a prolific practitioner of what McGurl calls “maximalist” fiction: it has been said that, at one point in her career, she wrote forty pages of fiction every day, or about a quarter of what would constitute an entire book for Carver. But McGurl thinks that maximalism, too, is “a way of shielding oneself with words.” The two styles are methods of self-protection and, at the same time, forms of self-assertion: the minimalist writers puts his craft on display, the maximalist his facility.

There’s lots to say about minimalism, maximalism and methods of self-protection, but that discussion will have to wait. I’m off to Nashville for the wedding of my friends Noah and Vivian, so my weekend will be spent maximalizing with friends in a southern soigné setting.

More on this article and these issues later, I promise.

A bit more about author Mark McGurl from Casey Henry in LA Weekly:

If I want to discuss Louis Vuitton–toting fashion terrorists who hijack planes with cosmetics kits and box-cutters, I talk to Mark McGurl. If I want to talk about Britney Spears, Sidekicks or the deconstructionist philosophy of Jacques Derrida, I talk to Mark McGurl. But it’s not easy: The American-lit professor’s reflections on high and low culture have achieved a sort of cult status among UCLA students, and you have to peer past the lineup outside his office to catch a glimpse of the man in flashy Nikes gesticulating wildly inside. Freshmen and returning grad students alike huddle around his open door, yet not one of them seems to mind the wait.

McGurl’s fierce knowledgeability is the product of a Harvard and Johns Hopkins education, his sense of contemporary culture a mix of People magazine and Purple, his clothing a subcategory of professorial that isn’t Chaucer’s burial shroud. And yet McGurl himself claims that the enthusiasm students feel originates primarily in his lectures.

“For better or worse — and I really mean this — my approach is to compete with all of the distractions in the lives of students by sheer spectacle of volume. It’s too loud, it’s too fast, it’s too whatever. There’s just too much enthusiasm on my part for creating an illusion that this Hemingway story is so much more important than whatever you’re texting your friend about.”

In a world of hypermediation, ultraviolence and meta-distraction, McGurl is one of the last able to read contemporary tragedy and triumph alike as the hidden language of cultural hieroglyphics.