Saturday, May 31, 2014

What Is Modernism?

To me, modernism means presenting an artwork as a collection of fragments, with the reader or viewer required to fill in the spaces using imagination and intelligence. Everything is not explained.

(Stay tuned for my upcoming ebook-- fiction as a modernist painting. Does it retain pop elements?)

Friday, May 30, 2014

What If?


I don’t know if anyone else has posited this yet. To me it seems obvious. Or maybe I give some people credit for being smarter than they are.

The question: What if Los Angeles Clippers basketball team owner Donald Sterling wanted to sell the team all along? What if the scandal regarding his recorded racist remarks with his girlfriend were part of an elaborate plan to set up the National Basketball Association and the general public, big-money investors included? What if he and his wife have been playing everyone all along?

It seems to have worked. They’re on the verge of unloading a perpetual money loser for two billion dollars, three times its projected value. What’s more, they have the NBA demanding they sell at that ridiculous figure.

The scandal certainly inflated the value of the team, and the cachet in owning it. It’s a first. It’s like a robber on the street holding a gun to Donald Sterling’s head and saying, “Here! Take this money! I insist!”

Is Donald Sterling (with associates, wife and girlfriend) that sharp?

Friday, May 23, 2014

What Makes Great Art?

Being an adult means seeing the world through an adult viewpoint. It means realizing you grew up in a world of lies and half truths. Not the standard accepted lies—that America is exceptional and great. It actually is. The lie was that it was perfect. Gullible idealists with childlike sensibilities took the imperfections for totality. They abandoned context and rejected the core truth.

Most of us have grown up in a culture of lies. For instance, that rock n’ roll isn’t merely entertaining, and historically important as a folk movement, but also artistically significant. From the start rock was created and marketed for thirteen year-olds. If you’re still listening seriously at age 40 or 50 to Van Halen or the Rolling Stones, or Bruce Springsteen, or Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, it means you haven’t advanced. Culturally you’ve remained an adolescent, with the tastes and sensibility of an adolescent.

The problem is that most of us of any age aren’t exposed to great art. We can’t appreciate that which is unknown.

I offer the premise that a single opera, “Turandot,” by Giacomo Puccini, is greater art than the entire history of rock music. The Beatles and Stevie Wonder included. As does all great art, “Turandot” reaches deeper into the soul, while at the same time it connects with the cosmos; the mysteries of space and time.


Due to fortunate circumstances, I was able to see “Turandot” twice at the Detroit Opera House during its recent run. The first time was an overwhelming experience. The second time I saw deeper into the opera, its depths and breadths, realizing more of what makes it work. Revealed to me were the commonalities it has with a handful of ultimate masterworks like “King Lear” or The Brothers Karamazov. You see, “Turandot,” not “Madame Butterfly” or “La Boheme,” is Puccini’s masterpiece.

I can’t explain why in a single blog post. For now I’ll describe part of the experience.

The two leads, Lise Lindstrom as Turandot and Rudy Park as Calaf, carry superpowerful voices. When you get into opera the first thing you realize is that this is real singing. The major leagues of voice. In comparison, widely hyped pop stars give us amplified screeching and caterwauling. I appreciate their promotional abilities (Lady Gaga performed in town the same night I was at the opera) but I also know it’s a con game.

The performance at the opera that most stayed with me afterward was not that of the two heroic-sized bigs, or the superpowerful chorus—or even the martial arts sequence!—but Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi as the tragic slave girl Liu. Never have I seen live on a stage a more emotional performance. Lombardi’s wasn’t just a physical performance, but a spiritual one. Her character seemed to rise out of herself as she sang—partly due to her perfect voice control and total identification with the character; as much due to the magic of Puccini for writing the music and developing the role. It’s the kind of performance to be remembered through a lifetime. At the same time I could watch her do the part not once or twice, but a hundred times, and not be disappointed.


I’ve long advocated for populist art. Is there a contradiction in my becoming an unofficial advocate for an obscure and expensive art like opera?

I don’t think so. Opera is no more of an elitist art than literature. Both require an initial level of difficult adjustment. Reading must be taught. With opera, you merely sit through a few of them. If you have a mind, a heart, and a soul, the cultural barriers vanish. You realize suddenly what the art is about.

(Maybe you need scars on your psyche to appreciate opera. Pop/rock music has superficial appeal. Opera goes into your soul.)

Puccini is a populist among opera composers. A local Detroit reviewer bemoaned that Puccini wasn’t cutting edge, like Alban Berg! Or, I assume, other atonalists. The public doesn’t want atonality. They want drama and color, and passion, which is what Puccini is about.

Likewise, “literature” today suffers from a kind of a-tonality removing itself from the public. It lacks broad themes, color, drama, larger-than-life emotion. It no longer carries broad themes expressing the movements of societies and humanity, the depths of the soul or the vast reach of the universe. Until it again finds those attributes it will become increasingly distant from the public; an art that will have to be reached by accident; an unknown grail to be searched for, maybe discovered, maybe not, like opera.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Yes Men

The problem with the established literary world is that it’s filled with yes men.

I thought this in the aftermath of the NFL draft. The local team, the Detroit Lions, made a senseless first pick IMHO. Too many local commentators afterward took the management view, instead of calling the team out for what seems yet another blunder.

The Detroit Lions have won exactly one playoff game in fifty (50) years. The burden of proof is on the team. They have no track record of success. They deserve no benefit of doubt.


Can the same be said of American literature and those who run it?

For fifty years the cultural trendline has been down. There’ve been no innovations, no growth spurts, no large personalities who’ve grabbed the attention and imagination of America. Only a continuation of the mediocre.

There are small successes, sure—enough to give encouragement to the status quo; preserving the illusion that all is well. Donna Tartt has written, apparently, a fairly good novel. Lorrie Moore has written another mildly witty book. Etc. Outside the literary realm, these successes grab the attention of no one.


This is what American writing has lost during the past fifty years. The ability to turn the readership—ultimately the culture—upside down. To reorient the literary universe—and American culture itself.

How does one go about that?

One way not to do it is through the “everybody get along” philosophy of our friends on the west coast. If new writing isn’t upsetting the mandarins, it’s not doing its job. New art needs to be artistically provocative; provocative with its ideas as well. It needs to hold a mirror up to society, including to the intellectual class, and not simply to that smug class’s favorite targets.

Bold style and unflinching substance. New writing must be radical in both departments. At the same time it needs the ability to be read, otherwise it’ll not engage the populace.


This is one of a scattering of blogs devoted to literature that’s not run by yes men.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Writer Friendly or Reader Friendly?

For a writer, this is ultimately the key question. Most of what we create looks good to ourselves, but that doesn't mean it works. Especially when we try hard to write well, the result is often self-indulgence. (Writers like David Foster Wallace made careers out of self-indulgence.)

Which is a roundabout way of saying I've put my chief fiction prototype back in the shop. I've begun taking it apart, then will reconstruct it, paring much of it. With the original version I took my notions of modernism too far.

With this proposed ebook I behaved first like an Orson Welles with "The Magnificent Ambersons"-- trying new ideas and a few new tricks, heedless of overall effect. For the reconstruction I need to be more like Welles's editor Robert Wise-- putting together a version that's coherent and moves.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Best TV Movie Ever?

On a brief Orson Welles kick, I found this TV movie from 1975 while searching the Internet. “The Night That Panicked America,” based on the famous Welles “War of the Worlds” radio hoax. Slow starting, but then compelling, filled with humor and pathos. Worth a look.