• “Sponsored” by my husband

    Here’s my life. My husband and I get up each morning at 7 o’clock and he showers while I make coffee. By the time he’s dressed I’m already sitting at my desk writing. He kisses me goodbye then leaves for the job where he makes good money, draws excellent benefits and gets many perks, such as travel, catered lunches and full reimbursement for the gym where I attend yoga midday. His career has allowed me to work only sporadically, as a consultant, in a field I enjoy.

    All that disclosure is crass, I know. I’m sorry. Because in this world where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have. Why? I think it’s the Marie Antoinette syndrome: Those with privilege and luck don’t want the riffraff knowing the details. After all, if “those people” understood the differences in our lives, they might revolt. Or, God forbid, not see us as somehow more special, talented and/or deserving than them.

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  • Syria’s Women Prisoners

    This is Hiam, a 65-year-old woman smoking a cigarette and sipping matteh, a warm herbal drink popular in Syria. It is a moment of solitude in a soul-crushing place; the bed is a prison bed. Hiam spent two and a half years in prison, most likely for the simple reason that she came from an area that rebelled against President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

    The artist who drew her, Azza Abo Rebieh, was one of 30 women sharing a cell with Hiam in the Adra prison in Damascus. Then 36, Ms. Abo Rebieh was on her own surreal journey through the Syrian security system, detained because of her art and her activism.

    Ms. Abo Rebieh’s artwork, from the start of Syria’s uprising in 2011, held up a mirror to a society in turmoil. Risking arrest, she painted graffiti murals about the protest movement. After security forces cracked down and some in the opposition took up arms, she helped smuggle food and medicine to people displaced by fighting.

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  • In Conversation With Mary Beard

    There are some reading experiences that make me gasp with horrified recognition on every page. Mary Beard’s new book, Women & Power, is one of them. Composed of two lectures that the Cambridge classicist gave at the British Museum, it contains her thoughts on women in public and in politics, from Medusa to Merkel.

    I met up with her in D.C. while she was in town to give a lecture at the Embassy of Italy. We sat in overstuffed armchairs next to a massive fireplace in the lobby of her hotel. While two little boys chased each other around the lobby, shrieking in French, we talked for over an hour about what it takes to fight misogyny and the future of women in the public sphere.

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  • What Is Possible

    In California, my mom worked an entry-level job at what now might be called a Silicon Valley tech business. It made audiocassettes. My dad made peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and popcorn. He picked me up from preschool, strapping me into the yellow child seat mounted at the back of his bike. He had a mustache and sideburns and not much more hair than that, and on his bike I toured the campus of the university where he was studying and went to swimming class and the grocery store, and at his side on our sofa I watched cartoons on our small black-and-white TV, a TV in which I always saw colors, though I was told by friends that this wasn’t possible.

    My dad never told me that it wasn’t possible. He was my buddy, and we made model planes and ant terrariums, and went hiking in the hills and swimming in Lake Lagunita, which in those days was sometimes dry and sometimes not. We fed butterflies sugar water and watched them unfurl what we called their tongues and drink.

    My mom drove to work every weekday morning in our secondhand blue Datsun and drove back every evening in time to make us dinner. She brought home the bacon, in my mind. (Of the non-pork variety, I ought to add, given that we were a Muslim family, though I’m not sure I was aware that there was such a thing as religious identity, back then.)

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  • Comforting Myths

    Before he died, my father reminded me that when I was four and he asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a writer. Of course, what I meant by “writer” then was a writer of Superman comics. In part I was infatuated with the practically invulnerable Man of Steel, his blue eyes and his spit curl. I wanted both to be him and to marry him—to be his Robin, so to speak. But more importantly, I wanted to write his story, the adventures of the man who fought for truth, justice, and the American Way—if only I could figure out what the fuck the American Way was.

    How could I tell the story with such glaring holes in my knowledge? I was terribly bothered that I did not know what the American Way was, and became even more so when I began to wonder whether there was such a thing as the Lebanese Way and whether I would recognize it. My parents were Lebanese, but I was born in Jordan, raised in Kuwait. Could my way be Kuwaiti and not Lebanese? Since most of my classmates were Palestinians, I had a Ram­allah accent. Did that mean I’d lost my way?

    I wanted to tell stories that belonged to me. Superman would be my friend, his world mine. In a single bound, he would leap the tallest buildings, basically my house and my cousins’ across the street. My Superman would be more powerful than a locomotive, stronger than my father’s red Rambler. I wished to share my story with the world, and it did not occur to me at that age to ask whether the world had any interest.

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  • Books Where Photography Meets Essays

    Design-wise, the most famous collaboration between a writer and a photographer did not end up looking like much of a collaboration at all. Walker Evans contributed a preface to the 1960 reissue of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” the study of poor tenant farmers in Alabama, originally published in 1941; “Walker” crops up a number of times in James Agee’s text, but a formal separation is maintained between the tenderly austere photographs of families and their homes — printed at the beginning — and the 400 pages of Agee’s highly wrought, much-agonized-over text. This, for Gore Vidal, was no bad thing, because it left Evans’s “austere” photos untainted by what “good-hearted, soft-headed admirers of the Saint James (Agee) version” so loved about the sharecroppers’ gospel.

    When it comes to the relationship between a critic or curator writing about photographers or photography, the results span the spectrum of exclusion, segregation and integration. There is not a single photograph in Susan Sontag’s classic “On Photography.” At the other extreme, the exquisite silence of the plates in lavish monographs is sometimes protected by only the slimmest prefaces or afterwords. At all points in between, the word-image ratio shifts constantly between the writing informing the pictures and the pictures illustrating the writing. But there is one form — the simplest in many ways — that permits and encourages a uniquely intimate relationship between writer and photographer.

    John Szarkowski was for many years the head of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2000, in the twilight of a provocative, highly influential career, he published “Atget,” a selection of 100 images by the French photographer Eugène Atget, each reproduced on the recto page with an accompanying caption-essay on the facing verso page. With Szarkowski as the best kind of guide — one whose itinerary allows interludes of undisturbed contemplation — we wind our way through the haunts of old Paris, emerging from time-shuttered streets into the open skies of the surrounding countryside. Szarkowski had always been a distinctive stylist, but this format enabled him to give free rein to his talents as a writer, which were usually securely tethered by curatorial obligation. He also drew confidence, I think, from an earlier assay at the same form, “Looking at Photographs” (1973), in which he used a single picture by each of the most important photographers in the museum’s holdings to compile a radically synecdochic survey of the medium’s history. The obligation to cover so much ground, to balance what he had to say about so many major figures on such slender plinths, rather limited Szarkowski’s range of literary and thematic movement. With Atget — whose photographs, appropriately enough, were originally offered as “Documents for Artists” — the combination of abundance of subject matter and limited space encouraged a kind of tight flourishing or contained extravagance. Szarkowski’s knowledge of Atget’s work was so extensive that he had scarcely even to think about what he knew. And so the photographs serve as starting-off points for reflections on all sorts of things, including how photography has changed our view of the world: “I do not think that empty chairs meant the same thing before photography as they mean to us now.”

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  • Hong Kong’s Missing Booksellers

    When the police officer didn’t laugh, Lam Wing-kee knew he was in trouble. In his two decades as owner and manager of Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Books, Lam had honed a carefully nonchalant routine when caught smuggling books into mainland China: apologize, claim ignorance, offer a cigarette to the officers, crack a joke. For most of his career, the routine was foolproof.

    Thin and wiry, with an unruly pouf of side-swept gray hair and a wisp of mustache, Lam was carrying a wide mix of books that day: breathless political thrillers, bodice-rippers and a handful of dry historical tomes. The works had only two things in common: Readers hungered for them, and each had been designated contraband by the Communist Party’s Central Leading Group for Propaganda and Ideology. For decades, Lam’s bookstore had thrived despite the ban — or maybe because of it. Operating just 20 miles from the mainland city of Shenzhen, in a tiny storefront sandwiched between a pharmacy and an upscale lingerie store, Causeway was a destination for Chinese tourists, seasoned local politicians and even, surreptitiously, Communist Party members themselves, anyone hoping for a peek inside the purges, intraparty feuding and silent coups that are scrubbed from official histories. Lam was an expert on what separated the good banned books from the bad, the merely scandalous from the outright sensational. He found books that toed the line between rumor and reality.

    Other retailers avoided the mainland market, but through years of trial and error, Lam had perfected a series of tricks to help his books avoid detection. He shipped only to busy ports, where packages were less likely to be checked. He slipped on false dust covers. Lam was stopped only once, in 2012. By the end of that six-hour interrogation, he was chatting with the officers like old friends and sent home with a warning.

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  • A Literary Road Trip Into the Heart of Russia

    Russia is a land of stories. Stories of the czar and his people, of Lenin and the revolution, of the Great Patriotic War; of the transformation of a backward land into a might, modern industrial state; of Sputnik, of Laika, of Gagarin. Then the story of Stalin’s reign of terror, the story of a country that ossified and stagnated and eventually collapsed, the story of Vladimir Putin, the K.G.B. officer who climbed to power amid chaos and re-established order. And how did he do that? With stories of the past, retold in such a way that everything in them led up to and justified the Russia that exists today.

    For almost my entire life, these stories have exerted a powerful pull on me. When I was growing up, Russia was not only closed, and therefore mysterious, it was presented as our antithesis: We were free, the Russians were oppressed; we were good, the Russians were evil. When I got older and started to read, the situation become more complicated, because it was from Russia that the best and most intense literature came: Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman.” What sort of a country as this where the souls were so deep and the spirits so wild? And why was it there that the thought of the profound inherent injustice of the class society was transformed into action, first by the revolution of 1917 and then by the proletariat’s 70-year dictatorship? And why did a beautiful story about the equality of all human beings end in horror, inhuman brutality and misery?

    Russia is still an enigmatic country to me. Every day there is news from Russia – we hear about Putin, about his imprisoned dissidents, about his meddling in the elections of his rivals – all of it serving the notion that “Russia” is a singular, comprehensible, clear-cut entity. But what do the people who live inside of that entity think? What is “Russia” to them, what are the stories they tell themselves? A hundred years after the revolution, 25 years after the fall of Communism?

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  • Can Hollywood Change Its Ways?

    I’m calling it the Purge,” a friend who works in Hollywood told me, a few days into the post-Weinstein era. Off the top of his head, he listed half a dozen men in the entertainment business whose behavior, he hoped, would no longer be condoned. In the weeks to come, they started toppling, joined by others, in a seemingly never-ending cascade, the world’s longest domino trick. The morning-news anchor, the worldly talk-show host, the animation genius with the awful shirts, “feminist” men, liberals, tortured artists, moguls, icons, “bad boys,” funny guys, even the folksy curmudgeon from public radio: they are being fired; stepping down; awkwardly apologizing, engendering ridicule and pique; or defending themselves and inviting rage. Then, like a backward rapture, they disappear, with the tacit or expressed acknowledgment that this is not their time.

    Amy Ziering, a documentarian who has made films about sexual assault in the military and on college campuses and is now at work on one about Hollywood—suddenly, funding has materialized—told me, “I’m stunned. I keep reading the headlines, thinking, Am I reading the Onion or the New York Times? ‘Man Accused of Assault and Fired!’ It’s surreal.”

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  • Ten of Our Top Stories from 2017

    This year has certainly been a memorable one for The Paris Review, with more than a few moments that tried our resolve. But we prefer to remember it as a landmark year, measured out by four extraordinary issues that included Hilton Als’s imaginary biopic about James Baldwin and Nina Simone, the fiction debuts of J. M. Holmes and J. Jezewska Stevens, and an interview with Maxine Groffsky, one of the magazine’s first female editors, which reads like a page-turning feminist adventure story. This was the year we launched our podcast (there are six episodes to carry you into the new year, and many more to come) and reintroduced the Paris Review Editions imprint with the Women at Work interview anthology. As of this writing, the volume is sold out, but sign up for our newsletter: the next book is already underway.

    And here on the Daily, we’ve been publishing exciting new writing, well, daily. When I took over this post in September, I was nervous. My predecessor, Dan Piepenbring, had left big shoes to fill (as well as, it turned out, actual high-heeled shoes behind the desk, though he has denied ownership). Since the 2016 election, I have been filled with an existential dread that only seems to recede when I felt I was doing something worthwhile. Three months in, I can proclaim with absolute certainty that what we’re doing on the Daily and at The Paris Review is more than worthwhile—it’s essential. In a year of constant, terrifying news alerts, we have carved out a space for humor, for reflection, for going deep and going wide, and for capturing our moment not through its tweets but through its culture. It’s easy to get lost in despair. We want to make it easy, too, to get lost in writing that makes us feel reinvigorated, hopeful, and less alone.

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  • Alternative Narratives, Historical Documents

    Caught in the London Underground during German air raids in 1940, the famous British sculptor Henry Moore drew the terrorized individuals around him. The artist effectively became an eyewitness reporter, his Shelter Drawings a symbol against Nazi aggression and a remarkable and haunting historical record.

    Palestinian artist Samia Halaby’s stirring body of work Documentary Drawings of the Kafr Qasem Massacre, is the result of a decade of research and an exercise in remembrance as it depicts the murders of 49 Palestinian civilians by Israeli border guards in 1956.

    Notwithstanding the overload of photographs especially through social media, there has in recent years also been a growing use of illustration to raise awareness, inform audiences and to tell stories. NGOs have been making use of this much more artisanal medium, to capture and recount Syrian refugees’ lives. SyriaUntold has also been using illustrations with a number of articles since first doing so with Shadi Whose Mail was Too Late, in June 2017.

    British illustrator George Butler put forward that “illustrations don’t need to be competing with photographs, but I think they connect more powerfully with a smaller number of people, I think they are great tools for engaging people who care and understand. I think they can stick in your mind for life. I think they stand out in a world obsessed with photography.”

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  • The Other Susan Sontag

    Seriousness, for Susan Sontag, was a flashing machete to swing at the thriving vegetation of American philistinism. The philistinism sprang from our barbarism—and our barbarism had conquered the world. “Today’s America,” she wrote in 1966, “with Ronald Reagan the new daddy of California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing.” Intellectuals, doomed to tramp through an absurd century, were to inflict their seriousness on Governor Reagan and President Johnson—and on John Wayne, spareribs, and the whole shattered, voluptuous culture.

    The point was to be serious about power and serious about pleasure: cherish literature, relish films, challenge domination, release yourself into the rapture of sexual need—but be thorough about it. “Seriousness is really a virtue for me,” Sontag wrote in her journal after a night at the Paris opera. She was twenty-four. Decades later, and months before she died, she mounted a stage in South Africa to declare that all writers should “love words, agonize over sentences,” “pay attention to the world,” and, crucially, “be serious.”

    Only a figure of such impossible status would dare to glorify a mood. Here was a woman who had barged into the culture with valiant attempts at experimental fiction (largely unread) and experimental cinema (largely unseen) and yet whose blazing essays in Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books won her that rare combination of aesthetic and moral prestige. She was a youthful late modernist who, late in life, published two vast historical novels that turned to previous centuries for both their setting and their narrative blueprint; and a seer whose prophecies were promptly revised after every bashing encounter with mass callousness and political failure. The Vietnam War, Polish Solidarity, aids, the Bosnian genocide, and 9/11 drove her to revoke old opinions and brandish new ones with equal vigor. In retrospect, her positions are less striking than her pose—that bold faith in her power as an eminent, vigilant, properly public intellectual to chasten and to instruct.

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  • An algorithm to write a bestselling novel

    It’s the multimillion pound question that publishers and writers have been pondering for decades: what makes a bestseller? Attempting to write one could certainly pay off – the highest-paid author in the world, JK Rowling, has made $95m (£70m) in the past year, and the 10 highest-paid authors in the world earned more than $310m between them, according to Forbes.

    But few authors will see that kind of cash. The average annual income for a UK writer is £12,000, well below the minimum wage for a full-time job, a recent European commission report found. The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society says professional authors have experienced a 29% drop in income in real terms since 2005, with the top 5% earning 42% of the money made by UK writers. And the bottom 50% struggle to generate even 7% of the total income.

    The promotional budget for a book is usually related to the advance, with celebrity authors attracting more than their fair share of publishers’ marketing spends, regardless of the quality of their work. And marketing budgets matter: according to the International Publishers Association, UK publishers released 173,000 titles in 2015. That’s more than 19 every hour over a year, and the highest number of new titles per million inhabitants in the world.

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  • A Novelist’s Response to the Refugee Crisis

    Earlier this summer, my family spent a week in an Italian village near Menton, just over the border that Italy shares with southern France. Dry hills, the azure Mediterranean, scents of rosemary and lavender, a lemon tree in the garden. Well, lucky us. Daily, we crossed the border into France and back again into Italy. We didn’t have to stop, and the listless border guards barely glanced at our respectable little hired car, with its four white occupants. They were a good deal more interested in the African migrants, who gathered with persistent hopelessness on the Italian side of the border, just a few feet from the guard post. We saw the young men everywhere in that Italian hinterland—usually in groups of two or three, walking along the road, climbing the hills, sitting on a wall. They were tall, dark-skinned, conspicuous because they were wearing too many clothes for the warm Riviera weather. We learned that they had made their way to Italy from various African countries and were now desperate to get into France, either to stay there or to push on farther, to Britain and Germany. “You might see them in the hills,” the genial woman who gave us the key to our house said. “Nothing to be alarmed about. There have been no problems—yet.” Near that house, there was a makeshift sign, in Arabic and English: “Migrants, please do not throw your garbage into the nature. Use the plastic bags you see on the private road.”

    I had read moving articles and essays about the plight of people like these—I had read several of those pieces out loud to my children; I had watched terrible reports from the BBC, and the almost unbearable Italian documentary “Fire at Sea.” And so what? What good are the right feelings if they are only right feelings? I was just a moral flaneur. From inside my speeding car, I regarded those men with compassion, shame, indignation, curiosity, profound ignorance, all of it united in a conveniently vague conviction that, as Edward VIII famously said of mass unemployment in the nineteen-thirties, “something must be done.” But not so that it would disturb my week of vacation. I am like some “flat” character in a comic novel, who sits every night at the dinner table and repetitively, despicably intones, without issue or effect, “This is the central moral question of our time.” And, of course, such cleansing self-reproach is merely part of liberalism’s dance of survival. It’s not just that we are morally impotent; the continuation of our comfortable lives rests on the continuation—on the success—of that impotence. We see suffering only intermittently, and our days make safe spaces for these interruptions.

    Jenny Erpenbeck’s magnificent novel “Go, Went, Gone” (New Directions, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky) is about “the central moral question of our time,” and among its many virtues is that it is not only alive to the suffering of people who are very different from us but alive to the false consolations of telling “moving” stories about people who are very different from us. Erpenbeck writes about Richard, a retired German academic, whose privileged, orderly life is transformed by his growing involvement in the lives of a number of African refugees—utterly powerless, unaccommodated men, who have ended up, via the most arduous routes, in wealthy Germany. The risks inherent in making fiction out of the encounter between privileged Europeans and powerless dark-skinned non-Europeans are immense: earnestness without rigor, the mere confirmation of the right kind of political “concern,” sentimental didacticism. A journey of transformation, in which the white European is spiritually renewed, almost at the expense of his darkly exotic subjects, is familiar enough from German Romanticism; you can imagine a contemporary version, in which the novelist traffics in the most supple kind of self-protective self-criticism. “Go, Went, Gone” is not that kind of book.

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  • Serbia’s weird & wonderful pop music

    We don’t always give pop music the analytical attention it merits. This is especially true when the music in question comes from non-Western countries and incorporates folk elements. After all, this kind of dancefloor-filler presents a higher access barrier for Western audiences and brings with it associations of kitsch, Eurovision and backward rural hinterlands untouched by wifi and non-binary gender classifications.

    Yet here hidden treasures lie. As mainstream Western pop stews in its own Instagram-friendly feelgood mediocrity year on year, I can’t stop listening to eastern European pop-folk – from Ukraine’s otherworldly Onuka, who marry traditional local instruments with electronica, ethereal vocals and the occasional theremin, to Hungary’s Oláh Gergő, who augments Romani folk with trap-pop and modern choreography, and Bulgaria’s chalga music, a sort of sexed-up post-Ottoman reggaeton with a healthy sense of absurdity. But my favourite of all is Serbia’s “turbofolk” genre.

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  • Snopes and the Search for Facts

    IT WAS EARLY March, not yet two months into the Trump administration, and the new Not-Normal was setting in: It continued to be the administration’s position, as enunciated by Sean Spicer, that the inauguration had attracted the “largest audience ever”; barely a month had passed since Kellyanne Conway brought the fictitious “Bowling Green massacre” to national attention; and just for kicks, on March 4, the president alerted the nation by tweet, “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.”

    If the administration had tossed the customs and niceties of American politics to the wind, there was one clearly identifiable constant: mendacity. “Fake news” accusations flew back and forth every day, like so many spitballs in a third-grade classroom.

    Feeling depressed about the conflation of fiction and fact in the first few months of 2017, I steered a car into the hills of Calabasas to meet with one person whom many rely on to set things straight. This is an area near Los Angeles best known for its production of Kardashians, but there were no McMansions on the street where I was headed, only old, gnarled trees and a few modest houses. I spotted the one I was looking for—a ramshackle bungalow—because the car in the driveway gave it away. Its license plate read SNOPES.

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  • Why Dana Schutz painted Emmett Till

    Dana Schutz’s studio, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, may not be as catastrophically messy as Francis Bacon’s used to be, but there are days when it comes close. Last July, she was making paintings for a solo show, in the fall, at Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, and for the 2017 Whitney Biennial, in New York. Large and medium-sized canvases in varying stages of completion covered most of the wall space in the studio, a long, windowless room that was once an auto-body shop, and the floor was a palimpsest of rags, used paper palettes, brushes, metal tubs filled with defunct tubes of Old Holland oil paint, colored pencils and broken charcoal sticks, cans of solvent, spavined art books, pages torn from magazines, bundled work clothes stiff with paint, paper towels, a prelapsarian boom box, empty Roach Motel cartons, and other debris.

    Schutz’s paintings, in which abstract and figurative images combine to tell enigmatic stories, sometimes carry veiled references to what’s going on in the world. “Men’s Retreat,” made in 2005, shows blindfolded members of George W. Bush’s Cabinet pursuing strange outdoor rites; “Poisoned Man,” painted the same year, is an imagined portrait of the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who barely survived an assassination attempt, in 2004. Schutz, thirty-nine at the time, with untamable hair and a radiant smile, said that she had been up until very late the night before, watching the Republican National Convention on television. “I remember the second Bush nomination in 2003 and feeling so angry, but this was depressing,” she said. “It was like a disaster you can’t look away from.” When I asked if the rise of Donald Trump might invade her new work, she thought for a moment, and said, “I want to make a painting about shame. Public shaming has become an element in contemporary life. You can take a picture of someone and post it online, and thousands of people see it. We’re so ashamed, about so many things, and I think for a candidate to be without shame, like Trump, is really powerful. His lack of shame becomes our shame.”

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  • What writers really do when they write

    Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it.

    We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.

    The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.

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  • When John Berger Looked at Death

    To live in linear time, the critic and novelist John Berger suggested, is to content oneself with a kind of continuous grieving. “The body ages. The body is preparing to die,” he writes in his slim book from 1984, “And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos.” “Death and time were always in alliance.”

    Berger, who died on Monday, at the age of ninety, initially trained as a visual artist, a practice he never fully left behind. Though his best-known work is from the nineteen-seventies—his BBC documentary “Ways of Seeing,” which polemically surveys art history, and his novel “G,” which won the Booker Prize, both appeared in 1972—he was enormously prolific throughout his life, producing dozens of volumes, from studies of individual artists to plays to experimental fictions. His activity sometimes seemed like proof of concept for his ideas: an astute art critic, he was also a theorist of art’s practical purchase, fascinated by its capacity to transform the physical stuff of the world.

    He was attentive to the materiality of other forces as well. In “Brief as Photos,” an elegant fusion of philosophy, memoir, and poetry, he calls himself a storyteller—and storytellers, he says, are “Death’s Secretaries.” It’s an apt phrase, suggesting someone who is at once in the thrall of and subordinate to our mortality. In one section of the book, Berger thinks of a cremated friend while walking through an orchard where villagers are burning leaves. Breathing the ashes in, he realizes that little separates this carbon—“the prerequisite for any form of life”—from that of his friend’s body. “Ashes are ashes,” he writes. “Physically his body, simplified by burning to the element of carbon, re-enters the physical process of the world.”

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  • How Writers Revise

    “Writing is rewriting,” says everyone all the time. But what they don’t say, necessarily, is how. Yesterday, Tor pointed me in the direction of this old blog post from Patrick Rothfuss—whose Kingkiller Chronicle is soon to be adapted for film and television by Lin-Manuel Miranda, in case you hadn’t heard—in which he describes, step-by-step, his revision process over a single night. Out of many, one assumes. It’s illuminating, and I wound up digging around on the Internet for more personal stories of editing strategies, investigating the revision processes of a number of celebrated contemporary writers of fantasy, realism, and young adult fiction. So in the interest of stealing from those who have succeeded, read on.

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  • The Factory of Fakes

    The Egyptian painters who decorated King Tut’s burial chamber had to work quickly—the pharaoh died unexpectedly, at about the age of nineteen, and proper preparations had not been made. Plaster was applied to lumpy limestone walls. On the chamber’s western wall, twelve baboons with an identical design are arrayed in a grid, and various slip-ups suggest haste: one of the baboons is missing a black outline around its penis. When the entrance to the chamber was sealed, some thirty-five hundred years ago, the baboons, along with the gods and goddesses depicted in other panels, were expected to maintain their poses for eternity. This wasn’t an entirely naïve hope. Tutankhamun was interred in the Valley of the Kings, the vast network of tombs in the hills outside Luxor, four hundred miles south of Cairo. The air in the valley is bone-dry, and pigment applied to a plastered wall in a lightless, undisturbed chamber should decay little over the centuries. When the British archeologist Howard Carter unsealed the burial vault, in 1923, turning the obscure Tutankhamun into the modern icon of ancient Egypt, the yellow walls remained dazzlingly intact. The Egyptians had made only one mistake: they had closed the tomb before the paint, or Tut’s mummy, had dried, and bacteria had fed on the moisture, imposing a leopard pattern of brown dots on the yellow background. The room is known as the House of Gold.

    Since then, tens of millions of tourists have crowded inside the living-room-size chamber, exuding a swampy mist of breath and sweat, which has caused the plaster to expand and contract. Bahaa AbdelGaber, an Egyptian antiquities official, told me recently that the temperature inside the Luxor tombs sometimes exceeds a hundred and twenty degrees. “Oh, the smell on a busy day!” he said.

    In 2009, a team of conservators from the Getty Conservation Institute, in California, visited Tut’s tomb and determined that some painted areas had become dangerously loosened. The conservators cleaned portions of the walls and applied adhesives to flaking paint, in an effort to forestall pictorial losses. Reversibility is a prime rule of modern conservation, and, according to the latest scholarly thinking, these physical interventions were safe.

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  • Leonard Cohen makes it darker

    When Leonard Cohen was twenty-five, he was living in London, sitting in cold rooms writing sad poems. He got by on a three-thousand-dollar grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. This was 1960, long before he played the festival at the Isle of Wight in front of six hundred thousand people. In those days, he was a Jamesian Jew, the provincial abroad, a refugee from the Montreal literary scene. Cohen, whose family was both prominent and cultivated, had an ironical view of himself. He was a bohemian with a cushion whose first purchases in London were an Olivetti typewriter and a blue raincoat at Burberry. Even before he had much of an audience, he had a distinct idea of the audience he wanted. In a letter to his publisher, he said that he was out to reach “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”

    Cohen was growing weary of London’s rising damp and its gray skies. An English dentist had just yanked one of his wisdom teeth. After weeks of cold and rain, he wandered into a bank and asked the teller about his deep suntan. The teller said that he had just returned from a trip to Greece. Cohen bought an airline ticket.

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  • The Pieces of Zadie Smith

    Zadie Smith is there and not there. In the streaming image on my laptop she sits at a desk, backlit in her book-lined office, her right hand holding a goblet filled with liquid of such a dark crimson that it seems to suck all the other colors from the room. In the dim light Zadie’s face looks pale, the scatter of freckles across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose shifting around as if in no fixed position.

    Circumstances have forced us to talk via FaceTime. It’s after midnight in London, where Zadie is; dark too where I am, in the attic of my house in Princeton, N. J. Despite the 3,000 miles of ocean that separate us, the illusion is that we are facing each other across our individual writing desks.

    I don’t like FaceTime. The sudden projection into my presence of a staring, homuncular creature always feels strong and violent. It makes me anxious to have to talk to someone like this and pretend they’re real.

    There’s another reason for my hesitancy to credit what I’m seeing tonight. I’ve just finished Zadie’s new novel, “Swing Time,” and am still living in its shadow world. Like the black-and-white musicals that feature in its pages, the book is a play of light and dark – at once an assertion of physicality and an illusion – in which the main characters, a girl born to a black mother and a while father, tries to assemble, from the competing allegiances that claim her, an identity that allows her to join the dance. This narrator is unnamed, as is the African country where much of the action takes place. The novel cloaks existential dread beneath the brightest of intensities.

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  • Riad Sattouf: Why he hates nationalism

    In spring 2011, when pro-democracy protests in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria were met with the crushing violence that would shape five years of conflict, a young French cartoonist in Paris decided to help some of his Syrian relatives get out.

    At the time, Riad Sattouf was well known as a big talent on France’s thriving comics scene, drawing funny and scathing works of social observation. He had branched into cinema, winning the French equivalent of a Bafta for his first film The French Kissers, a nerdy take on teenage angst. From his comfortable life in Paris, Sattouf was convinced that Syria was going to be “completely destroyed”, so he went through official French state channels to apply for visas for some of his family members.

    It proved so maddeningly difficult that he felt he had to write about it. But to write about it, Sattouf knew he would have tell his life story, which he had kept carefully shut away: his childhood growing up in Libya and Syria with a Syrian father and French mother, his parents’ divorce, his teenage years in Brittany.

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  • The many lives of John le Carré

    If you’re ever lucky enough to score an early success as a writer, as happened to me with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, for the rest of your life there’s a before-the-fall and an after-the-fall. You look back at the books you wrote before the searchlight picked you out and they read like the books of your innocence; and the books after it, in your low moments, like the strivings of a man on trial. ‘Trying too hard’ the critics cry. I never thought I was trying too hard. I reckoned I owed it to my success to get the best out of myself, and by and large, however good or bad the best was, that was what I did.

    And I love writing. I love doing what I’m doing at this moment, scribbling away like a man in hiding at a poky desk on a blackclouded early morning in May, with the mountain rain scuttling down the window and no excuse for tramping down to the railway station under an umbrella because the International New York Times doesn’t arrive until lunchtime.

    I love writing on the hoof, in notebooks on walks, in trains and cafés, then scurrying home to pick over my booty. When I am in Hampstead there is a bench I favour on the Heath, tucked under a spreading tree and set apart from its companions, and that’s where I like to scribble. I have only ever written by hand. Arrogantly perhaps, I prefer to remain with the centuries-old tradition of unmechanized writing. The lapsed graphic artist in me actually enjoys drawing the words.

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