The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for July 2010

Last Waltz for the Netherlands (i.e. an octupus-free World Cup post)

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Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 always seemed like fittingly upbeat music for losers to wallow in, but imagine a stadium full of Holland fans riffing on it like a football chant.

So it is. Here’s one last sendoff for the close-but-no-cigar Dutch national team.

The clip is from halftime at a match at Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium. The leader of the chant? None other than Andre Rieu, the frivolous, self-esteeming, undisputed king of classical music’s lower middlebrow and a ubiquitous presence on public television (especially, in the US, during pledge drives). The waltz, which has sort of become Rieu’s trademark, is definitely not the most obscure piece of music in the repertoire. Even so, it’s a bit astonishing to discover that soccer fans — alleged hooligans — already know it well.

Now, Rieu is Dutch, so he may well be a celebrity in his home country. Maybe the fans needed to rehearse the melody before the cameras rolled. Or maybe AFC Ajax Amsterdam’s supporters simply admire the beauty of Shostakovich.

(Here’s a clearer recording for the admirers and for the uninitiated.)

Score one goal for classical music literacy — for now.

Also, congrats to Spain on the victory.


Written by cwmote

July 17, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Age is just a number…and so is the print run of your first novel.

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I’ve had plenty of time now to look over The New Yorker‘s latest summer fiction issue devoted to writers under forty. Readers familiar with Granta, which produces similar editions focusing on young British and American novelists, will notice some overlap here with the 2007 edition. As then, the pool of writers in The New Yorker is global: almost half were born outside the US. Yet despite the diversity in walks of life, most of the authors have the same thing in common: an MFA from a major creative writing program. (Jonathan Safran Foer is one exception, but then, he studied with Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton.)

The author profiles are worth a read. Although talents like Foer seem to write novels without breaking a sweat, most of those here reveal the opposite impression. Philipp Meyer, who’s now 36, shows just how painstaking the road to success can be:

[T]he first year I lived with my parents, I applied to a bunch of M.F.A. programs and was rejected by all of them. Now, by this time, I’d written two novels—not things I’d dashed off and stuck in a drawer but books I’d painstakingly revised and rewritten, labored over for years….

[S]trange as it might sound, I never questioned that I was a good writer. I did, however, begin to seriously question my writing…. I didn’t know why I liked the books I liked. So I decided I would throw everything away, everything I’d heard in college and everything else. I decided I would trust only myself—what I really believed and felt to be true. Which, of course, didn’t exactly occur overnight: it probably took the better part of 2004. But it was a very conscious effort.

That was when things began to change. I think of it as year zero, though it was actually year ten…. I think you really have to stare down the demons. You really have to know what making art is worth to you.

I’m not poised to evaluate the writers myself due to my limited exposure to their work — although I will say that I’ve enjoyed much of what I’ve seen of American Rust and definitely want to read more. Yet the very act of showcasing twenty writers and deeming them “The Future” of American letters is sure to provoke love-hate reactions. As a writer not yet of a certain age, I taste grapes sour and sweet: Well, some people just get lucky, they have MFAs and better connections, imagine all the talented writers still moiling in obscurity — But oh, how inspiring to read tales of hard work! What a great incentive for me to actually try hard again! Why use travel as a cover for appearing to do something worthwhile with my life when I should be writing more? And on and on.

It’s not about envy. The central issue here is not that of basking in the glamour of youth. And no one pretends that the list is definitive, that there are no other significant writers out there who would be more widely known in different circumstances.

The matter is really something much simpler: if you don’t publish while you’re still young, you never will. If you don’t find some affirmation of your writing ability early on in the game, it means you never were a writer to begin with. You don’t have what it takes. So why keep at it?

This sentiment is not universally shared among all writers, but it is an all too common fear among those who are stuck in obscurity. In response to the New Yorker issue, Sam Tanenhaus has opined in the New York Times that great writers tend to produce their best work while they’re still young. (He’s defining “young” as under 40, in the same terms as the New Yorker.) Flaubert completed Madame Bovary before he turned 35; Kafka wrote “The Metamorphosis” at 29; Faulkner published The Sound and the Fury at 32. Other writers who peaked early in life include Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville and Thomas Mann.

That doesn’t mean they don’t get better with age, though: Tanenhaus cites as examples Virginia Woolf (“entered her prime in her 40s”), Henry James (60s) and Philip Roth (ditto). He could have also included Sherwood Anderson (43 when he began writing the Winesburg stories), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita at 55, Pale Fire at 62), Wallace Stevens (winner of two National Book Awards in his 70s)…hell, why stop there? And why presume that writers like Flaubert, Hemingway, and Faulkner had no more masterpieces to give the world after their alleged peaks? Are Sentimental Education and Absalom, Absalom! suddenly insignificant bulks of pulp? In other words, it’s perfect fodder for a cocktail gathering of English majors.

But while Tanenhaus’s assessments are debatable, he does have a serious point:

It may well be that the writers singled out by The New Yorker have already written lasting works. But it is a mistake to assume that because they are young […] they must be poised midway up Parnassus, with higher achievements to come. The trouble, perhaps, is that this definition of “young writer,” which owes less to literary considerations than to the intersecting categories of sociology and marketing, muddies our understanding of how truly original, enduring fiction comes to be written. Worse, it threatens to infantilize our writers, reducing them to the condition of permanent apprentices who grind steadily toward “maturity” as they prepare to write their “breakthrough” books.

No one should pretend that the list is the beginning and the end of everything innovative and exciting going on in the world of fiction today. And the use of age to gauge a writer’s potential is, at best, a limited tool. Still, however many years young you happen to be, it never hurts to think upon your imminent mortality as a motivation to keep writing.