Few have done it better than The New Yorker's classical music critic Alex Ross here taking a break from his seemingly endless (but we confess necessary, even obligatory, though we're often at odds with what he has to say) promotion and championing of new music and new musical trends in this 2012 talk given at The New Yorker Festival of that year.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music since 2004, has warned that hundreds of thousands of British youngsters have never even heard of Beethoven or Mozart thanks to the education system’s 'elitist' [NB, "elitist", NOT "elite"] treatment of classical music.
So begins a news article by Simon Johnson for The Telegraph. It goes on to report that Sir Peter
said the situation has reached a “serious tipping point” whereby centuries of great works could be lost to future generations more interested in “vacuous celebrity culture and inane talent shows."
He described the standard of music teaching in British schools as a “disgrace” and backed calls for every child to study classical works to help them better understand humanity.
However, the 79-year-old said the same ignorance extended to other areas of learning, warning that many children are equally oblivious to the writings of Shakespeare or Dickens.
One quails at what Sir Peter might have to say concerning this matter should he ever have cause to examine America's education system. We suspect he would be beyond appalled.
Read the whole article here.
John Simon, the often reviled but brilliant literary, theater, music, and film critic whose acerbic, barb-tongued, (too-)often just plain nasty commentary has appeared in such wide-ranging publications as The Hudson Review, The New Leader, The New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, The Weekly Standard, and Bloomberg News and who now writes his own blog Uncensored John Simon has up on that blog a new article titled "Whither Art?" the "art" of the title referring to the fine arts generally but painting in particular.
As we read the article it struck us that were one to substitute classical music along with mutatis mutandis adjustments everywhere painting is referred to, pretty much everything Mr. Simon has to say would read just as on-point. (In fact Mr. Simon himself suggests just that in one brief sentence in one brief paragraph: "The problem for most arts is that so very much has already been done in them, propelling more recent practitioners into horrible distortions, obscure byways, or downright dead ends. This is true also in music, otherwise we would have been spared Stockhausen, Cage, Glass and their likes." See also our August 2004 S&F entry titled "Whither Genuine Art?".)
Writes Mr. Simon:
As I have often said and sometimes written, the history of art extends from Anonymous to Untitled, from when only the work mattered to where only the name in the signature does.
What reminds me of this is a reproduction in The New York Times (10/16/12) of an untitled painting by Franz Kline, which, at the forthcoming auction, “is expected to bring $20 million to $30 million” and make me sick to my stomach. I recall a time, long ago, when Kline yelled at me at a party, “You are full of shit!”, and I replied, “Maybe, but at least I don’t smear it on canvas and peddle it as art.”
Art today is the result of a tacit conspiracy among artists, art historians, art critics, art dealers, nabobs who don’t know what to do with their money, and all the people who don’t know anything about art. And why shouldn’t it fetch that much when the article about the Kline painting notes that one by Clyfford Still, resonantly entitled “1949-A-No. 1” went for $61.7 million? Even Clyfford with a Y should raise a cautionary eyebrow.
Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is arguably the very incarnation of that mythical entity, The Great American Novel. Someone had the splendid idea of having the novel read aloud serially on the Web a chapter at a time in downloadable segments. Here's the result so far.
What's wrong with this picture (apart from the misspelling of the novel's title we mean)?
If there exists a finer, more compelling argument for the need, necessity, and value of dedicated (i.e., professional), serious, deeply informed and literate critics and criticism in the arts and literature than the one written for The New Yorker titled "A Critic’s Manifesto" by Daniel Mendelsohn we've never encountered it.
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these [professional] critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically — which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period.
And so the fact is that (to invoke the popular saying) everyone is not a critic. This, in the end, may be the crux of the problem, and may help explain the unusual degree of violence in the reaction to the stridently negative reviews that appeared in the Times Book Review earlier this summer, triggering the heated debate about critics. In an essay about phony memoirs that I wrote a few years ago, I argued that great anger expressed against authors and publishers when traditionally published memoirs turn out to be phony was a kind of cultural displacement: what has made us all anxious about truth and accuracy in personal narrative is not so much the published memoirs that turn out to be false or exaggerated, which has often been the case, historically, but rather the unprecedented explosion of personal writing (and inaccuracy and falsehood) online, in Web sites and blogs and anonymous commentary—forums where there are no editors and fact-checkers and publishers to point an accusing finger at.
Similarly, I wonder whether the recent storm of discussion about criticism, the flurry of anxiety and debate about the proper place of positive and negative reviewing in the literary world, isn’t a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put. When, after hearing about them, I first read the reviews of Peck’s and Ohlin’s works, I had to laugh. Even the worst of the disparagements wielded by the reviewers in question paled in comparison to the groundless vituperation and ad hominem abuse you regularly encounter in Amazon.com reviews or the “comments” sections of literary publications. Yes, we’re all a bit sensitive to negative reviewing these days; but if you’re going to sit in judgment on anyone, it shouldn’t be the critics.
For the second time in the space of a month our hiatus from blogging is interrupted by the death of yet another irreplaceable artist whose passing we cannot let go without comment.
Gore Vidal — writer; public intellectual; notorious wit, provocateur, and celebrity figure — died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles from complications of pneumonia reports The New York Times. He was 86.
Mr. Vidal possessed an almost embarrassing abundance of gifts: handsome to the point of beautiful, his cutting acerbic wit and sharpness of intellect were wonders to behold on numerous occasions on television talk shows and on the lecture circuit. As if those weren't gifts sufficient, Mr. Vidal, one of this country's most prolific writers, was perhaps the most elegant writer this country has ever produced, a gift on display in his 25 novels and scads of essays too numerous to count, not to mention several plays and a number of TV dramas and Hollywood movies.
With Mr. Vidal's passing, the world has been deprived of one of its most accomplished artists.
Atque in perpetuum, Gore, ave atque vale.
The gifted humorist, essayist, journalist, screenwriter, and filmmaker Nora Ephron died today at age 71 from pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia according to The New York Times.
We first encountered Ms. Ephron's work in a short humor piece she did for Esquire magazine in the '70s, if our memory can be trusted, titled simply, "Crabs" (we can't seem to locate it online and so can't link to it), which, it struck us at the time, was one of the most perfect pieces of humor we'd ever read. She once said of writing (this a close paraphrase as we can't locate the source of the verbatim quote): "Beginnings and endings are easy. It's the stuff in the middle that's hard." That's no doubt true (as it is of life as well) but one would be hard-pressed to discern that in Ms. Ephron's writing so effortlessly does it all seem to flow whether it be for the page or the screen. The film When Harry Met Sally for which she wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay is a case in point and a sterling example of Ms. Ephron's pitch-perfect, bitingly humorous but deeply sympathetic and insightful commentary on contemporary male-female behavior and interaction, and her short, best-selling, thinly-veiled autobiographical novel Heartburn another case in point and a sterling example of her ability to find humor (if at times of the dark sort) in even the most painful personal experience. Hers is a voice absent which the world will be a poorer and less bright place. She will be sorely missed.
Atque in perpetuum, Nora, ave atque vale.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 2:11 PM Eastern on 16 Apr. See below.]
[NOTE: This entry has been edited as of 5:21 AM Eastern on 14 Apr to clarify and make more explicit several points.]
Commenting on the Department of Justice's lawsuit against Apple and book publishers Hachette SA, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster charging collusion in the fixing of prices for eBooks, writer for The Guardian Alison Flood, joining a chorus of other doomsday whiners, whines:
The DoJ lawsuit plays, it seems to me, right into the hands of Amazon. Yes, we'll have cheaper books, but at what cost? Is it worth paying a little bit less for a title if it threatens the future existence of the publishers who are bringing us the books?
[I]t scares me, it really does.
Say what? "Threatens the future existence of the publishers who are bringing us the books"(!)? What cave have these recent doomsday whiners been living in for the past decade or so? Haven't they long ago heard that traditional book publishers are today fast becoming almost wholly irrelevant as the source of new books; economic and cultural dinosaurs all whose demise was sealed the day Amazon introduced the Kindle, and good riddance to them?
For the most part, traditional publishers are today coasting on the inertia generated by their centuries of existence. Within a generation they'll largely be history for ordinary new book publishing, fiction and nonfiction. In the past, traditional book publishers served a noble and necessary purpose. Today they're entirely unnecessary and rather than be supported should be left to expire in peace and with dignity, saved harmless from the always demeaning and ultimately futile attempts to sustain a faltering life by artificial means. Let us instead say, Atque in perpetuum, Traditional Book Publishers, ave atque vale.
Update (2:11 PM Eastern on 16 Apr): In answer to the question, "How is publishing changing?," Clay Shirky, NYU professor, author, and consultant on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, responded:
Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.
In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.
The question isn’t what happens to publishing — the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers. Will we have a movie-studio kind of setup, where you have one class of cinematographers over here and another class of art directors over there, and you hire them and put them together for different projects, or is all of that stuff going to be bundled under one roof? We don’t know yet. But the publishing apparatus is gone. Even if people want a physical artifact — pipe the PDF to a printing machine. We’ve already seen it happen with newspapers and the printer. It is now, or soon, when more people will print the New York Times holding down the “print” button than buy a physical copy.
Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution. Now publishers are in the business not of overcoming scarcity but of manufacturing demand. And that means that almost all innovation in creation, consumption, distribution and use of text is coming from outside the traditional publishing industry.
Lord preserve us (and the Bard forgive us)! HIP has now invaded the world of the spoken theater: Shakespeare spoken as Shakespeare would have heard it spoken. Give a listen.
Let's hope not.
In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the "greatest living writer of English prose", was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: "I don't think so." Of Austen he said he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world".
He felt that women writers were "quite different". He said: "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me."
Yes, well, perhaps that's all true (although we wouldn't bet on it), but we can't help thinking back to what, for the longest time, we, too, were absolutely convinced of; viz., that no female, no matter how technically adept she might be, could ever play the fiddle with the command and fire and depth of emotion of a male, and that we could tell within twenty measures or so whether the fiddle was being played by a female or not.
Then one day, some thirty or so years ago, we switched on the radio about ten measures into the Beethoven Violin Concerto and of course stopped what we were doing to listen (one never passes up a chance to hear the Beethoven). The performance was riveting. We couldn't place the fiddler as this fiddler, whoever he was (there was no question the fiddler was a male), sounded like no fiddler we'd ever heard before. We mentally flipped through every fiddler known to us and could come up with no match. Then came the announcer. The orchestra was the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and the fiddler was someone named Anne-Sophie Mutter. She was 16 years old.
And that was that.
In a review of Stanley Fish's newest book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, written for the The Book, the online book review section of The New Republic, Simon Blackburn, the Bertrand Russell Professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and a Research Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, had this to say:
For Fish a great sentence is like a great athletic performance. It is an example of something done supremely well, so well that it cannot be bettered. Other similar feats will come along, but only to stand alongside it. What exactly is done in such a performance? There is no single answer, indeed no finite answer since there is no limit to the things that can be done with words. But it is what Conrad called the “shape and ring” of sentences, the perfect adaptation of form to achievement, that Fish wants to share.
It is wrong to think that the sentence is a mere slave, whose function is to bear content, which, while being the really important thing, is also something that could equally have been borne by another. Change the shape and ring, and you change everything. The balance, the alliterations, the variation, the melody, the lights glimmering in the words, can work together to transform even an ugly thought into something iridescent....
Do shape and ring matter? Perfection always matters. Without the sensitivity Fish admires, we would not only have no great literature. We would also have had no Gettysburg address, no Churchill, and no Martin Luther King, Jr. If we cannot move peoples’ souls, we cannot move their ways of living either: “Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws.”
It may seem strange for an atheist Jew such as we to confess a love for the King James version of the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible, but that would be a myopic view of the matter as the King James Bible is as much a work of literature as it is a religious text. Writer and author Ann Wroe, obituaries and briefings editor of The Economist and author of Being Shelley, has a lovely piece in the current issue of Intelligent Life titled "In The Beginning Was The Sound" that has much to say about the King James Bible as literature.
Like many Catholics, I came late to the King James Bible. I was schooled in the flat Knox version, and knew the beautiful, musical Latin Vulgate well before I was introduced to biblical beauty in my own tongue. I was around 20, sitting in St John’s College Chapel in Oxford in the glow of late winter candlelight, though that fond memory may be embellished a little. A reading from the King James was given at Evensong. The effect was extraordinary: as if I had suddenly found, in the house of language I had loved and explored all my life, a hidden central chamber whose pillars and vaulting, rhythm and strength had given shape to everything around them.
In the event you've been living in a cave isolated from the outside world for the past decade or so, we'd like to call to your attention that it's the year two-thousand-and-ten A.D., Print On Demand (POD) publishing is available to anyone with a book to publish at little to no cost, and the eBook, also available to anyone with a book to publish at little to no cost, has finally come into its own. So, the question is: Why, then, the necessity or need today for book publishing houses? What function do they perform or what service do they provide that an author could not perform or provide himself, or hire experts to perform or provide for him? In short, why are book publishing houses still in business today at all?
Answer: Beats us. Book publishing houses are an anachronism; a relic of the pre-digital past who have — or rather, should have — no place whatsoever in today's book publishing market for new books. And yet one reads articles such as this one bemoaning the lessening power and influence of book publishing houses and the rise in power of brick-and-mortar book mega-stores and online book retailers with bewildering regularity.
What happens when an industry concerned with the production of culture [the commercial book publishing industry] is beholden to a company with the sole goal of underselling competitors [Amazon.com]? Amazon is indisputably the king of books, but the issue remains, as Charlie Winton, CEO of the independent publisher Counterpoint Press puts it, "what kind of king they’re going to be." A vital publishing industry must be able take chances with new authors and with books that don’t have obvious mass-market appeal. When mega-retailers have all the power in the industry, consumers benefit from low prices, but the effect on the future of literature — on what books can be published successfully — is far more in doubt.
Excuse us? What kind of lunatic reasoning is that? "[T]he effect on the future of literature — on what books can be published successfully — is far more in doubt"(!)?
No, you purblind flack. What's in doubt is the future of book publishing houses, not literature or books. Books, literature, and authors will do just fine — flourish, even — without irrelevant middlemen like book publishing houses who while eyeing foremost their own bottom line (not "the production of culture") make decisions on which books should or should not be published, and then take a hefty cut of authors' earnings for the privilege of being published by them.
Talk about irrelevancy. Talk about chutzpah!
There is a certain kind of art made here in America for a lofty but banal purpose: to enliven the contemporary educated mind.
You know: the mind of you and me, dear 3QD reader -- the NPR listener, the New Yorker reader, the English major, the filmgoer who laps up subtitles, the gallery-goer who can tell a Koons from a Hirst.
This art is superior to the cascading pile of blockbuster kitsch-dreck-crap that passes for pop culture, but only superior by a few pips.
This art sure ain't Picasso, or Joyce, or Rossellini, or the Beatles, or even Sondheim. It's more Woody Allen than Ingmar Bergman, more Joyce Carol Oates than James Joyce, more Jeff Koons than Duchamp, more Arcade Fire than the Beatles.
It does not expand the borders of art or wreck the tyranny of the possible or enlarge our hungry little minds.
It is art of the day to inform the conversation of the day by the people of the day who need to be reassured that their taste is a little more elevated than that of the woman on the subway reading Nora Roberts.
For want of a better label, here's a suggested honorific for this kind of art:
Urban Intellectual Fodder.
On arriving in Paris...with my fellow-student Alphonse Robert, I gave myself up wholly to studying for the [medical] career which had been thrust upon me, and loyally kept the promise I had given my father on leaving. It was soon put to a severe test when Robert, having announced one morning that he had bought a "subject" (a corpse), took me for the first time to the dissecting-room at the Hospice de la Pitié. At the sight of that terrible charnel-house — the dissected limbs, the grinning faces and gaping skulls, the bloody quagmire underfoot and the atrocious smell it gave off, the swarms of sparrows wrangling over scraps of lung, the rats in their corner gnawing the bleeding vertebrae — such a feeling of revulsion possessed me that I leapt through the window of the dissecting-room and fled for home as though Death and all his hideous train were at my heels. The shock of that first impression lasted for twenty-four hours. I did not want to hear another word about anatomy, dissection or medicine, and I meditated a hundred mad schemes of escape from the future that hung over me.
Robert lavished his eloquence in a vain attempt to argue away my disgust and demonstrate the absurdity of my plans. In the end he got me to agree to make another effort. For the second time I accompanied him to the hospital and we entered the house of the dead. How strange! The objects which before had filled me with extreme horror had absolutely no effect upon me now. I felt nothing but a cold distaste; I was already as hardened to the scene as any seasoned medical student. The crisis was passed. I found I actually enjoyed groping about in a poor fellow's chest and feeding the winged inhabitants of that delightful place their ration of lung. "Hallo!", Robert cried, laughing. "You're getting civilized. 'Thou giv'st the little birds their daily bread.'" "'And o'er all nature's realm my bounty spread,'" I retorted, tossing a shoulder-blade to a large rat staring at me with famished eyes.
So I went on with my anatomy course, feeling no enthusiasm, but stoically resigned.
I was on my way to becoming just another student, destined to add one more obscure name to the lamentable catalogue of bad doctors, when one evening I went to the Opéra. They were giving The Danaïds, by Salieri. The pomp and brilliance of the spectacle, the massive sonority of orchestra and chorus, the inspired pathos of Mme Branchu, her extraordinary voice, the rugged grandeur of Dérivis, Hypermnestra's aria, in which I discerned, imitated by Salieri, all the characteristics of Gluck's style as I had conceived it from the pieces from his Orphée in my father's library, and finally the tremendous bacchanal and the sad, voluptuous ballet music that Spontini added to his old compatriot's score, disturbed and exalted me to an extent that I will not attempt to describe. It was though a young man possessing all the instincts of a sailor, but knowing only the boats on the lakes of his native mountains, were suddenly to find himself on board a three-decker ship on the open sea. I hardly slept that night, and the anatomy lesson next morning suffered accordingly.
The following week I went to the Opéra again. This time I saw Méhul's Stratonice, and Nina, the ballet devised and composed by Persuis.
Notwithstanding all these distractions and the hours I spent every evening brooding over the melancholy discrepancy between my studies and my inclinations, I persisted in this double life for some time longer, without much benefit to my medical career and without being able to extend my meager knowledge of music. I had given my word and I was holding to it. But when I learnt that the library of the Conservatoire with its wealth of scores was open to the public, the desire to go there and study the works of Gluck, for which I already had an instinctive passion but which were not then being performed at the Opéra, was too strong for me. Once admitted to that sanctuary, I never left it. It was the death-blow to my medical career. The dissecting-room was abandoned for good.
—Hector Berlioz, from, The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, edited and translated by David Cairns
The Wall Street Journal today published an article entitled, "'Vanity' Press Goes Digital". Although the article focuses on eBooks (The New Big Thing — finally!), everything it says can be applied to self-published, Print On Demand (POD), ink-on-paper traditional books as well, as we outlined in some detail several years ago in these two 2007 S&F posts titled, "It's A Whole New Publishing World Out There — Maybe", and "It's A Whole New Publishing World Out There — Maybe, Pt. 2". The material stigma attached to self-published books (a stigma made explicit by labeling such books "vanity published") is fast disappearing as the quotes around the word "Vanity" in the title of the WSJ piece subtly acknowledges. It's perfectly clear to us, as it was three years ago, that the traditional book publisher is today not only mostly unnecessary for any book author who doesn't mind taking matters into his own hands entirely (or into his own hands with the additional help of expert hired hands in the fields of editing, PR, marketing, and advertising a whole new service industry for which will develop as self-publishing itself develops) thereby reaping the maximum profits from his writing, but is a veritable impediment — a remnant of a bygone era, which remnant is on the verge of having outlived its usefulness except for the most specialized of book publishing projects.
Some months ago, we sent an eMail to a prominent literary agent who maintains a blog whereon she answers candidly and without pulling any punches even the most basic or most touchy questions eMailed to her by her readers about literary agents and about the publishing biz generally. That eMail read:
Given the absolute ease today of self-publishing a POD book the physical product of which is absolutely indistinguishable from the physical product put out by any major house, and given the amount of non-writing work commercial publishers today expect an author to perform in the peddling of a published book, what irreplaceable service does a commercial publisher provide an ordinary (i.e., non-celebrity) author today for its 85%-90% cut of the book's sales price beyond the stroking of the author's ego and vanity by the prestige of being published by a commercial house? I've of course asked myself the same question, and no matter how I twist it, the answer I come up with is none. Nada. Zero. Zip. Bupkiss. I guarantee you that anything you come back at me with, I'll be able to come up with an alternate way to accomplish the same end, and just as effectively, even when economies of scale are taken into consideration.
Your thoughts, please, as I suspect I must be missing something.
That eMail never made it onto that agent's blog, nor was it even so much as acknowledged.
Surprise! — or, rather, no surprise at all.
It's time the commercial book publishing industry stopped asking itself for whom the bell tolls. Manifestly, my dear dinosaur, it tolls for thee.