Welcome

Hello! I don’t really blog much anymore, but you can find a lot of my work from around the web on this site. Basically, Guy’s Library now works as a homepage, where I collect links to things published elsewhere.

If you look at the tabs at the top, you’ll see that everything is organized into three sections: Essays (longer, in-depth pieces about different topics), Reviews (shorter, more conventional book reviews), and Misc. (everything else). I always post links when they become available, though I’ve stopped posting new blog posts each time something new is added. I mostly write essays, so that’s the place to start.

If you’re new to the site, and are just looking for a quick introduction to my work, these pieces are some of my personal favorites. (I periodically update this list, so it may have changed since your last visit):

Don’t Settle: The Journalist in the Shadow of the Commercial Web

Aristocrats of “Merit”

On Bureaucracy and the Left

The Ends Commands the Means: Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age

“More Real to Us”: The Art of Susan Sontag

Thanks for stopping by!

If you’re looking for something to read…

I forgot to post here when it first came out, but I have a new piece up at the Los Angles Review of Books. This one looks at the commercial  web through the prism of Astra Taylor’s new book, The People’s Platform:

When you look at culture and media from this point of view — asking not about how art, writing, and music are distributed but who holds cultural power — there has been a lot less “disruption” in the digital era than is often supposed. One of the most appealing aspects of the web is the way it seems to empower individual creators. Anyone can write a blog post or story, record a song, create an image, or film a movie and immediately post it online for anyone to experience. But in practice, a handful of big players dominate the web.

You can read the rest here. I actually have a companion piece to this that will be available soon. I’ll post a link when I get a chance…

 

My Back Pages

It’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog… and to be honest, I don’t expect to ever post as much here as I did on the original Guy’s Library. I just would rather devote my writing time to other projects. But I still plan on using the site to share my essays, reviews, and stories. With that in mind, I wanted to highlight a couple older pieces from elsewhere on the web, in case you didn’t see them the first time around. Links to all of these (and more) can also be found on the Essays page.

My piece “The Ends Commands the Means: Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary” is a pretty good place to start. It looks at the life and career of one of the most interesting political writers of the twentieth century, journalist/novelist/activist/revolutionary/dissident Victor Serge. (I’ve actually written about Serge a couple times.)

George Orwell’s work served as my primary introduction to political writing, and in many ways set me down the path to becoming a writer. As an adult, though, I find myself reading him a little differently. My piece “Getting to ‘No’: Snowball’s Chance, Animal Farm, and “Exemplary Truth” looks at how my views of Orwell’s work have evolved over the years.

I don’t always read political literature, of course, so after that I’d encourage you to check out “A Calm Place to Think: On Reading the Classics,” where I try and figure out the place of “classic” books in the digital era (and try to make sense out of my own reading habits).

The essay “Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age” is probably the best expression of my views on contemporary writing. It’s also my first attempt to look at how information technology interacts with the arts.

And finally, there’s my piece “More Real to Us: The Art of Susan Sontag,” which looks at the life and work of one of my favorite essayists and critics.

After that… well, it’s up to you. If you’re interested in reading even more of my work, just click on the tabs at the top of the page and dive in.

New essay

I forgot to post this when it came out. (Sorry.) I’ve got a new essay up at the Los Angeles Review of Books. This one takes a look at George Orwell’s Animal Farm, through the prism of John Reed’s parody, Snowball’s Chance:

Orwell, with his innate dislike for ideology and abstraction… [was] sensitive to the excesses of totalitarianism at a time when many were not, and that sensitivity is a prerequisite to any kind of political literature — to any reasonable politics at all. But a political literature, and a political understanding, that stops there is a deeply impoverished one. Problems exist, and they need to be addressed — and only shouting “no” will not accomplish that. Reed’s novel fails on many levels, but it succeeds in convincing the reader that merely removing Napoleon and his “Animalism” does not by itself guarantee that Animal Farm would be a happier place — and in so doing, he finally strikes a blow at Orwell’s original novella. Essentially, Orwell’s late, dystopian works — Animal Farm and 1984 — are the beginning of a conversation, not its end.

You can read the rest of the essay here.

New Essay Online

Hey everyone, I’ve got a new essay up at the Los Angeles Review of books site (check it out here). This one takes a look at Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary:

Serge is ultimately a literary figure, in the sense that watching the push and pull between his unsentimental practicality and the unabashed idealism on display in the Memoirs is essential to understanding his appeal. He can be quite blunt on the weaknesses of human nature, writing, “Totalitarianism is within us,” while at the same time insisting, “The future seems to me, despite the clouds on the horizon, to be full of possibilities vaster than any we have glimpsed in the past.” He is upfront about his inability to turn Soviet society against Stalin, admitting that he was “too much of an intellectual” to be an effective activist. The Memoirs tells a harrowing story — Serge spent most of his adult life in prison and/or exile and saw the Russian Revolution, which for him was the pinnacle of his life in radical activism, lead to one of the most brutal dictatorships in human memory. But it also is a forward-looking book, committed to recording the history of an era in the obvious hope that others will learn from it. It is both realist and idealist, an attitude that is essential to any functional left-wing, or even liberal, movement

Longtime readers might remember I also took a look at Serge’s fiction a few years back. If you haven’t had a chance, you can read that essay here.

Happy Bloomsday

In honor of Bloomsday, here’s James Joyce reading from Ulysses:

Follow-up: Pop Culture, Nostalgia, and the Novel

In my last post, I mentioned in passing that I worry that both Fortress of Solitude and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay might seem dated eventually because of the way they use pop culture. I wanted to clarify that a bit.

It’s not that I don’t think novelists should engage with pop culture–when done well, pop culture can be a really useful tool for situating characters in society. And lots of truly great novels use pop culture to great effect. For example, in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald references the 1919 World Series, the rise of Broadway, and jazz culture. All of these touches help create the world of the novel. What those references don’t do, however, is help carry the emotional weight of the story. Instead, they exist as part of the world the characters inhabit–they are part of the setting, and only part of the setting.

My concern for both Fortress and K&C, both of which I like a lot, is that the novels invoke not so much the “setting” of pop culture but readers’ nostalgia about the pop culture of their youth or adolescence. And then that nostalgia is asked to do some of the novels’ emotional work. For example, the ultimate uselessness of the magic ring in Fortress plays not only on the characters’ desire for a superpower that can “save” them, but for the reader’s nostalgia for that same desire. As the experience of actually reading comics continues to disappear (comic characters are bigger than ever, but fewer and fewer kids are reading comics themselves), the novel “changes”–in the sense that it can no longer rely on readers’ nostalgia to help underscore the “power” the ring holds in the characters’ imaginations. Perhaps the novel will hold up–I would like it to, to be honest–but I have a feeling it won’t. It may simply rely too much on its readers preexisting ideas and experiences. Basically, I suspect Lethem is working the room too much. And that when the room changes, the book will ring…if not false, then at least less true.

That’s the thing about books–over time, only the very strongest retain any kind of audience. A novel that relies too much on its readers preexisting ideas, prejudices, and nostalgia is setting itself up for a short lifetime. There’s no shame in that–sometimes a book is really great in its moment and then disappears. That doesn’t make it a failure–it makes it a product of its time. But I can’t help but admire books that push for more–that create an internal world so distinctive, so well-crafted, that it can exist even after its “moment” has passed away. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, and in the end Fortress and K&C will turn out be those kinds of books. But I suspect that they will end up closer to Armies of the Night–books that remain well-written, and interesting, but eventually come to seem like products of their particular moment.