Archive for August, 2010

Imperfect Armor – a short film based on a poem I wrote – is an official selection of the 2010 Carmel Art & Film Festival. The movie, part of the Poetry in Pictures Series, will be screened in October.

Details to follow…

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Does the death of literary critic and scholar Frank Kermode on August 17 signal the impending end of a cultural epoch?

Adam Kirsch, senior editor at the New Republic thinks so. Kermode “was one of the last exemplars of an ideal that dates back at least to Matthew Arnold: the ideal of the literary critic as the humanist par excellence,” Kirsch writes in Slate. “What gave the critic his special authority was the way that he thought and wrote at the intersection – of the classics and the contemporary world, of literature and society, of the academy and the common reader.” In addition to teaching at Cambridge and Columbia, Kermode authored or edited more than fifty books. He wrote regularly for publications such as the London Review of Books, which he helped initiate, and the New York Review of Books.

As it happens, one of the essays in Fighters & Writers germinated with an NYRB review Kermode wrote of a collection of nonfiction by George Orwell. A reference Kermode made to an accusation that could have radically altered Orwell’s reputation prompted me to investigate the charge, delve into books about Orwell, revisit his work and produce a personal essay about his lasting impact on me.

Fighters & Writers also includes a piece on Martin Amis, whose The War against Cliché Kermode discusses in a biting passage Kirsch quotes in his obituary. Kirsch wrote one of the more astute assessments of another Amis collection, The Second Plane, as I note in my essay about that book.

I’d like to think Kirsch is wrong about a literary era’s death coinciding with Kermode’s. I mention the connections with my work simply to illustrate that the intersection Kermode mapped still sees some traffic.

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After recently rewatching, The Harder They Fall, I considered writing something about the differences between the movie and the novel on which it is based. As it turns out, the author of the book, Budd Schulberg, beat me to it – by more than fifty years.

In a June 1956 Sport Illustrated piece, Schulberg calls Humphrey Bogart’s last film “an inaccurate and overstated picture of boxing evils” and contends that “to suggest that every fight is fixed, every manager venal, and every fighter a victim is to do a large injustice to hundreds of fine fighters and reliable trainers and managers whose careers ride on the unknown outcome of every big fight.” He complains that the director, Mark Robson, sensationalized his story by imagining improbable fixes, disregarding boxing’s rules and misrepresenting fans’ response to a fighter being carried out on a stretcher. He objects to the depiction of a fighter (played by a former heavyweight champion, Max Baer, no less) as eager to receive credit for the death of another boxer. Schulberg knew several boxers who “figured in fatalities or near fatalities” and reports: “Not one ever voiced any other sentiment but anguish for any permanent damage inflicted on an opponent.”

Even before the film was released, Schulberg objected to Bogart’s sportswriter character calling for the abolition of boxing, something the novel doesn’t do and something Schulberg never supported. The producers agreed to change the scene so that the ex-press agent instead says “the boxing business must rid itself of … evil influence – even if it takes an act of Congress to do so.” But this too was something Schulberg didn’t endorse. Instead, he believed boxing needed a strong commission similar to the one governing baseball.

I knew Schulberg wanted boxing reformed. In the 1995 foreword to his 1947 novel, he expresses the hope that “maybe one of these days we’ll rescue a fascinating sport, full of brave warriors and honest practitioners, from the gutter which it still finds so congenial.” I use that line as an epigraph to one of the section of Fighters & Writers. While I was familiar with some of Schulberg’s work while writing the essays in that volume, I had yet to read his 1995 collection Sparring with Hemingway, where the film critique “Hollywood Hokum” is reproduced.

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The art and literature review Open Letters Monthly arranged a reading from the “best of” anthology Open Letters Monthly: An Anthology 2007 – 2010 at Housing Works’ Bookstore Café in Manhattan on Friday, August 20, at 7 pm. It’s a fine collection, and I don’t say that only because I have an essay in it. I won’t be attending – New York City is a bit out of my way – but it ought to be worthy event.

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Every year I read Best American Essays – both because I’m one of those oddballs who actually enjoys essays and because I want to know what the competition is up to – and every year I’m struck by the popularity of morbidity and mortality as subjects of short nonfiction. The writers selected may contemplate fatal or less serious diseases, they may ponder the degeneration of their own health or someone else’s, but each volume reliably includes at least one essay on decay and death, and usually more than one.

Of course I recognize that such fundamental matters merit essayists’ consideration and that individuals’ experiences of sickness can yield compelling stories. Still, with so many essays of illness out there, and because of a constitutional unease with sharing intimate personal information with strangers, I hesitated before adding to the celebrated sub-genre.

But I did contribute to it. I wrote about physical conditions my wife and I confronted in a piece first published in a journal called Blood & Thunder: Musing on the Art of Medicine and subsequently included in Fighters & Writers.

Perhaps the way to explain my doing this is to rework a favorite line of Christopher Hitchens’s and say what matters is not what you write about but how you write. Hitchens writes about his struggle with cancer in the September 2010 issue of Vanity Fair. It is a revealing column – more openly personal than his argumentative memoir Hitch-22. It’s also a fine piece of writing, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it in a future “best of” anthology. As it happens, Hitchens edited the forthcoming 2010 edition of Best American Essays. I would be surprised if there isn’t at least one essay of illness in it (even if he did make his picks before his diagnosis).

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Given all my recent movie-related musings here at Rodwan Writes, it seems only appropriate that my latest Open Letters Monthly essay addresses my and other writers’ attitudes toward the cinematic arts. Certain authors I discuss, such as E.L. Doctorow, have fairly negative views about film, while others, such as John Irving, look on it more favorably. The quality of the movies adapted from their work is not the only factor in their opinions, though it probably is one of them. Writers’ commitment to language makes it understandably difficult for some to credit an art form that does much of what it does without relying on words. I once held a dismissive attitude, but the work of Werner Herzog (among others) helped me develop a regard for what film can do that books cannot. Because it took me an inordinate amount of time to develop this appreciation, I call the piece “Late to the Movies.”

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