Monday, December 11, 2006

Meet the keystone kops of criticism (by Robert Fulford, National Post)

Meet the keystone kops of criticism
Editorial fears over book reviewers' potential biases are exaggerated

Robert Fulford
National Post

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

When the Los Angeles Times assigned me to review a book about German art some years ago, the editors sent along a copy of their standard ethics memo. If this book happens to be by a friend or enemy, the memo said, "please notify the Book Review imme diately." They didn't want reviews by people connected to the author.

The Conflict Police had struck again!

On the book pages of North America, nothing matters more than conflict of interest. It makes editors fearful and authors bitter. Nobody complains if reviewers can't write, know little about their subject, put their readers to sleep or absurdly overrate a book's quality. But if there's a chance that Bruce's vicious teardown of Samantha's novel was motivated by a rotten review Samantha's husband gave Bruce six years ago, it's a scandal. This is a popular zone of controversy, partly because it's a literary issue that even the illiterate think they understand.

Last year the Washington Post published an abject apology for allowing Marianne Wiggins to rubbish John Irving's novel, Until I Find You. Irving is a friend of Wiggins' ex-husband, Salman Rushdie.

Her excellent piece was far from the book's only negative review. No matter. The Post editors decided they shouldn't have trusted her to deal honestly with her former husband's friend's novel.

When I looked at that note from the Los Angeles Times, I reflected happily that the author in question, being previously unknown to me, was neither friend nor enemy. But reading it also made me think: How fair, how ethical, how pure --and how stupid!

Do the people editing book pages read criticism as well as commissioning it? If they do, they must know that in the last century much of the best critical writing was produced by people close to their subjects. Have they heard that the most celebrated Ame rican critic of his time, Edmund Wilson, wrote more than a few words about his dear friend F. Scott Fitzgerald? Or that H.L. Mencken had a platoon of novelists he both reviewed and published in his magazine, the American Mercury?

That won't impress the Conflict Police. They never rest. They live in fear that a sinister network of interlocking backstabbers operates within the otherwise pristine republic of letters. Armed only with a sense of self-righteousness, they are determined to purge the book pages of unethical conduct, even if they have to destroy reviewing in the process.

The Conflict Police are to books what assistant principals are to high schools, overseers who believe that if they abandon their posts everything will collapse into moral chaos.

of the Toronto Star, joined their number last week with an editorial-page column that started with one questionable case and expanded into an attempt to create previously unknown standards for reviewers. A Star reviewer had seriously disparaged the book o f a novelist (who was new to him) without acknowledging her status: She was well known elsewhere and had been, among other things, a finalist for the Governor General's Award. Moreover, the reviewer didn't mention that his own novel had been rejected, nine months earlier, by the publisher of the book he was reviewing. Quelle horreur! "This," said Burnside, "was a conflict of interest that should have been declared and shared with readers." I don't think so. What if the reviewer had been turned down by a d ozen other houses? (That happens. It happened to Brian Moore.)He would have to speckle his reviews with full-disclosure notices for years or decades to come. Or maybe Burnside would be willing to compromise and legislate a statute of limitations for review crime. |If rejection by a publisher creates a problem, so does acceptance. Burnside believes that reviewers should avoid reviewing the books of publishers for which they have written books. She focuses on the Star's book columnist, Philip Marchand, noting that he's been published by five publishers in Canada and three more in the U.S. Burnside believes he should avoid reviewing the books of all those companies. |That could sharply limit the range of his work and baffle anyone who is familiar with what he does. Burnside doesn't know it, but Marchand's opinions make him the worst possible target for her campaign. He stands well outside the consensual view of Canadian writing and his reviews suggest he's not intimidated by publishers or anyone else. He conside rs Atwood cold and Ondaatje unreadable. As for Ontario Gothic fiction (from the good Robertson Davies to the not-so-good Timothy Findley) -- well, in Marchand it brings on the old ennui. |Burnside and her ilk imply that there are available to the newspapers many talented, unbiased, unaffiliated reviewers whose work will never create "an appearance of a conflict of interest." My guess is that no such reviewers exist. We all have our biases, and should have -- otherwise we would be less than human, therefore less than interesting. |Burnside quotes Dan Smith, the Star books editor, who complains that there aren't enough independent critics. Could that possibly have anything to do with the fees he pays? The Star, by far the richest paper in Canada, pays $250 for a book review, roughly what it paid 15 years ago. |With Burnside's encouragement, Smith plans to send reviewers a cautionary note about conflict of interest. Perhaps that will make them more pure, though still poor. |There's a story about a man who wrote to the editor of the Times of London: "Sirs, of all the people who might have reviewed my book, could you not find one who was not my former wife?" That's probably apocryphal, but maybe not. In 1982, when A. Alvarez, the poetry critic, discussed his own marital history in Life After Marriage: Scenes from Divorce, the London Review of Books carried a rather acerbic review by his first wife. She disclosed her status, not in apology but to prove she was an expert witness. |Umberto Eco, a distinguished journali st in Milan as well as an internationally admired theorist, sees conflict-of-interest hysteria as childish and mainly limited to over-earnest North Americans. As he says, in Italy it's routine for his books to be reviewed by both his friends and his enemies. And if the reviewers weren't enemies or friends when they started reading the book, they were one or the other when the review came out.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

FROCKS AND BLOCKS Fashion meets architecture in Los Angeles. (Judith Thurman, the )

Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture

Shigeru Ban
Curtain Wall House
Shigeru Ban Architects, Itabashi, Tokyo, Japan
Photo © Hiroyuki Hirai

Fashion meets architecture in Los Angeles.
Issue of 2006-12-04
Posted 2006-11-27

The fashion world is commonly accused of taking itself too seriously. An ambitious show that opened last week at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art suggests that it may not be taking itself seriously enough. “Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture” is the first exhibition of its scale and kind—more than three hundred contemporary works by forty-six mostly avant-garde architects and designers, chosen to represent what Brooke Hodge, MOCA’s curator of architecture and design, calls the “increasingly fruitful dialogue” between the two disciplines.

Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown, the architects who designed the installation, reconfigured MOCA’s cramped galleries as a spacious labyrinth. “Architecture supplies the gravitas, and fashion delivers the big bang, so that’s where we start,” Tsao told me. Mannequins, fashion videos, and a small stage set of Hussein Chalayan’s wearable living-room furniture (a telescoping wooden coffee table that becomes a skirt, and slipcovered chairs that convert into suitcases and dresses in case you have to leave town on short notice) introduce the general themes of “body,” “shelter,” and “identity.” Visitors then thread their way through exhibits of increasing complexity that compare the “tectonic strategies” (i.e. construction techniques) of both disciplines. “The clothes have a visceral impact that the buildings don’t,” Tsao acknowledged, “and only in part because they’re physically present, while the architecture is represented by models and graphics. Our profession tends to be too hermetic. It has a lot to learn about relating to actual human beings.”

An apparent likeness between human beings isn’t proof of an actual, or even mimetic, kinship, and the same is true of their creations. Do the “cables” that hoist the skirt of Yeohlee Teng’s poetic Suspension Dress relate, except semantically, to the structural engineering of Bernard Tschumi’s suspended walkways at the Parc de la Villette, in Paris? Do the pleated façade of Winka Dubbeldam’s Greenwich Street Project and a pleated day dress by Alber Elbaz have anything in common besides elegance? What about the lacy skin of Toyo Ito’s Mikimoto Tower, in Tokyo? Is it conversing with Tess Giberson’s abstract crochet work? The beauty and invention on display in “Skin + Bones” dispose one, perhaps too readily, to nodding in compliance at the alleged parallels between Martin Margiela’s disjointed patchworks and Frank Gehry’s anarchic jigsaw puzzles, or between the shard-like angles of Zaha Hadid’s Vitra fire station and the jaggedly cantilevered shirt collars by the Dutch partners Viktor & Rolf, and I was willing to suspend—or cantilever—my disbelief to perceive, in the arboreal spread of Yohji Yamamoto’s wedding gown, an effort to unite the party tent and the chuppah in one ensemble. But is one really looking at the skin and bones of a new hybrid species, or the anatomy of a metaphor?

Architecture critics have already started to grumble about the tenuous nature of the connections made in “Skin + Bones,” but the fashion world is well served by it. On the runway, inspired feats of virtuosity are all too often quickly forgotten by blasé audiences rushing to the next show. Here they are treated with informed reverence, beginning with the Russian Doll ensemble by Viktor & Rolf, which greets visitors in the first gallery. Eight mannequins on a round platform display the nesting layers, each a masterpiece of couture, that were originally fitted on a live model during Paris fashion week in 1999. In a video of the performance projected behind the clothes, the designers dress an immobile girl standing on a lazy Susan in successively heavier and more ornamental robes, transforming a nubile waif wearing the barest scrap of a jute shift into a royal mummy shrouded by a majestic cloak that seems molded of clay. It is an act of self-mockery and, perhaps, social criticism as much as an advertisement for the label: fashion as architecture entombing woman as it enshrines her.

The fashion retrospectives mounted by major art museums like the Guggenheim and the Met have typically been celebrations of a style, a period, or a couturier (often lavishly subsidized by its subject). The Frick examined the relations of costume to portraiture, and to changing standards of propriety, three years ago, in “Whistler, Women, and Fashion.” A number of specialized institutions here and abroad, including the Cooper-Hewitt and the Victoria & Albert, have entertained contemporary fashion in the context of other visual arts—and Hodge acknowledges her debt to “Intimate Architecture,” an exhibit of conceptual body-housing curated by Susan Sidlauskas, in 1982, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Hayden Gallery. But “Skin + Bones” stands to attract, if not reconcile, two camps that rarely converge in a gallery: the followers of fashion, who prefer their nests feathered, and the austere draftsmen in Bauhaus glasses, who may privately relish the charms of a scarlet woman such as fashion but balk at entertaining her in polite company. “Ten years ago, I couldn’t have organized a show like this,” Hodge told me. “Many architects would have been leery of lending their work to it. They didn’t know what avant-garde designers were doing, or assumed that it was frivolous. But the younger generation tends to know more about fashion than designers know about architecture. They’ve grown up with its influence, and the question of legitimacy doesn’t arise.”

“Skin + Bones” starts with the unexceptional premise that fashion and architecture are, if not equals, cognates—related languages with a common root. They both translate a two-dimensional pattern of abstract shapes into a seamed, three-dimensional volume. It is probable that birds’ nests and spiders’ webs inspired the first weavers and thatchers, and most of the garments ever made have been fabricated from some sort of loomed or knitted textile. Their archaic function was to provide a substitute for the scales that mammals left on the shore. The clothing of early humans (and of many contemporary nomads)—skins draped over a bony frame—was a trimmer version of their tents, though almost anything we wear could be construed, as it is in this show, as a “portable shelter.” Bikinis and burkas, in that respect, both mediate between the public and private zones of a body the way that a wall or a screen does—inviting or denying access to strangers.

Durable edifices are rarely, at least in the West, constructed of fragile materials, but “hard” and “soft” are no longer the defining properties of either architecture or fashion. The British designer Alexander McQueen is represented in the catalogue by a one-piece molded “carapace” with a metallic pony-hair fringe that resembles a yurt. Shigeru Ban’s Curtain Wall House is literally that: a Tokyo residence with a curtain wall of white drapery. Carbon Tower, a high-rise by Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser, gifted partners based in Los Angeles, is still in the planning stage, but they hope to construct it from a braided, carbon-fibre helix, which resembles a fish-net stocking. Theirs is a cityscape made sensuous by technology, rather than brutalized by it, although nothing may be more old-fashioned about visionary architecture than its utopianism.

In nearly every culture that covers its nudity and lives under a roof, fashion and architecture are vested with the power to confer status and encode identity—services that, of late, they have performed conspicuously for each other. It is almost de rigueur for a big luxury clothing brand to commission a flagship store or corporate headquarters from an architect with a museum, civic monument, or Pritzker Prize on his résumé, and the competition among the would-be Medicis of fashion to outclass one another architecturally has come to resemble a medieval joust. The French mogul Bernard Arnault reportedly enlisted Frank Gehry to design the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation’s contemporary-arts center after Karl Lagerfeld warned him that Tadao Ando, a knight high on Arnault’s list, had been tapped by an arch-rival, François Pinault, of P.P.R., which owns the Gucci Group. The Prada boutiques in SoHo and Beverly Hills were designed by OMA/Rem Koolhaas. But Prada, for its six-level emporium in Tokyo (don’t call it a department store; it’s an “epicenter”), jilted Koolhaas for the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron. Their five-sided, diamond-faceted, nib-shaped edifice with “bubblewrap” windows has become a landmark in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, and Hodge includes it with two other starred attractions on a shopping tour of that city: Toyo Ito’s Mikimoto Tower and his retail space for Tod’s—a lyrical trellis of concrete and glass on Omotesando Avenue that mirrors the Japanese elms on the sidewalk. Architecture has bequeathed to fashion marketing the notion of an aesthetically coherent—though one might also say micromanaged—environment. It sometimes makes one nostalgic for the chaos of the souk.

The disparities between fashion and architecture are, if anything, heightened by proximity: one trades in ephemerality, the other in permanence; their cultural prestige is grossly unequal, but inversely proportional to the name recognition of their stars; a great building might take a decade to build, a great collection takes at most six months to make, and it isn’t paid for up front. Even the most cerebral garments in the show—Isabel Toledo’s ingenious, circular Packing Dress; the digitally designed origami Bellows dresses by Yoshiki Hishinuma; Junya Watanabe’s Objet collection; Ralph Rucci’s exquisite couture mosaics; the seamless sculptures by Miyake Issey and Nanni Strada (an undeservedly obscure Milanese industrial designer in her sixties who “loves fashion and hates the fashion world,” she told me)—are constructed by methods that a civilian can comprehend. But the distorted “oblique projections” that produced the elevations for Preston Scott Cohen’s dream-like Torus house, planned for Old Chatham, New York (“a doughnut shape generated by revolving a circle along a coplanar axis”), or the theory behind Peter Eisenman’s unbuilt Rebstockpark residential and commercial development in Frankfurt (based on “the idea of the ‘fold’ as set forth by the chaos-theorist René Thom and philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s examination of Gottfried Leibniz’s monad”), might as well be rocket science.

Revolutions in construction and fabric technology have made it possible for architects to incorporate techniques like folding, pleating, wrapping, printing, braiding, and draping, though none of these are new to fashion, and, with a few exceptions, the designers work with the traditional tools of tailoring and dressmaking, putting them to wildly playful or subversive use. Conventional high fashion appeals to a client who finds a designer’s style congenial to her body and her life. The clothing in “Skin + Bones” is perhaps most akin to architecture in its appropriation of the body as a site. On it or around it, the designer constructs a singular and demanding conceptual garment that attracts notice for its own unsettling distinction. You wear it less because it suits you than because you are proud to uphold—literally—its principles.

The architects and designers in the show represent twenty-four nationalities, though the Japanese are proportionally the largest contingent. Their prominence is not an accident. They are less beholden to Western canons of design, and their tradition doesn’t discriminate between the fine and the applied arts. Hodge began thinking about the parallels between the disciplines six years ago, when she organized an exhibition at Harvard of Rei Kawakubo’s radically warped and distressed work for Comme des Garçons. Kawakubo and the companion of her youth, Yohji Yamamoto, have never collaborated professionally, but they are the Eve and Adam from whose loins the contemporary fashion avant-garde was born. Their first shows in Paris, like Gehry’s buildings, changed the urban landscape—though in both cases you had to be in the right neighborhood to see them.

Most of the architects in “Skin + Bones” emerged at about the same time, the early nineteen-eighties—a period of experiments with “deconstruction.” Jacques Derrida coined the term in his writing on linguistics, and parallel essays in the show’s catalogue—on architecture, by Hodge, and on fashion, by Patricia Mears, of the Fashion Institute of Technology—treat that pliable theory as the show’s intellectual bridge. As Mears notes, references to “deconstructed” clothing appeared in fashion criticism in the early nineteen-nineties, to describe the next, and predominantly Belgian, wave of iconoclasm—in particular, Martin Margiela’s fusion of structure and ornament, and his mythical vestiary of mutant garments. Like Kawakubo, and, indeed, most of the participants in “Skin + Bones,” he dismantled, ruptured, fractured, or fragmented, then reconfigured, not only clothing or buildings but the traditional logic behind them, which suddenly ceased to seem inevitable.

For anyone who can’t get to Los Angeles between now and March, when the show closes, the catalogue, “Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture” (Thames & Hudson; $50) is worth the investment. Some graphic designers now call themselves “information architects,” though Tracey Shiffman, who laid out the catalogue, isn’t one of them. She deserves the title, however, if for nothing else than for giving such innovative thought to the ergonomics of reading. The text is set in parallel columns separated by a channel, where the footnotes and captions are printed in contrasting ink. It spares the eye tedious travel back and forth or up and down to fetch its references from a well. And the catalogue, like the show it documents, proposes a definition of shelter that includes a habitat for experiment where a family of ideas—unsimple and rivalrous, like all families—can dwell.


Monday, November 20, 2006

A Phone Call Leads the F.B.I. to a Stolen Goya (by Randy Kennedy, the New York Times)

J. M. Pastor/European Pressphoto Agency

A Phone Call Leads the F.B.I. to a Stolen Goya

Published: November 21, 2006

F.B.I. officials in Newark and Philadelphia said yesterday that they had recovered a Goya painting that was stolen from a truck this month while it was being transported from the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio to a major exhibition now on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.

Officials said the painting was recovered unharmed Saturday in central New Jersey after a lawyer called the F.B.I. and told investigators where they could find it while saying that he could not tell them anything else about the theft.

As of late yesterday, no arrests had been made. Because the investigation remains active, officials would not say exactly where or how the painting had been found.

Contrary to earlier law enforcement theories that the theft was carried out by insiders, they did say it appeared that the thieves probably had no idea what kind of art-historical loot they had stumbled upon when they broke into the truck overnight in a parking lot at a Howard Johnson Inn near Bartonsville, Pa.

“This time of year, close to Christmas, they probably thought they’d found a truck filled with PlayStations and broke in and started looking for the biggest-looking box,” said Steve Siegel, an F.B.I. agent who serves as the spokesman for the bureau’s Newark office. “Basically, it’s a target-of-opportunity typical New Jersey cargo theft. There are literally predators — for lack of a better word — who when they see a tractor-trailer or a cargo vehicle parked for any length of time start snooping around.”

Officials at the Toledo Museum of Art said the painting, which was insured for $1 million, would not be included as a late entry in the Guggenheim show, “Spanish Painting From El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth and History,” a sprawling exhibition of some 135 paintings by Spanish masters that opened Friday. Instead, the work, painted in 1778 and titled “Children With a Cart,” will be returned to Toledo.

“We are ecstatic that the painting has been recovered, and we look forward to bringing the Goya home and sharing it again with our community,” Don Bacigalupi, the director of the Toledo Museum of Art, said in a written statement.

Lisa Dennison, the director of the Guggenheim, said the museum would have liked to put the painting into the show but added that it was “understandable that the Toledo Museum would want to bring the stolen painting back to its home after this nerve-racking experience.” She pointed out that the show includes 21 other works by Goya.

The crated painting was stolen either late on the night of Nov. 7 or early on Nov. 8 from a shipping container in the truck while it was parked in an unlighted lot near the Howard Johnson motel. The two drivers checked around 11 p.m. on Nov. 7, according to the motel manager, Faizal Bhimani. He said the white midsize truck was left in a lot adjacent to the hotel, out of sight of the motel’s rooms and the main office.

Law enforcement officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that when the drivers returned to the truck about 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, the locks had been broken and the painting was gone. Neither the two museums nor the investigators have identified the shipping company responsible for transporting the painting.

Federal investigators had first said they believed that thieves armed with detailed shipping information were behind the theft.

While that theory appears to have been wrong, other law enforcement officials cautioned that it was not yet known definitively that the thief or thieves had no information about the shipment of the painting.

While Mr. Siegel would not say exactly where the painting was recovered or provide details about how the agents had found it, he did say that it was recovered without a search warrant. He added that several people had been interviewed about the theft, but he provided no details.

Officials declined to identity the lawyer who alerted the investigators and would not say how he learned of the painting’s whereabouts. Nor would they say whether the lawyer was connected with anyone involved in the theft or whether he would be paid the $50,000 reward offered by an insurer.

It was not known whether the authorities had learned the identities of the thieves.

One law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said charges in the case could be filed as early as next week in United States District Court in Newark. Possible crimes could include interstate transportation of stolen property and theft of major artwork, each carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting from New York and David Johnston from Washington.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

For a World of Woes, We Blame Cookie Monsters (by Gina Kolata, the New York Times)

Corrections Appended

FIRST we said they were ruining their health with their bad habit, and they should just quit.

Then we said they were repulsive and we didn’t want to be around them. Then we said they were costing us loads of money — maybe they should pay extra taxes. Other Americans, after all, do not share their dissolute ways.

Cigarette smokers? No, the obese.

Last week the list of ills attributable to obesity grew: fat people cause global warming.

This latest contribution to the obesity debate comes in an article by Sheldon H. Jacobson of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and his doctoral student, Laura McLay. Their paper, published in the current issue of The Engineering Economist, calculates how much extra gasoline is used to transport Americans now that they have grown fatter. The answer, they said, is a billion gallons a year.

Their conclusion is in the same vein as a letter published last year in The American Journal of Public Health. Its authors, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did a sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation of how much extra fuel airlines spend hauling around fatter Americans. The answer, they wrote, based on the extra 10 pounds the average American gained in the 1990’s, is 350 million gallons, which means an extra 3.8 million tons of carbon dioxide.

“People are out scouring the landscape for things that make obese people look bad,” said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.

And is that a bad thing? Dr. Jacobson doesn’t think so. “We felt that beyond public health, being overweight has many other socioeconomic implications,” he said, which was why he was drawn to calculating the gasoline costs of added weight.

The idea of using economic incentives to help people shed pounds comes up in the periodic calls for taxes on junk food. Martin B. Schmidt, an economist at the College of William and Mary, suggests a tax on food bought at drive-through windows. Describing his theory in a recent Op-Ed article in The New York Times, Dr. Schmidt said people would expend more calories if they had to get out of their cars to pick up their food.

“We tax cigarettes in part because of their health cost,” he wrote. “Similarly, the individual’s decision to lead a sedentary lifestyle will end up costing taxpayers.”

Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said his first instinct was to laugh at the gas and drive-through arguments. But such claims often get wide attention, he says, and take on a life of their own.

“This is like, let’s find another reason to scapegoat fat people,” Dr. Oliver says.

At an annual meeting of the Obesity Society, one talk correlated obesity with deaths in car accidents, and another correlated obesity with suicides. Dr. Oliver, who attended, said no one in the crowd of at least 200 questioned whether the correlations were really cause and effect. “The funny thing was that everyone took it seriously,” he said.

Katherine Flegal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also wryly cautions against being quick to link cause and effect. “Yes, obesity is to blame for all the evils of modern life, except somehow, weirdly, it is not killing people enough,” she said. “In fact that’s why there are all these fat people around. They just won’t die.”

The message in the blame-obesity approach, said James Morone, a political science professor at Brown University, is that it is so important to persuade fat people to lose weight that common sense disappears.

“Anything we can say to persuade you, we will say,” Dr. Morone added.

So is it working?

It doesn’t seem to be. Fat people are more reviled than ever, researchers find, even as more people become fat. When smokers and heavy drinkers turned pariah, rates of smoking and drinking went down. Won’t fat people, in time, follow suit?

Research suggests that the stigma of being fat leads to more eating, not less. And if reducing the stigma suggests a solution, that’s not working either.

“One hypothesis about getting rid of stigma is having more contact with the stigmatized group,” Dr. Brownell says. But with obesity, the stigma seems to be growing along with the national girth.

He cites a famous study in the 1960’s in which children were shown drawings of children with and without disabilities, as well as a drawing of a fat child. Who, they were asked, would you want for your friend? The fat child was picked last.

Now, three researchers have repeated the study, this time with college students. Once again, almost no one, not even fat people, liked the fat person. “Obesity was highly stigmatized,” wrote the researchers, Janet D. Latner of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, Albert J. Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania and C. Terence Wilson of Rutgers University, in the July 2005 issue of Obesity Research.

One problem with blaming people for being fat, obesity researchers say, is that getting thin is not like quitting smoking. People struggle to stop smoking, but many, in the end, succeed. Obesity is different. It’s not that the obese don’t care. Instead, as science has shown over and over, they have limited personal control over their weight. Genes play a significant role, the science says.

That is not a popular message, Dr. Brownell says. And the notion that anyone can be thin with a little effort has consequences. “Once weight is due to a personal failing, a lot of things follow,” he said. There’s the attitude that if you are fat, you deserve to be stigmatized. Maybe it will motivate you to lose weight. The opposite happens.

In a paper published Oct. 10 in Obesity, Dr. Brownell and his colleagues studied more than 3,000 fat people, asking them about their experiences of stigmatization and discrimination and how they responded.

Almost everyone said they ate more.

Corrections: Nov. 5, 2006

An article last Sunday about a tendency to blame obesity for a range of problems misattributed the journal that published a letter about how much extra fuel airlines use carrying fatter Americans. It was the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, not The American Journal of Public Health. The article also misspelled the name of a Brown University political science professor who commented that the intent of such studies is to persuade the obese to lose weight. He is James Morone, not Marone.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Feminism vs. femininity (by Laura Miller, the

Feminism vs. femininity

In the impressive follow-up to her anti-monogamy polemic, Laura Kipnis explains why we feel a little uneasy when the possessor of a brand-new boob job proclaims, "I did it for myself."

By Laura Miller

Oct. 18, 2006 | Feminist punditry has long had a style problem. From the first, it's had a hard time separating how things ought to be from how they really are, which has undermined not only its credibility but its confidence. We all know that "no" does not always mean no, and to have to keep insisting it does over and over erodes even the speaker's faith in herself; stridency is usually a way of sounding more convinced than you actually feel, and it doesn't fool anyone. Then there's the matter of dancing through the eggshell-littered territory of contemporary feminist thinking, knowing that legions of your putative sisters are poised to thrash you for the slightest variation from their (sometimes mutually contradicting) positions. If you anger them, chances are your own life will be dragged out for intensive and merciless scrutiny. If you don't, most likely your caution has made you fatally dull.

On the other hand, for feminism's critics, every day is a field day. Whether it's a nondenominational bomb-thrower like Camille Paglia, a right-wing mouth-frother like Rush Limbaugh or a bargain-bin attack dog like Christina Hoff Sommers, it's hard not to sound like a fearless iconoclast when you're up against such mincing, mealy-mouthed good girls. Whether the good girls have a point or not becomes immaterial. Propriety, which is what too much of feminism has become, is the natural target of humor, too, and if you're funny enough often enough at feminism's expense, you can even get away with never making a coherent argument: case in point being the career of Caitlin Flanagan.

Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University best known for her provocative defense of adultery, "Against Love: A Polemic," does an impressive job of finessing this impasse in her new book, "The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability." Despite the subtitle of her first book, "The Female Thing" is not the work of a polemicist -- nor does it put forth any especially innovative thoughts. Kipnis is like the intelligent woman's version of whatever Carrie Bradshaw was supposed to be on "Sex and the City." You've encountered most of the ideas in "The Female Thing" before, but Kipnis has a way of distilling them down to a well-turned sentence or two that's very pleasing. Hers isn't a gift to be taken lightly, since in the process she makes it clear how untenable many of those ideas are.

Kipnis' knack for epigrammatic sentences fills "The Female Thing" with what amount to some very high-nutrition one-liners. An example: "When it comes to murder, you're actually more than twice as likely to kill yourself as to be killed by someone else, giving weight to the old truism that you're your own worst enemy." She can be acutely funny, though (ironically) the less so the harder she tries to hit that Carrie Bradshaw sweet spot. If you read the four linked essays in this book in order -- and who are we trying to kid; you're going to read the one titled "Sex" first, like everyone else -- you'll have to cruise past a few wince-inducing references to Manolo Blahniks and terms like "the gal set," but don't let that deter you. There's plenty of steak in there, underneath the less convincing attempts at sizzle.

As Kipnis sees it, the situation that educated, middle-class Western women find themselves in is fundamentally absurd. To say so -- rather than pretending the solutions are obvious -- takes nerve. To say so with both humor and sang-froid -- unlike the legions of ethically tormented personal essayists or the pratfalling clones of Bridget Jones -- takes panache.

The absurdity comes from the disparity between our rapidly changing social landscape (including the advances of feminism) and the recalcitrant internal map Kipnis calls "the female psyche." Feminism, she writes, has collided with "an unanticipated opponent: the inner woman." The four essays in "The Female Thing" center on some of the most stubborn aspects of the inner woman, the impulses and irrational passions that suddenly rise up and swamp us despite our best efforts to stick to the designated feminist path. In fact, this rising up and swamping has happened so much in the past 30 years, and women have tried so diligently to redirect the path around the various trouble spots where it does, that by now the path itself is hopelessly muddled. It's like getting lost in the woods and following one promising little trail after another only to see it peter out in an impenetrable thicket.

Kipnis takes a modified Freudian view of this dilemma, which makes her exquisitely attuned to paradoxes. The strongest essay in the book -- "Vulnerability," which is about both sexual abuse and the fear of it -- contains two gemlike analyses of recent confessional writings by Naomi Wolf and the late Andrea Dworkin. Wolf recently favored the readers of New York magazine with a histrionic account of how, 20 years earlier, when she was one of his students at Yale, Harold Bloom put his hand on her thigh after a drunken dinner party. She presented this event -- and the refusal of Yale to address the matter when she finally decided to do something about it years later -- as a deep psychic wound.

"All this is a shade self-dramatizing," Kipnis writes, "but can we say that it's self-dramatizing in a particularly feminine way? The idioms employed have that feminist ring, but it's a genre of feminism dedicated to revivifying an utterly traditional femininity: wounded bird femininity, to borrow Joan Didion's useful formulation." Wolf's drama only makes sense (to the extent that it does make sense) when you understand that she regarded Bloom as so exalted an authority figure that she became "sick with excitement" at the prospect of meeting him, and that she expected nothing less than perfect satisfaction from Yale two decades after she failed to register a complaint. Kipnis' verdict: "this massive overinvestment in paternal figures and institutions has such an Oedipal flavor. The contradiction of Wolf-style devoted daughter feminism is its thralldom to the phallic mythos it's also so deeply offended by." That's very nicely put indeed, so well formulated that if it's not a new interpretation of this minor scandal, it might as well be. In wrestling with Dworkin's writings equating heterosexual intercourse with subjugation -- a more challenging task -- Kipnis is equally astute. "Dworkin didn't read the culture wrong: it's entirely true that all the idioms for penetration -- 'getting fucked,' 'screwed over' -- are about humiliation and exploitation. Which does make it hard to see how anyone can avoid a certain duality about the experience, even when it's pleasurable, as it often is! Dworkin is the great case study in the ambivalence of femininity: after all, she's hardly indifferent about penetration." As Kipnis notes earlier, Dworkin's key work, "Intercourse," hinged around her "wonderfully inflamed" indictment of the practice. "But," Kipnis goes on, "can there really be this much aversion without some corner of desire? The opposite of desire isn't aversion, it's indifference."

As you can see, Kipnis is a great parser of ambivalence -- and she views ambivalence as the defining condition of modern womanhood. In her essay on "Dirt" -- or, rather, about housework -- she reads a passage from Alison Pearson's novel "I Don't Know How She Does It," in which the heroine, a hedge fund executive, resentfully cleans the family kitchen at 2 a.m. after returning from a business trip. Kipnis wonders why so many women obsessively pursue a standard of cleanliness that no one else in the household considers essential. (Despite what such women will tell you, she notes, definitions of what's clean and what's not are neither universal nor unchanging.) "How is it," she writes, "that women have managed to over throw the shackles of chastity -- to cite another rather significant vestige of traditional femininity -- more easily than bondage to the vacuum cleaner?"

She suspects that at the root of this preoccupation lies the buried, primitive association of women's bodies -- and especially menstruation -- with dirt. Kipnis blames this on "the human symbolic imagination, that archaic thing, which isn't fully in sync with external realities like social progress. Maybe some day it will catch up." It probably won't if most of us remain largely unaware of its subterranean influence. "If women didn't have vaginas," Kipnis goes on to speculate, "would we take fewer bubble baths, be less susceptible to the newest cleaning product marketing campaign, let up on the cleaning standards (for those prone to occupying the household enforcer role), and simply not do more than 50 percent of the housework?" Since the vaginas are non-negotiable, the implication is it's time for an overhaul of the symbolic imagination.

In the essay on "Sex," Kipnis mostly focuses on the "erotically mismatched world we've inherited" -- at least for the heterosexual heirs. The lamentable truth is that "the procreative act" -- that is, heterosexual intercourse -- seldom results in orgasm for the female partner, only 20 to 24 percent of the time according to surveys. Kipnis cites the "feminist evolutionary biologist" Elisabeth Lloyd, who has discovered the even worse news that studies of sexual response don't distinguish between women who reach orgasm by intercourse alone and those who need additional stimulation of the clitoris as a "final push." When you subtract those women who (sorry) need a hand, "orgasm-attainment figures are so stunningly low that they seem to imply that reaching orgasm during intercourse isn't normal for the female of the species."

Kipnis compares this situation, hilariously, to "owning one of those hybrid cars that still have a few kinks to work out as your sole source of transport: the engine shuts down unexpectedly, though even when the engine's revved, it can't always be relied upon to get you where you want to go." Combined with the sexual inhibitions most cultures instill in their female members, this leads to a whopping "orgasm gap."

Even the supposedly gone-wild younger generation falls prey to this inequity. Kipnis writes that young women have described themselves as "participating enthusiastically in hookup culture -- one-night stands and booty calls," then complain that "the men involved 'don't care if you're getting off or not.' Yet these girls keep hooking up with them! Without even getting dinner for it! Welcome to the new femininity -- at least under the old femininity, you got taken to dinner." In response to reports from sex researcher Shere Hite, who has interviewed women claiming to enjoy "'emotional orgasm ... an intense emotional peak' followed by feelings of closeness," Kipnis quips, "There's a name for someone who would call that an orgasm: female."

Kipnis sees the current mommy wars as an echo of the old "vaginal-orgasm-versus-clitoral-orgasm dichotomy," in which women who could only climax with clitoral stimulation were told they were insufficiently adapted to their true, natural role as women. "To begin with," she writes, "we have the same cast of characters: the womanly other-directed type versus the masculine-identified striving autonomous type. And in both cases, a socially organized choice masquerades as a natural one, manufacturing a big dilemma where one doesn't really have to exist."

For although Kipnis is willing to admit that some parts of the female psyche have proven ferociously resistant to change, she doesn't think that the situation is intractable. For all her puncturing of feminism's sanguine notions about the malleability of human nature, she doesn't believe that the deep layers of the "symbolic imagination" are hard-wired. Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists may be "the go-to guys of the moment when it comes to thorny questions about human nature and gender roles," but they've yet to come up with a convincing justification for the perverse configuration of the female orgasm, for instance. "This is the crowd," she writes, "who likes to tell us how men and women got to be who they are (and will remain for all eternity) by supplying colorful stories about the mating habits of our hominid ancestors and selected members of the animal kingdom," making the usual comparison to Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories" -- fables about how the leopard got his spots, and so on.

Kipnis' is an exceptionally sensible voice at a time when people seem to believe that any long-standing cultural norm that can't be completely overhauled in a single generation must therefore be indelibly carved on the stone tablets handed down to Charles Darwin at the foundation of the modern world. And for all her low-key Freudianism, she knows when it's time to follow the money instead of the unconscious. During all the foofaraw about the "opt-out revolution" -- those young, Ivy-League women who are now abandoning the career track to be stay-home moms -- haven't you been wishing someone would say exactly this: "Somehow, as highly educated as these girls are, they don't seem to have heard about the 50 percent divorce rate! Somehow, they imagine that their husbands' incomes -- and loyalties -- come with lifetime guarantees, thus no contingency plans for self-sufficiency will prove necessary ... Somewhere Betty Freidan must be cackling..."

In the first essay, "Envy" -- which is not about catfights, but rather about all the things that men have and women want -- Kipnis asks us to consider the slowly closing gender gap when it comes to pay equity. If you look carefully, she points out, you'll see that "women's wages are up to 80 percent of men's because male wages are down, which evens things out. It looks as though the dirty little secret of the last 30 years is that the job market played women off against men to depress pay." While the sexes rage at each other about dating ethics and dirty socks, somebody (probably that little Monopoly guy with the top hat and cigar) has been laughing all the way to the bank.

Perhaps the most daring statement in "The Female Thing" comes in this first essay. Kipnis observes that even so acclaimed a feminist spokesperson as Eve Ensler, creator of "The Vagina Monologues," can turn around and do an entire stage show about how much she hates her belly. "Ensler works herself into intellectual knots trying to come to terms with these painful body insecurities," Kipnis writes, "but there's a simple explanation for the dilemma she can't quite decipher, which is that feminism and femininity just aren't reconcilable." Think about that one for a moment and consider how much an entire school of tortured female rumination hangs on the avoidance of this insight. "Though if internal gymnastics burned calories," Kipnis adds, "we could all have flatter stomachs, with far fewer hours at the fucking gym."

Femininity -- which Kipnis defines as "tactical: a way of securing resources and positioning women as advantageously as possible on an uneven playing field, given the historical inequalities and anatomical disparities that make up the wonderful female condition" -- seeks to ameliorate all these disadvantages by "doing what it took to form strategic alliances with men." But that means that femininity "hinges on sustaining an underlying sense of female inadequacy," which puts it in opposition to the goals of feminism. No wonder we feel a little uneasy when the possessor of a brand new boob job proclaims, "I did it for myself." I believe this is what Marx called false consciousness.

Scolding other women for failing to embody (literally) an appropriately feminist outlook has never really worked, and Kipnis doesn't seem the type to interrupt yet another rousing chorus of "I Enjoy Being a Girl," even if she felt like it. (I don't think she does.) Instead, she's suggesting that we stop lying to ourselves by pretending we can run with the rabbits and hunt with the hounds. No girl should ever be surprised upon finding herself in that archetypal Carrie Bradshaw position of realizing that with all the cash she spent on ruinously expensive and joint-grinding high heels she could instead have bought a roof to put over her head. (That's the revelation that comes right before you learn you need knee surgery.) Don't say nobody ever warned you.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Love Me, I'm a Journalist (by Jack Shafer, the Slate)

press box: Media criticism.
Love Me, I'm a Journalist

A profession's romance with itself.
By Jack Shafer
Posted Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006, at 10:42 PM ET

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.On Monday, I singled out Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz as I admonished journalists for overreacting to staff cuts at newsrooms around the country.

In his columns, Rutten warns that the threatened cuts at the Los Angeles Times will injure democracy and the "stakeholders" (as opposed to stockholders) who rely on the Times' broad coverage. Kurtz declares that news organizations' "corporate slashing" will "mean fewer bodies to pore over records at City Hall, the statehouse or federal agencies"—even though he gives no examples of a newspaper slashing its hard-news staff.

In an e-mail to me, Kurtz expands his point, writing that "some papers are overstaffed, not all belt-tightening is bad and newspapers need to adapt to the digital age. So I don't think I was playing 'hands off the newsroom or we'll shoot this investigative reporter'—just noting that some of these incredibly shrinking papers are likely to find investigative work an unaffordable luxury."
Click Here!

Rutten writes, too. He concurs that a high head count doesn't necessarily guarantee journalistic excellence, "but I'm just as sure that there is a number below which excellence becomes impossible. Is that number in the Times' case 939 or 800? I don't know, and neither does anybody else. I do know, though, that at some point, you have too few good and experienced people to do the job and I, for one, don't want to flirt with that edge."

However appalling newsroom downsizing may be for journalists, it will ultimately reveal what the people who run and own newspapers really think their publications are for. Scratch a serious reporter, and he'll offer volumes about the "public service" his newspaper performs in the form of investigations: It watchdogs government. It keeps corporations honest. It uncovers the dastardly deeds of foreign dictators and prevents genocide. It exposes quacks and charlatans. (It turns the common man into a Socrates if he reads the editorials!)

Newspaper people have enormous egos, if you get my drift, and don't mind massaging the big hairy things in public. Yet the press is hardly the sentry and bulwark of society that reporters imagine it to be. I don't mean to disparage reporters who put their lives on the line to file from Iraq, nor the sleuths who sift through databases to uncover wrongdoing by pharmaceutical companies, or any other enterprising reporter. But too many journalists who wave the investigative banner merely act as the conduit for other people's probing, as George Washington University professor and former investigative journalist Mark Feldstein suggests in a paper-in-progress titled "Ventriloquist or Dummy?"

Feldstein cites a 1992 piece by the late Christopher Georges in the Washington Monthly to illustrate his thesis. Georges reviewed about 800 articles by investigative reporters from the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times published over three years and found that "nearly 85 percent of them have been follow-ups or advances of leaked or published government reports." Georges' study is anecdotal since his piece did not name the stories analyzed or describe his methodology, but my hunch is that his conclusions aren't far from the truth.

As Feldstein writes, there's nothing inherently wrong with investigative journalists throwing the spotlight on government reports as part of their mission, as long as the information is accurate and the journalists aren't being spun. But it subtracts from the journalists' self-images as tireless messengers of truth turning millions of pages at the courthouse or the SEC.

"Hitching ourselves to government investigators' bandwagons does more than make us lazy; it leaves us—and the rest of America—thinking falsely that we are looking where the government isn't," Georges wrote. Feldstein adds this codicil: "[I]f investigative reporters can really be turned into something akin to ventriloquist dummies, how independent can other journalists really be?"

In my Monday piece, I noted that many of the so-called investigative scoops that originate inside government come from such nonprofit outfits as the Center for Public Integrity. As former New York Times-man Bill Kovach told Georges, "Most of what we call investigative journalism these days … is really reporting on investigations."

Before all you investigative reporters who survived on maggots and pomegranates for a year to uncover human rights atrocities in Afghanistan start sharpening your knives for my scalp, please relax. My admiration for original investigative reporting knows no bounds. But the defenders of journalistic excellence will have to make a better case for the connection between big staffs and great journalism before I don my helmet and rush to man the Los Angeles Times barricades.


Disclosure: Feldstein is a friend—not as good a friend as David Corn, but a lot better than Michael Isikoff. Also, if this column were 1 percent more like my Monday column, I'd sue me for copyright infringement. Send your lawsuit to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

We will soon be lost for words (by John Humphrys, the Telegraph)

Note: 'Our language continues to be taken over by pseudo-management speak that is itself in danger of becoming meaningless'

We will soon be lost for words

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 24/10/2006

In the final exclusive extract from his new book on language, John Humphrys laments the death of formality and the dumbing down of classic texts

Interview with John Humphrys: 'I nearly became an alcoholic'
Extract one: Mind your language – it matters!

If language is a mirror for the society in which we live, no image could be reflected back more sharply than the dominance of consumerism in our culture. We have become a nation of consumers. We no longer watch television news, we "consume it". The country itself is routinely called "UK plc", as though that's all we are and a British education minister has referred to our universities as "UK Knowledge plc", which needs to keep up its "market share".

'Our language continues to be taken over by pseudo-management speak that is itself in danger of becoming meaningless'

I know that universities need to raise money wherever they can, but using language like this has consequences. It's not surprising if students come to see themselves more as customers than as members of their universities. In one sense they are: they have to pay and they want value for money. Why not? But it seems that increasing numbers of them interpret that in the ordinary sense of customers' rights.

Customers are frequently disappointed. When that happens in the world of commerce they complain. And that's exactly what they are doing now in academia. There were five times as many complaints from students in 2005 as there had been in 2004 and many of them, it seems, expressed in language you might use to complain about a rip-off merchant.

Baroness Deech, the first independent adjudicator for Britain's university sector, is not impressed: "In the course of looking at some complaints, we have seen e-mails from students to tutors which astonish me."

Alongside this commercialisation of our language, there has been an erosion of formality. Formality matters. It creates a space between us that allows for a measure of independence and freedom. Take it away and that space is open to all manner of intruders, not all of them commercial.

When, for example, did you last hear a public figure "send their condolences" to someone who'd been bereaved? Not recently, I suspect. Nowadays, if there has been a disaster of some sort, it tends to be: "Our thoughts go out to the loved ones…" Or even: "All our thoughts are with the families of those…"

It may be well meant, but it has the smack of insincerity, for the obvious reason that it's not true. "All" our thoughts do not "go out" to anyone. Of course all of us will feel a degree of sympathy, and it can actually be insensitive to the bereaved. It is the equivalent of that ghastly and much parodied "I feel your pain".

The new enforced intimacy is everywhere. The Queen – widely admired for keeping her distance and exercising iron control over her emotions – is now expected to show she cares. It seems a bit odd. Does anyone really believe she somehow became a different person when she was put under pressure to let us know publicly that she was moved by the death of the Princess of Wales?

Formality is disappearing, too, in how we address each other. The first time I met Tony Blair after the election in 1997 I asked him off-air what I should call him. "Tony, of course," he said. I suppose I knew that's what he would say – we'd known each other for a long time and were obviously on first-name terms – but there's something different about being prime minister. It is, after all, the highest elected rank in the land.

I tried to imagine using Margaret Thatcher's first name when she was at Number 10. I preferred to live.

It's clear that a lot of the public value old-fashioned formality in the way we talk to each other. If I had a pound for every listener who gets het up when politicians use the interviewer's first name I'd be almost as rich as Jonathan Ross. People hate it, so why do politicians do it?

Nor does it gain politicians any advantage when they pepper an interview with "John" or "Jim". If they expect us to react like puppies having our tummies tickled… well, you'd have thought they might have learned by now that it doesn't work like that. We should keep our distance. Formality is one way of doing so.

There can be no more grotesque illustration of the demise of formality on television than the rise of the monstrous confidence trick that goes by the name of "reality television". I do not deny that some of it is hugely entertaining. Indeed, one or two programmes, including Channel 4's Operatunity, have been superb.

But most reality television is a lie. It tries to create the illusion that we are watching people behaving naturally in horribly contrived circumstances. I had my own brush with it when I was invited to appear on a new programme for BBC2. The idea was that four "famous" people (how casually we throw around that word) would spend a fortnight at the Chelsea Art College being taught how to draw and paint.

The working title should have alerted me immediately: Celebrity Art School. But I loved the idea. Like half of the population, I can barely draw a bath and I've always wondered if that's because I was never taught properly. I eventually said yes. But I realised from the first hour of the first day what an idiot I'd been.

Although I was fully prepared to persevere, my perseverance was never called for because technique was never called for. The first time I mentioned the word (in about the first hour, as I recall) I was met with an amused tolerance. Poor chap, you could see them thinking, he really is very naive. Sorry, I said, so what is it about?

Whether or not we still have a firm grasp on the meaning of the word art was a question raised recently by the sculptor David Hensel. He made a piece, called One Day Closer to Paradise, of a human head frozen in laughter and balancing precariously on a slate plinth. He submitted it to the Royal Academy for its 2006 exhibition, but somehow the head and the plinth were separated in transit.

Nonetheless, the academy accepted his submission and displayed it. The strange thing was, though, that they thought the plinth was the work of art, not the head, which was nowhere to be seen.

As he put it ruefully: "I've seen the funny side but I've also seen the philosophical side."

At least some good came out of my art school experience. The other "students", including Radio One DJ Nihal, turned out to be great company. At first Nihal and I were slightly wary of each other and then I told him I wondered if an ageing Radio 4 presenter could learn "street". He humoured me and gave me a lesson.

I flatter myself that I have a reasonably good ear for language. I reckoned I could get away with a bit of "Hey, man… how ya doin?" But, no, it doesn't work like that. Street language is inventive and rich. Even a greeting in street is a complex business. "There's a million ways of not saying anything," says Nihal. "Two people could walk up and say: 'What's happenin? Cool, man. What's goin' on with you? Good? All good? Things are running? Peace. Safe'."

Peace means "I'm outa here" (it's a long story) and safe means "We're safe with each other"; there's no animosity. By contrast Nihal told me that if you want to insult someone in street you might call him "chief". No one seems quite sure why. Of course there is a well-known dark side to contemporary street rap. But the point of this intriguing language, according to Nihal, is "to separate me from you". He told me: "It's like Latin in the church. Knowledge is power." In fact, the moment older people do know is the moment the language dies. "Bling is a classic example," says Nihal. "As soon as you hear commissioning editors at Channel 4 using it it's dead."

Meanwhile, our language continues to be taken over by pseudo-management speak that is itself in danger of becoming meaningless. Take the world of charity, previously known as the voluntary sector. It is now, gradually, changing its name to the Third Sector. Older volunteers are "totally exasperated" not just with the alien language but with what it represents: the transformation of their charity from the kitchen table and the rattling tin to the computer terminal and the huge mailshots. They don't believe it helps them provide a better service.

This language is also entering our schools. Instead of simply teaching, teachers are now being invited to make a "personalised learning offer" to children. It's more than just a dreary piece of business-speak. It implies that a child is a client or a customer, the figure to whom the "offer" is made. The children, in turn, are invited to be "co-investors with the state in their own education".

Come again? I reckon if a child came up to me and said she saw herself as a co-investor with the state in her own education I'd have serious worries about her welfare. I'd start wondering whether management consultants have begun to form sinister sects, grabbing kids in playgrounds and indoctrinating them in business-speak.

And yet when it comes to giving our children a taste of Shakespeare and English at its most beautiful, then suddenly we're all terrified. Might, like turn off the kids… know wha' I mean. Instead they are offered alternative texts, issued by educational publishing houses, that supposedly make our greatest writer more palatable.

Here's a taste. Take a few original lines from Macbeth:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
the handle toward my hand?

Compare them to the guide version:

Oooh! Would you look at that.

Yes, I know it sounds as if I'm making it up, but you can check it for yourself.

Inevitably the language of politics is changing too. A relatively new phrase in the repertoire is "direction of travel". It's another device for dodging specific detail and talking instead about the "broad picture". I spotted it first when the Government was trying to get its Education Bill through the House of Commons in the face of determined opposition from its own backbenchers.

But it was Guantanamo Bay that provided some of the best examples of how wayward and adrift from reality political language can become. These include a reference by Sandra Hodgkingson, the deputy director of the Office of War Crimes Issues (itself a wonderful linguistic formulation) to "the different care providers" at Guantanmo Bay.

At least some progress with more straightforward language is being made. When the American government realised that the phrase War on Terror was not having the desired effect round the world they came up with a new name. It is now called The Long War. Sometimes the simplest language is the most chilling.

This also brings us right back to why it's important to pay attention to language. Our society, which treats us so much as an audience to be entertained and as consumers to be led to market, often uses language as an anaesthetic.

If verbal blandishments can encourage us to sit back and relax, we can be taken care of in more ways than one. And unless we're trained to be alert to the use of language we're likely to end up duped.

The simple fact is we cannot afford to be careless with our language, because if we are careless with our language then we are careless with our world and sooner or later we will be lost for words to describe what we have allowed to happen to it.

# Beyond Words: How Language Reveals the Way We Live Now by John Humphrys (Hodder & Stoughton) is available for £9.99 + 99p p&p. To order please call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112

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Monday, October 23, 2006

And the winner is? (by Jason Cowley, the Guardian/Observer)

Note to the Capture: Nobel Prize Ceremony takes place at Stockholm Concert Hall

And the winner is?

Michael Jackson has won 240 of them. Frank Gehry has bagged 130. The culture of prize-giving has gone mad. It has replaced the art of criticism in determining cultural value and shaping public taste. We enjoy the glamour of a Booker or an Oscar night, but we lose something too in this orgy of awards, says Jason Cowley

Jason Cowley
Sunday October 22, 2006

One of the most fascinating books I have read recently is David Lodge's The Year of Henry James, his account of the consequences of discovering that both he and Colm Toibin were simultaneously publishing novels about the life of James. The year was 2004, the same year Alan Hollinghurst won the Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty, the central character of which just happened to be writing a thesis about, yep, James. The fascination of Lodge's book lies less in its literary distinction than in what it reveals about the psychology of the career literary novelist at a time when, in this country at least, to be a literary novelist is, on the whole, a pretty lonely and miserable existence. Unless, that is, you have the luck to win a major prize, and then everything can change: you find a readership, your book is translated into many languages, your advances rise exponentially, Hollywood gets in touch.

Lodge won no prizes for his novel about James, Author, Author; he did not even make the Booker longlist. By contrast, Toibin's The Master won the £68,000 Impac prize, the world's richest award for a single work of fiction, and was shortlisted for the Booker. Lodge writes candidly, self-laceratingly, of how Toibin's recognition by the Booker judges caused him to suffer 'pangs of professional envy and jealousy', of the relief he felt when, watching coverage of the Booker ceremony at home on television, Toibin did not win, and of how even now he cannot bring himself to read The Master, so tormented is he by its wider success.

Reading Lodge's strange, self-revealing memoir, I began to understand how much the psychology of the artist - as well as the entire culture - is being changed by the rise and proliferation of cultural prizes and by what the American academic James English calls our economy of cultural production and prestige. As long ago as 1928 Ezra Pound could write that 'The whole system of prize-giving... belongs to an uncritical epoch; it is the act of people who, having learned the alphabet, refuse to learn how to spell.'

He would have been even more indignant today. For ours is truly the age of awards. Prizes are becoming the ultimate measure of cultural success and value. One prize inevitably spawns another, in imitation or reaction, as the perceived male dominance of the Booker spawned the Orange Prize for women's fiction. There are now so many, in so many different fields, that it can be difficult to find a professional artist, writer or journalist who has not been shortlisted for a prize.

The proliferation of prizes is perhaps greatest in the movie industry, where there are now twice as many cinema prizes (about 9,000) as there are feature films produced each year. The troubled pop star Michael Jackson has won more than 240 awards. The architect Frank Gehry has won 130. The novelist John Updike has won 39. Where will it end? Can it end?

According to English, author of the enthralling The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Harvard University Press), we are reaching 'the point of a kind of cultural frenzy, with scarcely a day passing without the announcement of yet another newly founded prize'. Any number of large corporations, wealthy institutions and patrons are lining up to partake of the frenzy as sponsors and paymasters, though one wonders how much of this is to do with tax-avoidance issues and how much with the need to be seen as socially and culturally relevant and cool.

There was a time when, as Wordsworth wrote, 'Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.'

The culture is no longer so patient. In a time of information overload - of cultural excess and superabundance - our taste is being increasingly created for us by prize juries and award ceremonies. Art is beginning to resemble sport, with its roster of winners and losers and its spectacles of competition: the Oscars, the Baftas, the Brits. Indeed, the larger cultural festivals and prizes, such as the Venice Biennale, the Oscars and the Nobels, are consciously imitative of international sporting competitions like the Olympics.

The format for most major prizes conforms to the model of the Oscars. 'It's very much a case,' says English, 'of maintain perfect secrecy regarding the decision, assemble all the nominees, and roll the cameras in hope of catching bad behaviour, poor sportsmanship or just plain unhappiness.'

In the book world, prizes have long since supplanted reviews as our primary means of literary transmission, and now they are taking on the task, from the professional critics, of judgment as well. This of course is not just a literary phenomenon: the success of the Booker Prize, which was established in 1968, led in this country to a kind of Booker envy. Every arts bureaucrat, it seemed, wanted his or her own equivalent of the Booker, which led, in time, to the creation of the Turner Prize (1984), for the visual arts; the Mercury Prize (1992), for music; and the Stirling Prize (1996), for architecture, which was won this month for the first time by Richard Rogers, as if this global plutocrat, creator of the spectacular public building and connoisseur of fine Italian cooking needed the recognition.

In well-paid activities such as pop music and architecture, the prize fund often seems to be of incidental value to the winner; it has become something of a minor tradition for the winner of the Mercury Prize, before making a rambling, drink-slurred speech, to toss away the winning cheque, worth £20,000, as if it were a mere flyer picked up outside a Tube station. For most novelists, that £20,000 would be worth having. For the pop star, it is so much ticker-tape.

Clearly, then, something more than money is at stake here: recognition, symbolic capital, prestige. Prizes create cultural hierarchies and canons of value. They alert us to what we should be taking seriously: reading, watching, looking at, and listening to. We like to think that value simply blooms out of a novel or album or artwork - the romantic Wordsworthian ideal. We would like to separate aesthetics from economics, creation from production.

In reality, value has to be socially produced. 'The process involves power, money, politics,' English told me. 'Prizes create symbolic value astonishingly quickly and easily, because they bring together economic power, social connections, academic expertise and celebrity and enable rather complex transactions to take place.'

The modern era of prizes began with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1901, funded by the estate of Alfred Nobel, the dynamite and munitions manufacturer. Its effect was immediate. If in Britain we have Booker envy, the rest of the world once had Nobel envy. In 1903, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina were set up in France, with the Pulitzers soon to follow in the US. The first film awards, the Oscars, began in 1929; the Emmys were up and running in 1949. Today we often speak of prizes in terms of other prizes. The Caine Prize for African Writing is the 'African Booker'; the Pulitzers are the 'Oscars of journalism'; the $250,000 Lillian Gish is 'the Nobel of architecture'. Amusingly, the Prix Goncourt is known even to some in France as the 'French Booker', though it was set up many decades earlier.

In December 1997, the year I was a Booker judge, I travelled to Moscow as a guest of the Russian Booker Prize, which was set up by the late Sir Michael Caine, a former chairman of Booker plc. Moscow was then a city of terrifying extremes: anarchic, astoundingly expensive, and often brutal. The gangster capitalists were in control. An indigenous publishing industry was emerging unsteadily from the darkness and oppression of Soviet totalitarianism; most novels were being published in cultural magazines such as Novy Mir and Znamya - the so-called thick journals. Yet the Booker had succeeded in inspiring a new generation of Russian writers, as well as bringing hope and attention to those older ones who had laboured for so long in secret and without any expectation of reaching a wider public. The prize had created an entire culture of controversy around itself: it was, as in Britain, as much a journalistic as a literary event. Already it had imitators: the Little Booker Prize, for non-fiction; the Anti-Booker Prize, funded by the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who now lives in disaffected exile in London; and the Solzhenitsyn Prize, supported by the great Russia-returned writer himself. Here was a culture being transformed and energised by prizes.

Most writers understand the cultural importance of prizes, even those such as Martin Amis and Philip Roth who purport to disdain them. For Amis, the Booker, which he has never won, is a 'kind of literary Big Brother' and the award dinner an occasion when writers 'sweat with greed and egocentricity'. Yet Amis, for all his elevated disapproval, is preoccupied perhaps more than any other writer of his generation by the larger literary game, by who is winning and losing.

In 1995 he wrote a novel, The Information, that was in large part about literary competition. Richard Tull and Gwyn Barry, both writers, are perpetual rivals. Richard beats Gwyn at chess, at snooker, at tennis. None of this matters to him because, when it comes to the literary high stakes, Gwyn is winning. He has everything that Richard wants: wealth, a readership, Hollywood interest in his work and a beautiful young aristocratic wife. As if this weren't enough, as the novel begins, Gwyn is shortlisted for a prize, the nicely named Profundity Requital - which, if he wins, will provide him with a lavish income for the rest of his life.

In some way, all artists of ambition, literary or otherwise, must be longing to win their version of the Profundity Requital. Even Philip Roth is not immune from the prize game, though in a recent BBC4 interview with Mark Lawson he made a point of saying that prizes were childish and of little concern, even if he has never been known to reject one. This, I thought, was disingenuous. Roth is thought to take a special interest in his book jackets, how they are presented and what is written on them. He has a chief sub-editor's eye for quality control. It is interesting then, considering what he told Lawson, to read the author blurb on the jacket of his most recent novel, Everyman: 'In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction... He has twice won the National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award...'

And so it goes on, his capsule biography reduced merely to a list of prizes won, to an exercise in self-aggrandisement. It is as if we have no other language for praising an author or no other vocabulary of evaluation; and it is as if whoever writes these blurbs (the writers themselves, perhaps?) believe that readers are no longer curious to know about a writer's biography. There is also a sense of presumption in not noting where or when the writer was born: as if to say, 'You know exactly who the famous and excellent Philip Roth is, he needs no introduction.' Instead, we are told only what he won, as if past achievement validates the present offering.

One summer afternoon in 1999 I visited Jim Crace at home in Birmingham. It was a warm day and we sat eating lunch in his garden, overlooked by the tall houses of his neighbours. We were to talk about his new novel, Being Dead, but first he wanted to know what my hopes were for the novel that I was soon to publish. To win one of the smaller first-novel prizes would be fine, I told him.

'Don't you see?' he said, his voice quickening. 'Don't you see what you're letting yourself in for? If you're shortlisted for a small first novel prize, you'll want to win it. If you won it, you'll want to win something bigger. Don't you see that you'll never be satisfied? This is what it's like being a writer.'

Crace talked about the Booker and who would be in contention for the prize later that year. He seemed surprisingly interested in what I had to say and it was clear that his unarticulated desire - unarticulated to me, at least - was to win the prize. Later in the year, I thought of Crace with sadness when the shortlist was announced and Being Dead wasn't on it. He knew, as I did, that for a writer like him being shortlisted for the Booker is the difference between winning and losing, between finding a readership or merely remaining in the literary ghetto, respected and admired but not much known or read.

It is hard to think of another artist whose life has been more changed by winning a cultural prize than the American-born, London-resident Lionel Shriver, whose challenging epistolary novel We Need To Talk About Kevin won the Orange Prize in 2005 and has since sold more than 400,000 copies. Before Kevin, which is about a mother's attempts to understand a wicked and murderous son, Shriver was struggling to earn a living from scraps of journalism tossed to her from the high table of remote commissioning editors. Kevin is reported to be her seventh novel. In fact, it was her eighth - her seventh novel remains unpublished; no one wanted it. No one seemed to want Kevin either, until Serpent's Tail bought it for £2,500. The expectations were low. 'It's said that Kevin was rejected by more than 30 publishers before it came to me,' says Pete Ayrton, who runs the vibrant independent Serpent's Tail. 'Lionel's career was in the doldrums. Her track record wasn't good.'

And yet she continued to write, even as each new book quickly disappeared into the oblivion of the remainder bin and pulping pit. 'Cultural prizes are often given safely to someone who doesn't need one,' Shriver told me recently. 'In my case, the Orange Prize did what prizes are supposed to do - that is, to draw cultural attention to someone hitherto unknown and working very hard, which is why in my acceptance speech for the prize I said that there were a large population of such people.'

Since Kevin won the Orange, Shriver has become not only a bestselling author, with a backlist back in print and a lucrative new book deal from HarperCollins, but also a widely published commentator and columnist. Being a prize-winner has given her reach and authority; people listen to her. 'You do become resentful when you are working, as I did for 12 years, without being noticed,' she says now. 'It was becoming increasingly difficult to get my work into print. There is such a difference between having won one prize and none. You've got the cultural imprimatur. You feel anointed. But you shouldn't trust this thing. My agent keeps encouraging me to consolidate my gains by going on reading tours and so on. I guess it's all about building and keeping an audience. You keep doing it for now because, as a former nobody, you fear that your coach will turn into a pumpkin. I do feel lucky. And I do have a sense of a parallel future which could have been so different if I hadn't won the Orange. But if you ask me if I'd prefer to have had early success or what happened to me, I'd choose my story; I like my story. I like mine a lot.'

Shriver is indeed one of the lucky ones - and I like her story as well. But for every winner like her, there are tens of thousands of anonymous artists competing for recognition, their cultural capital undervalued, their currency depreciating with each new artwork that passes unacknowledged in our economy of prestige.

Are there too many prizes? Is this convergence of art and commerce a sign of a deeper cultural decadence, as Ezra Pound would have had it? These, I think, are the wrong questions. Of course the whole prize-giving culture is bound up with celebrity and commerce and globalisation and our omnipresent media landscape. It is also essentially part of a game, a jamboree. It is fun to go to or watch the awards ceremonies, fun to argue about who has been excluded, and even more fun to be on the inside as a judge and, above all, to win.

But it shouldn't be taken too seriously, especially when one recalls that the very first Nobel for Literature, in 1901, the award that set the modern prize train in motion, was won by, er, Sully Prudhomme. Yes, that's right, Sully Prudhomme. One of the unlucky losers that year was Leo Tolstoy. The author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina never won the prize. Sully Prudhomme, the author of... (well, you tell me!) did. Life is short, but art can be long indeed, with or without prizes.

· Too many prizes, or not enough? What would you give a prize for? Email

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Postmodern Moralist (by Pankaj Mishra, the New Yorker)

Note to the Capture: The Book!

Note to the Capture: The Author!

Published: March 12, 2006

Reading David Foster Wallace's new collection of magazine articles, you could be forgiven for thinking that the author of such defiantly experimental fictions as "Infinite Jest" (1996) and "Oblivion" (2004) has been an old-fashioned moralist in postmodern disguise all along. The grotesqueries of the 15th annual Adult Video News Awards, which Wallace writes about at considerable length here, present an easy target. And so, to a lesser extent, do the corruptions of English usage in America and the right-wing radio host John Ziegler. But Wallace poses an unsettling challenge to the way many of us live now when, while visiting the Maine Lobster Festival on behalf of Gourmet magazine, he asks if it is "all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure." His longing for the apparently rare virtues of frankness and sincerity in public life makes him admire John McCain, despite the senator's "scary" right-wing views.

Turning to literature in essays on Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Updike, Wallace employs a largely moral vocabulary to dismiss such older American novelists as Norman Mailer and Philip Roth as "Great Male Narcissists." For him, Updike is "both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV." In contrast, he is all praise for Dostoyevsky, largely because the Russian writer's "concern was always what it is to be a human being — that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal."

Indeed, reading Dostoyevsky revives Wallace's old complaint that American writers face an unparalleled difficulty in trying to create a literature informed by ethical values and principles. In an earlier essay titled "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," Wallace claimed that television in its more sophisticated phase had appropriated the "rebellious irony" of the first postmodern writers (Pynchon, Barthelme, Gaddis, Barth), thereby pre-empting and defusing the "critical negation" that was the literary and moral responsibility of his generation of writers. More than a decade later, Wallace remains convinced that "many of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished, in comparison to Gogol or Dostoyevsky."

This is strong stuff — Wallace's blithely assertive manner helps him cover much rhetorical ground very quickly, even if a firmer belief in understatement might have helped him avoid such unhelpful generalizations as "our present culture is, both developmentally and historically, adolescent." Given such vehemence, it seems fair to point out that compared with the Russian masters, most novelists of any time or place are likely to look shallow and lightweight. And, at their best, the Great Male Narcissists have appeared to possess the "degrees of passion, conviction and engagement with deep moral issues" that for Wallace distinguish the Russians from contemporary American writers.

You also wonder if television could really have squandered the ironic self-consciousness that was supposed to be Wallace's spiritual inheritance from the postmodernists. But there is not much point in denying Wallace his passion, his outraged sense that he has arrived much too late in history. For it is Wallace's nostalgia for a lost meaningfulness — as distinct from meaning — that gives his essays their particular urgency, their attractive mix of mordancy and humorous ruefulness.

This nostalgia explains, among other things, his attraction to the straight-talking senator from Arizona. Originally written for Rolling Stone, and reproduced in full here, his description of the week of the primaries during which McCain failed to survive Karl Rove's negative campaign is the strongest piece in this collection. Although Wallace never gets to meet his subject, he manages to show just how political spin-doctoring has evolved since 1972, when Timothy Crouse (in "The Boys on the Bus") and Hunter Thompson (in "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail") covered the clumsy attempts at it by the Nixon and McGovern campaign staffs. He is bracingly insightful, too, about the equally cynical process whereby representatives of major TV networks and the mainstream press "select" their news.

But so vast is Wallace's intellectual energy and ambition that he always wants to do more than what anyone else can reasonably achieve in a magazine article — and he has some enviably indulgent editors. He wishes, as much in his nonfiction as in his fiction, "to antagonize," as he said in an interview in 1993, "the reader's sense that what she's experiencing as she reads is meditated through a human consciousness." Accordingly, Wallace appears as a character in his own reportage, and, though he may not like the comparison to a Great Male Narcissist, he reminds one most of the author of "Armies of the Night" as he strives for full self-disclosure.

He tells us, in eye-straining small print, how and why the McCain piece was commissioned and edited, and what the "dozen high-end journalists" who were with him looked like. This is the kind of ironic self-consciousness one would ordinarily be relieved to see confined to "Friends" and "Seinfeld." Happily, Wallace's dazzling powers of description often redeem his bloggerlike tendency to run on. Here, for instance, is his description of a New York Times reporter on the McCain campaign: "A slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home-crocheted and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification."

Clarification is also what Wallace seeks, though not of the political kind. It may seem odd that he doesn't mention McCain's voting record in the Senate — the clearest indication of the candidate's politics, perhaps even of his sincerity or lack thereof — in an article more than 15,000 words long. But then he wants, above all, to figure out "whether John McCain is a real leader or merely a very talented political salesman, an entrepreneur who's seen a new market niche and devised a way to fill it." He credits McCain's appeal among the young to the fact that they are "starved" for "just some minimal level of genuineness in the men who want to 'lead' and 'inspire' them." He himself thinks it a "huge deal" that McCain, a former fighter pilot who bailed out over Hanoi, rejected, on pain of torture, an offer of unconditional release from his Vietnamese captors.

Wallace keeps stressing this exemplary war record, which seems sufficient proof to him of McCain's moral authority, if not of his political judgment. And much of the essay really works out the tension between Wallace the postmodernist obsessed with "packaging and marketing and strategy and media and spin," and Wallace the moralist seeking evidence of a rooted and authentic self. It is as though Wallace cannot stop expecting McCain to somehow transcend the deceptions and distortions of the spin doctors and the media and remain true to himself: to the McCain who refused to leave prison in Vietnam, and whose moral character has survived an even longer confinement inside the Beltway.

Wallace is never sure if McCain is "truly 'for real.' " But such doubts, repeatedly expressed, merely reveal the larger cultural assumption Wallace is working with: that some fixed essence — the real McCain — lies beyond the wilderness of signifiers unleashed by the spin doctors and the media, and that somewhere out there this all-American hero still exists, untouched by the compromises and expediencies of everyday politicking, and busily realizing the countercultural ideal of "authenticity."

A conventional, rather masculinist notion of personal identity and selfhood also infiltrate Wallace's review of the tennis player Tracy Austin's autobiography. Here, he mistakes precociously and ruthlessly honed skill in a commercialized sport for "genius." As he doggedly examines why Austin's child-prodigy brilliance as a tennis player does not translate into emotional and intellectual profundity, it is hard not to be reminded of Robert Musil's epic "Man Without Qualities" (1943), in which the protagonist, Ulrich, is disturbed enough by the journalistic imputing of genius to sportsmen and racing horses to renounce his ambition for personal greatness.

Writing in the late 1920's, Musil recalled a recently superseded culture in which greatness "was exemplified by a person whose courage was moral courage, whose strength was the strength of a conviction, whose steadfastness was of heart and virtue, and who regarded speed as childish . . . and agility and verve as contrary to dignity."

Wallace does not have this sense of history, which was indispensable to a moralist like Musil — or, indeed, Mencken, Wallace's precursor in the distinguished American tradition of boisterous iconoclasm. What he has instead is nostalgia, for a time when writers possessed moral courage and conviction, and it is no less affecting. Still, it doesn't seem to liberate him entirely from the prejudices and assumptions of his own historical moment — and class. Something of the graduate-school seminar room still clings to his worldview. Trying to explain, for instance, why many American writers have "an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions," he concludes that the modernists "elevated aesthetics to the level of ethics" and writers thereafter have had to meet the "requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism and literary theory."

Literary theorists may long for, but have never actually possessed, such power and influence. If some American writers have a carefully hedged relation with actuality, or prefer an evasive irony over passionate engagement, this has at least something to do with their membership, in these days of generous publishing advances, fellowships and grants, in their country's most privileged classes. Wallace is clearly an exception. Certainly, few of his young peers have spoken as eloquently and feelingly as he has about the hard tasks of the moral imagination that contemporary American life imposes on them. Yet he often appears to belong too much to his own times — the endless postmodern present — to persuasively explain his quarrel with them.

Pankaj Mishra's most recent book is "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World." His new book, "Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond," will be published in June.