From the Archives: Reading Alan Sillitoe

“Albert Finney…is a very exceptional specimen” —The New York Times, review of the 1960 film SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, based on the novel by Alan Sillitoe.

I was remembering the author Alan Sillitoe, who died in 2010 and found this great, over-the top promo. Sillitoe was a British, working-class writer who came up with the likes of Kingsley Amis, but rejected the Angry Young Man title given to Amis and his ilk. I’m not sure what he ultimately thought of the film, but the adaptation was a success and helped launch actor Albert Finney’s career as a film star (after he’d already wowed em on stage). Sillitoe’s novel, and his other work, especially the short story collection Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner deserves a second and third look. Tin House Magazine published a lost and found essay I wrote about Loneliness in their “Touch and Go” issue and I did an interview for them with Sillitoe in their “Winter Reading” issue (2006).

Modern Love Essay in the New York Times

Modern Love Essay in the New York TimesI hadn’t gotten around to posting this link but my essay on bipolar disorder, love and creativity  “Making a Hard Choice for a Soft Landing” was published in the New York Times’ Modern Love section.

Illustration by Brian Rea for The New York Times

Illustration by Brian Rea for The New York Times

Op-Ed: Mitt Romney as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

In the aftermath of Sandy, it’s time to reevaluate what it means to be dependent on government. (Guernica Magazine, 11/1/12)

EXCERPT: Romney argues that dependency makes Americans “victims” because they believe “that government has a responsibility to care for them,” contrasting their dependency with his independence, not merely as a wealthy private citizen but as a political candidate. In declaring his independence from American voters, Romney is in fact speaking in a classical tradition of warrior-leaders like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. The play Coriolanus was based on the life of a real Roman leader who had such success in battle that he is re-named for the city of Corioles which he had violently destroyed. Coriolanus returns to Rome, where he decides to run for Senate. But when he refuses to pander to the people to win their votes the Romans run him out of town (with a little egging-on by Coriolanus’ rivals). As Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt writes in his recent book Shakespeare’s Freedom : “It is Coriolanus’ proud refusal to participate in the popular rites of power—specifically the humble soliciting of votes and hence acknowledgement of dependency—that has lead to his exile” (107).

What is particularly troubling about Romney’s case is that the mutual dependency voters take for granted is for him a shameful sense of entitlement.

In Coriolanus, Shakespeare shows what happens when a leader rejects the democratic contract between the voters and the government. And though Shakespeare himself wasn’t quite comfortable with the idea of governance by the masses, Coriolanus demonstrates that it is mutual dependency, at least as much as freedom and independence, that defines democratic values. America’s tripartite system of government ensures that our leaders are necessarily dependent both on each other and on the voters who elect them. As legal scholar Lawrence Lessig wrote in a recent Boston Review article “Democracy After Citizens United,” “The framers intended Congress to be ‘dependent upon the People alone.’ But the private funding of public campaigns has bred within Congress a second, and conflicting, dependency.” [More at Guernica.com]

Interview With Hanna Rosin for Guernica

Hanna Rosin’s controversial new book proclaims the “end of men” and tracks the rise of women. (Guernica Magazine)

EXCERPT: Despite the shocking-pink title on its bright yellow cover, Hanna Rosin’s new book The End of Men focuses primarily on women. Her idea, she says, was to look closely at women in the public sphere, focusing on the workplace and delving into marriage and sexual relationships as a way of showing how public relationships blur into the private arena. According to Rosin, we are at a key moment in history, where women are beginning to outperform men economically and in higher education (in fact, they may begin outperforming men in elementary school). While much of this accomplishment has taken place within the grueling, at times inhumane, environment of the traditional workplace, women in the upper echelons of business have made some strides to change the workplace to better accommodate complex living and working arrangements. Problematically, however, these well-publicized advancements (such as the appointment of former Google executive Marissa Mayer at Yahoo!) also seem to mask need for more sweeping changes that could help lower-income women manage the demands of breadwinning and child care.

I interviewed Rosin over the phone, two weeks before her book was published at Riverhead. There was the sound of sawing from her end of the line. “Someone’s putting new windows into my attic and it’s very loud” she said. The added chaos seemed emblematic of the women she writes about: busy, perhaps too busy, and seeming to make it up as they go along. In her book, Rosin writes admiringly of what she calls a “Seesaw Marriage,” an arrangement that allows for high-achieving couples in an uncertain economic environment to take turns as breadwinner. [More at Guernica.com]

Interview With Michael Sandel for Guernica

An interview with the Harvard Professor of Economics and author on a society where almost everything is up for sale.

Author Michael Sandel’s new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets is troubling in the best sense of the word—it “troubles” the complacency with which Americans have received the rapid encroachment of the market into private life. Economics has expanded in the post-freakonomics world and in a global market, according to Sandel, and that expansion has resulted in an historically intrusive use of market forces into “non-market spheres” like education.

In his book, Sandel explains in both intellectual and historic terms how expansionist ideas of the role of economics coincided with the Reaganite elevation of lassiez-faire economics into something like a religion. Sandel frames the issues he finds problematic and shows how “intrinsic values” such as the love of learning for its own sake, can be threatened when market forces are applied—for example, bribing students to do better in school or public schools seeking out corporate sponsors due to budget cuts.

The framework Sandel provides will ideally challenge readers to see the world differently, like the moment in the cult classic They Live (see Jonathan Lethem’s book-length criticism of the film) where the hero puts on a pair of bodacious ray-ban sunglasses and suddenly sees billboards advertising sunny vacations in fact read “OBEY.” What Money Can’t Buy identifies a few of the many areas where market encroachment is problematic (paying to kill an endangered rhino, paying for the right to pollute, branded education) and equips readers with the questions that, Sandel hopes, will begin a public debate about what money should or shouldn’t buy. [More at GuernicaMag.com]

The Believer: Drying in the Wilderness

How unshakable myths about the West and its settlers helped lead to California’s current environmental crisis.

DISCUSSED: Propaganda for Manifest Destiny, A Proposal for Communal Grazing, Ruinous Aqueducts, Sprinklers, A Vision for the Arid Region, Cocktails with Ansel Adams, Root Causes, Green Ideas, The Endless Deferral of the Eureka Moment

I. DYNAMITE

In 1868, the West was a mythical place, a land associated with boundless acreage for the speculator, infinite glory for the intrepid mountaineer, and rich veins of ore for the prospector. Just a few years before the American centennial, very little was actually known about what lay beyond the 98th meridian. This invisible line––which runs through the heart of Texas and cuts the corners off Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska––was at that time on the far side of America’s western border. Maps depicted the area with a few chicken-scratches for hypothetical mountain ranges and designated it with the words The Great American Desert.

As European explorers ventured into India and Africa, an American self-styled naturalist named John Wesley Powell took it upon himself to map the unexplored territory of the West and catalog its resources. Powell was an unlikely mountain man. Although physically fit, with a barrel chest and the full beard that was his trademark, he’d lost an arm as an officer in the Civil War, and much of his scientific training consisted of reading voraciously from books sold by traveling salesmen. With his characteristic energy, Powell mustered a small group of hunters and former Civil War soldiers, including his brother, to mount a cartographic expedition down the length of the Colorado River. The success of this expedition made Powell, for a brief time, a national hero, and gained him the financial support he needed for his most ambitious undertaking—to map the entire West, including every stream, river, and pool of runoff.

At this time, the American government was in thrall to the expansionist goals expressed in the idea of Manifest Destiny: Americans had the divine right—theresponsibility—to expand across the continent. The futurist writer and governor of Colorado, William Gilpin, did his part to aid Manifest Destiny. A speculator who believed his landgrabs to be divinely sanctioned, he vividly described the West to Eastern newspapermen and eager audiences as a second Eden, a fertile land with bountiful aquifers deep below the desert surface. Gilpin played fast and loose with scientific facts, inventing rainfall, diverting streams, and telling anxious farmers not to worry about rumors of aridity, because “the rain followed the plow.”

Powell, however, recognized early on that the West would be inhospitable to traditional large-scale farming, and foresaw that irregular rainfall would create a reliance on irrigation. This meant that the West would come to be defined by water rights. Without government regulation, he warned Gilpin and others in Washington, wealthy speculators would gain complete control over water, creating a feudal system that left farmers in the dust.

Powell published his preliminary findings in a federal report, still believing that there was time to create a plan for sustainable Western development. But while Powell believed he was writing a scientific report, to the government it was a dangerous manifesto. The federal commission had wanted him merely to create a map of irrigable land. But Powell’s report showed far less of that land than was hoped for, and his analysis of the problem and how to solve it resulted in a guide for limited, regulated settlement of the West. The commission responded by slashing Powell’s budget from $720,000 to $162,500. Powell’s report was, as his biographer Wallace Stegner later wrote, “loaded with dynamite.” [More at Believermag.com or buy the issue here]

Interview with John Guare for Guernica

American playwright John Guare on Tennessee Williams, writing strong dialogue, and discovering a New Orleans lost in history.

Photo courtesy of John Guare

Every year New Orleans hosts a festival named for their adopted native son, American Playwright and longtime New Orlenian Tennessee Williams. This year contemporary American playwright John Guare will speak at several panels, and one can only hope he will attend the annual “Stella!” shouting contest. I sat down with Guare to discuss his most recent play, set in New Orleans and the influence of Tennessee Williams, an artist Guare credits with bringing American language into the theater.

As Guare puts it, New Orleans was a “magic place” for Tennessee Williams, a place that allowed him to stretch who he was (literally, by changing his name). Guare is the author of several Tony and Obie-award-winning plays including Six Degrees of SeparationHouse of Blue LeavesLandscape of the Body and Bosoms and Neglect. Like Williams, he is also fascinated by New Orleans. One of Guare’s most recent plays reveals a secret history of the city before the Louisiana Purchase made it officially part of America. Free Man of Color takes place in New Orleans where racial integration was the norm, and the bustling international city was home to free men of every race and creed. Part of what the play offers to audiences is the chance to see history as recursive—how attitudes toward race and sex swing back around, revealing both that history is not progressive and that historical moments repeat themselves.

Although Guare’s plays take place at particular moments in time, they continue to feel contemporary. For example House of Blue Leaves, which was re-mounted last year on Broadway, deals with contemporary issues like terrorism and PTSD. In the play a soldier gone AWOL hatches a secret domestic terrorism plot (in this case, to blow up the Pope). But this almost accidental timeliness isn’t all that makes Guare’s plays evergreen.

Guare’s language stays fresh because it does not rely on cultural shorthand to make an argument or express what a character is feeling. Instead, his language is direct and clear: an actor reading his lines knows when to cringe or when to move across the stage. At the same time, the meaning of every line is not always spelled out. This allows the audience to participate in creating the meaning of the words, inferring what a character thinks and feels. False starts are never truly false, instead they reveal what characters want to say or are afraid to let slip.

As it was for Tennessee Williams, language is a primary concern for Guare—to him, all of the actions and characterizations in a play should be embedded in the dialog itself. Guare’s own conversational style dramatizes this. Several times in our interview he stopped me to correct an imprecision in my question, not the question itself but how it was phrased. His insistence on correct speech seems to me characteristic of a profession whose masters must always ask themselves: “How will I communicate what I’m trying to get across to a room full of strangers sitting in the dark?”[MORE at GuernicaMag.com]

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