August 11, 2008

Sweet Briar College 2008-2009 International Writers Series

Today Sweet Briar College announced the line-up for its 2008-09 International Writers Series. Readers will include Azar Nafisi, Zakes Mda, Yiyun Li, Zhang Er, Luis Goytisolo, Manil Suri and Bernardo Atxaga. All lectures and readings are free and open to the public.

As many of you know, I now teach at Sweet Briar. This is going to be an amazing year. John Gregory Brown, director of Creative Writing, has put together a stellar slate of writers. If you are in the area please stop in.

For more information, please visit the official Website at

August 10, 2008

Just When I think I Can get Away from Writing About Torture...

Do yourself a favor and read the NY Times article on about the art installation on the boardwalk at Coney Island, NY. It depicts an interrogator in executioner's hood waterboarding a detainee in an orange jumpsuit.

The story is not straight news, nor is it strict editorial; I guess it's more of a feature. In terms of contemporary journalistic practice, this is both nothing new (articles of this sort are written every day) and very important because in the absence of an actual serious review of the art she allows the multiple layers of cloying irony surrounding the art and its exhibition to overrun the the article.

The first level of irony is that Steve Powers, the artist, is totally not what you would expect. Kaminer focuses, in keeping with narrative journalistic convention, on his manner of dress: he is wearing pink seersucker shorts when the author interviews him and is pushing his 15 month old in a stroller. I know, spooky. Then there's the irony that the installation is at Coney Island, home to the ghost of freak shows past, right across from where, according to Kaminer, the World's Tiniest Woman used to chill. Then there's the irony of the disparate responses to the installation. Some actually feel that waterboarding is a fine way to get terrorists to talk! Some even think it's funny!! Then there's the voice (and style) of the article, full of asides and editorializing, which totally provides a house for this irony orgy to go down--come on over to my house; I'm totally down--*wink*. Stylistically speaking, there's no accounting for taste, but the result I'm more concerned with as a reader is that Kaminer isn't a credible reviewer of the work; in fact, she doesn't review the work at all--she's in bed with artist, so to speak. Steve Powers' art, on the strength of his politics and depth of his empathy, is given a free pass.

Now, Kaminer and Powers are, no doubt, talented people (Kaminer has recently been named editor of the Art and Leisure section at the NY Times and Powers is, according to the article well-represented and financially supported by a community arts organization, Creative Time), but my point is this: If we're gonna call something art--in this case an animatronic interrogator waterboarding an animatronic detainee that writhes for 15 seconds after being doused--then there needs to be some accounting for whether it's successful or not. Kaminer doesn't explicitly go there. She is caught between her journalistic duty to remain objective and, it seems, her cynicism that such art will change hearts and minds. Fair enough, but it also feels to me that in dodging any sort of judgement she is saying that she is either too cool to actually say anything earnest about art and its capacity to change our minds about anything--let alone torture--or that she feels incapable of it. There is also the possibility that the tone and style of Kaminer's article are actually calculated to subvert Steve Powers' work. She does seem to have a problem with the fact that he doesn't particularly have a agenda other than to get people thinking about the issue. But I think that this kind of looking-down-the-nose treatment is even more distasteful (and, frankly, typical of the Times). I mean, look, I'm totally against waterboarding, but do me a solid and tell me whether the art is good or not. That's why I read the Times. I'm looking for an informed view not coyness.

I'm not calling for a hatchet job; I'm just looking for a voice of reason. Let's cut through the b.s. and tell it like it is. It's clear to me that Kaminer, as editor, could do this if she wanted, but instead she sticks with the dominant cosmopolitan brand of narrative journalism in which on the surface the author appears objective, but underneath there is a holier-than-thou current.

I would recommend Dave Hickey's book of art criticism/essays, Air Guitar and some of Virginia Woolf's book reviews.

I did have a thing here about how much I love David Lynch because he doesn't mess around with low levels of irony. He goes right for the uncanny, the unsettling, the unheimlich. But I took that out. I'm sure you are all sick of hearing me crow about how brilliant Lynch is.

I wonder if the NY Times would publish this as a letter to the ed?

Artist of Month and Review of Standard Operating Procedure

Sorry for the long radio silence. I was away for the last six weeks in Erie, PA teaching fiction writing at the PA Governor's School for the Arts. This was my eight summer up there. Hard to believe. It was glorious. The kids blow me away every year. Anyway, back to my excuse: My schedule up there is crazy (M-F 8 :00 am-6:30 pm, with a break for lunch and dinner, as well as a morning class of Saturday), so needless to say when it comes to the end of the week I do not feel like writing.

The other reason why I haven't been keeping up with the blog is because I'm beginning a new book project. And with a new book project--the working title is Any Poorer Than Dead--comes a new blog, which you can find over on Wordpress at It's really just a notebook, a place to throw words around, but you can check it out if you like.

All that aside, I felt compelled to write a post here because a couple Abu Ghraib/A Good War is Hard to Find related things have happened in the last week.

1.) The literary journal Image has named me Artist-of-the-Month. Check that out here. Image is a beautiful journal. Great production value. Great writing. Great people running it.

2.) My review of Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure is up at If you read it, please bear in mind that my crankiness is the result of the fact that I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours reading articles and interviews about Abu Ghraib for my own book, and so I set the bar very high for a book whose publisher basically claims it is THE book to end all books on the subject. More than that, Penguin claims that it should be considered in the same league as Dante's Inferno, Heart of Darkness and "The Grand Inquisitor" of Brothers K fame. I'm a liberal arts educated kid, so I've read all of those books, and I'm here to say, it ain't in the same ballpark. Not that it's a bad book--quite the contrary. It's just not life-changing if you've kept up with coverage of the scandal the way I have. Although I have to say I'm concerned that this means I won't be publishing in the Paris Review EVER (aside: Gourevitch is the editor).

I'll continue to post here when relevant to Good War, but I'll be spending most of my energy over at the other blog, Any Poorer Than Dead.