12 posts tagged new yorker
William Deresiewicz writes up a nice encomium on the novel for The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog:
Austen is inscrutable. As with Shakespeare, the magnitude of the achievement is incommensurate with the life that produced it. But in Shakespeare’s case, there is a lot we do not know. In Austen’s, there just isn’t very much to know. She grew up in a large and literate family; shared a bedroom with her sister her entire life; never went abroad, caused a scandal, sought to enter high society, corresponded with illustrious peers, got rich, went broke, or took a lover; and she died a spinster (and without question, a virgin) at the age of forty-one.
The prodigy’s genius tends to be all overflowing passion—think of Keats or Shelley, Austen’s near contemporaries. The autodidact’s tends to be all rough edges and loose ends—think of Melville or D. H. Lawrence. When we turn to Austen—and above all, to “Pride and Prejudice”—the qualities that come to mind are confidence, mastery, serenity, and tact. Especially tact. She spares us knowledge of herself, leaves us free to read the story through the window of her perfectly transparent prose. She doesn’t tax us with her personality. She keeps her feelings out of it—not her judgments, her feelings, and she never confuses the two.
“Pride and Prejudice” discredits one of our most deeply held beliefs: the idea that emotions have an absolute validity. Feelings are not right or wrong, we say; they just are. Or rather, feelings are always right, because they are—and we always have a right to them. It is a notion that was promulgated by the same feminism that helped to elevate Austen to her current eminence. So much of the feminist struggle involved asserting the legitimacy of women’s feelings. Emotions—the reality of female discontent within the patriarchal system—were the bedrock, in a sense, of the feminist argument.
When you decide to write a novel—your first—the initial process may feel eccentric and exciting and individual. But it turns out you’re also entering a network.
Of course, it’s an uneasy business, reading a friend’s book. That’s true regardless of the book’s genre, whether nonfiction or poetry or short stories. But I think it’s especially true of novels. “I can’t wait to read it,” you declare. Meanwhile, a private voice—speaking in that tone of wry resignation so common to inner voices prohibited from public utterance—is reasonably asking, “Hey, hold on a minute, what if I hate it?” The stage is all set for poignancy. What if you take no pleasure in a book written by somebody in that circle formed specifically to bring you pleasure, your friends? Aren’t novels all about pleasure? And so the deeper the friendship the harder you may find it to begin your friend’s book—the potential for disappointment enhanced by each heightening degree of affection. That stifled inner voice makes another declaration: “I’ll prove how much I like you by never reading your book.”
Gary Marcus, author of Guitar Zero, writes about IBM’s latest project, in the New Yorker:
Half a trillion neurons, a hundred trillion synapses. I.B.M. has just announced the world’s grandest simulation of a brain, all running on a collection of ninety-six of the world’s fastest computers. The project is code-named Compass, and its initial goal is to simulate the brain of the macaque monkey (commonly used in laboratory studies of neuroscience). In sheer scale, it’s far more ambitious than anything previously attempted, and it actually has almost ten times as many neurons as a human brain. Science News Daily called it a “cognitive milestone,” and Popular Science said that I.B.M.’s “cognitive computing program… just hit a major high.” Are full-scale simulations of human brains imminent, as some media accounts seem to suggest?
Compass is part of long-standing effort known as neuromorphic engineering, an approach to build computers championed in the nineteen-eighties by the Caltech engineer Carver Mead. The premise behind Mead’s approach is that brains and computers are fundamentally different, and the best way to build smart machines is to build computers that work more like brains. Of course, brains aren’t better than machines at every type of thinking (no rational person would build a calculator by emulating the brain, for instance, when ordinary silicon is far more accurate), but we are still better than machines at many important tasks, including common sense, understanding natural language, and interpreting complex images. Whereas traditional computers largely work in serial (one step after another), neuromorphic systems work in parallel, and draw their inspiration as much as possible from the human brain. Where typical computers are described in terms of elements borrowed from classical logical (like “AND” gates and “OR” gates), neuromorphic devices are described in terms of neurons, dendrites, and axons.
In some ways, neuromorphic engineering, especially its application to neuroscience, harkens back to an older idea, introduced by the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1825), who helped set the stage for the theory of scientific determinism. Laplace famously conjectured:
“An intellect which at a certain moment [could] know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, [could] embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”
Much as Laplace imagined that we could, given sufficient data and calculation, predict (or emulate) the world, a growing crew of neuroscientists and engineers imagine that the key to artificial intelligence is building machines that emulate human brains, neuron by neuron.
Illustration by John Ritter
Biographer D.T. Max discovers an unfinished David Foster Wallace story about the internet. It’s provisional title? “Wickedness.”
Until I saw “Wickedness,” I did not know that Wallace had ever left a stand-alone story unfinished. He tended to recycle what he wrote, and so stories became sections of novels and sections of novels were calved off into stories. But “Wickedness” (also “Wickeder”) appears to connect to no other Wallace project. Maybe it was the start of a new novel, maybe it was meant to be a short story, maybe it was an exercise in voice or a response to the noir novels he enjoyed. In its pages, he returns to the great theme of “Infinite Jest”: the lethal power of media. Only this time, he posits that the locus of our self-annihilation has moved online.
The plot of “Wickedness” centers on a tabloid reporter named Skyles who, dying of cancer of the mouth, is trying to shoot pictures of Ronald Reagan beset by Alzheimer’s for the Web site Wicked.com. Reagan’s privacy at the San Placido Institute—“the Betty Ford of nursing homes,” Wallace calls it—is a matter of not just his own security but also the nation’s: we need to remember him as he was, powerful and in command. “The nation’s morale could be affected, the integrity of the social order,” Wallace writes. “At a certain point their lives are no longer their own.” Skyles’s motive seems to be revenge: a pair of old tabloid buddies have visited him on his boat The Rodent, and revived in him the outlaw pleasures of transgressive photography. (Though Wallace voted for him twice, his choice of Reagan as Skyles’s target seems more plot than emotion driven, but he does get in a few digs in at various public figures: Nancy Reagan’s secret service name, for instance, is Mantis.)
The issue of the media’s increasingly ferocious invasions of privacy was one that Wallace felt acutely after the publication of “Infinite Jest.” In “Wickedness,” the old tabloids—The Star, The News of the World—repulsive as they were, are depicted as playing by rules, but the new ones do not. “Despite all the hoopla about populism and information,” Wallace writes of the Web, “what it really was was the bathroom wall of the U.S. psyche.” He invented for the story the sites Latrine.com, 10footpoll.com, and filth.com, which will stop at nothing to publish humiliating photos of celebrities: “Of this Senator’s penile implant (his pacemaker interdicted Viagra, the RN they’d bought off confided). Of the aging TV actress’s horror and seclusions since the plastic surgery she had to repair the botched face-lift itself was botched and left her with eyes 6” high…. Of William Shatner toupeless.”
What has changed? When Wallace wrote a long piece on the adult-entertainment awards, in 1998, he asked Premiere to order the videos in competition and ship them to him in Bloomington, Illinois. But in the era of the Internet, such shame is removed. Public vices have become private obsessions. The porn theatre has disappeared and the porn video flourishes. “ ‘Title of movie not shown on bill’ tripled hotels’ in-room porn revenues,” Wallace writes at one point. So, too, the Web’s appetite for destructive journalism: we are no longer ashamed to read tabloid news, because it just comes to us on the computer. We don’t choose it; it infiltrates our air. It’s not that these ideas were so new, even in 2000, but in a Wallace story, the statement is conveyed with such intensity that it feels discovered anew. One can see in the margins of the story example after example added of privacy shredded. You sense that Wallace is genuinely mad about it—and intrigued, taking on the persona of the guilty “ogler” he describes in his own essays. “Wickedness” is prescient—one thinks of the blandly shameless mix of crime and sex stories on the AOL home page—but, most of all, it is powerfully wrought.
Q. The driving forces of this story are class, sex, and education. When Keisha goes away to university, she changes her first name to Natalie, which is something we realize in passing when Leah comes to visit and stumbles over this new name. The story is full of other signifiers of class and status, but they never overwhelm the narrative. Did you ever have to stop yourself from adding more details, or did you always know when to pull back?
Zadie Smith: I used to have this envious feeling towards the type of writer who never gives a second thought to whether their readers might not all be white and middle class and highly educated. That’s the whole world to them. All their characters sound like the author and like each other and like the reader. It seemed to me you could write so much more cleanly and stylishly when you didn’t have to try and think yourself into many places at the same time. Of course, it probably isn’t easier—the grass always looks greener elsewhere. Anyway, in my situation, every time I write a sentence I’m thinking not only of the people I ended up in college with but my siblings, my family, my school friends, the people from my neighborhood. I’ve come to realize that this is an advantage, really: it keeps you on your toes. And it seems clear to me that these little varietals of voice and lifestyle (bad word, but I can’t think of another) are fundamentally significant. They’re not just decoration on top of a life; they’re the filter through which we come to understand the world. To be born into money is ontologically different than to be born without it, for example.
Once I get started, I could write a thousand pages solely concerning these little differences, but I’m always trying to fight that instinct. I’m not really that interested in social satire. I’m more interested in language. So you have to exercise some self-control. No form of writing—traditionally realist or otherwise—can hope to include everything. I really wanted this novel to be a hundred and eighty pages, but in the end I couldn’t manage it. Writing short is a thousand times harder than writing long! Whatever style you have is dictated by what you learn to leave out.
*Just today, Amazon listed NW in the Top 10 Novels of their Big Fall Books Preview.
“If you’re really self-satisfied all the time, you’re probably a lousy writer.”
Storyboard’s wonderful interview with the New Yorker’s editor in chief David Remnick on the art of the modern profile.
Great insight from one of the best editors we have.
A welcome raising-of-the-curtain about one of the bigger literary dust-ups of 2012.
We spoke to each other, by phone or e-mail, once every two or three weeks. And, as we asserted our own opinions and listened to those of the others, our general predilections began to make themselves apparent.
Maureen was drawn to writers who told a gripping and forceful story. She did not by any means require a conventional story, conventionally told, but she wanted something to have happened by the time she reached the end, some sea change to have occurred, some new narrative continent discovered, or some ancient narrative civilization destroyed.
Susan was a tough-minded romantic. She wanted to fall in love with a book. She always had reasons for her devotions, as an astute reader would, but she was, to her credit, probably the most emotional one among us. Susan could fall in love with a book in more or less the way one falls in love with a person. Yes, you can provide, if asked, a list of your loved one’s lovable qualities: he’s kind and funny and smart and generous and he knows the names of trees.
But he’s also more than amalgamation of qualities. You love him, the entirety of him, which can’t be wholly explained by even the most exhaustive explication of his virtues. And you love him no less for his failings. O.K., he’s bad with money, he can be moody sometimes, and he snores. His marvels so outshine the little complaints as to render them ridiculous.
I was the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences. I could forgive much in a book if it was written with force and beauty, if its story was told in a voice unlike anything I’d heard before, if the writer was finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years. I tended to balk if a book contained some good lines, but also some indifferent ones. I insisted that every line should be a good one. I was—and am—a bit fanatical on the subject.
This is not to say that any of us was obdurate or inflexible about our inclinations, but rather that it was good for all three of us to know what our inclinations were, so as to allow for them, in ourselves and one another, as we continued to talk and talk and talk about the books. I might say, of a particular book, “Maybe I’m being too easily seduced by the language.” Or Susan might say, “Maybe I’m a little bit blinded by love.” That, it seemed, was one way to move toward relative objectivity. We declared ourselves. We wanted to be called out by the other two, if calling-out proved necessary.
Once we’d read all three hundred and some books, we found ourselves with a list of thirty or more. We fairly quickly crossed off a number of them. This book had seemed more impressive before we read the next two hundred. That book was greatly admired by one of us but not all that much by either of the others.
The disagreements (always civil, we truly did respect one another) started when we’d finally pared the list down to six or seven candidates.
Each of them was remarkable in certain ways. Each of them inspired doubts, in one or more of the three of us.
It was time, then, to get into judgment mode.
Junot Díaz, on loving Ray Bradbury:
“When I was young, Bradbury was my man. I followed him to Mars, to the veldt, to the future, to the past, to the heart of America, I rode out with him on the Pequod, and on rockets.”
Read the rest of his tribute here.
Why I’m Leaving Facebook
by Steve Coll
Within the United States, Facebook is a venue for all sorts of issue and political campaigns. And yet, on the site, as a practical matter, what speech is permitted or banned is determined largely by Facebook’s terms of service. The terms function as a corporate constitution binding users to the provider’s conception of what speech is acceptable. My colleague at the New America Foundation, Rebecca MacKinnnon, in her recent book “Consent of the Networked,” calls this realm “Facebookistan.” Once Facebook users sign on and accept the terms of service, their postings are subordinate to the corporation’s rules, for as long as they choose to stay. In a place like Syria, the Facebook rules users encounter are much more permissive than local laws; in the United States, that is not so clear.
You might expect dense legalese, but the terms’ language is clear and soaring, echoing the tones of constitutional documents. Some of the declaratory sentences lay out the commitments by Facebook’s royal “We.” Others describe the obligations of the subject “You.” The terms are organized into sections, like articles. One entitled “Safety” seems to self-consciously echo the Ten Commandments: “You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user…. You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” And there is this hint of Facebook’s expansive authority: “You will not encourage or facilitate any violations of this Statement.”
The terms obfuscate Facebook’s business strategies in such simple language that the deception—the sense of what is being left out—is almost poetic: “Sometimes we get data from our advertising partners, customers, and other third parties that helps us (or them) deliver ads, understand online activity, and generally make Facebook better.”
Facebook has made jarring mistakes as its leaders have learned what it means to run a profit-motivated political and public forum. In 2009, for example, the corporation exposed Iranian dissidents to danger by unilaterally changing privacy rules that allowed the Iranian authorities to see the identities of activists’ online friends. The error was corrected quickly, but in general, Facebook has encouraged its users to accept greater and greater losses of privacy. Zuckerberg believes the world will be better off if it adopts “radical transparency,” as the journalist David Kirkpatrick put it in his book, “The Facebook Effect.”
Zuckerberg’s business model requires the trust and loyalty of his users so that he can make money from their participation, yet he must simultaneously stretch that trust by driving the site to maximize profits, including by selling users’ personal information. The I.P.O. last week will exacerbate this tension: Facebook’s huge valuation now puts pressure on the company’s strategists to increase its revenue-per-user. That means more ads, more data mining, and more creative thinking about new ways to commercialize the personal, cultural, political, and even revolutionary activity of users.
In 1929, everyone thought this man would be the most-read novelist in a hundred years’ time. They were very, very wrong.
Why are readers so bad at prognosticating writers’ shelf lives? Tom Vanderbilt takes a look at our track record for the New Yorker’s new Page Turner blog.