Author Archives

The Difficulties with Dirty Words

There are a number of difficulties with dirty words, the first of which is that there aren’t nearly enough of them; the second is that the people who use them are normally numskulls and prudes; the third is that in general they’re not at all sexy, and the main reason for this is that no one loves them enough….

Thin in content, few in number, constantly abused: what chance do the unspeakables have? Change is resisted fiercely, additions are denied. I have introduced ‘squeer,’ ‘crott,’ ‘kotswinkling,’ and ‘papdapper,’ with no success. Sometimes obvious substitutes, like ‘socksucker,’ catch on, but not for long. What we need, of course, is a language which will allow us to distinguish the normal or routine fuck from the glorious, the rare, or the lousy one—a fack from a fick, a fick from a fock—but we have more names for parts of horses than we have for kinds of kisses, and our earthy words are all . . . well . . . ‘dirty.’ It says something dirty about us, no doubt, because in a society which had a mind for the body and other similarly vital things, there would be a word for coming down, or going up, words for nibbles on the bias, earlobe loving, and every variety of tongue track. After all, how many kinds of birds do we distinguish?

From On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry by William H. Gass

'The Only Things That Mattered Were Booze and Books'

There are times you see the rot you’ve always been. My days were a trail of liquor-store bumblings and sunrise guilt, and every penny I’d earned these years had come to rest in a dirty glass. I’d ceased caring for others, and definitely for myself. The only things that mattered were booze and books. Scrubbing toilets–the very ones I’d puked into so many times–that was what I knew. The hurly burly of solitude that took me come each day’s midnight had stripped any cool I might still have owned a long time back. Night after night, in the chill of an empty school, my ambitions fell away like leaves from boughs in autumn. And wandering those halls, moving from bin to toilet to bin, the few kind trophies of memory that did remain floated by as evil nymphs–evil because angelic, angelic because there are in the corridors of my past those trophies were safe from deeper ruin. And like angels they were accessible in only the cruelest ways. What was the good in having something you could never hold?

-From Made to Break, a novel by D. Foy. Read more fiction.

Jazz's Influence on the Beat Generation

These principal writers in various ways all tried to capture something of the flavor of jazz. Certainly Ginsberg and Kerouac. Kerouac wanted to write lines of prose or poetry that captured something of, say, the saxophonist art. He was interested in extemporization; he was interested in improvisation. And when he heard figures like Lester Young, Thelonius Monk, and so on, he had this idea that if he could write lines that felt like the one long breath of an improvising saxophonist, he was capturing something very special.

Beat scholar Simon Warner on WBEZ’s Sound Opinions podcast, talking about jazz’s influence on the writers of the Beat Generation. See more podcast picks.

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A Universe of Failed Unions, Dreams and Abandoned Hopes

The young men frequented the kothas to learn the bearings of polite society, the older men to socialize, or rekindle the memories of their lost youth. Whenever one of them fell in love with a tawaif or a nayika, his affairs provided a spectacle and entertainment to the rest of them, until he was cured of his passion. Those who could not survive it did not return. A tawaif who fell in love had only two choices: she could either put an end to the association, or leave the kotha to pursue a life outside — if one was offered her. Implicit in the latter choice was the understanding that she would never be readmitted to the kotha if the promise of the new life failed her. There was a universe of failed unions, dreams, and abandoned hopes that started in the kothas and trailed off into the anonymity of the city’s dark alleys. It was said — with some justification — that only the fickle survived in the kothas, and only the pitiless prospered.

—From Between Clay and Dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, a novel with extraordinary characters in the twilight of their lives. Read more fiction in the Longreads archive.

Photo: British Library, Flickr

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Gary Shteyngart on the Highest Form of Tragedy

The funnier you are, the more I think there’s a tragic undercurrent. … I think humor is one of the highest forms of tragedy there is. People talk about the serious novel and these sort of hallowed tones and how important it is, but I think a lot of humorous stuff — books by writers like Sam Lipsyte and even writers like Mordecai Richler in Canada, who is no longer with us — these are some of the most funny and tragic books I know because humor doesn’t work unless you’re making fun of something that keeps paper cutting you throughout your life, something that keeps hurting and hurting you; and that’s why parents, and relationships, and the political system are all such delicious targets.

—Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure, on the To the Best of Our Knowledge podcast, talking about humor as tragedy. See more podcast picks.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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The Financial Power of 1,000 True Fans

If you had 1,000 people who were your true fans—and I define them as people who would buy whatever it is that you produce at any time and would not only buy the paperback but also the hard cover and the digital version, who would not only buy your CD but would drive 100 miles when you were on tour. Those are your true fans. If you had 1,000 of them, and you could get $100.00 from them a year for what you were producing, and you got it directly, then you got $100,000 a year from only 1,000 true fans.

The concept was this interesting middle place. You didn’t need to have a million fans to survive or make a livelihood. You needed more than one fan, but you could do it with this interesting moderate number, which is an imaginable number. It’s hard to imagine a million fans, but you could imagine getting 1,000 people who would really follow you.

If you could and you had direct relationship with them, and you got the money directly from them, then you could make a living—maybe not a fortune, but you could make a living—with 1,000 true fans.

Kevin Kelly, on the New Disruptors podcast, on the power of a few devoted fans. See more podcast picks.

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Where the Gift of Writing Comes From

Let me state it so you get the picture clear as wind chimes in a soft breeze on a somnolent noon. Underlying my existence is a deeper intelligence that speaks to me when I am writing. My artist friends say I am an anomaly—no education, no family grounding, no proper socialization. My writing gifts seem to have come from nowhere. So maybe the deities pitied me for my lack of human support and sent the face to grant me relief. Maybe it comes to me as compensation for the constant invasion of privacy by the Orwellian judicial bureaucracy, a reaction to a life of stop-and-frisk and security screenings. I don’t know. I am certain, however, that this deeper intelligence has a face, and when I write, that face perches above my right shoulder and watches me.

—From the book The Face by Jimmy Santiago Baca, a haunting meditation, interspersed with beautiful poems. Read more fiction.

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Will You Love Me Forever?

I left that place still believing in pleasure, but where love was concerned, I had become as atheistic as a mathematician. Two months later, I was sitting alongside that exquisite woman, in her boudoir, on her divan. I held one of her hands clasped in my own, and such lovely hands they were; we were scaling the Alps of emotion, picking the prettiest flowers, pulling the petals from daisies (one always ends up pulling the petals from daisies, even in a drawing room, without a daisy in sight). At the peak of tenderness, when one is most in love, love is so aware of its fleetingness that each lover feels an imperious need to ask, ‘Do you love me? Will you love me forever?’ I seized that elegiac moment, so warm, so florid, so radiant, to make her tell her most wonderful lies, in that glittering language of exquisite poetry and purple prose peculiar to love.

—From The Human Comedy by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Jordan Stump. Read more fiction.

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Memories of an Affair

Our love affair was chic from beginning to end; the rumpled intellectual and the skilled maîtresse. It was a done thing—the done thing.

Beginning to end. Was it the end? She kept things lively, he thought. I counted on that. I used to look forward to work, knowing I’d see her.

He pictured himself twined in the arms of various time-consuming professional women over the years. As long as Alice was content at home with the boys, it didn’t seem to matter if he had these little intrigues at work. They were never part of my real life, he reflected. They were part of work, part of the New York world I left behind when I boarded this train.

He had gotten in the habit of feeling fine about it, spotting a girl at party and deciding he would miss his train, lunching with an author and agreeing to meet again for drinks in the evening. Surely it made no difference to Alice? She never knew about any of it.

But Alice’s death made Richard feel ashamed of Laetitia. And of all the others, too. I always meant to spend more time at home. Work was so demanding, so all-absorbing.

Work and women. Where was the line between them? The compartments in Richard’s complicated life were collapsing into one another. The distinctions seemed fake, made-up. I devised them to suit myself, he thought.

But work is important to me. His discomfort increased. Work should have remained clear of emotional tangles. The integrity of the intellect, the rigor, the years of conviction and seeking after truth now seemed soiled.

He silently argued the case for the defense. I’m good at publishing, and I’m successful. It’s an exacting profession. No amount of time spent on any book is ever enough. Especially with non-fiction where you have the responsibility to be accurate. To be right.

He had been saying such things for years, to everyone at home when he left, and again when he was late returning. No amount of time spent on any book is ever enough.

He tried to see the dark landscape rushing by outside the glass. But his own reflection stared back at him. There was no penetrating it. And the past was the same. He couldn’t reach it now; he couldn’t change it.

—From the book +1 by Katherine BucknellRead more fiction.

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The Business of Merchandising Pop Music

Brian Epstein was the manager of a family-owned business called North End Music Stores in Liverpool, England. He began hearing a lot about a new group called The Beatles, who were playing at the Cavern Club. So he went to hear them, and one day, proposed a management contract.

The four lads, which included drummer Pete Best at the time, eventually agreed, and a five-year deal was signed in 1962. With that, Epstein created a company called NEMS to manage The Beatles. As the band became popular in England, NEMS began to be overwhelmed with product licensing offers.

But once the band hit America, NEMS became besieged with merchandising requests, so Epstein reluctantly set up a subsidiary called Seltaeb to deal with the offers. Seltaeb was Beatles spelled backwards.

As Epstein saw it, the merchandising was just a PR abstraction at best, so he asked a friend to take the management of Seltaeb off his hands. That friend, Nicky Byrne, suggested a 90/10 split, which, by the way, was 90% for Byrne, 10% for The Beatles.

Epstein agreed immediately, thinking that 10% of incidental merchandising was better than nothing. And in the stroke of the pen, lost untold millions for The Beatles.

CBC Radio’s Under the Influence podcast, on the marketing of rock ‘n’ roll. See more podcast picks.

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