Sumo Wrestling, Yukio Mishima, and a Search for a Forgotten Man

I’ve been a fan of Brian Phillips’s writing ever since reading and recommending “Pelé as a Comedian.” This year, Brian’s best writing probably comes via his piece at Grantland titled “The Sea of Crises,” in which he goes on a two week trip to Japan. During his visit, he witnesses a sumo tournament, traverses around Tokyo and other parts of Japan, and recounts his fascination with a failed coup attempt by a Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, which ended in ritual suicide, seppuku.

A wonderful description of Tokyo:

Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, the biggest city in the history of the world, a galaxy reflected in its own glass. It was a fishing village barely 400 years ago, and now: 35 million people, a human concourse so vast it can’t be said toend, only to fade indeterminately around the edges. Thirty-five million, almost the population of California. Smells mauling you from doorways: stale beer, steaming broth, charbroiled eel. Intersections where a thousand people cross each time the light changes, under J-pop videos 10 stories tall. Flocks of schoolgirls in blue blazers and plaid skirts. Boys with frosted tips and oversize headphones, camouflage jackets and cashmere scarves. Herds of black-suited businessmen. A city so dense the 24-hour manga cafés will rent you a pod to sleep in for the night, so post-human there are brothels where the prostitutes are dolls. An unnavigable labyrinth with 1,200 miles of railway, 1,000 train stations, homes with no addresses, restaurants with no names. Endless warrens of Blade Runner alleys where paper lanterns float among crisscrossing power lines. And yet: clean, safe, quiet, somehow weightless, a place whose order seems sustained by the logic of a dream.

It’s a dream city, Tokyo. I mean that literally, in that I often felt like I was experiencing it while asleep. You’ll ride an escalator underground into what your map says is a tunnel between subway stops, only to find yourself in a thumping subterranean mall packed with beautiful teenagers dancing to Katy Perry remixes. You will take a turn off a busy street and into a deserted Buddhist graveyard, soundless but for the wind and the clacking of sotoba sticks, wooden markers crowded with the names of the dead. You will stand in a high tower and look out on the reason-defying extent of the city, windows and David Beckham billboards and aerial expressways falling lightly downward, toward the Ferris wheel on the edge of the sea.

This is a beautiful description:

It takes a sumo novice perhaps 10 seconds of match action to see that among the top-class rikishi, Hakuho occupies a category of his own. What the others are doing in the ring is fighting. Hakuho is composing little haiku of battle.

The majority of the piece gives the reader this feeling as though one is in a ship, being gently throttled back and forth as Phillips describes his experiences of traveling and getting lost:

So I wandered, lost, around Tokyo. I went to the shrine of Nomi no Sukune, the legendary father of sumo, who (if he lived at all) died 2,000 years ago. I went to the food courts in the basements of department stores. I thought I should look for the past, for the origins of sumo, so early one morning I rode a bullet train to Kyoto, the old imperial capital, where I was yelled at by a bus driver and stayed in a ryokan — a guest house — where the maid crawled on her knees to refill my teacup. I climbed the stone path of the Fushimi Inari shrine, up the mountain under 10,000 vermilion gates. I visited the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, rebuilt in 1955 after a mad monk burned it to the ground (Mishima wrote a novel about this), and the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, weirder and more mysterious because it is not actually covered in silver but was only intended to be. I spent 100 yen on a vending-machine fortune that told me to be “patient with time.”

Highly recommended in entirety.

 

The Amtrak Residency Program is Now Official

It began with an interview in PEN in December 2013, in which author Alexander Chee declared “I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.”

Last month, writing in The Paris Review, Jessica Gross blogged about a trial run on an Amtrak train, exploring the concept of the writer’s residency:

I am in a little sleeper cabin on a train to Chicago. Framing the window are two plush seats; between them is a small table that you can slide up and out. Its top is a chessboard. Next to one of the chairs is a seat whose top flips up to reveal a toilet, and above that is a “Folding Sink”—something like a Murphy bed with a spigot. There are little cups, little towels, a tiny bar of soap. A sliding door pulls closed and locks with a latch; you can draw the curtains, as I have done, over the two windows pointing out to the corridor. The room is 3’6” by 6’8”. It is efficient and quaint. I am ensconced.

I’m only here for the journey. Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays. And I’m here to write: I owe this trip to Alexander Chee, who said in his PEN Ten interview that his favorite place to work was on the train. “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” he said. I did, too, so I tweeted as much, as did a number of other writers; Amtrak got involved and ended up offering me a writers’ residency “test run.” 

This weekend, Amtrak formally announced the Amtrak Residency program and is encouraging writers to apply. They will pick up to 24 writers to join the program:

#AmtrakResidency was designed to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment. Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. Routes will be determined based on availability.

Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis and reviewed by a panel. Up to 24 writers will be selected for the program starting March 17, 2014 through March 31, 2015.  A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.

Residencies will be anywhere from 2-5 days, with exceptions for special projects.

Definitely worth a look!

Statistical Stylometry: Quantifying Elements of Writing Style that Differentiate Successful Fiction

Can good writing be differentiated from bad writing through some kind of algorithm? Many have tried to answer this research question. The latest news in this realm comes from Stony Brook University, in which a group of researchers:

…[T]ook 1000 sentences from the beginning of each book. They performed systematic analyses based on lexical and syntactic features that have been proven effective in Natural Language Processing (NLP) tasks such as authorship attribution, genre detection, gender identification, and native language detection.

“To the best of our knowledge, our work is the first that provides quantitative insights into the connection between the writing style and the success of literary works,” Choi says. “Previous work has attempted to gain insights into the ‘secret recipe’ of successful books. But most of these studies were qualitative, based on a dozen books, and focused primarily on high-level content—the personalities of protagonists and antagonists and the plots. Our work examines a considerably larger collection—800 books—over multiple genres, providing insights into lexical, syntactic, and discourse patterns that characterize the writing styles commonly shared among the successful literature.”

I had no idea there was a name for this kind of research. Statistical stylometry is the statistical analysis of variations in literary style between one writer or genre and another. This study reports, for the first time, that the discipline can be effective in distinguishing highly successful literature from its less successful counterpart, achieving accuracy rates as high as 84%.

The best book on writing that I’ve read is Stephen King’s On Writing, in which he echoes the descriptive nature of writing that the researchers back up as well:

[T]he less successful books also rely on verbs that explicitly describe actions and emotions (“wanted”, “took”, “promised”, “cried”, “cheered”), while more successful books favor verbs that describe thought-processing (“recognized”, “remembered”) and verbs that simply serve the purpose of quotes (“say”).

Celebrating Literary Jeopardy!

I would have loved to participate in Literary Jeopardy!. The New Yorker details how the event unfolded, in advance of the recently published A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year by Tom Nissley:

“Wolf Wolfe Wolff Woolf” was the most popular category, probably because it was so much fun to say: “I’ll take ‘Wolf Wolfe Wolff Woolf’ for four hundred, Tom.” The contestants were formidably well read. Ruth Franklin knew the author of “Never Cry Wolf” (Farley Mowat; May 23rd). Eric Banks named the writer of whom Virginia Woolf said “she stinks like—well, a civet cat that had taken to street walking” (Katherine Mansfield; February 11th). And Lorin Stein improved on the name of Judy Blume’s sixth-grade heroine with “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret Fuller” (March 8th).

The hardest category was “Before & After,” in which an acrostic-style clue offered a mashup that required a two-part answer in which the last word of the first half was the first word of the last half. Got that? Neither did the contestants. “Watergate whistleblowing author of ‘Blind Ambition’ who, in Kerouac’s original ‘On the Road’ scroll, still went by the name of his real-life inspiration, Neal Cassady.” Silence as the contestants chewed it over. It was Roger Craig who finally got it: John Dean Moriarty.

The book has been added to my to-read list!

Elizabeth Wurtzel on Writing

Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, reflects on the difficulty of writing:

It’s not that hard to be a lawyer. Any fool can be a lawyer. It’s really hard to be a writer. You have to be born with incredible amounts of talent. Then you have to work hard. Then you have to be able to handle tons of rejection and not mind it and just keep pushing away at it. You have to show up at people’s doors. You can’t just e-mail and text message people. You have to bang their doors down. You have to be interesting. You have to be fucking phenomenal to get a book published and then sell the book. When people think their writing career is not working out, it’s not working out because it’s so damn hard. It’s not harder now than it was 20 years ago. It’s just as hard. It was always hard.

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Further reading: Elizabeth Wurtzel on her “one-night stand of a life,” published earlier this year in New York Magazine.

(via Longform)

David Sedaris on His Sister’s Suicide

Writing in The New Yorker, this is a deeply moving personal reflection by one of my favorite writers, David Sedaris, on his youngest sister’s suicide:

“Why do you think she did it?” I asked as we stepped back into the sunlight. For that’s all any of us were thinking, had been thinking since we got the news. Mustn’t Tiffany have hoped that whatever pills she’d taken wouldn’t be strong enough, and that her failed attempt would lead her back into our fold? How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one that I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting. Backing off for a year or two was understandable, but to want out so badly that you’d take your own life?

The family’s back-and-forth on what to name their beach house was amusing in an otherwise very melancholy piece.

Amy Poehler on Her First Summer Job

A delightful piece by Amy Poehler, past cast member on Saturday Night Live and star of Parks and Recreation on NBC, on her first summer job and how it was a catalyst for her to go into acting:

Chadwick’s was one of those fake old-timey restaurants. The menus were written in swoopy cursive. The staff wore Styrofoam boaters and ruffled white shirts with bow ties. Jangly music blared from a player piano as children climbed on counters. If the style of the restaurant was old-fashioned, the parenting that went on there was distinctly modern. Moms and dads would patiently recite every item on the menu to their squirming five-year-olds, as if the many flavors of ice cream represented all the unique ways they were loved.

There was a performance element to the job that I found appealing, to begin with. Every time a customer was celebrating a birthday, an employee had to bang a drum that hung from the ceiling, and play the kazoo, and encourage the entire restaurant to join him or her in a sing-along. Other employees would ring cowbells and blow noisemakers. I would stand on a chair and loudly announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are so happy to have you at Chadwick’s today, but we are especially happy to have Kevin! Because it’s Kevin’s birthday today! So, at the sound of the drum, please join me in singing Kevin a very happy birthday!”

I wasn’t sure yet that I wanted to be an actor. I was planning to go to Boston College as an English major and maybe become a teacher, like both of my parents. But when I stood in the dining room and demanded attention I was reminded of things I already secretly knew about myself. I wasn’t shy, I liked to be looked at, and making people laugh released a certain kind of hot lava into my body that made me feel like a queen.

I love this line: “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.”

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If you’re a subscriber to The New Yorker like I am, I highly recommend the entire series:

“Piano Man” by Jeremy Denk

“Caught Napping” by Nicole Holofcener

“Labors” by Norman Rush

“Pure Bleach” by Ed Ruscha

One in Ten People in Iceland Will Publish a Book

This island nation of  Iceland, population of just over 300,000 people, has more writers, more books published, and more books read, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. An intriguing report in the BBC:

It is hard to avoid writers in Reykjavik. There is a phrase in Icelandic, “ad ganga med bok I maganum”, everyone gives birth to a book. Literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach”. 

“Does it get rather competitive?” I ask the young novelist, Kristin Eirikskdottir. “Yes. Especially as I live with my mother and partner, who are also full-time writers. But we try to publish in alternate years so we do not compete too much.”

Special saga tours – saga as in story, that is, not over-50s holidays – show us story-plaques on public buildings.

Dating from the 13th Century, Icelandic sagas tell the stories of the country’s Norse settlers, who began to arrive on the island in the late 9th Century.

Sagas are written on napkins and coffee cups. Each geyser and waterfall we visit has a tale of ancient heroes and heroines attached. Our guide stands up mid-tour to recite his own poetry – our taxi driver’s father and grandfather write biographies.

Public benches have barcodes so you listen to a story on your smartphone as you sit.

The book buying and giving culture is strong in Iceland:

About now every household gets a book catalogue through the door. They pore over it like a furniture catalogue. Everyone receives books as Christmas presents – hardback and shrink-wrapped.

So if I want to publish a book in my lifetime, should I move to Iceland? Or at least, take an extended vacation there?

Advice on Writing from Susan Cain

I heard Susan Cain, author of Quiet, speak in person in 2012. I like her advice on how to quit your job and become a writer:

2. You Need a Safety Net. People are always celebrating the courage of those who chuck A in order to do B, but I am not a brave person and maybe you aren’t either. You probably need an alternative source of income. When I first quit law, I made writing the beloved hobby – but not the career — around which I centered my life. In the meantime, I set up a small consultancy, training people in negotiation skills. This gave me the chance to do meaningful work, pay the bills — and still have plenty of time for my “hobby”. That took the pressure off. (Taking the pressure off is a recurrent theme with me. )

3. In the Age of Social Media, Resist the Urge to Share: For many people, the things most worth writing about are also, inconveniently, too painful or embarrassing to talk about. The only solution to this tension is to write in your diary – to write as if no one will ever read it. Write exactly what you think and feel, with no fear of judgment. Eventually you’ll produce something so important that you’ll feel compelled to share it, despite your trepidations.

4. Writing is Not Supposed to Be Hard. You have probably heard that you’re supposed to leave drops of blood on every page. This is not true. Well, it’s sort of true. Writing does require tons of discipline and perseverance and concentration. But it should not be unpleasant. It should be the thing you itch to do every day. You can train yourself, in Pavlovian fashion, to feel this way, by making sure that you always write in conditions of pleasure. For me, that means writing in sunny café windows, with a latte and chocolate on hand. For you, it might be something completely different. But sunny windows and chocolate are a great place to start.

I think point #2 should be #1: it’s that important, in my opinion.

The Trouble with Portrayal of Female Beauty in Books

A thoughtful essay titled “A First-Rate Girl” by Adelle Waldman gave me pause this morning. She writes about our perception of female beauty in every day life compared to how novelists portray female beauty (in short: they don’t get it):

I have a friend who dates only exceptionally attractive women. These women aren’t trophy-wife types—they are comparable to him in age, education level, and professional status. They are just really, notably good looking, standouts even in the kind of urban milieu where regular workouts and healthy eating are commonplace and an abundance of disposable income to spend on facials, waxing, straightening, and coloring keeps the average level of female attractiveness unusually high.

My friend is sensitive and intelligent and, in almost every particular, unlike the stereotypical sexist, T & A-obsessed meathead. For years, I assumed that it was just his good fortune that the women he felt an emotional connection with all happened to be so damn hot. Over time, however, I came to realize that my friend, nice as he is, prizes extreme beauty above all the other desiderata that one might seek in a partner.

I have another friend who broke up with a woman because her body, though fit, was the wrong type for him. While he liked her personality, he felt that he’d never be sufficiently attracted to her, and that it was better to end things sooner rather than later.

Some people would say these men are fatally shallow. Others would say they are realistic about their own needs, and that there is no use beating oneself up about one’s preferences: some things cannot be changed. Those in the first camp would probably say that my friends are outliers—uniquely immature men to be avoided. Many in the second camp argue that, in fact, all men would be like the man who dates only beautiful women, if only they enjoyed his ability to snare such knockouts. In my experience, people on both sides are emphatic, and treat their position as if it is obvious and incontrovertible.

To me, these stories highlight the intense and often guilty relationship that many men have with female beauty, a subject with profound repercussions for both men and women.

You’d think it would also be a rich subject for fiction writers—after all, our attitudes about beauty and attraction are tightly bound up with the question of romantic love. But, in fact, many novels fail to meaningfully address the issue of beauty. In a recent essay in New York, the novelist Lionel Shriver argued that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.” What this amounts to, in practice, is that many male characters have strikingly attractive female love interests who also possess a host of other characteristics that make them appealing. Their good looks are like a convenient afterthought.

This is, unfortunately, sentimental: how we wish life were, rather than how it is. It’s like creating a fictional world in which every deserving orphan ends up inheriting a fortune from a rich uncle. In life, beauty is rarely, if ever, just another quality that a woman possesses, like a knowledge of French. A woman’s beauty tends to play an instrumental role in the courtship process, and its impact rarely ends there.

When a novelist does examine beauty more closely, the results are often startling. Two of my favorite male novelists do not fall into the trap that Shriver delineated. They are clear-sighted and acute chroniclers of the male gaze.

Read the rest here. I haven’t read the books mentioned in the piece, but this line made me laugh: “So begins one of contemporary literature’s worst relationships.”