‘The greatest luck a writer can have…’

I was worried about the Oxford American. I really was. The summer issue, which came out last May, felt overly studied, so removed from its subjects, giving the feel of third-person even while speaking in first. The South felt foreign. I worried the new editor, apparently arriving from Brooklyn, didn’t have the comfort to lead Little Rock or to lead it well. I began to look into how one canceled a subscription, not ready to act but wanting to prepare.

The magazine’s fall issue, though, has now dispelled my concerns. Yes, the issue came out in August. I just had a chance to read it. The magazine is always weighty and requires hours to consume in full. But once devoured, this new edition has to rank among the publication’s best ever. The words are relaxed but do not meander. The topics are rich and well-mined. The editorial tone is aware and confident, much more so than in the spring.

Picking favorites from this issue is hard for me. But Alex Mar’s “The Secret Life of Nuns” and William Giraldi’s “The Dead Give Him Stories: The Return of Allan Gurganus” top my list, I think. Mar’s piece may be among the best religion writing anywhere this year. She mixes personal essay with profiles of two Texas convents, one cloistered, one not. What could have been an awkward combination of forms actually works, on the subtle backs of slow-food pacing and what one imagines were amazing structural outlines.

And Giraldi’s article surprised me. I’d never read any of Gurganus’ work, and my first substantial introduction to him was recent and not very good. I’d read the fall’s New Yorker piece about the author a couple weeks earlier, and the thing had bored me something fierce. But with Giraldi, Gurganus was certainly not boring. The author, his house, his town, all came to life.

The magazine hasn’t posted the profile online, but I wanted to share one paragraph. Giraldi got the following out of Gurganus, and let us thank the interviewer. Normal conversations do not render quotes so eventful and narrative, not even normal conversations with far-above-normal authors.

The greatest luck a writer can have is to be born in the American South. You grow up in a little Southern town and the stories preexist you. You memorize them till they seem to know you. The time grandfather got chased over the bridge by a scorpion. The day the pig fell down the well. The annual drama of named hurricanes. Burying all the silver and losing the map, endless people digging, trying to find the damn stuff. Naturally you add elements of your own biography to these stories. That makes for a new kind of catechism creating a new kind of literature. It’s the best training in the world both as storyteller and rememberer. And, like ocean waves, those stories keep coming, every day. Every time you read the newspaper there’s enough material to write War and Peace six times over.

Worried about the Oxford American but not giving up

The summer issue has been sitting in my head for a while now. I’ve been trying to figure out what to say. I’ve been subscribing to the magazine for a number of years, and this issue is my least favorite by far. I worry the shift in the editor role may be the cause. The magazine, in the past, has always been exciting in tone and often unexpected. But with this summer issue, I am bored, which is sad, and a magazine should not make you sad.

So, let me tell you about the magazine’s spring issue instead.

It’s a better one. But the first half is worrisome.

The contributors page, a favorite of mine, has gone serious. The editor’s note has no short paragraphs and very few short sentences. The note’s contents are focused on literary analysis and have little imagery. The front of the book has many scenes but little meaning. Much observation but little fun. Photographs throughout the issue prefer settings to people and artistic people over real ones, connected to stories. A prison story becomes an environmental story, and I can’t find love for this journey the Nieman Storyboard does. A story about hunting wild pigs feels predetermined.

But the back of the book gets better. A woman competes in a “STELLA!” screaming contest in New Orleans, and I can’t put the story down.

In that scaly, winning sound, I think, is the last thing I can tell you about my body when it screams. I can say that inside of me — and in you too, probably — is first a place in which muscle and air stop being useful, where our body tells us sound is no longer possible. This is on the corporeal map that we use every day, even at our louder moments. Even, perhaps, onstage.

But I now know that when I rile myself up to the point of damage and think hard about the noises that scare me most, I can rummage around inside for a second bottom to that mappable place, and I can mine that for sound. It’s a sad discovery, I suppose, this lonely and untapped sonic pocket with a trap release, but I do not know what is sadder about it: that it lies there, useless, sometimes for an entire quiet life, or that something allows me to trick myself into finding it. Or that it exists in us at all.

The next piece in the issue spends time with Tennessee Williams’ then-young, now-old lover, and the story after that is fiction of a love affair consummated digitally but not in life. “The painter goes back to New York and your relationship takes on its particular shape: e-mails, telephones calls, handwritten letters,” one paragraph explains. “You admit the thrill of it is in the continued exchange of words. You read an Irish proverb about conversation as a shared meal: the placing of words into a bowl between two parties, the removal of the kind words, each to the other, so that by the end of the conversation the bowl is empty and both parties are full.”

I want the same for the fall’s issue. I want an exchange, not a lecture. I want to meet real people for real periods of time, not shadows briefly. I want a primal scream or at least acknowledgement the trap door exists.

‘In the process of accessing those vantages’

The summer issue of Oxford American is the worst issue of the magazine I’ve ever read. Nearly from cover to cover, the issue is disappointing and as boring as can be. It’s the first issue I’d read from the mag’s new editor, and I’ve subsequent thought long and hard about canceling my subscription.

But — after that sad note — two things. Since reading the summer issue, I’ve gone back and begun catching up on the spring OA issue, which is also under the new editor. And the spring issue is great. Really great. I have no idea how the spring and the summer came from the same editor. But here we are, and I’m rooting for the fall issue to get things back on track.

The other thing is a graf amid the summer-issue mess. Amanda Petrusich, often of Pitchfork in the last decade, writes about M.C. Taylor, a very, very Pitchfork musician. He is too Pitchfork for me, but I do love this paragraph, which gets to the heart of why Pitchfork exists and yet is totally accessible.

On the drive up to Graham, Taylor and I spent a lot of time discussing what it means for an artist to be “honest,” a term (mine) that felt supremely dumb until I start to think there might be some purity in its dumbness — that its limitations might also be why it applies. If you think about art long enough — what’s good and why, how it works for you — it becomes clear that every argument for or against a work is predicated on the notion that we’re all capable of saying something true. The best pieces are inspired and conjured by our shittiest and most ecstatic selves (also our simplest and most genuine selves), and in the process of accessing those vantages — the deep and thorough excavation that songwriting requires — unknownables not only become known, but broadcast. If the root is disingenuous, if it’s too performative or aspirational, if it metastasizes on its way out, if it becomes shielded or mediated or compromised, the results are flaccid, inessential. Taylor is intensely protective of that pathway: where his art comes from, how it manifests.

Well said. Will post more soon on the spring issue, the great one.

Two movies that win you big in unexpected ways

42. Both this ESPN piece and this story from colleague Gene hit the meta issue spot on. 42 is one didactic flick. It’s the most sentimental movie I’ve ever watched in a theater. But, with that caveat, I’ve recommended it to all the friends and family who’ve asked if they should go. Why? Because unless you’re a hardcore baseball scholar, you need the refresher course.

As the Internet’s ridiculously sad Cheerios flare-up this week showed, racial progress comes damn hard in America. And on top of far-better-than-the-writing performances from Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie as Jackie and Rachel Robinson and Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, momentary but glorious escapes by Harrison Ford and T.R. Knight (George from Grey’s Anatomy!) from their sepia-starched roles, some brief but really well done baseball action, and an unabashed love of the game and the places where it’s played, we need every minute of this reminder of what Robinson did.

The other movie?

Mud. This year has a long ways to go, but any arriving movies are going to have to work to beat Mud for my favorite film of 2013. Part Tom-and-Huck, part criminal thriller, part meditation on poor Southern river life, the movie takes its time with all three parts, and there’s not a minute I would trade. Strong performances come all around, especially from the starring kids and Matthew McConaughey. If you’ve never read the Times profile of his shift in job choices (“The Rake’s Progress: A Midcareer Leap for McConaughey“), go back and do so and be thankful for people who challenge themselves.

The closest point of comparison among recent films might be Beasts of the Southern Wild. But Mud is different, original animal — making you warm, gasp and warm again a way that, outside of Flannery O’Connor or (more recently) Karen Russell’s best short stories, you wouldn’t expect. Bonus? The soundtrack, from David Wingo, Lucero and others, alt-country with a subtle hard edge. Lucero’s Take You Away is song that hooks you deep.

Oxford American had a good new SoLost video this week on the movie.


‘I write out of a greed for lives and language’

The Oxford American liberates an old Barry Hannah essay. It’s great.

I always experience a mild depression whenever I type up what I have written. This act seems redundant. The work has already been done. I adore the praise of the public, no mistake. But the primary motive must be unpublic. Much more, I’d guess, the inner journey of the imagination itself. There is the ecstasy. The rest is simply good. Some money, a little fame. Not to be rolled over by time like a crab in the surf. Etcetera.

I write out of a greed for lives and language. A need to listen to the orchestra of living. It is often said that a writer is more alive than his peers. But I believe he might also be a sort of narcoleptic who requires constant waking up by his own imaginative work. He is closer to sleep and dream, and his memory is more haunted, thus more precise.

A murder ballad and an amazing duet

The Oxford American‘s heralded music issue is usually my least favorite issue each year. It always seems to be trying too hard. But the magazine does often music right, just in lesser doses. In a recent update, brought to me this week by the mag’s email newsletter, they get it very right, twice.

A folk revival playlist” gives us Hedy West’s stellar, intense Little Sadie.

Hedy West was a rarer breed of the revival, having learned many of her songs through the traditional “folk process”—namely, growing up in North Georgia in a family of old-time singers and players. But when her father, union activist and poet Don West, helped found the Highlander Folk School in Newmarket, Tennessee, she, like her peers John Cohen and Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers, took to song-collecting around the region…. —Nathan Salsburg

Elsewhere, “Ten great Kris Kristofferson moments” gives us “A dreamy duet: Kristofferson with Rita Coolidge in 1972.” Their Help Me Make It Through the Night is one of the best duets I’ve seen. Anywhere. Ever.

Folks say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” They mean this.

Why doesn’t the music issue ever do it for me?

This post is overdue. The issue has sat on my coffee table since November. I’m a subscriber and a fan of Oxford American magazine. But for whatever reason, the much-praised music issue of the magazine never works for me.

The accompanying CD is good (and really needs a digital-download option in this day and age). But the printed issue leaves me wanting. Are the writers trying too hard? Does too much fanboy and fangirl seep through? Are the writers too direct in their praise, writing too much about the tune qualities and too little about the role of these tunes in greater life? Does going too deep into the wax archives make it too difficult to come all the way back to the surface? After creating so many music issues over the years, even if you do the issues by state, do you run out of ways to approach the music? Or do you run out of writers — the right writers, that is — to approach it?

I don’t know. Maybe the answer is some mix of the above. Maybe you love each and every OxAm music issue, and I’m crazy to think otherwise. I’m looking forward to the next issue to see if the magazine gets back on track. There’s been so much turmoil in its ranks this year. While the new editor comes with a nice resume, only time shows how a resume fits a magazine.

I’m recalling right now a great story I read this year where an old Esquire editor talks about the challenge of executing a cohesive magazine identity. Googling, I find the story ran over the summer… in the Oxford American.

‘In O’Connor’s hands, the old woman would have won’

Late in high school, I read a Flannery O’Connor story about a man who gets a giant tattoo across his back. The teacher explained the story’s relation to faith, and I didn’t get it — the connection or the story itself.

But today came this blog post, linked in the Oxford American‘s weekly email, published in the magazine’s new-ish Our Man in the Pews blog.

The post was a surprise blessing. The lede?

By now you know the story of Cecilia Gimenez, the simple old woman who, in an act of terrible charity, painted her own clumsy rendering of Christ over a famous nineteenth century church fresco. In a single, dramatic act of incompetence and yellow paint, “Ecce Homo” became “Ecce Mono”—behold the monkey. It happened in Zaragoza, Spain, but if there was anything like poetic justice left in the world, it would have happened in Georgia fifty years ago so we could have gotten Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts on the matter. After all, the story isn’t really an art history story, it’s a religion story, an outsider story. It’s a story that shows the divide in society between faith as a cultural artifact and actual religious devotion. In O’Connor’s hands, the old woman would have won, the fancy people from the city would have lost, the garish monkey-boy rendering would have been imbued with miraculous powers, a lame child would have beheld the figure weeping, a self-righteous priest would have been brought to heel, and someone probably would have been shot in the road.

Sometimes you need a lede to embarrass all the other ledes

All my flights last weekend have let me catch up on my reading, including the fall Oxford American. This issue, the “New South Journalism Issue,” contains a piece by John T. Edge titled, “Savoring Mutt City: Why Houston is becoming a top-tier destination to eat and drink.” Its lede is amazing.

We’re boating the high-top cloverleaf in a kandy-kolored streamline baby, if you know what I mean. A 1967 LeMans ragtop, stardust blue, with red-lined fatties and cigarettes-and-whiskey mufflers.

It’s a summer night, circa right now. I’m in the backseat, leaching liquor and perspiration onto the vinyl. Chris Shepherd, who spent the afternoon at a Vietnamese nail salon here in Houston, is digging his shellacked toes into the front passenger-side pile, while Bryan Caswell palms the steering wheel and blasts Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears through a removable-face Blaupunkt that would have gotten him laid in tenth grade.

Earlier that night, at an exurban Korean restaurant called Da Da Mi, we ate live octopus. Squirming octopus. Octopus that, even when chopped into serving-size pieces, writhed and wriggled and employed its suckers to grab hold of the platter on which it was presented and prevent chopstick carriage to our mouths.

While we fought that cephalopod, we plotted future runs to every sort of restaurant that the outer bands of Houston can yield. Pakistani, Szechuan, Cambodian, Laotian, Sinaloense: In this Texas megalopolis, all latitudes and longitudes are accessible by way of a concrete Hot Wheels track and a four-barrel Pontiac.

Read the rest of the story. Subscribe to the magazine.

Apt phrase (as I attend a journalism conference)?

The Oxford American‘s new issue focuses on “New South Journalism.” The magazine devotes a few pages to asking some amazing j-school alums about what they learned on the streets that they didn’t learn in school. Writer Walt Harrington responds, “In journalism school, I took on a self-righteous confidence that is found only in whine rockers and prosecuting attorneys.” But after a lesson at his first job, “I adopted the cautionary adage of baseball player Crash Davis in the movie Bull Durham: ‘You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.’ “