Feature

The New Yorker Online, July 1 2014Ted Peckham

“Gentlemen for Rent”

Cities like New York have a way of coming up with solutions—skyscrapers, doormen, take-out coffee, laundry delivery, human rickshaws—to problems that they create themselves. In the late nineteen-thirties, as the city was gearing up to show off its forward-looking technological ingenuity at the World’s Fair, a problem that it hadn’t solved was what to do about unaccompanied women—both those who lived and worked in the city and those who would be visiting to stroll through the “World of Tomorrow.” At the time, single women enjoyed an unprecedented level of freedom and autonomy to go to work, live alone, and even—in the words of their soi-disant guru, a self-help writer named Marjorie Hillis—to like it. But, to really enjoy the city’s post-Prohibition night life, a see-and-be-seen matter, women needed men. Single female non-celebrities were turned away from the lounge of the New Yorker hotel, even if they were paying guests, and “hen parties” attracted horrified disdain from the guardians of glamour. Women could meet their female friends in dull, obscure restaurants, but they couldn’t hunt in “Sex and the City”-style packs. So what was a single girl to do when the best tables were behind closed doors? Nobody who visited the city in 1939 was really there just for the museums, the Trylon, and the Perisphere. They were there for the Stork Club and the Mirador, the Cotton Club and the Savoy, for midtown café society and uptown jazz adventures. They had money to spend, and yet an absurd combination of convention, prejudice, faux concern, and fear kept them from where they most wanted to be. And, of course, it would take an entrepreneur to solve the problem.

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Feature

Poets & Writers, May/June 2014may-june_cover

News & Trends:
SCRATCHING OUT A LIVING AS A WRITER

Slang for both writing and cash, scratch is not a pretty term, but then the points where money and writing intersect typically aren’t all that pretty, which is why they’re so often kept in the dark. Now Scratch (www.scratchmag.net), a new quarterly digital magazine from writers and editors Jane Friedman and Manjula Martin, is aiming a light directly at this last literary taboo. In the spirit of other movements, such as the VIDA Count, which are demystifying who’s getting published and why, Scratch dares to ask: Who’s actually making a living from writing—and how?

In their first full issue, published in February, the editors explain the magazine’s ethos by inverting a familiar publishing term: Rather than “closing” their first issue, they declare it “open,” like a new venue or an event. “That’s one of the exciting things about a digital magazine, that it really starts when people start reading and talking about it,” Martin says. “Because we exist in an online space, there’s more real-time conversation and more interaction.”

Scratch evolved from Martin’s Tumblr, Who Pays Writers?, which she began “a bit on a whim” in December 2012. Inspired by what she saw as a writer’s need for “more transparency around the way that payment works,” Martin solicited anonymous reports concerning which magazines and journals pay writers, how much they offer, what type of work is published, and when editors accept new work. Writers latched onto the resource and began clamoring for more: “People wanted more context around the conversation. The information was great, but data without context is not always the most illuminative,” says Martin, who wanted to offer more guidance to those accessing the site. As a result, Who Pays Writers? is now available and regularly updated on the Scratch website; while a subscription to the magazine costs $20 a year, Who Pays Writers? is still accessible for free.

It is also free to read the magazine’s Transparency Index, a regular column that not only breaks down the economics of each issue and the gender and ethnicity of its contributors, but also records how the writers and editors met. “There’s a difference between the kind of relationship you need to disclose editorially, and not knowing someone at all,” says Martin. “And so while the index is fun and gossipy, the real lesson is that relationships matter.”

The Scratch editors themselves, in fact, only met in person in February at this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Seattle, but have been collaborating since May 2013, when Martin, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, wrote a story for the Virginia Quarterly Review website, VQR Online, which Friedman edits. Their initial correspondence revealed a shared fascination with the ways money affects all writers, whether of blogs or best-sellers, and how online opportunities are changing traditional publishing. “Genre distinctions and field distinctions are only getting blurrier as things go digital,” Martin says.

Friedman, the former publisher of Writer’s Digest, who regularly teaches and speaks on digital-publishing issues, is a particular evangelist for the possibilities of tech. In Scratch’s first full issue, she profiled poets who make money through entrepreneurial online ventures, and explored the digital marketplace for writers of serial fiction. “One of my pet projects is to try to show writers the creativity and imagination involved in using these digital-media tools,” she explains. “Tech doesn’t have to be antithetical to the creative process.
It can be part of what helps you make a living.”

Friedman’s commitment to providing practical help for professional writers emerges in her Contracts 101 series, which explains legal issues that often seem arcane and bewildering. “I know that writers are hungry for this information, especially during a really transformational time in publishing,” she says. Scratch, she hopes, is just the beginning. “The magazine establishes the tone and the philosophy, the culture and the community that we’re attempting to build. But we have all these other things that we’d like to do as part of the mission of Scratch—bringing people together to discuss these issues, and more formal education.”

That might even mean raising the specter of money in the MFA classroom, despite the lack of professional development offered by some programs. “I think most professors don’t feel that belongs in the classroom,” says Friedman. “But it does a great disservice to MFA students and undergraduate writers if they don’t understand the realities of the marketplace they’re about to enter into.” Martin is a little more sympathetic to this resistance, seeing it as rooted in the artist’s fear of the corrupting marketplace. At the same time, she says, “There’s a wide area between allowing young writers to form their craft and sending people out into an incredibly difficult industry and a crowded market with zero knowledge of what it’s really like.”

Scratch shares moving testimony from writers struggling to keep afloat alongside interviews with Jonathan Franzen, Susan Orlean, and others who breathe the rarefied air of success. The breadth of the magazine’s editorial mission demonstrates just how far money reaches into all aspects of a writer’s life, while offering the reminder that writing is a viable, if unpredictable, career. It may look a little different for each of us, but it can be made to work, and work better, with a little more light shed on the subject.

 

 

 

Book Review

The Washington Post, May 12, 2014Justingo

THE STEADY RUNNING OF THE HOUR:
A NOVEL

By Justin Go
Simon & Schuster, 480pp.

There is a moment late in Justin Go’s first novel in which the protagonist, reading from a book called “The Icelandic Sagas” learns that in these ancient stories, “personalities are shown through action, seldom through analysis.”The same technique guides Go’s fiction, but it has its shortcomings for a literary novel — even one structured explicitly as a quest, complete with chapter titles like “The Bloodline” and “The Reckoning,” and a young hero fortuitously named Tristan.

Beyond his name, nothing much identifies Tristan as heroic in “The Steady Running of the Hour”: He’s a young college graduate from San Francisco with an interest in European history. Secretive London solicitors have told him that he has seven weeks to prove his biological connection to the original beneficiary of an outlandish fortune, and with barely a backward glance, he hoists his backpack to chase his grail through Europe.

Although Tristan’s story is written in the first person and the present tense, it conveys almost nothing about how he feels upon learning that he could inherit a fortune worthy of a Bond villain. His internal monologue is both bland and awkward and often betrays the author’s impatience to just get on with the action, already. When a young woman in a bar challenges Tristan to explain his attitude toward this life-changing wealth, the best he can muster is “It just makes me feel weird. . . . It’s just money. There are better things to care about.” Instead of making Tristan seem morally deep, this refusal to reflect on what the money could mean comes off as merely dense.

Go’s real interest, however, lies in the story Tristan is pursuing to prove his right to the inheritance. That investigation takes us back to a meeting between two young people in London in 1916: mountain-climber Ashley Walsingham, heir to a vast shipping fortune, and Imogen Soames-Andersson, rebellious daughter of a wealthy Anglo-Swedish family.

Six days before Ashley ships out for France, they begin an affair that results in a child who may or may not be Tristan’s grandmother. Decades later, as the legal deadline looms, Tristan must prove his lineage to inherit everything Ashley left in trust for Imogen when he joined an ill-fated Everest attempt in 1924.

The plot, with its combination of world war, doomed romance and exotic locations, seems designed to catch the attention of Hollywood producers in search of another “English Patient.” And, indeed, Go’s strengths lie in his screenplay-ready dialogue, which feels both naturalistic and specific to time and place. He is a particularly keen chronicler of altered states and the skewed insights that come to the sleep-deprived, jetlagged or hungover.

The depiction of Ashley’s war experience is particularly unsparing and evocative. Despite some familiar tropes — the boy who has enlisted underage, the long marches through the mud, the hard-drinking upper-class officers — there are flashes of insight, as when Ashley surveys the battlefield and its primitive weapons: “When they are in a museum one day, he thinks, they will know how we went back to the Middle Ages. But Ashley had seen medieval weapons in the Tower of London and even the poorest had been finer and cleaner tools than some in this war.”

Go’s story draws on the fascinating historical connection between the war and the early Everest expeditions, in which survivors and those too young to have fought were driven to prove themselves by “assaulting” the impossible mountain. Ashley’s own drive, however, is muted and unclear, in this and in his desire for Imogen.

The novel insists on the romantic power of thwarted love, which gives way to unthinking obsession: “In truth he knows so little of her. He had fallen for Imogen so quickly that there had not been time to decide what he truly thought of her, as if it mattered.”

But it does matter. Their love affair reaches a crisis when Imogen, characterized mainly by beauty and impetuosity, travels to the war zone to insist that Ashley leave the war, knowing full well that desertion is a capital offense.

Lacking a more unyielding taboo like adultery or class difference, the plot turns on the characters’ personal choices, but the novel remains frustratingly reluctant to explore the moral consequences of those choices.

Interview

ehrenreichBiographile, April 8 2014

AN INTERVIEW WITH BARBARA EHRENREICH ON THE MYSTERIES AND MEANING OF LIFE

LIVING WITH A WILD GOD: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything

By Barbara Ehrenreich
Twelve, 256pp. $26.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Living with a Wild God is a departure from her impassioned political bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch — it’s a personal story, although not a conventional memoir. Ehrenreich revisits and explores a period in her teens when she experienced a series of inexplicable “encounters” that shook her faith in the reality of the world. Culminating in a kind of epiphany in the California desert, these mystical experiences both disturbed and intrigued the young Ehrenreich, who was already questioning the purpose and meaning of life.

Raised as an atheist and trained as a scientist, Ehrenreich had no language or framework to understand these encounters, except as the frightening onset of mental illness. The book is the story of the adult writer’s attempt to describe and understand what happened to her — and what it might mean for the rest of us.

Biographile: At the beginning of the book you describe rediscovering your teenage journal and deciding to try to unpack this mysterious story. How did the writing process develop from there?

Barbara Ehrenreich: There was a certain point where I said, OK, I think I’m actually going to do this, and started writing the first chapter. After that, I had plenty of other things that I went on doing, but this was my project. It was spread over several years, but that’s just how long it took to do.

BIOG: So you had a fairly clear idea of what you wanted the story to be from the start?

BE: No! There were a lot of surprises. I knew I had things to figure out, and that I would be working very hard to describe what I always thought to be indescribable. I did research along the way and found out some amazing things. One that stands out in my mind was about this kid I had gone on the skiing trip with, that ended so spectacularly — or cataclysmically, in my case [with her vision in the desert.] To find out that he claims he was transporting nitroglycerin in the car on the way back… [Ehrenreich discovers this in a phone call during the writing of the book.]

BIOG: It’s a great moment: a clash between how you describe yourself as a teenager, as very solipsistic, and the realization, looking back, that in fact you were at the mercy of the world around you.

BE: And that there were some people a lot more solipsistic than I was!

BIOG: It’s rare to come across a memoir, perhaps especially by a woman writer, that is so much more focused on a philosophical coming of age than with emotional or sexual discovery. Was that a deliberate decision, to keep the focus on intellectual discovery?

BE: There are a couple of reasons for that focus. One is that’s what the journal is about: I didn’t think it worth my time to write down anything I considered trivial or frivolous, like high-school life, and I wasn’t that interested. I was a super-geek, although outwardly getting along fine in terms of going to school and doing what was expected of me. But once I started asking that question, What is going on here? — that’s what I was obsessed with, starting at age thirteen.

BIOG: We also tend to assume that teenagers are just hormonal creatures, so we don’t take their philosophical development very seriously.

BE: Or worse, we say, “Oh yes, you have those big questions when you’re an adolescent, but when you grow up they should go away. When you become a mature person, you should accept everything as it is and just get on with your life.” I didn’t do that. I think we should all take our younger selves a little more seriously.

BIOG: There’s clearly so much that you learned from going back to your journal.

BE: Yes, and with some impatience on my part. I was frustrated at how unrevealing my journal was for those things that I knew I was thinking or feeling. At other times, as an older person, I felt real respect for that younger person.

BIOG: It seems as though the central question of the book is one of communication: how we describe things that are indescribable. When you were writing the book, how did you find the words for these experiences?

BE: I thought of myself as not so much writing a memoir, but more of a metaphysical thriller. Here I have this question, this event, this mystery in my life, and it doesn’t go away. I have to return to it at a certain time in my older life.

BIOG: I’m curious about this as a literary problem — how have other writers tried to describe this? You mention fire as a metaphor that comes up a lot.

BE: When I was gearing up to work on the book, I read a lot of accounts of mystical experiences, and was amazed to discover how often they used the metaphor of flames or fire. Then I thought, hey, burning bush! This goes way back! And I can’t claim that my experience is anything parallel to those of other people who claim such experiences, but it seems to be. My guess is this is a pretty widespread phenomenon — we just don’t talk about it.

BIOG: And even though finding the language is difficult, there is some way of approximating in words what is going on.

BE: A lot of people solve that problem by saying it was God, or a god — something supernatural or some kind of being. I didn’t have that “out.” I didn’t have that imagery, didn’t have that kind of comparison to make. You really have to dig deep to reimagine things.

BIOG: You write a lot about mental illness in connection with this kind of mystical experience, and it seems we have similar narrative problems there. I wanted to ask about that in connection with your other writing, which has been so much more clearly politically motivated. Is that where this book has a political urgency, in the way we understand and treat mental illness?

BE: I would say so. I was terrified as a teenager of being seen as mentally ill, because when I went to the library and read everything I could about unusual psychological experiences, that’s all I could come up with: mental illness, probably schizophrenia, which seemed really scary. So I thought, you just don’t talk about these things, or you end up in a locked ward. It bothers me very much that the dissociation — which is the psychiatric term I used for my early perceptual anomalies, which started when I was thirteen — is considered an illness. There is the psychiatric assumption that there is one shared reality, and if you’re not down with that reality, you’re pathological. That’s horrible. That’s totalitarian, as far as I’m concerned.

I was so nervous when I first showed this book, or the proposal for the original chapters. I just thought, people are going to say you’re nuts. And you could make a case for that, that’s fine, but so far nobody has said that to me.

BIOG: And then the scientific side of your thinking comes out, in that that’s not enough of an explanation. Even if you were to say this was a symptom of some psychiatric anomaly, that’s not the answer, that’s just the first question.

BE: My scientific feeling is that when something bizarre and seemingly inexplicable happens, you don’t just bury it out of sight. You have to look at it with the full power of your own mind and rationality.

BIOG: That seems connected to your scientific training, at the beginning of the era of uncertainty, and your discovery of how much was unknowable in chemistry and physics.

BE: Yes, and this book turns out — somewhat surprisingly, to me — to be more a critique of science than it is of religion. It’s a critique of a kind of Newtonian or Cartesian science that separates the mind from the body completely, and then says we humans are these little conscious lights in a universe in which everything else is really dead and operating mechanistically. I’m taking that on!

BIOG: Whether the mystery is out there or whether it’s in us, it’s still such a mystery.

BE: Yes, but I don’t like to leave anything as a mystery. I was talking with my sister on the phone over the weekend, and she said, “Well, isn’t it enough, Barb, to just say it’s all a mystery — it’s so big and our little minds will never understand it?” I said no! I have to die trying!

BIOG: I’m curious how you hope this book connects with readers. It’s such a personal story, but then it gets as big as humanity in some ways.

BE: Well, it’s a little different from a lot of my previous books, when clearly at the end I want the reader to put the book down and march on City Hall. I felt in writing this that I was making a report: Here’s what happened. For many, many years I had no idea what to make of this. I’m sharing it now, because I think it’s a human responsibility to share even bizarre experiences and observations. I would really like to hear from more people who’ve had similar sorts of experiences. I would like people to feel, maybe there’s something going on here, and that this has something to do with their own lives too.

BIOG: It seems likely that you would have a lot of readers who have stories that are not explained by their particular religion, or they’re not satisfied with the explanation.

BE: Right. It took me an awfully long time to realize that this was a widespread phenomenon still. You can go back to Moses and the Burning Bush, or so many of the prophets in the Old Testament. I spent a lot of time reading — which was very strange reading for me — the Christian mystics. They always attribute what happens to them to God, but I can see parallels and similarities with what happened to me. So I think there’s something widespread but unacknowledged. We’re a society, a culture, that just does not speak of them, but I think even bizarre and mystical things can be in the purview of rational thought and science.

BIOG: So the idea that science and religion are in opposing camps, and to accept one you have to reject the other, is unnecessarily reductive.

BE: I do object to religions that require belief, because there’s so much that’s against scientific rationality. Not all religions require belief — a lot of Jewish people will say you don’t have to believe, you just have to follow the law. I have always been fascinated by the ecstatic religions of West African derivation, where there’s no idea of believing in the deities or spirits, you actually see them in an ecstatic trance. That’s impressive to me. But I don’t like the idea of belief because that’s like a surrender: “I can’t prove it, and you can’t see it, but there is something there.” Well, let’s find out!

Book Review

scarletsistersThe Washington Post, March 7 2014

THE SCARLET SISTERS:
Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age

By Myra MacPherson
Twelve, 401pp. $28

For a few years in the 1870s, sisters Victoria Claflin Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin were the most notorious women in New York, treating the social strictures of their age as no more substantial than the spirits with which they claimed to communicate. Myra MacPherson’s captivating dual biography opens on Wall Street in 1870, as Tennie, “a bodacious beauty in her early twenties,” and her charismatic elder sister descend from their open carriage amid a throng of reporters and rubberneckers. Dressed in matching dark-blue outfits, with “shockingly short” skirts grazing their boots, they declared their new brokerage firm open for business.

As social debuts went, it was extraordinary. At the time, women were barely allowed to pass through Wall Street in covered carriages, but the sisters had the backing of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, which lent their business legitimacy — even if the stories they told about their rich father and their business training were lies, and even if the rumors of Tennie’s affair with the recently widowed Commodore were true. MacPherson, a former journalist at The Washington Post, is skeptical of the more salacious gossip around the sisters, but in this case she allows that “the circumstances and the logic of the situation speak plainly.”

Wall Street was just the beginning. Before the decade was half-over, the sisters had started their own radical newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, with the profits from their brokerage; Victoria had addressed Congress and run for president (with Frederick Douglass); and Tennie had been named colonel of New York’s 85th, the state’s only African American regiment. The sisters tangled with suffragists, spiritualists, socialists and conservatives, including Karl Marx, anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock and the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (their newspaper published a report that triggered the famous preacher’s adultery trial, a landmark of Victorian hypocrisy).

MacPherson emphasizes how far ahead of their time the sisters were in their attitudes toward women’s rights, but they were also markedly prescient as publicity hounds. They knew that fame had very little to do with truth and freely advanced a self-serving mythology in their newspaper. When they addressed packed lecture halls around the country, crowds came as much to see them in the flesh as to hear their arguments.

But the sisters’ words were also attention-grabbing, making the case in print and onstage that women had the right to control their own bodies. In this they had the backing of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but they clashed with stricter suffragists, who wanted a single-minded focus on the vote and judged Woodhull a trashy distraction. Yet it was Woodhull who stood up in front of the House Judiciary Committee to argue that the 15th Amendment and other sections of the Constitution guaranteed rights to “citizens” — forcing Rep. John Bingham of Ohio to sputter out, “Madam, you are no citizen — you are a woman!”

The sisters’ doctrine of “free love” earned similar horrified denials in a world that accorded women no bodily autonomy. Tennie defined herself and Victoria as “sex radicals,” drawing down upon them both all the mockery and vitriol that the press could muster. As MacPherson sums it up, “In arguing that a woman had a right to freedom regarding her own body, to choose her mate, to decide when she wanted sex, and actually to enjoy it, the sisters were so far ahead of the era that they were openly called prostitutes in print.”

Yet she also notes that as the attractive daughters of a desperate, con-artist father, the sisters, especially Tennie, might have been speaking from experience about the injustices prostitutes suffered. Certainly Victoria, married at 15 to a hopeless drunk, knew plenty about the potential horrors of marriage. Nor did riches and fame bring release, as the sisters were hounded throughout their lives by their family, the ragtag Claflins. The sisters supported and housed their parents and siblings — along with Victoria’s ex-husband, daughter and mentally disabled son — but this didn’t stop the family from threatening blackmail and dragging one another into court.

Given how much scurrilous chatter surrounded the sisters, and how far they bent the truth to suit their ends, MacPherson is often tasked with choosing between rival tall tales. However, she resists the temptation to pick the most flattering story and cast the sisters simply as progressive heroines. Both were willing to use their femininity, as well as their feminism, to get what they wanted; Victoria especially could be self-centered and obsessed with her own persecution; and both sisters became conservative in later life, publicly repudiating most of their “sex radical” beliefs.

They left New York for London in 1877, in the wake of the Beecher trial, and “decided to use draconian measures to sanitize their image.” Like many of their most outlandish ruses, it worked — within a few years, both were married to wealthy Englishmen. By the early 20th century, they were recognized as suffrage pioneers, although to improve society they now prescribed religion and eugenics rather than female emancipation.

The Claflin sisters do not emerge from this lively biography as trailblazers so much as outliers, so far ahead of their time that it becomes almost impossible to credit them with real influence. Women got the vote at the very end of their lives, but it took much longer for women to gain control over their bodies or make real inroads into Wall Street or Washington. In an epilogue containing a litany of misogynistic low points in modern politics, from “legitimate rape” to government-mandated ultrasounds, MacPherson hammers home the point that, even in 2014, powerful men treat women’s bodies as political bargaining chips. In this light, these Victorian sisters’ blast of protest against a restrictive and hypocritical status quo remains something to celebrate.

 

Feature

worldwar1-battlefieldOpen Letters Monthly
February 2014 Issue

THE GREAT WAR:
July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme

By Joe Sacco
W. W. Norton, 2013

At the beginning of January, the already unpopular British education secretary Michael Gove chose to kick off World War One’s 100th anniversary year in appropriately belligerent style, by railing in The Daily Mail against the “Blackadder myths” surrounding the teaching of the war. He suggested that the centenary celebrations would better honor the “noble” dead if they acknowledged that the war was provoked by German aggression, although how exactly this would work is unclear—would he make Angela Merkel stand outside in the rain while other dignitaries toast Our Boys?

By “Blackadder myths” Gove meant what the historian Samuel Hynes called “the myth of the war,” which holds that the soldiers were duped by propaganda into volunteering, then “slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals” for no very good or clear reason. Derived from left-wing history and filtered through comedy, Gove suggested, this myth has become entrenched in British culture and British schools. The trouble for the right honorable minister came when he was challenged, immediately and on several fronts, to present a convincing alternative view.

Read more at Open Letters Monthly.

Book Review

CarelessPeopleThe Washington Post, January 19 2014.

CARELESS PEOPLE: 
Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of “The Great Gatsby”

By Sarah Churchwell
Penguin Press. 399 pp. $29.95

After a Fitzgerald-obsessed 2013, the appearance of Sarah Churchwell’s book at first seems like a reckless test of just how much Gatsby the reading public will swallow. But it would be a shame if last year’s gluttony made readers abstain from this rewarding work, a history of 1922 as it was lived by the Fitzgeralds and their circle, as well as by the fictitious cast of “The Great Gatsby.” Like the jazz that defined the era, the book tells its story through digression and repetition, building up a pattern of internal references and refrains, and occasionally teasing the audience with ornate flourishes or lines that disappear into smoke.

Today, criticizing “Gatsby” is like firing champagne corks at the moon. The book’s early reviewers, however, dismissed it as a minor work, too enmeshed in popular culture to have any more longevity than the evening newspaper; “a glorified anecdote” in H.L. Mencken’s notorious phrase. Churchwell, a professor at the University of East Anglia in England, begins her study by taking that critique seriously, as a deliberate and positive aspect of the novel’s design. She mines the rich seam of the contemporary mass media (a term coined in 1923) to structure the book, using subheadings ripped and pasted from jazz-age newspapers: dispatches from a hectic, dissipated era, like “TRIAL IS HIGHBALL EPIC” or “October’s Bright Booze Weather.”

The book opens with three “guest lists” for its fictional and real-life stories: colorful characters like Fitzgerald’s friend and Great Neck neighbor, the writer Ring Lardner; Burton Rascoe, the gossiping literary editor of the New York Tribune; John Dos Passos; Dorothy Parker; and finally “assorted gate-crashers,” including Einstein, Nietzsche and Hitler. Churchwell maps the actions of the novel’s characters onto Scott and Zelda’s wild partying. (The verb “to party” is another 1920s coinage, from an entertaining list that also includes “French kiss,” “cold turkey” and “brand-name.”)

A fragmentary, retrospective outline for “Gatsby” that Fitzgerald sketched shortly before his death provides the overarching structure for the book and elucidates the novel’s references to people and places. Fitzgerald was at this point working on his final, never-to-be-finished novel, “The Last Tycoon,” and looking back to “Gatsby” for inspiration. Central to these is Great Neck, Long Island, the model for Gatsby’s West Egg, where the Fitzgeralds lived from October 1922 — like Nick Carraway, fleeing the “Middle West” — until they sailed for France in 1924. Churchwell is careful to resist “literal-minded, simplistic equations between fiction and reality,” but the opposite of such “deeply tiresome” literalism can sometimes shade into rather tiresome mystification: “Art does not shrink when it comes into contact with reality,” she notes. “It expands.”

The third element in Churchwell’s tightly woven history is a murder: a story forgotten now but one that coincided with the Fitzgeralds’ arrival in New York and dominated the headlines for months. In New Brunswick, N.J., up the road from Fitzgerald’s alma mater, Princeton University, a 34-year-old woman named Eleanor Mills was found lying alongside Edward Hall, rector of the local church. Hall and Mills, both married, were lovers. They had been shot in the head and Eleanor’s throat cut, and their bodies arranged in an embrace, under a crabapple tree that would soon be stripped to a bare stump by the souvenir-seekers who tramped through the crime scene.

Churchwell finds plenty of suggestive resonances with “Gatsby” in this sensational tale. For instance, Mills, characterized by the newspapers as a social climber with a “vigorous personality,” seems to anticipate Fitzgerald’s Myrtle Wilson. But more prosaically, it is a story of grotesque official incompetence, class- and gender-based prejudice, and the persuasive fantasies of newspapers coming together to prevent justice. A second autopsy revealed a huge gash in Mills’s neck, as well as extra bullet holes, that had been missed the first time. As Churchwell wryly puts it, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde: “To miss one bullet wound might be regarded as a misfortune, but to miss two, and a throat slashed from ear to ear so deeply that it nearly severed the victim’s head from her body, looks like carelessness.”

Amid all the suggestive fragments of history that Churchwell uncovers, the most memorable are the counterintuitive details that remind us that nostalgia isn’t the same as memory. As asides to the main story, she tells us (often by means of illustrations and photographs) that in 1922 skirts were still ankle-length; that it was unlikely that anyone danced the Charleston at Gatsby’s parties; that the swastika was a benign symbol that a bootlegger could use to distinguish his fleet of taxicabs; and that the phrase “American dream” wasn’t invented until 1931, six years after “Gatsby” was published.

The Hall-Mills double murder is a sordid, frustrating tale, a crime straight out of the pages of a Golden Age detective story, but lacking its brilliant Sherlock Holmes. As the New York Times wrote, “The concluding chapters are missing.” The story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, on the other hand, has too many concluding chapters, in which glamour, celebrity and desire are slowly and painfully eclipsed by drunkenness, mental illness and obscurity. For all the fascination that this rich, inventive history offers, only the ending of “The Great Gatsby” is satisfyingly elegiac. It is art that eases our frustrations with a plot in which the “careless” escape and the dreamers are cut down, and it is to art that we are left wanting, ceaselessly, to return.

Scutts is a freelance writer and adjunct professor at New York University’s Gallatin School.

Feature

artsy-2-artsy-engineer-genomeThe Art Genome Project and the Future of Collecting

At first glance, Artsy (Artsy.net) looks like the minimalist homepage of a wealthy museum. It displays crisp, high-resolution images, the option to browse or search, and invites you in to learn, admire, or even purchase. But it’s what you can’t see—how all those images are categorised and organised—that really sets the site apart. Artvehicle sat down with Matthew Israel, an art historian who directs The Art Genome Project at Artsy, in Artsy’s open-plan Tribeca loft to find out more about the Genome Project and the company’s plans to democratise art connoisseurship.

Inspired by The Music Genome Project® that underpins the website Pandora, Artsy’s goal, when Israel joined the company in early 2011, was to create a similar search and recommendation engine for fine art. Most online images, Israel explained, contain very little metadata—generally the name of the piece, its title, maybe its subjects—making search engines all but useless unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. How could an algorithm using only that basic data realistically sort among millions of ‘Untitleds,’ or know the difference between Picasso in 1903 and 1913?

Artsy’s team of engineers and art historians therefore realised that they would need to build a much more sophisticated mechanism to relate artworks to each other. And to back up even further: What is a systematic vocabulary for understanding fine art? Israel describes an early epiphany at the company: ‘We’re looking at Donald Judd, and we’re not saying that it’s rectangular or shiny.’ This goes back to ‘the way many of us have been educated to talk about art: theory before object.’ But our reactions to art are not purely theoretical—more immediately, we respond to shape, colour, representation.

Then again, not everything rectangular resembles a Donald Judd. The Art Genome Project therefore does not merely tag an artwork but assigns values, from 0-100, across over 1000 possible ‘genes.’ So rather than just tagging a piece as ‘abstract,’ for example, Artsy asks, well, how abstract? Are we talking Matisse or Malevich? The genes belong to different categories, including ‘geography,’ ‘technique,’ ‘medium,’ ‘content,’ and ‘concepts’ and there is no hierarchy of theory: ‘colour’ and ‘neo-Dada’ are different but equally valid ways of interpreting a particular work.

Israel sees one of Artsy’s great strengths as its capacity to showcase contemporary art, which is often not available on Google or other search engines due to concerns over ownership and copyright. By partnering directly with museums and galleries, Artsy has been able to bring a huge online gallery of contemporary works to an audience that might otherwise never discover it, as well as to put it into a carefully thought-out historical and theoretical context. More than 80,000 artworks have been added to Artsy to date, and an iPhone app launched this summer has enabled users to take Artsy’s educational interface along with them when they visit galleries and museums. Play with the app for a little while, and it starts to look like the final nail in the coffin of the rentable audio guide, with its unwieldy headphones and selective information.

Just to make the massive data-gathering project even more daunting, Artsy decided early on that they wanted to direct Artsy’s written content themselves. No pulling an artist’s biography from Wikipedia, but writing and editing everything in-house, according to a house style that aims to be both intellectually rigorous and accessible to casual users. This includes building connections beyond Artsy’s downtown New York home. When we met, Israel had just been discussing the art scene in Istanbul with a specialist in Middle East contemporary art who is based there: an example of the way Artsy works to inform the genome by including feedback and knowledge from as many people—especially internationally—as possible.

Artsy has two main, interconnected aims: commercial and educational. The site hopes to demystify the world of art collecting, which can seem impenetrably clubby and snobbish to outsiders, by building relationships individually with museums and galleries, from powerhouses like Gagosian and Pace to smaller institutions that welcome the exposure. The site can put buyers in touch with gallery representatives, or an Artsy specialist can offer advice and help to guide a purchase. One way to explore the site is through ‘Featured Partners,’ which currently highlights the Calder Foundation in New York and Riehen’s Fondation Beyeler alongside the British Museum. In the future, Israel hopes that galleries will curate their own online exhibitions, and contribute to the information about works and artists that Artsy is already building, in their aim to become the default platform for art collectors.

Israel first joined Artsy as a consultant after completing his PhD in art history and archaeology at NYU, and firmly believed that Artsy needed an art historian to lead The Art Genome Project. ‘The art world is very discerning,’ he notes. ‘We would be dismissed if the Genome Project was seen as superficial.’ Artsy’s twin goals of accessibility and sophistication are therefore his particular responsibility. His critical work focuses on political art (his book Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War was published by the University of Texas Press in September) and the site’s goals of offering free access to art and educating visitors is also, in his eyes, a political act.

Informed by his past experience in the classroom, Israel sees huge pedagogical potential in Artsy. The sheer quantity of high-resolution images available to view or download make this an invaluable resource for teachers, as well as offering various pathways for non-specialists to explore and discover new works and artists. ‘Last year I gave a talk to Harvard undergraduates and Artsy was introduced as the number one form of procrastination for Harvard art history majors. I loved that.’ Working artists, he adds, have also embraced the ability to explore a huge variety of work in a single site. Users can ‘favourite’ works and curate their own collections, as well add their own posts—‘stories, facts, and reflections’—to the site.

However, when so much vibrant contemporary art is experiential, ephemeral, site-specific, or all three, Artsy inevitably faces the challenge of bias toward the still image. There is video work here, but represented through square or rectangular stills. The site is experimenting with video walkthroughs and other recordings of site-specific work, but as Israel points out, ‘everyone’s wrestling with the same questions’ of what happens when ephemeral work gets turned into an object and fixed in time. He refers to Tino Sehgal’s work, and its deliberate absence from the catalogue of Documenta 13, as a particular version of this problem.

In a global art marketplace, a large part of Artsy’s future will be focused on international sales and building relationships with overseas galleries. Online viewing galleries will of course never replace the experience of being in the presence of art, in whatever form—but if a site like Artsy can encourage more people to share that experience, it will be serving a valuable purpose.

Joanna Scutts

Book Review

HeirApparentThe Washington Post, January 3 2014.

THE HEIR APPARENT:
A Life of Edward VII, The Playboy Prince

By Jane Ridley
Random House. 752pp. $35
When the dissipated, overweight, scandal-prone Prince of Wales finally got the job he’d been waiting for all his life, he was 59 and tired. “It has come too late,” he said, in German, to his wife, Alexandra, as she knelt and kissed his hand beside his mother’s deathbed. Jane Ridley’s exhaustive new biography presents her subject as a Victorian Prince Hal, an immature philanderer who grows up into a decent, if hardly heroic, king.

Certainly nobody hoped for much from Victoria’s eldest son — “few kings have come to the throne amid lower expectations” — but those low expectations were his own doing, as hundreds of pages of biography have already detailed. As an attempt to rescue Edward VII (known as “Bertie”) from unfairly harsh historical judgments, the story of his reign — like the reign itself — is too little, too late. The story is also an indictment of the system of hereditary monarchy. And it’s hard not to see parallels between Bertie’s fate and that of his great-great-grandson Prince Charles, now 65: to spend adult life searching for something to do while waiting for Mother to die.

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