From the archives: Comics

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Oprah, Oona: the miseries of Franzenfreude

Wednesday, 1 June 2011 — 5:29pm | Comics, Literature, Television

There’s a passage in Generosity: An Enchancement, Richard Powers’ novel about genetics and creative writing, that transports us to a prominent talk show from Chicago:

It’s less a show than a sovereign multinational charter. And its host is, by any measure, the most influential woman in the world. Her own story is a remarkable mix of motifs from American creative fiction, from Alger to Zelazny. Say only that she has grown from an impoverished, abused child into an adult who gives away more money than most industrialized nations. She has the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshal mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language. All this by being tough, warm, vulnerable, and empathetic enough to get almost any other human being to disclose the most personal secrets on international television. If she didn’t exist, allegory would have to invent her.

Powers calls his daytime doyenne Oona, but we all know he’s talking about Oprah. Here we find our scientific-literary novelist in the fine, familiar predicament of engaging with an outside world where corporate global brands are king. Allegories of real folks are tacky things, but when you pen a Chicago novel about finding the genetic basis of happiness in the anaesthetized age of mass media, there’s no detour around the Oprah problem: you’re writing her into your damned book.

(I’m not sure how well it goes. Generosity is eminently likable, and its Clarke Award nomination earlier this year is one of many reasons why you should pay attention to the Clarke Awards, but there’s an overall sense of Richard Powers for Beginners about it next to the depth of his earlier work.)

Here in the telly-impervious literary fortress of Nick’s Café Canadien, we don’t pay much attention to Ms Winfrey. My impression of Oprah has never been terribly positive: as a consumerist behemoth that uncritically promotes junk science and bad medicine while throwing its financial weight behind the overweening cult of self-help, it has often come off to me as a malignant alien presence from another world. I’m reliably informed, however, that as of last week the twenty-five-year gravity well of The Oprah Winfrey Show has finally pocketed itself into its own precious singularity.

Days earlier, Jonathan Franzen delivered a commencement address at Kenyon College that has since appeared in The New York Times (best read alongside Edward Champion’s notes on the abridgment), the latest variation on Literary Man’s perpetual anxiety over technology’s commodification of human passions. Franzen’s argument—that the casual comforts of the Facebook “like” and the easy requital of our device relationships have inoculated us from experiencing true and hurtful love—came bundled with the delicious irony that we’ve come to expect from everything involving the reluctant superstar of American letters. Scarcely a month ago, The New Yorker ran a magisterial essay of his about scattering the ashes of David Foster Wallace on the island of Robinson Crusoe only to hold it hostage behind the paywall. “Like” The New Yorker on Facebook, said the ransom note—or else.

The timing may be coincidental, but the parallel—rather, the perpendicularity—isn’t lost on those of us who absorbed everything about the Winfrey-Franzen feud of 2001 with unhealthy fascination. Here’s the story: ten years ago, Oprah Winfrey selected Franzen’s outstanding novel The Corrections for the Book Club segment of her programme, something that even her most bitter critics have to admit has been a marvel for moving volumes of contemporary fiction. Shortly after, Franzen voiced his discomfort with being marketed under the Oprah sticker, leading Winfrey to rescind the book selection along with Franzen’s invitation to the show.

You can imagine the media frenzy. High-profile literary scuffles are like classical music riots: we don’t see enough of them these days, and when we do, it’s comical yet reassuring to discover that other people care about this stuff. And here we had, in one corner, an inspirational figure of tremendous accomplishment and national renown; in the other corner—well, Oprah Winfrey.

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Suggested reading, bowled-over edition

Monday, 8 February 2010 — 11:23pm | Assorted links, Comics, Computing, Jazz, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

I don’t follow American football whatsoever and would probably be unable to name any former or current NFL player that hasn’t been involved in a highly publicized criminal investigation, but you don’t need to know football to enjoy the Super Bowl pieces in McSweeney’s. The two that stuck out for me, both from a few years back: “NFL Players Whose Names Sound Vaguely Dickensian, and the Characters They Would Be in an Actual Dickens Novel” and “Famous Authors Predict the Winner of Super Bowl XLII”.

This week’s bag of links:

  • In a rare sighting of the man behind Calvin and Hobbes, Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer interviews Bill Watterson fifteen years after the legendary comic strip ended its run.

  • Peter Hum ruminates on the “ugly beauty” of avant-garde jazz.

  • The big news coming out of Barack Obama’s 2011 budget was the abandonment of NASA’s plan for the resumption of manned spaceflight to the moon. has the analysis.

  • Jonathan McCalmont, caught between the debate over high/low culture and his vehement dislike of the popular video game Bayonetta (“a game so dumb that it makes a weekend spent masturbating and sniffing glue seem like an animated discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)”), spun it all into a compelling essay on hypnotism and lowbrow art.

  • This Charles Petersen piece in The New York Review of Books is one of the better histories you will find of where Facebook came from and how it has transformed, and offers a thorough look at the content-pushing pressures facing the social-network model of a nominally private Internet.

  • Mark Sarvas identifies some common problems of debut novels from the perspective of a prize-committee veteran.

  • In The Guardian, Darrel Ince implores scientists who rely on internally developed software to publish their source code.

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Wednesday Book Club: Persepolis

Wednesday, 17 December 2008 — 11:46pm | Book Club, Comics, Literature

This week’s selection: Persepolis (2004) by Marjane Satrapi. Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris.

In brief: This memoir-in-comics of a liberated Iranian woman who grew up in the Islamic Revolution—or, if you will, between Iraq and a hard place—is about as penetrating a look at life under the veil as one is likely to find. A supreme demonstration of resistance through art, here is that rare specimen of autobiographical identity-crisis literature with the political weight to stand outside itself and really matter. If you think you know anything about Iran, read Persepolis and think again.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Persepolis, keep reading below.)

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Understanding Google

Monday, 1 September 2008 — 5:02pm | Comics, Computing

Tomorrow, Google is launching Google Chrome, their WebKit-based open-source browser. Interesting, but not as interesting as how they announced it: a 38-page comic book by Scott McCloud, which explains what Chrome does and how it works. It’s a good read for anyone who wants an insight into web browser architecture, even if you only have a basic comprehension of software design.

For those of you who don’t know, Scott McCloud is the author of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, which is, alongside Will Eisner’s more instructionally oriented Comics and Sequential Art, the canonical primer to comic-book semiotics. So he brings his whole arsenal of frame-breaking layout tricks to the table, and the whole endeavour embodies a kind of documentarian character; you get the sense that Google is a magic workshop where the products are so omnipresent by design that that the elves have to tinker from the inside out.

More to the point, it’s educational. I learned a lot about browsers today.

My question: can McCloud do this for every major Google project? Pretty please?

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It’s the Intentional Fallacy, Charlie Brown

Friday, 19 October 2007 — 2:58am | Comics, Literature

One day, I’ll make it big as a travelling salesman of amazing k-coloured dreamcoats, and some biographer will dive into this weblog fathom by fathom looking for dirt. Let the hypothetical biographer know this: the most singly monumental cultural influence on my childhood was Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. It’s not even a contest.

It is naturally with great amusement that I discovered this video of a radical Islamist Charlie Brown Christmas, and with even greater interest that I received news of a reportedly scintillating Schulz biography by David Michaelis, released this week. Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson wrote an eloquent review for The Wall Street Journal, which is, to the comic-strip enthusiast, like Beethoven writing about Bach. Some of Watterson’s subtler remarks on the connection between the art and the artist are important, and I’ll return to them further down.

As with any biography that begs to scintillate, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography has generated a storm of controversy: the Schulz family, none too pleased with what they allege to be Michaelis’s selective fudging of the evidence, has openly responded with their grievances at one of my daily stops, Cartoon Brew—instantly transforming the thread into a thought-provoking debate on the ethics of biographical writing.

I haven’t read the book, but I’ve been given this impression: great biographical narrative, poor historical scholarship. I’m not a reader of biographies in general, so I have to wonder: is this the industry norm?

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A Link to the Past (older posts) »