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In How Not to Be Wrong, mathematician Jordan Ellenberg uses a John Ashbery line as a guiding principle for those making claims or predictions based on probabilistic mathematical models (or any models, really): “For this is action, this not being sure.” Ellenberg calls it “the greatest summation I know of the way uncertainty and revelation can mingle, without dissolving together, in the human mind […] It is a sentence I often repeat to myself like a mantra.” He once asked me if, as a poet presumably, I thought he was “reading Ashbery too literally,” but Ashbery can only be read literally out of context, and then why not?

Literature seems to depend on uncertainty to qualify as art: A sculpture or a piece of music just exists, but language is so often used to argue or persuade that writers of literature (I use this term only to avoid the silly, infantilizing “creative writing”) must actively steer away from those tendencies. It’s easy enough in poetry, the most open and least linear of genres; for writers of fiction, less so, but semantics is on their side, since fictive means made up. With essays, it’s much trickier; many essays do attempt to persuade. But what if an essayist just wants to play? How does she signal to readers that the essay is an exploration and not an argument?

Recently, I have noticed an overabundance of uncertainty in literature – across genres, but especially in essays. The tricks we use to appear uncertain – asking questions instead of making definitive, declarative statements, for example – have become tics. Overuse these tricks and the piece assumes a pose of ignorant wonder – What is such & such abstract concept? Who can say? How can we ever know?
More… “Uncertain Terms”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.
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In April, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni sat down with Paula Marantz Cohen, dean of the Pennoni Honors College, to discuss, among other things, higher education and his most recent book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.

P: I’d like to discuss your life and career a bit before discussing your latest book. You went to journalism school at Columbia, then you worked at the New York Post, then at the Detroit Free Press before coming to the NYT, and that was in 1995. Now what I think is interesting is that seems to me sort of the traditional trajectory for getting into journalism at the highest level at the time.

B: Yes and no. The idea of trading up newspapers or trading up venues is traditional. I don’t think starting out at a tabloid and ending at the NYT, that’s not exactly traditional.

P: Do you think that trading up (the tabloid aside) is totally gone now? What does one do, in your opinion, now to get a career in journalism?
More… ““There is No One Path””

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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ART/NOT
The elusiveness of Richard Tuttle's "Both/And" can be panic-inducing – until you remember that art doesn't always need a definition.
BY MORGAN MEIS
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Hilton Kramer, longtime chief art critic for the New York Times, was never a shy man, at least in print. He thought of art criticism as a battle. There was a war, as Kramer saw it, between good art and bad art or – maybe more crucially – between art and non-art. Kramer saw himself as a warrior on the side of Art and The Good. In this war, it did not pay to be nice.

Reviewing an exhibit at the Whitney Museum by the young artist Richard Tuttle in 1975, Hilton Kramer wrote, “To Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum that less is more, the art of Richard Tuttle offers definitive refutation. For in Mr. Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less.”
More… “Art/Not”

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.
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It’s my birthday. Will you write me a poem? — Ken S., Portland, Oregon

It’s my birthday, too!  Let’s celebrate together with a heroic couplet:

This is for people whose name starts with K: you’re getting old — you better seize the day!

Yuck, that was awful. Here’s a better one by Richard Wilbur, addressed to someone with initials very close to yours

For K.R. on her Sixtieth Birthday

Blow out the candles of your cake. They will not leave you in the dark, Who round with grace this dusky arc Of the grand tour which souls must take.

You who have sounded William Blake, And the still pool, to Plato’s mark, Blow out the candles of your cake. They will not leave you in the dark.

Yet, for your friends’ benighted sake, Detain your upward-flying spark; Get… More…

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How Fiction Works isn’t actually about how fiction works. To be obsessed with the mechanics of words and sentences, to see literature as essentially an enclosed system with internal rules, is to be a formalist, and James Wood, for all his formality, isn’t a formalist. He admits as much. In the Preface to How Fiction Works Wood writes, “when I talk about free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I am talking about point of view I am really talking about character, and when I am talking about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.” For James Wood, fiction is about the world, not about itself.

Wood calls his book How Fiction Works for two reasons. The first is that he’s a cocky… More…

The grand master of critical distance

 

Criticism isn’t powerful anymore. It doesn’t drive anything, it doesn’t define what is good and bad in culture. Surely this has mostly to do with all the changes in the media landscape over the last few decades. Basically, culture has been democratized. It has been flattened out and multiplied. There are no longer real distinctions between high and low. There’s just more.

The word criticism has its root in the Greek word krinein, which means — in its most original sense — to divide or separate. It’s about sorting things out and making distinctions. Criticism is thus about doing something that is, in this era, almost impossible to do. It is difficult simply to keep up with the vast global cultural output, let alone to make determinations and judgments.

So the critic lives in terror and humiliation, without… More…

He was a bit more demure his first 50 years.

Even in the Renaissance, everyone was a critic. Before Michelangelo’s David was revealed to the Florentine public on June 8, 1504, a few jealous artists carped that there were flaws in the vast nude — the right hand was a touch too big, the neck a little bit long, the left shin over-sized and something about the left buttock was not quite right. And when the statue was being moved into the central Piazza della Signoria, a group of youths attacked it with stones, foring the city to mount a round-the-clock guard (although the vandals’ anger may have been provoked by local politics, not aesthetics).

But the most disconcerting criticism at the time came from the powerful Piero Soderino, one of the top magistrates in the Florentine Republic. According to a tale told by the contemporary biographer (and avid Michelangelo fan) Giorgio Vasari, Soderino went so far as to tell… More…

But that's exactly what early 20th century America needed.

H.L. Mencken was a bastard. He had a core meanness that showed itself in his writing and in his personal life. Without that meanness, though, his writing might never have gotten so startlingly good. Lots of people need lots of things to do what they do. Mencken simply needed to be hard.

In the early part of the 20th century, America needed Mencken. We needed him to wash away some of the Emersonian/Whitmanian enthusiasm that had started to clog up the collective joint. Not that Emerson and Whitman didn’t have their place. As Mencken himself notes in his essay “The National Letters,” it took Emerson and then Whitman, among others, to stand up and defend the possibility of an American Mind and an American Voice. They did so with boldness and with prose falling over itself in its excitement about itself. Sometimes with Whitman it seems that we’re but one… More…