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In the face of our nation’s current turmoil, I suggest that we open our Mencken. This gadfly journalist and critic provides an astute analysis of issues relevant to us today.

Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken was born in 1880 and died in 1956. He was by nature intemperate and irritable. He disliked most politicians, critics, and journalists (though he himself functioned in the two latter roles). He hated hypocrisy and platitude. When others were lauding the American dream, Mencken could write: “it seems to me that the shadows [on America] were never darker than they are today, and that we must linger in their blackness a long while before ever they are penetrated by authentic shafts of light.”
More… “Mencken in the Middle”

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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When I was a child I read poorly written Sunday-school books. They happened to be Catholic books because I read them in a Catholic Sunday school. My mother was a Congregationalist and she would have preferred I be reared to that austere faith, but she lacked the strength to battle the passionate alcoholics and living martyrs of my father’s side — Catholics to a man jack.

It was bad news for me but even worse for the nuns. There was hardly a moment when I wasn’t in their face, loaded with questions they weren’t answering: Why do humans have immortal souls and not animals? Why would God create people with free will if he knew ahead of time some of them would damn themselves to eternal agony? Was this some kind of self-loathing he was working out symbolically through us?

These were small-town nuns, not scholars, and so they brushed off all of my questions with, “It’s a holy mystery.”
More… “The Novelist as Anglerfish”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
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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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I had a dream, which was not all a dream. James Wood and Zadie Smith were doing battle in the sky. James was in silver armor and upon it the starlight did twinkle so. Zadie was in flowing white gowns. Her face was aglow with what I can only describe as a honey radiance. Still, I could see her freckles, which, I recall, pleased me to no end even as the terrible battle raged on and on. Twice, James smote her a heavy blow. Twice, Zadie raised herself up and hurled herself back upon him with swirling gowns and not an infrequent flash of thigh. Then the heavens went dark again and these two titans were seen to retire, he to one side of the galaxy and she to another. I thought I saw them both smile as the dream dissolved and the reality of a new day roused me… More…

 

Nobody ever really knows why someone else commits suicide — that’s what makes it an ultimate act, an unsettling challenge to those of us who keep on. Anyway, it doesn’t matter why. The death of David Foster Wallace is simply a fact now and we’re the ones who have to deal with it.

I fear that we didn’t do very well by David. We didn’t listen to him closely enough and we kept making him into something that he wasn’t. We called him an ironist. We suggested, often enough, that he was part of The Problem. Or we simply dismissed him as a cute and funny writer with a number of tricks up his sleeve. It was true, of course, that he never came up with a solution — no one has. But he dedicated himself to the… More…