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It was mid-summer and I was putting the finishing touches on a long essay. But then, predictably, things slowed down. Each of the finishing touches cried out for their own finishing touches, and the endpoint skipped away from me, snickering. My editor waited on the West Coast in polite silence. The essay’s subject was the British poet Geoffrey Hill, and he was not helping. The great man decided to set up camp somewhere over my left shoulder. Every time I gazed away from the keyboard or wrote a shoddy sentence his face floated into view, wearing an immense and accusatory scowl.

More… “Hero-Death”

James Chapin is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida. He is the author of a forthcoming novel set in 1800s Florida.
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One of the small corners of YouTube not dominated by cat videos belongs to the downright oddest and most dismaying cultural oddities of the 21st century: the YouTube boy-celebrity. They aren’t real celebrities; you’ve never heard of them, the entirety of their careers to date has begun, escalated, and flourished without touching your life in any way. But in their insular world, their experience mimics actual celebrity to an uncanny degree: these YouTube boy-celebrities have publicists, social media managers, endorsement deals, and copyrighted brands. They have flunkies whom they feel free to humiliate, overwork, and confront with screamed demands. They pack tens of thousands of hysterical fans into auditoriums for live events like VidCon and Summer in the City. They know how to hold microphones onstage in Dean Martin-old pro styles; they’re visibly terrified during manager-mandated mingles with their audiences; quite a few have been embroiled in sex scandals; they have, almost to an individual, at some point in the last four years yelled the stereotypical celebrity line, “Do you know who I am?”

We don’t know who they are, and their brand optimization management teams aren’t happy about that fact. The central problem with the kind of cross-branding those management teams yearn for derives from the typical YouTube boy-celebrity origin story: a cute, epicene young thing buys a bargain digital camera, sets it up in his bedroom, and proceeds to vamp for attention. They did nothing else but vamp; unlike all previous incarnations of the teen-boy heartthrob crush, these boys were offering only themselves, only these four-minute windows into their bedrooms. David Cassidy and his brother Shaun had to at least make a token effort to sing and act; likewise the Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC, who had serious professional dance coaches to learn those intricate floor shows. Even Justin Bieber (discovered on YouTube) made a pretense of having — or wanting to have — musical talent. Not so the YouTube boy-celebrity: with him, all pretense of purpose is stripped away, leaving only the hair, the eyes, the lips … what you see is quite literally the extent of what you get.
More… “Boy Toys”

Steve Donoghue is a reader, editor, and writer living in Boston surrounded by books and dogs. He’s one of the founding editors of the literary journal Open Letters Monthly and the author of one of its book­blogs, Stevereads. HIs work has appeared in The National, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others. He tweets as @stdonoghue.
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In 1909, E.M. Forster published his short story “The Machine Stops” as an antidote to H.G. Wells’ optimistic tales of the future. Set in a world where The Machine (read: the Internet) controls all aspects of life, and a person can communicate with friends through “Plates” (read: Skype) or push a button (read: e-mail) and have their work sent in, there was never any reason to walk the surface of Earth ever again. All a person could need was in his room, where he wasted away, pale and untouched, like Vashti, the story’s subject.

Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson. 327 pages. Prometheus Books. $25.98. A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. 320 pages. Granta Books.

“There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing…. More…

A common complaint about the Internet, whether it’s being leveled by a journalist who just lost his newspaper job or someone who found herself the target of online rage, is that it’s such a shallow, spiteful place. While it’s a ludicrous statement — the Internet is merely a medium, not anything homogeneous — the complaint is valid in large, and vocal, parts of the online world. It’s odd that in this age of loosened borders and individualism, online you can be drowned out with boos and hisses just by stating an off-center position. Sure, the idyllic promise of the Internet is that it can bring you news from around the world and expose you to people and things you never would have seen otherwise, but in reality many of us use it simply as an echo chamber.

What Is Good and Why: The Ethics… More…

 

In the earliest days of e-commerce, it didn’t matter if you were ordering from a little old lady on eBay or a venture-funded start-up like Amazon or Webvan: Every transaction was a crap shoot. You browsed virtual stores that didn’t even have the dubious glossy authority of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. You studied photos of vintage furniture, Oprah’s latest book club pick, meat. With a leap of faith, you clicked on the Order button and surrendered your mailing address and credit card number. There was no droning customer service representative to reassure you that the enterprise you were dealing with was at least legitimate enough to hire a roomful of disaffected high-school dropouts. There was no stamp to lick, or any other tangible evidence to suggest this transaction was truly taking place. Who knew buying pet food or… More…

By now we are all familiar with the litany of reports about the god-awful state of reading in America, the table-talk obituaries about the marketplace for serious literary fiction, and the guttering candles critics keep lighting prematurely around the deathbed of the American short story. The litany goes like this: One of four Americans didn’t read a book last year; major book reviews are shrinking; magazines have dumped or drastically reduced their publication of short stories. If the literary market is lousy in general, short fiction is not even on the agenda. Agents willing to consider short fiction at all now “bundle” collections with novels or even nonfiction books. A sense of crisis is setting in: “What Ails the Short Story?” Stephen King asked after editing The Best American Short Stories 2007.

Contemporary masters still practice the form, including Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, Lydia… More…