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Politicians, stop saying mass shootings are tragedies unless you’re going to do what literary critics do with tragedies: actually interpret them.

“This was a horrible tragedy:” perhaps the most common thing we hear after each new incident that adds to the alarming trend of mass shootings in the United States. Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Umpqua, Las Vegas, and Parkland are only the most notable communities whose names have come to symbolize the phenomenon. Their “tragic” quality is the reason, some politicians say, we shouldn’t “politicize the tragedy” – we shouldn’t refer to it in arguments about policies for the good of the nation. More… “Something Is Rotten in the United States of America”

Jeffrey R. Wilson is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard University, where he teaches the Why Shakespeare? section of the university’s first-year writing course. Focused on intersections of Renaissance literature and modern sociology, his work has appeared in academic journals such as ShakespeareLaw and the Humanities, and Crime, Media, Cultureas well as public venues such as National Public RadioThe Chronicle of Higher EducationAcademe, CounterPunch, and Shakespeare and Contemporary TheoryHe is on Twitter @DrJeffreyWilson.

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About halfway through his essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” George Orwell offers a startling explanation for Leo Tolstoy’s notorious antipathy towards Shakespeare: Tolstoy is “trying to rob others of a pleasure he does not share.” Further, “Tolstoy does not know, perhaps, just what he misses in Shakespeare, but he is aware that he misses something, and he is determined that others shall be deprived of it as well.” As criticism of criticisms go, this one is nothing if not blunt. Is it possible that the basis of much of what we consider rational, disinterested critical discourse is really just a willful schadenfreude? That idea, in truth, is not too far from what masses of ordinary people have always believed: that cultural criticism and personal criticism are essentially the same and that to engage in either is merely to inflict pain under the pretense of honesty or concern.

Surely an idea as reductive as this needs no refutation. When in his essay “Charles Dickens” Orwell writes that Dickens’s whole message reduces to one “enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent,” he isn’t trying to stick it to Dickens lovers, is he? He isn’t, in short, doing to Dickens exactly what he accused Tolstoy of doing to Shakespeare? Certainly not. Unless he is. More… “Let Me Ruin This for You”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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“To understand Baudelaire you must read the whole of Baudelaire,” said T. S. Eliot. He was kidding, right? Having read Flowers of Evil and Spleen of Paris, I cling to the belief that I have a reasonable understanding of the man. Must I read all of his art criticism, his translations of Edgar Allan Poe, his letters to his mother before I’m allowed to mention his name at a cocktail party? I think that Eliot set the bar rather inhumanly high. Maybe what he really meant was, “To understand T. S Eliot you must read the whole of T. S. Eliot.”

More… “The Complete Works”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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We commonly think of metaphor as a poetic device but it is used in fiction, too, and saves miles of unnecessary words. Metaphor can leap from the desk at which you are writing to darkest Africa or Dante’s hell or your grandmother who died 50 years ago. It leaps tall buildings in a single bound. It can tie the end of the universe to the beginning of the universe. And all you have to do is compare something with something else.

But in fiction, metaphor should be to the point and relatively brief. A novel in which everything becomes something else stretches credulity and grows tiresome. Yawningly tiresome. The reader has come to your story, novel, or poem to find something out. She has not come to it to play word games.

More… “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points is a Metaphor”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is now available.

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It’s a happy day for “Happy Birthday.” A judge has ruled that the companies that have been collecting royalties on the song do not hold copyright claims to the popular tune. (LATimes)

A small but passionate group of Shakespeare scholars is asking the weighty question: Is Hamlet fat? The answer is turning out to be fairly complicated. (Slate)

On a beautiful but solemn note, author Heidi Stalla contemplates what humanity lost beyond the artifacts themselves through the destruction of Palmyra by the Islamic State. (Wilson Quarterly) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.

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It is standard advice to state that the main character or characters should want something. That it is wanting — desire — that motivates characters to act and action that creates the story, novel, perhaps even the persona in a persona poem. It’s not bad advice; genre fiction can get a lot of mileage from it. But if you are after something that goes deeper than the usual mystery novel, sci-fi, romance novel, or YA book, note that characters don’t always know what, or which, they want. They want to rob a bank but also fall in love. They want to fall in love but also rob a bank. Humans are ambivalent, and if characters are to come alive for a reader, they need to be ambivalent too. Sometimes they want what they want and at the same time do not want it. They are conflicted. The conflict within the character creates a subtler drama, a deeper layer of meaning. The reader ponders the character’s choices, the various possibilities open to the character. The reader is now paying attention to the character, not just what the character does, but what the character feels, what the character believes.
More… “Everybody Wants More than Just One Thing”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is now available.

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The writing guru William Zinser once said words to the effect that if you wish to write long sentences, you best be a genius, the movie version equivalent of which is, probably, if you want to do long takes, be Orson Welles.

There wasn’t a shot Welles thought he couldn’t get, and it didn’t matter if we’re talking the artistic majesty of Citizen Kane, or any of a number of the cheapjack efforts Welles, having fallen from Hollywood grace, spent the bulk of his life trying to cadge up funds to shoot.

With May 6 marking Welles’ centenary, Kane will get still more props as not only one of the two or three best pictures ever made, but the sole picture on which Welles had complete artistic control. He was 25 when he made it, a conqueror of Broadway, the radio, and now Hollywood, and after racing off to South America to shoot a war effort the next year and leaving his Magnificent Ambersons footage in the hands of others, Welles would essentially be kicked out of Camelot on account of the final result, with a reputation for not seeing projects through.
More… “Orson Welles’ Horrorshow”

Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper’s, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, and Boulevard, with other work running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and JazzTimes. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Downtown with Rich Kimball, in addition to various radio programs and podcasts. His last book was The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and he has two books forthcoming in 2018: Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, and a volume examining the 1951 movie Scrooge as a horror film for the ages. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.

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I have been thinking about literary celebrity. Not the modest sort attached to living writers who get to have unflattering nostril shots on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine but the extravagant sort attached to a select group of dead writers. Generally speaking, death is a big boost to literary celebrity (think Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton), despite a brief period in the 1980s when DWEMS (dead white European males) took a thrashing as emblems of exploitative patriarchy. But DWEMS have rebounded from their slump and are now being feted, along with a few DWEFs, on every possible occasion.

At the zenith of literary celebrity are Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Both are, as one editor I know put it, “best-selling brands.” The subjects of numerous adaptations and spin-offs, “Shakespeare” and “Austen” have replaced Shakespeare and Austen. They exist as memes in western culture — and in Eastern… More…

We know him not at all, and yet completely. That has always been the paradox of William Shakespeare. The characters he created in his plays have worked their way into the collective DNA of the English-speaking world, of Western culture broadly considered, and of world culture through Western culture. The language of Shakespeare — that unique and startling way he had of phrasing things–has become the common currency of thinking, acting, being. But we don’t know much about his life. We know the basic details: born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, married Anne Hathaway in 1582, died in 1616. Beyond that, he is a mystery. We don’t have any information that explains how he could have had such an immense and lasting influence, an influence that only seems to grow, century after century. When you reflect on it for a moment, it doesn’t seem possible that one person could have created… More…

It is a time of dreariness and decay. I’m speaking of winter, of course. I always think, when thinking of winter, of the opening lines of Richard III. Richard, the king-to-be, is musing upon the ascension to the throne of his brother, Edward IV. He says, in lines that are burned into the deep pathways of our neural networks, “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.”

 

These opening lines of the play are actually quite hopeful. The first word, “now,” looks forward to the “made” in the next line. Shakespeare, in that clever way of his, makes the language fresh by making you pay attention. The “now” is a placeholder for the thought to come. It sets the scenario, grabs us with its immediacy, and lingers there for a… More…