Consultation No. 3 – With John Steinbeck

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Here we are up to our ankles in yet another imagined conversation with an American writer whose work has been, and continues to be, acclaimed for the passion of his characters, even when he leaves them subject on occasion to a side-splitting, acerbic humor. Charley, Steinbeck’s dog,  has been dead some forty years on the date of this interview, and I thought it prudent to put that sad thought to rest early.

GF: First, sir, even as I express my gratefulness for your agreeing to this interview, you have our deepest sympathies. You have left Charley to us all for posterity.

JS: With a sad look toward his scuffed shoes – “Thank you. He was a dear friend and companion.”

GF: Some of your larger work is rightly accepted into the American literary canon, but I’m curious: you’ve written so many novellas, these largely eluding such recognition. Why?

JS: It’s one thing to have your work accepted for literary reasons, but to have Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath vilified by lowbrow politicians, and by doing so to excoriate me and my views of American life, is the cheapest of shots. Do you think I gained the personal popularity of writers such as Twain by my literary efforts? No! I was considered a subhuman being by politicians and the press because I professed to be a socialist, even a communist, and so – to answer your question – the novellas were relatively easy writes. I had to do them, for money to live on.

GF: After all these years, do you regret writing so many short novels?

JS: “Of course not. Not every long-winded novelist can compress the essence of a novel into two hundred pages.” Another look to his shoes. “The money, as I said. Besides, men don’t read enough; they don’t have the patience with story that women do. I wanted men to read more.”

GF: You were the best, in my opinion, at writing with such mood. You didn’t have to argue politics or social situation in your books; you let your characters speak their sadness and despair, their woundedness, even as they left your readers with hope.

JS: That hope, it’s the only thing that keeps this country going. We always believe things will be better tomorrow. We always look the other way at slavery, abusive labor, cheap wages, genocide of America’s first people, the raping of the land, and countless wars in hoping that something good will come of it all. And this hope you speak of: money, not human values, underscores it all.

GF: All right. But can you leave us with something of a positive note?

JS: With an incredulous look, he says, “But I have. My novels. The essays, the novellas, from A Cup of Gold to Cannery Row, should  continue to speak to generations of young readers who want desperately not to leave their enthusiasm and idealism behind in their pursuit of a decent life.

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Show me the $$$$?

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Writers, what’s your main motivation to engage in the tedious, time-wearing task of writing? If you’re doing it for the money, then more power to you, but realize that money’s not the statistically major reward to the writer. If you’re not convinced, click on the below link and read the article there. Even for the median writer (at the “fat” part of the bell curve) the  monetary reward is not too far above the poverty level. At what hourly rate? I shudder to think. Interestingly those at the highest earnings level seem to be gaining more from the digital revolution than the majority of writers.

 

DBW

 

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The World As We Know It

Harper's Magazine, April 2012

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Why does a magazine that many think leans toward the upper crust establishment take on the manner in which the ultra rich and the corporate world are eroding U.S. style democracy? Surely because those parasitic tendencies will eventually turn cannibalistic, i.e., the rich will, unless checked, come to feed on one another as well. In "It's a Rich Man's World," Thomas Frank tells us this isn't an anomaly; it's happened before. But this time, there may be neither a trustbusting nor a new deal Roosevelt to set things to rights for everyman. 

In "The Warrior Class," journalist Charles Glass chronicles the rise of the mercenary as both individual and corporation, and the move of the ability to declare and fight war away from the people. 

And I find it interesting that this issue displays the fiction of both Alice Munro ("Train") and Roberto Bolaño ("The Secret of Evil"). Both are adept at telling stories about nothing much at all, as if they were examining the innerworkings of a grandfather clock. Munro's, though, seems almost whimsical against Bolaño's darker, ominous nothings. 

As is increasingly true, there's little to rejoice in in the self-reflective, post-modern world. But it's always instructive to depict that world and what we know about it, as Harper's Magazine does.

Moneyball – Baseball Behind The Counter

The missus and I began this movie tonight – iPod Touch augmented – sort of a warm-up to tomorrow's Super Bowl. Sadly she fell asleep soon after it started. Why? Mostly because she was really tired, but the scent of behind-the-scenes baseball seemed to be for her caffeine free. So I watched it alone.

 

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image via comingsoon.net

 

I guess you gotta be a baseball nut to enjoy this movie (I am), but it was the most understated sports flick I've seen yet. More on that in a moment. The storyline is semi-fictional: Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beene (Brad Pitt) was a "never-was" baseball player who sought to re-invent baseball through his team. Baseball, if you don't follow the game behind the counter, i.e., where the money is – and isn't, is a game of haves and have-nots. The New York Yankees have the mind-boggling payroll, and such teams such as the Detroit Tigers and in this case. Oakland, well, don't.

So Billy hires Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who is a baseball stats number-cruncher and something of a baseball savant, to help assemble a team on a shoestring budget. The majority of the movie is taken up with Billy and Peter putting their process together – the resistance of the old baseball heads, field manager Art Howe's (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reluctance to buy into Billy's scheme, and two spates of mid-season trades.

We fans usually pay attention to the game only between the white lines, but there's another game – Billy's game – which is played behind the counter, and this game makes the one we fans watch possible. Does Billy succeed in his gamble to change the game? Yes – and no. Any more would call for a spoiler alert.

But why such an understated approach to a baseball movie (often long seconds go by without sound, or very minimal sound)? Baseball has always been called the most cerebral of sports, but its most mental aspect is in how the team is assembled, the trades, the gambles on players' health, confidence, and hidden abilities. The actors here were certainly up to the minimal-emotion approach to their parts, and what they've done in Moneyball is create an almost meditative aura around the crassest aspect of the modern game, the $$Benjamins$$.

With some misgivings, I have to say this risky movie works. Number-crunching and money, properly applied, the movie seems to say, does re-invent baseball without taking away its romance and energy.