08 Creative writing professor Hanif Kureishi says such courses are ‘a waste of time’

Creative writing professor Hanif Kureishi says such courses are ‘a waste of time’

Buddha of Suburbia author, who teaches subject at Kingston University, added that many of his students could ‘write sentences’ but not tell stories
Hanif Kureishi

‘It’s probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent’ … Hanif Kureishi. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

Creative writing courses are a “waste of time”, according to the novelist – and creative writing teacher – Hanif Kureishi, who says that “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story”.

Kureishi, whose debut novel The Buddha of Suburbia won the Whitbread first novel prize, was speaking at the Independent Bath Literature festival on Sunday. He was made a professor at Kingston University last autumn, when he said it was ” truly an exciting time to be a part of the creative writing department”, but on Sunday Kureishi told the Bath audience that, when it came to his students, “it’s probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent”.

“A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can,” said Kureishi, according to the Independent, which sponsors the festival.

“A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'” He works with his own students, said Kureishi, “for a long time”. “They really start to perk up after about three years. And after about five years they really realise something about writing. It’s a very slow thing.  People go on writing courses for a weekend and you think, ‘A weekend?'”

He wouldn’t, Kureishi said, according to the Independent, pay money to take an MA in creative writing himself. “No. I wouldn’t do it like that. That would be madness. I would find one teacher who I thought would be really good for me,” he told his audience. “It’s not about the course. The whole thing with courses is that there are too many teachers on them, and most are going to teach you stuff that is a waste of time for you.”

With a vast range of creative writing courses on offer in the UK – including from the Guardian – Kureishi is not the only author to feel the same way. Novelist and former creative writing teacher Lucy Ellmann, while disagreeing with Kureishi that style is unimportant, nevertheless described creative writing as “the biggest con-job in academia”, and pointed to the poet August Kleinzahler’s comment in the Guardian that “It’s terrible to lie to young people. And that’s what it’s about.”

“The whole system is set up to silence writers, and dupe students. It doesn’t even provide a safe haven for writers, as Hanif made clear, because most universities go out of their way to ruin writers with admin, overwork, and other nonsense. There’s lousy teaching too: I know of creative writing teachers who don’t even read the students’ work. This is criminal,” said Ellmann. “But of course, the purpose of corporations – which is what universities now are – is to scupper originality and dissent.Universities have gone from being culture-preserving institutions to being culture-destroying institutions. And people queue up to pay these culture-destroying institutions £9000 a year to ensure that any idea of literature is destroyed before it can enter their heads.”

If you want to write, said Ellmann, “what you should really be doing is reading as much good literature as you can get your hands on, for years and years, rather than wasting half your university life writing stuff you’re not ready to write”.

And once you’ve done that, “what you need and deserve is individual help, as Hanif says,” she said. “I think it’s a real pity that thousands of people are studying this subject – and being taught by unqualified tutors, some of whom have never published a novel. And I can’t stand it when authors announce they have a degree in creative writing. So what? They’re a dime a dozen.”

But Jeanette Winterson, who teaches at Manchester University, disagreed with Kureishi. She told the Guardian: “My job is not to teach my MA students to write; my job is to explode language in their faces. To show them that writing is both bomb and bomb disposal – a necessary shattering of cliche and assumption, and a powerful defusing of the soul-destroying messages of modern life (that nothing matters, nothing changes, money is everything, etc). Writing is a state of being as well as an act of doing. My job is to alter their relationship with language. The rest is up to them.”

Rachel Cusk and novelist Matt Haig, who is chairing the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize this year, have also defended the process in the past. Responding to Kureishi’s remarks Haig said:

“Creative writing lessons can be very useful, just like music lessons can be useful. To say, as Hanif Kureishi did, that 99.9% of students are talentless is cruel and wrong. I believe that certain writers like to believe they arrived into the world with special, unteachable powers because it is good for the ego,” said Haig. “Of course, it is always important to know your limitations. For instance, I could have 7,000 guitar lessons but I wouldn’t be Hendrix, though I would be a lot better than I am now. Like most artforms writing is part instinct and part craft. The craft part is the part that can be taught, and that can make a crucial difference to lots of writers.”

His own first novel was read by Winterson, said Haig, “and she gave me advice that still helps me today. She told me to change ‘epiphanic moment’ to ‘moment of epiphany’, for instance, which is advice of infinite wisdom”.

“To say that creative writing courses are all useless is almost as silly as saying all editors are useless. Writers, of all levels, can benefit from other instructive voices,” he said. “However, I do think some people will never be writers. Just like some people will never be architects or web designers. But good writing courses will help you work out if you are a writer or not.”

A spokesperson for Kingston University told the Independent that Kureishi’s course was “extremely demanding and valuable”, and that the author, playwright and screenwriter “is employed for his thought-provoking, inspirational contribution which he provides through supportive masterclasses, tutorials and PhD supervisions. Students consistently praise him and benefit from his advice.”

08 The 100 best novels

Picture of Robert McCrum



Robert McCrum is an associate editor of the Observer. He was born and educated in Cambridge. For nearly 20 years he was editor-in-chief of the publishers Faber & Faber. He is the co-author of The Story of English (1986), and has written six novels. He was the literary editor of the Observer from 1996 to 2008, and has been a regular contributor to the Guardian since 1990


08 Feminist infighting only takes our eyes off the real struggle

Feminist infighting only takes our eyes off the real struggle

As anyone who has written about feminism now knows, there’s no criticism as virulent as the online invective that comes from your own side
Feminist campaigners

Online spats take attention away from grassroots issues, such as making a stand against sexism in the media. Photograph: Leon Neal back about 2.,/AFP/Getty Images

There are so many terrific, beautifully observed details in Andrew O’Hagan’s just-published article in the London Review of Books about his attempts to ghost Julian Assange’s autobiography that it feels churlish to pick out just one. But for now, I’m going to have to be churlish. One of Assange’s many contradictory traits nailed by O’Hagan is his obsessive antagonism with those on his side, and his apparent uninterest in his actual opponents: “Julian’s relationship with the Guardian … appeared to obsess him … The Guardian was an enemy because they hadn’t toed the line, whereas the Daily Mail was almost respected for finding him entirely abominable,” O’Hagan writes.

This tendency – to turn on your own side rather than spending energy fighting the opposition – is by no means limited to deluded wannabe cult leaders with a messiah complex and bad table manners. You can see it on a daily basis in political parties. But the manifestation that I have been musing on much of late, currently all too clearly on display, is within the feminist movement.

The phrase “feminist infighting” is by now so smoothed-down through overuse that it is almost like a single word itself. Plenty of brilliant writers have written about how infighting destroyed feminism‘s powerful second wave in the 70s, including Nora Ephron in her painful and funny essay Miami about the fight between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and, at the more radical end of the spectrum, Susan Faludi’s beautiful essay about Shulamith Firestone, published in the New Yorker last year. The question is whether feminism is trapped in its own Groundhog Day (RIP Harold Ramis) and undoing itself again in its fourth wave.

Judging from much of the recent coverage of modern feminism, the answer does seem to be yes. In a recent article in the Spectator, Julie Burchill, with her characteristic bluntness and dismayingly characteristic transphobia, denounced intersectionality – a major tenet of fourth-wave feminism – after her brief experience with it on Twitter last year, describing it as a “hissy-fitting hothouse”. In the US, Michelle Goldberg recently wrote in the Nation about Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars, detailing how bitter online battles among feminists scuppered various initiatives, and descended into bullying and – to use a term coined by second wave feminist Jo Freeman about precisely this problem – “trashing”. “If there’s something inherent about the way women work within movements that makes us assholes to each other, that’s very sad,” feminist activist Courtney Martin said to Goldberg.

That would be very sad. It is also, I firmly believe, not true – what would be the point in fighting for feminism otherwise? – but this is exactly why talking about feminist infighting is so difficult: it makes women sound like the bitchy babies that sexists have always suggested we are, incapable of being given any position of authority without throwing tampons at one another, and therefore best left in the kitchen. But, as anyone who writes about feminism now knows, there is no criticism more virulent than the criticism that comes from your own side, online.

In many ways, the web has been great for feminism – just imagine how much easier it would have been for the National Organisation of Women in the 60s, let alone the suffragettes, to get organised if they’d had the web. It has also been a great learning device for me, personally. When I started writing about feminism, I had a vague (admittedly, very vague) awareness that the needs of black women and poor women differed from my own, thanks to writers such as bell hooks, Alice Walker and Barbara Ehrenreich, and that’s still an ongoing learning process for me. But I had no awareness – none – of issues facing trans women or disabled women. Online critics were, with occasionally more sarcasm than patience, quick to awaken me to the gaps in my knowledge, and that was a good thing.

But the internet, for whatever reason, is to hysteria what damp rooms are to mould. Cries of privilege-checking and intersectionality – both, objectively, good things – too often become tic-like terms of abuse and a means of shutting down conversation as opposed to opening it up. They have become feminism’s version of Godwin’s Law. Tellingly, it is feminist writers and editors who work for leftwing publications who attract the bitterest abuse on social media from fellow feminists, as opposed to the sexists and misogynists on rightwing publications. This is because the flaws or even failures of those nearby are so much more egregious than those far away. Critiquing and educating is one thing, publicly slamming leftwing feminist writers as “low-level media whores”, as one prominent blogger did this weekend, is, I think we can all agree, another.

But here’s the thing: the web – and Twitter especially – is not the whole of feminism. It’s easy to forget that fact, because journalists who write about feminism, such as myself, spend too much time on the web (and on Twitter) and therefore have a tendency to focus too much on it. Feminism is doing just fine, in its stumbling, fallible way, and one of its strengths is that it is making real efforts to include women who were overlooked by its earlier incarnations. To reduce feminism to the screaming fights among the few as opposed to the actions of the brave is to do the work of the other side – the real other side – for them.

08 Page to stage: is it always second best?

Page to stage: is it always second best?

Adaptations of novels are rife in theatre. But it’s wrong to think of them as inferior – sometimes they are more than a match for the original works
Madeleine Worrall as Jane Eyre

Not by the book … Madeleine Worrall as Jane Eyre. Photograph: Simon Annand

Over the weekend I was in Bristol watching Sally Cookson’s marvellously textured devised version of Jane Eyre at the Old Vic. It might be the 19th-century title that’s getting audiences into the building, but once they are there they will be watching a piece that uses all the tools of 21st-century theatre. It is a show that is a million miles away from the literal and literary adaptations that were part of my youthful theatregoing.

Like Melly Still’s Coram Boy, Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s Matilda, Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper’s Don Quijote (which actually takes a hacksaw to Cervantes’s book), the Bristol Jane Eyre is a page-to-stage theatre experience that leaves the original book far behind. These shows are as different as they are similar to the source material that inspired them.

Yet there often remains a feeling that the adaptation must always be second best. Reviewing Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke’s extraordinary take on 1984 at the Almeida, my colleague Michael Billington praised its fierce intelligence but was concerned that it was part of a worrying trend in which theatre was “rapidly becoming a place of dramatisation rather than original drama”.

The key words here may be dramatisation and drama. Many of the theatremakers who are making these shows are probably not all that concerned about making drama, but are very interested in all the possibilities of theatre, and they work magpie-like across many different art forms and platforms. It shows. Jane Eyre in Bristol is definitely not a musical, but Benji Bower’s fabulous score – which has its own magpie tendencies as it melds old and new – ensures that this show and its meanings are experienced as much through its soundscape as it is through its visuals and, in particular, its text. Text is only a very small part of the experience, unlike the stage adaptations of old, which were often merely an attempt to provide a substitute for the novel. A sort of animated version of Spark Notes, and very dull with it.

Of course, I understand Michael’s concern, and he is right to worry, particularly at a time of funding cuts, that theatres don’t turn their backs on plays and playwrights. As the In Battalions report and Delphi study demonstrates, plays are under threat. But the idea that new writing is merely the single-author play is changing fast. Many writers and theatremakers are collaborating and are questioning what theatre can and might be and how it is produced, and are prodding at the boundaries between designated roles.

Productions such as 1984 and Jane Eyre may have been created using many different tools, and may see text as just one of those tools, but the fact that they draw on old sources to create new work doesn’t mean that they are of less value or less thrilling as pieces of theatre than an original piece of drama.

If these adaptations of familiar titles were being staged only as a means of ensuring good box-office returns, it would indeed be a concern. But I believe strongly that theatremakers are instinctively drawn towards other pieces of art in other media that offer them new ways to examine the world today. They should look for inspiration wherever they can find it.

If that means turning to 1984 for what it might tell us about our own information-loaded and dishonest times, Jane Eyre to consider women and feminism, and Don Quijote to look at protest, then it’s fine by me. Particularly when what they produce on stage is so thrilling.

08 Martin Amis: ‘The press is more vicious than the populace’

Martin Amis: ‘The press is more vicious than the populace’

The author on the insanities of American gun laws, the viciousness of the tabloid press – and how Elizabeth Jane Howard brought him to literary life via Jane Austen

martin amis
Martin Amis: “It became accepted that you could say whatever you fucking well liked about me because I didn’t earn it.” Photograph: Tanya Voltchanskaya

Martin Amis has not quit smoking so much as his smoking has gone digital. In place of the once ubiquitous leather pouch filled with bespoke blended tobacco and Rizla packets thick as cheque-books, he wields an e-cigarette, albeit with the same insouciance. The red glow of its tip works like a laser pointer, describing exclamation marks and swirling semi-colons in the air.

During the hour we spend holed up in the empty bar of a hotel in downtown Perth, the West Australian sun doing its best to melt the tarmac outside while we shiver in the Antarctic-level air conditioning, Amis’s speech tacks and swerves, just as it did beneath the sallow fug of his analogue smoking days. Anathemas and admirations roll off his tongue as though it were a production line.

This shift in habit may be a concession to his no-longer-new home, America – the nation where, as TV dramatist Dennis Potter once explained, it is easier to pull a gun than a cigarette. And gun culture, it turns out, is very much on Amis’s mind. “Going to America has sharpened my sense of the incredible contradictions in American life and its institutionalised illusions and insanities.”

He explains: “I read a very funny piece by Henry Porter in the Observer. It was just after everyone was talking about intervention in Syria, following the chemical weapons attack there. He ignored Syria but claimed that the world could not stand idly by while Americans’ kill one another at a rate of 87-odd gun-related deaths a day. What was needed there was a humanitarian intervention!”

This modest proposal evidently appeals to Amis, just as the National Rifle Association’s tentacular reach appals him. It is an organisation “exponentially more powerful” in the US today than during the 70s and 80s, he says, and its aims and ends are utterly at variance with public opinion.

martin amis
Martin Amis: “It poisoned the whole thing – it took food off my table”. Photograph: Tanya Voltchanskaya

It is also patently daft: “The second amendment – the right to bear arms – is meant to be an insurance against tyranny. But, if there were a real tyranny in America, a lot of good ol’ boys with shotguns would have no chance against the secret services and an active army bent on its enforcement.”

Of course, as Amis readily admits, the Brooklyn borough where he and his family are based, with its tolerant, well-heeled, cosmopolitan outlook, bears little relation to the dystopian America he outlines. “The first proposition about America, before you talk about anything else, is Henry James’ remark that it is more like a world than a country – the Mississippi has nothing in common with Massachusetts.”

Breaking off for a moment to watch some would-be mining magnates clump past the windows in designer jeans and cowboy boots, he adds: “Perhaps Perth is a different country; I don’t think it’s a different world.”

And yet it is Britain that still claims his novelistic attentions. In Lionel Asbo: State of England, published last year, Amis turns his fire on a tabloid culture largely created by Australia’s best-known newspaper owner. Is Rupert Murdoch to blame for the porn-addled, celebrity-obsessed milieu that his most recent fiction explores? Amis furnishes a typically nuanced response. “It’s very chicken and egg. Is it that Murdoch’s papers corrupted the populace, or the fact that the populace laps it up – would lap it up anyway?”

He leans in, indicating anecdote: “In her final months [Princess] Diana was being shat upon by the tabloids – basically for sleeping with an Arab. When she died, these same papers were astonished by the millennial wave of emotionalism that swept the country … [One paper] had a print-ready story about what a slag the Princess was, and they had to pull it at the last moment. It was replaced with an image of Diana as an angel, ascending to heaven.”

Amis leans back, lesson concluded: “The press is more vicious than the populace.” So it is a matter, then, of class resentment, unstoppered by newspapers for their own purposes. The author nods. “It’s hard to disentangle what was present in the national psyche to begin with, and what was added. It does seem peculiarly British to want to destroy eminence – though often it’s an unearned eminence, more plain ubiquity – and once the boot has been applied, there’s a huge queue of people wanting to do the same.”

martin amis
Martin Amis: “I had to know: does Elizabeth marry Darcy?” Photograph: Tanya Voltchanskaya

This attitude has been bolstered by the treatment Amis received at the hands of much the same press – in particular over his 2003 novel Yellow Dog. “To say it got bad reviews is not what happened. It got 50/50 reviews and I’m quite happy with that. But the broader response was virulent – everyone who could hold a pen had a go.”

When I mention the infamous piece by Tibor Fisher, which compared the experience of reading the novel to happening upon a favourite uncle masturbating in the school yard, Amis levels a hard stare: “It poisoned the whole thing – it took food off my table. And that, by a fellow novelist …” He shakes his head. “I tried to to ignore it all. But, when you pass a newsstand and catch a headline that reads, essentially, ‘this stuff by Martin Amis is shit’, there’s no getting away from it.”

The roots of this tall poppy syndrome lies with his father, Kingsley, Amis believes. “I think there’s a certain peculiarity in my case – being the son of – which if anything was a slight boost when I started out. Then the culture changed: it became a curse. I was tainted by heredity – by inherited elitism. And so it became accepted that you could say whatever you fucking well liked about me – because, so to speak, I didn’t earn it.”

And yet Martin Amis has produced a fair portion of the most electrifying English novels of the last four decades – works shaped in a manner so against the grain of his father’s cranky yet clubbably conservative style that he claimed to find them unreadable. Who, then, had provided the initial impetus for Amis to take an interest in literature? Who had backed him up? His stepmother, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose recent death at the age of 89, inspired Amis to produce a moving prose eulogy which appeared in the unlikely venue of the Mail on Sunday.

“My mother’s household had collapsed” says Amis. “She was living on the Fulham Road in place that was never locked – a case study in boho laxity – and basically she was very unhappy and had a crack-up.” Amis goes on to unsentimentally describe a miserable adolescence: a rebellious older brother soon moved out and Martin found himself living in the home of what the family’s Welsh housekeeper winningly called his father’s “fancy woman”.

“I was averaging an O level a year,” explains Amis. “I was a real mess – not druggy or anything like that – just adrift, alienated in a non-combative way. And then Jane got me going on literature. She gave me a reading list and began leerily with Pride and Prejudice and, after an hour I went and knocked on her study door and said: “I’ve got to know: does Elizabeth marry Darcy?” I expected her to say, “Well, you’ll have to finish it to find out but she said (perfectly imitating an aristocratic swoon): “Yes!”

I am only just absorbing the knowledge that the creator of John Self, Keith Talent, Clint Smoker and Lionel Asbo – those proletarian paragons of the unexamined life – was brought to literary life by Jane Austen, when the hovering publicist calls time. One last question, then: kids.

I ask Amis if having daughters has changed the way he writes. At this, his attitude visibly sweetens: “I think it has an effect. You use a different part of your heart with girls.” And literary ambition? Do any of his children have it and if so, how does a writer carrying the taint of heredity respond to the signs? “With pleasure,” Amis replies.

• Martin Amis appears at Perth Writers festival on Saturday at 8pm

08 Poetry Timeline – wikipedia

21st century in poetry




20th century in poetry












08 Historia de la propiedad intelectual

Historia de la propiedad intelectual

Un recorrido cronológico por las leyes de derechos de autor, regulada por vez primera en 1813

Un usuario descarga contenido de Internet. / Luis Sevillano

1813. Las Cortes de Cádiz, a imitación de la Revolución francesa, reconocen por vez primera los derechos de autor al decretar que solo los autores o a quienes ellos autorizasen podían imprimir sus obras, así como sus herederos durante 10 años.

1834. Una real orden instituyó el principio por el cual la propiedad intelectual pertenecía a los autores de por vida y a sus herederos pasados diez años de la muerte del autor.

1847. Se publica la primera ley que reconoció de forma extensa y clara los derechos del autor durante 25 años. Los beneficiarios eran tanto los autores literarios y científicos como los traductores, compositores musicales, calígrafos, dibujantes, pintores y escultores.

1879. Se aprueba una nueva ley, que incluye la creación del Registro de la Propiedad Intelectual. Se fijan los derechos de los autores en 80 años tras su fallecimiento. Los editores fueron el colectivo más opuesto.

1987. Rebaja los derechos de autor a 70 años tras la muerte del creador. Se contempla por vez primera el canon digital.

2003. Se aprueba el canon digital, que se aplica a los CDs y DVDs vírgenes, gracias a un acuerdo entre la patronal Asimelec y las entidades de gestión de derechos de autor.

2006. Se modifica la Ley de Propiedad Intelectual donde se recoge la decisión de extender el canon a nuevos soportes que permitan la duplicación y reproducción de las obras protegidas.

Marzo 2011. Se publica en el BOE la ley Sinde, que establece por primera vez medidas contra la piratería.

Diciembre 2011. El Gobierno del PP aprueba el reglamento que desarrolla la ley Sinde, que contempla la creación de una comisión administrativa para perseguir la piratería. Se suprime el canon digital y se sustituye por una compensación fija a las entidades de gestión a través de los Presupuestos Generales del Estado.

2013. Se modifica el Código Penal, que incorpora penas de prisión para quienes se lucren por enlazar a páginas protegidas por derechos de autor. Se inicia el proceso para reformar la Ley de Propiedad Intelectual.

08 ¿Dónde están las mujeres artistas?


¿Dónde están las mujeres artistas?

Jemima Kirke (‘Girls’) colabora con las Guerrilla Girls y la Tate Modern en un video que demuestra cómo los museos y los libros de Historia han olvidado (y arrinconado) la aportación femenina artística.

Noelia Ramírez

11 de febrero de 2014 08:00 h.

cover jemima

Kirke, en la campaña de joyería que protagonizó para la firma Scosha.

Foto: Scosha Jewellry

Gusta a:

“En el arte siempre ha habido mujeres, pero han sido los hombres los que han escrito los libros de Historia”. La que habla es Jemima Kirke, a la que muchos conocerán por interpretar a Jessa Johansson en Girls. Ella, en realidad, no se cansa de repetir que no es una actriz profesional. Kirke se dedica a la pintura desde hace años y aparece en la serie de la HBO (emitida en España en Canal+) porque es amiga íntima de Lena Dunham desde que eran pequeñas. Conocemos a Jessa porque, básicamente, Dunham un día le dijo “No tienes por qué pintar, también puedes ser actriz”. Listo. Ya podíamos visualizar a Jessa, esa rubia con acentro británico y “la cara de Brigitte Bardot con el culo de Rihanna”.

Kirke se ha aliado ahora con las Guerrilla Girls y la Tate Modern para poner rostro a un video ilustrativo y documentado sobre cómo el arte ha arrinconado a las féminas durante toda su historia. El clip está disponible en el canal de YouTube de la galería londinense:


Aunque seis minutos no dan para un tratado sobre este déficit de atención a las artistas, estos son algunos hechos que aprendemos de su visionado:

El misterioso caso de Judith Leyster. Su pintura, muy similar a la del sí reconocido Frans Hals, no tuvo el mismo reconocimiento que la del pintor de la escuela barroca. Tan parecidos eran que hasta los libros de Historia atribuyeron cuatro de sus obras al neerlandés y en el Louvre se llegó a colgar uno de los cuadros de Leyster (Happy couple) asegurando que estaba pintado por Hals.

-Masculinizar mi nombre para entrar en el circuito: Tal y como relata Kirke, existen pintoras que solo usaban sus iniciales u otras que optaban directamente por cambiarse el nombre. Como el caso de la pintora expresionista Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), que firmaba al principio de su carrera como George Hartigan, por, tal y como ella mismo defendió “el miedo a que no se tomasen su trabajo demasiado en serio”.

Grace Hartigan

Uno de las obras de Hartigan y la artista, fotografiada en 1959.

Foto: Corbis/ Getty

-Firmo con iniciales, no vayan a pensar que soy una mujer. Lee Krasner (1908-1984) fue una de las maestras del expresionismo abstracto estadounidense en la segunda mitad del siglo XX y es una de las pocas mujeres que ha conseguido una retrospectiva en el MoMA de Nueva York. La mayor parte de su obra la firmó con las iniciales L. K., quizá motivada por el influjo de su mentor, Hans Hoffman, que llegó a comentar que su trabajo “era tan bueno que nunca imaginarías que lo ha pintado una mujer” y que marcó profundamente su espíritu autocrítico. Krasner decidió firmar con L. K. también por otra razón: en 1945 se casó con Jackson Pollock y pasó a ser conocida popularmente como Miss Jackson Pollock, un sobrenombre que marcó su carrera y que rechazaba profundamente.

Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner, fotografiada en 1955.

Foto: Getty

La vanguardia no será femenina (ni feminista): A la artista Margaret Harrison, fundadora del Women’s Liberation Art Group de Londres, la policía llegó a cerrarle una exposición en 1971 porque consideró “pornógrafica” su obra. Uno de sus dibujos mostraba a Hugh Hefner (creador de Playboy) como una conejita desnuda. Su caso es solo una muestra más de cómo en los 70, cuando las vanguardias eran más conservadores de lo que parecía y también ponían trabas a las artistas.

Margaret ok

A la policía no le pareció mal el dibujo de la mujer en el sandwich, pero sí consideró que vestir a Hugh Hefner de conejita era “demasiado desagradable” para el público.

Foto: Ilustraciones de Margaret Harrison/ Tate Modern

El video guionizado por las Guerrilla Girls podría tener muchos capítulos más. Por algo este colectivo artístico encargado de denunciar la discriminación sexual y racial en el arte, en el cine y la cultura lleva en activo más de tres décadas.

Desde 1985, estas mujeres que mantienen el anonimato bajo máscaras de gorilas y visten parte del uniforme de las Riot grrl (medias de rejilla y minifaldas) bajo sobrenombres de artistas ya fallecidas han conseguido infiltrar su discurso en los grandes museos. Tras empapelar Nueva York con carteles que denunciaban el escaso porcentaje de artistas femeninas en los centros artísticos (su poster más popular es el de ¿Tienen que desnudarse las mujeres para entrar al Metropolitan? –Menos del 3% de los artistas en el museo son mujeres, pero el 83% de los desnudos son femeninos–), este colectivo ha conseguido que su documental Guerrilla in our Midst (1992) se haya visionado en centros de arte de todo el mundo (el último, en el AhóndigaBilbao).

Artistas del diseño gráfico y del lenguaje publicitario, las Guerrilla Girls dominan el arte de estetizar las estadísticas para denunciar el sexismo y aportar al debate social lo que ellas denominan “la conciencia del mundo del arte”. Las Pussy Riot se declaran herederas de sus ideales y ahora se acercan al gran público con la ayuda de estrellas (arty) de la televisión. 30 años después, siguen siendo necesarias.

Guerrilla Girls

¿Tienen que desnudarse las mujeres para entrar a los museos? es uno de los ‘flyers’ más populares de las Guerrilla Girls

Foto: Guerrilla Girls

08 Reading time is precious. Don’t waste it on bad books

Reading time is precious. Don’t waste it on bad books, or books that are wrong for a certain time in your life
woman reading in books in a bookstore

Lionel Shriver: ‘Reading time is precious. Don’t waste it.’ Photograph: Holger Burmeister/Alamy

The dumbest childhood vow I ever made was to finish every book I started. Maintained well into adulthood, this policy turned reading the first page of any volume into a miniature death sentence. I imagined my compulsive completion a sign of adult seriousness. In truth, it was a vanity – a poorly thought-out and typically adolescent caprice.

As a consequence of this inane commitment, I reserve a special loathing for a host of books that I shouldn’t have been reading in the first place. I remember working as a summer camp councillor in my 20s and absolutely despising poor Russell Banks’ Book of Jamaica, yet never allowing myself to read something else because I had already started it. I say “poor” Russell Banks, because I love his other books, and the fact that I forced myself to keep reading a book for which I was not remotely in the mood was not his fault.

I have occasionally heard from a reader fuming because he or she did not enjoy one of my novels yet still read to its bitter end. I reject this fury out of hand. For pity’s sake, if you don’t take a shine to a novel, there are loads more in the world; read something else. Continue suffering and it’s not the author’s fault. It’s yours.

Granted, it’s a good idea to give some books a chance even if they don’t grab you at first, especially if they come recommended by someone you trust. But 50 pages is plenty, and with some books I have an allergic reaction after two or three.

Reading time is precious. Don’t waste it. Reading bad books, or books that are wrong for a certain time in your life, can dangerously turn you off the activity altogether. The sign that I don’t like the book I’m reading is finding myself watching reruns of Come Dine With Me.

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver is published by HarperCollins, £6.39 from guardianbookshop.co.uk


How to be a smarter reader

There’s plenty of advice out there to help you read more – but what about how to get more from what you read? Here’s how• Lionel Shriver: Reading time is precious. Don’t waste it

How to be a smarter reader

It’s not just what you read, but how. Illustration: Christina Hagerfors for the Guardian

Pursue ‘targeted serendipity’

Pick each new book at random, and you’ll end up with plenty of duds. But if you stick religiously to the same authors or genres, or rely on Amazon’s recommendation engine, which makes suggestions based on past purchases, you’ll never expand your horizons. Choose a middle path: use a recommendation site such as Whichbook, which filters books based on numerous sliding scales – “funny/serious”, “optimistic/bleak”, “no sex/lots of sex” – without knowing which specific titles you’ve previously read.

Stick to print

Quite apart from the romanticism in the smell and feel of “real” books, there’s some persuasive psychological research to suggest that we grasp their content of paper books better and faster than ebooks’. This could be because we subconsciously use physical cues to store information: whether something’s on the left or right page; how many pages are under your right thumb, still to be read, etc.

In one British study, children who read only on screens were three times less likely to say they greatly enjoyed reading. It’s also been argued that the blue light emitted by tablets may seriously interfere with sleep and health.

Read first, talk later

The web offers countless opportunities to join a worldwide, 24-hour book group, such as Readmill, an e-reader platform that lets readers have conversations in the margins. But there’s much to be said for more limited devices – paper books, say, or basic Amazon Kindles – that make it harder for your attention to wander.

As the new media thinker Clay Shirky, no Luddite, puts it: “Tell me later who else liked it. Show them to me, introduce them to me, whatever – not right now. Right now I’m reading.” Make reading and discussing two distinct activities.

Keep it literary

Last year, a controversial but well-designed study at the New School for Social Research in New York, found that reading literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Alice Munro) enhanced the capacity for empathy, and that the same didn’t apply to popular fiction or non-fiction. One hunch is that literary fiction leaves more to the reader’s imagination, forcing you to work harder to enter the emotional worlds of others. “What great writers do is to turn you into the writer,” explained one researcher. “In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.”

Split your time: have a few books on the go

While you’re best advised not to try to read 20 books at once, there are definitely advantages to choosing three or four at once. Have a mix of fiction and non-fiction on the go, each suited to different moods and contexts. Even bad books can help – by sending you back to the good ones. “When you’re not feeling the book in front of you, pick up something else,” writes one blogger, Leigh Kramer, an advocate of the multi-book approach. “This will either make you want to go back to your original choice or press forward with one of your other options.”

08 Jugar con versos en el planeta Byron

Jugar con versos en el planeta Byron

‘Elegy from a Dead World’ propone al jugador componer versos tras explorar mundos inspirados en la obra de los poetas románticos ingleses

‘Elegy for a dead world’, un juego ‘indie’ en el que se juega con versos.
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“Cuando me embarga el miedo de que puedo morir, sin que haya mi pluma cosechado los frutos de mi alma […] y cuando siento, hermosa criatura de un instante, que nunca más podré mirarte […] Entonces, a la orilla del vasto mundo me quedo solo y pienso hasta que el Amor y la Gloria en la nada se hunden”. Son algunos de los versos de Cuando me embarga el miedo de que puedo morir, según la traducción de Ángel Rupérez. Versos escritos por John Keats en 1818, tres años antes de morir en Roma el 23 de febrero de 1821. Dos siglos después, seis diseñadores de Boston han creado un videojuego para mayor gloria de él, y de sus colegas románticos Byron y Shelley.

En Elegy for a dead world —proyecto experimental de las compañías Dejobaan Games y Pop Cannibal que debutará en Windows, Mac y Linux este verano— el jugador recorre tres planetas inspirados en la lírica de estos poetas para después escribir sus propias obras. “Hay quienes dudan de si realmente estamos haciendo un juego”, explica Ziba Scott, uno de los desarrolladores del proyecto. “No saltas, no te mueres, no combates. Exploras estos mundos y escribes sobre tu experiencia”.

Jugar a Elegy for a dead world es a la vez una experiencia íntima y colectiva. La primera parte del juego transcurre en solitario. En dos dimensiones, el usuario recorre tres planetas llenos de insinuaciones simbólicas entre sus ruinas. En cualquier momento el jugador puede activar una pantalla para empezar a escribir. El tiempo que dura recorrer un planeta es muy variable. “Si uno no se detiene ni a investigar ni a escribir, le llevaría poco más de 10 minutos recorrer un mundo”, asevera Scott. “Pero hemos visto a jugadores durante la fase de pruebas pasarse más de una hora explorando”. La segunda parte se vive en comunidad. “Los usuarios podrán compartir sus historias”, explica su creador, “disfrutar de las diferentes interpretaciones de los mundos que han explorado”.

La estética juega un papel fundamental en Elegy for a dead world. Los paisajes que recorre el usuario para inspirarse tienen como referencia al pintor romántico por excelencia, Joseph Turner. Un cielo crepuscular lleno de nubes, con la luz rojiza de una estrella crepuscular, domina la estampa de uno de los planetas. “Los cielos de Turner nos han inspirado mucho. La fuerza que tienen” cuenta Scott. “Le debemos a nuestro artista, Luigi Guatieri, captar perfectamente esa decadencia evocadora que queríamos plasmar”.

Cánticos de aves de otro mundo

El escenario que inspiró la composición de este usuario de ‘Elegy for a dead world’.

La clave de Elegy from a Dead World es componer una obra literaria mientras se explora un mundo alienígena abandonado y en ruinas. Los siguientes fragmentos son un ejemplo del texto escrito por un usuario que ha probado el juego y ha titulado su obra Grabaciones de los cantos de las aves nativas.

.- El huevo indemne. Esperan ver el nacimiento de un monstruo, pero ellopermaneció obstinadamente intacto.

.- El nombre de la estatua: Devolved el huevo indemne al Dios de los Cielos.

.- Un ángel murió en el intento. El otro lloró. Así que esperamos, aterrados, a que vinieran más.

.- Los ángeles eran orgullosos y tenían extrañas ideas. Miraron nuestras alas y nuestros huevos con envidia, pero también con desdén. Qué terrible para ellos descubrir que Dios era igual a nosotros y no a ellos.

Elegy for a dead world pertenece a la nueva ola de videojuegos indie. Un grupo pequeño de desarrolladores y un objetivo artístico y experimental son las características de la explosión de creatividad fuera de la industria con un presupuesto exiguo. El de los seis responsables de Elegy for a dead world ni a exiguo llega. “Nos ha costado… Nuestro tiempo, que algo vale”, dice Ziba Scott entre risas. Pero se toma muy en serio el convertir los videojuegos en un medio artístico. “El cómic también tuvo muchos detractores en su momento. Es el miedo que siempre se tiene a las nuevas formas de expresión. Pero no me importa que se polemice. Además, me ha sorprendido cómo se ha recibido nuestra idea. Esperaba que nos llamaran pretenciosos. Pero solo hemos recibido entusiasmo”.

El mismo que esperan que tengan los usuarios dentro de unos meses, cuando se adentren en unos mundos con ecos de la lírica romántica, de versos como aquellos de Byron que decían: “Hay placer en los bosques sin senderos, hay éxtasis en la costa solitaria. Está la soledad donde nadie se inmiscuye, por el océano profundo y la música con su rugido: No amo poco al hombre, pero más amo a la Naturaleza”.

Elegy for a Dead World

Elegy for a Dead World is an experimental writing game, where you visit worlds based on the works of British Romance-era poems about the end of the world.

It’s in development for Windows, PC, and Linux, and will appear on Steam at some point soooon.

They sent a poet.

The scientists, historians, and statesmen never arrived.
Three worlds, each home to a long-dead civilization.
You must be the speaker for these ancient peoples.
Write whatever you are moved to by their landscapes.
Write to share the joys and sorrows buried in their rubble.
Write what you can imagine of their origins, existence, and fates.

Your word is all that keeps these worlds from being forgotten.

08 Shakespeare’s greatest play?


Shakespeare’s greatest play?

RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran says Henry IV Parts I and II are two of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. We wondered if our audience would agree.

We asked people to vote in a poll on this page for Shakespeare’s greatest play (#shakespearesgreatest) from a list of all of his plays. The poll took place in the first week of January. 2222 people voted.

And the winner is …

Hamlet was the overwhelming winner with 431 votes, followed by King Lear with 307 votes. Henry VIII, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Timon of Athens only had one vote each.

You can see the full details on the voting in our charts here:

The results in full:

Position Play Votes
1 Hamlet 431
2 King Lear 307
3 Macbeth 165
4 The Tempest 161
5 Titus Andronicus 138
6 Othello 114
7 Much Ado About Nothing 105
8 A Midsummer Night’s Dream 93
9 Richard II 82
10 Twelfth Night 78
11 Romeo and Juliet 67
12 Henry IV Part 1 51
13 Henry V 49
14 Richard III 41
15 As You Like It 37
16 The Winter’s Tale 31
17 Measure for Measure 25
18 Julius Caesar 23
19 Coriolanus 22
20 Henry IV Part 2 20
21 The Merchant of Venice 20
22 Antony and Cleopatra 18
23 Pericles 16
24 The Taming of the Shrew 12
25 King John 11
26 The Comedy of Errors 10
27 Troilus and Cressida 10
28 Cymbeline 9
29 All’s Well That Ends Well 8
30 Henry VI Part 3 8
31 Henry VI Part 1 5
32 Henry VI Part 2 4
33 Love’s Labour’s Lost 4
34 The Two Noble Kinsmen 3
35 The Two Gentlemen of Verona 2
36 Henry VIII 1
37 The Merry Wives of Windsor 1
38 Timon of Athens 1

09 Auden y “El arte de leer” (I) y (II)


Notas sobre Auden y “El arte de leer” (I)

Por: Marcos Ordóñez | 01 de enero de 2014

Portada de EL ARTE DE LEERHe devorado El arte de leer (Lumen), una suculenta antología de ensayos de W.H. Auden, que comentaré en dos entregas. Hasta donde se me alcanza, me parecen muy bien traducidos por Juan Antonio Montiel y (de eso sí puedo dar completa fe) editados “a la antigua” por Andreu Jaume, es decir, con verdadero trabajo de editor, con un utilísimo aparato de notas que no solo informan y van al grano sino que también abren un abanico de relaciones lejos del academicismo al uso.
No es difícil estar de acuerdo con lo que dice Jaume sobre Auden en el prólogo, donde destaca, a la hora de retratarle como ensayista y crítico, “su poderosa tendencia a la máxima y el aforismo –no en vano era un buen lector de Pascal y de Nietzsche–, dueño de un demoledor sentido común, de una inexorable independencia de criterio, y de una fértil y contagiosa libertad interpretativa que convierte sus asaltos en puntos de vista únicos e irrepetibles”.
Auden debió de ser un profesor excepcional. Con tendencia al dogmatismo y a la salida de tono, pero siempre poniendo en cuestión, en materia literaria, todo lo que no hubiera observado personalmente. Y siempre apasionado, aunque procuraba ocultar cualquier forma de pasión. O sea, inglés hasta las cachas, pese a nacionalizarse estadounidense.
Vivió en una contradicción dolorosa y permanente: era homosexual y cristiano devoto. De comunión anglicana, concretamente, y muy ortodoxo, había abandonado la fe a los 13 años, y la abrazó de nuevo (el verbo me parece el más adecuado) en 1940. Se tomaba muy en serio su religión, aunque es muy gracioso lo que dice sobre el anglicanismo: “Espero que nadie se sienta insultado si digo que es el cristianismo de los caballeros, y que, al fin y al cabo, todos sabemos qué distancia tan corta separa a un auténtico caballero de un refinado esnob”. En los años cincuenta se sintió muy atraído, como no podía ser menos, por los rituales del catolicismo romano: “Mis dudas pueden achacarse al enorme goce estético que tales festividades me proporcionan y a la nostalgia que tengo de ellas cuando me hallo en países donde no se celebran”. Sus convicciones cristianas le provocaron grandes crisis, y trató de apostatar de sus preferencias sexuales por medio del psicoanálisis, sin conseguirlo, adoptando a cambio, como veremos en la segunda entrega, una actitud que oscila, a mi juicio, entre el reaccionarismo y el disparate.
Con Inglaterra le sucedía lo mismo que con la religión, porque las instituciones que veneraba, con la monarquía a la cabeza, condenaban radicalmente su opción sexual.
Auden y Christopher Isherwood, su mentor y amigo, con el que escribió varias piezas de poesía dramática, habían vivido juntos en Berlín, y compartieron luego casa en Londres, pero su relación trascendió, poniendo en jaque sus vidas y carreras: la amenaza de cárcel era un hecho cierto (y lo fue hasta bien entrada la década de los sesenta, cuando al fin se promulgó la ley que dejaba de penalizar la homosexualidad), y el mundo académico y cultural se les volvió irrespirable.

Erika Mann y Auden en 1935 - foto de Alec Bangham (National Portrait Gallery-Londres)En Berlín, Auden se casó con Erika Mann, la hija de Thomas Mann. Fue un matrimonio de conveniencia (o lavender marriage) para conseguirle un pasaporte británico que le permitiera huir de los nazis, dato que dice mucho acerca de su generosidad. Erika Mann era un personaje fascinante: andrógina, lesbiana, antifascista, actriz y luego periodista, fue una de las contadas reporteras que cubrió los juicios de Nuremberg.
En 1939, Auden e Isherwood decidieron emigrar a Estados Unidos porque estaban convencidos de poder encontrar allí una mayor libertad de costumbres y porque las revistas literarias y las giras de conferencias les permitían vivir mucho más holgadamente que en Inglaterra. No fue una decisión fácil: marcharse cuando crecían en Europa los vientos de guerra le valió a Auden reiteradas acusaciones de escapista y cobarde. Entre 1940-41 vivió en una casa de Brooklyn Heights (en el 7 de Middagh Street), compartida con Carson McCullers y Benjamin Britten, entre otros artistas, formando una “comunidad creativa” que se llamó “February House”.
Aunque no dejó de escribir hasta poco antes de su muerte, en 1973 (Epistle to a Godson es de 1972, y el inacabado Thank You, Fog, que se publicó póstumamente, en 1974), lo mejor de su obra poética aparece en la década de los cuarenta: entre otros libros, Another Time (1940), The Double Man (1941), For the Time Being (1944) y su primera antología, Collected Poetry (1945).
En California, donde Isherwood había decidido instalarse, Auden conoció a Chester Kallman, un poeta de 18 años con el que quiso cumplir su sueño secreto de formar un “matrimonio entre iguales”. Sus relaciones sexuales duraron poco tiempo, aunque vivieron juntos hasta la muerte del primero.
Cuando estalló la guerra, Auden quiso alistarse, pero en la embajada británica le dijeron que preferían contar con “personal cualificado”. En 1942 fue llamado a filas por el ejército americano y rechazado por homosexual, lo que le ocasionó una seria depresión. En 1946 solicitó y obtuvo la nacionalidad norteamericana.

Volvió a Londres en 1951, en la primera de una serie de visitas que culminaría con el ofrecimiento de un lectorado de poesía en Oxford, que desempeñó entre 1956 y 1961, y en ese tiempo vivió entre Manhattan, Oxford e Ischia, donde había alquilado una casa de veraneo.
No fue un retorno feliz. La prensa sensacionalista londinense, con el Daily Express a la cabeza, lanzó más o menos veladamente la acusación de que Auden podía estar relacionado con Guy Burgess, uno de los miembros de los que luego serían conocidos como los “cinco de Cambridge”, el círculo de espías británicos que vendieron secretos de Estado a Rusia: los otros cuatro eran Anthony Blunt, Donald MacLean, Kim Philby y John Cairncross. Auden se encontraba en la casa de su viejo amigo, el poeta Stephen Spender, cuando Burgess, oficial del MI6 y homosexual, al que conocía de sus días universitarios, trató de ponerse en contacto con él. Auden no respondió a la llamada.
El hecho no hubiera trascendido de no ser porque unos días más tarde, Burgess y Donald MacLean huyeron a Rusia. La prensa afirmó entonces que Auden “se escondió en el norte de Italia para no ser interrogado”. No podía estar más visible: en la Scala de Milán, en el estreno de The Rake’s Progress, de Stravisnsky, cuyo libreto había escrito junto con Chester Kallman.

Auden y Chester Kallman, en 1969El MI5 tampoco parecía tener sus archivos muy al día, porque mencionaron las “simpatías izquierdistas de Auden”, cuando era público y notorio que se había desencantado muy rápidamente de su marxismo juvenil: dos semanas en España durante la Guerra Civil fueron un instantáneo tratamiento de choque. La Inteligencia Británica acabó concluyendo que estaba limpio de toda sospecha, pero el incidente le dejó un amargo sabor de boca, como relata Edward Mendelson en Clouseau Investigates Auden (buen titular), un artículo publicado en la web de la BBC en febrero de 2007.
Para cerrar esta introducción biográfica que quizás se esté extendiendo demasiado, un dato irónico: según contó Katherine Buckwell en In praise of a guilty genius, el artículo de homenaje que publicó en The Guardian en 2007, año del centenario de su nacimiento, el libro más vendido de Auden no es ninguno de los citados anteriormente sino Tell Me the Truth About Love, una brevísima recopilación (diez poemas, empezando por el que le da título: lo que los ingleses llaman a pamphlet edition) que se publicó en 1994, cuando muchos redescubrieron a Auden por el poema Stop all the clocks (también llamado Funeral Blues) que John Hannah leía ante el féretro de Simon Callow en la película Cuatro bodas y un funeral. El librito en cuestión, editado por Faber, tenía en la portada el rostro de Hugh Grant, protagonista de la cinta, y, según Wikipedia, vendió más de 275.000 ejemplares.

La semana que viene seguimos.

Bonus Track: W.H. Auden lee Stop all the clocks
(debajo, la traducción de Eduardo Iriarte, de Canción de cuna y otros poemas (Lumen)

Detén todos los relojes, desconecta el teléfono,
evita que el perro ladre con un jugoso hueso,
acalla los pianos y con redoble amortiguado
que vengan los dolientes, haz salir el ataúd.
Que los aviones den vueltas allá arriba
garabateando en el cielo el mensaje: “Ha muerto”.
Pon crespones en los blancos cuellos de las palomas públicas,
que los guardias de tráfico lleven guantes negros de algodón.
Era mi norte, mi sur, mi este y oeste,
mi semana de trabajo y mi descanso dominical,
mi mediodía, mi medianoche, mi canción, mi charla;
creía que el amor duraría por siempre: era una equivocación.
Ahora las estrellas no son bienvenidas: apágalas todas;
recoge la luna y desmantela el sol;
desagua el océano y barre el bosque;
pues ahora ya nada tiene solución.


Notas sobre Auden y “El arte de leer” (II)

Por: Marcos Ordóñez | 08 de enero de 2014

Auden en Berlín, en sus ultimos años

Tras el breve perfil biográfico de la semana anterior, ahí van unas cuantas notas de lectura.
Como suele suceder con Auden, el material compilado en El arte de leer (recientemente publicado por Lumen) es variadísimo, porque sus intereses siempre fueron muy amplios, y procede de los tres principales libros de crítica literaria que publicó en vida, como señala su antólogo, Andreu Jaume: The Dyer’s Hand (1962), Secondary Worlds (1967) y Forewords and Afterwords (1973).

El libro comienza con tres textos de The Dyer’s Hand, 1962) que Barral publicó como “La mano del teñidor” (y con otra selección) en 1974, pero la traducción era atroz, así que ha sido como leerlos de nuevo. Ejemplo de la traducción del 74: “Las opiniones críticas de un escritor siempre deben ser tomadas con un inmenso grano de sal” (a large grain of salt, que viene de la locución latina cum grano salis). Traducción actual: “Las opiniones críticas de un escritor deben tomarse siempre con la mayor reserva”.
De esos tres textos (“Leer”, “Escribir” y “Hacer, conocer, juzgar”) me gusta todo, así que debería limitarme a recomendar fervorosamente su lectura, pero no puedo resistirme a citar, por su concisión e inteligencia, y porque dice mucho acerca de su propio trabajo, lo que Auden pide a un crítico:

“En lo que a mí respecta, puede prestarme uno o más de los siguientes servicios:
1) Darme a conocer autores que hasta ese momento ignoraba.
2) Convencerme de que he menospreciado a cierto autor o determinada obra por no haberla leído con suficiente cuidado.
3) Mostrarme relaciones entre obras de distintas épocas y culturas que jamás habría descubierto por mí mismo porque no sé lo suficiente y jamás lo sabré.
4) Ofrecerme una “lectura” de determinada obra que mejore mi comprensión de la misma.
5) Arrojar luz sobre el proceso del “hacer” artístico.
6) Arrojar luz sobre el arte de vivir, sobre la ciencia, la economía, la ética, la religión, etcétera.”


El grueso de El arte de leer procede de Forewords and Afterwords (Faber, 1973), que Península publicó en 2003 (“Prólogos y epílogos”), en traducción de Martínez-Lage, y que, a diferencia de la edición de Barral, no aparece referenciada en las notas finales (“Procedencia de los textos”). “Los griegos y nosotros”, explica como nadie, en pocas páginas, la importancia (y la esencia) de la civilización grecolatina. “Los místicos protestantes” es interesantísimo, porque aborda un material escasamente conocido entre nosotros, pero imposible de resumir. Anoto esta cita, tan enigmática como sugerente, de Juliana de Norwich: “Allí donde reside la sensualidad de nuestra alma reside también la Ciudad de Dios, que no conoció principio”.
“Tennyson” establece un sugestivo vínculo con Baudelaire: otra ventana abierta e imprevista. Tampoco tienen desperdicio los prólogos a la obra de Lewis Carroll, Cavafis, Poe y Paul Valéry (“Un homme d’esprit”), a quien considera mucho mejor observador que poeta.
Me encanta, por cierto, el desarmante párrafo que cierra el ensayo sobre Cavafis: “Espero que todas estas citas consigan dar una idea del tono de C. y de su perspectiva de la vida. Si no son del agrado del lector, no sé qué podría hacer para convencerlo de lo contrario”.

Las comparaciones de Auden a menudo llaman la atención por su mezcla de humor y justeza, como esta: “Para Valéry, toda poesía ruidosa o violenta resulta inevitablemente cómica, igual que un hombre que toca el trombón estando solo en casa”.

Ejemplo de crítica precisa y reflejo de una mente dialéctica, a propósito de un pasaje “operístico” de William Wilson, el relato de Poe, en la introducción a una antología de su obra:
“Aislado del resto del texto, este fragmento de prosa es terrible: vago y verboso, y su sentido está a merced de un ritmo retórico puramente convencional. Sin embargo, desde el punto de vista dramático ¡qué perfectamente revela a WW, el narrador del cuento, en todos sus matices, como el yo fantástico que odia y rehúsa todo contacto con la realidad!”

Abunda la sensatez, como en estos pasajes consecutivos de su prólogo a los Sonetos de Shakespeare, en torno a la obsesión por el rastreo biográfico, que, a sus ojos, “delata una absoluta incomprensión de la naturaleza de las relaciones entre el arte y la vida, o un mero intento de racionalizar y justificar una curiosidad ordinaria y ociosa”.
Unas líneas más abajo: “Buena parte de lo que hoy pasa por investigación y erudición se distingue poco de husmear en la correspondencia de alguien que ha salido de la habitación, y no resulta más justificada desde el punto de vista moral por el hecho de que el ausente yazga en su tumba”.
Y este colofón, que enlaza muy sabiamente parte y todo: “Que los sonetos no contengan una teoría del amor encaja perfectamente con la mentalidad de Shakespeare, según la conocemos en sus obras de teatro, de las cuales resulta absolutamente imposible deducir convicciones personales de cualquier tipo. En vez de opinar, a Shakespeare le bastaba con describir la experiencia a la que se refería”.

Hay varias conferencias. Es modélica la que versa sobre la poesía de D.H. Lawrence, que luego incluyó en The Dyer’s Hand: sagaz, argumentada, didáctica sin sermones ni pedantería, y yendo mucho más allá de los temas que aborda. La que dedica a Marianne Moore no logra persuadirme, lástima, de su valía ni de su intelegibilidad. Tengo problemas con los materiales de Secondary Worlds, dos de las cuatro charlas que Auden ofreció en la Universidad de Kent (Canterbury) en un ciclo dedicado a la memoria de T.S. Eliot. Estoy seguro que muchos de sus lectores adorarán “El mártir como héroe dramático” y “Las palabras y la palabra”. A mí me resultaron extrañamente tediosas: volveré a intentarlo más adelante.

Auden y Christopher Ishwerwood en 1937 - foto de Howard CosterPersonalmente, hubiera prescindido de buena parte de los “Fragmentos de conversación” que cierran el volumen, procedentes de The Table Talk of W.H.Auden (1989), y sobre los que escribí una pequeña nota en el blog (dentro de “Rabos de pasa”) la semana anterior, aunque, como allí apuntaba, quizás tengan una virtud: persuadirnos de que hasta la mente más brillante puede lanzar disparates de gran calibre de vez en cuando.
Lo que afirma, por ejemplo, sobre la homosexualidad, me resulta literalmente incomprensible. Un gigantesco “¿Por qué?” brota tras cada sentencia, y solo puedo entenderlo como a) un efecto del alcohol; b) un deseo de desconcertar a su interlocutor, o, c) una manifestación  de reaccionarismo profundo.
Es obligado transcribir para no parecer exagerado (y hay que agradecer que el antólogo nos evite las opiniones de Auden sobre las mujeres, que requerirían una nueva y más poderosa acepción del término “misoginia”).

“Finalmente, he llegado a la conclusión de que ser marica es un error, pero es una larga historia. Mis razones son relativamente simples. En primer lugar, todo acto homosexual es un acto de envidia. En segundo, cuanto más te involucras con una persona, surgen más problemas, y el afecto no debería funcionar así: demuestra que hay algo que no está bien”.

“La fidelidad es mucho más importante en las relaciones homosexuales que en las demás. En otras, hay diversas cosas que te unen, mientras que en este caso la fidelidad es el único vínculo”.

“Hay que irse a la cama tanto con amigos como con gente que vive de eso, en cuyo caso el dinero disfraza las diferencias de deseo y de belleza. Eso me hace pensar que los maricas estadounidenses tienen un gran complejo de culpa; allí, al contrario que en Europa, no hay tradición feudal. Mi sensación es que, si le pido a alguien de clase baja de allí que se vaya a la cama conmigo, es su deber hacerlo”.

Que Auden se convirtiera, tras su muerte, en un icono gay es un misterio grande. Y que Chester Kallman no le enviara a hacer puñetas después de leer frases como esas es otro.

De izquierda a derercha, Auden, Cecil Day Lewis y Stephen Spender, en Venecia.

Para cerrar con algo de mayor calado, ahí van otras cosas que subrayé, entre muchísimas. Cinco, como un repóquer.

“Un manierismo, como los de Góngora o Henry James, por ejemplo, es como un atuendo excéntrico: muy pocos escritores consiguen llevarlo con gracia, pero nos sentimos fascinados ante la rara excepción de los que lo logran”.

“Algunos escritores confunden la autenticidad, a la que siempre deben aspirar, con la originalidad, de la que nadie debería preocuparse”.

“El mundo de Racine se me antoja de otro planeta, igual que la ópera. Es imposible imaginar a un personaje de Racine estornudando o con ganas de ir al baño porque en su mundo no existen ni el clima ni la naturaleza.

“A ojos de otros, cualquiera que haya escrito un buen poema es un poeta. Ante sus propios ojos, un poeta solo es tal mientras hace las últimas correcciones a un nuevo poema. Momentos antes, no es más que un poeta en potencia; al momento siguiente solo es alguien que ha dejado de escribir poesía, quizás para siempre”. (Puede aplicarse perfectamente a cualquier artista).

“Ha entrado en el mundo literario. Es decir, que la gente ya juzga su obra sin haberla leído”

09 Literary beginnings – quiz


Literary beginnings – quiz

As we welcome 2014 on to our calendars, test your knowledge of some bookish beginnings


Jane Austen

  1. 1. Eleanor Catton’s second novel The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. But what was the title of her debut novel, published in 2008?
  2. 2. Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre in 1847. But which of her novels was written first, despite not being published until after her death?
  3. 3. The Great Gatsby is the best known of F Scott Fitzgerald’s five novels. But which came first in 1920?
  4. 4. The Scottish author Iain Banks died last year. Which of these novels set the ball rolling for his hugely successful career?
  5. 5. With which science fiction novel did Iain M Banks introduce his utopian society The Culture, in 1987?
  6. 6. Helen Fielding, creator of the best-selling Bridget Jones’s Diary, published her debut novel before Ms Jones was welcomed to the world. What was it called?
  7. 7. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice started out life with a different title. What was it?
  8. 8. The former glamour-model Katie Price has a number of books to her name. Which was her first?
  9. 9. Which of Charles Dickens’ novels was the first to appear in serial form?
  10. 10. Hilary Mantel’s debut novel was inspired by her experiences as a social work assistant. What was its title?

08 I started buying the signs that homeless use to beg.

I started buying the signs that homeless use to beg. Here’s what happened

I purchased 200 signs from homeless people in New York City. The collection tells the story of poverty in America and the world
Video showcasing Andres Serrano’s collection Sign of the TimesSign of the Times was conceived in early October when I started to see what I perceived as a greater number of homeless people in New York City. As a native New Yorker, it surprised me because I had never seen so many people begging and sleeping on the streets. It occurred to me to start buying the signs that the homeless use to ask for money.

I immersed myself in the project, going out almost on a daily basis and walking five, six, seven hours a day. Once, I even walked 12 hours around the city – uptown to Harlem, East and West, downtown to Battery Park and back home to the East Village. I never took transportation anywhere because I felt that since the homeless live on the streets, I had to walk the streets like they do. After a while, a few said to me, “I’ve heard of you. You’re the guy going around buying signs. I was wondering if you were ever going to find me.” I bought about 200 signs and usually offered $20 which they were happy, even ecstatic, to get. (Once, though, I saw a sign that said, “Just need $10”. So I said to the guy, “I’ll give you $10 for it” and he said, “You got it. I guess the sign did its job!”)

What struck me about the people who sold me their signs was their willingness to let go of them. It was as if they had little attachment to them even though some signs had been with them for a long time. Of course, they needed the money. Many people would tell me they had made nothing that day. But I also think that those who possess little have less attachment to material things. They know what it’s like to live with less.

I had a certain way of approaching people. Whenever I saw anyone sitting on the street with a sign I wanted, I would crouch down, but not sit down. To sit down next to them would be like sitting on their couch without asking permission. But by crouching down, I could look them in the eye and be on the same level. Then I would say, “Can I ask you a question?”

They always said yes and I’d say, “I’m an artist. And artists see things in a different way. And one of the things I see are the signs the homeless have. I’m buying these signs because I see every sign as a story. There are many stories out here that should be heard. Can I offer you $20 for your sign?” They would all say yes, and it touched me how grateful many people were when I bought their sign. I got several hugs and many a “God bless you.”

I bought signs from people of all ages, including some who were my age. I remember buying a sign from a man in his 60s who was sitting outside the McDonald’s around 10pm. He looked at me as if I was an angel from heaven. He had pennies in his cup and couldn’t believe I wanted to give him $20 for his sign. He said, “Now, I can get a bed and a meal.”

The youngest person I bought a sign from was probably 16. I forgot to ask her age, but she could have been even younger. Her sign read:

Mom told us to wait right here. That was 10 years ago.

I got every sign I wanted except one. It was a nice sign, with a photograph on a small button and some other details and writing. I had just bought a sign from a friend of this sign’s owner, but when I asked to buy this sign, the man holding it explained that it was his lucky sign. He’d had it for five years. I said, “OK” and walked away. I could have offered more money, but I didn’t want to take his lucky sign away from him.

My funniest encounter, the one that always makes me smile, was the time I approached two guys who were slouched over, deep asleep in the afternoon. These guys were out cold when I say to one of them, “Hey mister, can I talk to you?” I’m crouching next to him on the sidewalk and he doesn’t respond, so I nudge his hand, which is sticking out over his knee, and I say, “Hey, mister, I want to talk to you.”

He doesn’t move but waves his hand, shooing me away. So I say to him, “Listen, I want to buy something.” His head is covered in a hood and he says to me without looking up, “I’ve got nothing to sell.” “Your sign”, I say. “I want to buy your sign.” All of a sudden he jumps out of his slumber smiling, as if he’d been called to a board meeting to make a deal. What I love is that it never occurred to him he had something someone wanted to buy.

I won’t say Sign of the Times is a political piece, because if it is, whose politics? Mine or those of the people I encountered? But it’s a timely piece, marking the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s term. It’s the mayor’s parting shot, what he left us with. Ironically, many people do not see a homeless problem. They are too busy going about their business to see the people lying at their feet. But I believe the homeless have influenced New Yorkers in at least one way: they’ve made sitting on the streets acceptable. On several occasions I approached someone sitting on the street only to discover it was a student or tourist looking at an iPhone or at the people walking by as if they were sitting at home watching television.

Sign of the Times is a reaction to a social injustice and tragedy. It’s a testimony to the homeless men and women who roam the streets in search of food and shelter. It’s also a chronicle of the times we live in. A few days ago I went to Paris for an exhibition of mine. I was immediately struck by all the people I saw on the streets of Paris. I have been to Paris more than 20 times and have never seen so many homeless in the City of Love. I easily could have done this project in Paris.

Although the homeless are at the bottom of the economic ladder, many Americans are not far from it. They may not be homeless, but they’re poor. Fifty million or more Americans live at or below the poverty line.

I call this piece a collection because that’s what it is, a collection, and I’m the collector. But I’m also an artist, and I’ve made my collection a work of art. It’s a voice, an instrument, mine and theirs, telling a story that needs to be heard. It’s the story of the poor in New York City, in America and in the world.

• This piece was published on 18 December 2013 on Creative Time Reports, part of the Guardian Comment Network.

08 I’m the ‘vaginal knitting’ perfomance artist

I’m the ‘vaginal knitting’ perfomance artist – and I want to defend my work

As an artist, of course I do seek attention – I want to express and communicate ideas, and refuse to feel compunction for that. Even in the face of criticism, I will make no apologies for my art

A couple of years ago, three separate friends told me that they’d dreamt of me the previous night. My cameo appearances weren’t spectacular (in my friend Meg’s dream, I was cast as a taxation specialist) but the coincidence struck me as poignant. That ephemeral images of me had floated unbidden into three distinct dream worlds made me feel, somehow, that I existed more solidly in this one.

Over the past two weeks, over 3.5m people have watched the YouTube clip shot by SBS2 documenting my 28 day performance piece, Casting Off My Womb, at Darwin’s DVAA. The short clip, which SBS2 titled Vaginal Knitting, gives an overview of the work in which I used skeins of wool lodged in my vaginal tunnel to knit a long passage, marking one full menstrual cycle.

My image and work have been consumed, contemplated and commented on by millions across the globe. It’s interesting then, that all of this electronic crackle and buzz has not altered my identification with it at all. My image and imagery of my work has zipped through minds from Nigeria to Taiwan to Finland yet, in many ways, the personal impact has been less than the dreams of a few friends that I felt marked me more firmly into existence.

The response to the clip was immediate, massive and, for the most part, negative, marked with fear and repulsion. The word “ick” features heavily, as do “eww”, “gross” and “whyyyy?”. Exclamation points are afforded entire comment boxes, broken only by the odd question mark. Everything comes in for criticism; the menstrual blood used in the work probably cops the most, but viewers have taken swipes at my hair-cut, my eyebrows, my skin, my home-city, my choice of words, my knitting technique and the colour of my shirt. The nature of the response wasn’t unexpected, but the scale of it was and it’s been fascinating to watch.

Some of the criticisms levelled at the author.

Although the obvious conceptual disjunct between the vagina and knitting is probably what has arrested the web’s attention, it is an entirely different body part that seems to infuriate the most: my face. Commentators seem to be genuinely outraged that I would dare to do something that they view as strange and repulsive with my body without displaying shame. Women putting themselves forward in any capacity in the world is frowned upon, and for a woman to put herself forward in a way that is not designed to be attractive or pleasing is downright seditious. People are incensed!

Over 3.5m people have watched the YouTube clip.

One of the most common comments in forums is that I am an “attention seeker” – levelled as a clear criticism. But as an artist, I do seek attention for my work – I want to express and communicate ideas, and I refuse to feel compunction for that. What I am not seeking through this work is external validation of myself – in fact, the work is primarily about casting off the need for validation from external sources.

As the deafening response to my work demonstrates, there is a hell of a lot of clamouring noise in society about what a person with a body like mine should and shouldn’t be doing with it. The pitch and volume of opinions can be so overwhelming that it’s difficult to quiet the noise, step back and choose a clear and autonomous path. With Casting Off My Womb I have attempted to do just that by paring concepts about body parts and activities related to women back to their most elemental. Over the course of the month I sat with the steady rhythm of the knitting needles and of my body and created a work that I have complete confidence in, a confidence that thousands of internet opinions have not dinted.

Casey knitting vagina
The artist knitting. Photograph: Casey Jenkins

In the gallery setting, viewers responded with more circumspection and respect than they have in subsequent internet forums. I have hopes that after the noise of the visceral reaction dies down on the web, people might take time to consider why they responded the way they did. That they will stop trying to dictate what I do with my body and spend some time contemplating why they feel such a strong need to do so.

But regardless of whether they take that path or not, I am proud of Casting Off My Womb. I have created a performance piece that I believe is beautiful and valid and I know that this belief can withstand all the negativity in the world. I had hoped to create a work that was about forging a path of self-determination in the face of society’s expectations, but until it was tested in such a public forum that was something I could only dream of.

08 The 12 Authors Every Man Must Know


The 12 Authors Every Man Must Know

And their one book you must read, from Stephen King to Shakespeare

Read more: Top Authors List – Best Authors to Read – Esquire
Follow us: @Esquiremag on Twitter | Esquire on Facebook
Visit us at Esquire.com


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  • Saul Bellow
  • Saul Bellow

    Everything you need to know about what propels the American male: “I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

    The book to read: The Adventures of Augie March.

  • Raymond Carver
  • A car hits a boy. A woman licks whiskey off her lover’s belly. Nobody captures the darkness and hopefulness of everyday America better.

    The book to read: Where I’m Calling From.

  • Cormac McCarthy
  • Because he tells a truth most don’t want to hear: that man is capable of terrible evil.

    The book to read: Blood Meridian.

  • Zadie Smith
  • This is how smart, beautiful, postracial women think. This is prose so kinetic, it seems to break-dance.

    The book to read: White Teeth.

  • William Faulkner
  • Sometimes you must see the world through a fractured lens.

    The book to read: As I Lay Dying.

  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Because: “She would of been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” We all would.

    The book to read: The Complete Stories.

  • Stephen King
  • No writer knows more about our current cultural fears — the cold-war anxiety of The Dead Zone, the post-9/11 fearfulness of Under the Dome — than Uncle Stevie.

    The book to read: The Stand.

  • Graham Greene
  • Have you ever felt as though you can’t trust anyone, not your friends or your lovers, not your boss, your family, not your god, not even yourself?

    The book to read: The Quiet American.

  • George Orwell
  • Because he is pissed off, uncompromising, and unapologetically political.

    The book to read: Down and Out in Paris and London.

  • Philip Roth
  • He understands that at base, we’re a nation of fearful poon hounds. Plus, he wrote the only great novel to end with a guy getting poked in the eye with a fork.

    The book to read: American Pastoral.

  • Norman Mailer
  • Because behind the grandstanding — the run for mayor, the head-butting of Gore Vidal — you can sense that Mailer was as much a fragile soul as the last great literary man.

    The book to read: The Executioner’s Song.

  • William Shakespeare
  • We all come out of Shakespeare’s pen — every one of us, every one of our stories of revenge, of ambition, of baleful and nectarous and incestuous love.

    The play to read: Henry V.

08 Nobel prizewinner Alice Munro

Nobel prizewinner Alice Munro: ‘It’s a wonderful thing for the short story’

This week Alice Munro will receive the Nobel prize for literature. Lisa Allardice, who met Munro in Canada after the publication of her collection The View from Castle Rock, asks her about the dividing line between life and work
Alice Munro

Alice Munro stands on the bank of Lake Huron in Southern Ontario, the setting for many of her stories. Photograph: George Waldman/Polaris/Eyevine

To say that Alice Munro inspires devotion among her readers is more than cliche: for Jonathan Franzen she is “the Great One”, for Margaret Atwood “an international literary saint”, for the New Yorker magazine, where her stories have appeared since the 1970s, she is “our blessing”. After years of consternation as to “why her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame”, as Franzen put it in an impassioned piece in the New York Times in 2004, this week her followers can finally be satisfied: Munro is Nobel Laureate for Literature. Her daughter Jenny will travel to Sweden to attend the ceremony on her behalf because Munro, now 82, is not well enough to make the journey herself. She is the 13th woman and the second Canadian (if you count Saul Bellow, who emigrated when he was nine) to have been awarded the prize. “We had to wait more than a century, but we finally have a Nobel for a pure short-story writer,” says Franzen.

“I don’t think I can write any more. Two or three years from now, I will be too old, I will be too tired,” Munro said when I interviewed her after the publication of The View from Castle Rock in 2006. How much of my life have I spent going along this road, what else could I have been doing, and how much energy have I been taking from other things? It is very weird to think this now, because my children are older they don’t need me around, and yet I feel somehow that I’ve only lived one part of this life and there’s another part that I haven’t lived.”

She may not have kept her resolution not to write again, but she has for the most part, even in the post-Nobel commotion, kept her promise not to do any more publicity. In July this year she formally announced her retirement (although a brief broadcast on Canadian television after the Nobel announcement teasingly hinted she might be tempted to write again). Her health is clearly an issue. When her long-term Canadian editor, Douglas Gibson, received her 2012 collection, Dear Life, he says she told him this would be her last book and he felt that she meant it this time. It includes a coda to the four final stories: “I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.”

It was around this time of year that we met in the small town of Goderich, near Lake Huron where she has lived nearly all her life – the landscape of which, and whose inhabitants she has depicted with what Franzen called “almost pathological empathy”. We had lunch at Bailey’s Fine Dining, where she would take editors and visiting journalists (and have lunch every Monday with her friend Emily). We sat at her regular table by the bar as she chatted generously about books, writing (she was keen for London literary gossip) and her life story. A 1930s soundtrack added to the nostalgic feel of the place, but at times threatened to drown out her light, confiding voice on my recording. When the waitress finished tidying up, she produced a key from her handbag with a fairy godmother twinkle. “I turn the lights out and lock up, I’ve been coming here so long.” We carried on talking as the Southern Ontario sky grew even darker outside, eking out glasses of white wine with mineral water. Her husband Gerry – a tall man in a red lumberjack shirt – came to collect her, and she dispatched him to wait outside and listen to Swan Lake in his truck until we finally finished: “Don’t worry, he loves his music.”

On Sunday 21 August 2011 a tornado tore through Goderich demolishing several of the old buildings on the square. Bailey’s was one of the worst hit. “A case of divine disapproval,” Munro quipped. Gerry died in April this year. A freak accident, personal tragedy, even the tiny flourish of “fine dining” – all might come from the pages of a Munro story. The same is true of the long delay (for various logistical reasons) from my interview to its appearance on the page. As Munro herself has said: “I like gaps, all my stories have gaps. It seems this is the way people’s lives present themselves.”

“In many ways I’ve been writing personal stories all my life,” she said in Bailey’s. If you are a Munro fan, you will know about the struggling mink and fox farm of her Depression-era childhood; the family’s house at the end of the road; the burden of her mother’s Parkinson’s disease in her early 40s; her scholarship to university; her early marriage to a bookish student, young motherhood and divorce. And you will recognise the watermarks of shame and guilt running through each collection: “I was brought up in a community where there was shame,” she says of her Scots-Irish Presbyterian rural upbringing. “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves,” she writes in the last line of Dear Life about her failure to visit her mother during her last illness or even to go to her funeral. “But we do,” she continues with characteristic insistence on absolute truthfulness – “we do it all the time.”

She says her feelings about her mother are “probably the deepest material of my life. I think when you are growing up you have to pull apart from what your mother wants or needs, you’ve got to go your own way, and that’s what I did. And of course she was in a very vulnerable position, which in a way was also a position of power. So that was always a central thing in my life – that I did pull away from her when she was deeply in need. And yet I still feel I did it for salvation.”

Her mother’s illness meant that Munro took over the housework and care of her younger brother and sister from when she was around nine. “I wanted the house always to be clean. I would bake on Saturdays and I would iron everybody’s clothes. It was a way of keeping up respectability. Superficially I was very kind to my mother, but I never allowed myself to enter into her predicament or I would have stayed and become the person who ran the family until she died and then it would have been too late for me to go.”

Alice Munro 1957Munro, at home with her daughter Sheila in North Vancouver, in 1954Munro speaks often in terms of escape, hiding and disguise: she was already finding her first form of escape through reading and writing, albeit only in her head. For ages, she didn’t write anything down because she “was worried it would be so disillusioning, or bad,” that she would quit.

After rewriting “The Little Mermaid” to give it a happier ending, she progressed to a Wuthering Heights “offspring” (“There must be an awful lot of them around”). She loved the way the landscape was part of the story, and knew this was the kind of book she wanted to write. “My Wuthering Heights was a very recognisable Canada, and I grafted on Yorkshire.” Despite not having looked at Emily Brontë’s novel for more than 40 years, she can still quote whole passages, and in a telling clue to the angle from which she approaches a story, she muses: “Everybody thinks they would be Cathy, the woman Heathcliff loved, not Isabella, the woman he married, don’t they?”

Munro’s mother, a former teacher, is a domineering, dissatisfied creature stalking her fiction. Her father, although not averse to giving his children a beating, presents a more sympathetic figure; he was “addicted to books”, reading every Sunday afternoon, and even publishing his own in his retirement.

Although her childhood was harsh, Munro insists it was not particularly unhappy; “there was this private world” of writing and the imagination to which she could always retreat. “One is lucky to be born in a place where no one is doing it because then you can say, well obviously I can write better than everyone else in high school. You have no idea of the competition.” She and her friend Atwood “have a theory” to account for the strong generation of Canadian women writers to which they belong (Carol Shields, before her death in 2003, was another friend); it would have been unthinkable for young boys in rural Canada at that time to have been bookish as “the limits of masculinity were pretty narrow”. Whereas many women, such as Munro’s mother and Munro herself, were encouraged to be educated to become teachers: “So when women started writing novels it was quite OK in Canada, not that the men were going to read your novels, by no means.”

But back when she was growing up “the worst thing you could do was draw attention to yourself”, so she kept quiet about her ambitions. She won a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, then almost unheard of for a girl from her hometown of Wingham. In the first of her “periods of disguise” she enrolled on a journalism course and passed two happy years in “a hide-out” from the drudgery of home. Not for Munro the dashing escape to Paris like fellow Canadian short-story writer Mavis Gallant, 10 years her senior and from a more sophisticated background. “To live in a place like Wingham you have a very narrow opportunity to get out,” she says. “If you wait until you are 30 you become too timid and know too little about the world and it never happens. So I got out. I got married and it was a very lucky thing.”

Such steely pragmatism should not surprise readers of Munro’s stories. In “The Beggar’s Maid”, for example, Rose agrees to marry the priggish but privileged Patrick, “because it did not seem likely such an offer would come her way again”. In those days, Munro says, “if you weren’t married at 25 you were a failure. I had the feeling from my high-school experience that I was not everybody’s cup of tea. And I thought, well somebody likes me – a miracle.”

As the narrator remarks of Juliet in “Chance”, one in a trio of what she has called particularly autobiographical stories: “The problem was that she was a girl. If she got married – which might happen, as she was not bad-looking for a scholarship girl, not bad-looking at all – she would waste all her hard work and theirs, and if she did not get married she would probably become bleak and isolated, losing out on promotions to men.”

She was 20 when she married Jim Munro, who was a manager of the department store Eaton’s. The couple set up home in North Vancouver, and she had three daughters by the time she was 26. Her second child, Catherine, died when she was only two days old. A fourth, Andrea, was born nine years later. “So I was a bit clipped in my 20s,” she says with typical understatement. But she read “every European novel that you were supposed to have read”, as well as the southern gothic writers – Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers – whose influence can be seen so clearly in her work. She was also stealing every moment – the children’s “naps were very important” – in which to write. In her daughter’s memoir, Lives of Mothers & Daughters, Sheila Munro recalls how her mother wrote “in a laundry room, and her typewriter was surrounded by a washer, a dryer and an ironing board. In fact she could write almost anywhere in the house.” The scene is almost like a cartoon to illustrate the “domestic stories” label Munro has had tied around her neck like an apron string (this phrase headlined a New York Times review as late as 1983). In 1961, after she had published a few stories in small magazines and had them broadcast on the radio, the Vancouver Sun ran a piece about her: “Housewife finds time to write short stories.”

In 1963 the family moved to Victoria on Vancouver Island, where Jim Munro opened Munro’s Book Store (the 50th anniversary celebrations of which happily coincided with the Nobel announcement). Although she later credited “being a housewife” and not having to worry about a job for making it possible for her to write, she recalls seeing Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in a shop when it was first published and being afraid to read it because it was “about giving up and I was at a stage that I was afraid that I had given up because I hadn’t published anything and that was when I fell into depression.”

This sense of suffocation manifested itself in physical symptoms: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I’ve got to take a tranquilliser,” she says, vividly recalling the sensations in the calm of Bailey’s. For about two years, she “would write part of a sentence and then would have to stop. I had simply lost hope, lost faith in myself. Maybe it was just something I had to go through. I guess it was because I still wanted to do something great – great the way men do.”

Alice Munro 1980sMunro in the early 1980s. Photograph: Kriston RossBy “great” she means writing a novel. “I was trying and trying and trying to write a novel – and it never worked. After even my second and third and fourth books my publishers still hoped I would write a novel – I felt I was wasting my time.” The morning we met she had just read a review of a short novel in the New Yorker and wondered “how short?” At one point, says her agent Virginia Barber, who long ago stopped asking for a novel, “her stories got so long, we almost made it”.

Is she still sad she hasn’t written a novel? “Yes, I’m sad that I haven’t written a lot of things, but I’m incredibly happy that I’ve written as much as I have. Because there was a point when I was younger where there was a very good chance that I wouldn’t write anything – I was just too frightened.”

In 1968 Munro published her first collection, The Dance of the Happy Shades, which included all the stories she had written in the last 15 years. (The title story made Atwood cry because “it was so good”.) One Sunday afternoon the following year Jim, who “felt that something good in me was being wasted”, sent her off to the bookshop to write with the promise that he would make supper. “Now getting supper was not his strong point – he made meatballs, good meatballs, but that was the only thing he knew how to make – but nevertheless he did and I went down to the store. It was very difficult at first because I was surrounded by all these books, books put you off writing terribly – but I was able to ignore it.” The result was Lives of Girls and Women, often described as her one novel, a coming‑of-age narrative, but which she calls “really just a collection of linked stories”.

She credits the discovery of Edna O’Brien and William Maxwell for helping her break through her block. Maxwell gave her leave to write “about family and about one’s own background, over and over again, and never mind what people say, learning more and more about it. He said once that he had all the material he needed when he was eight years old, because his mother died then.”

In O’Brien she recognised “the pain of the love” with her mother, and a similarly stultifying community in Catholic Ireland, “something about that life on the outskirts of the British Empire, speaking the language, but not being quite part of that world.” Being inspired by O’Brien, she says, “is much more comfortable than being inspired by Wuthering Heights – it’s the real world”.

O’Brien also gave her the courage to write about sex. Anyone who knows Munro only by reputation – all those small-town spinsters and unhappy mothers – might be surprised to know how good she is on sex. “Falling in love, falling in lust, sneaking around on spouses and enjoying it, telling sexual lies, doing shameful things they feel compelled to do out of irresistible desire, making sexual calculations based on social desperation – few writers have explored such processes more thoroughly and more ruthlessly,” writes Atwood. Writing about female sexuality, Munro says, “you are doing something that nobody will be proud of you for. When you are writing you feel a necessity to go as far as you can. You feel wrong, but still not sorry.”

Then came the 70s, and the rule books that teenagers in the postwar years such as O’Brien and Munro had been rebelling against were torn up overnight by a younger generation. But it didn’t mean those women who had become good 1950s housewives when they were barely into their 20s weren’t touched by the restlessness: “We were just young enough, in our late 30s, that our lives weren’t really over. There was this upheaval, for men as well as women. People began to have affairs, thinking that life could be much better or different.” In 1973 the Munros’ marriage was one of the many casualties of the new mood. “It was the thing to do,” she says gaily.

She had a little money in the bank and a third book due out, but for the first time in her life she had to think about making a living, so she accepted a job teaching creative writing at York University in Toronto. She only lasted until Christmas, because she “was absolutely no good at it. I couldn’t stand it.” Teaching may have been a disaster, but moving back to Southern Ontario sparked a turning point for Munro personally and professionally. In a narrative twist that might have come straight out of one of her own stories she met up with Gerry Fremlin, who had been an editor on the student magazine when she was at university and the first person to whom she had submitted her work. He wrote her a fan letter – in which he was the first to compare her to Chekhov – but for once she was disappointed that he was only admiring her writing. He looked her up in Ontario and “three martinis later”, as she tells it, they were very much together.

At the end of Lives of Girls and Women is a much-quoted and in hindsight prophetic passage that begins: “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum. It did not occur to me then that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee.” More than 20 years after her escape from Wingham, she moved to Clinton, another small town within 20 miles of those “deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum” of her childhood, to live with Gerry in the house where he was born, because his elderly mother was ill.

From this point on, “she just poured her life into her stories”, says Gibson, who signed her up in 1976 and has been her editor ever since. “When she came home she discovered that this was her world and the world that was going to inform her writing for the rest of her life.”

“I love this landscape. I just do,” she tells me. Gerry, a geographer, helped her appreciate it in new ways. “I began to remember more things that had happened here and I think I began to write harsher stories.” Her stories became less personal, her prose simpler, while the narratives became longer and more complex. Virginia “Ginger” Barber became her agent in the late 70s and started to sell her stories to the New Yorker. The first they published were “The Beggar Maid” and “Royal Beatings”. Now Munro has become such a fixture that a couple of dissenting critics have referred to them slightly sneeringly “as classic New Yorker-style short stories”, popular with metropolitan readers “wondering what it was like living out in the sticks”. Over the years, Barber observed how her themes grew broader: “You don’t have such emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship, there is romantic love and its complications, there are children. As her life changed her stories changed to reflect some of that. Not necessarily autobiographically, but in circumstances.” Collections have appeared regularly every three or four years, now totalling 14.

Barber was also responsible for Munro being published in the UK. Carmen Callil was thrilled to have Munro as one of her first signings on joining Chatto from Virago in 1982: “Ginger said to me, ‘I have a wonderful present for you, the greatest writer I have’ – and it was Alice Munro.”

The morning we meet, Munro says she has been worrying about a story that is soon to be published in Harper’s magazine, because she thinks the “segments” are in the wrong order, so much so she’s been wanting to write to Harper’s and ask for it back. Gibson says she has “an unusual style of going from A to M, then J back to C and then on to Z. And then magically it all comes together and makes perfect sense.” He sees his main role as “wrestling every story away from her so we can publish it”. She doesn’t even have a room of her own, he says, working instead at a narrow, suitably unfussy wooden desk in the corner of the main room (“Gerry would be making a sandwich in the background”). “There is a wonderful spot on the second floor of her house,” observes her American editor, Ann Close, “where she can look out over her backyard, across railroad tracks, to the fields beyond, which is where she drafts many of her stories.”

Barber would never call before 11am, as she knew that was her writing time. She has a prized photograph, which came with one of the manuscripts in the mail, in which Munro is sitting upright on the sofa in her nightgown, hair uncombed, writing in a notebook on her lap. She writes everything by hand “just the way it comes to me and then I rearrange, and rewrite and rewrite. It might take me six months at least. It might even take me a year. I will be going over it and over it.” She works on some stories for years, often they look back to the past, many set as long ago as the 60s and 70s because “that was the most turbulent and interesting time I lived through on a personal level”. When I ask her if she is always looking at people, wondering about their lives and histories, she gives a firm no. “I’ve always got enough material. I’ve always got a backlog.” She is, however, concerned about not keeping up with the times, not in terms of “stuffing” her work with modern things (a mobile phone made a first appearance in one of her stories only recently), but in truly inhabiting her characters. “How can I go on writing if I know so little? Because I really know very little about the life of most people under 30 today. I have an idea of what their lives are like sexually, but not a very clear idea.”

Both her stories and her conversation worry away at the limitations imposed on women. “Many people ask me why have you not wanted to widen your canvas, it’s so narrow, it’s all set in this place where you grew up. They don’t say ‘feminine’, nobody would say that – but it’s … ‘personal’. And this is seen as something that I might have gone beyond. I think that’s a lot of crap, but I can still wonder … why didn’t I?”

She won’t make excuses about writing in the limited bursts of time available to a mother; short stories are just what she does – although she thinks it may have something to do with knowing she will always be able to finish what she starts.

Why is her work so loved?

“Maybe I write stories that people get very involved in, maybe it is the complexity and the lives presented in them. I hope they are a good read. I hope they move people. When I like a story it’s because it does something,” she clutches her fist to her heart, “a blow to the chest.” Her description of the effect of Chekhov’s “Lady with the Dog” perfectly describes that of her own – the mood of the story gets into your bones.

“This is a wonderful thing for me, and a wonderful thing for the short story,” she told the Nobel foundation after the prize was announced in October. Short stories are “often brushed off as something people do before they write a novel … I would like them to come to the fore without any strings attached.”

08 Alcohol and literature – quiz



Alcohol and literature – quiz

It’s been 80 years since the US ended Prohibition, to the relief of many a thirsty author. Can you walk straight through these questions about bookish boozing?


Graham Greene pours a drink

Liquid inspiration … Graham Greene pours a drink in 1954. Photograph: Kurt Hutton/Getty Images

  1. 1. “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me” was a quip delivered by which writer?
  2. 2. Mojitos were one (or two) of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite drinks; but where was the cocktail invented?
  3. 3. Which of these poets was known for their excessive drinking habit and wrote the poem Are You Drinking?
  4. 4. Who declared: “I have made an important discovery … that alcohol, taken in sufficient quantities, may produce all the effects of drunkenness”?
  5. 5. On the night of his death, how many whisky shots did Dylan Thomas claim to have consumed?
  6. 6. Dorothy Parker was known for her heavy drinking; but what was the name of her first poetry collection?
  7. 7. What was F Scott Fitzgerald’s spirit of choice?
  8. 8. Which American author once remarked “Our national drug is alcohol. We tend to regard the use any other drug with special horror”?
  9. 9. Who wrote an essay entitled Drinking?
  10. 10. Who said: “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut”?

08 La tragedia americana de Frank Zappa

La tragedia americana de Frank Zappa

20 años después de su muerte, muchos artistas han recogido su testigo

Zappa se burlaba de forma ácida de Reagan, los republicanos, los telepredicadores, la NRA y hasta de Michael Jackson

Para el artista, los hippies no pasaban de ser unos idealistas que, lejos de perturbar el sistema, lo legitimaban

Manuel de la Fuente

04/12/2013 – 11:06h

20 aniversario de la muerte de Frank Zappa

20 aniversario de la muerte de Frank Zappa


Si hay algo que distingue a la música rock desde sus orígenes es su incitación al movimiento. Frente a géneros y modelos musicales anteriores a los años 50, el rock puso sobre la mesa ese poder que se manifiesta de dos formas. En primer lugar, en su expresión individual, su corporeidad. Desde los contoneos de las caderas de Elvis, los artistas de rock contagian a su público una pulsión por el movimiento, de modo que quien asiste a un concierto de rock se comporta de una manera muy diferente a quien va a ver una ópera, por poner un caso. Esto lleva a una segunda expresión del movimiento, de carácter social. Así, las caderas de Elvis fueron censuradas de inmediato en la televisión norteamericana porque se adivinó que el rock serviría de expresión de los cambios sociales que habrían de llegar en los años posteriores. Porque el rock viene siendo desde su nacimiento un espacio de articulación para la protesta, la disidencia, la movilización.

Esto es algo que entendió a la perfección uno de los músicos más creativos y originales del rock: Frank Zappa. Recordar a Zappa hoy, cuando se cumplen 20 años de su muerte, es recordar a una de las figuras fundamentales de la contracultura estadounidense del siglo XX. No obstante, lo curioso de Zappa es su carácter radicalmente individual que le permitió disfrutar de una independencia artística total a costa de renunciar al éxito comercial y a formar parte de los engranajes de la industria musical.

Dos décadas antes que Prince, Zappa ya tuvo en los años 70 un serio litigio con la Warner por la gestión de sus discos, una circunstancia que acabó apartando al músico de los medios mayoritarios de distribución. Por ello, pese a encontrarnos ante un músico con una vasta producción (alrededor de 70 discos publicados en poco más de veinte años de carrera) que abarca todos los estilos de la música popular norteamericana, su conocimiento sigue siendo ciertamente minoritario en comparación con otros artistas y grupos de los años 60, 70 y 80. En la industria musical, los actos de rebeldía sin arrepentimiento se pagan con creces.

El discurso de oro americano

No obstante, Frank Zappa es un artista con un discurso muy influyente. Grupos como U2 o REM, series como Los Simpson o cineastas como Michael Moore forman parte de un colectivo de alumnos más o menos reconocidos del músico norteamericano. Comparten una visión de la cultura popular como catalizador de respuestas al poder político, como una expresión de inconformismo y respuesta al sistema. Además, desde su fallecimiento se han editado más de 30 discos a partir del ingente material que dejó grabado, puesto que registró casi todos sus conciertos. Esta circunstancia supone que su obra siga ofreciendo novedades y atrayendo a nuevos públicos pese a que continúe su silencio en los grandes medios de comunicación.

Esta visión se encuentra en la obra de Zappa desde sus primeros discos, desde que inició su carrera musical en California a mediados de los años 60. En pleno epicentro del movimiento hippie, y en su momento de mayor auge, Zappa publicó en 1968 uno de sus LP más conocidos: We’re Only in It for the Money (Estamos en esto sólo por la pasta). Las canciones del disco ponían en su sitio al hippismo. Para Zappa, los hippies no pasaban de ser unos idealistas que, lejos de perturbar el sistema, lo legitimaban. Según su punto de vista, los hippies se pasaban todo el día tumbados tomando drogas, una actitud que comportaría no un acto de liberación, sino de anulación para la acción política. El consumo de drogas, según Zappa, reducía la creatividad artística y sometía al individuo.

Si este disco reflexionaba sobre las conexiones entre la industria cultural y el poder político, otra de sus obras fundamentales, Broadway the Hard Way, supondría la culminación de su concepción artística. En este disco, publicado en 1988, Zappa ponía por escrito toda su labor de activista que luchó en los años 80 contra el Gobierno de Ronald Reagan y los intentos del Partido Republicano por censurar cualquier expresión cultural disidente.

Fue en estos años cuando Zappa se significó como defensor de la libertad de expresión, y toda su obra (los discos que grabó, las películas que dirigió y las entrevistas que concedió) se encaminó a la defensa de una idea: la promoción de las políticas educativas como única solución a los gobiernos ultraconservadores. En el disco, Zappa se burlaba, con su mordaz sentido del humor, de los políticos del momento, los telepredicadores, la Asociación del Rifle (NRA) y cantantes como Michael Jackson, entre otros. En un concierto de ese año, Zappa se preguntaba en una canción si la posible elección como presidente de George Bush (padre) no se podría considerar una “tragedia americana” . Por supuesto que sí, era la respuesta implícita a la pregunta retórica de Zappa. Lo malo es que la tragedia se cumplió: Bush fue elegido presidente en las elecciones pocos meses después.

Un enemigo político

La década de 1980 supuso la emergencia y consolidación de la revolución conservadora de Reagan (y de Margaret Thatcher en el Reino Unido), que estableció las dinámicas de los discursos y políticas de la derecha occidental contemporánea. Los patrones de la oratoria que se fijaron entonces (como el patriotismo exacerbado que establecía una división entre buenos y malos estadounidenses), así como una intensa privatización de los servicios públicos (cedidos a empresarios y grupos afines a los republicanos) no sólo iniciaron el proceso de empobrecimiento de las clases medias y polarizaron la sociedad entre ricos y pobres, sino que sirvieron como hoja de ruta que han venido siguiendo desde entonces los conservadores en Europa y Estados Unidos.

Pero Reagan necesitaba un enemigo al que dirigir sus ataques. Del mismo modo que la industria cinematográfica había servido, durante la época del maccarthismo, como chivo expiatorio para eliminar la disidencia de izquierdas, el reaganismo fue directo a por la música rock: se redactaron listas negras de canciones por su supuesto contenido sexual o violento, se organizaron quemas públicas de discos a cargo de organizaciones ultracatólicas y se llevó al Senado una propuesta legislativa para censurar las letras de las canciones de la música popular.

Plenamente consciente de la situación de emergencia cultural que vivía su país, Zappa acudió al Senado en 1985 para defender la libertad de expresión, y se explayó a gusto en una intervención antológica en la que ridiculizó a los senadores reaccionarios de ambos partidos: también los demócratas, como Al Gore, estaban deseosos de meterle mano al rock.

20 años después de su muerte a causa de un cáncer de próstata, muchos artistas han recogido el testigo de Zappa, este compromiso constante e inalterable con la libertad artística. Si bien él libró la batalla prácticamente en solitario en los años 80, hoy en día son multitud los músicos, cineastas y artistas en general que han combatido, en los últimos años, presidencias tan duras como la del hijo de aquel Bush que ganó las elecciones de 1988.

Como también son numerosos quienes siguen eligiendo a Zappa como modelo de resistencia en situaciones de excepción democrática como el momento actual, en el que los conservadores siguen la doctrina Reagan en la eliminación de los derechos sociales con la excusa de la crisis económica. Recordar a Zappa supone, así pues, reflexionar sobre el momento presente y sobre la validez en la articulación de una disidencia consciente en unos tiempos políticos difíciles. Un legado artístico y ético que conserva toda su vigencia.


Los cinco discos más políticos de Frank Zappa

Guía musical para tiempos de crisis

No te pierdas La tragedia americana de Frank Zappa

Manuel de la Fuente

04/12/2013 – 20:27h


1. We’re Only In It for the Money (1968)

Dos años después de su debut en 1966 con Freak Out!, Zappa le da la vuelta al movimiento hippie con este disco. Al músico, que se encontraba en pleno centro de la ebullición hippie, no se le ocurrió otra cosa que burlarse del “flower power” y del Sgt. Pepper , el disco de los Beatles. Así, donde los de Liverpool veían paz y amor, Zappa percibe un contexto de violencia y confrontación.

Uno de los ejemplos más claros está en una de las canciones del álbum titulada The Idiot Bastard Son, respuesta clarísima al She’s Leaving Home. Los Beatles hablaban de una chica que abandonaba su hogar en busca de la libertad mientras los padres se quedaban en casa llorando desconsolados. Zappa va más allá al decir, sin tapujos, que hay que describir esa infelicidad. Su canción empieza con unos versos que no dejan lugar a dudas: “El bastardo idiota. / Su padre es, en la actualidad, un nazi del Parlamento. / Su madre es una puta de Los Ángeles”.


2. Joe’s Garage (1979)

Como anticipo profético de la llegada del reaganismo, Zappa se imagina en esta obra un mundo en el que la música está prohibida. La historia de Joe, que se va relatando a lo largo de las canciones, es la del músico represaliado por el poder político, asunto recurrente en la obra zappiana.

En la canción homónima, Joe’s Garage, Zappa realiza un repaso devastador por la historia de la música rock como una historia de sometimiento a las modas de la industria, y en el solo final de guitarra (titulado Watermelon in Easter Hay, el más popular de su carrera) nos invita a reflexionar sobre la necesidad de la música en la sociedad.

3. You Are What You Is (1981)

Un ataque demoledor contra la cultura yuppie. Zappa empieza a dirigir sus dardos contra la derecha fundamentalista cristiana, contra los lobbies del partido republicano y contra la cultura del enriquecimiento rápido puesta en marcha por Reagan.

No todo es tan bonito como lo pintan en la MTV, viene a decir. No obstante, su crítica no la ejerce desde posiciones de izquierdas, sino desde un autodenominado “conservadurismo práctico”: lo que Zappa le recriminaba a los republicanos era que fuesen directamente fascistas, usurpando los elementos positivos del pensamiento conservador. Canciones como Teen-age Wind o Drafted Again desvelan esta postura al hablar sobre la estupidez de la sociedad norteamericana, complacida en participar de las prácticas consumistas antes que articular un discurso crítico.

4. Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers of Prevention (1985)

El disco en el que Zappa recoge su experiencia como ponente ante el Senado norteamericano. Dos meses después de comparecer, saca a la venta un disco en el que pinta un fresco cubista desquiciante usando fragmentos de las declaraciones de los senadores junto con sonidos de eructos y gruñidos de cerdo. Todo ello con la ayuda del Synclavier, un sintetizador con el que Zappa creó numerosas obras.

¿Cuál fue la respuesta de los senadores al disco? “Deberíamos pedirle derechos de autor”, bromeó entonces uno de ellos, sin aclarar si se refería a las voces o a los gruñidos.

5. Broadway the Hard Way (1988)

Un disco de madurez, que compila sus ideas políticas y sus acciones contra el reaganismo, el último compuesto por canciones nuevas antes de enfermar de cáncer. Temas como When the Lie’s So Big, Rhymin’ Man o Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk resumen su afán de individualismo, su oposición a cualquier organización o forma de control social.

“Mi consejo a cualquier padre es que mantenga a su hijo lo más lejos posible de una iglesia”, decía Zappa. Algo que se manifiesta en una obra que se enfrenta a los extremismos religiosos y políticos y a los desmanes de una industria cultural dedicada únicamente a loar las excelencias del sistema.

¿Cuál era la solución que proponía Zappa? La expresó en toda su obra y también en este disco: Votad. Un llamamiento que sigue vigente en la actualidad al no indicar a quién había que votar pero incidiendo en la idea de que “si la gente no vota, no funciona la democracia”. El mejor remedio contra quienes roban a los ciudadanos la participación y el debate como valor social.



Bad sex award: who do you think should win?

Eight passages of raunchy prose are in contention for Literary Review’s bad sex in fiction award. Which do you think deserves to go all the way?



Distasteful stuff? A ripe slice of Brie. Photograph: Alicia Canter

1. House of Earth by Woody Guthrie
(Read the Guardian review)

Back and forth, side to side, they moved on their bed on the hay. Back and forth, side to side, they moved their hips, their feet, their legs, their whole bodies. Their arms tied into knots like vines climbing trees, and the trees moved and swayed, and there was a time and a rhythm to the blend of the movement. And inside the door of her womb she felt her inner organs and tissues, all her muscles and glands, felt them roll, squeeze, squeeze, and roll, and felt that every inch of her whole being stretched, reached, felt out, felt in, felt all around the shape of his penis. So magnified and so keen were her feelings that her inner nerves could even feel the bumps, the ridges, the pimples, the few stray hairs along the shaft of his male rod.

2. Motherland by William Nicholson (Read the Guardian review)

‘So are we going to do it, Lawrence?’

‘Yes,’ he whispers. ‘Yes.’

‘Doesn’t the Catholic Church say it’s wrong?’

‘Yes,’ he says.

‘Fucking me is wrong.’


‘But you want to fuck me even so, Lawrence.’

‘Yes,’ he groans, feeling the tip of his cock pushing into her a little way.

‘If you fuck me, will God punish you, Lawrence?’

‘I don’t care,’ he says.

‘God won’t punish you,’ she says, ‘if you love me.’

‘I love you, Nell. I love you. I love you.’

He feels the intensity of his love for her with each repetition, along with the tingling in his cock, and the profound shock of joy with which he has heard each utterance by her of the word fuck. She seems to know how much this electrifies him. She moves her hips, pushing him deeper into her all the time, and as she does so she whispers, ‘Fuck me now, Lawrence. Fuck me now.’

3. The City of Devi by Manil Suri (Read the Observer review)

Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.

4. Secrecy by Rupert Thomson (Read the Guardian review)

I closed my eyes as well and moved inside her, imagining the ribbed flesh, the supple rings of muscle. Mauve and yellow flowers filled the blank screen of my eyelids, the petals loosening and drifting downwards on to smooth grey stone. I kissed the soft bristles in the hollow of her armpit, then I kissed the smaller hollow of her clavicle. I moved up to her mouth, which smelled of ripe melon. Not the wound-red Tuscan watermelon, but the pale-green variety I had bought in Naples once, and which had grown, so I was told, on the wild coast of Barbaria.

5. The World Was All Before Them by Matthew Reynolds (Read the Guardian review)

In the dappled shadows the bodies cling and thrust and arc and stretch. Toes splay. Arms prop shoulders from which a torso slopes. Two legs spring into the air. A head flaps from side to side. Fingers tense, hips grip and ankles twine. Forehead bows to forehead and hair touches in the air as eyes look longingly into eyes, thighs vie, lip lips lip and…

But, damn, dammit! – what was this?

Anxiously he began to get the impression that his vas deferens was initiating its rhythmic squeezing too soon, too soon …

But phew she too seemed to be surfing the waves of neuromuscular euphoria, so that as, sweating, panting, he bowed his forehead to her chest, she gripped him tight, her sharp nails stabbing; and then they were grinning and kissing each other’s noses, cheeks; and then they lay entangled for a moment, breathing; and then they rose, one after another, went for a piss, came back and settled into bed again.

6. My Education by Susan Choi

Until now, my orgasms had been deep and ponderous things; slow to yield to excavation; self-annihilating when they finally did, so that in their wake I felt voided and calm, every yen neutralised, and gazed on whoever had managed the work with benign noninterest. Never had there been this tormenting, self-heightening pleasure, like a hail of hot stones, and yet she seemed to recognise just what had happened, so that before I had even stopped keening she bore down again. She made me come so many times that afternoon that had I been somewhat older, I might have dropped dead. Had I been a doll, she might have twisted off each of my limbs, and sucked the knobs until they glistened, and drilled her tongue into each of the holes.

7. The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood (Read the Guardian review)

Reaching behind me, I found the Brie and broke off a fragment, sucking her nipple through it. She tasted almost as she had the day I took the drop of milk on my finger.

Manon smiled when she realised what I was doing.

You know the peasant saying? If you can’t imagine how neighbouring vineyards can produce such different wines put one finger in your woman’s quim and another up her arse, then taste both and stop asking stupid questions… My fingers found both vineyards. At the front, she tasted salt as anchovy and as delicious. At the rear, bitter like chocolate and smelling strangely of tobacco.

8. The Victoria System by Eric Reinhardt

We made love for five hours. Anxious by nature and always fearing that I will disappoint, I became a different man in this bed – freed of all worries, carried away by an irrational exhilaration.

For me, Victoria was like a deep nocturnal forest that I strode through without knowing where I was going, through woodland, amid ferns, under tall shivering trees, far from any path. There were noises, puddles, odours, dampness, shapes that vanished, treetops overhanging our bodies. I thought of nothing. I let our frolics lead where they would. I experienced moments of fulfilment and astonishment, euphoria and intimidation, and then episodes of grace when Victoria smiled at me, overcome with happiness, as if we were lying in a glade.