Like all good jokes, better before you explain it

“A Short History of The Times’s Shortest Story”

Aleksandr Hemon I’ve always found the insistent distinction between fiction and nonfiction in Anglo-American writing very annoying, indeed troubling. For one thing, it implies that nonfiction is all the stuff outside of fiction, or the other way around, the yin and yang of writing. Another problem: it marks a text in terms of its relation to “truth,” a category that is presumably self-evident and therefore stable. But narration cannot contain stable truth, because it unfolds, and it does so before the narrator in one way, and before the listener/reader in another way. Narration is creation of truth, which is to say that truth does not precede it.

In Bosnian, there are no words that are equivalent to “fiction” and “nonfiction,” or that convey the distinction between them. This is not to say that there is no truth or falsehood. Rather, the stress is on storytelling. The closest translation of nonfiction would really be “true stories.”

You declare Every Day Is for the Thief a work of fiction. Why?

Teju Cole I made a sideways move from art history into writing, and I think this, in part, is why I also find the stern distinction between fiction and nonfiction odd. It’s not at all a natural way of splitting up narrated experience, just as we don’t go around the museum looking for fictional or nonfictional paintings. Painters know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard, and what’s been done before. Is Monet a nonfiction painter and Ingres a fiction painter? It’s the least illuminating thing we could ask about their works. Some lean more heavily on what’s seen, some more on what’s imagined, but all draw on various sources.

Pablo Enriquez

Actual persons living or dead

Tim Parks begins his piece on Dante by asking how the Divine Comedy would have fared these days, when if you ‘put real people in a work of fiction … you immediately face libel and privacy issues’ (LRB, 14 July). That reminded me of the time when in a pleasant Chester-le-Street bookshop (no longer in existence) I was offered a paperback translation of Inferno which assured me that it was a work of fiction containing no reference to actual persons living or dead. Some time later I bought Ciaran Carson’s translation of Inferno on the basis of a killer sales pitch that it was ‘the first ever version by an Irish poet’.

George Schlesinger

‘Considerable variety’

My favorite story in [Alfred Döblin’s] Bright Magic is “The Other Man.” It begins when a Boston gynecologist named Dr. Converdon hires a blond secretary named Mery, who has “beautiful braids.” He sleeps with her and discovers, to his dismay, that she is a virgin. Converdon’s behavior becomes erratic and brutal. He forces Mery to dance in a cabaret so that other men can ogle her; Mery enjoys the performance, but he doesn’t allow her to do it again — instead, he marries her. Shortly thereafter, Converdon receives a letter from an acrobat named Wheatstren, declaring his love for Mery and advising Converdon to save everyone a lot of hassle by killing himself. After considering the matter, Converdon consents. Wheatstren tires of Mery and pimps her out at the racecourse and the theater. This is the last line: “She, however, praised him at every turn, because he offered her the greatest thing that there is on earth: considerable variety.” It’s a love story.

Döblin is a true master — a scientist and a mystic whose characters, battered by a senseless world, cling to what today we would call existence or integrity but what he would have called the soul. They are alternately crude and fragile, suckers and saints. They hope and dream in excess of reason but are tethered to solid ground. In the very funny “Traffic with the Beyond,” a society of spiritualists is duped by a murderer. The fable “Materialism,” written after the author’s conversion to Catholicism, tracks the havoc unleashed when nature, including bulls, the grass, and water, learns of the primacy of matter. “Everything we do is meaningless,” thinks the tiger. “How could I have been so blind. It’s chemical reactions and reflexes wherever you look. . . . I started a family and brought seven rascals into the world for this. It’s sobering. A waste of time.”

The cohort studies discussed by Gavin Francis often confirm what everyone already knows: that (statistically speaking) a person born into disadvantageous circumstances is likely to be disadvantaged through life (LRB, 2 June). The addition of DNA collection and analysis to these studies is a recent phenomenon, which Francis hopes will deliver a deeper understanding of the interplay between genes and environment. I suspect this will prove optimistic. We already know that the genetic contribution to most of the common chronic diseases – including stroke, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease and dementia – is surprisingly small. Genetic studies in this area generate great masses of data and any number of ‘statistically significant’ results. Very often the effect of a particular genetic variation is small, there is no plausible explanation, and when different cohorts are examined the results can’t be reproduced. When genetic thinking is applied to such hard-to-define traits as personality, behaviour, lawlessness and intelligence, the danger is that great volumes of white noise will be generated. Yet, as Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson have pointed out, politicians, corporations and researchers are all partial to research into genetic determinism: politicians because it reduces their responsibility for ill-health and social disadvantage; corporations because it diverts blame; and researchers because funding for this type of research is relatively easy to obtain.

Tim Cundy
University of Auckland

IMAGE: Forced rhubarb is grown in the dark and harvested by candelight, resulting in stalks that are more slender and tender. (In the dark, the stalks grow so fast that you can hear them squeak and pop.) Photograph by Martin Parr/Magnum, via The New Republic.

‘Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow’ (Thames, 1987)

Bee Wilson on Edith Piaf


During and after the war, [Piaf’s] myth shifted again. Her collaboration with Asso was at an end and she started to work with new lyricists, notably Henri Contet and Michel Emer, whose style departed from the realist tradition. She read hundreds of songs before finding one that suited her persona, and even then, she worked for days with the composers and lyricists until every element in a song matched her character. ‘What we write for her is babble,’ Contet once said; ‘she turns it into cries, pleas and prayers.’ In No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf, Carolyn Burke describes Piaf’s working methods, sitting for hours at the grand piano, stopping only to eat steak covered with garlic and to drink mint sirop. Her composer Marguerite Monnot would arrive on a motorbike in the afternoons and they worked together for hours. Much as she respected Monnot, Piaf never allowed a composer complete control over the music, humming or playing until a tune felt right to her. As Looseley writes, ‘increasingly, the narrator-in-chief of the imagined Piaf was Piaf herself.’

Hotline bling

Erykah Badu has spent much of the past few months working on the music for “Legends of Chamberlain Heights,” an animated series scheduled to make its début on Comedy Central this fall. She had a personal reason to take the job: one of the consulting producers of the show is Carl Jones, a former producer of “The Boondocks,” whom Badu is currently dating. “I had to interview alongside all these other composers,” she says. “Talked all kinds of shit. ‘Deadlines? No problem!’ ” But the network had every reason to hire her. Instead of paying exorbitant fees to license old recordings, it could simply hire a Grammy-winning, chart-topping singer to make some new ones.

So it was that Badu showed up, one afternoon, at a low-slung house in Dallas belonging to her friend Richard Escobedo, a producer also known as Picnictyme. She had invited a local keyboard player to come along; together, they were scheduled to record half a dozen snippets of music, each meant to evoke a specific mood—or, in some cases, a specific record that the producers didn’t want to pay for. The session was loose and laid-back, and Badu couldn’t help getting inspired to make each snippet better than it needed to be. As a rough cut of the cartoon played on the computer monitor for reference, Badu grew more interested in the beat, an old-fashioned hip-hop boom-bap, padded with a slouchy bass line. It reminded her of “My Block,” a classic track by the Houston rapper Scarface, so she FaceTimed him. He looked delighted to hear from her. “Get yo’ soup-can ass off my phone,” he exclaimed.

“Get yo’ gator-mouth ass off my phone,” she replied.