New Pieces: Tale of Genji / George Trow / Book Updates

Two new short pieces I wrote in the past few months, plus some updates on my book on minimalism and plans for the newsletter.

New Work:

— The Tale of Genji at the Metropolitan Museum (The New Republic): The Tale of Genji is possibly the first novel in history, written around the year 1000 CE. It’s also an unexpectedly intimate, mundane, and beautiful description of what it means to be a person in the world. Visual artists have been responding to the novel for a millennium, and the Met collected a great exhibition of that work, which I reviewed. Genji’s ancient milieu is kind of like our ennui-ridden, consumerist present. “Everything seems to be in a state of decline,” the prince observes at one point.

Author of The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu.

George W.S. Trow’s Dystopian Predictions of Social Media (The Nation): I wrote this piece in response to Christian Lorentzen’s essay in Harper’s about contemporary literary criticism, which takes off from the ‘70s-‘80s New Yorker writer George W.S. Trow. Trow’s masterpiece was a surreal, fractured essay called “Within the Context of No Context.” It predicts the rise of reality TV, the destruction of celebrity, and the banality of mass-media culture. These days it also reflects a lot of the problems we’re having with social media as digital platforms supplant our identities as cultural consumers. Is the top-down, elitist model of culture gone for good? (Read the original if you haven’t already.)

Book Updates:

The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism is in copy edits!!! I spent the past many months slowly working through my editor’s final comments and turning what has been many disparate documents and versions into a unified whole, something actually professional, a semi-finished product. The metaphor for this process that has been in my head is the act of smoothing a sheet while making a bed — it starts out all wrinkled and twisted and then when the final crease has been pulled taught the sheet looks like it has always been that way, like it was meant to be perfect the whole time.

Of course it’s not totally done. I’ve spent time getting permissions for the four photographs that will be in the book, one for each chapter, two that I took over the course of research and two official shots. I also made sure I can use the John Cage text that I wanted as the epigraph, which I will explain more about closer to the publish date. Oh yeah, and I’ve been requesting blurbs, the little lines that go on the covers and backs of books that show off other writers saying Nice Things About Your Book. This is as harrowing as every other author has described (mostly on Twitter) but somehow I couldn’t understand it until I was asking people to compliment me for posterity and public display on bookstore shelves. Yikes!!!

Other than that, I’ve been working on three big pieces that will be out over the next few months, one review essay and two reported features. I am very excited about all of them. The fact of the book being (mostly) done has also opened up my brain slightly to other topics that are not minimalism! I want to use this newsletter to explore new areas in a slightly faster way than freelance articles, more like a blog or a bulletin.

Mostly I’ll be riffing on technology and culture, the way social media and algorithms impact what gets created and consumed on a global scale today. I’m interested in power structures and the spread of influence both fast and slow. It’ll build on essays I’ve written like Welcome to AirSpace and Style Is an Algorithm but on a more granular level.

Let me know if there’s anything you want me to address!