Art in life and life in art #2

On cultural criticism, real-life letters, high school satire, etc.

Dear readers,

So, there are exactly thirty-five of you, right now. Get more of your friends to subscribe so I have even more reason to write this? I’m incompetent when it comes to emotional blackmail and need others to do it for me, heh.

I’m writing this just before midnight. Strangely, social media is more of an introspective exercise for me, and more suited to the wee hours of the morning. So what better way to begin than with…

A late-night soundtrack to writing this late-night letter

Bring us the day they switch off the machines
'Cause men in yellow jackets putting adverts inside my dreams
An automated song and the whole world gone
Fallen under the spell of the distance between us when we communicate

This is a 2012 oldie but goodie. I wasn’t actually into Blur in the ‘90s, when they were the hottest in Britpop, but I became something of a devotee after listening to them more in my mid to late twenties, along with Gorillaz and Damon Albarn solo. I like the idea of later generations rediscovering things from decades past, like all the kids who must have found Queen with Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Random song association: Sharing this with a friend once, he told me how he and the guys would play football somewhere under the Westway in London. I always think of that now when I hear this.

On the state of modern cultural criticism

If you’re on social media at all, you’ve probably already read this Longreads piece by Soraya Roberts on cultural “flooding”: How we tend to focus on the same few things and elevate the same sorts of things—and I’m trying to be more aware of that in writing this newsletter too, though it helps that I’ve always had fairly eclectic, though still English-dominant :/—interests. Aside from some of the stuff that’s riding the zeitgeist (I’m guessing you’ve already read about that black holebut this: WTF?) I’ll try to highlight other things too that, hopefully, you won’t already have seen. Maybe it’ll open a new rabbit hole for you.

While we’re on the subject of cultural criticism, there’s a thought-provoking piece Harper’s recently published about what book reviews have become in the age of the algorithm. In “Like This or Die”, Christian Lorentzen pans what he calls the “consumerist mode of engagement with the arts”—so perilously close to fandom—and its emphasis on recommendation rather than critique (i.e. the subtle but important difference between “Does this book deserve coverage?” and “Does this book deserve to be reviewed?”) This approach, he argues, is wrongly premised on the idea that one should only engage with—because one only has the time to engage with—what they’re likely to enjoy or what other people are already paying attention to. Some passages:

Editors and critics belong to a profession with a duty of skepticism. Instead, we find a class of journalists drunk on the gush. In television, it takes the form of triumphalism: a junk medium has matured into respectability and its critics with it. In music, there is poptimism, a faith that whatever the marketplace sends to the top must be good. Film and art writing were corrupted so long ago by slavish fixations on the box office and the auction price that it’s now hard to imagine them otherwise. Literary journalism has been a holdout in this process of erosion: although literary blockbusters will tout that status when they achieve it, presence on the bestseller list has more often been seen as counter-­indicative of quality, the crossover as a happy freak. […]

The basic imperatives of the review—analysis and evaluation—are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them? […]

Once a critic has decided, or been assigned, to review a book, should any questions of attracting traffic figure into the work of analysis and evaluation? If they do, such concerns will inevitably push the reviewer to declare the book either a masterpiece or a travesty, or to point up its most sensational elements if there are any to speak of. A conscientious review admitting either to ambivalence or judgments in conflict with one another won’t travel as quickly on social media as an unqualified rave. As BuzzFeed books editor Arianna Rebolini put it to CJR’s Eichner, “Are you going to put your time into something that’s not going to share well?”

All this made me think of something the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott said in his book Better Living Through Criticism (I recommend it):

Q: So you can just look at anything? Criticize anything? The rug? The window? What’s outside it?
A: Well, yes and no. Anything can be judged, analyzed, investigated, made into a vessel of feeling, meaning, narrative, moral significance, beauty, and so on. But the question is whether the thing in question can bear the scrutiny, which is really to say whether the act of scrutinizing it can be made interesting.

Some critics say it’s not worth anybody’s time to do bad reviews, because why give coverage to something you wouldn’t recommend someone spend their time on?

But following on from what Scott said, I think of it like this: The question isn’t about whether or not to do a bad review; it’s about whether or not a bad review can be done interestingly. Like, is a work’s attempt at exploring an idea interesting despite its failure? Is it still something you can pick apart with nuance and offer something illuminating in the discussion?

Also, I disagree a little with Lorentzen in that I think there’s room for both coverage and critique. For me, both perform different functions. I could be equally into the, say, “Hottest Men in Literature” list as I am in the deep analysis of a book.

“Coverage”, for me, is how I find things to read, watch, and listen to—not necessarily because they are rated well, but because their premise sounds interesting. All I need is a description of the kinds of ideas it grapples with; a good rating or any awards won is a bonus. I think I’m always looking out for works of art that attempt to answer the questions I’m interested in, even if they never quite succeed in the attempt. If I think a work has even the slightest potential to do that, a bad rating won’t put me off.

“Critique”, I prefer to engage with after I’ve read, seen, or listened to something—I prefer to go into something without preconceived notions and make my own mind up about it instead of having a critic’s thoughts colour mine. Which is why the review, held back from discussing anything that could be construed as a spoiler, seems an inherently unsatisfactory form to me. Unlike “coverage”, I see “critique” as part of an extended conversation I can have in my head with great critical minds I’ll probably never meet. It’s a way to grapple with the works that strike me, more richly than I could on my own or with friends and family.

So I am, unequivocally, a believer in the importance of the cultural critic. At the same time, slavish adherence to reviews and ratings (no matter how respectable the person dishing them) is something of a pet peeve of mine. Like when someone asks for a recommendation and I give them one and they refer to IMDB or Goodreads or a particular review or whatever and tell me anyway that actually, it doesn’t sound so good, am I sure? What, have we completely dispensed with individuality?

While we’re in a letter, some real-life correspondence

I love letters, have always loved letters, and once loved somebody in part because he wrote beautiful letters. No surprises, then, that this California Sunday piece featuring the many shapes correspondence between two people can take—old fashioned missives, emails, texts, sketches—struck a chord.

My favourite? Snippets from letters spanning 1965 and 2019 between two women, who have been pen pals for over fifty years. I once had pen pals too, had a best pen pal even, from Singapore, during my primary school years—I procrastinated on studying for my exams for her; my mother wouldn’t give me her letters until I finished my homework. Sadly, none of them ever did stand the test of time.

Lucky Peach is back! Sort of.

The luminous, now sadly defunct food magazine’s co-founder and editor Peter Meehan is now heading a new Los Angeles Times standalone food sectionalso in print.

Random fact: Just before Lucky Peach announced they were shutting down a couple of years back, I was commissioned to write a day’s eating guide to Kuala Lumpur. I did, and was paid for it, but it was never published :(

Also, this is a very interesting profile on Patrick Soon-Shiong, the new South Africa-born Chinese owner of the Los Angeles Times—who first made his billions in healthcare, hence this analogy with journalism:

“I think fake news is truly the cancer of our time,” Soon-Shiong said to enthusiastic applause. “I’m just going to say it: Facebook and Google really are media companies that actually capture fake news into social media or a search element. So social media is a source of metastasis of fake news.”

(Thanks to Roads &Kingdoms’ latest newsletter—worth subscribing to—for the tip.)

Like the beginnings of a disaster movie…?

My cousin, who’s studying biochemistry (I think), has been warning me about drug-resistant bacteria for years now. Don’t use antibiotics if you don’t need it! Due to overuse, some bacteria have evolved to become immune to the antibiotics we already have, such that we might apparently go back to the bleak old days when even a cut, if infected, could kill you. But, wait, can’t they just create a new antibiotic? I ask. Yes, but it takes years, if not longer, to make one! She tells me that at a British medical conference she attended once, the military expressed particular worry about the potential of the problem. You could die of simple wounds on the battlefield!

Now, I’m no health expert, but I’m guessing my cousin knows something about this. Anyway, just check out this New York Times article (and the video) on Candida auris, a drug-resistant fungi adding to the fear of drug-resistant bacteria, and get worried:

Under her direction, hospital workers used a special device to spray aerosolized hydrogen peroxide around a room used for a patient with C. auris, the theory being that the vapor would scour each nook and cranny. They left the device going for a week. Then they put a “settle plate” in the middle of the room with a gel at the bottom that would serve as a place for any surviving microbes to grow, Dr. Rhodes said.

Only one organism grew back. C. auris. […]

A study the British government funded projects that if policies are not put in place to slow the rise of drug resistance, 10 million people could die worldwide of all such infections in 2050, eclipsing the eight million expected to die that year from cancer.

Just a really good longread

As you can tell from some of my writing—like this piece on Kolkata’s old Chinatown for the Virginia Quarterly Review—I’ve been interested for a while now in the lives of the Chinese diaspora, due in part to my own background. This recent Harper’s piece by Fae Myenne Ng about the “orphan bachelors” of San Francisco’s Chinatown, created by the Chinese Exclusion Act, is incredibly moving:

In our brief moment of childhood unity, Chinatown was a village with a hundred grandfathers, the remnants of Exclusion. I called out: Drink Whiskey Grandpa! Lame Leg Grandpa! Salty Grandpa! My father kept a wicker chair in our grocery store for any of them who wandered in.

The orphan bachelors shuffled along Dupont Avenue, our own Chinese-­American song of everlasting sorrow. They hung out on street corners, perched on hydrants, and leaned against lampposts. At Hang Ah Tea Parlor, when their bowls of plain congee arrived, they pulled out pink paper cones from their tattered jacket pockets and sprinkled tidbits of meat into their gruel. Without family, they tried their luck at the mah-­jongg hall; without wives, they sang love ballads in the underground music clubs and drank through the night at Red’s Place.

More photographs here of San Francisco Chinatown, 1896 to 1906, by Arnold Genthe.

What you should read about Brunei

Upon the news that Brunei has introduced sharia law nationwide (and the high-profile celebrity boycott of posh hotels with links to the nation’s sovereign wealth fund), there was some blowback to this South China Morning Post article. I think this Guardian piece by Kate Lamb treads some similar lines but is more fully contextualised.

This Malay Mail piece by Malaysian novelist Preeta Samarasan (Evening Is the Whole Day) also makes some good points—among which: “Moral standards should not depend on public opinion”—though I’d argue with the “fish in water, what’s water“ metaphor; I don’t think it’s necessarily true that those steeped in an illiberal system can’t appreciate its cruelties and that outsiders are better placed to speak up. But—and perhaps this is my law background speaking—I do agree that expecting people not to avail themselves of a draconian law, no matter how seemingly high the standard of proof, seems a fallacy:

Nothing, we are meant to believe, will really change in Brunei. Brunei is not Saudi Arabia; the Sultan has not killed anyone; these laws are nothing more than a bit of harmless sabre-rattling to maintain royal power at a time of falling oil revenues.

But to accept this defence is to believe that the letter of the law carries no weight whatsoever. If we recognise that the first step to protecting minorities is to put their rights on paper, then it follows that harsh laws on paper open the door to brutality in real life.

And, a thought: Might Brunei’s move not embolden other Muslim-majority countries in the region to do the same? The idea that one day, a leader in a country like, say, Malaysia might need to decide whether or not to walk the same balancing rope in order to retain power, doesn’t seem so impossible to me.

An irreverent Malaysian newsletter to subscribe to

There are three journalists behind the slyly named Between the Lines. One of them is Marc Lourdes, former director of CNN Digital Asia, whom I first met a long, long time ago while interning at The Star, a Malaysian daily, as a cub journalist.

Apparently, some people think the humour can be a little distracting, but I don’t necessarily want my newsletters on current affairs to sound like the news. I don’t read this newsletter for a strictly objective account; I read it for how I imagine seasoned journos—who still have some sense of humour left—might be talking about the latest absurdities that make up the Malaysian news cycle while they’re gathered at a mamak or a street corner or something.

Also, the quote insert that comes with every edition, often borrowed from a distant context, is a refreshing touch.

Oh Heathers

Such is the world that, even in Malaysia, I grew up on American ‘90s teen staples like Clueless, She’s All That, Cruel Intentions, and Beverly Hills 90210 (R.I.P. Luke Perry/Dylan McKay). But I only started watching ‘80s teen movies and noticing homage references to John Hughes in contemporary teen films when I was in my mid to late twenties. And I only watched Heathers, a blackly comedic high-school satire from 1988—which was on my to-watch queue—a few months ago. Seen through the lens of today, it’s just deliciously wacky, and Winona Ryder’s weird-cool in it. Counting on your nostalgia, teen movies never go out of style, I don’t think, no matter how old you get.

The New Yorker looks back on the film in its interactive, beautifully designed Touchstones series, which revisits works of culture that have made an impact.

There’s also a retrospective on Nirvana’s 1991 album, Nevermind.

I’m curious: What’s the first ever teen movie you remember watching? Mine was the 1993 movie Airborne. I discovered it with my childhood best friend in the laser-disc rental store owned by this Chinese auntie and uncle in Ipoh, my hometown, and we watched it over and over from inside a pretend tent we made in my family’s living room whenever she stayed over. Whether or not it’s actually good is not the point here.

Some words to live by

Ending on a heartwarming note, here’s Siberian photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva—her work is, in one word, magical (please, please, please just look at this)—on the importance of holding on to the child within you, even as you grow older:

More and more, I was coming back to the memories of my childhood. I felt, almost physically, how I was losing this childish awe. It was just a little bit of this left in me, and I felt like it was shrinking, shrinking, shrinking day by day, and I needed to photograph it while it was still there—a little bit, at least. [...] When it was over, I felt that I lost something. Because I'm not going to be like this, ever again.

(Thanks, Arati Kumar-Rao, for sharing this!)

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Catch up on past letters here.