Talk Show 23: with Jenna Blum, Julia Glass, Nellie Hermann and Matthew Pearl
Jenna Blum’s debut novel, Those Who Save Us, was published by Harcourt in 2004; in October 2007, it jumped onto the New York Times Bestseller List and has been there ever since. Jenna is currently working on her second novel, The Stormchasers, forthcoming from Penguin, and she’s teaching novel workshops at Grub Street Writers in Boston. Please visit Jenna’s website at www.jennablum.com and send her some text messages.
Julia Glass is the author of the novels Three Junes (winner of the National Book Award) and The Whole World Over, as well as I See You Everywhere. Her personal essays have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. A past recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Julia lives in Massachusetts with her two sons and their father.
Nellie Hermann grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and has an MFA from Columbia University. Her first novel, The Cure for Grief, was published by Scribner in August. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Visit Nellie at www.nelliehermann.com.
Matthew Pearl is the author of the novels The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens (forthcoming, March 2009). His nonfiction writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the London Telegraph, and Legal Affairs. He has also taught literature and creative writing at Harvard University and Emerson College. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Visit Matthew at www.matthewpearl.com.
––Name something you think is over-rated
Blum: Text messaging.
Glass: Leaving aside the obvious political suspects—like, say, diamond rings and blogging—I was tempted to write about caviar or Quentin Tarantino . . . but I’ll go with yoga.
Hermann: Facebook. If by “over-rated” you mean insanely ubiquitous. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say how great they think Facebook is with the exception of how great it is that they get to play Scrabulous (and I admit, this is a good feature) and I wonder, if given the chance to rate it, people would even rate it so highly? That’s the thing—people seem to be using it all the time no matter how they feel about it. Which makes me nervous.
Pearl: Everyone will be angry with me, all my friends, every other writer. But I’d say Apple, the Apple Store, i-Phone, i-things.
––What is your qualm with its popularity?
Blum: Texting, like IM-ing, encourages people to think in the type of abbreviations that should only be used by realtors and in newspaper ads—IMHO. Soon we’ll all be communicating in scraps, Y? And it’s annoying—like we needed yet another way for information to bombard us while we’re walking down the street or driving or shopping. Whatever happened to concentrating on one thing at a time, like human beings?
Glass: I have no qualms about yoga as a way of staying supple and physically fit, and I could probably be convinced that authentic Eastern practitioners of yoga do achieve some higher plane of mental acuity through convoluting their bodies into poses that remind me of the Twister craze back in junior high. Who am I to judge the rituals of another culture? What I find absurd, however, are the legions of modern American women who are suddenly, often aggressively, extolling the inner bliss and wisdom bestowed upon them every time they roll out a foam mat and emulate those poses. (Especially foolish are the ones who also personify our own cultural stereotypes, driving about in their big-butt cars, drinking their free-range chai, sporting their aubergine spandex capris and paisley Tevas.) Among the ersatz epiphanies proliferating everywhere, yoga-as-enlightenment may seem reasonably harmless, but anything that encourages people to mistake a hit of endorphins for an act of virtue looks sinister to me. (Perhaps I shouldn’t single out women, but among the men I know who practice yoga, nobody brags about spiritual gains.) And “hot yoga”? Sounds like an engraved invitation to flesh-eating staphylococci. I know one devotee who thought it had changed her life, and it did. She developed virulent allergies to the building materials in the yoga studio where she attended classes.
Hermann: There is something so creepy to me about a virtual “place” where you create your virtual “personality” which of course is only created by the stuff that you say you like, or the groups you join, or who your “friends” are. I know I come off as some kind of old-timey crank by ranting about this, but the whole thing seems like too much posturing to me, putting up more pictures of ourselves and saying what we’re “doing” at this exact moment and displaying who sent us virtual flowers. People seem to present cutesy versions of their selves, and I don’t know how much honesty is involved. It also seems like Facebook is not actually interesting or worth any time unless you spend A LOT of time doing it, keeping it updated, posting clips and pictures, and then, where does your “real” personality, the more complicated one, end up?
Pearl: It’s a cult, I’m tired of being told I should have one because everyone artistic or creative does, would never use anything else, would leave the room if someone walked in with a PC. Yes, I’ve tried using my friends’ Macs. No, I don’t like the interface, I don’t think it’s better, I think it somehow manages to be condescending. (Plus, no right click button?) And there are no choices in products. But, worse than the computers: Apple Stores. Genius Bar. And the lines people wait on at the convention centers when new apple products are announced. Stop it. Once, I was at the movies in Los Angeles. In the row in front of us, there was a young couple. The woman had an i-Phone and couldn’t stop playing with it, the guy just sat there, putting in ear plugs in preparation for the movie. I blamed the i-Phone for their existences.
––Why do you think it’s so popular?
Blum: Because it’s there. Monkey see, monkey text.
Glass: People want to be slim, fit, and live forever; that’s obvious and justifiable. But people also want short cuts to the kind of introspection and genuine humanity (empathy, humility, and fellowship) that one achieves only through positive emotional and intellectual give-and-take with friends, colleagues, family, and community—and, privately, through the contemplation of life’s ordeals and the weathering of unexpected crises. Sure, everyone yearns now and then for a soul makeover. Yoga as a form of physical discipline? Admirable. As an alternative to good psychotherapy? Wishful thinking. As a mini-religion? Yikes.
Hermann: For lots and lots of reasons. I think it caters to our voyeuristic desires, and to our desire to have control over the kind of self we project to the world. I see the appeal of meeting someone somewhere and then typing his/her name into Facebook to see what kinds of stuff s/he puts out there—I am human after all. But this can turn dangerous so fast, as in the case of a friend of mine, whose access to an ex-girlfriend’s Facebook page brought him much anguish, because he couldn’t stop himself from checking it all the time. This is a serious unintended consequence, because there is a certain natural and necessary way that people come and go from our lives, and Facebook makes the disappearance a little less easy. Not to give it such power. I realize that there are plenty of people who have healthy relationships with it, and that it’s possible to use it as a simple tool for connecting with people in different cities or countries, and etc. There might be a specifically New York component to my dislike for it, because when you’re only connecting to people that you live in the same city with it becomes a bit more perverted into a popularity contest of a strange sort. And don’t get me started on the weirdness of the instant switch between declaring yourself “single” to “in a relationship,” and the glee that I’ve witnessed over people making that switch and noticing that others have made that switch, and then the shame of switching it back to the dreaded “single” distinction…
Pearl: How did Matthew McConaughey become a big movie star before he was in a movie? Somehow people were convinced that being Apple-loyal said something about one’s identity. It’s some kind of postmodern misplaced religious instinct. I will have no friends anymore, by the way, because of this.
––What’s an under-rated alternative you’d promote in its place?
Blum: Waiting until you get home and emailing the people you want to talk to. Or picking up the phone and calling them. I’ll allow a cell. Face-to-face communication sometimes works too!
Glass: No single ritual or activity can change you so profoundly. But I have my subjective notions about what’s good for the soul. First and foremost, make a habit of reading good, meaty, absorbing fiction. Read fairy tales or favorite childhood books to your kids (or somebody else’s). Walk by the sea, often, in the dead of winter—sometimes alone, sometimes not. If you like dancing or singing, do more of it; in your kitchen, to the radio, works wonders. Every few weeks, gather with friends and prepare a satisfying meal at somebody’s home. Linger at the table and talk until you’re all talked out, no curfew. Don’t be afraid to argue, and shrug off political correctness. (Park your kids in the next room, with pizza and brownies, in front of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or, if they’re old enough, Lawrence of Arabia. Let them fall asleep in their chocolate-smeared PJs.) Any or all of these things will take you deep into your better self and help you focus on the most important questions. All are potentially transformative, rejuvenating, invigorating.
Hermann: Hmm. Book groups, maybe? Sewing circles? Intramural sports teams? Conversation?
Pearl: I use a Sony PC. But I’m not a commercial for them. That’s the thing, I don’t think my PC says *anything* about my identity. I don’t want it to. It’s just my computer. What I would like is if they stopped inventing 1/5″ laptops long enough to invent a good cloth to clean my laptop screen, which gets filthy within seconds.
––What could convince you to join the fanfare?
Blum: Oh, I didn’t say I don’t text. LOL! But I am trying to wean off.
Glass: I tried yoga several years ago and found it physically counterintuitive—which may be the point, I know. So perhaps I quit too soon. A no-hype yoga teacher could probably recruit me again for the bodily benefits—my bones are getting too old for my running routine—but as for the rest, I’m always wary when I spot the emperor’s fashion consultant cruising over the castle moat in his spiffy carriage. Call me benighted, curmudgeonly, resistant, but this much I know: exercising my imagination—as well as delving into the imaginings of others—will always give me a spiritual workout unlike any other.
Hermann: I admit that I have been momentarily tempted to join under an alias just so I can play Scrabulous with a couple of particularly wordy friends. It hasn’t happened yet, and I sort of doubt it will. If it does, I will be the worst kind of Facebook member, the kind that skulks around under a fake name and makes everyone more confused about their virtual network and who their friends really are.
Pearl: I have an i-Pod. It was a gift.