The Loneliest Number

lonelycitylaing-199x300My review of Olivia Laing’s new book The Lonely City is just out.

I was offended and dismayed by The New York Times review last week, which not only brings up Laing’s appearance but then refers us to the author’s photo to conclude that she is “utterly unhideous.” If you read the book she’s painfully self conscious about being judged by the beauty standards imposed upon women, so just — wow.

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Victoria Amongst the Victorians

Angel of the Nativity; Julia Margaret Cameron (British, born India, 1815 - 1879); Freshwater, Isle of Wight, England; 1872; Albumen silver print; 32.9 x 24.3 cm (12 15/16 x 9 9/16 in.); 84.XM.443.3

Angel of the Nativity by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872; albumen silver print.

Just back from London, where I saw the new Julia Margaret Cameron retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum— it’s a big show for the 200th anniversary of Cameron’s birth and it focusses on her relationship with what became the V&A (then the South Kensington Museum) and its founder Henry Cole. The V&A was one of the first museums to collect photographs and Cameron’s work was amongst their first acquisitions. Using letters from their collection as well as the photos themselves, curator Marta Weiss makes a great case that Cameron’s so-called “sloppy” technique was due at least in part to her habit of sending her artist-mentor-friends imperfect prints so she could save the better ones to sell. Unfortunately for her, those seconds given to her famous friends (like painter G.F. Watts and astronomer J.F.W.H. Herschel, whose album of Cameron photos is now on display at the Science Museum) ended up in museum collections all over the world — which gave an unrepresentative view of her work. That is not to say that Cameron never exhibited or sold photographs that her contemporaries considered flawed: the soft-focus edges and smeary lines of the “Angel of the Nativity” photo shown here demonstrate how her style emphasized artful composition and emotional effect over technical precision. But this exhibit provides some much-needed context for all the controversy about Cameron’s technique, which inevitably was gendered around her status as an early woman photographer. The catalogue to the show also breaks down the usual linear chronology of her work to organize it around the five surviving letters Cameron wrote to Cole. All in all, the exhibit provides a striking new look at an old “mistress,” to quote a now-old term by art historian Griselda Pollock….

[I’m grateful to the V&A staff who invited me to give a Works in Progress talk there. I uploaded a PDF version of my slides here: Jane and Julia]

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Playing the Orchestra

I saw the new Danny Boyle film at a screening this week. I’m not sure which was more impressive — the film or the Q&A afterwards…. Boyle was there with the film’s editor Elliot Graham and the composer Daniel PembertoMV5BMjE0NTA2MTEwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzg4NzU2NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_n and they talked about their collaborative process in interweaving the three parts of the film. What I loved most about the film was its construction. I’ve admired the beauty and intelligence of Boyle’s films in the past– across a range of genres– but this one impressed most with its structure.

Organized in three parts around three product launches, the film has three different aesthetics that Boyle described in the Q&A. The first section takes place in 1984 at the Macintosh launch and it’s filmed in 16mm that gives it a home-video feel. The second takes place in a San Francisco opera theater in 1988 for the product launch of NEXT and it’s shot in 35 mm with a sharp, documentary focus and a roving handheld camera. The last section takes place at the 1998 product launch for the iMac and it’s shot on digital video, which Doyle pointed out later was a sort of gesture toward Jobs’ technological innovations in the Pixar-produced Toy Story in 1995. Boyle explicitly described this three-act composition in the Q&A as a theatrical metaphor and it works very well to focus what could otherwise be a sprawling narrative or a dull chronological biopic. Boyle then knits the pieces together through a small cast of characters with a few ongoing conflicts– like the ones between Jobs and Wozniak or between Steve and his daughter. This structure gives the film both a sort of universal human story as well as a specific reality in one man’s life.

Jobs, of course, was notoriously difficult and Boyle and the actor Michael Fassbender don’t shirk from his negative side, though the film will certainly be critiqued as a romanticized view because of its warm and fuzzy ending. Specifically, the film emphasizes Jobs’ inability to give credit to colleagues, or even to acknowledge other people (including his daughter). This becomes a sort of megalomania: he’s the god-like creator who sits above it all but doesn’t do any of the actual work. In Aaron Sorkin’s script Jobs describes himself as a conductor, who “plays the orchestra” instead of being a virtuoso musician. Yet throughout the film I imagined asking Boyle during the Q&A how he felt about the obvious parallel between directing a film and running a visionary company like Apple, between him and Jobs. I didn’t have to ask, though, because during the conversation he brought it up himself, admitting that he had none of the actual skills of his editors or composers or actors, but only the ability to recognize and synthesize those skills. It was a remarkable acknowledgment, that revealed both how close Boyle was to Jobs and how very far away. Sitting there at his own “product launch” with three colleagues talking about collaboration was yet another ending to a remarkable film.

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NEW Cameron Interview!

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Kirsty Stonell Walker, biographer of Pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Cornforth, on her blog The Kissed Mouth. Our conversation about Julia Margaret Cameron and my middle-grade novel Word Blind  is posted here. Thanks, Kirsty!

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This is a good time to announce that Word Blind is now out on several new ebook platforms. If you’ve read it please consider posting reviews on any of these pages!

Barnes and Noble

iBooks

Kobo

Scribd

Oyster

Page Foundry

COMING SOON: Open Letters Monthly article on the Romance Writers of American convention and the ebook of my biography From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography.

 

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#RWA

I’m working on an article for Open Letters Monthly on the Romance Writers of America annual conference, which just ended in NYC. Here are some quick notes while I think about it…. [I know, I know I should have been tweeting and posting the whole time! But how do people get to all that?! she whines]

  • Best snippet of a session I heard: Liz Pelletier’s Spotlight on Entangled, where she wowed me with ten minutes of anecdotes about her editing process, including how she trains their interns in editing. As it ended the woman next to me said with similar awe: “who was that?”
  • Strangest snapshots: Goody Room Before and Afters. The last day the room looked like a tornado had hit it– with boxes of Harlequins of every stripe and sub-stripe on the floor; piles of bookmarks, buttons, and random swag; and a handwritten note from a peeved author: “To the person who took my promo out of its basket, left the promo, and took the basket. I hope karma bites you in the butt.”
  • Most appreciated gesture from a total stranger: At the Avon Meet and Greet author Candis Terry saw me standing alone, nervously, and went out of her way to introduce me to her editors. I was painfully grateful and now I’ll go read her books!
  • Worst moment of the conference: on my way there on Saturday morning I was late and rushing and when a stroller on the sidewalk blocked my path I must have shown something BAD on my face because the woman pushing it said “seriously? you’ve got to lose the attitude!” And I brooded on it ALL DAY. Because I hated that I gave her grief and I hated that she gave me back even more than I gave her.
  • Best quote from a session: romance novelist Eloisa James saying “E.L. James did not make my life any easier.”
  • New vocabulary words I learned: perma-free, street team, lookalike audiences
  • Most common advice to writers: “ask for what you want!”
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