famous American eccentrics #22

In his review of the film "Capote," David Denby indicates that the filmmakers used the character of William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker during the period depicted in the film, as "an aggressive force who moves the plot along" (The Current Cinema, October 10th). As William Shawn's sons, we would like to amplify Denby's comment by noting, for the record, that in detail and in substance the William Shawn depicted in "Capote" is invented out of whole cloth by the filmmakers. In the film, Shawn speaks of "building interest" in Capote's piece, organizes a book reading for the writer at which he introduces him personally, arranges to have Richard Avedon go out to Kansas to photograph the author and the two murderers, and flies out to Kansas himself to visit with Capote. The real-life William Shawn did not believe that articles or their authors should be publicized. He resisted even putting a table of contents in the magazine itself to trumpet what each issue contained. He never organized a reading for Capote or any other writer, and never addressed one, as he never spoke in public on any occasion. He didn't arrange Richard Avedon's photographic trips or publish any photographs by Avedon, as he didn't think there should be photographs in The New Yorker. The film's Shawn expresses rapt interest in the details of the crime Capote wrote about, whereas the actual Shawn found even the mention of blood disturbing, and, much as he revered Capote's writing, found editing "In Cold Blood" upsetting. Quiveringly empathic by nature, the real William Shawn was literally the last man on earth who would make a joke about the killer Perry's impending death, as the character Shawn in the film does. The real Shawn never went to Kansas to visit with Capote, and in fact he never had the experience of flying on an airplane.

Allen and Wallace Shawn
Bennington, Vt., and New York City

(letter in the April 3, 2006 New Yorker)


famous English eccentrics #34

“I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me or differ from me in any way as it interferes with the functioning of my gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.”

notice hung by Sir George Sitwell on the gate of his manor


famous English eccentrics #33

"We are an eccentric English person,” says the artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, greeting me at his apartment, where he’s touching up collages. “You’re okay with that?” I nod. “Good,” he purrs, his voice dropping an octave. “Then we’re going to do just fine."

New York magazine


what novels do that movies can't

Nothing in all the motion-picture arts can put you inside the head, the skin, the central nervous system of another human being the way a realistic novel can. The movies are not much better with status details. When it comes time to deal with social gradations, they are immediately reduced to gross effects likely to lapse into caricature at any moment: the house that is too grand or too dreadful, the accent that is too snobbish or too crude.

Which brings us to another major shortcoming of the movies as a technology: they have a hard time explaining... anything. They are a time-driven medium compelled by their very nature to produce a constant flow of images. Three movies have been made from things I've written, and in each case I was struck by how helpless perfectly talented people were when it came time to explain... anything... in the midst of that vital flow, whether it be the mechanics and aerodynamics of a rocket-assisted airplane or the ins and outs of racial politics in the Bronx.

Tom Wolfe
"My Three Stooges"


why we hate classic theater

One problem for Shakespearean actors nowadays is that they are plainly embarrassed by the more famous speeches, like: 'Had I but died an hour before this chance' or 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,' both of which [Nicol] Williamson [in the RSC's production of Macbeth] threw away. I see their difficulty, but it seems a shame that we shall never hear these speeches properly delivered.

One solution might be to swap them around a bit. Thus, instead of saying 'Once more into the breach, dear friends,' Henry V might recite 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen'; instead of 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,' Macbeth might break into 'Where the bee sucks, there suck I.'

Obviously this solution is not ideal, particularly from the point of view of narrative continuity, but it seems to meet two requirements—the actors' passion for endless novelty and the audiences' pathetic hope of hearing a little poetry from time to time.

The Private Eye Diary of Auberon Waugh
December 11, 1974


what is "sophisticated humor"?

[To win the New Yorker cartoon contest], should you make a pun or, perhaps, create a visual gag about a cat surreptitiously reading its owner's email? Neither. You must aim for what is called a "theory-of-mind" caption, which requires the reader to project intents or beliefs into the minds of the cartoon's characters. An exemplary New Yorker theory-of-mind caption (accompanying a cartoon of a police officer ticketing a caveman with a large wheel): "Yeah, yeah—and I invented the ticket." The humor here requires inference about the caveman's beliefs and intentions as he (presumably) explains to the cop that he invented the wheel. A non-theory-of-mind caption (accompanying a cartoon of a bird wearing a thong), however, requires no such projection: "It's a thongbird." Theory-of-mind captions make for higher-order jokes easily distinguished from the simian puns and visual gags that litter the likes of MAD Magazine. To date, 136 out of the 145 caption contest winners (94 percent) fall into the "theory-of-mind" category.

How to Win the New Yorker Cartoon Contest
Patrick House


Sade vs. God

If that existence—if God's existence—were proven true, the mere pleasure of annoying such a being would become the most precious compensation for the necessity I would then find myself in to acknowledge some belief in him.



The Natural World

zombie squirrels    meerkats

What is the avant-garde? (part two)

On your website, the publishing house is described as subversive, innovative, avant-garde, experimental. Do you think postmodern is a useful adjective when applied to fiction? Do you publish postmodern books?

The most honest answer, which will seem quite self-indulgent, is that I publish what’s interesting to me and leave it to others to supply the adjectives. Many years ago, together with an editor at the press, we hit upon the word "subversive" because we were frequently asked to describe the fiction we publish and both of us felt that it was in fact "traditional," if one considers the history of fiction. We might appear to be "avant-garde" only in comparison to what is popular or taken seriously in the last several decades, but we are not avant-garde if you think of such writers as Cervantes or Laurence Sterne. If Sterne were writing today, he would be labeled a postmodernist, but what sense would that make, given when he was actually writing? As far as I am concerned, the history of fiction is one of invention, oftentimes playful and conscious of itself, but always pushing limits in terms of what it is and what else it can be. But I absolutely do not think of a Sterne or a Joyce as "experimenters": they didn't experiment, they made these remarkable books whose ingenuity and art are rarely seen in other writers or matched. Their works are finished and complete achievements, not experiments. At the same time, I am very aware that there are writers who are "experimenters," who are trying out different forms and styles, and who are primarily interested in such experimentation. We, however, do not publish them.

interview with John O'Brien of Dalkey Archive Press
Los Angeles Times


What is the avant-garde? (part one)

Avant-gardes claim to create the art of the future. But the "art of the future" generally proves wrong about the real future of art in the same way that the "city of the future" on display at a world's fair proves wrong about the future of cities.

Edward Mendelson (on Frank O'Hara)