A new book, Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements, gives a fascinating peek at how famous writers were packaged and pitched to the reading public – before they were famous.
And on the topic of writerly nostalgia, we stumbled on this deliciously gossipy, luxuriously long article from New York magazine on the links and friendships between American writers like Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and David Foster Wallace before they were famous. There’s some great writing and little-known facts in here.
Did you know David Foster Wallace had Mary Karr’s name tattooed on his arm and once threw a coffee table at her? Or that the first time Jonathan Franzen heard from a peer was when DFW wrote to praise his first novel? ‘I was desperate for friends,’ Franzen later recalled.
New research shows that ‘fearless dominance associated with psychopathy’ could be an important predictor of how well a president performs. The analysis drew on personality assessments of 42 presidents, up to and including George W. Bush.
‘Fearless dominance, linked to low social and physical apprehensiveness, correlates with better-rated presidential performance for leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management and Congressional relations,’ concluded lead author Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University.
In the Mad Men-era, women at Newsweek were told that ‘women don’t write here’, even though they had been through the same college educations as their male colleagues. Women like Nora Ephron and Susan Brownmiller escaped to more welcoming environments. But in 1970, 46 women sued for gender discrimination, in the first lawsuit of its kind.
When the rest of us saw that guys who graduated from the same schools without any professional experience got hired as reporters and writers over us, that’s when we decided to do something. But we were so insecure and so intimidated about trying out as writers that we asked a few guys to teach a writing course for women.
Times changed, of course. Next Thursday, Julia Baird, former deputy editor of Newsweek, will be at the Wheeler Centre to talk about media and politics in America, with Richard Fidler, Siobhan Heanue and chair Sophie Black.
Are you polishing off a story, ready to send out to magazines and journals? Well, if you are, take a look at this Indiana Review article – which has been doing the rounds of the local literary internet this week – first. Does it fit one of the three categories that make it unlikely to get past the first hurdle?
They are: ‘The Sad Garage Sale’ (Carver already did this one, better than you’re likely to), stories of epiphanies around a sick bed, and ‘Scholars Misbehaving’ (unless you’re Michael Chabon writing The Wonder Boys).
The words ‘psychopath’ and ‘psychopathy’ have a chequered history in psychiatry. Widely used in the mid-20th century, they’ve become more contested in recent decades as the psychiatric community tries to define a psychopath with scientific rigour. Deborah Cameron, a Scottish feminist linguist, wrote in 1987 that the word ‘psychopathy’ has become an “infinitely elastic, catch-all category”. An article by R. Blackburn the following year in the British Journal of Psychiatry argued that the word was more of a moral judgment than a scientific category.
Around that time, a psychiatrist called Robert Hare developed a checklist to determine whether or not someone was a psychopath. That checklist became the basis for Welsh journalist Jon Ronson’s investigation of psychopathy, The Psychopath Test (previously mentioned here, here and here).
These days, psychopathy is back in vogue, largely thanks to Ronson. His research found that psychopaths, as defined by the Hare checklist, make up one per cent of the general population – but that there are four times that number at the highest levels of business and politics. (To see the video of Ronson’s recent Wheeler Centre appearance, click on the image below.)
It’s an assessment that Conrad Black, a Canadian former media baron and owner of The Age, might well agree with. Just today, in an article in the Business section of the Huffington Post, Black has published a damning assessment of Rupert Murdoch in which he labels his nemesis a psychopath: “My admiration for his boldness and acumen and our previous 25 years of more than civil relations make it unpleasant, despite his unspeakable assault on me, to have to conclude that he is, in my personal belief, a psychopath. I think behind his nondescript personality lurks a repressed, destructive malice. His is, and has been proved to be, in some measure, a criminal organization.” Of course, Black’s diagnosis is highly unreliable: he’s now serving time in the US for white collar crimes after long having been the subject of News Limited newspaper opprobrium.
In a feature published in today’s Age, US psychologist Christopher Ryan likens monogamy to vegetarianism, saying a monogamous lifestyle is possible but not necessarily what human beings are predisposed to adhering to.
Christopher Ryan is the co-author – with his wife, psychiatrist Cacilda Jetha – of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. He’ll appear at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday, delivering this week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox on the topic of ‘Sexual Vegetarianism’.
You’ll see them in shopping centres every weekend seeking sedation: people trying to buy their next high.
Reduce greed. There’s your answer. Thank you and good night.
Nothing new, nothing fancy, nothing even slightly original. Here’s a tip to increase your happiness. Just stop trying to fill that gaping hole inside yourself with more stuff. Or shelving for the stuff. Or a bigger house for the shelving. It doesn’t work. It just makes the hole bigger. Everything won’t be fine if you just get new light fittings, replace the curtains or buy a new mobile phone. No one needs 12 doona covers. Everything will be fine if you take a big breath and stop buying crap you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like.
Does anyone else want to slap half the people around you and say “You’d have more peace if you just spent less money”? People complain about how hard they work, how little money they have and how their relationship is at breaking point. And then what do they do? Exercise? Meditate? Work less? Nope. They buy themselves a cappuccino machine they’ll only use twice, an exercise bike that will be the most expensive clothes hanger they have ever owned, shoes they’ll never wear and then sign up for cable TV. And then put their hand up for more overtime.
Next time you find yourself itching for some retail therapy, think about what would really turn off that desire button inside you, not just put it on snooze. Take a look at your wardrobe overflowing with clothes you don’t wear, your shed chockers with tools you don’t use or that entertainment unit groaning under the weight of the hundreds of dollars of DVDs and CDs that you’ve never played. Remember how excited you were and how you truly believed, deep down in the soul of your being, that each purchase would bring you happiness. How it would soothe those wounds of feeling unloved, unappreciated and unhappy. How you had to have it. The thrill of the purchase,
the excitement of the homecoming and then the punch in the stomach when your credit card bill arrived.
Middle-class whingers complaining about how hard they are struggling need a good slap. They are offensive to true battlers out there who stock up on their brand of margarine when it’s on special and don’t buy new socks but mend the ones they have.
Someone handed me $300 cash the other day. It felt like a million dollars. It felt like far more money than 10 times as much sitting in my bank account. Because I could see it, feel it, smell it. These days money is invisible. People don’t actually know how much things cost them. If people had to slave away and earn the cash before they could acquire the things they wanted, given the choice and knowing how much sweat it’d taken, they’d go for the cash. The invisible money culture is not only ravaging the environment, it’s corroding lives and destroying happiness. Putting it on the credit card or taking money out of the mortgage? It’s all invisible money.
I call it the Veruca Salt syndrome. I want it and I want it NOW. People have to have the big house, the new car, the new kitchen, the new clothes NOW. Once upon a time people saved, they waited, they went without. Same happy. Some say more happy.
The symptoms of affluenza, luxury fever and conspicuous consumption can all be alleviated by the simple mantra “I have enough”. The worried-well need less, not more. The stressed-out full-timers who live on Mortgagee Mountain, between Default District and Foreclosure Falls, dig themselves in deeper as they attempt to find peace in the purchase of plasma TVs so each member of the family can watch Big Brother in their own room of the McMansion.
People are in debt up to their eyebrows and they tell me it’s good for the economy. But it’s destroying our spiritual economy. Is this the spiritual recession we had to have? Kids want to lie on the grass watching the clouds roll by with chilled-out parents. Not be dragged through shopping centres by harassed mums and dads trying to anaesthetise their existential pain by purchasing more stuff to plug in and more stuff to store.
On any perfect 25-degree windless Sunday you will find Chadstone, Northland, DFO and all those soul-destroying cathedrals of emptiness chockers with people attempting to sedate. Take two transactions and call me in the morning. They’d be better off spending a few hours sitting in a church. And that’s coming from an atheist. Greed and consumption addict people and they spend weekends trawling shopping centres chasing the next hit.
Happy is the man who is content with what he has. And the woman who needs only one pair of good shoes and a library card. Maybe I should follow the advice of the graffiti I read last week: SHUT UP AND SHOP.
By Mark Mordue
The Rolling Stones song ‘Emotional Rescue’ is a seduction song thinly veiled in romance. The urgency and strut that it exudes, Mick Jagger’s startling use of falsetto – it’s all about getting a woman to leave her husband and join him in bed.
By surrendering to her desires and to his, the singer will come to that woman’s emotional rescue. It’s likely to be a very temporary liberation, however. As Jagger hints early in the song, “Don’t you know promises were never meant to keep.”
There are often gaps between what we say and what we mean, of course. Some conscious, others subconscious. Our listening can involve similar arts of opportunity and self-deception. There are messages we don’t want to receive. Others we need to have, whether they are present in what someone says or does – or not.
Our emotions are rarely singular, and pass over us like one cloud hiding another and perhaps another again. The argument would be we should use our mind to read that weather more clearly, to make sense of those feelings that impel us, and then to see ourselves and perhaps act more wisely. Or to surrender – because we want to surrender – to something that at first glance is irrational, wild, destructive or thrilling, as the case may be. To be rescued, as it were, from the rational world that dulls us and even imprisons us.
Art is a kind of tarot for our feelings, a set of stories and symbols through which we can see ourselves. In Shakespeare’s time the connection was more ordered and universally understood, a universe of bodily humors from which character and all human destiny stemmed.
Though we lack such an elaborate and living map of the self today, I find I am still able to read another map, a map that is not fixed but somehow flowing, visible within the arts available to me. And that through these encounters I can examine what my feelings are – and even reinvigorate them by listening to music or reading a book when modern life seems to extinguish those sparks.
In a recent interview, Laura Marling – the young English singer most often compared to Joni Mitchell – declared herself to be an anti-romantic rationalist, to be all about logic over feelings. Marling is a woman barely 21 years old who’s produced a supreme second album entitled A Creature I Don’t Know (oh the irony). It’s hard to recall a record of such up-tempo and annihilating dispensations emerging since Chrissie Hynde appeared on the scene with The Pretenders some 30 years ago. Though arising out of an English folk-pop background, Marling’s voice also echoes the smoky, side-on snarl of Hynde at her best. Her lyrics are not only literary, they venture into a dark yet ultimately optimistic aloneness that seems rare: neither soporifically happy, nor darkly cliched. She works towards stripping away illusions about romance while sustaining a deep poetry and sense of mystery to her lyrics.
At the same time I started listening to her new record and absorbing her world-view, I found myself hurled backwards – somewhat nostalgically – by the documentary Autoluminescent. A depiction of the life and loss of former Birthday Party guitarist, Rowland S. Howard, Autoluminescent takes some of its hard-edge romance from the influence of 19th century French poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, both of whom Howard echoed in his looks, lyrics and ambience.
In the documentary, Howard talks about writing his first important song, ‘Shivers’, when he was only 16. He had noticed his schoolmates indulging in their emotions to hysterical extremes. It was all too much. Thus the withering lines of a jilted young man who might well be Howard himself: “’I’ve been contemplating suicide/but it’s really not my style.”
Howard could look back at the song and laugh at his own bravado, and his insight into excess emotion. “Says me”, he observes wryly in the documentary, “a guy who has always had a glass heart on his sleeve.”
Howard died last year of liver failure brought on by complications wrought by hepatitis C, contracted from intravenous drug use as a young man. Ultimately Autoluminescent is about promise unfulfilled, but it’s also about the great things Howard gave us as a musician and songwriter. It’s a legacy at once genuinely tragic and yet luminous, leaving you with a far-from-singular feeling – one that might best be described as ecstatic grieving.
A great artistic encounter brings something truthful to how we feel about ourselves and see the world. It’s a mysterious tension – an overlapping, contradictory richness – that somehow makes sense without ever reducing things to an easy answer or summary. It may be this is the only emotional rescue we can ever count on. In the meantime, we continue to seek our freedoms in the strangest ways – as often as not in spite of ourselves – jolted back into awareness by a wave of music, a line of poetry, a painting, a song … then continuing on our way.
Mark Mordue is the 2010 Pascall Prize Australian Critic of the Year. He is currently working on a biography of Nick Cave.
No longer is alarmism about modern-day psychiatry the preserve of conspiracy theorists and Scientologists. That a forthcoming appearance at the Wheeler Centre by Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, has sold out is an indication of increasing interest in mental illnesses and the psychoactive pharmaceuticals prescribed to treat them.
A recent two-part essay in the New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell, ‘The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?’, raises alarming questions about the state of modern psychiatry and of the role pharmaceutical companies are playing in the development of widely-accepted treatments. Angell writes that a major 2001-2003 survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health in the US found that almost half the adult population fit the criteria for having suffered a mental illness at some point of their lives. One in ten 10-year-old boys in the US now take stimulants to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and there are half a million children in the US on antipsychotic drugs.
While psychoactive drugs undoubtedly have a beneficial effect for many sufferers of mental illness, perhaps the saddest aspect of current US psychiatry is, according to Angell, its links to poverty. “As low-income families experience growing economic hardship, many are finding that applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments on the basis of mental disability is the only way to survive. It is more generous than welfare, and it virtually ensures that the family will also qualify for Medicaid.” To qualify for SSI, applicants are generally required to be taking psychoactive drugs. The result? A study found that “children from low-income families are four times as likely as privately insured children to receive antipsychotic medicines.”
On Monday, 26 September, the Wheeler Centre will be hosting Sad, the first of three events in the Sad/Angry/Happy series on the emotions. For this event, chair Noni Hazlehurst will be joined by politician Andrew Robb, comedian Ben Pobjie and Dr Nicole Highet of beyondblue.
Emma Forrest’s career as a writer almost predates her adolescence. She’s toured with pop bands, written a column in the Times, published several books including three novels, and dated stars of stage and screen. She’s also struggled with debilitating mental illness. This is how she described her descent into madness in a 2008 Guardian article advising sympathy for Britney Spears:
“I was 22 in 2000, living in New York on contract to this newspaper and about to have my first book hit the shelves … Beginning as writer’s block, [the psychosis] evolved into a profound self-loathing made visible around my studio apartment by a knee-deep mess of newspapers, magazines, books, clothes … It starts to be a psychotic break when one moves from depression to being afraid of opening the refrigerator because the monster that yells, ‘Zool!’ at Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters might be there. But I didn’t see how crazy that was … By the end of 2000, I was self mutilating a few times a week and having four scaldingly hot baths a day, trying to feel something and trying to make the hours pass, like Britney, driving in circles, padding out her days.”
After a serious suicide attempt, Forrest ended up in hospital, where her illness stabilised. Her path back to wellness began following her return to New York, when she began seeing her psychiatrist, whom she refers to as Dr R. In her memoir of the time, Your Voice in My Head, Dr R looms as a large, beneficent presence. In her words, he helped Forrest “fall out of love with madness”. In her memoir, Forrest writes about Dr R’s unexpected death, and having to learn to be happy on her own. Nowadays, Forrest is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.
A new book claims that, while one in 100 people in the general population are psychopaths, in the boardroom the ratio is four times higher (go to 18m40s). In The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, calls psychopathy “the madness that makes the world go round”. In a Youtube video to promote the book he adds, “there’s a preponderance of psychopaths – people with a complete lack of human empathy – at the heart of the political and business elites”. Here’s a review and here’s an interview.
Jon Ronson became interested in psychopathy when he was contacted by a patient of a hospital for the mentally ill he calls ‘Tony’. Tony convinced Ronson he had faked his mental illness to avoid a prison term for a crime he’d been charged with. When Ronson spoke to hospital authorities about the case, they agreed that Tony had faked his mental illness, but that the fact that he’d faked a mental illness to escape criminal conviction was a sign that Tony was a psychopath.
The author uses Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist to conclude that corporate figures such as ‘Chainsaw Al’ Dunlap might just qualify. The list includes: glibness/superficial charm; a grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; cunning/manipulative behaviour; lack of remorse or guilt; short-lived and egocentric emotion; callousness/lack of empathy; failure to accept responsibility for actions; susceptibility to boredom; poor behavioral control; and lack of realistic long-term goals (full list here).
Literature has a long and proud history of psychopaths, arguably beginning with the Arabian Nights, in which Scheherazade staves off the murderous impulses of a psychopathic king with the power of storytelling. Film has made much mileage of psychopaths, too, particularly Stanley Kubrick. But among psychologists, the word ‘psychopath’ itself is controversial, particularly its classification, alongside sociopathy, as a subset of antisocial personality disorder.
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