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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Poetry, Writing Fiction, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Ugly American

All poets, if they are any good,” Charles Simic has said, “tend to stand apart from their literary age.” The key phrase here, of course, is “if they are any good”; average poets don’t just stand within their age, they compose it. But we sometimes talk as if ­poets are exceptions not simply when they write well, but because they write at all. According to this way of thinking, the art form demands such devotion to one’s individuality that every poet, no matter how lowly, is a kind of outsider — a Cheese Who Stands Alone. This perception frequently finds its way into depictions of poets in popular culture; it also emerges in the vehemence with which poets themselves regularly declare their opposition to labels, categories, schools, allegiances, booster clubs, car pools, intramural softball teams and so on. Yet when everyone is busy standing apart, how is it possible to stand out? What does real independence look like? On Poetry
Too Close to Touch

Among the many lasting consequences of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was the collateral damage it inflicted on Afghanistan and the war there against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Money, troops and expertise were diverted to Iraq, and as the RAND Corporation political scientist Seth G. Jones observes in his useful new book, the initial success of the military operation in Afghanistan was squandered. The Choices That Closed a Window Into Afghanistan

Steve Hely needed to know how to write very well in order to write as miserably as he does in “How I Became a Famous Novelist.” In a satirical novel that is a gag-packed assault on fictitious best-selling fiction, Mr. Hely, who has been a writer for David Letterman and “American Dad,” takes aim at genre after genre and manages to savage them all. You are invited to trawl the mass-market fiction in your local bookstore if you think Mr. Hely is making much up. Psst! Secrets of a Best-Selling Hack: Basic Rules for Writing Fiction

Taking office in January, Barack Obama promised a radically different vision of foreign policy from that of his predecessor. But on perhaps the most critical issue, the new king looks a lot like the old one. In Pakistan, President Obama has retained the Bush administration’s targeted drone missile attacks against suspected militants and may quietly be expanding the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert battle against jihadis along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. As Nicholas Schmidle, a contributor to publications including The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic and Slate, reveals in a richly reported book based on his two years traveling across Pakistan, United States policy does not change because Pakistan, sadly, does not change. Eyewitness: Pakistan

In the annals of misunderstood titles, a special place belongs to William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s novel “The Ugly American.” Today, the phrase is shorthand for our compatriots who wear tube tops to the Vatican or shout for Big Macs in Beijing. But as summer vacation season begins (at least for those who can still afford it), it’s worth recalling that the impolitic travelers in “The Ugly American” aren’t drunken backpackers or seniors sporting black socks, but the so-called educated elite of the diplomatic corps, whose insensitivity to local language and customs prompts observations like this: “The simple fact is, Mr. Ambassador, that average Americans, in their natural state, if you will excuse the phrase, are the best ambassadors a country can have,” a Filipino minister tells an American official. “They are not suspicious, they are eager to share their skills, they are generous. But something happens to most Americans when they go abroad. Many of them are not average . . . they are second-raters.” Essay - Still ‘Ugly’ After All These Years


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