Sunday, August 26, 2007

Alaska's Hobo Jim

Hey, culture mavens, Parrot here, reporting from Alaska.

Huh? A parrot in Alaska? Why not, he asked; don't you all go to Amazon? Anyway, the Alaska coast is basically thousands of miles of rain forest, so Senor Parrot was right at home, shaking off raindrops for most of the last 3 days. And Owl? She just hooked up with her Great Northern buddies and everything was okay.

In our first 3 days out we saw a herd of mountain goats, half a dozen bald eagles, a moose family, lots of magpies, a couple of humpback whales, 2 orcas, several dozen sea lions, otters, a huge black bear (from a boat, thank you), jumping salmon and 3 chipmunks. Okay, the chipmunks weren't that exciting. We're here for another week and almost running out of new species to view. Well, no caribou yet, except on the ubiquitous Alaska wilderness videos they show here. On Friday we drove from Seward to Valdez (that's Val-deez, in case you've been saying it wrong since 1989, like me) taking our time to stop at a dozen or so scenic turnouts. The drives here are stunning, 3-5,000' mountains shooting up from the foot of every road, lush vegetation giving way to snow-capped angular peaks, endless rivers, lakes, falls, fjords. Ten miles or less out of any city here and you are in pristine wilderness. We've met lots of people who came to Alaska to visit and never left. No, their cars didn't break down, like mine did back Brooklyn, just in time for me to junk it and not worry about it for the 2 weeks I'm away. The place is addictive. Of course, it's still August. I don't know if a visit in January would be as compelling. Then again, meet the world's only skiing parrot.

With all this beauty I could easily write about the aesthetics of nature for a while. And there is plenty to consider here; for instance, the awesome experience of watching a glacier shed several tons of ice as if it were a dandruff flake, muddled by the contradictory knowledge that global warming is a great destructive force. But that is not actually the subject of this post. The subject, rather, is Hobo Jim.

Our first day on the road (that was Wednesday, August 22) was incredibly rich, but at the end of it, we arrived at the Hostel in Homer too late to eat dinner just about anywhere. The only place open, we heard, was Duggan's pub. "But they have real food, not just pub food." So off we went to Duggan's, looking for a quick and modest meal. (10:00 p.m. Homer time was already 2:00 a.m. Parrot time, so retiring sounded pretty good.) Well, first thing at Duggan's, there's a guy at the door collecting a $2 cover charge for live music. "We're just here for dinner", we explained, and he sort of grudgingly let us pass (it helps to be from Brooklyn sometimes). But the musician had already taken the stage (such as it was); every seat and table was taken except at the counter below the open window to the kitchen. We planted ourselves there and even got them to clean away the dirty trays.

We actually had the best clam chowder we've had in Alaska at Duggan's, and a delicious fresh halibut sandwich. If Alaska weren't named Alaska, and if there were not a competitor known as salmon, the state would surely have been named Halibut. Every port, every diner, every grocery store carries halibut, fisherman stand on docks and mud flats fishing for halibut, and it would not surprise me if the Anchorage City Hall were built in the shape of a halibut. It's tasty and very hardy food, a bit like swordfish but a lot cheaper and easier to catch. So we sat there and enjoyed our first real Alaska meal (breakfast and lunch were about what we would have eaten in Brooklyn) and listened, whether we liked it or not, to a guy who was billed as "Hobo Jim".

What happened as the night went on was as exciting as the scenery along the Turnagain Arm, our route down from Anchorage. First, being a bit of a songbird myself, I had to admit that the guy was good. In fact, the more he played, the more I thought he was not just good, but a unique and incredibly talented performer. And songwriter. Actually, it soon became clear that Hobo Jim was not some local yokel who picked up a guitar every once in a while and did the rounds of the Homer bars playing Dylan covers, which is what I expected. Instead, what we walked in on is an Alaska institution, the unofficial and possibly official state troubadour (he said something about being anointed by the governor in some manner or other, but I didn't quite catch it.) Everyone in Homer seemed to know him by name; he lives there, and it's not a big town, but I get the feeling he's known statewide. A native Alaskan in Valdez, our sea-kayaking leader, knew of him and lamented the fact that he never played there. It is not at all surprising that Alaska should have troubadours; the land and the waters are awe-inspiring, breeding a culture that is perhaps more well-defined than that of any single state in the "lower 48", and this inevitably makes its way into song.

Hobo Jim dramatizes the Alaskan life in song, somewhere between the way Woody did for the dust bowl and Jimmy Buffet does for Florida. Alaska has its own brand of seriousness and its own brand of humor as well. The serious side is captured in songs about the challenges of living in a place that is still perhaps 99% wilderness. Humor emerges naturally when we look at how we respond to these challenges, and catch ourselves playing at our own rituals. Jim brings this out in songs like "The Dramamine Fisher" and "Fishing Chickens". Logging, fishing, sailing, farming, building, hunting, mining, railroads, coping with the weather and travelling across the vast expanses - these are the stuff of folk song, and nowhere are they more the life and culture of a state than in Alaska. Hobo Jim (his real name is Jim Varsos) has written dozens of songs that give this life a voice. If he didn't exist Alaskans would probably have invented him.

As a songwriter he clearly has influences; not only Woody Guthrie, who he seems to admire a lot, but Bill Staines and particularly Stan Rogers. His song "The Lady Lee" immediately brought to mind Stan Rogers tunes like "The Wreck of the Athens Queen" or "Fogerty's Cove", while other tunes conjured up Staines' "Missouri Road Song", "The Faith of Man", and others. But this is not to say that Hobo Jim lacks originality; though he could be compared to everyone from Hank Williams to Gordon Lightfoot, with a slight emphasis on the country-bluegrass sound, he has his own unique voice, and a prolific one at that. His web site lists five recordings of original material, and a compilation from the first four. George Jones and others have recorded some of his compositions.

Hobo Jim plays a guitar style that most closely resembles bluegrass flatpicking, where the melody is sometimes picked out between chords by skillfully articulating individual notes on the downstrum while playing full chords on the upstrum, all at rapid speed. I have known others who can do this well (for example, my friend James Reams, a fine bluegrass musician from Brooklyn, Kentucky) but I have never seen it done with just a thumbnail, which as far as I can tell is all Hobo Jim uses. When not playing in this style he often does a vigorous strum in a manner not unlike that of Bill Staines. Of course he fingerpicks and plays some blues too, all with the clear mark of a seasoned professional. He played a lot of covers, including Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Gordon Lightfoot, not to mention a rendering of the national anthem. In 2004, Jim packed up his guitar and flew to Afghanistan to entertain paratroopers, many of whom were Alaskans. (Small planes are ubiquitous here, the only way to reach many parts of the state, and Alaskan bush pilots are famous for their pyrotechnics.) I don't see any recordings of the covers he played, but that would definitely get my attention. His version of Guthrie's "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" was the best I have heard.

Jim Varsos claims to be a redneck, but he claimed many things that had to be taken with a grain of salt. I didn't see any sign of redneck sentiments in his songs. Alaskans have elected mostly Republicans recently; both their senators and their governor are Republicans; so it would not be very unusual for them to elect a conservative troubadour. But I've never heard of a redneck sounding off about how listening to Woody Guthrie changed his life, playing Dylan songs to his heart's content, or singing about the plight of small farmers or Alaska's native peoples. I think this goes in the basket with his assertion that this was his last concert - according to some locals I spoke to, this is in the spirit of W.C Fields, who found it so easy to quit smoking he'd done it a thousand times. I hope that was not Hobo Jim's last concert. He must have meant "for this summer, in Homer". To my knowledge he was supposed to play at the State Fair in Palmer a few days later.

Anyway, Owl and Parrot finished dining on clams and halibuts, and Parrot went through one darn good pint of Homer-brewed porter, when Owl announced that she was done hooting for the evening. But Hobo wasn't done, and neither was I, so I drove her to the Hostel and came back, thinking I'd hear a few more tunes and maybe say Hey, from Brooklyn. Soon after I got back Hobo Jim said he'd play a couple more and then take a break. A break? He'd already been playing well over an hour, so the bar owner was definitely getting his money's worth. But apparently it was just another brick in the wall of grandiose humor, along with being a redneck and retiring; for he went on for more than a couple of tunes, and then announced again that he'd play two more and take a break. This went on, I kid you not, until after midnight. Keep in mind he was already on stage when we arrived some time after 9:30. Hobo Jim never repeated a song, but went on playing for over 2 1/2 hours. A good part of the time he was standing on a table; good thing the bar didn't have chandeliers, or who knows where he would have been playing. Nor did he seem to want to stop, but he outlasted the audience, which had begun to give up hope of cheering for encores and started to filter out the door. Close to 4:00 a.m. Eastern Parrot Time, the "final" Hobo Jim Varsos concert came to an end.

When I had entered Duggan's I was all but annoyed at having to listen to what I expected would be a night of bad covers or cliched country-and-western drivel. As I began to appreciate him I thought it would be nice to trade CD's if he had one. By the time he was done I had to mull over approaching someone who seemed so much more accomplished than myself as a musician. But shy parrots are hard to come by, and shy parrots from Brooklyn virtually extinct, so approach him I did. Actually I did was browsing his CD sales table, and asked him which he would recommend. There were six disks there and he picked out a compilation and his latest one. So I was ready to pony up the cash for these, and thrust my lonely CD at him (don't get me wrong, I'm quite proud of it, but while I should be the Official Brooklyn Troubadour, I'm just not) asking him to take it as a gift. Well, that was the end up the previous transaction. Hobo Jim sold me one CD, traded me one, and gave me all the rest for $5.00. This is Alaskan generosity; people will invite you over for dinner if you show an interest in them, or, as in this case, hand you their life's work in a picnic basket. Since then, Parrot and Owl cruised down the Alaskan highways with Hobo Jim crooning from the CD player.

Glaciers are amazing; mountains are amazing; rivers, oceans, wildlife, all are amazing. The Alaska pipeline is an amazing feat of engineering. Walking into a pub late in the evening, on a small road in a tiny town, in a state one third the size of the contiguous United States, and happening to discover there a world class local folk musician, is - squawck - amazing.

And yes, I did go back and pay the cover charge. If you ever get a chance to see Hobo Jim for $2, please go.


Heres another Hob Jim web page FYI.


This was originally posted a few days ago while we were in Valdez. We're back in Brooklyn now, where I have a high-speed connection, so the photos have now been added, as well as some changes in the text. (3:10 a.m. Monday September 3, 2007; 11:10 p.m. Sunday September 2, 2007 Homer time)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dropping in on the Arts: Recent Films, Music, Art

El Parrotto has been the aesthetic butterfly as usual, dropping in here and there, and as usual, not able to find the time to write about it all. Well, here's a quick roundup, just so no one can say I dropped out of sight:

Films: A couple of weeks ago the Love Doves spent an evening taking in a 1 1/2 feature; the closest thing today to a double feature, since theaters don't exactly time things to encourage you to skip from one film to another. So first we saw Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, on the rationale that any film that gets a 91% positive rating from Rotten Tomatoes (that "e' does go there, doesn't it?) must be pretty good; and that The Forty-Year-Ol Virgin had some funny moments. Knocked Up also has some funny moments. It has some "poignant" moments. It has some overdone characters, the kind we have all met and hoped we'd never have to face in a movie. It has a pretty phony birth scene, with a baby that's way to big for a newborn and a doctor who doesn't bother to hold the baby upside down. It had some cliched scenes, including one in which Paul Rudd, brother-in-law of the "knocked up" Alison, does the "Honey I just needed some time for myself, that's why I lied to you" thing, and she comes back with the "You know what, I need some time to myself too thing, where did you get the right..." etc. (Want to see the real deal, where this kind of scene actually means something more than a replay of that too common marital tension? Then you'll have to find a production of August Wilson's Fences, because that scene is just too searing, and no one who sees it will ever forget the contrast between a motherless child and a "womanless man".) Okay, this flick has its moments, for a bedroom farce it reaches a bit farther than one might expect, dealing with abortion (of course she doesn't have one; you want a serious movie, or a comedy?), male bonding, geek culture (if that's what it's called) and a few other things. Basically, it's entertainment, go for a laugh, don't worry about people crunching on popcorn and guffawing in the wrong places. You want serious fare? Bergman and Antonioni may be dead, but they are more alive than most of what emerges from Hollywood.

After that the sneaky petes wafted into Rescue Dawn, about half way through. Holy Cinema, Batman - half a film by Werner Herzog was enough to redeem the night! I'm not even going to go into depth on this, since I did not see it from the beginning, but it could well be the best film ever made in this genre. Perhaps I should hold my ongue, because since since Stalag 17 and The Great Escpe I haven't seen too many POW films. But this has something of the underlying tension of Apocalypse Now, to which it owes a great deal but also contributes as a kind of brilliant afterthought. There have been a lot of Vietnam films, some by great directors like Kubrick and Coppola, but clearly there was room for at least one more. I need to see the first half, but since this looks to be well worth owning on DVD I might just wait.

Then we played house and had a taste of Ratatouille. I tire of Pixar. Or maybe I just tire of ingeniously animated stories about little animals. I enjoyed The Incredibles; for an animated film about aging superheroes, it had more to say about real people than many Hollywood dramas. But after cute fish, sharks, rats, frogs, penguins, cars, robots, and who knows what other phylogenetic variations, I'm over it. Not to mention that Pixar is starting to look like Dreamworks which is starting to look like everything else. Really, I was out of patience before I saw Ratatouille, but I expected it to redeem the genre after all the glowing reviews. On the contrary, I felt a little like I did when I first saw Disney's Hercules. After a good if not brilliant run with Mulan, The Lion King, and Aladdin, Hercules came off to me as a classic example of a style that is used up and now has nothing left but to imitate itself. I'm afraid Ratatouille, for all its charm, its unlikely and original story line, its attention to detail and other good things, had much the same impact. For one thing, the story itself was both its greatest asset and its great defect. It took real energy to go along with each twist as the little rodent Remy works himself up to be the master behind the boy, Linguini. In the process one lost most of one's sympathy and identification with master Linguini; and, for all its animated vividness, it is beyond the call of duty to identify with a rat. (Maybe a pig; think of Animal Farm.) Maybe, after having seen more kids' movies than adult ones over the last 10 years, I'm just having an attack of adultitis. I even found the portrayal of restaurant critic Anton Ego a bit over the top (wasn't it supposed to be, you say? okay, it succeeded then)... not to mention that this is supposed to be Paris, but Ego's pompous, aristocratic airs are put over with the aid of a distinctly British accent! Well, kids won't know the difference, right?

You want a night's worth of entertainment? I suggest you catch a double bill of Knocked Up and Ratatouille. By the way, I don't usually comment on reviewers of films, but one thing I want to say is: the next time I read that a movie has "a lot of heart" I'm going to throw up directly on the newspaper (so I hope I don't read it next online...) Next, Ratatouille is not the only film that has been called "delicious", a self-negating adjective that is itself in bad taste. Finally, for now, be certain to avoid any movie that has ever been called "hugely entertaining", a nonsensical locution that suggests, if anything, an overweight comedian.

Music: As for other ventures, I lit on a gig by fiddler Jenny Scheinman, who holds forth at Barbès in Park Slope on Tuesday nights; but in truth, I didn't listen much, but had a rather good time chatting with my friend Jan, a journalist for the German magazine Stern who is on long-term assignment to the U.S. What I did hear was tasteful arrangements of what sounded like classic country songs; but I have to admit I was expecting a bit more fire, at this club that often features accomplishe jazz players. I was also unfairly comparing her to the ingenius violinist Alex DePue whose performance of Owner of a Lonely Heart at a West Coast club bowled me over. So we enjoyed the beer and the background music but the concert pretty much slid by without grabbing us by the collar and saying "Listen".

Art: Most recently - could something have actually happened tonight? - we floated through the window of China Square Gallery in Chelsea, for the opening of of a group exhibition of Chinese artists, many of whom also trained and/or live in the U.S. We loved the black pastel floral designs on black paper by Lin Yan, and Shen Chen's greyscale vertical brushwork that brought to mind bamboo forests, or traditional Chinese paintings of them. And I was greatly taken with a couple of Richard Tsao's pieces, colorful works with 3D elements that at first looked like distressed metal shards, an illusion I could not quite get over after reading that the medium was "water-based materials on canvas". All in all this was a very nice show with great variety and very professional crafsmanship.

So goes the roundup; what's next? Well, what would you say if you found a Parrot in Alaska? Because if I decide to bring my laptop that might be the site of my next post. And if not, then I will resume when I get back, in about three weeks.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Is Michiko Cuckoo? Is Laura Loopy? Literary Ethics Goes Public

The way the news has gone down lately, you would think someone really cared about the morals of authors, critics and other literary personae. The latest spark to ignite a prairie fire is the conviction of Laura Albert, the nonfictional being behind JT Leroy, who is the fictional author of the fictional work Sarah. As you undoubtedly are aware, one of the fictions jumped off the title page and signed a contract with Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, President of Antidote International Films, in which she gave no hint that she was fictional.

Michiko Kakutani, the illustrious senior literary critic for The New York Times, has also made news, offering a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hours before the enormous marketing machine behind its release had approved its sale. (I don't usually insert NYTimes links because they force you to register, but even though the URL includes "restricted" I was able to link to this review through Google, for whom the right to link stands slightly above, life, liberty or the pursuit of copyright in the moral order.) Moreover she mentioned that she had simply wandered into a NYC bookstore and purchased a copy! She was also the subject of a critique in Slate
yesterday by Ben Yagoda (leave it to Slate to do a critic critique), who complains loudly that Kakutani either blows kisses or comes down with a blunt ax on books she reviews, not to mention indulges in even more pathetic uses of language than the two near-dead metaphors I just used. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. (Damn those clichés, they come so easily sometimes.) Recently, we had Mark Helprin whining on the Op-Ed page (May 20) that his family would not enjoy eternal profits from a perpetual copyright on his writings. Of course everyone remembers the plagiarism scandal of Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, way back in 2006. Ms. Viswanathan asserted that her extensive copying from at least two other authors was "unconscious and unintentional", sort of like George Harrison's redo of "He's So Fine" as "My Sweet Lord". Which is a step up from the college President (don't have the notes on this one in front of me) who repeated the old platitude that he had failed to keep careful notes separating his own words from those of others. More likely his note taking was a little too careful. And the list goes on, especially if we widen the scope to ethics and fictions in general, which lets film and all its foibles sneak in. Thus ON 3/29/05 we had, for example, two headlines in the Times, "Documentary Criticized for Re-enacted Scenes" , and "Historical Epic Is Focus of Copyright Dispute" (p.E1). The former concerned the film Mighty Times: The Children's March, which won an Academy Award for Bobby Houston and Robert Hudson, and included fake-vintage footage of civil rights protests. The latter the film Kindom of Heaven, which was accused by James Reston Jr. of "stealing his research", according to the Times' Sharon Waxman, including "events, characters, scenes, descriptions and character tensions". Whoa, stealing character tensions, that's got to be up there with pocketing the Golden Triangle.
Bizarre and offbeat, you say; but it leads right back to one of the biggest recent literary disputes of them all, the claim that Dan Brown stole the "architecture" of his novel The Da Vinci Code from a nonfiction work, Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Micahel Baigent and Richard Leigh. Not a single passage was alleged to have been copied; rather, elements of the plot (maybe the "character tension"?) were allegedly conceptually lifted from one genre into another.

Dan Brown won the lawsuit filed by his accusers. Laura Albert lost hers. One thing joined the two outcomes in holy matrimony forever: the lawyers were the only real winners. Albert has been ordered to pay the plaintiff's lawyers some $350,000, while the plaintiff himself got $116,000. Nice work, guys, you earned it. Brown's lawyers were to receive their just deserts of 1.3m pounds. If I thought anyone were in doubt that the entire system of contract, copyright, patent, matrimonial, consumer and medical law (to name a few prominent areas) has as its primary purpose the enrichment of lawyers themselves, I would bring this in evidence... except that I might need a lawyer to do so. Luckily, no one in their right mind has such doubts.

But beyond the obvious cynicism of the system for redressing these alleged wrongs, there are some very funny lessons to be observed here. Consider, for example, what the world of literary morality might look like if most of these plaintiffs, or mere complainers, were right:
  1. It would be okay to reinvent oneself as a fictional character, but wrong to be the self that has thus been reinvented.
  2. It would be a sin to publish information about a book one has read if one is not supposed to have read that book according to the book's author and publisher.
  3. It would be necessary to pay royalties to the heirs of John Milton before reproducing much of Paradise Lost; and indeed it might be possible to sue the likes of Nikos Kazantzakis, author of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, for stealing "architectures" or "research" or "character tensions" from Homer. (This situation should be found highly desirable in legal circles, as it would surely entail endless lawsuits to determine just who were the heirs of Homer or Milton.)
On the other hand, if some of the perpetrators here are within their rights, the world would look similarly interesting from a moral point of view:
  1. Who needs to write when so many millions of pages of readily available text are just sitting there waiting to be put to use? Is this not a service to the original author? For nothing provides so much publicity as a plagiarism case, and nothing helps an author's popularity so much as getting the sympathy vote after a plagiarism scandal. Why has no one appreciated the service Viswanathan did for Megan McCafferty, who I surely never heard of until her words were honored by Ms. Viswanathan?
  2. Why stop at faking vintage footage? Why not change the copyright date on the film to 1965? Why not get the winner of the 2007 Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King lookalike contest to put in an appearance? Why not carry subtitles: "The scene you are now seeing is really happening, or at least it was, or something similar was, or could have been anyway"? Zelig, anyone? (Excuse me, I meant Orlando.)
Well, I know what you thought: no parrot is going to self-incriminate by squawcking about plagiarism. And you are right to an extent. At least in this entry the main object of my interest is not plagiarism. Nor even lawyers. Nor copyright or patent or other illustrious institutions of intellectual private property. It is the self and its literary being.

First, Laura Albert. Apparently she is JT LeRoy, the author of Sarah. What was her offense? It was, first, believing that she was JT LeRoy. Well, she is JT LeRoy. Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain. And somebody, I hope, is H.A. Monk, the author of this blog. Now, suppose Sam had signed a contract as Mark Twain, would that be a problem? No, you say (I hope). Because he in effect owns the being that is Mark Twain, who might or might not have written books in the first person, without any difference in the situation. Ralph Lifschitz can sign a contract as Ralph Lauren, can't he? Now suppose someone comes along and wants to do a film on the Ralph Lauren story. He siticks a contract under the nose of Ralph Lifschitz, who promptly signs his name as "Ralph Lauren" ( don't know or care if he had it legally changed; maybe it's a DBA name or whatever). The cameras roll up, the street signs go up, the food cart lays out its feast of grapes, Kool-Aid and liverwurst, and finally the director says, "Okay, let's start from the top. Ralph, tell us your story. Roll it!" (Archaic pre-digital-era movie language, but whatever.) There sits Ralph. He begins: "My name is Ralph Lifschitz. At some point I started presenting myself to the public as Ralph Lauren because I wanted to be a famous fashion designer, and I didn't think anyone would take me seriously with a name like Lifschitz which suggests I'm a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx." "CUT!" End of film. The Director resigns and goes off to do a documentary about Walter Carlos...

Now what, literally, is wrong with this picture? Nothing, really. The Director got what he signed up for, the Ralph Lauren Story. It's just that that story is one or two sentences long. Not Ralph Lifschitz's problem. So why did Laura Albert get sued? And why did she lose? Mr. Levy-Hinte, you see, the upholder of Truth, Justice, and the Hollywood Way, believes he was duped by Ms. Albert. You see, what he wanted was a film about the "real" JT LeRoy. When he discovered that there was no "real" JT LeRoy, he decided that instead of doing a two-sentence film about JT LeRoy he wanted to do a metafilm about Laura Albert. But Ms. Albert did not believe that she had sold him the rights to a story about Laura Albert. You see, Laura Albert is JT LeRoy, but JT LeRoy is not Laura Albert. The relationship is not reciprocal. She had sold the rights to an Albert-as-LeRoy story, but not to an LeRoy-as-Albert story. But the former story makes for a very short film: "Hi, I'm fictional. Bye." Whereas the latter is no film at all, because Laura Albert does not want to be a movie star playing herself.

Mr. Levy-Hinte may have a sense of justice, however distorted, but he has no sense of humor. You see, Jeff does not realize that he is a fictional filmmaker, at least as auteur. Every novel has a fictional author. The fictionl author is the voice from whom the story comes. Ms. Albert gave her fictional author a name - JT LeRoy - and a history and personality. Mr. Levy-Hinte may not have given his fictional narrators a name, but in his films he surely has fictional narrators. And if he has any business sense at all, he would surely jump on the first opportunity to sell the rights to the real story of one of his fictional narrators. Easiest way to make money in the arts, I bet. It is hardly Ms. Albert's fault if JT LeRoy's story is as thin as a crepe. And it is certainly Mr. Levy-Hinte's fault if he doesn't understand what a fictional author is. In fact, that gives me an idea. Mr. Levy-Hinte, if you're reading this: there is this very interested guy named H.A. Monk; he's actually part man, part parrot, and sits on top of a lamppost in Brooklyn observing the NYC arts scene. Then he gets in front of his laptop and, as H.A. Monk, pumps out verbose and little-noticed blog posts about his observations. For a cool $2 million I believe he would be happy to squawck on camera about his life in the urban jungle. Whaddaya say?

Turning now to Ms. Kakutani. Note that parrots and cuckoos have certain things in common, so perhaps this is not an unbiased judgment. But neither are any of my other judgments, so there you go. Monks and Monks also have something in common, a fact to which I call your attention only because a fellow Bloogle Gogger who signs his posts "The Monk" (I assume if it were a female she should sign it "Monkee") has posted a note on Kakutani's review in which it is stated that Kakutani has lavishly praised every one of J.K. Rowling's Potter books, including Deathly Hallows, and therefore ought not to be taken to task by Rowling, as she was, for ruining the experience of millions of readers. Now, personally, I disagree with the logic of my cousin. Rowling's complaint was, at least on the surface, on behalf of her millions of readers, not herself. The complaint should be taken on its own merits, which Monk(2) does at another point, by pointing out that reviews in the NY Times are rarely read by children. Touché. And I suppose it could be added that any adult who does not wish to have their entire life devalued by hearing something about the book before the official release date should simply not read it. But another point should be made: in fact, Kakutani's description of the plot is so minimal that only a complete idiot would find the excitement of the book to have been undermined by the review. The evil ones have infiltrated Hogwarts, some well known Hogwarts characters die, Hermione is missing, Harry leads the resistance. No point in reading the book now, right?

But the trouble with the criticism goes way beyond that. Aside from the fact pointed out by a Times letter writer that reviewers are not (better not be) beholden to marketing machines, there is the fact that the vast majority of readers will not read the entire book on the day (night) it is released, and after that there will be hundreds of reviews that can be read prior to reading the book if one so chooses. Keep in mind that film companies regularly schedule pre-release screenings for critics and other film industry types; all the secrecy about the HP release strikes one as nothing more than hype.

Kakutani consistently demonstrates in her reviews that no book worth reading can be taken at face value. Every novel has a meaning or meanings beyond the plot, character development, etc. There must be a reason why characters behave his way or that, why they are put in his situation rather than hat one. Thus for example she draws attention to Potter's struggle against "the temptations of hubris and despair". There are many other such observations in her review, and frankly, it is this, rather than blame or praise in itself, that will make or break Rowling's recognition as a writer in the long run. I don't hear anyone complaining that Kakutani revealed the deeper meaning of Deathly Hallows before the release date, even though that is far more important than who wins or dies. From this perspective, the complaints make the critic's critics seem vapid and clueless.

That said, I think there is something about the superficial aspects of the Potter books that must be said now that the series is over. Rowling has, as Kakutani points out, a brilliant sense of mystery, enchantment, diobolical plots and the like, as well as insight into the fears and passions of adolescents, professors and goblins. These are what give the Potter world its raison d'etre and make the books consistently worth reading. But, bottom line, I'm sorry to say, she is not a particularly good writer. There is little elegance or poetry to Rowling's prose. Having deeper meanings is important, but the means of expression is too. Here it is easy to see that Rowling is no C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, and perhaps less of a writer in the fantasy genre than even Philip Pullman. Her work has intrinsic interest in almost every other way, but the basic quality of using the English language in elegant and ingenious ways is entirely missing. In short, she has no style of any great significance. I am surprised that Kakutani, who is never one to mince words, does not recognize this. Rowling is, you might say, a great author, but not a particularly notable writer.

But I digress. On the other hand, I'm done anyway, so who cares? All I really wanted to do was call attention to a couple of the current issues in literary ethics and look a little beyond the newspaper chatter. The two cases I have looked at are interesting because there are hidden conceptual issues that underlie the arguments on either side. To what extent does an author own her "self", and how many selves can she have? What constitutes deceit, and was Mr. Levy-Hinte deceived or did he deceive himself? Does an author's right to disseminate her writings include the right to ensure that no word will be spoken about her book's content prior to the release date? Does a reviewer have higher obligations than merely annointing or disparaging a work? Currently, most of the really knotty issues in literary ethics have been , obviously or not, around technology. For example, the existence of the Internet, and even more of Google, has given the issue of plagiarism a fresh urgency. But the discussion above suggests that technology alone is not the reason why literary ethics needs much more attention than its gotten. Maybe before we can understand the technological issues we need to understand things like the self and the dynamics of interpretation as they apply to literature. Which agrees in one way with the plenitude of issues I began with: we are pretty much still at sea, and have a long way to go.