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Morgan von Ancken

Literature Is Illmatic

By Morgan von Ancken on Wednesday, August 4, 2010 - View Comments
A young city bandit

A young city bandit

I don’t know if this is a universal experience, but back when I was in the early years of high school I remember having to dismantle various fragments of literature and scrounge in their remnants for “literary elements.” This term was a loose euphemism for things like metaphors, similes, etc. – basically any concept that could be easily defined and tested on the state Regent exam. As ‘teach explained it, if the selected passage we were given employed enough of these syntactical devices, it must be considered advanced literature. I mean, come on, just look at that enjambment!

I don’t know though. I mean, what if you brought this exercise to bear on something other than fragments of Macbeth? How about, oh, Nas’s seminal rap album Illmatic (1994). Would it past the test? Is it “literature”?

Let’s see.

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A Game of Plot Twister

By Morgan von Ancken on Wednesday, June 23, 2010 - View Comments
What happened to patient 67? An abstract plot twist, that's what.

What happened to patient 67? An abstract plot twist, that's what.

I don’t know if anyone really noticed, but the advertising campaign for Scorsese’s latest joint, the misty Shutter Island, was built around the film’s “shocking twist ending.” This was interesting to me — instead of advertising the cast or the director, or flashing a bunch of positive reviews, most of the ads for this flick I saw seemed to hint at some genius plot twist, something so mind-bending that I had to go experience it for my self. So I did. And although I thought the ending was actually kind of obvious, it did get me thinking about other famous plot twists that screenwriters have employed over the years.

First though, what separates a good twist ending from a gimmicky or contrived deus ex machina? Not much really. I think a good twist ending should illuminate everything that we’ve seen so far not only in a new way, but also in a way that resonates with the theme of what we’re watching. We should want to mentally race through what we’ve just seen, ascribing new significance to everything. We should be Totally. Freaked. Out. But the ending should also never, ever feel forced or non-sensical; then, the emotion the viewer is left with is not surprise or amazement but anger, anger that they’ve just wasted two hours of their life. (The Wikipedia entry on plot twists is actually really interesting, in that it classifies the different official names for each iteration.) Anyways, here are some of my favorite plot twists: Read more »

Significant Objects

By Morgan von Ancken on Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - View Comments
How much is a Kangamouse really worth?

How much is a Kangamouse really worth?

How much would you pay for this adorably bedraggled kangamouse? A dollar? Less? What if it was a gift from a soldier in Vietnam to his two young sons back home, a gift that they worshipped alternately as “The Great Faa,” and as “Mr. Peepers” — and a gift that ultimately divided the family and lead to an exorcism via toilet? That seems worth a little more than a dollar, right? That’s because there is a certain value to stories, to histories; this is why people pay thousands for certain baseballs or comic books, this is why experts on Antiques Roadshow can tell people with a straight face that their ancient button collection from the civil war, with letters to prove its authenticity, is worth more than my car.

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A Dedicated Writer

By Morgan von Ancken on Tuesday, May 18, 2010 - Comments Off
Yeah I know he's a pretty good read...

Yeah I know he's a pretty good read...

“This book is presented as a work of fiction and is dedicated to nobody.”

So begins Bukowski’s debut novel Post Office, which, as the dedication implies, is a reluctant and drunken stagger through Bukowski stand-in Henry Chinaski’s tenure at the US Postal Service. Bukowski had a knack for writing hilarious and fitting dedications like these, yet another reason why he’s so awesome (you can also throw this song on that pile of awesome as well). Ham on Rye, for example, is dedicated to “All the fathers,” which seems benign until you actually read the book and see that Bukowski’s dad was a cruel and abusive douchebag. Pulp is optimistically dedicated to “Bad writing.”

Bukowski actually got me thinking about other memorable dedications, those oft-overlooked little prefaces that are really like literary tattoos: they stay with you for life, so perhaps you should think twice before ascribing your current flame’s name on there in big bold letters. A quick browse through my bookshelf revealed some memorable finds between all the For My Mothers and To My Beloved Whomevers. Because I’m so wonderful I’ve shared a few of them below:

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The Good, the Bad and the Twugly

By Morgan von Ancken on Tuesday, April 6, 2010 - Comments Off
A Twollo

A Twollo

To say that Twitter has become pretty pervasive is an understatement. All sorts of people have Twitter handles (this blog included — @litdrift) and in response a whole slew of custom-built applications have sprung up to cater to the masses.  To me, these services should be judged not on how innovative they are, or how they enhance the Twitter experience or any of that baloney. Instead, they should strictly be ranked by how clever their names are. Here are a few applications that have risen to the challenge and selected monikers that 1) stick to the avian theme that Twitter has cultivated or 2) incorporate some delicious wordplay. Read more »

Swishin’ and Dishin’ … and Reading

By Morgan von Ancken on Wednesday, March 10, 2010 - Comments Off
A writer's block

A writer's block

What does a young writer look like to you? Conjure up an image in your mind. What do you see? Thick black glasses? A fuzzy sweater, holes conveniently poked near the ends of the sleeves for easy thumb access? A hunched, pale little person, jittery from too much coffee at the temp agency where they work, scuttling around and biding their time until they publish some brilliant collection of stories that they’ve slaved over, neat, symmetrical slices of their sad, sad life? Okay great, perfect. Now take that poor myopic sap and imagine them racing down the basketball court like a wild tiger – they’re on a fast break, they take off at the foul line, flying through the air, twisting and soaring until they throw down a monstrous, two-handed jam, shattering the backboard into a million crystal fragments. Completely free and uninhibited they stand there beneath the mangled hoop, screaming with primal fury, as the glass rain trickles down from above. Read more »

And As For You, Pip…

By Morgan von Ancken on Monday, February 22, 2010 - Comments Off

405_pip_pocket I don’t understand this anxiety about TV supplanting literature as the main cultural vessel for our stories. Why does it matter? To me, TV and literature are on the same team. It’s the stories themselves that matter: good stories are good stories, regardless of what medium they reach us through, and there are television shows on the air today that way down the line will be treated with the same level of legitimacy that the “classics” receive now. What’s really interesting is that I would bet that the few television shows that do endure will share the same basic themes as many of our most beloved and respected books. In fact, there have even been a couple of times that the most popular shows of our time have expressly borrowed or paid homage to  “great” works of literature, adapting them for a modern audience. Here are a few of my favorite examples:

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The Most Badass List of All Time

By Morgan von Ancken on Wednesday, February 3, 2010 - Comments Off
James Joyce - the best writer of all time? Ask the Modern Library!

Was James Joyce the best writer of all time? The Modern Library thinks so...

One byproduct of our culture’s ravenous appetite for media is a serious and insatiable addiction to lists. Have you guys noticed this? We just love organizing and ranking things, we’re all secretly obsessed with the whole nerdy taxonomy of classifying and comparing. Just check out the most  popular stories on Digg right now, I’m sure that a list recounting “The Top 20 Whatevers” is somewhere on there (at the time of this writing it was the  “24 Coolest Steampunk Weapons from Another Era,” but I’m sure that it will subtly change to reflect my point as time goes on). Yes, lists are great, especially for blog posts; after all, by their very nature they foment discussion (give people an excuse to argue about things that are arbitrary and impossible to prove).

But oh man there is one list out there with the weight of a venerated publishing house behind it, a serious list that puts all our other compulsive comparisons to shame. I first encountered it on the inside jacket of a copy of Ulysses that I was reading in college, and I’ve been in awe of its ambition and badassedness ever since. I’m talking about the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels.

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More: Books, Rants

A Cacophonic Explosion of Bad Music Writing

By Morgan von Ancken on Sunday, January 17, 2010 - Comments Off

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

- Elvis Costello

Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say...

Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say...

Oh Elvis. You’re so wise. It’s true, using one medium to describe another is always a challenge, and writing about music is no exception. This of course hasn’t stopped people from trying; there is a massive and constantly-expanding network of fanatical bloggers and music critics out there, passionate listeners who deconstruct every obscure indie release in excruciating detail, who obsess over artists 99.8 percent of us have never even heard of. And you know what? Despite its occasional pretensions, I love this community; their relentless sifting of new music has lead me to some great bands, and they are ultimately the ones who identify and dictate what music will be popular in the future.

What I don’t love is the style of writing that many of the people in this community employ: the use of fragmented images and phrases to try and illustrate what a particular piece of music sounds like. You’ve probably read some of this before; a reviewer will attempt to describe a song by writing something nonsensical like: “The verse shimmers along, buoyed over a gentle sea of bass by airy wisps of keyboard, until it explodes into the chorus, a glorious cacophony of overdriven guitar and distorted drums.” This style of writing is ridiculous and a waste of time. No one could ever read one of these crazy streams of consciousness and gain any real kind of understanding of what the song actually sounds like; music is too subjective, and the terms used in these descriptions are too abstract to be useful. (They are also often repeated – for example, the verb explode is one of the most prevalent and pernicious words in all of music writing, appearing in about 60 percent of music reviews. It seems like every song is combustible.)

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He Knows When You’re Awake…

By Morgan von Ancken on Sunday, December 20, 2009 - Comments Off

Christmas carols. They’re inescapable this time of year, they’re waiting for you behind every corner. From diners and taxicabs to lobbies and laundry mats, these upbeat tunes are there to get you all fuzzy and drunk on the spirit of Christmas, whether you want to or not. However, the next time you hear one of these jaunty jingles, you should listen a little bit closer. What you’ll hear in the margins of some of these songs may surprise you. Some of our most popular carols, songs that we’ve all probably sung along to at some point or another, actually contain dark undertones of melancholy and aggression. Read more »

More: Music, Rants
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