Fences and Fake News: The Week in Pop-Culture Writing

Highlights from seven days of reading about arts and entertainment

A still from Fences (Paramount)

Why Fences Should Win the Best Picture Oscar
Nosheen Iqbal | The Guardian
“It’s theatrical cinema—the film is confined to a handful of backdrops inside the Maxson home and backyard; all the flourishes and drama unfurl from Wilson’s dense, poetic dialogue, a gift to both Washington (here as actor, director and producer) and Viola Davis, who plays Troy’s wife Rose. Washington could be on course to become one of only seven actors ever to win three acting Oscars for his showboaty turn here, but it’s Davis who is the film’s solid, steely anchor. Her performance is subtle and heartbreaking, and keeps the film from tipping into easy sentimentality.”

How Yayoi Kusama Channels Mental Illness Into art
Anna Fifeld | The Washington Post
“In 1957 she managed to get a passport and a visa, and sewed dollars into her dresses to circumvent postwar currency ­controls … Making matters worse, she found herself in abject poverty. Her bed was an old door, and she scavenged fish heads and old vegetables from dumpsters and boiled them into soup. But this situation made Kusama throw herself into her work even more. She began producing her first trademark Infinity Net paintings, huge canvases—one was 33 feet high—covered with mesmerizing waves of small loops that seemed to go on and on. ‘White nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against a pitch-dark background of nothingness,’ is how she described them.”

The True History of Fake News
Robert Darnton | The New York Review of Books
“In the long history of misinformation, the current outbreak of fake news has already secured a special place, with the president’s personal adviser, Kellyanne Conway, going so far as to invent a Kentucky massacre in order to defend a ban on travelers from seven Muslim countries. But the concoction of alternative facts is hardly rare, and the equivalent of today’s poisonous, bite-size texts and tweets can be found in most periods of history, going back to the ancients.”

Is Travel Writing Dead?
Karan Mahajan | Granta
“The estrangement that travel engenders is far more profound than the images consumed on a trip. I would prefer to see American writers who have spent significant time abroad magnifying and expounding on problems at home. Too often, a kind of travel writing—especially the novel set abroad in an exotic locale —feels like a way of allegorizing and escaping problems at home. Travel literature should go local and micro, but with international heft.”

How Sportswriting Became a Liberal Profession
Bryan Curtis | The Ringer
“Of course, labels like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ don’t translate perfectly to sports. Do you have to be liberal to call Roger Goodell a tool? So maybe it’s better to put it like this: There was a time when filling your column with liberal ideas on race, class, gender, and labor policy got you dubbed a ‘sociologist.’ These days, such views are more likely to get you a job.”

Is Apathy the Key to J.M. Coetzee’s Novels?
Christian Lorentzen | Vulture
“It’s an astonishing idea—apathy as a source of, not an obstacle to, seriousness. We know writers who write in quest of ecstasy, out of mimetic fidelity to ordinary life, out of a quasi-therapeutic impulse, out of personal or political rage (D.H. Lawrence, Philip Roth), out of narcissism, or even out of hostility to the task (Thomas Bernhard). But apathy? Surely it’s an anti-novelistic quality, but it rings true to Coetzee’s work and the cold, cerebral, disinterested character of many of his heroes: an apathy of self-protection.”

Vogue’s Race Problem Is Bigger Than Karlie Kloss
Jennifer Hope Choi | BuzzFeed
“While the geisha is traditionally considered a female entertainer in Japan (performing music, dance, and hostess duties for guests), her coquettish and submissive manners have congealed into a haunting stereotype Asian American women have, for decades, attempted to divorce. Vogue’s diversity problem isn’t Karlie Kloss but rather the geisha image itself, and the persistent desire to exoticize otherness in its storied pages.”

Against Fame: On Publishing, Popularity, and Ambition
Manjula Martin | Catapult
“If you go by dictionaries, being famous just means being very popular. If you go by cultural experience, it’s much more. Unless you’ve been living in some blessedly boring and naive parallel universe, fame is basically the greatest thing a person can aspire to, especially in America, especially if you’re a creative person. When I interviewed famous authors for Scratch, I always asked about their experiences of fame, mostly because it’s a question that tends to lead to good quotes. What every writer I’ve interviewed has told me is that fame is just a side effect of success. It’s not success itself. To reach for it is to invite misery, distraction, and inauthenticity.”

Rescuing Norman Rockwell’s Progressive Legacy From a Right-Wing Cartoonist
Angus Johnson | Hyperallergic
“Rockwell understood that the idyllic America he depicted was fragile, and that its embrace didn’t extend to everyone. Later in his career he made that point with growing explicitness, as in the 1961 Golden Rule, which depicts people of a wide variety of ages, religions, and nationalities—everyone in the Four Freedoms series is a white American—standing shoulder to shoulder behind the phrase ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

Can AI Make Musicians More Creative?
Hazel Cills | MTV News
“Life in 2017 does feel a little like The Jetsons, as people install digital assistants named Alexa in their homes, buy ‘smart fridges’ that tell you what you’re missing in your kitchen, and welcome self-driving cars into existence. And while it's easy to see how computers can help you buy a T-shirt through voice command or calculate how many calories you consume in a meal, when it comes to AI and art, the lines are blurrier. Many remain skeptical of a machine’s ability to create something that rivals or replaces human creativity.”