Substack Reads: The last field recordists; mis-adapting Jane Austen; plus, how to write a modern classic
Welcome to another edition of Substack Reads.
This week we have something of a “creative” special for you, kicking off with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, who explains his unorthodox approach to bringing compelling characters to the page. Brandon Taylor dissects why the latest Jane Austen adaptation has it all wrong, and Damon Krukowski celebrates the last of the great nature soundscapes.
We also have exciting new writers to share, thanks in large part to you and our reader recommendations. ZM Spalter is one such voice, an American writer and mother living in Tokyo. Make sure you read her piece, written in the wake of the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, about the country’s approach to crime and violence. As ever, please share with us and your fellow readers what you’re reading and loving on Substack in this week’s thread too.
Ready to start reading? Good, we shall begin…
Chuck Palahniuk began writing his classic novel Fight Club at parties. Now he’s trying out a whole new method for creating a protagonist
I began to write at parties. Never in my life have I attended as many parties as I did while writing Fight Club. Angry writing. Absurd writing. Profane stuff. Tom [my writing teacher] saw this breakout, and at times he was thrilled, but at times he was offended. He’d look around the workshop to see if other writers had taken offense. I’d found my motivation.
But it’s always evaded me: How do you write a happy character?
My characters weren’t Tom’s tormented ones, but mine had their share of upset. Bleeding knuckles instead of bleeding hearts. But what’s to be gained from writing a character who’s genuinely happy and upbeat?
Lately I’ve been planning a novel, a horror novel, in which the narrator is a bubbly optimist. He’s Mr. Sunshine. Mr. Happy Meal. As chirpy as a bird and cheerful as the posters in the office of your high school guidance counselor. The glass is always half-full for him. Life is a banquet, not a dress rehearsal. He’s the opposite of Tom’s deeply wounded heroes; my Mr. Rainbow will be the narrator set against a background of escalating horrors. He’s not Forrest Gump. Geez, I hated that movie. But my brainchild is that ever-hopeful young go-getter so many of us used to be. Me included.
Here’s the unexpected perk. All weekend as I did slog jobs—fixing the irrigation, fixing the wheelbarrow, hauling rocks, weeding, filing papers—my head was full of this happy guy. I’m trying to see the world as he would, in trite, sugary memes, and doing so made me really happy. Maybe this is finally the secret to happiness. Just adopt a cheerful persona and craft a worldview around it. Put on a happy-face mask and wear it everywhere. My happy fella found nothing boring or tedious. He laughs so easily. Already I’ve got pages of notes, the silly stuff he says and thinks.
Advances in audio technology allow us to capture some of nature’s most subtle sounds—but are they destroying the very soundscapes they want to document?
The advent of digital audio has coincided with an explosion of field recordings, natural soundscapes witnessed and shaped by the skills of heroic recordists like Bernie Krause and Chris Watson. Certainly field recording has a significant pre-digital history as well. But the portability, relatively silent operation, and long recording time made possible by digital equipment has transformed the documentation of audio in the wild. Krause, Watson, and many others have traveled the world in the past 30 years, placing mics on the tops of glaciers and under the ocean, in rainforests and in deserts. The audio archives they have been creating are unlike anything made with analog equipment in the 20th century—when heavier machines, louder self-noise, and shorter recording times led to a greater focus on particular sounds, rather than the wide-open, multi-dimensional soundscapes captured today.
However, as Krause takes care to point out whenever presenting his work, “Over 50 percent of my archive comes from sites that are now completely silent or so radically altered that the biophonies and geophonies can no longer be heard in any of their original form.” Digital technology arrived just in time, it would seem, to record the last moments for many of these natural soundscapes.
A lesson in how to lose Austen fans and alienate the original text
Friends, I am a black homosexual who grew up in rural Alabama, surrounded by brutal people. I was raised by wolves. And that I found my way into Jane Austen is something of a small miracle that illuminates my life daily. But my point is that, well, I am well aware of Austen’s appeal to many, many people around the world in all walks of life. I do not have a conception of Jane Austen as some middle-class bard. I think her work speaks to the human condition in a variety of moving, funny, brilliant ways. I don’t need to gatekeep Jane Austen. I would never want that. I have never advocated for that. I mean, I have preferences. For example, the 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice is superior, to me, to the 2005 Joe Wright one. I think Matthew Macfadyen is a terrible Darcy, just horrible. I mean, truly, one of the worst performances ever committed to film. And Keira Knightley. I mean. Best left unsaid. But I understand that that film was an entry point for some people into Austen just as the 1995 miniseries was for me. We all have our ports of call, our routes through Austen’s oeuvre. What upsets me is that this film will be a port of call for a generation of Austen lovers. That they will be ushered into Jane Austen by way of a film that should probably not even exist. It is sad to me.
Renowned fashion illustrator David Downton looks at the under-celebrated work of a British fashion illustrator who faded out of view
Marshall was one of the 20th century’s leading fashion artists. He had a lightning veracity, an unassailable sophistication, and an unerring eye. Style was not something he sought; it was the way he thought and who he was. And he could draw anything, because, you sensed, he saw everything. His How To Do It books still have much to teach us—though his tone could be schoolmasterly: ‘Never fumble about on the paper without an idea in your head,’ he advised. ‘Scribbling on desk blotters may be quite amusing, but it is no use when you are trying to think out a complicated drawing’—and his travel diary, An Englishman in New York, remains unsurpassed. Marshall worked widely in publishing and advertising, he painted portraits and held regular exhibitions.
After the recent assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an American expat writer living in Tokyo examines the country’s approach to violence and crime
I have seen every city I have ever loved and lived in destroyed by aliens, human folly, climate disaster, or other catastrophe. Tokyo is no exception. I’ve watched Godzilla obliterate Japan’s capital on multiple occasions. But it was the anime classic “Akira” that introduced me to an ultraviolent, dystopian version of the world’s largest metropolis. In reality, Tokyo is the cleanest and most quiet city I have ever lived in. It is also the safest place I’ve ever called home.
I like to regale fellow New Yorkers with tales of leaving my handbag at an empty table and then traipsing off to order coffee, confident that my belongings will be exactly where I left them. I relish confounding laid-back Californians with accounts of items lost and returned no matter said item’s monetary value. Such was the case when a long-lost train pass holder turned up nearly a year later at a far-flung koban with ¥2000 (about $20) in emergency cash still tucked behind my youngest son’s Pasmo card. It was also the case when I left a sturdy white bag with an instantly recognizable silver, produce-shaped logo and the NIB contents contained within, on a hook under a table at an Eggslut in Shinjuku. The hit television show “Old Enough!” offers concrete proof to support my previously dismissed claims that even the youngest children routinely navigate Japan safely, without adults.
A writer revisits her eating disorder—and realizes what went wrong
I feel an immense political guilt in my desire to be thin. I do not want to be thin. I have read all the literature, I understand the classist and colonial underpinnings of institutional and interpersonal fatphobia, I see it as a necessity of any good radical politics to tear down our current conceptions of fatness and embrace body neutrality. I watch the gazes of my friends as they ensure they eat less than everyone else, I eat more in hopes that they are able to do the same. If I know what I’m doing is a phalange of a system I resent, why can’t I stop doing it?
Maybe I’m haunted by this image I’ve constructed, the image of a brilliant artist or writer, hunched over and obsessed with their craft, living off cigarettes and jazz records. I resent that I never got to be mousy, knobby-kneed, the type of strangely beautiful gifted to some girls that inspires songs and photographs and Milan Kundera romances. These lithe women are always posited as more beautiful and more insightful than their curvier counterparts, perhaps the result of some kind of madonna-whore pathology that labels some women as curvy therefore sexy therefore slutty therefore stupid, the Enlightenment-era desire to define eros as antithetical to rationality, the waif exempted. Maybe it’s cultural or just a product of my own fucked-up internalities, but it seems that there is a general equation of thinness with brilliance, the oddball Patti Smith or Joni Mitchell, so caught up in the divine urgency of the things they have to say and do that they have no time for mortal habits like food or sleep, instead simply folding their thin legs underneath a typewriter chair, eyes growing bigger as the rest of their faces shrink. And I know that this image holds no material truth, I know that the smartest people I know vary in size and shape. I know that anorexia is all-consuming, there is no time to form cogent thoughts when you are eaten alive by a need to further your own disease. I know that I live through a voyeuristic gaze turned in on myself, living out of my own body so that I can witness it in black-and-white 35mm film. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it, and in truth I’m simply still reeling from the psychological impact of growing up in a house of Fiber One bars for dessert and the blinding bright teal of the South Beach Diet cookbook in the kitchen.
Kevin Munger and Joshua Citarella join Emilie and Andrea to discuss how the richest and most powerful generation in U.S. history is pushing youth politics into strange new shapes
When memory sifts
the season, a tone
too thin to measure
it’s too hot for memory,
too humid for thought.
Even these half-dead
around the entrance
of an abandoned Bank
of America, startle
into the present.
Substack Reads is a weekly roundup of writing, ideas, art, and audio from the world of Substack. Posts are recommended by staff and readers, and curated and edited from Substack’s U.K. outpost with writer Hannah Ray and editor Farrah Storr.
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