Theft At the Tin House


The new Tin House Magazine arrived yesterday and I have been lost in its pages ever since. Look at that cover art: how can you resist looking inside.

Actually this excellent journal (#65) is given the highly evocative title of Theft. The editor introduces the volume:

“Talent borrows, genius steals” is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde, and occasionally Pablo Picasso. There is, however, no record of either one actually saying or writing this. T. S. Eliot, on the other hand, wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Theft and appropriation have always been artistic engines. In this issue, Kevin Young—poet, essayist, and anthologist—looks at how thievery is done well (Bob Dylan) and not so well (Jonah Lehrer). Mary Ruefle and Erika Meitner demonstrate the art of erasure, turning extant texts into ready-made poetry. Victor LaValle remembers the time he played at being a teen runaway in Times Square. Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson returns to our pages, and to Korea, with his story “Fortune Smiles,” in which North Korean expat grifters try to navigate the laws and mores of Seoul. We sent out a call for short essays about memorable thefts, and it is an honor to have the call answered by the doyen of crime writers, Mary Higgins Clark, alongside Alissa Nutting, George Singleton, and Laura Lippman. Clark reminds us that, in Shakespeare’s words, “The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief.” Enjoy.

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Literary Pissing Match

BooksBook lists perform many functions. Primarily they provide a shortcut to reading some very good books. But if you are thinking critically about the list and have some experience in reading and literature, you know that any list is just an opinion (and in some cases has a hidden agenda favoring a certain publisher). But lists can be fun too. I find that I can take any list and mentally reorder it, removing some titles and adding others and then, what is endlessly fascinating, I can take the same list I created last year and rethink it, making an entirely new list.

Yes, our opinions change, our literary tastes vary, even the books we once considered great have faded from memory only to be replaced by new novels we’ve read recently. I think this is the most telling thing about lists: they represent our opinions for only a relatively short time. How many times have you been told the best book is some popular story that still sits on the front-rounder at Barnes and Noble? Look at most of the lists and you’ll see a definite bias towards newer works. Take the venerable 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: You would think that the predominance of great literature was published in the last half of the Twentieth Century.

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Beowulf, Harry Potter, and Fran Tarkenton

VikingsI have mentioned before that when I was studying English literature in college, J. R. R. Tolkien was alive and still publishing. Oh, everyone now knows about The Lord of the Rings but unless you were on the academic side of literature, you might not know that Tolkien was an excellent source for early English literature: we used his translations and scholarly analysis of several of the works attributed to The Pearl Poet, including Sir Gawain and, of course, The Pearl.

Now Tolkien’s son Christopher is about to publish his father’s study titled, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary.

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