“From my youth, I knew I wanted to be a medievalist of some sort or another. Byzantium was always lurking off to the side, and I thought, ‘There has to be something there.'”
Warren Woodfin joins the show to talk about guest curating Liturgical Textiles of the Post-Byzantine World installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (running through Nov. 1 2015). We talk about how he became a medieval art historian, the great tragedy of his high school years (it involves a Byzantine fresco at the Menil Collection artwork in Houston), what it’s like working on a Ukrainian burial mound and dealing with Soviet methods of archeological excavation, the secret fear of every Ph.D. candidate, and more! Give it a listen!
“It was the beauty of Byzantine art that got me first, and then wanting to understand where this beauty came from.”
We also talk about why art history gets a bum rap from the STEM proponents, the problem with centuries-old textile samples turning terminally brown, why Queens is the most Hellenic of the five boroughs, how new technologies have affected his work, the schisms that exist in the field, how he used to lay out “improved” versions of medieval monuments as a kid, and what the benefits of an art history education really are.
“I’m afraid that we’re embracing the view that those who can afford to pay for a quality education can major in liberal arts, while those whose educations are supported by the public should be limited to studying things we deem to be for the good of society.”
We mention a few books in this episode. Here’s they are:
- Clothing the Clergy: Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800-1200 – Maureen C. Miller
- The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
- Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin – Timothy Snyder
About our Guest
Dr. Warren Woodfin‘s research focuses on the art and archaeology of Byzantium and its cultural sphere in the 11th through 15th centuries. Since 2006, he has been collaborating with a research team of U.S.- and Ukraine-based scholars to study a medieval burial complex in the Black Sea steppe. The site, called the Chungul Kurgan, yielded a trove of medieval textiles, precious metalwork, and other artifacts interred with a nomadic leader of the thirteenth century. His recent article on the textiles from the burial (co-authored with Renata Holod and Yuriy Rassamakin) appeared in Ars Orientalis 38 (2010); a further article on a silver cup from the burial will appear in The Art Bulletin in 2016.
Warren has also published articles in the journals Gesta and Dumbarton Oaks Papers, and has contributed essays to various edited volumes. He is also the co-editor (with Mateusz Kapustka) of Clothing the Sacred: Medieval Textiles as Fabric, Form and Metaphor (Berlin: Edition Imorde, 2015). His book on Byzantine textiles and their role in ritual and hierarchy, The Embodied Icon: Liturgical Vestments and Sacramental Power in Byzantium, was published by Oxford University Press in 2012.
Prior to joining the faculty at Queens College as Kallinikeion Assistant Professor of Byzantine Studies, Warren held teaching and research posts at Duke, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, the Metropolitan Museum, and, most recently, a European Research Council-sponsored fellowship at the University of Zurich. In the spring semester of 2016, he will be a resident Fellow at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, which seems to have become our unofficial theme song. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Woodfin’s apartment on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Upper pic: Stephanos Tzangarolas (Greek, active 1688–1710). Lateral sanctuary door with Saint James the Brother of the Lord, 1688. From the Church of the Holy Trinity on Corfu. 2.03 x .81 m. Benaki Museum, Athens. Photo of Prof. Woodfin by me.
“You would be surprised at the level of craziness and hostility that exists in the literary world if you share a different opinion than somebody.”
Last week’s guest was quintessential bookman Michael Dirda, and this time around we have Jessa Crispin, founder of Bookslut! Ms. Crispin recently stepped down from blogging at Bookslut after a 12-year run, which is like 500 years in internet-time. We talked about that decision, the advice she’d give her 23-year-old self, the downsides of learning to write online, why lack of ambition was key to Bookslut’s success, her take on the state of book reviewing, her upcoming book, The Dead Ladies Project (2015, from University of Chicago Press), how she learned to love Henry James while nursing a breakup, and more!
“It’s been my experience that in your hour of need, the book that you need to read will find you.”
We also discuss how she escaped the Outrage Machine by moving to Berlin, how she pared her library down to 17 books, why joining the National Book Critics Circle was her biggest mistake during the Bookslut era, why Belgrade was her least favorite city to visit, and why she’s more afraid of reading her blog archives than her old margin notes. Bonus: I accidentally mix up William Safire and William Buckley!
“It isn’t the case of ‘I’m only going to review the nice things’; it’s more the case that I can cultivate the world that I want to live in. I can invite people in rather than constantly defend the gates.”
About our Guest
Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of the literary magazines Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. Her first book, The Dead Ladies Project, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, fall 2015. Born in Kansas, she has lived in Texas, Ireland, Chicago, and Germany. She has written for many publications, some of which are still in business. Her personal library currently resides in Berlin.
Credits: This episode’s music is No More Words by Berlin (see, because Jessa isn’t writing any more blog posts for Bookslut and she moved to Berlin a while back, and — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded at a housesit in Brooklyn on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Crispin by me.
Sorry this is late. After Sang’s death, I’ve been all over the place emotionally, and trying not to let grief cloud any long-term decisions about my writing priorities. So, uh, just click “more”!
When I was a pretentious young man (I’m older now; but that doesn’t mean I’m less pretentious), the Paris Review Writers at Work anthologies were my Bible. (Or at least my Apocrypha. My Bible was a mash-up of Tropic of Cancer and Inside the Whale.)
I’d seek out the collections at used bookstores. The first volume I picked up, the 5th Series, contained interviews with William Gass (whom I was just then struggling to read), Jerzy Kosinski, Gore Vidal, P.G. Wodehouse, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and more. The interviews were a joy to this self-important, deluded Future Great American Writer, deftly exploring the writers’ histories, influences and literary opinions, while also revealing some of the practical aspects of their writing habits. Each interview was prefaced with a facsimile of a page of the writer’s manuscript or typescript. This was a wonderful touch, a peek into the writer’s editorial process.
(Well, except for the Henry Miller interview, which had a bizarre diagram with the caption, “Manuscript plan of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, ’embracing planetary conjunction; topographical map of region and monuments and streets and cemeteries; fatal, or otherwise, influence of fields â€” according to type; Major Events; Dominant Idea; Psychological Pattern.” This may be why I never finished Tropic of Capricorn.)
If I found WaW volumes in a library, I’d photocopy the interviews with my favorites. I still have a folder somewhere with Philip Roth, Harold Bloom, Milan Kundera (I said I was pretentious back then) and others. I began looking up past issues of the Paris Review to find other interviews that had yet to be anthologized.
One of my great triumphs came when I was in Bethesda, MD in 1998 for the Small Press Expo (SPX), an indie-comics event. In a used bookstore near the expo hotel, I found issue #105 with the famed (and uncollected) William Gaddis interview!
At SPX, I met Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth. I’d been writing mean-spirited reviews for his magazine, The Comics Journal, for a few months at that time. He thanked me for those, joking that it was good to have someone else writing mean-spiritedly in the magazine, because it freed up his time. Then he noticed the Paris Review back issue in my hand and said, “I see you found the one with the William Gaddis interview!”
I felt like I was in good company.
The WaW anthology series, published by Viking / Penguin, ended after the 9th volume in 1992, near as I can tell from abebooks.com. A decade or so later, Modern Library began publishing Women Writers at Work, Beat Writers at Work, Playwrights at Work and, um, Latin American Writers at Work (?), but I never picked those up. (I did grab The Writer’s Chapbook, which excerpted quotes from the interviews around particular themes, such as the audience, character, potboilers, peers, etc. It was a nice volume, but not as satisfying as having the complete interviews.)
In 2006, St. Martin’s Picador imprint began a new series called The Paris Review Interviews (I, II, and III). They’re the same format as the old WaW collections, right down to the facsimile manuscript page. And they collected the Gaddis interview! I still find the interviews pretty delightful, even though I’m no longer harboring dreams of being a Great American Writer. (I 0-fer-ized two of them here and here.)
George, Being George has a lot of good material about the history of the interviews, including the giddy elation some writers experienced when they were asked by George Plimpton to sit down for a Writers at Work session. Rather than excerpt any of those, I instead offer up a passage about the business of publishing the books:
MONA SIMPSON: [George] was very unhappy at one point with the amount of money that the Review had been paid for the various anthologies of interviews. Viking was paying us very little, and they were delaying publications. So Jay and I volunteered to go to this guy we knew at Simon and Schuster to see about moving our books there, and George was all for it. After an extended series of meetings, we got an offer for twenty-five thousand dollars â€” the current publisher was offering, I think three thousand â€” and they were really going to push it and promote it. So we come to George saying, “Okay, let’s sign on the dotted line, it’s going to be great.”
Then, at the last minute, George calls our editor at the other house â€” basically an old friend of George’s whom he’d been working with for years, who occasionally sent him tickets to a ball game. The editor sends George some tickets to the ball game and the whole deal is off. We realized at that point that we couldn’t just go out in the world and do that sort of thing anymore, not even with his permission, because we found that we basically didn’t have power to go against his personal loyalties. It was very embarrassing, because Simon and Schuster was outraged that we were staying with an offer that was about twelve percent of theirs.
I’ve taken several clients to basketball and baseball games, as well as fancy dinners. I like to believe that our magazine offers great value to our advertisers and that the fun times are sorta ancillary, but I’m sure that “relationship-building” activities like this muddle even the most otherwise clear business decisions.
As I said, George, Being George is a pretty entertaining book. Why, it’s right here at the end of my Plimpton/Review shelf!
Oh, and the fourth volume of the new series â€” sorry, the IVth one â€” is coming out next week, so you should get on that.