In the late 1950s, Serbian authorities closed grain milling wheels made of lead used by a handful of villages in the Balkans. They were aiming to eliminate Balkan endemic nephropathy (BEN), a kidney disease limited to certain spots along the Danube and some of its tributaries. They failed, but they weren't the last to fail. Perhaps no other human disease has generated so many different hypotheses and ideas in an attempt to explain its causal factors. In 2013, Elif Batuman traveled to the Balkans with her father, a nephrologist who had studied the disease before the region was ripped apart by war. She found medical records destroyed by the fighting, balkanized health services, skeptical villagers, and a handful of scientists who think that the most important clue was discovered in 1992, when two women in a clinic waiting room in Belgium nodded ‘Hello’ to each other. [more inside]
Exquisite Corpse [New York Times]
Taking their cue from the Surrealist parlor game, 15 renowned authors take turns contributing to an original short story.[more inside]
For his 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence, about a man who obsessively collects objects associated with his beloved and eventually creates a museum of those objects in his beloved's old house, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has built a museum in a house in Istanbul containing the objects mentioned in the novel, including a half-eaten ice cream cone (made of plastic) and 4,213 cigarette stubs, complete with lipstick and ice cream stains. Elif Batuman reports on how the museum, which opened in April, came to be.
In the final pages of his book, drawing up the merits of programme writing, McGurl ultimately falls back on the one thing the programme really does teach: technique. Countering Eliot’s dictum that ‘art never improves,’ he proposes that literature might, rather, resemble technology or sport, in which ‘systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance.’ Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read.Get a Real Degree by Elif Batuman is a critique of creative writing workshops and a review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Louis Menand wrote a review of the same in The New Yorker which was both more appreciative of the book and creative writing programs. It was discussed previously on MetaFilter.