When I’m introduced to someone as a writer, a now familiar pattern of events often follows.
“Oh, really! How interesting!” the someone—let’s call her Jane—says, sounding quite enthusiastic. “What do you write?”
“Science fiction,” I say.
Jane instantly glazes over. “I’m afraid I never read science fiction.”
In other instances, people who know me have read a book of mine out of curiosity and then told me, in some surprise, that they liked it—“even though I don’t normally like science fiction.” Indeed, when a short story collection of mine won a non-genre prize, it was apparently a surprise to the judges themselves: According to the chair of the judging panel, “none of [them] knew they were science-fiction fans beforehand.”
The assumption seems to be that a book that comes with a genre label like “science fiction” must necessarily be lightweight stuff—not really comparable with “non-genre” works.
This may partly be due to the fact that the word “genre” has two different meanings which are often muddled up. The basic meaning of “genre” is simply kind or category or form of fiction, and in that sense, any work of fiction can be assigned to some genre or another. But “genre” is also used in a different way to make a distinction between “genre” and “non-genre” fiction. “Non-genre” fiction is the stuff that is placed on the “general fiction” or “fiction and literature” shelves in Barnes and Noble. “Genre” fiction is the stuff that is placed in its own designated corners: Crime, Fantasy, Romance, Horror, Science Fiction.
“This is a true story,” announces the onscreen text. We see a snow-swept road and the headlights of a distant car. As it approaches, once-mournful strings rise to a crashing crescendo, punctuated by… sleigh bells.
I refer, of course, to Fargo. But not to Fargo, the 1996 Coen brothers film. No, I refer to Fargo, the new FX series making its debut tonight. The familiar elements are all there: the sad-sack salesman and female cop and murderous drifter; the car crash and ill-fated traffic stop and grisly murders; the semi-arctic setting and “Minnesota nice” accents offering up yahs and you betchas and fer Pete’s sakeses. But they’re scrambled into unexpected sequences and patterns. This is not a remake. It’s a remix.
The idea of making Fargo into a TV show has been around almost since the movie itself hit theaters, and it’s always seemed to me a terrible one given the idiosyncratic nature of the source material. In 1997 a pilot was even shot, though never picked up, featuring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco in the role of Marge Gunderson, the iconic police chief played by Frances McDormand in the film. But the FX show takes a different approach from such would-be sequels, bringing back not the original characters but instead merely their types. And the result is, to my considerable surprise, very, very good.
Among the world’s many politicians to be regularly called a narcissist, Vladimir Putin may be given the label the most, and with the most serious intent, especially since the Sochi Olympics and the Russian invasion of Crimea. During a recent segment on the PBC NewsHour, for example, New York Timescolumnist David Brooks stated that U.S. attitudes toward Putin have “hardened to an amazing degree” and the current administration now views him as a “narcissistic autocrat.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, has accused Putin of “narcissistic megalomania.” The Financial Times referred to the Sochi Olympics as “Putin’s narcissistic self-tribute.”
Photos of the Russian president scuba-diving, piloting a plane, behind the wheel of a race car, demonstrating his skill in martial arts, and baring his chest on horseback only contribute to this view and evoke the predictably derisive response: Putin is a narcissist.
But is it accurate to describe Putin as a narcissist in the clinical sense of the word? Can an understanding of the psychological roots of narcissism help us to gain deeper insight into the man and how we should respond to his aggression, rather than using the label to deride him?
What right should students have to talk about God in homework, assemblies, club meetings, and graduation speeches? This is the question at stake in a new law in Tennessee and other states across the country. On Thursday, Governor Bill Haslam signed the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, which affirms that religious students should have the same free-speech rights as secular ones. At first, this might seem uncontroversial; religious expression has always been protected by the First Amendment. So why did two Republican state legislators feel the need to write the bill?
"Christian conservative groups have for many years been frustrated by what they see as a hostile environment for religion in public schools," said Charles Haynes, the Director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. "They are convinced—with some justification—that there’s a lot more that public schools can be doing to protect religious expression."
In Tennessee, legislators pointed to one case in particular as the motivation for creating the bill. In October, a teacher told a Memphis fifth grader that she couldn’t write about God in an essay about “her idol.” In defiance, ten-year-old Erin Shead wrote two essays—both about the Almighty, although only one was about Michael Jackson—and her mom sought legal help. The elementary schooler was later allowed to turn in her God essay (and earned a score of 100%, as local news organizations dutifully reported at the time).
Can the US and Europe avoid a lost economic decade? In this video clip from The Economist’s annual Buttonwood Gathering, Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive of PIMCO, considers ways to halt the continued global recession.