If you think we’re almost done with Twenty Twenty, think again.
With almost a week yet to run, already, “2020-Lit” is an established journalistic genre, and surely we’ll soon be inundated with books, novels, poetry, songs, paintings movies & miniseries about it. Count on it.
Newspapers are leading the way, and their pundits are already staking out their turf in this rich, if currently mostly malodorous field.
The New York Times today is peppered with such markers, some predictable others striking. Here are some snippets which caught my eye. There’s lots so this sample is by no means representative, just what was most vivid before breakfast . . .
“The phrase ‘You’re on mute’ may have been uttered more times this year than ever before in human history,” said Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist. . . .
— Emma Goldberg
. . . The discovery of a mass grave, within the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery, comes as Tulsa is bracing for an emotional centennial commemoration of the  massacre. The city is also facing a lawsuit that seeks reparations.
The star plaintiff, 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, according to the lawsuit, asserts that she witnessed the conflagration and still experiences flashbacks of the “Black bodies that were stacked up on the street as her neighborhood was burning.”. . . Even if this reparations attempt fails, it will serve as reminder that the victims of 1921 were denied justice by a court system that had been infiltrated by the Ku Klux Klan. . . .
— Brent Staples
. . . Just a few months ago, the veteran American distance runner Sara Hall seemed to be facing her own version of pandemic misery. She had failed to qualify for the Olympics, dropping out of her last two marathons. Now everything was canceled and she was caring for four daughters at home. She was 37, an age when many elite athletes’ careers start winding down.
Would she get another chance to prove herself?
As it turned out, she created one. On Sunday, at an elite race in Arizona called the Marathon Project, Ms. Hall ran the second-fastest marathon ever for an American woman. It was more than just a hard-fought victory. This year she has become a powerful example of how resilience — built from pushing through years, even decades, of setbacks — can reap unexpected rewards.
Especially this year. . . .
— Lindsay Crouse
. . . On March 15, amid growing concerns about the coronavirus’s spread, we decided [the Blue Giant restaurant, New Orleans] would offer only takeout for the foreseeable future. It was a decision made out of necessity, to continue to pay bills and keep our staff employed.
The dining room was deserted, chairs and tables pushed aside to make space for mountains of takeout containers. We had to change the menu — both to streamline the cooking process and to ensure that the food that was being packed into boxes would still be of the quality that we wanted to serve once it had reached its destination. . . .
We hoped people would understand that, in a world where everything was changing, the menu at a small neighborhood restaurant might also have to adapt. We were wrong. I tried explaining in detail once to a frustrated caller why we’d had to stop making scallop egg foo yung. “Yeah,” he replied, “but that’s what I want.”
You learn a lot about human nature taking takeout orders. One interesting finding is how many people don’t read the menu before calling. They just call and ask, “What do you have?” We also learned that the standard number of egg rolls in an order is not standard at all, and it seems to be somewhere between two and five. We edited our menu to read “one egg roll,” but this led to even more confusion. “One egg roll. What is that exactly?” Also: “How many is one egg roll?” . . .
— Richard Horner
. . . American literature has a troubled relationship to politics. The mainstream — poetry and fiction written by white, well-educated people and regulated by a reviewing, publishing and gate-keeping apparatus that is mostly white and privileged — tends to be apolitical. Most American literati associate politics in literature with social realism, propaganda and all the other supposed evils of Communist and socialist literature . . .
To the extent that mainstream publishing wants to be political, it focuses on nonfiction books about things like elections, insider tell-alls and presidential memoirs. Other political targets that are acceptable to white liberal interests: the environment, veganism, education.
But Mr. Trump destroyed the ability of white writers to dwell in the apolitical. Everyone had to make a choice, especially in the face of a pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, both of which brought the life-or-death costs of systemic racism and economic inequality into painful focus.
But in 2021, will writers, especially white writers, take a deep breath of relief and retreat back to the politics of the apolitical, which is to say a retreat back to white privilege?
Explicit politics in American poetry and fiction has mostly been left to the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers, feminist writers, anticolonial writers.
That a number of major literary awards in recent years have gone to such writers indicates two things: First, they are writing some of the most compelling works in American literature; and second, literary awards function as symbolic reparations in a country that isn’t yet capable of real reparations. . . .
In the Biden era, will the publishing industry do more than feel bad about that and commit to hiring a diverse group of editors and interns and building a pipeline for future diverse leadership?
“Diversity” itself, unless it occurs at every level of an industry, and unless it meaningfully changes an aesthetic practice, is a fairly empty form of politics. This is one of the big critiques of the Obama presidency. For all that one can blame Republican intransigence, Mr. Obama was fairly moderate, someone who tinkered with the military-industrial complex rather than transformed it.
That much of the literary world was willing to give Mr. Obama’s drone strike and deportation policies a pass, partly because he was such a literary, empathetic president, indicates some of the hollowness of liberalism and multiculturalism. Empathy, their emotional signature, is perfectly compatible with killing people overseas — many of them innocent — and backing up a police and carceral system that disproportionately harms Black, Indigenous and other people of color and the poor. It turns out that a president can have a taste for both drone strikes and annual reading lists heavy on multicultural literature. . . .
— Viet Thanh Nguyen
Cities . . . Rethinking urban space in the aftermath of disease is hardly a new idea. If cities were going to be crushed by pestilence, they would have died millenniums ago. Disease has shaped the modern city, and the modern city has shaped disease.
The practice of epidemiology was born in the city, when John Snow, a London anesthesiologist, tracked the spread of cholera to a contaminated water pump in 1854. And much of the civic infrastructure we now take for granted — public parks, garbage trucks, sewers — was put in place partly to curb disease. Cities have overcome disease before, and they can do so again.
Yet at the moment, a grand project to rebuild American cities feels terribly elusive. Despite their economic and cultural importance, cities in the United States are often marginalized in politics and, more deeply, in our picture of how America should work. About 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, but most say they’d rather live somewhere else.
Republicans use cities as a cudgel — supposedly crime-ridden “Democrat cities” became a mantra for President Trump. Democrats depend on big cities and their surrounding suburbs for the bulk of their voters, but when was the last time you heard a national Democratic politician make a forceful case for the beauty, creativity and importance of cities — for all that we owe to them, and all we may yet gain from them?
. . . “Cities were once the most helpless and devastated victims of disease, but they became great disease conquerors,” wrote Jane Jacobs, the great urbanist, in “The Death And Life of Great American Cities.”
Then she itemized their contributions: “All the apparatus of surgery, hygiene, microbiology, chemistry, telecommunications, public health measures, teaching and research hospitals, ambulances and the like, which people not only in cities but also outside them depend upon for the unending war against premature mortality, are fundamentally products of big cities and would be inconceivable without big cities.”
Cities created the future. Now we must secure theirs.
— Farhad Manjoo
And to finish up, a headline even this teetotaler couldn’t ignore:
It’s been a dismal year, but let’s look at the bright side: It’s nearly over.
Recently in Wine School, we had a polite discussion about whether 2020 was worthy of being ushered out with sparkling wine. The verdict was clear: Forget about what 2020 deserves. We have earned all the sparkling wine we want. . . .