June 09, 2012
Few things put more doubt and insecurity in us than our physical attributes and our own taste for what is attractive, and yet beauty still holds the power to reveal the sublime in the seemingly banal. For some, beauty comes face-to-face in a single arresting instant. To others, it is found in contrast with something else, observed over a period of time. Some of the contributors in Beautiful reclaim their definition of beauty; others recognize it in places, objects, and motion; still for others, finding their own beauty is a continuing process. In her introduction to The Beautiful Anthology, editor Elizabeth Collins considers our conflicting opinions of beauty, “how one person’s beauty, or what one finds beautiful, is not always appreciated by others.”
This engaging collection of 27 stories, poems, essays and photographs takes readers to both familiar and unfamiliar territory and finds beauty when our guard is down. Gina Frangello, Uche Ogbuji, Melissa Febos, Steve Sparshott, Tyler Stoddard Smith and others offer pieces that are sexy, compassionate, funny, and together absorbing. What distinguishes this collection from any other on the subject is its unyielding honesty—The Beautiful Anthology doesn’t take the easy way out in telling the truth about how we feel about beauty, and instead speaks to us now with a candor not found in other books on the subject. There aren’t many books specifically on beauty that are as broadly appealing as The Beautiful Anthology. Deeply moving in its intimacy, it will spark conversation and inspire readers to consider what beauty is and where it lives.
Elizabeth spoke with me about the book’s conception, the diverse pieces found in the book, the value of beauty in our turbulent times, and what she finds beautiful.
Beatrice Chernikoff: How did you find Evre Basak’s amazing photograph for the cover? It’s perfect for this book. The stark lighting of it somehow reminds me of a Nan Goldin photograph, if she were photographing a friend’s aura. It’s seductive in its belle-laide, a term used in the book’s introduction.
Elizabeth Collins: Our fantastic book designer, Charlotte Howard, found this photograph. The photographer, Evre Basak, is from Turkey. We all fell in love with this photograph, though—and, of course, with Charlotte’s cover design. We looked at many possible designs for the Beautiful cover, and everyone loves this one. It’s a bit shocking to some people, I think, but that’s entirely the point of The Beautiful Anthology. “Beautiful” means different things to different people; what some find beautiful other people may find ugly. Also, the title of Basak’s photograph is interesting–“Sleeping Ugly” (as in the reverse of “Sleeping Beauty”). The model is obviously beautiful, but even a beautiful person can have a shadow of ugly (or vice versa).
BC: How was this project conceived, and what inspired you to take on this task?
EC: This project was originally inspired by an essay that writer Greg Olear read about beauty (an earlier incarnation of Marni Grossman’s “Pretty is as Pretty Does”), and it led him to think that beauty was a topic everyone on earth could write about. It’s universal, and there are so many facets to the concept of beauty. Therefore, attempts to answer the general question, “What is beauty?” led to this anthology. Greg originally conceived and proposed the Beautiful project, but was still working on his second novel, Fathermucker, when he called me to take over the project.
BC: The Beautiful Anthology features new work not collected anywhere else. How did you go about curating the collection and what approach to take?
EC: Most of the pieces in Beautiful were originally given to me when I took on this project. I think Greg contacted different writers and asked them if they were interested in contributing work that had anything to do with beauty. We deliberately kept it wide open in terms of “assignment.” I wanted to see what people would give me (as did Greg); I wanted to ensure that the pieces would all be different. When the project came to me, I fleshed it out by asking more writers I knew if they were interested in submitting work, and I brought in J.E. Fishman, Nora Burkey, Angela Tung, Stephen Walter, and Tyler Stoddard Smith, and I asked several more.
BC: Did you have any particular reader in mind while you were making the selections?
EC: It is our hope that the book will have universal appeal. I think there is something for everyone—female, male, old, young. We deliberately varied the writers and the sorts of pieces in the book in order to balance the project and make it open to any reader.
BC: In the first essay “The Beautiful”, Victoria Patterson says “What we find beautiful is a reflection of our personality and individuality.” What do you find beautiful?
EC: Kindness, looking out for others, realizing we all need each other. Humor is incredibly beautiful to me. I am a huge fan of flowers, and of course, I love literature and always have. Animals are, to me, profoundly beautiful, as is the sea. Don’t get me started telling you what I find beautiful; there is so much. I also love very complex music, although I am primarily a visual person.
BC: While Victoria Patterson believes that what we find beautiful is an an expression of who we are, Zoe Zolbrod’s fabulous “Pai Foot” expresses a different experience than Patterson’s: “My response is violent but impersonal. It’s not about me. Or I don’t want it to be.” Beauty in this case has transcended to that empty space where you are held in oblivious suspension, not self-aware. Are they both right?
EC: It depends on what we are looking at and contemplating. If it’s a beautiful person, I think that subconsciously we are hoping that the beautiful person will also find us beautiful, so there would be some self-awareness there. Even a work of art makes us relate it to ourselves as in, “Could I do that? Yeah, I could do that, only better,” etc. Perhaps it is the more abstract (and non-human, non-human-created) bits of beauty that we do not relate to or compare to ourselves. For instance, a beautiful horse doesn’t make us think of ourselves. Nor do dolphins, nor do flowers, nor do beautiful sunsets. I think we really feel at peace when we can finally (if only for an instant) forget about ourselves. I don’t think we always remove the awareness of self when we contemplate beauty; it depends on the type of beauty, although ideally, we should appreciate beauty for its own sake, not for what it could do for us.
BC: A common occurrence in Beautiful is that beauty always seems to come as a surprise. J. E. Fishman describes his impression on a spinning tennis ball: “We paused in mutual shock, contemplating this thing of unspeakable beauty made even more ineffable by the sheer surprise of it.” Zolbrod also says that “It’s the shock of discovery that gives beauty such power.” Did you find a lot of submissions with this insight?
EC: I think when things are memorable, they are usually surprises. For example, things are usually funniest (and I find humor beautiful) when we are surprised by them. There is something about being surprised that increases the impact of what we see or experience. Perhaps it takes a more sensitive person to be affected by quiet, commonplace beauty?
BC: Reading Greg Olear’s piece “The Line Waver,” it seems that a symbol of what we think beauty should be has the danger of becoming a caricature through our own fault. Olear reveals that “our attitude toward perfection is in flux.” Do you agree? How so?
EC: Definitely. Consider the fact that, as one of our writers noted, “fat” used to be considered beautiful, while thin was considered ugly. Now, we are the opposite. Why did things change? What about our culture caused this shift? We know that when “fat” was beautiful it was because plumpness signified economic security (i.e., having enough money for food). Now, thin seems to indicate the same. Fat is a poor man’s problem now; cheap food is more fattening, and those who work don’t have much time to exercise, and maybe they don’t have money to join a gym, etc.
BC: Noticeably absent in these selections is any implicit role of religious faith. Why do you think some religions discourage displays of beauty while others, like the Catholicism I was raised in, use it to enhance the religious experience?
EC: I did not even notice this. I think religion is a dangerous topic, but I appreciate displays of beauty in religion, and in churches. I, too, was raised Catholic, and a beautiful cathedral can entice even restless me to sit through a long religious ceremony. I inherently dislike stark, plain spaces and am repulsed, in a way, by austerity (as seen in Puritanism—although this may be the strictness and intolerance of Calvinism as opposed to merely the hard wooden benches of its houses of worship). Perhaps this is because of my upbringing, or perhaps it’s just my personality. What we know now is that Protestantism in general eschewed what was seen as “showy” (read: tacky) displays of grandeur as in Catholic churches or even the Church of England. I agree that this can be a turn-off—after all, we don’t want to think that our hard-earned contributions are paying for wasteful bling; we contribute to a church because we are, ideally, trying to help other people or help the church continue to exist so that it can help other people.
BC: What destroys beauty in your opinion—time, apathy, prejudice? Can it be destroyed?
EC: Not being open to seeing it, I suppose. Certainly, time takes is toll on beauty, but the passage of time doesn’t have to supplant beauty with wrinkles and ugliness. Spiritual people, I have noticed, tend to be incredibly beautiful, no matter their age, so perhaps spiritual corruption destroys beauty.
BC: Many readers are interested to know the point of view of other cultures, other societies and social backgrounds, and will enjoy the anthology’s excellent representation in M.J. Fievre’s “The Other Papa”, Angela Tung’s “Blemished”, and Nora Burkey’s “The Politics of Beauty”.
EC: What I love most about this anthology is the varied cultural perspectives of beauty and the international slate of contributors. From the get-go, I loved M.J. Fievre’s “The Other Papa.” Zoe Zolbrod’s “Pai Foot” is one of my favorite essays in the book. I specifically asked Angela Tung to give me something that related to her Chinese parentage, and I believe I asked Nora Burkey to give me something relating to her work in Asia. I was stunned by how perceptive and insightful and political and heavy “The Politics of Beauty” was.
BC: How do you think the value we place on beauty continues to exist now when we live in cultural and political hysteria?
EC: Well, to paraphrase Nora Burkey, we need beauty in order to take our minds off all the darkness. That’s one way of looking at this question. I will digress and tell you that I was listening to NPR this morning while driving my kids to school, and all the news was “mass murder here” and “catastrophe there,” and people being quoted saying incredibly stupid things such as, “It’s my hobby to sue people for violating the Constitution…” likely spoken by a dude who doesn’t really know what the Constitution said or really means. It was the most depressing display of the worst of human nature—killing, maiming, persecuting others for political reasons. I nearly turned off the radio because I don’t want my kids to know how ugly the world can be. And yet, I know that we can’t understand or appreciate beauty unless we have “ugly” for comparison. We need the opposites or else “beautiful” becomes meaningless.
BC: Do you think we learn about beauty through our parents’ generation? Do we see beauty only as far as our social/familial circle will allow us?
EC: Well, it must be our first exposure to the idea of beauty, but even as small children, we inherently respond to beauty (as Zolbrod writes) in our individual ways; from the start, it is an individual concept. Another example: my parents came of age in the 1960s. I never found 1960s furniture or architecture beautiful, even when I was growing up surrounded by it. I still sort of hate it, and I have never understood why anyone would want to look like a character from “Mad Men.” So, no, I don’t think that we only see beauty as far as our family/upbringing will let us. Consciousness of what we find beautiful is just inside us and is highly personal and even inexplicable. Another example: I love graphic design from the 1930s and always have. Why is this? I just responded viscerally to it. I certainly didn’t grow up with it, but the first time I saw an old book of poster art, I just had to have it…I still love it.
BC: As an educator, how did you see youth develop their criteria for beauty?
EC: Unfortunately, celebrity culture, particularly in the USA, but also in other places (such as China, Korea, India) affects youth’s ideas of beauty or causes them to feel lesser. I think we are seeing more diversity in the USA when it comes to appreciating different ideals of beauty.
BC: How do you see the perception of beauty changing with the generation that grew up with the Internet?
EC: I think we have wider exposure to different types of beauty because of the internet; we can see art and video from around the world. We can see things we would never have seen before without a 28-hour plane trip. It has opened up the world to us and also made the world smaller and more connected. It’s beautiful to see how much more we know about life because of the internet.
BC: When was the last time you were stopped dead in your tracks because of something you found beautiful? What happened? Is beauty, then, an emotion, a hyper-visceral sense of wonder and awe?
EC: I see things sometimes that are deeply emotional (and hence, beautiful), but they are not the usual idea of beauty. Last week, I saw a robin in the road next to a flattened robin that had clearly been run over by a car. This other robin must have been its mate. It seemed to me that this still-alive robin was trying to process the death of its mate—I assume they mate for life, so if the concept of time is understood by birds, then this was particularly tragic. The whole scene was so sad, so touching. It really shook me up. I kept thinking about it. Then, later, I saw there were two flattened robins in the road. I feel sure that the one robin either consciously waited to join his/her mate in death, or the fact that it was in the road and wouldn’t leave the side of the flat robin made it inevitable that it, too, would be killed. Anyway—it is things like this that reinforce the reality that all creatures experience emotion. The mere fact that we don’t consider this, or we even deny this, is disgusting—the opposite of beauty—but when we talk about opposites, it makes us consider the other side…Perhaps beauty is important because it evokes emotion, makes us love, makes us cry, etc.
BC: Do you think we need our notions of what is beautiful to be challenged in order to enhance our humanity?
EC: This is an interesting question. I think that one of the purposes of life is to grow and to change. This is attached to opening one’s mind and having experiences. We need to think for ourselves in order to grow. As I have said about teaching, “We think the way we are first taught, and then, ideally, we think for ourselves.” That’s what I tried to do as a teacher—teach my students to think for themselves, not just give me back what I told them. Mind expansion enhances humanity.
BC: The Beautiful Anthology will debut this coming June 2012, followed later this year by your new memoir, Too Cool for School. What can you tell us about it?
EC: Too Cool for School is a memoir about my experiences as a high school teacher. I felt quite secure in my job, but was blindsided by a politically motivated attack against me from two parents for being “too liberal”— I had dared to criticize their daughter’s essay by saying on my blog that I was “dismayed,” though I never identified anyone. I specified “no politics” in the assigned essay, but I got strident, obnoxious politics from one student. All hell broke loose—I was relentlessly hounded, and threatened (I was told by these people that they wanted me and my kids to “die in the street”); every supervisor I had was relentlessly pressured and harassed, and because I could see no point in taking this abuse, and I knew the pressure on the school was too much, I stopped teaching. This was incredibly sad for me. I spent more than a year writing this memoir, and though I am most critical of myself, I know it’s my best work yet. But beyond the words, the memoir has a purpose: I want to protect other teachers, if I can, and I want to make education more engaging and meaningful.
The Beautiful Anthology will be available wherever books are sold online very soon.
Beatrice Chernikoff likes crossing the borders between Wisconsin and Mexico and reads between the lines. She has previously written for La Bloga.