This is the obligatory space where I summarize my professional self. Some of it I’ve plucked from interviews I’ve give over the years.
I read a lot (new books in world literature, of course, since I run a book review, but also books from and about the 20th century, 19th century, sometimes the 18th century and earlier), I edit a lot (LARB, LARB Books, my students’ work), and I travel a lot (from Azerbaijan to Zanzibar, as one of my subtitles has it). I teach, at UC Riverside and at the LARB/USC Publishing Workshop.
I read, I write, I teach, I edit, and I’ve always played music. I spent an inordinate amount of time, for someone who is not a professional musician, playing in bar bands, and I’ve recorded a few times. Until recently I had a baby grand I bought 20-plus years ago in a junk shop out in the desert, in Joshua Tree. Somebody had spray-painted it gold—not just the wood, but the strings, the hammers, everything—so it wasn’t selling particularly well. For twenty years I sat down at that muffled, tinny piano, played Ray Charles’s “Drown in My Own Tears,” sang it at the top of my lungs, occasionally on pitch, and did it over and over and over again, day after day, year after year. Made me feel like a million bucks. My neighbors, I assume, hated me for it, but they were too nice to say so. Now I have a more recent vintage piano—brighter, louder—and my voice is just a little worse, kind of Paul Rudd-karaoke bad. Makes me very happy, as does banging on the pandemic-extravagant set of drums I bought this year.
I teach writing, literature, and theory at UC Riverside, after many years at the University of Iowa and briefer stints at Stanford, Copenhagen, and CalArts. I am married for the last 26 years to the writer Laurie Winer, and my three wonderful adult children all live in Los Angeles with their three wonderful partners. We all worry about the world descending into total political and climatological chaos in their lifetimes, and all understand our moral responsibility to have faith and hope, and to work toward not letting that happen.
For more about the various things I’ve done in the past few decades, click below:
I’m the author of seven books.
Born Slippy: A Novel
Two books of travel writing:
And the Monkey Learned Nothing: Dispatches from a Life in Transit
Drinking Mare’s Milk on the Roof of the World: Wandering the Globe from Azerbaijan to Zanzibar
Two trade books of cultural history:
Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums
Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears
And two academic books of literary and cultural history:
Cosmopolitan Vistas: American Regionalism and Literary Value
American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History
My books have been translated into 12 languages and have appeared on NYT and LAT bestseller lists.
Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America received the National Book Award in 2008.
You can read more about each of my books here: My Books.
My fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New Republic, Chicago Tribune, Die Zeit, ZYZZYVA, Exquisite Corpse, Salon.com, Black Clock, and other newspapers and literary venues, as well as in dozens of books and academic journals.
I have also written a number of screenplays for film and television. My latest is a limited series historical drama set in the 1920s.
I’m a Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).
UCR offers the only Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing in the University of California system and MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. The MFA Program offers degrees in Fiction, Poetry, Creative Nonfiction, Playwriting, and Screenwriting. To learn more about the university’s MFA Program and Undergraduate Creative Writing program, visit this link.
I teach graduate and undergraduate courses and workshops in nonfiction, fiction, literature, and theory for writers. In the past I have also taught courses in cultural history, cultural theory, literary and critical history and theory, film, screenwriting, and world intellectual history, as well as introductions to graduate studies in literature and creative writing.
I am Director of UCR’s Annual Literary Festival Writers Week, now in its 42nd year.
I was director of the UCR/Palm Desert MFA in Creative Writing
Prior to UCR, I have taught at Stanford University (where I was part of the team that turned their freshman Western Culture requirement into a global course on culture and values), University of Iowa, CalArts (where I directed the MFA in writing), and University of Copenhagen.
I am available as a speaker and guest lecturer on any of these topics.
I am the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), a nonprofit organization founded in 2011 and dedicated to promoting and disseminating rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts. The LARB main website publishes three to five longform reviews, essays, and interviews every day, as well as more pieces on our blog (BLARB) and in our Channels program, home to a dozen independently edited websites. I also founded the LARB Quarterly Journal, the LARB Radio Hour, the LARB Publishing Workshop, and LARB Books. We also produce a series of events year-round.
I have edited essays, reviews, essays, fiction, and poetry for the website and the journal, have edited audio and video for the website, radio program, and podcasts, many collections of articles from LARB, and books for our book line. I have also edited many articles for other publications, guest edited issues of academic journals, and a book, These ‘Colored’ United States: African American Essays from the 1920s.
“Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.” — American Humanist Association
I’m proud to be a Los Angeles Institute of Humanities Fellow.
My academic career has been spent in traditional humanities fields—English departments, comparative literature departments, history departments—as well as more recently conceived humanities departments like Modern Thought and Literature, American Studies, and Media & Cultural Studies.
The humanities are under attack from a number of sides, but one thing is clear: the majority of people with college degrees now vote for Democrats, the majority of people who don’t vote for Republicans. Republican legislators at the national and state level regularly vote to limit funding for higher education. This makes sense for them—why support an institution that turns citizens against them? Whether they are educated in humanities, social sciences, arts, or sciences, college graduates come out seeing the world in a way that favors Democratic agendas (climate change intervention, international cooperation, social safety nets, people first) rather than Republican ones (nativism, nationalism, militarism, corporations first).
The college curriculum has always been in flux—it is always the result of many decisions by many individual professors. We each decide what we will teach and now, and we work together as departments and schools to forge requirements for degrees and general education. We need only to look at how central Greek and Latin were to higher education in the 19th century to see the vast changes over time. But when the curriculum is also under pressure from central administrations to concentrate on fields with funding, and that funding is determined by legislators with a bias toward military industrial and commercial interests, the intellectual life of the nation suffers. For most of the 20th century the humanities were firmly at the center of most college curricula. That is changing in some ways that are intellectually justifiable, but in many that are not, that are responding to political pressure.
Although I now teach in an arts department, I continue to work as cooperating faculty to a number of humanities departments, and continue to argue the value of education in the humanities for all.
I have a deep, almost pathological, wanderlust. It started when I was a kid hitchhiking and riding freight trains around the country, hitting some 45 states by the time I was 21. One of the great things about freight-hopping was that I never really knew where I was going. I could see that the track was heading east or west, but I never knew when the train I was on might veer north or south. And even now, my favorite way to travel is without an itinerary or predetermined goal, the farther off the beaten path the better—nothing makes me happier than going to countries at the bottom of other people’s lists.
This map shows the countries I have been to so far:
I have collected some moments from my travels in my book Drinking Mare’s Milk on the Roof of the World and in And the Monkey Learned Nothing. I am completing a third volume, The Kindness of Strangers, and have started on a fourth, more targeted volume, The Aridity Line. Research for this last will continue during my sabbatical year in 2020–2021, with travel to many countries in West and Central Africa, to Mongolia, and to many countries in the Middle and Near East.