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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: literary criticism, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 56
1. Should Criticism Sting?

Michael Sedano

La Bloga’s Saturday columnist Rudy Ch. Garcia reviewed Boy Zorro and the Bully (El Niño Zorro y el Peleón). Published in English and Spanish, Rudy calls it “a Latino book” on how to handle bullying, finding Boy Zorro on the whole worthwhile. Click here to read the review and Comments from Rudy's July 26 column.

The publisher and author wrote back, objecting to calling Boy Zorro "a Latino book, arguing that "using Spanish merely makes the topic accessible to more readers". Author, Kat A. expresses restrained anger when she avers,

Rudy. Rudy. Rudy. You practically missed the book altogether. Starting with the misclassification of it as “A Latino Book”. This is a book about “Bullying”. You made it a book about Latinos and then used the book as a platform to go off into different tangents about race, skin color, lack of female representation…are you helping or hurting those who actually do something

The publisher, Katherine Del Monte, focuses on the positive messages the book conveys, only once tangentially acknowledging Garcia’s critique that illustrations paint everyone except one kid and the principal pink.

Mr. Ramos, the principal, does the right thing, stays strong, and all outcomes are favorable – no matter their skin color or race.

The author and publisher’s responses reflect one of those hard facts of writing: once the writer has sent the piece “out there,” it belongs to the reader. And the critic.

Sadly, "criticism" has come to mean its lowest common denominator, fault-finding and punishment, so people hate criticism. Maybe it's part of the national character, to take critique as a personal affront.

To be criticized is good. In its most exalted form, criticism compares a concept of perfection to the work at hand and declares how the piece at hand measures up to perfection. Most literary criticism reflects versions of the latter. It shouldn't sting. Indeed, it's an honor to be compared to perfection.

A reader or critic comes to a title with her or his own expectations for the book and reads it through the lens of expectation, plus one’s capacity for the writer’s style and invention. In writing the critique, the critic will say what he or she likes, what he or she doesn’t like, and offer qualitative observations related to the work.

In Rudy's critique, he likes Boy Zorro for its critically important message. His enthusiasm is tempered by ways the book could do a better job for its readers.

Whatever the assessment—love it, hate it, wish it was something else—it belongs to the critic and reflects that critic's sensibility. A work “means” what the reader says it means, regardless of the author’s or publisher’s intent. We do, of course, share a language, so most of the time, we "get" one another. But now and again a Boy Zorro comes around, where critique and intent rub each other the wrong way.

Favorable or not, taking into account a critic's observations--Rudy's expectation that illustrated children's books reflect a child's world by featuring diversity in gender and skin colors--won't diminish established intentions but certainly enhances the likelihood a future book will attract wider readership and more favorable critical responses.

0 Comments on Should Criticism Sting? as of 8/19/2014 4:05:00 AM
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2. Writing in a Digital Age

I was honoured to be invited to speak at The Literacy Consultancy's Writing in a Digital Age conference yesterday. (A particular personal pleasure because I got to see Lynne Hatwell and Sam Leith again, and it had been far too long in both cases.) Huge thanks to the organisers for inviting me. Seemed to be a very vibrant and well run affair, and I enjoyed the discussion immensely.

The conference was the occasion for writing this piece (What became of literary blogging?) for the Guardian last Monday. It was the subs at the Guardian who framed the piece thus: I hoped that blogs could provide an outlet for the serious criticism missing from the mainstream media. I didn't reckon on Twitter but it doesn't give a terrible sense of my thinking.

Principally, I wanted to make the observation that whilst the book blogosphere had thrown up some fine writers (those I mention at the foot of the piece, but several others could be cited - and, indeed, the comments thread, whilst occasionally inane and dyspeptic as per Guardian comments threads, throws up some fine examples) it had not thrown many good literary critics. This is simply a fact.

Blogging has been around a good decade now, and the online writing revolution has touched every sort of genre and created well-known writers of many stripes. We've had the rise of fan-fiction (E.L. James), paranormal fiction (Amanda Hocking), women's fiction (Anna Bell) and erotica (James, and H.M. Ward); we've had food writers (Jack Monroe), political blogs (from Paul Slaine / Guido Fawkes to Richard Seymour / Lenin's Tomb) and philosophers (the rise of and rise of speculative realism and all its countless blogs and forums) all hugely affecting their respective fields; we've had wonderful book bloggers (like John Self) arrive on the scene and add sparkle and insight to the book review pages of the MSM; and we've had exciting Multi-Author Blogs (like 3:AM, Berfrois, LARB) arriving to show how broad-based, intelligent and informative online writing can be. All this shows the wonderful diversity and energy of online writing. Most all examples are to be welcomed. But despite the fine work of a few (and I should mention Dan Green here because Dan has worked hard over the years to use blogging as a means to write seriously about books and literature) good literary critical writers have not turned up in droves. I wish I was wrong about this. But it's a fact.

I'm deliberately not defining literary criticism above because by not defining it I'm hoping to keep the category as wide open as possible; I'm not being proscriptive here: if you think it's literary criticism, that's good enough for me. I think most would agree that book reviewing and literary criticism are very different (even if they can be on a continuum). And we all know the difference between a Guardian review and an essay in the LRB and a book by Gérard Genette. Many fine book reviewers have emerged from the blogosphere, but I don't think we can hide from the fact that no serious literary critics have emerged, maintaining a blog, doing innovative work and gaining a following for that work as we have seen in plenty of other fields.

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3. Musical Sunday


Two music-related books to get me through Sunday...

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine (she of The Slits; if you don't know, you probably won't care, but maybe you should – she writes well about "art school, squatting, hanging out in Sex with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, spending a day chained to Sid Vicious, on tour with The Clash, and being part of a brilliant, pioneering group of women making musical history").

And Emily Petermann's The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction:

The Musical Novel builds upon theories of intermediality and semiotics to analyze the musical structures, forms, and techniques in two groups of musical novels, which serve as case studies. The first group imitates an entire musical genre and consists of jazz novels by Toni Morrison, Albert Murray, Xam Wilson Cartiér, Stanley Crouch, Jack Fuller, Michael Ondaatje, and Christian Gailly. The second group of novels, by Richard Powers, Gabriel Josipovici, Rachel Cusk, Nancy Huston, and Thomas Bernhard, imitates a single piece of music, J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations.

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4. Siri Hustvedt: The Powells.com Interview

Siri Hustvedt's latest novel, The Blazing World, is aptly titled; it is a tour de force about a larger-than-life artist, Harriet ("Harry") Burden, whose three great works used "masks" — male artists who claimed the works as their own. Hustvedt frames the book as an anthology of Harry's life and work after her death, including [...]

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5. what I will be reading on Australian writing in 2013: the Sydney Review of Books and The Writer's Room Interviews

Last weekend was a great one for reading about Australian writing, with the launch of two new e-publications.

The University of Western Sydney is supporting the brand spanking new Sydney Review of Books, which launched with several articles on Friday. There will be fresh reading every week for the next two months of this pilot project headed up by critic and editor James Ley, so get along there.

First postings include critical essays and reviews by Kate Middleton, Evelyn Juers, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Peter Pierce, Mo Yan and Nicholas Jose, as well as a call to arms for a watch on criticism by Ben Etherington.

Charlotte Wood, author and essayist, has begun a series of interviews available by subscription, The Writer's Room Interviews. You can sign up for them here, at an annual cost of $27.50 for six issues. The first interview was with Tasmanian writer and Patrick White prizewinner Amanda Lohrey, and I found it completely absorbing, probably because I love her work.

There were two things from the interview, among many, that struck me.

Firstly, I liked what Lohrey had to say about how taste affects the reading of fiction:

CW: A painter friend of mine says people think they don’t know what good art is, but that in every show he’s ever had, the best pictures sell first. You don’t understand it,but you know it.
AL: You do know it. It’s instinctive. But at the same time I think that’s more true of the visual arts than of literature. For it’s also true with fiction that there is no single standard of excellence. A book is a meeting of subjectivities and the subjectivity of one writer will speak to one reader but not to another. There are some writers who don’t speak to me at all but I can see why they speak to other readers, can see that they are in the same zone in terms of their preoccupations, and their conditioning, what’s important to them. It’s just not important to me and I’m not interested. So I don’t mean to say — I’m not trying to posit an idea of excellence that everybody responds to. I think literature is very much a one-to one conversation, which is why I cannot argue with someone who says The Alchemist is their favourite book when they’ve obviously got a lot out of it.

Secondly, Lohrey made some useful remarks about what she called 'inventive' realism:

I’ve always been interested in exploratory and inventive modes of realism, not for their own sake but because each new project demands its own aesthetic. I could get very technical on the subject but this is probably not the time or place. I would say, however, that one of the important functions of university writing courses is to encourage students to interrogate taken-for-granted modes of representation. If you decide to write in a conventional way, at least know why you’ve made that decision. Traditionally, film-makers have been much more concerned with issues of representation and more innovative. And to be fair, the camera gives them more scope, but that doesn’t mean that we as writers shouldn’t think about it. You don’t have to be obviously ‘experimental’, you don’t have to write like Gertrude Stein or James Joyce — small unorthodox manoeuvres can have potent effects.

Small and unorthodox. I like the sound of that.

I've been so busy reading these two publications that I did not have time to blog about them at the time. Which speaks for itself. Go, enjoy, be enlightened or enraged, as you will.

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6. Finding Your Voice

One of the most prized, and most difficult, tasks a new author undertakes is the quest to find his own voice. It is a desire to be unique and original, to sound like no one else. Because voice has to do with sound, right? Voice is the sound we make out loud. But then, what [...]

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7. OOO calls for better texts

In other words, I think I’m giving an even stronger critique of authorial intention than is usually the case. Not only do authors fail to master the infinite dissemination of their texts, they probably don’t even put the text in the right shape in the first place. Most of them should have written better texts. Just as social surroundings fail to exhaust a literary work, the exact written form of a literary work fails to exhaust the deeper spirit of that work...

Graham Harman responds to Dan Green (who in turn was writing in response to Harman's The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism [pdf]).

Speculative Realism and OOO have much of interest to say on literature and literary criticism. In particularly, Harman's concept of a withdrawing ontology, of objects that can't be fully known, has some potentially interesting literary critical applications. The conversation between Green and Harman opens up some interesting avenues, but I think there is yet a lot more to say on this...

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8. Tor Ulven’s Replacement

It’s often unclear whether Ulven’s voices are meant to be many, or one. They certainly speak and think of similar things. Like Beckett’s creations, all are crippled, decrepit, or otherwise waning. Decay, says one, is the “lowest multiple,” which may be why these characters seem to converge. In their infirmity, each shares something essentially human. As it’s put at one point, “people are only really revealed in decline.” Yet if decay and decline disclose the human condition, they also herald a kind of heroism. Early on, we meet an old man for whom “unbuttoning a shirt is a real task . . . a project in itself . . . a triumph every time.” Replacement is full of such everyday struggles. But because the book balances all events equally, compressing life’s major and minor moments, these delicate acts acquire a heartrending resonance...

David Winters reviews Tor Ulven’s Replacement on full-stop.net.

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9. Life and work of the cosmopolitan Shirley Hazzard, glimpsed from behind a paywall

In the Weekend Australian Review, Geordie Williamson has a fine review of what must be an engrossing academic title which deserves a discerning readership, Margaret Olubas' new book on the life and works of Shirley Hazzard. As Williamson writes, this title is "astonishingly" the first of its kind. The review is behind a paywall but I liked these sentences enough to excise them. (There is a free 28-day trial on the website if you wish to read further.)

Her monograph argues that liberal humanism does not have a geographic home; it is not fixed in space, does not emerge from a single source. Rather its fragile decencies are founded on connections between disparate individuals, creative artists and people-smugglers of the intellect who carry other people's words around inside their heads.



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10. Machinic Art: The Matter of Contradiction

I want to argue that works of art are machinic rather than hermeneutic. In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari say that the unconscious is a factory, not a theater. By this they mean that the unconscious does not represent or mean, but that it produces. I want to say that works of arts are factories or machines, not theaters. They don’t have meanings, but are powers of producing differences in the world. They are real actors. They do not represent, even in the tradition of realism, but make. I read Proust, for example, and his exquisite discussion of various emotional states has the power to actually create new forms of affect in me that I never before had. I begin to love as Proust’s characters do. The work of art is thus a factory that both transforms the artist that creates it (artists tell me that they become something else as a result of their work) and that transforms the audiences that encounter the work. Works of art are difference engines that circulate throughout the world and that transform the people and things that encounter them. Picasso’s Guernica does not represent the bombing of Guernica, but both transforms the event of that bombing, giving it a new sense, and creates an affect for the slaughter of the innocents everywhere....

Machinic Art: The Matter of Contradiction

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11. Named for a Harwood acrostic, the So Long Bulletin is a must-read

All right, I know most of my posts in the past couple of reloaded weeks have been about poetry.

Found via the newly launched Haplax, in turn mentioned in the Writers Victoria weekly news email, the SoLong Bulletin Of Australian Poetry And Criticism is edited by Elizabeth Campbell,  LK Holt and Petra White.
LK Holt's posts in particular look snappy and fun, though there is an illustrious bunch of contributors already. It seems to have been here for some time.
The search box on that Tumblr theme is more effective than some I've played with too.  (All blogging platforms have their Achilles heel.)
Go, enjoy. It's a fine surprise.

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12. George Steiner: The high priest of high art

George Steiner’s profoundly European sensibility has rarely been more evident than in this series of meditations on what Maurice Blanchot calls the “exultant antagonism” between poetry and thought (more...)

George Steiner: The high priest of high art

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13. Frank Kermode: the great syncretist

St. Thomas and St. Augustine make frequent appearances in Kermode’s criticism, and he read them and bantered with them the way that most people do the sports page. He was himself a nonbeliever, but because he could give conditional assent to concepts like omniscience and immortality he could fluently translate these thinkers into the secular era and therefore mingle their ideas with those of contemporary theorists, even those as radical (at the time) as Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes. Kermode practiced criticism during a phase of intense rupture in the academic world, when most literary scholars had divided into reactionary camps, contentiously alienated from each other, from the precepts of the past, and most of all from the reading public. Kermode’s genius was in traveling freely among these schools of thought, and even among the styles of writing, employing their competing theories but not being defined by them—and also subtly demonstrating their commonalities. He was the age’s great critical syncretist (more...)

Seer Blest: Sam Sacks on the great Frank Kermode.

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14. Everyone’s a Critic

I am reading Greeblatt’s The Swerve, a delightfully bookish book, and broke out into a giggle fit when I came across this passage today:

On the death of Petrarch on July 19, 1374, the grieving Salutati had declared that Petrarch was a greater prose writer than Cicero and a greater poet than Virgil. By the 1390s, this praise seemed to Poggio and Niccoli ridiculous, and they pressed Salutati to repudiate it. In all the intervening centuries, no one, they argued, had bettered the great classic writers in stylistic perfection. It was impossible. Since ancient times all there had been in their view, was a long, tragic history of stylistic corruption and loss. Indifferent or ignorant, even supposedly well-educated medieval writers had forgotten how to form sentences correctly, in the proper manner of the masters of classical Latin, or to use words with elegance, accuracy, and precision with which they had once been wielded.

Puts my grousing about Kimball’s article the other day into perspective, doesn’t it?

Seems like everyone’s a critic and in no time is the literature ever as good as it used to be. Something to keep in mind as many people commented on the Kimball article post, there is no way of knowing the future and what literature will come to be seen as representing our time and culture, what books being published now will be read in 100 years or more. And really, does it matter if the book you are in the midst of now is one that is or isn’t read in the future as long as you are enjoying it now? After all, we don’t get extra credit points after we are dead for having read the novel that is being taught in all the high school English classes in 2112. At least I don’t think we do. Is there a heavenly reading scoreboard no one has told me about? Actually, if there were a scoreboard it would definitely be located in hell with demons scratching up marks with their nails on a chalkboard.

Filed under: Books, In Progress, Literary Criticism

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15. Derek Attridge talk

RSB interviewee Derek Attridge has a 50 minute talk (about Reading and Responsibility), originally delivered on October 16, 2007 at the University of Washington, up on ARCADE.

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16. Reality Hunger

Reality Hunger by David Shields is made up of 26 lettered chapters and 618 numbered paragraphs. It is Shields’ literary manifesto in which he decries the state of the contemporary novel, can’t understand why people think memoirs are all true when we all know that memory is fallible (Is an author really going to be able to recall verbatim a conversation with a friend at the age of ten? Sometimes I don’t even know what day of the week it is, let alone what I said to someone when I was ten or 20 or even just yesterday), praises borrowing/repurposing/plagiarizing other artist’s work, lauds the blurring of genre, and declares the lyric essay the literary form that is best suited to satiate our reality hunger.

Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the “real,” semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication – autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. More invention, more fabrication aren’t going to do this. I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read and write novels.

It is one of those serendipitous things that I read this book not long after Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and the the resulting discussion about literary innovation. And it is interesting that Dorothy recently posted about contemporary fiction after she complained that she is often bored by it.

Shields has lost faith in the novel. While “plots are for dead people,” made me laugh as did

Is it possible that contemporary literary prizes are a bit like the federal bailout package, subsidizing work that is no longer remotely describing reality?

And while I too find a good deal of contemporary fiction to be disappointing and boring, I haven’t given up on fiction. I still have faith in the novel. And also unlike Shields, I do sometimes just want to read for a good story and be entertained and I don’t think that fiction should be thrown out on the dust heap.

While Shields’ book is interesting and has quite a lot of provocative things to say and much to ponder, I think what it all boils down to is that he wants literature to do a better job at representing reality and the form of literature that he elevates – the lyric essay – is his own personal taste. I love essays, but I don’t think they, or to a certain extent memoir, are the only means by which we can examine the reality that we live in. I don’t think the novel is dead. I think it is difficult for fiction writers to publish the truly innovative and this isn’t just a symptom of our own age. Virginia Woolf self-published after all.

Maybe more than anything, Reality Hunger is a call to shake things up in the literary world. Things are getting stale. Casual readers are abandoning ship for the internet and video games and Facebook. Whether being drawn away from reading fiction is because fiction is somehow failing or for another reason, I don’t know. But I think it is worth thinking about.

The way Shields has constructed his book is a collage of quotes from various sources bumping up against each other, speaking and arguing, contradicting and confirming. They do not make a coherent narrative or argument, they aren’t supposed to. The argument emerges from the accumulation of quotes. It is not a common way to write a book but it certainly isn’t new either. It is a if-David-Markson-wrote-nonfiction kind of book. It took me about 10-15 pages to settle into the book and figure out what Shields was up to. But after that, I very much enjoyed it an

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17. What Ever Happened to Modernism?

Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a densely-packed examination of modernism in art and literature that in the end is an attempt by Josipovici to explain modernism, mourn its passing, and call for, not exactly a return to modernism, but a revitalization of the modernist stance and the questions modernism addresses.

As a tour of modernism, the book is interesting and, I think, successful. Josipovici suggests that modernism did not begin in 1850 or end in 1950. Instead, we can see modernist questions and issues beginning with Don Quixote and being taken up in art and texts whose creators are responding to a “disenchantment of the world.” Josipovici wants to make us understand that modernism is not a movement or the name of a period, but

[...] the daily struggle of a dialogue with the world, without any assurance that what one will produce will have value because there is nothing already there against which to test it, but with the possibility always present that something new, something genuine, something surprising will emerge.

And so, in the modernist enterprise that is more a way of being in the world, we have such luminaries as Cervantes, Dürer, Sterne and Wordsworth and of course all those who we typically think of like Picasso, Woolf, Duchamp, and Eliot. Wait a second, Wordsworth, you say? I know. This gave me a little jolt too since I have always thought of Wordsworth, mostly because I was taught it in college, as firmly belonging to the Romantic Period. But, part of being a Modernist for Josipovici means questioning what you are doing as an artist. So while someone like Wordsworth questions the purpose and method of his art, he is modernist, but someone like Dickens who never stops to ponder the question, is decidedly not modern.

In an odd way, Josipovici sets up a duality of modern/not modern and the art that comes down on the modern side he finds rich, rewarding, moving and most importantly, alive. All that falls to the not modern side, while perhaps interesting, offers little to no satisfaction and rarely, if ever, moves Josipovici in any meaningful way.

There was a bit of a fuss after the book first came out when the Guardian published a piece in which they chose to focus on this passage:

Reading [Julian] Barnes, like reading so many of the other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. Ah, they will say, but that is just what we wanted, to free you from your illusions. But I don’t believe them. I don’t buy into their view of life. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language, which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism, which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.

Philip Roth and John Updike do not sit well with Josipovici either. The criticism of these writers was, naturally, blown all out of proportion. In response, Josipovici wrote an article for the September 6, 2010 New Statesman (not available online but I highly recommend checking it out if you have access to it through your library).

In the article, Josipovici tries to explain why he wrote the book and what he means by modernism and why it is he doesn’t like the authors he mentions. And one of the reasons for writing the book was an attempt to figure out why literary modernism seems to have disappeared even as it continues in art and music. And disappeared from literature it apparently has because he does not name one living writer who he considers part of the modernist e

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18. George Steiner, The Art of Criticism

I'd love to be remembered as a good teacher of reading, and I mean remedial reading in a deeply moral sense: the reading should commit us to a vision, should engage our humanity, should make us less capable of passing by. But I don't know that I've succeeded, either for others or for myself.

Is there any kind of education, schooling in poetry, music, art, philosophy that would make a human being unable to shave in the morning — forgive this banal image — because of the mirror throwing back at him something inhuman or subhuman? That's what I keep hammering at in my own thinking, in my own writing. Hence the move in Real Presences, coming around that immensely difficult corner, towards theology. What about the great poets, the great artists who have known about such things — Dante, for example, or Shakespeare? Could something make us incapable of certain imperceptions, incapable of certain blindnesses, deafnesses? Is there something that would make the imagination responsible and answerable to the reality principles of being human all around us? That's the question...

George Steiner interviewed in the Paris Review.

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19. Read unread

Looking over some of his old essays, a friend suggested to me that he didn't recognize very much of what he had once written. More than that, he often didn't even remember writing them. Rereading old essays of my own, I wonder who I was when I wrote them, I wonder where that 'I' -- one so utterly focused on the subject under discussion, once seemingly so self-aware -- has now gone. Actually, I'm sure that that is part of why we write: as much to forget, to purge, as to remember. Proust's huge meditation on memory is so profoundly moving because it fully fleshes out the commonplace that life is forgetting, yet memories are, quite literally, also who we are: our self is what we remember of our self and of others. Life is the accommodation we make, or is made for us, between holding on and letting go. But who makes the accommodation? Ourselves? But who is that self, and why should we trust it when it proves itself, in the very process of remembering, to be based on such vistas of absence, to be so insubstantial, so untrustworthy?

Via Borges (Funes the Memorious), we know that to over-remember is to fail to live fully, but to forget is to inhabit a void. Too much information and we can't move, can't breathe; too little and we're equally stifled, but this time via a conspiracy of contextlessness. The Novel itself replicates this, in a sense. Pierre Bayard's surprisingly stimulating How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is, as much as anything, an investigation into memory: what does it mean to say that one has read a book if days, weeks or months later one can remember nothing about it? Does some homeopathic traceless residue somehow remain? Has an altering occurred with the reading? A substantive shift that once achieved doesn't need the memory of content to pertain? Or has the event, even though we live in its aftermath, now failed to have occurred?

Even as we move through the pages of a book -- especially a large book; I've just read The Kindly Ones, so I'm particularly aware of this -- we are constantly forgetting the detail which defines it. A novel is everything that the writer does to flesh out the basic story. Some claim there are only seven basic plots; a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare will confirm that Will got most all of them boxed-off, and repeated a fair few, in his 30-odd plays. But particularities are the very things that we forget as we move through and are moved by any story. The novel is everything that the writer does to flesh out the basic story, and reading is the process of forgetting those details. A novel is defined by being too much to hold in our mind all at once: in a sense, it is unreadable, and always remains unread.

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20. 'The Kindly Ones' two weeks on

What is left, for me, of The Kindly Ones now? I finished Jonathan Littell's astonishing book (wonderfully translated by Charlotte Mandell) two weeks ago, and I could, I'm sure, knock-out a half-decent review of the book if I was so minded. But reviews abound (as so often, Stephen Mitchelmore sets the standard) and, anyway, I'm more interested, at the moment, in wondering what it means to have read it, what the reading has left me with, what it has done to me...

But to investigate, however cursorily, the phenomenon of having read, one is inevitably drawn towards making a balance sheet of the book in question. One moves towards writing a review in order simply to discover what one remembers of the now-finished novel. To describe TKO, two writerly adjectives come to mind. I want to say that the book is Proustian, and also that it is Sadeian. Proustian, because this is a novel presented as a memoir, because it investigates memory by way of showing us everything that our principal protagonist, SS Officer Dr. Maximilian Aue, remembers and forgets; but more so because its weight and detail, its heft and extent, never add up to it being any more than a fragment. As with Proust's work, one is deliciously confronted with the ambiguity (an ambiguity that, say, Don Delillo plays with in Libra) that no matter how many facts one gets down, reality is overwhelmingly complex in the face of one's inevitably pathetic list. As one reads on, with page after page of detail piling up, one is confronted with all Aue is leaving out, either on purpose or has forgotten: Littell's brick of a novel counter-intuitively remains a testament only to all he does not say. The absence one is left with weeks after reading (indeed, even as one is reading) echoes the absence that the book's presence can never hide from sight.

The novel is Sadeian, of course because of the sexual details (of which, actually, there are precious few: Aue is coprophilic, and at the beginning and end of the novel incestuously priapic, but you'd be hard pressed to be able in any way to thrill to his own thralldom: the novel is a million miles away from pornography) but, more specifically, it is Sadeian in the encyclopeadic sense. In France between 1751 and 1772, Denis Diderot oversaw the creation of a 35 volume encyclopedia. As wikipedia will tell you, "Many of the most noted figures of the French enlightenment contributed to the Encyclopédie, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu." The Enlightenment held knowledge as sacred, and the world was further desacralised by its endeavours as information piled up in ever-increasing volumes. De Sade's own project was inspired by the same animus: to get everything down. 1001 Days of Sodom is an excruciating (and to be honest, tiresome) list of every perversion Sade can enumerate. Detail is all, but something comic, something self-cancelling, issues from all these facts: boredom and forgetting structure the sexual excitement (come before it, after it, and are never eliminated by it), pleasure is predicated on tedium, and extremity seems to be an instantiation of an awful, corroding detachment, a horrifying lightness of being. As Aue is promoted within the Nazi hierarchy, as he learns more of the brutality of its system, he focusses on his own professionalism. He is a functionary, deeply involved, but somehow never an actor, never a player. Like us, he watches; sometimes in horror, but mostly divorced from what is going on: he is the reader of his own life, not the author.

Littell seems to have a rather Foucauldian reading of

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21. Spike at 15

As Mr Mitchelmore informs us, "to celebrate its fifteenth year, Spike Magazine has created a 600-page PDF book sampling its online output. You can download it for free from the website." As he goes on to explain, Mitchelmore was an early — and key — contributor, and even if he is less than happy about his own excellent contributions, the rest of can only be glad that they are gathered amongst a lot of other goodies herein.

Chris Mitchell, Spike's founding editor, says in his introduction, "there was very little about books or literature on the web". Well, there is plenty of books on the web now, but literature, I'd argue, still has a hard time getting heard. Those of us who followed Spike's example onto the web can only salute, and hope to emulate, it's longevity, but also know that there is a very long way yet to go to create a web journal that is truly worthy of the best writers that we read and seek to comment critically and intelligently upon...

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22. On Josipovici's Fiction

Ficton Uncovered invited me to contribute to their site. So I wrote about Gabriel Josipovici's fiction...

In the summer of this year (2010), a critic of some standing (and with over 25 books under his belt) suddenly seemed to cause a silly season media storm for saying in his latest book what he’d said in all his previous ones, and what he’d dedicated a lifetime to articulating. The academic in question is Gabriel Josipovici, the controversial book was What Ever Happened to Modernism?. In it, Josipovici argued that modernism wasn’t confined to the period of Official Modernism at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, that literary art always needs honestly to face modernism’s perennial questions, and that many of today’s most vaunted writers of literary fiction are woefully overrated. I couldn’t agree more strongly with Josipovici in his overall analysis. The media was less convinced. What it particularly seemed to find galling was that an “unknown” academic had the nerve to tell writers how they should write, and implicitly accuse literary journalists of not realising that their novel-writing emperors were inadvertently wandering around without any pants. What, they growled, did a dusty academic really know about fiction? (More...)

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23. After and Making Mistakes: a review

Below is an unused review of Gabriel Josipovici's two 'novellas' After and Making Mistakes that was never taken up and I'd almost forgotten having written.

I'm not sure it quite ever fully opens up, but it does the beginning of a job, I think:

To be human is to be amongst those who thoughts we don't we know; to be in the dark. Perhaps this condition is the source of our urge to speak. Language, born of absence, filling a lack, generating light. To be human is to be alone, and also to know that we are in thrall to thoughts we call our own, yet are barely aware of. Perhaps this very unknowingness is the source of writing. Writing from out of a void, to fill a void. Both speaking and writing, then, veil ignorance of ourselves and of others even as they display it, even as they ameliorate it.

There is an element of Bad Faith to the traditional novel. This gloriously humanistic art-form is peopled with voluble, intelligible puppets, but the novelist's urge to get inside his or her characters in order to make those characters "fully-rounded" – the oddest beacon of a novel's success and one that has become a fetish for most reviewers – is the one thing that should give us pause. By colonising a character's thoughts a novelist, finally, confirms that they are only characters and subverts the entire project. Realism collapses in the face of what we've been told to think of as realistic characters. This is why a novelist like Dickens can be simultaneously so sympathetic – the humanist urge is palpably there – and so sentimental. Certain books in the Modernist tradition (from Joyce to Kafka and beyond) whilst accused of being cold (lacking in 'humanity') or austere or overly-intellectual have every right to complain that their radical humanism (their concern with writing itself, their awareness of their potential for solipsism, their ability to see and respect both the Self and the Other as finally unknowable) has been ignored because it doesn't display itself as mawkishly as the character-stocked mainstream.

Gabriel Josipovici is a writer firmly in the modernist tradition. As a critic he has taught that modernism is not merely an aberration (or exultation) in the arts that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but rather a thread (a threat?) that runs from the most exuberant early novelists (Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes) through the Victorian novel where it was rather submerged and flowered again, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, in the period of (official) Modernism. But modernism remains a challenge, an embarrassment to the (post-)Victorian novel, a question posed against its unacknowledged assumptions. The work of Beckett is vital here. From the fifties, a singular body of work appeared that made much of the rest of American and European Letters look flaccid and insincere.

It is facile to suggest we should judge Josipovici’s critical work by how well he writes himself. Nonetheless it is fascinating to see how such an important critic (whose recent What Ever Happened to Modernism? has gained a good degree of notoriety) goes about the real work of writing fiction, and whether or not his own fiction could withstand a dose of Josipovician critique.

In After, Alan Schneider finds himself ‘pursued’ by a woman from out of his past. Alan is married but, we’re led to believe, also has something of an eye for the ladies: we oversee him flirt, for example, at a party and on his way to see a grieving friend. Claude, however, is different, more than an earlier dalliance, more substantial and more threatening. Alan is unnerved by her reappearance, and by memories of the event that led him to leave her and Princeton where he worked, and return to London fifteen years before we meet him.

At a critical point in the narrative we learn casually: ‘And now it seem

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24. Stefan Collini reviews 'The Good of the Novel'

Nice piece in the Guardian a month or so back with Stefan Collini reviewing The Good of the Novel (edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan):

This book contains some outstanding writing about fiction, about individual novels and also, along the way, about the power and reach of the novel as a form. In an age of drive-by reviewing, when every reader can tell the (electronic) world whether or not they "like" a particular book, these 13 essays together constitute something of a manifesto, speaking up for the continuing vitality of that traditional form, the critical essay, a discursive piece of writing which is longer than a journalistic review but more accessible than an academic article. Almost all of them strike those sparks of understanding whereby we recognise that we half knew what they tell us yet didn't, in any articulated way, know at all. This is true of Mary Hawthorne on Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac ("how to live in the world in the absence of having achieved one's heart's desire"), and Frances Wilson on Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy ("Breaking up is a form of editing, which is perhaps why writers do it so well")...

Wonderful quote, from Mary Hawthorne, about Anita Brookner, a writer whose work, in book after book, has been such a moving meditation on loneliness, and on how arid life can be when it is shorn of love.

Of the novels discussed here, JM Coetzee's Disgrace is the only one I have read more than once, so it might be expected that a critical essay on this book would have more of an uphill task than the others to engage me and make me feel I was learning very much. But Tessa Hadley manages this and more, and does so precisely by concentrating on questions of "technique". She returns to that old chestnut of novel-criticism, "point of view", though without the clanking of heavy machinery that often accompanies excursions into narratology. How far is Disgrace written from the point of view of its central character, David Lurie, and how far from that of an omniscient narrator? Taking an instructive detour through the narrative technique of Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee's ostensibly autobiographical accounts written in the third person, she alerts us to the way in which the novel shows us the world through Lurie's sensibility while also including that sensibility as, in some sense, part of its "subject-matter". As she acutely observes: "We aren't given any alternative secure perspective from which to 'know' Lurie, but we are able to scrutinise the edges of the knowledge his temperament makes available to him." This now seems to me dead right, but something it was very hard to get right. The brilliance with which Coetzee pulls off this delicate operation is enhanced rather than diminished by Hadley's analysis, even though, on a reductive view of the matter, she hasn't given me any information that I didn't already possess.

Aside from Collini's rather ill-informed jibes about online reviews which pepper and unbalance his piece, his review is an excellent little essay in defence of literary criticism: "What is going on, I'm tempted to say, is literary criticism, something more ambitious than much everyday reviewing. Such criticism, at its best, involves a sustained attentiveness to how a work of literature achieves its effects plus a focused analysis of what kind of achievement it represents and where that comes in the scale of things."

London-based readers may be interested to know that The Good of the Novel is being discussed at the London Review Bookshop on Monday 16 May at 7.00 p.m.

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25. The Dark Mystery of Emily Dickinson’s “Master” Letters

One of the enduring mysteries of American literature are a series of three letters drafted by Emily Dickinson to someone she called “Master.” The letters—written between 1858 and 1862—were never sent, and were discovered shortly after Dickinson’s death in 1886. No one knows to whom they were intended. Perhaps the Reverend Charles Wadsworth (they had a correspondence, none of which survives), or Samuel Bowles, the editor of a newspaper in Springfield and a family friend, or a professor named William Smith Clarke. Or perhaps they are not to a person at all, but to God. Or the Devil. For nearly twenty years I’ve taught Dickinson and the Master Letters in my early American literature course, always hoping to come closer to the source of the mystery. Instead, just the opposite has happened. The mystery has deepened. The more I study them, the more we hash them out in class, the longer the shadows grow and deepen over their meaning...

The Dark Mystery of Emily Dickinson’s “Master” Letters

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