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1. The Church of Science Fiction




Back in January, having imbibed too many book reviews and flame wars, I spouted on Twitter: "Most critical writing could be summed up as, 'My god is an awesome god! Your god sucks.'" That especially seems to be the case with so much writing about science fiction, which is less rigorously analytical than it is theological.

Let's look at two examples.

Adam Roberts's new Guardian essay on science fiction and politics reminded me of a provocative essay in the current issue of Science Fiction Studies, "Fascism and Science Fiction" (JSTOR) by Aaron Santesso.

Here, I'm not going to wrestle with their arguments so much as speculate (perhaps irresponsibly, erroneously, ridiculously) on what itch such arguments scratch, because though I am skeptical of the overall thrust of both pieces, I don't find either to be especially bothersome. As I read each, I realized that I didn't understand the desires and assumptions that motivated them, because they are the desires and assumptions of a religious denomination I don't adhere to. I've explored and dabbled with various sects of the church of science fiction since childhood, and a part of me still very much wants to be a believer, but I just can't make the proper leaps of faith. Call me Doubting Matthew.

To show the theological import of the two essays, we'll have to look first (briefly, inadequately) at how they argue their cases. Let's start with Roberts. A key sentence:
Asking whether SF is "intrinsically" leftwing or rightwing is dumb, since literatures are not "intrinsically" anything. But I'm tempted to thump the tub nonetheless.
"This is dumb, but I will do it." I admire the honesty. This is a leap of faith admitted boldly and in the open.

And so Roberts leaps and thumps:
Conservatism is defined by its respect for the past. The left has always been more interested in the future – specifically, in a better future. Myriad militaristic SF books and films suggest the most interesting thing to do with the alien is style it as an invading monster and empty thousands of rounds of ammunition into it. But the best SF understands that there are more interesting things to do with the alien than that. How we treat the other is the great ethical question of our age, and SF, at its best, is the best way to explore that question.
This is a straightforward version of dogma offered by more abstruse, monkish scholars such as Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, and Carl Freedman (the holy trinity of Marxist SF critics). Against these ideas, Santesso addresses the tendency to see SF as inherently progressive, or to define "good SF" as SF that agrees with the (Marxist) reader's ideology:
So the critical argument, as it stands, is that the “generic tendency” of sf is progressive, that its themes are naturally progressive, that its structures are naturally progressive. I suggest, in response, that the claims one can make about the inclinations of a genre if one concentrates on certain strands and tendencies of the tradition are limited only by the strands and tendencies chosen. Over the remainder of this essay, I will argue that certain other strands of sf—since sf as a whole (encompassing everything from cyberpunk to military science fiction, at the very least) is indeed hardly politically unified—can be recognized as anything but “naturally” progressive, instead being more strongly allied with fascist politics. Furthermore, certain foundational tropes and traditions of the genre carry the DNA of fascism, as it were, to the extent that even liberal, progressive authors working within the genre’s more refined strains often (inadvertently) employ fascistic tropes and strategies. These tropes and strategies interrupt and disappoint certain ideological expectations advertised as, or assumed to be, native to the genre.
Both writers explicitly recognize that this search for one, true SF is a fool's errand, but both play the fool — Roberts admittedly, Santesso more circumspectly, but just as strongly. They are defenders of the faith.

Santesso's essay does a good job of delineating fascist tendencies within particular stories and types of stories. His essay seems to me to be a useful beginning, a sketch of analytical possibilities that would benefit from being expanded, and Santesso's careful definition of the term "fascism" certainly allows readers to expand the ideas themselves. (A good companion to Santesso's work is Barton Paul Levenson's "The Ideology of Robert A. Heinlein" in NYRSF 118, April 1998, which similarly applies a relatively precise definition of fascism to specific texts.)

Santesso's final paragraph is dense, but it's worth working through:
Given his influence on progressive sf criticism, we may give the last word to Jameson, and in particular his celebration of the Brechtian notion of plumpes Denken (“crude thinking”), which he defines as the postulate that even the most subtle, academic, or experimental “neo-Marxist” works must contain a core element of “crude” or “vulgar” Marxism in order to qualify as “Marxist” at all. Jameson alludes to plumpes Denken in order to make a point about science fiction: “Something like this may have its equivalent in SF, and I would be tempted to suggest that even within the most devoted reader of ‘soft’ SF—of sociological SF, ‘new wave’ aestheticism, the ‘contemporaries’ from Dick to the present—there has to persist some ultimate ‘hard-core’ commitment to old-fashioned ‘scientific’ SF for the object to preserve its identity and not to dissolve back into Literature, Fantasy, or whatever” (Jameson 245). Might it also be the case that the fascist energies and ideas of pulp sf are precisely the kind of identity-confirming “core” or definitional element that makes it possible to speak of “science fiction,” even when discussing literary, progressive sf? It is understandable that progressive critics would wish to distance themselves from both the aesthetics and the politics that accrued to a generation of stories featuring scenarios of the Golden Races vs. the Scaly Ones variety. But to deny that politics altogether, to claim that it belongs only to the past, is to evade a serious investigation of what makes the genre work, what gives it its identity and indeed its appeal. It is, ultimately, a denial of “science fiction” itself as a genre worthy of discussion, for surely the point of genre criticism is to identify and trace the various constitutional energies, themes, and plots that animate a form and in doing so account for all its variant strains and trends, not just the ones that accord well with a narrow set of critical pieties. To speak of “science fiction” at all is to admit to certain links and ideological ties that go beyond subject and setting, leading readers and critics into unexpected places and opening up unexpected connections. One cannot simply disown unwanted relatives or pretend not to recognize their features when they pop up in later generations. It is, indeed, precisely those ancestral presences—sometimes odd, sometimes eccentric, sometimes distasteful—that give science fiction its remarkable diversity and continuing vitality.
I'm not entirely convinced by many of the premises here*, but I'm fascinated by the continuing appeal of the desire not simply to define science fiction, but to define it toward a particular ideology, even when the writer knows and admits that this is a simplification or just "dumb".

The assertion that "good" science fiction is, in the view of Roberts et al., "progressive", is a statement that serves to set up criteria for true faith and for apostasy. (It's analogous to the use of the term "literature" to mean "that writing which I value and consider worth study".) Such a desire is similar to the one that propels people to claim that science fiction began with Mary Shelley or Newton or Lucian or Gilgamesh or the Big Bang, all of which are also ideological claims to an origin story that suits the storyteller's self-conception (or, if not outright self-conception, then at least the theological denomination they have chosen to associate with).

The stories told of science fiction are stories that reflect well on the storyteller. If the storyteller is an avid reader of science fiction, then the story is one that justifies that reading. Often, it's the fannish story of SF being somehow at the heart of literature, and therefore worthy of respect and study and love (as opposed to the "mundane" literature of a false church). Sometimes, it's a story of SF being the superior denomination. (My god is an awesome god!) One is not just a reader of science fiction, but a proud reader.

Adam Roberts's Guardian piece is perhaps best described as an example of faith-based writing. Lots of people of faith have written brilliantly, have done great things in the world, etc., so I don't mean this as a condemnation, and Roberts is particularly clear-eyed about his faith. He may be proselytizing, but he's perfectly aware that that's what he's doing. He's like a Campus Crusade for Christ guy standing out in front of the library, randomly accosting people with, "Hey, do you have a minute for Jesus? Jesus is cool!"

Aaron Santesso's essay is a useful corrective to the faith-based initiatives of the One True Church of SF missionaries (for instance, it would be interesting to read Santesso's approach to Iain Banks alongside Roberts's), but Santesso ends up giving in to the theological impulse himself by offering a story of original sin. Perhaps we could call it a Calvinist approach to SF dogma. He gives us an Old Testament sort of god, all grumpy and authoritarian and given to genocides, while Roberts sees science fiction more as a hippie Jesus. This unites the two essays, for Santesso has faith that science fiction can achieve its own new testament, and Roberts seems to think it already has.

As I said, I'm not separate from all this myself, even if I don't understand the fundamentalists and evangelicals. In many ways, I admire and even envy them their leaps and faiths. Perhaps their dogma is more honest than my anti-dogma, which is little more than the habitual uttering of, "Yes, but—" I have my own gods, my own idols and rituals and sacred texts. In that way, perhaps personal taste is always religious, always faith-based. Despite all attempts to figure out the empirical (or ideological) engines of taste, the explanations remain inadequate against the mysteries. Perhaps our passions are not only best expressed but best maintained through expressions of ecstasy. Perhaps faith is the best way to organize our desires, to give meaning to our pleasures and displeasures.

I'm a doubter, and so always and forever chained to maybe and perhaps...

Perhaps your god is an awesome god. Or, perhaps life is richer and more coherent if we believe in a god (or pantheon) that is an awesome god, regardless of whether such a belief itself is rationally justifiable. Maybe we need more tub thumping dumbness, more leaps of faith. Maybe...

Or maybe it's your god that sucks.

---------------------------------
*
My own proclivity is to view SF as a set of discourses sustained and propagated by a network of discourse communities, all of which can and should be historicized — a position certainly not opposed to Jameson or Santesso, but oblique to them.

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2. False Detectives, True Discourses, and Excessive Exegeses


I got caught up in the hype, got curious, and found a way to watch True Detective. It's my kind of thing: a dark crime story/police procedural/serial killer whatzit. Also, apparently the writer of the show, Nic Pizzolatto, is aware of some writers I like, and even one I know, Laird Barron. (Hi Laird! You rock!) What struck me right from the beginning was the marvelous music, selected and produced by the great T-Bone Burnett, and the cinematography by Adam Arkapaw, who shot one of my favorite movies of recent decades, Snowtown, and also the very good film Animal Kingdom and the marvelous Jane Campion TV show Top of the Lake. Something about Arkapaw's sensitivity to color, light, and framing is pure mainlined heroin to my aesthetic pleasure centers. If I found out he'd shot a Ron Howard movie, I'd even watch that.

So many other people have discussed the show that there are now, I'm sure, nearly as many words written about it as there are words in Wikipedia. My own opinion of the show is of no consequence, though for the curious, here's what I said about it on Jeff VanderMeer's Facebook page, where some discussion was going on: "I liked the music, cinematography, most of the acting and directing, but thought the writing was all over the place from pretty good to godawful. And episodes 7 and 8 were like the Goodyear blimp deflating mid-air and landing in a bayou of drivel. (The stars, the stars! Use the Force, Rust! The Yellow King is YOUR FATHER!!! Oh, wait...)"

Much more interesting to me is the discourse around the show. Why did this show inspire such a fanatical response? Why did we feel compelled to respond? Zeitgeist, genre, etc. probably all play into it, but a fuller answer would require some time and research, particularly about how the show was marketed and where and how it first caught on. 

I'm enough of a pointy-headed academic to hope one day for a whole book about the construction of True Detective's appeal, something that doesn't neglect the material aspects: budgets, advertising, Twitter. I'd also like to see analyses of fan responses to mystery/crime shows — for instance, a comparison of fan speculations between seasons 2 and 3 of Sherlock and fan speculations about the mysteries of True Detective before the finale. The choice in season 3 of Sherlock to offer a relatively acceptable but not definitive answer to the mystery of how Sherlock lived was, I thought, quite smart, because even though the creators probably had (unlike Conan Doyle) an idea of an answer when they wrote Sherlock's "death", they realized by the time it came to write season 3 that no answer they could provide would be satisfying after two years of fan speculations.  

True Detective took a different approach, partly because they didn't realize viewers would react the way they did, or that the show would be subject to so much ratiocination, and so they gave a rather ridiculous and clichéd end to the mystery, one that made not a whole lot of sense and tied up only the most obvious of loose ends. Pizzolatto's interest was more in the characters than the plot, or perhaps not even the characters so much as the mood and the projection of an idea of complexity rather than any actual complexity. 


That's the great illusion the show tries to pull off: the illusion of depth. And it does pull it off, thanks to the excessive exegeses of viewers. The exegeses make the depth real — the excess is the depth supplementing the show's surface. Now that we have explored so many assumed clues, we have added a megatext (or megatexts), and so the show becomes vastly more than it was on its own. We have, as it were, colored in the lines, whether they were there for anybody else or not. I don't mean that as a criticism. Some texts invite obsessive interpretation. The process of interpreting widens the text for us, even if we choose to reject the interpretation. I thought most of the ideas about The Shining offered in the documentary Room 237 were bonkers — but I immediately watched The Shining yet again (20th viewing? 30th?) after listening to them all, and I loved the movie more than ever.

I am, myself, now falling into exegesis more than I intended. (It's fun to posit signs as wonders!) Really, what I wanted to do was collect a few writings about True Detective that I particularly liked, that got me thinking. The show has inspired some good writing about it. Here then, before they get lost in the din, are a few fragments I'll shore against these ruins........


Jacob Mikanowski at LA Review of Books:
The Southern Louisiana of True Detective is part truth and part myth. But just by showing so much of it, the show puts us in contact with its real history, even if it doesn’t spell everything out. But there are hints, especially on the margins. There’s the history of pollution, visible in the omnipresent cracking towers and in the condition of Dora Lange’s mother as well as the relative of another victim, a one-time baseball pitcher disabled by a series of strokes. There’s Louisiana’s French and Spanish past, glimpsed momentarily in the Courir and in a stray allusion by Rust to the Pirate Republic of Barataria. And then there’s the history of segregation and racism, barely present except for the suggestion that the schools most of the victims attended were a way around busing — like the “segregation academies” that sprang up in different parts of the Deep South as a response to Brown vs. the Board of Education.

In my dream version of the show, the detectives are historians or archivists. They could work equally well somewhere in the Mississippi Delta or Eastern Poland. The crimes they investigate are buried in the past, and the thing they realize eventually isn’t just that everyone knew, but that everyone was complicit. Coincidentally, while the first episodes aired, I happened to be reading Trouble in Mind, Leon Litwack’s magisterial history of the lives of Black Southerners under Jim Crow. And although I shouldn’t have been, I was shocked by his account of lynching — at how common it was, how popular, and how public. The audiences that gathered for lynchings were huge, and their appetite for suffering — burning and other tortures — as spectacle couldn’t be satisfied by mere killing. Children even played their own games of hanging and being hung. True Detective doesn’t go there — but in the sense it creates, of a past that infects the present, of ritualized violence that doesn’t end even after it officially disappears — it starts to open the door.

Dustin Rowles at Pajiba:
That is literary inefficiency, and while it’s easier to understand in the context of a longer season in the midst of a longer series where it’s often necessary to pad out the episodes, and where showrunners are often forced by more demanding production schedules to wing it along the way, Pizzolatto had only eight episodes to write and the ability to plan out the entire season in advance. The irony, of course, is that he still had all the ingredients necessary to create a more compelling ending, and yet he still he chose to stick with the simpler, “There’s a Monster in the End” storyline. It’s a shame, too, because Pizzolatto obviously has a deep understanding of literature, and yet he chose the television ending over the literary one. Unfortunately, it seems, he knows how to introduce literary allusions, but he doesn’t show us he knows how to utilize them.

Joseph Laycock at Religion Dispatches:
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a happy ending. But the final message of True Detective reinforces a dangerous mythology that’s already endemic in American popular culture. The brutal misogyny of the heroes, their willingness to commit all manner of felonies—this was not a Nietzchean tale of those who hunt monsters becoming monsters themselves. Instead, this is a moral universe where anything is justified as long as your opponent is “truly” evil and good “gains some territory.” This is about as far from Lovecraft’s cosmic horror as one can get. 

Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic:
Certainly Marty’s violence and sexism isn’t appealing; certainly Rust deserves the eye rolls that other characters threw his way. But creating flawed heroes isn’t subversive—it’s doing exactly what any decent fiction writer is supposed to do. A subversion would have been to make those flaws figure into the main narrative in some unexpected but crucial way. Maybe the “good guys” botch the case. Or maybe, per the theories mentioned before, they’re connected to the murders in ways they don’t understand till it’s too late.

Instead, both main characters got a fair amount of vindication in the end. Marty’s family doesn’t seem to hate him quite as much anymore. Rust believes in the afterlife now. They both go backslapping into the night. All of this comes from them catching a killer of women and children. So for the zillionth time in Western pop culture, men (straight, white ones at that) get psychic rewards for valorously risking themselves on behalf of the weak.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard at The Hairpin:
If you're going to make a dead sex worker the inciting incident for your story, if one of the central characters is defined by his rage about the sexual purity of the women in his life, it needs to pay off in the form of story advancement and character development, otherwise it's just gratuitous, sensational, "edgy." And for the last several episodes, it's become clear that the only satisfying way for the mystery to end is for Rust or Marty to be the killer. But we're gonna get some dumb conspiracy of Louisiana good ol' boys who worship the devil, which is going to be unsatisfying and also not give the proper payoff to all that violence against women, which then becomes just so many witchy antler decorations with no clear meaning.

Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulure:
Marty's hypocritical attitude toward his wife and daughters is positively Scorsesean in its misogyny. Never for a moment does the show pretend that he's got the right idea about fidelity, fatherhood, or anything else related to the women who live under his roof. He's got a gangster's idea of manhood: I'll do what I please, and you do whatever I tell you. He's the king of his castle, everyone else is a serf. Rust, meanwhile, is haunted equally by the death of his daughter (and subsequent guilt over his failure to preserve his marriage afterward) and his rocky relationship with his father, to whose home state, Alaska, he briefly returned; he's destroyed by his inability to live up to an unrealistic standard of manly strength, goodness, and patience. It makes both dramatic and rhetorical sense that Marty and Rust's interrogators would be two black men, and that many of the detective's most mortifying and self-destructive moments stem from their inability to deal with women in an honest and non-condescending way. The show's disinterest in race relations and inability to resist gratuitous T&A shots damages its credibility greatly in this department, but the notion that True Detective is purely a white male supremacist fantasy is not remotely supported by the evidence. 

Lili Loofbourow at LA Review of Books:
Ask a woman whether Errol Childress matches the monster at the end of our dreams — I doubt you’ll get many nods. But there is a monster we might dream about in True Detective, and he’s everything a monster should be: murderous, violent, deeply sympathetic, and totally adept at spinning the Cohles of the world to his side. Here’s to TV’s greatest and most affable monster, Marty Hart.

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber:
Another interpretation, which seems to me to be equally plausible, is that the catharsis of the closing episode is false, and deliberately so. The darkness continues. Marty’s inattention to his family has had profound costs. The show strongly suggests that one of Marty’s daughters has been the victim of sexual abuse, in ways that mirror the detective story, just as the detective story mirrors the story of Marty’s family. Marty doesn’t seem aware of this at all. If Marty and Rust conclude that the light as winning, it is only because they fail to see the darkness that surrounds them, and cannot see it, so long as they continue to live in a world of purely brotherly camaraderie, a war of light against dark where one responds to male violence only with more violence and leaves women’s business to the women. Even when you are confronted with your true situation, you cannot necessarily free yourself from it. The detective’s curse means that you do not escape from Carcosa. You only think that you do because you are willfully blind to the Carcosa that surrounds you, the labyrinth made of the circle that is invisible and everlasting.

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3. Formalist?

David Smith, untitled
I have to admit that while plenty of Damien Walter's "Weird Things" columns at The Guardian are interesting, and it's really wonderful to see a major newspaper paying regular attention such stuff, and Walter seems like a passionate and thoughtful person ... the latest one, titled, "Should science fiction and fantasy do more than entertain?" pretty much made me gag. Mostly it was that headline that caused the coughing and sputtering; the piece itself isn't terrible, is well intentioned, and seems primarily aimed at a general audience. I'm not a general audience for the topic, so in my ways, I'm a terrible reader for what Walter wrote. Thus, I'll refrain from comment on the main text.

But there's a statement he made in response to a commenter that didn't make me cough and sputter, it just made me question something I hadn't really questioned before: the term "formalist" and its relationship to criticism within the field of fantasy and science fiction.

In his comment, Walter stated, "The Rhetorics of Fantasy is a formalist approach."

I wonder, though. I haven't read The Rhetorics of Fantasy, so I don't really want to comment on it too much, since my perception is based on reading a few reviews, what some folks have told me, and glancing at the Google Books preview. So it's entirely possible that my question here has nothing to do with that book. I mention it only because it's the book Walter calls "a formalist approach".

What I wonder is how it's possible to have a formalist approach to fantasy or science fiction that is not also perfectly applicable to other sorts of writing. Is there a specifically formalist approach to SF?

To write criticism about SF is almost always to be stuck in content, not form. (We could, and perhaps should, argue about the soft borders between the two terms, the limits of the terms, the fact that content and form don't really exist outside of the words of the text, what that binary hides, etc. — but at the risk of inaccuracy, let's save such an argument for another time.)

There is nothing I can think of at this moment that formally differentiates SF from not-SF.


The most formalist approach I know of to SF is something like Delany's The American Shore, and were I to think of a formalist approach to SF, I'd think of Delany, though I think such a term for his work is pretty reductive. It's formalist, yes, often, but seldom only formalist. How and why depends on what we mean by "formalist" and "formalism".

Of course, "formalism" is not a term that lacks history or context or, quite often, an initial capital. Once we get beyond the most linguistically-based sorts

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4. Pro-metheus


Yesterday, I posted a mocking attack on Prometheus that also linked to other attacks. I hated the movie, and so did plenty of other people.

But I don't want to give the impression that it is Friday the 13th Part XXVI: Jason vs. Maximus Prime. (Actually, that movie could be awesome!) Plenty of perfectly intelligent moviegoers have not merely enjoyed Prometheus, but embraced it. Adored it. Gone to see it more than once.

So, for some balance, here are four quotes from reviews and comments on the film that view it more positively than I or the people I quoted yesterday:

Roger Ebert:
Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" is a magnificent science-fiction film, all the more intriguing because it raises questions about the origin of human life and doesn't have the answers. It's in the classic tradition of golden age sci-fi, echoing Scott's "Alien" (1979), but creating a world of its own. I'm a pushover for material like this; it's a seamless blend of story, special effects and pitch-perfect casting, filmed in sane, effective 3-D that doesn't distract.

Andrew O'Hehir:
...“Prometheus” damn near lives up to the unsustainable hype, at least at the level of cinematography, production design, special effects and pure wow factor. This tale of a deep-space mission late in the 21st century, several decades before Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo will discover an abandoned alien spacecraft and its sinister cargo, is a sleek, shimmering, gorgeous and often haunting visual mood piece. No other recent science-fiction film, with the sole exception of “Avatar,” has created such a textured, detailed and colorful vision of the human space-traveling future, and indeed it’s reasonable to assume that Scott conceives of “Prometheus” as a pessimistic counter-argument to James Cameron’s eco-parable on various levels.

Caitlín R. Kiernan:
And, lest charges of sexism arise, Kane is the first of the crew "raped" – a man – then Brett – also male – and then the ship's captain, Dallas – also male. Now, turning to charges of sexism in Prometheus (which I am seeing) as regards "rape" by the alien: What? The first person infected is Holloway, who unintentionally impregnates Shaw through consensual sex. Then we see Milburn mouth-fucked by a proto-facehugger. That's two men impregnated (though you might argue Holloway is, rather, infected) to one woman (the presumably male "engineers" not included). So, charges of a sexual bias towards women are simply baseless.

Glenn Kenny:
I've said before that I tend to measure certain genre pictures by the number, and quality, of what I call (if you'll excuse the phrase) Holy Crap! Moments. (I don't call them that, exactly, but what I actually call them can't be printed here.) In any event, in the notes I took for this film, on one page, in big block letters taking up pretty much two thirds of the page, I indeed wrote that phrase in the middle of one particular scene. You'll know it when you see it, and it is insane, one of the most perfectly perver

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5. Re: Your Stephen King Problem


Dear Dwight Allen:

Thank you for letting me know about your Stephen King problem (henceforth, SKP). Many people let these problems go, thinking they're not particularly important or, ultimately, relevant to anyone other than themselves, but  the science shows that letting these problems linger encourages them to fester, and once they fester they can then lead to all sorts of complications and an endless array of other problems (most commonly, J.K. Rowling problems and J.R.R. Tolkien problems, which themselves can lead to entire textbooks of other problems.) Such suffering becomes an infinite sprawl of frustration, guilt, pain, and, often, anti-social behavior and anal warts.

To assess your treatment needs, let's analyze some of your history and symptoms.



Failure to quarantine. It is clear from your history that you remained healthy after occasional contacts with contagions (most notably in New York City [notable site of contagions of all sorts] in the company of a publishing employee [notable purveyors of marketing-induced illnesses] whilst "possibly" drinking "too much bad beer" [do you think there is such a thing as "enough" bad beer?]. You note that your infected friend had alleviated or at least hidden some of his symptoms with regular infusions of Pynchon, Nabokov, and Gass, but as you now must know, these are not effective medicines against SKP any more than a breath of filtered air is a remedy for the carcinogenic effects of smoking a cigarette). You health after said contact was, though (as is obvious now) relative, because had you truly been healthy, you would not now have a problem. I hope this will be a lesson to you in the future.

It is absolutely essential to quarantine bad influences at the moment you begin to suspect their healthfulness. It is always better to be safe than problematized. First, the contagion infiltrated your brain. Then, like an insect laying eggs beneath your skin, it incubated, eventually bursting through to present as full SKP.

You identify your own failure clearly, even if you don't acknowledge it as such: "During my college and graduate school years and then in my post-graduate working life, I’d read, in addition to much commercially successful literary fiction, a fair amount of genre fiction." It is good that you have separated the healthy ("literary fiction") from the somewhat contaminated ("commercially successful literary fiction") and from the pure contagion ("genre fiction"). But exposing yourself to the contagion in any form is, for roughly 75% of the population, eventually fatal. To be honest, your middle category is an illusion, like being only somewhat pregnant. There really is no middle ground. (As we will discuss later, it is very important to maintain only 2 categories for any sort of healthy judgment.)

Notice how many times you return to the contagion once you have encountered it fully. First, Christine, then Pet Sematary, then (saying, "I thought I’d try another King novel, a later one, to see if his writing had changed over the years") The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and 11/22/63. You know, of course, that such exposure is dangerous, and you're now fully aware of the effect, but it's important to be absolutely honest about the steps along the way. Remember, too, that contagion and addiction often present similar symptomatic profiles.

A side note: According to your account, one contagion you did manage to avoid was hipness. You write: "Strangely enough, I’d developed my taste for crime fi

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6. The Popular and the Good and the Doomed


As I was writing a comment over at Adam Roberts's blog (about which more in a moment), I realized I had various items of the last few days swirling through my head, and it all needed a bit of an outlet that wasn't a muddled comment on Adam's blog, but rather a potentially-even-more-muddled post here.

I don't have a whole lot to say about these things, and I certainly have no coherent argument to make, but they've congealed together in my mind, so here they are, with a few lines of annotation from me. Most of these things have gotten a lot of notice, but they haven't gotten a lot of notice together.



First, Jonathan Franzen is once again reprising his role as Grumpy Old Man With Fist Raised In The Air Complaining About The Kids These Days. I read half of it and couldn't keep going because, ugh, Jonathan Franzen. Really, I wish he'd just donate his millions to charity, take a vow of poverty, and go wander through the world and revel in his saintliness. And preferably never write anything ever again. But that's just me. As the deluded sheeple on the Twitter say, YMMV.

It's not that I don't think we're doomed and our culture insipid. I do. But it's been that way for a long time, especially in the United States. We're very good at being insipid and creating doom. Those are perhaps our greatest national talents. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently said in a completely different context: "I expect the worst of everyone to win--and take humanity down with them. I get sad about that sometimes, but I am mostly resolved." That could be my credo. The way we live now is a J.G. Ballard novel.

Then there was Christopher Beha's blog post, reprinted by Slate, about how the New York Times Book Review should only cover "Holy Crap" books (hehehehe he wants them to write about crap hehehehe). Pretty much all of his assumptions are wrong, as Nick Mamatas gleefully pointed out, and his blazingly ignorant idea that fascinating writing about genrefied books is impossible can be disproved by such things as, for instance, some of the reviews at Strange Horizons, some of the reviews and writing at LA Review of Books, academic articles at such places as Science Fiction Studies, etc. etc. — but I basically agree with him in a more general sense, which is: it's nice to read long, thoughtful, insightful writing about challenging books, books that are hard to get a handle on at first glance. Which is one reason why I don't regularly go running to the New York Times Book Review for my litchat. It's a book review, the last one standing at a newspaper. If even a specialty publication like Bookforum has had to add shorter reviews, more media and political coverage, etc. to help maintain even a small audience, the NYTBR sure isn't going to follow Beha's advice — because his advice to the NYTBR is to commit suicide. They'd be better off putting a Jennifer Weiner novel on the cover.

Which brings us to Adam Roberts, who has a really provocative (well, to me) post up at his blog titled "On YA", but only partly about YA. My comment on the post gets to my disagreement with most everything I read him as saying. I am convinced I must be misinterpreting his ideas terribly, and I honestly look forward to him correcting me, because it looks to me like the Adam Roberts who caused a row about the mediocrity of the Hugo Awards in 2009 has now seen the light and found the Jesus of Popularity! Is! All! This cannot be true. I must be misreading him.

One of Adam Roberts's points is the counter opposite of Christopher Beha's — that the "genius of the age" in literature right now exists in the realm of genrefied fiction and, especially, YA. (Things get murky in the post because "genius of the age" seems to then get conflated with "popular". But, again, I must be misreading.) This is not a claim I can really discuss in an informed way, because I only occasionally read YA novels, and though some, like M.T. Anderson's first Octavian Nothing novel, seem to me among the great literature of our time, the field itself is really not my thing. Kameron Hurley explained well why she doesn't write or often read YA, and my feelings are similar: the sorts of things that typically fit a book into the YA market, and that are desired by YA readers, are not the sorts of things that make me want to read a novel. Inevitably, then, I will miss reading some extraordinary fiction, but we will all miss reading lots of extraordinary fiction because there is more extraordinary fiction out there than any of us have time to read. That is the curse of the reader. If Roberts is right and YA is the genius of our age, then the curse of our culture may be that it aspires to be a 16-year-old.

Roberts's whole argument seems to me to confuse cultural history, cultural analysis, and aesthetics. I'm not an art-for-art's-sake aesthetic puritan; I am completely convinced that how we interpret and value art is determined by other social and cultural values, but I do think there is a distinction — a valuable distinction — between the ways that we value a cultural product and the ways that a cultural product has power within a culture. Here's an example: I've spent the last year and a half or so watching, reading about, thinking about, and trying to write about American action movies from the 1980s. I think they're immensely culturally and politically important and can tell us a lot about the era. I don't think any of them are particularly good movies, though some have certain virtues, quite a few are fascinating to think about and analyze, and some are entertaining even after multiple viewings. They did, in fact, embody a certain genius of their age, the same sort of genius possessed by Ronald Reagan, although overall I think that genius was a pernicious one. But it was effective and we're still feeling the ripples in our culture and politics. That's no argument for the Oscar to have gone to Rambo II, though. Certainly, Rambo II is a far better exemplar of its time than any of the actual winners, but that's just because, as usual, the awards went to a bunch of ostentatiously mediocre movies. This was the year of Ran, Shoah, Brazil, and Come and See — masterpieces that mostly escaped Oscar's notice. But the point of the Academy Awards is not to hail masterpieces or find the movies that most embody the era: it's to congratulate Hollywood for being Hollywood. We look to the Oscars to see how Hollywood perceives itself. To ask for more is to misperceive how those awards work. Similarly, popularity (Rambo II, etc.) primarily shows us what masses of people consider potentially entertaining enough to spend money on. Movies like Ran, Shoah, Brazil, Come and See exist outside both lenses, as do the great books and music of whatever year. And by "great" I mean the socially-constructed-but-nonetheless-perceivable-across-multiple-eras-and-geographies complexity and individuality that distinguish, say, Kafka from the bestselling novels in the U.S. in 1924.



I thought of these three writings by these three writers (Franzen, Beha, and Roberts) together because there seems to be some sort of conversation to be had among them and their respondents about how we value culture and what we get from it, particularly either cult or elite art — which may be the same things, a cult being a kind of elite and an elite being a kind of cult. Being me, I would also want to add in more about cultural capital, and seek out areas of agreement while also asserting that, of course, we are doomed ... but really I'm just indulging in a fantasy: what if our three boys were stuck on a stage together in front of an audience? What might they talk about? Or, even better, what if we put them in a room with some YA novelists, crime and romance and SF writers, people published by FC2 and Dalkey Archive, former jury members of various awards, VIDA members, members of the Carl Brandon Society, some high school English teachers, at least a few librarians, passionate David Eddings readers, a couple of anarcho-communists, some radical queers, and a few random people off the street ... what directions might the conversation take then...?

My brain begins to melt just thinking about it.


2 Comments on The Popular and the Good and the Doomed, last added: 9/15/2013
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7. Ways of Reading

Ron Silliman has written an interesting post about, among other things, how he reads:

I’m always reading a dozen books at once, sometimes twice that many. [...] In part, this reading style is because I have an aversion to the immersive experience that is possible with literature. Sometimes, especially if I’m "away" on vacation, I’ll plop down in a deck chair on a porch somewhere with a big stack of books of poetry, ten or twelve at a time, reading maybe up to ten pages in a book, then moving it to a growing stack on the far side of the chair until I’ve gone through the entire pile. Then I start over in the other direction. I can keep myself entertained like this for hours. That is pretty close to my idea of the perfect vacation.
I’ve had this style of reading now for some 50 years – it’s not something I’m too likely to change – but I’ve long realized that this is profoundly not what some people want from their literature, and it’s the polar opposite of the experience of "getting lost" in a summer novel, say. Having been raised, as I was, by a grandmother who had long psychotic episodes makes one wary of the notion of "getting lost" in the fantasy life of another.
(This reminds me of something Alice Munro wrote in the introduction to her Selected Stories: "I don’t always, or even usually, read stories from beginning to end. I start anywhere and proceed in either direction.")

Hearing how someone else reads can be, for me at least, both exciting and alienating.  Exciting because it often explains at least something about their reading taste; alienating because it reminds me what an individual experience reading is.  I first encountered this most forcefully when I read Samuel Delany's early essay "About 5,750 Words", in which he presents his own very visual way of interpreting a text as if it is the way everybody reads -- the essay was a revelation to me because I don't build a text in my brain in anything like that method.  

For me, a text is an aural experience first, and the first bits of meaning I get from words and sentences are not visual, even if the word itself has a visual meaning: the phrase the blue room to me is first its related vowel sounds, then a meaning that it's hard to represent with words, but is basically "a space of color" (with the room part taking precedence in my mind, the actual color blue nowhere in sight yet), then finally a vague visual image in my mind, sort of like you'd get in one of the first computer games to have graphics, or in a really basic CAD drawing.  If the room becomes an important part of the paragraph or page, I'll probably visualize one of the four or five prop rooms I keep in my memory: the living room at a childhood friend's house, an apartment I once lived in, a set from a movie I've watched a lot, etc.  (One of the reasons I think I respond so strongly to movies is that they allow an experience I can't get from reading -- a visual experience.)

How we read determines, I expect, a lot about what we read.  My indifference to Victorian novels comes partly from my indifference to scenes that are described in detail; because my brain doesn't create vividly visual scenery, all the detail is clotting matter.  (I love the first pages of Bleak House because of the rhythms of the fragmented sentences, but that's enough for me.  I wouldn't want to read an entire book written that way, and the rest of Bleak House makes my brain feel like my stomach would if I ate a couple pounds of pure cholesterol.)  Dialogue, though, is something I respond strongly to because the fi

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8. It’s Only a Movie – Book Review

Earlier this week, I found myself wandering the rainwashed streets of New Orleans with U2′s “All I Want is You” playing on the soundtrack in my head. Cut to sitting at the French Quarter’s hippest bar, sipping cocktails mixed by a beautiful actress bartender. Chatting beside me was a local gallerist* and, along from him, a couple of artists he represented. In front of me was the notebook open at the final chapter of Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth and a copy of Mark Kermode’s autobiography, It’s Only a Movie.

The gallerist wanted to talk science fiction, notably Iain (M.) Banks and Dr Who. We had similar views on both and I could recount the time where I accidentally got the Scottish novelist a little drunk in a bar before a book reading, buying him whisky and telling him he’d inspired my own novels. It took a little while for the bartender to fess up to being an actress (it turned out a show of hers was even on HBO when I returned to the hotel), but once the fact was divulged she was reciting Shakespearean sonnets and having me recreate a scene from Austin Powers with her. After which I could even tell her how I once worked with Mike Myers!

I know I’m incredibly lucky, but it often feels as though I’m living inside a wonderfully entertaining movie in which I’m director, screenwriter, cinematographer, location manager, head of casting and leading actor. And that’s exactly the conceit of Dr Kermode’s autobiography. It’s already the third book I’ve read this year so I figured it’s time to get busy reviewing or get busy dying. Choose life.

A damn fine bfi book I published with Jonathan Ross

Ever since I noticed there were film critics, Kermode has been my favourite. He’s risen through the ranks to be the nation’s favourite too, with regular slots on The Culture Show and a weekly movie roundup with “clearly the best broadcaster in the country (and having the awards to prove it)” Simon Mayo that’s so entertaining it’s been extended to two whole hours on a Friday afternoon. Possibly the highlight of my time as publisher at the bfi (British Film Institute) was receiving a very lovely email from Dr K. It goes without saying he wrote the bfi Modern Classic on The Exorcist, but this is also the man who made On the Edge of Blade Runner.

9. Use and Abuse

Rohan Maltzen writes a memo to Marjorie Gerber about Gerber's new book The Use and Abuse of Literature:

You are caught, I think, in the tension many of us feel between our theoretical commitment to an inclusive approach to literature (some aspects of which you discuss in your chapter on the literary "canon") and our deep appreciation for the aesthetic and intellectual richness of certain texts. As professionals, we have learned that this appreciation is itself conditioned by ideas about what "literature" is and how to measure its greatness. You celebrate close reading and lament a tendency (of which you give no specific examples, which is a problem) for "the historical fact [to take] precedence over the literary work." However, close reading works best—as you glancingly acknowledge when you tie it to Archibald MacLeish's lines "A poem should not mean / But be"on texts that are verbally complex, ambiguous, and densely metaphorical, rather than ones that work through affect, exposition, even didacticism, texts that address philosophical arguments or social problems rather than turning inward towards language. You praise "the rich allusiveness, deep ambivalence, and powerful slipperiness that is language in action," but once we acknowledge that different standards are also important—once we admit that, say, Elizabeth Gaskell, Felicia Hemans, or Walter Scott (none of whom are particularly ambivalent or slippery) deserve our critical attention as much as Herbert and Donne—we also need to accept other standards, other ways to appreciate and measure a text's significance. Ironically, when you abandon your relativism about what literature is, your anxiety about its reductive "uses" leads you to define it so narrowly that writers who don't think literature is "useless," who use it themselves for clear and potent purposes (what about Pope, or Dickens?) might seem to be ruled out—or against. Pace Keats, not all poets embrace "negative capability," and Henry James is hardly the last word on the relationship between morality and the novel.

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10. Crabgrass and Manure

From the Letters of Note blog, a fascinating letter from Ken Kesey to the New York Times about the theatrical adaptation of his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (which starred Kirk Douglas):

The answering of one's critics has always struck me as doing about as much good as fighting crabgrass with manure. Critics generally thrive on the knowledge that their barbs are being felt; best to keep silent and starve them of such attention, let them shrivel and dry, spines turned in. So I have tried to keep this silence during the attacks on the Wasserman play of my novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest...figuring that the people who saw the play as being about a mental hospital, because it is set in a mental ward, are the sort that would fault Moby Dick for being an "exaggerated" story about a boat, also figuring that such simplemindedness is relatively harmless. And even keeping silent when the play was condemned because the subject of mental health as a whole was treated disrespectfully, or irresponsibly, or--god forbid!--humorously.

But when the defenders of "Cuckoo's Nest" begin to show signs of suffering some of the same misconceptions as the critics, I feel I must speak out.
Read the whole letter.

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11. Chaos Cinema

Scarface, 1932

There's an interesting two-part video essay by Matthias Stork posted at Press Play about what Stork calls "chaos cinema" -- action movies (mostly from the last 15 years or so) that violate classical principles of staging, framing, and cutting.

I am in sympathy with Stork's overall point, and one of my few absolutely fuddy-duddy tendencies is a belief that classical action composition and editing is usually superior to the chaos cinema style Stork identifies -- I often want to yell at directors like Christopher Nolan (who is five years older than me), "You kids will never understand why Howard Hawks is great!"

But I have some reservations about Stork's analysis. Basically, they are two: 1.) He interprets an aesthetic technique as a single type of moral expression; 2.) he assumes all audiences watch the way he does.


The first problem is always illegitimate. Not because aesthetics and morality aren't linked -- they often are, as both realms are ones of choice -- but because a technique separated from context has no meaning, moral or otherwise. The types of filming and editing that Stork doesn't like acquire different meanings and purposes in different movies, and Stork's inability to see this blinds him to the vast differences between, for instance, a Michael Bay explodagasm and Gamer. Stork has it in his head that a particular way of filming means one thing, and so he's incapable of understanding Gamer -- he needs to spend some time with Steve Shaviro. To have filmed Gamer in a classical style would have changed the film's meaning and ruined much of what is interesting in it, including various effects that could be considered moral or ethical points.

The problem of assuming audiences see, hear, and feel all in the same way is endemic for critics, and may, in fact, be unsolveable -- but a bit of humility helps. Audiences are creative, complex, clever, and contradictory (as some of the more thoughtful comments at the Press Play post show). It is perilous to forget that.



In the second part of his essay, Stork says that chaos cinema is "an aesthetic configuration that refuses to engage viewers mentally and emotionally, i

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12. "The Priests of Alternative Minds"

From an interview conducted in 1977 by UCLA Ph.D. students with Raymond Durgnat, published in 2006 by Rouge:

DURGNAT: Brigid Brophy said that fundamentally a novel is a take-over bid for one’s ego, and that’s probably true for any work of art. Having an artist’s mind take over one’s own mind in a way that enriches it instead of obliterating it. So temporarily, for an hour and a half, I can become more like Dreyer or more like Minnelli or more like anybody than I could be any other way. The mere effort of adaptation seems to me to be a valuable spiritual exercise; even coming to understand a Fascist mind, for example, via Leni Riefenstahl. In a sense, artists are the priests of alternative minds, that is, of communication. Some artists are so rich one endlessly finds more in them. Or one finds them congenial, like old friends. Others one respects rather than likes. There are works of art which one knows are pretty simple-minded, but a sort of temporary regression is probably good for the soul, in small doses, and provided one doesn’t lower one’s standards about the nature of reality and the value of its reflection in art. [...] It’s in the nature of art to involve criticism, whether moral or social or whatever, because it’s in the nature of things to keep going wrong. That’s not a pessimistic view. Society isn’t one of those machines that can run itself. You seem to find my position confusing, but it’s very simple. I just want to be put inside an interesting mind which is as different as I can bear from my own for two hours. And then come back to being myself by thinking about it. But this implies a variety of response, and why I’m difficult to place is because I appreciate anything that is different and honest; and only in the second place do I ask, ‘Is it of a long term validity? Will I want to keep coming back to it?’

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13. Die, American Literature! Die! Die!

Last month I wrote about Joseph Epstein's hilariously grumbly screed against The Cambridge History of the American Novel, and now at Slate the editor of that volume writes a temperate, rational, and utterly ungrumbly response. I particularly liked this paragraph:

Simply recording our appreciation for the "high truth quotient" (the measure Epstein wants) of a stream of canonical novels won't do. It's not clear what that "quotient" is for Epstein, but anything that smacks of pop culture is by definition excluded. Yet novels were and remain a vital part of popular culture, and their emergence in the 18th and 19th centuries was greeted as an affront to the "centurions of high culture" who appointed themselves to guard the gates before Epstein nominated himself for the job. Only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of American novels published ever achieved—or even aspired to—the exalted status of high art.

2 Comments on Die, American Literature! Die! Die!, last added: 9/27/2011
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14. Kael Days


Seventeen years after her last book and ten years after her death, Pauline Kael's name is hard to avoid right now if you read culture magazines or blogs. That's because of three books that came out in October: The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, edited by Sanford Schwartz and published by The Library of America; Brian Kellow's biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark; and James Wolcott's memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, which includes, apparently, lots of material about his friendship with Kael (before they had a falling-out after he published a sharply critical, even vicious, essay on Kael's acolytes in Vanity Fair in 1997).

I haven't read Wolcott's memoir, but I've been reading around in Kellow's biography and I'm familiar with almost everything in The Age of Movies. It was Kael's 1,291-page retrospective collection For Keeps from 1994 that made me into a fan of her writing when I was an idealistic, ignorant kid studying playwrighting and screenwriting at NYU, and though my opinions about her have changed a bit over the years, she's part of my psyche, her presence inextinguishable, like a crazy aunt.


I hadn't gone back to For Keeps for a while, probably not since I wrote about Kael, Susan Sontag, and Craig Seligman's book about them in the fall of 2005. I know a lot more about film history and theory now than I did then, and then I knew more than I did when I first picked up For Keeps from a library and began to make my way through it. (I also read bookstore copies. I vividly remember sitting on the floor of Shakespeare & Co. in New York one night and reading through it until the store closed at, I think, midnight. Eventually I got a remaindered copy at St. Marks Books, the copy I have here beside me now.)

I was a fan of Kael before I knew her name. Until high school, the only movie reviews I'd ever encountered were ones on Siskel & Ebert. But when I was a freshman in high school, a friend told me about The New Yorker, which his family read religiously. I started making weekly trips to the library to read it, and it was there that I read these words:
There's nothing affected about Costner's acting or directing. You hear his laid-back, surfer accent; you see his deliberate goofy faints and falls, and all the closeups of his handsomeness. This epic was made by a bland megalomaniac. (The Indians should have named him Plays with Camera.)
That was from one of Kael's last reviews, her December 17, 1990 take on Dances with Wolves. I almost memorized that review -- enough so that I remember reciting that part of it to my U.S. History class in the fall of 1992 in one of those moments of self-righteous, childish nerditude that defined my adole

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15. A Conversation on Criticism, Science Fiction, and Other Stuff

Eric Rosenfield was exploring the world of critical writing about science fiction, and he emailed me some questions and ideas, and I responded, and then he responded, and somewhere along the line he asked if he could post the conversation on his site, Wet Asphalt. I was scared at first, since I'd just been irresponsibly throwing ideas around without really polishing them in the way I would even for a blog post, but I didn't say anything truly scandalous, so said okay.

Part 1 of the conversation has now been posted.

It feels very strange to have such naked yakking out there for the world to see, and I hope people will forgive my contradictions, misrepresentations of other people's ideas, generalities, unsupported opinions, ignorances, insults, etc. Perhaps somewhere in it all, there's something useful. Until the last one or two emails, it really was just us throwing ideas around.

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16. The Conversation, Part IV: Zombie Movies, Star Trek, & Proust

Not much content hereabouts lately, because my attentions have been given to other things and my time taken up by various projects, but my conversation with Eric Rosenfield continues on apace, and in this installment I reveal a certain fondness for zombie movies and an inability to appreciate either Proust or Star Trek.

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17. The Conversation, Part V: In Which I End with a Provisional Conclusion

For all you folks waiting on the edges of your seats at home, here is my last contribution to The Conversation: Part Five. (In which we continue to talk about zombie movies and bring in Shakespeare for a cameo appearance.)

If I had to find a pullquote, it would be: "Inevitably, I end up distrusting my own statements. And yet I continue to make them. Compulsion? Insanity? I'm not sure."

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18. John Leonard, Remembered

In NYC recently, the Imperial City, they remembered John Leonard. Had there been any way to do it, I would have been there, even if I couldn't have gotten inside with all the literati; heck, I would've been happy just to stand in traffic for a bit and get the taxis honking in tribute. But no. I'll rely on reports. Such as this one from Charles Kaiser at CJR:

Family members, former colleagues, important writers, and intimate friends gathered yesterday to praise the critic John Leonard for his “love of the life of the mind,” his “incomparably informed generosity,” his reluctance to “pan books or movies or TV shows or children, except when absolutely necessary”—and his unlikely dependence on just ten words: “tantrum, cathedral, linoleum, moxie, thug, dialectic, splendid, brood, libidinal, and qualm.”
It's a nice piece, and best of all, peppered with Leonard's own words. Here's what he once said about Fran Lebowitz:
To a base of Huck Finn, add some Lenny Bruce and Oscar Wilde and Alexis de Tocqueville, a dash of cab driver, an assortment of puns, minced jargon, and top it off with smarty-pants. Serve without whine. This is the New York style, and I for one am glad that it survives and prospers because otherwise we might as well grow moss in unsurprising Omaha.
"Obviously," Kaiser says, "he had spotted a kindred spirit."

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19. George Steiner at The New Yorker


The front flap of George Steiner at The New Yorker, published as a lovely paperback by New Directions earlier this year, claims that the book "collects fifty-three of his fascinating and wide-ranging essays from the more than one hundred and thirty he has contributed to the magazine." This is an error. The essays are certainly fascinating and wide-ranging, but there are only twenty-eight of them. Perhaps Robert Boyers, the editor, has selected another twenty-five for a later volume. We can certainly hope so.

Subscribers to The New Yorker have access to all of Steiner's essays, though the New Yorker's database is not the equal of, for instance, the database available of Harper's subscribers, and so browsing Steiner's contributions is cumbersome without the guide handily provided as an appendix to George Steiner at the New Yorker.

I've been reading and grading final papers and exams for the past week, and in amidst that I saved the last vestiges of my mind by reading Steiner, a writer I've binged on in the past, but hadn't read in a few years. The New Directions collection proved to be a delightful way to revisit his work.

It surprises me that I like Steiner's writings as much as I do -- he is an avowed devotee of, primarily, the classics of European literature; he has shown mostly contempt for the methods that have come to be called literary theory and cultural studies; he's particularly interested in Greek and Roman languages and mythologies. I, meanwhile, spend about half my reading time with popular fiction; I'm rather fond, depending on my mood, of such writers as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault and am in general sympathy with some of the tendencies within what gets labelled as New Historicism and Queer Theory; I have very little interest in Greek and Roman history or literature and even less interest in mythology. Additionally, I am fluent only with English, while Steiner's second book, The Death of Tragedy, begins by noting that "All translations from French, German, and Italian are by the author" and one of Steiner's best-known works is After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. He is not I.

There is enough poly in the math of Steiner, though, that some of his passions are ones I share -- for much of Modernism in its various forms and modes, for Shakespeare and the Russians and Kafka and Beckett and Celan and Borges, for the ethics of language and literature in an age of atrocity. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Steiner is a marvelous writer. His sentences and paragraphs are rich not only with ideas and information, but music.

George Steiner at the New Yorker provides a good general overview of Steiner's primary obsessions and themes over the years, making it a fine companion to, especially, such previous works as Errata: An Examined Life and My Unwritten Books (also from New Directions, and adorned with one of my favorite covers of recent years). There are essays on Beckett, Borges, Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, Simone Weil, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Walter Benjamin, and Albert Speer. There are surprises, too: one of the most impressive and elegant essays is the first, "The Cleric of Treason", about Anthony Blunt, espionage, homosexuality, and scholarship. There are insightful pieces on 1984 and 1984, on Graham Greene, on Thomas Bernhard, on the OED, and on chess. Perhaps most surprising of all, there is a basically positive review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

One of the critics Steiner most reminds me of is Guy Davenport -- their erudition is similar, and there is much overlap in their interests. George Steiner at the New Yorker contains an essay on Davenport where Steiner, after praising numerous sentences, writes, "There would be no harm in simply using the remainder of this review to make a mosaic and montage of quotes." The same is true for a review of this collection. Consider all that is packed and unpacked in this opening paragraph to a review of a biography of Anton Webern:

There is a great book to be written. It would show that the twentieth century as we have lived it in the West is, in essential ways, an Austro-Hungarian product and export. We conduct our inward lives in or in conflict with a landscape mapped by Freud and his disciples and dissenters. Our philosophy and the central place we assign to language in the study of human thought derive from Wittgenstein and the Vienna school of logical positivism. The novel after Joyce is, in the main, divided between the two poles of introspective narration and lyric experiment defined by Musil and by Broch. Our music follows two great currents: that of Bruckner, Mahler, and Bartók on the one hand; that of Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern on the other. Though the role of Paris was, of course, vital, it is now increasingly clear that certain sources of aesthetic modernism, from Art Deco to Action painting, can be found in the Viennese Jugendstil and in Austrian Expressionism. The functionalist, antiseptic ideals so prominent in today's architecture were predicted in the work of Adolf Loos. Political-social satire in London and New York, the sick joke, the conviction that the language of those who govern us is a poisonous smoke screen echo the genius of Karl Kraus. Ernst Mach had a profound influence on the development of Einstein's thinking. The logic and sociology of the natural sciences cannot be formulated without reference to Karl Popper. And where shall we place the manifold effects of Schumpeter, Hayek, von Neumann? One could prolong the roll call.
A reader who has encountered that paragraph and been intrigued will find ideas from it scattered and blooming throughout Steiner's oeuvre in fascinating ways -- the essay on Kraus and Thomas Bernhard in this book, the material about his Viennese parents and Judaism in Errata, the essay "A Kind of Survivor" in Language and Silence. Other connections pop up throughout many of the other pieces in the collection -- "The Tongues of Man" (from 1969, about Noam Chomsky's linguistics) points toward After Babel and a 1974 essay in On Difficulty, "Whorf, Chomsky, and the Student of Literature". Et cetera, et cetera.

Most of the reviews collected here are at least generally positive about their subjects, but Boyers has included two sharply critical pieces, and they're valuable not just because they are, in my opinion, basically correct in their criticisms, but also because they help give some context to Steiner's praises and passions -- to understand why a critic likes one thing, it can be helpful to understand why she or he dislikes something else. Thus, we have Steiner calling John Barth's novel Letters prolix, narcissistic, and "a more or less indigestible classroom soufflé"; and finding little of merit in E.M. Cioran's aphorisms, which he describes as banal, derivative, and predictable:
There is throughout Cioran's jeremiads an ominous facility. It requires no sustained analytic thought, no closeness or clarity of argument to pontificate on the "rottenness," on the "gangrene," of man, and on the terminal cancer of history. The pages on which I have drawn not only are easy to write, they flatter the writer with the tenebrous incense of the oracular. One need only turn to the work of Tocqueville, of Henry Adams, or of Schopenhauer to see the drastic difference. These are masters of a clairvoyant sadness no less comprehensive than Cioran's. Their reading of history is no rosier. But the cases they put are scrupulously argued, not declaimed; they are informed, at each node and articulation of proposal, with a just sense of the complex, contradictory nature of historical evidence. The doubts expressed by those thinkers, the qualifications brought to their own persuasions honor the reader. They call not for numbed assent or complaisant echo but for reexamination and criticism.
Despite his erudition, I don't find Steiner to be a particularly difficult writer to read, especially when he is writing for a general audience, as here. These essays don't feel as incisive as some of Steiner's other works, ones where he has more space to expand his ideas, but that's not entirely a bad thing -- I much prefer this book to such books as Grammars of Creation, where Steiner himself lights up some tenebrous incense of oracularity. His years of teaching, about which he has often written (especially in Lessons of the Masters), have made him a kind of exemplary popularizer of Western culture. It is not in his theories that he is at his strongest, but in his enthusiasms -- his ability to convey his passions. In theorizing about tragedy, for instance, I much prefer Terry Eagleton's Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, but I still read The Death of Tragedy with interest and even fondness, because the connections Steiner makes are productive and sometimes unique ones -- his comparison of Woyzeck and King Lear is, alone, more than justification for the book still being in print, not because it's necessarily "right" but because it allows us to think about both texts and authors in ways we -- by which I mean I -- would not have otherwise, and thus to pay closer attention to implications and emphases previously invisible and silent. (Similarly, I reject some of the basic premises of Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky while also realizing that it taught me more than any other book how to appreciate both writers.)

I have no quarrel with Robert Boyers's choices for what to include in George Steiner at the New Yorker, but some of the omissions are unfortunate -- we really would benefit from that lost fifty-three-essay collection. After reading the book, I spent a few days looking at Steiner's other pieces for the New Yorker, and found, just by following some of my own interests, excellent essays on Alexander Herzen (8 Feb. 1969), Samuel Johnson (28 April 1975), Glenn Gould (23 Nov. 1992), and Louis Althusser (21 Feb. 1994). "Closing Time", about fin de siècle Vienna (11 Feb. 1980), would have paired well with the piece on Webern. And three of the pieces I read seemed like real losses. A review of the first volume of Brian Boyd's biography of Nabokov is a particularly thoughtful appraisal both of Nabokov and the biography ("learned hagiography"), but more than that: Steiner wrestles with what are, he says, for him, as someone who doesn't read Russian fluently, unresolveable questions about Nabokov's greatness and the humanity (or lack of it) within his work. Steiner's review of Michael Hamburger's translations of Paul Celan's poems (28 Aug. 1989) would also have been a valuable piece to include, because Celan is particularly essential to many of Steiner's ideas, especially in Language and Silence (but he had not yet read Celan by the time of that book's writing). It's not an extraordinary essay on Celan, nor a particularly outstanding example of Steiner's work, but it's a useful piece in the puzzle of his thought. Finally, the essay that ends the book, on Robert Hutchins and the University of Chicago, is interesting and insightful, but it is not as affecting as similar material in Errata, and it might have been better to end with Steiner's last essay for The New Yorker, a review of Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading titled "Ex Libris" (17 March 1997), although the final paragraph might have been a disturbing one to finish the collection with:
Books do continue to be produced and published in large numbers. Handwritten illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced well after Gutenberg. Periods of transition are difficult to make out. They are also intensely stimulating. One can intuit deep-lying seismic shocks affecting our cultural perceptions of time, of individual death. These will put in question the claims of literature, of written thought, to individual glory, to survival "for all ages." Milton held a good book to be the "lifeblood of a master spirit." Doubtless this precious liquor will continue to flow, but, perhaps, in altogether different channels and test tubes. The boys and girls at their computer keyboards, finding, stumbling onto insights in logic, in fractals, may neither read nor write in any "book sense." Are they illiterate?
As a boy at a computer keyboard, I will simply say here that George Steiner at the New Yorker -- even with twenty-eight essays instead of fifty-three! -- makes me grateful for the bits of my own literacy that have made the book such a pleasure over the past week, and grateful for the greater, and generous, literacy of George Steiner, who continues to make the idea of a literate life itself seem like something to be aspired to more than something ever truly to be attained. We must keep learning, writing, reading.

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20. Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson

I must admit some surprise that the best book I've read about judgement, taste, and aesthetics is a book about Céline Dion. Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is not only thoughtful and well-informed, it is also compelling in every sense of the word. (It's part of the ever-surprising and wonderfully odd 33 1/3 series from Continuum Books.)

I don't know where I first heard about Wilson's book -- probably via Bookforum -- but it's gotten plenty of press, including a mention by James Franco at the Oscars and an interview of Wilson by Stephen Colbert. The concept of the book is seductive: Wilson, a Canadian music critic and avowed Céline-hater, spends a year trying to figure out why she is so popular and what his hatred of her says about himself. I kept away from the book for a little while because I thought it couldn't possibly live up to its premise, and that in all likelihood it was more stunt than analysis. Nonetheless, the premise kept attracting me, because I am fascinated by the concept of taste and I, too, find Dion's music to be the sonic equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting.

What makes Wilson's approach so effective and insightful is that it avoids the fanboy defensiveness marring everything from internet discussions to scholarly studies such as Peter Swirski's From Lowbrow to Nobrow. Wilson isn't grinding axes or settling scores; he's more interested in exploration than proclamation, more inclined toward maps than manifestos. The result is one of the few books I know that is as likely to expand its readers' view of the world as it is to provide the choir with an appealing sermon.

By focusing on Céline Dion, Wilson is able to discuss a wide range of topics: the details of Dion's career, of course, but also the history of popular music, the globalization of certain styles and tastes, the power of local cultures, the role of class and aspiration in forming and policing personal taste, the demonization of sentimentality and excess, the promotion of irony and transgression, etc. Wilson also provides a good, basic overview of histories and traditions of aesthetic philosophy, showing that even the most eminent thinkers and critics tend to do little more than construct elaborate sleight-of-hand routines. Because his goal is not to debunk so much as it is to explore, Wilson is able to use the best of what he encounters -- most fruitfully in his clear-eyed application of ideas from Pierre Bourdieu's 3 Comments on Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson, last added: 12/9/2009

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21. Robin Wood: 1931-2009

The news of film critic Robin Wood's death came as a real shock to me because, in preparation for teaching an intro to film class next term, I've been spending a lot of time with his writings recently.  One of my projects, only vaguely justified by the class, has been to view or re-view all of Alfred Hitchcock's films, and Wood was one of the most important writers on Hitchcock.  Indeed, his Hitchcock's Films Revisited has been the book I've spent the most time with during my journey with Sir Alfred because it is richly provocative and unpredictable, and helped me reassess some films, such as Marnie, that I would otherwise have felt were minor.

Hitchcock's Films Revisited is fascinating, too, because it is multiple books in one, and various parts think about, contradict, and, indeed, criticize other parts of the book.  After the original Hitchcock's Films was published, Wood's life changed considerably -- he had been a married man living in England, politically uncommitted, with little knowledge of or respect for certain trends in film theory.  In the 1970s, he divorced, came out as gay, re-evaluated some of his stances on film theory, developed strong leftist political convictions, and moved to Canada.  These seismic shifts in his life inevitably affected his view of Hitchcock's films, and he chronicles those changes in the autobiographical sections of Hitchcock's Films Revisited, which includes the entire text of the original book and adds hundreds of pages of later material.  Even if I were not as interested in Hitchcock's work as I am, I would find Hitchcock's Films Revisited valuable as a model for the intersections of autobiography and criticism.  It forces readers to assess their own ways of evaluating and interpreting films by showing the ways Wood himself had done so over the years and, as importantly, the experiences that led him to choose particular techniques of evaluation and interpretation when he did.

There have been numerous eulogies for Wood written in the past few days.  The Auteur's Notebook has a roundupDavid Bordwell's blog post is typically thoughtful and well-written.  Film Studies for Free links to eulogies as well as works by or about Wood.  All worth reading.

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22. Robin Wood on Michael Haneke

At the end of the his life, Robin Wood was, according to various biographical notes accompanying his later essays, working on a book about Michael Haneke's films.  I don't know how far along that book was at the time of Wood's death last month, but knowing that he had written some essays about Haneke's work through the years, I fired up the ol' Google to see what of Wood's writings on Haneke were available online.  Quite a few, it turns out, and they're very much worth reading:

Those all come from issues of CineAction that are available via Findarticles.com, and you'll discover plenty of other essays by Wood therein (sometimes bylined with his full name, Robert Paul Wood, by Findarticles) as well as other CineAction essays on Haneke, especially from the Summer 2006 issue.

For more on both men, Film Studies for Free is the best single place to check, with posts on Wood and Haneke.

I've seen all but one of the Haneke films available on DVD in the U.S., and thus all of his major feature films except his latest, The White Ribbon.  The one I have not seen is the American version of Funny Games, mostly because the original is my least favorite Haneke, and Wood gets close to my feelings about it, calling it a "minor work", lamenting how it has tainted people's perceptions of Haneke, and pointing out the nonsense in the statements Haneke has (repeatedly) made about punishing his audience for sitting through the film.

As for Wood, you can ignore his bizarre statements about Kafka at the beginning of the excellent "Beyond Compromise" essay -- when not writing about film, Wood was sometimes embarrassingly obtuse, but his sensitivity to film was astounding.  His essays and books are particularly valuable when he writes about what he sees as successful and meaningful in particular films, and that is especially so of Haneke, a director who can be very difficult to appreciate -- read Wood on The Seventh Continent or Code Unknown (my own favorite among Haneke's films).  Let's hope that someone is putting together a collection of Wood's uncollected essays and/or that, before his death, Wood was able to finish the manuscript of his book on Haneke.  Either would be a treasure; both would be bliss.
    23. Mandingo

    When it first came out, many critics loathed Mandingo.  They said it was a pulp potboiler, a racist exploitation film, softcore porn, immoral.  Roger Ebert gave it zero stars and called it "a piece of manure" and "racist trash".  It did just fine at the box office in 1975, the year it was released, but its reputation as laughably and/or offensively awful stayed with it, keeping it out of circulation for a long time.  It's only been generally available on DVD for a couple of years now.

    In 1976, Andrew Britton wrong a long and careful vindication of the film, but his essay was not widely read.  Britton noted how many of the reviewers didn't seem to have paid much attention to the film itself, given how many simple errors about the plot and character relationships filled their reviews.  More famously (if academic press books by film scholars can qualify as "famous"), Britton's teacher and colleague Robin Wood devoted a chapter of Sexual Politics and Narrative Film to Mandingo, which is where I first heard about the movie.

    After watching Mandingo, I wanted to see if anybody had written about it more recently, especially within the film blogosphere, and that's when I discovered some real gems.  I can't say I loved the film in the way some people have, but I certainly think the original critics who hated it missed the mark completely.  It's a remarkable corrective to and comment on such things as Gone with the Wind, and some moments reminded me strongly of Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn!, particularly in the way both movies complicate the viewer's sympathies for the white protagonist.

    But my purpose here is simply to point you toward some excellent online writings about the film:



    "The Eyes We Cannot Shut: Richard Fleischer's Mandingo" by Robert Keser:
    Without sentimentality or official pieties, Fleisch

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    24. If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say…

     IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING NICE TO SAY…

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        You know the old saying, “Even the walls have ears”?  Well, now they really do.  It’s called the “Social Media Wall”.   And though it has the ability to launch your career faster than someone can say, “Twitter”, not listening to mom when she told you to speak only if you had something nice to say, can cause your words to come back and bite you…hard.

    Though Roberta Silman’s ‘tough’ review of NYT’s best selling author, Alice Hoffman, (on her book, ‘The Story Sisters’) is no longer Tweeting HOT news, the sting of her vengful bashing session against Silman not only came back like a raging bull but caused a fury of snarking and slinging all over the internet. 

    Hoffman felt that Silman’s review was harsh and gave away too much of the book’s plot, more like a book report rather than a review.  Hoffman immediately struck back on Twitter with fighting words such as, “Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a Moron.  How do some people get to review books? And give the plot away.” and “Now any idiot can be a critic.”  And then went on to publish Silman’s phone number and e-mail address in hopes her public would flood the caustic critic with hurling attacks. 

    It didn’t work.  The number was wrong and Silman only received eight e-mails from individuals who SUPPORTED with her review!  Ouch.  Can we say, “back peddle?”

    So, what’s the big lesson of the day? 

     CHUCK YOUR EGO!  

    Hey, we all want great reviews.  We all want that huge pat on the back to confirm our writing genius.  But let’s face it: less than desirable reviews can (and might) happen.  So instead of getting out those sharp little fingers and doing something that you won’t be able to take back, stay professional and move on.  

    Remember: your negative retorts to unwanted reviews will only bring…yep you guessed it…more negative press!

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    25. Novels and Alternatives

    Yesterday, I read a review by Scott Byran Wilson of Steven Moore's The Novel: An Alternative History in the new print issue of Rain Taxi, the first time I'd heard of the book, and then today via Scott Esposito discovered this thorough review-essay of the book by Steve Donoghue. Wilson's review was all praise, Donoghue's mostly the opposite. I suspect I'd fall somewhere between them, since I am sympathetic to keeping the definition of "novel" broad and encouraging complexity, but Moore's tone in many of the excerpts both in the Wilson review and the Donoghue is, if it's representative, one I know I'd find tiresome.

    Donoghue's essay is well worth reading because it is a thorough attack on certain rhetorical stances common to critics who want to praise "difficult" or "experimental" writing (the terms are often mushy), stances that buy into a terrible polarity and so end up as smug and blinkered as what they set themselves against -- to be for something, these critics must be against whatever is different from what they are for, and often from a position where they attempt, whether admittedly or not, to give moral meaning to their preferences, making their preference a superior one to those of people who prefer other sorts of things. Many times, this is in response to ignorant and impatient cries of "Unreadable!" and "Elitist!" by people who prefer conventional fiction and who, in their own sense of superiority (which may just be another sort of defensiveness), state or imply that people who like less conventional fiction don't actually enjoy it.  An individual response gets inflated to a universal one: If I don't like this, nobody can -- and if they say they do, they must be lying! Both sides play this arrogant game.

    Steve Donoghue does a good job for a while of not indulging in the game, but he can't help himself later in the essay, and the sound of grinding axes unfortunately begins to marr the prose. Nonetheless, the essay is thorough and valuable for many of the points it raises.

    I hope Moore's book continues to provoke such posts and ripostes, because the discussion could be valuable. It would be especially helpful for more critics to follow up on a passage in Wilson's Rain Taxi review, that Moore shows "that even aspects of fiction that feel fresh to us now are evident in the earliest stories." In my reading of older literatures, this has been the greatest revelation, and one that deserves to be brought to more readers' attention.

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