Friday, September 28, 2007

Short Cuts (Capsule Reviews)

Yi Yi: Criterion released the late Edward Yang's masterpiece a few months ago, and it immediately went on my Netflix queue.

It was even better than I expected. It holds one's attention in an uncommon way, more like a novel than a film—in this way it is rather like La Meglio Gioventú (The Best of Youth). Yang's characterizations are economically expansive, an absolute necessity for a film based as much as it is on a theme of the way the past continues to ramify long after we turned onto a different path. The delicacy with which Yang develops many different storylines simultaneously—each on a very different register—is something sadly missing from American filmmaking. Yang also masterfully creates a vocabulary for his characters through quick tableaux (like the picture at left), a trick with which American filmmakers like Wes Anderson have had success in the past but are now seeing terrifyingly diminished returns.

Yi Yi is, quite simply, an essential film.

Louis Menand, "Drive, He Wrote"

One of my favorite openings to a review is David Bromwich on Louis Menand's American Studies:
Louis Menand has been publishing reviews and essays for about twenty years. He writes on most things a non-specialist could write on: novels, movies, television, magazines, politics, education, manners, celebrity culture. His academic training was in literature, but academically most of what he does would now be classified as cultural history; his book on the American pragmatists, The Metaphysical Club, was an ambitious and rewarding contribution to that genre. He brings to his pieces a large share of general information, prose decorum, and an accent of overwhelming sobriety, sometimes nicely, sometimes oddly varied by facetious asides. For those of us who have been following him on and off, the puzzle has been to decide what exactly he cares about.

On arriving at the end of one of Menand's pieces, you commonly think: how ably done. The subject has been closed. You are less excited than you were before. The absence of extreme opinions in Menand's work is reassuring, but it is also, when the articles are presented in bulk, rather baffling. A critic, like a reader or a spectator, is allowed to go over the top in wonder and delight, or, if he is a good hater, to make us laugh out loud. Even daily reviewers often exhibit a ruling passion or a driving enthusiasm. It has not been clear what Menand's is.

This of course sets up the rest of the review perfectly, but it is, more to the point at hand, sad. Sad because the closing paragraphs of Menand's essay on Kerouac and the Beats perhaps explain a bit of this air of imperturbability and pragmatic dourness.

Menand writes movingly throughout the article of how the Beats were misunderstood, mischaracterized, and, of course, mistaken. The Beats, at least for Menand, were not so much about the drugs as about the kind of things—and I'm writing this with a completely straight face and with no hint of disdain—the movie Superbad brought off so well. As Menand writes,

The book is not about hipsters looking for kicks, or about subversives and nonconformists, rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the nineteen-sixties. And the book is not an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity or an artifact of literary primitivism. It’s a sad and somewhat self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity, and failure. It’s also a story about guys who want to be with other guys.
I certainly felt this way when reading it back in high school, but my friends were wild about Burroughs then and I didn't want to offer this rather meek alternative reading when they could talk about mescaline and sexual perversions. As Menand argues, the book's about male vulnerability, and that's only cool if you're vulnerable and fucked up by booze or drugs or horniness or your own inner demons.

I encourage you to read all of Menand's essay, but the ending, as I said, killed me. Perhaps, as he finds something to identify with in Kerouac, I find something in him that describes too well my current state:
Books like “On the Road” have a different kind of influence as well. They can, whether we think of them as great literature or not, get into the blood. They give content to experience. Many years after my encounters with Ginsberg around the department water fountain, I took a job in Boston, two hundred miles from New York, and I ended up commuting there by car. I drove at night, so that the trip would not eat up the workday, and I often stopped for gas at a service area on the Mass Pike about fifty miles from Boston. It’s fairly high above sea level there, in the lower ranges of the Berkshires, and I would stand at the pump in the dark looking at the stars in the cold clear sky as the semis roared past and with the wind in my hair, and I liked to imagine that I was a character in Kerouac’s novel, lost to everyone I knew and to everyone who knew me, somewhere in America, on the road. Then I would get in the car, and, bent over the wheel, while the trucks beat on past me, and the radio crackled, the sound going in and out, with oldies from the seventies, I began the long drop down to the lights of Boston, late in the night, late in my life, alone.
Later: WTF? David Brooks of all people pointing out that, goddammit, On the Road was once considered fun! I never thought I'd see the words "discharge of youthful energy" (much less "delightful, moronic, unreflective fizz") in a column by the Man in the Pink Oxford.

But his point is a solid one, at least as far as it does seem strange that, all of a sudden, On the Road is this deeply melancholic novel about spiritual quests and male vulnerability. His diagnosis of the change is also correct—what he calls the Boomer Narcissus—the black hole of a solipsistic generation bending the light of all culture to fit its form. Well, that's a little too dramatic, and so is Brooks, but the Boomers do tend to reinterpret most cultural artifacts to suit their stage of life. (Is this a new phenomenon? probably not, but you couldn't tell Brooks that.)

But seriously, the jab at the Sal Paradises of today ("If Sal Paradise were alive today, he’d be a product of the new rules. He’d be a grad student with an interest in power yoga, on the road to the M.L.A. convention with a documentary about a politically engaged Manitoban dance troupe that he hopes will win a MacArthur grant. He’d be driving a Prius, going a conscientious 55, wearing a seat belt and calling Mom from the Comfort Inns.") is pure vindictive cant. Brooks is merely complaining that he can't even take some small amount of vicarious joy in the overheated antics of liberals (a joy which will be chased immediately by, of course, a supercilious sniff of disapprobation and patronizing diffidence), antics which he has largely fabricated.

Brooks pretends liberals or bohemians or whatever all just became squares—that it's the rules (self-created, self-enforced) that have changed. Nope, Dave, it's the world. Do you know how expensive gas is? See how far you get on your cross-country trip living as broke and beat as Sal and Dean. Sheesh.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Confessions of St. Augustine

I haven't read all of it, and I'm not sure I will at the moment, but I would like to throw some ideas about it on the blog.

I read Books X-XII, partly on a friend's suggestion, and partly because of this curious list. Book X is terribly interesting in its exploration of memory and its deep humanism (despite the intermittent comments to God reminding the reader and Augustine that He is the intended audience, it seems). The passage on sacred music (X.33) is especially wonderful, mostly because it so greatly takes for granted the notion that a human creation (music) is a grave threat to God's power over us, that human beauty can overwhelm sacred beauty. Augustine probably wouldn't endorse that paraphrase, but I believe it is close to what he fears.

Book XI is fascinating mainly for its exploration of time, particularly in the way it differentiates past, present, and future. It's also perhaps the most fun hair-splitting has been since Aristotle.

Book XII, however, is the one I'd like to return to for the way it treats silence and speaking. Augustine is perplexed by the mechanics of God's speech which calls the world into being (this carries over from Book XI). In defining darkness as the absence of light, Augustine also states that, "the presence of silence simply means the absence of sound." This is a common Augustinian move—defining something as the privation or absence of something else, yet there is, I feel, also in his writing a sense that resists this simple dualism of presence and absence. Or maybe there isn't—I can't find, at the moment, a citation which would make my case.

But I think there is another way of thinking about silence which runs quite counter to Augustine's definition. It is the idea that sound can become so simple, so rarefied, so pure, that it exists as silence, that silence is sound to the zeroth degree in a sense. Another way of thinking about it is by talking about the signal-to-noise ratio. If it were possible to reduce the noise in a given communication or a given system to zero, the ratio would be undefined—silence. (Right?)

This logic is what I feel is behind the mystical traditions of apophaticism. If our communications with God can be purified to such an extent that we have eliminated all worldly distraction (noise), our signal can only be silence.

Finally, Book XII is radically interesting for its distinctions between truth and intention, and among a tripartite system of inspiration, authorship and interpretation. Truth, for Augustine, seems to be a plural thing, while intention is singular, but capacious—capable of being extended over the field of truth—when, that is, the author is inspired by the truth.

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

I must admit, the skepticism with which so many self-important literateurs view Dick gripped me too. I made a tentative effort to correct or educate this skepticism by checking out Ubik, supposedly his masterpiece, but chucked it quickly back into the library.

Looking for a book-on-tape to pass the time as I drove hither and thither on a number of journeys from the East Coast to Indiana, I decided that I could knock off some obscure obligation to "read" at least one book by Dick by consuming him while stuck in meaningless transit.

I found the first few discs—what probably amounts to half or 2/5 of the book—slow and actually made it through a number of long trips without even touching them; I would rather just listen to the CDs I had also brought along. But I decided to power through the rest of the book on my way to work each morning, a drive which is about as long in duration as one disc (a little more than an hour). Perhaps this even pacing allowed me to give more attention and more interest to the book, or perhaps it just got a lot better, but I became engrossed in the book, and tremendously so by the last third, especially the author's note following the end of the narrative. I can now see what has brought so many fans to his works, and I am eager to read more. I am interested to see if (my skepticism persists somewhat) the experience will be different when I read one of his books in the traditional manner; a good narrator (Paul Giamatti in this case) can obviously make bad or sloppy patches of fiction (which many complain that Dick is full of) seem smoother and less abruptly grating.

At any rate, it is widely known and widely said that the place of science fiction, and of Dick more particularly, in the broader narrative of American fiction is clearly at a crucial juncture at the moment, marked publicly, it must be confessed, by the Library of America's recent and much remarked-upon inclusion of Dick in its canon. More gradually, it is the inevitable result, and perhaps the first fruits, of a generational change first among the taste-making American novelists (occurring in the late 9os and early 2000s) and now, slowly, among literary scholars. The Deconstructing Generation is retiring, slowly perhaps, but surely, and is being replaced by the Cultural Studiers.

Adam Gopnik, in what he calls a "gently disparaging comprehensive review," narrated this shift well in The New Yorker:
There’s nothing more exciting to an adolescent reader than an unknown genre writer who speaks to your condition and has something great about him. The Ace paperback cover promises mere thrills, and the writing provides real meaning. The combination of evident value and apparent secrecy makes Elmore Leonard fans feel more for their hero than Borges lovers are allowed to feel for theirs. When they tell you it’s going to be good, what more can you hope for it to be?

Eventually, enough of these secret fans grow up and get together, and the writer is designated a Genius, acquiring all the encumbrances of genius: fans, notes, annotated editions, and gently disparaging comprehensive reviews. Since genre writing can support only one genius at a time—and no genre writer ever becomes just a good writer; it’s all prophet or all hack—the guy is usually resented by his peers and their partisans even as the establishment hails him. No one hates the rise of Elmore Leonard so much as a lover of Ross Macdonald.

Of course, this type of generational shift seems only to function in the case of genre writers; I can't foresee the Cultural Studiers proselytizing for Salinger in the same fashion, despite his being another author whom adolescents of the 60s and 70s (and 80s?) turned to in search of an articulator for their frustrations. For one thing, they don't have to—he's already in the canon, though not, I think it should be pointed out, the curriculum (at least not commonly).

That is a diference I am very interested in—writers who seem canonical or at least canonized and yet whose absence from critical study, or at least from important critical study, is not contested in the slightest.

I should say that this interest comes from—or led to, I'm not sure which—my thesis on Saul Bellow, a writer who is quite generally accepted as one of the best of the past half century, where best means most critically successful, most dominant on the literary scene, most influential (the host of novelists endorsing him is terribly impressive). Yet Bellow has not attracted the critical attention and is taught far less than any number of writers who never made the kind of contemporary impact Bellow did, nor reached the kind of critical acclaim he attained. Few courses covering the relevant period of American literature teach novels like Herzog, but all teach genre authors in abundance.

I find the politics of curricula and canons tiresome, and it is not my intent to imply that for every or William Gibson assigned, a Bellow should be. I don't disagree that a novel like Neuromancer should be assigned as often as it is, if not more. I see quite clearly that these novels meet the requirement that any important book should create a genre or shatter an old one, and that for this reason they are not only important but critical when teaching and writing about the late twentieth century and its literature. And to be frank, the novels of Philip K. Dick or William Gibson have done more in their diffusion to alter our cultural landscape than all of Bellow's or Roth's or Updike's novels put together.

But these types of novels do not, I think, require the volume of critical attention they garner. It seems that, and it could just be my impression, the same handful of buzzy, trendy authors are written on, often using the same critical and ideological techniques, while many authors who are also, I feel, critical for studying any given time period, languish in inattention, or scant and provincial attention.

It is often assumed in debates over these things that questioning the narrowness of focus of a field's inquiry is the same as rejecting its choice of focus. Most see curricular choices to be a zero sum game, and on the micro-level it is. If I am a professor putting together a syllabus, I only have so many pages I can assign reasonably. Neuromancer is worth its spot, (though probably not a tome like House of Leaves, at least not for undergrads) for a survey course on the contemporary novel. There may be no room for any of Roth's output in the 80s or 90s, for instance, despite their acclaim. (Of course, acclaim is a rather poor criterion for academic attention, but I mean something more by the term than the enthusiasm of reviewers and prize committees. I mean a certain impact on the literary and cultural scene, if that's not too general.)

But on a macro-level, someone, and someone of note, should be giving serious attention to writers like Bellow, like Doctorow, like Cheever, like Stegner, like Fowles, like Updike, like William Kennedy, like Mailer, like, let us say it and be done with it, mainstream, literary-establishment, living-dead or just dead white men. They are a part—and a significant part—of the literary history of the late 20th century, and you can't have a full picture of that history without them.

So while I'm glad that Philip K. Dick has now been properly canonized in the Library of America and what-not, I wish some of his fanboys and girls would start reading Bellow.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

I am trying to warm to Philip Roth. I really am. I justified my abhorrence of Portnoy's Complaint by telling myself that I read it when I was too young (14, I think?) and too repressed by my Catholic upbringing (although my friends would probably say that still holds).

I read The Human Stain last winter. This time it was the politics that irritated me—the insistence on caricaturing the academic left without any glimmer of intent to depict them as people, even deeply fallible people.

But American Pastoral is supposed to be his masterpiece, his transcendent narrative that captures the American century in its stride.

Well, I'm going to give Roth more chances, but I'm not by any means won over. American Pastoral is just broader than The Human Stain, but no deeper. I forget who this description applied to originally and who applied it, but it holds for Roth: his novels are flat, but they vibrate very fast. [Forster said it of Dickens—later note.]

Some curious habits mark Pastoral—a curious habit of expressing most attempts at meaningful authorial comment in incomplete sentences, often embodying an idea (e.g. "A guy stacked like a deck of cards for things to unfold differently." "The body, from which one cannot strip oneself however one tries, from which one is not to be freed this side of death.") The body, of course, has been Roth's lifelong quarry, whether that is concerned with the perversions of sexuality, the perversions of old age, or, in American Pastoral, the perversions of bodily perfection. There is an awful lot of overlap, as Mr. Roth will tell you, between the three.

Roth is an aggravatingly and aggressively insistent writer; if I had to estimate the number of times he emphasizes the tragic nature of his hero's existence, I'd put it in the ballpark of 175. (The novel is 432 pages long). Roth apparently skipped the class on "show, don't tell." He also hammers home (literally home—he "brings the century home" just like 60s radicals wanted to "bring the war home") the parallel between the nation's fortunes and those of the Levov family—a parallel which any half-witted reader could have picked up from the title.

But enough complaining. I didn't like the book, although I recognize what other people like about it, and I will continue to read Roth until I've gotten through all his major works (Sabbath's Theater, The Counter-Life, Operation Shylock...)

What I did think was interesting is how desperately Roth tries to convince us that his tale of millionaire New Jersey Jews is a tale of Middle America. This led to thinking about the literary idea of Middle America as it relates to the literary idea of the Middle West. I haven't lived in New Jersey, but it seems to me that in novels like American Pastoral, it can shade almost into Midwestern-ness, especially as it concerns itself with sports and the way sports affect a community. I suppose this is nothing more than the "pastoral" of the title, but it is food for later thought.

Pulling at that thought, however, for just a bit more, doesn't Bruce Springsteen, a NJ boy if ever there was one, seem a bit Midwestern? I don't think anyone would place him in a specific Midwestern state, but there is something generically Midwestern about him. I mean, he did call one of his albums "Nebraska."

I would like to test this idea by reading the Rabbit novels and Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy (and perhaps WCW's Paterson), but I find the very fact that there is such a concentration of Middle America in New Jersey in the literature of the past 25 years or so to be quite interesting, and something I will have to come to grips with in any proper study of Midwestern literature.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

An unintentionally appropriate choice for the last book I read before heading out to Connecticut, I suppose.

Just kidding—work's going great, but since talking about my life is not what this blog's for, to the book...

I am embarrassed to admit that my familiarity with Dickens lies primarily far in the past; his stories enchanted me when I was in middle school—reading David Copperfield then is still one of my most beloved literary experiences and perhaps the highlight of those three dreary years—but I have not decided to return to him. Furthermore, because I was mostly reading at that young age, my exposure to his works has excluded his more "serious" or more "mature" works—Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House, and Hard Times.

I was not quite so enamoured with Dickens this time around, perhaps because it is quite difficult to connect personally with the author. I felt as if I were David Copperfield and suffered with him at the thought that Agnes may indeed be unattainable, only to rejoice to know that she was not. I felt the bullying friendship of Steerforth; I wept with Mr. Micawber; I recoiled before Uriah Heep; I laughed with Barkis and the Peggotys.

It is not, of course, that Hard Times is any poorer in great and memorable characters—the Gradgrinds are indelible, and oh! poor Stephen Blackpool. It is, I suppose, a natural outcome of depicting a grinding and quotidian, as opposed to an intense and mysterious tragedy that makes Hard Times less alluring, less involving.

But what I lost in emotive appreciation, I more than gained in artistic appreciation. While Dickens can, as is well-known, prodigally and sloppily spill his vivid characters all over the place while brewing his tale, or leave them languishing on back-burners never to be properly retrieved (poor Sissy Jupe! she could have been such a great character had she been given more attention), there is really no satisfactory way of accounting for Dickens's mastery in characterization.

Of course, a number of critics—many of them, in fact—find what I call his "mastery" to be an indecent form of chicanery, a circus show (appropriately for this novel), a parade of gargoyles with few supporting arches or pillars. James Wood has complained that Dickens's way with character has triumphed overwhelmingly in an era in which we are not too sure what to do with the idea of character. For writers like Rushdie, DeLillo, Whitehead, or Zadie Smith, he believes, Dicken's profligate use of caricature to define character, shallowness of motivation, and flatness of interiority represent a diminution of the novel's—and the novelist's—powers. Worse, he says, they have abandoned the pursuit of real feeling.

I demur rather diffidently from Wood's judgment, for I have no real love of "hysterical realism." I do, however, feel that Dickens's access to deep and powerful sentiment is not his only strength, and that his "gargoyles" are not a weakness for his or anyone else's novels—at least not inherently.

I often excuse myself from Wood's aesthetic asceticism by thinking that there is no necessary reason why novels should be only about the individual consciousness and the oddities and quiddities thereof, that sometimes we need a Dickensian gargoyle to bring light (paradoxically) to our literary lives. Certainly, I find it odd that Wood's greatest exemplar of his preferred type of realism—the type which he all but calls the creed and the catechism of the novel—is not a novelist, but a short story writer and playwright—Chekhov.

Wood's great strength as a critic is his consistent adherence to a set of aesthetic principles which he actually does a remarkable job of defending and explaining. One would never find him saying, "I don't know why, but I just looooove this book!" He always seems to know why, and can explain why, and that's a model I believe we should all follow.

But I do believe his principles are, to use a phrase of his concerning the novels of Coetzee, "intelligently starved"—which of course does not mean that they are starved of intellect (patently they are not, though neither are they glutted), but rather that they are starved purposefully by an intelligent mind. Their meat is withheld to better examine their anatomy. Unfortunately, being starved, while offering the benefit of marking their limits more clearly, have the disadvantage of drawing those limits unnaturally close to the core, to the skeleton.

I have spoken a great deal about Wood in a number of posts—so far this blog seems to be more about him than about what I'm reading. Principally that's because I've been working my way through both of his volumes of essays. My hope was to begin my post-collegiate literary study reading the thoughts of critics who had the most solid and consistent literary and aesthetic ideologies I could think of—Trilling and Wood. I read some Trilling and was greatly affected, but Wood presents an even greater order of a challenge. Sometimes Trilling will merely write in simple appreciation of a writer; if he's advancing anything, it's a commitment to a staid and venerable humanism. Wood, even in appreciation, writes disquisitions. One must pay attention and reflect, or one gets nothing out of reading him. I hope to write about him less and advance my own opinions independent of him more, but I will readily admit that I could hope for nothing better than to sound a bit like him.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Slouching towards Terre Haute

It appears that the print vs. blog debate is rearing its haggard visage once more in force. A post at The Millions collects a number of recent pieces and vauntingly rails against their doddering ancien-regime-ishness. The panoply of arguments the author, Ben Dooley, lines up is much the same as the battle dress another Millions blogger, Garth Hallberg, donned while correcting the editors of n+1 and their pretty-widely-acknowledged overstatement "The Blog Reflex" from earlier this year. (I would say, however, that Garth's post is a little more nuanced and thoughtful.)

These arguments are almost entertaining simply because of the stultifyingly repetitive form each iteration assumes. The dullness of their regularity nearly transmutes somehow into comedy as each side fumes at how limited its set of arguments are, subtextually but audibly grumbling about how pegged their position is to the progress of a ceremony of sorts—a dialectic which each side wants to tip in its favor, burnishing the alloy of the future with slightly more of their side's mettle/metal.

The old-guard/rear-guard wants to prevent the ceremony from turning into a massive self-immolation, a point which is reached when they start claiming that, though the winds of change may whisk away the chaff of quantity, the hard kernel of quality will yet remain. In this case, we'll probably see a gradual shift of emphasis on the part of the NBCC from defending book reviews as institutions to promoting or glorifying individual literary critics (and, it goes without saying, those writing for the flagship literary publications). Greater emphasis is given to the past and to heritage, saluting the hey-day heroes of the cause. Blame is focused on those who have debased the standards of the institution and left the public unable to appreciate the merits of the true practitioners of the craft. Less is said about large social movements or broad cultural shifts as it becomes evident that the threat is not losing a chimerical vast wavering public but seeing the former faithful falling away.

The young turks want to speed up what they see as a plodding changing of the guard, a turnover delayed not by external forces, but by the resistance of the former powerbrokers. Emphasis will be placed on how structurally sound their outfit is, how consonant with the times, how it really does serve the people what they really want—choice. Of course, the choice that is important to the new kids on the block is not, contrary to their rhetoric, the choice offered among the glorious upstarts, but between the new and the old. Emphasizing choice is really the promotion of the new. To have a choice implies that one should take it, and if that choice is newly created, the choice would obviously be for the new.

Both sides' self-perceptions are hideously blinkered, but that goes without saying. But this blinkering is so severe primarily because each side considers the situation solely from the perspective of a producer, when the consumer is the (obviously) determinant factor. That fact makes certain questions that have come out of these debates (e.g. "Does instant communication encourage combat? If so, why? (Is the media the message?) When does anger work to enrich understanding, and when does it hinder it? Are those even the metrics anymore? How can a medium so bound up with the culture industry manage a critique of that industry? Is the blog-as-antidote-to-ideology itself part of the ideology? Is good writing good for writing? Does mass culture exert a leveling effect? Can highbrow and middlebrow coexist peacefully, and if so under what circumstances? What becomes of critique when words are control x-ed and control v-d and the very idea of context, the context of context, starts to evaporate?") rather pointless or at least very ancillary to the actual question of what literary culture will be like in five or ten years. No one on either side is really asking this question, or at least not directly. (I imagine someone is, but I haven't found any good posts, editorials or monographs on the topic.)

The question that always goes missing in these turf war-cum-pissing contests is, who are the consumers? Are the people commenting on lit-blogs significantly different in occupation, geographical residence, education level, and gender from those who write letters to the NYRB? I think it would be pretty generally agreed upon that lit-blog readers skew younger than those who read book reviews/news in print, but is this a significant fact, or are these people reading blogs at twenty the same type of people who would have grown up to write letters to the NYRB at forty had they lived, say, thirty years ago?

And note that the question isn't "are the producers significantly different in occupation...." I think here is where the blog triumphalists go really wrong when they focus on a supposed democratization of literary critical production. Bloggers seem to have taken up as rallying cries two examples brandished by the guardians-of-taste as evidence of the baseness of literary blogging—the quasi-legendary car mechanic who apparently reads voraciously and posted 200 or something original book reviews last year and the mythical guy "sitting in a basement in Terre Haute" referenced by novelist Richard Ford while attacking lit-blogging. Lit-bloggers try to use these examples to further the case that blogs broaden the national literary discourse. But this argument assumes that such people either had a life without literature before the web or had a very passive relationship with books. What goes unsaid is that literary activity is still defined as publishing on literature, and the many new self-publishers constitute a revolutionary increase in literary activists. I don't think it's that simple; in fact, it's rather condescending.

I would find it rather difficult to believe that the prolix car mechanic never did much about his latent musings on literature, or worse, that he had none before blogging came around and shook him into thinking about books. I would also have trouble imagining that this Terre Haute basement that is now such a hothouse of literary production yielded nothing in the way of speculation on or about books before an internet connection was installed. I find it much easier to imagine that the mechanic has a welter of marginalia scattered across the pages of books he read pre-net, and that the Terre Haute basement often was the scene of people sharing thoughts about literature with one another. Certainly, these thoughts were not available to be shared broadband at however many kilobytes per second, but they were not inert either. Blog triumphalists like Ben Dooley resist having blogging compared to speaking rather than writing, but this resistance is as much about wanting to distance blogging from the supposedly inert practices of these unredeemed, pre-net basement-dwelling car mechanics as it is about defending the quality of blogging as a genre.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Fall Must-Reads

You may have noticed that I haven't posted on a novel in a number of days; I've been busy, but hopefully I can carve some time out of this weekend to get at least one done.

More depressing than not reading the books I meant to have read already by this time, I am reminded by the Michiko Kakutani/Sunday Book Review double coverage of Denis Johnson's upcoming Tree of Smoke that there are a number of books coming out this fall which I will be wanting to read as soon as I can fit them in. Besides Tree of Smoke, there's

Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Philip Roth's Exit Ghost, (supposedly) the last Zuckerman novel
Charles Taylor, The Secular Age
A collection of John Updike's critical essays, Due Consideration: Essays and Criticism
Newly appointed MTVu Poet Laureate (seriously) John Ashbery's Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems
Peter Gay's Modernism: The Lure of Heresy - From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond
The second volume of Paris Review interviews
Pablo Neruda, I Explain a Few Things—poems selected and edited by Ilan Stavans
Edward Docx, Self-Help (doesn't seem to have a release date yet, and perhaps not even an American publisher, but I'm very eager to read it based on some of the British reviews)

The non-fiction looks very interesting, although I probably won't find the time to read it. But the novels and the poetry, hopefully, I'll be able to get to.