Saturday, January 31, 2009

Seals of Approval: January

The best of online criticism in January:
  • A guide to the best superhero comics from This Recording.

  • Both parts of the late Ted Solotaroff's memoir-essay "Adventures in Editing" are now up at The Nation (Part I, Part II). Solotaroff edited the seminal journal New American Review, among other things.

  • The online film journal Reverse Shot is often accused of excessive Young Turkism—impetuosity, strategic contrarianism, and erratic militancy. I think their coverage of film is really solid, though. Their year-end wrap-ups are all worth reading, but my favorite was their 11 Offenses of 2008. Other wrap-ups are Best of 2008, Get Over It 2008 (a feature on overrated films that aren't offenses, but which are nevertheless completely mediocre), But What About... (similarly, a B-List to the "Best Of" feature), and the catch-all Reverse Shot's 2 Cents.

  • Martin Puchner covered the death of Harold Pinter for n+1. I read a number of excellent assessments of Pinter's impact on theater, but this was clearly the best.

  • On Pop Matters's Marginal Utility blog, Rob Horning has a fascinating post about dilettantism up. I think his use of Guitar Hero as a context for this discussion is a little weird, but the rest of it is really good.
    Dilettantism is a perfectly rational response to the hyperaccessibility of stuff available to us in the market, all of which imposes on us time constraints where there was once material scarcity. These time constraints become more itchy the more we recognize how much we are missing out on (thanks to ever more invasive marketing efforts, often blended in to the substance of the material we are gathering for self-realization). We opt instead for “diversity,” and begin setting about to rationalize the preferability of novelty even further... Concentration takes on more of the qualities of work—it becomes a disutility rather than an end vis-a-vis the stuff we acquire. If something requires us to concentrate, it costs us more and forces us to sacrifice more of the stuff we might otherwise consume. In other words, consumerism makes the will and ability to concentrate seem a detriment to ourselves.
    I have some further thoughts about this particular problem coming up.

  • Ray Davis makes a really terrific case on The Valve for what to do about the thorny problem of work in the humanities that makes use of writers who either had shoddy research habits or have been factually disproved (e.g. Freud, Weber, Foucault). First, he argues that "the equivalence of citations with logical premises is itself an assumption in need of examination" and goes on to show how many if not most citations of Foucault's Discipline and Punish are either analogical or purely referential (i.e. "for an examination of x, see y") and do not affect the structure of the argument presented in the body of the text. Davis broadens the argument by asserting that the role of citations is often simply pretextual—the point is "to find a third party to interrupt, to incite, to provide some friction and spark in what might otherwise become a rather dull cocooning of the author-and-topic couple." This takes him to a fairly extreme conclusion: "The 'scientific' heroism of Freud (and Foucault, and Nietzsche, and so on) didn’t include careful transcription of sources, painstaking replication of results, or double-checked blind studies, but it did require expressing engaging and potentially unpleasant thoughts applicable across a range of enduringly interesting problems. Which is to say such humanities scholarship can be 'true' or 'false' somewhat as a novel or poem is true or false, with a truth-value that’s utilitarian and context-dependent." It's a very provocative post, and Davis presents his case engagingly.

  • I discovered the excellent blog I Cite this month, and I'd like to point to two posts in particular: this post on tag clouds and the increasing shift to quantitative analysis of rhetoric, and this post on the curious academic injunction "to speak to a broad audience":
    On the other hand, the instruction to formulate one's speech so as to be accessible to the disadvantaged proceeds as if 'ordinary language' were the language of the disadvantaged rather than the language of hegemony. A kind of sweeping, massifying of language occurs that eliminates the multiplicity of discourses within the field of language and this in the name of a democracy inseparable from consumerism. Rather than demonstrating the fact and workings of another way of speaking and thinking, the speaker is supposed to hide this fact, not to make it apparent in the open setting of a public lecture. And so the myth of equality is upheld and the differentials of power kept underwraps.

  • Paul Virilio must be one of the strangest contemporary theorists (he ends this interview with a quote from Churchill of all people), but he says some exceedingly intriguing things here, ideas that open out onto whole projects of inquiry. For example:
    Since speed earns money, the financial sphere has attempted to enforce the value of time above the value of space. But the virtual is also part and parcel of reality. And to be frank with you, this so-called virtual world, in which one can also include tax-heavens, is a form of 'exotism' which I tend to equate with colonialism. It is the (recurrent) myth of another inhabitable planet.
    I have his Speed and Politics; I should really get to reading that.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Function of Lit-Blogging at the Present Time

Mark Thwaite of ReadySteadyBlog recently started thinking out loud about a reading list for the history of the novel and asked for suggestions. Nigel Beale, in his customarily overbearing way, foisted a mammoth list onto Thwaite via RSB's comments section, a list which wasn't so much a response to Thwaite's query as a tangentially-related data dump of names and titles. (Beale's list is about criticism tout court, not the history of the novel, so lobbing it at Thwaite is like throwing a phonebook at someone who asked for a list of people to invite to a party.)

Consisting of, if I counted correctly, 119 different authors and around 150 individual works, I'm not really sure who this helps, or why it's more helpful than telling someone to buy this book and this book and this book. Beale's list is just a hodge-podge with little apparent judgment: you have one essay by T.S. Eliot but three books by James Wood. You also have a number of embarrassing spelling errors, like "Garrick Davis (Ed.) Raising it New The Best of New Criticism," which should be "Praising It New" and Joseph "Brodskey." This strange mixture of haste and (attempted) exhaustiveness fatally undermines its ability to help a curious reader—you'd be much better off ignoring it and searching for a better curated list.

But what am I bothering for? The point of Beale's list wasn't actually about giving curious readers an idea of what criticism they should read. He calls it "Nigel Beale's Comprehensive Literary Criticism Reading List," but it certainly isn't about comprehending anything. It's about a) linkbait for Beale and b) stuffing a lot of names at the reader and letting them sort out the redundancies, the irrelevancies, the errors, and the bores, all the while settling into a smug position that allows him to pose as an authority. Anyone can be this kind of authority—all it takes is a superficial scan of a few tables of contents and the keyboard commands "copy" and "paste."

D.G. Myers also threw a list at Thwaite. His actually seems to have understood the purpose of Thwaite's question, but it is still too cumbersome to be of much use except maybe for someone preparing for orals in grad school. A lot of it is just redundant—critics writing from the same basic milieu with the same basic background of general belle-letristic humanism covering the same set of books. If you're actually interested in more than one tradition of criticism, you might try this set of reading lists that UCLA put together: most lists have criticism as well as primary texts, but the list called simply "Novel" has a very good selection which may be useful in Thwaite's endeavor. Unfortunately, these are also merely lists—just more raw data. They are better data, though.

More generally, however, I'd like to consider what seems to be the consensus view of the purpose and role of lit-blogs, a consensus which I think is exemplified in some way by these lists, but which is readily apparent in nearly every lit-blog's day-to-day operation, including in mine.

It seems to me that lit-blogs are a lot like the Beale and Myers lists: not very concerned about context or redundancy or even error or irrelevance. Those concerns are for the most part outsourced to the reader; it is the reader's responsibility to get something out of a lit-blog.

What the lit-blog is there for is to take part of a great accumulation of choice, a continual aggregation of choice—each entry offering to the potential reader an option for the next book to read or buy or think about. This isn't very different from a book review section—no wonder, since it is the book review sections which the most trafficked lit-blogs seem to emulate and hope to displace or supplement.

The other model for lit-blogs—particularly the less-trafficked ones—is the commonplace book. These blogs prize the epiphanic, the aleatory, the fragmentary, the slow stumble through literature. Again, their purpose is simple aggregation, though in this case it is two-sided. The purpose behind its writing is aggregation-as-retention—the ability to store the ephemeral. The purpose behind its publishing is, like the purpose of the book review-type blogs, the aggregation of choice—the potential reader's choice. The blog acts as a Choose Your Own Adventure of Reading—follow any path, read any book I cover on my blog. How these adventures become anything more than adventitious is totally up to the reader.

Lit-blogs of all kinds are there simply to bring books to the reader's attention; contextualization is a sometimes necessary part of this, but it is a process always subordinated to the simple act of flagging a book as noteworthy. The Beale/Myers lists are good if excessive examples of this prerogative: if the lists were truly meant to educate or inform, I think they'd be both more selective and more descriptive. Shopping lists don't inform, but they do make the shopper aware of his choices, and this is often all that lit-blogs ever do.

Even the efforts of many bloggers to educate and inform more people about literature-in-translation comes off most often as simple cheerleading; noble as its purpose may be, it is advanced primarily through the same kinds of methods that book sections use to cover the newest Pynchon or Roth—reporting on hype and the publishing apparatus as much as or more than demonstrating why the book or author is enjoyable/challenging/worthwhile. "It's worthwhile because it's being covered by us" often seems to be the implicit message, as it is for so much of the newspaper and journal book criticism. Again, the point seems to be attention, not understanding, and the point of attention is the creation of choice—once you've been alerted to something's existence, you can look for it, read it, and move to the next work the blogosphere has flagged for your notice.

The benefits of this system are obvious to a lit-blogger: you really do think the books you flag are worthy of attention and/or are probably being neglected. The variety of interests and tastes within the lit-blogging community truly creates a much broader field of books getting attention, a goal which book-lovers generally approve of. And there is usually enough consensus (which we like to call dialogue) about which books should get the most attention (Bolaño, James Wood, et al.) that it really seems like we're collectively broadening the horizons of our readers and bringing justice to the republic of letters. Our diversity makes it possible to create a massive field of choices, and our "discussions" make sure that this isn't total chaos. Everybody's happy.

This set of circumstances is not confined to the lit-blogosphere: as I've noted, in that the continual aggregation of choice is the purpose of lit-blogs, it is modeled on newspaper book review sections. Yet the same capacities that make the lit-blog such an excellent platform for exponential choice aggregation (the diversity of its members and the diversity of their interests, the ability to stage open-ended dialogues or discussions) make it seem to me that the lit-blog can do and should do a great deal more. Instead of just aggregating choice, we can aggregate real knowledge; instead of bald lists which give the reader lots of options which she must sort out, an actual attempt to create something which will help a reader understand how to go about ordering a set of names or titles, how to turn a reading list into knowledge.

In that spirit, I'd like to offer Mark and other interested parties a very rough attempt at providing not just names, but some contexts for their inclusion. I don't feel that I can claim any kind of authority on this, since there's a lot of criticism—including some of what I am about to recommend—that I haven't read, but I offer what I have, which is basically how I'm trying to tackle the question of the history of the novel.

It seems to me that one should sort of pursue two different paths simultaneously, as their complexities render truly synthetic analyses impossible in most cases. First, there should be a formalist path which would track the development and diffusion of novelistic forms—and here you would be reading things like D.A. Miller and Nancy Armstrong and Franco Moretti, Bakhtin, some narratologists like Todorov and Peter Brooks. Then, there would be a path that would focus on the communities that create/receive these forms, and here I'd recommend a lot of Marxists, since they have an obvious devotion to big syntheses which cover a lot of ground: Raymond Williams and Jameson and Lukács for sure, but also Lucien Goldmann. Cathy Davidson's Revolution and the Word would be a kind of model for this path from a non-Marxist background. In the way of a synthesis between these two paths, I would also say that the work of a number of postcolonialists like Bhabha and Saïd and of African-American scholars like Robert Stepto and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. would be excellent reading; they are able to bring these two paths together, as they analyze the adaptations the novel form takes as it is taken up by a new culture.

What I don't see much of a point in for this question is the kind of book that simply considers one author after another. D.H. Lawrence's Studies in American Literature, for example, is a fantastic book, but it's not really a book about the history of the novel in America: books like this are really more personality criticism than history—they seek to create a personality for the author or for the book, not an idea of its meaning in history or even its effects on later books. I think a lot of the criticism Myers and Beale recommended are of this type.

But really, what I'm doing right now (thanks to a reminder from a commenter on this blog) is just trying to knock off a couple of essays a week in Franco Moretti's 2 volume magnum opus The Novel. It's really, really good stuff. Moretti is an incredible editor, allowing many different types of analysis, history and criticism—much of which is very unlike his own work. I'm hoping to blog about some of it soon.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Passing, by Nella Larsen

Passing is an incredible novel—Larsen is a very fine, keen, acute observer and a very subtle writer. The first few chapters in particular are perfectly handled; the movements in time are exquisitely executed for maximum effect. Her characters are strongly drawn, made to appear complex with a great economy of action and gesture. Her minor characters are especially vivid—Brian Redfield, the husband of the protagonist Irene; Felise Freeland, a brilliant and glamorous Harlem writer; Hugh Wentworth, the explorer/writer who's "lived on the edges of nowehere in at least three continents." These are people you like to hear speak, an achievement which is more consequential in a novel like this—that is, one that relies on subtlety to create melodrama—than even the creation of a well-balanced and finely wrought plot.

The mechanism of the story is beautifully precise, though; the springs and levers of action and reaction work in total harmony. If the broad trajectory of the plot seems obvious, its suspense is deftly localized scene by scene. Clare Kendry, the woman who is passing in the book, is a triumphant creation: a figure that seems to act on everything she comes in contact with. She is a presence and a performance, and the drama of her passing is magnetic and elusive, overwrought and coy. She is the second great dreamer of the Jazz Age, comparable only to Gatsby.

I would, however, like to compare her instead to a character created a mere three years after Passing's release. I don't mean to suggest an actual causal or inspirational link, or even to suggest that Larsen and Siegel/Shuster were responding to the same cultural impulses or conditions, but I am sort of electrified by the graphical similarity of the names Clare Kendry and Clark Kent.

I probably would not have noticed this little triviality if I had not recently (finally) gotten around to reading Elif Batuman's excellent essay on graphic novels in the London Review of Books from last April. The essay is extraordinarily insightful on a very large number of points, but I was particularly interested in her analysis of the relation between the capacity of the superhero to attain and maintain dual identities (Clark Kent/Superman, etc.) and the desire for assimilation or at least the desire for less identity-related restrictions held by the mostly Jewish writers of superhero comics. More bluntly, she says "the story of the superhero’s double identity is actually the story of American Jewish assimilation." She does some exceedingly interesting things with this idea, taking us back to Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories for an earlier (though not too much earlier) version of a Jewish tale of schlemiehl/übermensch dual identities, and bringing us to the present, where many non-Jews, particularly many Asian Americans like Adrian Tomine, now take the tropes and patterns of the stories of Jewish assimilation as their templates for new works about their own (often frustrated) attempts to assimilate.

Batuman doesn't specifically identify "passing" as an issue in any of this, though she does point out via a series of parentheticals that most Jewish comic book writers dropped their Jewish surnames for more "American" versions. In Grace Paley's short story "The Contest," however, this practice and related practices are more directly characterized as attempts to pass for Gentiles: the titular contest is a newspaper competition to figure out the names and professions of a hundred Jews, using a picture and two descriptions to identify them. The narrator remarks, "What's the idea, though? To uncover the ones that've been passing?" This isn't the idea, but nonetheless it isn't beside the point: "Peering over her shoulder, I would sometimes discover a three-quarter view of a newsworthy Jew or a full view of a half Jew. The fraction did not interfere with the rules. They were glad to extract him and be proud."

Batuman's account of the development of dual identities as a narrative technique is very good—"As both mythical hero and romantic-novelistic hero, Superman occupies two mutually exclusive kinds of time." These two mutually exclusive kinds of time are crucial to the nearly infinite deferral of "real" temporality—aging, etc.—that allows a character or group of characters to persist through the decades in roughly the same shape.

Yet the lack of consideration to the role of passing in all of this deprives this account of its real force: the tension of these narratives is precisely founded on the drama of passing; it is only because of the persistence of this drama that the story line can extend so long without complete attenuation. It is only because Superman must continue to "pass" as Clark Kent, it is only the non-resolution of this dilemma that allows the character to continue in a single form without any franchise "reboots" or "restarts." The drama of passing is the equivalent of unresolved romantic/sexual tension (in fact, it is also romantic/sexual tension) in a sit-com like "Friends." Once Superman is able to reduce his identities to a single "true" identity, the franchise loses steam and needs a restart or a re-imagining. Yet this reduction is always the goal of the superhero; the ability to assimilate and drop the "passing" identity is, even more than any conflict with a supervillain, more even than any interior conflict, the ultimate resolution of the superhero story. The narrative hopes to resolve itself in a new world that accepts the superhero completely, that obviates the need to pass.

The ultimate resolution of narratives of racial passing is not, however, usually about obviating the need to pass. Such a hope is simply too utopian for a realist narrative, melodramatic as it may become. What replaces this hope is typically a resolution consisting of a limited revelation of the "true" identity to one or a few other people. In Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the narrator reveals the truth of his race to his white wife. In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk's death reveals to Zuckerman the truth of his background. This limited revelation is what the character hopes for and what the plot is constantly building toward, positioning the character incrementally in such a fashion that they achieve a situation where they can reveal their true identity to someone else. (This is a separate goal from what the novel hopes to achieve, which is, by the fact of publication, a general revelation. In this case, the novel and the story it tells diverge.)

Yet what is the "true" identity? Is it really about the fact that the character is of another race, or is it about the fact that the character has been "passing?" I think it is the latter—the character's primary identity, now revealed, is not that he is "black" but that he has been "passing." These identities are difficult to separate, but I think if we compare Larsen's novel to these other novels about "passing," we can see the distinction.

Clare Kendry does not try to keep her identities merged permanently; in fact, she selectively flaunts her interraciality, attending mixed-race parties in Harlem where she can display the ambiguity of her appearance to fullest effect. She does not attempt to avoid people who know her "secret;"in fact, she makes Irene a frequent accessory to her "passing." She surrounds herself with a racially open society that accepts her interraciality with little more than curiosity. The drama is not that she will be found out as a "passer" by society—she actively courts that. The danger of her actions is instead focused in the possibility that her virulently racist husband will find out that she is, indeed, a black woman.

In fact, the ultimate danger of her actions is that her black friends will come to see her as not interracial, but exclusively black; Irene's fears that her husband, who has professed to liking only darker women, will come to see Clare as a black woman— as dark enough—are what actually cause Clare's death. (I know the ending is ambiguous, but I think there's a clear enough weight to Irene's actions to establish my reading as valid.)

Let's contrast this with a more typical narrative of "passing," like Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, where the danger is not that individuals will see the narrator as a black man, but that society will find out that he is "passing." In fact, at the beginning of the story, when as a child he is unaware that he is black but the individuals around him—his teacher and classmates—are aware, he is still relatively free from the dangers that he faces when he begins "passing." (The narrator faces threats and hardships as he tries at first to achieve as a black man, but the narrative's tension derives exclusively from the constant possibility that he will be "found out" once he starts passing.)

So in a sense, I find that Clare Kendry is more like a superhero than she is like James Weldon Johnson's narrator. The superhero's vulnerability is rarely ever that society will discover that they are "passing;" the danger is that an individual will exploit the fact of their dual identity—threatening the ones they love or preventing them from operating freely. The fact that Batman or Spiderman or even Superman must have a separate existence—that some of the time, they are doing non-superhero things—is usually (I think) understood by the society they live in and by the villains they face. The peril is that this general knowledge will become specific knowledge—that their fluid alternate identity will be attached to a specific person with real attachments and direct consequences. Spiderman will be revealed not just as having a vague alternate identity, but as Peter Parker, and his aunt and Mary Jane will be targeted or threatened. The question "Who is Batman?" will be answered.

Nella Larsen's novel is, I think, a very interesting if surprising interlocutor for superhero comics. However—and in this exception lies Larsen's greatest triumph—unlike superhero comics, Larsen is able to make the question "Who is Clare Kendry?" ultimately unanswerable.

From Michael S. Harper, Dear John, Dear Coltrane

"Near Colorado"

The chestnut colt
appreciates the green;
never overwhelmed
by its scarcity,
the peaks are rigidly brown.
Occasional horses,
some lying down,
escape gully wind,
sound, and seep the sun
sorting their coats:
bitterness is no more than the weather.
The trucks linger on the summits
like cattle gasping in the distance;
you, a thousand miles westward,
are human, woman, sometimes mine.

"Crisis in the Midlands: St. Louis, Missouri"

Stymied in my leave-taking
I ponder the two vacant days
I have spent in this river town;
My first impression was its cold
Resemblance to Cleveland,
Where through crowded districts,
Blocks of empty lots crowd
The crowded into the old
Slave quarters.
Weary with its dankness,
The slow ebullient waters,
Bland, the pinched
Houses, abandoned
Flights from disaster, I harbour
That festered wound
Internal, and the silence
Of each poisoned day's burning.

"Lookout Point: USS San Francisco"

The gale winds
ripen the cheeks
which splice broken
blood vessels
and force the retreat
to their cars.
The idlers gaze
in agitation
taunting each bridge suicide
from his ecstatic perch:
and the idlers are many.
From Tiburon,
San Quentin,
from the plains
of our mutual despair;
their love is the hidden
displacement of fear,
and they ride, softly,
weaving in the wind
which drives each down
to the waters below.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike

john updikeLast year I began reading Rabbit, Run but somehow got sidetracked and didn't finish it.

Early on, in the novel, I ran across one of those beautiful Updike lines that seems to reach softly into the physical world even as it describes it (in this instance more spartanly than usual) on the page: "He now and then touches with his hand the rough bark of a tree or the dry twigs of a hedge, to give himself the small answer of a texture."

I have not read very much Updike, but it seems to me that quite often his work was seeking after "the small answer of a texture," and considering the meaning of that search, I think of Wordsworth, from his letter to a friend, describing the origin and meaning of his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality":
Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being... I used to brood over the stories of Enoch and Elijah, and almost to persuade myself that, whatever might become of others, I should be translated, in something of the same way, to heaven. With a feeling congenial to this, I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality.
I don't mean to get sappy or panegyric—if I felt more comfortable speaking to Updike's oeuvre, I'd make the connection to Wordsworth tighter and more substantial. As it stands, I just wished to bring two small passages together and consider their relation. It must be said, of course, that Updike's death leaves a void in American letters, one unlikely to be filled by any one—or two or three—people.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Castle Rackrent, by Maria Edgeworth

Or, How James Wood Can Get His Mojo Back
I think we can now call it: 2008 was the year the James Wood Bubble burst. How Fiction Works has largely been considered a massive overreach, and its claims have been roundly pilloried. His move to The New Yorker in late 2007 generated ill will among other critics and a lot of bloggers throughout 2008, and now everyone besides Mark Sarvas (who will likely follow Wood until Doomsday) seems to want to take at least a token whack at Wood even if, like me, they ultimately defend him as being (still) in some ways valuable.

I am perhaps over-apt to use the Obama ascension as a filter to view other cultural events, but I think there may be something in saying that Wood was a critic very well-suited to the Bush years. His emphases—the beauty of words well placed, keen attention to detail, a resistance to discontinuity, and an eagerness to unload the baggage of the 60s/70s/80s (in his case, that meant metafiction and hysterical realism)—these were powerful countering ideals to the deficiencies of the Bush administration and the Bush years. I am not sure we will be as receptive to Wood's ideals now that those deficiencies have been removed.

This is not to say, of course, that Wood's preëminence has evaporated, or that he will likely be usurped any time soon. He still has enormous power in determining the topics and basic positions of many literary discussions. The difference is, perhaps, that he no longer has much power in determining how people discuss him.

Edmond Caldwell's Contra James Wood blog has been prominent in essaying to uproot Wood root and branch; others simply want to demote him to a "book reviewer," stripping him of his title as a "literary critic." I don't know what the latter course of action would solve, and I'm not sure how a deforestation of Wood might really alter the critical landscape for the better. It seems at this point that Adam Kirsch is the designated crown prince, and I, for one, think that Wood is a much better option. Caldwell seems to believe that Wood's a neoconservative (correct me if I'm wrong, Edmond), but I don't think that's quite accurate. Kirsch, on the other hand...

The occasion for this post is supposed to be Castle Rackrent, by Maria Edgeworth. It's in the public domain, and is quite short and very fun, so reading it on the interwebs is quite easy and I suggest you do it.

Published in 1800, Castle Rackrent is an enormously crucial book in the history of the novel. If it didn't outright introduce the unreliable narrator to British/Irish fiction (as some claim), it certainly made that narrative technique sharper and more obviously a viable option for storytelling. It is also credited with being the first "regional" novel in English, as well as the first family chronicle. It also deals explicitly with a critical point in British-Irish relations: the Act of Union, which "united" Great Britain and Ireland, was passed the year Rackrent was published, and the book positioned itself (comically) as "tales of other times," now told "to those totally unacquainted with Ireland," being "for the information of the ignorant English reader." This is a set-up ripe for an ambitious post-colonial reading, but I'd like to focus on the narratological issues for now.

I'm going to look really stupid if I'm wrong, but I don't believe this novel has ever appeared in any of Wood's accounts of the development of narration, accounts which are often crucial to his reviews and certainly which are integral to his larger critical systemology, not to mention his taste. I don't know why he has neglected this (awfully good) novel. I don't think it's because he hasn't been able to justify a reference to it—he throws in basically any references he wants, reaching past the first rank of familiar authors basically at will. I think its absence is notable, and would considerably alter the narrative he's built. The fact that Edgeworth's novel precedes both Austen's novels (which Wood uses as the anchor for his history of free indirect discourse) and Büchner's Lenz (which he has taken to using lately as the anchor of his history of unreliable narration) suggests that the way we think of these narrative styles developing needs to be rethought.

However, I'm under no illusions that James Wood's going to read this post and slap his forehead and start revising How Fiction Works, or even that he'll ever see it. Bear with me, though, in pretending that he—or his editors—might.

I've already made my attempt to justify Wood's continued presence in our literary lives: I think he provides an extremely valuable middle term between academic criticism and simple book-chat. I think this is only valuable to some people—not to everyone—but his ability to "short-circuit" literary history in compelling ways is very useful to anyone who's trying to assemble a general map of literature's thru-ways and landmarks. Wood's short-circuits give the novice littérateur a lot of bang for her buck.

Of course, as we see with Castle Rackrent, Wood's condensing form of erudition leaves out some important material, even some that's not excessively obscure. It's not that I'm shocked to find a chink in Wood's reading or his recall of the novels he's read. Being faced with one, however, led me to think more generally about his limitations. I want to stay away from his ideological limitations (because I doubt they're likely to change) and just consider a simpler frustration.

Repetition. We've heard enough about Austen, Bellow, Svevo, Chekhov, and Flaubert. We've gotten the idea of free indirect discourse and unreliably unreliable narrators. We've probably even had enough of the essay form. (How Fiction Works was really just a series of essays interrupting or overlapping one another.)

Here's a few ideas for corrective courses, occasioned more or less by Castle Rackrent:
  • Write short columns or even blog posts at regular intervals about short books. People can follow along, perhaps, with each new book under consideration and interact with Wood. Wood has commented on blogs before (like Dan Green's), so he's likely amenable to the format. And the break from the full essay form would likely enliven Wood's writing. The beauty of blogging is you don't have to have an essay-length idea to say something worthwhile.
  • Wood's note that begins How Fiction Works—"I have used only the books I actually own—the books at hand in my study—to produce this little volume"—is its own recommendation. New books! Restock the shelves!
  • A new theme, but one that, like his "history" of narrative consciousness, uses some academic props. I have three suggestions, all based on what I find to be Wood's best work, especially of late.
  • My first suggested theme is a history of the family chronicle. Some of Wood's best essays concern this kind of book, and the issue of familial ties is clearly (as one can see in his novel, The Book Against God) an acute interest of his.
  • The second would be biographies. I think he reviews biographies more consistently than he reviews novels, and with less bluster about "lifeness." I think he's also clearer when reviewing biographies—as I said in that earlier post on him, he tends to use his metaphors competitively—setting them against one another but more often against the writer under review. Biographers tend to write flatter prose, and I think Wood indulges his competitive side less when examining them.
  • The third suggested theme is post-colonialism. I doubt my understanding of this phenomenon (or set of phenomena) lines up very extensively with Wood's, but I find his treatment of post-colonial novels (or novels to which he ascribes post-coloniality) to be more engaging and more thought-provoking than his reviews of American or British novelists. I also feel he could be quite useful in this vein—he could introduce a number of Commonwealth writers who haven't gotten as much attention in America. I would frankly be much more interested in hearing what he'd say about Aravind Adiga than I would be in hearing what he'd say about The Widows of Eastwick.
Whether he liked it or not, Wood made a name for himself taking on the literary lions. I think I remember reading when he moved to the New Yorker that he said he was glad to leave behind the New Republic's infamous controversy-factory, and that he was looking forward to being able to direct his talents toward promoting lesser-known authors. He's certainly done a good job making two new literary stars—Joseph O'Neill and Aleksandar Hemon—but I think he needs to do more than just look out for fresh talent. I'm not sure he will shake things up more than that this year, but I certainly hope he'll try.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Guardian's 1000 Books You Must Read

The Literary Saloon pointed me to this feature from The Guardian: 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read, an imperious title, but one slightly less ominous-sounding than "10001 Novels You Should Read Before You Die." (In Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, she writes that middle age is defined as the point you reach when you realize you'll never read the entirety of À la recherche du temps perdu, though I don't think that means that people who have read it never reach middle age. This may be something to investigate...)

At any rate, the Guardian list is broken up into a number of different categories: Love, Crime, Comedy, Family & Self, War & Travel, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and State of the Nation. Because those category pages are cumbersome to navigate, I have created a master-spreadsheet compiling all the category lists (Although there is a comprehensive list on the Guardian here, it's kind of jumbled and randomly inaccurate—for instance, they call Ralph Ellison's novel "The Invisible Man.") I've only been able to find 998 books, however—I don't know if I've somehow missed them or if they made an error compiling the list, but I come up two short both by looking through the individual pages and by taking the titles off the comprehensive list. If someone finds what I've missed please let me know.

A few thoughts—as this other spreadsheet makes clear, there is a heavy contemporary bias—to be expected, I suppose. But 110 novels from the 1990s?

Also, while I'm sure you'll find your own notable omissions (please leave comments below), a more puzzling aspect of the list is its inconsistency in choosing serieses as a whole or individual books from a series—usually in the case of individual books, selecting the first in the series. For instance, of the Gormenghast trilogy, they choose only Titus Groan, or for Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage, they choose only Pointed Roofs, yet they select the entirety of William Golding's To the Ends of the Earth trilogy and the entirety of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Chronicles. I fail to see any overall logic in their decisions.

Anyhow, enjoy browsing through the list!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ozick: Toward a Minor Literature

I have to be honest—I was hoping to grab a quick hook from Deleuze's work to hang a reading of Cynthia Ozick's Messiah of Stockholm from, but the damn thing's dauntingly rich. Please read the following as a very threadbare use of Deleuze which hopefully sparks some further thoughts on a couple of topics—Americans' relationship to Central European literature, for one, and how that relationship may model or resemble an American reader's relationships to various segments of American literature.

First, a few quotes from Milan Kundera about the literature of small European countries:
What distinguishes the small nations from the large is not the quantitative criterion of the number of their inhabitants; it is something deeper: for them their existence is not a self-evident certainty but always a question, a wager, a risk; they are on the defensive against History, that force is bigger than they, that does not take them into consideration, that does not even notice them...

There are as many Poles as there are Spaniards. But Spain is an old power whose existence has never been under threat, whereas History has taught the Poles what it means not to exist. Deprived of their State, they lived for over a century on death row...

The large nations [of Europe] resist the Goethean idea of "world literature" because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere... Small nations are reticent toward the large context [of world literature] for the exact opposite reasons: they hold world culture in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature.
In The Messiah of Stockholm, we overhear a little debate between Swedish book critics:
"This pond," Anders said. "This little pond of translators and chameleons. Swedish, the secret language. Who else knows it besides the Swedes? Who else runs to learn everyone else's language? The paralysis of Swedish identity. Pour the water, Lars."
"The Poles are just the same. The Czechs. The Hungarians. We're no worse off than anyone," Gunnar objected. "Why blame the Swedes?" [...]
"Half the population of Stockholm think they're French philosophers. And the other half"—Anders looked straight at Gunnar—"are circus barkers."
Ozick toys with Jewish identity in a number of interesting ways in this novel, without bringing Judaism itself ever into focus. In this exchange, the Swedes are implicitly positioned as the stereotype of Mitteleuropean Jews—hyper-literate to the point of being nationless, possessing a "secret language" which is kept secret by their eagerness to learn the languages of everyone else. The novel's protagonist, it should now be mentioned, believes himself to be a Polish Jew who was smuggled out of Poland before the German invasion and who has now taken a very Swedish name (Lars Andemining) and is for the most part passing. He also believes himself to be the son of the great Polish writer Bruno Schulz, who was shot during the German occupation. Lars is obsessed with Central European writers—Gombrowicz, Hrabal, Kiš, Konwicki, et al.—an interest which puts off most Swedes, who see this group as a welter of angst, surrealism, esotericism, and inscrutability—a kabbalistic crew. Lars's editor tells him, "your reviews are practically theology."

In other words, Ozick encourages the common (American?) tendency to Judaize Central European writers (whom most Americans even tend to call Eastern European, a vaguely Orientalizing error), an action which correlates with our tendency to see them all as Kafka variants. Ozick even plays a little bit on this, as one character tells Lars that Bruno Schulz is too little-known: "Why don't you pick Kafka to be the son of? Then people would have some recognition. They'd be impressed. They'd look around at you."

This in itself is interesting, but when we read it back through Kundera's definition of a small nation as one whose very existence is never assured, we come to think of the subliminally automatic Judaization of Central European writers as being a little more weighty in its carelessness. When we go on to read Kundera's critique of the provincialism of small nations—as being too reverent of "world literature"—as also referring to the ultra-cosmopolitan Jews of pre-WWII Vienna or Prague or Budapest, the questionable relationship between national identity, assimilation and mere survival is considerably sharpened. In other words, if we think of pre-WWII Central European Jews as having consituted one of Kundera's small nations, what does this say about how we tend to read them? What do we look for in them? Is what we look for precisely that pervasive threat of non-existence—the quality of small-nation-ness, and if so, what do we miss?

It is here that I would like to bring in Deleuze & Guattari and their notion of a "minor" literature. D&G (not Dolce & Gabbana, although I imagine Gilles and Felix would have been amused by the coincidence) start their definition of a minor literature by saying, "A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language." This is one reason why Kafka is their exemplar—he did not write in Czech, though he lived in Prague, but in German. However, I think this definition is applicable over not just the set of natural languages, but on a number of different, more metaphorical levels—in our case, thinking of the literature of small (Mitteleuropean) nations being written in the "large-nation" language of pan-European history and culture, but spoken from a minority's position.

This page contains a fairly good summary of the key characteristics of the Deleuzian concept of minor literature, so you can read that if you wish to get a fuller idea of the term, but I want to condense things to the three points to Deleuze's definition: deterritorialization, politicization, collectivization, and I want to highlight one quote they take from D&G: "minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature." (my emphasis)

There are obviously massive subtleties to those three points which I do not have time to get into, not to mention the problematics of what revolution means or is, but I want to start thinking about how formation of these revolutionary conditions is resisted by attempts to deny the applicability of these three points—both by the major literature which hosts the minor literature and by the practitioners of the minor literature itself. That is, what strategies are employed to prevent a minor literature from cropping up, or what strategies are employed to deny a minor literature its revolutionary potential—how are its deterritorializations, its politicizations, its collectivizations curtailed or redirected?

To a certain extent, I think in the case of the "small nation" of Central European Jews (and a fortiori the nations of Central Europe themselves), this is achieved by overloading or overdetermining the deterritorializations, politicizations and collectivizations of this literature. By reading essentially everything as if it is Kafka (or Kafkaesque) and overemphasizing its excessively deterritorialized nature (everything is parabolic), its excessively political nature (everything is a critique of fascism and communism), we are already at the point where every narrative articulates a collective story, a single story which resonates within every individual work. I think Ozick's novel is largely about this process of overdetermination, and seems to advocate for a disenchantment from this uniformity, and a reconnection to a vital literature on other terms.

The conspicuous non-Americanness of this story, however, also begs some questions relating to the position of Jewish writers in this country. I think the history of Jewish-American literature is particularly rich ground for the kind of inquiry I have described&mdsh;taking the definition of a "minor" literature and thinking through how a given literature is prevented from fulfilling that definition, from becoming revolutionary. How does the reterritorialization of Jewish-American literature as being (stereotypically) a literature of New York work to dilute its possibilities as a radical critique of "mainstream" American literature? How do writers like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth act to depoliticize and decollectivize the idea of Jewish-American literature? etc.

Deleuze & Guattari themselves make a comparison between Prague Jews and black Americans: "Prague German is a deterritorialized language, appropriate for strange and minor uses. (This can be compared in another context to what blacks in America today are able to do with the English language.)" I think there is a great deal of work to be done considering how various potentially "minor" literatures are kept from reaching their revolutionary potential.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fun with Obamicon Tool

All of these are fairly obvious jokes, but I was amused by the tool. The last one's me—call it my ironic statement on the dangers of identifying too much with Obama.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Messiah of Stockholm, by Cynthia Ozick

A number of the blurbs used to praise this novel refer to its "puzzle"-like nature. Ozick herself is praised as a "magician... a literary alchemist." I know it's just promo copy, but can we agree that these words are by now dead arrows in the critic's quiver, blunted with massive over-use and near constant misuse? I, for one, am tired of reading critics' reviews that make every book that isn't a straight-up lyrical-realist work sound like it's by Borges and García Márquez (maybe "García Bórguez?").

Look, I understand reviewing makes use of a lot of shortcuts that try to establish a code which basically clues the reader into whether they will like it or not. "I like Borges and I like García Márquez, and this sounds like it's a bit of a mindfuck with magical realist elements—okay, I'll buy it." And I mean, who doesn't like García Bórguez?

But we can try a little harder, can't we? Most of the time, when the word "puzzle" is used in a review of a "serious" literary work, it just means that there are things in the plot that are withheld from you-the-reader, and you are encouraged to ponder these plot-related things while reading. But that doesn't mean it's a puzzle—not even in the more metaphorical sense that is willfully applied to Borges. And "magic" and "alchemy" and their various inflections and accoutrements are even more overused in critical parlance—do they really mean anything more than "It's imaginative, and I'm not sure everything that happens is strictly realistic"?

The critical eagerness to slot a novel in quickly with other popular works ("Hey, Auster goes right next to Borges—bet you'd like him!") is just part of the problem, however. In his review of the re-release of Trilling's Liberal Imagination, Louis Menand talked about the age of "heroic criticism," meaning the age when critics used their interpretations of both new novels and old classics as battlegrounds for highly politicized ideological debates. I think there's another, more stubbornly juvenile idea of "heroic criticism," one that's probably more like the ideas someone has as they set out to be a critic—a motivation not really much different from other journalists—the desire to 'scoop' the competition, to get the exclusive.

I think the over-use of "puzzle" is part of a wish-fulfillment mechanism among critics: the critic is at her most powerful if she can claim an exclusive key to a "code" locked within the enigmas of a book. Or, short of that, if she can discern the outlines of a code in the complex turns of a story, then she's a really necessary part of the reading process, a very important person, even if she can't solve the code herself. So labelling any novel that withholds basic plot information from the reader a puzzle is just a way of stressing how good the critic is at reading and how exclusively important she is to the reader.

("Magic" and "alchemy," with their hints of esotericism, really serve a similar, although somewhat diluted purpose, don't they?—to stress the critic's ability to identify the "magic" being used—even if they can't reveal the trick, they've seen them all.)

Partly, I think this desire comes from too many people reading the "guides" to Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow and getting too enamoured of the idea of the critic as a hierophantic decipherer of arcana. Not all books are like Ulysses, not all writers are like Pynchon, but those writers hold such promise to critics because they hold out the prospect of "exclusive" insights into a writer's subterranean meanings.

Also, I think it's because, deep-down, every critic's greatest dream is to "figure out" a novel by pulling one of those gestalt shift-type things where everybody looks at a novel one way (it's a rabbit), but you look at it a totally different way (it's a duck!) and it still makes perfect sense and everyone thinks you're the greatest. (Edmund Wilson pulled this off by introducing the very helpful idea that all the ooga-booga goings-on in "The Turn of the Screw" were in the governess's head. Up 'til he said that, I believe everyone read it as a straight ghost-story.) Getting the scoop on what the "real" story is—that's good journalism! I don't know how great it is as criticism, though.

I had meant to write a post on The Messiah of Stockholm and its relation to Deleuze's idea of "minor literature" as well as some things Milan Kundera said about the novels of small countries in The Curtain. Obviously, I got sidetracked. I still think the Ozick/Deleuze/Kundera mash-up's a good idea, so I'll try to get to that soon as well.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander and the Inauguration

I posted two poems from Elizabeth Alexander's The Venus Hottentot about a week ago, but wanted to wait to write about her work until we got closer to the Inauguration, where she will be reading a poem written for the occasion. I also wanted to read some more of her poetry and some of the essays in her book The Black Interior.

Part of what I want to say is simply that I am extremely pleased by Obama's selection of Alexander to be the Inaugural poet. I like her poetry very much, but even more than that, I think she is an incredibly appropriate choice. One of the major themes of her work is the creation of a poetic history of black men and women in the public eye, a concern which is obviously extremely relevant to this Presidency and to the ritual of the Inauguration this year.

Alexander's poetry examines the various public positions that blacks have occupied—there is the object of sheer voyeurism (the "Hottentot Venus," Saartije Baartman [wikipedia], about whom Suzan-Lori Parks also wrote an amazing play, Venus), the artist-as-surrogate-sufferer (John Coltrane [pdf]), the leader-as-symbol (Nelson Mandela [pdf]), and the figures in a photograph as a communal memory or a memory of a community (in "Van Der Zee," which I posted earlier). In The Black Interior, Alexander also considers the art of Romare Bearden and the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and the different ways each artist depicts the act of viewing black lives and living spaces. She also has an essay about Denzel Washington, and one about Jet magazine, each thinking about how blacks are portrayed in popular culture. Perhaps the best essay in the book is about Langston Hughes's role as an anthologist, trying both to bring African voices to (white) American audiences for the first time and to create a sense of the context and history of black American poetry that would supplement the usually exclusively white or patronizingly segregated anthologies of American poetry from the Louis Untermeyer days.

I am excited to see what Alexander will say in her Inaugural poem—so excited, in fact, that only today did I realize that I would get to hear a new speech from Obama as well on Tuesday. I will try to post on the poem Alexander reads when it is made available. Until then, enjoy the poetry at her webpage!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Jonathan Franzen, Monasticism and Lit-Blogs

In part of an interview on the Fifth Estate website, Jonathan Franzen talks about how he has adapted his youthful ambitions to something else:
As for my own ambitions for the novel nowadays, I make fun of the ambitions I had when I was 22 and thinking, I will write the book that unmasks the terrible world, I will cause the scales to fall from the public’s eyes, and they will see how stupid the local news at 11 is, and they will realize how cliché-riddled the pages of their local newspaper are and how corrupt their elected officials are. And they won’t stand for it any more. Exactly what kind of utopia I thought would ensue was never clear.

In the 1980s, I think what I was really reacting to was my sense of isolation and loneliness and having this body of perceptions that I didn’t feel was widely shared. I was so young that I actually thought I was the only one with this particular body of perceptions. My enemy was everybody and my allies were nobody. I think the difference now is that I recognize that there’s a small but non-zero segment of the population that feels and thinks in all of those literary ways, and that my task is to reach them and to participate in the life of that segment of the population. This is what I’m writing for, for the people who want a literary experience. I’m no longer worried that nobody besides me can have that kind of experience, but I’m also not imagining that, in any conceivable twist of history, everybody will want that kind of experience. So it’s a weird and possibly selfish-seeming form of communitarianism: I’ve ceased to care much, as a writer, about people who don’t care about books. And the world of readers is thankfully still not tiny. We may lose a little more ground each year, but we’re still creating new readers who are excited about good stuff.
Franzen's turn to address this "non-zero segment" as his primary (and perhaps exclusive) audience mirrors a sentiment I've found on a number of blogs but articulated particularly eloquently by D.G. Myers. Myers, thinking about the reasons there are for for blogging (and particularly blogging about literature), also talks about the redeeming force of the mere fact that there is a non-empty set of readers who deeply love literature and are eager to have powerful encounters with it. In his words, "there is an underground of book lovers in this country who read every chance they get, who do not wholly trust their own judgment, who would follow a book discussion to the promised end if they only could."

I find the tone of both Myers's post and Franzen's comments extremely interesting; they both treat this realization that there are true book-lovers in almost revelatory tones, they both stress the modest nature of this revelation and this new-found community, and they both seem to feel that this modesty gives them a stronger and more stable reason for carrying out their work.

I find it somehow counter-intuitive that technologies which make instantaneous global publishing possible have encouraged the development of what must be considered a relatively monastic attitude—a twinned belief that a vanguard of scholar-devotees can preserve both knowledge of and passion for literature in a dark time and that this vanguard is its own best and only audience.

I'm not trying to criticize here, merely to consider how this came about, how the possibilities brought about by the internet have led to the development of this attitude in many notable quarters, and how inevitable such a development was. And finally, to ask whether this technologically-facilitated monasticism will increase over time, or whether there will be a sort of humanist reaction, and if so, how long until that comes about.

Joseph Kugelmass had a striking post a few days ago which seems to me to take a strong and practical position against the sort of intentional cloistering which Franzen advocates. Kugelmass's reading of the situation is, as ever, direct, pointed and convincing. Kugelmass talks about his decision to turn his attention to blogging for Pop Matters, a large website which publishes essays that "draw on sophisticated interpretive strategies derived from a theoretically informed point of view but will be presented for a general reader in lively, accessible language," and which covers an extremely eclectic range of pop culture topics. Pointing to Pop Matters as an example of the kind of cultural criticism that should be done while taking advantage of the increased opportunities afforded by blogging, Joe argues very cogently that academic blogging has become a sort of collaborative, self-pitying David Lodge book:
Furthermore, given the current situation, the democratic ideas behind academic blogging (of bringing conversations usually restricted to campuses to the wide world of the Internet) has perhaps only helped prop up the other, worser idea that what we in the humanities do ought to be done for free, since it’s just book hobbyism if it isn’t serious, bare-bones instruction in writing.
In citing all these different voices, I have raised more questions than I can answer, and more even than I want to answer at this point. I've probably bent the nuances of Kugelmass's position and the positions taken by Myers and Franzen in order to oppose them to one another, but I think that anybody who writes about literature seriously is faced with these two opposing options—to find or build an "underground" community of devoted readers that is self-sufficient in terms of consumption and production, or to pursue an audience intermittent in its devotion and irregular in its consumption, to engage popular culture and insist that this work is neither personal in its motivation nor limited in its audience. Most of us, I think, shift in our self-justifications and our practice between the two, and I, for one, can't say where I fall at the moment, or where I'm likely to fall as I read more in both theory and fiction.

I am very excited to see what kind of criticism Joe produces at Pop Matters, and I'm eager to start taking a look at its archives and features. Are there any other sites with similar intents and projects that I should look into?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

From Rita Dove, Thomas and Beulah

"Sunday Greens"

She wants to hear
wine pouring.
She wants to taste
change. She wants
pride to roar through
the kitchen till it shines
like straw, she wants

lean to replace
tradition. Ham knocks
in the pot, nothing
but bones, each
with its bracelet
of flesh.

The house stinks
like a zoo in summer,
while upstairs
her man sleeps on.
Robe slung over
her arm and
the cradled hymnal,

she pauses, remembers
her mother in a slip
lost in blues,
and those collards,

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

American Primitive, by Mary Oliver

I posted what I think was the volume's best poem, the simply named "Cold Poem," a couple of days ago. I suppose I liked it because it seems to me the least like a "nature poem," although it is uses natural metaphors to speak to humanity.

Let me just lay my cards on the table. I didn't enjoy the bulk of this slim volume and I'm afraid I may just dislike "nature poetry" or "nature writing"—I think trying to read Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek gave me a cold. Now, I am very aware that this is a very meager sample and that there is a range of styles and approaches to writing about nature. I am not trying to write off the whole kittencaboodle. (Actually, come to think of it, I really do like Robinson Jeffers and those poems of Robert Hass's which could be considered nature poems). I just really don't like most of what I read in American Primitive. It doesn't speak to any experience of nature I've ever had, and to be honest, I found a lot of it silly.

These are, for me, the characteristics of most of the poems in American Primitive:
  • a drowsy, unaroused sensuousness
  • a bland, sober, stale, becalmed sort of mysticism that only just flowers past austerity and seems ignorant of intoxication
  • catalogues like none Whitman ever wrote or wanted to write, lacking dynamics—one could almost substitute a grocery list from a farmer's market and achieve similar results
  • an indifference to duality or to opposition—one particular thing that irritated me was the way that fire and water are characterized almost interchangeably throughout the volume—both are gentle, flowing things that cover up or fill nature benignantly ("They poured / like fire over the minnows, / they fell back through the waves / like messengers / filled with good news" - "Bluefish")
  • the belief that description of nature constitutes a state of wonder, that artistic wonder is effectively bought for the same price as natural wonder and requires no extra effort
  • a strange belief in a sort of conservation of matter, where nothing natural and beautiful is ever truly lost ("you float into and swallow the dripping combs, / bits of the tree, crushed bees — a taste / composed of everything lost, in which everything / lost is found." - "Honey at the Table")
I object to some of these things because they're a little boring, repetitive, slack. But others it seems to me are just plain quietistic in the face of rampant environmental degradation—I mean Oliver Goldsmith puts up more of a fight for nature!

Mary Oliver's love of nature seems limited to appreciating the fact that she sees it, which doesn't really require anything more of the world, the reader or herself than that nature be preserved in at least a few places where we can take pleasant walks. This form of appreciation can also be done almost as easily in retrospect as in action, so there's barely any motivation to preserve even that. These lines come late in the book and seem to be a sort of creed:
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
This is the basic sentiment embodied in her poem "John Chapman," about Johnny Appleseed: "you do / what you can if you can; whatever // the secret, and the pain // there's a decision: to die, / or to live, to go on / caring about something." I'm reminded of Eisenhower's famously ambivalent statement, "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious belief – and I don’t care what it is." (For a good evisceration of that religious principle applied to literature, read James Wood's review of Updike's "Complacent God" in The Broken Estate.)

I find this whatever-ethic artistically deficient in the general case, but unacceptable in the case of nature poetry or poetry which calls on nature for its subject or its inspiration. Deriving beauty from specifics, from individual moments and individual organisms or individual geological structures has long been the energizing force for poetry about the natural world, and the ethical generalities Oliver submits herself to are deeply at odds with the ontological specifics necessary for this powerful poetry, the individual herons and moles and snakes which she nevertheless tries to invoke. A nature poet to be artistically effective must, I deeply believe, be ethically committed in concrete, specific ways to nature and to express that through her poetry, or else the poetry is meaningless. If there is enough meaning to individual organisms to use them poetically, there must be enough meaning to make a political claim for their protection. If not, I'm not sure why you're writing about them.

"Cold Poem" is a little different. There is an acknowledgement of the price of life—the death of others ("we grow cruel but honest; we keep / ourselves alive, / if we can, taking one after another / the necessary bodies of others, the many / crushed red flowers")—and consequently there is also an implied acknowledgement of the ethical entanglements this situation yields. There is also a poetic concreteness to this understanding—the shark and seals (which stood out to me for obvious reasons—I am fond of my Seal namesakes) and the crushed red flowers. These images take their power from the fact that they exist in the poem not merely as metaphors (generalized, interchangeable with any other apposite image) but as synechdoches—the part for a whole. They do stand for something concrete, even as they also stand for something abstract, general.

The poem treats these acknowledgements and perhaps this concreteness as seasonal occurrences, coming on with the winter, the cold. The problem is, Oliver is not in this season very often; she is, I suppose, rarely cold enough.

The 2009 Tournament of Books & n+1 Book Review Issue One

The Morning News Tournament of Books is always my most anticipated literary event of each year, and the 2009 edition has just started.

If you're unfamiliar with it, the Tournament is an NCAA March Madness-like bracket with 16 books seeded according to their critical acclaim, more or less. The books in the bracket for this year have been announced, and later we'll get judges and seedings. Judges determine the winner of each match-up, proceeding until the championship round, when all the judges weigh in on the final match-up. It's a system built for a little frustration, some surprises, and plenty of attention paid to each book. The Morning News does a very good job picking both judges and books, and they end the Tournament by giving a rooster to the winner.

Follow along; I'm thinking of ways to do a little bit of bracketology before the Tournament actually begins. [Edit 2/21: Here it is!]

Also: The first issue of n+1's new project is out: N1BR Issue One.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Impertinent Question

Why would a journal that does not accept submissions by email (and in fact makes that known with a big red subhead that ends with the ominous "THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS.") have a facebook page?

I mean, either you're new-media-friendly (is email even new-media? maybe it's old-new-media) or you're not—I don't understand the inconsistency. This isn't a big deal, but just a little confusing.

Off-topic: I'm very sad to hear about the death of philosopher Arne Næss, whose book Ecology, Community and Lifestyle I've really been meaning to read.

One thing about Næss that you can't say about most philosophers: he was for a time the uncle-in-law of Diana Ross—as in The Supremes' Diana Ross.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Little Disturbances of Man, by Grace Paley

On the front cover of Little Disturbances of Man is a blurb from Philip Roth, who was one of Paley's first reviewers and likely secured for her an audience.

The blurb reads, "Splendidly comic and unladylike." Little Disturbances is, I think, less ladylike than her second collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, because it is more intentionally comic, more antic, more Catskill or vaudeville. It's also considerably younger, although Enormous Changes is more youthful, if that makes sense. Little Disturbances of Man seems to me to be about the way that life closes in on you early, while I remember feeling that many of the stories in Enormous Changes offered the hope of lives opening out again after youth has passed.

Of course, this development is not so surprising—this is, in some ways, the story of Paley's life. But what I mean to do by stressing a sort of opposition between the two collections is to question why these things go together, why a more comic, less "ladylike," younger sensibility produces stories about the constrictions of life, while a lesser emphasis on the comic (though Enormous Changes is still very funny) correlates with a sensibility that is more strongly a woman's and more open to seeing the moments that life's constrictions loosen a bit.

Some of the answers are obvious, but I'm not confident I can get beyond those quick, blatant answers. There's the rather ambivalent issue of maturity, which can be seen perhaps as a method of coping with life's disappointments by being able to recognize and appreciate the moments of freedom and possibility thrown one's way. Of course, maturity is also frequently seen as a coarsening, a disenchantment. I suppose I am interested in whether these two ideas of maturity aren't gendered to some extent, or whether their divergence arises from something else. Is it youth that looks at maturity as a state of worldly-wise disenchantment, and if so, how long does one hold to this view? When does one become mature enough to see maturity as something more than pessimistic detachment? Or do I have things backward?

I hate rhetorical questions, especially on blogs. It's a fairly lazy writing style, I think, so I'll stop now while I'm behind. But I am very interested in how youth/age and gender intertwine in writing, especially with regards to comedy or "comic" writing. Paley is an interesting figure to try this question out on, I suppose.

But as for the book, well, I love Grace Paley's work. I did like Enormous Changes better, as I felt that Little Disturbances was more a collection of writer's stories, whereas Enormous is a collection of people's stories. Little Disturbances is fantastic, but it feels as if Paley is always extracting her characters' dialogue from people she knew, dialogue and maybe situations which she would assemble into the stories she wanted to tell, which she fabricated. There is much more of a sense of the reverse process going on in Enormous Changes, of Paley finding whole-cloth stories and then translating them into her own idiom. Little Disturbances, for this reason, reads a little more jaggedly, as the jumble of registers which Paley has seemingly transcribed gets applied to her characters with some occasional mismatches or with slight inconsistencies, as if the sources were misattributed. This scrap barrel feel is wonderfully energetic, however, and a lot of fun to read. I particularly liked "The Loudest Voice" and "The Contest."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

From Mary Oliver, American Primitive

"Cold Poem"

Cold now.
Close to the edge. Almost
unbearable. Clouds
bunch up and boil down
from the north of the white bear.
This tree-splitting morning
I dream of his fat tracks,
the lifesaving suet.

I think of summer with its luminous fruit,
blossoms rounding to berries, leaves,
handfuls of grain.

Maybe what cold is, is the time
we measure the love we have always had, secretly,
for our own bones, the hard knife-edged love
for the warm river of the I, beyond all else; maybe

that is what it means, the beauty
of the blue shark cruising toward the tumbling seals.

In the season of snow,
in the immeasurable cold,
we grow cruel but honest; we keep
ourselves alive,
if we can, taking one after another
the necessary bodies of others, the many
crushed red flowers.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Two Poems by Elizabeth Alexander from "The Venus Hottentot"

"Van Der Zee" (1886 - 1983)

I say your name: James Van Der Zee
for dancing girls and barbershops
when names were names. That was a time.

From Dutch your name is "by the sea."
A boy in endless Lenox snow
you're open-eyed, lean as the trees.

Waiter and elevator jobs.
Your cigar fingers, rolled-up sleeves,
the sent-away-for photo kit:

Those brownstone textures, marcelled hair,
iron faces, gathered drapery,
smooth foreheads, porcelain basins,

hoary beards, brocaded chairs.
Brown knees and calves in smooth nylons,
straw flower baskets, blacksmith's flames.

Father Divine or Daddy Grace
the blind will see        the lame will walk
Garvey's white plumes and epaulets.

Big Jack Johnson. Bojangles.
Sunshine Sammy. Harlem "Y.M."
Somebody's boy scout son salutes,

a brownskin time-steps. Funerals,
babies. The New York Black Yankees.
"Hey! It's the picture-takin' man!"

Black stories in brown photographs—
You're drinking ginger ale and Scotch.


I notice older women have better penmanship
than I do. Smooth and even, free from stray hairs,
readable, learned by copying lessons onto
wide-ruled paper in marbleized notebooks, the product
of discipline, of knowing what was expected
and then doing it. I would have done it too, then.

My blue cursive crazes the white letter paper.
"I cannot read you!" friends shriek back, in neater
hand as intimate as pica or block-print.
In grade school I painted wild-eyed art class sunsets
with tempera colors absent from nature, finger paints.
One bold boyfriend returned typed letters to sender.

Long before teacher-training school, Grandmother's friends
made miles and miles of ms with camel-humps that
grazed the middle, dotted line, humps swelled with plenty
of water to go across deserts and deserts
of vast first halves of alphabets, each uppercase q
a perfect, backward 2. Commas swam off the page.

A favorite teacher's purple curlicues startle
my essays with snarled lines and no Rosetta stone.
I'm trying to neaten up my hand, my open-
classroom, flower-power hand. Am I creeping in
from the margins? Am I now current, legible,
when gold-foil stars, are not enough, nor penmanship?

A great post on James Van Der Zee can be found here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bellow and "Monstrosity"

I'm really glad to see a reprint of one of Bellow's novels getting a review in the LA Times, and, what's more, a fairly meaty review, not just a notice. But while I appreciate the effort, I have to dissent from the results. I think the review repeats a very grave error when considering Bellow's work, one which I think deprives the reader of a richer experience with Bellow, making reading him even more of an intellectual (and sometimes emotional) struggle than doing so already is.

Let me say first that I mean struggle in a good way—Bellow is my favorite author because I have to become so much just to keep up with him, I have to go out and read a lot more to stay with him intellectually (consider this belated realization, which made a striking passage in Herzog richer), but most of all, I have to stop myself from ignoring so much about Bellow that I don't like, from trying to write those things off or minimize their importance. I have to remind myself constantly that Bellow isn't a salvage project, that I'm not really doing him or me any good trying to turn him into a better person by focusing on how good a writer he is and calling the rest peripheral considerations.

The reviewer, Richard Rayner, relates that "[t]he critics Brent Staples and A.O. Scott once conducted an online debate in Slate, the theme of which was: Is Saul Bellow a monster? In the years since Bellow's death in 2005, the appropriateness, or relevance, of this question has receded. Does it really matter whether Bellow was a mean guy or not? What remains is the luminousness of the writing." The subhead puts the point more piquantly: "Was Bellow a nice person? Why should it matter next to a funny, luminous story like this one?"

Rayner suggests that the discussion of Bellow's faults has been limited to what Staples calls Bellow's "cannibalism"—"the extent to which Bellow uses people--including five wives, his childhood friends, and his academic colleagues--as 'material' for his novels," and which Scott refers to as vampirism. This is not quite true. Alfred Kazin, among others, deplored Bellow's misogyny in his novels and Staples, both in the discussion with Scott and elsewhere (in the Times, I think), lashed out at Bellow for his racist portrayals of black men, particularly in Mr. Sammler's Planet. Then there's Bellow's famous line dismissing non-Western cultures ''Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?'' which was a really asinine question for a former anthropology major to ask (Bellow's degree was in anthropology and sociology at Northwestern).

The common move here would be to shift the question from "should these things be ignored?" to "can these things be ignored?" and then to go about proving the importance of these distasteful aspects of Bellow's persona to larger issues, themes or structures within his work. And this is, in fact, true—these aspects are integral in a variety of ways. Bellow's expressions of misogyny often force him into digressions from the plot (or, looked at another way, allow digressions from the plot), a tendency which we can see from the very simple fact that the less feminine presence a book has (Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King, The Victim), the tighter its plot, while in the books with greater feminine presence (Herzog, More Die of Heartbreak, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Ravelstein), the plots are more scattered and fragmented. There are other examples and rationales I can give for why these issues are crucial to understanding Bellow, not just in terms of ideology, but in terms of structure and aesthetic effect, but I'm hoping to write something more serious than a blog post about that topic at some point, so you'll have to wait for the sequel.

Even if we assume, however, that Bellow's nastiness can't be ignored, many people would see that as an academic judgment, a scholarly matter. I'd like to suggest that even those things which readers (including me) find pleasurable about Bellow—his humor and his lyrical descriptions of people and things—are often aggressive and occasionally mean, frequently pugilistic and occasionally repugnant. Read the one-liners Rayner pulls out of Humboldt's Gift, or the description he cites of Cantabile. These aren't genial quips or neutral depictions—they're highly charged, quite personally-directed, bellicose little word-clusters. This is Bellow, and one of the challenges of reading him is not about separating the funny invective from the mean invective, but coming to terms with Bellow as a whole person, or at least as a whole writer.

For what it's worth, I think Bellow is a fairly special case. I don't mean to make a general project of trying to understand every writer with intermittently odious aspects, or to suggest such a project. I think there's a lot we can understand by understanding Bellow, and he obviously still has massive influence over a host of writers, so we haven't stopped hearing from him. I love studying Bellow as much as I love reading Bellow, so I'm glad to know there's still a lot of work and reading to be done.