Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Little More on The Millions List

Edmond Caldwell of Contra James Wood plays the base to my superstructure in a post on what's really wrong with the list(s) The Millions have published: they're extremely corporate.
For starters, let’s not neglect the way that the list itself – and in fact the whole game of this and other literary lists – was “pre-judged” to begin with, and by an even bigger and more influential arbiter of taste and culture than writers, critics, editors, and academics: corporate sales and publicity departments.

Publishing is currently dominated by the “Big Six” media corporations: the Random House Group (owned by the Bertelsmann corporation), Simon & Schuster (owned by ViaCom), HarperCollins Harcourt (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation), the Penguin Group (Pearson), Macmillan (Holtzbrinck), and the Time-Warner Book Group. The readers polled by The Millions – whether the “pros” of the first panel or the Common Readers of the second panel – are making their judgments based on an array that has already been selected and set before them, largely by this corporate monopoly.

How largely? The Millions’ lists pretty much reflect the market share. Of the 30 titles represented on the two lists (20 titles in each list, with 10 overlapping), 27 are published by imprints belonging to 5 of the Big Six conglomerates, leaving a whopping 3 titles published by “independent” houses. In other words about 90% of the titles come from the corporate majors. That’s interesting, isn’t it? And here I thought the list was supposed to reflect “quality” and “taste”! If Andrew Seal is disturbed by the fact that 70% of the judges are young U.S.-based creative writers, what kind of response does this 90% figure merit?
Well, a bit of a shrug, honestly. I am no apologist for the continual consolidation of the publishing industry (or any other industry) under fewer and fewer (and more and more distant) corporations, but I don't find compelling Caldwell's implicit belief that quality (even in scare quotes) can be correlated to independence from those corporations. In short, I am not convinced that his attempt to move the conversation to a question of who owns the means of literary production does anything more than nudge us toward a severe reification of outsiderness, an anti-brand mandarinism. His approach, in fact, greatly simplifies the whole question of distinction (which he gets to later): it just makes that-which-cannot-be-corporatized into a new fetish object. Of course, there is nothing which cannot be corporatized, a problem which Caldwell acknowledges (noting the absorption of Sebald and Bolaño), though it apparently does not sway him from the opinion that the lack of independent titles on the list is the most egregious skewing possible.

Caldwell's insistence on looking at the corporations does, however, allow me to refine why I think it is important to focus on the writerliness of the books and judges chosen: writers, to a quite likely unsurpassed degree, have become the faces of the corporations who print them. Caldwell has always made very strong points about the domestication of writers through the marketing (and reviewing) process, and I think he makes some cogent points here.

But I believe that very few people (except those who fetishize independence from corporations) have something like brand-consciousness when it comes to books, though nearly everyone has a very active and even fairly sophisticated consciousness of writers, genres, and forms. A blurb by Junot Díaz or by Gary Shteyngart (two very frequent blurbers, in my experience) or a comparison to Bolaño or Nabokov will make a reader pause to contemplate a purchase in a way that, say, a Harper Perennial logo will not. The point of engagement for a critique, therefore, should be at the figure of the writer—how a consciousness of writers and of the relations between writers is formed, and even more, how writers' consciousness of other writers and of their relationships with other writers is formed.

Caldwell also takes a parting shot at my "fatalism," as I acceded to the inevitability of this type of lists by prefacing my critique with "If ordered lists like these must exist…" Well, I don't really see how I'm going to stop them. They have a manifest utility for a number of different types of readers: they make well-read people feel good, both by allowing them to sneer at them and by allowing them to note what a great percentage of the list they've read; they allow younger (or less well-read) readers to get a feel for which books to allocate their temporal resources toward; they allow readers with well-defined tastes to pick attention-grabbing fights; they allow readers with no well-defined tastes an opportunity to pick up one. These lists don't function as tools for generating a consensus which a critique can overturn or disrupt; they exist to attract a broad range of interests, many of which contradict one another.

Consider the post I put up awhile ago that links to a list of "100 Great American Novels You've (Probably) Never Read." Like nearly every other blogger, from time to time I check what people are searching for that leads them to my site. "Great American novels" or "greatest American novels" is generally among the top few search terms. And this is, I think, just because it's far more common to think in terms of that search string than to find out "what's good" by doing the tougher legwork of reading a lot of literary criticism and reading a lot of literature. Places like The Millions (or Time) aren't stupid: they know that lots of people search for variations on "100 best novels" or "best novels of the century/millennium/decade/year." This is Search Engine Optimization 101, which is another way of saying basic psychology.

So yeah, maybe I'm fatalistic. But I have my reasons.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Adorno Still Doesn't Like Jazz

I read a few of Theodor Adorno's essays on jazz and popular music last week for a class (I had to listen to Sketches of Spain a couple of times just to keep myself from punching something—Adorno's attitude toward jazz is infuriating), and my professor sent out a link to this page. Evidently*, two enterprising musicologists found out about a famous spiritualist who claims to be able to summon famous dead people; they decided they'd like to have a chat with Adorno, and contacted her to set up a (not quite) tête-a-tête.

Here's some of what was said:
When questioned about the state of North American popular music, “Adorno” replied that he decidedly disliked the increasing nudity because it wasn’t conducive to social change or deep intellectual discourse. Oddly, he seemed quite interested in Britney Spears' navel.
Adorno also dislikes free jazz, albeit he considers it a promising field.
His favorite record label is ECM.
When Dr. Alicea asked about Latin influences in Jazz, Adorno responded that as long as it was produced in Cuba it was good. When asked whether his opinion on the matter was tainted by political demagoguery, Mrs. Vicuta [the medium] let out a canine-like snarl.

* By evidently, I mean not really. This was an April Fool's joke by the hosting site (All About Jazz). But it was a good one, and worth posting.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Millions List: Judging the Judges

The Millions has collated a list of the "Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)" by asking "48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics" as well as their own contributors to submit a list of their picks.

As with most immediately-contemporary lists like this, it is difficult to tell where "favorite" ends and "best" begins—many of the individual responses belong somewhere in between. Actually, that's not entirely true. A number of the responses are purely, simply gushers.

The inclusions and placements of the list are not really worth quibbling about, and itemizing the good books that were left off is about as easy as falling off a log. I'm not really interested in specifics, because there's a much bigger issue which the list raises: if ordered lists like this must exist, to whom should we be listening to fill them?

First of all, I just want to point out that, of 56 total contributors, it looks like 39 are writers of either fiction or creative non-fiction, or about 70%. And the majority of those are at a fairly early point in their career. This list is heavily shaped by that ridiculous preponderance of a single class. There are only three regular newspaper or magazine book critics (one of whom is Laura Miller, who should count as about a -4. So we're down to -1 book critics). There are two publishers.

And there are solid reasons why these classes might be better judges of something like this exercise. For one thing, I imagine book critics and publishers have to read a lot more fiction than a writer does, simply by virtue of the fact that it is their job. Secondly, they probably read a lot more different kinds of fiction than a writer does, again, simply because they're required to. Personally, I'd be a lot more interested in what Janet Maslin (or the employees of, say, Riverhead Press) thinks are the best books of the past decade than what Yiyun Li liked. Maslin must read a ton and in all kinds of genres. I think her idea of what the fiction of the past ten years is like must be a lot richer and more comprehensive than the piecemeal reading that most of us (including writers) pursue.

Additionally, as far as I can tell, every single judge is U.S.-based, and if that is not the case, then it's pretty darn close. More significantly, perhaps, all or almost all have been educated in the U.S. People have already pointed to a lack of works-in-translation, but that's not a problem that's going to be remedied just by including a few more 'globally aware' Americans. And the reason for that isn't just that we should be seeing more non-Anglophone fiction on the list, but because it might be interesting to hear what Anglophone fiction interests people in non-Anglophone countries.

Thirdly, there are no professors of literature among the judges. There are teachers of creative writing, but nobody who is in the employ of the university to teach, research, and publish on literature. I am getting the feeling that the lit-blogosphere isn't the friendliest environment in which to make this argument, but profs might have something interesting to say about the contemporary novel, and some have even done extensive research on it.

The writer-heaviness of the list accounts, I think, for the high number of short story collections included. I have my own opinions of the relative merit of story collections to novels, but suffice it to say that I find writers' rapturous passions over a competent short story to be a little overheated. The "ZOMG every word is perfect" aesthetic just grates on me. Sorry.

The writer-heaviness also, I think, accounts for why so many of the works included are of the hybrid variety—"literary fiction" that cleverly incorporate genre (SFF, thriller) elements—while there are so few (actually none) books which are actually categorized as genre fiction. Writers who practice this boundary-crossing (while keeping a strong "literary fiction" audience) are simply the most empowering models for aspirant writers: an ambitious young writer would be a fool not to like them. These hybrid books suggest the extent of a writer's powers (crossing or playing with genre boundaries is assumed to be a proof of the writer's talent and imagination) while also instructing on how to rein that power in before falling all the way into genre. "You can play with reality," these books say, "and if you do it like me, you can still be shelved in a respectable location in Barnes and Noble."

I'm not, let me repeat, saying that any of the choices made for this list are unworthy or stupid or "bad." What I'm saying is that they have been shaped by a strongly unified sensibility with almost no opportunity for alternative sensibilities to intrude. I find the stunning lack of diversity in background of the panel of judges disappointing, but not terribly surprising: if the list is really a "young writers' favorites" posing as "critics' measured judgments" that is probably right—The Millions is, after all, a sort of young writers' network posing as a lit-crit blog.

Edit: The Millions has also posted the results of a readers' poll. I did participate in it through Facebook (why not, right?), although only one of my choices made it—Gilead, at #9.

Edit (9/27): Rohan has posted her own list and thoughts, as has Matt at Las obras de Robertro Bolaño.

Fury, by Fritz Lang (1936)

Like "Holiday," Fritz Lang's first American film is an astonishing document of the 1930s, a glimpse into a completely different political and cultural reality that reminds us of how radical even Hollywood could be.

It is a film that leaves us with an unrefuted speech by Spencer Tracy that strongly suggests that the United States is not only not the exceptionalist beacon for world freedom it presumes it is, but may also be proto- or crypto-fascistic (start at about the 5:24 mark here). It is a film that throws down hard numbers about lynching in the United States, and, while not linking these actions to race (in fact, mostly avoiding that question altogether), confronts the audience directly with the fact that very few lynchings were ever brought to trial, blocked from the courts by the complicit silence of the community (start at about the 6:45 mark here). It is a film that presents with considerable force the traumatic effects of repressing the memories of violence, of trying to bury the past. It's generally described as a film condemning "mob justice," but that's a euphemism that the film doesn't play around with. The word "lynching" is repeated over and over again, and it is repeatedly pointed out that lynching is an act of first-degree murder.

There is a question of whether the film retreats from these positions at the very last moment; it probably does, but I feel that Lang's withdrawal from the full force of his accusation is very much like the attorney's ploy of saying something or implying something which she knows will be objected to and "stricken from the record." Striking it from the record does not strike it from the memories of the jury, or of the audience. Too much is said in the film that cannot be forgotten; the saccharine ending is not able to overcome the indictment already made.

Wikipedia gives a fairly succinct description of the plot; the film is on YouTube in its entirety.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Primo Levi's Definition of the Intellectual

I read Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved for a class this week and came across this definition of the intellectual which I'd like to submit for discussion:
I would propose to extend the term to the person educated beyond his daily trade, whose culture is alive inasmuch as it makes an attempt to renew itself, increase itself, and keep up to date, and who does not react with indifference or irritation when confronted by any branch of knowledge, even though, obviously, he cannot cultivate all of them. (p. 132 in the Vintage edition)
Clearly, "intellectual" is one of those terms which beg for self-valorizing gerrymandering, but Levi's rather minimal definition seems to me very reasonable, creating a norm or standard that is worth following regardless of what you're called while hewing to it.

The emphasis on "keep[ing] up to date" might generate some disagreement (although I personally do not disagree, I've been re-evaluating this question recently on the question of recent fiction), and the word "trade" now may seem (unfortunately) archaic, but the last part about not reacting with indifference or irritation seems to me to be both necessary and rare.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Reading Bunker

When I was about ten or twelve, I read William Sleator's Singularity, which is fairly well-described by Wikipedia:
Sixteen-year-old identical twins Harry and Barry learn that their mysterious great-uncle has died, and his house and possessions now belong to their mother. The brothers travel to Sushan, Illinois to examine the house and its contents. Inside the cobweb-filled home, the rivaling brothers find mysterious animal skeletons and other odd objects. Outside Uncle Ambrose's residence, Harry and Barry find a small metal-reinforced building, which according to the accompanying keys, is called the "playhouse." When the twins explore the playhouse, they discover that the properties of time are altered inside, and the playhouse may explain the eccentricities of their great-uncle. When their quirky and cute neighbor Lucy enters their lives, competition between the twins escalates, and Harry makes a decision that will change the nature of their relationship forever.
Harry has discovered that the playhouse somehow sits over the bottom-end of a singularity, which is actually less scary than the "portal into terror" described on the book's cover, although the gruesome-looking thing you see there does provide a menacing subplot. The upshot of the singularity's presence is that time is incredibly accelerated for whoever is in the playhouse, such that a few external minutes can equate to several days or months for the playhouse's occupant, a fact that the boys clock onto by accidentally leaving their dog locked in, returning an hour later to find only disintegrating bones. My ten-year-old self took this part really hard, I recall.

Because of the aforementioned rivalry between the brothers, Harry decides to remain in the playhouse for what will amount to a playhouse-internal year, aging himself substantially to mark an irrevocable separation (in appearance and experience) from his brother, and presumably giving him a better chance at Lucy. The gripping part of the narrative is Harry's preparation for this isolation and the obscenely intense self-regimentation program he puts himself onto to remain sane—reading, exercise, diet, everything is minutely controlled. It was kind of like Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, only for nerds—extreme feats of self-reliance, but with fewer arrows and a lot more books.

The fantasy of removing oneself from time's regular course in order to read uninterrupted is a natural one, I think. A very lovely recent example was Aleksandar Hemon's essaylet in this year's Summer Reading issue of The New Yorker. I think there's also a pleasant fantasia near the middle of Murakami's Kafka on the Shore where Kafka (not the author) finds a secluded cabin and spends a month or so reading. But the darker side of this fantasy is famously presented in the "Time Enough at Last" episode of The Twilight Zone, where the bookish bespectacled Burgess Meredith finds himself the sole survivor of a global catastrophe which has very kindly left books alone and intact. While rejoicing at his luck (he can now read all that he wants, something he could never do when other people were living around him), he drops and breaks his glasses, dooming him to a Rod Serling voice-over meditating on his paradigmatic misfortune.

I'd be kidding you and myself if I tried to pretend I haven't thought about this reading bunker trope a lot: maybe it's my version of the "man cave," although actually I don't think the reading bunker is necessarily gendered. But I also try not to kid myself that such isolation would really work out for very long, or would even be ultimately desirable in the first place. I could probably subsist on ramen and granola bars for a few months, but I question whether such reclusive asceticism would really make me a more productive reader. Absent the "distractions" of the Internet, cell phones, and other human beings generally, would self-discipline really come more easily? Would I read for longer chunks of time? Would I lose myself in books more readily? Or would I find myself just as likely to switch books, let my mind wander, and endlessly multiply unnecessary tasks, like making stupidly detailed reading queues?

I've been thinking about these questions a little more recently because I've noticed that since classes started I have found it easier to read for longer stretches of time without interrupting myself, and because I recently (finally) read Sam Anderson's "The Benefits of Distraction and Over-Stimulation," which was on my "Read It Later" menu for too many months. Now, I think the increased attention span effect is more due to the sudden presence of real (and not self-imposed) deadlines than to a surprise development of greater self-discipline, but I find that I'm less often drawn away from non-class-related books as well. I look down and find five or eight pages gone, instead of two or three.

But in the most important ways, how I'm reading hasn't changed much. While I'm reading longer chunks of books more easily, I'm still caught in some of the same patterns. An intriguing footnote or reference sends me on a quick trip to the online library catalog or to some academic journal database, much the same way a promising hyperlink causes me to break up my online reading. I still read mostly non-linearly: although I've finished the books assigned in my classes, I have finished only one or two of the books that I've brought home from the library, and I can't help but thinking of this fluttering between books as the offline equivalent of tabbed browsing—it's just a different way to distract myself with too many open tabs.

Part of the appeal of the reading-bunker trope is precisely that it presumes a one-to-one correspondence between what you want to read and what you end up reading, a correspondence which I find very, very dubious for the vast majority of people. I think most "serious" or devoted readers—people who call themselves "readers," basically—prefer to think that their reading "goals" or a "reading plan" is the best, truest, most accurate expression of who they are both as a reader and as a person, when it's quite obviously only an expression of who they want to be. Just because I want to be a voracious reader of Henry James doesn't mean that I am, but because so many readers seem to think their goals or plan or queue define them as well and completely as their actual reading does, it's sometimes difficult to remember the difference.

This non-correspondence is aggravated, I think, by massive resources, such as the for-all-intents-and-purposes infinite choice and access that a good university library gives you or the infinite time imagined in the reading bunker fantasy. In other words, I think what you want to or plan to read (continuously, fully, not in fits and starts) diverges further from what you will actually end up reading fully the better your reading situation becomes.

Unless, that is, the best possible reading situation you can imagine is a highly restricted number of books and massively extensive time, but that's too much like the scenario at the end of Waugh's A Handful of Dust for me to sign on.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On Point of View, Infinite Jest, and Others

I've just read an excellent study by Michael Denning called Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller. One of the few academic books I've seen whose jacket copy refers to it as 'entertaining' (which, given the importance of Graham Greene to the book, may be a bit of a wink and a nudge to the informed reader), the book is truly helpful in thinking about how genre functions within a culture, and why we find it so useful to arrange books in the terms of genre, both in consumption (choosing what book to read) and in production (how to market the book).

There are a number of passages (some of which you can read on Google Books at the link above) which are worth excerpting from the introduction and the first chapter on these subjects, but for now I'd like to flag a very interesting passage I found somewhat later:
In a provocative analysis of the 'middlebrow' novel of the 1930s, the 'realist' novel with an ambiguous relation to the 'literary,' the Birmingham Centre's English Studies Group has argued that the reader of the middlebrow novel is characteristically 'interpellated in the position of the author or narrative "point of view".' The 'lowbrow' or mass formulaic novel "interpellates' or situates its reader in a position of identification with one or more characters, and the 'highbrow' or modernist novel situates the reader in the position of literature itself. These various situations are tied, the English Studies Group argue, to the different educations of different classes and reading publics in the school system. (64)
Interpellation is a fairly sophisticated concept, but here I think we can paraphrase it to mean something like "situated"—the reader of the middlebrow novel is situated to view the action from the narrator or author's perspective, the lowbrow reader from a character's perspective (but not a character in control of the narration of the story). The highbrow reader sits in the place of literature—that is, in an abstracted position that always treats the question of point-of-view as in itself problematic, unstable.
A lot can be said about this division, particularly given that it is set up to describe 1930s fiction and so naturally needs an updating. Beyond the obvious problem that your middlebrow novel might be my borderline-highbrow novel (or vice versa), I think the really interesting issue comes in with how certain novels of recent years have very explicitly tried to cross these distinctions, such that the reader is supposed to believe for a time that they are reading a middlebrow novel, and then something gets knocked out of the story, and the narrator-identified point of view that they've been occupying becomes suddenly untenable.

Perhaps the most famous occurrence of this is in Atonement, but one can also feel something like it in, say, much of Aleksandar Hemon's fiction and Kazuo Ishiguro's novels. This phenomenon is more, I think, than just an unreliable narrator, but has to do with the traditional associations of different types of point-of-view with specific audiences, in the way described above. So we get what seems like a diecast New Yorker short story from Hemon, and by the end find that reading it that way simply isn't sufficient (the irony being that it's still in The New Yorker in most cases). Or, in Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, we realize that the "problem" of the unreliable narrator is actually going to necessitate more than just a revision of the "facts" of the narrative, but a fairly disorienting detachment from the idea of being able to "view" the action in the first place.

At times, I think David Foster Wallace actually takes his reader in the opposite direction: convincing them that they're reading a 'highbrow' modernist novel par excellence, where the question of point-of-view is always problematic and the reader mustn't fall into the trap of identifying with one point-of-view. And then he basically makes you commit to a point-of-view: I question whether anyone can get through it (and enjoy it) without doing so. And that doesn't mean that you pick a character to empathize with for the rest of the novel, but that you have to create a position of provisional coherence from which to view the events and data of the novel and process them—whether that is identified with a character or with the author or with some external position. So by the end, you're just reading a very complex "middlebrow" novel, if we're using the terms from the blockquote above.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

I haven't finished Lorrie Moore's latest (and am in fact maybe only a fourth to a third of the way in), and I'm thinking of leaving it. I don't often abandon books, and really, the book's just good enough that at another time I'd read straight through, but at this moment I think I'd rather move on. There are other books I'm eager to get to.

I am also somewhat dismayed by the fairly shallow anthropological bent of Moore's depiction of the Midwest: the novel takes place in a fictional university town named Troy (which some have suggested is just supposed to be Madison, WI) and is narrated by Tassie Keltjin, an ingenue of sorts who, despite coming from a rather atypical background for the Midwest, reacts to the cosmopolitanism of the university as if it's a foreign culture needing to be itemized to be understood, and reported on to be retained.

It reminds me, to some extent, of Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, with its forensic mania for illustrative detail and exemplary pieces of dialect. Every tiny artifact that Moore's narrative fingers poke is wondered at a bit, as if might be a key to a cultural cabinet of wonders, something just about anything might fall out of. Take, for instance, the passage that floored Jonathan Lethem in the NYTBR:
‘Sounds good,’ I sang out into the dark of the car. Sounds good, that same Midwestern girl’s slightly frightened reply. It appeared to clinch a deal, and was meant to sound the same as the more soldierly Good to go, except it was promiseless — mere affirmative description.
It's 'true,' but it's more than a bit precious (not to mention pleonastic), and it's made more so because of Moore's decision to narrate the story from an Older Tassie's point of view, although (at least as far as I am in the novel) this decision is not supported by the old narratological standby of foreshadowing or by any indication that the passage of time between the events Tassie is relating and her current position is significant. What this distancing does allow is a sort of patina of irony, so that Younger Tassie's exuberance at having her consciousness rapidly expanded by reading Kant and her pride at knowing about things like sushi are twisted just slightly into a series of benignant smirks when narrated through Older Tassie's lips. Except what we're also getting (rather too loudly, I think) is Writer Lorrie's somewhat less benignant smirks: she registers with unrealistic exactness the featheriest distinctions of rank, taste, and education. These distinctions function too well; they are too obviously chosen—discrete and defining, not registered as part of a larger, continuous experience of a community. This is a world created to be observed, as if each character spent all his time "off-camera" rehearsing his lines and attiring himself more appropriately for his part.

On the other hand, some of Moore's creations are more than amusing, are even somewhat vivid. Her gift for dialogue is very fine, although she often weighs it down with little asides noting that what was just said was awkward or did not go over as planned. An average reader, I think, can infer most of the psychology she traces simply by reading what comes between inverted commas, and I grew annoyed at her helpfulness.

But still, pleonastic preciousness pleases a lot of people (mostly writers)—and it probably pleased me once. The anthropology of domestic cultures is a favorite pursuit of some people (that's why there are so many lurkers and trolls on Inside Higher Ed and other academic-related websites), and this novel seems to be an excellent example. And the plot seems to be taking awhile to get going, but I'm confident that it would interest me if I were to continue. This novel would make fine listening for a commute, I feel. That's not high praise, and it's not meant to be, but for some reason I can't quite damn the book straight out.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Close Calls with Nonsense

I have a review of Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense up at The Critical Flame. There is also a review by Richard Nash (formerly the publisher of Soft Skull Press) of The Late Age of Print and a review of Pynchon's Inherent Vice.

Close Calls with Nonsense is a collection of essays about poetry; Burt is a professor at Harvard and writes often in The Believer, The Boston Review, and many other places about contemporary poetry. I found the collection valuable in many ways, as I was introduced to some poets and to some poems that appeal to me greatly. Yet I was not convinced that what I saw as Burt's underlying agenda—to identify how readers can trust poetry and how critics can help them do that—was brought off successfully. I greatly appreciate, however, that focus—the question of trust is not one that is often raised explicitly, perhaps because it is so open to individual, even idiosyncratic, definition. Burt offers one idea that I like very much, and I was glad to have found it. Also (something I did not mention in the review), don't try to read Stephen Burt's book in the position indicated on the cover: the additional bloodflow only makes your eyes feel weird; it does not make your synapses fire faster or anything.


About Infinite Summer: I'm still running on time with Infinite Jest; I wanted to accelerate past the official timetable, but… you know how that goes. At any rate, I'm hoping to get a post out about Schtitt and tennis philosophy, and then a wrap-up post when I finish. I am really finding every storyline enjoyable at this point; Orin has disappeared for what seems like the last 300 pages, but I certainly don't begrudge the time spent with Gately and Hal. I also find that the novel reads much more smoothly now: Wallace seems to have understood that if you're still reading, you've probably been sufficiently impressed by his intellect, so he doesn't need to interject non-functional demonstrations of his brilliance periodically.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Bestseller, the Middlebrow, and the Forgotten Book

Via Matthew Cheney, I ran across this very interesting essay about squaring the pointlessly internecine debates about what (one and only one) kind of fiction America needs with some actual data about what it has actually read. Many if not all of the arguments about the State of Contemporary American Fiction rely on grand narratives about either the decline of American reading from a half-remembered Golden Age or the persistent dreadfulness of American bestsellers from time immemorial, but very few of them bother to found their stories in anything like an examination of the data we do have about how—or whether—U. S. tastes have changed over time. "Sales," or the more nebulous "popularity," is invoked usually as an idea, not as a verifiable data set, to either bludgeon "populist" fiction or to demonstrate its perfect coexistence with complexity and intelligence. Writers like Jonathan Franzen, Ben Marcus, Michael Chabon, and now Lev Grossman blather about the reading public as if they alone can sound the collective psychological depths of that abstraction, and, with that unique access, can tell us what we really want or don't want, need or don't need.

Nina Siegal finds this debate quite strange:
All three groups [Franzen's defenders of realism, Marcus's defenders of experimental fiction, and Chabon's defenders of the “the well-told tale”], I should point out, cast themselves as marginal figures, defending a lost art against all who would encroach on their literary ideals. But none of them have a right to claim this status. Not a single one – Franzen, Marcus or Chabon — would be denied a spot at Yaddo or MacDowell. None of them need worry that their books will be published, that their articles will appear in print, or that they will ever be barred from writing for The New York Times Book Review. So, why are they so worried that their type of fiction is so embattled? I thought I might find the answer to this question by doing a little cultural analysis of my own. It seemed to me that each group had two things in common. First, they were arguing that their form of literature was under-appreciated by the masses of readers. Second, they were arguing that their type of writing had a place in the cultural canon – that is, that ultimately they would hope that future generations would validate the form of writing they’re arguing for, by awarding it with praise, and by studying it in academic circles.

Siegal has done some layman's work in putting some data behind these narratives by checking a list of bestselling fiction (which she misattributes to the NYT; in fact it is the Publishers Weekly list) accessible at Wikipedia against an admittedly subjective list of "works that we might today deem 'great literature' of the sort that, for instance, the English Department at the University of Iowa would approve for the undergraduate General Education in Literature course I teach, the Interpretation of Literature." Her conclusions are intriguing, and I'll let you read the rest of the piece to find them out.

One thing that I'd like to point out immediately, though, is that the Wikipedia page which contains the Publishers Weekly lists notes that "The standards set for inclusion in the lists - which, for example, lead to the exclusion of the novels in the Harry Potter series from the lists for the 1990s and 2000s - are currently unknown."

This is obviously a problem, because another thing that happens a lot with narratives like those used by Franzen or Marcus or Grossman is that "bestseller" is understood as a kind of natural or transcendental category, as if changing publishing practices didn't affect what has showed up on the lists over the years, much less the (very likely) possibility that the lists haven't always used the same criteria or standards for what kind of books are to be ranked and the very obvious probability that the sources from which they have drawn their figures have changed quite a bit over the years. Which bookstores did they call, and where were they located; how, and when, did subscription sales, like book clubs, get factored in—these are questions that are never included in the 30,000 feet view of The American Novel and Its Readers.

There are sources which answer, to a limited extent, some of these questions, and I'm reading one of them now. Michael Korda, an author and publisher, wrote Making the List in 2001 (which I excerpted a little from yesterday), and it has some nice, very double-spaced commentaries on each decade of bestseller lists, starting from 1900-1909. Mostly, he just points to a few titles from each year which left a slightly less delible mark on the American cultural scene. But he also offers a few notable developments in the history of publishing, such as the marketing of the first crossword puzzle book, which was the first "non-book," or book not meant to be read, to be sold in actual bookstores. These kind of moments I'll try to summarize in a later post, as well as a few broader-scope meditations (like the excerpt posted yesterday) which Korda offers on historical trends or consistencies he has seen over the years. Korda also mentions a couple of other titles of similar subject, and I'll try to track those down and summarize them as well.

This is going to be part of a larger project about books and memory. Another book I've started reading is Gordon Hutner's What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel 1920-1960, which Mark Athitakis wrote about here, first drawing my attention to the book. Hutner's book takes on the question of the potential value of studying what has usually been dismissed as middlebrow literature (or, as he says, "middle-class experience from a middle-class point of view") and the thornier question of why this body of literature has been so vigorously shunned by academics even while other reclamation projects (of ethnic writers, of proletarian or working-class literature) have been of obvious and lasting value to our understanding of the United States, its literature, and its history.

I want to talk about the concept of the middlebrow, and particularly of their relationship to the idea of "big, ambitious novels" which I've written about before. This relationship, I want to argue, is immensely complicated by memory, as works that we now think of as mawkishly middlebrow were often not seen as terribly dissimilar from other novels published at the same time which we tend to regard today as residing somewhere in the highbrow. That's not a terribly insightful or controversial point, but one that I think would benefit greatly from some fleshing out. 

I also want to think about why we have this idea of the "forgotten book" or the "neglected book," and what that concept really means to those who think about it or use it. There are some underlying assumptions about what we owe to the past, to literature, and to ourselves as readers that I'd like to explore, and I think a book like Hutner's, and the type of conclusions we can draw from books like Korda's, can help me do that exploration.  And finally, what do we do about these books: what do we owe to a book that has sat on a shelf for forty years untouched?

These, at any rate, are the outlines of some of what is hopefully to come on this blog over the next few months.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

From Making the List, by Michael Korda

From the chapter on the bestsellers of the 1940s:
Attentive fiction readers will also notice that while murder mysteries, historical novels, and romances inevitably take up a number of "slots" on the fiction list, most of the really big fiction bestsellers over the years are what publishers call "big novels," which is to say ambitious novels with a big theme, a big scope, larger-than-life-size characters, whether written at the "popular" level, like The Robe, or at the literary level, like For Whom the Bell Tolls. "Category" fiction certainly sells, but it is the big novel that publishers really look for, and—though perhaps not always consciously—readers, too. The Song of Bernadette, Kings Row, The Keys of the Kingdom, and Pearl S. Buck's Dragon Seed are all, in different ways, big novels, i.e., big in length, big in concept, with a big, central moral conflict, trying hard to be solid, serious, challenging, as well as entertaining. True, time, the ultimate judge of long-term bestsellerdom, has not been kind to them, nor even to Hemingway—Pearl S. Buck is seldom read today, Song of Bernadette hardly remembered, Kings Row and Keys of the Kingdom only by older readers—still, all of them were, as it were, considered "serious contenders" in their day.

The big novel could, of course, include romance; it might be "historical," but it first of all required a big subject, and a strong point of view about that subject. Very often it was sociological (Sinclair Lewis), or attempted to re-create and explain a whole alien culture (Pearl S. Buck on China, or, later, Norman Mailer on Egypt in Ancient Evenings), or sometimes it was a combination of ideology and reporting (For Whom the Bell Tolls, for example, but also, on a higher plane, War and Peace), but like a good French meal, it should leave the reader stuffed, satisfied, overwhelmed, in any event not hungry for more.

War, of course, was a major subject for such novels, though they tended to follow the war, not to get written during it, but whatever the subject, it was one of the two major categories of bestselling fiction, the big novel being trumped, as it were, only by that equally elusive phenomenon, "The Great American Novel," of which Moby-Dick is held to be the first example, except in the eyes of confirmed James Fennimore Cooper fans. The Great American Novel was best exemplified in the thirties by Thomas Wolfe—and in its contemporary form implied a big, long, multigenerational novel that at once illuminated and explained American life and was written by an American. It could not be "historical"; it had to have the kind of complex prose style that Theodore Dreiser, for example, always strived for; it had to be set firmly in the United States (which excluded most of the work of Hemingway and some of Fitzgerald's); and it had to make, or be thought by critics to have made, a serious, and perhaps even solemn, statement about American values.

Sinclair Lewis, Dreiser, Wolfe, and Steinbeck battled it out for supremacy in this area over the thirties and forties, though Dreiser seemed to many readers too heavy going, while Lewis was a bit of a hack (too many bestsellers written too quickly) and too many of Steinbeck's characters were quaint, fey, or out of the mainstream, which left Wolfe as the winner by default. In any case, these two categories—the big novel and the Great American Novel—tend to provide at least half of the fiction bestsellers and provide the all-important touchstone against which the importance and seriousness of a bestseller tends to be judged.
- pp. 81-83

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

You may have heard that David Foster Wallace's short story collection was being made into a film.

There is now a trailer.

I like John Krasinski, and I would like for this project to work. I just don't see how it will.

It appears that Krasinski has developed the character of the interviewer, a probably necessary step if the film is going to cohere much, but this seems to miss whatever points Wallace was making when he decided to redact (or just not write) the questions put to the interview subjects, marking each with the letter "Q." (The Moment magazine interviews excerpted in Infinite Jest are also printed like this.)

Well, that's a complaint about the film not being faithful to the source material, which is hardly a reason why it may not work. But you can still put me down as skeptical.

At any rate, one interesting tidbit: the film is being released by IFC Films, which just announced a collaboration with Criterion Collection, where Criterion will be releasing "selected" titles from recent and upcoming IFC films. No word, I think, on whether Brief Interviews will be selected, but there is a chance, and it would be interesting to see what kind of materials Criterion could pack such a DVD release with.

Second micro-tidbit: it appears that Police Commissioner Burrell is in the film. I'm always excited to see alumni from The Wire in new roles.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"On the Vague Reading of a Truant Youth"

I am disinclined to mark anniversaries or transitions on this blog: no "I can't believe this is my hundredth post already!" or "Has it been a year and a half?" It's not that I think blogging should be impersonal, just that I prefer to think of blogging as a temporally smooth exercise, one that doesn't require the punctuations of milestones.

Having just checked the archives of this blog, I notice that in a few days I actually will be marking the 2 1/2-year point. I started it in the spring of my senior year of college, with the idea that it could act as a bridge of sorts between the end of my undergraduate education and the (presumptuously presumptive) beginning of my graduate career. Tomorrow is the official end of that interregnum; my first class is at 9:20.

I cannot say for sure, obviously, how course-work (and later studying for orals and the dissertation) will change this blog: it is my intention still to be a fairly active blogger—at least as active as I have been this year (although August was a rough month as you probably noticed)—but aside from that, I cannot forecast much. It is my intention to do a lot of experimenting with different ideas of how I can improve my blogging by means of the resources now available to me (JSTOR, didja miss me?). Part of that experimenting may go on at The Valve, and part at Conversational Reading; I'll usually cross-post the former and link the latter.

I envision this blog continuing to function foremost as a lit-blog, a place to discuss books and reading culture. The lit-blog community is an astonishingly vibrant network of intelligent, passionate, and articulate bloggers and commenters, and a significant goal I have for the next couple of years at least is figuring out how I can add value to that community from the position I'll be occupying. The relationship between journalism and academia is not always a pleasant one (I noticed, for instance, Lev Grossman's puffed-up trumpeting of his grad school dropout status in his biography: I don't know who that was supposed to impress) but I feel that such antipathy does far more harm than good to all involved, and it is not something that I feel needs to characterize the relationship between lit-blogging and the academy as well.

Because I'll be experimenting with different strategies of how to incorporate my academic pursuits and practices into this blog, I'd ask that you tell me what's working and what fizzles: what's boring or unhelpful, and what actually makes the material I'm talking about richer. I mean, most of my "experiments" probably aren't going to be marked as such: there's not going to be huge flashing signs that say "WARNING: ACADEMIC CONTENT APPROACHING." Part of the point is that there is a lot of stuff that academics have produced or are producing that is definitely not alien to the ways we tend to talk about books anyway. And, I think, there are some exciting new projects within the academic study of literature that might arguably appeal as much or more to a non-academic audience. And hopefully you've noticed that I've tried to do this to some extent already.

I'm excited to see what comes out of this: I feel that lit-blogging is still developing in many ways, always learning how to pull in more readers, more texts, and more ideas. We'll see where it goes.