Were Mary McCarthy to walk among us again, she would surely be astounded to discover her work being championed in The Weekly Standard. As the author of this appreciation, Jonathan Leaf, acknowledges, McCarthy was a "lifelong leftist," and Leaf goes on to note her "rampant promiscuity" edging into "nymphomania," hardly qualities that would commend themselves to the conservative audience of this magazine. Perhaps since McCarthy was an anti-Stalinist leftist, the neocons at The Weekly Standard think she might ultimately have become one of them (her political evolution in the 1930s out of Communism through Trotskyism mirrors that of Irving Kristol), but her radical opposition to the Vietnam War does not suggest she would have approved of the Iraq invasion.
Indeed, Leaf claims it is McCarthy's writing, namely her fiction, that should recommend her to us. And here we can perhaps get some sense of why a right-wing magazine would publish as essay celebrating the left-wing McCarthy. Leaf doesn't merely think McCarthy has been unjustly overlooked, but makes some pretty strong claims on her behalf: her first book, The Company She Keeps, is superior to Lolita ("more substantial stuff"); The Group is "Portnoy’s Complaint told from a woman’s point of view. . .written in a far superior style"; in fact, "no American since Scott Fitzgerald has written so felicitously" as McCarthy.
It's hard to take issue with Leaf's analysis on these points, since there is no analysis, not even quotation that would exemplify the claimed felicity of her style. These are sentiments that probably are at least as much expressions of Leaf's disdain for Nabokov and Roth than of esteem for McCarthy, but in either case we really get no support for the literary judgment the author has reached. However, we do get some indication of why Leaf wants to extol McCarthy's work. Her fiction, we are told, presents a "view of woman [that] is not one in which she is an innocent victim or strong sister but, rather, crafty and scheming." Furthermore, McCarthy "depicts motherhood as natural, central, and rewarding," and these depictions of women, along with her "effective demolition of Simone de Beauvoir" in an essay, presumably make McCarthy useful in the effort to fight back feminism.
In addition, McCarthy's work helps us to see that "fiction should be judged principally in terms of its merit as storytelling, and read primarily to find out what happens to the hero or heroine." I have to believe that this is the most important reason why it is now acceptable in The Weekly Standard to hold up a writer like Mary McCarthy as an important and neglected figure in American literature. Postmodernists (and apparently even late modernists such as Nabokov and Roth) are regarded by contemporary conservatives with the same disdain they hold for liberals, and for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me. (It doesn't hurt, of course, that McCarthy also presents a satirical portrayal of "left-wing English professors" in one of her novels, although it's less apparent to me why "the preoccupation among literary scholars with symbolism," which McCarthy also satirizes, should be considered an affront to right-thinking readers.) Much of the resistance to both modernism and postmodernism came from leftist critics, who upheld social realism as the literary strategy most suitable to advancing their political goals and derided modernist/postmodernist experiment as unserious and "game-playing." Right-wing critics have now adopted the literary preferences of their left-wing antagonists, although it seems doubtful they expect realism and traditional storytelling to reinforce their political ideals (a mistaken assumption by radical critics in the first place.)
Or do they? Do they assume that fiction encouraging a preoccupation with "what happens to the hero or heroine" and using familiar narrative means will help keep the mass of readers quiescent? Is the "conservative" vision of the goal of literature now one that ratifies any strategy or theme that could even vaguely be called "traditional"? This latter possibility seems to me the most plausible explanation of the conservative embrace of a writer like Mary McCarthy, who at one time would have been considered dangerous to the social order, and I would not deny the validity of such a move. Through a strategy of what Richard Rorty called "redescription," a writer whose own ambitions for her work would not at all have coincided with the purposes of those now appropriating that work is made to seem sympathetic to these purposes. There's nothing dishonest about such redescription, but I do wonder if conservatives such as Leaf could be entirely comfortable with the relativism on which it is ultimately based.
One could conclude that if the "traditional" fiction of Mary McCarthy can be appropriated to the conservative agenda while her actual beliefs are ignored or discounted, the greater threat to that agenda must be not liberalism but unconventional, adventurous literature. Its challenge to passive reading must seem a greater danger than the mistaken political views of a left-wing nymphomaniac.
Recently Lev Grossman explained how he chooses books to review. "I review books," he proclaimed, "if they do something I’ve never seen done before; or if I fall in love with them; or if they shock me or piss me off or otherwise won’t leave me alone; if they alter the way my brain works; if I can’t stop thinking about them; if for whatever reason I absolutely have to tell people about them."
Scott Esposito appropriately enough questions how candid Grossman is being, pointing out that his sinecure at Time necessarily constrains Grossman to "a very limited range of choices." As Scott reminds us, "in most cases he’s functioning as an adjunct of a publisher’s marketing department, essentially adding whatever institutional and personal authority he has to the marketing push for a book that has almost certainly been acclaimed 10 times over by 'reviewers' that are similarly empowered."
Perhaps Scott is correct in thinking that "Grossman is an honest, decent guy" who sincerely believes he is applying his stated criteria, but you don't have to assume that he has willingly sold out to the masters of marketing and publicity to conclude that he doesn't really do much for the cause of contemporary literature in his book reviewing practices. It's surely true that his choice of "top ten" fiction for 2011 is mainstream and predictable (the few lesser-known titles still fall safely within the boundaries of establishment acceptability in form and theme), but this is probably just as much the result of a mainstream, predictable critical sensibility on Grossman's part as it is obeying the dictates of capitalist overlords. (Although we shouldn't forget that those overlords depend on the sensibilities of someone like Grossman to perpetuate themselves.) CONTINUE
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Nicholson Baker's fiction is the way it seems both to ingratiate and provoke, aspires to be both accessible and difficult. Most of his novels could be described as at the same time formally simple--a man tends to his six-month old baby one afternoon, two people hold a telephone conversation--and quite radical, at least while we are still attempting to adjust ourselves as readers to such reduced narrative assumptions (which conversely expand the scope of the narrative's attention.) Stylistically, the novels are also simultaneously transparent, with few "literary" affectations, and elaborate, the sentences themselves expanding in length and complexity to meet the challenges of the kinds of minute observations and prolonged reflections in which Baker's narrators habitually engage. Even the themes of Baker's books can seem both obvious and not that easy to discern. What finally are we to make of the succession of images and memories that go through the mind of the narrator of The Mezzanine as he ascends an escalator, or are we left simply with the fact of their succession? How are we to regard the narrator of The Fermata, who tells us of his magical powers to suspend time, which he then exploits to remove the clothing of desirable women? Is he repulsive? Pathetic? An honest portrayal of the creepier inclinations harbored by all men, maybe by everyone? CONTINUE
Arthur Krystal believes that the "not-so-hidden secret" of book reviewing is that reviewers "regard other people's books as an opportunity to enhance their own reputations," are tempted to "reinforce their own wit, erudition, and verbal artistry" by "debunk[ing] someone else's."
I find this charge, especially as applied to the reviewing of fiction, rather astonishing. My perception is that reviews of new fiction in too many publications are deferential and hesitant to criticize, except in the most inoffensive and formulaic way ("If I have one reservation, it is that. . ."). Book review pages often seem to me more like an adjunct of book publicity than a forum for honest literary criticism.
Krystal assumes, and I have to say that his assumption seems predominantly correct, that most reviews are being written by other writers who have at least some motivation to call attention to their own work through reviewing. In my opinion, however, this mostly manifests itself in reviews full of praise for the fellow writer under review, as if the reviewer wants to signal he/she is a member in good standing of the writer's fraternity and understands his/her new novel will soon be making the rounds of the book review sections and will need the same sort of gentle treatment. And even when the review is positive, as it usually is, vague but colorful descriptions often substitute for analysis "(X's style is like a red-hot poker jabbed at the reader's solar plexus") when plot summary won't quite suffice. Writers' jacket blurbs and their formal book reviews are becoming increasingly hard to distinguish.
The blame for this state of affairs mostly goes to book review editors rather than these writers, however. The latter are being asked to perform a task they are neither prepared for nor temperamentally suited to. They have worked at becoming novelists or poets, not critics, and they understandably want to foster a literary culture in which novelists and poets are valued. The default assumption among editors seems to be that fiction writers and poets are the best judges of fiction and poetry, but this isn't usually the case. Some novelists and poets are indeed also good critics, but in most cases they have become so by fighting against the widespread belief that "creative writing" and criticism are antithetical practices. They reject the notion that criticism is unavoidably "personal," as Krystal claims. They are willing to make justified judgments without worrying about how such judgments might be received by the author or how they might affect book sales.
In my opinion, such judgments are still most reliably made by disinterested literary critics, who have, or should have, even less reason to concern themselves with the transitory effects of honest commentary, as long as that commentary can be supported through careful reading. Krystal says that reviewers are "rendering a service to the reader," which is true enough, but "the reader" ought to include future readers as well, to the extent reviews help determine what works continue to be considered worthwhile, beyond the current season in which books are regarded as commodities in the marketplace. In other words, the reviewer's first obligation, at least where seriously intended literary works are concerned, is to literature. In the long run, reviews are otherwise meaningless.
I can agree with Nathan Heller that in his later work Ernest Hemingway's style became increasingly loose and imprecise, prone to pompous declarations. I can certainly agree that the popular image of Hemingway as "a virile, intense man of hard-living habits and a few brilliantly selected words" gets in the way of appreciating his genuine literary accomplishments. The Hemingway who appears in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is a caricature of Hemingway, mitigated only by the fact that Allen himself surely knows this is true.
I cannot agree, however with Heller's claim that it is a mistake "to assume that [Hemingway} was foremost a stylist." He is, in fact, along with Henry James arguably the most important stylist in all of American fiction, not so much, or not only, because of the specific character of his prose style but because his fiction so manifestly calls attention to the centrality of stylistic choices in fiction. Whether the principle is "less is more" as in Hemingway or "more is more" as in James, both writers pursued strategies that bring style to the foreground of the reader's attention, and set standards that subsequent writers have continued to reckon with.
Heller contends that in his earlier, best work Hemingway was attempting to register "the experience of processing the world directly in time." This is certainly a way of describing the effect Hemingway's style has on us as we are engaged by Hemingway's characters, but ultimately I fail to see why this effect is not itself the consequence of style. The characters' attempts to process their experience in its immediacy is unavoidably rendered through the words Hemingway has chosen and the way he has chosen to arrange them. Surely no one actually does experience the world in the deliberately simplified words and cadences of Hemingway's sentences. The impression left of "processing the world directly in time" is one that has ineluctably been created by style.
When Heller criticizes Hemingway's later work by asserting that "[r}ather than using the progress of experience to shape the words on the page, Hemingway was using his voice to shape the sentences," he suggests that it would be possible for a fiction writer to record the progress of experience without the "shaping" provided by style, but such a thing is not possible. Isn't it the "style" we are after when reading fiction, after all? If all we wanted was the "experience," wouldn't we be reading journalism instead, at least the sort in which the writer is encouraged to leave style behind?
It would be more accurate to say that in his later work, Hemingway's style has become excessively mannered. It is as if he has become so hyperconscious of himself as the stylist able to merge lyricism with the "plain" prose style that his fiction becomes an excuse to exhibit this style without much discipline or definition. Certainly it is not the case that in this work Hemingway discovered style while in the earlier work he somehow managed to evade it.
My review of Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet has now been published at Full Stop.
My essay on the late Richard Poirier has now been published in the special issue on criticism at Open Letters Monthly.
This blog has been unavoidably inactive lately, as other projects and activities have made it difficult for me to tend to it as I should. I do plan to return to it in the not-so-distant future, when I hope somewhat more regular posting can resume.
My review of Gary Lutz's Divorcer has been published at Full-Stop.
Since Juice! is Ishmael Reed's first novel in almost twenty years, many of its potential readers, intrigued, perhaps by its treatment of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, will probably be encountering Reed's work for the first time. Perhaps these readers are aware of him as an op-ed controversialist critical of media portrayals of African-Americans, particularly African-American men, skeptical of the achievement of African-American women writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and a bete noire of white feminists and of the "liberal class" in general. That Reed was at one time controversial as the first, and arguably only, African-American "postmodern" writer of fiction, compared to Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme in his expression of the postmodern worldview and his disruptions of form and style, is likely at best merely an historical echo, however. Doubtless there are fewer readers now who can readily judge a new work by Ishmael Reed in the context of this earlier work and of his still-evolving career as a whole.
Those who have followed Reed's career as a writer should immediately recognize the significant differences between Juice! and the novels that initially brought attention to his unconventional fiction, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967) and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969). In consonance with the defiant, iconoclastic spirit of the period, these novels employ a kind of surrealist farce that travesties all that it encompasses, including fictional form itself. They exhibit what will become Reed's signature hallucinatory imagery--"Hairy Sam" ruling over his urban kingdom (also called Hairy Same) from his seat on a toilet in The Free-Lance Pallbearers--casual anachronism--although ostensibly a period Western, in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Downcharacters listen to soul music and come across "old Buicks and skeletons of washing machines"--and outrageous names--Bukka Doopeyduk, Zozo Labrique, etc. They are entertaining in a deliberately zany kind of way, which on the one hand invests them with the spirit of postmodern comedy other writers of the time were venturing as an alternative to the sober realism of the 1950s, but on the other hand draws attention to the underlying racial and cultural issues more vividly than such sober realism could any longer achieve.
Even in their displacements and distortions, these two early novels maintain narrative coherence by adhering to an essentially allegorical structure through which the reader clearly is to discern a critique of American racial attitudes (on the part of both white and black characters) as manifested in the present as well as in the historical American past (the two sometimes intersect, as they will also in the later Flight to Canada (1976)). The Free-Lance Pallbearers is a coming-of-age story of sorts, tracing its protagonist's recognition of the cultural and political corruption of his immediate environment and of the futility of his own attempts to accommodate himself to this society, given its ultimate hostility to his interests and its disregard for his well-being. While to a degree Pallbearersis a parody of the coming-of-age story (Bukka Doopeyduk doesn't survive to apply the lessons he's learned apart from the way he applies them by narrating his story from the grave), Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is an out-and-out parody of the Western genre. Its protagonist, the Loop Garoo Kid, also confronts a while authority figure, the rancher Drag Gibson, although in this mock Western the rancher and the outlaw (John Wesley Hardin) are united in their racism and in their efforts to do in the Loop Garoo Kid, who has escaped a Drag-directed massacre and is hiding out in a cave in the hills.
From the cave, Loop begins practicing a form of necromancy related to voodoo, an activity or state of being Reed will later explicitly identify as "Neo-HooDooism." (In Yellow Back Radio, the Loop GarooKid is at one point called a "HooDoocowboy.") The nature of this endeavor is suggested when we are told he performs "a tailor made micro-HooDoo mass to end 2000 years of bad news in a Bagi he had built in the corner of the cave." Although the spell is directed first of all at Drag Gibson and the town of Yellow Back Radio, the significance of Neo-HooDoo as a trope in Ishmael Reed's fiction is announced at the end of Loop's ceremony when he entreats "Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo to
open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People's American experience "corrupt" "perverse" and "decadent." Please show them that Booker T. and the MG's, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.
While the anachronism involved here is hilarious, this incantation also rather succinctly expresses the philosophy of Neo-Hoodooismas it is further invoked in Reed'ssubsequent novels. "HooDoo" is the approach to both experience and art that, while most identified with the black culture of the Carribean, later imported to New Orleans, is, in Reed'sversion, attributable to all non-white and indigenous cultural groups in the Western hemisphere that have in one way or another resisted the wholesale incorporation of "Western" values and practices. The spirit of HooDoo thus animates the music of Booker T. and the MG's and the dance steps of Bojangles Robinson, and it affirms "Black People's American experience," which, although very "American" in the way it is shaped as a response to the conditions of these groups'encounter with Western values as embodied in the dominant culture, is finally not entirely assimilable to that culture. Ishmael Reed'sfiction is both a celebration of the HooDoo aesthetic and itself an illustration of that aesthetic. Thus Reed writes novels, but, whether one finds them aesthetically satisfying or not, they are surely unlike novels written by anyone else in the way they explode expectations of what novels should be like.
Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and The Last Days of Louisiana Red(1974) are Reed's most thorough treatments of Neo-HooDooism, through the figure of Papa LaBas, portrayed as the most explicit example of what one critic has called a "HooDoo trickster." According to James Lindroth, the trickster "is driven by a mocking wit that subverts white authority and destroys white illusions of superiority while simultaneously promoting numerous value-laden symbols of black culture." ("Images of Subversion: Ishmael Reed and the HooDoo Trickster.") In Mumbo Jumbo, probably Reed'smost intricate, resonant novel, the essence of HooDoo is evoked in "Jes Grew," a kind of spiritual distillation of HooDooism that first manifested itself in a 19th century New Orleans dance but that has its origins in ancient Egypt. Jes Grew has unmoored itself and inhabited the work of other artists and musicians. It encourages emotional release, as opposed to Western rationalism. In the words of Kathryn Hume, "those who practice the Jes Grew philosophy live for the present to enjoy every moment to the fullest, not simply to become something else in the distant future." ("Ishmael Reed and the Problematics of Control.") Acceptance of this philosophy of course threatens the established order, which profits from the ideological emphasis on "future," and so a secret society of the elite is trying to wipe it out.
Papa LaBas has been enlisted to foil this secret society and to recover an ancient text describing the original dance. He succeeds in the first task but fails at the second. Jes Grew is too appealing to too many to be stamped out, but it is also too dynamic and spontaneous to be adequately encapsulated in a single text. It has "grown" in too many directions, draws on too many different mediating inspirations to be given an authoritative expression. This variety is reflected in the form and style of Reed's novels, especially these earliest novels, which are characterized by what one critic calls thier "syncretism," paralleling the syncretism of Jes Grew/Neo-HooDooism: "In Reed's novels, it is not uncommon to find the formal blend of language mixed with the colloquial, as it is Reed's contention that such an occurrence in the narrative is more in keeping with the ways contemporary people influenced by popular culture really speak." (Reginald Martin, "Ishmael Reed's Syncretic Use of Language: Bathos as Popular Discourse.") The central narrative voice primarily acts as the facilitator of the "blend of language," allowing the different modes of language to come into contact. This voice otherwise is notable for its directness and its avoidance of "literary" dressing.
Reed's syncretism extends to the formal structures of his novels as well--although Reed uses variety and juxtaposition largely to undermine structure as associated with the conventional novel. Other texts and narrative forms are freely interpolated into the main narrative to create a collage-like effect, the phantasmagorical qualities of which are only intensified in works like Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and Flight to Canadaby the blurring of time and rapid shifting between characters and subplots. The latter novel may represent Reed's last really satisfying use of the syncretic method to create a broadly surreal comedy that keeps Reed's satire from becoming merely polemical. Although it focuses directly on the source of the American racial divide, slavery, in its story of an escaped slave's quest for freedom in Canada, as a parody of a slave narrative it doesn't exactly present an orthodox account of the Civil War period and the struggle for emancipation. While the portrayal of its white characters, including an antebellum slave master and Abraham Lincoln, is excoriating enough (in Reed's typical cartoonish mode), its black characters are certainly not portrayed one-dimensionally as victims in the way we would expect of a slave narrative. Both of the main characters incorporate elements of the Trickster figure, while the novel ultimately discredits the notion of "freedom" associated with the flight "north." The white-dominated culture created in North America won't willingly extend its concept of freedom to non-whites, ultimately making Reed's Neo-HooDooism a permanent form of resistance.
In the novels Reed has published after Flight to Canada, the satirical range has beome much more constricted, the targets more personal, the issues at stake arguably more idiosyncratic, even petty. Reckless Eyeballing (1986) takes aim at feminism, depicting it in particular as hostile to African-American men and initiating that phase of Reed's career in which he became a scourge of white feminists (although Reckless Eyeballing represents black feminists as also joining in on the abuse). Japanese by Spring (1993) is an academic satire that savages all the scholarly tendencies of the university as excuses for self-aggrandizement and individual agendas and depicts the academy as the redoubt of cowards and knaves. Aesthetically, this narrowing of satirical purpose has resulted in novels that are less adventurous, less interested in creating their own reality, more focused on evoking and critiquing existing reality. The humor is still there, but in this context of reduced satirical ambitions, Reed's mockery can seem heavy-handed, his exaggerated situations and behaviors merely contrivances. At the end of Japanese by Spring, when "Ishmael Reed" takes over as the main character, what could be if handled more nimbly an amusing metafictional conceit becomes instead just an opportunity for Ishmael Reed to editorialize and declaim.
Reed's chief editorial concern has become the problem of the beseiged black man, and Juice! is wholly dedicated to elucidating that problem. The novel's protagonist is a cartoonist, Paul Blessings, who is fixated on O.J. Simpson, all of his trials, and the public reaction to Simpson as the embodiment of the image of the black man as killer, as "all black men rolled into one." Blessings keeps track of Simpson developments in minute detail, and his account moves back and forth from the original Simpson trial to the later civil trial to the incident in the Las Vegas hotel room that eventually led to his conviction for robbery to other episodes relating to Simpson, as well as all of the media response to and commentary about Simpson's actions. Reed uses the Simpson case to lambaste the American news media as the mouthpiece of cultural prejudice responsible for perpetuating stereotypes of the black man as Other. Since the criticisms made by Blessings (also known as "Bear") are the same criticisms--not just of media but also of feminists, academics, homosexual activists, politically correct liberals, as well as racist conservatives--made by Reed in his previous novels and in numerous of his public pronouncements, its is surpassingly obvious that Bear is a mouthpiece for Ishmael Reed, making the novel perhaps the most transparently polemical one Reed has written. It is as if the O.J. Simpson case provided Reed a fortuitously convenient instance that brings together all of his critical targets and allows him to take aim with an especially obsessive focus.
Paul Blessings' own obsession with Simpson is nothing if not comprehensive, and his insistence not just that racial fears contributed to the national fascination with Simpson's murder trial but that he was actually innocent of the charges against him initially give the novel a certain contrarian appeal. In addition, Blessings' surveys of the facts of the case and his media critique, while they occupy a large portion of the narrative, are not the only features of his story. Blessings is himself a media figure of modest renown, his cartoons featured on a public television station in the transformation of which from an independent hippie station to a kind of low-rent Fox news he becomes involved. With O.J.'s downfall as a cautionary tale illustrating the dangers awaiting a black man who doesn't stick to the role assigned him, Blessings mutes the social commentary of his cartoons and plays along with the station manager and his reactionary agenda, even though that agenda includes using someone like Blessings to provide multicultural cover. Blessings even wins a prestigious cartoonist society prize for a cartoon perceived to be anti-O.J.
Reed thus implicates his protagonist in the very cultural practices the novel condemns, and in the process complicates our response to Paul Blessings as character and narrator enough to give Juice! some aesthetic credibility as a work of fiction rather than merely an extended screed masquerading as a novel. To an extent Reed holds his narrator up to satirical examination as well, if only to suggest how difficult it is to avoid reinscribing corrupt behavior while still trying to negotiate one's way in a corrupt system. But the satirical veneer is nevertheless very thin, and few readers will think that Blessings' demonstrated flaws as a human being are what invalidate his views of the O.J. Simpson case or gainsay his analysis of American society's attitude toward black men. Some, perhaps many, readers will find these views unconvincing and the analysis tendentious, but responding to the novel's argument as an argument is ultimately unavoidable given that so little effort is made to keeping that argument implicit, as is generally done in the best satire, while much is devoted to fleshing out argument in exhaustive and explicit detail.
It seems likely that Reed considers his audience to be mostly hostile to the argument. While it is possible that readers sympathetic to O.J. Simpson would enjoy Paul Blessings' contrarian account, the novel is most provocative as a challenge to readers who believe Simpson was guilty of double murder and subsequently received just, if insufficient, punishment. However, it doesn't seem likely that either set of readers would find the elaborate exposition of this account other than tedious after a while (for me it was relatively early), although perhaps all readers might be persuaded to take seriously the notion that more than concern for O.J. Simpson's victims were involved in the media coverage and commentary surrounding the "trial of the century." But at this point one might well ask: Why not offer an actual media or social critique, an essay or book on the public response to the Simpson trial and its aftermath, not a novel narrated by a substitue media critic in the guise of a fictional character? Surely Reed's opinions on this subject are not so outrageous they couldn't be sustained through a straightforward nonfiction analysis or be accepted as seriously intended. Indeed, few people will read Juice!and not understand that the opinions expressed by Paul Blessings are consistent with the author's.
Certainly Ishmael Reed has always been a writer whose novels provide social and cultural commentary, often explicit rather than subtle. But some of those novels also provide complexity of form, style, and theme, as well as a more raucous kind of humor, missing from Juice!. Reed's best work qualifies as satire, but the satire of Juice!, as well as Japanese by Spring before it, has become disappointingly laborious, degenerating into a kind of ridicule without humor. Further, the narrowness of focus in both Japanese by Spring and Juice! means that future readers will probably find the subjects dated--in fact, they may already be dated--and the details included impenetrable. While I think readers will still come to The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, and Mumbo Jumbo, the arc of Reed's career nonetheless can be taken as illustration of what can happen to a writer who uses fiction as a medium for "saying something." However much what Reed wants to say leads in his best work to imaginative creations in which the "message" is just part of the interest we might as readers take in them, in Juice! the message now seems about the only thing of interest to the author.
NOTE This review might be taken as an example of the kind of thing I would be interested in receiving from outside reviewers as described in this previous post. Although readers will have to decide for themselves whether it does so effectively, the review attempts to review the book at hand in the context of the author's career, prevailing style, themes, etc. Reviews might also concentrate more intensively on the particular book under review, providing close reading, etc., but I would be looking for reviews that are substantial and that aren't necessarily "timely."
I am increasingly interested in perhaps converting this blog into a multi-author book review site. However, the sort of "book review" I have in mind would not be the thousand-word review designed to "cover" the newest releases as soon as possible after they are published. It still seems to me that too much current fiction that might potentially have staying power is being treated like the newest commercial Hollywood film the success of which is measured by the initial reviews and a highly profitable opening weekend. After the first flurry of reviews, too many novels and story collections begin their trip down the memory hole, and many books, of course, head for oblivion almost immediately when they get few reviews at all.
I would like to see more reviewers and critics wait to write about such books for a while after publication, to take some time to reflect on their response to them, perhaps considering the first wave of reviews as part of that response, and to place the book in the broader context of the writer's work as a whole or of important developments in contemporary fiction. I would like to read more critical essays that perhaps fall somewhere between the "book review" as practiced in literary journalism and "academic criticism," at least in its current form, which often subsumes the work to a broader agenda and seldom focuses on the experience of reading a particular work.
The Reading Experience would thus become a forum for reviews of this kind. I would contribute such reviews myself, but I would also be the "editor" in that I would be looking for other writers and critics to contribute as well. Since I can't pay anyone for the effort, unfortunately the reward would have to be in the value of the effort itself. I could imagine reviews of books that are appearing several months to several years after the publication date, as well as essays that attempt to retrieve books from the oblivion into which they threaten to fall because of a lack of attention.
If anything, poetry is even more endangered by current reviewing practices than fiction, since much important poetry is given no attention at all in book review sections and on book review sites. So I would be interested additionally in reviews of poets and poetry, especially those that attempt to identify the important work being done, either by examining single books by particular poets, or by grouping several poets together, or by discussing at length noteworthy anthologies.
If anyone reading this would have the time and the interest to do the kind of criticism I am describing, please let me know that. (Click on the "About" link above for the e-mail address.) Plans are at this time entirely nebulous, contingent on the interest shown by potential contributors, so I would be organizing this project on an impromptu basis. The blog will continue in its current form in the meantime.
Daniel Davis Wood (his weblog is Infinite Patience) recently published a provocative article in Other Modernities in which he argues that American readers have shown impatience with "post-9/11 fiction" that attempts to come to terms with the event and its aftermath through conventional social/psychological realism and have expressed this impatience through increased interest in such works by British writers as Tom McCarthy's Remainder, Lays Iyers's Spurious, and Lee Rourke's The Canal.
In short, I think, we are witnessing the rebirth of a literary tradition originally born from a crisis that precedes 9/11 but that has nevertheless resulted in the literary internalization of crisis in general, thereby attracting the attention of American readers with a hunger for a more credible response to crisis than the response on offer in the polite realism of the American literary mainstream.
The tradition to which Wood believes these novels belong is that of the nouveau roman, which, in Wood's account "rejects verisimilitude in favor of formal innovation, which engages rather than evades its own inadequacies as a means of representing actuality, and which thus holds a fascination with its own poetics over and above any concern with ‘the real world.’" This is a perfectly cogent description of the goals of the nouveau roman as enunciated in particular by Alain Robbe-Grillet, although I'm not so sure Robbe-Grillet was as committed to the notion of fiction's "inadequacies as a means of representing actuality" as Wood suggests. In the essay "From Realism to Reality," Robbe-Grillet wrote that "the discovery of reality will continue only if we abandon outworn forms." Further, "unless we suppose that the world is henceforth entirely discovered (and, in that case, the wisest thing would be to stop writing altogether), we can only attempt to go farther." Robbe-Grillet believed that the narrative forms associated with realism were exhausted, but that new and experimental forms might take us even closer to reality.
Wood's contention that McCarthy, Iyers, and Rourke be judged as nouveau nouveaux romanciers is also well-taken. Certainly their work has more in common with continental modernism as extended through the nouveau roman than with British social realism, and both McCarthy and Iyers have explicitly and often expressed their allegiance to continental modernism as exemplified by such writers as Blanchot and Bernhard. But ulitmately Wood seems to leave too little room for the work of these writers to stand firmly enough on its "fascination with its own poetics." A novel like Remainder or Spurious still "implicitly addresses 9/11 via its literary form" rather than taking the changed conditions post 9/11 directly as subject, but whether a work of fiction is said to "respond" directly to such conditions or to do so indirectly by implicitly acknowledging its inability to respond directly seems to me to make little difference. "Realism" and its supposed alternative in formal experiment are cast as performing a pas-de-deux to the same musical accompaniment, with the familiar motif that it is the novelist's job precisely to "respond" to extant cultural circumstances. In each case, fiction is reduced to an ancillary form of journalism, its task to register important cultural shifts.
Why can't writers embrace "formal innovation" as an end in itself, without in effect justifying it by framing it as a "response" to cultural changes? Why can't readers embrace Remainder, Spurious, or The Canal as indeed part of a "widespread dissatisfaction with the dominance of post-9/11 fiction by literary realism" without also demanding there still be a recognizable category of "post-9/11 fiction"? Is all fiction inevitably to be assigned to this category simply because it appeared after September 11, 2001? Hasn't the folly of fixating on this event as somehow representing a monumental displacement of "actuality," an unprecedented event in the history of human irrationality and barbarism, been made manifestly clear in the insane militarism and hysterical intolerance that have ensued in its wake? It has certainly done its share of damage to serious writing and honest criticism. In its attempt to dispel the "crisis of confidence" 9/11 produced in some discussions of American fiction, Wood's essay is surely honest criticism, but I don't think it sufficiently lets go of "9/11" as the signal event in recent literary history.
Wood is right, however, to point out that it has taken these novels by British writers in an identifiably European tradition to reveal "dissatisfaction" among American readers and critics with mainstream American fiction. The conclusion to be reached from his analysis would be either that there are no American writers offering the same kind of alternative, or that at least such efforts have not been made visible enough. Although I do believe that too much of what is called "innovative" fiction in the United States has been traveling down the dead-end road of a torpid surrealism (which is most assuredly engaged in its own pas-de-deux with realism), I also think there are writers who deserve more attention for the way they do provide relief from the post 9/11 syndrome. I will take it as a challenge to identify and discuss some of those writers, both on this blog and in reviews I may publish elsewhere.
Michael Orthofer at The Literary Saloon:
"As far as the issue of how tainted the Aurum money is ... well, dear god, do you really think any of the money that gets laundered through such prizes or any other fellowships or awards or anything of the sort -- whether private/corporate cash or government-channeled disbursements -- isn't so through and through sordidly filthy that if you knew the half of it you wouldn't be able to bear living with yourself ?
Short answer: No, I don't think that.
Therefore, it is beyond me why any self-respecting writer would perpetuate this scummy practice and accept any of these prizes.
More importantly, it is further beyond me why any self-respecting writer would think that a "prize" or an "award" is actually an appropriate measure of literary merit, or has anything whatsoever to do with serious writing and reading. It's a way for capitalism to reinforce itself as the ultimate arbiter of value--cash value--even among those who might be expected to believe that in literature more important values are at stake.
Stacey Levine's The Girl With Brown Fur (Starcherone Books) is yet another example of the way in which a certain strain of current "experimental" fiction has become tied to surrealism as the apparent alternative to conventional practice--presumably understood as itself committed to "realism," to which the new surrealism is the appropriate challenge. The most notable (and popular) harbinger of this mode of literary antithesis is perhaps the fiction of Aimee Bender, but it is now arguably the dominant approach among younger writers and in the fiction published by "indie" journals and presses.
Which, of course, means it's now no longer even vaguely "experimental," even if it ever was. (It wasn't.) It seems to be the default strategy of a rising generation of writers who otherwise regard themselves as unconventional. It is becoming, in other words, the new, unexamined convention. Levine is older (her first book was published in 1993), so perhaps her work could be regarded as a precursor of sorts, less subject to the charge of trendiness, even as it does continue to participate in practices that are fast becoming dull and commonplace.
"Dull" is precisely the word I would use to describe The Girl With Brown Fur. Not only are the individual stories tedious to read, but the relentless sameness of the stories (with some alternation of shorter with longer ones) makes reading the collection as a whole an oppressive experience. If the stories were more boisterously absurdist, or even just more straightforwardly whimsical, the book might be at least passably entertaining, but instead they proceed through their mostly amorphous narratives in the same affectless tone, reciting their mostly desultory actions and events in the same robotic way. Although writers such as Kafka and Borges, to whose work Levine's is sometimes compared, relate strange, ultimately inexplicable occurrences in a deadpan manner, as if such occurrences were perfectly normal, Levine's stories convey no particular impression at all. Her characters--and these stories are character-centric--have no presence, as if just giving them a name and assigning them weird things to do and say is enough to make them interesting.
The very first story in the book, "Uppsala," exemplifies all of these problems. Although it is one of the briefer stories, its welcome begins to wear with the initial scene-setting:
We come from a bad family and we are disgraced.
"What time do we get there?" asks Brother.
"Stop cluttering your mind with those kinds of thoughts," answers Mother. It is Brother's nineteenth birthday, and we are driving off to the cabin.
We think she is terrible.
The true source of our family remains unknown, though it effectively has prevented speech and compassion for the speechless.
The remainder of the story advances very little beyond what we learn in this passage, to the extent what we are told is comprehensible in the first place. The family arrives at the cabin, where we learn that indeed her children fear her. It is a "bad family" that dares not speak around her due to her "terrible" unhappiness. Unfortunately, these basic facts are then repeated again and again, in different words: "Our nights are static and lonely as ice gathers around the perimeter of this family kitchen"; "Our family is sad and does not live in a verdant place"; "But we are bound in a community of tension and stupendous threat the name of which only Mother knows." The burden of the story's additional narrative movement is carried by similar narrational declarations: "Because of our wounds, we each have grown permeable and have for example consoled one another at twilight"; "That winter we leaned the snow incited our games and the desire to freeze away our mother's sickness and we grew angry."
The "poetic" flourishes--"Amidst the piercing whiteness. . .our wishes that combine to produce friction of desperate severity"-- that decorate this and other stories can't rescue them from monotony and affectation. Although in the longer stories more of the narrative action is conventionally dramatized, they still, as Kristy Eldredge approvingly puts it, proceed "allusively, in an allegorical code," one that in my opinion condenses sense too densely in the name of superficial oddity and "quirk." And while in a story such as "Uppsala" the characters aren't meant to be developed extensively enough that the allegorical names they are given--Brother, Father, Mother--don't yet descend fully into mannerism, the other characters in the book play similarly one-dimensional roles. The effect of most of the stories is the same as in "Uppsala": the surface oddity substitutes for both character development and plot, and neither the language nor the imagery nor the mostly muted humor can rescue them from tedium.
Eldredge further maintains that Levine's approach "always feels down-to-earth and revealing of very real pockets in the human psyche." Some such claim, that the characters are recognizable even as they fail to be distinctive, that Levine is probing the primordial psyche, seems to accompany many of the generally admiring reviews and discussions of Levine's work, but even if I thought these claims had merit, I would not consider them significant accomplishments. The last thing we need is a continuation of the privileging of "psychological realism" through other, more superficially disguised means, reinforcing the notion that the appropriate goal of fiction is to probe and reveal the "human psyche," as if fiction were just an adjunct of psychotherapy. Going after the "deep pockets" (what is "revealed" usually amounts to platitudes and commonplaces, as in the generic "unhappiness" of Uppsala") through reversing the methods of realism is no more enlightening than it is in realism proper, and equally specious.
There is nothing formally challenging about The Girl With Brown Fur. The conventions of exposition, scenic construction, and dialogue go undisturbed. Character and plot are not abandoned, merely flattened out into lifelessness. The stories' uniform style does nothing to redress this lifelessness, aside from the usual sort of figurative language. The only conceivably unorthodox strategy in these stories is the reversal of realism, and at some point this becomes merely a repetitive gesture and ultimately only reinforces the protocols of realism by constantly reminding us of their deliberate absence. If Stacey Levine cannot be accused of helping to reduce surrealism to cliche by jumping on its current bandwagon, her fiction does nothing to avoid that fate.
I have now read Lady Chatterley's Brother, the initial offering in a new series of e-books to be published by The Quarterly Conversation. The series is called "TQC Long Essays," and this first publication is actually two long essays, one by Barrett Hathcock on Nicholson Baker's House of Holes and one by series editor Scott Esposito on Javier Marias, each addressing the common theme of the depiction of sex and sexuality in fiction. This is a terrific concept in e-publishing (every volume will apparently be around 70 pages, as Scott says, "way too much for your average webpage, not quite enough for a printed book"), and I look forward to the subsequent releases.
Hathcock's essay on Baker is pretty harsh on both House of Holes and the portrayal of sex in contemporary fiction. There are assumptions in his dismissal of this novel and of the fitness of sex as a subject in fiction with which I cannot agree, but I hope to return to his analysis in a review of my own of House of Holes that I will be posting in the near future. Hathcock also performs the useful service of surveying the general reception of Baker's novel, so his essay provides a valuable context for a critical debate about the novel and about Baker's fiction in general.
Scott Esposito's essay on Marias is an impressive examination of Marias's depiction of sex and the attitude toward sex expressed by his characters, implicitly in contrast to that found in Baker's fiction. It also connects the portrayal of sexual desire to the style and structure of Marias's fiction, in a way that should make this essay an effective introduction to Maria's work as well. I have not read Marias myself, and the essay made me want to do that, which seems to me the highest praise I could give to a critical essay of this kind.
The theme uniting the essays gives them an added interest beyond the consideration given the individual authors, and thus Lady Chatterley's Brother can be appreciated as both literary criticism focused on these two writers and as a broader discussion of "sex writing" in contemporary fiction. It's well worth the quite nominal price charged for the download.
I couldn't really care less who is nominated for or who wins a National Book Award. However, Laura Miller's whining complaint about this year's nominees--the judges didn't nominate any of the books I overpraised!--is pretty hard to pass over in silence.
Apparently the nominees for fiction, all at first glance quite tame, conventional examples of "literary fiction" as defined by middlebrow standards, is too "obscure" for Miller's comfort. In other words, they either didn't get a lot of attention in the mainstream press (Tea Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife is the lone press favorite) or they didn't appeal to a wide audience of readers. Presumably speaking on behalf of those spurned reviewers and those "recalcitrant" readers who want their tastes reinforced, Miller proclaims that
If you categorically rule out books that a lot of people like, you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of people don’t like the books you end up with. This is especially common when the nominated books exhibit qualities — a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling — that either don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off.
Miller doesn't establish that the nominated books suffer from these vices; she doesn't seem to know much about them at all, but simply takes their lack of name recognition to mean they must be too arty for normal readers. One suspects, however, that the greatest affront these books represent is not to readers or potential readers--who might find the books perfectly accessible should they give them a try--but to reviewers like Laura Miller, whose focus on "name" writers and whose judgment about their achievements are implicitly being brought into question.
According to Miller, "the public mostly wants the major awards to help them sort out the most important books of the year, not to point them toward overlooked gems with a specialized appeal." But since, as Miller quite rightly points out herself, to the narcotized American "public" all fiction has a "specialized appeal," why would the NBA list prove any more or less useful than one dominated by Jeffrey Eugenides, Amy Waldman, Chad Harbach or Ann Patchett? Unless Miller is prepared to show that the work produced by these writers is demonstrably superior to those on the list, readers unfamiliar with all of them are as likely to find the nominated titles worth their time as those more "popular" with the reviewers the list has seemingly repudiated.
The National Book Award has made itself irrelevant because it devotes itself to finding five worthy books to highlight rather than catering to "people who can find time for only two or three new novels per year (if that)" and who "want to make sure that they’re reading something significant." Miller doesn't specify what would make nominated books appropriately "significant," but again one has to conclude that a "significant" book is one that a credentialed literary journalist such as Laura Miller has identified as such. The NBA is becoming irrelevant because unaccountably it isn't paying much attention to her.
The notion that a significant literary award should be deferring to those who read "only two or three new novels per year" is, of course, absurd. If it was possible to believe that Miller actually cared much about attracting new readers to serious fiction, it might be further possible to have a debate about whether these low-ambition readers should be targeted by book awards, whether it is even possible to "educate" their reading tastes, or whether such readers should be the audience for book reviewers reviewing "literary" fiction. But by now it's clear that Laura Miller has staked her claim to critical influence on a defense of "ordinary" readers against fancy writers who write too much and that she'll stick to that story, however misguided, lest her standing as a critic to be heeded is threatened.
Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy has received mixed reviews at best, and the most common complaint against has been that it is flawed in what is usually called "character development." Steve Almond asserts that its characters "seem more like mouthpieces than genuine people. We learn little about them beyond their half-baked dogma, and the point of view shifts frequently." Brain Evenson criticizes Taylor for merely "creating character images that contrast from scene to scene, allowing these unexplained changes to do the work of character development." Carolyn Kellogg regards its mode of narration as "a distancing agent, seeding a ubiquitous narrative skepticism."
While I would agree that The Gospel of Anarchy is a disappointing first novel, I don't think its main problem lies in a failure to create vivid characters. Indeed, since the novel is largely about the way its characters are willing to subsume their identities to the tenets of a burgeoning sect (some might say cult), or at least to find their identities in the formation of a collective, it seems very strange to fault it because it lacks distinct characters beyond the "half-baked dogma" they embrace. Similarly, since these characters are precisely trying to "distance" themselves from society at large, it's a curious response to them that finds "a distancing agent" inappropriate.
Furthermore, the injunction to develop "round" characters seems quite a reactionary expectation of a young writer, who may or may not find this a desirable goal, as is Almond's further pronouncements that novels "depend on rising action" in which "conflicts. . .have to be dramatized" and finding The Gospel of Anarchy wanting in fulfilling these hoary requirements. There's nothing in The Gospel of Anarchy that suggests Justin Taylor wants it to be judged as an "experimental" novel, but it nevertheless seems pretty dogmatic in its own right to demand it provide "sympathetic" characters, a fixed point of view, and adherence to Freytag's triangle to be judged acceptable.
If The Gospel of Anarchy is not particularly audacious in form or style, Taylor is clearly a skilled enough writer, and the "shifts" in point of view help maintain interest in the story, however much the story is unfortunately all too predictable, the outcome of its depiction of a failed punk commune implicit in its origins in youthful naivete, rigidity of belief, and in the narratives of failed utopias that precede it (I often thought in particular of Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance while reading The Gospel of Anarchy.) Taylor's first book, the story collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, was widely praised for its portrayal of disenchanted youth, but part of the trouble with The Gospel of Anarchy is that it ultimately leaves the impression it began as one of those highly compacted stories and has been stretched beyond its capacity to bear the burden of both invoking its characters' spiritual ennui and depicting their attempts to re-enchant the world they've inherited.
The biggest problem with The Gospel of Anarchy, however, is that it is stretched to bear that burden in such a relentlessly earnest way its author seems not to be aware he is telling on overly familiar tale whose outcome is foreordained. In his review of the novel, Joe Coscarelli complains there is too much "ambiguity as to whether [Taylor] means to mock his characters or endorse their anti-capitalist paradise," but actually whatever ambiguity there might be on this point is really all there is to maintain any interest in the story. Ultimately it doesn't really matter: the narrative seems designed to establish that the beliefs motivating the characters in their attempt to create an "anti-capitalist paradise" are precisely the sort of beliefs such characters in such a place and at such a time would hold--or did hold. Whether we are to find them compelling or ridiculous isn't finally what's at stake, although most readers will probably find themselves considering that question.
The novel begins well, with a portrait of its ostensible protagonist (the focus soon shifts away from him and settles on "Fishgut," a haven for the disaffected and the dropouts of the college town of Gainesville, Florida) in a state of extreme apathetic discontent, listlessly sorting through online porn while trying to decide whether to finish his education at the University of Florida. This character, David, meets up with an old friend who has fallen even farther into discontent, and who at the moment is engaged in a systematic act of dumpster-diving on behalf of his fellow residents of Fishgut. These episodes are fairly bracing, offering a vivid depiction of generational alienation, but they are not so freshly conceived or rendered to really seem shocking.
As if recognizing that such sketches of dissatisfaction and implicit despair can go only so far, Taylor devotes the rest of the novel to sketches of his characters attempting to ameliorate their despair. This is not an unreasonable or illegitimate thing to do, but the vehicle for this attempt, a hybrid ideology combining elements of anarchism, existentialism, and Christianity the group's de facto leader, Kate, calls "Anarchristianity," is not nearly as interesting as she--and perhaps Taylor--thinks it is. Apart from some scenes depicting David's sexual escapades with Kate and Kate's girlfriend, Liz, escapades that are themselves meant to represent a living-out of important tenets of the creed, most of the novel is taken up with an exposition of "anarchristianity" as inspired, at least retroactively, by a Fishgut resident named Parker, long since departed. While this part of the novel has some interest as an account of how religious sects (ultimately religion itself) get started, on the whole The Gospel of Anarchy doesn't give enough emphasis to this subject, either formally or thematically, to rescue it from the tedium that sets in when Parker and his "wisdom" become the novel's center of attention.
By the time we get to several pages of excerpts from the "holy book" concocted by Kate and David from some unorganized journals left behind by Parker, we've already been so immersed in the awkward hybrid of politics and religion that is anarchristianity it is very difficult to read these pages with the degree of interest Taylor clearly enough intends them to have. If the writings themselves were more lively, their ideas more provocative, we might still concede their importance to the novel, but instead we are given passages such as this:
Faith is the power by which we leap over the unbridgeable chasm, burst through the wall of the asymptote, realize Heaven on Earth. Grace is us granted that power, the fuel injected into faith's engine, the energy generated from its burning up.
Even if we could determine what such a claim is really supposed to mean, it's likely it would turn out to be just as banal as it seems. In my opinion, these pages act to finally bring down the novel as an aesthetic achievement. However much notions like this might appeal to susceptible twentysomethings, they're neither so vitally expressed we want to carefully consider them, nor so obviously ludicrous we know that satire is intended. They're just boring, and the eyes glaze while reading this collection of jottings.
It seems to me that Justin Taylor is too concerned in The Gospel of Anarchy with "capturing" his generation, with "saying something" about that generation's search for solutions to what they perceive as the problems of modern existence. This search is certainly a universal enough phenomenon, but unfortunately the novel essentially offers the same account of it as previous generations of literary seekers. Is fitting this particular kind of quest narrative to the changing if superficial particulars of each succeeding generation's social circumstances a worthwhile goal for the novelist? I tend to think not.
Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that in the past few months I have changed both the site design and the content. In this new format, my own posts appear here, on the main column, but I have added two columns to the right, one to keep track of ongoing "literary news" and the other to post links to "literary views," posts and essays of substance from other sites, and "notable book reviews" from other sites.
My posts have become somewhat longer in the last year or so, and farther between. I did not necessarily intend that to happen, but in focusing on the five topics listed to the right under "Categories," I have found myself writing at greater length (although I still try to not simply repeat the themes that were the focus of the first iteration of this blog) and posting these pieces with less frequency. I hope the posts I do publish make up in substance what they lack in timeliness. I have especially spent more time writing reviews of new fiction, to which I also hope to add reviews of new poetry, and should this blog in its current form become primarily known for posting new reviews of some substance, I would be happy with that.
However, I am hoping that an audience might still come to The Reading Experience even on those days or weeks when nothing new from me has been posted. The "literary news" I am tracking is not the gossip- and trivia-heavy "news" that dominates too many links roundups. I want to note such news as serious readers of fiction and poetry might want to consider precisely amongst the trivia and publisher-focused items shared around most literary sites. The "literary views" I want to highlight are those still being offered with care and thought by literary and critical blogs, as well as other online sources. Since in my opinion most of the book reviews published in newspapers have become only more superficial and bland since the "crisis" in print book reviewing was pronounced, most of the book reviews to which I will draw attention are those appearing on critically credible blogs as well as the increasing number of online book reviews, which even now do a better of job of reviewing the full range of current fiction and poetry than the newspaper-based reviews ever did.
I hope to update these sections several times a week, if not daily, so readers interested in the kind of literary news and commentary I have described could profitably visit this blog even when its feed indicates no new post from me has yet appeared.
Much of this sort of linking has been taken over from blogs by social networking platforms, but it seems to me there is still room for a blog to display all such links in one place. Still, links- or digest-style blogging is not what it used to be, which arguably frees the blog--specifically the "literary weblog" as it was originally called--to engage in the longer form reviewing and literary commentary for which I myself always thought it was very well-suited. Whether the "litblog" will endure as a form of publication for such commentary is still an open question (some people think it's already dead), but it's a possibility I continue to pursue.
My review of 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Writers is now featured at Full Stop.
. . .On the whole, the selections included are quite heavy on narrative, even old-fashioned linear narrative, however surreal or fantastic the events chronicled often are. Indeed, surrealism or a fantasy-inflected version of absurdism seems the dominant strategy in these selections, but it is a fabular, allegorical mode of surrealism in which the reader’s attention is consistently oriented toward story. . . .
My review of Harold Bloom's The Anatomy of Influence appears in the autumn issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
There is no doubt that Bloom has proven to be a “provocation” beyond the classroom, and in a way that often “alienates” rather than productively challenges, which is no doubt the effect Bloom hopes to have on his students. Most recently Bloom has provoked the “media” to purvey an image of him as an elitist, curmudgeonly defender of tradition and scourge of the popular, a literary dinosaur still roaming the earth even though the climate in which he finds himself has irreversibly shifted. Bloom thus seems to appear to some “ordinary” readers as a rather menacing figure whose views stand as a challenge to their reading habits, or as a rather pompously comic figure whose opinions can be safely dismissed. . . .
As always, there are many other good things to read in this issue of TQC as well.
Partisans of "experimental" fiction (I am one) frequently make unequivocal distinctions between a properly experimental and a "conventional" work: The experimental work is formally or stylistically unlike anything that has come before--satisfying Ezra Pound's injunction to "make it new"--while the conventional work merely recapitulates, perhaps with modest variation, an already existing form or style.
If the goal is to identify the truly original, this distinction makes sense, however much it seems to some readers an overly rigid standard or just unnecessary--if a work of literature provides some kind of aesthetic satisfaction (if it's merely "a good read"), what difference does it make if it can be called original or not? In my opinion formal and stylistic innovation is important in maintaining the aesthetic potential of fiction. Without it, fiction becomes just a routinized "entertainment" medium that at best appeals to readers willing to settle for routine entertainment but that at worst itself implicitly denies that fiction has any potential to be "art" except through the skill required to master the moves involved in joining together the familiar elements--plot, character, setting--associated with it as an inherited form. I would not deny that this can be done more or less skillfully (and that the result can be more or less entertaining), but surely it is artistic originality that at the very least introduces a fresh perspective on what might be possible in a particular aesthetic form, and surely this is as true of fiction as of any other of the arts.
Perhaps, however, those of us who would defend experimental fiction against its frequent enough detractors (who usually either do prefer the familiar over the fresh or conveniently judge all literary experiments to be failed experiments) do, wittingly or unwittingly, too quickly discount the value of a work's capacity to "entertain," at least if "entertaining" is defined as that quality of the work that sustains attention, makes the reader feel the reading experience is worth the time spent. I have always thought the greatest experimental fiction precisely manages to both find original means of expression and make that expression entertaining, even traditionally "enjoyable." The fiction of Gilbert Sorrentino, for example, has always seemed to me wildly entertaining, even if it is dedicated first of all to discarding all the conventional ways of providing entertainment through narrative fiction. The same is true of the fiction (and the plays) of Samuel Beckett, if the reader can reconcile the at times farcical premises and occurrences with the bleak view of human existence Beckett presents.
There is also perhaps a middle ground between "experimental" and "conventional" in fiction where writers are able to follow up on (in a sense further experiment with) strategies and techniques first introduced by previous innovative writers, in some cases precisely employing those techniques in a more obvious attempt to turn them to the purposes of familiar literary pleasures. Although some practices that were at one time more daring--fragmented narrative or the move toward "psychological realism" among modernist writers such as Joyce and Woolf, for example--have inevitably become so assimilated as to no longer seem exceptional, others can still be used to credible effect by skillful writers seeking to avoid the most conventionalized assumptions about writing novels or stories. While the results couldn't be called experimental other than in this second-order sense, such works are certainly more adventurous than the great majority of what gets called literary fiction, and might even help convince some readers that more adventurous approaches to both the writing and reading of fiction could have their merits.
One such work is Arthur Phillips's The Tragedy of Arthur. Describable as parody or pastiche, or a combination of the two, the novel actually avoids taking on a structure readers immediately recognize as that of a novel, instead assuming the form of an "introduction" to a putatively newly-discovered play by Shakespeare, along with the text of the play. The introduction hardly exhibits the characteristics of an ordinary scholarly introduction, itself proceeding more as the memoir of "Arthur Phillips," in whose possession the play resides, and as such often satirizes the now-ubiquitous memoir form. The structure is highly reminiscent of Nabokov's Pale Fire, which Phillips has himself acknowledged, although most of the "story" occurs in the memoir itself rather than in the footnotes to the play (which do, however, add another layer of commentary on both the text and its origins.) Whereas Pale Fire works by forcing the reader to read carefully both the poem Nabokov has written and attributed to "John Shade" and the scholarly apparatus that purports to explicate it in order to extract the "real" story its narrator/editor wants to tell (which turns out to be quite an entertaining if outlandish one), The Tragedy of Arthur puts fewer burdens on the reader (at least explicitly); the fictional memoir, humorously tangential as a critical preface to Shakespeare, offers a narrative complete in itself, while the fabricated play could ostensibly also be read separately.
However lightly Phillips executes the formal manipulation, The Tragedy of Arthur is not an ordinary reading experience. It holds in balance several sources of aesthetic tension the reader must still reckon with, tensions left deliberately unresolved. Besides the obvious unresolved question (unresolved within the fictional framework) of whether "The Tragedy of Arthur" is real or fraudulent Shakespeare, we are left to contemplate how much of the story of "Arthur Phillips" is autobiographical and how much invented, which Arthur's life story--pere, fils, or protagonist of the play--is characterized as "tragedy," and whether we are to consider "The Tragedy of Arthur" as "good" Shakespeare, even if it is forged.
It may finally be the aesthetic triumph of this novel that all of these questions remain unanswered, or that they must be answered by individual readers. Although it seems most likely that the con man Arthur Sr. did indeed forge the play, the possibility it is genuine (again, within the fictional framework of the novel) is not foreclosed, as it is not beyond possibility that a "lost" Shakespeare play could one day be found. (At least two plays attributed to Shakespeare are known to be lost.) Moreover, even if it is forged, what does it say about Phillips Sr., something close to a common criminal as portrayed in the novel, that he could nevertheless channel Shakespeare's spirit well enough to produce a plausible simulation? (What does it say about Shakespeare?) (What does it say about Shakespeare that the novelist Arthur Phillips could produce such a simulation? About Arthur Phillips?) That it probably is forged additionally allows us to appreciate Phillips's satire of the "expertise" we assume Shakespeareans possess: their "authentication" of the play is clearly enough part wishful thinking, part craven service to a publisher interested in the project only for the money that might be made.
Phillips invites us to consider his "memoir" authentic as well (much of the information provided seems verifiably true), but ultimately it has to be taken as at least as much a fabrication as "The Tragedy of Arthur," however much Phillips uses real names and seemingly draws on the particulars of his own life and upbringing. Like the play, the introductory memoir has a surface plausibility as "the real thing," but we would be ill-advised to accept it as more than that. It works to reinforce formally what Sam Sacks in his excellent review of the novel called its theme of "the ambiguity of fraud" and in the process reminds us that all memoir is subject to this ambiguity, when it isn't manifestly fraudulent. Fiction, of course, is by definition a "fraud," but it explicitly announces itself as such, and one could say that The Tragedy of Arthur is as much as anything else a playful challenge to our tendencies to read fiction as disguised memoir and to the recent turn to memoir as a more reliable narrative source of literal truth. Readers of fiction will have to be content with the "ambiguity" that accompanies the fraud of fiction.
Such ambiguity (and playfulness) is carried through in the juxtaposition of Arthurs: Arthur the narrator, Arthur his father, Arthur the protagonist of the putative Shakespeare play, and Arthur Phillips, the author of The Tragedy of Arthur. Arthur the younger suffers the tragedy of a broken relationship with his father, Arthur the elder a similar tragedy in his loss of family, but also in the foreshortening of his own life's possibilities through his own mistakes, while King Arthur undergoes the tragedy that often befalls the royal heroes of Shakespeare's tragedies. The "tragedy" of the title perhaps then belongs equally to each, although one might ask whether Arthur Sr.'s forgery might actually represent a final triumph, a successful effort to breathe the same air as his hero Shakespeare, an effort strong enough it has fooled some into regarding it as genuine. The Tragedy of Arthur must represent a triumph for Arthur Phillips as well, a triumph of literary creation that, if it doesn't equal that of Shakespeare, or of Nabokov, is impressive enough and in its ingenuity subtly mocks any sense of "tragedy" involved in the novel's ostensible subject.
Thus finally the question of whether "The Tragedy of Arthur" as forged by either "Arthur Phillips" or Arthur Phillips is credible as Shakespeare is mostly beside the point. Certainly it is credible enough to pass as a claimant to authorship by Shakespeare, and that it be good enough to provoke the controversy depicted is as good as it needs to be. Phillips has undeniably immersed himself in Elizabethan language and culture as rendered by Shakespeare, and part of the fun in reading the play is coming upon those kinds of constructions one always finds puzzling in Shakespeare skillfully approximated. ("When they would have your guts to stuff their pudding-bags.") In my view, what Phillips has done most adeptly with the play is to fully integrate it within the concerns and the structure of the novel as a whole, and critics who have emphasized the mere fact of its presence or who suggest it is in itself the focal point of the novel have conveyed a distorted impression of its actual achievement.
Because The Tragedy of Arthur so emphatically foregrounds form, readers are not as likely to appreciate through it what in Phillips's previous novels seemed to me his strongest talent as a novelist, his facility as a prose stylist. This is on display most conspicuously in Prague, his first novel, and The Song Is You, the novel immediately preceding The Tragedy of Arthur. Although both of these novels feature (for American fiction) somewhat unconventional situations--a group of American expatriates in central Europe, an aging director of television commercials becoming obsessed with a young pop singer--neither of them could be said to be plot-driven. Both appeal through fluency of style. This is especially true of The Song is You (although ultimately Prague is probably the better novel because it seems less hermetically caught in the consciousness of a single protagonist), which intrepidly if eloquently articulates the increasingly rejuvenated mental life of its protagonist as he both surveys his life and pursues his new interest in a beguiling singer and in music in general.
The Irish girl performed that night. The crowd was larger, challenging the bar's legal capacity, and Julian thought she had changed in the last weeks, maybe even developed. She was slightly more coherent as a performer, as a projector of an idea and an image. The previous gig, something had distracted and dislocated her, as when color newsprint is misaligned and an unholy yellow aura floats a fractioned inch above the bright red body of a funny-pages dog. It had been perhaps the bass player's mistakes, or, if the hipster snob was to be credited, the seductively whispering approach of success. No matter: she was clearer tonight, even if he could still see her strive, from one song to the next, for an array of effects: the casually ironic urban girl, the junkie on the make, the desperate Irish lass whose love was lost to the Troubles, the degenerate schoolgirl, the lover by the fire with skin as velvet succulent as rose-petal flesh. . . .
With The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips shows that as a novelist he has formidable control of both form and language. This was to an extent evident as well in The Egyptologist and in the Jamesian manipulations of point of view in Angelica, but Arthur confirms he is not an ordinary novelist rehearsing the same workshop-imposed conventions. I do not necessarily expect a new Arthur Phillips novel to revitalize the avant-garde, but I have come to expect it will exist outside the mold to which too many novels reflexively conform, formally and stylistically. His novels may lag behind Nabokov or Beckett or Sorrentino in adventurousness, but they do perhaps make some readers aware that more adventurous approaches are possible, and can even bring pleasure.
To say, as Mark McGurl does in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, that "far from occasioning a sad decline in the quality or interest of American literature, as one so often hears, the writing program has generated a complex and evolving constellation of aesthetic problems that have been explored with tremendous energy--and a times great brilliance--by a vast range of writers who have also been students and teachers" is not to say creative writing programs themselves have been responsible for the "tremendous energy" and frequent "brilliance" that I agree does indeed characterize a great deal of American fiction in the post-World War II period (especially the period of the 1960s and 70s). Although I wouldn't necessarily claim that a "vast" number of energetic and brilliant writers have been "students and teachers" in creative writing programs, still, a large enough number of such writers, from Flannery O'Connor to Donald Barthelme to Stanley Elkin, have participated in the creative writing "program" to one extent or another, but surely these writers would have been just as energetic and just as brilliant if they had not had creative writing to jump-start their careers or to provide them with a reliable livelihood.
Nor to say that, on the whole, the "program era" has produced "a rich and multifaceted body of literary writing" to say that, however "multifaceted" it might be," this body of work is "rich" all the way down. Again, just to list some of the writers who have been associated with creative writing is to show that much of the best postwar fiction can be claimed by "the program," even if it is hardly responsible for providing these writers with their talent. That creative writing has help to nurture writers from previously underrepresented groups of American is undeniable (and one of its greatest accomplishments), but this does not mean either that it can be credited with the quality of what the best of these writers ultimately produced or that the fiction created by these groups is uniformly "rich." I believe that creative writing programs can help aspiring writers achieve a minimum level of competence with certain kinds of writing tasks they may not have been able to achieve as quickly on their own, but they surely do not manufacture good writers simply through the fact of their existence.
McGurl does make a claim on behalf of the enhanced "excellence" of postwar American fiction that is based on the fortuitous rise of creative writing:
Because of the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool coincident to the advent of mass higher education, and the wide distribution, therein, of elevated literary ambitions, and the cultivation in these newly vocal, vainglorious masses of the habits of self-conscious attention to craft through which these ambitions might plausibly be realized, is it not true that owing to the organized efforts of the program--to the simple fact of our trying harder than ever before--there has been a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period?
Many readers and reviewers seem to have taken The Program Era as a brief on behalf of the salubrious effects of creative writing on American literature (really just American fiction), but this is as concrete an account of the way in which creative writing "improved" American literature as we get--it was there to take advantage of the greater accessibility to higher education, and the increase in "literary ambitions" this inevitably entailed, and to encourage "habits of self-conscious attention to craft." Nothing in the overwhelmingly most popular method of creative writing instruction adopted by writing programs--the "workshop" method--is shown in particular to have resulted in the "excellence" of the system, although the focus on "craft" has presumably helped foster a more widespread technical competence in the "literary fiction" that gets published.
That is why Elif Batuman's critique of creative writing in the guise of a review of The Program Era, which otherwise made some perfectly good points worthy of debate, was really beside the point as a response to McGurl's book. McGurl is more interested in the way in which writers, finding themselves in an environment in which they were systematically exposed to "a complex and evolving constellation of aesthetic problems," unavoidably considered and addressed those problems and how American fiction in the postwar era unavoidably shows the influence of this engagement.Thus, when Batuman (among others) focuses on whether creative writing is good or bad for writers, she's not really discussing the subject of The Program Era, and when McGurl himself takes up Batuman's indictment, he has to alter his own focus and consider the questions she raises about the baneful effects of creative writing on would-be writers. His book describes the ways in which writers and their work have reflected or embodied the "complex" problems they encountered from within the system, a description to which Batuman's reservations about creative writing as a discipline simply aren't germane.
Ultimately The Program Era isn't much different from many other academic studies of postwar or "contemporary" fiction that attempt to find just the right formulation or critical insight that captures the essence of postwar fiction, or at least an important practice that is distinctive of postwar fiction. Other books propose such terms as "systems novel" or "radical innocence" or "dirty realism" as candidates. ("Black humor," "metafiction," "minimalism," and, indeed, "postmodern" began as such terms.) McGurl proposes "program fiction." As an interpretive tool, this formulation works pretty well in McGurl's analysis, and in my opinion The Program Era is a valuable addition to the collection of scholarly studies of postwar American fiction attempting to give this period some critical definition.
Such books have been numerous, of course, because as a scholarly discipline, "contemporary literature" is by definition undefined. The literary "fields" predating the contemporary have already been intensively, and more or less permanently, sorted and categorized, their important authors, works, trends, and movements identified and established for further study. As an academic field, contemporary literature is unsettled and in flux (although perhaps the immediate postwar era, say 1945-1975, is becoming more stable in its outlines), which on the one hand provides an opportunity for an assiduous and well-read critic to map the territory, but on the other hand this effort probably can't help but be reductive unless the critic merely intends to treat all writers and works equally, including as many of the former as possible and restricting discussion of the latter to simple summary.
Thus if The Program Era is not as comprehensive as it claims to be, this does not make it less useful as an examination of that large enough slice of American fiction on which McGurl concentrates--the fiction that can plausibly be understood at least in part by its author's affiliation with writing programs. But just to name a few of the writers that McGurl excludes from consideration indicates the limitations of "program era" as interpretive lens: Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Gilbert Sorrentino, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Norman Mailer. Elkin, Gass, and Sorrentino were associated with creative writing programs, but their work nevertheless doesn't quite fit McGurl's notion of "technomodernism," his renaming of one the tendencies usually identified with the postmodern. Bellow, Updike, and Mailer are perhaps the three most obvious examples of writers who had nothing to do with creative writing, and it is really implausible to claim that postwar American fiction can be adequately measured without discussing them.
"Program fiction" becomes in McGurl's analysis a perfectly coherent concept for thinking about this kind of contemporary fiction, but finally "program era" doesn't suffice as a label for the whole period. The book is very good in its chronicling of the way the pool of literary talent was expanded by creative writing, and in analyzing the dynamics of the interaction between those who found themselves part of "the program" and those "aesthetic problems" swirling around it. But, however much American society was transformed by the swell of enrollment in higher education, American literature was not completely subsumed into the university. (Indeed, another book considering those writers who resisted the migration of literature and the literary vocation into the academy would be an interesting project.) "Creative writing" did not entirely replace "fiction" and "poetry" as the name for the form to which poets and novelists aspire to contribute.
And if McGurl is trying to characterize an entire literary era, then his neglect of poetry and the role of poets in the creative writing program is also a debilitating problem, however much he needed to limit his focus to make the scope of the book manageable. In my opinion, this omission is a much more serious problem, even for the thesis that the creative writing program is the most important postwar development in American literature, than McGurl seems to think. In almost every way--number of faculty, number of students recruited, influence of a program's graduates, etc.--poetry has been on an equal footing with fiction in the development of creative writing. Is it less important to understand how the institutionalizing of literary practice has affected American poetry in the postwar years than American fiction? Is taking and teaching a poetry workshop less reflective of the democratization of higher education than taking or teaching one in fiction?
Perhaps most importantly: Are the same forces McGurl describes as influencing the work of fiction writers through creative writing programs similar in shaping the work of poets, such forces as the injunction to "write what you know" or the impulse to find one's "voice" or the pressures of class and ethnicity? If so, then we need an account of how such forces can be seen affecting the work of individual poets just as McGurl provides for fiction writers or the overall claims McGurl makes about their salience are less convincing. If not, then those claims are much more questionable to begin with. Arguably both the writing and the criticism of poetry have been absorbed by the academy even more thoroughly than with fiction,and a history of the creative program that deliberately avoids reckoning with the place of poetry and the consequences of its absorption seems, if not fatally flawed, then certainly incomplete.
A full account of the effects of creative writing on American fiction would also require an assessment of the role played by literary magazines in providing publication for the students and graduates of creative writing--particularly that first publication, which often determines whether a writing career will be possible. The vast majority of these magazines are either sponsored by creative writing programs themselves or publish primarily writers with ties to creative writing. They have become de facto a part of the academic system that created and maintains creative writing, and it is fair to say many if not most of them exist to keep the system working. While also rising from the "little" magazines pre-dating creative writing, these journals are now firmly entrenched as part of the academic machinery that confers status and enables promotion within the system, and their part in determining the direction of literary history--past, present, and future--needs scrutiny as well.
Roxanne Gay recently agonized over the profusion of literary magazines available to too few readers:
One of the primary challenges with getting people to buy magazines is that there are too many. It’s not that magazines aren’t doing great work or that editors aren’t marketing their product well or that they haven’t found the right price point or whatever magical solution we’re all desperately searching for. People want to read the exciting work in Magazines A, B, C, D, E, F, and G through Z but it’s not financially feasible to subscribe to all those magazines and there’s so much noise that it’s hard to find a way of saying that Magazine P is worth buying over Magazine V. . . .
The same problem exists with books, something that the closing of Borders only reinforces:
People milled about the store like buzzards feasting on a carrion and hey, I was there too, looking for bargains. . .As I looked around the store, even in it’s diminished capacity, I thought, “This is too much.” How could anyone possibly know what to read in that store swollen with books, too many of them mediocre? How could any reading experience be meaningful amidst so many choices?
I certainly agree that "too many" of the books available in most bookstores--even the beloved "independent" stores-- are "mediocre," but I have to say I also think too many, probably even a majority, of the fiction published in literary magazines (A-Z) is mediocre as well. If there is a source of the feeling there are too many magazines publishing more fiction than anyone could possibly read, it is here, in the stuffing of literary magazines with stories few will read because they aren't really worth reading, are most likely being published because the authors need the credits to keep their creative writing teaching jobs, just as most of the magazines exist in the first place to bestow such credits.
I realize this is a harsh assessment, but it seems to me that anyone truly interested in addressing the oversupply problem Roxanne Gay has honestly described needs first of all to acknowledge my assessment isn't completely inaccurate. There is sometimes "exciting work" to be found in many literary magazines--and not just the most well-known--but the real problem is being able to keep track of that exciting work in the midst of so much that is just perfunctory. Literary magazines have historically played an important role in maintaining the vitality of American fiction and poetry, and they need to continue playing that role. However, for that to happen their mission must first of all be to provide a place for the publication of potentially significant additions to literature, not of routine, indifferent work by instructors wanting tenure or aspiring "authors" whose fondest wish is to "be published" rather than to write interesting poetry and fiction.
Gay wonders whether the underlying problem is that "everyone wants to be an editor." Starting up a new magazine and publishing worthy writers seems a noble calling, never mind the difficulties of actually getting your magazine into the hands (or on the screens) of actual readers, and so there is a lot of starting-up and not enough following-through.
Another magazine where the editors don’t know how they’re going to fund each print issue? Are these magazines, multiplying exponentially, really going to offer something we’ve never seen before? Is becoming an editor really that important?
I would suggest instead that editors and would-be editors are making a mistake by not including more literary criticism among the contents of their journals. A few magazines run a few book reviews in a given issue, but these reviews tend to be relatively brief, short on analysis and long on boosterism. It is understandable that reviewers in such a context would want to reinforce a sense of literary community, but finally that is precisely the biggest problem: Literary magazines may be the only remaining site of what could be called a common literary culture, and one wants to encourage and cultivate that culture, but not at the expense of a frank estimation of practices and achievements. The current situation, in which academics no longer engage in "mere" evaluation and appraisal, and in which newspaper and magazine reviewing is becoming more and more cursory when it isn't simply disappearing, in my opinion no longer makes it acceptable for literary magazines to blunt a necessary critical edge.
It seems to me that literary culture is just as likely to wither away through the neglect of impartial, substantive criticism as it is through the oversupply (or undersupply) of literary magazines per se. Without it, literary works just get folded into the "entertainment culture," and since poetry and serious fiction cannot hope to compete with most of the other choices offered by this culture, it is permanently marginalized, without even the lingering respect conferred by tradition. Without conscientious criticism, which goes beyond making superficial judgments of value and attempts to explain, describe, interpret, works of literature disappear into the undifferentiated mass at which Roxanne Gay despairs.
Why couldn't literary magazines include such criticism as part of their effort to maintain a literary culture? Surely one or two substantial book reviews and/or an essay on a contemporary writer or work wouldn't deprive many deserving stories or poems of their space. Such criticism might even make that space seem more valuable. Perhaps an especially intrepid editor might invite a critical examination of one or more of the "creative" contributions in the present, or a past, issue. Beyond helping readers make specific decisions about what to read and appropriate discriminations in what they have read, critical contributions like this might help readers understand why what they read is important, why continuing to publish and read literary magazines is important. They might help to reduce the noise.
To an extent, it's a little surprising that Elisabeth Sheffield's Fort Da (FC2) has not received more attention. It is, after all, in part a fairly sensational story about what we now call a "sexual predator," in this case a reversal of Lolita in which the "offender" is a female scientist who becomes obsessed with an adolescent boy. Although to be sure the story is told (by the woman) in an unorthodox way, the narrative is explicit enough, and the representation of motive and psychology seems true enough, it would seem the novel might have caused a little bit of controversy, although the very fact the narrative is related through unorthodox means that to some extent distance us from the events portrayed and mute the potentially scandalous elements suggests that Sheffield certainly did not seek to court controversy.
What Sheffield seems to be after is a truthful account of the narrator's affliction (if that's what it is) and of her manner of coping with it. The narrator straightforwardly acknowledges her desire for Aslan, the adolescent boy, and painstakingly chronicles the events of their meeting, their eventually consummated relationship, and her final efforts to track him down when she is separated from him. But she is not quite able to tell us this story from a conventional first-person point of view, as if she can't finally bring herself to associate these events and her part in them with the "normal" self she still wants to preserve, as if she just can't acknowledge her own agency. Thus she adopts a cumbersomely "scientific" style emphasizing passive voice constructions. Addressing her "report" to her high school English teacher, Mrs, Wall, the narrator affirms
A true story that will faithfully present yours truly, without distortion or bias. To this end, a detached style has been adopted, one that will hopefully facilitate accurate reportage. The intent of this style is to step outside Rosemarie Ramee in order to more accurately observe her (and not, Strunk and White forbid, to annoy you with passive verb forms, which it is well remembered were a source of contention in high school). Yes, and maybe if the observations are presented with great care, with the greatest possible degree of honesty and precision, in the end empathy will be received.
Readers will have to decide for themselves whether to send RR (as she frequently hereafter identifies herself) "empathy," but her tortured attempts to remain objective, attempts she maintains throughout the narrative with gradually diminishing success, are really both the aesthetic and the emotional focus of the novel.
Aesthetically the style seems an apt analogue of the narrator's state of mind--she can tell the story, but only if she is in a sense able to withdraw her own participation and attempt to view the events with a kind of clinical detachment. Paradoxically, this forced detachment only makes the reader more aware of RR's obsession in the effort to cloak it, and her emotional turmoil becomes only more visible. This does have a discomfiting effect on the reader: there is a fascination to witnessing the machinations to which RR is driven in order to tell the tale, while we also recognize her strategy is in effect an attempt to minimize her offense. At the same time, it is not at all clear that Aslan resists RRs advances, or that he has been harmed by them, although of course the long-term harm cannot be predicted and we cannot finally trust that RR's account is anything but self-serving. She indicates that she is addressing her "confession" to Mrs. Wall because of the latter's reputation for leading an unconventional lifestyle, suggesting she does hope her audience might extend her some sympathy.
If Fort Da could be said to be "experimental" (FC2 is one of the most prominent publishers of experimental fiction), it would have to be in this tonal discontinuity--how far can the reader extend his/her sympathy to such a character presenting herself in such a narrative voice relating a story about what today approaches being as taboo a subject as we have? While the "report" form is interesting enough, it is finally just another variation on the epistolary or diary forms first explored in novels like Pamela or Robinson Crusoe as the immediate context and justification for first-person narrative. The narrative itself is essentially linear, and though the narrator's language occasionally makes it necessary for the reader to check his/her bearings, it unfolds interrupted only by the by now rather familiar use of footnotes (although given the text's formal status as scientific "report," the footnotes don't seem out of place).
If RR, like Humbert Humbert, believes her desire for Aslan, like Humbert's for his "nymphet," is a genuine expression of love, she seems less comfortable than HH with this form of love. Although both Fort Da and Lolita could both be said to be comic novels, the comedy of Lolita is darker,arising from the audacity of HH's behavior. The humor of Fort Da arises from RR's own confusions and limited self-knowledge. This makes Fort Da a consistently compelling read--to call it entertaining would seem impertinent--but whether it has something to "say" about, for example, the nature of female desire vs male desire, or about the origins of sexual behavior in psychological trauma (RR herself appears to believe she may be reacting to the early death of her brother) is perhaps for the reader to determine, depending on whether one considers it important that a novel treading on sensitive ground should redeem itself by making a "serious" point about the subject. In my opinion, the greatness of Lolita consists, in part, in its refusal to countenance communicating such a point. By raising "issues" related to pedophilia, Fort Da suggests it wants to address those issues and thus doesn't really show quite the aesthetic courage we find in Nabokov's novel.