Graham Harman thoughtfully replied to my previous post on his article, "The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism," and I would like in turn to make a few comments about his response.
Harman thinks that my insistence the New Critics simply contended that the reading experience required no "context" outside the text to be fully satisfying fails to address "whether they sufficiently accounted for the context in their theory." But my point is that they did not need to "account" for context. At its core, New Criticism holds that my reading of poem X can proceed entirely without reference to context and still be a perfectly coherent and self-sufficient reading. It's not required that I do this, and to the extent the New Critics maintained it is, they were wrong. The true "logical consequence" of the "theory" of New Criticism is that context need not be considered in reading poems and novels, although it could be. However, since, as OOO itself tells us, context is always incomplete if not finally inaccessible, bringing in the context does not make for "better" or more thorough reading. Pragmatically speaking, the context-free reading is good as any other, and, since its purpose is actually to stick as closely as possible to the actual experience of the text as read, it's a more concerted effort to do justice to the "literary."
Thus the reading experience itself is really the only "context" the critic needs. Harman cites the "paradox" that New Criticism rejects "rules," but this isn't paradoxical. If one strategy works better here and another there, this is because they each occur in a different context--the context of reading that work or looking at that painting.
I do think of the literary text as a "holistic unit," but I don't think it "must be" taken as such, as Harman alleges. You can certainly think of it in some other way if you want, but if you're thinking of it as a way of validating a particular philosophical perspective, I really don't understand how it's different from thinking of it as a political document or a sociological "case." Nothing prevents you from doing this, and I can't plausibly say you're wrong to do it, but if the goal is to read literature more sensitively, I can't see how a "counter-factual literary criticism" accomplishes that. Perhaps we don't finally share the same goal, and if so, I'm fine with that.
I confess that when Harman says that "Not only do authors fail to master the infinite dissemination of their texts, they probably don’t even put the text in the right shape in the first place," the discussion has gotten altogether too mystical and metaphysical for me. If these authors actually "should have written better texts," then those texts must exist in some Platonic realm to which I neither have nor desire access. I still accept that OOO can be usefully applied to literary analysis, and for that matter I'm actually looking forward to reading Harman's new book on Lovecraft in which he apparently defends some of these more radical claims, but for now I'll stick to the text at hand.
My knowledge of Object-Oriented philosophy is certainly imperfect (and thus open to correction), but I think I understand it well enough to assess Graham Harman's article on the relationship of OO philosophy (or "speculative realism" more generally) to literary criticism. I find his discussion fascinating, full of potentially useful application, even if I can't ultimately agree either with his critique of New Criticism or with his suggestions about what an appropriately object-oriented criticism might attempt to do.
My review of Phillipe Claudel's The Investigation has now been posted at Full Stop.
. . . Kafka’s undeniable greatness aside, why, after almost 100 years, would a novel that so obviously duplicates the most familiar features of the Kafkaesque, that so obviously wants to be Kafkaesque, also still want to be regarded as somehow original and daring?
The composer and musicologist Kyle Gann recently mulled over his response to modern fiction, as well as the relationship between fiction and music. Gann apparently reads a lot of fiction but thinks too many postwar writers "put all his or her energy into writing beautiful, interesting, circuitous, surprising sentences, and never bothered to make me give a damn what would happen next."
Gann's primary example is Thomas Pynchon's Vineland (which he says he couldn't finish), which I frankly find a bizarre choice to illustrate the vice of too much writing and too little plot because, first, I've never thought of Pynchon as a writer of "beautiful" sentences (occasionally circuitous, perhaps, but also often demotic, even slang-ridden) and, second, because a lot does "happen" in a Pynchon novel. A lot. We may never quite know why, or how to undertand them, but surely there are more things happening in Pynchon's novels than almost any other in postwar fiction. "Plot" is practically Pynchon's main subject.
It turns out, however, that it's not just the lack of story that Gann objects to. "I wanted to care about the characters, to yearn for what they were yearning for, and Pynchon just wanted me to marvel at his dexterity with a thesaurus." Although I have thumbed through my copy of Vineland and can't at all understand what Gann finds so formidable about its vocabulary, it seems that he really doesn't really care "what would happen next" to these particular characters, with whom he is unable to "identify." It is certainly the case that Pynchon's characters are rather two-dimensional, even cartoonish, but then again Pynchon is essentially a comic writer, and I assume that even readers who want to "bond" with characters understand that some distance is required for comic characters to be. . .comic. Still, what Pynchon's characters most yearn for is that the world they inhabit make sense, and I would think this is a fairly universal sort of yearning, one that a few big words surely do not obscure.
Gann is certainly entitled to dislike the work of Thomas Pynchon, but it does seem that in picking out a writer to use in illustrating what Gann believes is a rather widespread problem he would chose one to whom the criticisms made actually apply. Similarly, he quotes a sentence by David Foster Wallace that is supposed to be an example of a writer attempting "to show off," but as I read the sentence it seems a rather evocative and well-cadenced description that only a reader who tolerates nothing but the plainest of prose would find excessive.
Gann acknowledges that he has "no authority" as a literary critic, but as an admirer of both his music and his music criticism (his book on John Cage is really good), I still have to say I find his borderline philistine observations discouraging. And when he compares the situation in fiction with that in music in terms that uncomfortably echo Salieri's complaint in Amadeus that Mozart's music has "too many notes," discouraging becomes demoralizing. However, since Kyle Gann's authority to speak on music is miles (thousands of miles) beyond mine, I will simply assume that I ultimately just don't understand his point.
However, when he says finally that "one can love listening to music because it continues being fulfilling, not simply because it puts off some implied fulfillment into the future," suggesting that fiction can't do this, I do think he's simply wrong. Why can't I find style or form in fiction as "fulfilling" in the moment as I do pieces of music? “Finding out how it ends” is just as reductive with fiction as it is incoherent with music.
Edmond Caldwell's Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant (Say It With Stones) is a much worthier and more accomplished book than 99% of what is published as "literary fiction" by most "name" publishers. It takes numerous risks, both formally and thematically, but it also manages to be entertaining without conceding to conventional notions of plot arcs or backstory or "fine writing."
My review of Diane Williams's Vicky Swanky is a Beauty is now available at Identity Theory.
My essay/review of We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love and Literature at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop can now be found in the latest issue of Requited:
A frequent criticism of creative writing programs is that they focus too narrowly on established techniques supposedly constituting 'craft,' but if Gordon Mennenga is to be believed in this excerpt from We Wanted to Be Writers, very few concrete literary strategies were “taught” at all at the most famous such program, at least in the 1970s:
“The craft thing? I don’t think the topic ever came up, did it? At least not in the workshops I was in. You did your lump and threw it on the table. I was surprised we never picked out an element of 'craft' and looked at it, how metaphor was used in a story, for example. We never did exercises of any kind. I suppose it’s that way still…We didn’t get into why things are done a certain way, or talk about different styles, what styles are tolerated and what aren’t…why and how.”
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.