November 28, 2011
The last few weeks have offered some stellar coverage of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights — read Mary-Kay Wilmers, read Cathleen Schine, read Matthew Specktor, read the Didion interviews by Emma Brockes and Boris Kachka — but then, to spoil the party, there’s the coverage of the book in Australia, and particularly the review by Andrew Riemer in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. These two Fairfax publications aspire to be the national papers of record, each one a snapshot of the best local analysis of current events and discourse, and Riemer, usually a reliably good essayist, is the Herald‘s chief book reviewer. Yet what Riemer has written, and what Fairfax has published, is a report of Blue Nights which is labelled as a review but which is so poorly written — so evasive, repetitive, and unspecific — that it leads me to suspect that Riemer hasn’t actually read the book he purports to review.
Here’s the review in question. It runs to 900 words. The first 300 words comprise a summary of Didion’s previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which is a precursor to Blue Nights. The next 150 words comprise a summary of the circumstances in which Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking, the difficult months following the death of her daughter Quintana, which now occupy the foreground of Blue Nights. At this halfway point of the review, however, Riemer still hasn’t mentioned Blue Nights itself: Quintana’s death is folded into his coverage of The Year of Magical Thinking. Only after 550 words does he mention that Blue Nights is “an account of the illness and death of Quintana” — that’s after he expresses moral misgivings about The Year of Magical Thinking and after he discusses its stage adaptation — and then, almost two-thirds of the way into his review, he devotes only one paragraph to a description and evaluation of the book he is reviewing. At 154 words, it makes up just seventeen per cent of the entire review:
Didion’s skill is as evident in her new book as it was six years ago when she was working on The Year of Magical Thinking. The form and style are identical. This account of Quintana’s death, coming as it did at a time when Dunne’s sudden death was still raw and immediate, is surrounded by Didion’s memories: her marriage; the years during which the couple worked on screenplays; Quin-tana’s childhood; the fate of relatives, friends and their children. A few details glossed over in the earlier book are highlighted here, particularly the fact that Quintana was an adopted child — this is only hinted at in The Year of Magical Thinking. There is, in addition, a new note sounded here: the panic of old age, the suspicion that both body and mind are decaying, the awareness that the familiar life — the people you had known and loved — has come to an end.
In my experience with book reviews and book reports, there are three key flaws that suggest that a writer hasn’t actually read the book they’re writing about.
First: an absence of quotes from the book itself. Despite his remarks on “Didion’s skill” and on “[t]he form and style” of Blue Nights, Riemer does not use even one of his 900 words to quote Didion so that she might speak for herself, relying instead on paraphrasing and summarisation.
Second: a disproportionate focus on authorial biography and historical context, combined with a tendency towards contextual repetition, at the expense of a focus on the book. One-third of Riemer’s review of Blue Nights is a summary of The Year of Magical Thinking. One-third of the review is a summary of the context in which that book was published and adapted. Of the remaining one-third, half consists of the paragraph quoted above and half consists of Riemer’s repeated misgivings about Didion’s work combined with his repeated acknowledgement of her stylistic gifts. “[S]peaking here personally,” he writes, “I think the choice [to write publicly about the death of her husband John in The Year of Magical Thinking] was questionable.” “As I have said,” he continues, “Didion’s skill, sensitivity and intelligence go some way towards redeeming this book. … I cannot, however, banish my sense of uneasiness.” Didion is a brave and stylistically skillful writer but her choice of subject matter makes Riemer uneasy: he repeats this notion three times in his review. Whether the stirring of such uneasiness might be part of Didion’s aesthetic project in Blue Nights — whether she is carefully preying on some innate voyeurism in her readers in a way that calls attention to it — doesn’t seem to occur to Riemer, much less to add complexity to his existing moral misgivings.
Third: factual errors which suggest that the writer has relied on his or her memory of an event rather than consulting a record of it. Riemer, as quoted above, has this to say of the adoption of Quintana: “A few details glossed over in the earlier book are highlighted here, particularly the fact that Quintana was an adopted child — this is only hinted at in The Year of Magical Thinking.” Now here’s Didion “hint[ing] at” Quintana’s adoption, at the end of chapter ten of The Year of Magical Thinking, although I’d call it a lot more than just a hint:
In 1964 and 1965, when we were living in the gate house with the beach and the peacocks but could not afford even to tip the parking boys at restaurants, let alone eat in them, John and I used to park on the street on Canon and charge dinner at The Bistro. We took Quintana there on the day of her adoption, when she was not quite seven months old. They had given us Sidney Korshak’s corner banquette and placed her carrier on the table, a centrepiece. At the courthouse that morning she had been the only baby, even the only child; all the other adoptions that day had seemed to involve adults adopting one another for tax reasons.
Other flaws are added spice. Didion’s career as an esteemed essayist and political analyst falls by the wayside — you’d never know from Riemer’s review that she has written anything other than screenplays and The Year of Magical Thinking – and the last word goes not to Didion, nor even to anyone writing about Didion, but to Ludwig Wittgenstein, halfheartedly invoked. Riemer’s review of Blue Nights offers no sense of Blue Nights beyond the barest consideration of its subject and the fact that Riemer is unsettled by it. You won’t get a taste of Didion’s own words; you’ll only get an overlong survey of The Year of Magical Thinking and a factually erroneous one at that. The whole review smacks of the sense that this writer has written about a book that he has only read about, rather than a book that he has read directly and with care.
It’s possible that Riemer wrote something closer to 1,500 words before some senseless editor axed the better part of his review and ripped out a fistful of Didion quotes for good measure. For Riemer’s sake, I certainly hope that’s the case, not that the rest of us would be any better off. This sort of review does a disservice to everyone associated with it: Didion’s work isn’t given the respect of careful consideration, readers who may or may not turn to that work are not given any sense of it, Riemer looks a fool for attaching his name to something so underdeveloped, and the Sydney Morning Herald tarnishes its own prestige by pretending that this sort of writing deserves a place in a paper of record. Can’t Australia do better than this?
November 27, 2011
For her first nine years on the planet, Big Red had lived a life of compromise. She wanted to be beautiful, but she’d had to settle for being nice. She wanted to see the Aquanauts for her birthday, but she’d had to settle for the gimp lobsters at the Crab Shack. She wanted a father, but she’d had to settle for Mr. Pappadakis. Mr. Pappadakis smells like Just for Men peroxide dye and eucalyptus foot unguents. He has a face like a catcher’s mitt. The whole thing puckers inward, drooping with the memory of some dropped fly ball. Big Red’s mother has many epithets for Mr. Pappadakis: “our meal ticket,” “my sacrifice,” “vitamin P.” He is an obdurate man, a man of irritating, inveterate habits. He refuses to put down toilet seats, or quit sucking on pistachio shells, or die.
Karen Russell, ‘The City of Shells’
November 25, 2011
When I write literary criticism for publication in an academic journal or a collection of essays, the experience feels like the intellectual equivalent of hauling a boulder to the top of a seaside cliff, watching it plummet over the edge, and then letting it sink, unseen, into the depths. It’s rare that more than a handful of people will ever read a given academic article, and rarer still that any of them will offer a response to it, and rarest of all, in my experience, that any article that might attract attention should have my name attached to it. Occasionally someone will remark on the effort that goes into throwing the boulder, but more often than not the boulder disappears without a trace while I set off in search of another.
No such luck with my most recent article, though, which was published on September 11, 2011, and has since drawn a response from Lars Iyer, author of Spurious, who scores a mention in the article itself. The article, as its publication date suggests, was commissioned as part of a broader academic consideration of American culture in the decade following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. With my general research area being American literature, I was asked to write about the literary legacy of ’9/11.’ The usual suspects sprang to mind – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Falling Man, Netherland, and so on — but rather than trying to find something new to say about these ‘classic’ post-9/11 novels, which invariably leave me underwhelmed, I tried to make the case that critical analyses of ‘post-9/11 literature’ should expand the scope of that term to encompass much more than simply literature about 9/11.
I attempted to bring Spurious into the fold, for reasons too convoluted to summarise here, alongside a few other recent novels including Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Lee Rourke’s The Canal. I wish I had more space to discuss the particularities of these novels. Given the constraints of the journal format, though, I had to settle for pointing to them as symptoms of the greater literary phenomenon that I did set out to discuss. That phenomenon had to do with the favourable American reception of these three novels and other works like them. Obviously these novels were not written by American authors, but they have benefited immensely from the institutional apparatus of the American literary scene — American publishing houses and critical venues — even as they seem to me to stand opposed to the prevailing mode of American literary responses to 9/11 and its aftermath. In other words, I think they represent something that is essentially what American post-9/11 literature is not, and the fact that they have been warmly received by an American readership suggests to me that many readers are not content with what post-9/11 literature supposedly is. They are a type of post-9/11 literature that is the negative image of literature about 9/11, a type that formally internalises the crisis of 9/11 rather than externalising it for narrative purposes.
I titled the article “Rebirth of the Nouveau Roman” and made the suggestion that these sorts of novels adopt a stance towards what is now called post-9/11 literature which resembles the stance of the mid-twentieth century nouveau romanciers towards the social realism of Balzac, Stendhal, et al. Lars Iyer and his interviewer at 3:AM Magazine, David Winters, have been generous enough to take seriously an article that I wrote in sincere anticipation of a readership of zero, although neither one of them is sold on what I see as a resemblance between the novels mentioned above and the nouveau roman. “Wood,” Lars says of me, “is quite elastic with respect to his notion of the nouveau roman, which seems, for him, to name a free-floating suspicion of realism and a messianic promise for literature.” That’s true to an extent, and I’ll wear the criticism, except to quibble with the words “free-floating” and “messianic.”
The sort of fiction I’m trying to identify here does not exhibit “a free-floating suspicion of realism” in the sense that the work of David Foster Wallace, for instance, exhibited such a suspicion. Its suspicion of realism manifests in a way that is much more contained or constrained, more austere, more obsessive or self-obsessive — one might say, more like the fiction of Alain Robbe-Grillet — than that of the sprawling, discursive, digressive, and self-consciously ‘difficult’ novel. There’s a reason I make no mention of Steven Moore in my article: the sort of fiction I’m trying to identify does exhibit a suspicion of realism, but not all fiction that exhibits such a suspicion is the sort of fiction I’m trying to identify. Nor would I say that this sort of fiction — or any sort of fiction — advances what Lars calls a “messianic promise for literature,” a promise which I presume he sees as the impossible antidote to the situation he sketched out in his recent literary manifesto after the end of literature and manifestos. A promise for literature? Really? Here and now, in this day and age? And a messianic promise at that? No, not a chance: just a brute hope that the literature of circling the drain — Spurious, Remainder, The Canal — can show literature itself how to circle the drain in style.
November 11, 2011
Appreciations of John Williams’ Stoner have been floating around the blogosphere for a while now, thanks to John Self, dovegreyreader, Emmett Stinson and, more recently, D.G Myers and Rohan Maitzen, but another voice in praise of the novel can’t hurt. Stoner is a masterpiece. There’s no use festooning it with superlatives. They can’t convey how great it is. Read it!
More than its perfect prose, tone, characterisation, and narrative momentum, what impressed me about Stoner was the subtlety of its self-awareness. I expected a reprise of the startling but unwavering realism of Williams’ previous novel, Butcher’s Crossing, which is arguably one of the half-dozen or so truly outstanding New Westerns and which offered me my first taste of Williams’ work. What I found instead was a work of literature that acknowledged and justified its own literariness right from the very first page, and continued to do so throughout:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910. … Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”
An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.
That’s how the novel opens. Straight away it marks out its literary territory. On the one hand, by noting the inadequacy of the sole surviving written record of the life of William Stoner, it implies that what is required is something like itself: an account of Stoner’s life that is both more elaborate and more specific than what currently exists. On the other hand, by noting the “casual” questioning of Stoner’s life and the variations in the verbal accounts offered in response, it implies also that what is required is not only a more elaborate and specific account but, crucially, a written one. What Stoner wants, from its very first page, is an account of Stoner’s life that becomes more elaborate and specific the more it both supersedes the inadequate written record in the University of Missouri library and militates against the transience and ambiguities of speech as an alternative means of superseding that record. Time and again throughout Stoner, as the novel goes about setting the record straight, it casts speech as an act through which its task might be accomplished if only speech was not so capable of misdirection via rhetorical seduction, distraction, and outright deception.
Here, for instance, is the young Stoner’s adviser, Archer Sloane, whose speech mannerisms seduce Stoner into devoting himself to the study of literature:
The instructor was a man of middle age, in his early fifties; his name was Archer Sloane, and he came to his task of teaching with a seeming disdain and contempt, as if he perceived between his knowledge and what he could say a gulf so profound that he would make no effort to close it. … His voice was flat and dry, and it came through barely moving lips without expression or intonation; but his long thin fingers moved with grace and persuasion, as if giving to the words a shape that his voice could not.
And here is Stoner’s first contact with the woman who will become his loveless wife — who will eventually do everything in her power to ruin him — as she, too, seduces him with words, and less with the words she actually speaks than with the simple act of speaking:
Stoner had turned back when she began to speak, and he looked at her with an amazement that did not show on his face. Her eyes were fixed straight before her, her face was blank, and her lips moved as if, without understanding, she read from an invisible book. He walked slowly across the room and sat down beside her. She did not seem to notice him; her eyes remained fixed straight ahead, and she continued to tell him about herself, as he had asked her to do. … And [later] something unsuspected within her, some instinct, made her call him back when he started to go out the door, made her speak quickly and desperately, as she had never spoken before, and as she would never speak again.
And here is Stoner’s first in-depth encounter with Charles Walker, the arrogant student who will destroy Stoner’s professional life just as Stoner’s wife destroys his life at home:
[Walker's] voice rose and fell, his right hand went out with its fingers curled supplicatingly upward, and his body swayed to the rhythm of his words; his eyes rolled slightly upward, as if he were making an invocation. … Walker’s voice dropped to a conversational level, and he addressed the back wall of the room in a tone that was calm and equable with reason. …
Anger, simple and dull, rose within Stoner [when he realised the extent of Walker's intellectual vapidity], overwhelming the complexity of feeling he had had at the beginning of the paper. His immediate impulse was to rise, to cut short the farce that was developing; he knew that if he did not stop Walker at once he would have to let him go on for as long as he wanted to talk. … He had waited too long to interrupt, and Walker was rushing impetuously through what he had to say. …
After he became used to his anger Stoner found a reluctant and perverse admiration stealing over him. However florid and imprecise, the man’s powers of rhetoric and invention were dismayingly impressive [and] Stoner became aware that he was in the presence of a bluff so colossal that he had no ready means of dealing with it.
And here is Walker again, delivering a presentation followed by a question and answer session that has been scripted by his supervisor, Hollis Lomax, precisely in order to distract Walker’s listeners from noticing his limited intellectual capabilities:
Walker’s presentation was lucid, forthright, and intelligent; at times it was almost brilliant. Lomax was right; if the dissertation fulfilled its promise, it would be brilliant. Hope, warm and exhilarating, rushed upon [Stoner], and he leaned forward attentively.
Walker talked upon the subject of his dissertation for perhaps ten minutes and then abruptly stopped. Quickly Lomax asked another question, and Walker responded at once. … Walker’s voice continued, fluent and sure of itself, the words emerging from his rapidly moving mouth almost as if — Stoner started, and the hope that had begun in him died as abruptly as it had been born. … Lomax finished his questioning, and Holland began. It was, Stoner admitted, a masterful performance; unobtrusively, with great charm and good humor, Lomax managed it all. … He rephrased [other listeners'] questions… changing them so that the original intent was lost in the elucidation. He engaged Walker in what seemed to be elaborately theoretical arguments, although he did most of the talking. And finally… he cut into [other listeners'] questions with questions of his own that led Walker where he wanted him to go.
During this time Stoner did not speak. He listened to the talk that swirled around him. … He was waiting to do what he knew he had to do, and he was waiting with a dread and an anger and a sorrow that grew more intense with every minute that passed.
At one point, when Lomax threatens to charge Stoner with professional misconduct and construes actual events in a way that makes them appear sinister, Stoner cries out: “How you make it sound! Sure, everything you say is fact, but none of it is true. Not the way you say it.” And later, when Stoner’s retirement dinner offers him an opportunity to publicly construe events however he pleases, he is rendered powerless by his inability to speak:
As the applause dwindled someone in the audience shouted in a thin voice: “Speech!” Someone else took up the call, and the word was murmured here and there. …
[Stoner] got to his feet, and realized that he had nothing to say. He was silent for a long time as he looked from face to face. He heard his voice issue flatly. “I have taught…” he said. He began again. “I have taught at this University for nearly forty years. I do not know what I would have done if I had not been a teacher. If I had not taught, I might have–” He paused, as if distracted. Then he said, with a finality, “I want to thank you all for letting me teach.”
And finally, at the end of his life, Stoner receives news of Katherine Driscoll, the colleague and lover he was forced to abandon when their affair jeopardised both of their careers, and this last encounter with Katherine affirms the strength of the written word:
In the early spring of 1949 he received a circular from the press of a large eastern university; it announced the publication of Katherine’s book, and gave a few words about the author. … He got a copy of the book as soon as he could. When he held it in his hands his fingers seemed to come alive; they trembled so that he could scarcely open it. He turned the first few pages and saw the dedication: “To W.S.”
His eyes blurred, and for a long time he sat without moving. Then he shook his head, returned to the book, and did not put it down until he had read it through. … The prose was graceful, and its passion was masked by a coolness and clarity of intelligence. It was herself he saw in what he read, he realized; and he marveled at how truly he could see her even now.
Whether or not he can “truly” see her is, of course, an open question, and is just one aspect of the broader question of whether or not the written word is in fact more capable than speech of conveying the “truth” of a human life via the elaboration and specification of circumstantial detail. But with its continual ambivalence towards speech, Stoner seems to me to close off that broad open question in favour of the written word and thus in favour of richly detailed humanist realism as the literary mode best suited to its purposes — although, unusually for that sort of realism, it senses its own lack of intrinsic authority and works hard to accrue and justify it.