What Need?

April 3, 2012

Over the last few months, at the blog of the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks has been posting a succession of lighthearded but provocative musings on the norms and nature of reading and writing. In February, he questioned the transformation of writing from a personal vocation into a profession. “[W]hen did being a writer become a career choice,” he asked, “with appropriate degree courses and pecking orders? Does this state of affairs make any difference to what gets written?” In early March, he wondered under what circumstances it becomes acceptable to abandon reading a book. “Is a good book by definition one that we did finish?” he asked. “Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it?”

Now, in his most recent post, Parks sets out to “tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on.” The orthodoxy in question is the notion that “the world ‘needs stories.'” To illustrate just how orthodox this notion has become among the members of ‘the literary set,’ Parks quotes Jonathan Franzen as one of its major proponents. “There is an enormous need,” Franzen has declared, “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.” After unpacking Franzen’s self-serving motivations for expressing such a view, Parks goes on to catalogue several variants of the same position and then to relate an anecdote which illustrates the institutionalisation of that position:

“This is an excellent novel,” I remember a fellow judge for a literary prize repeatedly telling the rest of the jury every time he encouraged us to vote for a book, “because it offers complex moral situations that help us get a sense of how to live and behave.” The argument here is that the world has become immensely complicated and the complex stories of our novels help us to see our way through it, to shape a trajectory for ourselves in the increasingly fragmented and ill-defined social world we move in.

Surprisingly, and disappointingly, Parks concedes that “[t]here’s something to be said for this idea.” Is that really the case? What sort of person would seriously take their moral and social cues from a novel? What sort of person would turn to a work of imaginative literature in order to adjust their behaviour in the real world? Of course, the idea that we should do so is only a slight variation on the idea that we should read literature for this purpose — but even the proponents of the latter idea, with Matthew Arnold and Harold Bloom being exemplars, are not so myopic as to contend that that purpose can be better served by novels than by any other type of literature. Parks, however, proceeds to defend the exceptionalism of the novel.

“[T]he political, sports, and crime pages of the newspapers are full of fascinating stories,” he writes, “many of them extremely challenging and complex. [But w]hat the novel offers… is a tale mediated by the individual writer who (alone, away from Facebook and Twitter) works hard to shape it and deliver it in a way that he or she feels is especially attractive, compelling, and right.” As well, he suggests that the best sort of “tale mediated by the individual writer” — and the sort best suited to the artform of the novel — is itself a tale of the intensification of individualism, a tale that allows its readers to “believe more and more strongly in this sovereign self whose essential identity remains unchanged by all vicissitudes. Telling the stories of various characters in relation to each other, how something started, how it developed, how it ended, novels are intimately involved with the way we make up ourselves. They reinforce a process we are engaged in every moment of the day, self creation.”

So, if the world does indeed ‘need stories,’ the need arises within a world of individualists who feel that the world itself threatens their individualism. And, if novels are at all able to address this need, they do so insofar as each novel is itself the product of an individual consciousness and is designed to tell a complex story which depicts the triumph of individualist sentiments.

That strikes me as a pretty bleak view of what novels should do and why we should read them. Perhaps in an effort to ramp up the provocative nature of his post, Parks issues the last-ditch contention that, after all, “we” don’t actually need “this intensification of self that novels provide.” “I love an engaging novel,” he adds, “I love a complex novel; but I am quite sure I don’t need it.” At this point, however, what is already expressed can’t be diluted. What Parks advances is a view of the novel that impoverishes the artform in two ways. First it impoverishes the artform by locating the value of the novel in its capacity for expressing and celebrating individualism, which entails severely restricting one’s view of the novel’s other capabilities. Then it impoverishes the artform by construing the reading of novels as an impulsive act carried out in the absence of a ‘need’ to read them and in denial of that absence, rather than construing it as an act carried out in awareness of that absence and therefore in deliberate defiance of it.

No, we don’t need to read novels. With the hierarchy of human needs dominated by the imperatives for material wellbeing and socialisation, the reading of novels is relegated to the outermost ranks. But the needlessness of reading novels is the essence of reading them. Maybe that’s just a more elaborate way of arguing the value of art for art’s sake, but I struggle to say any other way of arguing it. No doubt it’s possible to draw moral and social lessons from novels, no doubt those things are elements of many novels, but whatever such lessons a novel may provide do not amount to reasons to read it. To read a novel in search of moral and social cues is essentially to strip away its aesthetic particularities and boil it down to nothing more than the dramatisation of a dilemma. It is to discard the novel’s stylistic details and structural complexities and to elide so much of what makes it a novel that it might as well not be one at all. It is also to adopt a reactionary stance towards the marginalisation of the novel in a culture dominated by economic rationalism, to tacitly concede the minimal economic value of reading novels while casting about for some other sort of value that lies beyond the realm of economics and that is difficult to tarnish with accusations of self-service. But why is it not enough for novels to do what only novels can do? Why should there be something insufficient about reading novels for the particular type of experience that novels in general provide, and for the variations on that type of experience provided by each individual novel?

How It’s Done

March 29, 2012

Forty-five years later, what may seem most revolutionary about Barthes’s essay [‘The Death of the Author’] is what it takes for granted: that there are readers at all for literary fiction, let alone that there’s a “someone” interested in doing the hard work of holding all these traces together inside her head. In an era where everyone has a novel waiting to come out, authors are legion; it’s the reader who seems, well, dead. If anything threatens to kill the author today, it’s not that the reader might interpret her work in subversive ways — if only we were so lucky! — but that the reader might not care enough to try in the first place. What to do in this situation has been the subject of what we might as well call a debate between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, waged for about a decade on the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Harper’s. It’s also the backdrop against which we must understand the successes and occasional fumbles of Marcus’s disturbing and remarkable new novel, The Flame Alphabet.

For, at first blush, The Flame Alphabet seems as if it’s perfectly pleased with the death of the reader, as if it hopes for nothing more than to murder those very few remaining who bother to buy books at all, throttling them with a suffusion of pus-covered words and sentences. [It] is a pointedly disgusting book that will tickle your gag reflex with its bony, sore-covered finger. Reading Marcus’s fetid prose will clog your nostrils, enflame your throat, jam your every orifice with a thick and soupy, cold and gloppy, not to mention barbed and burning, meal of unpalatable, oddly shaped sentences.

That’s how Lee Konstantinou begins his fantastic review of The Flame Alphabet in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It was the choice of the word “meal,” and the ambiguous referent, that caught my attention. It was the deft analysis of the novel in the context of Marcus’ disagreements with Franzen that sucked me in. And it was the self-reflexivity of the opening section’s last paragraph that kept me hooked. “And yet,” Konstantinou writes there, “if I properly understand the aims of The Flame Alphabet, [the above] description should not count as an insult, but as deep praise,” essentially reading the review itself in the context of Marcus’ use of language without allowing it to overshadow the work under consideration. Book reviewing: this is how it’s done when it’s done at its best. And in less than 3,000 words at that.

Editor? Editor?

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?

Circling Back Around

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, RemainderThe Canal — can show literature itself how to circle the drain in style.

There’s more to be said on this, of course, and with a little luck I’ll find a chance to say it before the year expires. For now, though, the Lars Iyer interview and manifesto await.

Obscurantism

November 24, 2011

So much for establishment literary fiction, you’re thinking. But the underground is producing nothing new. In his essay on post-9/11 fiction, critic Daniel Davis Wood rejected the boring old realism of the American novel in favour of the cult of Beckett. He cites the obscurantist writers Tom McCarthy and Gabriel Josipovici as the future of fiction and criticism, and even praises the creepy, moronic and serial self-promoter Lee Rourke. Here is Wood on McCarthy’s Remainder: “a novel that revels in plotlessness, that undermines characterisation, that fetishises stasis, and that does not reflect on social, political and cultural actuality so much as it self-reflects on the limitations of its own ability to reflect on such things.” Wood grants the authority to speak only to people with nothing to say.

Sentiments like this are impossible to understand without the context of the backlash against Victorian conventions in literature (“why should a ‘novel’ have ‘characters’ anyway?”) which in turn was triggered by a leftwing backlash against Enlightenment reason.

Yikes. Max Dunbar grants me far more authority than I can actually claim to grant certain people the authority to speak.

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