In an interview with John Self, David Mitchell explains how he approached the unfamiliar territory of the third-person voice while writing The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:
I’d never really attempted this commonest of forms before because I never knew what to leave out — the third is the infinite voice, whereas the first is the limited one — [but] a few years ago I asked A.S. Byatt how she decided what to put into third person narratives, and her answer was as simple as it was helpful: what you think the reader will want to hear, that’s what you put in.
That is possibly the worst fiction-writing advice I have ever heard, and I’m not surprised it came from Byatt because it cuts to the heart of what makes her work so radically unsophisticated. It’s a recipe for pure storytelling with an overbearing emphasis on the telling-ness of the story; it’s an excuse for using the form of the novel to spell out a fictional tale without exploiting of any of the particular aesthetic and rhetorical properties of the novel in order to artfully shape the tale in the telling. It’s not a blueprint for a way of writing a novel that works as a novel; it’s a way of throwing the garb of a novel over an impromptu but strung-out campfire yarn.
Writing at The Nervous Breakdown, J.E. Fishman asks: is the New York Times Book Review still relevant? The simple answer, of course, is “no,” but the very simplicity of the answer suggests that Fishman is not necessarily asking the most pertinent question. A better question would be: why is the New York Times Book Review relevant no longer?
Although Fishman gestures vaguely at an answer, he doesn’t quite put his finger on it. Beginning with an anecdote about a friend whose non-fiction book was overlooked by the Times and who was therefore “incensed to have missed coverage from the newspaper of record,” Fishman then takes issue with the Times‘ propensity for covering long-dead authors at the expense of emerging authors and wonders whether that can rightly be considered best practice for “a cultural arbiter that claims to be in the news business.” The discrepancy between the Times‘ bid for both immediacy and posterity does not seem to trouble him, but the Times‘ own response to this discrepancy is precisely what has driven its Book Review into irrelevance.
“Literature is the news that stays news.” On one level, that’s a truism; but on another level, it is simply true. The books that tend to have the longest shelf life are those that have been crafted with the utmost rhetorical deliberation and care: fiction and poetry, of course, as well as aesthetic rather than purely didactic non-fiction. As a result, if a “newspaper of record” is to meet the demands of both immediacy and posterity, it must give more attention to those sorts of books: it must actively seek out and champion books that are not merely worthwhile or satisfactory, but are so distinctly masterful as to stand the test of time. The Book Review, however, doesn’t do this. It is now focused almost exclusively on immediacy over posterity; on burnishing its credentials as “a cultural arbiter that claims to be in the news business” at the expense of its status as a “newspaper of record.” It is no longer relevant because its reviews have become disposable — they are not worth returning to after the first reading — and those reviews are disposable because the books under review are equally disposable.
There are other sorts of books out there, albeit not usually in the catalogues of the major publishers favoured by the Times. Once, the Times itself would have directed us towards such books. But ever since the editor of the Book Review decided to appeal to a “general reader” — which is to say an intelligent reader, but one less invested in literature than in sociopolitical and cultural chatter — the task has been taken up by other venues like the Quarterly Conversation and the Critical Flame. They are now doing a better job of book reviewing than the New York Times has done in years — and not necessarily because they are intrinsically better at it, but simply because they are doing the job whereas the Times has largely abandoned it.
Bereft of intellectual or cultural stimulation, they proceed, as minds devouring themselves, to fixate on every sort of insignificance and absurdity, ranting giddily about how awful life is in voices that shriek with loathing and despair.
That’s Cameron Woodhead, writing the capsule reviews in today’s The Age, issuing an off-the-cuff but strikingly perceptive diagnosis of what tends to ail the characters of Thomas Bernhard. I would have used “howl” rather than “shriek” — I don’t sense a lot of hysteria or histrionics in their lamentations; I sense self-awareness and knowing purpose — but, with only two hundred words in which to offer a verdict on Bernhard’s Prose, Woodhead does a remarkably good job of pinpointing the unifying element of Bernhard’s entire oeuvre.
Picking up from where I left off with my praise for Dan Chiasson, here are four more of the best and most memorable book reviews I have read in the last year:
I don’t mean to suggest that they are excellent reviews in and of themselves; but, for reviews specifically targeted at a “mainstream” readership, each one does a fine job of contextualising the work under consideration, of proposing a way of reading it profitably without prizing verisimilitude above all other literary qualities, and of evaluating the book on its own terms with solid logical reasoning and in-text evidence to justify any evaluative conclusions.