Telling Stories

I used to tell stories to Mary, stories of my childhood and immigrant adventures, stories I had picked up from other people. But I had become tired of telling them, tired of listening to them.

In Chicago, I had found myself longing for the Sarajevo way of doing it — Sarajevans told stories ever aware that the listeners’ attention might flag, so they exaggerated and embellished and sometimes downright lied to keep it up. You listened, rapt, ready to laugh, indifferent to doubt or implausibility. There was a storytelling code of solidarity — you did not sabotage someone else’s narration if it was satisfying to the audience, or you could expect one of your stories to be sabotaged one day, too. Disbelief was permanently suspended, for nobody expected truth or information, just the pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it off as their own. It was different in America: the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth — reality is the fastest American commodity.

Once upon a time Mary and I were at a wedding in Milwaukee. Her cousin, who worked for the governor of Wisconsin, was getting married, and we shared a table with eight other people, all couples invested in state politics. As it happens at weddings, they all started talking about their fateful encounters: Josh and Jennifer met at their gym; Jan and Johnny were a college couple, broke up, later found themselves working for the same law firm; Saul and Philip met at a toga party, by a keg of Miller Light. Everybody was happy now, you could tell, the table laden with bliss and future…

So as to contribute to the discourse of momentous attraction, I told them about the Cold War rabbits. It was Rora who had told me this story once upon his return from Berlin. All along the Wall, I/Rora said, there were grass-covered minefields, so there were a lot of free-running rabbits, too light to set off a mine, no other beasts to prey upon them. At mating time, the hormone-crazy rabbits would smell a partner on the other side, and they would go crazy, producing the pining-rabbit sound, trying desperately to find a hole in the Wall. The rabbits would drive the guards out of their minds, but they could not shoot them because they had to save their bullets for the humans trying to defect. Everybody in Berlin knew that the rabbit-mating season was the worst time to attempt to escape across the Wall, because the rabbits made the guards very trigger-happy.

Outrageous though it may have been, I always found the story funny and poignant — the unnaturalness of the Cold War, the love that knew no boundaries, the Wall brought down by horny rodents. It required no effort for me to suspend my disbelief and admire Rora’s narrative embroidery. But my Wisconsin audience stared at me with the basic you’re-okay-but-strange smiles, waiting for a more potent punch line. Whereupon Mary said: “I find that hard to believe.” She was hurt and annoyed, I know for a fact, because I didn’t tell our own falling-in-love story (the sand between the toes, the reflections of Chicago shimmering on the lake, the waves licking the breakers), but it was rather humiliating to be publicly distrusted by your own wife.

Josh asked: “Why didn’t the rabbits find a mate on their own side of the Wall? Why would they only be interested in a rabbit from the other side?” I had no answer, as it had never crossed my mind to ask Rora such a question: the story and its reality disintegrated right before me. What’s worse, I felt that Mary was speaking from across the wall that divided us and that all the verifiable reality was on her side. Never could I tell that story in Mary’s presence after that.

Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project

Treasures in the Digital Aether

I’m not interested in reading books that tell me what I already know. I don’t want to read a novel that makes me ‘care about’ a fictional character; I want to read a novel that teaches me a new way to think or a new way to read, or else intentionally frustrates my desires for those things, or does something else entirely unexpected — frankly, a formula of rising action, climax, falling action and denouement seems to me to be the thing that’s in need of defending. How boring! Why would anyone want to read that?

That’s from a fantastic interview with Emmett Stinson at Verity La, an online Australian literary journal that has evolved from interesting to absolutely indispensable in the space of about six months. Even better than the interview as a whole is that it is only the latest installment in a long series of equally fantastic interviews. What makes the Verity La interviews so great, I think, is not just that the editors’ chosen interviewees are compelling in their own right; it’s that the editors themselves are so uninhibited in seriously engaging with them. By this I mean that they refuse to air the sort of disclaimers that such interviewees tend to attract — usually the suggestion, bordering on a warning, that readers will perhaps find the interviewee’s work “unusual” or “difficult” — and, in so doing, they allow themselves the freedom to dive right in to engage with the work in a way that respects and indeed savours its particular complexities.

In terms of celebrity and literary influence, of course, those interviewed in Verity La are no match for those interviewed in The Paris Review. However, in terms of quality, depth, intelligence, and respectful aesthetic engagement, the Verity La interviews are the closest thing we have right now in Australia to the Paris Review interview archives. Five years or a decade from now, when more of the Verity La interviewees have produced a greater body of work and thereby gained wider recognition, I think readers will look back on each of these interviews as instruments of unparalleled value with which to better understand the work itself. For now, it can’t hurt to admire the worthiness and sophistication of the interviews already accumulating.

Asking Too Much

Pick up a book you have never read. Whether it is more than a century old or one of this week’s new releases, any unread book will do. Now hold it in your hands and flick through the pages but do not look at the words. Look instead for the question that descends on the book and settles over it like a mist: “Is it or is it not worth reading?” Now look for the corollary questions: “If so, why so? If not, why not?” Short of actually reading the book in order to answer these questions yourself, you might turn to a book review in search of the answers offered by others. To offer answers to these questions is the single most urgent task faced by book reviewers. Different reviewers will of course have differing views on what the activity of reading involves and how a book can best go about making that activity worthwhile for the reader. Such differences amongst reviewers are the beating heart of contemporary literary discourse. Beneath their differences, though, book reviewers face a common and fundamental obligation to answer the same questions that settle alike over each and every unread book.

I think these claims are self-evident. If someone either declines or fails to explain why or why not it is worth my while to read a particular book, that person has done something other than reviewing the book in question. He or she might simply declare a book to be worth reading, as tends to happen in capsule reviews and in venues like Twitter, but the absence of justification and persuasion offers no reason to accept the validity of the verdict. Alternatively, he or she might invoke the content of the book for purposes of cultural analysis or political commentary, as tends to happen in academic criticism, but then the writer forgoes an explanation of how the experience of reading the book is worthwhile and instead assumes that the book is simply worth having read in order to discuss subjects broader than the book itself. At these two extremes of literary discourse, a book is either proclaimed or presupposed to be worth reading or not. In between these two extremes, the inherent purpose of the book review is to elucidate the vagaries underlying populist proclamations and the value judgments implicit in scholarly presuppositions. It is an attempt to communicate literary experience with the book under consideration being the common referent between the reviewer and the reader of the review.

If these claims are really self-evident, why bother making them explicit? I make them explicit now because, over the last few months, the nature of the book review has been called into question in a number of high-profile venues and the responses to that questioning seem to me confused. Towards the end of last year, The New York Times Book Review asked six literary critics to explain the purpose and defend the value of their chosen profession. Last month, The Observer allowed Neal Gabler to question the purpose and attack the value of professional criticism and then solicited several responses from critics at work in various areas of the arts. Originally I had planned to write a more in-depth response to the inadequacies of the critics at both of these broadsheets, but the shortcomings of the Times critics have already been well documented by Dan Green and Rohan Maitzen and the shortcomings of the Observer critics are more or less the same. Here, then, I’ll stick to general impressions of the broadsheet critics’ approaches to literary fiction. Together, the Times and Observer reveal what strikes me as an endemic reluctance amongst literary critics to respect the literariness of literary fiction, to treat a work of such fiction as a work of art, and to face up to the notion that — first and foremost and prior to all other possible considerations — it is either worth reading or not. Amongst critics, in short, there is a widespread antipathy towards the non-utilitarian value of fiction and the possibility that the experience of reading fiction yields no outcomes prior to, and possibly none more productive than, a transitory engagement in the reading experience itself. The prevailing assumption is that the value of a work of literary fiction consists in its capacity to escape and supersede its own literariness rather than reveling in it. The most valuable such fiction is seen as valuable to the extent that it can first be seen as something other than what it is.

This approach to fiction always disappoints me. That, too, must be self-evident, given the title of this blog. To rise to the occasion of fiction and to meet it on its own terms is by no means simple or easy: it requires sustained close attention and dedication; it requires infinite patience. But mine is a minority view, of course, and all the more so as the alternative outlined above has been institutionalised in the most popular contemporary literary reviews in the USA and the UK.

Is the case the same here in Australia? Yes, unfortunately, and blithely so, as I was reminded last week when James Bradley’s review of Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow somehow popped up in my Twitter feed despite having been published in 2010. I remembered reading it when it first appeared in the pages of the Australian Literary Review, Australia’s answer to NYTBR and the Guardian Review with pretensions of being Australia’s NYRB, LRB, or TLS. Republishing the review on his blog, though, Bradley had taken the opportunity to comment on his own work: he wished he had been given another thousand words with which to extend the review. I wished the same, and I said so. As he devoted only one quarter of the entire review to an evaluation of the novel under discussion, I felt he had not met his obligations as a reviewer; I felt he focused disproportionately on Martin Amis as a cultural figure rather than the fiction Amis produced. But with James Bradley having long ago proven himself one of Australia’s most attentive and generous book reviewers, the shortcomings of his review seemed to me to owe less to his own critical weaknesses than to the limitations of the broadsheet review that published his work. Echoing Dan Green, I suggested that Bradley use his blog to give himself the extra words needed to engage with the novel in a way that he could not do in print. To my surprise, my comments elicited a brusque response from Geordie Williamson, the chief literary critic at The Australian and — judging from his comments — a de facto co-editor at the ALR:

Daniel, you are quite the scold. I predict for a you a stellar career in academe.

As for the review: James, I’m only sorry we cut so much of the material directly relating to the text. It was decent of you to refrain from blaming the editors but still: that was our bad.

Wow. First up, given that value judgments are anathema to literary critics in the academy, the critical vision I’m trying to articulate here could hardly be further outside the limits of what the academy currently deems acceptable. More importantly, though: what an abrogation of responsibility on the part of those at the helm of the ALR. The last two letters of ALR supposedly stand for “literary review,” but, if I understand Williamson correctly, the editors of the ALR read James Bradley’s review of The Pregnant Widow and decided to strike out the part where he actually reviewed the literature. Why? Why flinch when faced with the prospect of concentrated literary discussion unencumbered by the creaky architecture of rote and trivial authorial biography? Why fear that such discussion cannot capture the interest of readers and sustain their attention throughout? Notwithstanding the occasional triumph — Estelle Tang, for instance, reviewing Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories — why does the ALR experience such difficulty dedicating itself, as advertised, to the review of literature? Why does it not seem to feel comfortable in being what it says it is? Is that asking too much?

Here’s how it’s done: Adam Gopnik on Mark Twain’s Autobiography and Andrew Delbanco on the very same book. Two first-rate reviews, equally persuasive, although the verdict of each one is diametrically opposed to the verdict of the other. There must have been an extraordinary temptation for both authors to veer away from the Autobiography as text, as literature, and to instead discuss the life depicted in its pages, but to the credit of both authors neither one takes the bait. They focus relentlessly on the questions that settle over the unread book and dedicate themselves to the task of communicating the experience of reading it. When it comes to book reviewing, Gopnik and Delbanco offer the real thing. The New York Times Book Review and The Observer and the ALR could do worse than learn from them.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited

Less appreciated [than Cormac McCarthy’s work as a novelist] is [his] work as a dramatist. Having initially written both Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men as screenplays, and having published an earlier screenplay, The Gardener’s Son, as well as a stage play, The Stonemason, McCarthy is no stranger to the dramatic form. Nevertheless, his dramas continue to lurk in the shadows cast by his novels.

To what extent is prose therefore the medium that best allows McCarthy’s particular talents to manifest? To what extent do his skills as an author depend upon setting down words on a page in order to coax out a distinct voice that mediates dialogue, character, and story with its own idiosyncratic ruminations? These questions seem speculative, I admit, but they must be asked because they haunt McCarthy’s latest book from the first page to the very last. That book is The Sunset Limited, a verbatim reproduction of the script for a stage play McCarthy wrote in 2006 — verbatim except for the addition of a cryptic subtitle, A Novel in Dramatic Form, with which it distinguishes itself from the stage play by making an issue of its own novelistic capacity for prosaic meditation.

My review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited is online at The Quarterly Conversation.