How It’s Done

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?

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. Continue reading

Under the Sway of the Cinematic Imagination

John Freeman, the current editor of Granta, published an essay in last Saturday’s Age that attempted both to commemorate the tenth anniversary of “9/11” and to assess the impact of 9/11 on American literature. It’s a stunning piece of critical oversimplification, beginning with the most reductive possible reading of some unfathomably complex novels: Continue reading

A Breath of Fresh Air

Now, back to book reviewing. In the latest Australian Literary Review, of all places, Melinda Harvey shows us how it’s done. Here she is writing a review for a relatively broad audience without falling back on the populist assumption that what makes a novel worth reading is the strength (believability, plausibility, vitality) of its characters and plot. To begin with, of course, she concedes that such an assumption should play into our evaluation of a work of fiction:

For all the high jinks [of postmodern pastiche and playfulness], A Visit from the Goon Squad… cares deeply about story and character and aims to meet the reader with some modicum of approachability and sincerity. … [N]obody’s boring and everybody’s got their reasons. We are thrown into closeness with Sasha, Bennie, Rhea, Lou, Jocelyn, Scotty, Stephanie, Dolly, Jules, Rob, Ted, Alison and Alex for short but intense intervals, one at a time.

None of these characters regains the centrality they enjoy in their chapter of the novel, but most of them don’t really go away either. They hover on the periphery of their familiars’ stories, as real people do, sometimes giving off an impression that is incongruous with the one we’ve formed through near acquaintance. This treatment of character makes them more, not less, authentic and is the literary equivalent of faceting gems.

But then, she looks elsewhere to identify the real source of the pleasure of reading this novel: Continue reading

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. Continue reading

A Sunday Supplement Icarus

In the book review section of today’s Weekend Australian, Nicolas Rothwell offers a typically erudite assessment of Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin:

Chatwin… was a truth-trimmer, he had the certainties and fallibilities of an autodidact, he was a travel-writer with touristic protocols, his writing never escaped from his training-ground in journalism; yet he, being endlessly obsessed by self-scrutiny, knew all these things, and it is his attempt to escape from them that gives his life, and thus this book, its quality of tension.

Rothwell is nicely suited to discussing this particular book. His own writings are recognisably kith and kin to Chatwin’s work, and, at the very least, the first section of his Wings of the Kite-Hawk is as good as Chatwin’s best. Yet despite his clear affinity with Chatwin, Rothwell holds little affection for him. He pays no mind to the nuances of Chatwin’s novels except for a few brief remarks on The Songlines, and his attitude towards Chatwin as a self-mythologised figure is resolutely ambivalent. Although he celebrates the aspirations that propelled Chatwin around the globe, he turns a jaundiced eye towards the resultant words on the page: Continue reading

Critical Failure, Redux

My post from a couple of weeks ago left a few threads dangling which I hope now to tie up. Last weekend, that post also opened up an unexpected opportunity for me which I’ll explain in a moment. First, though, for those who wish to see for themselves the event I discussed in that post — the ‘Critical Failure’ debate on the current state of Australian literary criticism at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas — a lightly edited video is now online at the Centre’s website. Witness the great Peter Craven in all his grotesque glory. Continue reading