Speed Reading

Midsummer was an interesting time for online discussions of literature and the reasons for which readers of literature actually read. Kevin Hartnett and the team at The Millions were the first to kick the hornets’ nest when they “asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest.” Mission accomplished, especially when Tom Ferraro, Associate Professor of English at Duke University, nominated Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as the Great American Novel:

The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?

When the comments section at The Millions exploded with dissents and disagreements, the discussion spilled over onto The Daily Dish, the blog of Andrew Sullivan, where one of Sullivan’s readers was given prime position to offer backup to Ferraro and take down the naysayers: Continue reading

A Reorientation

Links to Jacob Silverman’s notes “against enthusiasm” have been popping up in my RSS and Twitter feeds for a few of weeks now, first when they appeared as brief remarks on Silverman’s blog and again when Silverman turned them into an article published last week on Slate. In most instances the links have been accompanied by either praise for Silverman’s argument or an absence of commentary which I take as tantamount to an acknowledgement that, at the very least, he’s on to something. In his notes, Silverman diagnoses the preeminent problem with today’s online culture of literary criticism and proposes a solution for it. I think his diagnosis is spot-on, so I’m glad to see a sustained interest in his notes — and particularly since so many of the venues that have linked to them are the very sorts of venues he faults.

“[I]f you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres,” writes Silverman,

you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page. … Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they ❤ so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web.

One problem with this situation is that, for Silverman, “it’s a critical dead-end, a conversation nonstarter. It’s opinion without evidence — or, really, posture without opinion. For every ‘+1,’ ‘THIS,’ or ‘<3’ we offer next to someone’s fawning tweet, a feeling is expressed without saying much at all.” And because such “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments” of online literary criticism, their very dominance gives rise to a second problem: “biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal — one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person.” The result is a literary culture “dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement,” in which criticism has ceased to function as such. Because every member of this culture wants their own writing to be read, they seek to receive praise for their writing by praising the writings of others and, as a result, the culture overflows with writings of which none are ever not worth reading. Continue reading

What Need?

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: Continue reading

Discussing UNESCO Cities of Literature

Heads up. I wrote about Melbourne’s UNESCO City of Literature initiative a while ago, drawing a pretty unfavourable comparison between Melbourne’s efforts to capitalise on its City of Literature status and the remarkable things Edinburgh has achieved after it became the first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004. Have Melbourne’s efforts improved in the last year? With the city’s Emerging Writers’ Festival kicking off today, I’ll be taking part in “EWFDigital,” a series of online panel discussions focusing on an assortment of literary topics. The panel I’m on is accessible here; the topic under discussion is of course the UNESCO Cities of Literature project. I’ve just fired my opening salvo and I’ll be keeping an eye on the Festival website to answer any questions from the “audience” until the Festival draws to a close on June 5…

Genius?

What counts as genius? Sometimes it’s clear-cut: in 1981, with four sophisticated but commercially lacklustre novels to his credit, Cormac McCarthy used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Blood Meridian, arguably one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. Other times, it’s more counterintuitive: in 1988, with Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and V already under his belt, Thomas Pynchon used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Vineland, a work more experimentally adventurous (for him) if ultimately less successful than the earlier three novels. Mostly, though, what counts as genius is a major achievement that contains a hint of truly outstanding things to come. David Foster Wallace won his Fellowship on the back of Infinite Jest, Aleksandar Hemon won his on the back of Nowhere Man, and Edward P. Jones won his the same year he picked up the Pulitzer for The Known World – without doubt the best American novel of the last ten years. That decade also saw Fellowships awarded to Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Stuart Dybeck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Deborah Eisenberg, as well as Colson Whitehead, who used his Fellowship to write the criminally underappreciated Colossus of New York, and Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories is one of this year’s best books for all the reasons Dan Chiasson has [recently] raved about.

I have a few quick thoughts on this year’s MacArthur Fellowships over at Killings, the Kill Your Darlings blog.

Cultural Cringe

Dear world: on behalf of the Australian people, I’d like to apologise for Christos Tsiolkas.

In my experience, one of the most irritating things about simply being Australian is that, whenever you make any initial attempt to participate in any sort of cultural enterprise alongside anyone from virtually anywhere in the Western world, you must first thwart and dismantle the preconceptions of parochialism attributed to Australians in general before you can expect others to take you seriously. The global assumption — reinforced by the “colourful” behaviour of so many Australians abroad — is that the nation itself lacks a sense of cultural sophistication and that, as a result, the people of Australia do not recognise cultural sophistication when they encounter it either within their own country or elsewhere. The assumption isn’t true, of course, or at least not on any essentialist basis; but it is widespread and resilient, and its persistence has long been a source of grief for those who champion Australian culture: “How can we best prove to the world that Australian culture is worthy of serious attention and respect?” Within Australia itself, the assumption is understood to have historically fuelled a phenomenon known as the cultural cringe: a reflexive “awareness” amongst Australian artists and their audiences that Australian art of any type is inherently inferior to the art of others — that, indeed, Australian artists “have something to prove” in the first place. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Cities

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas in central Melbourne. In 2008, Melbourne become the second UNESCO City of Literature following the initial granting of that title to Edinburgh in 2004. As part of the city’s bid for the title, the Victorian state government agreed to build and fund in perpetuity a dedicated space for regular literary events in an atrium attached to the State Library. When additional funding was offered by Tony and Maureen Wheeler — they of the Lonely Planet phenomenon — the proposed space was named in their honour. The Wheeler Centre opened earlier this year and now holds daily literary events, all of them accessible to the public at no cost, as well as providing a home for six resident literary organisations: festival organisers, independent publishers, small-press journals, and so on. Yesterday the Wheeler Centre threw open its doors and gave the public unprecedented access to the entire site, including those areas that are off-limits throughout the week. I thought it seemed like a good opportunity to take a fresh look at the Centre, and, more importantly, to take a fresh look at Melbourne’s City of Literature status in general.

First, to the Wheeler Centre itself. I appreciate the sentiment behind it. The construction of such a dedicated literary space and the hosting of free daily literary events can only be a good thing. Still, I have some reservations about the way those events are run. Since the Wheeler Centre is self-professedly “the centrepiece of the Victorian Government’s City of Literature initiative,” one would hope that the events held at the Centre are essentially and recognisably literary in nature. The fact is, they’re not. The Wheeler Centre’s full title is the giveaway: it is, as above, the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas, and, with the inclusion of the word “ideas,” the Centre gives itself a free pass to downgrade the literariness of its events. The “ideas” on view at the Centre are the sorts of ideas that attract immediate public interest insofar as they are “ripped from the headlines.” Domestic politics, environmental initiatives, international affairs, and so on: these “ideas” dominate the program at the Centre and thus sideline the discussion of literature that is, by nature, of less immediate interest because it makes a bid for long-term value. Not only that, but even when such literature does receive attention at the Centre, it is largely approached as little more than a vehicle for “ideas” and evaluated according to its ability to offer a distinctly human response to various social and political dilemmas. In short, the Wheeler Centre tends to look upon literature as either explicitly polemical non-fiction or as a polemic with the aesthetic veil of fiction cast over it, rather than as a product of laborious and sophisticated artistry. So the value of literature is found in its ability to “say something” about the world we inhabit and about “what it means to be human.” I would sacrifice my firstborn to be able to go there and hear someone discuss literature as literature.

This wouldn’t be such a disappointment, of course, if the Wheeler Centre did not so completely dominate the City of Literature initiative. Although it is referred to as the “centrepiece” of the initiative, it is in effect the totality of that initiative and, as a result, there is a dearth of literariness to be found elsewhere in this City of Literature. And this, in turn, wouldn’t be so disappointing if Edinburgh did not already provide such a stunning example of how to both invest the quality of literariness in a City of Literature and bring out the literariness already extant. On this point, I confess to a bias: I spent about four years living in Edinburgh before I moved to Melbourne in early 2009; I relocated from the inaugural City of Literature to its immediate successor. And I confess to a second bias: I have little love for the city of Melbourne because my heart remains very firmly in Edinburgh. Of course, Melbourne simply cannot compete with Edinburgh in the literary stakes. Edinburgh has hundreds of years of literary history behind it, whereas Melbourne wasn’t even founded until 1835 and didn’t become a city until more than a decade after that. Nevertheless, Melbourne has put little effort into making itself a City of Literature by bringing literature into public spaces so that the very streets are suffused with it. It could learn a lot from Edinburgh’s efforts to locate its literary history at street level so that literature appears before your very eyes no matter where you look.

Holyrood Park, at the base of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, is home to Arthur’s Seat, a great volcanic peak surrounded by acres of heath, knolls, lochs, and crags. It gave Arthur Conan Doyle the inspiration for the setting of The Lost World, and was used by James Hogg as the setting for his hero’s eerie encounter with his doppelganger in Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Edinburgh and set large parts of Kidnapped in and around the city as well as obviously drawing on many of the city’s characteristics to give his London a gothic twist in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. John Buchan immortalised the city in The Thirty-Nine Steps. Ian Fleming found a home for the young James Bond at Edinburgh’s Fettes College. Muriel Spark, Alasdair Gray, and James Kelman have each co-opted parts of the city in their work — and, of course, in doing so they place themselves in a tradition that dates back two centuries to the pinnacle of Scottish romanticism under Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, both of whom made the city distinctly their own in the literature they wrote in it and about it.

Shall I go on? J.M. Barrie lived in Edinburgh and wrote the early drafts of Peter Pan there. Charles Darwin was a student at Edinburgh University; I used to pass his old lodgings on my way to work each day. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited the city a number of times, with Boswell writing of their adventures around Edinburgh in his work on the life of Johnson. The poet Robert Fergusson lived and worked in Edinburgh. Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows whilst living and working in Edinburgh. The two great poets of World War I, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, met in the Military Hospital at Craiglockhart in the suburbs of Edinburgh. It was on a visit to Edinburgh that Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein. Three of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known — David Hume, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill — all lived and wrote their masterpieces in Edinburgh and its surrounds, and Hume and Smith are both buried in Edinburgh and honoured with commemorative statues on the Royal Mile. Thomas Carlyle was right there in Edinburgh alongside those philosophers. Lewis Crassic Gibbon followed. Hell, Chris Claremont even set a couple of issues of The Uncanny X-Men at the top of the Holyrood Crags. More recently, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro both lived as students in Edinburgh and continue to return there almost every year, even taking the city as the subject of their fictions. Almost all of the locales and authors I have named so far are mentioned on a plaque or a monument somewhere in Edinburgh to give them due credit for their place in world literature. Additionally, the Royal Mile is dotted with literary institutions: the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the Scottish Poetry Centre, the Scottish Book Trust, and the Writers’ Museum. The National Library of Scotland is just around the corner on George IV Bridge. Step off the Royal Mile into Lady Stair’s Close and you’ll find Makars’ Court, where poetry is etched into the stone slabs on the ground. Even when buildings around the city are due to undergo renovations or reconstruction, the giant tarpaulins that shroud the buildings to keep the construction site out of public view are covered from top to bottom in poetry. The last one I saw was just off the intersection of South St. David Street and Princes Street — a stone’s throw from the foreboding Sir Walter Scott Monument at the edge of the Princes Street Gardens, just opposite Waverley Station: a central train station named after a work of literature. The city is positively ablaze with traces of the written word.

And that’s just off the top of my head. The city council’s own promotional material lays out an even more distinguished literary history. Blackwood’s Magazine, the first publication ever to print the work of George Eliot, was established and published in Edinburgh. John Murray Publishers brought Lord Byron and Jane Austen into print with offices based in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Review, which featured Thomas Carlyle and Sir Walter Scott as contributors, was one of the most widely-circulated periodicals in the British Empire: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both among its longstanding admirers. Even Edinburgh’s social and political history obtains a literary quality within the space of the city itself as an overabundance of historical sites are accompanied by narrative explanations of their significance that dominate the city’s public spaces. Tales of plague and war and witch-burnings are told and re-told on the walls of the buildings near which such events occurred, even though those buildings that are today nothing more illustrious than pubs, cafes, shops, or other small businesses. Every site of significance is given its due in the form of a story made visible in the public arena, from the arrival place of Oliver Cromwell to the city lodgements of John Knox — to say nothing of the locales associated with Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Bonny Prince Charlie, and on and on and on. Beyond the broad strokes of its literary history, Edinburgh is alive with small-scale literature as story after story after story adorns every possible surface of the city. And that is to say nothing of the contemporary authors whose work makes Edinburgh a renowned city today: Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, Kate Atkinson, Irvine Welsh, and J.K. Rowling. All of them have at some stage lived and worked in Edinburgh, most of them continue to do so, and collectively they have written about the city at such extraordinary length that the city as it exists in reality and the city as it exists on the page have long since become inextricably bound up with one another. As well as being unable to walk the streets of Edinburgh without spotting here and there some artefact of literary history, history itself is transformed into literature on the city streets while the city continues to inspire fresh literature today.

As I said above, I know that Melbourne is simply unable to compete with Edinburgh. To be sure, it has seen its share of literary luminaries in the past. Henry Handel Richardson, Marcus Clarke, Barbara Baynton, Neville Shute, Joseph Furphy, and Joan Lindsay all lived and wrote in or around Melbourne, and all of them produced work that has since either obtained classic status or is on its way to doing so. Someday, the work of Christos Tsiolkas, Peter Carey, and Helen Garner will probably also do the same. Brian Castro and Gerald Murnane are two of only three world-class novelists currently at work in Australia and both have written some of their work in and about Melbourne — although Castro has recently relocated to Adelaide where he now works alongside J.M. Coetzee, the third of those three world-class novelists. But beyond those authors, the leading lights of Australian literature are more evenly distributed throughout the country. Tasmania claims Christopher Koch and Richard Flanagan; the Northern Territory claims Xavier Herbert; Western Australia claims Tim Winton, Elizabeth Jolley, Randolph Stowe, and Katharine Susannah Prichard; Queensland claims David Malouf; and New South Wales claims, impressively, Patrick White, Thea Astley, Kate Grenville, Henry Lawson, Christina Stead, Thomas Keneally, and Delia Falconer. That’s about it — but, at the same time, it’s enough to work with. How about some way of identifying landmarks and locations around the city that have been incorporated into the literature of some of these writers? How about some way of identifying locations that have been marked by the personal presence of these writers? And if that’s not enough, why not turn to those writers who at some stage visited Melbourne and remarked upon it? Mark Twain lectured in this city. So did Anthony Trollope. So did Rudyard Kipling. So did Joseph Conrad. So did Arthur Conan Doyle, an Edinburgh native. Robert Louis Stevenson never visited but certainly expressed some strong opinions on Melbourne. How about a commemorative statue or two? At the moment, Melbourne features only three statues of a literary nature: an Australianised Peter Pan at Melbourne Zoo, a statue of Adam Lindsay Gordon outside the State Parliament, and — irony of ironies — a statue of Robert Burns in the Treasury Gardens. It also features a single, solitary brick taken from the boyhood home of James Joyce and placed on the periphery of the State Library, but let’s be honest here: the elevation of a brick to the status of a literary landmark couldn’t even be described as a mediocre effort without giving it undue credit. And even if we set aside these sorts of literary landmarks, why can Melbourne not follow Edinburgh’s lead in developing programs that define the reading of literature as a social act and encourage reading in the public arena? Each year, Edinburgh runs the “One Book — One Edinburgh” program, an enormous citywide initiative which aims to have everyone in the city reading the same book at the same time after having picked it up for free in any one of a number public spaces that serve as impromptu distributors. Is Melbourne unable to follow suit or is it simply unwilling? Either way, something more is needed to make this UNESCO City of Literature an essentially and identifiably literary city. The fancy title and the Wheeler Centre alone just do not suffice.

This is, of course, a futile plea. The Wheeler Centre’s promotional material states the matter very bluntly: “Our City of Literature status is not about Dickens on the tram, Nabokov in the Great Southern Strand or a Bronte or two over breakfast. It’s a recognition and celebration of Melbourne’s passionate readers.” But the act of reading involves opening oneself to the reading experience even when one is not staring at the words on the page, when one is going about one’s daily affairs. To take reading seriously involves thinking throughout the day about the books that one has previously read, as well as entertaining a curiosity about the books that one has not yet been enticed to read. More recognition of Melbourne’s literary history in the city’s public places would not only call to mind the various reading experiences of those who recognise city landmarks from where they have encountered them in literature, but would also stimulate the curiosity of those who have not read such literature and would increase the likelihood of their reading it. A citywide reading initiative would do likewise. This is the Edinburgh strategy: saturate the city with an overabundance of literary aides-mémoire in a way that makes literature an absolutely integral part of everyday life. The Melbourne strategy, at present, involves confining literary events to a fixed and dedicated space and refusing to let literature itself penetrate those four walls. Within a certain set of parameters, I admit: the intellectual life of Melbourne is surely more vigorous for the establishment of the Wheeler Centre. But insofar as the Centre has dominated of the City of Literature initiative, it has also to some extent kept the facilitation of literary discussion cordoned-off from the outside world. In Edinburgh, literature has air of vitality about it because you find it everywhere you go, in everything you encounter. In Melbourne, it feels much less vital and therefore like a mere indulgence because you have to go to a very specific location, at a very specific time, in order to encounter it — and even then, of course, you’re more likely to encounter “ideas” instead.