Mr. Saunders of Sesame Street

George Saunders, "Lincoln in the Bardo"James Ley’s attitude in his review of George Saunders’ recent novel Lincoln in the Bardo is… well… I’m not quite sure what. Let’s say it’s in the region of prickly/irascible/dyspeptic but without any trace of genuine displeasure or hysteria:

Saunders is a formally adventurous writer; he has his characteristic quirks and obsessions, his own distinctive style. But his work sits quite comfortably within a well-established tradition of postmodern American fiction. In fact, it is hard to think of another contemporary author of comparable renown whose aesthetic is so obviously stitched together from other writers’ old fabric scraps. His fiction is a patchwork of Donald Barthelme’s conceptual whimsy, Thomas Pynchon’s zany cultural satire, and Kurt Vonnegut’s avuncular wisdom, interwoven with an anxious humanism and a demotic turn of phrase that takes a perverse delight in malapropisms, solecisms, absurd jargon and ridiculous brand names — qualities that are more or less direct cops from David Foster Wallace.

And later, building off Zadie Smith’s praise for Saunders as “a  morally passionate, serious writer,” Ley adds: Continue reading Mr. Saunders of Sesame Street

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Emerson’s Tricks and Sparks

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Essential Writings"I’ve been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s collected essays over the last couple of months, two or three each week, never more than one in a day. I’ve been familiar with the more famous essays for a long time now — I remember teaching “Self-Reliance” and my favourite essay, “Experience,” almost a decade ago — but at the start of this year it occurred to me that there were a number of essays I hadn’t read, so I decided to take a look at them all.

More than anything else, more than the quality of Emerson’s ideas, what I admire most about the essays is the incomparable rhetoric, the sheer extravagant beauty of the expression. Happily, I read them in the Modern Library’s collection of Essential Writings, edited by Brooks Atkinson and with an introduction by Mary Oliver. Even more happily, Oliver’s superb essay was made freely available online last year, so you can see for yourself how precisely she nails the essence of the Emersonian aesthetic: Continue reading Emerson’s Tricks and Sparks

Minimisation

Today I hit the magic number on the word count for Winter Fugue. The number is 80,000. That’s how many words I’ve got. They’re clean and serviceable, so I’m pleased to have them on the page, although they’re not yet in their best possible shape. They’ll need further revision, further tightening, especially with an eye towards their holistic function, their service to the work as a whole. Nevertheless, in their current state, they do what they need to do. They convey, without any lack, the events, the emotions, the rhythm, the tone, and the senses Winter Fugue wants to convey. More than that, by reaching the magic number, they give the novel its optimum length. Pretty much any how-to guide for aspiring novelists will tell you that 80,000 is the target to aim for. According to the conventions of the mainstream publishing industry, that’s roughly how long a proper novel is.

Except Winter Fugue isn’t quite halfway complete. Lately, as I pace out each new chapter relative to the ones before it, I’ve been figuring that the manuscript will finish up somewhere in the vicinity of 180,000 words. Way too long, but there it is. Not much I can do about it. That’s the way this book wants to be. For that reason, on top of just bringing the book into existence — on top of summoning the intellectual, emotional, and physical stamina necessary to sustain the pace of my output until the book tells me it’s done — one of the fresh challenges I’m starting to face up to is the task of condensing it all into a summary form. Winter Fugue is at a point in its development where I have a clearer sense of its trajectory and its overall shape than I did when I began. This means it’s at a point where I’m thinking more carefully about where it might go when it’s no longer in my hands, about how to place it in the hands of initial readers, potential publishers, and so on. How can a piece of prose so much longer than the ideal novel be shortened, compressed into a synopsis, in a way that doesn’t imperil what its length achieves? Continue reading Minimisation

Starlings

Then, as they came to where the trees ended, and blackbirds, before roosting, began to give the alarm in earnest, some first starlings flew out of the sky. Over against the old man and his granddaughter the vast mansion reflected a vast red; sky above paled while to the left it outshone the house, and more starlings crossed. After which these birds came in hundreds, then suddenly by legion, black and blunt against faint rose. They swarmed above the lonely elm, they circled a hundred feet above, until the leader, followed by ever greater numbers, in one broad spiral led the way down and so, as they descended through falling dusk in a soft roar, they made, as they had at dawn, a huge sea shell that stood proud to a moon which, flat sovereign red gold, was already poised full faced to a dying world.

Once the starlings had settled in that tree they one and all burst out singing.

Then there were more, even higher, dots against paler pink, and these, in their turn, began to circle up above, scything the air, and to swoop down through a thickening curve, in the enormous echo of blood, or of the sea, until all was black about that black elm, as the first mass of starlings left while these others settled, and there was a huge volume of singing.

Then a third concourse came out of the west, and, as the first birds swarmed upon the nearest beech, these late comers stooped out of dusk in a crash of air to take that elm, to send the last arrivals out, which trebled the singing.

The old man wondered, as often before, if this were not the greatest sound on earth. Elizabeth stood quiet. The starlings flew around a little and then, as sky faded fast, the moon paled to brilliance, and this moment was over, that singing drooped, then finished, as every bird was home.

Henry Green
Concluding

A Rarity

Jon McGregor, "Reservoir 13"You’ve gotta call it when you see it, so here it is: Tessa Hadley’s review of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is a model of what broadsheet criticism can accomplish. In only 1,300 words we’re treated to a thoughtful consideration of the narrative setup, the invocation of genre tropes and the expectations associated with them, the imagery, the prose style, the affect it generates, the tone of the whole when you apply that affect to the narrative action, and much more besides. Here’s a sample:

[E]verything [in Reservoir 13] is charged by our expectation as readers: everything ordinary has its undertow of significance. … And then as our expectations are strained to the limit, we begin to realise that the writer is deflecting them into something else, taking us into another kind of novel altogether. What actually fills up the pages, fills up narrative time while we wait to find the girl, is an omniscient narration moving easily around and inside a whole collective of protagonists in the village and following them through their daily lives, none of them dominating the story space. … The characters we watch are all warm enough, sentient human beings, prone to needing and wanting and mostly failing one another. But the eye of the story keeps its remote omniscient distance; it’s a cold camera-eye, or the eye of a hawk circling above the village, assembling everything impartially, not taking sides.

Read the rest and savour it. This quality of criticism is far too rare in the broadsheet press these days.

The Joys of Syntax

When I began to write fiction I discovered, in a wholly new way, possibilities within the sentence. I discovered the joys of syntax. This seems ass-backwards; I should have found syntax first as poet. It seems that it was simply developmental, I was at last seeing what the music inside a sentence, the intelligence inside a sentence, the personality within the sentence might be. In those first stories things seemed possible and more than possible it felt essential at times to have three prepositional phrases jammed up together, to take the sentence in one direction and then press it into another direction. I began to consider what I could do with postponement or preponement of, for example, the subject of a sentence.

Victoria Redel
in interview with Jason Lucarelli

On Ethical Immediacy

I confess I was nervous, even pre-emptively embarrassed, when I wrote in January about what I call the murmur and how it stands as the source of the imperative to write. It seemed too abstract, too wishy-washy, too plainly preposterous to be taken seriously, and all the more so when I came around to using the loaded language of morality and ethical immediacy to describe my response to the imperative to write. Then, via @Twitchelmore, there came to my attention a video of a captivating conversation between Gabriel Josipovici and Lars Iyer, and an early exchange particularly piqued my interest: Continue reading On Ethical Immediacy

thoughts on the what, the how, and the why of literature