New Perspectives on an Old World

I have cherished the essays of Kathleen Jamie for the better part of five years now, so I was very gratified to be able to review her new collection, Surfacing, for Splice — and to use the occasion to look back at her earlier volumes:

Here, then, is a typical essay by Kathleen Jamie: an off-kilter line of sight is traced and extended by speculative means, and allows for an apprehension of things that otherwise escape the eye. Sometimes, as above, the escape is spatial. A locus of interest might have a position so far above human affairs, or so far beneath, or at such a distance from them, that its very place of being evades any one person’s embodied vantage point. At other times, the escape is temporal. A locus of interest, deeply embedded in the past, makes a mockery of our immersion in the urgency of the present, so that, in effect, we are blinded by the here and now and unable to pierce the surface of the times we dwell in. In each case, though, an essay by Jamie will always find a way for the author to place herself just so in relation to her surroundings, at which point — like a key with a clean cut sliding smoothly into a lock — the author’s eyes align with some aspect of the world that radically expands the horizons of her perception. [Jamie’s first collection of essays] was blurbed by Richard Mabey, while [her second] was blurbed by John Berger, and Jamie’s work often comes across as a synthesis of theirs.

 

Against the Takedown

New on Splice this week, there’s a vexed review of Helen Phillips’ The Need by J.S. DeYoung. I’m proud to be able to publish it. It articulates a mixed-to-negative response to this novel, running against a lot of other responses (eg. The Guardian: “one of this year’s most necessary novels”), but it’s no single-minded takedown. I know that Jason wrestled with it a bit, I think his discomfort comes through, and I’m glad that it does. It’s a mark of respect to an author’s labours and intentions to seriously think through the issues they raise, and to seriously consider one’s own limitations, even if one finally finds something lacking in the work. I also think Jason gives the book a fair hearing, showing sympathy to its premises and appreciation for Phillips’ other work; and his misgivings are sober, on-point, and reasonable.

How to write a generous negative review? I’ve been thinking about this question intensely for the better part of two years now, which was when I first started writing the review of J.M. Coetzee’s Late Essays that I published in April 2019. Last December, the question arose for me again when I published Alec Dewar’s unfavourable take on Bragi Ólafsson’s Narrator.

It’s such a difficult thing. I don’t like to write negative negative reviews, because I think that at bottom I really only write reviews and essays for myself. Doesn’t matter if they end up being published elsewhere. I am my own audience, and I use the essay or review format to clarify my own thoughts on whatever I’m writing about. In fact, I often don’t have any thoughts on what I’m writing about until I start writing, or talking it out. All I have, to begin with, is an inchoate feeling that gradually assumes the form of expressible thoughts. Which means that if I have a negative negative reaction to a book — if I just flat-out dislike it — then I feel like I’ve made a loss on the investment of my time. So I wouldn’t write a negative negative review, because ultimately I just want to cut my losses and move on. I’m not against negative stuff per se, and I’ll happily dole it out in conversation, but if I’m going to put my energy into writing about something, then I’m pretty much in an exploratory frame of mind, not an advisory one; hence, no pressure to warn other readers away from a bad book.

But occasionally there are books that I don’t like, or I don’t admire, even though I value in some other way — for the contrast they provide to still other books, or for their unrealised potential, for the suggestions of what they could have been. That’s the territory on which I feel comfortable writing a negative review, because it still allows me to work my way into the book deeply and give respect to some part of it. A la Coetzee.

This year, some months ago, the question of the value of negative reviews arose anew when Bookforum published Andrea Long Chu’s incandescent takedown of Bret Easton Ellis’ White. We all had fun reading it, didn’t we? I did, at least, and I happily agreed with most all its conclusions. But I felt rotten afterwards, greasy, and both Jason and I wanted to make sure that his review of The Need didn’t have that effect on its readers, didn’t come from the same fierce and declamatory place as the Bookforum essay. Writing a negative review is always something of a tightrope walk, and Jason’s is one that maintains its balance — even when Jason holds up a mirror and wonders whether his misgivings aren’t more a result of his position. Obviously I’m hoping other readers agree with this! But even if not, I think this is a good example of how to make a less-than-positive review work well. Don’t be afraid to come to a negative judgment. Do be aware that the credibility of the judgment — to not be written off as anger or snark — rests on careful thought, and a clear identification of where the problems lie, and why they are problems on the book’s own terms. Which might require a slower, more in-depth reading than a book that gratifies with pleasures you can pinpoint easily.

On “Expert” Taste

In a new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Clune takes aim at the humanities’ unwillingness to pass judgment on potential objects of study, and the consequent inability of humanities scholars to assert or defend the value of anything. There’s a lot of food for thought in his cri-de-coeur, which for me hits the sweet spot between literary criticism, aesthetic evaluation, and pedagogy. But on the pedagogical side of things, strangely enough for an article that thoroughly digs into the losses we incur when we make assumptions about how to treat “value” in the classroom, there’s not much questioning of assumptions about pedagogical dynamics.

One problem is that Clune just jumps onboard with I.A. Richards:

In the early 20th century, the critic I.A. Richards already perceived the tension between equality and judgment. “The expert in matters of taste is in an awkward position when he differs from the majority,” he wrote. “He is forced to say in effect, ‘I am better than you. My taste is more refined, my nature more cultured, you will do well to become more like me than you are.’”  By the waning years of the 20th century, professors concluded they needed to reframe their expertise in order to align it with egalitarianism. Therefore, they bend over backward to disguise their syllabi as value-neutral, as simply a means for students to gain cultural or political or historical knowledge.

But is this actually true? Where does the superiority complex come from? I think part of it is that we still regard teachers as authority figures, who speak authoritatively, who therefore hold “superior” views, but it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s entirely possible to run a dialogic, democratic classroom in which the teacher has more sound reasons for his/her value judgments, or may be able to articulate them more persuasively, simply because he/she has spent more time than most people doing these things, day in and day out; ie. he/she has had more practice.

But such a teacher is still exposed to rebuttal, dissent — and should be, and should invite it, to give students the practice they need in order to form and defend their own judgments. In other words, Richards’ “expert” may rather say, in effect, “I’ve had more time that you to hone my ability to justify my judgments, and more time to survey the field so that I have a wider range of points of comparison than you do, but this is an effect of time (age) and practice (labour) and it has nothing to do with the privileges of institutional authority, or some absolute grounds for the formation of value judgments.”

Heading Into Literature

Following on from his earlier Twitter thread about “readability”, Sam Byers has a sharp take on what’s really happening beneath the surface of cultural discussion about the death of the novel in light of the rise of streaming entertainment. Netflix says it’s competing with books for the attention of readers/viewers. Byers says this:

Of course Netflix might say they’re competing with books. That doesn’t mean they are. And when we talk about them as this all conquering force we are in some ways doing their work for them. But there is a deeper problem, and that is the way we talk about literature and the way that conversation has become increasingly dominated by a single word: story. … If we regard both television and literature as mere delivery mechanisms for an entertainment drug called “story”, then it seems to me that, yes, TV is the more efficient delivery mechanism. However, both forms are actually more than that, and the ways that they are more than that are fundamentally different from each other. Ironically, I think both forms suffer when we reduce their strengths to a nebulous concept of story.

Literature is not actually just about story. Literature both arises from, and is concerned with, language. More significantly, literature is a medium almost unparalleled in its ability to explore a key aspect of our lives: our interiority, our consciousness. TV and film, meanwhile, are able to bring a level of visual and auditory experience that literature obviously can’t match. They can tap right into our senses. In the race to the bottom to regard all broadly narrative art forms as mere story mechanisms, we’ve lost sight of both those things. We’re fixated on “what happens”. We expect a certain rhythm of being “gripped”. We want everything to be “addictive”, “can’t put it down etc”. The novel is so much more than this, and in my view the future of the form lies not in the ways it might mimic the structures and narratives of TV series, but in the courage of writers to use language to access places TV can’t reach. …

I think a real timidity has developed around literature that is not televisual. And I think writers have compounded this by often seeming very uncomfortable talking about literature in “pretentious” intellectual and creative terms. This is a great time, I think, to head into literature, to remind ourselves what language and the written world can do, and to think about “stories” that just wouldn’t make it onto TV.

Whiteness

This week, Splice is running a two-part essay by me on the very niche subject of white space in prose fiction, with a focus on the uses of white space in two recent “novels”. Here’s how it starts:

What are the uses of white space in prose? A paragraph break prompts a renewal of focus; it asserts, in advance, the significance of some element of a scene or sequence. A section break swallows time, disrupting chronology in ways that sometimes take a leap to another moment and sometimes pause the unfolding action, withdrawing from the flow of things. Chapter breaks combine these effects while also opening up a refuge, a place to rest, offering readers an opportunity to catch their breath and take stock of events before proceeding.

But what about a space that both shatter a tract of prose and encompass its shards? What about those spaces that break a text into fragments and then encase each one in its own carapace of silence? The text appears as a series of disjointed, discrete segments of prose, but the whiteness that runs through it is also a force for its integrity. Its lacunae devour the words that would forge clear connections between its segments — by explication, by causality — and for that reason they become, collectively, the locus of the unity of the prose, the silence from which readers might extract connective threads.

Part one looks at white space in Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak.

Part two looks at white space in Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9– Fog.