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 →

Dear Jane…

Jane Sullivan is a professional novelist whose weekly column, ‘Turning Pages,’ is a fixture of the weekend literary supplements in Australia’s Fairfax broadsheets, most notably The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age. What usually makes ‘Turning Pages’ stand out from the more news-oriented literary coverage that surrounds it is the spirit of contemplation in which it is written. Sullivan rarely takes as her subject the new releases of the week just gone and rarely exhorts her readers to immediately make a beeline for whichever book has recently won her over. Instead, she uses ‘Turning Pages’ as a space in which to think out loud about literary issues of a less transient nature, to meditate on the difficulties and the triumphs of literary creativity in a voice of exacting calm and serenity.

This week, however, Sullivan’s column is one of the more incredible things I have ever encountered in a literary supplement — incredible in the sense that I find it literally beyond credibility. Equal parts infantile and insidious, it is impossible for me to believe that anyone who even aspires to being a novelist could have ever written it in the hope or the expectation that it would be taken seriously. Earlier this month, Alan Gribben, “a well-meaning professor of English at an Alabama university,” announced his intention to publish a version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” is replaced throughout with the word “slave.” Since then, Sullivan writes in this week’s ‘Turning Pages,’ “[t]he media and blogosphere have erupted with comments, almost all negative. How dare anyone, even an eminent Twain scholar such as Professor Alan Gribben, monkey about with Huck Finn?” Continue reading →