Literature and the Classroom

I’m at the end of a week in which I’ve taken to using Medium to sketch out some notes on strategies for teaching literature to upper secondary and first-year undergraduate students. The result is a six-part series of posts focusing on student engagement outside of the literature classroom — one of the hardest nuts to crack, in my experience — and how teachers can facilitate engagement in some unconventional ways. If you’re interested, here are the links to the various topics:

I last wrote about student engagement back in September, building on an essay by Gary Saul Morson in Commentary. That post was more idealistic and aspirational than these more recent ones, establishing the target I aim for in the classroom. This past week has given me a chance to address some of the nuts and bolts of the attempt to keep a true aim and hit the target bang-on.

Distance and Partitions

Ben Parker has a perceptive and contrarian take on Karl Ove Knausgaard in the Los Angeles Review of Books, perhaps the best essay yet on Dancing In the Dark, the fourth volume of My Struggle. Parker begins with the observation that many novels “contain a spectral double, another book trapped within their pages” — Cervantes’ parody of an illicit sequel to the first volume of Don Quixote, for instance, or Tristram’s father’s Tristrapedia in Tristram Shandy — and then considers the purposes towards which Knausgaard incorporates fragments of his father’s diaries into his own work. One of his purposes, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to sharply differentiate himself from his father, which eventually leads Parker to the assertion that My Struggle in its totality “is an attempt to create distance and partitions, to police psychic boundaries.” Parker goes on to support this assertion, more or less convincingly, by carefully and compellingly reading the novel’s aesthetic strategies as an almost necessary outgrowth of the experiences that prompted Knausgaard to write it: Continue reading

Linguistic Locations in Orbit

Maxwell Donnewald’s ‘The Indescribably Real’ has been on my mind for a few days now, ever since it went online at Full Stop. Essentially a lengthy review of Atticus Lish’s debut novel, Preparations for the Next Life, it pits Lish against Karl Ove Knausgaard and mounts a defense of Lish’s more conventionally realist aesthetics against certain admirers of Knausgaard who have celebrated My Struggle as an antidote to Lish’s brand of “fiction fiction, organized around characters who don’t actually exist.” What’s interesting about Donnewald’s essay, however, has less to do with the conclusions he reaches than with the path he follows in order to reach them. Donnewald basically takes William H. Gass’ stridently anti-realist, anti-humanist definition of “character” and then reads it into Preparations for the Next Life in a way that allows him to use Lish’s characters as ciphers for a narrative structure that he finds aesthetically rewarding. Continue reading

Decline and Fall

Like the best examples of the genre [of the ‘decline of literary criticism’ polemic], [Gideon] Haigh’s glints with aphorisms, but it is also typically brief when it comes to articulating what is at stake. His piece informed a debate on Australian literary reviewing late in 2010, hosted by the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. The participants were Haigh, Peter Craven, Kill Your Darlings editor Rebecca Starford, and Hilary McPhee. The conversation spilled into print and came to focus on the relative merits of traditional print and new online forums for criticism. Craven had spoken against literary blogs and Geordie Williamson, writing just before the Wheeler event, was also dismissive. Rebecca Starford and Daniel Wood pointed to new possibilities. The divide, however, did not correspond to each commentator’s sense of the health of reviewing. Craven and Wood were firmly in the ‘decline’ camp (Wood quipped that ‘Australian literary criticism has indeed declined in quality — but it has declined from a zenith of mediocrity into the depths of abject uselessness’); Stafford and Williamson looked, in different ways, to the positive.

Reviving my comments on the low standards of literary criticism in Australia, Ben Etherington weaves them into a fascinating consideration of the critical reception of Anna Funder’s All That I Am.

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.

Gerald Murnane’s Show-and-Tell

Over at The Apiary, an artistic-archival project “specialising in films made about and in collaboration with musicians, theatre-makers, dancers and visual artists,” Marden Dean ventures into the fabled workspace of Gerald Murnane. Murnane has often spoken about his workspace, a bare office populated by dozens of filing cabinets in which he stores and catalogues every last note he has ever written on any subject whatsoever over the last forty or fifty years, but to my knowledge Dean is the first person ever to be allowed to enter and film Murnane’s little world. Some of the resultant images match up with Murnane’s own descriptions of his workspace, such as the typewriters atop the filing cabinets and the horse racing colours on the wall, but others took me by surprise. I always expected that Murnane organised all of his various notes in some sort of logical order, perhaps biographically or chronologically in accordance with whatever larger project he was working on at the time he wrote them. Not so. While he concedes that most of his notes are organised biographically, others are gathered together under more intriguing categories such as “IF I WERE A COWARD, I WOULD BURN THIS,” “WHAT I BELIEVE ABOVE ALL,” and “ENTER, WITH FLOURISH, H. FAWKNER.”

Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man

In her historical novel Utopian Man… Australian author Lisa Lang… seems to propose a certain savage truth about the march of history: that, at bottom, it is the simple unfolding of entropy. With this in mind, she approaches historical fiction aware that narrative cohesion is destined, or doomed, to be upset by the sloppiness of the unvarnished historical record. Rather than attempting to overcome the entropy of history, Lang entertains it. She offers a novel whose acceptance of the chaotic events seems designed to frustrate readers who expect an orderly narrative in the vein of Byatt, Mantel, and their cohort. Ostensibly setting out to shape the life of a man into an entertaining and accessible story, Lang abandons that enterprise and begins to shine a light on its inevitable shortcomings. The result is a minor triumph: not without its share of failures, but a captivating, challenging, and rewarding work of fiction that succeeds despite the weaknesses of its final pages.

My review of Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man is online at The Critical Flame.