Obama as Literary Critic by Edward Mendelson [The New York Review of Books]
“Recently, while writing an essay on T.S. Eliot for The New York Review, I read or reread the work of many earlier critics, and was impressed most by two of them. One was Frank Kermode, who was ninety when he wrote, in 2010, one of his greatest essays, “Eliot and the Shudder,” [London Review of Books] a breathtakingly wide-ranging and sharply-focused piece about Eliot’s unique response to the common experience of shuddering. The other was a twenty-two-year-old college senior named Barack Obama, who wrote about Eliot in a letter to his girlfriend, Alexandra McNear, when she had been assigned to write a paper on The Waste Land for a college course.”[more inside]
There Once Was a Girl. A work of criticism and of memoir on the false narratives surrounding anorexia in life and literature.
(Some may find the descriptions in this essay disturbing or triggering.)
(Some may find the descriptions in this essay disturbing or triggering.)
Debate erupts as Hanya Yanagihara's editor takes on critic over bad review of A Little Life. [The Guardian] The editor of Hanya Yanagihara’s bestselling novel A Little Life has taken to the pages of the New York Review of Books to defend his author from a review that claimed the novel “duped” its readers “into confusing anguish and ecstasy, pleasure and pain”. [more inside]
What books should a critic own? "Each week, the National Book Critics Circle will post a list of five books a critic believes reviewers should have in their libraries." Here are all the lists, from 2007-2011. [more inside]
Poem of the Week is a series in The Guardian's books section, originally started by Sarah Crown but quickly taken over by poet, playwright and professor Carol Rumens. Every week she selects, introduces and interprets one poem. The archive has about four hundred poems, with only a few repeat poets, so here are a few favorites, ranging from English-language classics (John Donne, John Keats, Emily Dickinson), contemporary poets (Shazea Quraishi, Kei Miller, Katha Pollit) translated classics (Wang Wei, Horace, Rainer Maria Rilke), translated contemporary writers (Tua Forsström, Zeng Di, Aurélia Lassaque) the unfairly neglected (Adelaide Crapsey, Rosemary Tonks, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu), avant-garde (Gertrude Stein, Hugo Ball, John Ashbery) and anonymous (The Lyke-Wake Dirge, The Bridal Morn, This Endris Night). There are hundreds more on all kinds of subjects by all kinds of poets.
The death of writing – if James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google: [Guardian Books]
There’s hardly an instant of our lives that isn’t electronically documented. These days, it is software that maps our new experiences, our values and beliefs. How should a writer respond? Tom McCarthy on fiction in the age of data saturation.
I've been slightly under the weather for the last week, which means, of course, soup, self-pity and comfort reads. Rather than my traditional winter-sniffles re-re-re-read of the Belgariad, I thought I'd go wandering around the historical romance category. That is: duchess porn.At Pornokitsch, Jared Shurin expresses appreciation for "5 things in historical romance I wantonly desire to see in epic fantasy," and commenters suggest where to find them. At the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, similarly meta yet more searching questions arise. [more inside]
Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis was engaged in 1897 as the restaurant reviewer of the Pall Mall Gazette, and his reviews of London restaurants are collected in Dinners and Diners: Where and How to Dine in London, available online from The Dictionary of Victorian London. Newnham-Davis was a bon vivant, amateur of the theatrical world, and man of parts, and his reviews were equal parts reminiscence of the conversation with his pseudonymous companions and recollections and reviews of his opulent and lengthy Victorian dinners. [more inside]
"Novels are no use at all in days like these, for they deal with people and their relationships, with fathers and mothers and daughters or sons and lovers, etc., with souls, usually unhappy ones, and with society etc., as if the place for all these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time." [more inside]
"So what is going on here? Should we be reassured that critics are sticking loyally by a work they admire regardless of sales, or bemused that something is being presented as a runaway commercial success when in fact it isn’t?" Tim Parks: Raise Your Hand If You’ve Read Knausgaard. [more inside]
Look: it’s not that I’m a dick when it comes to this stuff. It’s that I like to think that I have standards based on exposure to the interdependent duo of lit and life. But if I decide not to wuss out and instead uphold my particular notion of standards, I’m a dick, and being a dick could lead to dickish reviews of my own stuff from Shane Jones, his friends, and friends of the publisher. George Saunders told us all to “err in the direction of kindness.” But is this essay/review I’m writing unkind? Is it selfish? Is it generous? Is a kindness policy maybe too simple?Lee Klein worries about small-press book reviewing in an ambivalent, lukewarm take on Shane Jones's new novel Crystal Eaters (excerpt) that others have, all the same, called cowardly and dickish.
This week sees the publication of the third volume of “My Struggle,” the thirty-six-hundred-page autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian novelist. It’s hard to overstate the strangeness of the book’s success. The six volumes of “My Struggle” chronicle, in hypnotic detail, episodes from Knausgaard’s life. There is no plot to speak of, unless you consider real life a plot. [more inside]
These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion — not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood. We are led to believe that our brand loyalties are the result of a deep, essential affinity between the consumer and product — this soap is “you”; this bank is “yours” — and social networking affords us countless opportunities to publicise and justify these brand loyalties as partial explanations of “who we are”.
The 100 Greatest Painters in Western History (according to the editors of This Recording). [more inside]
This year's critical darling essay collection -- Junot Diaz's favorite read of the year (#), Michael Robbins's pick for best book of the year (#) -- is White Girls by Hilton Als. Mentions of Als are infrequent on Metafilter, so I thought I would share a Readlist collection of his stuff (that has a bit of overlap with the book).
Literature and Form is a series of four lectures by Oxford literature academic Dr. Catherine Brown. The lectures are on the themes of unreliable narrators, chapters, multiple plotting and what comparative literature is. You can listen to it as a podcast or through iTunes U. In this lecture series Brown primarily looks at some central structures of the novel as well as examining what the study of literature entails. Brown weaves in examples from world literature, especially English and Russian literature of the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries.
‘I am a phantasmagoric maximalist. I like things to be overwhelmingly strange and capacitous. I want what I write to live; it isn’t about something, it is something’— Michael Cisco. [more inside]
In 1929, John Galsworthy won a Guardian poll as the novelist most likely to still be read in 2029. Three years later, he won the Nobel Prize, and the prices of his first editions skyrocketed. His reputation has since been on a 80-year wane that shows no signs of abating. The New Yorker asks Why is Literary Fame So Unpredictable? And who will they be teaching in literature class a century from now?
Reading Markson Reading: ‘Exploring the mind, method and masterpieces of David Markson through the marginalia found on the pages of the books in his personal library.’ (previously: 1, 2)
"Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party."
If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated? Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter, but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction” and make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men (and, yes, some women — more about them later), are prominently displayed and admired.So begins The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women, an essay in the New York Times by novelist Meg Wolitzer. She was interviewed about her essay in the NYT Book Review podcast (mp3 link, interview starts at about 18:30). Wolitzer references the classic 1998 essay by Francine Prose, Scent of a woman's ink: Are women writers really inferior?, and further back in time you find Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, which, as literary critic Ruth Franklin notes, still sounds fresh today.
The poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth, one of the central figures in the San Francisco Renaissance, only wrote prose for money. But he did it very well. (way previously) [more inside]
Rise of the Neuronovel. Marco Roth at N+1 argues that the recent interest of contemporary novels (Motherless Brooklyn, Saturday, Atmospheric Disturbances) in the disordered wetware of their characters represents a defeat for fiction. "...the new genre of the neuronovel, which looks on the face of it to expand the writ of literature, appears as another sign of the novel’s diminishing purview." Jonah Lehrer responds to Roth and Roth responds back.
this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock
The 2010 Booker longlist is out, and it seems that most of the buzz in the UK is about who's not on the list. The Guardian article "Amis-free Booker prize longlist promises to 'entertain and provoke'" introducing the list of 13 nominees actually devotes its headline, subhead, and most of the first four paragraphs to the subject of who's missing in action: Amis, McEwan, Rushdie. Elsewhere in the Guardian Books section, research professor Gabriel Josipovici pulls no punches in including these (former?) darlings of the glitterati in his assertion that Feted British authors are limited, arrogant and self-satisfied, compares them to "prep-school boys showing off," calls them "virtually indistinguishable from one another in scope and ambition," and muses that the fact that they have won so many awards is "a mystery." [more inside]
Fire the Bastards... examined the initial 55 reviews that appeared in response to the publication of William Gaddis's masterpiece The Recognitions. [more inside]
The influence of Edmund Spenser across two and a half centuries as traced through 25000 different texts
Spenser and the Tradition: English Poetry 1579-1830 is a mammoth database of English poetry and other writings that traces the influence of the great 16th-Century poet Edmund Spenser on English poetry across 250 years. There are roughly 25000 different texts on the site, over 6000 poems from famous classics to obscure ephemera, and further thousands of biographies and commentaries. Since it would take years to read all the material I am happy to say that there is a guide to navigating the database, an overview of its contents, a statistical summary and an essay on tradition and innovation. The immense database, which started life as a pile of index cards, was compiled largely by Virginia Tech Professor David Hill Radcliffe over the course of 17 years.
John Banville's most recent essay on Samuel Beckett: The Word-Stormer. Banville has previously written insightful essays thinly disguised as book reviews on The Painful Comedy of Samuel Beckett, the influence of painting on Beckett's writing, and Beckett on the couch.
"We could all do worse than to write like Saul Bellow. And when I say write like Saul Bellow, I mean be Saul Bellow. And when I say be Saul Bellow, I mean unzip the skin from his body and wear it as a sort of Saul Bellow suit so that we can get cozy in it and truly inhabit it and understand the Old Macher." [more inside]
The realistic style is easy to abuse: from haste, from lack of awareness, from inability to bridge the chasm that lies between what a writer would like to be able to say and what he actually knows how to say. It is easy to fake; brutality is not strength, flipness is not wit, edge-of-the-chair writing can be as boring as flat writing; dalliance with promiscuous blondes can be very dull stuff when described by goaty young men with no other purpose in mind than to describe dalliance with promiscuous blondes. There has been so much of this sort of thing that if a character in a detective story says, "Yeah," the author is automatically a Hammett imitator. Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder" (1950)
Martha Nussbaum reviews three recent books on Shakespeare and philosophy. The essay offers an excellent analysis of love in Antony and Cleopatra and Othello, and an excellent discussion of the interaction between philosophy and literature. [more inside]
Bioculture critiques Cultural Critique Until literature departments take into account that humans are not just cultural or textual phenomena but something more complex, English and related disciplines will continue to be the laughingstock of the academic world that they have been for years because of their obscurantist dogmatism and their coddled and preening pseudo-radicalism. Until they listen to searching criticism of their doctrine, rather than dismissing it as the language of the devil, literature will continue to be betrayed in academe, and academic literary departments will continue to lose students and to isolate themselves from the intellectual advances of our time.
What Good Are the Arts? asks John Carey’s recent book of the same name. The New Criterion think Carey’s thesis is informed by cynical political motives rather than earnest convictions, and accuses Carey of dabbling in the risky art of aesthetic relativism: Obviously, art is ultimately about “the search for truth” (a lesson we’d do well to remember before society falls apart). But as Carey and others point out to the contrary, the Third Reich was all about art—and yet, art under the Third Reich had precious little to do with “searching for truth.” So just what good are the arts? Here’s what a few others have to say on the subject.
Reconstructing Aunt Sally's Secret Recipe. Addressing the Retranslations Fallacy, a common misconception about how the Bible we read has been handed down to us. [via]
Philip Larkin: Great Poet, Shame About The Man? When is an excess of biography, i.e. high-minded, clumsily-disguised gossip, an impediment to literary appreciation? Nowadays, it seems always. [More inside.]
Is modern literature too pretentious? "In the bookstore I'll sometimes sample what all the fuss is about, but one glance at the affected prose -- 'furious dabs of tulips stuttering,' say, or 'in the dark before the day yet was' -- and I'm hightailing it to the friendly black spines of the Penguin Classics" This essay from B.R. Myers in The Atlantic has been expanded into a book. I thought this defense of Raymond Chandler makes a good point about how literature (or at least its critics) can be exclusionary.