"Contemporary criticism is positively crowded with first-person pronouns, micro-doses of memoir, brief hits of biography. Critics don’t simply wrestle with their assigned cultural object; they wrestle with themselves, as well. Recent examples suggest a spectrum, from reviews that harmlessly kick off with a personal anecdote, to hybrid pieces that blend literary criticism and longform memoir." [more inside]
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]
Mary Gaitskill and the Life Unseen by Parul Sehgal
"The underground bad place is always in the present, whether literally or in memory, and it is always about the past." Bernadette Lynn Bosky on underground and secret spaces in Peter Straub’s fiction.
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.
The Struggle To Be A Good Critic [Electric Literature] How should or shouldn't white writers write POC characters?
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]
Things That Don't Suck, Some Notes on The Stand
[Spoiler alert: assume everything, from the link above to those below, contains SPOILERS.] [more inside]
I recently reread The Stand for no particular reason other than I felt like it. I'm honestly not sure how many time[s] I've read it at this point, more than three, less than a half dozen (though I can clearly remember my first visit to that horrifyingly stripped bare world as I can remember the first reading of all the truly great King stories). It's not my favorite of King's work, but it is arguably his most richly and completely imagined. It truly is the American Lord of The Rings, with the concerns of England (Pastorialism vs. Industrialism, Germany's tendency to try and blow it up every thirty years or so) replaced by those of America (Religion, the omnipresent struggle between our liberal and libertarian ideals, our fear of and dependence on the military, racial and gender tension) and given harrowing size.
I'm happy to say that The Stand holds up well past the bounds of nostalgia and revisiting the world and these characters was as pleasurable as ever. But you can't step in the same river twice, even when you're revisiting a favorite book. Even if the river hasn't changed you have. This isn't meant as any kind of comprehensive essay on The Stand. Just a couple of things I noticed upon dipping my toes in the river this time.
[Spoiler alert: assume everything, from the link above to those below, contains SPOILERS.] [more inside]
"It's annoying to hear we told you so—but, we told you so. The New Republic's initial review, published July 16, 1951, perfectly anticipated all the gripes and complaints readers would ironically come to have about Catcher's gripey and complaining protagonist." 63 Years Ago, We Knew That 'The Catcher in the Rye' Was Insufferable and Overrated. [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]
One should add that he was an extraordinarily gifted con man, persuading the most discerning intellectuals that he had credentials he did not possess and a heroic personal history, rather than a scandalous one, while he worked his charm on generations of students. Just who was Paul de Man?
[Paul] De Man may have been a scoundrel who found a career teaching a certain method of reading, but that method of reading does not turn people into scoundrels. Probably ninety-nine per cent of the people who studied with de Man wouldn’t run a red light—forget about altering a transcript or voluntarily collaborating with Nazis. If there is an ethical takeaway from what de Man taught, it would be self-doubt.In The New Yorker Louis Menand attempts to find common ground between Paul De Man's methods of literary criticism and his sordid life in a long review of Evelyn Barish's The Double Life of Paul de Man. The biography has been criticized by Peter Brooks, De Man's former student, and was reviewed unfavorably by Susan Rubin Suleiman in The New York Times.
"I purchased and read [Dan Brown's] Inferno, which was inscrutable and interminable, and as I read I scribbled in its margins. When I finished, my friend David Rees, the artisanal pencil sharpener, asked if he could borrow it. He added his thoughts. It was fun to see someone else’s words next to mine. I wrote in black pen, in cursive. David wrote in red pencil, in block letters. I was semi-serious. David swore and told a lot of jokes. Usually we agreed, but occasionally we disagreed. Here are some of the highlights." [via The Millions]
An unpublished interview with novelist Sol Yurick by BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh. "[S]uppose we think of The Iliad as one big trade war. Troy, as you know, sat on the route into the Black Sea, which means it commanded the whole hinterland where people like the Greeks and the Trojans did trading. The Trojan War was a trade war." (previously on the 2013 passing of the writer of The Warriors) [more inside]
Mark Twain famously derided Jane Austen (who would have had her 238th birthday yesterday), saying (among other things) that he could not read her prose even if paid a salary to do so. But what did Twain really think about Austen's work?
The very fact that reading and writing are in jeopardy, or simply evolving, means that to try to put the brakes of old criteria on a changing situation is going to be either obstructive or boring. In our critical age of almost manic invention, the most effective criticism of what, in the critic’s eyes, is a bad book would be to simply ignore it, while nudging better books toward the fulfillment of what the critic understands to be each book’s particular creative aim.Lee Siegel buries the hatchet-job.
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.
In 1978, Micheal Moorcock wrote an essay Starship Stormtroopers published in Anarchist Review which said that most popular science-fiction and fantasy is deeply Reactionary (authoritarian conservative right-wing themes), he mocked the notion of sci-fi being a "literature of ideas". But there is some "socialist" science fiction, China Miéville put together a list of Fifty Fantasy & Science Fiction Works That Socialists Should Read. [more inside]
"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.
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]
"Pynchon, postmodern author, is commonly said to have a non-linear narrative style. No one seems to have taken seriously the possibility, to be explored in this essay, that his narrative style might in fact be quadratic." Number theorist Michael Harris on Pynchon and conic sections.
From October 1972 to October 1973 a controversy over Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory simmered in the pages of The Horn Book. It began with an article, "McLuhan, Youth, and Literature", by Eleanor Cameron, author of the Mushroom Planet series for children and of The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books. Spread out over the October, December, and February issues, it tied the ideas of Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Massage) to the confection of Charlie, calling it "one of the most tasteless books ever written for children":
"The more I think about Charlie and the character of Willy Wonka and his factory, the more I am reminded of McLuhan’s coolness, the basic nature of his observations, and the kinds of things that excite him. Certainly there are several interesting parallels between the point of view of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and McLuhan’s 'theatrical view of experience as a production or stunt,' as well as his enthusiastic conviction that every ill of mankind can easily be solved by subservience to the senses."What followed was a knock-down, drag-out, letter-writing brouhaha, refereed by Horn Book editor Paul Heins, with librarians, parents, teachers, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Roald Dahl himself joining in, and it was one of the main causes of the book's revision that year. [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.
"... many critics and editors, especially male ones, make a fetish of "ambition," by which they mean the contemporary equivalent of novels about men in boats ("Moby-Dick," "Huckleberry Finn") rather than women in houses ("House of Mirth"), and that as a result big novels by male writers get treated as major events while slender but equally accomplished books by women tend to make a smaller splash." [more inside]
Bookmarks Magazine has long been one of my favorite book review periodicals because it aggregates and summarizes reviews from many sources, for example: The Children of Húrin. Recently they have opened up the back-issue archive to non-subscribers. [more inside]
"I was stunned by its lyrical beauty and easy cadence. The tempo, the choice of words, and the layout on each page captured my imagination so much that it took me about seven minutes to recover my bearings." Amazon users review My Pet Goat. (via Sadly, No!)