David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

One of the greatest joys of summer, for me, is getting a brief glimpse of that seemingly long-ago period of my life when I used to Read for Fun. Which is something different from having fun while reading; it’s reading utterly divorced from utility, reading something that one intends neither to teach nor to write about (nor, for that matter, to use as a means of distracting the brain from work long enough to allow you to fall asleep), reading just for the sheer pleasure of it. It’s the kind of reading that I used to do as a kid, in which I’d immerse myself so deeply in the diegetic universe of the book that I’d be lightly dizzy when I looked up from it.

The good news is that I got to do a bit of that kind of reading week before last. I’d been stalling on reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in large part because I wanted to enjoy it, to allow myself to experience it as a novel rather than as a piece of work. And I did; the nested dolls of the novel’s various narratives not only had me curled up on the bed reading during hours when I ought to have been doing other stuff, but also occupied my thoughts during those odd hours of the morning when I couldn’t sleep. There are points, particularly in the last third, at which I found its narration to be a bit too on the nose, making darned sure that the reader wasn’t going to miss the point, but on the other hand, many of the connections among its narratives and characters are quite subtle. And the novel’s structure raises some interesting questions about the nature of narrative diegesis itself, forcing the reader to think about what kinds of stories can fit into other kinds of stories, and what kinds can’t, and why.

The bad news is that I tore through the novel with something of the speed with which I used to read as a kid, and so the novel ended much too quickly. And, alas, that was the only novel I had with me; two others were in That Box. So I’m trying to read a little French fiction, but there’s no way I’m making that diegetic escape in another language. At least not yet.

Frey Them!

So I spent much of yesterday attempting to compile my meager thoughts about l’affaire Frey into something halfway worthy of a post. After all, this little crisis around the truth value of the memoir is hardly the first such I’ve encountered, but this particular one seems different, somehow, and not simply because the great and powerful O got personally involved last week, giving both Frey and his publisher, Nan Talese, the talk-show smackdown. Given my longstanding interest in Oprah’s interventions on the literary scene, I could hardly let the occasion go by.

Continue reading Frey Them!

Saul Bellow, 1915-2005

News of the latest in the recent flood of notable passings reached me late last night: Saul Bellow is dead at 89. There’s something that rings very end-of-an-era to me about his death, and this despite my just flat not liking his work at all.

Not liking it, however, did not prevent me from praising it when I had to. Some years ago, when a certain bookselling site was first getting off the ground, back in the day when the site’s editors were still asked to produce or commission substantive reviews (though uniformly positive ones — bad books, or at least bad books that were not written by living legends, were simply not reviewed at all), I wrote on Ravelstein. I’m stunned to discover today that the review is still on the site.

What I was unable to say in that review, however, was how thoroughly unpleasant I found the novel, or how clearly out-of-the-past Bellow seemed, so of a piece with the measured rebellion of the 1950s, a rebellion that slid comfortably and easily into reaction, as to be nearly incomprehensible today. Bellow famously got himself in trouble in his later years by responding to questions of multiculturalism by asking “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” His baffled response to the ensuing furor — in which he expressed surprise at the critical opinion “that I was at best insensitive and at worst an elitist, a chauvinist, a reactionary and a racist — in a word, a monster” — shows, for me, the extent to which he never fully recovered from the immediate post-war moment, never really made it into the late twentieth century.

A few years ago, I heard Martin Amis speak at the Huntington, and in the course of his talk, Amis claimed that the British novel was the core of serious work in contemporary fiction at that moment, insisting that the American novel was effectively dead, because Bellow and Roth were no longer producing. Never mind, of course, that Ravelstein had just come out, as had The Human Stain. What was fascinating in this for me was Amis’s hard-core assumption that the American novel was Bellow and Roth, that there was nothing else but these two men. That nothing mattered to the American novel except the middle-class, misogynist, Jewish-American novel.

So, the end of an era: not the end of the novel in the U.S., but perhaps the end of the domination of the field by a force that honestly hasn’t mattered to it in years. Perhaps a final closure of the “post-war” period, and a move, at last, into the twenty-first century.


All day yesterday, the guy down the hall was the cover story on Salon (subscription or ad-viewing required). Which would have been weirder than it was, except that he’s been off on the book tour, so it wasn’t as though I was running into him in the copier room and straining not to mention that very odd artist’s rendering of a very old photo that graced my browser’s home page.

Not-mentioning may not have been as difficult as I make it sound, though; some percentage of my dealings with David are already founded on a principle of not-mentioning. For instance, and most notably, in the Big Novel class last semester, we of course read Infinite Jest, and on the last day of class, during our wrap-up, one of my students asked why David Foster Wallace didn’t come talk to the class about the book. I stammered something to the effect that he was as uncomfortable with talking about his work as I was with having the figure of the writer himself intrude into our reading and interpreting, and so, despite the fact that I was certain that someone had told him of our class’s existence, and that we were reading IJ, I had never mentioned it, and he had never mentioned it, and thus we were both operating under the polite fiction that it wasn’t happening, a fiction important to both of us.

So not-mentioning, maybe not so hard. All of that is a digression, however, from the point that I wanted to make about the Salon piece, which is — and this surprises me a bit, given my usual disagreement with the vast majority of what Laura Miller writes — the first of the articles about Oblivion that actually seems to understand what’s going on in the book. The stories are absolutely terrifying, though the source of their terror mostly lies just off the page, in something that we can’t quite grasp; what a slew of reviewers have pointed to as the stories’ over-wroughtness or smarty-pantsness has to do with Wallace’s attempts to get down in words precisely the thing that can’t be got down in words.

What I most appreciate Miller’s article for, though — and this may seem like a small point, but it’s really quite enormous in its implications — is the fact that she seems to have read and understood “Good Old Neon,” one of my favorites in the collection. For instance, here’s Walter Kirn (from his New York Times review):

Take “Good Old Neon,” the most personal and approachable of the stories in the new book. It centers, like much of Wallace’s work, on a philosophical conundrum: the question of whether human beings can be said to possess authentic selves or whether, like “David Wallace,” the story’s narrator, we are really just a bunch of shabby fakes cut off from our own and others’ essential beings by the inadequacy of language.

Or Scott Morris, in the Los Angeles Times (only available online if you’ve got a subscription or if, like me, you’ve got Lexis-Nexis access):

“Good Old Neon” introduces us to a narrator named David Wallace, who is convinced he is a phony. He explains this to us after his death, or so he claims, leaving the reader unsure of his veracity.

How much attention to textual detail does it take to figure out that “David Wallace” is in fact not the narrator of the story, but is a projection of its actual narrator’s dying consciousness? More than many usually competent readers are capable of, I suppose: at a book-tour event in Los Angeles, Wallace’s introducer in fact described the story as being about the suicide of a character named “David Wallace.” Miller seems to get it, thank goodness, though there remain a few points of slippage (the sentence with the “merely” is weird, and weirdly never contradicted, as it sounds like it’s going to be):

The narrator of “Good Old Neon” (another ad man) is smothering in self-awareness. “My whole life I’ve been a fraud,” he announces, relating a history of triumphs, each one curdled by his consciousness that “all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.” Admitting as much to a psychoanalyst only leads him to further spasms of self-loathing: “My confession of being a fraud and of having wasted time sparring with him over the previous weeks in order to manipulate him into seeing me as exceptional and insightful had itself been kind of manipulative.”

This dilemma, in which every layer of self-knowledge is nested inside yet another layer that scrutinizes it mercilessly for inauthenticity, is a Wallace trademark. When, not surprisingly, these contortions drive the narrator of “Good Old Neon” to suicide, he is revealed to be a childhood acquaintance of “David Wallace,” and the story itself an effort to imagine his inner life on the part of Wallace, who has recently “emerged from years of literally indescribable war against himself.” This, of course, suggests that all of “Good Old Neon” is merely Wallace’s solipsistic effort to attribute his own miseries to a man who might have killed himself for entirely other reasons.

It’s easy to conclude that the suicide speaks for Wallace earlier on, when he ruminates on the inability of language to convey “the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life” because “what goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”

This is what Wallace has tried to do in much of his fiction, using footnotes (which his dimmer critics have interpreted as mere postmodern smart-alecking) or, in these stories, parentheses and brackets. He wants to show how a great web of inchoate feelings and trains of thought and immanent understandings of multiple situations is operating in any person at any point in time. The breadth of human consciousness can never be squeezed through the narrow aperture offered by one word at a time without distortion or oversimplification or, basically, the expenditure of lots and lots of “English.”

All that “English” apparently sets the book up to be massively misread, and the book’s author to be the focus of much reviewer abuse of an often personal nature. Take, for instance, Joel Stein in Time Magazine (again, subscription or Lexis-Nexis required):

David Foster Wallace writes so beautifully, is so show-offishly smart and understands the intricacies of human emotion so keenly that a reasonable person can only hope he is terribly unhappy. Which, if this collection of short stories is any indication, he is.

Or Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times:

Clearly Mr. Wallace is a prose magician. The best of his earlier fiction and essays demonstrates that he can make the English language run, jump, leap, snarl and whisper; he can do meta-fiction, old-fashioned fiction, ironic shtick and post-postmodern sentiment or some combination of them all at the same time. In this volume, however, he gives us only the tiniest tasting of his smorgasbord of talents. Instead, he all too often settles for the sort of self-indulgent prattling that bogged down his 1999 collection, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” and the cheap brand of irony and ridicule that he once denounced in an essay as “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.”

Or again, Walter Kirn:

One reason it’s tempting to follow the smart set — that anxious clan of stylishly camouflaged, overeducated social maladapts that functions in the literary world a lot like those old guys sucking White Owl cigars do in metropolitan Off Track Betting parlors — and flatly declare David Foster Wallace a genius and the greatest young fiction writer of his time, is that doing so is much, much easier than actually reading his sentences (compared to most of which this one is a haiku).

And, apparently, snark is even easier. Which makes something quite clear to me: however much (and I’ll admit this here, publicly, in ways that will no doubt come back to haunt me) I envy the guy down the hall his talents and his successes, there’s something about that kind of life-in-the-public-eye that I don’t covet much at all. This kind of oblivion — writing anonymously, to little response — has something going for it, I think.

Pecked to Death

Returning to a topic from way back: Dale Peck, who wields the book review like a truncheon, has published a collection of his articles, entitled, appropriately, Hatchet Jobs (note the subtlety of the cover!). Peck, should you have forgotten, or should you have missed it in the first place, was the author of the following bit of tempered criticism:

Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.

And, on the state of contemporary fiction more generally:

All I’m suggesting is that these writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid — just plain stupid — tomes of DeLillo.

There’s something a bit breathtaking about such an intentionally provocative position, but something risky, too; if you’re going to call the writers whom many feel are the century’s greatest “incomprehensible,” “ridiculous,” “reductive,” and “stupid — just plain stupid,” you’d best have some genius of your own with which to back it up.

As one might have expected, Peck’s Hatchet Jobs are producing a response in kind: Carlin Romero, in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education fires back, reading Peck through the history of literary snark, coming to an almost inevitable conclusion:

Dale Peck is not the worst critic of his generation. He’s simply the worst to have his essays gathered in book form.

Confessions of a Semi-Successful Author

Today, on Salon [subscription or ad-viewing required], the travails of the mid-list author in contemporary publishing:

If you don’t want to hear about the noir underside of publishing — if you’re a writer longing for a literary career, or a reader who’s happier not knowing that producing and marketing a book these days involves about as much moral purity as producing and marketing a pair of Nikes — I suggest you stop reading now.

If, on the other hand, you want a sobering view of the publishing industry’s focus on the bottom line, go read the full article. I’m left even more convinced that many writers — and not just those writing for a scholarly audience — would be well-served by a move back toward a gift-economy model of publishing.

“We’ve Been Misread!”

There’s a certain irony hanging over Christopher Dreher’s followup [Salon.com; subscription or ad-viewing required] on the changes afoot at the New York Times Book Review. At precisely the moment when Bill Keller, in an interview with the Book Babes, seems to be calling for the dumbing-down of the NYTBR, he’s also claiming that these calls have been “badly misread”:

Keller and Erlanger have spent much of the last two weeks doing damage control, complaining that their words were taken out of context and insisting that “dumbing down” the Book Review is the last thing on their mind. (For their part, Hammond and Heltzel insist the interview quotes are rock solid.) But the fact remains that these renowned journalists — Keller won a Pulitzer as a foreign correspondent — are not literary men. A clearer picture of what they perhaps meant to say has emerged in later interviews, and while the Times leadership does not plan to eliminate the coverage of literary fiction, it does want the Book Review to emphasize titles with topical importance, such as political and foreign policy titles. (Which are probably what Keller and Erlanger grab as reading material, considering their backgrounds.) Author interviews, reporting on the publishing biz, and other format changes are also being considered.

“We’re not handing it over with a formula,” Keller says about the editorial transition, adding that the Book Review will actually be expanded after he chooses the new editor later this month. “We’re going to choose a person because of their high standards, imagination and ideas, and they’ll have considerable license in shaping the review.” (As recently reported by the New York Observer, the final candidates are believed to include former Book Review columnist Judith Shulevitz, former Newsweek editor Sarah Crichton, Slate columnist Ann Hulbert and Atlantic literary editor Benjamin Schwarz.)

Whatever Keller and Erlanger say now, the Book Babes article conveyed a dismissive indifference to literary books that was almost like a parody of many publishers’ and readers’ worst suspicions about the Book Review. Except for perfunctory nods, some say, literary coverage has not only been downsized and simplified over the past decade but also undermined from the very top — and not only at the Times but in other mainstream venues as well. Keller claims that the idea that he wants to demote literary fiction was “badly misread,” but some of his Book Babes quotes resist reinterpretation, such as his call for fewer and shorter first-novel reviews and this zinger about the future of fiction coverage:

“Of course, some fiction needs to be done,” he said. “We’ll do the new Updike, the new [Philip] Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me.”

This concept of the pinnacle of world literature — three American males (two of them over 70) and a young (hot) Englishwoman — might be reasonable coming from a middle-aged guy with a news background, but it isn’t very heartening. Franzen and Roth certainly produce noteworthy books, but for all his incomparable achievement, the idea that Updike is still a vibrant American writer suggests an ossified conception of literary culture. Mentioning no female American writers, when the majority of American fiction readers are women, seems especially unfortunate. And where would Zadie Smith be if publications like the New York Times had passed over her first novel, the international bestseller “White Teeth”?

The irony, of course, rests in Keller’s claims of having been misread at precisely the same moment that he’s demonstrated the limitations inherent in his own reading. The NYTBR seems in particular to want to avoid the readers who might be capable of discering the fine nuances in Keller’s statements. It all makes one start feeding narratives of decline, imagining a halcyon past in which people genuinely cared about books, a past, perhaps, like the days of John Leonard:

Author and critic John Leonard, a former Times Book Review chief whose reign from 1971 to 1975 is often remembered as a high-water mark, found Keller’s comments especially troubling. “To seriously propose not paying attention to first novels is ludicrous,” he says. “It amounts to rampant stupidity. Criticism is discovery, not a book report or news. It means someone is doing something with language that will change the way we think and see.” He continues: “Brilliance comes from the peripheral or from the margins. You have to listen for it and call it to the attention of the readers.”

I’m always suspicious of such nostalgic revisionism, but I find myself here sucked into it, as I imagine an NYTBR run by an editor who cares about something other than book sales, who understands something about criticism and about the potential impact of literary writing. And it simply makes me sad, imagining the future into which we’re heading instead.

Perhaps the Dumbest Teaching Question Ever

Here’s something I probably ought to have thought of before the semester started, perhaps even before planning on teaching a class like The Big Novel: It’s really, really hard to get students to talk actively about a text they’ve only read part of. They seem to want to hold all judgment in reserve until having completed the whole thing.

Or perhaps it’s just hard to get my students to do such mid-text talking. Which would imply, of course, that the problem is located not in the texts, and not in the students, but in the professor.

So here’s what’s to my mind perhaps the dumbest teaching question ever, and certainly the dumbest one I’ve ever asked in a public place: How do you get your students to engage actively with a small piece of a long text before they’ve read the whole thing?

As a follow-up: How do you get them to perform such active engagement when the text under consideration consciously presents itself as a mystery of sorts, raising question after question and hinting that answers will eventually be found, which increases that tendency toward the deferral of judgment, even though you, who have read the book several times, know perfectly well that such answers, if they’re to be found at all, aren’t located at the text’s end?

The Book May Not Be Dead…

…but it’s possible that the book review is.

Or at least that the serious book-review publication is. Witness this demoralizing development at the New York Times Book Review: as if we didn’t all already know that the NYTBR was skewed toward non-fiction, this is in the process of becoming official editorial policy. Moreover, what fiction gets reviewed will now lean explicitly toward the airport-novel, and decidedly away from the literary.

What effect might this shift have on the publishing industry? Will the industry turn away, at least in part, from the NYTBR’s arbitration of success, or will this “marginalization”1 of literature in the review-world cause the publishing industry to follow suit?

1I have to put this in scare quotes in no small part because I’ve spent the last several decades (or so it feels) working on a manuscript that’s precisely about how these metaphors of “marginalization” with regard to the literary are (a) untrue, and (b) politically suspect. I now find myself, in many regards, pondering the ironies of that stance.

National Book Critics Circle Nominations

Ah, having made our way through the madness of the top-ten lists, award season is upon us. The Bloggies are of course merely one manifestation thereof. And while the various film awards are the ones that get the most press (and don’t they seem to be multiplying each year? As one of my now-emeritus colleagues used to say every year at the increasingly long senior-class awards ceremony, “All have competed; all must have prizes”), I personally find myself most wrapped up in the book award competitions.

And so, I’m thrilled to discover that this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award nominations are out. Top fiction honors will be awarded to one of:

  • Monica Ali, “Brick Lane”
  • Edward P. Jones, “The Known World”
  • Caryl Phillips, “A Distant Shore”
  • Richard Powers, “The Time of Our Singing”
  • Tobias Wolff, “Old School”

As the Powers is the only of the five I’ve read, I’m happy to here officially announce him the front-runner. Let the mud-slinging begin.

Meanwhile, one-time commenter on this site, senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and momentary object of literary scholars’ wrath the blogosphere over, Scott McLemee has been awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Congratulations, Scott.