Pillars: #4. River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit


Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

When I was younger, I had very little knowledge what the modern world was. Like everyone, I lived in it, so in theory I should have been a specialist on this question. Like everyone, I was taught in school about industrialization and the working class, I had been taught to say bourgeoisie, we had even learned a bit about fascism and communism and the great wars that had decided that they would not be suitable forms of government. In theory I knew very much about the modern world, but the fact is that we all are so extremely close to modernity that it is difficult to make interesting observations about it, just as we have to learn to see ourselves with the acuity of a Proust in order to be good observers of our nature.

In those days I still had very little idea what separated my world from the medieval one, other than that we didn’t die of infected wounds any longer and we could get around much more easily. Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows was one of the first things I read that systematically attempted to explain a significant chunk of the ideology governing our world, and where these ideas had come from. It succeeded magnificently, making this explanation into a story that could easily engage a mind, but without neglecting the rigor that such aspirations required. Because of that, River of Shadows was not only a formative intellectual experience for me, it was also a key aesthetic one, pointing the way to the sort of book-length essay I would one day wish to write myself.

So what is this book about? Well, the two inventions at the heart of it are the photograph and the railroad. They are two inventions that Solnit argues have played an outsized role in forming the modern consciousness. Photography allowed us to see the world in ways it had never been seen before. For the first time, humans might know what a horse looked like in mid-gallop, or they might examine the beautiful patterns made by water droplets springing up in the aftermath of a splash. Before photography we did not have the technology to record details that would only exist for a fraction of a second—it was a whole new world opening up for us, a visual, artistic, and scientific revolution. In addition, before widespread photography we did not have the capabilities to record images of moments from our lives, nor to easily see what diverse places all over the Earth looked like: photography began a drastic re-shaping of our memories, and thus our conception of ourselves as individuals that existed over a long span of time within a vast and changing world.

As to railroads, they allowed the mass transportation of human beings and commodities farther and faster than ever had before. As railroads propagated, we began to see that our common understanding of time was not sufficient for the new reality they wrought. Time zones were invented so that there was some logical cohesion operating over where and when a train departed, and where and when it arrived. Similarly, railroads forced the dissemination and orchestration of timekeeping so that railroad schedules could be kept. Never before had such a broad section of humanity known the exact time of day, and never had we been so aware that time as measured by a clock might govern our life. Railroads also forced new conceptions of distance: whereas previously individuals might have lived their entire lives within a radius of a few miles, now it was quite common to travel much greater distances, and it was possible for there to be levels of exchange and interdependence never before imaginable.

It is not hard to see how these ideas would prove pertinent to a reader in 2003, when this book was originally published, or even today. Concepts of time, speed, and distance—mastering them, or fearing being mastered by them—are of course central preoccupations of our conversations. Just look around social media for all the think-pieces about the pace of life these days, or how much time we spend working now that we’re on-call 24 hours every day. River of Shadows attempts to locate the beginnings of these lines of thought, and for me these ideas were transformative in establishing my concept of what this world I lived in was.


If photographs and railroads are the central inventions in River of Shadows, the central actor in this book is the inventor and photographer Edweard Muybridge: he’s probably best-known for his motion-studies of humans and animals, the most famous of which finally settled the debate over whether all four of a horse’s hooves were ever off the ground during a gallop. Muybridge, an adventurer who was acquitted of the murder of his wife’s lover for reason of justifiable homicide, made possible modern photography and film through the high-speed emulsions that he invented. Prior to Muybridge’s inventions, it would take minutes to made a single photograph in broad daylight; obviously this would not do for the sort of stop-action photography that was Muybridge’s goal, and nor would it have been possible to creation motion pictures with such technology.

What struck me as I read River of Shadows was how Muybridge’s compelling personality let Solnit create an absorbing narrative for her book, and how it also enlivened her imagination and her diction. This compelling figure and his compelling story granted her the narrative momentum to layer her book with philosophical digressions on the nature of the modern consciousness. As I read, I understood that Muybridge was this spine that allowed the book to be a book-length essay, and not a collection of essays on a shared theme. I also saw that it was his compelling story that allowed the book to appeal to a broad audience of readers, and which allowed it to achieve a success that most of her previous titles had not. Comprehending this was a revelation; as I looked around, I began to see that many of my favorite book-length essays had adopted a similar tactic, layering philosophical heft and dense observation on top of what they hoped to be a compelling through-line.


I think what also appealed to me about River of Shadows was how much original research was in this book. This was an important thing, because I had always known that the university system was not one that I wanted any part of, even though I very much wanted to be a part of the conversation of ideas to which it laid claim. I knew that I wanted my writing to be rigorous, and well-researched, and, if possible, to make an original contribution the world of ideas. I just wanted to do all of this outside of the academy. River of Shadows was exactly this book. It showed me a way to do this sort of writing beyond the university system—it proved that such work could be done independently, and it showed that such an independent endeavor could have a very serious impact (the book was broadly received, sold well, and received a National Book Critics Circle Award).

It was also a very personal book, one in which Solnit allows her subjective passion and admiration for certain ideas and individuals to emerge. And this was a formative thing for me as well, because even then I believed in the importance that subjectivity could make to an intellectual inquiry, and I felt that many of the best and most lasting ideas have come about because certain people allowed their obsessions to gain some influence over their pen. I think it is seeing the value in this sort of passion, and in knowing how to carefully walk that line between the subjective and the objective that allows a person like Solnit to write a book like this. And I think that, ultimately, this is what allows a thinker to be original. Reading this book, I was able to explain to myself why I had been right not to choose the university as the arena in which I would attempt to think original thoughts.

Reviewing River of Shadows for The New Republic, David Thomson wrote, “even if River of Shadows is finally as beyond categorization as it is marred by its very large assertions, still it is a book of enormous intelligence and fascination.” He proceeds to take Solnit to task for claiming too much. Well, first, I find that a strange critique to be lodged by a man who once wrote a very good book about how Psycho changed film forever, unleashing a new sort of passion and horror into our consciousness. Just as Thompson chides Solnit that someone else would have inspired film if not Muybridge, we could equally tell Thompson that there were many people other than Hitchcock working toward inventing the slasher-flick-as-art. In both books, this critique is beside the point. Both of them succeed for the same reason, the grand narratives they create in spite of the nitpicking that can be applied to either. Certainly you could similarly nitpick many great essayists and thinkers who have offered us master narratives. Great ideas are not imagined and propagated by writers concerned that they will be nitpicked to death. Yes, if Muybridge had not invented high-speed emulsions, someone else would have. I do not think it is Solnit’s point that only he could have done it. I think her point is to tell the story of the visionary who did create these inventions, to understand why it was he, and the world that he operated in.

I like that in River of Shadows, as elsewhere, Rebecca Solnit shows the sort of courage and ambition that Thomson unfairly criticizes her for, the same qualities that have made Thomson himself such an original writer on film. It is what gives their writing the quality of vision. Of course, courage and ambition alone are not enough; far too many of our would-be visionaries are nearsighted without realizing it, lacking the kind of perspective and insight needed to make interesting observations about out world. They and their clickbait fodder are easy enough to dismiss. River of Shadows, however, is not dismissible (even Thomson will admit that). It ignited in me untold numbers of thoughts, and it put my thinking onto a new plane. It was certainly one of the beginnings of a true understanding of what our world is.

The Murnane, There Is More Murnane in the World


Gerald Murnane has published a memoir about horse racing, Something for the Pain, available in these States in spring of next year, and publishing in Australia right now. I suppose this fact will not surprise many of Murnane’s readers, given the frequent mentions of horse racing throughout his books, although it still is something of a strange move from an author who has pretty much done whatever he wants.

It’s occasioned a review by yours truly at The Lifted Brow, as well as a nice, lengthy profile by Stephen Romei in The Australian. There are some delightful Murnane quotes sprinkled throughout (Romei and the author had beers together), as well as a lot of great Murnane trivia and some thoughts on the latest book.

Don’t They Hire English Majors?


Despite all evidence to the contrary, I admit to always being a little surprised that a place like NPR will publish nonsense like this. Because, I mean, NPR is capable of hiring decent journalists. Their currents events reporting is not bad. At the very least, the can get people who can go to a part of the world that they know next to nothing about, get various sides of a story, and then allocate each side space and importance based on how non-insane it is.

But when it comes to the arts reporting, it’s like their critics have never touched anything outside of the most mainstream reading imaginable. (Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part . . .) And I just don’t get it. Obviously NPR has the capacity to hire people who can get beneath the surface of an issue and come off as having some capacity to make sensible distinctions. But when it comes to the arts, this just doesn’t really happen.

Take, for example, this painfully un-self-aware NPR review of Mark Doten’s experimental Iraq war novel, The Infernal:

[The Infernal is] a novel written not for readers but for those who love to argue about the novel-as-object more than they love the words. It’s an elbow-patch book, fodder for lit professors, likely attractive to those young enough (or cynical enough) to believe that oddness and iconoclasm equals genius, but that just ain’t me.

I don’t want to debate the merits of The Infernal here—it’s gotten mostly very positive reviews, and I, full disclosure, know Mark Doten personally—but this is the perfect example of a flaw common in today’s literary and cultural criticism. When a reviewer can’t defend their preferences through argument, they resort to a No True Scotsman fallacy and say anyone who feels differently isn’t even a reader.

Honestly, anyone who is capable of even googling the title of the book and looking at the raves listed on The Infernal’s Amazon page would see that this is not a view shared by many readers of this book. Surely that would give this critic just a tiny hint that maybe the assumptions he’s brought to this review are a little off-base? (And it doesn’t help that his bio characterizes him as a food writer who happens to write sci-fi novels for an Amazon vanity press.)

I harp on this because NPR is one of those few remaining venues that actually reaches a shit-ton of the sort of people who still read fairly interesting books in the United States. Having that kind of an audience implies a certain kind of responsibility. It would be a responsibility to hire critics who are capable of explaining themselves in a more intelligent way. You don’t have to like every novel you read. This guy can hate The Infernal. But he should be capable of doing more than cluelessly handing out the same bromides that know-nothing critics have been passing around for decades.

The Latin American Mixtape




The Latin American Mixtape is a collection of literary “b sides” and hard to find items, all relating to Latin America and its authors.

It features 3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career, written specifically for the Mixtape. Plus, an in-depth essay on Rodrigo Rey Rosa.

Also includes hard-to-find interviews and essays, and each piece comes with a short intro explaining why I have chosen to place it in the mixtape.

5 essays. 2 interviews.
All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.
available as a downloadable epub file

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From “The Digression”

. . . the building on top of which she was sleeping, not as it would be later on, not seeing it finished and inhabited, but as it was now, that is, under construction.

This key digression in Aira’s body of work is all about the incomplete, which I see as the key concept in Aira’s theory of the novel.

Aira’s entire career is always under construction. His favorite method is a flight from completion, a flight from what is past and done, from ever repeating anything he has said before, or even stopping long enough to let his fiery potential cool down.

He writes like we all sleep: constantly progressing through a foreign world that requires improvisation at every moment. There is no routine in dreams. There is only the bewilderment of the constantly new. This is Aira. He writes to keep his iron burning white hot at all times.


But there is always a difference between dreams and reality . . .

This statement is found amid some speculation about dreams, and at first glace it may seem too obvious to need saying. Which of us does not know sleep from dreams?

Or maybe it is not that simple, for we all learn that if you are unsure whether you are dreaming or not, you can pinch yourself to check. How many times have you woken up from sleep, amazed to find that the experience of whose reality you were absolutely certain a moment ago, was in fact a projection of your own mind? I myself have many times woken from a dream of infinite loss, utterly relieved to see that it was all only a dream, that relief feeling as real to me as any emotion ever were.

What is the difference between dream and reality for Aira? For Patri? And what of that state that Aira enters for those few hours every day when he is immersed in the act of writing? Could that constant flight forward be akin to a waking dream?

Aira is correct to foreground dreams in this key digression, because they are a prevailing state of human existence, despite all the appearances of our waking world. For keep in mind: as you are reading this, billions and billions of people on the darkened side of the Earth are currently inhabiting their dreams. What do they see there, and how is it changing their lives?

I do not doubt its influence. We spend one-third of our lives asleep. It is essential, its processes fundamental and poorly understood. The experiences we have within our dreams are remarkable. We may be accustomed to thinking of dreaming and waking as separate, but perhaps the borders between them are as porous as Aira suggests.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 41

Here it is, your fall 2015 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.


A Chorale of Dead Souls

A Chorale of Dead Souls

“An influence on Finnegans Wake!” was one commonly heard refrain concerning this as-yet obscure object of desire, never mind that the two novels’ respective dates of publication make this a strained point at best. “In a league with Flann O’Brien!” was another, more reasonable, certainly more accurate line. To complete the trifecta, I even heard a few variations on “Beckett loved it!”—presumably unsubstantiated, but nonetheless tantalizing. Whether or not Ó Cadhain’s prose could really match or anyway trot sans embarrassment alongside the mighty strides of this Holy Trinity, the book’s premise was enough to lend credence to the rumors. Cré na Cille comes with an unbeatable “elevator pitch” that rhymes most deliciously with the work of its author’s best beloved countrymen: it’s none of your garden-variety narratives, following a protagonist or protagonists through which- and whatever conflicts and experiences, no. It’s 100% dialogue, and not just any dialogue, but a chorale of dead souls, every character already having snuffed it and been stuffed into their graves. À la an Our Town or Spoon River cross-pollinated with No Exit, however, these corpses are perpetually, rather hellishly awake, aware, and gabbing in Ó Cadhain’s wonderfully unsplendid hereafter.

The Popularizer of Pessimism

The Popularizer of Pessimism

For more than a decade, Houellebecq has enjoyed unusual notoriety: his dismissal from the board of the review Perpendiculaire for the retrograde views allegedly expressed in The Elementary Particles made the front page of Le Monde; his portrayal of Islam in Platform, as well as his subsequent description of it in an interview as “the most moronic religion,” landed him in court on charges of inciting racial hatred; in 2011, he went missing, stoking fears he’d been snatched up for ransom. He would dramatize his disappearance in the faux documentary The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq. Yet nothing was comparable to the commotion that would arise when Submission, Houellebecq’s most recent novel, hit the shelves on January 7 of this year, a few hours before Chérif and Saïd Kouachi would burst into the offices of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and murder members of its staff.

Pitol’s Wounds

Pitol’s Wounds

Pitol writes early in the first volume of his “Trilogy of Memory” that “Lately, I have been very aware that I have a past. Not only because I have reached an age when the greater part of the journey has been traveled, but also because I now know fragments of my childhood that until recently were off-limits to me.” What results from this declaration is a very unusual book that diverges from the standard tropes of memoir. Rather than attempt to divulge personal details or set the record straight, Pitol seeks to do something more personal and internalized: to fill in the gaps and holes of his memory before they grow bigger and deeper. The end result may have been aestheticized after the fact, but we are ultimately reading something that was written for the author alone. We are invited to forget ourselves, to put on the persona of Pitol himself and close up the wounds of time and memory by reading these words of his various travelings, readings, and meetings across the Western world.

Barstool Stories

Barstool Stories

In the Czech Republic, Hrabal is a mythic figure. The website for his favorite pub, U Zlatého tygra, has six tabs: Home, Beer/Cheese, Menu, Bohumil Hrabal, History, and Contacts. His 1994 meeting with ambassador Madeleine Albright and then presidents Havel and Clinton has been archived as both legend and link. The man and his work are preservations of Czech history, connecting old Prague, the “glory and downfall of the cultural boom of the ’60s” (to quote the Tygra’s website), and the city’s globalization under capitalism. Hrabal has come to represent a kind of nostalgia for a lost Czech time, somewhere back in the post-Soviet ’80s, or the pre-crackdown ’60s, or maybe even the democratic ’20s—anytime but now. In his intro to The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Joshua Cohen identifies this nostalgia as Bohemian in general and Hrabalian in particular: “To feel born too late for a true life (whatever that is), and to feel that as a failure and that failure as ennobling, are very Czech emotions.” This complex blend of feeling—a yearning for the past that invigorates the presence of the present—courses through Hrabal’s best work, and is on full display in The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult.

On Stéphane Mallarmé

On Stéphane Mallarmé

His relatively uneventful personal life and sizable artistic and intellectual cosmos have, in the century since his death, largely kept him out of biographies (which are then turned into Hollywood films) and on the tongues of poets and intellectual historians. But then, without the flashy headlines and under the burden of agonizing translation, Mallarmé is frequently cited but seldom read. Whether this new edition of Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), his final and, until now, incompletely translated textual experiment, marks the beginning of a Mallarmé renaissance is unclear.

In Translation

Excerpt from The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

Excerpt from The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

It looks impossible to get out,” he says. And also: “But we’ll get out.”

To the north, the forest borders a mountain range and is surrounded by lakes so big they look like oceans. In the centre of the forest is a well. The well is roughly seven metres deep and its uneven walls are a bank of damp earth and roots, which tapers at the mouth and widens at the base, like an empty pyramid with no tip. The basin gurgles dark water, which filters along faraway veins and even more distant galleries that flow towards the river. It leaves a permanent muddy peat and sludge specked with bubbles that pop, spraying bursts of eucalyptus back into the air. Whether due to pressure from the continental plates or the constant eddying breeze, the little roots move and turn and steer in a slow, sad dance, which evokes the nature of all the forests slowly absorbing the earth.


The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

At once a meditation on queerness, language, and family, and in part a spiritual follow-up to the melancholic Bluets, Nelson’s book traverses the gap between theory and the lived experience that it so often abstracts into oblivion. She traces her relationship with artist Harry Dodge, and memories pass through critical-philosophical cogitation. We often find Nelson and Dodge in conversation, or sharing passages from Wittgenstein or Barthes, and the two spar on the function of names and categories, assimilation and resistance in X-Men, and Nelson’s neglecting the queer part of her life in her writing until now, which is effectively the starting point of this project.

Counternarratives by John Keene

Counternarratives by John Keene

With black and brown bodies being murdered daily from Cleveland to Cincinnati, Baltimore to Oakland—the riotous specter of Ferguson looming always—by an assortment of systemic forces shrugging off protest when they are not stamping it out, the stories of these lives, or ones like them, are the stuff of histories untold by History. This is, of course, nothing new to 2015, no matter the number and volume of white people (like myself) now paying attention. History is nothing if not resourceful. This is the context of John Keene’s ambitious collection of stories and novellas, Counternarratives. Though many of these were published elsewhere, together they read very much like the multi-genre, patchwork novels of Alexander Kluge—or perhaps more grandly still, László Krasznahorkai’s recent Seiobo There Below, a work bound not by plotted coherence but by a conceptual aesthetic thriving on difference.

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov

By the standard of an author’s handling of complex thematic ideas, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, beautifully translated by Angela Rodel,is an excellent book. Gospodinov takes the conceptual framework within his novel as the ability of literature to overcome the restrictions of memory. Taking major cues about this subject from both Borges and Sebald (see Gospodinov’s extensive use of diagrams and photographs throughout the text), the author explores memory through a tightly woven set of fantastic experiences among the ever-changing society of Bulgaria in the 20th and early 21st centuries, and does so profoundly.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

This strong psychological relationship between teeth and our sense of self contributes to the expressive clout of Valeria Luiselli’s “dental autobiography” The Story of My Teeth. Here, the motif of teeth best aligns with Jung’s description of them as the “gripping organ,” providing not only our ability to properly eat and speak but also the figurative representation of personal agency, and even a marker of success. However, Luiselli’s charming, funny, and moving novel transcends this dental narrative, and is, at its heart, a profound commentary on the power of storytelling, both as a creative force and a way to instil value.

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

For a country as vast as it is, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has not produced much literature. (Ruthless oppression and exploitation will have that effect.) Tram 83 may not be a novel in the usual sense—it is more of a francophone triumph of style over substance—but it is a welcome voice from that quarter, and a promise of lively works to come.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt

Although Naja Marie Aidt made her English-language debut just last year with a short story collection entitled Baboon (Two Lines Press), in Denmark she has been required reading in most middle school and high school classes since the 1990s. A poet and author with nearly 20 works in various genres, Aidt has received numerous honors, including the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for Baboon in 2008. Aidt debuted in Denmark in 1991 with the poetry collection Så længe jeg er ung, and since then she has mainly been known for her poems and short stories. Her first novel, Sten, saks, papir, came out in Denmark in 2012, some 21 years after her first poetry collection. Now that novel has been published by Open Letter Books as Rock, Paper, Scissors, in K.E. Semmel’s translation.

Dinner by César Aira

Dinner by César Aira

It has been a good year and some months for César Aira readers, as New Directions has released translations of a collection of short stories, The Musical Brain and Other Stories (spring 2015), and two of his novels: Conversations (summer 2014), and, this fall, Dinner. Some of Aira’s novels start out with a wild premise, while others lull readers for a while before changing into something unexpected. We are a fair number of pages into his newest work before the unnamed male narrator, an almost sixty-year-old bachelor, tells us what he witnesses on a live television news program in his hometown of Pringles, Argentina (Aira’s birthplace), as a small news crew investigates a rumor: “They were on their way to the Cemetery, because they’d been told that the dead were rising from their graves of their own accord.

On Hype and “Litchat”


It seems like Laura Miller’s recent piece on “litchat” has been getting a lot of play. I don’t quite get it. My take is that it’s a bunch of straw men recruited to help carry a preconceived and pretty standard-issue idea about the “perils” social media.

First, let’s get one thing clear. People in industries gossip. I would guess that this is probably truer of the arts than most industries, but whatever, that’s what people do. The Internet did not create this. The difference is that now you can catch more of that conversation over social media; albeit, a very, very small fraction more, and one that’s pretty well watered down of the best material. But there’s no doubt that some the shiving and axe-grinding does make it on the the Twitter-sphere, etc.

To leap from that to social media gossip “absolutely shapes the formal reception of a writer’s work” seems a tad bit much. Yes, I’m sure that at some point some critic somewhere read a thing on Twitter that pissed him or her off and lent a tiny bias to a critique. But I really doubt that all the crazy pullquotes from whatever latest thing Jonathan Franzen said has unduly influenced the critical reception of his novels. For one thing, the gaffe of all gaffes—the Oprah “snub”—far from impacting Franzen negatively took his career into the stratosphere. And for another, all the vitriol spewed against Franzen on social media hasn’t stopped his latest book from getting stupendous raves from many, many leading venues.

But more to the point: does the massed gossip on social media really stack up against things like: hundreds of thousands of dollars in publicity budgets, billboards on Times Square, major media appearances with audiences in the millions, or even just your garden variety Times Book Review cover story? Just to give a little perspective: Laura Miller has roughly 30,000 Twitter followers. The weekday circulation of The New York Times is a tad under 2,000,000. So let’s not forget how provincial, obscure, and limited is our corner of the social media world.

The tendency that I see most often—social media be damned—is toward evaluating a writer on the basis of the books. Yes, many a conversation with friends has digressed at some point into that latest thing Franzen said, but I almost never see people generalize from that to an opinion on his books. No, the people I know who talk about Franzen (or whomever) have read his books; they discuss him on the merits of his writing and wouldn’t dream of evaluating him based on some tabloitesque headline. They’d look like fools if they did. It may be that my friends and acquaintances are just an unduly enlightened species of litchatter, but I doubt it.

Miller also talks about the backlash she sees on social media over authors that are over-hyped, and this is where she gets back to Wallace. Well, it’s true, there is plenty of envy to be seen on the Internet, and there are also plenty of high-fives, earnest praise, and well-wishes. I’d say much more of the latter than the former, by my count. In fact, I’d say that, if anything, the “litchat” that I tend to see is more toward the purpose of bringing unfairly neglected writers to better attention than toward deflating the famous.

Moreover, is it really such a bad thing that readers are skeptical in the face of marketing hype? Miller takes the case of young writers who doubted that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest could really be as good as the hype claimed, but what damage did this do to his reputation, reception, or career? The fact that Wallace was so clearly not forgotten must surely give some evidence that whatever the skepticism exhibited by the literati of the day, the quality of Wallace’s work managed to prove them wrong. All great writers should be so fortunate.

On the whole, what strikes me as the strangest thing about this piece is this idea that David Foster Wallace wasn’t thought of terribly well before his suicide—and that this was somehow the doing of “litchat” pre-ordaining a reaction to his work. That seems to give far more importance to gossip than it’s worth. The piece starts with Miller explaining how, before Wallace’s suicide, few people could possibly believe that David Foster Wallace was her favorite living writer. And then, later on, Miller proceeds to recount the many people who dismissed him to her face without ever having read the books as too cold, too intellectual. Maybe this says more about the company Miller keeps, or the conversations she chooses to remember, than the prevailing notions about Wallace and his work. After all, Jay McInerney compared Infinite Jest to Zola in the New York Times Book Review—not exactly the stuff of overly cerebral writing deprived of humanity and emotion. Likewise, David Kipen in the LA Times mentioned its well-developed characters, called Wallace a genius, and predicted that posterity would be kind to the book. And for another thing, I don’t quite understand how Miller’s claim that “Wallace was not widely regarded as ‘great’ during his lifetime” can be squared with the later claim that the Times called him the “voice of a new generation,” nor the enormous crowds that would turn out for Wallace’s appearances and his enviable sales.

For my own part, the people I have spoken to about Wallace, both before and after the suicide, have evidenced very different impressions of him than those that Miller recalls. Certainly by the time I began paying attention to such things, my impression of the conventional wisdom of the literary world was that he was a big deal. He had been compared to Pynchon endlessly, won the acclaim of Don DeLillo, was published in major national magazines, and was backed by editors for a string of lengthy, often dense books that weren’t exactly prototypical bestsellers. Very few writers get that treatment.

Pillars: #3. A Rhetoric of Irony by Wayne Booth


Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

Maybe the best way to start this is by saying that A Rhetoric of Irony by Wayne Booth is probably the book that I most often recommend to people. Part of this is due to the fact that there are very, very few people out there that I don’t think could get a lot out of reading Booth. He wrote about some hugely important, hugely complex ideas, but he did it in a way that makes them accessible to anybody. Really. His tone is remarkable conversational, considering the level of his erudition, and he manages to find ways to talk about very complex things in down to earth language.

Probably the other half of why I recommend A Rhetoric of Irony so much is my perception of Booth as a person who has not yet gotten his due, a thinker who is beloved by a certain cadre of readers (I have met many such individuals), but is still not nearly as known as he could or should be. And, in particular, if you do know Booth, it’s probably for his considerably larger and comparably more famous The Rhetoric of Fiction. You may have loved and gained much from that book and have no idea that A Rhetoric of Irony exists—and that many would say it’s the better book.

What I love about Booth as a thinker is that he really, really cares about ideas. I mean really. It’s impossible to read him and not be taken by his passion for the ideas he’s talking about. Booth cares whether or not the ideas he had dedicated himself to are moral, whether or not they’re right or are just dogmas that we’ve been taught to spew. He cares about their lives in our culture, where they came from and whether or not they’re headed anywhere worthwhile. I get goosebumps just writing about how much Booth cares about ideas. He’s that kind of a writer.

In A Rhetoric of Irony he’s writing about one of the strangest concepts out there. In the society that we live in—particularly, a consummerist, cool, post–David Foster Wallace society that many, many people just love to call “post-ironic”—the word “irony” is a term that is grossly overdefined. Everybody knows what it means, which is a pretty good sign that in actuality virtually no one knows what it means. The fact is, except for the most blatant and obvious ironies, to really read well for irony takes a very, very perceptive and experienced reader. And Booth is exactly the reader to school us in it.

In this book, Booth gives us a taste of what irony really is, and what it really is is one of the strangest, most impenetrably bizarre and fundamentally literary ideas we’ve got. Booth manages to demonstrate just how strange and unfathomable irony really is, how we’ll probably never fully understand its depths, and all the surfaces of irony that literary authors have barely even begun to scratch.

So what exactly am I talking about? Well to start off Both posits two main categories of irony: stable irony and unstable irony. He further breaks down these categories with subcategories (more on that in a minute), but the main idea is that the stable ironies are the friendly, regular ones that we’re used to seeing—the protons, neutrons, and electrons of the irony world—and the unstable ironies begin to get into the truly bizarre things, the neutrino and quarks and Higgs bosons of the irony menagerie.

The most basic irony Booth gives us is as follows: stable (they resolve to one clear meaning), intended (there’s some sense behind the irony that the speaker is attempting to communicate), covert (there is data “below the surface” of the remark), and finite (at some point you “reach the end” of the irony). As an example, he supplies the image of an exasperated postal office clear telling an annoying customer: “well, you can take your business and you know what you can do with it.”

From here, Booth investigates various combinations of those four categories (including their opposites), eventually concluding with the truly strange unstable-covert-infinite (he quotes the first paragraph of Beckett’s The Unnamable), and, last of all the (really-really-strange-if-you-think-about-it) “stable”-covert-infinite (because how can something with infinite regress (like, oh, the universe) also be stable?).

This final category may be a little something like this:


The introduction to Booth’s section on “stable”-covert-infinite ironies simply must be quoted at length. Please read this:

We can say that all truths can be undermined with the irony of contrary truths either because the universe is essentially absurd and there is no such thing as coherent truth or because man’s powers of knowing are inherently and incurably limited and partial. We can imagine, on the one hand, a chaos, an order of truth so far beyond man’s powers that any attempt at formulation is vulnerable to ironic discounting. We face two radically different kinds of ironic reading, depending on which of these two grand ironic truths stands above us, laughing of weeping at our hopeless efforts to achieve final clarity. The difference depends on whether “the Gods” . . . laughing “in the background” . . . are real or imaginary.

If the universe if ultimately an absurd multiverse, then all propositions about or portraits of any part of it are ultimately absurd, all stories and poems are in at least once sense absurd, and the “readings” one gives can be infinitely various with no fundamental violations of the text; there is no such thin as a “fundamental violation” of any value. Indeed, the more variety the better, because only in absurd variety can the absurdities of the things be echoed—though again once could ask how one defends the use of a word like “better” in such a universe. . . .

This should give a sense of the weight of the questions Booth is bringing to bear in this book, as well as his capacities as a theorist. And, it must be said, everything that passes on the road from Booth’s charmingly normal “stable” ironies to these cosmos-implicating final one is nothing less than a complete tour de force.

I owe so much to Booth’s A Rhetoric of Irony. Truth be told, it was his contextualization of Beckett, his ability to make that first paragraph of The Unnameable feel so completely intriguing and utterly fascinating that finally got me to decide Beckett was worth my time. The book also made me understand completely new ways of looking at a text and attempting to make sense of it—so many new questions could be brought to bear on a single line, so many implication of how I chose to interpret it, things that were completely invisible to before I started reading Booth. His discernment was such a revelation, just to know that you could look so deeply into what seemed like a relatively straightforward statement, you could tie in so many implications that stretched into obscure realms of knowledge. Before I read him I did not know such things could be done.

And also, seeing the methodical and seemingly simple way that Booth reasoned through his questions on the page taught me just how clear and coherent one’s thoughts could be in the written form. I had been taught to believe that complex things much be articulated in confusing language (preferably with lengthy sentences thoroughly separating subject from verb), and Booth showed me how the most inscrutable riddles could be put in plain English—not only that, but then they could be reasoned through in equally plain, but powerful, language. It showed me that these questions could be discussed in such a way that anybody really could follow along, if they had the time and the patience for it. And they really should, because Booth is always careful to show you just how much is at stake and why you should give a damn about the problems he discusses.

I could just as easily recommend other books of Booth’s—you really can’t go wrong with him—but for me A Rhetoric of Irony occupies a certain revelatory place. It’s a book that has always stayed very present in my mind, and one that I return to again and again, always discovering new things. It is absolutely a pillar of the way I try to write about the questions surrounding the books I read, as well as one that is a foundation for how I understand just what a text is and how I can read it.

Dog Days


I’ve been traveling, and when not traveling knee-deep in various forms of work, so apologies for the silence ’round these parts. With some luck that will abate in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, read one of these books, or check some of my latest work below.

My review of the fourth and final book of the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, at the San Francisco Chronicle.

And for The Paris Review I interview Ben Moser about all things Lispector.

And also, I’ll recommend to you The Wake by Paul Kingsworth. This is being billed as “a postapocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past,” about an Englishman who experiences the destruction of his civilization when William the Conqueror, well, conquers in 1066. It’s written in a sort of Old English dialect (Kingsworth modernizes it so that you don’t need a Ph.D. to read the book), and it’s quite good; some slight overtones of Krasznahorkai here, as well as the Oulipo, given the nature of this literary endeavor and the radically condensed alphabet/vocabulary that Kingsworth gives himself to work with. I’m hoping to write on it more in the future.

Support Your Literary Community


Dan Green asks a lot of important questions about “literary citizenship” and makes a lot of really good points. (And when I think of members in good standing of the “literary community” I certainly think of him.) I don’t have any answers to his questions, but I do have some responses to some of the points he raises.

First of all, I think the basic idea of a literary citizen is pretty simple. Don’t trash the community that nourishes you and gives you a place to exist. Don’t shit where you live. Do some good deeds for your people. Try to leave your place a little better than you found it. If for no other reason, it’s in your own self interest to make the ecosystem you live in a beautiful, interesting, healthy place to be.

As to the free riders and the gamers. Yes, there will always be a tiny percentage of community members who are transparently participating only for their own interests, just as there will also be a few saint-like figures who seem tireless in the good deeds they’ll do for others, with seemingly no regard whatsoever for their own careers. The cynics are easy enough to pick out and avoid, and the saints are welcome. That leaves the rest of us, the vast vast majority of or less decent people trying to do a little good while also trying to carve out a life for ourselves.

Social networks have, of course, become hugely important in the ways we interact as members of this community. But despite everything that social networks have changed, I find things like this a little overblown:

Corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves, who must relentlessly promote their own work through book touring and maintaining a social media “presence.” Should writers aid and abet this process by voluntarily enabling the system in the name of literary citizenship? As Becky Tuch has written on this subject, “Today’s writers are expected to do more marketing work than ever before while not expecting much in the way of compensation or benefits. It’s what we are being ‘trained’ to do.”‘

First of all, it’s flat-out wrong that “corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves.” There’s a pretty huge difference between what a career publicist can accomplish (and the work involved in getting it done) and the author who’s recruited to do a book tour.

Yes, the author is being asked to participate to a greater degree in publicity than, say, 30 years ago, but c’mon. I don’t know of any “corporate publishers” who ask their authors to print and mail out hundreds of galleys, cultivate relationships with scores/hundreds of critics nationwide, book nationwide bookstore tours (which are generally paid for in total by the publisher, and are not cheap), create and place advertising, and generally build the kind of market presence that can turn an author from completely unknown to semi-famous in a single season. I just don’t think it really helps this conversation at all to confuse the work a publicist does with the expectations that an author be part of a literary community.

As to the social media presence, yes, some authors really get social media and love it and have built sizable followings. But have a look at the number of Twitter followers for many of your favorite authors, and I guarantee they will be tiny (if they’re even on Twitter). Then compare that to the social media presence for his/her publisher. Yes, our media environment has changed quite a bit, but in large it’s the publicists and the publishers who have adapted to build sizable presences in the new online media, not the authors. And let’s not overstate what a Twitter presence can do for a writer; yes, it will help a bit, but it’s not a panacea for sales and publicity by any means.

Just one example out of many: Garth Risk Hallberg got himself a $2 million book deal with a leading publisher despite having no social media profile to speak of, having pretty much gone into hiding from the work he used to do at The Millions (or anywhere for that matter), and barely even having email. So, I mean . . .

The authors that have built sizable social media followings are generally in it for reasons other than to publicize their next book (and if they do also use it to publicize their work, I’m not going to fault them—see above). They probably get a lot out of being on Twitter, are well-suited enough to the environment that it doesn’t destroy their mood, and maybe just like being able to share information on cool books with thousands of people.

Bottom line: having been working in publishing for a while now, and having been in touch with all sorts of publishers and authors all over the place, I just don’t see any real evidence of what people like Becky Tuch say, and I think statements like hers are far too cynical and don’t consider the nuances that exist in the real world. It’s my experience that people who participate in the literary community via social media want to be there, and are doing it for a variety of reasons. The very last reason of all is that they’re being forced there by their publisher.

Dan also raises this series of important questions:

Although, to again assume the sincerity of those advocating for a writing community built around literary citizenship, presumably “business” would not be the center of activity: payment comes in “kindness and skill,” receipt of which cumulatively allows everyone to “learn, engage, and grow.”

But would real growth actually occur if all that was “paid forward” was “kindness”? Would the “skill” also offered in payment include a critical skill, an ability to honestly assess what a writer has produced, even when that assessment might be negative?

Honestly, I think the answers are “yes” and “yes.” When I look at the amount of coverage afforded today to small/indie press titles and authors in very mainstream publications with huge audiences (and it has increased a lot), I think that’s a direct result of the small/indie community that has been built in the decade-and-a-half since the Internet came into its own. Many people from that community have been enabled to crash the gates of the venerable mainstream, and they have brought along their friends with them. A lot of the people I consider peers today started out as nobodies with nothing more than shitty blogs (myself included), and now many of them are in places of power ans prestige. They still remember their old friends, and they’re still parts of the communities they started with. All of this has very substantively affected the sorts of books and authors that are taken seriously these days.

As to the honesty factor—yes, there’s tons of fluff out there. Every day we all see people passing along links to articles they haven’t read past the headline and promoting books they probably haven’t read. This is obviously not a good thing, and I think it can in part be attributed to the pressure to “keep up” and to be a “good citizen,” as well as to the list-making tendency of Internet media. Obviously these aren’t good things, we can all agree. But, two things: 1) This all existed before the Internet, and I think the Internet has only magnified it and brought it more into the open; and 2) Amid all this bullshitting I also see a lot of very genuine criticism and discussion happening.

Because, the fact is, if you really do want to start an indie press and make it live, you need to be able to handle people giving you real talk, or else you won’t survive. And if you really want to be a good writer, you have to deal with honest responses to your work, or else your writing will suck and nobody will actually respect you, regardless of what they say on Facebook.

Maybe this is just a reflection of the people I know, but I tend to see a lot more people in my community who are interested in honest feedback and improving their skills than wanting to accumulate a bunch of skin-deep praise. And, it’s my genuine belief that a ream-full of superficial praise doesn’t sell books so much as create a short-lived buzz on social media that everyone will have forgotten in a week. By contrast, my experience is that what really sells books and makes careers is the deep, extended engagement, where people are giving word-of-mouth recommendations for months/years to come, and where the analysis of the book goes so deep that said book begins to sound really, really compelling. And social media has made it possible to do this in ways and across geographies that we never could have before.

I don’t have all the answers, but I will say here that I think the image of the literary apostate is just that—an image, oftentimes cultivated by a canny and well-connected individual for careerist reasons. Even someone as genius as Samuel Beckett was a virtual nobody in the U.S. until his publisher at Grove figured out how to make him a mainstream commodity (and he wasn’t so much of an outsider as his image would have it). Even a complete misanthrope like Thomas Bernhard recognized the necessity for people to be connected to other people. Yes, writers tend to be solitary people, and some parts of the literary community will tend to turn writers off. A healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing—but neither is finding the people in the world who get you and forming relationships with them. When you get right down to it, that’s probably 90% of what the words “literary community” mean to me.

Artist’s widows, from “Speck’s Idea” by Mavis Gallant


Mavis Gallant on artist’s widows, from her story “Speck’s Idea” found in the collected stories. (Sadly, this one-stop-shopping, with a wonderful preface by the author herself, is no longer in print, but NYRB has three volumes of spendor for you.)

Mavis Gallant is true greatness. Before you read one of this fall’s trend novels, read a few of her stories to calibrate your expectations. It may help you avoid some embarrassment down the line.


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