Category Archives: Friday Column

How Many Times Must an Author Write the Same Book?

(Today we have a guest column from Christina Thompson. She is the editor of Harvard Review. Her essays and articles have appeared in numerous journals, including American Scholar, the Journal of Pacific History, Australian Literary Studies, and in the 1999, 2000, and 2006 editions of Best Australian Essays. Her new book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, is reviewed in the New York Times Book Review this weekend.)

This spring, as the publication date of my book approached, my publisher suggested I get myself a website. I had never had a website before and one thing I didn’t know was how long it would take before a newly launched site showed up on Google.

Shortly after the site was launched I tried a search for the title of my book. This was still pre-publication, but the online retailers were already listing it, as were a couple of libraries, the publisher of course, and a couple of social cataloging sites. My own website was still nowhere to be found, but there was one result that took me by complete surprise. It was a page on the University of Hawaii’s website describing an issue of the journal Mānoa that I had edited in 1993, and in which I had described myself as a “working on a book about the Pacific called Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.”

Now if you were to ask me when I’d started writing this book, I would have to confess that it’s taken me an abominably long time, but I would never admit to having begun it as long ago as 1992. That was a full six years before I returned to the United States from Australia, broke, unemployed, pregnant with my third child, but in possession of a pair of small grants from the Literature Board of the Australia Council and Arts Victoria to write a book I was calling, with an obvious nod to Melville, “Call Me Abraham.” That book eventually morphed into this, but I was genuinely surprised to discover that I had had the title all those many years ago. And naturally, it made me wonder what kind of a book it might have been if I had actually written it then and not a decade later.

It’s sort of like the plot of a Borgesian novella: a woman writes a book with a certain title over and over again, using the same historical material and making the same theoretical points, but each time somehow managing to tell a completely different story. In fact, this is often what we do. I once heard a professor at Harvard—I wish I could remember who it was—say in the introduction to a lecture that first she had written her dissertation, then she had rewritten her dissertation and published it as her first book, then she had rewritten her dissertation a second time and that was her second book. By then I think she was up to her fourth or fifth iteration.

I’ve always liked that idea, and part of me is sorry I didn’t write this book the first time in 1992. On the other hand, if the extract of my guest editor’s essay in that same issue of Mānoa is anything to go by, it’s probably just as well that I didn’t. I was only a couple of years past my own dissertation at that point and the words of my young self, preserved in the amber of the worldwide web, show all the hallmarks of a recent graduate school education.

In this essay, which was called “A Brief History of Australia” (another nod), I compared the histories of Australia and the United States, observing that both had been established as colonies, that “this establishment entailed the displacement and subjugation of an indigenous people by a predominantly Anglo-Celtic population,” that both had grown “as a result of migration from the fraught places of the world,” and that both were now “struggling to adapt to the realities of their polyphonic, multicultural, postcolonial populations.”

I had always remembered this essay as a light-hearted romp—which just goes to show, again, what tricks the memory plays. Still, I was clearly thinking about how to communicate something about the colonial histories of the Pacific, and my titles, at least, suggests that I had the intention, even if I didn’t yet have the voice, to spin my subject in a light-hearted way.

“Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All” is something in the way of a researcher’s joke. It is what Charles Darwin said that Captain Cook said that the Maoris said when they first encountered Europeans. In fact, it’s not what the Maoris said (for more on this see Chapter 8: A Dangerous People), but from the moment that I first grasped the way that historical texts are like something whispered in a child’s game of telephone, I was hooked on the idea. And that, I have to admit, was a lot earlier than 1992.

I knew almost from the beginning that there was a way to write about history that was both funny and serious, irreverent and still deeply felt, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do. But I also knew that I needed a vehicle for this story of colonialism in the Pacific—I was not, after all a “proper” historian—and I even had an inkling that this vehicle would be my own life.

The problem, of course, was that back in 1992 (or 1989, or even 1987) when I first began to think along these lines, I didn’t have that much life to work with. This is another reason those early attempts feel so derivative: in fact, they are. But 10 or 12 or 15 years later, when I finally got around to writing the book I had been thinking about for so long, I had actually lived quite a lot. I had, you might say, a whole lot more material, though I don’t believe my subject had ever really changed.

What takes forever is not necessarily finding the concept, but developing the voice in which to express it. The book I would have written in 1992 might have been a perfectly good book, or at least one that would have gotten me tenure, but I think I prefer the one I’ve written now. It’s just as serious in all the important ways but it’s gayer and more generous and I think it actually sounds much more like me. There are few compensations to getting older but one of them is certainly that you become more and more yourself. This is not to say that you are not still a composite of influences or that the derivative elements are no longer there. But I think they are better blended, or perhaps it just becomes easier to pick out from among them the sound of your own voice.

Why the Siege of Krishnapur Stays Stuck in My Mind the Way a Chicken Bone Stays Stuck in My Throat

The voting is done, the tallies are in, and the super/meta/ultimate-Booker–or whatever you call it–has not gone to J.G. Farrell’s novel of imperial decay, The Siege of Krishnapur. (Predictably, some guy with a cleric problem has taken the honor.)

Let us pause momentarily to appreciate the coincidence that an Indian-British novelist’s book about postcolonial India, a book that captures the essence of postmodern play and hystericism, has beat out a British novelist’s book about colonial India, a book that, though published in 1973, looks back to the realist conventions of an earlier style of crafting a novel. And how strange that though Midnight’s Children remains one of Britain’s most popular novels, J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, as reported in an earlier story on the Booker website, has largely fallen off the map of the British literary landscape.

It’s ridiculous to think that a largely unknown novel could win a popularity contest over a just-knighted titian of British letters, and that means what I’m about to write is a catch-22, but what a favor the British reading public would have done itself had it voted The Siege to win, thereby giving British publishers a good reason to bring this novel back into wide circulation. (In the U.S. we’re fortunate that NYRB has done just that for us.)

I chanced on and read this novel just over three years ago, quickly losing no time in recording my breathless appreciation in this blog. It is a book that, though superficially similar to novels of an earlier era, nonetheless makes subtle use of the irony and historical perspective at the disposal of an author well into the 20th century. In my post I called it E.M. Forster meets Ernest Hemingway, and this gets at what is so satisfying about the book: it twins excellent character studies, abetted by a thorough portrayal of British manners among the upper classes living in the colonies, with a driving narrative that’s every bit as brutal and gripping as Hemingway at his best.

The Siege of Krishnapur details exactly what the title says it will: a British outpost in Krishnapur, India, is laid siege to, and the novel draws out the drama as upper-crust types, generally accustomed to every luxury available in a British colony, are subjected to inexorable bodily degradation and forced to figure out how to defend themselves. Farrell expertly forges the souls of his characters in the smithy of the siege: as you are reading it, you become dreadfully aware that this is the trial that will define the lives of all who leave this siege alive. Farrell is unsparing, but never gratuitous or unfair, in forcing his colonists to let drop all of the routines and rules they cling to as defenses.

Here, for example, is what I wrote about a character named the Collector, and how he tries to force back the reality of what is happening to him:

All the major characters feel spot-on, and Farrell conveys so much
with so little. To-wit, here’s the Collector, the sort of head
bureaucrat during the siege:

Later, while
he was drinking tea at the table in his bedroom with three young
subalterns from Captainganj a succession of musket balls came through
the winder, attracted by the oil-lamp . . . one, two, three and then a
fourth, one after another. The officers dived smartly under the table,
leaving the Collector to drink his tea alone. After a while they
re-emerged smiling sheepishly, deeply impressed by the Collector’s
sang-froid. Realizing that he had forgotten to sweeten his tea, the
Collector dipped a teaspoon into the sugar-bowl. But then he found that
he was unable to keep the sugar on the spoon: as quickly as he scooped
it up, it danced off again. It was clear that he would never get it
from the sugar-bowl to the cup without scattering it over the table, so
in the end he was obliged to push the sugar away and drink his tea

There’s something that just
gets me about that passage. The Collector resigned to his sugarless
tea, enduring the siege with a straight face, almost bored with the
musket balls except that he can’t keep his body from the fear of
evisceration. He’s trying to be diginified and British, but he’s also
resigned to the fact that he’s not quite pulling it off, but he’s still
trying to create the appearance of it. It’s so the Collector. All of
Farrell’s characters are like this.

Farrell died tragically young, the victim of a freak wave during a fishing expedition. Before his death, however, he did leave us with what is known as the Empire Trilogy, an epic work examining the British empire and of which The Siege of Krishnapur is the middle title. The first, Troubles, and the last, The Singapore Grip, have also been brought back into print in the U.S. by NYRB and are well worth reading.

A piece over at The Guardian blog (which ran before that site lost its groove) captures why Farrell wrote this trilogy, that is, why he would want to consider the British empire from the vantage point of the 1970s; in doing so, the piece also offers compelling evidence why this book should still be read, both as literature and as a novel of ideas:

Farrell said that he wanted to show "yesterday reflected in today’s
consciousness", but by association, of course, he also holds a glass up
to the modern world. His comically detailed descriptions of various
residents’ losses of faith – coupled with their outlandish religious
beliefs and the way they adhere to now discredited theories like
phrenology – forces us into a hard look at the accepted wisdom of the
modern world (say, the immediacy of global warming, or the need to
worship Radiohead). I for one felt a shudder of new uncertainty.

Then, there is colonialism. When the audiobook of the Siege Of
Krishnapur came out in 2005, a writer in the Sunday Times said: "A
novel set in India in 1857, the year of the Mutiny, in which the points
of view of the Indians are almost nonexistent, would be unlikely to win
the Man Booker prize these days." That’s perhaps worthy of a debate in
itself, but it’s the accusation against Farrell that interests me: the
idea that, as the reviewer went on, he was guilty of "cultural
imbalance". I don’t buy this line at all. The fact that Indians (with
the rule-proving exception of a westernised maharajah’s son) are so
peripheral to the action speaks volumes about the attitude of the
British colonialists squirming and struggling under Farrell’s
microscope, not to mention the way colonialism dehumanises and
brutalises the oppressor and the oppressed.

It also provokes an uncomfortable recognition about the way we still
think about our colonial past. It’s the fact that The Siege of
Krishanpur provokes such edgy, unsettling ideas that makes me think it
would be unlikely to triumph in the Booker Prize in "these days" of
safe and stodgy winners, rather than any misdirected political

The British are fortunate to have a writer like Rushdie, who, when he’s on his game, can illuminate the realities of the British immigrant experience and capture the feel of life and the questions animating it in one of the postcolonial societies it left behind; but our trans-Atlantic cousins are perhaps letting drop a precious opportunity when they don’t take the opportunity to read Farrell alongside Rushdie. And as to us Americans, as I noted in my earlier post, there are a few lessons to be learned over here from Farrell as well.

Speaking of, reading Farrell’s trilogy on the British empire tends to make me wonder: Who is our Farrell? To be sure, an American writing today isn’t in the same position vis a vis empire as a Brit writing the ’70s, but there is nonetheless a lot of American imperial history to consider. Off the top of my head, I would say that Don DeLillo in Libra and Underworld makes our best stand-in. But perhaps we’ll have found our Farrell when someone updates for the 21st century what probably is America’s best last imperial trilogy: USA by John Dos Passos.


Is Google Making Us Read Worse?

Friday Column: Is Google Making Us Read Worse?

I tried very hard to take seriously Nicholas Carr’s article in The Atlantic, which has the provocative, and lately rather fashionable, thesis that the Internet is changing the way we read. Google is making us all info-snackers in search of the quick answer; there’s so much content at hand that we can barely stand to get halfway through something before we’re jumping off to the next thing.

I’ll admit, certain aspects of Carr’s argument feel intuitively correct. And I’m seeing an awful lot of books lately about how dumb Americans are becoming.

But when an idea becomes this popular, when it begins to develop that plasticized reek of conventional wisdom, it’s almost begging to be refuted. This is an oblique way of saying that, at this stage in the Google-is-ruining-information debate, someone looking to write an article on how the Internet is killing our attention spans needs something more substantial than the bland assertions Carr brings to the table.

Or to take on this essay from another angle, when someone gets a basic fact like this incorrect, it’s an indication that he’s not being especially rigorous in his theorizing:

Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese,
develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the
circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an

One problem: Chinese doesn’t consist of ideograms. No, it consists of characters that stand for morphemes, which are similar to syllables found in languages formed with the Roman alphabet. That this small fact completely subverts Carr’s example is emblematic of the problems confronting the essay a whole. For more on this, just wait till we get to Nietzsche’s typewriter.

I picked up the information about the Chinese language while reading a book (one about the deciphering of ancient Mayan, another character-based language that doesn’t consist of ideograms), and the fact that I read said book all the way to the end makes me a sort of rarity, at least according to Carr’s anecdotal research into his friends’ Internet-ravaged reading habits. I maintain the ability to read lengthy texts despite regular exposure to the Internet, and among Carr’s circle that makes me pretty special:

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to
friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re
having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused
on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also
begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about
online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books

Okay, a confession: I’m not special. I’m just normal, or maybe a little too smart for my own good. I’m not sure, but what I will state with full confidence is that anyone who uses the Internet regularly retains full capacity to read a book. It’s not very hard. What’s hard is leaping from Carr’s stories about his friends to any meaningful warning about the Internet’s effects on our reading habits.

Similarly, Carr’s tale about the miraculous transformation of Nietzsche’s style after he bought a typewriter is simply too good to believe. We are supposed to believe that suddenly after Nietzsche bought a typewriter "his already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic." We might say with equal authority that Nietzsche’s meeting with Lou Andreas Salomé in 1882, falling in love with her, and having suicidal thoughts after the relationship ended badly curtailed his time and forced him to write more epigrammatically.

But even if there is a grain of truth to Carr’s Neitzsche story, what does it prove? Most of the great Modernist texts were composed on a typewriter, and many of them happen to not be particularly short and not particularly light. And what to make of the authors writing on PCs–a quantum leap over typewriters? They’ve managed to write incredibly long, complex novels.

My point is, yes the medium will have some effect, but people aren’t automatons. (Well, at least not the ones worth talking to.) We can overcome whatever the medium dictates to us.

I do agree with Carr’s assertions that the Internet is changing the way previous media are used–that is, the Internet is swallowing up radio, TV, magazines, and newspapers whole and regurgitating Internet-digested versions of them that are quickly becoming the norm. This is quite clearly true, and this will transform the way in which things are presented on these media. It’s already happening and, as Carr demonstrates, it’s completely normal.

I’ll even go so far as to agree with Carr that the fabric of the human mind is malleable, and that certain things we can do–like learn to speak and read in a second language–can make permanent changes to our neural pathways.

But it’s a pretty big leap from here to saying that the Internet is making us incapable of reading book-length, or even essay-length texts. Over the past two years I’ve become proficient in Spanish, and, yes, I can feel the rewiring when I occasionally bring Spanish grammar into an English sentence. But, clearly, I maintain my ability to speak and function in English just as well as before I rewired my brain. I haven’t lost any of my previous English-ability just by learning something new–if anything Spanish has enriched my English in ways I never would have anticipated

Similarly, I understand that the Internet has changed the way I look at a text, and staring at a screen full of tantalizing essays can make it difficult to pay attention. Heck, I’ve got 11 tabs open in Firefox right now with untold thousands of eruditely arranged words screaming for my attention. I know what it feels like to want to read it all right this second.

I might add that I also felt that way long, long before I ever became addicted to the Internet. In fact, I once got and still get this dangerous sensation from books. That is, I feel the anxiety that any booklover feels when contemplating a "to be read" stack just like I feel the information overload of a full feed of content. This is not that new for me, and, I suspect, for many others.

What I’m saying is that responsible adults have been and will continue to be threatened with noisy, seductive, multiple distractions. And just as responsible adults have done for a long, long time, I’m fully able to turn down the noise, take my books and articles one by one, and give each the attention it deserves.

Or to put it another way, if we’re all a bunch of info-junkies tripping our way toward Internet-ADD, then why was one of the longest, most challenging texts to emerge in English in years the "big book" of BEA?

In the end, I think Carr ends up committing the very same mistake that he chides Google for:

Still, [Google’s] easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our
brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial
intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is
the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can
be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we
enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of
contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be
fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster
processor and a bigger hard drive.

Obviously the human brain isn’t just another machine. And since it’s not, Carr should know that the brain isn’t so easy to mess around with. I recently read that there are more potential neural pathways in the average brain than there are particles in the universe. Lots more.

The brain is so huge and amazing and enormously complex that it’s far, far off base to think that a few years of Internet media or the acquisition of a typewriter can fundamentally rewire it. Yes, its true that, our machines will have an impact on our lives, but that doesn’t mean that we’re just machines too.

Friday Column: Rewriting Motherhood: Why Career and Home Do Balance (at Least, for Me)

(Today we have a guest column from novelist Jennifer Epstein. Her first novel is The Painter from Shanghai, recently published by W.W. Norton.)

To say the last seven years have been eventful for me is to master the understatement. Over that span of time, I’ve had two daughters, completed my MFA in fiction, written several freelance pieces, perfected my forearmstand, and (just about) made it to the ten-year-mark in my marriage.

Oh, and I wrote a novel. A 400-plus-page historical epic set in China and Paris, at the cusp of World War II.

OK—I’ll admit it: I love the way saying that tends to floor the people around me (that is, unless they too are novelist moms—and several are). I love the fact that many seem to think it’s some Herculean feat; to write and mother at the same time (not to mention all that other stuff). I love it when they ask me—in semi-awed tones: “How on earth did you manage both?”

My response—accompanied by the prerequisite self-deprecating laugh—is usually something along the lines of “I’m not sure. But I lost half my brain cells in the process.” And this, actually, is true. In past months my maternal Alzheimers is striking worse than ever; I’m perpetually double-planning or entirely forgetting playdates; losing my credit cards only to find them (surprise!) in my wallet; losing entire days simply trying to catch up with the endless queue of unanswered emails.

But there’s something else that’s true, something that also surprises people when I tell them: that brain cell issue aside, writing a novel actually works really well with motherhood for me. At least, it did for the first one.

I’m aware that this assertion flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that  career and children just don’t mix. That whatever your career path, pregnancy will at best make it bumpy (no pun intended)—if not block it off altogether. One would think that in the arts, at least, expectations would be less dire; after all, most artists make their own schedule. But when I began The Painter from Shanghai this was not the consensus at my writing workshop.

It was Natalia—a loud blonde Pole, childless (of course) and thrice-divorced—who voiced what everyone was thinking: “Are you crazy? You’ll never be a writer now!”

I mumbled something to the effect that it would all work out in due (again, no pun intended) time. But as an argument this felt tepid—even to me. I’d been struggling with the idea of my book for a year already, daunted by my subject (a Chinese prostitute who became one of China’s pioneering post-Impressionists), unorganized and hesitant, unsure of my right to write the story. I had no idea at all how I’d bridge the chasm between the insecure writer I so clearly was at that moment, and the selfless mother everyone expected me to be.

What didn’t occur to me in those early, hungry days was that the demands of a newborn would both open up both hours and motivation for working I’d never considered (post-feeding, 5 a.m., for example); hours that I’d find my muse surprisingly present—despite being so exhausted I’d sometimes doze off at the keyboard. Writing, I also found, provided a perfect intellectual counterlife to the mind-numbing physicality of early motherhood: I was never more ready to dive into an opening paragraph then after singing “Wheels on the Bus” for two hours straight, and I was never more ready for Barney than after banging my brain against a page of dialogue that simply didn’t work.

Even the time constraints—counterintuitively—worked in my favor. Faced with such a dearth of free time that I spent a whole week crying over it (or perhaps that was just postnatal hormones), I developed a system of almost militaristic organization, working from five a.m. to nine a.m. every morning, while my husband (who, mercifully, has a director’s late-start to the day) fed, dressed and dandled Katie. I added on additional hours—or, sometimes minutes—while Katie napped. Which was often, as she was a lousy sleeper at night. It was a self-perpetuating cycle, and something that I—prizing writing time over Ferber-perfect sleep habits—did little to try to correct.

It didn’t all exactly work like clockwork. For one thing, Katie’s nap schedule was erratic, so I rarely knew my writing schedule throughout the day. I therefore had to be “on” all of the time.  In the years before motherhood this would have been unthinkable; like many writers I was a bit of a diva. I needed a certain mood to write, a certain set-up, a certain light to create.

As a mother, however, I couldn’t indulge in such luxuries. I carried my computer and my history texts with me in the stroller, and pulled into the nearest café whenever my daughter dropped off. Oftentimes, I ended up deleting everything I wrote. Oftentimes, indeed, it barely seemed written in English—which is perhaps not surprising, given my perpetual state of sleep-deprived psychosis, my deep immersion in Chinese literature and history . . . and of course the brain cell thing (did I mention that?).

But even these “failed” days didn’t bother me as much as they once might have. For as I watched my daughter grow and develop, in increments and in leaps, walking, falling, crying and walking again, I learned to take a longer view of my own work. And I had infinitely more patience for myself as a result.

A year after Katie’s birth I returned to Columbia. I had deep bags under my eyes and baby fat on my belly, but about a dozen very rough chapters of my novel. These  were received encouragingly by my mentors and classmates—even Natalia—and so I ploughed on. My second daughter was born in 2004; the book’s first, full draft in 2006. It was bought by W.W. Norton and nine other publishers, and was published in March of this year in the U.S. It has, to my delight, been received very favorably; Vogue calls it “sparkling,” the New York Times “vivid” and “luminous,” the South China Morning Post “refreshing” (all things that, to be sure, I certainly didn’t feel myself during the writing process).

These days life is easier; Katie is in school until three, her sister Hannah until noon, and we have enough money for some limited sitting. I’m getting much more sleep, and my prime working hours tend to be from the far more civilized hours of eleven to five. P.M., I should note.

That’s not to say maternal/writing balance isn’t still wobbly at time. Katie (now seven) did lambaste me recently for missing every field trip in her short school life to date. “You’re always writing,” she complained. “You act as though your computer is more important than me.”

But she also brought my novel in for show and tell, and announced to anyone who would listen: “My mom writes books.” And as she shepherded the glossy volume from hand to small, sticky hand, the look of sheer pride on her face was just about the best review that any writer—or mother—could ever hope for.

Friday Column: Manuel Puig and the Performance of Ourselves

It has been said repeatedly, and I think correctly, that in this heavily ironized, mediated era we are each method actors performing ourselves. That is, TV, movies, and other mass media surrounds us with role models for any conceivable identity we may want to inhabit, and our well-developed consumer economy offers us everything we need to wear and own to be the person we think we are. From an early age we are sent off on a search to find ourselves—because, after all, postmodern society makes each of us feel the center of the world—and on this lifelong quest we are provided us with all the equipment (both mental and material) that we will need to define our self and then perform it into being.

If this view of things is correct, if it is true that we are all method actors whose greatest role is being our self, then there can be no doubt as to the contemporary author we must read: Manuel Puig. Heavily influenced by the theories of Freud and Lacan, Puig writes as though each of his characters are actors in a movie. His books are all about people who construct their identities by playing roles, and via his plots he deconstructs the ways in which people discover who they are and then learn to act it out.


Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Puig’s clear masterpiece, is the book that most obviously reveals his preoccupation with how everyone is himself or herself an actor. It starts, after all, with the narration of a movie.

Two prisoners, one a homosexual window dresser and the other a young revolutionary, share a jail cell in early 1970s Argentina. To keep entertained during the long hours of their imprisonment, the window dresser, Molina, tells movies to Valentin, the revolutionary.

Already Puig has given us a lot to think about: here we have two people what have taken on atypical, ill-defined identities—if anyone needs roles to play, people such as Molina and Vanentin would be them. Furthermore, these two are talking about movies, a medium in which people pretend to be people who they aren’t; and, in fact, they are discussing the movie not as seen on the screen but as filtered through Molina’s mind.

All this, implicit in the first few pages, is quite a lot to unravel, but the wonderful, dizzying thing about Puig is the way he takes a perfectly intelligent conceit and then he keeps layering it up with levels and levels of meaning.

Take, for instance, the movie Molina is telling to Valentin. It is a fantasy/horror story about a woman who may or may not turn into a ravenous puma when a man kisses her on the lips. As Molina tells the movie to Valentin, the men begin to speculate as to why a woman would concoct such a tale; Valentin thinks it’s something she invented because she’s frigid, the product of a repressed upbringing that has frightened her about sex. After so many years of internalizing this fear, argues Valentin, she’s talked herself into acting the part of a person who believes she’ll turn into a puma if she’s kissed.

So then the very substance of the movie adds a layer to Puig’s conceit—and then another gets added in the form of Molina himself. Genetically a male, he’s a fem gay man who prefers to act the part of a woman, especially as regards to romantic relationships. Quite literally, Molina can be seen as an actor: a man acting the part of a woman to the best of his understanding of what a woman is.

That’s another layer now, but there’s still another, most obvious one: the format of the book itself. Kiss of the Spiderwoman is mostly narrated in unattributed, un-stylized dialog (Puig’s prose is littered with "mmm"s and ellipses). By foregrounding speech, Puig very simply emphasizes the fact that one of the principal ways we present ourselves to the outside world is in fact a very considered, very performed one. Speech, after all, is something we’re continually constructing, and it changes based on the location we’re in, the person to whom we’re speaking, the mood we’re in at the moment, etc.

And yet, though Puig is clearly taken with the idea that our personalities are performances based on who we think we are—that we’re all really actors—the paradox that drives this nuanced, brilliant inquiry is that we’re never quite sure exactly how to act out the personality we want to exhibit. Say you want to act the part of a cool person; well, what exactly does a cool person do? How should you act this out? It’s a hard question to answer because concepts like "cool" are so overdefined, so ponderous with aggregated meaning and conflicting definitions, that it’s hard to know exactly where to start performing them. Watch how quickly Valentin is stymied when Molina asks him what should be a very simple question: What makes a man?

—Well . . . Why don’t you tell me what it means to you, being a man? . . .

—Mmm . . . his not taking any crap . . . from anyone, not even the powers that be . . . But no, it’s more than that. Not taking any crap is one thing, but not the most important. What really makes a man is a lot more, it has to do with not humiliating someone else with an order, or a tip. Even more, it’s . . . not letting the person next to you feel degraded, feel bad.

—That sounds like a saint.

—No, it’s not as impossible as you think.

—I still don’t get you . . . explain a little more.

—I don’t know, I don’t quite know myself, right this minute. You’ve caught me off guard. I can’t seem to find the right words. . . .

This paradox is so intriguing because though Valentin can’t tell Molina precisely what the measure of a man is, he’s generally quite confident that he’s acting like a man.

Most of the time, at least. The crises of Molina’s and Valentin’s lives tend to occur when each is uncertain about how to perform his identity. Thus, for instance, when Valentin falls ill and Molina tries to take care of him, Valentin suddenly flies into a rage (a rage which is acutely felt despite the fact that Puig limits himself to conveying it through about 20 words spread out over a few lines of dialog) because he’s feeling a conflict between how he wants to act, i.e. to let Molina care for him, and how he thinks he needs to act, i.e. the stoic revolutionary.

Though Valentin is certainly a well-felt, fully realized character, Molina’s thoughts and personal crises tend to be richer, perhaps partly because Puig himself was a gay man, but more likely because Molina’s mind entertains more ambiguity than Valentin’s and thus opens itself to us more and wrestles with issues a little more poignantly. The difference becomes most clear when Puig momentarily steps out of the dialog to enter into his characters’ stream of consciousness (another favorite device of Puig’s). Valentin’s stream is abrasively jumpy, enough to prevent him from following a difficult thought to completion, and the way in which his mind constructs the narrative distances himself from his feelings and always leaves the truth of the matter in doubt:

—a fellow with a plan on his mind, a fellow who accepts his mother’s invitation to visit her in the city, a fellow who lies to his mother assuring her of his opposition to the guerilla movement, a fellow who dines by candlelight alone with his mother . . .

Contrast this with the rawness, the directness of Molina’s thoughts, as here when he’s stung by some well-intentioned but nonetheless hurtful remarks Valentin makes about a movie Molina likes:

seen from behind, looking elegant, but from behind of course no way to tell if the faces are beautiful or not, and no one realizing that these two are the protagonists of the story that’s just been told, and mom was crazy about it, and me too, and luckily I didn’t tell this son of a bitch [i.e., Valentin], and I’m certainly not going to tell him another word about anything I like, so he can’t laugh anymore about how soft I am, we’ll see if ever he weakens or not, but I won’t tell him any more of the films I like the most, tey’re just for me, in my mind’s eye, so no filthy words can touch them, this son of a bitch and his pissass of a revolution

What exactly is Kiss of the Spiderwoman inquiring into? The ways in which we construct our identities, for one thing, but also how exactly gender is created and the ways in which men and women interact according to its dictates. (The latter is, if anything, even more of a preoccupation with Puig than the ways we perform ourselves into our personalities.)

The two are clearly related. It’s often far easier to say what something isn’t than what it is, and accordingly, in Puig’s books characters are able to define themselves as men and women most distinctly when interacting with people of the opposite gender. Spiderwoman, like all of Puig’s books, can well be seen as people’s investigations into otherness, that is, people figuring out how to define themselves through extended conversation and interaction with other people who quite obviously aren’t them. Thus you can find odd pairings throughout Puig’s works: fem gay and red-blooded straight; old man and young man (Eternal Curse on the Reader of these Pages); Don Juan wannabe and earnest provincial; seductress and good daughter (the latter two groupings in Heartbreak Tango). Because of their differences, conflict between these characters becomes inevitable, and yet, though at root this conflict is based in the inner turmoil people feel when they strain to understand themselves, Puig always makes these conflicts the natural outgrowths of perfectly normal situations.

Friday Column: How Should the First-Person Be Written?

Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier seems to me to possess precisely those virtues to which the novel narrated in the first-person is best suited. Often in first-person novels, the narrator is magically able to relate her story with the polish and skill of a novelist, and no effort is ever made to address why an otherwise ordinary person possesses such sharp storytelling abilities. The Good Soldier strikes me as such an accomplishment because Ford does not only provide us with a narrator whose storytelling skills are realistically diminished; he also integrates the narrator’s diminished capacity into a portrayal of his character and an investigation into how the memory works and how we draw out memories by stringing them into stories.

A useful comparison: The Good Soldier very much brings to mind the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. As with Ishiguro’s novels, Ford’s proceeds along the winding, backtracking path of a mind mulling over a certain period of life. This kind of storytelling might be called disorganized organization; that is, in its purposeful aimlessness, it attempts to resemble the workings of a human mind as it gives shape to a mass of memories. As such, at many points in both authors’ works the entire basis of the plot changes as the narrator recalls a previously forgotten fact. We jump back and forth in time according to the narrator’s whim. Revelations that would generally sit at the apex of a climax are made here almost casually.

The difference, to me, between The Good Soldier and Ishiguro’s novels is that some of Ishiguro has seemed to me just a bit too clean. His novels are so well-built that one never feels the muddle of a mind trying to reconstruct the past; throughout, the skill of their maker continually belies the fact that the novel is not the product of a mind like ours, but rather that of a master storyteller who has marshaled all his skills to shape a story.

By contrast, The Good Soldier is often a frustrating, amorphous read. Major events and crucial plot points are shrugged at us so casually that it’s easy to miss them entirely. In the event that they are not missed, they often make such a meager impression that they are soon forgotten, or only half-remembered. Seemingly minor details are doted on to such an extent that one begins to lose faith in Ford—why does the narrator bore us with this matter of no significance?—and then, perhaps 50 pages later, we discover the true import of the event when the narrator happens to tell it from a completely different perspective.

This makes perfect sense. When the narrator discusses something, he is in possession of all the facts. He knows exactly what he’s referring to (even if we don’t), so why would it occur to him to spell it out for the benefit of his audience? Only a good storyteller would do that, and Ford’s narrator clearly isn’t one. What makes Ford such an extraordinary writer is that he provides us all the information we need without ever making his narrator seem anything more than the bumbling writer that he is.

In its apparent formlessness, the book loses the narrative drive that characterizes Ishiguro’s novels, and so, The Good Soldier is less of an entrancing read than Ishiguro’s addictive works. I think, though, that Ford’s novel is the superior one, in that he has hidden his construction so well that on a first read it truly does look as though he gave no thought to structure. By its very difficulty the book proves its merit, as attempting to understand another’s mind is never so easy and planned-out as Ishiguro’s novels make it feel.

What might save some of Ishiguro’s novels is that some minds are very simple; they see only in bright, clear tones, and so they might lack the complexity that a less simple mind would see as it looked back into its past. These minds, perhaps, would not be difficult to grasp, and the stories they concocted might be as clean as Ishiguro makes them.

This isn’t the case with The Good Soldier—which isn’t to say that I found the book’s narrator particularly smart or even praiseworthy. The narrator is a man who for nine years was cuckolded in complete ignorance by Ashburnham, a man he quite admired, and then, when he found out after Asburnham’s sudden death, went right on admiring him. The narrator is a man thoroughly aware of his own ignorance (although he attributes it more to a general, existential human ignorance of everything, rather than consider whether others are less ignorant than he in certain matters), and he is possessed by a clear and potent urge to overcome this ignorance, even though he doesn’t seem to really believe it’s possible.

In other words, he’s a lot like you and me; that is, he’s driven by an urge to understand his life, but he’s not really sure that there is any meaning to it. To make sense of it, he is writing down the story of two disastrously failed marriages, his and that of the man who made his wife a mistress.

Rarely does an unreliable narrator so invite us to question his judgment. Partially this is due to his overall tone; the cadences of the narrator’s sentences move with the seesawing vacillations of the wishy-washy and uninspiring, and he constantly cries out for meaning and explanation. But even more, it is hard to take seriously a man who speaks in such a steadfastly positive way about the man who for nine years slept with his wife, who seems so fundamentally innocent of why either partner would engage in the adultery.

We’re tipped off to the narrator’s supreme unreliability early enough on that The Good Soldier amounts to a virtual invitation to participate in the construction of meaning. It is, perhaps as a book like this must be, more documentation than storytelling, as the narrator’s rendition of events is so suspect and so jumbled (and his mind so besotted by his ignorance of everything) that we simply cannot say that the narrator is consciously shaping the meaning of the facts he gives us. What makes Ford’s rhetoric so elegant is that he is shaping our perceptions of each character (and often at cross-purposes with the narrator) while maintaining a narration that appears so purposelessly jumbled. It’s as if we were to listen to static coming out of the radio and nonetheless develop feelings typically associated with hearing music.

What you might say Ford is doing here is hiding the meaning in plain sight. The Good Soldier was published in 1913, and, unlike a lot of books published around this time, the prose style of this one isn’t terribly difficult or experimental. On the face of it, it seems like most close readers could more or less agree on the general shape of the narrative, what it’s rock-bottom "truth" is. But in reality, the closer you look at this book, the more even the most basic points of the plot begin to unravel in contradiction and ambiguity, and you begin to see that you’re no closer to knowing what really happened than if Ford had adopted a purposely opaque, indefinite style of constructing his sentences.

In this end, this may be Ford’s ultimate concession to his narrator. So riddled is he by innocence and self-deception that it simply wouldn’t be realistic to think that any story but a fundamentally unknowable one would come out of such a narrator. Ford’s courage as an author is to face this head-on and to write a book that requires a great deal of perception and faith on the part of the reader. As a result The Good Soldier is a book with affecting moments, but one that in the aggregate doesn’t have the ability that a more conventionally arced plot would to make us feel something; the feeling at the end isn’t anything but uncertainty and a desire to look back and begin to construct meaning. It’s a perfect acknowledgment of the narrator’s repeatedly professed helplessness to understand what this episode in his life means, and it’s a challenge to us to try and do better.

Although I’m far from arguing that all first-person narrators should be like The Good Soldier’s (exceptions that instantly come to mind would include those that are narrating an episode as it happens or those that are recounting an episode that they have gone over again and again in their minds (as in some Ishiguro)), I nonetheless think that a lot of first-person narratives needlessly shun the kind of difficulty that The Good Soldier thrives on. It’s not the easiest book to write or read, but it is honest to reality, and for writers who adopt the first-person that should be an important consideration.

Friday Column: When Is It Okay to Read About an Author’s Private Life?

I recently learned that, as a middle-aged man, the blind Borges would have young boys read books to him in his apartment in Buenos Aires. This is, apparently, how the man imbibed most of his literature after the blindness set in.


I learned this odd fact which reading the short memoir With Borges. Written by the somewhat well-known chronicler of reading, Alberto Manguel, who was actually one of the young boys who read to Borges, the book is a hodgepodge of anecdotes about the man and some of his friends.

I feel sort of bad for having enjoyed With Borges as much as I did. It’s not that much more than a peek into the private life of one of the strangest literary figures of the 20th century, and I tend to think that readers should have nothing to do with the private lives of authors.

It’s no exaggeration to say I like to keep authors at arm’s length. I have a healthy suspicion of the cult of celebrity (really, what half-intelligent American can feel otherwise, when we ask our celebrities to behave with such a lack of intelligence and dignity?), especially as applied to authors, one of the most un-celebrity-like groups of individuals I can think of. Moreover, though I wouldn’t go so far as to exclude all biographical information about an author from an interpretation of her works, I try to rely on as little of that info as possible. So when I read Manguel’s small tribute to a literary hero, I did so with a guilty face.

But now that I think about the book again, and about its singular subject, I’m beginning to think that I wasn’t quite so wrong in my enjoyment of With Borges.

It’s hard not to find Borges amusing . . . he was just so odd. Manguel recounts that he once promised a young boy that if he was good, Borges would then let him imagine a bear. Who else could you so easily picture saying that in complete sincerity? Another time, he attempted to console the Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo, who was devastated by the death of her dog, with some metaphysical posterings about how her dog was really just a reflection of the Platonic idea of the dog, which encompassed all the infinite possible dogs, etc, etc. . . . As Manguel tells it, Borges really thought this was going to be helpful.

Let’s pause on Ocampo for a second and her husband (Borges’s best friend) Adolfo Bioy Casares. One of With Borges’s merits is that it momentarily stops to fixate on these two individuals, and thus it has perhaps inspired some American readers to seek out the works of these authors. I’ve read both (NYRB publishes two novels from Bioy Casares in English, but I think Ocampo is only available in Spanish), and I’m disappointed that they haven’t caught on in the U.S. For a reading public that seems to adore Borges, these authors are no-brainers, as they’re the closest things to Borges himself that I’ve encountered. And, of course, since they three of them knew each other and operated in the same social and literary milieu, it’s not hard to see that reading them along with Borges deepens your understanding of that strange period of Latin American fiction.

Everyone knows that Borges never published a novel, but if he did it very well might have resembled the numerous, short novels of Bioy Casares. They capture the same feeling of the mystical brought down to the level of the prosaic that Borges did so well, and they utilize detective-style plots that are absolutely absorbing while managing to rise above mere gimmickry. They’re like little fables with realistic characters and modern situations. For her own part, Ocampo reads something like an extremely cynical Haruki Murakami. Her stories thrive on loneliness and isolation, and her narrators have the feel of Murakami’s people caught up in things beyond their understanding or power.

But to return to Manguel and Borges. At one point Manguel does what we would never had forgiven him for not doing; namely, he takes a look around Borges’s apartment and tells us what’s on the bookshelves. As I read Manguel’s description of was on the great man’s shelf, I begin to see why I was so interested in knowing about Borges the person and why it wasn’t all that frivolous.

(The contents of the shelves? You’ll have to read the book to find out, though I’ll mention here that among the obvious ones—Stevenson, Chesterton, Henry James, Kipling, and Wells—Manguel mentions Twain, Gibbon, Spengler, a beloved rare edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and Eca de Quieros.)

I found Borges’s shelves such a rare attraction because Borges wasn’t just one of the strangest, greatest writers of the 20th century, he was also one of its strangest, greatest readers. This is the man who classified himself first and foremost as a "reader"; his excessively particular, idiosyncratic tastes in books is impossible to disentangle from his equally particular style as an author.

Finding out about Borges the reader, then, was something of an odd inspiration. Seeing how seriously Borges took books, and finding out the details of how he collected and read them, I could only feel that my own reading was horribly substandard by comparison. His life incarnated reading in a way few have, and delving into it wasn’t so much voyeurism as a learning experience.

I remember well an anecdote about Nabokov, about how he used to test his students on Anna Karenina by asking them about the wallpaper in the room when Kitty is giving birth. This wasn’t some idle taunt against lazy undergrads—Nabokov really thought this was important—and the anecdote brought home to me just how closely the man read. He didn’t leave a single thing out, and the next time I was reading, you can bet I was paying attention to the wallpaper.

Knowing about Borges the man—that is, Borges the reader—gives me a similar appreciation for the fine art of reading, and inspires me to make my own as good. This isn’t necessarily something you’ll find in all literary biography—few biographers write about reading as well as Manguel does, and many subjects don’t exemplify the reader like Borges did—but I think Manguel’s With Borges is one that can claim this distinction. Perhaps some day I’ll take on Bioy Casares’s own gargantuan biography of his best friend and see if it too lives up to this standard.

Friday Column: The Root of All Sources

Just a short while ago I finished Gunter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum, a book whose Christ imagery is at points so unequivocal that it is apparent to even a Bible dolt such as myself. Though many of the Biblical references were far too obvious even for me to miss, I had my suspicions that many more were flying right by.

The Tin Drum brought to mind a thought that I find myself entertaining from time to time: I really should read the Bible. No, I haven’t suddenly gotten religious on you. Nor do I think it will be that great a read (many people have assured me of its general dullness). Quite simply, this is a matter of being a better reader of literature.

For better or for worse, the novel is a Western invention that has swept the world, and, to paraphrase Northrup Frye, the Bible is the foundational text of Western literature. It’s a good rule of thumb that the more familiar you are with the great books of the past, the more closely you’ll be able to read today, but in order to get to the root of the references built on top of references on top of references, you really need to star with the Bible. This isn’t just a matter of Biblical references being found everywhere in the great books; it’s a matter of knowing your sources, of knowing where they came from and what they originally meant. It’s about having a working familiarity with the ultimate fount of the Western literary tradition.

Take, for instance, that question many of us enjoy debating: Which books deserve to be in the Western literary canon? The word canon, of course, has a Biblical source, as in the books that have gained admittance to the Bible are canonical, while those that haven’t aren’t. (Although some Bibles list them in an Apocrypha section, which helps source another interesting word.) So we can’t even have a basic conversation about which books are the best of the best without referencing the Bible. And even before canon came to represent the books of the Bible, it referred to a collection of books approved for public reading. So when we’re talking about the literary canon we’re talking about a sort of meta-bible for Western society, a list of "approved" reading based on the work of its best writers.

See? It’s this fun?

Just thinking about where canon came from and what it actually means begs all kinds of interesting questions that I’m not going to try and get into right now; I’d rather just reiterate that the more I muddle through the Bible, the more I’ll trip myself up on interesting facts like that.

This is all good, but what about those two problems with reading the Bible: it’s long and it’s dull. Much as I love the encyclopedic works of authors like Pynchon and Gaddis (which many readers find both long and dull) I don’t think I have the stomach to read the Bible front to back. What else can I do?

Turns out there are wikis to help Biblical information become free. Thinking that perhaps I could pick up some passing information about the Bible I tried out the Bible Study Wiki, which is built around a question and answer format. It seems like a good idea gone awry. The popular questions, for instance, tended to leave me wanting:

Is masturbation a sin?
How many times does "amen" appear in the Bible?
Is sex before marriage a sin?

The site also has a list of unanswered questions, and although many of them seemed to deserve their fate, others were bristling with interesting thorns:

Why does God curse the serpent if it was only a form of the devil and not the animal itself?
What happened to the wives of Jesus’ disciples when the disciples left their families to follow Jesus?
Does God know if we will be saved or lost?

This was fun for a while, but the wikis eventually lost their juice, so then I had little choice but to confront The King James Bible Online. This is the Bible, broken down section by section to help make the task a little less daunting.

After a bit of the King James I decided that the indirect approach was working better, so I went to see which books incorporate the big book, but are hopefully a little shorter and a little less dull. You can read St. Augustine’s Confessions, and if you do you don’t only get bits and pieces of the Bible itself; you also get the man philosophically struggling through the difficult questions implied by the book itself. This, to me, is far more interesting than just reading the book straight-on.

Or you could try The Decameron, which isn’t terribly short but makes up for it by having roughly 2/3 or its 100 stories revolve around some kind of sexual encounter. This books sports references (and elaborate punning jokes) to not only Christian texts but also to those of the other two great religions to come out of Asia Minor. Of course, an annotated edition helps you spot them.

And then, once I had seen the Bible-study wikis and looked at Augustine and Boccaccio, what was left to do but read the Wikipedia entry on the Bible? Actually, it’s not one page but many: the Bible page links to pages and pages more full of fairly well-written articles about various parts of the Bible. You can easily content yourself for an hour or so dipping in and out of these articles, picking up some fairly useful information along the way. Did you know, for instance, that pre-dating the ten ethical commandments were ten ritual ones, admonishing humans away from such practices as cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk? (According to Wikipedia, this refers to a ritual of a competing sect.) You’ll also find some fairly interesting information about how the Bible was originally written and standardized, stuff that seems to have a fair amount of relevance for the so-called death of the author.

And there’s also just some plain fun stuff, like:

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word bible[4] is from Anglo-Latin biblia, traced from the same word through Medieval Latin and Late Latin, as used in the phrase biblia sacra ("holy book"—"In the Latin of the Middle Ages, the neuter plural for Biblia (gen. bibliorum) gradually came to be regarded as a feminine singular noun (biblia, gen. bibliae, in which singular form the word has passed into the languages of the Western world." [5]). This stemmed from the term (Greek: Ta biblia ta hagia, "the holy books"), which derived from biblion ("paper" or "scroll," the ordinary word for "book"), which was originally a diminutive of byblos ("Egyptian papyrus"), possibly so called from the name of the Phoenician port Byblos from which Egyptian papyrus was exported to Greece.

The scary thing about this stuff is that once you start learning it, you start seeing it everywhere: from movies to commercials to billboards to rap music to casual conversation. You see it so much that you begin to think that in a lot of cases it’s being used without the slightest realization of where it ultimately came from. That’s perhaps one measure for the ultimate success of any text.

Friday Column: Overcoming Your James Wood Habit

With the publication of James Wood’s new book in England, we can already see the beginnings of the coverage that will soon attend its publication over here. In other words, more attention for the one literary critic in America who actually gets attention.

To me this seems unfair. Yes, Wood rightly deserves some attention, but he certainly doesn’t deserve this de facto coronation as the only thing going. Moreover, focusing on one critic to the exclusion of others is contrary to the idea of literary criticism, which thrives on a polyphonic chorus of competing voices.

In that spirit, here are some critics that are still writing today that you can read as counterpoints to Wood.

William H. Gass—Recently The Guardian published an excerpt from Wood’s new book in which he rather momentarily brings Gass up, onto to then triumphantly dash aside Gass’s thoughts about the nature of fiction. Wood didn’t give the considerable thought behind Gass’s criticism the full respect it deserved, but he was right to say that Gass’s philosophy is strongly opposed to his own.

Readers of Wood could do much worse than opening their minds to the seven collections of criticism that Gass has given us. He shows the same love of minute textual analysis that Wood often exhibits, but he champions authors that Wood dismisses (Rabelais, Flann O’Brien, Gaddis among them). And although Gass is getting old, he still does publish an essay every now and again, often in the pages of Harper’s.


He has seven collections of criticism available, collecting essays from over 30 years of work. Start with Fiction and the Figures of Life, one of his best, which mainly collects essays first published in The New York Review of Books during that publication’s heyday.

Wyatt Mason—The lead literary critic for Harper’s, for some time now, Mason’s been giving us a solid essay almost every month in that magazine. He also publishes in other publications, notably The New Yorker and The London Review of Books. (See Wikipedia for links to his articles on the web.)

Here he is critiquing David Foster Wallace by creatively appropriating his style:

To those of you not disposed to taking Wallace at his word, do so for the sake of argument. Cede to him the right to his belief in his own goodwill. The trouble one faces, the trouble I face – having read the eight stories in Oblivion; having found some hard to read and, because they were hard and the hardness made me miss things, reread them; having reread them and seen how they work, how well they work, how tightly they withhold their working, hiding on high shelves the keys that unlock their treasures; having, in some measure, found those keys; and having, in the solitary place where one reads, found a bright array of sad and moving and funny and fascinating human objects of undeniable, unusual value – is the concern that these stories, the most interesting and serious and accomplished shorter fiction published in the past decade, exhibit a fundamental rhetorical failure.

Sven Birkerts—Longtime contributor to and now editor of Agni, Birkerts commonly publishes writing in that journal, usually in the form of an essay-like editor’s note. (See here for a full list of his contributions to that journal.) He also contributes the odd review or article to newspapers, although I haven’t seen his essays too much outside the pages of Agni.

Birkerts was an early fan of David Foster Wallace and generally champions him and similar writers that are trying to push the medium forward. As such, his voice makes a good reply to that of Wood. It’s this philosophy that he brings to the pages of Agni, expressed here in this editor’s note.


Among his collections of essays is his 1994 essay collection, The Gutenberg Elegies, a useful precursor to the current conversation over the fate of bound paper books in an electronic age.

Tom LeClair—By now Wood’s aversion to Don DeLillo needs no introduction. Tom LeClair is perhaps our best critic and explicator of DeLillo’s work. (See his In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel, among numerous essays and interviews.)

LeClair’s essay on Underworld in The Atlantic, in which he called that book "a masterwork to rank with Gravity’s Rainbow and JR," is a good reply to Wood’s own take on DeLillo’s magnum opus (as is this). He LeClair sums up more or less what DeLillo has been doing all this time:

Since 1971 and his first novel, Americana, DeLillo has taken sometimes blunt instruments to the age’s cultural excrescences: television in Americana, sports in End Zone (1972), rock music in Great Jones Street (1973), big science in Ratner’s Star (1976), and fascination with terrorism in many of his other novels. In Underworld, DeLillo gives his most profound subject — apocalypse — his most subtle treatment, using all the novelist’s devices to examine nuclear malaise and compose a narrative of its displacements. DeLillo awards readers a peace dividend — millennial hope.

LeClair was also an early champion of William T. Vollmann (exposing the world to his love of prostitutes and high-risk journalism in an early New York Times article).

If you can find them, LeClaire’s collections of interviews with authors and essays make for good reading. (Try getting them used on Amazon.) He occasionally contributes reviews to newspapers and Bookforum and essays to glossy mags like The Atlantic.

J.M. Coetzee—Obviously better-known as a novelist, Coetzee has established a strong body of exacting criticism (mostly in the pages of The New York Review of Books). His review/essays are notable for laying out the specific criteria upon which he will judge a book and then taking a book through them step by step. As one may expect from the careful, considered prose found in his novels, Coetzee is a conscientious critic, one who I imagine to be an extremely slow reader who doesn’t miss a thing.


There’s some hope that as Coetzee ages he’s taking on more and more the role of a critic. His first essay collection, 2002’s Stranger Shores, collected essays from between 1986 and 1999. Only five years later, the equally long Inner Workings brought us criticism from 2000 to 2005. One can hope this trend continues.

Coetzee’s criticism is international in range. He’s written well on a number of Europeans—Harry Mulisch and Cees Nooteboom among them—who have yet to receive much attention in the U.S.

And here’s some recommendations on some classic works of criticism that you might consider reading instead of picking up a copy of Wood’s new book:

The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne Booth

A Rhetoric of Irony, Wayne Booth

Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye

Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson

The Well-Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks

Friday Column: Prodigious Writers

To get us started, a couple familiar Frenchmen. Honore de Balzac wrote well over 100 novels and plays. The great majority of them went to his monumental cycle The Human Comedy. Emile Zola, no laggard is nonetheless diminished by comparison: he was only the author of 30-some books, although it undoubtedly would have been more if he hadn’t died of a carbon monoxide poisoning that many believe was an assassination. Similar to Balzac, the heft of his oeuvre consists in a cycle of novels—Les Rougon-Macquart (the name of a family) in this case, and there are 20 of them.

Georges Simenon, by my count, has everyone beat. He was the author hundreds of books, but of course they all weren’t literary; most Simenon aficionados will tell you that only about 100 of them carry that distinction. (NYRB is bravely bringing them into English.) In a good year he could write 30. He would beat out the thin books in a week, and if it took much longer he couldn’t stand to work any more. As he told The Paris Review (quoted in this Bookforum article):

On the eve of the first day I know what will happen in the first chapter. Then, day after day, chapter after chapter, I find what comes later. After I have started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day. Because it is a strain, I have to keep pace with the novel. . . . All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels. . . . And it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons my novels are so short; after eleven days I can’t—it’s impossible. I have to—it’s physical. I am too tired.

Everyone’s favorite prodigious writer, Joyce Carol Oates, is no Simenon. In fact, she’s not even a Balzac. She’s only published about 70 works, almost split evenly between novels and short story collections (with a few odds and ends tossed in). Give her some time, though. She’s not done yet, and at the clip she’s going she’ll give Balzac a run for his money.

Not always thought of as a prodigious writer, Graham Greene wrote 33 books; most of them novels, some of them autobiography, and a few of them travel narratives. On top of that he wrote 18 plays and screenplays. John Steinbeck wrote 31 novels. Philip Roth, in the high 20s, is closing in on that.

Argentine author Cesar Aira has written 63 novels and shows no signs of quitting. Like Simenon, Aira tends to write exclusively short novels (The Hare, one of three Aira books available in English, is one of his longest, at 223 pages), and they often follow the author’s flights of fancy, regardless of plot or context. In one book, a pregnant woman is murdered and the fetus is taken from her womb, carried throughout as a mascot named "the little gaucho." Another, How I Became a Nun (also available in English), begins with a daughter’s first taste of ice cream, which turns out to be laced with cyanide (this is based on an actual occurrence in Argentina) and tragi-comedically leads to the father accidentally killing the vendor. These flights, however, don’t mean that Aira’s books don’t come together, though. In the opinion of one essayist:

[Aira’s literary] versatility is possible only because at the heart of each Aira novel there is a marvelously ingenious storytelling device—a premise, central anecdote, or plot mechanism—which Aira exploits to the nth potential. He has a vertigo-inducing capacity to suggest a cornucopia of stories even while telling just one.

There are some up-and-comers among prodigious writers. Haruki Murakami has published some 15 novels and short story collections since 1980. That’s not counting his many translations, of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Paul Theroux, among others. He’s 58 now and he says he’ll write till he’s at least 80, and if that holds true then his complete output will need its own bookcase. He claims to write for 5 hours a day between 4:00 and 9:00 am, to have written every day for the past several years, to have completed his 500-page novel Kafka on the Shore in six months, and to pound out each of his numerous short stories in under a week.

This brings up a good question: What is the method of a prodigious author? Balzac worked intensely and may have sent himself to an early grave. He claimed to have once written for 45 hours out of 48. He would go to sleep at 6 in the afternoon, sleep to midnight, and then wake up for hours of work.

By contrast to Balzac, who was prodigious in spite of his mania for revising his novels, Aira claims not to edit his work at all. He believes in what he has called "the constant flight forward," a concept by which editing is tantamount to stepping backward. It’s a reckless, maybe even haphazard way of writing, but the results are hard to argue with.

But to return to the up-and-comers. Eric Chevillard has written 18 novels since 1987. He’s similar to Aira in that his writing is said to feel unedited. He takes an idea and wrings out perturbation after perturbation until he feels like he’s had enough, and then the book just stops, wherever.

William T. Vollmann has published 17 books since 1989. This is deceptive, though, since many of them close in on 1,000 pages, and one of his works is arguably 7 works (the complete set being 3,300 pages long). A repetitive stress injury and a stroke haven’t stopped Vollmann; nor have they appeared to have slowed him down, as he’s published a book each for 2008, 2007, and 2006.

Lydie Salvayre, whose novels are written as short, paranoiac, almost chaotic monologs, has published some 13 books since 1990, when, in her mid-40s, she launched into the literary world from a career as a psychiatrist. (Despite publishing 13 novels in 18 years, she still practices.)

Last we come to the Italian novelist Paola Capriolo, an award-winning author who is often identified as a major voice in the future of Italian fiction. Since 1988 she’s published more than 15 books. With their bending of space, time, and reality, they are often referred to as "fantastic," as in "somewhat unreal," but the author prefers the term "ambiguous." The are often praised as highly inventive and postmodern in the best sense of the word.

Balzac aside, prodigious writers contradict the idea of the author who labors day after day refining a novel until it is hewn just right; their output is so large that it’s hard not to get the impression that at least a few of their books are disposable. To close, I quote Murakami: "I’d say my readers are in a certain way addicted to my style of writing. They are loyal readers. That’s why I know that they will put up with reading my next novel, even if it’s just so-so. Although they probably wouldn’t buy my book if it’s really bad, I at least have confidence in myself that what I write won’t be that bad."

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