Category Archives: rhetoric of fiction

CR Readers’ Picks

Based on Amazon purchases made through links on this website, the following are the "picks" of Conversational Reading’s readers for 2008:

#1

By a large margin, The Invention of Morel was the most popular purchase among readers of this blog. Obviously, my sincere praise of this book helped move it along, but I’m convinced that not nearly as many copies would have been purchased if this wasn’t a great book, and if Borges wasn’t Bioy’s literary collaborator. A great read, and if you haven’t had a chance to yet, definitely pick it up.

#2

Not really a surprise, but something of an unusual pick is experimental British writer B.S. Johnson’s novel-in-a-box, The Unfortunates. Clearly, readers were drawn to this one for the atypical presentation (loose signatures collected in a box), although Johnson’s status as one of Britain’s most notable experimental authors of the late 20th century certainly didn’t hurt. For all you Johnson fans looking for more, be sure to check out Jonathan Coe’s excellent biography, Like a Fiery Elephant.

#3

2666. For quite obvious reasons.

#4

There’s a bit of a tie for fourth place with Senselessness, Television, and The Siege of Krishnapur, all excellent books. It’s a little interesting to see Television so high up, as it was published a couple years back and I’ve been talking more about two of Toussaint’s other books this year: Monsieur (re-issued this year) and Camera (published in English this year). But I won’t argue with your choice: I like them all, but I would put Television on top.

#5

A number of books tied for fifth place:

#6

And here are the rest that made a notable impression, saleswise:

How to Spot Mediocre Fiction

Matthew Cheney writes on what makes mediocre fiction mediocre:

And it is Gardner’s final point about the story as performance that is most important for distinguishing lifeless fiction from excellent fiction—mediocre stories are capable of creating a continuous (perhaps even occasionally vivid) dream in the reader’s mind; they can possess a philosophical impulse; they can deal with the expectations they set up. But they lack gusto and verve, chutzpah and charisma, fascination and savor. They are dead on the page and forgotten soon after they are read. While I find it easy to believe readers will experience Shawl’s stories in different ways—such is the case with any basically competent fiction—I cannot imagine how a reader who is sensitive to literature’s capabilities and possibilities could possibly say these stories offer much of a performance.

Over at his blog, he explains what brought on his exploration into the realm of the not too great:

So why [did I review the book]? Selfish reasons, mostly. I had wanted to begin to clarify some
ideas of what differentiates (for me, at least) competent/mediocre
fiction from fiction that is either obviously bad or that has elements
of greatness (or maybe not greatness, but something more than
competence). Filter House was the book at hand, and I was struggling with it in the same way I have struggled with countless stories I’ve read for Best American Fantasy,
countless novels I’ve looked at for reviewing, countless writings that
have made me wonder, since they lack obvious flaws, exactly what it is
that causes them to fall flat.

Last Year at Marienbad

Marienbad

The case of Last Year at Marienbad is interesting for any reader of Bioy’s The Invention of Morel; it is also worthwhile for anyone interested in the relationship between movies and books.

Alain Robbe-Grillet declared that his movie was inspired by Bioy’s novel, but it isn’t simply an adaption of Bioy’s work into a film. Upon viewing the film, there is clearly a lot of thematic, and even plot-based, overlap between the two, but each is also clearly independent from the other.

In this way, I think Robbe-Grillet made a movie "based on a novel" in the sense that Viktor Shklovsky would have wanted to see it happen. In his long essay/short book Literature and Cinematography, Shklovsky decries the many book-to-film adaptations already available in the 1920s as being simply the plot of the book rendered on the screen.

What Shklovsky would have preferred to see were movies that explored the cinema’s unique capabilities for telling a story; what he got was Dickens acted out and filmed, more or less faithfully following the text.

Last Year at Marienbad is a story that I think could only be told cinematically. In Robbe-Grillet’s juxtaposition of certain scenes and images (jumping back and forth to suggest relationships, without ever making it precisely clear what he is jumping between); in his voiceovers that seem to narrate events being depicted on-screen even as we wonder what is the exactly relationship between each, and who is talking to whom; in these devices and others, I think Robbe-Grillet has made something that could not precisely, or even grossly, be recreated in another medium.

This much we know: in both Bioy and Robbe-Grillet there is a man who dearly wants to communicate with a woman; in both he is doomed to fail, but, perhaps through his failures achieve a kind of communication that one might say is the best any of us could hope for when trying to communicate with another person. The circumstances of the book and film, however, are vastly different.

So too are their styles. Although Bioy’s novel is surreal and satisfyingly innovative, he tells us a more or less straightforward story through the frame of a journal. Robbe-Grillet gives us an agglomeration of images that are fundamentally impenetrable as a narrative; we can make guesses as to the story that might be told from what we see on the screen, but there is no way any viewer can claim to have found the definitive narrative in the movie.

In a strange sort of way, the two deepen the experience of each without closing off any avenues. In my experience, there are points of intersection between the book and the movie, images, devices, dialog that could conceivable work well in both. I found these intersections to be like aids that encouraged me to consider both the book and the movie in new ways. But never did I feel like one of these clues had closed off a reading that I had previously entertained.

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.

cover

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.

First-Person

From Dan Green’s review of Skunk: A Love Story:

One of the reasons I liked this book is precisely its skillful use of
first-person narration. I have more or less come to the conclusion that
the only way an otherwise conventional narrative (and Skunk
is, depite its unconventional subject and eccentric characters,
essentially a narrative-driven novel, without much in the way of purely
formal experimentation) can succeed, post-modernism and
post-postmodernism, is through first-person narrative. The third-person
central-consciousnes mode of narration (sometimes called the "free
indirect style"), which has become the default mode of storytelling,
providing us with both story and "pyschological realism," is now so
worn out and tepid, at least for me, that only first-person narratives
can poke through the narrative haze emitted by so many
indifferently-related stories to capture my attention in the first
place. Much can be done with first-person narrative, starting but not
ending with the manipulation of the reader’s trust in the story being
told.

Alain Robbe Grillet Ruined Your Fiction

I don’t quite agree with this post-mortem on Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The "new novel" or "nouveau roman," as Robbe-Grillet defined and explained it in his famous 1963 essay, was high art at its unpalatably highest. It applied rules and regulations, opposed subjectivity and tried to dissolve plot and character into description. The approach was perceived, he admitted, as "difficult to read, addressed only to specialists." The "art novel" became the preserve of high priests. Many novelists you’ve probably never heard of were deeply influenced by Robbe-Grillet. Even more damaging, though, was the effect his radicalization and elitism had on readers in the English-speaking world: They took a look at the future of the novel according to Robbe-Grillet and walked in the opposite direction.

First of all, creation under constraint has given rise to some wonderful art of all types (in fact, much of poetry follows "rules and regulations" as to form), so I’m not sure that method made novels worse.

Also, I don’t think novelists are as herd-like as Stephen Marche seems to think. Sure, lots of writers were influenced by Robbe-Grillet, but artists tend to be a pretty individualistic lot, so I think it’s rather simplistic to claim that the Frenchman gave the marching orders and it was either his way or the highway so far as avant-garde fiction goes. (Similarly, it’s kinda strange to opine that now that he’s dead a new generation of writers will feel free to experiment again.)

Marche goes on to claim the whole "resurgence" of realist fiction as due to Robbe-Grillet scaring the bejesus out of anyone who would write experimental fiction. The resurgence of realist fiction is a bit overstated. First off, you can argue that realist has never really been dethroned: Even in the wild and wooly ’60s and ’70s you didn’t have to look hard to find people critical of the "new" fiction.

But moreover, it wasn’t too long ago that we were touting the great commercial successes of such non-realist writers as DeLillo, Foster Wallace, and the whole flock of crazy folks McSweeney’s brought out of the woodwork. If non-realist fiction was really that whipped, would these guys be such literary forces? Sure, they’re not as experimental as you can get, but you’re fooling yourself if you think there was ever some experimental golden age when truly avant-garde lambs nestled with the lions of mainstream culture and everyone could attain market success, regardless of how they wrote.

I think Marche is on somewhat firmer ground when he claims that the prejudices of a critic like James Wood have to do with Robbe-Grillet’s exclusionary rhetoric, although I don’t think Wood is the literature’s greatest populist either. Yes, he’s championing a form that tends to have a broad appeal, but he’s also championing in-depth, challenging looks at fiction, which tends to exclude people.

I don’t think, as Marche seems to imply, that The New Yorker took on Wood as some sort of collusion with the Great Reaslist Forces conspiring against the avant-garde. I think it probably had more to do with The New Yorker needing to fill a hole and taking on a prominent, established critic, and with Wood wanting a change of venue from TNR. But besides, is it that surprising that The New Yorker, a magazine that purposely uses archaic British grammar, would take on a critic like Wood? Look to comparatively progressive publications, like Harper’s (and even the NYRB), and you’ll see critics giving non-realist fiction its due.

Friday Column: A Critical Experience

Over at Critical Mass, Molly McQuade has a nice idea. After a particularly tumultuous year for book reviewing, why not look back and see what we can say about the state of the art? Choosing Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero as her test case (because it’s a book that forced critics to react differently than usual), McQuade writes 4,000 words in a three-part essay (1, 2, 3) on what she sees.

It’s not good. McQuade almost immediately finds most critics too "incurious" to approach Divisidero correctly; that is, their preconceptions of what a novel is and should be short-circuited their potential appreciation of what Ondaatje’s might have been.

McQuade then links this lack of curiosity to another problem with newspaper reviews.

[Ondaatje’s] writing seems less likely to explain anything—including itself—than many another writer’s prose. The lack of explanation might tempt curiosity, invite curiosity, or beckon to the curious to “explain” it. In any case, opportunity lurks. And yet, most critics of his most recent book appear to stop short, limiting themselves by their own choice; namely, they either commit rapture or rebuke in their reviews. Although either rebuke or rapture can give me something interesting to read, by itself neither will lead me far enough. The reason is simple: either reaction excludes at least as much as it includes.

Though this point has been made before, it’s no slight to McQuade for making it again since it’s such a good one. (As a sidenote, it seems appropriate that our era’s best example of the hack reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, seems to be a favorite target for those critical of the "thumbs up/thumbs down" approach to book reviewing.). Further, McQuade is right to bring this up in her essay since a book like Divisadero is a good one to expose the fallacy of a review that solely seeks to say "good" or "bad." Divisadero, like all challenging works of fiction, can’t be reduced to one or the other; as McQuade finds, those who try to do so end up either in cliché or foolishness.

But if I find McQuade correct in her criticism of Divisadero’s critics, I can’t entirely agree with her prescription for them. Part of good criticism, McQuade says, is to become something akin to "a leading character in the very book [under review]," someone who can "tell the story of living in [a book] to somebody who hasn’t yet gone there to live."

Although I think a good critic does convey something of her experience of the book in a review, I think this is always secondary to explaining why a given piece either works or doesn’t. I’ll grant that telling the story of a book has some value, but aspiring to that feels to me too much like aspiring to write good catalog copy. I think reviewers should do more.

Book reviews are, of course, only the first line of critical response to a work, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good criticism. In my own reviews I always make it a point to dig down beneath the surface of my reaction to a piece of prose of any length (sentence, paragraph, book, etc) and make clear what I reacted to it as I did. I don’t think it’s idealistic to believe that this can be done in a newspaper review, and I believe that the more critics engage fiction on these terms, the better will their readers be able to think about and read the books under review. Further, if this kind of criticism is done well the experience of a book often comes included in the analysis. (One of James Wood’s strengths is just this; in much of his output Wood conveys the experience of a work while, in the very same words, he explains its rhetoric. In his best reviews, the two are inextricably bound up in each other, to remove one necessarily destroying the other.)

In actually getting below the surface of a novel is where a lot of critics fail. (At one point in her essay, McQuade rightly rails against the overuse of meaningless words like "breathtaking.") In fact, with regard to Divisidero, this is where even McQuade finds herself failing. Earlier in her essay, she writes:

Michael Ondaatje is a writer whose books I would much rather read than review. . . . In fact, I have never reviewed him, though I have often taught his work to undergraduates and graduate students, most recently this autumn. While I always savor the moment of entranced bemusement overtaking a typical new reader of his words, to explain the words themselves (or the bemusement) might seem peculiarly at odds with the consciously elusive sensibility of his writing. Better to write in his footsteps, perhaps, than to summarize, adjudicate, or analyze?

Based on this, I don’t think McQuade should be reviewing Michael Ondaatje’s works, and I give her credit for knowing this about herself and abstaining from critiquing his books via print.

However, I find very strange her idea that a novel can’t survive a critic’s attempts to analyze it. As if a work of art were so fragile a thing. A good reading of a work (be it negative or positive) has always enhanced my own thoughts on it, opening up new avenues of contemplation and encouraging me to return back to it. (Sometimes, it has even opened my eyes to works I haven’t read or unfairly dismissed.) I don’t believe that "to explain the words themselves (or the bemusement) might seem peculiarly at odds with the consciously elusive sensibility of [Ondaatje’s] writing" any more than I believe that to explain David Letterman’s relationship with irony makes his monologue less entertaining.

Oddly enough McQuade seems to end up finding her ideal critical reaction to Divisadero in the universal whipping boy otherwise known as Amazon reviews. (This may be the first ever instance of someone ostensibly from the establishment actually praising these things.) But the qualities McQuade highlights in Amazon reviews are hardly those I would want in a review:

The reviews of Divisadero—together with the ratings of those very reviews by Amazon readers—offer a curiously complete and unguarded range of opinion. Does something in Ondaatje’s writing lead silent solo readers to log on, and open their mouths? What is that certain something in his writing?

My guess is, the structurally maverick and unexpectedly poetic qualities of his prose tend to inspire conflicting opinions that feel no obligation to resolve themselves. The debate may continue, and continue. To me, this seems a rare pleasure. . . .

Another pleasure of Amazon book reviews is, they save you time. You can read the review headlines, skipping the reviews themselves. The lords and masters of Amazonia seem to anticipate and enable this move. For, unlike newspaper headlines, which can sometimes stray wide of making any point, Amazon scribes and their editors are straightforward: the review headline gives you an opinion more or less identical to that of the review itself.

I don’t think of book reviewing as an aggregation, and I certainly don’t imagine it as skipping from headline to headline. (If anything, the latter would represent a nadir that we may be heading toward.) In other words, I don’t think book reviewing is work by committee; I don’t, Rotten Tomatoes-style, tally up the positives and the negatives and establish a consensus that tells me what’s worth reading.

If anything, I look for that one review that gets so deep into my head that after I read it I’m not willing to listen to anything else until I’ve read the book under review. The reviews that don’t do this for me tend to wash right off.

And for me, what best gets my attention is when I see that a book is working in new and interesting ways. The most effusive praise in the world scarcely makes a pinprick impact on me. (The only exception to this would be the effusive praise of a reader who I know and trust to be someone whose recommendations I can have confidence in.) I want to see the book working, and if that excites my curiosity then chances are I’ll hunt down a copy of that book at some point. If not, then a review might as well have been a negative one.

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