Explaining the Difficult-to-Explain

We’re serializing John Domini’s essay “Against the ‘Impossible to Explain’: The Postmodern Novel and Society” in two parts, the first of which has just been published at The Quarterly Conversation.

The essay brings in a number of books and essays, and it covers three particular works in depth: Aureole by Carole Maso, Zeroville Steve Erickson, and Michael Martone by Michael Martone by Michael Martone. It’s a lengthy piece that’s a little difficult to summarize, but essentially Domini is writing against criticism that throws its hands up in the face of “difficult” books. Part of the essay is him railing against such criticism, and part of it is him demonstrating precisely the better kind of criticism he’s asking for (with three excellent reads of the three main books being discussed here). It more or less jumps off from something Domini read in the NYTBR:

Another book I’m going to look at, Steve Erickson’s far-from-ordinary Zeroville (2007), enjoyed high-profile encomiums; the Times Book Review hailed it as the author’s “best.” Yet the Times reviewer, Liesl Schillinger, went on to say: “it’s simply impossible to explain the intent and direction of this . . . novel.” Oh really? And this from someone described as “a regular contributor” to the Review? A better brief example of the problem with contemporary criticism would be hard to find.

Have a look at the essay in full–I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. And remember that part 2 of the piece will be published in The Quarterly Conversation next week.


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Wow, that was a great piece by Mr. Domini. A must read for fans of serious fiction. I cant wait for the second part.

a really terrific piece…. very much looking forward to Part II..

one thought re: criticism: people who do film criticism tend to focus on commercial releases as well but i think they may be more conscious of that as a choice. If they’re spending their time on Crash, instead of In the Company of Men, for instance, what they end up saying may have more relevance, as they see it. People have seen the film, Hollywood has called it important: academics like this situation–like being able to say, Let’s take a closer look….

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