On Off-Base Reviews

Steve Mitchelmore has a response to my response to Eliot Weinberger’s review of What Ever Happened to Modernism. It’s worth taking a look at.

Another odd review, which I’ve just discovered, was Scott Sherman’s response to Geoff Dyer’s body of work in The Nation, occasioned by the publication of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition a few months ago.

This gloss on Out of Sheer Rage tells me that Sherman doesn’t get Dyer:

What explains Out of Sheer Rage’s cult popularity? Surely there are finer books on procrastination and the hazards of the literary enterprise. (See Martin Amis’s The Information or Jonathan Raban’s For Love and Money.) When Out of Sheer Rage was published, memoirs were in vogue: a first-person account of “wrestling with D.H. Lawrence” may have appealed to highbrow sensibilities bored by run-of-the-mill accounts (real or invented) of incest, divorce, substance abuse and alcoholism. The author holds little back: the book contains too much Dyer and not enough Lawrence. We learn about Dyer’s athlete’s foot, his bad knee, his aching back and his eczema; his deep desire to live in San Francisco and his disgust for the residents of Oxford; and his in-flight sexual fantasies (“Often in planes I find myself thinking of having sex with the flight attendant: pushing my hand up between her legs as she walks past, fucking in the toilet: standard in-flight porno stuff”). In such passages the slacker becomes a buffoon.

In reality, the entire book is about Lawrence, just not in a way Sherman seems to understand. Dyer isn’t out to write literary criticism as one might in a book review, where the critic’s relationship to the text is obvious and clear. He’s doing something more along the lines of responding to Lawrence by enacting his understanding of Lawrence; hence so many bits “about Dyer” and so little of what would generally be construed as literary criticism.

This is something that many great writers/critics have done; the ones that come to mind immediately are Enrique Vila-Matas, Harold Bloom (in certain of his books), Roland Barthes, Jonathan Raban, David Foster Wallace, William Empson, Borges. I don’t think it’s too much to say that the reason they’ve survived and have been hugely influential is that they don’t write criticism in anything resembling an academic manner.

That Sherman doesn’t really get Dyer’s method is made clear in the introduction to the piece:

Dyer knows that he has managed a rare feat on Grub Street: in an age of academic specialization and journalistic decay, he has earned a living by the poise and productivity of his pen. “As I grew older I came increasingly to feel that my working life should be virtually synonymous with living my life as I wanted, irrespective of whether I was doing any work,” he declared in the introduction to his 1999 essay collection Anglo-English Attitudes. “Effectively, as my American publisher put it, I had found a way of being paid for leading my life. I liked that a lot, naturally.” But freedom entails risks; one wonders if Dyer—whose literary persona is an uneasy synthesis of idler and intellectual—has ranged too widely and written too much. Of his dozen books, only one is first-rate; a handful of the rest are worthy of the bookshelf. Dyer is extremely gifted, but he is also a writer in search of his ideal subject. It is not Geoff Dyer, contrary to what Dyer might think.

Essentially: Congratulations, Dyer, on succeeding in writing without becoming an academic. Now become an academic!

Of course, finding an “ideal subject” would be as poisonous as anything could be to a writer like Dyer, who seems to write on a subject for the purpose of exorcising it from his consciousness, so that he can then move on to the next subject. Moreover, this is not necessary. If you read Dyer’s work (as Sherman seems to have done) you will notice that there’s a common thread, a kind of performance of identity/criticism most frequently achieved through the process of riffing and digression. This is Dyer’s “ideal subject,” and I’m glad that I see no reason why he would take the advice of the likes of Sherman and abandon it.



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Bravo, Scott. I’d ad only that Mitchelmore ignores that the point of Out of Sheer Rage is that it’s about Lawrence’s letters, not his novels or his poetry, and the embodiment of the book is the embodiment of the version of Lawrence that comes through in his letters — fretful, raw, unsculpted, true. Dyer notes this very bluntly in the book in one spot, where he reminds the careful reader (i.e. not frustrated critics, reduced to skimming) that his own book approaches the condition of notes because, according to his view, Lawrence was most interesting, when his own work did the same — in his letters.

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