December 14, 2009
“You must push your head through the wall. It is not difficult to penetrate it, for it is made of thin paper. But what is difficult is not to let yourself be deceived by the fact that there is already an extremely deceptive painting on the wall showing you pushing your head through. It tempts you to say: ‘Am I not pushing through it all the time?’”
November 28, 2009
"Therefore, comrade, you will hold as enemies – loftily, lucidly, consistently – not only sadistic governors and greedy bankers, not only prefects who torture and colonists who flog, not only corrupt, check-licking politicians and subservient judges, but likewise and for the same reason, venomous journalists, goitrous academics, wreathed in dollars and stupidity, ethnographers who go in for metaphysics, presumptuous Belgian theologians, chattering intellectuals born stinking out of the thigh of Nietzsche, the paternalists, the embracers, the corrupters, the back-slappers, the lovers of exoticism, the dividers, the agrarian sociologists, the hoodwinkers, the hoaxers, the hot-air artists, the humbugs, and in general, all those who, performing their functions in the sordid division of labor for the defense of Western bourgeois society, try in diverse ways and by infamous diversions to split up the forces of Progress – even if it means denying the very possibility of Progress – all of them tools of capitalism, all of them, openly or secretly, supporters of plundering colonialism, all of them responsible, all hateful, all slave-traders, all henceforth answerable for the violence of revolutionary action.
And sweep out all the obscurers, all the inventors of subterfuges, the charlatans and tricksters, the dealers in gobbledygook. And do not seek to know whether personally these gentlemen are in good or bad faith, whether personally they have good or bad intentions. Whether personally – that is, in the private conscience of Peter or Paul – they are or are not colonialists, because the essential thing is that their highly problematical subjective good faith is entirely irrelevant to the objective social implications of the evil work they perform as watchdogs of colonialism."
November 15, 2009
Why do you think that they all love you? And what do you think they would love about you? What are you? There's no charm in you, there's nothing graceful, nothing that yields. You're simply a relentless, unbearable fanatic. Yes, the commando who crawls all night through the mud is much less of a fanatic than you. Look at yourself. Look. You walk so stiffly in your kitchen each morning, you approach your cupboard. You open it, and reach for the coffee, the coffee you expect to find on its shelf. And it has to be there. And if one morning it isn't there — oh, the hysteria! — the entire world will have to pay! At the very thought of the unexpected, the unexpected deprivation, you begin to twitch, to panic, to pant. The shortness of breath! Listen to your voice on the telephone, listen to the tone that comes into your voice when you talk to one of your very close friends and you talk about your life and you use those expressions — 'what I need to live on . . .' — 'the amount I need . . .' — solemn, quiet, no histrionics — the tone of hysteria, the tone of the fanatic — well, yes — of course — it makes sense. You understand your situation. Without a place to live, without clothes, without money, you would be like them, you would be them, you would be what they are — you would be the homeless, you would be the comfortless. So of course, you know it, you will do anything. There are no limits to what you will do. Without the money, your face would become the face of a rat, your hands would be paws — sharp, nimble, ready to scratch, ready to tear."
(from his play, The Fever)
November 5, 2009
Back in January 2009 I wrote the following in a post called, “Gutless Realism: James Wood’s Housebroken Bolaño,” about the ideological intentions (i.e., myth making) behind James Wood’s review of Savage Detectives:
We’ve seen how Wood, in his review of Death with Interruptions, turned the long-time communist Saramago into an advocate of Original Sin and ‘fallen’ human nature. It’s in a similar spirit that Wood transforms The Savage Detectives into a story about growing into an adult ‘maturity’ after being disabused of adolescent enthusiasms such as aesthetic and political radicalism. Bolaño in the 1970s was “an avant-garde poet bristling with mad agendas,” and so are the characters who make up the narrative’s “gang of literary guerillas,” says Wood in his summary of the novel. Yet Savage Detectives, he goes on to affirm, “is both melancholy and fortifying; and it is both narrowly about poetry and broadly about the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth.” In other words, zany antics involving things like avant-garde agendas and guerilla gangs are fine as long as they are seen (or can be portrayed) as properly childish preoccupations; a book is “good” and merits a positive review to the extent that its pretty sentences are “about” the putting away of childish things. Wood, you see, likes a book with a healthy “message” – it needs to be “about” something that will keep children and servants in line with middle-class morality. And if the book is not really “about” that at all, then like any good media pundit he will spin it, cherry-picking the two or three examples that might best support his thesis. Here’s one: “A painter, interviewed in Mexico City in 1981, says that Belano and Lima weren't revolutionaries: ‘They weren't writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don't think they were poets either’.” See how this works? Here are a few more:
An Israeli friend of Ulises Lima's says that the importance of the poets' lives had nothing to do with visceral realism: "It has to do with life, with what we lose without knowing it and what we can regain." He continues, and says that what we have lost we can regain, "we can get it back intact." Can we? Minutes after delivering this wisdom this same man dies in a car accident. A Mexican academic, interviewed late in the novel, says that hardly anyone remembers the visceral realists anymore. Many are dead. Lima, he says, is living in Mexico City. "About Arturo Belano," he says, "I know nothing." This is finally how the novel makes good on its playful, postmodern impulses.
I love that last touch – a novel with “playful, postmodern impulses” is OK as long as it ends in sackcloth and ashes (i.e., “realism,” but not of the visceral variety). Reading Wood’s review, in fact, you would actually think that Savage Detectives was a book about apostasy. Wood even includes, apropos of very little, a quote from that arch-apostate Wordsworth: “We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” Superficially the quotation is supposed to apply to the sad fates of Belano, Lima and their cronies in the novel, but Wood is completely aware of its full resonance and has no doubt chosen it with that in mind. Bolaño and Wordsworth – it’s hard to think of a less suitable literary association; it tells us little about Bolaño’s sensibility or the book’s, although it speaks volumes about the reviewer.
Now, let’s turn to some excerpts from Horacio Castellanos Moya’s article, “Bolaño Inc.”, published in the latest issue of Guernica. It is written as a personal amplification of some points made in Sarah Pollack’s “Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in the United States,” in a recent issue of Comparative Literature.
The market has its landlords, like everything on this infected planet, and it’s the landlords of the market who decide the mambo that you dance, whether it’s selling cheap condoms or Latin American novels in the U.S. I say this because the central idea of Pollack’s work is that behind the construction of the Bolaño myth was not only a publisher’s marketing operation but also a redefinition of the image of Latin American culture and literature that the North American cultural establishment is now selling to the public.
The key idea is that for thirty years, the work of García Márquez, with its magical realism, represented Latin American literature in the imagination of the North American reader. But since everything tarnishes and ends up losing its luster, the cultural establishment eventually went looking for something new. It sounded out the guys in the literary groups called McOndo and Crack, but they didn’t fit the enterprise—above all, as Sarah Pollack explains, it was very difficult to sell the North American reader on the world of iPods and Nazi spy novels as the new image of Latin America and its literature. Then Bolaño appeared with his The Savage Detectives and his visceral realism.
The stories and the brief novels of Bolaño were being published in the United States very carefully and tenaciously by New Directions, a very prestigious independent publisher with a modest distribution, when all of a sudden, in the middle of negotiations for The Savage Detectives, appeared, like a bolt from the blue, the powerful hand of the landlords of fortune, who decided that this excellent novel was the work chosen to be the next big thing, the new One Hundred Years of Solitude, if you will. And it was written, what’s more, by an author who had died a little earlier, which facilitated the process of organizing the operation.
The novelty for the American reader is that he will come away with two complementary messages that appeal to his sensibility and expectations: on one side the novel evokes the “youthful idealism” that leads to rebellion and adventure. But on the other side, it can be read as a morality tale, in the sense that “it is very good to be a brazen rebel at sixteen years old, but if a person doesn’t grow and change into an adult person, serious and established, the consequences can be tragic and pathetic,” as in the case of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. Sarah Pollack concludes: “It is as if Bolaño were confirming what U.S. cultural norms tout as truth.”
In other words, James Wood, as a functionary for the landlords of fortune in the publishing industry, was just serving his myth-making and marketing role in “confirming what U.S. cultural norms tout as truth.”
What I been sayin’ all along.
October 23, 2009
September 29, 2009
Recently a literary blog or site or whatever calling itself The Millions posted for the edification and entertainment of its readers a list of “The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far).” The judging-process was set up along American Idol lines – a panel of literary Simon Cowells and Paula Abduls coupled with a poll of the faceless audience, culled from Facebook.
The resulting lists generated the type of discussion that you would expect: expressions of pleasure over the presence of favorite titles along with much quibbling about who was left off – behavior which, essentially, reproduces the work of the list itself, “playing along” even where the participant has differences over this or that selection.
Therefore I was happy when at least one litblog commentator, Andrew Seal, sounded like he was going to go beyond mere participation in the spectacle. As he wrote in a September 25 post:
“The inclusions and placements of the list are not really worth quibbling about, and itemizing the good books that were left off is about as easy as falling off a log. I'm not really interested in specifics, because there's a much bigger issue which the list raises—”
Ah, I thought, now we’re getting somewhere! He continues:
“—if ordered lists like this must exist, to whom should we be listening to fill them?”
Oh. A critique of the make-up of the celebrity-judges panel, in Andrew’s view too heavily skewed to young and US-based creative writers, with not enough critics, editors, and academics, so that perhaps the panel was too narrow or not expert enough. He may or may not be right on that score, but we haven’t gotten to any “much bigger issues” yet if we’ve just moved from quibbling about the selection of books to quibbling about the selection of judges. That’s playing the same game at one remove, when what we need to do to get to “bigger issues” is to examine the game itself.
For starters, let’s not neglect the way that the list itself – and in fact the whole game of this and other literary lists – was “pre-judged” to begin with, and by an even bigger and more influential arbiter of taste and culture than writers, critics, editors, and academics: corporate sales and publicity departments.
Publishing is currently dominated by the “Big Six” media corporations: the Random House Group (owned by the Bertelsmann corporation), Simon & Schuster (owned by ViaCom), HarperCollins Harcourt (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation), the Penguin Group (Pearson), Macmillan (Holtzbrinck), and the Time-Warner Book Group. The readers polled by The Millions – whether the “pros” of the first panel or the Common Readers of the second panel – are making their judgments based on an array that has already been selected and set before them, largely by this corporate monopoly.
How largely? The Millions’ lists pretty much reflect the market share. Of the 30 titles represented on the two lists (20 titles in each list, with 10 overlapping), 27 are published by imprints belonging to 5 of the Big Six conglomerates, leaving a whopping 3 titles published by “independent” houses. In other words about 90% of the titles come from the corporate majors. That’s interesting, isn’t it? And here I thought the list was supposed to reflect “quality” and “taste”! If Andrew Seal is disturbed by the fact that 70% of the judges are young U.S.-based creative writers, what kind of response does this 90% figure merit?
Of the 27 corporate offerings, Random House/Bertelsmann wins big with 14 titles – almost half the list – and runner-up goes to Macmillan/Holtzbrinck, with 8. Penguin/Pearson comes in third with 3 titles, while Simon & Schuster/ViaCom and HarperCollins Harcourt/News Corporation get 1 each. The independent presses are represented by Bloomsbury (Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell), Soft Skull (Lynne Tillman’s American Genius), and Small Beer Press (Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen).
Of course the picture is a little more nuanced than this. On the indie side, Bloomsbury can hardly be considered a plucky, against-the-odds upstart – they’re the fifth largest house in the UK, having made a dime or two over some boy-magician franchise. On the corporate side, Farrar Straus & Giroux, while now owned by Macmillan, still has a lot of indie street cred, as does the author of the FSG title on the list, Lydia Davis. And while Sebald’s Austerlitz and Bolano’s 2666 are both published by imprints belonging to majors (Random House and Macmillan), the works of these authors first had to “make their way” in the independents (New Directions) before being sharked up by the bigger fish.
Someone might even argue that this proves that “quality” can still win through in today’s corporate publishing environment, that the sales and publicity departments sometimes respond to genuine demand, that the “bottom line” doesn’t rule everything, etc. After all, Random House is hardly publishing Sebald because he’s performing like Dan Brown. In other words we can still separate questions of quality and the making of discrete literary judgments from a general critique of “literature” as an institution (so that we can all safely go back to being consumers and spectators).
But as far as Random House is concerned, Sebald is just the other side of the Dan Brown coin. The type of commodity the majors produce still relies (although less so than in previous decades) on a varnish of “literariness,” and having a Sebald or a Bolano on the list serves, for this season at least, as the incidental guarantor. Nobody is making the argument that the books on The Millions’ lists and the millions of lists like them are “really all just crap.” Rather, the genuinely good or interesting or significant books that make their fitful appearance alongside the middling mediocrities by McEwan, Lethem, Eugenides, Russo et al. are there in a way that is tokenistic and totemistic. As totems they vicariously impart their aura of quality and seriousness to the larger pool of mediocrities and hence to the field as a whole (ah, literature! The “higher things!” Or as James Wood would ejaculate, “the soul!”), and what the publishers might sacrifice in profit they gain back in cachet, an ostensible “relevance,” and credibility with the high end of their audience. As tokens, however, such titles relieve publishers of the costly burden of being actually in the business of bringing readers quality fiction in any but this most limited way. Bolano now “stands for” Latin American Literature, and if a few further interesting Latin American authors make it into translation and out of the independents into the majors for the next five years it will be on the strength of “If you liked Savage Detectives, you’ll LOVE _______!!!” Similarly, W.G. Sebald “stands for” a kind of overcast Mittel-European “high seriousness” and fills a Survivor Porn niche, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grabs the Nigerian-of-the-Decade baton from Ben Okri, and so on. Austerlitz and 2666 are good books brought to us in a way that sucks the oxygen out of the type of atmosphere in which good books might be much more broadly produced, understood, and enjoyed. To come up with Best Books lists in this environment is little more than an exercise in pecking the least maggoty bits from carrion.
But the listing and ranking game goes on – and on and on – as if all sectors of society were afflicted with a kind of mass obsessive-compulsive disorder or species of autism. “If ordered lists like this must exist,” stipulates Andrew Seal – but why must they? Why should we submit to such fatalism? Where do these lists come from, whom do they benefit, and what ultimate ideological function do they serve?
Back in January I addressed this topic in a post called “The Best-Dressed Books of 2008,” and I’ll stand by what I wrote there:
The end of the old year and the beginning of the new one – yes, it’s the season of those tiresome, compulsory Best of! and Top Ten! lists, including, alas, ‘literary’ lists. These bullet-point bonanzas are the expression of a marketing sensibility, which means that book-lists bear the same relationship to literature as a Hallmark Valentine does to love. Yet participation in this annual ritual serves to reinforce certain ideological practices that are crucial to the reproduction of the current culture. Here – for your post-holiday pleasure – are the top five ideological practices these lists reinforce:
· the fashion-system (obsession with small differences in the context of a large but unremarked sameness; the importance of being “up-to-date,” of knowing what the “trends” tell us about our irresistibly fascinating selves, etc.)
· the star-system (which items are common to most lists? which item will “win”?)
· the construction of a social and personal identity as the sum of market choices
· manifest populism (anyone can do it – it’s fun! Who’s on your list?)
· latent elitism (the last word goes to the cultural arbiters)
There’s a spectrum, however, and some types of lists are more honest about functioning in the above terms (Best Dressed/Worst Dressed, for example) while others are more dishonest about it (Best Books lists). Generally, the higher up the scale of cultural “quality,” the greater the dishonesty.
With that in mind, here’s the winner of the “The Best Fiction of the New Millennium (So Far).” Look, you can see your own reflection on the shiny surface!
So. If some of the most interesting writing I've read has been in a blog, or a pdf, or a webcomic, or just in emails, I can't mention it - it has to be writing that been legitimised by a book deal. Also, if I've read someone brilliant in a language other than English - someone who hasn't happened to sell English-language rights - I can't mention that either. So I can't use this to give interesting writers a better chance of attracting notice and getting an English-language book deal, I just have to endorse the status quo.
Well, let's say I play the game and I just pick 5 novels published in English since 2000; I might still think this was a chance to draw attention to undeservedly neglected writers. Fact is, it can't work that way.
The only writers who stand any chance of making it into the top 20 are going to be writers a significant number of other contributors have also noticed - which means they are wildly unlikely to come from the undeservedly neglected. They will come from the pool of writers who got promoted, who won acclaim, in other words from the much smaller pool of writers many of us have happened to hear of.
A good example of American publishing arrogance is what Scott Moyers said about W. G. Sebald on a “buzz panel” a few years back. I wrote about this at the time but his comment about how Sebald had been “getting his name out there a bit” thanks to New Directions, but that it was Random House’s publication of Austerlitz that put the “stamp of authority” on Sebald as one of Europe’s great writers still makes me vomit in my mouth a little bit.
Yeah, I know the feeling.
 And to produce such an atmosphere, such oxygen? A necessary basis would be a more equitable and democratic mode of producing and distributing society’s resources (including in the fields of cultural production). And as its corollary: a system of education that aims to do something more and other than transform a third of the population into professional-managerial bureaucrats, a third into service-sector wage slaves, and a third into prisoners.
September 15, 2009
I realize I’ve been remiss – here James Wood’s How Fiction Works has been out in paperback for weeks now and I haven’t posted anything to mark the occasion! And it reminds me of my remissness on another score: that here amid all the piss-taking I’ve never really offered a positive example of what genuine, serious literary criticism “at the present time” should be.
Fortunately I find that I’m able to kill both those carrion at one throw and get back to the other much more important and interesting things that have been occupying me lately. I’m reposting, in full, the splendid September 14 offering at Fafblog. I just found out about this blog (thanks, comrade Augustine), don’t know anything about the blogger, and doubt that the post was written as any kind of direct response to Wood, but I immediately recognized how well it works as a review of How Fiction Works, and in fact of Joseph O’Neill’s Nitherland or Netherparts or whatever it was and Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and for that matter just about any work of contemporary “literary fiction” as well as pretty much all the “criticism” and reviews you’ll read in venues like New Yorker, The New Republic, Entertainment Weekly, Etcetera, Ad Nauseam …
We need less like that, and more like this:
"Once upon a time there was a fafnir and a giblets, and their names were Fafnir and Giblets," says me.
July 3, 2009
iii) LitFic Praetorians
Every new mess mainstream politics and culture gets us into should be its last, but never understimate its staying power. It's an ironclad, and the burgeoning econopocalypse, despite causing a little wobble here and there, is not yet putting paid to it. For the novel, this will be illustrated by a declaration of war by the lions of good taste against those sceptical of its claims to investigate the contours of The Human Condition (tm), or some such.
Unlike much previous soi disant Literary Fiction, the LitFic Praetorians will understand i) that they are a genre among many, ii) that their esteemed position is under attack. And they will decide to take the fight to the enemy.
Accordingly, this movement will continue to privilege those aspects of fiction that have come, for some, to be the sine qua non of literature itself -- a celebration of 'interiority' and a particular propagandist conception of 'character'; a prose that claims to be 'spare' and 'precise'; a striving for a horizon of metaphor to perfectly express some 'human truth' in terms of a more concrete thing (crockery, paint, a particular animal, a meteorological condition, etc, preferably referred to in the book's title); a dynamic of artful recognition; and so on. However, unlike its less self-conscious predecessors, it will do so overtly, courageously taking the battle to exteriority, militancy, estrangement and alienation, and aggressively foregrounding its concerns on such seemingly unfriendly literary turf.
Thus, for example, the redemptive power of art will be affirmed in the bloody imperial rubble of Iraq; musings on the melancholy of age and the rediscovery of life-affirmation in the arms of somewhat younger women will unfold before a backdrop of polemical dream-logic; and poignant stories of family betrayal and infidelity among academics will be set during alien invasions.
Influences include all winners of the Booker prize, particularly Ian McEwan, particularly his book -- claimed by the school as its foundational text -- Saturday.
What to say: 'Great literature transcends everyday concerns.'
What not to say: '"Literary Fiction" is a marketing category.
From Mieville's guest-blog post at Omnivoracious, "Neither a Contract nor a Promise: Five Movements to Watch Out For," which he offers as "a few modest proposals . . . to fulfil the moment's cultural needs."
Via Kick Him, Honey
March 31, 2009
Since I don't want Wood's defenders to have any easy targets, however, I wanted to correct what I think are a few mistaken assumptions in your most recent review of John Wray. First, Wood is actually doing a good job of 'participating in the literary culture of his time' by reviewing this book, and he may well be ahead of the pack on this novel. Wray has written two very good books that didn't command a broad audience because they suffered from a lack of narrative force / compelling story, but he won a number of awards and was tagged by better critics than Wood as a promising young writer. With this book he's finally found something that can showcase his gifts as an author while telling an engaging story, and as such his publisher (FSG) has decided to push the book: he's already done a couple of fun, stagey readings in Manhattan, and 'Lowboy' is Amazon's book of the month for March 2009. From a publicity standpoint -- if not a literary one -- the decision by the publishers to recall Trainspotting in the book design and advertisements is wise, given how much cultural attention that book got, and I think/hope Wray gets his due here: this is one of the more interesting new books I've read in the last two or three years.
Second, you seem to take Wood at his word that 'Atmospheric Disturbances' is superior to 'Lowboy', which I think couldn't be further from the case. (Wood's notion that 'Lowboy' breaks no new ground is way off.) The fact that Wood champions 'AD' should actually be good fodder for your contention that he's 'posturing' -- trying to appear balanced and broad-minded by praising an experimental, postmodern novel. He comes off as a pretty careless posturer here, in my view, as 'AD' is a very contentional, derivative, ultimately worthless book that essentially borrows a premise from "The Echo Maker", a plot from Muñoz Molina's "En Ausencia de Blanca" and everything else from Pynchon's "Crying of Lot 49". The funny thing about 'AD', given Wood's obsession with narrative accuracy, is that the gaping discrepancy between the voice of the putative narrator and the voice of the author -- it is just too obvious that a 35-year old urban female/literary careerist wrote this thing, not the middle-aged male Jewish psychiatrist who supposedly narrates it. Lots of knowing references to Borges, static literary devices, and this particularly obtrusive prose poetry (lots of silky metaphors and use of very specific colors ('cornsilk blond hair', 'a little russet dog', etc.)) that reminds me of those first-person male cowboys in Annie Proulx's work who compare sunsets to shades of mascara, then ponder precisely which mascara word is most beautifully true. I'm more flexible on credible voice in a narrative than Wood is, but even I found Galchen's clumsiness unbearable, and could hardly read the book. Anyway, for further proof that most sensible readers seemed to just not like this book, check the customer reviews at Amazon, the non-professional (read: non-compromised) reviews at Goodreads, the skeptical dismissal at the Complete Review, and the best review, by a favorite reviewer of mine, Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun. Lots of the negative reviews come from fans of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, which seems to show that people more sensitive to postmodernism than Wood think this book is a failure, making his advocacy of it particularly head-scratching. Probably has more to do with the fact that she teaches at Columbia and is 'in' with NY literateurs; shades of Wood's dedications to Bellow and Norman Rush.
That's it from me. Keep up the good work!
March 24, 2009
So James Wood has returned to the pages of the New Yorker after a hiatus of almost three and a half months. Perhaps his employer had been keeping him at a discreet distance for the duration of the official John Updike obsequies (with a little DFW grave-robbing thrown in). Whatever the case, Wood has resurfaced at an opportune moment, coinciding with the appearance of two important literary works (one controversially so): Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones and the first volume of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence. So what book has Wood chosen for his auspiciously-timed return?
Lowboy, a novel by John Wray. Or as his name is alternately spelled: W-h-o?
Of course I’m always willing to admit when I’ve been unduly nasty, and I’ll do so right here: What I just wrote is unnecessarily mean to John Wray. But I did it, like I always do (my barbs are never gratuitous), to make a point. You would think that a reviewer of Wood’s ostensible stature would want to participate in, and try to shape, the literary culture of his or her times. That’s what an actual critic would do, and indeed that’s what Wood himself tried to do with his misguided and incoherent diatribes against so-called “hysterical realism.” If these had the feel of a media-manufactured “moral panic,” that’s because that is basically what they were: Wood created a peril and then rushed to our rescue. Wood also bravely championed W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño when everyone else in the profession was either ignoring or dismissing their works, single-handedly bringing those authors to the attention of grateful readers from a lonely perch on his bandwagon of one while his book-reviewing peers and the whole publishing industry howled in derision or turned their backs. In light of these past heroics his current choice of Wray’s novel can only look like hesitation, or timidity.
It’s a modest review of what Wood concludes is a modestly accomplished work. Wray’s story of an escaped paranoid schizophrenic riding the New York subway breaks no new ground, and Wood himself acknowledges having recently reviewed a better book – Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances – that takes up similar themes. So why review this one now – because it turned up in the in-box? Instead of convincing us of the necessity of this particular notice, however, Wood ends up lamenting the book it might have been, and it’s here that the review takes on its most characteristically Woodish convolutions. Commending the way that Wray subsumes his non-fiction sources in the creation of his protagonist, Wood writes:
Yet those sources also unhelpfully remind one of the novel’s weakness, which is precisely that it is about “a paranoid schizophrenic,” explicitly flagged as such by the publisher, rather than about someone who is losing his mind, as, say, Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” and Thomas Bernhard’s “Concrete” are about people losing their minds. Books like Hamsun’s and Bernhard’s exult in the unreadable, the indecipherable. “Lowboy” is exceptionally tender and acute, but it is at times in danger of falling into the legible stability of case history, in which the reader might check off recognizable symptoms, usefully assisted by the subject’s mother, who is on hand to provide the necessary background information, and validated by the acknowledged medical sources. John Wray is a daring young writer, highly praised for his last two novels (both historical, and both unlike each other), and yet his third novel is, for all its boldness, also a bit conventional. An early review quoted on the book’s cover likens it to Dostoyevsky, but “Lowboy” lacks the bountiful inefficiency of “Crime and Punishment” or “The Devils.” The book is less bold, less playfully demanding, than Rivka Galchen’s recent novel, “Atmospheric Disturbances,” which explores a similar mental deviancy from what Galchen wickedly calls “a consensus view of reality.”
Instead, “Lowboy” performs a strange two-step: whenever Will is at the center of the novel, the narration vigorously stretches itself; but the alternate chapters, in which Violet and Lateef give chase, squeeze the book back into conventionality. These scenes are elegantly done, and are often moving, but they seem, by comparison with Will’s experimental story, unchallengingly realist.
Along with this passage’s mention of Hamsun, Bernhard, and Dostoevsky, Wood elsewhere makes comparisons to Kafka, Murakami, and Harold Pinter. In such a short essay it’s a rather pressured assembling of major figures with anti-realist street cred, and it would border on non sequitur if the agenda weren’t hovering so near. Wood’s approval of Lowboy is staged in the shadow of writers who “exult in the unreadable, the indecipherable,” and by comparison Wray’s book is taxed with being too “conventional” and “unchallengingly realist” in places, and insufficiently “experimental.”
This is posturing, and it should call to mind the disinterred 1994 Guardian list (discussed in my previous post) that Wood’s pet rocks were holding up a few weeks ago as some kind of definitive demonstration of the breadth and variety of the reviewer’s tastes (“Pynchon! Barthelme! DeLillo!” panted Mark Sarvas). As I said at the time, what counts is not the citation of this or that name but the way of reading the critic or reviewer deploys, and nothing in the actual track record of Wood’s reviews shows any fundamental sympathy with the kind of fiction these authors wrote; in fact what we find is antipathy. The same holds true for the reviewer’s current citation of Thomas Bernhard: there just aren’t that many points of contact between the aesthetic protocols articulated in How Fiction Works and Bernhard’s annihilations of the novel.* In Wood’s review of Atmospheric Disturbances he acknowledges Galchen’s debt to Bernhard, but ultimately reads her novel not as an “exultation” in “the unreadable” and “the indecipherable,” but as “a novel of consciousness,” i.e., yet another ratification of his cookie-cutter humanism. Figures such as Kafka and Dostoevsky (whose The Devils is, if anything, “hysterical realism” avant la lettre) have the sanction of time; they are canonical, and Wood’s readings of canonical figures rarely challenge their status. If it’s Pynchon he’s writing about, we learn that allegory is unacceptable in the novel; if it’s Melville, allegory is suddenly OK. Similarly, “paranoid vision” and the novel-form are inimical when DeLillo’s Underworld is on the stand, but Dostoevsky and Kafka (no “paranoid vision” in those two, right?) enjoy an unconditional amnesty. And when Toni Morrison is under review, magical occurrences in fiction are out of bounds and even “a moral problem,” but when Gogol does it it’s different, because he’s, er, well . . . Gogol.
But for the moment let’s take Wood at his word, because he rarely postures without purpose. He says he wants a more “experimental” and less “conventional” novel than the one that Wray, in parts, has produced? Something more along the lines of, say, Knut Hamsun? Well then, let’s turn to Wood’s 1998 essay on Hamsun, later reprinted in The Broken Estate, and see what he has to say there. Although Hamsun’s characters "are tissues of fictionality," Wood asserts, “they are not tediously weightless, or unreal, in the way that we know from the nouveau roman or other avant-gardisms. They would never say, ‘I am fictional, I was created by Knut Hamsun’.” In this deeply philistine remark whole swathes of unconventional, “experimental” literature are dismissed with a truculently populist wave of a hand. Not only dismissed, but misrepresented: That particular type of “I’m-the-fictional-creation-of-author-X” narratorial self-consciousness is hardly representative of the work of the main exemplars of the nouveau roman, of Sarraute, Simon, Robbe-Grillet, and Butor. To me it sounds more like a strain of U.S. metafiction from the sixties and seventies (although even then an unfair caricature), but I suppose that’s close enough for the intellectually perspicacious Wood. For what he is really relying on in this typically sloppy amalgam is not his readers’ knowledge (“as we know…”) but their ignorance and their prejudices (Nouveau roman? Avant-garde? Just who do those snotty French think they are, anyway?). Most importantly: Is this the sort of statement that inspires trust in a critic’s pronouncements on “experimental” and “unconventional” writing, or on writers who “exult in the unreadable, the indecipherable”?
Wood goes on to situate Hamsun as an innovator in character and narration, but he defines that innovation in deeply conservative and traditional terms. Hamsun, he writes, is “virtually the inventor of a certain kind of modern fictionality,” and also “the great refiner of the stream of consciousness, that mode of writing that is in some ways the culmination of novelistic realism, of the novel’s traditional devotion to human beings, that represents the soul’s stutter. His heroes are souls, not fictive figments.” The novel’s traditional devotion to human beings – that reeks of ideology and polemic, especially when followed by the pious insistence that human beings are “souls.” And so we have traveled in a kind of loop: Wray’s novel Lowboy needs to be less “unchallengingly realist” and more “experimental,” like the novels of Hamsun; Hamsun’s novels are radical and experimental because they extend traditional realism and affirm the human "soul." This is typical Wood: When “experimentalism” is acknowledged at all, it is immediately assimilated back into the traditional, doused in treacle about "the soul's stutter." Wood’s main device is thus the obverse of the Russian Formalists’ defamiliarization – it is refamiliarization.**
The existence of the Wray review in the context of the other works available for reviewing – Littell’s The Kindly Ones and Beckett’s letters – functions as a test case for Wood’s professed desire for more “experimental” and less “conventional” fare. Instead of issuing such protestations in a weak-tea review of a weak-tea book, Wood could simply have chosen to review one of these other, and certainly more challenging, volumes (to say nothing of the stream of interesting, vital fiction being issued by publishers such as Dalkey Archive Press). The objection that Wood was laboring under editorial constraints is weak; certainly he did not trade up from the New Republic in order to be told what to review, and – unless he is on his way out again – he could certainly have expressed a preference with every expectation of its being accommodated. But instead we have the New Yorker contemptuously dismissing The Kindly Ones in an unsigned "Briefly Noted" capsule review and the Beckett correspondence covered, dully and dutifully, by movie-reviewer Anthony Lane ("compelling," he calls it). Of course there will be other Wood reviews in the coming weeks and months, and no doubt some of them will be on important or challenging or even “experimental” books. And then we will see to what extent his way of reading them departs from “the consensus view of reality.”
* This is a rather different thing than the question of whether or not the reviewer subjectively “enjoyed” Bernhard’s Concrete or Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or whatever. What counts are the aesthetic and critical protocols that are brought to bear in the essay or review, even in criticism that is as close at times to the merely affective as James Wood’s.
** I'm not denying, I want to underscore, Hamsun's status as an innovator. The point is that Wood invariably casts such innovations in tendentiously backwards-looking terms. An early post of mine shows how he does this, for example, with a passage from Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist.
March 1, 2009
Fellow critics of Wood! Hail – and farewell. Our day was short. We fought the good fight, but Wood's supporters bested us on the field of valor. Or valour, even.
The charge was led by Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation, with his recent post “James Wood’s Best Books Since 1945.” The best books list was originally published in the Guardian in 1994 as a response to Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. When it comes to explaining the list’s criteria of selection, however, Sarvas wisely steps back and lets the wordsmith speak for himself: Wood introduces his list by saying that he has tried to “avoid the ‘representative’, ‘important’ or ‘influential’ and [has] chosen, instead, books which I like, which seemed to me deep and beautiful, which aerate the soul and abrase the conscience . . .”
Ah— the soul! That has the ring of Wood, doesn’t it? To “aerate the soul and abrase the conscience!” What fineness! I just have to let that roll around in my brain for a while: to “aerate the soul and abrase the conscience.” Yes, yes, I can feel it – it’s definitely abrasing something in there . . .
Sarvas goes on to tell us that, besides the intrinsic fascination of the list itself, he has posted it for another reason as well:
I'm offering it as a corrective of its own to some of the foolishness that has cropped up around Wood of late. He certainly doesn't need me to defend him but this list should give the lie to the popular cliche [I think Savras means “cliché”] of Wood as the hidebound dean of realism who thinks fiction stopped with Flaubert. The list appears in its entirety after the jump, typed up exactly as it ran (with its idiosyncrasies), but I think you'll find some surprises. Pynchon! Barthelme! DeLillo! And quite a few others.
This deft – even definitive – sally against Wood’s critics was quickly taken up by other blogging Woodies, an instant meme. Daniel Pritchard at The Wooden Spoon lowered the volume on the gloating but communicated the same basic message:
Over at The Elegant Variation, Mark Sarvas has posted the entirety of James Wood's list of Best-Written Books Since World War II. The surprises, at least I think they'll be surprises, for his many web-based detractors include: William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch; Toni Morrison, Sula & Beloved; Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 & V; and Don DeLillo, White Noise.
“All this fuss about the man when all he wants is for us to talk about the books!” Dan adds in mournful appreciation of the essentially modest, reclusive personality that effaces itself in each of Wood’s unsigned reviews.
Next to pass the meme along was journalist Alex Massie in his blog at The Spectator (Massie has also written for The New Republic and National Review Online):
What's notable is not so much the list itself as the extent to which it contradicts the view that Wood takes a particularly docrtinaire [sic.] view of fiction. True, he may be most famous for his critique of "hysterical-realism" but there's more to him than that and, as the list makes clear, there are some novelists after Flaubert and James that he likes. Wood's detractors - of whom there are many - might be surprised to find Pynchon, Vonnegut, Rushdie et al on the list. For that matter, I'm surprised to see The Satanic Verses make the cut...
Finally, belatedly, but inevitably, Nigel Beale joined the fray. His post reproduced the entire list from The Elegant Variation and, rather than restate the meme in slightly different words, he economically quoted Sarvas’s original “Take that, evildoers!” statement of intent. Beale does, however, introduce a twist, adding that the list “also undermines an extremely distasteful insinuation of racism put forward recently over at foolishness central: Contra James Wood.”
Isn’t “distasteful” kind of an odd word to use in this context? But I keep forgetting, “taste” is what it’s all about. Unfortunately Beale doesn’t tell us how the list is supposed to accomplish this undermining – could he be referring to the handful of writers of color in the roll-call of over ninety authors? In that case the proportions are roughly the same as those in the list at the end of How Fiction Works, another ninety or so novels that include three by authors of color. Wood himself says it best: “I have used only the books I actually own – the books at hand in my study – to produce this little volume.”
No, the list proves one thing and one thing only, that James Wood knows how to put discrete items into a sequence.
As Stalin once pointed out, paper will take anything that is written on it, yet our four bloggers advance the list itself, its sheer facticity, as an open-and-shut demonstration, a definitive proof. Where is the argument? If there is one, it is of the type which usually appears in freshman composition textbooks under the heading of the Logical Fallacies. It’s an “argument from authority,” i.e., something is true because someone big said it was true. If Wood were to write “I am not a philistine” on a cocktail napkin it would be hoisted aloft like a graven tablet. This isn’t critical thinking – it’s magical thinking. But Wood’s own reviews take this form of spurious argumentation all too often; his ephebes learned it on the master’s knee. To say that Wood isn’t well served by his supporters is the same as saying he gets the supporters he deserves.
It’s a curious thing: the anti-Wood legions (suddenly there are so many of us, we’re told) are supposed to be caught crushingly off-guard by the list, yet it’s clear in all four posts that the list’s contents have surprised the Woodies themselves. Those who’ve actually spent some time thinking critically about Wood’s work, on the other hand, will remember that the master himself has resorted to this strategy of trying to bury opponents under a seemingly diverse pile of names. In his reply to the editors of n+1 magazine in 2005, attempting to rebut the charge of “narrowness,” Wood wrote the following:
I have written in praise, and often at considerable length, of Norman Rush . . . José Saramago, Saul Bellow, Graham Swift, Jeffrey Eugenides, Philip Roth, Victor Pelevin, Alan Hollinghurst, Amit Chaudhuri, Monica Ali, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Kazuo Ishiguro, Muriel Spark, J.F. Powers, V.S. Pritchett, W.G. Sebald, J.M. Coetzee, Vikram Seth, Anne Enright, David Means, Geoff Dyer, David Bezmogis, James Kelman, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Yates, Francisco Goldman, V.S. Naipaul, and . . . Christina Stead . . .
There is no obvious pattern here. I am assumed to be a defender of “realism,” but I have skeptically reviewed Robert Stone and Tom Wolfe and John Irving, finding precisely their “realism” too conventional to deserve that noble and expansive word. I am assumed to be an “aesthete,” but it is precisely John Updike’s aestheticism that has goaded me again and again into print in the last ten years. I am assumed to be a “moralist,” but I like best to lose myself in the rich prose of a Bellow or a Melville or a Henry Green; probably no critic of contemporary fiction is more drawn to style and the enjoyment of style. I love ideas in fiction, but not as Julian Barnes or Richard Powers practice them. I praised Sabbath’s Theater and criticized The Human Stain; I was lukewarm about Disgrace but admired Elizabeth Costello.
Those who have read this will hardly be blind-sided by Sarvas’s disinterred Guardian list (but then Wood’s opponents are generally better informed about his work than those who have adopted Jiminy Critic as their literary conscience).
The point isn’t what books Wood might put on such a list, but how he reads them. As I wrote a few months ago about Wood’s n+1 reply:
To understand it . . . we have to look behind the sleight-of-hand of his “There is no obvious pattern here.” Once one has read a critical mass of his actual reviews, one sees that there is indeed an “obvious pattern.” He might award positive notices to what are arguably some quite different novels, but he awards them for more or less the same reason: because they have (or can be construed as having) depictions of supposedly autonomous human consciousness. They are all, in one way or another, versions of the “novel of character” he called for in his Franzen essay, and which he counterposed to the nemesis of hysterical realism. Certainly a critic needs critical standards, but in Wood’s case, as in Procrustes’, the application of the standard has a funny way of leaving its subjects – or victims – standardized.
The essay, “What Chekhov Meant by Life,” from his first collection, The Broken Estate, is programmatic in this regard. Chekhov is Wood’s avatar of Negative Capability: “More completely than any writer before him Chekhov became his characters,” he writes. Chekhov’s characters enjoy “true privacies,” which amounts to a kind of watershed in the history of literature: “It is the movement of free consciousness in literature for perhaps the first time.” He explains:
Chekhov’s characters, however they yearn, they have one freedom that flows from his literary genius: they act like free consciousnesses, and not as owned literary characters. This is not a negligible freedom. For the great achievement of Chekhov’s brilliantly accidental style, his mimicking of the stream of the mind, is that it allows forgetfulness into fiction. Buried deep in themselves, people forget themselves while thinking, and go on mental journeys. Of course they do not exactly forget to be themselves. They forget to act as purposeful fictional characters. They mislay their scripts.
This is the desideratum – if a novel has this, it is good; if not, not. It’s the summum bonum, which becomes the programme, which becomes the metric: in review after review, for book after book, with a finally numbing regularity, the citing of these little moments (or their absence) in which characters reveal their ostensible ‘free, spontaneous’ human interiority. What he says about Chekhov he says about Hamsun, what he says about Hamsun he says about Woolf. The most important thing about Woolf’s technique, he writes, is that it “frees characters from the fiction which grips them; it lets characters forget, as it were, that they are thicketed in a novel.” We, however, are never allowed to forget that we are straitjacketed in Wood’s criticism, which soon enough takes on an identikit quality: pick up the sentence from the Woolf piece and plunk it right back down into the Chekhov essay (because the most important thing about Woolf’s technique, after all, is also the most important thing about Chekhov’s technique), or further back into the Shakespeare essay, or fast-forward it into his reviews of Monica Ali, Jeffrey Eugenides, or Norman Rush, of whose novel Mortals he writes, “its central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness.” Or, for variety's sake, you could try his recent (June 2008) review of Rivka Galchen's first novel: "Atmospheric Disturbances is a novel of consciousness."
Other examples could be adduced; they are there in Wood’s work for anyone who cares to read and think instead of genuflect. It’s a little comic, actually, to consider the spectacle of a “critic” who asserts that the really salient, crucial thing about writers this diverse also happens to be the same thing. It is reminiscent, in fact, of the way that the more intellectually-insecure grad students and mediocre, unimaginative academics deploy literary theory: in article after numbing article we learn that literature exists only to demonstrate the eternal verities of (pick your theorist – Lacan, DeMan, Butler, etc.). The only major difference with Wood is that instead of theory we get some warmed-over Christian humanism in a thinly secular guise.
The Woodies point triumphantly to names such as Pynchon, DeLillo, Rushdie, and Morrison on the Guardian list, but when has Wood ever shown himself to be in sympathy with the kind of fiction these authors write? Take the case of Pynchon: Wood’s reviews of Mason & Dixon (reprinted in The Broken Estate) and Against the Day (here) – both strongly negative – do not take the approach of trying to account for the falling-off that must have occurred since the “soul aerating” and “conscience abrasing” wonders of V. and Crying of Lot 49, both of which appear on the list. Instead, in the Mason & Dixon review Wood tells us that Pynchon hasn’t written a novel at all but rather “an allegorical picaresque,” and allegory, he goes on to explain, is simply inimical to the novel form. Wood opens his review of Against the Day with one of his specious literary mini-histories, telling us in a spasm of Little England parochialism that the “two great currents of the novel” derive from Richardson and Fielding, but that the Fielding current – also Pynchon’s – is really more theatrical than novelistic, has done more harm than good, and ought to be avoided if one is interested in writing real novels. But are V. and Crying of Lot 49 somehow different in kind than these later novels? Do they represent Pynchon’s Richardsonian, non-allegorical “phase” or something? Of course they don’t – the contradiction is not in Pynchon’s career but in Wood’s criticism.
I urge everyone to read these two reviews for themselves the better to reflect on Pynchon’s appearance in the magical Guardian list. Then go and reread Wood’s review of Underworld (in The Broken Estate) where he tells us not how DeLillo might have written the same kind of book better, but that he wrote the wrong kind of book. Go read his review of Toni Morrison’s Paradise ("distastefully" discussed in my last post), which opens with Wood’s animadversions on why magical realism in the novel is illegitimate and even morally destructive. Again – not poor execution of an otherwise acceptable mode of fiction-making, but the wrong kind of fiction-making.
So what if he says he “liked” Beloved or White Noise or The Crying of Lot 49, and was perhaps even telling the truth? What bearing could this possibly have when the mere assertion or claim is put into the balance with the actual texts of his reviews? It’s a basic proposition of critical thought that new evidence (and this list was clearly news to the Woodies) should be evaluated in the context of what is already known, that the incidental detail should be placed in the larger picture. Go and do your homework, ephebes and Woodies, before you embarrass yourselves crowing about names on lists. Think for a change, instead of just swallowing Wood.