New Year, Same Site

Every time the thought of resolutions for 2009 passes through my mind, I can hear the sweet strains of Death Cab for Cutie, “So this is the new year. / I don’t feel any different.”

I don’t, and no wonder. I was all set to write a December post apologizing for light posting when I saw, thanks to the slightly new format here, that I wrote three more posts in 2008 than in 2007. 2006, the year I had a maternity leave, saw a handful more. In short, my reading and blogging life seems to fall in to a pretty distinct pattern, one that is a surprise only to me.

As for resolutions, I seem to have dropped into 2009 at a rocket's pace. Reflection time has been curtailed. On New Year’s Eve, we were visiting my mother-in-law in Utica, skiing Mt. McCauley in the Adirondacks. I fell asleep by 8:30 and we spent the first day of the New Year driving back down to the city. The next day, I thought I’d catch up here, but the toddler woke up with a raging ear infection. The following day was Saturday, thanks to penicillin, the ear infection had abated enough for us to go to the park where she was scratched by a squirrel! (She couldn’t resist feeding it some of the fish crackers that another toddler had dropped on the ground. I said NO! but she is 2: "No" means, "Try it for yourself.") It turns out, one ER visit later, that squirrels don't carry rabies. Good to know.

All of this to say that I’ve been reading Scott’s series on reading resolutions and Sarah’s amazing accounts of daily books with interest, but the most I seem able to do is an occasional update to my twitter feed.

But, now the semester begins and it’s that lovely new moment in which I feel like this is the semester when the work won’t get away from me….so, Alison Light, Tanguy Viel, Eloisa James, Jean Rhys: it’s hard to know where I’ll go next, but there’s a lot awaiting the telling.

From the PEN blog

There are many wonderful accounts of PEN events I’ve described here, both at MetaxuCafe and the PEN blog. You can read them for yourself, of course, but I wanted to highlight a couple entries on events that I, too, attended if only to document for myself the resonances between their reaction and my own:

Thus, Joshua Shenk seems to share my sence that the Crisis Darfur event was a big success:
it was Farrow’s attitude toward it that was my big lesson for the night. On the one hand, she was resolute clear, and specific. She made a very plain and concrete case, for example, for using the Olympic moment to pressure China, which pumps the Khartoum government full of cash and arms. After the event, she was on her way today to Hong Kong to for an Olympic torch protest.) But her indignity was accompanied throughout by a palpable humility before the vastness of the subject. That’s precisely what I feared would be missing from the event, and it was refreshing to get it.
More surprising and delightful to me was Laban Carrick Hill on Hub/ event: he, like me, seems to feel that we witnessed something truly remarkable:
As author Kashmira Sheth, a native of India, spoke of her grandmother being forced to marry at age eleven, I was reminded of my own grandmother marrying at fourteen in the rural South. I can remember when my oldest daughter turned fourteen and my realizing with sorrow and horror that she had reached the age my grandmother had married. Like Sheth’s grandmother, mine was denied education and made sure her children graduated from college. My father was the first in the family to graduate from high school, let alone college. I mention this story because as Americans we think that human rights abuses occur only the Third World. The testimony of the high school students in the room brought home just how close to our daily lives human rights abuses can be.
And Joshua Shenk agrees:
There were two distinct highlights on this morning's program. The first was learning a little about the Hub , which is a community video site (like YouTube) for human rights and which co-sponsored the panel. The second was watching Uzodinma Iweala turn a polite but lethargic field-trip crowd of high schoolers into living illustrations of the Hub’s abstract potential — to energize a community with self-respect and empathy.
I hear from my translator friend that Roberto Saviano’s events were smash hits and you can read about them in Italian here.

The Digested Read

I love "the digested read," but this one takes the cake. I mean, I knew that a Mario Vargas Llosa novel about a man obsessed with a promiscuous woman was probably not for me, but it's so much fun to read about how very silly and not for me it is: the literary fiction version of the whole Sarkozy affair.

Highbrow & Lowbrow, in print & online

I’m sorry to have missed Mark Sarvas et al.’s panel up at Columbia on Tuesday night: it sounds like a banner version of the longstanding/ongoing conversation about blogs and book reviews. You can read accounts by James Marcus and Ed Champion (I won’t characterize them, as Mark labeling Ed [accurately] as “impressionistic” seemed to get Ed into a lather….). On James’ site, a British commenter alludes to the lively discussion over there on the same topic. If you want a flavor of that, you can do no better than to read my friend Louise Tucker’s brilliant blog post on the so-called Golden Age of publishing (an illusion, she reminds us). I was glowing with pride when it went up--all the more so when it got 263 comments! Way to launch a polemic.

Editor Elizabeth Sifton compared Mark to Irving Howe--a lovely, flattering, amazing compliment. I don’t know Howe’s work well enough to be able to guess the specific contours of the comparison beyond the notion that, like Howe, Mark writes very intelligent, clear criticism, the kind of criticism that serious readers can learn from. The kind of criticism that doesn’t require one’s being fully up-to-date on the latest theory to grasp.

That sounds like an anti-theoretical barb. It’s not. Or not exactly. However, when reading about a fictional text, I like the references to philosophers and theorists who might illuminate that text to work in the service of the argument not as flamboyant signs of the writer’s erudition. I mean, I could spatter this whole posting with references to Habermas and Bourdieu, couldn’t I? But why?

From all accounts, it seems that the flame throwing between newspapers and blogs has abated. The papers may have run out of ammunition. Everyone recognizes--even the Times, which ended TimesSelect this week--that the future of daily information is digital and free.

The question of the day now, has returned to the richer one of popular versus elite. What is the best way to reach an audience? Are open forums the best way to be democratic? Is a thoughtful, learned review necessarily snobby?

I don’t think these questions are ones of either/or: each critic has his or her foibles--as readable as James Wood is, for example, it’s hard to assign him to undergraduates because of his pretty pervasive habit of quick, unexplained allusions to Continental and Russian novelists (along the lines of: “Unlike Turgenev, Conrad’s fathers…”). Older readers get used to this and find such tags either helpful or not, but young readers often get stopped: “Oh, no! I haven’t read Turgenev. I have no idea what he’s talking about…” The ability to keep reading in one’s ignorance, trusting that context will fill in clues, is a skill, and some days, it’s not on my lesson plan.

What I want to note, however, is that the blogosphere seems to have spawned a new breed of nonacademic literary critics, of academic literary critics who make an effort to write jargon-free prose. Read Mark or Bud Parr or Garth Risk Hallberg or Ana Maria Correa and you’ll see what I mean. These critics also draw our attention to literary critics working primarily in print--James Wood is maybe the leading example--whose work is intelligent and readable.

Those of us in the academy would do well to take note.

Bad Reviews

Have I lost my edge?

I mean, have I fallen prey to the habit of only praising books? Of only writing good things about them?

I don't think so. In my review of Jean Thompson, I raved about the book but I did say that bits were too easy: that's not totally gutless. And in a review I just turned in of two scholarly books on modernism, I had some rather strong things to say about the weaker book and didn't really mince words about the better one, either. But then, that review is 16 months late (academia allows such appalling behavior though it shames me) in part because I've been dreading finding the right way to finesse my wording.

Still, I'm surprised to see that my very brief account of Glendinning's biography of Leonard leads one to think that I liked the book. I think the same is true of the forthcoming short review for the Virginia Woolf Miscellany.

I did not like it.

But, somehow, I found that hard to say.

Knowing I was going to review this book, I read Glendinning's biography of Bowen early in the year. I'm thinking about spy fiction for my project after the Dalloway one, and Bowen will certainly be a centerpiece. I know that she knew some of the Cambridge spies and I was hoping to figure out some leads there. Instead, I came away depressed and discouraged. Glendinning made Bowen seem dull and ordinary, not an author one would want to pursue study of.

This was discouraging--about Bowen and about Glendinning. How could I get through the Leonard biography? I was not hopeful, but then, once begun, I loved the first two or three chapters about his life before marriage. And then, we got to the part where he meets and falls in love with Virginia Stephen. It was a complicated courtship, over-determined by their mutual love of Lytton Strachey, who loved both but would marry neither. (Which makes sense, given that nagging problem of sexuality: hard for Leonard, who was straight, to be with Lytton; hard for Lytton, who was gay, to be with Virginia--to whom he proposed in a moment of panic.) There were other factors as well. When are there not?

But in Glendinning's account, the 30 years of their marriage were, for Leonard, a long and stressful exercise in postponing the inevitable suicide of Virginia.

It's clear that Glendinning finds Virginia weird.

I suppose she was.

But that seems an unfortunate attitude in a biographer.

And some of this I said, I think, in my review. But I cordoned off my frustration--my anger, at times--because I could see that were I to write a review that really argued what I sketch above, I would simply come off as one of those disgruntled Woolfians, too in love with Virginia to see what a burden, what a sick weirdo, she truly was…

Perhaps it's not so much a question of whether or not I've lost my edge as it is testament to the difficulty of tone in prose. Things that one can say aloud to a friend, things that one can write in a blog such as this, even, don't always translate into the measured prose of a review--even for so tiny a print publication as the Virginia Woolf Miscellany which is, after all, stapled, for goodness sakes…

James Baldwin’s Another Country

When I read Another Country in high school, it changed my life. I had never read a book before that depicted the world I wanted to live in, hoped to live in, thought I lived in. It’s a vast soap opera set in New York--mostly the Village--in the late-50s. The characters are mostly artists, black and white, gay and straight, and they love each other, hate each other, sleep with each other, and try to write books and make music. For all the--many--failings they exhibit, they are all trying desperately to live authentically and to figure out how to cross barriers in order to make connections.

When I read it a second time and a third time, I was disappointed in the prose. I remembered the books emotional impact but all I could see were the moments of laziness, sloppiness. I was disappointed.

But I remembered that it was a book that changed my life, so I kept believing in its power without feeling it.

Summer school ends tomorrow and we finished with Baldwin. I felt, once again, the book’s amazing power. Why?

It’s partly the power of reading a New York novel in New York, of knowing the city better than I did the first few times through. It’s partly being older and having a fuller perspective on the failings of art and love. It’s partly watching my students’ engagement with the book. And, most of all, it’s largely having the Woolf book behind me.

In the midst of writing on Woolf, it’s hard not to insist that every sentence be as crafted as a Woolfian sentence. But that’s not the only way to write. And it’s a relief to be enough out of her thrall to see the passion of Baldwin.

And he’s been in the news all week: Maud links to the TLS plea to release Baldwin’s letters; Dwight Garner joins his voice to the plea; Randall Kenan, author of The Fire This Time is on WNYC. And, if you can, check out the DVD, The Fire Next Time for amazing archival footage of Baldwin and moving tributes by Baraka, Styron, Angelou and more--we watched it in class and I was fighting back tears.

BEA: The Blogging Panel, 2

Well, people are talking about that standing-room only panel that Bud organized. It was very exciting to talk blogs in such a spot: about 80 people and about a dozen serious cameras. It’s been fun--in a Rashomon kind of way--to read the reports from hither and yon about what was said and who was wittiest (that seems to be of great interest).

As I noted earlier, I typed out my remarks (and you can read them her-just scroll down). When appearing on a panel with Dwight Garner (of the Times--and the delicious and witty “TBR: Inside the List” column), Lizzie Skurnick (the Old Hag herself), and James Marcus (who put in his time at amazon and now presides in the House of Mirth), one must be prepared. I thought a lot about what I might have to offer. I am not a regular freelancer or an editor of any repute, but I do know about the history of it, so I focused there.

You can read a lovely, fair, generous, and thorough account of the panel at Ed’s place (with pictures!). Dan mentions it. And Bud has his own diffident take on the proceedings he hosted, too. Carrie has some nice thoughts to add (plus a bonus picture of a bear!) and Tara, whom I met after my panel, adds her two cents.

The print media continues its skepticism. So, over at library journal there is a curmudgeonly wish that the bloggers had been scrappier, that the journalist (Garner) had been more hostile to blogs. And New York magazine opines that Garner had all the best zingers.

I won’t dispute that. I loved what Garner said about imagining the blogs of various beloved critics down through the years. It is amusing to imagine Orwell’s blog--or Mencken’s--or Pauline Kael’s (I miss her!). And I thought that Lizzie was utterly spot on about the blessings of looseness in blogs and how that differs from the tone one puts on in writing for a broader audience, for an audience that is reading a review in The Atlantic, say, rather than coming to The Old Hag to hear something funny. But Lizzie Skurnick is very, very funny. By the end of the hour, I had an uncomfortable professorial feeling. During Q&A, Dwight Garner would get a big laugh, we’d turn to Lizzie, who’d get another. I’d pipe in with a nerdy bit of context--well, in the twenties…well, in London…--and then James Marcus would use what I’d said to gain the last laugh of all. Talk about straight man--that was totally me!

Bud was a terrific moderator. It’s no small task in a roomful of egos to keep folks on track and on task, but he did it with grace and aplomb. Still, it’s a touchy subject that none of us panelists was particularly spoiling to fight about. Bud tried to re-engage us on the free books controversy (are reviewers’ opinions swayed by free books?) but no one bit. Instead, we groused about the deeply small fees freelancers get. Tara invoked the chick lit debate; Lizzie pronounced boredom. Jessica asked who the real enemy was--a good and interesting question--but no one could really get mad at corporate publishing.

In fact, all I could think at Jessica’s question was something Dwight Garner said from the start: wouldn’t it be great if the Sunday Times Book Review was but one of six or seven full-fledged weekly book magazines with national distribution, as in London?

I am not a complainer by nature. I think that if we’re going to improve the quality of the conversation, we have to stop talking about the conversation itself and start talking about books in a way that makes it clear to others how deeply engaging such talk can be.

More on BEA to come…for now, enjoy Lauren's pics of the LBC fete!

BEA: Blogging Panel--What I said

I was nervous. I'm a teacher. I overprepared. As a result, I have my remarks written out. This is what I said at Friday's panel at BEA:

Where the conversation has been: money
The conversation about blogging and print book reviews has been pretty nasty and pretty limited until recently. It’s also been largely about money. But money is really somewhat lazy shorthand for the broader problem of interest. In short, we hope that a book reviewer is intellectually interested in the book she reviews but we expect that she has no financial interest in the book’s success. But there is no one channel that guarantees ethical writerly behavior.

There’s a long history to this: English aristocrats once argued that only they could write freely for they did not need the profits that publication might bring; in the eighteenth-century, women--often widows or abandoned and abused wives with children to support--began writing best-sellers and their financial success led some men to link writing with prostitution. When Virginia Woolf began publishing, a century ago, anonymous reviewing was thought to be the best guarantee of a disinterested review. So, even though her lead reviews for the TLS were paid double the usual fee (she was the only contributor with this privilege), they were all anonymous publications. At the same time, her real greatness as a novelist began when she left the publishing house run by her half-brother and, with her husband, started her own press. Yet no one would call Woolf an amateur or Mrs. Dalloway a vanity publication.

No reviewer--salaried, freelance, or unpaid--is immune from the accusation that her opinion has been swayed. Each writer’s position--salaried, freelance, or unpaid--is subject to influence. Each responsible one of us works in our own way to guard against unethical reviewing. That means that, in the Times and The New Yorker, notices of books by staff members are treated differently from notices of books by others. And most of us note how a book came to our attention when we blog about it. But that does not mean that there is a level playing field. It helps to be a staff writer at The New Yorker or to be the good friend of an influential blogger. It should help. Don’t get me wrong: I like it when I earn money from my writing. I am not averse to money. And I think that we should try to find ways to make money from what we love to do. This, for me, is partly a feminist issue: as Woolf said, “money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.”

Still, I’d like to shift the conversation from money, interest, and ethics to something else: what can blogging do that is different from other media?

I have a list of six things that I think blogging is particularly well-suited for:

  1. Bloggers can cultivate a niche audience in a way that a newspaper cannot and should not. We can disparage, ignore, or boom whole segments of the book market at will.
  2. Passionate readers are always in search of new voices. There is a very high bar to publishing a book; there is no bar at all to setting up a blog. The bar to journalism lies somewhere in between. Blogging brings us immediate access to new voices before they have to work their way through the fraught path to publication. And blogging can even help persuade a skittish publisher that an unfamiliar voice is, in fact, one that people want to hear.
  3. Blogging adds to the tipping point effect. Partly because the blogs I like have such distinctive voices, a recommendation from a favorite blog carries the weight of a recommendation from a friend. Furthermore, blogging is a new channel for this kind of information. A book that’s been blogged about, reviewed in a paper, noted in a magazine, featured on NPR, and then has a little hand-written tag hanging off it in my local bookstore is one that I just might remember and buy.
  4. Overcoming the problem of time: This is something blogging has not entirely solved. Nonetheless, blogs can return to a novel, can write about something that was published years or centuries ago, and can group novels together. In short, bloggers are not bound by journalistic definitions of news.
    Finally, I’ll mention the two things that blogging most does for me:
  5. Blogs work as notebooks with feedback. As I think about what my next book will be, I use my blog to test out miniature versions of my ideas. Unlike a notebook, where the ideas might remain inchoate for years, blogging forces me to cast notions for an audience from the beginning. Plus, I can judge, by the comments I get--or don’t get--something of what the reaction of future readers might be.
  6. Blogging builds community. I started blogging when I moved to New York three years ago. I’d often regretted not coming to New York and doing the publishing thing in my twenties; I’d often regretted never having lived in New York. Suddenly, in my late-thirties, my husband and I had two jobs in Manhattan. We also had a big dog and a small child. My life, commuting to Columbus Circle from a dingy apartment in Jersey City, just didn’t have that glamour that I had dreamed about. But, somehow, writing a couple entries a week on my blog and trying to include there some notes on the literary world I was in made up for that. Then, too, Projects like 400 Windmills--in which Bud gathered a small group of us to read Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote--or The LitBlog Co-op, have brought me into conversation with dozens of other bloggers and common readers.

Book reviewing and talk about books is not a zero-sum game: I want more of it even as I cannot keep up with what I already know about, have bookmarked, and subscribe to. Bud is the visionary on this issue and you should really ask him for more of his thoughts. Where I want the conversation to go is this: What else might blogging do? How can blogs and newspapers work together to make our talk about books richer and more exciting?

Where Dan Wickett Ledes...

Today's New York Times has yet another entrant into the blogs vs. book reviews conversations--but what a lovely surprise: Dan Wickett is the lede!!!

And, it seems (to me anyway) that the worm has turned--Mark, Ed, & Maud are quoted with respect, other blogs are mentioned, too.

Don't get me wrong--I want MORE book coverage and I lament the shrinkage of newspaper book reviews. I'd sign the petition for Atlanta's reviewer in a minute. And I'd hand Dan a salary while we're at it. For me, conversations about books are not a zero sum game. We could have more and more and more of it as far as I'm concerned. And different kinds of talk adds new notes to the conversations: even those irritating spammers who keep making banal comments here and then linking to their video review site may add something somewhere. But we learn one kind of thing from a quick mention in a mass circulation magazine, something else from the handwritten card at our local independent, or from Mark or Maud or Bud or Laila, or from the New York Times.

Still, we have this from Richard Ford to close things out:
Mr. Ford, who has never looked at a literary blog, said he wanted the judgment and filter that he believed a newspaper book editor could provide. "Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership," Mr. Ford said, "in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn't."


Books Unblogged

So, the other books (besides Twins) I’ve read but not written about turn out to have something in common: they’re nonfiction.

I enjoyed all three but I think I know why I don’t have much to say about them here: they were best-sellers and easy reads. What’s to say? It’s like offering up an English-to-English translation. I can see, however, why nonfiction so far outsells fiction: decent nonfiction just skips right along. You get a ripping good story, a pleasant sense of the author’s voice, and lots of information, but, really, very little thinking is involved. The point of view doesn’t shift, the metaphors are deliberately pedestrian--making the unusual common rather than the other way around, and the pacing intends to just pull you right along.

So, yes, I liked the book-length Freakonomics as devoutly as I’d enjoyed the article in the Sunday Times. And though I found Julie Powell annoying at times, I got a lot of pleasure out of Julie and Julia. Finally, Simon Winchester’s great tale of the origins of the OED, The Professor and the Madman, did not disappoint.

None of these books disappointed, in fact.

I do want more, however. Deep in Woolf’s diaries, behind in my reading for the LitBlog Co-op, and otherwise feeling the pressure of looming Woolf deadlines, I am pondering, somewhat abstractly and abstractedly, where to turn next…

Underrated, Best of: more lists

While I took a break, the blogosphere kept on turning. If you haven’t already checked it out, be sure to visit Mark Thwaite’s collection of the Best Reads of 2006. He’s gathered suggestions from a group of authors, bloggers, and editors (including me). One really nice aspect of his list is that everyone wrote a few sentences explaining why they loved their nominees. Plus, it’s not limited to new books (I wrote about A Hazard of New Fortunes which came out in 1890), so it gives a better flavor of how we read, I think: not only the new, but also the recent, the old, and the ancient. This kind of list, like Jeff and Trevor’s collection of underrated writers, strikes me as the kind that actually might inspire reading.

Still, that said, I’m feeling a bit dizzy with the weight of choice and recommendations these days. I find myself having retreated back to assigned reading. But then, as I said yesterday, there are some looming deadlines…

End of 2006 Wrap Up

Everyone is cleaning house this month, making their Best of 2006 lists. Some are lamenting their failure to reach their reading goals of 75 books or 52 books or whatever. Mark Sarvas is nicely testy about the problems with “Best of Lists” over at the millions (rightly insisting on the insane arrogance of “best,” preferring “favorite”) but so far my favorite contrarian response to the mood is Mrs. Bookworld’s. Without snark, she lists the dozen books she wishes she had not finished last year.

Overwhelmed as I am by the trifecta of end-of-term, daughter’s upcoming birthday, and Christmas, I thought I would take stock. On the down side: it looks like I only read about 25 books last year (and that includes The Da Vinci Code). The plus side: I wrote one. (Well, published.)

I particularly loved Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Gina Ochsner’s People I Wanted to Be, and Natasha Radojcic’s You Don’t Have to Live Here: all three of these books are gorgeously written, humane, aware of (and realistic about) injustice but striving for something better. They’re great books by strong women. Ha Jin’s Waiting was another favorite from the year. I just finished it a few weeks ago and haven’t even had to time to write up my reaction. But I found it so deeply moving. Roudning out my list of favorites would be Seven Loves, of course, Michael Frayn’s Spies, Michelle Herman’s The Middle of Everything, and William Dean Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes.

I’m shocked at how many memoirs I read. Proportionately, they should show up more often on the list above. Still, they brought me great pleasure so I expect to continue to read them.

It’ll be interesting to see how 2007 goes. With no book to write, no pregnancy or newborn, I predict some differences. What will they be?

Free books! Free books! Free books!

There’s quite a tempest in a teapot over at Reading Matters and MetaxuCafe over free books and bloggers’ reviews. Kim suggests that reviews should include the provenance of a book—particularly whether the book was sent for free or paid for. (Bud’s post has links to her posts and the great comment threads as well as Matt’s contrarian response.)

I’m going to join the many, including Matt, who say that these ethical compunctions are so much nonsense.

It seems to me that there are lots of ways of supporting the arts. One is to make a lot of money and become a patron. The ethical problem of that is that it’s hard to make a lot of money and remain ethical. Riches are often ill-gotten in this world. Another is to work in the trenches of editing, publishing, writing, blogging, and even academe and benefit from a barter economy.

One of the great material benefits of having chosen a bookish life is free books. And I don’t mind contests, getting paid, or other baloney either. Good reviewers can’t be bought.

That said, all of us are caught up in the web of who knows whom. In the even smaller world of reviews of academic books, it’s often possible to trace alliances and rivalries within a review. Still, as Ron says rather pointedly:
if you can't tell the difference between somebody who's genuinely passionate about a book and somebody who's repurposing press releases, then frankly you're probably not the most attentive of readers to begin with.

I used to be more worried about these ethical knots until Woolf schooled me to think about writing and reviewing as a profession, not a hobby. For her, it’s a feminist point: we are not mere scribblers and hobbyists and part of taking ourselves seriously as professionals means spending some time thinking about how to make money from this pursuit. In my case, my money mainly comes from my teaching but I am happy to get a little here and there for a guest lecture, an inside review (going back to the editors, that is) of a new text book; I am equally happy to get paid in kind (books) for my writing here at Fernham. We run a tight economic ship here in my family and the free books have become an amazing valve, letting off some of the accumulated pressure from constant budgeting.

Here’s the Woolf wrangle that taught me to get over myself. It’s from a 1925 letter to her friend Jacques Raverat:
I’ve been engaged in a great wrangle with an old American called [Logan] Pearsall Smith on the ethics of writing articles at high rates for fashion papers like Vogue. He says it demeans one. He says one must write only for the Lit. Supplement and the Nation and Robert Bridges and prestige and posterity and to set a high example. I say Bunkum. Ladies’ clothes and aristocrats playing golf don’t affect my style; and they would do his a world of good. Oh these Americans! How they always muddle everything up! What he wants is prestige: what I want, money.

Inside the TLS, 9/1/06 edition

What got me excited in the September 1, 2006 TLS?
  • A negative review of David Lehman’s Oxford Book of American Poetry by Marjorie Perloff. Her expertise, her vast knowledge of the field and, most importantly, of the anthologies of the field, allows her to compare his approach against others. His attempt to side-step identity politics in favor of aesthetic criteria is revealed to have serious blind spots and deficits of its own. (That passive is weird--I don't have the patience or energy to rise to Perloff's operatic grandeur. I don't have the knowledge to do anything other than stand back and admire. The review has great power--but I'm powerless to put my finger on its source. I think it's because Lehman is trying to sidestep a p.c. approach and she attacks him on other grounds where the easiest thing to have done would have been to call him out for not beign p.c.--a charge he anticipates.)
  • A very funny account by Michael Greenberg of the monthly polyamory meeting down in the West Village: “I pull The Kreutzer Sonata from my shelf, Tolstoy’s diatribe against sex, to read on the subway ride downtown…:”
  • A great review of Claire Messud, whose book awaits.
  • A strong review of Rachel Cusk, too, whose book sounds good, but I read Tom Perrotta’s Little Children already. Do I really need another book about how dull it is to be a mom in the suburbs?
  • A totally gorgeous photo of Miriam Makeba in the “In Brief” pages.

Somehow, more than any other book review, reading through a week's TLS makes me feel smart and hopeful. It's that New Year's Day feeling I sometimes get: the one in which I actually believe that I'm going to be the better person of my resolusions.

A plague of essays

Why, now that I have a blog—even a seldom-updated one, even one that never ever pretends to be keeping abreast of the “news”--do I keep a pile of periodicals by my desk as potential blog fodder? Why, in particular, do I comb my alumni magazines for things to write about? At first, I tell myself that others who did not attend my schools might be interested in this or that literary tidbit. But, of course, these tidbits are skewed to reflect glory back upon alma mater. And all of us alums, of course, already get the magazine. It’s a kind of madness.

At times like these, the blogosphere feels strangely Victorian to me. I think about those reviews of reviews, those huge periodicals now mouldering in the basements of university libraries everywhere, that brought together long book reviews—many of which were very, very long summaries—and digests so that print seemed to multiply and multiply.

Inside the TLS

I am a big fan of the TLS. I like its former editor, John Gross, and his book on the "man" of letters. I know a bit about its history and origins through my work on Virginia Woolf. For Woolf, the TLS was the major outlet for her short essays and reviews. Many, many of the essays in The Common Readers began their life as TLS pieces. And, as a privilege accorded to Woolf and Woolf alone, the editors doubled their usual fee for a contribution from her. In the 1920s for a woman to be held in such esteem by a totally mainstream publication is really cool and remarkable.

I got a deal on the TLS this year, so it's been coming for about ten weeks now. I've read two or three of those ten issues. I gobble them with delight and am full, bursting, with the desire to tell everyone--to at least blog--about what I read, what new book is coming out, what catty thing got said (Jenny Davidson had a great post recently about an appallingly mean review there--I may be less kind toward authors than she because there's something I like about the energy of a bad review.), etc. I just can't believe that this conversation has been going on all this time without my attending to it. And I can barely find the time to attend to it now...

Lockhart’s Criticism

When you first read Keats in college, as I did, you learn that he died not just of tuberculosis but that he died of bad reviews. The cruelty of Lockhart’s reviews of the Cockney School of Poetry, of labeling the young genius by his class rather than his talent, are legendary.

Virginia Woolf’s love of Keats was as intense and loyal as that of any passionate English major. Still, she’s the one who taught me to think with sympathy about the demonized Lockhart. She explores the difficulty of judging one’s contemporaries in “Lockhart’s Criticism,” her review of a collection of the writings of John Gibson Lockhart. Lockhart was Walter Scott’s biographer and son-in-law, editor of the Quarterly Review and, as a twenty-three year old contributor to Blackwood’s, the author of the “Cockney School of Poetry,” a series of six articles which famously and virulently condemned Keats. Keats, who stands consistently among the very highest writers on Woolf’s Olympus, lies at the center of “Lockhart’s Criticism” and of Woolf’s exploration of her own prejudices.

Of Lockhart’s job as a reviewer, Woolf writes:
When Lockhart, we have to remember, saw ranged on his table the usual new books, their names conveyed nothing to him. Keats, Hook, Godwin, Shelley, Brontë, Tennyson--who were they? They might be somebodies, but they might, more probably, be nobodies.

This, in miniature, is how I feel when I sit in judgment of books for the LitBlog Co-Op. It is an intimidating and thilling task. I started writing book reviews in graduate school because I felt like I needed to flex my critical muscles on untested books. It's one thing to find greatness in Shakespeare, it's quite another to read the latest novel by Nadine Gordimer or a new book by Kellie Wells and decide, unaided by professors and reputation, where it stands.

When I read Toussaint’s Television, for example, I can’t tell if it’s pale Beckett, bad Beckett, or some other, more interesting good new thing that I’m too ignorant to understand. Is my dislike of the sado-masochistic scenes in Gina Frangello’s novel a sign of my prudery (I am a bit modest) or part of a smarter judgment about the way the novel fit uncomfortably and unsuccessfully between genres.

Lockhart's failure, of course, is that he judged Keats by his social class--a "cockney"--not his poetry. That we must strive not to do. I read a review of the World Cup in the New Yorker that noted the disconnect between Ghana's conservative playing style and descriptions of the team as "exuberant, spirited, energetic, passionate, musical" that seemed to be more about prejudices about Africa than actual observations of the team.

I love reviews that take their gloves off. It’s a lot more fun to read a review that really and frankly expresses and opinion than to read someone who sounds like their straining to be quoted for the blurb in future editions. It’s harder for me to be frank now, in the LBC, because I “know” the writers, nominators and publicists. So, I think about Keats and try not to write a thumbs-down review that would kill a young genius. And, I think about Lockhart and try to remember not to judge literature by my own prejudices but, instead, to judge it on its own terms. For me, that means following the lesson of Woolf, who always tried to discern a book’s own goals for itself. What is it trying to do? Does it do it?

Naomi Wolf on Young Adult Fiction

It’s easy to make fun of Naomi Wolf, with her mainstream success, her good looks, and her often narcissistic mastery of the obvious feminist observation of the moment (beauty has a hold on us, we can be straight women and feminists at the same time, childbearing and rearing changes us). But I want to praise her restraint in yesterday’s book review. Given the opportunity to review a new genre of young adult literature full of brand-names, sex, and cliques in yesterday’s Times book review, Wolf actually sticks to description.

I haven’t read these books, but the description damns the genre well enough. As others have said, all those dropped names grate on my nerves:
The mockery the books direct toward their subjects is not the subversion of adult convention traditionally found in young adult novels. Instead they scorn anyone who is pathetic enough not to fit in.

And, at the end of the piece, Wolf allows herself a smart comparison between these books and the classics (among which she includes Frances Hodgson Burnett and the Brontes, both books for girls* and books for adults that girls have gravitated to):
The great reads of adolescence have classically been critiques of the corrupt or banal adult world. It's sad if the point of reading for many girls now is no longer to take the adult world apart but to squeeze into it all the more compliantly. Sex and shopping take their places on a barren stage, as though, even for teenagers, these are the only dramas left.

Frankly it would have been hard for me, given this material not to write a rather screeching polemic. It would be easy to decry these books as corrupting and easy to lament, in some fashion, the decline of the youth of today, etc., etc. Instead, Wolf describes and then, at the end, gently rebukes the values of these books. End of review.

This is not what you would guess from reading responses to her around the blogosphere (two particularly good ones are Gwenda’s and Scott’s—which he linked to in Gwenda’s comments). Some seem to hear her calling for censorship, to fear that she’s advocating parental warning labels on these books.

This readiness to cast Wolf as being on a rant when she actually avoids the most obvious, easy rant strikes me as particularly ironic in a week where the review also includes discussion of a book on “Moosewood Conservatives” (a goofy but interesting category of conservative hippies). Pankaj Mishra’s very funny skeptical assessment of David Foster Wallace and in which, elsewhere, in the Times Jason Reitman quips “Nothing says, 'I want to tell you how to live your life' more than Birkenstocks." We are all tired of this righteousness. What’s nice about Wolf’s piece is she lets us pass judgment.

There’s another thread in the comments of others that I have more sympathy with. Those commentators remember those V. C. Andrews books or tattered copies of Forever and remember, too, knowing at eleven or twelve, the difference between a book consumed in a fever pitch the way one might read Seventeen and a life-changing good book.

My friend who writes romance novels began that career as a fan of the stuff. Her father, disdaining the romance, struck a deal with her: one classic for every romance. She tore through all of Twain in order to get to the romance books. We had another brand of derision in my house. Flush with the pleasures of Damien and Siddhartha, I ran to ask my father if he had ever read this Hermann Hesse.

“No,” he said thoughtfully, “but I believe they are books that people your age like.”

I slunk away and pulled something else of the shelf: Margaret Mead? Lord of the Flies?

I plan similar stratagems of mockery and trickery when the dear one’s reading doesn’t quite match my hopes.

*I know that lots of boys and men read these books, but it’s the female readers who interest Wolf (and me) here.


Someone must have put vinegar in my coffee today because I am not my usual sunny self. So, when the editorial assistant working on my book emailed me yesterday to say that "marketing" would like me to change the title, I wrote back to say that, well as I understood the importance of marketing, I felt that marketing was wrong and, furthermore, that I would not brainstorm three alternate titles before Thanksgiving.

Perhaps "marketing" has some alternates to propose.

I don't exactly feel better; I expect to lose; but I just could not cave in without an ardent protest.