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Archive for March, 2008

March 31st, 2008 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Thwaite on Literary Blogging

The Oxford Literary Festival presents an interesting panel discussion this evening. Here’s the blurb:

Whose judgements are more trustworthy when it comes to books? Do amateur bloggers online do a better job than established literary critics in the press? Hear two highly regarded literary bloggers – Mark Thwaite, founder of, and Lynne Hatwell, founder of – battle it out with two professional critics – Sunday Times chief reviewer John Carey and broadcaster and journalist John Mullan.

The answer to all of these types of questions is the same: The most trustworthy are those who are the most  intelligent, the most widely read, the most capable of writing clearly and arguing logically. Background is largely irrelevant, as is status, ‘amateur’ or  established ‘professional. It’s the quality of thought and writing on the page that matters. The challenge lies in finding it. Websites such as help us to do this.

In a warm up to this evening’s event, Mark and John Mullan met on BBC Radio 4′s Today program this morning. Have a listen.

March 30th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Sunday Salon: Why questions about art and creativity can be tiresome


In a recent post on the import of biographical context, and Proust’s negating of it in his essay Against St. Beuve, I conclude with the fairly simplistic, but true observation that "Text and the social life of the author may never touch in Proust’s cork-lined world, but they do, I’d say, in the normal, communal one in which most authors and people live. It seems to me that the more facts one can solicit in the search for truth, the better one’s chances of finding it."

As is often the case, I found myself this Sunday surfing lit blogs, instead of reading books. One in particular I always check is Stephen Mitchelmore’s This Space. Today’s post was especially interesting because in it, Stephen suggests that I misinterpret Proust’s words. In positing a corrective, he quotes from a comment on my post by Svetlana Correa:
The essence of art, the essence of true creativity, what makes Proust Proust and Bach Bach is, according to Proust, something that can never be found in those facts about an artist. It is something that an individual creates as if ex nihilo… That is why a "crude" person can create a sublime art, and a most refined be sterile…

He continues: "How can we approach this essence and how might it help us in this destitute time? As I recovered from my recent misfortune on a country road, these questions became less pretentious and more urgent."

What makes Proust Proust? What is the irreducible in art? as Mark Thwaite asks in a comment on the same post…

…I think the problem we run into here is that, okay, great artists have unique gifts and talents…God given, innate. Svetlana’s remark has me recalling Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s fictitious Amadeus…the pain he felt, knowing, unlike the rest of the court, that Mozart was a true genius despite being a crude little buffoon.

Surely, the ‘essence’ that makes Bach Bach, Proust Proust etc.,  although obviously important, is something beyond description, or comprehension. It is in fact a tautology, a conversational cul-de-sac, a dead end just as the wholly subjective appreciation of art is…the ‘I know what I like’ thought stopper.

As soon as you try to define what the essence of creativity is, some sort of context or comparison is required if you want any interesting discussion. Why did Picasso depict women in such ugly, distorted ways in his paintings? Because Picasso is Picasso? Or because he treated women like tissues…soiling and discarding them in his wake.  As Jean-Paul Crespelle writes in his book Picasso and his Women:”…Just as he kept old matchboxes or pencil stubs, so he kept his old mistresses ready in hand. Just in case…” Which is the more interesting response?

It’s all very well to ask big questions about the essence of creativity, or Why Fiction is, for that matter; pondering them can be valuable. But after a while, when it becomes evident that these questions lack  answers, or are answerable only self referentially, it all becomes a little tiresome. Especially given that artists themselves, in the case of creativity, rarely know how their original ideas arise. It’s all a big mystery.

March 30th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Sunday Salon: Middlemarch Review and early childhood traumas

Excellent short review of Middlemarch by Keith Oatley in yesterday’s Toronto Globe and Mail (better go there fast though, they only leave stuff up for a week, if that). And I quote: "Eliot aspired to write about the ordinary. She searched beneath its surface to make it comprehensible, and succeeded in a way that is profoundly moving." "Eliot explores what really holds us humans together: the quality and breadth of our emotion. " Middlemarch is a generous book. It is one of the world’s great books because, between the three streams of writing (traditional 19th century, early stream of consciousness, narrator’s astute commentary), George Eliot enables space to grow: a space for the reader’s emotions and thoughts. You feel things you have not felt, think things you have not thought. It’s a book [as Virginia Woolf says] for adults."

In recent email exchange with Keith over his antipathy toward The Brothers Karamazov, my second favourite novel, we mused about likes and dislikes…I mentioned that although War and Peace is my favourite novel, I’ve never been able to forge past about 100 pages of Anna Karenina…and I’m stuck at page 300 of Middlemarch…even as we speak…

"I am shocked," he responded "that you don’t like Anna Karenina, which I think is my favourite novel, closely followed by Middlemarch … But what is it, I wonder, that allows one mind—that of a reader—to resonate with another—that of a writer—in some works rather than others? Because I do think Crime and Punishment is brilliant. A puzzle."

No doubt it has to do with early childhood traumas, loves and hatreds, unconscious demons and black holes. Unresolved fixations, infatuations, obsessions. Anyone have any other ideas?
March 28th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Virginia Woolf commits suicide this day in 1941


At the age of 59, Virginia Woolf ended her life by walking into the River Ouse, having left a note for her husband Leonard stating: ‘I have a feeling I shall go mad. I cannot go on longer in these terrible times. I hear voices and cannot concentrate on my work. I have fought against it but cannot fight any longer. I owe all my happiness to you but cannot go on and spoil your life.’

English professor Ted Bishop in Riding with Rilke, a vibrant, unlikely, zen-full account of motorcycling in search of literary archives, gives us this:

" I felt a physical shock. I was holding Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. I lost any bodily sense, felt I was spinning into a vortex, a connection that collapsed the intervening decades. This note wasn’t a record of an event — this was the event itself. This writing. And it was not for me. I had walked in on somthing unbearably personal…[I] turned the sheet over. There Leonard had written in green ink the date: "11/5/41." This detail set off an unexpected aftershock. I realized I seldom thought of him, of how he had had to wait twenty-one days before the body was found. Three long weeks, answering questions from The Times, taking calls from friends. Then a group of teenagers, throwing rocks at a log in the river, found it was not a log at all and dragged what was one Virginia Woolf ashore."

Poor Leonard, and all those who have been left by loved ones who succumb to inner demons.

March 27th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Glossary of euphemisms book reviewers use

This from Ben Macintyre at The Times onLine cited on this blog a year or two back…no longer online: 

IN A RECENT ARTICLE, I DESCRIBED A book as magisterial, and
promptly received a text message from my most critical friend. "magisterial"? u mean dull, no? He was right. I had used the word
to indicate that the book was long and scholarly, and to imply that I
had read it all (which I had not). In reviewese, magisterial
means lofty, and dreary.

The book world is rife with such euphemistic terms. The Times
Literary Supplement has a splendid informal list of hackneyed words and
phrases to avoid: rich tapestry, consummate skill, peppered with and I defer to no one . . .

Some words, such as mellifluous and coruscating, are
seldom used outside book reviews; others, such as insightful,
have been used so often that they mean nothing at all.

Here is a sampling of the brief glossary of literary euphemisms Macintyre cites:

Shot through with mordant wit
This phrase tends to be used by reviewers to describe books written by other reviewers. It means: Extremely nasty, but I don’t want this bastard to work me over next.

These are minor quibbles (mere cavils) . . . This is a
favourite of the weedier academic reviewers. It usually crops up
towards the end of the review, when the reviewer has suddenly realised
that he may have put the boot in too hard at the start, and feels

Writing reminiscent of Probably plagiarized.

Detailed Has footnotes.

Richly detailed Has lots of footnotes.

Densely detailed Has footnotes, endnotes, acknowledgments,
epigrams, foreword, preface, bibliography, appendices, indices, and
marginalia. Translation: unreadable. qv: panoramic, workmanlike,
painstaking, extensively researched.

Usually used to describe a young author that the
reviewer met when drunk at the Martin Amis launch and thinks he might
have fancied. (See also accomplished debut.)

March 26th, 2008 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Poem Subjects; Worst Book Reviewing Words

Two characteristically interesting items from Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation:

A) Check out this 2006 NPR interview, in which [Ed] Hirsch shares William Matthews’s list of the "Four Subjects of Poetry," which we reproduce with considerable delight:
1. I went out into the woods today, and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.
2. We’re not getting any younger.
3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.
4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the coin is too soon spent, and on what we know not what.

B) Bob Harris’s Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing at the NY Times’ Paper Cuts blog:
poignant: Something you read may affect you, or move you. That doesn’t mean it’s poignant. Something is poignant when it’s keenly, even painfully, affecting. When Bambi’s mom dies an adult may think it poignant. A child probably finds it terrifying.

compelling: May things in life, and in books, are compelling. The problem is that too often in book reviews far too many things are found to be such. A book may be a page turner, but that doesn’t necessarily make it compelling. Overuse has weakened a word that implies an overwhelming force.

Reviewers often combine these first two words. Like Chekhov’s gun. If there is a poignant in a review’s third paragraph, a compelling will most likely follow. Frequently reviewers forestall the suspense and link the words right away, as in “this poignant and compelling novel…”

intriguing: It doesn’t mean merely interesting or fascinating although it’s almost always used in place of one of those words. When it is, the sense of something illicit and mysterious is lost.

eschew: No one actually says this word in real life. It appears almost exclusively in writing when the perp is stretching for a flashy synonym for avoid or reject or shun.

craft (used as a verb): In “The Careful Writer,” Theodore M. Bernstein reminds us that “the advertising fraternity has decided craft is a verb.” Undeterred, reviewers use it when they are needlessly afraid of using plain old write. They also try to make pen a verb, as in “he penned a tome.”

muse (used as a verb): Few things in this world are mused. They are much more often simply written, thought or said. “War is hell,” he mused. Not much dreamy rumination there.

Stretching for the fanciful — writing “he crafts or pens” instead of “he writes”; writing “he muses” instead of “he says or thinks” — is a sure tip-off of weak writing.

lyrical: Reviewers use this adjective when they want to say something is well written. But using the word loosely misses the sense of expressing emotion in an imaginative and beautiful way. Save lyrical for your next review of Wordsworth.

It’s possible to (mis)use all seven words in a one-sentence book report: “Mario Puzo’s intriguing novel eschews the lyrical as the author instead crafts a poignant tale of family life and muses on the compelling doings of the Mob.” 

Perhaps, readers, you’d like to add your favorites?


March 24th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

$21 Million Magna Carta; Dylan reads Jong

The highest price paid for a book last year at auction was $21 million for The Magna Carta. Fine Book & Collection‘s annual round-up of the highest prices paid last year for books, maps, and autographs at auction — its Fine Books 50–
is published in the March/April issue. Dated 1297. The only copy in private hands of this foundation document of Anglo-American law and freedom. Sold by H. Ross Perot. Bought by a private equity fund.


Lyrics from Bob Dylan’s Highlands, off Time out of Mind, arguably his best album:

Then she says, "you don’t read women authors, do you?"
Least that’s what I think I hear her say,
"Well", I say, "how would you know and what would it matter anyway?"
"Well", she says, "you just don’t seem like you do!"
I said, "you’re way wrong."
She says, "which ones have you read then?" I say, "I read Erica Jong!"
She goes away for a minute and I slide up out of my chair
I step outside back to the busy street, but nobody’s going anywhere.


Memories of teenaged encounters with the zipper-less fuck have faded. Tastes have migrated somewhat. I’m currently spending time with these females: Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag…her excellent essays on Camp and Beauty…and Ann Sexton.

March 24th, 2008 • Posted in Literary Criticism, Wicked Quotes

Lucianic satire and Ph.Ded trolls as sad Clowns

David Solway starts his beautifully crafted essay "Notes on Lucianic Satire" (Random Walks) with a statement that describes, with surprising aptness, a consummately attentive reader of this blog.

"1) Lucianic satire is the literary form of prophylaxis. It protects the self from the vices it attacks, such as pomposity, self-righteousness, or the sclerosis of absolute conviction, by undermining its own critique and calling its own authority into question. Thus, there is usually an element of self-parody to leaven the moralizing seriousness of its burden.

2) But is is also meant to protect the self from the inevitability of disappointment and therefore must inoculate its deposition with the serum of irony and self-mockery. It seeks at least a partial immunity against the crushing despair associated with the failure of its attempt to reform the world.

3) Consequently, Lucianic satire acknowledges both the fallibility of the self and the belligerence of the world, subjective weakness and objective barbarism. It knows both that the self can be infected by the disease it proposes to cure and that the disease will never be remedied. It must fight on two fronts at once, resisting contagion and holding off despair."

Lucian of Samosata, otherwise known as Lucian the Blasphemer, the Slanderer, the unleavened, believes that literature requires a qualified audience, an educated reception. Unlike the modern museum curator who supplies an exhibit with a lowbrow explanatory apparatus, Lucian insists that true viewing (like true listening) requires an education, a Ph.D in particular. In this he has the support of the cultural milieu of the second-century Roman Empire where a privileged model of paideia was fundamental to social and political success.

The cultivated viewer, the pepaideumenos theates, must be located in this context: he is challenged, by atticizing language for example, to demonstrate his Ph.Dness through cultural competence. Those who fail, as every unPh.ded shmuck inevitably must, should shut, says L, the fuck up.

Lucian can be keenly ironic in the deployment of his authorial voice and persona. While one can never be certain of having glimpsed the "real" Lucian, it is nevertheless instructive to study the reflexive aspects of his work. Doing so reveals an occasionally smiling mouth attached to a chronically bitter heart.

"An image," notes Diogenes, "is viewed in a totally different way by an artisan (tekhnites) and an ordinary man." Owing no doubt to his intimate acquaintance with the world of artisans (tekhnitai), Lucian is acutely aware of this "literacy gap." For personal and professional reasons he is eager to divorce the production of art from its cultured appreciation, that is, to disassociate tekhne from paideia. As we have seen in The Dream, a craftsman such as Lucian’s uncle would appear to belong to the class of uncultured, ordinary men (idiotai).

"It is highly disgraceful," Lucian says, "not to be a match for that which one sees."

The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, the Menippean satirist, sees them as diseases of the intellect. He is not only a sceptic, he is a scoffer and a downright unbeliever. He feels that men’s actions and conduct always fall far short of their professions and therefore concludes that the professions themselves are worthless, a mere guise to secure popularity or respect. Lucian believes himself to be exposing a sham whose zeal is not at all for truth but only for applause and renown. Aware of the incorrigibility of the lit blogosphere, unable to avoid or finally correct its defects, Lucian crusades on, ever the knight errant, the sad, pathetic clown.

March 23rd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Sunday Salon: David Solway on bad poetry

Photo credit: Terry Byrnes

In preparation for an interview I plan to conduct with poet/professor David Solway next week, I’m reading Random Walks, a collection of his essays. One in particular “Pronominal Debris” struck me, as much for it’s directness, as for this coincidence: Last week, before reading the essay, I proposed that David select two poems, one ‘good’ one ‘bad’ for us to compare and discuss. This is exactly what he does in “Debris.” He takes a ‘bad’ poem into one of his classes and uses it to discriminate ‘merit from mediocrity’ by providing “clear examples of infringement and omission.”

Following this practice, students quickly discover principle features of the bad:cliché, (the verbal reflex of sentimentality or laziness) or flat, prosaic, hydrogenated, forgettable language; inconsistency in the development of idea or image; willful or needless obscurity (obscuring its own obscurity as rare insight); banalization (in terms of both attitude and subject); an haut gout of arch self-consciousness or self infatuation; and derivativeness.

Erin Moure’s “Pronouns on the Main” is the unfortunate exemplar chosen for the colluseum. Uniform and unrelieved ‘deadness’ is the crowd consensus. Few understand clearly what’s going on in the poem. It lacks cohesive theme,content and narrative; it’s filled with uncompromising trivia. Its rhythm is jerky, ‘out of breath’, its cadence in need of a respirator. The subject is boring, ditto the writing. The language is unmemorizable, ‘loose,’ like jotted diary entries, early scribblings, far from resembling a finished poem. Far from “a unified structure of significant ideas and feelings in sprightly, powerful sonorous and memorable language”  that genuinely seeks cohesion,  “substantive experience, reflected in the masterly control of the versification.”

Unlike Auden’s poem Lullaby, which by virtue of its charged, tensile, economic use of language, a cunning rhyme scheme and a strict metrical syllabic count, tends almost to memorize itself, Moure’s work is forgettable.

According to Solway, her Governor General’s Award winning feminist verse lacks poetic distinction, vitality, imagery, and metaphorical coherence, in large part because, as he puts it “ a decline in poetic power inevitably follows whenever poetry becomes a displaced form of politics or of any sort of partisan agitation."

What I find refreshing about Solway’s criticism is its opinionated, demanding, severe, specific, precise, humorous erudition. So very unusual in Canada. His work reminds me, in its intolerance of mediocrity and disgust with misplaced celebration of same, in his bold naming of what is ‘bad’, of John Metcalf, whose latest, Shut up he Explained, I’m currently dipping in to with pleasure. Of Wyndham Lewis too.

March 23rd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Sunday Salon: Woolfs establish Hogarth Press this day 1917


On this day in literary history from
"Leonard and Virginia Woolf establish the Hogarth Press 1917 at their home, Hogarth House in Richmond, partly for therapeutic reasons (to prevent Virginia exhausting herself through work on her novels). Its first publication was Two Stories, one written by each of the founders. Early publications included Prelude by Katherine Mansfield and Poems by the young T.S. Eliot. Hogarth Press policy was to champion new and experimental writing, and the Woolfs later produced translations of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Rilke, among others. Their greatest error, perhaps, was the rejection on grounds of length of James Joyce’s Ulysses, described by Virginia in a letter as ‘merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges’."

I wonder what happened between that sour judgment, and this earlier much sweeter one:

"Mr. James Joyce is the most notable, from that of their predecessors. They attempt to come closer to life, and to preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests and moves them, even if to do so they must discard most of the conventions which are commonly observed by the novelist. Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small. Any one who has read The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or, what promises to be a far more interesting work,Ulysses,9 now appearing in the Little Review, will have hazarded some theory of this nature as to Mr. Joyce’s intention. On our part, with such a fragment before us, it is hazarded rather than affirmed; but whatever the intention of the whole, there can be no question but that it is of
the utmost sincerity and that the result, difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, is undeniably important. In contrast with those whom we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any
other of these signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see. The scene in the cemetery, for instance, with its brilliancy, its sordidity, its incoherence, its sudden lightning flashes of significance, does undoubtedly come so close to the quick of the mind that, on a first reading at any rate, it is difficult not to acclaim a masterpiece. If we want life itself, here surely we have it."


Nothing external to the reading it seems, as indicated here in this August 16, 1922 diary entry, other than class prejudice of course: 

I should be reading [James Joyce's] Ulysses, and fabricating my case for and against. I have read 200 pages so far " not a third; and have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested, by the first 2 or 3 chapters " to the end of the cemetary scene; and then puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned by a queazy undergraduate scratching his pimples. And Tom [TS Eliot] thinks this on a par with War and Peace! An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me; the book of a self- taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking; and ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw? But I think if you are anaemic, as Tom is, there is a glory in blood. Being fairly normal myself I am soon ready for the classics again.’

For those inclined to continue looking at book covers, check out new photos added to my W.H. Auden book cover set here.