Musings on Place, Travel, Books, Literature, Poetry, Literary Criticism, Collecting, Media, Life and the Arts

Archive for April, 2008

April 29th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Franzen: No one has anything intelligent to say about my Novels.

According to The Harvard Crimson, James Wood treated Jonathan Franzen with nothing but fluffy good kindness in an on stage interview last night, allowing this:

"The reviews tend to be repetitive and tend to be so filled with error that they’re kind of unbearable to read, even the nice ones," Franzen said. "The most upsetting thing nowadays is the feeling that there’s no one out there responding intelligently to the text," he said. "So few people are actually doing serious criticism. It’s so snarky, it’s so ad hominum, it’s so black and white."

and this:

"The stupidest person in New York City is currently the lead reviewer of fiction for the New York Times," he added, referring to controversial, Pulitzer-Prize winning reviewer Michiko Kakutani."

"When you have the opportunity to do a documentary-to do Frontline, to do The Wire-and reach a much larger audience much quicker and you actually gain, it’s more vivid, you can go right to the body on the street in Baghdad and can have that up on the screen," Franzen said. "I’m engaged in a lifelong struggle to produce texts that have that kind of interior depth that is not immediately apparent, that repay some kind of careful analysis without losing people who just want to follow along on the surface."

Now, I wasn’t there, so perhaps the discussion did go beneath the surface. I just hope that Wood didn’t bite his tongue and that he challenged Franzen as he did in his Irresponsible Self essay. In it Wood calls Franzen’s aesthetic solution to the social novel — the refuge of  sentences – the "right"one, or at least one of them, "but his reasons for arriving at it are the wrong ones." Putting this rather haughty judgment to Franzen on stage would I suspect have generated something of value, as opposed to this tired, over generalized  bullshit that ‘intelligent responses to the text are lacking,’ and leading reviewers are stupid.

April 28th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

TLS’s Sir Peter Stothard on Blogs and Journalists

 Daniel Rolle interviews Sir Peter for Cherwell, Oxford University’s student newspaper:

"The main difference between a publication like the TLS and the blog is a distinction between a ‘judiciously argued judgement and a quick fix of opinion’. All the same, on the whole, Stothard seems to subscribe to the views of J.S. Mill: only within a free market of ideas will truth emerge, as good ideas displace bad ones and ignorance is progressively banished. As Mill has argued, the value of open debate and discussion is that ‘bad’ ideas are exposed as bad, meaning that ‘good’ ideas prevail…"

 "…the good journalist will have an eye for the interesting, and will find a way of bringing the reader or viewer into the story."

Bloggers who take Peter’s advice for journalists, are likely to prevail.

Speaking of which, here’s Ed Champion concluding a recent post on this topic:

"It has become evident that the biggest problem with this “debate” is the surfeit of stubborn souls unwilling to consider the alternative form, whether it’s the blogger who refuses to consider the virtues of editing or thinking through his post a bit or the print advocate so terrified of anarchic fun that he cannot find it within himself to trust his instinct from time to time. I’d like to think that this can be bridged."

April 28th, 2008 • Posted in Wicked Quotes

Adorno on How to Improve Your Text


From Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (via Light Reading via  Andy Lynn):

No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level. . . Should the finished text, no matter of what length, arouse even the slightest misgivings, these should be taken inordinately seriously, to a degree out of all proportion to their apparent importance.

April 27th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

David Solway on Great versus Awful Poetry; Yeats versus Pinter

Spent most of the day avoiding reading.

Attended a very successful audio/video presentation by Julian Barnes beamed into about a dozen of us at Collected Works bookstore in Ottawa. Barnes was charm itself. He read from Nothing to be Afraid of for about 20 minutes and answered questions for 20 more, after which he signed cards for various members of the audience. I had a chance lob a few easy ones at him, the responses to which I’ll divulge shortly. I did then read for a while at the nearby Bridgehead coffee shop. Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love. But it was one of those days where every word is a fight, bobbling around, appearing in the wrong order. Perhaps it was all that free-trade bean juice. Then back home to write the following narrative of the second part of my conversation with David Solway:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the ‘Second Coming’ is at hand.
The Second Coming!
Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Was Yeats’s writing of The Second Coming motivated by politics, by a grand Viconian view of history? By current events? Personal Crisis? One doesn’t know. With Harold Pinter however, it’s hard not to read his God Bless America as anything but political. This is because Pinter’s poem is motivated, says Solway, by sheer hatred. In Yeats there is not hatred. His poem is born out of a grand historical anxiety. Out of fear and instinct. A sense of the cyclical in human existence. A recognition of the rise and fall of civilizations. Yeats saw a world filled with inordinate tumult and uncertainty in 1919, much as we find it today. A void which some new pagan messiah would soon fill, staring with us into a dangerous, unprecedented, unpredictable future. He felt something big was due to happen. Yeats’ poem invites us to stand with him at the beginning of a new phase in the cycle of history.

Just as the falcon circles the sky, so the word ‘Turning ‘ repeats, and comes round on itself, replicating, reenacting syntactically, the behavior of a gyre, a sort of vortex. Gyres were important symbols for Yeats, representing the cyclical. We see this circling too in the internal rhyme of the line, the use of vowels.This plus Yeats’s exquisite use of consonants and their sounds…

 "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
  The ceremony of innocence is drowned"

…and presence of the sibylline, in "passionate intensity" all work together to make this poem memorable.

The title’s Christian metaphor appears in the second stanza, referring to the arrival of a new leader or mentor coming out of Spiritus Mundi to greet an unsettling future. A man’s head and a lion’s body bring up the Sphinx which sounds historic, poetic echoes of the mystery and obscurity found in Oedipus’s riddle. "Slow thighs" and desert birds example the powerful imagery this poem contains. This monster conveys imminent danger, the lurid, mysterious quality of an unknown event about to occur, which promises to have, as Solway puts it, "stigmatic" repercussions.

The poem models the poetic craft, both in its use of rhetorical tools, and its sheer memorability. There is no one particular theme, rather a spectrum of possible themes.

None of this appears in Pinter.

April 27th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Blue Met Writers Festival: See anyone you like?

I plan to attend the Blue Met Writers Festival in Montreal next weekend. Here is a list of the authors I expect to interview:

Saadi Yousef

Andrew O’Hagan

Glenn Patterson

Rawi Hage

Andre Alexis

Al El Aswany
Anke Feuchtenberger

James Meek

Here is a list of authors who will be participating in the programme. If you see anyone you are particularly keen on please let me know and I’ll see what I can do to include them on the roster.

April 27th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

It’s my Life: Two Completely Different Takes

Cagematch: Talk,Talk versusGwen Stefani. It’s my life, and I’ll do whatever the fuck I want with it, or It’s my life, one that I share with every majestic little amoeba and whale on the planet. More on Talk Talk here.

Who do you think wins? 

April 26th, 2008 • Posted in On Collecting

Used Book Porn? Bookstore Labels for every Taste

 Not sure if these classify as used book porn, as Scott Esposito so cleverly dubbed my recent school book sale photos, but if you’re into bookstore labels, here’s Fort Knox, the bordello, heaven: Seven Roads Gallery of Book Trade Labels. Quite a turn on.


April 26th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Industry Message to Heritage Canada and the Canada Council re: Literary Magazine Funding: The Short Version


I have just been informed by a respected industry insider who shall remain unnamed, that, shockingly, there may indeed be people, inside and outside of government, who are not interested in reading the finely honed polemic I have crafted in defense of literature and how it can save our civilization from dead minded oblivion. What the folks at the Canada Council really need to grasp she/he says:

"…is simply the economics: instead of spending on print, mags should spend on content. The Canada Council’s role in this is to encourage the move away from paper, and not penalize magazines for it. The savings are substantial enough to make sure that writers will be paid more and on a more timely basis. The Canada Council should be encouraged to embrace digital publishing."

Incapable of letting well enough alone, I would add:

‘Studies’ show that reading literature frequently for pleasure is behavior that must be cultivated with the same zeal, and valued to the same degree, that academic achievement, financial/ job performance, and global competitiveness are valued and sought after by our society’s institutions. (More money)

As such, greater weight should be given to content when considering funding, less given to chopping down trees and expending energy shipping paper across the country. (Better spent) (on starving disinterested writers)(like me).
Hell. I may as well come out and say it: Give the money to the litbloggers.

April 26th, 2008 • Posted in On Collecting

Sunday Salon: Used Book Sale-ing Prep work

Like Larkin I’ve been eyeing empty wall space lately thanks to the spate of springtime book sales I’ve been patronizing. Here, in preparation for tomorrow’s read, is how it went this morning: Again, no collectibles. :(

McGregor Easson School: Lean. But surprisingly heavy haul: Structuralism and Semiotics by Terence Hawkes, Blake Morrison on Seamus Heaney, Graham Swift’s Waterland, Waugh’s The Loved One, and because of this, a remainder copy of Richardson’s Clarissa, all in paperback. Unread hardcover copy of Richard Dawkins’s Climbing Mount Improbable.

Then on to Bayview, where they wouldn’t let me take a photo :( . Stock appeared rather picked over, this being day two and all. Trade sized Penguin copies of The Portrait of a Lady and The Picture of Dorian Gray in lovely condition, plus copies of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring and The Bookshop, and finally The Art of Satire by David Worcester, all in paperback. Total expenditure, including four Archie comics for a dollar: $13 big ones. Worcester writes with great elan. At least what I read of him in the car on the way to…


 …this outstanding Shawarma stop in the Billings Bridge Mall. Never seen such colourful, artistic presentation. I guess I’m behind the times, way behind. I thought the venerable Shirley Leishmann books was still in there. No such luck. Only Coles.

And just in case you give a rat’s ass, rodent’s rear end, I’m listening to the incomparable Talk Talk as I write this. Urgent update: Have just created a Flickr group for Used Book Sales. Please feel free to contribute.

April 26th, 2008 • Posted in On Politics

The Case for Public Funding of Literary Blogs and Book Reviewers

Comments on the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Redesign of the Canada Magazine Fund and the Publications Assistance Program

Dear Sir/Madam,


This essay/paper/post is written with the intention of convincing the federal government to significantly increase the $1million fund it currently provides to Literary Arts journals in Canada, and to allocate a substantial amount of this additional funding directly to those writers whose primary function it is to criticize and review novels, plays and poetry.


Part one will discuss the rationale behind funding initiatives which increase the reading of literature by Canadians. Part Two will answer those questions posed by Canadian  Heritage which apply directly to my argument in favour of increased funding of content.




Part One


How reading literary works improves Society or…


If it weren’t for novels, people would still be ripping each other’s guts out…


In other words: a vibrant literary reading public is essential to the betterment of our homeland. Stop one and you stop the other. This essay will address the real danger that a declining literary reading habit poses to the health of Canadian democracy, and argue that greater support for literary critics, writers, reviewers and literary magazines is essential if this country is in future to produce anything more than a field of unengaged, short attention spanned, self absorbed, couch potatoes.




Literature creates sympathy in the reader for other people. Sympathetic feeling for others is what underpins successful communities. Reading literature, it has recently been shown, also leads to active participation in society, participation that is crucial to the health of a democracy and the well being of its citizenry. In short, reading literature helps ensure that ‘peace, order and good government,’ values central to the Canadian experience, remain viable going into this new century.


First some history. Ancient history.



Despite their extraordinarily advanced civilization, the Romans inflicted brutal punishments on those who committed serious criminal offences: crucifixion, and death by fire, lions and tigers, Read the rest of this entry »