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Archive for November 15th, 2008

November 15th, 2008 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Blissett on: Hamsters, Make-up Sex , and human responses to the artistic and non-artistic


This marvelous distinction between the way language and extra linguistic happenings delight and instruct us, from Luther Blissett in a comment on Dan Green’s post at The Value

"Greek tragedy and comedy produced all sorts of effects, and only
some of them could be distinguished as aesthetic (as opposed to
emotional, psychological, religious, ritual, social, etc.). 

The old chestnut goes, art teaches and delights.  But neither teaching
nor delighting are particularly aesthetic effects.  Teachers teach and
chocolate delights, and I don’t think most people saw the instruction
and pleasure of literature as some special case—at least until about
the Romantic era.

I would instead say that “literary” or “aesthetic” simply refers to
the particular ways language (or other artistic media) delights and
instructs us.  But the actual human responses to art don’t seem any
different from human responses to non-artistic things (such as corn
dogs, make-up sex, waterfalls, life lessons, hamster whiskers, or

November 15th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

John Ellis on ‘PC Logic’, functional importance of literature and its aesthetic impact, objective versus Impressionistic criticism

John Ellis is the author of The Theory of Literary Criticism: A Logical Analysis (Berkeley, 1974); Against Deconstruction (Princeton University Press, 1989); Language, Thought, and Logic (Northwest University Press, 1994); and Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (Yale University Press, 1997).

These thoughts from him in this interview:

"PC logic consists in two steps: first, it is argued that distinctions which we commonly make break down-in effect, there are no pure blacks and whites, but only different shades of grey. So far, so good. But the second step ignores the shades, so that everything is just grey. This is how the conclusion is reached that everything is political-the implication being that everything is equally political. Similar reasoning leads to the conclusion that nothing is objective; and so on. The easy way to explode this fallacy is to say: If you insist on talking, not about black and white but about different greys, you are committed to a heightened awareness of different shades, for otherwise significant differences that exist in the real world will be lost. The reconceptualizing that is undertaken in the first step does not lessen the differences between greater and lesser degrees of objectivity, or between cases where the centrality of politics to a particular action is great or small. PC logic assumes that its first step abolishes those differences, but that is a simple logical mistake."

"The recognition of this close connection between the functional importance of literature and its aesthetic impact has a long history in criticism. In classical and neoclassical poetics it was said that poetry delighted and instructed. This has been a durable view, and if its two key terms are formulated somewhat more broadly, it is still viable; we can extend the word delight to include other nuances of a strong and immediate response: to involve, to intrigue, to move, to fascinate. Similarly, we can broaden the scope of instruct to include such ideas as ‘give cause to reflect,’ or ‘develop understanding.’"

Literature’s contributions to the moral life and sense is through its broadening and deepening of experience. The material of ordinary life is, as I say in my book, "abstracted, focused, sharpened, heightened" by the imagination of great writers. You learn a lot from literature, but that is because it contains a great deal of productive thought about things that are important to us, not because it tells you what to do.

…concerning the question whether criticism can be objective and scientific, or whether it is instead impressionistic and pluralistic. I showed [In Against Deconstruction, and also in Literature Lost] how the field had swung back and forth between these extremes for some time, and I did so to correct the mistaken notions put about by deconstuctionists and other contemporary relativists that literary critics had always thought themselves to be scientific and objective. This is a completely false account of that particular issue in the history of criticism. This allegedly new view [that criticism cannot be objective] is probably the one that has been most popular over time.

November 15th, 2008 • Posted in Uncategorized

Books into Art

(image credit: Jacqueline Rush Lee)

 Callifornia Rolls?

Aaron Packer gallery

Outstanding character definition!

Find these and other fascinating book-as-art visuals here.

November 15th, 2008 • Posted in On Collecting

Argosy Books’ John Hughes and the Early Fever

I’ve been buying books for most of my life, collecting them though only for the past ten years. Not sure exactly what it was that pushed me over the edge, but I do very clearly remember the exhilaration felt looking at books with completely new eyes.

The first thing I read on collecting was Ian C. Ellis’ Book Finds. It must have been the cover blurb: ‘Includes over 1,000 most collectible Books and Authors’ that made me buy it. From there I purchased and read most of the more familiar titles. The Ahearn collecting and value guide books, Nicholas Bisbanes’ A Gentle Madness, Patience and Fortitude, and Among the Gently Mad (which I had him sign at the New York Antiquarian Bookfair one year) Jackson’s Biblio Mania, John Carter’s ABC for Collectors, Zempel’s guide to First Editions, McCabe’s similar handy pocket book…and so on along the shelf. I even went down to Boston for a book collecting seminar hosted by Seattle Bookdealer David Gregor.


I first met John Hughes in the heat of this freshly lit flame. He sold me a copy of McKerrow’s Introduction to Bibliography, leant me some mylar in which to wrap the dustjackets of my acquisitions, and generally provided encouragement and advice. I don’t frequent his Argosy Bookshop quite as often as I once did. But whenever I’m there, John never fails to be courteous, patient  and helpful. Whenever I’ve shown up with books to trade, he has always been extremely generous, accepting I’m sure more than he might normally, offering more than he might normally too I suspect. Pretty well every visit he brings out a treasure for me to fondle and admire. Yesterday it was a signed numbered, illustrated edition of Robert Frost’s West-Running Brook.

With the credit received for my books, I got a VG/VG unclipped first edition of Stephen Spender’s The Making of a Poem. I also paid for paper back copies of John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason, Less Than One, Joseph Brodsky’s selected essays, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms , and most happily, Partridge’s Concise Dictionary of Slang and unconventional English from the Works of Eric Partridge, edited by my father’s cousin Paul Beale.

Of all the books purchased at Argosy over the years, the one I value most is a neatly signed copy of W.H. Auden’s A Dyer’s Hand. The most beautiful? This:

November 15th, 2008 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Zadie Smith, Mark Thwaite, Negativity and Whining for the New


Mark Thwaite threw a little dust up in the air recently at my "sic" "uncomprehending" criticism of Zadie Smith’s NYRB piece on Netherland and Remainder. Filled with ‘countless non-sequitors’ and ‘much out-of-place hubris’ it was, said Mark. Exhibited a ‘failure to understand Smith’s central point that the "perfection" of what Smith calls lyrical Realism (ELF to me) is not a good thing,’ he said.


Hmmm. Thankfully Mark sets me straight:

"Talking about Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Smith says, "It seems perfectly done — in a sense that’s the problem." Neither Beale nor APP gets why this is so spot-on. Perhaps a visual analogy would help them? Artists could keep painting wonderful, detailed landscapes — different landscapes, in competing realist styles — but art wouldn’t move forward until a dude put a bog in an art gallery and called it art or, 20-odd years later, another dude put a canvas on the floor and started dribbling paint all over it!

The Victorian novel with a few Jamesian knobs on (lyrical Realism, ELF, call it what you will) is not the only path the novel can take. Its dominance means that each year a flood of Booker-ready novels in the sclerotic genre of literary fiction are declared masterpieces. Some of them are near-perfect embodiments of the genre which their near word-perfect amanuenses have bodied forth, but that perfection pushes them far away from literature itself…"

Now I’d like to set Mark straight: If he had read what I’d written with any care he would have noticed that indeed I did understand, quite emphatically, Smith’s central point: that perfection of ‘lyrical realism’ is not a good thing…this is why I wrote the damned post in the first place.


I don’t think I could have crafted this much more clearly:

"If Smith condemns O’Neill’s ‘realism’ as the bedside story that comforts us the most, and if she eschews the importance of form, the truth of language and the continuity of self, what on earth is she suggesting gets us closer to our condition? That everyone write like Beckett? And how, if she has an idea, does she plan to hold reader interest without use of plot, metaphor and style?"


The annoying fact is that Smith, along with Rob Grille and other kin, has little to say about why her ‘lyrical realism’ [hail, a brilliant new descriptive] isn’t a good thing, and what might be better. All she does is condemn the status quo.


‘Lyrical Realism’ doesn’t work because it’s too perfect? What does she say to illustrate or argue this point? Nothing, save for presenting a convoluted, incomprehensible (at least to me) comparison with how photography put painted portraiture into crisis…If O’Neill is utilizing realism’s paint, how then can he ‘gift’ this self-same kind of painting a nervous breakdown? By proving that painting too well in this way somehow undermines the medium’s capacity to depict reality? It’s so good, it looks fake? Perhaps this comparison was used for no other reason than that it gave Smith the chance to show off a pleasing use of the word ‘gift.’


What does Mark do to validate his attack? He repeats the same toothless howl…sure, Duchamp may have shaken perceptions, causing both an endless fountain of elaborate, ultimately unsatisfactory response to questions about art…and yes, precipitating some interesting new creation… but what purpose does this allusion serve here…other than to produce stale piss…another tiresome call for the new.


Okay so Mark and Zadie are bored by what we have. Rather than whining on about their dislikes, blaming realism’s ‘dominant path’ for the acceptance of dross as masterpiece, offering unsubstantiated argument, and presenting it with such hauteur, they might better spend their time, and talents, exploring and championing new paths, explaining what in fact they do like, what in fact ‘literature itself” is, how it might be improved, or transformed into something truly new and appealing.

November 15th, 2008 • Posted in Literary Criticism

John Leonard on Dale Peck and Responsible Book Reviewing

From the New York Times:

It’s the relish on this hotdog that turns the stomach. He promises never to do it again, but the very title ”Hatchet Jobs” reeks of market niche, an underground service like fumigation or garbage recycling. His alibi for being unfair is that he’s a novelist, and they lie a lot. But his reputation would have long since earned him the right at his various pillboxes and lemonade stands to review any book he chose, out of hundreds of good ones needing discovery among tens of thousands cynically published, and yet he almost always seems to pick a punching bag, or draw his own bull’s-eye on the passing chump. This is lazy, churlish and even demagogic.

I was going to suggest some hard-won guidelines for responsible reviewing. For instance: First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet or a license to kill. Sixth, let a hundred Harolds Bloom. But instead I’ll tell a story.

Many years ago the editor of this publication asked me to review John Cheever’s last, brief novel, ”Oh What a Paradise It Seems,” after he had already been turned down by half a dozen critics who knew that Cheever was dying but thought his new book a weak one and didn’t want to compromise their supreme importance with a random act of kindness. It never occurred to me that a thank-you note to a wonderful writer, a valediction as it were, would get me kicked out of any club I wanted to belong to, so I immediately said yes. At the time, besides that review, I wanted to write a message to those preening scribblers who thought they were too good for lesser Cheever. On a card, in small caps, I would have said what I say to Peck: