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Archive for July 19th, 2009

July 19th, 2009 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Sunday Salon: Negative Reviews, nasty Responses

I have a piece on negative book reviewing, and the use of invective, in the latest issue of The New Quarterly. In it I suggest that:

"Score-settling, resentment, laziness, schadenfreude, envy, sadism, wrath, gloom, betrayal, hypocrisy—these Dantesque transgressions often take hold and lead critical prose to places that hard fact and solid argument alone simply do not travel. With Dante, we might place critics guilty of these sins into categories…"

There are however circumstances, I argue, where the use of invective and insult, if not edifying, is at least justifiable. Canada’ is one such circumstance:

"Just as good, clean fisticuffs add life and excitement to hockey games, so too do verbal dust-ups season the literary scene. Insults, if the Salon des Refusés experiment is any indication, incite responses which often times contain new vigor, and argument superior to initial criticisms, all of which has the effect of strengthening and popularizing literary debate.

Just as babies die in their cradles when ignored, so too will Canada’s quest for literary excellence if its inhabitants fail to pay attention. If swearing and name calling, however hurtful, is what it takes to encourage this country to give a shit about literature, then bring it on, and let’s hope that those under attack grow a layer of skin or two—and the balls to respond not with picayune behind-the-scenes boycotting or jury rigging, but with bold, visible, large-minded rejoinder."


To wit, via Martin Levin:

While Alain de Botton’s slightly hysterical response to Caleb Crain’s harsh, but not unreasonable, review of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work in The New York Times here, may have been bold and visible, it clearly wasn’t large-minded. Nonetheless, sales will come of it, which I suspect, is partly why the calculatedly puerile retort was sent in the first place, despite de Botton’s naïve(?) claim that he sent his missives to ‘what I thought was a comparatively private arena.’

Perhaps I’m too much the cynic. Incidentally, if you’re interested in the topic of de Botton’s book, you might also want to check out Studs Terkel’s Working.


July 19th, 2009 • Posted in Nigel Beale Photos

Just stop on the Doorstep

Sometimes it pays

just to stop on the doorstep

for a


July 19th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

The only thing appealing about the L.A. Times’ Postmodern list is its cute little icons

Sure. As mentioned many and more times, lists are a fun and easy way to attract and rile up readership, and, if you’re lucky create a bit of caustic banter. Jacket Copy’s succeeds because it is so… irritating, in large part because so too is the term Postmodern literature. 

As Mr. Wikipedia, in quite a extensive summary, tells us:

The term Postmodern literature is used to describe certain tendencies in post-World War II literature. It is both a continuation of the experimentation championed by writers of the modernist period (relying heavily, for example, on fragmentation, paradox, questionable narrators, etc.) and a reaction against Enlightenment ideas implicit in Modernist literature. Postmodern literature, like postmodernism as a whole, is hard to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance of postmodern literature. However, unifying features often coincide with Jean-François Lyotard‘s concept of the "meta-narrative" and "little narrative," Jacques Derrida‘s concept of "play," and Jean Baudrillard‘s "simulacra." For example, instead of the modernist quest for meaning in a chaotic world, the postmodern author eschews, often playfully, the possibility of meaning, and the postmodern novel is often a parody of this quest. This distrust of totalizing mechanisms extends even to the author; thus postmodern writers often celebrate chance over craft and employ metafiction to undermine the author’s "univocal" control (the control of only one voice). The distinction between high and low culture is also attacked with the employment of pastiche, the combination of multiple cultural elements including subjects and genres not previously deemed fit for literature. A list of postmodern authors often varies; the following are some names of authors often so classified, most of them belonging to the generation born in the interwar period: William Burroughs (1914-1997), Alexander Trocchi (1925-1984), Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), John Barth (b. 1930), Donald Barthelme (1931-1989), E. L. Doctorow (b. 1931), Robert Coover (1932), Jerzy Kosinski (1933-1991) Don DeLillo (b. 1936), Thomas Pynchon (b. 1937), Ishmael Reed (1938), Kathy Acker (1947-1997), Paul Auster (b. 1947)[1], Orhan Pamuk (b. 1952).

Considering however thatas is pointed out in comments stirred by the LATlist – Don Quixote, often cited as the first, and by many, the best, novel (post-modern or otherwise) ever written, doesn’t even appear, despite preempting virtually all claims by list-making parvenus to any kind of originality, one really can’t take this journalistic foolishness seriously. Don Quixote nailed the playful-innovative-absurdist-self-referential-commentary-on-fiction-life-its (non) meaning-and/or-depiction genre more than five hundred years ago, and it is yet to have been bettered.
This list exercise comes off as just…irritating, especially when you consider that in addition to Cervantes, Joyce, Woolf and Beckett aren’t even included as ‘progenitors’. After Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Woolf’s Orlando, Beckett’s Plays and Novels, Calvino’s "If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler" perhaps, and Nabokov’s Pale Fire (I’m kinda partial to Conrad’s unreliable Heart of Darkness narrator too)…you’d be hard pressed to find anything significantly ‘new’ that anyone on the lalalist has contributed…unless you consider responding to changing technology or science or current events, significant…Plato, for instance, couldn’t write about the Internet, or Michael Jackson’s death, whereas Philip Roth of course, could, if he were so inclined.
No. The best, the only thing appealing about this list is that it is accompanied by cute little icons.