Tuesday, 6 June 2017
Monday, 22 May 2017
So, our re-launch petered out briefly, but once again we start cranking up the engine and setting the hamsters loose in the wheels, out of sheer necessity to continue rolling through dialogues about reading and writing and thinking out loud at "the nothing that is" on the other side of our screens.
This initiating mess of a response, written haphazardly, semi-improvised, is an attempt to show ourselves to have one finger on the pulse, the other one up our nostrils, fishing for lost moments of adolescence. Abnormal service may or may not be resuming shortly, depending on astrological alignments, other workloads and how quickly the government decides to begin regulating internet freedoms and violating our free speech.
A morsel of news, then for our imaginary readership, (mis)represented by George Ttoouli.
Rupert Loydell recently reviewed Eyewear's Best New British and Irish Poets 2017 over at Stride. The opening salvo references an ongoing discussion of the use of 'best' to describe poetry--nicely summarised by Peter Riley in one of his Fortnightly Review columns:
"there is always a ready answer enshrined in the little word ‘best’, which is a mighty fortress against all accusations. You can’t complain about narrowness or exclusivity or anything. It is all down to the simple fact that these are the best. And when you’re busy identifying and promoting the best there is no other priority..."
Rupert's review is, well, very Rupert. Idiosyncratic, transparent, it is what it is. He skirts (somewhat lazily) around his poetics--bandying the word 'good' around after laying into superlatives--suggesting he likes surprises, and 'resistance' (borrowing, say, Adorno's term via Perloff) while detesting pedestrian poetry.
Then again, knowing how much poetry Rupert has read suggests he isn't an easy reader to surprise in the first place. Come on Rupe! No need to take their candy and punch their noses at the same time. But yes, I personally share the sentiment about reading: the moment something looks too familiar, my interest wanes. I think the statement warrants further exploration (but not here, not yet).
In turn, editor-in-chief of Eyewear, Todd Swift, has taken to social media to protest the brutality of the review. Todd's postings are, well, very Todd. And they have simultaneously brought the anthology to the attention of several thousand more readers than Stride likely reaches.
Todd is, if nothing else, an entirely effusive human, and he does exactly what a passionate, caring editor should: he defends his list with zealous fire. At my last count, two magazine editors have requested review copies as a result of his outburst.
Since last week, Rupert posted a response, along with a piece by Katrina Fish, in which she unpicks, almost word-by-word, one of Eyewear's tweets. Todd then posted a counter-response, defending his business model. Rupert has riposted again, this time referencing an email message from Eyewear with subject: 'legal warning'. ROFLOL.
Watching from the sidelines with our popcorn and liquorice rat's tails, we can't really confess to taking sides. Loydell and Swift are both admirable in their own ways. What's interesting, however, is how volubly people must shout when they're shouting in opposite directions.
Stride's position is that of the critic, and associates with the usual lines of debate: freedom of speech, subjectivity, etc. Swift's position is that of a publisher: you hurt my poets, you hurt me, you damage my business and my living, etc.
Some publishers refuse to engage with the critical debate, knowing all publicity is good publicity. Some treat these exercises as PR opportunities, branding their presses by responding accordingly with displays of community. The arguments get interesting when they start negotiating on each other's terms.
Perhaps the more pernicious position on the other side, at least from G&P's perspective, is one which treats reviewing culture as an irrelevance, existing solely to service the wheels of industry.
Lionel Shriver once said, "The only person who's reading the review with any intensity is the author ... and so, you take people's feelings seriously." This sounds very much like the desperate gasps of a culture choked by capitalism.
Virginia Woolf, among others, has linked literary reviewing to healthy culture in general (see, e.g. Hermione Lee's essay in Grub Street and the Ivory Tower). Obviously we have a tendency toward the 'critical reviews support cultural health' side of the divide; which is not to say editors should be discounted, but that they should take such opportunities as they come. That said, if anyone can arrange for a greased up wrestling match between Loydell and Swift, we'd be touting ringside seats and handing out ice creams.
There's a bigger discussion to pursue here, about the state of reviewing culture in the UK. With all the statistics now available through VIDA and the Free Verse reports, as well as the various other issues at stake in free democratic developed nations like... like... Iceland? - it's worth asking how much has changed, and it which direction are we headed? Here at G&P Towers we'll be discussing things further, possibly with a view to conversing publicly and democratically, but also with the intention of drinking ourselves into a stupor on our sofas, then drunk-emailing everyone who ever sent us negative reviews of our work, before spending the rest of the year in hiding.
Comments, suggestions, in the meantime, invited/welcomed, at least, superficially. In private, we'll be reviewing your use of grammar and drawing humiliating stick pictures of what we think of you, to pin on our office dartboard.
Wednesday, 5 April 2017
Run! I’ll eclipse the rat-moths.
Hello, Mr Shirt-rat Punt-slice.
Spruce tail-horn melts tiles.
Tell Seraphim: “Cut lone shirt!”
Marlin curls the Piste Hotel.
Lutheran climes; prole shite.
I’ll coil the art’s sperm tune.
Curt Trashpeel in Miso Hell.
Hot lunch trill: eels, meat, lips.
Eliot’s cat-purse ‘n’ mirth-shell.
Call her in here, Strepsil-mouth.
Nil-clit Herostratus helper.
Calipers ruin the sloth-melt.
Friday, 10 February 2017
Wednesday, 1 February 2017
Sorry to report that the novelist, poet, long-standing Oulipian and all-round linguistic adventurer Harry Mathews has passed on. His work has been an important yardstick of brilliance and experiment for a good long while for myself, and I suspect for some of my fellow editors at Gists and Piths, too. The Oulipo Compendium, co-edited by Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, is one of the most bottomlessly useful documents any writer can possess: my own writing would be palpably impoverished without the (dog-eared, coffee-blotted) copy that has sat on my shelf for the last 15 years or so. I will be producing a series of posts throughout the next few months on Mathews' various novels, poems, and unclassifiable, formally-dextrous oddities - as with any Oulipian, the quantity of the latter category most likely outweighs the more conventional forms we normally expect from our serious writers - but for now, I would simply urge you to read his work. Below are a few links to interviews and articles which area good place to start.
Paris Review: The Art of Fiction, 191
Interview with Lynn Tillman for Bomb Magazine
A comprehensive symposium on Mathews in issue 29 of The Quarterly Conversation
Blake Butler in Vice giving a nice potted introduction to Mathews' major works, up to The Journalist
Tuesday, 31 January 2017
(Hat tip to Ms Sunnen for reminding me of this.)
Posted by The Editors at 20:40:00
Sunday, 29 January 2017
Tuesday, 24 January 2017
Well, it’s been a while. A thousand apologies. I had fallen down a well.
I have to admit that the idea of non-fiction as such doesn’t have the same power to compel me. Already its diction seems to constrain it, defined via negativa – what it is, well, it isn’t fiction. Immediately, maybe, it is cast into shadow because of this. I have heard good things about H is for hawk (in fact, it was a present that I gave to my brother – a bird obsessive – years back), about The Argonauts, and indeed I studied Portrait with Keys at university – a great book, indeed.
I have been trying to think why this is, and provide a genealogy, and examine whether it is something that pertains to me, something that pertains to non-fiction, or some mixture of both. Perhaps, it is simply because the tradition is larger, and there is so much to read anyway. So much to read. Or possibly, it is something else more definitional at play here. I’m not really fussed about non-fiction as such, because I’m not really fussed about fiction as such. The question is, and should always be: is the writing good? And by the writing, I mean both on the level of the sentences, and the larger structures that the sentences go together to create. Now you can debate what ‘good’ is, but it is quality that matters – but this is what you’re saying, no? This applies to genre too. Whether it be recounting the life of a bourgeois woman in 1920s London or a future society in which we worship Our Ford doesn’t matter. It simply and only has to be good. And indeed both Mrs Dalloway and Brave New World are excellent. I studied Portrait with Keys alongside A Secret Agent, Ulysses and Good Morning Midnight; I wasn’t really aware of it as non-fiction. Taxonomies in this case can work against the reader rather than help. So often taxonomies are the province of the obsessive and completist, and better for museums and dead things.
My own reading is haphazard at the moment: there is De Troyes Arthurian Romances, there is DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, and all the while I’m also in the belly of Moby-Dick.
I’m looking forward to (among many – as always, there is an avalanche of them) two books in particular, Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth and Malcolm Lowry’s The Voyage That Never Ends. I have read their two central works, Invisible Man (1952) and Under the Volcano (1947), and my oncoming reading is, in effect, all that they could manage after. Both of them had epics mapped out, but what we have are aborted attempts, premature births, limbs. This happens sometimes, it seems. Christopher “I’m . . . a writer” Isherwood envisaged epics, but mostly ended up cobbling together his novels from fragments. Truman Capote much advertised his Answered Prayers to be an American In Search of Lost Time, but it never really materialised. Lowry had an idea for a cycle of novels (the number projected seems to have been possibly three, or possibly five, or possibly seven). In some ways, Michael Hoffman’s description of this cycle in the introduction sounds almost like, if only superficially, Lawrence Durrell’s Avignon Quintet (an underrated remarkable work) in its self referentiality. The book The Voyage That Never Ends is made up of fragments and extracts that were intended to one day form this larger non-existent effort. Ralph Ellison wrote Juneteenth for years and years from 1954 to his death in 1994. There is something appealing about reading these unfinished posthumous works. Apart from the standard literary pleasure, there’s the sadness at what could have been, but also perhaps a certain morbid fascination.
One constant in my reading for a while now, I think, has been following where the river flowed after the initial white rapids of what we might call literary modernism. We have those central figures: Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Faulkner. And then the river rushes through and on and under, picking up new and different sediments, flashing over different landscapes. I got my dousing rod, and followed. I listened out for those slightly less known, like Henry Green, Ford Maddox Ford, Dos Passos, or simply those who came later and still carried that modernist roar of the twenties, like Lawrence Durrell and Malcolm Lowry. More recently, James Hanley, Henry Roth, Don DeLillo, Thomas Bernhard, Henry Green (again), Mario Vargos Llosa, Thomas Pynchon. I want to read Döblin, Broch, Quin, Cary, Cortizar, Lispector, Toomer. Maureen Duffy (who you recommended) too.
There is something about the sensibility and energy of these works that has a powerful hold on my imagination. (Had you guessed?) I don’t want to necessarily theorise about this (though I could try), nor make a case for their superiority to other works (because does that get us anywhere?). But I think this perhaps gets closer to that luminosity that I mentioned before.
I look at the lists above. Who is the obsessive and completist now? The line from DeLillo about lists being a form of cultural hysteria comes to mind. A cultured cultural cultish hysteria.
Saturday, 21 January 2017
|Bloy vi a bliml tsvishn korn|
Rather wonderfully, the literal meaning of the Yiddish word for thesaurus, אוצר (oytser), is treasure. For someone who has been known to read a thesaurus for fun, discovering this was a rare moment of cultural resonance, when the name of an object captured not only its function but my emotional reaction to it. Of course, there’s an echo of this in English, where a collection of literature can be called a treasury, but somehow אוצר is even more direct about the joy to be found in language and the building of meaning.
The אוצר I have is the one produced by Nahum Stutchkoff in 1950 and it’s a hearty breezeblock of a book. Given the size of it I’m not surprised that there’s only ever been one reprint edition, since a 940-page exploration of what was then a fading language would have been a challenging sell. Luckily, this book was built to last. Mine is one of the 1950 ones and it’s printed on the type of heavy paper that has a lot to say for itself – there’s plenty of crackling and chatter when you turn the pages. You know that sound, like when you flex a really fat telephone directory in your hands? It’s that, as though the words are trying to speak themselves. This אוצר is bound in heavy green book linen with gold lettering, and they even marbled the page edges for crying out loud. It might be 67 years old, but this book still shows up almost everything else on the shelves.
|The 1991 reprint edition of Stutchkoff's אוצר|
I bought my copy of Stutchkoff’s אוצר on eBay for $27, from some guy in West Virginia. He might not have realised what a treasure he had but someone somewhere took mighty good care of this book. I’ve not been able to find a single blemish on its pages, not one spot of foxing and not a single rip. It’s the kind of volume you’d expect to see in a library, but this one has no labels or stamps, no inscriptions or marginalia. The covers are worn where it’s been sitting on the shelf, but beyond that it looks like it’s gone unread for most of its life. Happily, not anymore.
This אוצר was one of the very first Yiddish books I bought, almost two years ago, back when I was slowly piecing words together on the page. I was still freaking out about the cost of the postage as I was unwrapping it, but this is one of those books that can silence all doubts. I might have struggled to read it back then, but now this one volume is probably the most comprehensive representation of the Yiddish language that I could ever find.
Just like a Roget’s Thesaurus, Stutchkoff’s אוצר is organised according to categories, and like Roget’s it starts with the big existential ones, namely Being (zayn) and Not-Being (nit-zayn). Clearly Stutchkoff wanted Yiddish to be represented with as much seriousness as all the other European languages, not as some inconsequential זשאַרגאָן (zshargon/jargon). He divided the entire shprakh into 620 categories of concepts, everything from elements to wild animals to music to foods to emotions, then he absolutely went to town. Now that I can read and understand great swathes of this book, I can see that there is real gold in the sheer linguistic variety that Stutchkoff recorded.
Officially, the אוצר contains over 150,000 words, concepts and phrases, making it almost twice as comprehensive as my largest Yiddish dictionary. There are words in here that none of my Yiddish dictionaries have, and Stutchkoff has been careful to track the different variants of Yiddish across its full linguistic range. To use the section on blue (בלױ) as an example, there’s a huge array of detail that would be impossible to find elsewhere. Not only does it list the different ways of saying “blue”, depending on which version of Yiddish you are using (bloy, blo, blov, azur, lazur), it also gives a wonderful range of specific and recognisable blues, such as עלעקטריע בלױ (elektrie bloy), הימל בלױ (himl bloy) and אולטראַמאַרין (ultramarin). Then there’s the more mysterious blues, such as קינדער בלױ (kinder bloy), which I can only guess would be pastel blue, or בערלינער בלױ (berliner bloy) and קאַדעט בלױ (kadet bloy), which sound rather more like heritage paint shades.
However, it’s the similes that really deliver the goods. As well as the expected bloy vi der yam (blue as the sea) and bloy vi der himl (blue as the sky), we have bloy vi bliml tsvishn korn (blue as a little flower amongst rye, presumably a cornflower), bloy vi a milb (blue as a moth), bloy vi a milts (blue as a spleen), bloy vi a gehangener (blue as a hanged man) and, my own personal favourite, bloy vi mayne gesheftn. I’m not entirely sure, but I think that last one means “blue as my deals”. I’m almost sure that it’s not obscene.
What I love about these similes is that they call up a world in its own words, in the language that people spoke on the street and in their homes. They add the fine detail that has often been lost in standardized Yiddish, where bloy is usually just bloy. Stutchkoff’s אוצר is the only one of its kind, a lifetime’s work, and perhaps the closest we non-native speakers can get to understanding not only what we have already lost but also what there is to rediscover.
Saturday, 14 January 2017
First of all, colossal apologies for taking so long to reply to your last email. It’s been Christmas – you may well have noticed – which necessitated a great deal of cooking, eating, washing up, planning of the next meal, etc, etc. Besides that, an excellent crop of new books and movies has made its way into the house, and I’ve been dipping into those with appetite and glee (Renata Adler’s selected journalism, After the Tall Timber, has been a highlight so far, and a lot of energy’s been poured into clearing my schedule to watch Abel Gance’s five and half hour silent masterpiece Napoleon, which the BFI have just released in a new print)*, a fact which has necessitated ignoring the outside world – or the close approximation of the outside world that the interweb provides, at any rate – for the last couple of weeks. But rest assured! I have not neglected your previous missive, and have been turning its more salient and meaty points over in my mind as best I can between bouts of competitive potato-eating and Harry Potter marathons.
To address some of your concerns: yes, you’re probably right that Woolf’s novels will outlast her diaries and letters, without a doubt. Indeed, the diaries and letters as literary artefacts are explicitly dependent upon the high critical regard in which the novels are held. (This is probably as true of other great literary journal-keepers like John Cheever and James Schuyler and Christopher “I’m . . . a writer” Isherwood, though the picture is greyed and blurred a little by the Goncourt brothers, whose journals are afforded the serious attention and respect which have long been denied their no-longer-read-at-all-by-anyone-anywhere-even-academics novels.) Perhaps it’s simply a matter of particularity, even perversity, on my part: I simply don’t want (or don’t think I want) that sense of finish, of ‘luminosity’, that you’re seeking and finding in Woolf’s work: I’m genuinely more interested in her quotidian thoughts on what she’s reading at any given point, what she had for breakfast on Saturday, the particularities of tiny mundane detail, provided for their own interest and pleasure and nothing more.**
Perhaps, if I were in a less controversial or contrarian mood – but when’s that ever likely to happen? – I might temper my argument, and suggest that my impatience with ‘trad. fic’ – and my concomitant drift towards the fringes (essays, diaries, novels that break apart under the strain of their own construction) – is really in part a reaction to a certain arrogance on the part of Fiction, considered as a monolithic bloc: an arrogance that sees itself as the final arbiter of the ‘literary’, and that views other forms not as important and vital genres in their own right, but rather as little more than jerry-built adjuncts to Fiction’s self-confessed pre-eminence in the field of Wordery.
That’s probably yet another straw man, I’m sure – I should probably start charging by the penny, I’m putting together so many hay-stuffed effigies: at this rate, by the end of the month, I’ll have, well, some pennies, anyway – but I still think I’m raising something resembling a valid point, however grumpily and idiosyncratically I might express it. Why mine Woolf’s diaries for what gems of information they can express about her ‘real’ work? Can’t we treat them as a pre-eminence in and of themselves? Hmm? There was a very good article by Geoff Dyer in the Guardian fairly recently (actually over a year ago now, but by my standards, that’s recent) that touched on this issue. (You can read it here if you wish.) Dyer raises a whole host of other points beside, but one of his observations struck me particularly, pertaining to the differing values one expects, respectively, from fiction and non-fiction: fiction, according to the schema Dyer lays out, is a refuge if you’re after style and joy; non-fiction, however, can be viewed as a rather more austere and utilitarian harbour, providing nought but facts and content. (The French Riviera vs. Portsmouth, basically.) “In a realm where style was often functional,” writes Dyer, “nonfiction books were – are – praised for being “well written”, as though that were an inessential extra, like some optional finish on a reliable car.”
Dyer, of course, is sketching out this clichéd view of non-fiction to provide a semi-ironic backdrop for his advocacy of the more recent advances in the field – and many of the names that get referenced in the article have popped up on my own radar,*** in many instances producing in the process some pretty unforgettable and forthright emerald blips: yes, I am running this metaphor into the ground, thank you for noticing – but I would say that this cliché does still pertain to a certain extent. If I am overzealous in my non-fiction boosterism, I feel it’s somewhat warranted: over-correction is better than the complacency of no correction at all.
This reply, I realise, is already radically breaching the limits of what’s reasonable, both quantitatively and qualitatively, so I should probably sign off soon, but before I go, and as a means of providing a little bit of gravy for the next mind-meal you send my way, one of the books that snuck into the house over the festive break was The Storm (1704) by Daniel Defoe. I’ve only glanced at and dipped into it so far – not least because it’s not actually mine, but my good lady’s, and there’s a whole Byzantine edifice of social etiquette pertaining to the matter of who gets to read books first in any given household, the complexity of which would make a medieval Japanese nobleman’s head spin clean off his shoulders – but what’s notable, aside from its subject matter, is the sense that Defoe is both creating and defining a form, and simultaneously defending it aesthetically, even as he calls it into being. We could probably call that genre ‘long-form journalism’ or ‘literary non-fiction’, depending on our mood, but whatever it is, it feels alarmingly contemporary. Discuss.
Yours, as ever,
PS: Happy New Year, by the way!
*My hope is that there’s a revolution-tinged secular holiday which is celebrated in France some time in the next few weeks with which can coincide my screening of the movie, to really make an event of it. I don’t want to have to wait till Bastille Day, for God’s sake.
**I’m probably the only reader – I’m certainly in a minority of readers, anyway – who gets far more excited by technical details in a writer’s biography than the endless, prurient cataloguing of their turbid emotional lives: how many words got written on August 16th, say?; what kind of pens did they use, and where did they buy them?; had they read Proust before or after they began work on their third novel, etc, etc?
***Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait With Keys, in particular, is now a personal favourite of mine: genuinely one of the best things I have read in some years. I was planning to re-read it, so that I could more properly answer your perfectly reasonable request for some concrete detail regarding my reading habits and preferences, but realised I’d lent the book to a friend – oh, the hubris! – and so can’t fulfil my duties in this instance. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, too, feels like a game-changer, though everyone and their maiden aunt has written about that, and extensively, so I’ll limit my comments to say simply that I enjoyed it immensely. H is for Hawk, if you’ve not read it, should wing its way to your ‘must read’ pile pretty soon, too.
Thursday, 12 January 2017
In a preamble, I would have to agree, re: the strawmanning of academia. If we are to, as Trilling said, attempt to consider things complexly it is necessary for me to acknowledge: there are many in literary departments up and down the Archipelago doing good and interesting work, and that so with passion. Indeed, I enjoyed my degree (in the long ago days) immensely. Primarily, I think my reservations are to do with: a) how this good and interesting work is reaching the Commonweal as a whole*, b) if the modes of language used aren’t a net (an Iris Murdochy–Under-the-Net-type-net) that traps and hampers rather than frees, and c) if the strictures of academia, as currently constructed, deprive (say, in the case of philosophy) us of figures like a Kierkegaard, a Nietzsche, a Plato.
But let’s refine your point further. You mentioned a certain old-fashioned impulse to have the author be live and well on the page contra Barthes, but simultaneously what you’re asking for is something that sounds at least pretty modern, or at least postmodern. A foregrounding of the apparatus, a self-consciousness. You want – in a manner – a self-conscious text, perhaps not metafiction, but meta-nonfiction, a metaessay (though, one assumes, not simply one that only describes its own making, but is also about something else). You note an ennui, a distaste concerning “the mechanics of outright fiction.” I wondered if this had to do with an inauthenticity that you were tasting. Trilling wrote about the distinction between sincerity and authenticity. Broadly, he says sincerity is about saying out loud what is in your heart, and authenticity is to do with being oneself. Your insistence on the mess and stuff and muddle is to ask for a kind of realism or authenticity. Simon says, Thoughts don’t come from nowhere. Simon says, Thoughts emerge from the mess, the stuff and funk. Simon says, Show me this. Is this that familiar move that we have seen in our literature, the restless attempt to get at something truer or ‘real’, etc? So if modernism is (v simplistically) the literature of consciousness (Joyce, Woolf etc), and postmodernism (v simplistically) the literature of self-consciousness (Calvino etc), this is a move away from fiction as such, toward a non-fiction that has this awareness, this self-consciousness about how it is made? Is this a useful way to think about what you’re saying? Or not? What does Simon say?
So far, the prime example you’ve given is Dept. of Speculation (2014), which, broadly speaking, is a novel, and I think an example that is more squarely in what we might call the essay would be helpful.
To add a discordant chime to your literary spidey-senses: your particular thesis doesn’t hold – at least with the evidence you bring to bear. It is without question that, say, Woolf’s diaries and letters are of very great worth**. Francis Spalding has, like you, speculated that it is these that will last, and have the most value. I think this is a stretch – wonderful as they are, the diaries and letters don’t exceed the brightness cast by the luminous stream formed by Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1932). Equal in value, perhaps, but they don’t outshine her fiction. Bennet, I think, is fair game here. (I don’t know enough about Simon Gray or Thoreau to say.) But are these representative figures? If one casts the net (not an Iris-Murdochy-Under-the-Net-type-net, but a book-and-writer-nabbing-type-net) further, it isn’t clear to me that you will dredge up enough driftwood you need to prop up your thesis. Your examples are journals, diaries. Things that are done in private, and may or may not, have an intended audience beyond the writer themselves. To run with that, James Joyce’s letters (even the dirtiest ones) don’t have the value of that lodestar Ulysses (1922); Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks (1954) are very beautiful but I doubt will accumulate enough clout to overtake his other work (nor should they, I think). These are very narrow examples, of course, but I think for you to give the tendency of your thoughts (The Simon Tendency) more power there needs to be larger theory of the case, and more luggage inside that case.
* Not in a calculated impact way, but I do think that advocacy of reading and literature as such could play a larger role in what departments do. Maybe. My thoughts are hazy as a Pea Souper, or Air Gravy.
** This description of Woolf’s diary is so great that it needed to be here, and it felt relevant to what you’re thinking about. From A Writer’s Diary (1954): 'What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble a deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and collapsed, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art.'
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
It’s beginning to feel a little like this conversation is an elaborate ruse designed to induce me to spend whatever meagre resources remain once my bookie’s had his share on esoteric volumes of which I had hitherto been ignorant, and if I wasn’t already convinced of your near-saintly moral decorousness, I would suggest you were in cahoots with the online bookmongering behemoths, all in the name of making a quick buck in the run up to Winterval. But that’s obviously gibberish (with a hard G, in honour of Evelyn Waugh).
So: with regards academic writing style, I would have to agree with you. Steven Pinker – he of the interesting theories of mind and language, and the wild, Simon Rattlish shock of silvery hair – has written extensively on this subject, and I would wager more eloquently and learnedly than myself, so I will just alert you to an excellent article, available as a pdf on his homepage, entitled ‘Why Academics Stink At Writing’ (which you can read here: http://stevenpinker.com/why-academics-stink-writing),* and leave the matter there. The need on the part of literary criticism to follow a pseudo-scientific mode of knowledge creation and dissemination – pseudo both in the sense of being a pastiche of scientific methods and codes, and in the sense that it’s an unnecessary, and ersatz import from a field that works in a very different way to the humanities – is probably, at least in part, the product of a degree of insecurity. (The concomitant rise in a socially responsive, explicitly partisan mode of criticism is arguably symptomatic of this, too.) It’s easy to point to the applications and impact of research in the sciences in a concrete way that’s simply not possible to the same extent if we apply comparable terms to the humanities, so different methods of gauging ‘impact’ and ‘importance’ need to be delineated. It’s rather a circular process, isn’t it? Literary academics (or perhaps more correctly, examples of the slightly over-egged, straw-stuffed stereotype we’ve managed to conjure up between ourselves) feel the need to bolster the perceived seriousness of their work with semi-comprehensible jargon, but in the process manage to radically denude their potential audience, so the seriousness and import of their work – whether real or cosmetic – becomes, if you will, academic. No-one will ever know, except other researches in the same field writing more or less the same thing about the same subjects for the same journals.
Puerile caricature of academia that may well be, but the sentiment underpinning it – scepticism, if not outright hostility, to the kind of dry-as-dust criticism that academia, more often than not, tends to produce – is genuine. Moreover, given that this has gone hand in hand with an increasing distaste, or boredom at any rate, for the mechanics of outright fiction, my reading, almost by default, has swung towards the essay and its cousins. I think I like the mess – the muddle, yes, that’s absolutely right – and uncertainty that define these works (though I perhaps wouldn’t go so far as to employ ‘brokenness’ as one of my favoured descriptors, because so long as a mind can communicate, even if what’s being communicated may seem confusing and chaotic at first, nothing’s really broken): mess and uncertainty that seem, for the most part, to be ruthlessly excluded from the boundaries of, on the one hand, the ‘rigorous’ academic monograph, and the well-made novel on the other.
As to the matter of thought: yes, I entirely agree that it’s too limited, too straight-jacketing a term to properly encompass and communicate everything that I think I find in these border-hugging books. There’s a quote from one of Elizabeth Bishop’s letters, which I sort of carry around in my brain at all times as a point of contact and inspiration (though it’s half remembered, and although I could easily use the wonder of Wikipedia and clarify the line and provide a proper citation, I’m choosing not to, partly out of laziness, partly out of stubbornness, and partly out a misplaced desire to give some impression of what I mean by a text that acknowledges its own ‘thinkiness’ in the process of its making),** which, paraphrased, goes along the lines of: “I tend to favour works which provide not the finish of a completed thought, but the ragged process by which such a thought came about.” Of course, that’s probably completely wrong – E-Bish is usually a lot more lucid than that, I’m sure of it – but the sentiment’s a good one, and one with which I concur.
This all chimes in with an increasing sense I have that the real work of literature tends to be happening in the sidelines. By this I don’t mean to suggest some quasi-utopian fantasy, where every bedroom’s hiding a starveling, scribbling Tolstoy-in-waiting (though that might well be the case: who knows?), but rather that the real work by writers who are already established, or who might become established in the future, resides in the interstitial, the neglected, the seemingly-inconsequential. Thus: Thoreau’s journals are more valuable than Walden; Virginia Woolf’s diaries have a greater, or at least equal, claim on posterity than her novels; in decades to come, people are going to remember Simon Gray and Alan Bennet at exemplary diarists who wrote the occasional play (the last of these three examples is arguably already true, which may or may not undermine my argument). I’m saying this not to be controversial (well, maybe a little): this is simply the direction my thoughts – coupled to my reading – have been tending towards. I wouldn’t be so bold as to translate my own idiosyncrasies as a reader into a manifesto,*** but it’s good way to get a conversation going.
Yrs, as ever,
*I think some of the ideas and critiques in this article were later expanded into book-length form in The Sense of Style, an excellent and lucidly written writing guide which J-Pillz may want to add to his library of same.
**If not ‘thought’, then ‘self-consciousness’ or, maybe, just good old fashioned ‘pretentiousness’ might well do in its stead.
***Besides, that’s already been done.
Sunday, 8 January 2017
One might argue that the reason for literary criticism being outside the mess and stuff (what Forster might call muddle) of life is partly to do with an aping of science. It is to do with it not being a specific I who writes, but an I who writes who could be You or Anyone who had the language and thought to write it. It is positing an objectivity. It commands the authority of the objective. It is the passive observer making observations and noting down these observations for all to read, and by all, the observer means one’s peers: other observers who speak the same jargon-laden language. The critic has left the building and the machine, this machine named One or The Observer might be left to perform the exact measurements, and detect the patterns needed to generate the thesis, to process it, and print it out to send to the right journal (so it might fulfil its REF obligations), and so be read by other machines.
Do you see?
One of the earliest texts (in a way) that resembles what you describe is Rene Descartes’ Meditations – that series of reflections and self-experiments that foreground his thinking about his own thinking. Indeed, he believes to affirm his knowledge of his own existence upon this thinking: Cogito ergo sum and additional jazz. But I submit that you are overemphasising the word thought in your designation of what you call the thinkerly text. One doesn’t want (perhaps) it to be like a maths problem, in which one has simply filled the box marked ‘Show your Working’, but rather as something that also shows the force and the emotional intensity that motivates, and is part of, their thought.*
Don’t you feel?
Because this is how the writer truly steps through, smashes the experimental glass that might separate her from her life, her from us. Or, indeed, him. Because let us be specific here. One essayist possibly of interest to you is Thomas Glave – I have his collection Among the Bloodpeople (swing by and I’ll lend it to you) – and his writing is frequently visceral, intensely personal. He has style and knows how to use it. He has total command of the interiority that modernism gifted us in the last century. He smashes the glass and through the spiderwebbed chaos and shards come thoughts and feelings: on the murder of queer Jamaican men, on joy and writing, on James Baldwin. But to steer it from essays alone and over to fiction: David Markson in his Wittgenstein’s Mistress shows in accumulating fragments the thoughts and feelings of a woman who appears to be the last person living on Earth. The same applies to what Tyler Malone calls Markson’s Notecard Quartet of novels: Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point and The Last Novel, all of which sift through the detritus of world culture (largely anecdotes and facts about major writers and other figures), and foreground the making of themselves in ways that are strangely moving. I would also include Lydia Davis’ The End of the Story, her only novel to date, which both shows the creation of the novel, and the thought and feeling that assembles it, with her characteristic attention to the process that a mind goes though. Her novel, like Dept of Speculation, is about a break up. (Maybe in shrugging off linearity you have invited circularity?) A lot of the suggestions that are coming up do seem to be about brokenness, endings, disappearances. What you seem to be asking for is both for the writer to there, present, but also to be uncertain, to be restless and questing, perhaps without ever finding what they set out to find. Put overly poetically, anyway.
But – to draw you too through the glass (do be careful where you step) – why? Not that I disagree, per se. But what is it about uncertainty that appeals? Why – one might say – do you ask of this thinkerly text a tentativeness? Even, maybe (though this perhaps comes from me rather than you), a brokenness?
*You do use the word ‘living, breathing, feeling human being’, but I wanted to make a point about emphasis. Nor do I want to deny the thrill that the cerebral has, but the word ‘thought’ alone doesn’t convey this, I don’t feel.
P.S.I didn't know this – and oh, the cover of that collection is wonderful.
Friday, 6 January 2017
Dear J-Lo (yes, I went there),
Thanks for the reply: I feel like you've left your brain open for me to rummage around in with impunity, with a sign propped up next to the open door saying "Please Feel Free to Rummage in This Brain", which was what I was hoping would be the case. There's plenty there for me to get my teeth into - in your reply, not your brain: I'm not a monster! - and, in a move that will seem, I'm sure, increasingly typical of my wayward and intransigent methods as this conversation unfolds, my own reply is going to start at the end of yours and work backwards. Have at you, linearity!
First, the matter of the reading diary. At the moment, it's rather a simple beast: taking the form of a list - I like lists - of what I have read, with bracketed information regarding when I started and when I finished the book, with some other slightly obsessive bits of code to let me know whether I'm re-reading a particular book [because I'm of an age where I need typographical confirmation of this, apparently]; whether I gave up in frustration [and, perhaps, what form my frustration took: fire, window, canal, shotgun, etc]; whether it's an intermittent, etiolated reading [this is true of anthologies or collections of essays, usually]; and no doubt ever more complicated subcategories of marginalia I haven't even thought up yet, as the diary continues on its merry. A while back I used to keep a more substantial reading journal, which is a very different beast, involving brief comments and critiques on whatever I happened to be reading at the time, but found it was slowing me down; and besides, comment's best expressed immediately in the margins of a book, or flung out into the ether via email or blogpost or good old fashioned green crayon.
I very much enjoyed Offill's book, too, though what I've read of her first novel hasn't grabbed me quite so spectacularly (I imagine that's more my problem than hers, as I favour the kind of fractured, essayistic, semi-autobiographical form, of which Dept. of Speculation is a perfect example; Last Things, on the other hand, is, in the parlance of our time, a trifle more 'convench'). My method with novels that've been praised to the skies and back is to wait a little while - usually eighteen months of so - after initial publication and, when the critical dust has settled, read them as cold as possible (obviously an impossibility, as we're not in France, and our fiction paperbacks don't possess the blank white imperturbability of a modernist art gallery's dazzling edifice). This usually - though not always - results in me enjoying a book more than I no doubt would have done if I'd approached it hot off the press, as I tend to immediately distrust any cultural production that's received pretty much universal approbation. (Yes, I know, I'm a surly and contrarian little munchkin, ain't I?)
"Tentativeness is a good disguise for vagueness": my PhD supervisor was constantly having to tell me not to use the word 'tentative' or its correlatives in my writing, as it made it look like I didn't have confidence in my ideas. In fairness, I didn't, but you don't let the other guy know that, right? I've now, as a result of that advice, swung wildly in the other direction, to the point where I'm positively obnoxious and over-confident in my sweeping generalisations, which will no doubt prove my downfall, as and when. More seriously, though, and coming on to the meat of your reply / open-door brain: the kind of criticism you're describing (even if it doesn't exist at the moment) feels precisely like the kinds of impossible-to-categorise-or-find-an-appropriate-shelf-for-in-the-bookshop books that I've been jonesing for lately. What I really loved about Dept. of Speculation - I have read other books, obviously, but it's better to have a concrete example to hand than to fumble around in generalities - was the way its intellect, its learning, its thought, was nestled into the stuff and mess of life. Was inextricable from the stuff and mess of life, in fact. That's precisely what's lacking in traditional jargon-clotted 'serious' criticism: that sense of a living, breathing, feeling human being hovering behind the words.
I suppose that's a way of acknowledging that I'm hungry for some kind of authorial presence in a way that's all very unfashionable and pre-Barthesian, etc, etc, but it's an element of my reading tastes that there's no point supressing. I dig style, and there's nothing better in this world than a well-turned sentence, and all style really is, to my mind, is an analogue for character, or personality. In the absence of an author's physical presence, the paper-bound illusion of their presence, which is what style strives towards, will more than suffice. Like you, I've been (re)reading Zadie Smith lately as well - God, I'm so hip: I could have been The Believer's online content editor circa 2007; I bet I listen to the Decembrists, too - though in my case it's her actual essays, rather than a Forster-worshipping novel that sounds like it might be an essay. Anyway, in her essay on Nabakov and Barthes, Z-Smithz (oops, I did it again) discusses Barthes' twin notions of the 'readerly' and the 'writerly' text: "Readerly texts ask little or nothing of their readers; they are smooth and fixed in meaning and can be read passively (...) By contrast, the writerly text openly displays its written-ness, demanding a great effort from its reader, a creative engagement. In a writerly text the reader, through reading, is actually reconstructing the act of writing [...]." (Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays [London: Penguin, 2009]: 48.) Smith does a great job of elucidating Barthes’ ideas here, and the whole maelstrom of post-structuralism more generally: she's clear, she's concise, she's stylish. But I can't be the only one thinking there's a missing element to Ronnie's schema: what about the thinkerly text? A book, of whatever form, that eschews both of the textual extremes that Barthes is positing, and is interested primarily in showing the process of thought: that foregrounds its own making (like the writerly text can be said to do), but in a manner than emphasises process over product; the journey, and not the destination. That is capable of being in uncertainties, and so forth. I've come to the conclusion that the form which most closely resembles this third way is the essay. (Though I should obviously never deploy the phrase 'third way' ever again, because of the overt Blairy-Cleggy overtones, but nonetheless, I think my point still stands.)
P.S. Thanks for the heads up on Marshall Berman: he's been mentioned to me by others (and by others, I mean George, naturally: my limited social purview makes Ted Kaczynski look like Nancy Mitford) as someone I'd enjoy. FYI, did you know that Verso are publishing a collection of his essays in March of next year? Yes indeed they are.
Wednesday, 4 January 2017
What is life, in fact, but a (dis?)organised digression? In answer to your question, I’m reading/recently read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) – a novel with a title that makes it sound like it’s an essay, right? As you probs know, the book is based on my literary boyfriend’s best work Howards End (1910), and it was, frankly, a joyful read. Both that novel, and its antecedent, feel like the perfect anodyne for these divisive times where two very different worlds are forced (imperfectly and with difficulty) to connect. Smith has moved the action, broadly, to a campus of a US university in which the two contrasting worlds are headed (ish) by the liberal professor Howard Belsey, and on the other side a cultural conservative critic Monty Belsey (a kind of Clarence Thomas/Roger Scruton figure).
It, alongside your current predilection for non-fiction, made me think of a long distant time (maybe three years ago, alas when I was young, alas) in the run up to my MA when I was (do you detect here the tell-tale shimmer of a flashback?: there I am, rifling through various tomes on the third floor of the Warwick University Library, comparing the classmarks on the spines to those scrawled on a scrap of paper) thinking about the possibility of what seemed (in my view at that time) to have fallen away in the academy: a liberal criticism in the tradition of Arnold, Mill, Trilling, of Forster himself (I imagine it would have drawn on figures like Dewey, Rorty, Nussbaum also). I was interested in a criticism that didn’t clatter and clank with jargon (though wasn’t anti-intellectual), was deeply felt and thought, that was aware of the beautiful, and of a public beyond simply others working in literature departments, and the promotion of reading more generally. It would have the joyful enthusiasm of Marshall Berman’s work. It would have been imaginative (I have almost always preferred the writing of novelists on other novelists). It would definitely have been mindful of the penultimate sentence of the introduction to Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950): ‘The job of criticism would seem to be then, to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty.’
Now, don’t ask me what all that looks like in practice. My life digressed into other things, or that was a digression from those other things, and I returned unto those things. All I write about this is tentative as a) it was wrested and rescued through the flicker and shimmer of a flashback heat haze, b) my past self, as much as my current self, was a moron, c) tentativeness is a good disguise for vagueness.
P.S.Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is great.
P.P.S.What does keeping a reading diary strictly involve? Or what is your approach to it?