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.