Where has she been, what has she been doing? Perhaps there are people out there who wonder these things. For better or worse, their possible existence is not why I have ever really written this blog, so I am allowed to reappear without really caring whether anyone else does. But amid a fair amount of “nothing,” I have indeed been reading, and there are far too many things that have gone un-written this year. I need to catch up, lamely as will inevitably be the case with things read without a post always in the back of mind. I’ll use the holiday week for some light catch-up work before getting to “the good stuff,” and the holiday itself for the lightest of the light.
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. This is one of those books that make me want to warn people: it’s not really a novel. It’s fiction, it tells a story, but we must not forget the idea of “romances” and other pre-novelistic fictions when we pick up a book like Ivanhoe. Of course, in a sense it is very important as a novel: an early historical one. But it’s so historical that all the chivalry and quasi-mythical or -archetypal figures make it something a little different. Read it, read it by all means. It’s extremely engrossing.
Rebecca and Rowena, by W.M. Thackeray. Read this, absolutely, but only after Ivanhoe. Well, I suppose you could read it as a standalone, and it would still be biting and funny, but it really is better paired. For the record: Thackeray is totally right about Rebecca and Rowena.
Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa. Ogawa’s “eleven dark tales” are pure Ogawa and very good. If you know her from The Housekeeper and the Professor, read me on The Diving Pool for a better idea of what Revenge is like. Ogawa deserves more from me, truly.
The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith. It’s kind of a travesty I did not write about this for real-real, but it’s also the sort of thing that begs for re-reading. I have wronged you as well, Mr. Goldsmith.
Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata. I will say only that Kawabata has shot to the top of my list of Japanese writers I have not really read yet that I will be reading a lot more of.
Minotaur, by Benjamin Tammuz, was my first try of Europa Editions’ new world noir imprint, and a book I would actually write about if it hadn’t started making the rounds from me to my consumption partner to his father and likely now to parts beyond. Tammuz is Israeli and the novel is worth reading both as compelling, spy-oriented noir as well as for the very interesting (if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am) mid-twentieth-century view of Israel’s coming into being.
Last week, Sam Sacks wrote in The New Yorker on criticizing the classics and how the canon is selected in today’s world. Contrasting the current, primarily American, state of the canon with that of the past, when the gatekeepers of the ivory tower and the salon determined not just which books were classics but the very definition of the concept, he argues that the classics are now determined by democratic and pragmatic tastes:
What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important.
In other words, the current criteria for classics are more a matter of sociology than of aesthetics. That’s why prose-toilers like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are securely fixed in the canon while masters such as Frank O’Connor and Eudora Welty could easily be left out. “1984” and “Brave New World” are embedded in the weave of language and history, but what does Welty have going for her apart from stylistic perfection? Henry Miller survives—and will continue to survive—because the country once found him shocking enough to censor. (Likewise, D. H. Lawrence might very well be a footnote if not for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”) There’s better prose in the average issue of Consumer Reports than in most Upton Sinclair novels, but “The Jungle” triggered actual legislative reform and will therefore last as long as the United States does.
I hardly consider myself a literary critic, so it’s hardly surprising I wouldn’t feel the same kind of “freedom” or “exhilarat[ion]” Sacks attributes to today’s critics, who can have at many of these classics, spitting into the Grand Canyon (to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates) because, as it turns out, much of the Grand Canyon isn’t all that grand.* Still, I spend, I think, a fair amount of time doing just that. Great truth and beauty, such as they are, are what move me, but my curious nature draws me as well to the works of “cultural significance,” the important in addition to the great—not to mention the so-called great (since that’s what so many of these “classics” turn out to be). And while I rarely take any joy in savaging such works, or even savage them at all, I find it interesting and even a little bit important to explore the good and the bad, whenever there is any of either to be found. And I may just turn out to be halfway decent at doing it, too.
Even before reading Sacks’s piece (which is, I should say, one of the few written about the idea of “classics” that didn’t make me roll my eyes a single time), I had planned on writing this week about one such work: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Admittedly, Švejk is hardly a part of the canon the way Orwell and Huxley are; I doubt many American high school English classes assign it. But it’s well-known enough to be the namesake of a popular house blend at my local coffee shop, where quotes from the novel sometimes appear on a blackboard, and has enough cult status to have been recommended to me by a “real-life human.”
Švejk is the story of a Czech soldier swept up by the currents of the First World War, fighting for an empire that systemically oppresses his own people. A note at the end of my Penguin Classics edition explains that it was “one of the most famous and widely-read novels published after the First World War,” and that Hašek died before he could complete it. It’s possible that some of my criticisms would have been mooted by a less abrupt ending, but we have what we have.
*This should not be taken as any slight on the actual Grand Canyon, which I have not yet seen, and my experience thus far of natural wonders suggests it really is that grand.
As others are haunted about not reading enough women,or enough YA, or enough world literature, I frequently torture myself over how little I read that is not prose (among many, many other things, of course). It’s bad enough the way I read fiction at the expense of nonfiction, the share of the universe of excellent essays and criticism I neglect, but the amount of space in my reading life accorded to poetry and, especially, drama, is pretty pathetic.
I’ve gotten somewhat better in the poetry side of things, and on the nonfiction side as well, though these are both things I find difficult to blog about so you often miss them here. It’s something I’d like to rectify. But to even things out in the drama department (and initially inspired, truth be told, by a Netflix marathon of Kenneth Branagh on recent weekend, along with other similar influences), I recently decided I would finally get around to reading all of Shakespeare’s plays (and finally Ocford Word’s Classics has editions that are actually attractive)–in my own sweet time, of course–as well as get into some Jacobean drama.
The most notable experience of reading the play was noticing how very many lines have become common references or clichés. It’s not just “mine eyes dazzle!”; I basically felt like I knew somewhere between a third and half the play. This is not to denigrate reading it in any way–quite the opposite. It was an enlightening experience, as well as entertaining.
The funny thing is, just as with poetry, and with short stories if I’ve stayed away from them a long time, I was also quickly noticing how much I enjoy reading in the form and wondering why I don’t do more of it. I’ll get to Shakespeare separately, as King Lear certainly deserves its own post, but if you’ve got any Jacobean suggestions I’m all ears.
…of the blogging variety, that is.
If you don’t follow me on Twitter or keep up with BookRiot, you may have thought my long-dormant blog meant I wasn’t writing anything at all. Several weeks ago I began a series on the site, “Read This Then That,” pairing contemporary novels with classics. The match-ups so far:
- What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. These two have been frequently compared, and when I re-read the Greene, Beha’s novel seemed even better than it already had in comparison.
- Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. How a children’s book can lead to massive quarter-life crisis—and what that says about children’s classics and those who cling to them.
- Billy Lynn’s Long Haltime Walk by Ben Fountain and Israel Potter by Herman Melville. I suppose I should be impressed with myself that I didn’t head for Melville until the third edition in the series, but of course I had to go for one of his strangest and least-known works. I still think the comparison is an apt and original one.
- Boleto by Alyson Hagy and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. Two stories of a boy and his horse—and as superficial as that sounds, they really do have a lot in common.
- Old Filth (and The Man with the Wooden Hat) by Jane Gardam and Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling. My current Raj orphan obsession was fertile material for this series, with the phenomenon lasting as it did over a period of generations, and now being reexamined in a postcolonial light. Still, the fit of Gardam’s Filth books with early Kipling is almost uncanny.
- Glaciers by Alexis Smith and Mary by Vladimir Nabokov. At first I thought this was one of the more tendentious comparisons, relying as it does on the delicate thread of theme—and delicate themes at that, memory, dreams, and nostalgia. But sharper focus on the plot—a cloudy, unimportant thing in both novels—reveals other similarities as well, in the stories of intellectual loners living in transitional locations, quietly drifting among their “peers.”
I promise this work hasn’t been keeping me away from bibliographing, and it won’t in future. And do let me know if there’s any contemporary work you particularly think I should read!
I’ve reached the end of the year, and I’ve been so shamefully bad about blogging for the past several months that, as a punishment to myself (not to you!), I will not be doing the usual year-end round of bibliographing charts. Perhaps they will be a birthday present to myself in a couple months.
For now, instead, I will devote the end of the year to two things: a list (as part of the same punishment), and several posts on some of the best things I’ve been reading recently: the works of Jane Gardam.
Today, the list. These are, subjectively and somewhat arbitrarily, the 10 best things I read this year, in no particular order.
- The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. Several years late reading this one, but it was well worth it (and thanks to Richard for another excellent readalong experience). Roberto Bolaño, where have you been all my life?
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Before reading Fellow-Townsmen, a pleasant little novella, earlier this year, my only previous experience with Hardy had been Tess of the d’Urbervilles, mere mention of which is still enough to raise my blood pressure over a decade after reading it. But Far from the Madding Crowd gave me the heart to give Hardy another go, which he seems to mostly deserve.
- Adam Bede by George Eliot. Middlemarch may be the “better” book, but again, Adam Bede was a heart-opener of sorts. In this case I had had fond memories of Eliot’s masterwork, but beginning with her first novel helped pave the way for a deeper understanding of Middlemarch when I re-read it a few weeks later. And it’s an excellent story in its own right.
- What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. Someone said not long ago on Twitter that we may have reached our quota on raves about this book by now, but I’m not so sure. Expect more in future, though I’ll spare you for now—except to say: read it!
- Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam. I’m going to try to keep mum on Gardam until I’m really ready to talk about her. Except…
- Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam. …I read so many good books by her this year. Read them all!
- All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. My first McCarthy, and not my last, this was a beautiful book. Bleak and beautiful.
- Wuthering Heights the Emily Brontë. This just can’t help being on a winning list in any year I happen to read it. I’ve lost count of re-reads at this point but it never fails to completely absorb—and reveal more secrets.
- Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett. This was a relatively “light” book, airy and fast and witty and not exactly earnest. But it was a completely turn-on to Compton-Burnett, and I like my light and airy with a bite.
- Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling. My current Raj obsession is not the only reason I loved this early Kipling; he is simply a master storyteller, and I love stories. His humor, both light and black, is just the kind I enjoy most, and he may not be what you think he is at all.
This was a strange year for me, aside from writing less. I seem to have read far more contemporary—or almost-contemporary—fiction than usual. In my top 10 (really top 11) above, I have no fewer than three novels by a single woman—and those contemporary as well. And my top-10 list is more than half written by women.
In some cases, the books I read by my favorite writers simply weren’t my favorite books. This year’s Conrad and Stevenson were just not their best. And Jane Gardam really was a discovery of the kind readers like me wait years for—finally, someone still writing who I really, really care to read! The same goes for Cormac McCarthy and Alyson Hagy, though I’m less driven toward those two.
And I left out from this list a few Latin American works that I truly enjoyed, aside from the Bolaño: Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, and Machado de Assis will all get more attention in future, though Cortázar is not quite to my taste. Good, most assuredly, but not quite to my taste. I also had an interesting time reading a couple novels of the Iraq War, Fobbit and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, both of which I hope to write about in a larger context relatively soon.
Before I look too gushy, let me also list the worst of the year—the airing of grievances!
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. If you’re new here, you may not know that I hate Tolstoy. Or that I still read thousand-page novels by people I hate. Here’s just a little bit of why.
- The Distracted Preacher by Thomas Hardy. Hardy had me, he finally had me, with The Madding Crowd, but then he lost me once again (though not permanently).
- The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. I think I liked this novel the first time I read it, many years ago, although now I have a hard time conceiving why. Like Tolstoy, I see Greene here toying with his characters. If all goes well, I’ll have much more on that at some point.
- Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It feels unfair to put this on a list with the other three, because it doesn’t really rise to their level. It was actually enjoyable to read, for the most part. But if I do write about this one, expect it to be complainy.
Earlier this week, BookRiot posted my first official contribution to their site, an examination of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and its relation to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Please check it out if you haven’t and let me know what you think! There will be more to come every couple weeks—and on my quest to pair classics with contemporary literature, I’ll surely need some really excellent contemporary literature recommendations.
Don’t worry, bibliographing will not suffer. At least not more than it already has! I’ve got some good stuff coming your way now that I’ve broken out of Pastors and Masters a bit, and I’m still looking to do an Ivy Compton-Burnett group read at some point in the next few months.
I’ve been struggling all day with “Zapatos.” I find it very difficult to write about short stories—which frustrates me even more because I really like the form. But I will not capitulate; I will do my work. (I swear, I will give up on the work jokes soon.)
T.C. Boyle opens the story with the enigmatic sentence, “There is, essentially, one city in our country.” The country is never specified explicitly, but it’s pretty clearly Chile.
The point about this country, regardless, is that the people there really like to wear Italian leather shoes. “Oh, you can get by with a pair of domestically made pumps or cordovans of the supplest sheepskin, or even, in the languid days of summer, with huaraches or Chinese slippers made of silk or even nylon,” the narrator admits. “But the truth is, what everyone wants—for the status, the cachet, the charm and refinement—are the Italian loafers and ankle boots, hand-stitched and wtih a grain as soft and rich as, well—is this the place to talk of the private parts of girls still in school?” Let me just take a moment to say, I want these shoes.
Anyway, the narrator’s uncle sells them, or tries to. The margins are not good—imported shoes are heavily taxed, along with most other imported consumer goods. People are always walking by the uncle’s shoe store in their fine Italian footwear that he knows fell off the back of a truck, or whatever happens in China (we do find out). And he is determined to compete.
So we learn that the country has two free ports, where you can buy things duty-free—but to get them back into the city, you have to pay duty, “the same stultifying duty merchants like Uncle Dagoberto were obliged to pay.”
And why then had the government set up the free ports in the first place? In order to make digital audio tape and microwaves available to themselves, of course, and to set up discreet banking enterprises for foreigners, by way of generating cash flow—and ultimately, I think, to frustrate the citizenry. To keep us in our place. To remind us that government is unfriendly.
But Uncle Dagoberto does what businessmen everywhere do, when they can: he finds a way to thwart that unfriendly government and get his hands on some duty-free shoes. Or at least, ones that are almost duty-free. And he needs his nephew’s help to do it.
So the narrator, a student of hermeneutics and deconstruction who takes his Derrida on a business trip, heads to Freeport. And he has to become a businessman, his uncle telling him about a lot of shoes going up for auction the next morning, and that he must “[b]uy them or die.” He does, and Uncle Dagoberto has pulled off a magnificent trick, too good to spoil in a blog post.
That was two years ago.
Today, Uncle Dagoberto is the undisputed shoe king of our city. He made such a killing on that one deal that he was able to buy his way into the cartel that “advises” the government. He has a title now—Undersecretary for International Trade—and a vast, brightly lit office in the President’s palace.
I’ve changed too, though I still live with my mother on La Calle Verdad and I still attend the university. …I no longer study semantics, hermeneutics, and the deconstruction of deconstruction, but have instead been pursuing a degree in business. It only makes sense. After all, the government doesn’t seem half so unfriendly these days.
So where’s the work, you ask? It happens fast; you could almost miss it if you blinked. Two customs-house auctions and the work is done—although, of course, Uncle Dagoberto does have 30,000 pairs of Italian shoes to sell at the end of it, and presumably keeps selling more, at least for a while. But I find the example very interesting: Dagoberto’s work is thwarted (his real work, of simple shoe-selling), so he comes up with a clever plan to get ahead. He’s a businessman, and the only way to expand his business is to get out from under these restrictions (which, of course, don’t apply to everyone). But once he does this, those same restrictions are what enable him to stop working. Now he has his big bright office, dispensing “advice.” For a price, the price of just a bit of work, Dagoberto ensures himself the luxury of not working forever after.
I just wanted to give a quick thank you to anyone who voted for me in BookRiot‘s START HERE write-in contest. Thanks to you, Melville will be assured an entry in the book they’re developing!
If, that is, they manage to raise the rest of the funding to produce it. There are only five days left to reach the Kickstarter target and fully fund the project. If you like the the project, do consider helping to make it happen—because if you don’t, it might not. The prizes are pretty cool, too.
Thanks again to all who voted. If my post impressed that many people, I’m hoping it might also help someone get started loving Melville!
This is a post I’ve put off writing for weeks, because I haven’t been able to organize my thoughts or do the research I would like to do. On top of that, I’ve been thwarted by lost files twice just tonight! But I will persevere with my “bleg,” because it’s the only way I think I can get this thing off the ground—with help from my very wise and well-read readers.
Oldtimers may recall that the second-ever bibliographing project was on maritime literature, which is still a great interest to me. And a lot of maritime literature concerns work—as Tom discusses in his post on Kipling’s Captains Courageous (which I must now read), “Harvey overcomes his petulance and joins the crew, where he does honest work, acquires practical skills (knots, for example), overcomes his class prejudices, and learns to appreciate useful work.” It makes sense, after all: a novel set on shipboard, with most of the characters as crewmembers, is bound to involve work, since that is, in fact, what they’re doing all the time—salting fish, furling sails, “the ordinary life of cod fisherman off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.”
Meanwhile, I have found work to be one of the more profoundly unsatisfying aspects of most contemporary fiction I read. Here is where I am frustrated with myself and hesitant to go forward: I don’t want to be trying to prove out a hypothesis, but exploring the fiction of work. But I do have a hypothesis, and I’ll come clean. I suspect, on very little evidence of course (since the project has not really started!), that the professionalization of writing (especially of novel-writing) has diluted the presence of work in fiction, and what’s more, has denuded it of its variety. To some extent, this is a variant on the old complaint about “program fiction.” If writers are “writers” (and yes, I know many struggle and need to have day jobs to actually support themselves), if they go from BA to MFA to novel-writing, and if this is the new normal, and their peers all do the same, how much variety of experience outside a few professions are we now drawing on in contemporary fiction?
I say “contemporary fiction”; I admit that I am largely thinking of a current New York–based literary scene that does, however, seem to dominate American letters at the moment. Not every character in these books is a writer, though they are often noted for their writer-narrators. But there is a fairly small circle of professions that are “acceptable,” for lack of a better term, in contemporary fiction: writers, designers, journalists, perhaps lawyers and doctors, maybe a chef or two, professors, professors, professors, writers, writers…a “creative class,” if you will.
I find myself feeling suffocated by this from time to time, and I’ve complained about it before. D.G. Myers put a big part of the problem well nearly a year ago:
American writers have rarely failed to mention their characters’ jobs or professions, but have almost never dramatized the work they are said to do. The drama occurs in the characters’ off hours. In last year’s Freedom, Jonathan Franzen puts his on-again-off-again rocker Richard Katz (Patty Berglund’s adulterous lover) to work “building urban rooftop decks,” but though you supposedly hear him hammering and sawing, you never actually see him ripping a board with a table saw or deciding which side of the board should face down. You never learn what materials he uses. He performs manual labor to distinguish him from Patty’s office-bound husband Walter, a lawyer for a non-profit, and to infuse a faded red T-shirt with his smell, so that Patty can spend the day in the shirt that he wore.
Even the lawyer, an “acceptable” occupation—we never find out what he actually does. We learn the area in which he becomes an activist, but what he does most days? Not so much.
There’s an admittedly personal element for me in all this, which makes me dislike writing this post even more than the general disorganization of my thoughts. I am, as it happens, a member of this “creative class,” but I’m also someone who has experienced (and continues to experience) the alienation of class mobility. I’m a first-generation college graduate, as well as a first-generation American (on one side, and, even more unusually, from a majority-white, Anglophone country). Happy as I may be with my own life, it never seems as circumscribed to me as I often find the lives of seemingly similar characters in these class-homogeneous novels. More things fall into my “acceptable” circle, which is not to say I could write about them without doing research—but when even many white-collar jobs, like, say, engineering, seem to be outside the scope of much contemporary fiction, I can’t help feeling that things seem small. This is one reason I often turn to more “regional” fiction; it seems to have a wider scope.
But, as I said, I want to explore this, not just pursue my own prejudices. One place to begin is another D.G. Myers post, a shockingly old one now. But I’m hoping for more suggestions. Nonfiction as well as fiction. I find myself instinctively uninterested in the sort of “office novel” about the absurdity of cubicle life, but perhaps I am wrong in that assessment. I’m not looking to find any sort of Great American Novel of Labor, or anything like that, but for more examples like the one Myers gave in Literary Commentary, of Philip Roth’s to-me-lovely description of glove-making in American Pastoral. For representations of classes beyond the creative and professional. I tweeted, I think, about this once, and I don’t remember exactly what I asked about, but I specified that I wanted to stay away from immigrant-oriented fiction. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, by any means, but seems to me like it would introduce many more elements into the mix, elements of cultural assimilation that aren’t as important to this particular project. But there are some thematic similarities—the cultural mobility and resultant alienation of immigrants could be very similar to the alienation of class mobility, the idea that you are no longer among “your people,” and must find a new way to navigate the world that your family was only somewhat able to prepare you for.
Again, the most frustrating thing for me here has been research; I do not know how to go about finding the kind of fiction I am looking for. Well, I should cut this ramble off now, I suppose, as it’s gotten plenty rambly. I’ll still be thinking about this, and looking for lists and suggestions elsewhere, but, dear readers, what do you think? Of the project, and some possible inclusions in it? The bibliographing Work Project has been dying to get out of my head and into some books (and into the blog); is it a worthwhile one? Are there closer ways I could focus? And what should I read?
On Friday, when I first read Jacob Silverman’s column in Slate decrying niceness in the online literary community, I was excited to see the reaction on Twitter seemed mostly in favor of his point. When I found out the column was based on an earlier blog post that was written partially as a reaction to Molly Fischer’s second n+1 piece on ladyblogs—I piece I loved almost more than her original story on ladyblogs, by the way.
Early Saturday I was further encouraged to see Ron Charles’s response in the Washington Post (sorry, I too missed his earlier lament about dullness in online reviewing). But then I started to see the counterreaction.
First, I read Emma Straub’s response, which wasn’t objectionable at all, but struck me as curious. I could see writing a response because she was mentioned by name in Silverman’s original column, but nothing he wrote was any kind of attack on her; she was simply a good example of an author with a sizeable Twitter following whose first book isn’t even out yet—something very relevant, because part of his point is about positive comments around books that the commenters can’t possibly have read. That is to say, Silverman’s point doesn’t really have anything to do with what Straub has done or will do—she’s promoting her new book, after all, and social media marketing is a perfectly legitimate part of that—but about how other people in the online literary community react to that promotion.
Meanwhile, Helen DeWitt writes in a comment at The Millions that she doesn’t “feel good about” reviewing a book she thinks is “terrible” by “slash[ing] and burn[ing].” First-time authors may be bullied by editors and agents into making changes they disagree with artistically, and if DeWitt just happens to criticize a book such that she agrees with the author’s initial vision but not with the final version of the book:
Will the editor revert to the author’s version when the paperback is released? Nope. Will editor and agent apologize and try to make amends? Nope. Will it do the author any good to say to editor and agent, or to other editors and agents, that s/he was right all along? Is this a serious question? No, in order to spare readers the loss of 20 bucks and 10 minutes, I am sabotaging the prospects of a writer who may well have genuine talent.
Now, my first reaction is to say that it doesn’t matter that the book isn’t reverted—if an editor or agent consistently has her books panned by critics, maybe that editor or agent won’t get so much work in future—won’t be able to ruin so much work. It’s not as though the only feedback in the publishing world should go to the author. If we want good books to happen, we are dependent on those agents and editors for it too. We should want those people to lose their jobs, or at least get better at them. My second reaction is to note that a critic might hope to save a lot more than one reader $20 and 10 minutes (or hours). Multiplication is a powerful thing.
But nothing compared to my dismay at the reaction of Michelle Dean at The Rumpus, who has a problem with the basic fact that Silverman’s column was inspired by something to do with ladyblogs, “which is, I must say, a subject on which I see no call for the opinions of people who do not identify as women.” Well, now I must digress, and talk about Fischer’s n+1 story for a moment. The most compelling part of it, for me, was a section on a negative review Edith Zimmerman wrote of Green Girl, a novel by Kate Zambreno. After “comments were unusually hard on Zimmerman,” she invited the author to do a Q&A on The Hairpin.
Zimmerman was doing what I am trying to do now: create an opportunity to revisit her opinions, and to revise or more strongly restate them. Both Zimmerman and Zambreno were positioned to respond to their critics—Zimmerman to the commenters, Zambreno to Zimmerman. But instead of discussing their differences, Zimmerman abandoned her critique entirely.
“I feel a little ridiculous even putting myself into this conversation,” she wrote, “because you wrote a novel, and I wrote a review. That a lot of people thought sucked. I would love someday to make a book, and I think it’s awesome that you have.” Zimmerman highlighted the praise Zambreno had received elsewhere, encouraged readers to buy the book, and expressed chagrin at certain omissions in her review.
It’s hard for me to imagine, though, that Zimmerman’s initial response was only lazy or mistaken. Surely she meant what she had written? If she did, she was willing to discard it. She framed her shift in terms of the rebuke she had received from commenters and a coincidental email recommending the book. Social consensus had overruled her opinion, and it was time to reestablish social harmony.
Below the Q&A, one commenter wrote, “I was really anxious while reading this, I think because both Edith and Kate were in a very vulnerable place: what if someone said something awful about the other’s writing?? But in the end I like Edith even MORE than before, and Kate seems awesome too.”
“For real. Two classy ladies being super classy,” responded another.
What if Zimmerman and Zambreno had managed to stay super classy while still disagreeing?
Dean makes a point of saying she thinks it’s okay to criticize things (except for certain things, like appearance, which Silverman didn’t actually criticize at all, simply describing a photo Straub posted to Twitter, since the fact of her posting photos of herself to Twitter is part of her book promotion and relevant to the methods of social media marketing under discussion), but I’m left wondering exactly how, since “my mother always told me that nice is as nice does” and it’s apparently “kind of weird” to think short-form social media is appropriate for criticism, and Silverman’s basic call for a more critical and self-critical online book culture is only perceived as “bare name-calling and bitchery.” Admittedly, I think Dean badly misreads Silverman’s entire discussion of Straub and her book—he’s not “carping about attire,” but telling you that he can’t tell you what he thinks about the book yet, and most other people can’t either. In the meantime, there’s a basically content-free vacuum filled with enthusiasm.
And God forbid anyone should think I am writing about Straub here (or her appearance); clearly, pulling a real-world example like this was the worst thing Silverman could have done, because it’s hardly a matter about individuals. (For the record, I know almost nothing about Straub except that she exists, is pretty popular on Twitter, and has a book coming out soon.) The most interesting thing to me in his whole column is the idea that the medium is largely the message. When you can only “like” on Facebook, never “dislike,” what percentage of human emotion and experience are we essentially stuffing under the surface as if it never existed? Someone from Tumblr gives the New York Times the to-me-shocking quote, “We don’t want to allow you to have your feelings hurt on Tumblr,” and that’s not the main thing we’re talking about? A fair share of writing about books is moving from a sphere of staff writers who, as Ron Charles described, are safe in their ability to write negative, to one in which writing negative is made all but impossible by the conscious decisions of the designers of our new media.
Of course it’s possible to write a negative tweet, just as it’s possible to write a negative blog post, but it’s easier (and more rewarding, in social terms) to go the other way. And of course this isn’t about encouraging “meanness,” but about honesty and integrity toward the audience. It’s also about one of Fischer’s ultimate points about the ladyblogs, which I think applies to far more than just them:
[My ideal website] would be one where good faith could be assumed without gussying everything up in the trappings of intimacy, swaddling tricky subjects in chattiness. These are gestures that seem strange and infantilizing to me, because instant friendship regardless of individuality is the kind of assumption that parents make about children (“They have a daughter your age, you’ll have fun!”) and bosses about subordinates and majorities about minorities, but not one equals in power typically make about one another.
The “instant friendship,” “chattiness,” and “clubbiness” are largely an illusion. Tumblr may not want to let anyone’s feelings get hurt, but they can’t help that—the relentless focus on positivity has huge potential to create in-groups that have little problem finding ways to ostracize others. There’s no faster way to create criticism than to diss the niceness that normally covers such up.
And one final note on complaints that “enthusiasm” is a good thing just because it means people are enthusiastic about literature. So many people in this conversation, I think, come into it with the mindset of the embattled book lover or industry insider—publishers, editors, booksellers, critics, not to mention writers. The kind of defensiveness manifested here is not ultimately helpful. I don’t care about literature or being enthusiastic about literature; I care about good literature and being enthusiastic about good literature. The survival and success of the publishing and bookselling industries in their current form don’t do much for me if the books they are publishing and selling are not good. And that’s why I just can’t understand the question why any of us should not “feel good about” writing anything we really believe in about the books we read.