For a really fascinating read, one can find nothing better than Orwell's early essay "In Defence of the Novel," first published in 1936.
Reading Versus Watching this week is being pushed to Wednesday because it is long and involved and brilliant and needs editing. However, we do have something else planned for you all today.
No Reading Versus Watching today because I've been swamped and now I'm off to see Manu Chao kick ass in Prospect Park. But I have plenty for you folks to read instead.
Right now on the Internet there are two dramatically different discussions happening. On the one hand, we have an article in the Globe and Mail that argues (absurdly) that men don't read books because books are about feelings and men like ideas. In response we have an (even more absurd) response from Bookslut's Michael Schaub saying that men do too like books with feelings and further, books about ideas are lame and only read by graduate students who get stoned and read Pynchon. (Suddenly my respect for Bookslut as a critical organ plummets.)
On the other hand, SF writer Charles Stross recently said that British SF is better than American SF and further, SF/Fantasy/Horror have all gotten too trashy (this is a new development?) and his daddy can beat up your daddy or something like that. To which Chad Orzel responded with "an oh-so-scholarly 'Well, fuck you, too.'" Stross isn't entirely clear on what he thinks more SF should be like, but if his own novels are any judge, I'd hazard that he wants more pages and pages of boring, essayistic explanations of possible scientific advances espoused by two-dimensional characters.
And as for Michael Schaub? Well, if he wants to read Amy Tan, more power to him. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the best novels have ideas AND feelings (among other things), and I'll bring up the Wet Asphalt Favorite Example™ Moby Dick as my case and point. Further, again and again I'm disapointed at the level of discourse going on among people who should be smarter than this. I mean, seriously, everyone, grow up already.
Conversational Reading has an interesting discussion about the forthcoming Pynchon book. All the lit bloggers have been in a flurry about Against the Day being solicited on Amazon. But are we actually going to read it?
Now, I'm a fan of Pynchon, and someone who defends him to his detractors. I've read Gravity's Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, Slow Learner and Vineland (which is a good book, damnit). But there's this sense where maybe Pynchon hasn't grown very much; all his books seem to in some way hit the same notes, notes that he and his cohort of post-modernists were all hitting very hard in the seventies. I didn't read Mason and Dixon because it struck me as an elaborate rehash of Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. Against the Day, from Pynchon's own description on the Amazon page, should by rights be a good book:
The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.
Right on, right on. And yet, somehow, I'm just not sure if I want to wade through another 900 page book by the man, even with Groucho Marx. People who picked up the "Pynchonesque" mantle, like David Foster Wallace and Mark Danielewski, are interesting because of the way they evolved from Pynchon, in the way they extended and mutated his ideas and created new things out of them. This strikes me as something Pynchon himself seems to have failed at.
Yet, I'll hold off for the reviews. If there's a consensus that this is the Pynchon book that breaks to mold, well then it'd be something to see.
I recently had an opportunity to re-read Dana Gioia's infamous essay "Can Poetry Matter?" after a blogger challenged my take on Gioia's involvement in the New Formalism posted here recently. It got me thinking about what it is to be a writer in our culture, and what it is that puts those sorts of thoughts in our heads. By those sorts of thoughts, I mean the ones that gives a relatively successful writer like Gioia the idea that poetry should be doing something different, or that the status of literature in our culture is something other than it should be. I want to uncover and identify that impulse that drives various writers and critics to do the things they do and talk about contemporary literature in the way that they do.
Why do we like what we like? As with many things, what we like and what we don't like usually is a gut reaction, something we justify rationally after the fact. In television, movies, books and other narrative media, what we like often has no relation to any kind of aesthetic criteria; we have so-called "guilty pleasures," things we like despite our own better judgment. I've been thinking about the television shows I like and why I like them, to see whether there's any kind of connecting thread between them. Talking about this is also useful to you, the reader, to know what kind of litmus paper I'm using to judge things.
One of the best anthologies of current American poetry has no Billy Collins in it. No Jorie Graham. No Ted Kooser, Robert Pinsky, James Tate, or W.S. Merwin. Absent from its pages are Rita Dove, Adrienne Rich, and Nikki Giovanni. No Maya Angelou. No Jewel. Charles Simic is nowhere to be found within it's pages. Neither is Louise Gluck. I speak of course of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, edited by Paul Hoover. Contained within it's pages is nearly every American poet of consequence from the generation born after World War II, as well as the brightest lights of their predecessors, from the Beats and the San Francisco Rennaissance to the first two generations of the New York School and the Black Mountain Projectivist poets. The anthology traces the roots of the current situation of American poetry back to it's beginning in the post-war years Charting the postmodern fascination with Pound, Williams, Stein, the return to Romanticism and immediacy of the Beats and SFR poets, and the heady American Internationalism of Jerome Rothenberg and similar poets, to the sweeping influence of Jackson Mac Low following from John Cage at Black Mountain and Charles Olson's milestone poetic statement "Projective Verse." The book includes that essay in an extensive "poetics" section, along with other famous works like Frank O'Hara's manifesto on Personism, and some Cage meditations on aleatory. It's a book that anyone interested in contemporary poetry should read.
Perhaps in looking for plot and character development I've given the book short shrift. What Dante has created is not a litany of tortures but a landscape of them.
I think there is an under-analyzed read in which Dante is a transgressive writer; before Brett Easton Ellis, before Kathy Acker, before Sade and von Sacher-Masoch, there was Dante. (Though Dante couldn't claim to be the first transgressive writer; there's always Ovid, Seneca, Catullus and God knows how many others who've vanished beneath the waters of history.) Both Dante the author and Dante the character seem alarmingly unperturbed by the horror of what is being described. On the contrary, they seem to revel in it; Dante the author is practically joyous in his ever more fanciful descriptions of torture.
One Story is the only literary magazine I currently subscribe to. It's format is perfect: a single story in a small booklet, published every three weeks, that I can put in my pocket and take on the subway with me. The quality of the stories is also very high. I sat down with the editor and publisher at a café in Manhattan to talk about literary magazines, publishing and the state of short fiction in America.