Criticism

The Future of the Fantastic: Feeling Very Strange

Unevenness is a problem endemic to anthologies. With most of them, when I come to each new story, even one by a name I know and enjoy, I often feel like I'm rolling the dice, and I turn the page with my fingers crossed praying I don't get snake eyes. Thankfully, in Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology even the worst of the stories are merely an entertaining sort of mediocre, and the best are truly astonishing. I found myself actually getting excited at the prospect of the next tale, which is, I think, the mark of a really good collection.

Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Saffran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer is the most commercially and critically successful writer of his generation. Everything Is Illuminated, his first work of fiction, was a hilarious and often touching novel that managed to make even its worst traits somehow endearing. The book was simply great fun to read—though the judgment of Dale Peck, who claimed Illuminated was one of "the best novels I’ve ever been fortunate enough to hold in my hands," was little short of preposterous. Peck's hyperbolic psychosis aside, Everything Is Illuminated was one of the most mature and fully realized books ever published by someone comparably young, which places Foer among the ranks of Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Martin Amis, and John Updike.

A review by Tom Bissell

The Future of the Fantastic: Dangerous Visions

Dangerous Visions
Edited By Harlan Ellison, iBooks, inc, 544pp, $14.95

Note added 2012:

In retrospect, there are two things I'd like to change about this essay. One is the line accusing Ellison of putting Pohl and Knight in there because of sf-family nepotism. This completely ignores the fact that they were much lauded and well established authors at the time, and so might have been included on the strength of their reputations. Which exposes my ignorance: at the time I wrote this, I'd never heard of Pohl or Knight.

Second, I completely ignore Samuel Delany's story "Aye, and Gomorrah". In retrospect, this story is quite good, and it's whole meditation on sexual perversion was really novel and interesting for the time.

One of the things that comes across clearly in the various introductions to the stories in Dangerous Visions, the anthology that defined the "New Wave" of speculative fiction in the 1960's, is that these aren't just writers to Harlan Ellison, but to a large degree they are friends. Even those writers Ellison isn't close to seem part of an extended family, and Ellison admits at one point that he only accepted two stories for the anthology from people he'd never heard of (submissions that were sent to him by agents). On the one hand, this speaks volumes about the sort of collegiality that existed in sf at the time (and in all probability still exists). On the other hand, it makes for an anthology that reads exactly like someone getting stuff from all his friends together whether or not that stuff is actually particularly good.

Why n+1 is the Worst Literary Magazine on the Market

There's been a recent dust-up in the lit blogs over some criminally stupid things that n+1 printed about literary blogs. This after Keith Gessen's previous inflammatory remarks on the subject. One of the things they're on about lit blogs about is being publicity shills to the publishing industry, which is a bit ironic considering that emails published by the Elegant Variation reveal that Gessen was in fact trying to use the lit blogs for just that same purpose himself. But this hypocrisy is simply one way of underlining the obvious: n+1 is run by a cadre of pretentious, arrogant assholes with strange and insupportable ideas about literature and criticism, with Keith Gessen chief among them.

Let us not forget that n+1 is the organ that thinks normal people go on $130 dinner dates, get paid $40 an hour for copy-editing, and sleep with 10 people on a "busy but not extravagant Spring Break." But then n+1's essays always seem to follow a similar pattern: a mildly valid critical thought is blown up into Iraq proportions, and then addressed with a rapidly escalating series of inane and insupportable conclusions. This is true of the dating article (the notion that dating can be a pain in the ass is valid enough, but n+1 shines that through a perverse and distorted lens, projecting something alien and somewhat nauseating). Likewise with the Elif Batuman's article on the short story, which takes the problem of workshop fiction and somehow deduces that the problem with these stories involves too many proper names and implied familiarity—again, a perplexing, weird conclusion. And, of course, this is true with their criticisms of lit blogs.

Consider:

People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn't happen, at least not often enough.

...

The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satifsfaction - "The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!" - or displeasure - "I shit on Dante!" So man hands on information to man.

...

Why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exist [sic][pointed out by The Millions] who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie-cred? In addition to free advance copies, the blogger gets some recognition: from the big houses, and from fellow bloggers. Recognition is also measured in the number of hits - by their clicks you shall know them - and by the people who bother to respond to your posts with subposts of their own. The lit-bloggers become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches. So it is when people have only their precarious self-respect. But responses - fillips of contempt, wet kisses - aren't criticism.

Now, it's one thing to say that a lot of lit bloggers write shallow things, and certainly we see enough of "This book is SO great, you have to read it right now!" from certain quarters I won't name. But to then imply that the lit bloggers are somehow in the pocket of the publishing houses just because those publishing houses send them review copies, and give them recognition simply doesn't follow. In fact, that argument is better applied to profession newspaper and magazine reviewrs, such as n+1 editor Marco Roth. After all, they not only get free books, they get paid to write about them by giant corporations, who themselves get advertising money from the publishing houses. Blogs aren't on the payroll of publishing companies, and there is no more incentive for a lit blogger to print a positive review of The DaVinci Code than there is for printing one of Everyman, Black Swan Green, or the kind of small press books that blogs are known for championing like Stranger Things Happen or Home Land. Indeed n+1's attitude, including and especially the statement "responses aren't criticism," strikes one as a kind of petulant childishness, like a little girl sneering at a more popular girl and saying, "what a bitch!" Not just because there's plenty of good criticism in the blogosphere if you care to look, that's entirely beside the point. Blogs are not always meant to be literary magazines, and bloggers don't have to be critics. Bloggers are bloggers, and one of the things that separates a blog from a literary review is that in the medium of the blog a blogger can chat informally about books if she wants to. Complaining that blog posts aren't long and rigorous enough is kind of like complaining that some motorcycles don't have four wheel drive. It's not just stupid, it's bizarre.

Like The Elegant Variation, I too had an email correspondence with Keith Gessen, though I'm too much of a gentleman to print it. But I will report that among the things he said was that I was somehow "freeloading"* off his content by reading it when he put it up on his own website instead of buying the magazine. Keith Gessen is a weird little man and n+1 is a weird little magazine, and not a very good one at that. Frankly, you shouldn't buy it or read it or otherwise bother with it, and we'll all be better off when it (inevitably) goes under.

* This originally read "stealing." Keith Gessen wrote to correct me, that he had accused me of "freeloading" and not stealing. Looking back through the emails, this is correct.
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Review: Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick

In recent years it has become increasingly politically incorrect in literary circles to simply dismiss Philip K. Dick as a pulp Science Fiction writer; at this point, there seems to be a general consensus that there is more to Dick than there is to other "classic" scifi writers like Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, or Isaac Asimov. A dismissal of Dick in this way is no more acceptable than it would be to dismiss Kafka a horror writer, or Ernest Hemingway an Adventure writer. At the same time, there is the lingering problem with Dick in that he is somehow not of the same caliber as a Kafka or a Hemingway, and the critical appraisal of his work becomes problematic as a result.

The Future of the Fantastic: New Wave Slipstream Fabulism

It isn't so surprising that I didn't know what was going on in Science Fiction, as I'm the type of guy who generally reads "Literary Fiction," and like many readers of a particular type of writing, I didn't stray outside my aisles in the bookstore much. Sure I used to pick up a Philip K. Dick book now and again, maybe a Neil Gaimen novel, but hell, those guys are cool. And reading them made me feel like I was open minded and hip to what's going on, even if I wasn't.

Must Characters Be Round?

I recently watched the Russian mini-series of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which was wonderful and supposedly scrupulously faithful to the novel (which I haven't read). One of the remarkable things about it, as with Dostoevsky in general, is that despite the fact that there's a huge cast of characters, every single one seems incredibly real and true to life, as if they could simply step off the page (or in this case, screen).

In his book, Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forester separates characters into "round" and "flat." The difference is deceptively simple; a flat character is "constructed round a single idea or quality"; "The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as 'I never will desert Mr. Micawber.'" The round character, on the other hand, is a character "capable of surprising in a convincing way"; "It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book."

Upon first glance, it would seem like a tautology that round characters are better than flat ones, with Dostoevsky as the perfect example. But Forester does not take this view at all, rather he says, "In Russian novels, where [flat characters] so seldom occur, they would be a decided help."

Criticism in Our Digital Age

Rachel Cooke asks recently in an op-ed piece in The Guardian if we "amateur word spewers" would really do without Nick Hornby who Cooke feels has set the Gold Standard for criticism to which no lit blog can aspire.

I feel confident in answering that yes, I would be quite content to live in a world without Nick Hornby and his brand of insipid, uninspired prose.

Criticism on the Web

One conversation going on right now in the Blogosphere is the function of book reviews on the Internet, as per this round-up by Critical Mass. Lev Grossman, critic for Time Magazine, seems to dislike "amateur" book reviews, though he's not explicitly talking about the web, but rather, about non-book-critics writing book reviews in print. Anyway the thread was picked up by blogizens, like Chekov's Mistress, who defends a certain type of "non-critical" book review.

Frankly, I'm not well read enough to be a critic and am quite content not to be (and who, like Art Winslow, can fill reams of notebooks on a book for a review). What's more, I only write about books that I like because - here's a professional differentiation - I don't have time, short of getting paid for it, to finish a book I don't like - and a likeworthy book is not the same as a review-worthy book.

I, however, am more likely to agree with The Reading Experience, who writes:

if I am going to review the book myself (on this blog or elsewhere), I am also interested in fostering a critical discussion of sorts by putting my own analysis/interpretation in the context created by the already existing commentary on the book. ... it seems to me that book reviews, periodical essays, and weblog posts might aspire to more than just the conventional thumbs up/thumbs down, read it/don't read it sort of review and attempt to fill up the critical vacuum left by the withdrawal of academic criticism from the practice of what seems to most people to be actual literary criticism.

"Critical vacuum" being the operative word; Reading Experience is arguing that blogging can compensate for a perceived lack in academic criticism. I would argue that the lack is in the rigor of reviewing practiced by most of today's mainstream reviewers, and further the marginalizing of serious reviewing in organs like the New York Times Book Review. That's the great thing about the web: you can make it into whatever you want. And what I want is intelligent criticism and literary discussion. Anybody else?

Reading Versus Watching: Toward a New Aesthetic

What I really question is whole division between art and entertainment; fundamentally, I wonder why it has to be this way at all. Why can't literary novels be just as entertaining as genre novels? Why can't genre fiction have the depth and psychological sensitivity of literary fiction? Who made this division in the first place and why do so many people take its existence as gospel truth?