Criticism

The Criticism of George Orwell

For a really fascinating read, one can find nothing better than Orwell's early essay "In Defence of the Novel," first published in 1936.

Ideas vs. feelings vs. genres vs. science vs. America vs. Britain vs. the world

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.

I think Derrida called it Hymen, so it's time to pop your cherries boys.

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.

Reading Versus Watching: Why I Watch

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.

Tom Bissell Gives Good Essay

A while ago, Quackenbush asked me to write up an article on The Underground Literary Alliance, a bunch of anti-elitest, indier-than-thou curmudgeons who do things like organize protests of literary writers. I said that I could not say anything about The Underground Literary Alliance that Tom Bissell didn't already say better. In fact, I think Tom Bissell may be the best literary critic around, and I'm eagerly waiting for him to come out with an essay collection. Here is the full text of his essay on the group, courtesy of The Believer magazine:

PROTESTING ALL FICTION WRITERS! by Tom Bissell

Enjoy.

Neal Stephenson on "Beowulf" writers versus "Dante" writers

While I'm finishing up this week's Reading Versus Watching column, go read the second question in this interview with Neal Stephenson conducted by SlashDot. In it he talks about the traditional division between popular ("Beowulf") writers and literary ("Dante") writers, and towards the end mentions how they seem to be converging these days.

Of course, what Neal Stephenson doesn't mention is the fascinating flipside of the situation as he outlines it, which is that while fans of Dante fiction, the high culture taste makers also known as literate readers (ourselves included) don't pay much attention to the stuff readers of Beowulf fiction like, it's even more telling that Beowulf readers don't pay any attention to the stuff that Dante readers like. I mean, I like Neil Gaiman as much as the next guy, but he's hardly of the same caliber as, say, David Foster Wallace or Colson Whitehead. But you'll never see Wallace or Whitehead swarmed with 18 to 32 year old males who want their autograph. I'd be willing to bet that not as many of their fans are overweight computer programmers willing to shell out fifteen hundred bucks on a leather trenchcoat so that they can look like Neo from The Matrix, only to shoot the whole project in the foot by capping off the look with a pair of ten dollar faux leather velcro sneakers, or worse, sandals, that their mom bought them at payless when they were fifteen. Which is to say that as much as we like the idea that there's no division between patrons of "high" and "low" culture, in modern day America, the fact of the matter is high culture has become valued by bohemians with refined tastes whereas the patrons of "low" culture are a bunch of overfed hayseeds. What's interesting in this is that all of a sudden good taste is, and has been for some time, disconnected from socio-economic status in America, giving the lie to many Marxist culture studies analyses imported from Europe. I mean, alright, I'm generalizing, but it seems to me that we've reached a cultural moment where it is no longer sufficient to either view the state of things as a polar spectrum and it's also no longer good enough to collapse the one end into the other and say it's all the same thing. There are differences here, and they are important, and they need more teasing out than these simple sorts of analyses can offer is, I think, the point. --J F Quackenbush

Reading Versus Watching: Whither Superman?

What a joyless, uninspired, heavy-handed and dead thing this new movie turned out to be. What we wanted was something that returned the franchise to its solid foundations, both corollary and flip-side to the excellent Batman Begins. What we got instead was one scene after another lifted directly from the original movies in what seems intended to be an homage, but instead comes off wearyingly unoriginal. Scene after scene of Superman bearing things cross-like on his shoulders, overdubs of Marlon Brando from the first movie ("And so I gave my first born son..." et al), Superman getting stabbed in the side, falling through space in a crucified posture, dying and being reborn, the whole Jesus analogy so unsubtle it's almost surprising the movie isn't in Aramaic. Scene after scene of long, drawn-out shots of characters on the verge of tears. We get Superman as a creepy guy who loiters outside Lois Lane's house, spying on her and listening in on her conversations. We get a "mad genius" scheme from Lex Luthor that doesn't even pretend to make sense. We get at least a dozen tiny plot-holes. About half-way through I just wanted god-like Superman villain Darkseid to show up out of nowhere, laugh at this annoying pussy calling himself super and lay waste to the Earth.

Reading Versus Watching: Wuxia

My question is this: if Jin Yong is the most widely read contemporary Chinese author, not only in China but all over Asia, and thereby certainly one of the most widely read authors in the world, why is he so sparsely translated into English?

Novelization

Slate has an article about what's happening to movie novelizations.

I've always been sort of intrigued by the concept of the novelization. A "novelization" is an novel adaptated from a movie, so there's no reason it couldn't be as interesting as a movie adapted from a novel. However, because of economics that hasn't often been the case; it's so much cheaper to have someone write a novel than make a movie that novelizations are often simply part of the marketing budget for a movie. Slate makes the case that because novelizations were originally so people could relive the movie back before the days of rentals, and because DVD's are making people so accustomed to bonus materials, that novelizations are increasingly divergent from the original film, and further, making greater efforts to expand upon them. Which is making the novelization more interesting.

Theoretically.

I'm open to suggestions as to novelizations that would be so much as worth recommending on this site.

Reading Versus Watching: Fantastic Voyage

Kelly Link is an extraordinary fiction writer. She will take an old saw like the ghost story or the fairy tale or the girl with latent, supernatural powers, and completely reinvent it in a startling way; this always with a depth of character and emotional complexity that is lacking in so much genre fiction. Even people who are totally turned off by the fantastic and the supernatural should find themselves absorbed by her use of genre methods to get at what it means to be human.