Criticism

Confessional Fiction

Confessional fiction and the cautionary tale of Richard Grayson. A review.

Reading Versus Watching: Episodic Characters

One thing that surprised me about Cervantes' classic was it's episodic nature. It doesn't have the overarching narratives that have been been imposed on it by countless adaptations in other media. Instead it moves smoothly from one vignette to another, much like a television show. And what a television show!

In Defense of Roth

I really wanted to like Levi Asher's overrated writers list because he knocks some of the same people we like to knock, but his criticism of Philip Roth is so completely wrong-headed, I'm a little baffled.

I think it all comes down to this:

Paranoia became Roth's central theme, and it permeates most of his novels, from Portnoy's Complaint to American Pastoral to The Plot Against America. Roth's paranoia is different from the cold high-tech creepiness of Don DeLillo or the proud anti-establishment defiance of Ken Kesey. In Roth's world, it's the ones we know best and love most who are trying to oppress and destroy us: our parents, our friends and neighbors, our lovers, our children. This is a harsh and depressing world view, and while I don't begrudge Roth the right to call the shots the way he sees them, I do not find his theme very universal. Even less do I find it edifying. This is why I find it difficult to agree when he is described as a great writer of our age.

Excuse me, if in this "If You See Something, Say Something" contemporary world, I find Roth's particular brand of paranoia and misanthropy not only edifying, but frighteningly relevent. The rest of his criticism stems from this basic complaint; Asher does not identify with Roth's view, therefore Roth's view is not universal. He goes on to say:

I must make this clear: I really do like Philip Roth. I just can't abide by the current meme that calls him a relevant spokesperson for our current time. I'm especially bothered by the fact that Roth is often called a representative voice for modern American Jews; I'm a member of that group, and Roth's bitter message of fundamental separatism does not speak for me.

I honestly think that if Asher could crawl out of his hole for half a second and take a look around, he would see a growing sense of persecution and betrayal, that extends from world events into the home and family. This is best represented for me in Roth's The Counterlife, when Roth's (or "Roth's") own brother becomes part of a militant pro-Israeli cult holed up at Masada and attacks Roth for being part of the problem and not the solution. We all tear each other apart all the time for ideologies, for sex, for money, for a thousand tiny things that we can never number, and this is something deep and fundamental and universal that Roth taps into better than, I think, anyone else. And it's something Asher just doesn't seem to understand.

Gyorgy Faludy on the State of Literature

In an article headed "Literature Will Not Survive the Twentieth Century," Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy discusses literature today:

I don't know what happened, I can't explain. Literature can't be explained. Nowadays, a poem is published and in a year it is forgotten. Back then, a poem in a periodical like Nyugat or the Pesti Naplo was something to be proud of. Irodalmi Jelen, a periodical published in Arad, still has things worth reading. But even they have trouble filling 16 pages with the raw material they have to work with. Once, new books generated discussion. But there's no criticism. Since I returned home, I've had two serious reviews. Seventy years ago, if people had asked me or somebody else to list a few poets who'd survive the 20th century, I could have listed 10 or 15 names. Now? Name a poet who will definitely be remembered a century hence? You can't, can you?

Faludy also compares the falling numbers of books being read by Americans to the Dark Ages, which I think is taking things a step too far. However, I think he is right to say that there isn't a critical milieu in the way there used to be. Even (or maybe especially) in the "Blogosphere," have there been memorable discussions on novels and poetry? Other than to say "this is a good novel" or "this is a good poem/poet"? The attitude seems to be that nobody reads anyway, so you shouldn't say anything critical or that could be misconstrued as pejorative because we don't want to "piss in the fragile ecosystem of literature" to paraphrase Dave Eggars. But really, we need serious reviews and in-depth discussion and disagreement to have a literature at all; that is to say an environment conducive to good writing is one in which there is a constant, intelligent dialog about writing, and we let that slip away at our own peril.

On the Subject of n+1

This post at Conversational Reading discusses the new article on n+1's website in which Benjamin Kunkel talks about the state of the novel. The only problem? The article in question is no longer there. Which is especially strange considering that the Conversational Reading post was put up today. Not even the WayBack Machine can find the article so I can read it.

This is, of course, the same thing that happened to the article on the short story we covered two weeks ago. What n+1 is doing, in other words, is putting articles up on the front page of their website and then taking them down. I suppose their thinking is that they're teasing us with a preview so that we'll go out and buy the latest copy of their magazine. This behavior is absurd. Particularly if they're putting articles up then taking them down on the same day. Such buffoonery will only turn people off when they stumble across a link like the one on Conversational Reading.

One of the advantages to putting things on the Internet is that they're in a permanent place where they can be found years later and linked to and be discussed. Unlike physical paper magazines which by their nature are periodically thrown away, a piece of writing can remain online indefinitely with relatively little effort or money. We've learned to expect things to remain in the same place where we found them before. We bookmark them. We link to them. We scribble URLs down on post-it notes and stick them to our monitors. Taking things down right after you put them up only serves to alienate your readers. But then, the editors of N+1 also believe it's within the normal experience of their readers to earn forty dollars an hour as a copy editor, so what do we know?

Dear n+1, please knock it off.

[Edit: Well I'll be the first one to admit when I have egg on my face. Benjamin Kunkel's article on the novel was never put up on the n+1 website, I simply misunderstood Scott's post on Conversational Reading. So, no, n+1 didn't put it up and then take it down on the same day.

This doesn't change the fact that they did put up the article on the short story that we talked about two weeks ago and then took it down, or that they've put up and taken down articles in the past. Which behavior they need to knock off.]

[Edit: I have been informed by an editor of n+1 that Elif Batuman's article on the short story can be found here. There was, however, no link to it anywhere that I could find on the n+1 website. According to the aforementioned editor, "All of [the articles] have obvious, intuitive html addresses. If you can't figure one out, you can email me or Chad [the web editor]." I'm not sure I understand—they move articles off the front page to other URL's, and then if you can't find them you're expected to email the editors about it? Is that all that different than taking the article down completely? I remain confused and frustrated.]