Sunday, May 31, 2009

Staple singers

At least five staple articles can be found in the books pages of British newspapers:

- Those that tell of the real life truth behind a work of fiction
- Surveys of which classic novels readers lie about having read
- Demands for genre fiction to be "taken seriously"
- Revelations of our guilty reading pleasures
- Frustrated calls for important novels about today's Britain

Perhaps another staple is interviews with exotic foreign authors who are urged to talk about the political upheavals in their own exotic foreign countries. Are there any others?

The fifth staple has made two recent appearances in The Independent. In April, Amanda Craig was given unprecedented room (over two and a half thousand words!) to call for a turn away from historical fiction towards Victorianism - which is, by happy coincidence, embodied by her new, cliché-entitled novel. And this weekend, Tim Lott makes more or less the same demand in the same newspaper. This is not a concerted campaign: it is the inevitable manifestation of the fundamental polarity between literary and journalistic writing.
Where are the lives of the young working-class mother? Where is the hoodie telling us about life on the estates of the Wirral or Corby? Where is the story of the destitute, so well captured by Orwell in the 1930s? Where is the great satire on celebrity culture, on English MPs, on CCTV, on the threat to our liberties? Where is the voice of an Anglican vicar, a fairground worker, a nurse, a family lawyer ...
Tim Lott, like Amanda Craig, expects fiction to be as dynamic and relevant as a daily newspaper. The British, it seems - with Tom Wolfe as a Colonel Saunders-like poster boy of happy innocence - will never quite appreciate what the abstraction of writing means. Yes, they are right to embrace the commonsensical priority of the real world over books, yet not if this also means to ignore or to deny the violence done by writing. Literary writers are more sensitive to this than those writing opinion pieces or, indeed, blogs. They might wonder, as I do, why they feel that journalism isn't enough to tell us about the lives of the people labelled above.

Whenever I read these staples of literary journalism, particularly those that want novelists to knuckle down to write ambitious novels that capture how we live now, I think of Kafka's A Hunger Artist. Amanda Craig and Tim Lott are the attendants of the circus impresario who wants to replace the fasting showman with the young panther.
Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in its jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from its throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded around the cage, and did not want ever to move away.
And who would deny them their pleasure? Yet where are the newspapers articles demanding the answer to the question: Where are our Hunger Artists?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Links for the Twitterless

Here are four links posted today on my blog-sapping, blog-relieving Twitter account.

1: Jacques Roubaud explains to Michael Silverblatt the reasons for writing The Great Fire of London sequence, with emphasis on The Loop.

2: Andrew Mitchell discusses Nietzsche with Robert Harrison on the Entitled Opinions podcast. I've yet to listen but his two previous shows on Heidegger, that accompanied me through long bikes in the countryside two summers ago, should not be missed. UPDATE: Nietzsche: Writings from the Early Notebooks has also been published this month.

Review copies unlikely
3. Mark C. Taylor's forthcoming book from Columbia UP - Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living - looks like it deserves attention. Paul Auster has given it blurb: "an intoxicating whirl of a book, an engine of thought and feeling that touches on everything that counts most to us". His Grave Matters impressed me recently.

4: Leslie Hill - author of Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary - has published Beckett's Fiction this month. It has a subtitle, as these things must: In Different Words. Meh?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Still against science

William Deresiewicz's naïve, humanist caricature of Theory in this long review in The Nation warns against any side-taking in his otherwise welcome attack on literary Darwinism. However, the reappearance of Jonathan Gottschall's comical or scandalous misconstual of Barthes' Death of the Author is enough to tip the balance. Apparently, in a forthcoming work, he "uses polling data to disprove the postmodern belief in 'the death of the author' by showing that writers really do have an effect on the way people react to their books." (I presume it is Deresiewicz adding the spurious "postmodern belief" label, which is ironic as Gottschall would concur). I wrote about this last year in Against science but realise it is fighting a losing battle. It reminds me of a passage in Sartre's Words:
At Saint Anne's Psychiatric Clinic a patient cried out in bed: "I'm a prince! Arrest the Grand Duke!". Someone went up to him and whispered in his ear: "Blow your nose!" and he blew his nose. He was asked: "What's your occupation?". He answered quietly: "Shoemaker," and started shouting again.
Only I'm not sure of whom it reminds me.

Gottschall's ubiquity - I heard him speaking on BBC Radio 3 recently - is demoralising because there are more interesting thinkers writing about literature. For instance, Stephen Mulhall in The Wounded Animal. Yet this example reveals the problem. Unlike the books by Dutton, Boyd and Gottschall reviewed here, it doesn't have the eye for the main chance in a thought-culture struggling with the remove of literature. Deresiewicz says that until "the literary academy is willing to stand up in public and defend that mission without apology, it will never find its way out of the maze." Except, if it is writing we're talking about - writing in itself - it is the maze that fascinates.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bartleby / Self

156 years after publication, John Self's Asylum reviews Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener.
It is the endless unfoldings offered by a book which is so short, on the surface so simple, which is one of the marks of its greatness. That it laid the foundation, and led the way, for much essential 20th century literature, is another.
How does one lay a foundation for an abyss?! The entry on page 145 of Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster opens it up.
In 'Bartleby,' the enigma comes from 'pure' writing, which can only be that of a copyist (rewriting). The enigma comes from the passivity into which this activity (writing) disappears, and which passes imperceptibly and suddenly from ordinary passivity (reproduction), to the beyond of all passiveness: to a life so passive — for it has the hidden decency of dying — that it does not have death for an ultimate escape. Bartleby copies; he writes incessantly, and cannot stop long enough to submit to anything resembling control. I would prefer not to. This sentence speaks in the intimacy of our nights: negative preference, the negation that effaces preference and is effaced therein: the neutrality of that which is not among the things there are to do — the restraint, the gentleness that cannot be called obstinate, and that outdoes obstinacy with those few words. Language, perpetuating itself, keeps still.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

This is not a project

Dan Green's new project is a reminder of the limits of literary blogging. However high the quality of writing - with The Reading Experience among the best of course - there is always the undertow of an awkward form dragging itself back across the shingle of broken ambition (oh yes). Isn't a blog post just a carefree alternative to something more considered: a formal review, an essay? And if a full-length book is presumptuous, then wouldn't a collection carry more authority? Yes, we suppose. Hence the tendency to agglomerate; to secrete an aura of unity.

Looking over the 740 posts here renews the urge to move away from the haphazard direction of a blog (NB: I have nearly 70,000 words from an earlier blog that is no longer online!). In recent months this has taken shape in the posting of reviews here rather than in a more formal arena (the link goes to a list). And while I have begun to relegate chatter to Twitter, the longer form demands proactivity. While that waits, here's a selection that might be called The Best of This Space.

From 2004: Struck by Death, a post on Blanchot's review essay The Birth of Art on cave paintings. I have written a lot on Blanchot of course.

2005: The Decorum of Michel Houllebecq, my first reading of this notorious author via his novel Atomised.

2006: This was the year I seemed to focus on Nick Hornby and other powerhouses of London's circle of writers and journalists. First, a response to an essay he wrote about the joy of reading, then a diagnosis of The despair of popular authors (there is a part 1 too) - a worrying affliction yet to receive professional help. Next there was Daniel Johnson whose TLS review of Sebald's Airwar book had troubled me so much three years earlier. This time, it was his attack on Günter Grass that prompted a response.

2007: A review of JM Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year. As with so much I've written over the years, this was partly in response to the astounding display of insensitivity from mainstream reviewers, people who really should know better (but then probably wouldn't be where they are today if they did).

2008 was the first year I spent recovering (or not as it turned out) from a head injury. There are fewer longer posts as a result. Once again though I took issue with reviewing and critical culture. The two blogs that stand out are Anti-events, a comparison of reviews of Alain Badiou's books and The Stroker, about Kafka's alleged porn stash.

Since then, the best posts on this blog have not been written by me but are translations by Charlotte Mandell. The first was of Jean-Luc Nancy's centenary tribute to Blanchot, then of Emilie Colombani's superb review of Blanchot's Chroniques littéraires du Journal des Débats. This year she has also given us Jonathan Littell's reading of Blanchot's essay "Reading".

I have to admit, I thought these latter posts would be huge hits with blog readers - the latter in particular as it coincided with Charlotte's mesmerising translation of his novel The Kindly Ones - and thereby might be more demanding in future. Yet the appetite for edranting jerks and chicklit gush continues unchecked, immune to the real thing. Perhaps my disappointment at this predictable revelation has caused me to ponder alternatives to this non-project.

I'll end with what I think is one of this blog's best posts: The huge difficulty of dying, a review of The Kindly Ones. Both the book and the review came as a complete surprise to me and, though posting 3,500 words in one block seemed inappropriate, it also indicates the value of blogging's contingent state (my reviews of Glavinic's Night Work and Solstad's Novel 11, Book 18 are also good examples). In October 2005, I wrote that a blog goes on because it operates within the specific orbit of its author, which also means its struggle with silence.

UPDATE: I forgot to include one of my more unusual posts: Non-writers' rooms.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Waiting for Gollum

Ohio Impromptu

Remember The Valve's claim that "High Modernism is SF" and, what's more, "Proust's Recherche ... whatever critics have said about it, is actually a time-travel story deeply indebted to Wells's Time Machine"?

Well, I had a good chuckle at the time, but now disturbing new evidence has emerged of Beckett's secret debt to the same author.


Pitiful discontent

May 3rd, 1979. Thirty years then since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. No memories. How can one have memories when nothing is over? I never believed one could despise a stranger any more than I did her: everything she stood for, everything she called forth, everything still infecting this paltry and wretched culture. At least, I thought, in the spirit of Elvis Costello's song, we had one gesture to make, to look forward to making. Now Tony Blair has stolen even her death from us.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.