Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Shock of the Novel

The folks over at The Millions are making a strong bid for the title of “the VH1 of Books Blogs” with their countdown of The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far). And I thought Sainsbury’s was jumping the gun when they put the Christmas aisle up at the end of August. There’s no detectable humour in the introduction, so I feel relatively safe in assuming that this is an example of our culture’s obsession with hierarchical list-making, rather than an ironic “critique” of it.

The sheer hubris of The Millions’ venture is remarkable. They could have played it safe, and gone with The Decade (So Far), or even The Century (So Far). But the Millennium? Pitting the literary output of the last nine years against almost everything we think of when we think of literature? If Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is the best we can find for number one, then all this list proves is that none of the books on it will likely be remembered in 1000 years at all. Perhaps Franzen can compete with the best of the Nineties’, maybe the Eighties’; but beyond that? It’s like forcing a child into a boxing ring because he can beat up his older brother.

Friday, 15 May 2009

A Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups: Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor

‘Great novels are great fairy tales,’ Vladimir Nabokov declared in Lectures on Literature, a work of criticism compiled posthumously from his Cornell University teaching notes. Such a statement might be deceptive, until you are familiar with what Nabokov took a ‘fairy tale’ to be. A devout stylist, Nabokov was perhaps the last great exponent of ‘art for art’s sake’. As writer and as reader, he formulated an aesthetic approach — influenced by the formalist school which was in vogue before his exile from Russia — that enabled him to satisfy his taste for style before all else. He was derisive of the politico-historical theories that had invaded American academia by the time he began teaching, and dismissive of any reader who delved into literature for morality or history, or even for emotion.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Life of Fiction: James Wood’s How Fiction Works

I.
Perhaps because critical theory has rendered the subject so fraught, it is unusual these days to see any literary critic dare define the nature of fiction itself. James Wood, however, is an unusual critic. An aesthete who emerged from academia at the height of the theory invasion, Wood has the air of a refugee. Like a dissident writer exiled from his homeland, he bears the mark of the culture he left behind, both in what he has rejected and what he has embraced.

Wood, who was recently took a new job as book critic for the New Yorker, is regularly referred to as ‘the greatest critic of his generation’, or in similar terms, by the likes of Cynthia Ozick and Norman Rush. Given such success, a book like How Fiction Works seems long overdue. Wood has previously published two collections of critical essays, but he has styled his new work rather differently: not as criticism per se, but as a primer on novelistic form, in the tradition of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. The book is divided into chapters, each treating a single formal element, such as ‘narration’ or ‘detail’. Although it gives its name to only one of these chapters, in a sense detail is the unacknowledged focus of the book as a whole. Wood is a devotee of detail, whether it be the delicate touches that create our impressions of a character, the subtle balancing of omniscience and subjectivity in third-person narration (‘free indirect style’, for which he has an evident fondness), or the nuance of meaning created by the careful manipulation of word and phrase.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

A Holiday from Ourselves: literature and emotional well-being

Is the purpose of fiction to offer escape into a world of fantasy, or to confront harsh realities? This is a pretty shop-worn question. The traditional Manichean assumption is that light, disposable, low entertainments offer the former; while serious, important, high art does the latter. Obviously the truth must be more complex, but how does one prove it, and what is the function of escapism or harsh reality in literature in the first place? A fascinating article by Blake Morrison in Saturday’s Guardian sheds new light on the issue. In fact, ‘The Reading Cure’ doesn’t exactly focus on this issue at all: instead, it’s about ‘bibliotherapy,’ the experimental use of books and book groups to alleviate pain and mental distress. The programme, underway in Merseyside in the north of England, has apparently met with great success, with patients reporting a reduced experience of pain and psychiatric patients showing noticeable improvement.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Literary Blogs and the James Wood Neurosis 3

[Click for Part One]
Today’s literary culture—especially, it seems, on the Internet—parallels the culture at large in placing a high value on the mere act of having an opinion. To have an opinion—on anything—and to be free to express it seems to symbolise for many the fundamental freedoms of a liberal society. But to be a scholar takes more than being opinionated. Anyone can form an opinion; a book was recently released that promises to teach readers how to form opinions about books they haven’t read. It is the ability to defend one’s opinion—both to define it and to justify it—that separates the critic from the reader, the professional from the Amazon customer who scrawls, ‘Great read! 4 stars!!’ The inability to approach one’s opinion analytically leaves critics with only two options: relativism (the black hole of rational thought), or internecine war. In Internet discussions one sees plenty of both. Thus critical debate is replaced with the occasional skirmish between opposing fan clubs.

Literary Blogs and the James Wood Neurosis 2

[Click for Part One]
A few months ago, the literary site The Quarterly Conversation (edited by Esposito) published an article entitled ‘The One That Got Away: Why James Wood is Wrong About Underworld,’ by Garth Risk Hallberg of The Millions. On the one hand, it must be said that this essay is another fine example of the James Wood Neurosis at work (it would be hard to imagine a more pointed title); but Hallberg has composed something quite different from the hectoring clamour of his peers. The most immediately apparent change is one of style: Hallberg writes well, entertainingly, and above all, calmly. What a relief after the antagonistic rhetoric of like-minded bloggers, to read something so polished and so reasonable. But more important is Hallberg’s choice of subject: not the flaws of Wood’s personality, but the virtues of DeLillo’s novel. Hallberg evidently has a deep familiarity with Underworld, and he communicates his enthusiasm for the work with charm and conviction.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Literary Blogs and the James Wood Neurosis 1

If one takes a broad perspective, the idea that a critic of James Wood’s stature would require defending by a nobody like me is rather absurd. He has been described as ‘the best literary critic of his generation,’ ‘our best living reviewer,’ and ‘a treasure.’ He has received he highest praise from the likes of Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag. He has recently taken a new post at The New Yorker, and has for some years worked as a professor of ‘the practice of literary criticism’ at Harvard, this despite not having a doctorate. Yes, in the world of print journalism, James Wood has a phenomenal reputation. This makes it all the more baffling that here in the alternate universe of the internet, he is subject to such frequent and venomous attack.