Sometime in 2003 I began to notice while "surfing" the internet (which then was not quite as complete in its ubiquity as it is now) certain websites focused on books and writing, generally providing brief commentary accompanied by links to reviews or articles on literary matters. Others began to appear offering somewhat more extensive commentary, and since the discussion I found on these sites--eventually I learned they were "weblogs"--clearly seemed seriously intended to call attention to new books (especially less well-publicized ones), to print-based literary criticism, and to "literature" in general, I decided to start a weblog of my own, on which I might try to determine if this new web based medium could support a longer form of literary criticism and if anybody wanted to read it. Thus I created The Reading Experience in January of 2004.
Among those early "litbloggers" I discovered were Steve Mitchelmore, first through a links-type blog called Splinters and then a blog with more extended posts called This Space, as well as Michael Orthofer, founder of The Complete Review and its attendant blog called The Literary Saloon. Mitchelmore's blog soon itself became an exemplar of the kind of long-form criticism (long at least for the internet) in which I was interested, and both The Complete Review and The Literary Saloon gained considerable prominence as aggregators of book reviews (including Orthofer's own, with their signature assignment of grades to each title) and of literary news more broadly, especially news about translated books. Not long after I started The Reading Experience, Scott Esposito began his literary weblog, Conversational Reading, which soon enough spun off a new online book review journal, The Quarterly Conversation, which in my opinion has become one of the most valuable sources of book reviews and literary criticism, online or in print.
All three of these writers ("litblogger" is no longer a term much in use, and would not adequately describe their current endeavors, anyway) have recently published books, which provides an opportunity to consider not just the contribution of the literary weblog to literary/critical discourse but how effectively the sort of writing developed on blogs transfers to conventional books-on-paper (or at least to the "book" as traditionally conceived). Although the contents of only one of the books (Mitchelmore's) actually consists of material first offered on the writer's blog, nevertheless we can say that in each case the writer initially discovered his signature voice and approach through writing on a blog. To what extent has online writing as represented by the blog affected "writing" in general?
Steve Mitchelmore's book, This Space of Writing, collects and arranges many of his most representative blog posts. On the broadest level, it succeeds quite effectively in focusing his most persistent concerns and developing his critical insights through consideration of specific writers and works, generally the writers for whom he has often expressed his admiration on his blog This Space. Readers who are familiar with Mitchelmore's critical practice through the blog will find this book a useful condensation of his ideas and sorting of his priorities, while those who are encountering those ideas and priorities for the first time in This Space of Writing should certainly find them provocative and passionately expressed.
Mitchelmore is from the U.K., but we don't find a lot of discussion of British fiction in these essays, with the exception of those devoted to Gabriel Josipovici, one of the few British writers Mitchelmore esteems as highly as the Continental European writers to whom he most often turns. The work of such writers as Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Karl Ove Knausgaard provide his critical lodestar, and certainly readers of This Space of Writing unfamiliar with them will get a very good introduction to these writers and to the qualities of their work that elicit such a strong response from Mitchelmore. Mitchelmore values literary works that acknowledge the essential "solitude and silence" from which they came and in which the reader also must receive them. Bernhard's and Knaussgard's books represent
attempts to open onto the space that makes narrative possible, the singularities that inscribe themselves on a life and agitate a certain enchantment, opening the past as much as the present and future, yet which cannot be made present to the work itself.
He also uses the metaphor of "horizon" to evoke the "singularity" of the experience of literature: "The reader experiences the book by descending into a literary landscape walking along a dirt path, sheltering in a dappled grove, paddling in a stream. The horizon is obscured."
It is this very obscurity that gives literature its signature value. We do not look "beyond," to the world of experience in its extension, but within to the interior landscape literature makes available. Or at least this is how I interpret Mitchelmore's tropes, since if there is an obstacle to fully benefiting from Mitchelmore's criticism it is a certain obscurity in his own concepts--or at least in the expression he gives to them. After reading the entirety of This Space of Writing readers will likely have an adequately clear understanding of what Mitchelmore means by "silence" (and why it's missing from most conventional literary fiction) and why its lack of "horizon" makes literature uniquely rewarding, but I confess to finding his critical language at times somewhat impalpable or cryptic, at least according to my own admittedly more buttoned-down approach to criticism.
On the other hand, after reading this book no one could doubt Mitchelmore's commitment to a view of literature that affirms its status as art and defends it against attempts to identify it with conventional practices or subsume it to external agendas. However subjective his terms of analysis might sometimes be, he uses them as a way of taking literature seriously to a degree found in few other critics short of Harold Bloom. It is surely unlikely that before the development of the literary weblog pieces such as the ones collected in This Space of Writing could have found a home in traditional print publications, but that is mostly because Mitchelmore indeed regards the literary work and the role of the critic with an intensity of purpose that most literary journalism rejects in favor of "liveliness," which usually manifests itself in superficial analysis and trite observations. Mitchelmore thinks that reading is not simply a life-enhancing but a life-determining activity. This is the way literature orients us to life, through the transforming experience of reading, not in the specious attempt to "represent" reality, and Mitchelmore's inquiry into how such a thing might happen, despite the relative brevity of some of the selections, is not content with surface details about plots and settings, and his commentary is never trite.
Although This Space of Writing is not conspicuously a theory-oriented book, readers will surely note the numerous references to the theoretical writings of such figures as George Bataille and Maurice Blanchot, especially the latter. These references are scattered throughout the book, and thus the critical/theoretical perspective informing Mitchelmore's analysis remains in the background. While again we learn enough about the animating assumptions of a writer like Blanchot to appreciate the extent to which Mitchelmore shares them--the name of his blog and title of this book testify to that, as they are both allusions to Blanchot's book The Space of Literature--this influence is perhaps the most opaque to American readers, as Blanchot is in this country one of the least known of the major 20th century French thinkers. Certainly Blanchot's ideas are most appealing to someone who, like Steve Mitchelmore, wants to deepen his engagement with literature rather than dismiss it as too subjective and turn instead to its social context, which may explain their relative neglect by American academic critics.
Michael Orthofer's The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is published by a university press (Columbia University Press), but it has a much wider audience in mind, an audience comprised of readers mostly unfamiliar with "world literature," or at least literature from the less prominent or privileged corners of the world. This, unfortunately, is a widely shared condition, among academic and non-academic readers alike. The book could be seen as the culmination of the effort Orthofer has made since founding Complete Review/Literary Saloon to call attention to translated books. While this guide to contemporary world fiction goes beyond translated fiction to include entries on English-language fiction as well, surely its greatest contribution to "world literature" is in surveying available translations from all regions of the world and informing readers about the writers and works that are available in English. Since English remains the world's foremost literary language--in terms of the number of readers a translated writer could acquire, not in its presumptive superiority as a medium of literary achievement--Orthofer's book potentially brings translated fiction to the largest audience a writer outside the English-using world might hope to reach.
Orthofer has always seemed encyclopedic in the scope of his interest in translated fiction, so the comprehensive treatment of contemporary world fiction in this book is no surprise. (If he hasn't literally read every single title in the book it would be understandable--but I'd be willing to wager that he has.) At the same time, his introduction duly cautions the reader to consider the less than ideal circumstances in which translated fiction is made available to American readers:
When publishers in the United States do seek out translated works, they often take their cues from elsewhere. Critical acclaim, literary prizes, and best-seller status--preferably in several different markets, rather than just the original local one--are prerequisites for most foreign fiction to be considered from the American market, especially large commercial publishers. This herd mentality is widely practiced elsewhere as well, leading to a narrow, homogeneous tier of international fiction that is widely available throughout the world and in many languages, whereas excellent works from less internationally celebrated authors can struggle to find the recognition and readers they deserve. Even though exceptional works do come into circulation in this way, too often it is the second-rate works--the earnest prize-winning novels and imitative local thrillers--that make the cut and disappoint both readers (with their mediocre quality) and publishers (with their low sales).
The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is in part an attempt to ameliorate this discouraging situation by highlighting the more "exceptional works" available, especially those offered by the "smaller and more nimble publishers" that have increasingly appeared.
The format of the book--it is essentially a reference book--precludes Orthofer from engaging in much literary criticism, although he does attempt succinct descriptions of the writers and works he includes, typically identifying the prominent writers in a given country, as well as their most noteworthy or representative books. Although many of the writers mentioned, particularly those from Western Europe and perhaps Latin America, will be relatively familiar to readers who monitor the most influential book review pages, many others will surely be unknown. No region of the world is left uncovered, although in some cases Orthofer must note the dearth of available translations, as in southeast Asia, where "Almost no fiction from the. . .nations extending from Burma (Myanmar) to Vietnam is accessible to English-speaking readers, despite the strong literary traditions in several of these countries," or the South Pacific, where size and isolation made it difficult "for local literature [from the islands] to make inroads beyond their shores."
Altogether The Complete Review Guide seems a quite useful book for readers who would like to begin reading translated fiction, but who would also like to go beyond the names most likely to show up in the New York Times Book Review and aren't sure where the best source of advice about where to start might be found or how conflicting judgments might be reconciled. Orthofer's guiding hand is a sure one. He makes all the suitable distinctions and concisely provides information allowing readers to make discerning choices. In general, the book effectively transfers to book form what is most valuable about Orthofer's blog and website: their effort to be useful to serious readers of fiction. My only real reservation about the book is the inclusion of a section on U.S. fiction. While Orthofer's selection of authors and tendencies is defensible enough, still, since the book is clearly intended to steer English-language--primarily American--readers to existing works of fiction in translation, the discussion of American fiction seems at best perfunctory, at worst overly reductive, and ultimately unnecessary. This is probably true of the sections on British and Canadian fiction as well, although perhaps some more provincially-minded American readers might find them informative.
If This Space of Writing and The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction reinforce and confirm their authors' initial ambitions as writers exploring the possibilities of blogging as a medium for writing, Scott Esposito's The Surrender embodies an ambition entirely separate from the author's work as a literary blogger and editor, signaling an aspiration to reach an audience broader than that attracted to purely literary discussion and criticism (like Orthofer, Esposito's interest as critic has inclined in particular to translated fiction). The Surrender is a memoir (albeit one that also at times veers into cultural criticism in its triptych of essays) relating Esposito's gradual acceptance and ultimate expression of his lifelong impulse to cross-dress: "On the day I at last felt hair brushing the small of my back I understood," he writes at the beginning of the book:
It was a time of great indulgence. Twelve very dauntless months in which I demolished my exasperating timidity, this endless maybe. There would be no restraint. This nagging over wasted money and deviant needs would drop dead. Drop dead. I did as I pleased. I answered all impulses without hesitation. I did not pause for even one second. Stopping to think would only lead to that oppressive indecision. But there was absolutely no need for contemplation because my entire life I had known exactly what I must do. First a new dress. . . .
The book treats this phenomenon not as an element of sexuality per se (although it is closely tied to cultural conceptions of masculinity), and Esposito's story finally would have little to no interest to readers seeking titillation or prurient detail. It is in part a story of self-discovery and self-assertion, in part an examination of the depth of American culture's rigid opposition between male and female as marks of identity and the damage it causes. The essays inevitably provide a narrative of Esposito's odyssey--although in a fragmented, nonlinear way that makes the story itself subordinate to his meditation on and exposition of the story's broader significance. One could say that Esposito's effort to express the complexity of the story from his current perspective is finally the actual story that emerges from The Surrender. In a sense, writing the essays in this book parallels and reinforces in literary form the affirmation of authentic self he chronicles, a declaration to the world at large of the integrity of that assertion.
If ultimately The Surrender lingers in the reading memory first of all as memoir, certainly Esposito also relies on his skills and sensibility as a literary critic when drawing out the implications of his experience. The book originated as an essay first published in The White Review, "The Last Redoubt," (which now serves as the middle section of The Surrender), and while in this essay Esposito first reveals his heretofore "secret life," he does so as part of an extended and very detailed exposition of Abbas Kiorstami's film, Close-Up. He concludes:
At the end of the film [the protagonist] breaks out into tears. As he delivers the gift of a small tree to the family he has wronged, he begins to weep. With. . .the family massed around him he loses all control. Whoever he has become, he feels that the world now condones it, and that weight is overwhelming.
In the final essay he similarly parallels his increasing determination to assert his true nature with the particular books he was reading during the process (in the year of his "decision," the list includes, among others, Harry Mathews, Gerald Murnane, George Eliot, Karl Ove Knausgaard, as well as Wittgenstein and Derrida). However much The Surrender might be called "personal writing," clearly part of the courage Esposito mustered and the insight he gained while contemplating his circumstances were derived from his intense engagement with art, literature, and critical inquiry.
Although the book is often focused specifically on Esposito's desire to wear women's clothing, finally the taboo he most fervently wants to break is the one forbidding men from cultivating feelings associated with femininity. While his own feminine inclinations seek external expression through discarding conventional male clothes and adopting emblematic female attire, what he really desires is that the culturally reinforced divide between masculinity and femininity be breached, the opposition between these categories subverted. Here the influence in particular of Derrida on Esposito's thinking can be discerned; indeed, the book might have been given additional coherence if this influence had been even more explicitly drawn out, providing a conceptual frame that helps us understand the artificiality of "masculine" and "feminine" in contrast to their persistent cultural dominance, the pernicious consequences of which Scott Esposito's experience exemplifies. On the other hand, this undoubtedly might have tilted the book more toward abstract theory and potentially lessened its appeal to general readers as a form of personal testimony.
In its way, The Surrender shows Scott Esposito, of the three writers considered here, diverging most sharply from the path on which he started as a literary blogger. Steve Mitchelmore continues to hew to that path most faithfully, not just in his book but in the writing he continues to do on This Space, while Michael Orthofer perhaps demonstrates a certain kind of continuity between what can be accomplished on blogs and what we expect from books. Certainly all three writers succeed in demonstrating that the literary blog was (is) a medium perfectly capable of supporting credible critical discourse and cultivating intelligent critics whose contributions to that discourse easily rival anything to be found in the purely print media. That they now are contributing through these books ultimately seems simply the confirmation of their already evident achievements.