"Sorrentino the Realist"
The publication of Sorrentino's first novel after he had established himself as a poet—at least in those quarters of the poetry world whose notice would have meant the most to him—perhaps conveys the impression that writing fiction was a kind of literary second thought. Even while Sorrentino continued to write lyric poetry for the remainder of his life, the succession of novels that followed the publication of The Sky Changes in 1966 certainly did soon enough foster the perception that he had altered his career course to become primarily a novelist. But a proper appreciation of Sorrentino's whole body of work can be gained only be recognizing that the poetry and the fiction are not divergent practices, that the fiction represents Sorrentino's effort to engage with language for the purpose that also motivates the poet: sounding out the artistic possibilities that can be realized through the imaginative arrangement of words. Continue
"Sad and Bad and Mad: The Fiction of Rosalyn Drexler"
Perhaps it is because her most lasting accomplishment may turn out to be her paintings that Rosalyn Drexler is now so very little known as a writer of fiction. Although she did attract attention with her novels in the 1970s, and her plays gained notice for their association with the "theater of the ridiculous," a kind of variation on theater of the absurd, it seems safe to say that for most current readers and critics Rosalyn Drexler has almost no name recognition. Perhaps the novels to an extent seem dated, their cultural references and lingo too stuck in the 60s and 70s (although ultimately they are not at all trying to "capture" their era in any direct way). Or perhaps Drexler has simply been overshadowed by the already established experimental writers of her time, most of whom are male, even at a time when efforts are regularly made, by academics and publishers, to maintain attention on neglected women writers. Continue
"The Landscape of Bitterness and Recrimination"
Readers mostly unfamiliar with the work of Jonathan Baumbach (perhaps aware that he is vaguely identified as an "experimental" writer and that his son is a film director whose most famous film portrays a character loosely based on him) would find his latest selection of stories, The Pavilion of Former Wives, to be on the whole usefully representative of Baumbach's work in its prevailing subject, but not so revealing of the more adventurous formal strategies Baumbach has employed in his best fiction. As with most of Baumbach's work in the second half of his career—a career that overall has now spanned more than 50 years—the stories in The Pavilion of Former Wives track the erratic course of love and marriage (the latter often interfering with the former), usually from the perspective of a relationship-battered male protagonist. Two of the most frequent versions of this protagonist figure appearing in Baumbach's stories and novels are the writers "B" and "Josh," both of whom do indeed make appearances in Pavilion, along with other, similar characters named "Jay" or "Jacob," whose often fumbling attempts to adequately comport themselves in the company of women are featured in the book. Continue
"Sorrentino the Poet"
There is no question that Gilbert Sorrentino considered himself first of all to be a poet. He began his writing career not just writing but also reviewing and publishing poetry, most prominently in the little magazines he edited, Neon and Kulchur. While it now seems almost certain that Sorrentino will be remembered primarily as a writer of fiction, certainly that fiction is sufficiently unconditional in its rejection of the traditional core elements of fiction—plot, character, setting, theme—and so unmistakably focused instead on creating alternative formal arrangements of language that it is considerably more than a fancy to say that essentially Sorrentino remained a poet throughout his whole body of work, whose key aesthetic assumptions are recognizably embodied in the poetry as well as the fiction. Continue
"On the Fiction of Terry Southern"
It is tempting to conclude that Terry Southern has faded from the cultural memory because his work feels unavoidably "dated" due to its contemporaneous references, its time-bound subjects, the decidedly démodé familiarity of its postwar disaffection. From this perspective, Southern was essentially a topical satirist, and, as eventually happens with almost all such satire, what on its appearance seemed keenly alert to the pervading cultural winds seems to languish in stale allusions once the winds have shifted. Even an accomplishment as unequivocal as Dr. Strangelove can be harder to appreciate when the political circumstances within which it acquired its comic edge no longer apply. Continue
"Pixels to Print"
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. Continue
"Aimee Bender and the Surrealist Fable"
There are really two writers at work in the fiction of Aimee Bender. First and most conspicuously we find the fabulist, who frequently invests her stories with a surface surrealism by evoking fables and fairy tales. The surreal qualities of her tales might be more pronounced and extreme (a human woman marries an ogre and begets ogre children) or more restrained and less insistent (as in both of her novels), but anyone who reads her collections of short stories in particular would have to conclude she is a writer partial to devices that enhance and distort reality. Nevertheless, there is also a realist lurking beneath the surface of Bender's surreal narratives, a writer who uses the surreal plot turns and fairy tale motifs to render middle-class American life in a way that remains faithful to its underlying configurations and habitual behaviors. Continue