Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Outer Life

It never seems to bother anyone when a painter returns to the same themes and forms over and over again. Should Monet have laid off the water lilies, or Rembrandt the self-portraits, or Degas the dancers? And what about all those religious themes and forms that keep coming up again and again in Renaissance art? I mean, really, you've seen one Madonna and child, you've seen them all. Right?

Robert Nagle

I actually enjoyed the book review and thought it revealed some inherent tensions in Barth's works (and aroused my curiosity about the volume).

Maybe "poignant" is not what the reviewer meant. When you pull away from the story and call attention to the artificiality of character, you reduce the emotional investment..alas, perhaps that is the point. Doing so entails sacrifices; it also causes the reader to question the role of reading in this age (Btw, some of Barth's earlier works could be described as poignant--see End of the Road).

Shakespeare or Henry James are not good examples to support your point here. Their works have breadth and scope in a way that Barth's fiction do not. Shakespeare tries to describe an entire world (and we can scoff at the folly of this ambition). Barth merely (and modestly) tries to conjure up a small subset of a world. The repetitions and recurrences in Shakespeare or James are not as prominent as they are for Barth's fiction. Of course, nothing is wrong with recurring themes per se--as long as each new context offers a fresh opportunity to revisit this theme.

The key word in your post is "renounce." Does literary experimentalism mean that the author needs to renounce the typical emotional investment of reader with character/story? Do you really want to go there? I'm not familiar with your DFW reference here, but I can think of several modernist/experimental examples that are capable of dealing with serious themes and yet still are self-conscious enough to call into question their own narrative (I'm thinking Kundera's fiction or perhaps Bergman's film Persona).

The problem with comic fiction is that it needs to be superficial to be successful. Barth's fiction needs to be unraveled, but people seeking fiction for entertainment may not be willing to do the unraveling.

The thought has just occurred to me that the circularity of Barth's fiction would be ideally suited for the hypertextuality of the web (If only he were born in 1980, sigh...). Some of his techniques would work wonderfully on the web, though they could fall flat on the deadtree page. Too bad that the copyright to his works will last 70 years after his death, so maybe the world will have to wait until 2100 to "rediscover" him.

Dan Green

If the reviewer didn't mean "poignant," then why did he use the word? Are reviewers not to be held responsible for the words they do use?

I don't agree that James has more "breadth and scope" than Barth (and I love James's fiction). If anything, it's narrower and even more repetitive. The same kinds of characters in the same kinds of situations, all treated with "psychological realism." Which is no more and no less a device, a "trick," than metafiction.


I would disagree (gently) with your assertion that pomo fiction cannot mix with "sentiment," and I would suggest that Stanley Elkin, especially in *Magic Kingdom,* does it wonderfully. I would agree it's difficult, which is why when many pomos try it what they end up with is not sentiment but sentimentality.


NYTBR similarly dissniffive. For lack of trackback, cf

John Williams

blackdogred's point about sentiment vs. sentimentality is a concise, and therefore superior, version of what I'm about to say. DFW's notion about postmodernism perhaps needing to find a way to incorporate more emotional sincerity -- which I think he brought up, eloquently, in his essay about TV's effect on fiction writing -- always struck me as doubly provocative because it was him saying it. He's the perfect example of a writer whose formidable brains and equally formidable sense of humor make for admirable, enjoyable fiction that still somehow feels less than great. And that's because it's extremely difficult to read his characters as full-blooded human beings. They always seem to represent some impressive outpost of his cerebrum, rather than themselves. My hunch -- and it's only that -- is that, like many smart, inquisitive peeople, writers like DFW are so intent on avoiding sentimentality that they end up avoiding sentiment altogether. "Sentimental" is by far my least favorite critical term -- it's now shorthand for anything that's not thoroughly jaded. I've heard it used about the film "You Can Count On Me," which I think is one of the most emotionally pitch-perfect movies of the last 20 years. I'm getting off-subject, but my point is this -- while there's no rule saying great art has to have a sentimental truth to it (though it doesn't hurt), neither is there a rule saying that a postmodern view of the world doesn't allow for sentiment of any kind; but to get it, you've got to risk the ire of the culture's increasingly forceful sentimentality police. (By the by, I don't think DFW's problem is with that risk, of course -- I just think he's not inclined to writing deeply sympathetic characters, and that doesn't diminish his accomplishment; it just frustrates readers who want it all from someone so obviously talented.)


Without rising to Gilsdorf's defense, I do think it is possible to wonder what a work of art might have been like in the hands of another. Music criticism can most easily tackle this because of the notion of cover versions of songs. There is a chance that if you don't like the way an artist does a song, another artist will come along and capture what you found missing in the first. It fits with the way music is made and evolves to think in such terms.

You can do this with film, to a lesser extent, or theater, imagining different actors or director... even the visual arts allow for this to some degree, as a painter could depict a similar setting or subject as another. The written word, however, is the most difficult. All one can do is wonder how a different writer might approach a story. Would Barth's story, in this case, be better served by a more "sentimental" writer? Of course not, because it is his story and his alone. The particulars of the story (and I write this not having read it) might lend themselves well to the style of another writer, but it's impossible to tell. Seeing similar material or themes rendered more satisfyingly by another writer and saying so is a valid criticism. Wanting a writer to use a different style because it more closely aligns with your tastes, as you point out, is not.


Finally able to read DFW's Infinite Jest
after three unsuccessful tries
I must say I found his characters extremely affecting
so I laughed when I read that he was wondering whether and how
to put more emotional affectivity into po-mo . . .

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