Btb3
Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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07/07/2008

Comments

E K

My scales are teetering. On one side I applaud your audacity to attempt such mundane detritus and eschew it with proper care. On the other I become sentimental knowing the effort that was mustered when it could have gone toward a worthier novel that with certain would have given you immeasurably more pleasure reading. Well done, Dan.

Daniel

Yeah, this book sounds like fool's gold – critics foolishly love it, then a few people point out that it isn't that great, then everyone realizes it isn't good at all. Happens at least once a month these days.

You continue to expect mainstream readers (and their guides, the mainstream reviewers) to choose 'challenging' fiction over more familiar books. Whence your drive? I don't perceive any optimism in your tone, nor a push for finer humanities education that would grant readers the tools to access difficult non-realist texts.

If your ultimate goal is to become a widely-acknowledged voice in favor of these more challenging texts, then perhaps bombast and vitriol are not the most effective means?

LML

I'd like to see you evaluate the mainstream stuff that passes for adventurous. An issue of McSweeney's, say, or a Chabon or Lethem or DFW book (or whoever is supposedly in this category). As soon as I saw the title of the book you were reviewing above, I knew where this was headed.

Chris

I don't think there's any "supposedly" about Wallace, or about Lethem at his best. But I take your point that you're simply gesturing toward a larger category of "accepted" adventurousness. This is a key part of the larger problem; the holding out of certain authors (e.g., Wallace) as requisitely "experimental" in order to meet the quota, and the subsequent ignoring of all others. Pynchon, Barth, Doctorow, and Fowles nicely fit the bill from the mid-sixties through the mid-seventies, which did a disservice to countless writers and didn't exactly do those guys a favor by isolating them.

I think Dan's done this: he wrote fairly recently about Stephen Marche's book, "Shining at the Bottom of the Sea," for instance, and written critically about Aimee Bender as well, to name two authors.

the wandering jew

Maybe with Wallace - though not since Infinite Jest - but Chabon and Lethem, though praised, aren't praised specifically for their experimentalism. Lethem's most-praised book (Fortress of Solitude) is his most conservative, and Chabon's forays into speculative subject matter is praised despite the novelty of his plot points, not because of them.
McSweeneys is another story, though any press that puts out Stephen Dixon and Lydia Davis is certainly holding up its end of the experimental banner, in my opinion.

LML

I agree that Dan looks at some worthy experimental stuff, and these tend to be among the most interesting posts I see here. But I would never consider buying the book reviewed above, and my guess is that Dan wouldn't shell out for it either. Meanwhile I legitimately wonder what I'm missing by playing the odds and never buying McSweeney's, or whether Lethem's new stuff is as adventurous as his old (and whether this represents a falling-off or a closet attraction to the conventional that was there all along), or whether Chris Adrian is actually good or whether people just like his fancy bio, etc. It just seems there's bigger game out there for a critic dissatisfied with the general level of innovation in contemporary literature.

Chris

McSweeney's is neither as good as the hype nor anywhere near as bad as its detractors insist it is (nothing possibly could be). I would disagree about Lethem's later work; while I didn't particularly like "You Don't Love Me Yet," I don't think "Fortress of Solitude" is conventional at all. Certainly it's far less conventional than "As She Climbed Across the Table," which depends a lot on situational, rather than structural or linguistic, outlandishness for its effects.

I might say -- if I can borrow Steven Moore's use of politics as a metaphor for literary "conservatism" v. "liberalism" -- that a magazine like McSweeney's and an author like Lethem tend toward the center, as opposed to the hard right of a Marisa Silver. Lethem (and Roth, for that matter) make use of the advances pioneered by much more radical innovators, adapting them to more conventionally structured narratives, or narratives that go further to satisfy conventional expectations.

LML

The politics metaphor seems a good way, for the most part, of talking about this issue. So yeah, fuck the hard right. There's no chance of changing those folks, at least not with aesthetic arguments. If the economics of publishing change, then maybe they'll change.

But Roth, Wallace, Lethem (I don't know--Fortress of Solitude was straight-up coming of age with stock comic book mythology overlaid), maybe Houellebecq--these and more writers present a more interesting case: mainstream levels of acceptance but some damn bold stuff between covers. And yet none of them throw out most of the traditional ingredients of fiction the way Beckett or Bernhard or Borges do. I brought up McSweeney's thinking primarily of the fact that they put out a whole issue devoted to Barthelme not long ago. So in coming to a decision about whether there's anything worthy put out by the "establishment," these writers seem to present fertile ground. Also, the discussion could open up possibilities, rather than simply providing a pretext for reassuring ourselves that fiction is a dead art.

Chris

Fiction is never dead, it's just mostly irrelevant in a commercial culture. But you've already said this, I believe, in your comments to the "Betraying" post. We are actually at a relatively fortunate time in history because there are publishers for whom the bottom line is not the primary, or even the ultimate, consideration. What exists for Paul Metcalf didn't exist for his great-grandfather, Melville. I do not, as I've made clear, agree with those who think that commercial publishers have a "duty" to anything other than the whims of their executives and the demands of their shareholders (or vice versa). They are, in fact, spectacularly ill-suited to the job of publishing literary fiction (even literary fiction of the "God of War" variety) because neither they nor the booksellers know what to do with it. They just throw it on the same table as Stephen King's book and behave as if somehow the two are examples of the same sort of product. Anyone who's published a "real" book with a trade house, even with the best intentions and goodwill of the publisher, knows the feeling.

I suppose it's worth mentioning that a Beckett or a Borges only come along once every hundred years or so; that their fame came relatively late in their careers, and was built on an international reputation that U.S. critics just couldn't ignore any longer. In Beckett's case, he made his reputation as a dramatist (his novels are still relatively neglected compared with his dramatic works) at a time when the American stage was far more adventurous than it is now. Also worth pointing out that Beckett and Borges were published by Barney Rossett and J. Laughlin, respectively, two very idiosyncratic figures in American publishing.

Schopenhauer's bloody knuckles with caps lock ON

They should reduce these pieces of work to items that you can just download to the cell phone for 99 cents and stop calling it "literary" fiction, or even fiction. The title alone sounds something like Chris and LML would have conjured up for their debut novel (maybe one or both of them was in on the editing???) and, at the very least, the banal language makes me very suspicious that either Chris or LML is Marisa Silver. Time to fess up messeurs.

"You continue to expect mainstream readers (and their guides, the mainstream reviewers) to choose 'challenging' fiction over more familiar books. Whence your drive? I don't perceive any optimism in your tone, nor a push for finer humanities education that would grant readers the tools to access difficult non-realist texts."

What I think is really being asked for is for someone mainstream to take a chance and look at a piece of art instead of something someone saw as a mere chance to make a profit, and pass it off to the sheep as "literary" fiction. This is very idealistic however (which I believe simply means that he wants to see a world better today than yesterday which would require better people) and would require something the mainstream loathes: thinking. Maybe they just cant do it. I am more and more inclined to believe that people simply cannot read at the levels required to really understand texts by Keats or Goethe or Plato or Derrida (definitely not), and thus the constant wailings of people like me and dan are utterly in vain... and blasted idealism leads to nihilism (at least for me, Dan doesnt sound like a nihilist however, just posses a healthy cynicism, something you shouldnt be criticising him for).

To reason from the unfettered capitalist point of view, finer humanities education would not work within (american) capitalism since you would be producing philosophers and poets (DEAR GOD!) and not a surplus of scientists to make really great bombs to secure your status as #1 in the world; it would also prevent the production of scientists to make pills for fat peoples or pills for all the problems that are associated with being a McAmerican. You also cannot make absurd salaries as a philosopher or poet or even an idealistic english professor in comparrison with the absurd salary you can make if you can become a CEO. Also, being a CEO of a major company, say, Randomhouse, lets you abuse (the English) language in so many exciting ways once you have an MBA, and you could not do this if you were a well educated humanist, since you would love language and refrain from hurting her.

"If your ultimate goal is to become a widely-acknowledged voice in favor of these more challenging texts, then perhaps bombast and vitriol are not the most effective means?"

thats nonsense. look at all the press paris hilton and britney spears (or rap stars) attain, when they conduct absurd acts. As long as he "stays on message" when the press comes knocking it seems to be the *easiest* way to generate attention. Dan needs to throw more fones at people!

elcalifornio

does schop realize that most of the evil corporations in the publishing world are NOT American? I understand that the American consumer can be considered just as evil, but Hachette, Bertelsmann (Random House's parent, btw), and Penguin are all European (gasp!). Even News Corp is headed by that wonderful Aussie, Rupert Murdoch.

Schopenhauer's bloody knuckles

while i dont feel obliged to define what constitues an american company versus european company, I do realize that europeans have greed and stupidity; however, america possess such elements in far greater degrees, and *encourages their flourishing.*

I believe it to be simple to state that due to foreign ownership, Big Book Company Residing in America is emphatically *not* american, does not function by american valuations, or adhere to american rules etc etc. When owned by a large media company/foundation such as Bertelsmann, random house is most likely viewed as an asset in a portfolio....that is to say Bertelsmann is not making every decision of what is published, not published, how marketing is done etc on a day to day basis...so while not technically american owned, this does not mean that random house deviates to any significant degree in profit seeking motives or traditional american market valorization...or traditional american business behavior.

bof!

Chris

Tampon,

I see that Karl Wenclas shut down his blog / saliva-frothing center recently. I’m starting to entertain my own suspicions that you are he, especially given the difficulties you both evince in following an argument, identifying your interlocutor’s position, and so on. But he’s a better speller.

I don’t think Dan’s actually asking “someone mainstream to take a chance.” I think he’s marveling, as all readers do from time to time, that when commercial publishing deploys whatever algorithmic formula it uses to determine what sort of “literary” fiction “literary” readers are likely to “consume” they come up with Marisa Silver. (Not to pile on Marisa – though she’s clearly made her own bed even she doesn’t deserve the bag-lady logic of The Tampon) I think that’s what you’re demanding, though. Why? I don’t know. It’s fun to be disagreeable? Probably. You’re offended on behalf of “the sheep” (natural prey of “the fuckheads,” I gather) who are having fobbed off on them an inferior product? Not likely. Besides, if they’re “sheep,” of course, they would probably buy a superior product without question, so, with your mind operating as ever like a quainte olde worlde pinball machine, you ricochet to the next “pointe” of your argument; to observe sadly that “people simply cannot read at the levels required to really understand [fill in requisite “difficult text” here].” Dear sir, drop those stones, wake up, and smell the Windex. You display the inability, or disinclination, to grasp the logic contained in a thread of comments. I can only imagine the sonic booms as Derrida, Goethe, Plato & Assoc. zing over your head.
…*sigh*. This is too much ad hominem fun for one sunny morning here in the World Capital of Trash; so before I accuse you of having the IQ of a 1979 Ford Granada, or – worse – an American, a gesture informed by my inherent stupidity and instinctive envy of my betters (aka Europeans), I’ll just sign off, wishing you luck in your quest to bring us fire from Olympus.

LML

Mr. Knuckles' humanities education certainly puts mine to shame. It has shown him, evidently, that he needs nothing but the last names of a half-dozen philosophers to start the revolution. (But not the poets, man! The poets, at least until reeducation, ALWAYS have to go.) That whirring sound we're hearing is Schopenhauer spinning in his grave.

Daniel

Come on, come on – if DG isn't going to moderate the discussion here let's try and be civil and productive. Vaguely novel ideas for the internet, I know.

I was asking quite honestly for Dan's motives in writing this public blog, and really hoping to start a conversation about the possibility and process of bringing difficult, challenging, high-quality literature into the consciousness of the general reader. It's fun to scream and belittle, but I don't think it is effective.

I'd like to see Dan review works here with a more even temperament, explaining the work's techniques, guiding a general reader; see him create a language and a process by which to judge unfamiliar work. As it is, though, the standard seems to be realism=bad, different=good; the tone is often one of scorn, shaming the general reader for their enjoyment and appreciation of traditional techniques.

This is worthwhile, advocating for difficult literature, I'm just asking whether it can be done better. I think so, I think the general reader can be taught how to approach difficult works, how to differentiate quality from novelty; but it won't be effective if with the other hand the audience is being shamed for enjoying traditional styles of literature.

LML

Daniel,
Notwithstanding my most recent comment, my motives were similar to yours. (Key difference being I don't think Dan should worry about "general" readers; I think he should encourage people to be hugely ambitious readers.) I think that his opposition to mainstream presses and indies who act like mainstreams would be more fruitfully advanced if he sought out the most adventurous stuff being published in these formats, rather than the most obviously egregious sentimental psychological realism. I think any views worth holding (and his are worth holding) should be put to the test. If they stand up, great. Otherwise he's just shooting fish in a barrel, in my opinion, and I think you and I agree that this advances nothing except a collective sneer.

Chris

Daniel,

I've posted probably over a hundred comments to TRE, never once yielded to the impulse to insult another commenter until the Tampon, in the course of idiotically misstating my position, gratuitously insulted me. I'm happy never to do it again, and I should take to heart what they taught me way back in Internet 101 about trolls and what they find encouraging.

I agree with LML to the extent that I think Dan's interests are his own and that the degree to which they intersect with those of his readers should remain serendipitous. I don't agree with Dan Green all the time any more than I do with anybody else, but he has set forth (e.g., through his periodic posting of excerpts from Dewey's "Art as Experience") a basis for his biases, one which I think elevates them above the binary simplicity you're implying.

I happen to think Dan's habit of critiquing the Great Books du Jour is a curative one; it helps to illustrate the critical vacuity of the mainstream book reviewer. Whether it does, or should do, anything to scold commercial publishers is another matter; I think Dan might agree with me that commercial publishers are free to do whatever they like, but that they shouldn't be aided and abetted in their efforts by the reviewers -- I would not go so far as to say that the average movie or theater reviewer is holding Hollywood's or Broadway's offerings to the highest standards, but they do call schlock by its name.

As I said, Dan has treated "adventurous" work critically; I don't think for that matter that he believes "realism" is bad -- he thinks bad realism is bad. I am not a huge fan of John Updike but I can tell the difference between a good and restrained writer working in Updike's vein (say, Adam Haslett) and schlock like that of Marisa Silver, who apparently sees every sentence as an opportunity to unleash an awkward "effect" (caramels = secrets?).

Dan Green

"I'd like to see Dan review works here with a more even temperament"

Daniel: If you don't mind, you can review books at your blog with an "even temperment," whatever that's supposed to mean, and I'll review them on my blog as I see fit. I don't set out to write about books with either an even or an uneven temperment. I try to register my responses to what I read in the clearest and most honest way I can find.

Chris is correct in saying that in a post like this one I'm trying in part to point out that mainstream publishers and their mediocre books "shouldn't be aided and abetted in their efforts by the reviewers."

Chris is also correct that I don't think realism per se is bad. I consider Stephen Dixon a realist (albeit an unorthodox one) and everyone probably knows I think very highly of his work. I've also posted positve posts about other works of realism, such as Kent Haruf's *Plain Song* That post can be found here: noggs.typepad.com/the_reading_experience/2007/10/if-stephen-dixo.html

Jim H.

The quality of "feeling" produced by the work, it seems to me, is what's at issue here. Some like (indeed need) to be congratulated that they understand what's going on or that their feelings of right and wrong are intact or that (yes, dear) love is real or, to borrow Browning's immortal phrasing, 'god is in his heaven—all's right with the world." Others, crave the bittersweet chocolate of sentimentality—I don't know, about dogs or horses or the infirm or underdogs or victims, whatever; there's a fit moral self-affirmation there as well, but it's a weak tea of Aristotelian 'pity' (sorry for the piss-poor gustatory mixing of metaphors there, this is all in draft comments after all). Others just want to be scared (more weak tea) or to laugh.

Yet, there's another sort who craves a complex emotional response to the work—no time to taxonomize here, but rest assured we're contemplating that very issue over at http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot.com: an enlightenment, say, or a specific yet profound insight or a complicated identification with a hidden or buried facet of the self. Dan, it sounds like, is in this last camp. But, it's not just about reader responses with him; it's about writers (and their publishers) whose ambitions are to produce the watered-down product solely because they know they can sell lots of it. As a still-unpublished novelist, I share his ressentiment.

Best,
Jim H.

Daniel

Dan G,

Thanks for getting back, and for letting me, and us I guess, know that your intent here is not to help move the literary culture towards wider engagement with better and more challenging work, but to put forth a sort of extended reading diary. Fair enough. You seem to have taken my comment as an attack, which it wasn't, just some critical feedback.

The general reader, as I understand it, is a person who reads fiction and non-fiction regularly, doesn't have a literature degree, who depends (to some extent) on public discourse to guide their reading habits. But as you've said, audience isn't the point here. Ah, well.

Thanks to everyone for getting back to literary topics. I'm in the 'ignore the frothing loonies' camp, and saw the discussion getting drawn down.

Schopenhauer's bloody knuckles

I was attacked first by Chris after posting a mere aside to E.K.'s comment, im sorry the little slaps i subsequently sent your way seemed like uppercuts and bodyslams to your fledgling intellect.

I dont mind being mocked, (especially on the internet) but if someone is going to employ such tactics against me, I would hope they are seasoned enough in such street brawling to be able to take a few shots themselves. Measuring by the responses of yourself and LML I would refrain from such kidney punches and whatever other cheapshots you two generally like to employ, because if I had actually added any more to the megre mocking I gave the two ofyou, you twits would both have had cardiacs.

As far as internet trolling goes, you are engaging in all the classic moves. Just to put things in perspective: I was laughing at most of your attempted polemics (when I wasnt sighing out of disbelief), and I was never at any point as angry as the two of you. I purposefully backed off after realizing things were going no where.

Anyways, Dan I appreciate and always anticipate your posts... keep your own style and your own topics! these posts make good reading with my coffee after a night spent with whores and literature!

Chris

Zzzzzzz.

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