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

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Jacob Russell

All novels are about their own time and place. There's no such thing as "historical fiction," only revisions and re-revisions of relations between public memory and the present.

Jacob Russell

... and The Kindly Ones succeeds, not as 'historical fiction' --which it isn't, but because it addresses itself so unsparingly to the three plus generations of accumulated public memory.. and the mythologizing that preceded and informs them and its continuation in the always self-correcting mind of the narrator.

Frances Madeson

But what about Morris Dickstein's “20 year rule” as elucidated in his Bookforum essay Faction and Political Fact? And I quote:

“Political novels work best when they show how history really affects the fate of individuals, and when their characters have the density, the contradictory fullness, of real people, instead of coming through as cardboard cutouts or historical ciphers. The writer can grasp this best perhaps twenty years or so after the fact, not when too much time has passed or when the events are still too raw. Don DeLillo's reconstruction of Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination in Libra (1988) is one example.”

Personally, I think that's a recipe for irrelevance and impotence. What if instead of neutering DeLillo (impossible, by the way) or trying to, the Dickmeister had at the time of Libra's publication (May Day 1991, a year that started on a Tuesday) understood (as Jacob immediately grasps about TKO) that DeLillo was using the past to predict the future (as Jim H is doing right this very moment in his Fouling the Nest post on Wisdom of the West). The last word, the very last word, in Libra is “history” which on page 321 he defines as “the sum total of all things they aren't telling us.”

On page 207 of Mirror in the Roadway, look at what you-know-who selects to emphasize about DeLillo's portrayal of Oswald, what he classily calls DeLillo's “fix on the violent blue-collar male...” What a peculiarly reductive takeaway, especially given his own criteria stated above, from a most complex portrait, even in the context of the statement (a discussion about the works of Russell Banks). How do you spell literary criticism marinating in rampant ideology?

In his offhand way, DeLillo teaches many important lessons in Libra, including certain etymologies, for instance the relationship in Arabic between the words assassin and hashish (on page 342). Looking at it in the mirror in the roadway, the induced state of smoky alteredness, the hyper reality of the hashish high, is a metaphor in the collective unconscious for the delusion of the assassin. But when Morris Dickstein, a Pisces like Marion Barry and Tammy Faye Baker, passes the hookah one's way, a perfectly polite and appropriate response is, “No thank you, Morrie. I'd prefer not to.” And if he insistently pushes it on you, please feel free to borrow (at 0% interest) my personal credo, with hats off to Melina Mercouri: “Never on Tuesday.”


We remain endlessly interested in literary criticism marinating in hatred of Morris Dickstein.

Frances Madeson

Thanks, Andy. Please do let me know if it grows tiresome or dull. Because I could work up something on Dick Morris as a change of pace. At your service!


Like you, I'm skeptical of simple dichotomies ("open", "closed") about most kinds of art, and see them as a rather lazy but superficially clever smokescreen hiding a critic's inability to consider his or her subject more deeply. On the other hand, I'm also wary of any all-encompassing definitions such as "historical fiction." I do read a lot of novels set in a particular place and time, where the action and character development are at least influenced by that, sometimes crucially, and have been thinking about why some of them are so satisfying as literature and some never manage to escape the trap of "re-creation." However, the answer has nothing to do with these silly categories of "open" or "closed."

I do like reading fiction that teaches me something about history, and don't want to dismiss any and all books falling into that category. As an example, two "historical" books about Turkey: Louis de Bernieres' "Birds Without Wings," which I'm currently reading, is entertaining and well-written and clearly focused on re-creating the historical world of small-town Anatolia before and during the fall of the Ottoman empire. Bernieres creates characters with some complexity, but to me they never go beyond "types" which he needed to tell the historical story. But Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's "A Mind at Peace," set in Istanbul on the eve of WWII, is another thing entirely. Not only is it faithful to the history of the time and characters who might have lived then, and fascinating because of them, but it transcends time and history to speak of human truths that are universal, timeless, and also individual. At its best, it seems to me that this is what literature can do.


I wonder if instead of "open" or "historical" fiction the idea of "researched fiction" would be helpful. Some novels have obviously been researched and have needed that research to be what they are (War and Peace, Gravity's Rainbow, Sotweed Factor, Ulysses) while other works ("closed" -- Kafka's, Beckett's) would be diminished, or not advanced, by incorporating exterior sources.

Dan Green

I don't look askance at fiction that uses "research" per se, if indeed it is necessary for the resulting novels "to be what they are." If the research is being used simply to "re-create" history as an end in itself, then that sort of fiction is indeed what I identified in the post as "an effort to use the form for a purpose other than" a literary one.


As someone who does this kind of writing, I can only add that the "choice" of time period didn't feel like a choice at all: it rose up.

As for Pynchon's Inherent Vice, I found it touching that for the first time, the narrative, along with lots of laughter and celebration, includes a kind of sad warning about drug misuse. I think that's the sign of a great writer: he's not trapped, ever, inside his previous world.

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