The Two Book Reviews I Couldn't Write

Lit-Crit Litkicks Personal

This is a story about blogger's block, and about two novels I tried to review and couldn't.

I liked one of the two novels a lot, and didn't like the other one at all. One had been sent to me by the author, the other by a friendly publicist, and I intended to blog about both of them. But when it came time to write, I found myself strangely stunted. I'm not often at a loss for words, but a weariness with contemporary fiction seemed to have stormed me like a derecho. The ensuing struggle helped lead me to a decision (Rilke: "you must change your life") that it was time for me to do something new and different with Literary Kicks.

Here's what happened: first, I read The World Without You by Joshua Henkin, a smooth professional novelist who runs the MFA program at Brooklyn College in New York City. He's a master talent who takes his craft very seriously, and he's got a lot of heart. The World Without You is a family story -- love, divorce, conflict, misunderstanding -- in the great tradition of Laurie Colwin or John Updike or Anne Tyler or Katharine Weber or Jonathan Franzen or Roxana Robinson. The novel satisfies in the same sublime way that most novels about families satisfy: it wrenches at you, surprises you, aggravates you, and totally makes you relate.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. But I found myself lacking a desire to write about it. Should I describe the characters, the taciturn Dad, the fiery Mom, the brother who died, the angry sisters who remain, the outrageous (and hilarious) former slacker turned Orthodox Jew who marries into the family? I could describe them, but Joshua Henkin already did. Should I explore the meaning of the novel? I couldn't think of a meaning, except "this is a family". (Which means plenty, if you say it right.)

Next, I read Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? A Novel from Life, a very trendy and Zeitgeist-y metafictional thing about a self-conscious writer (named, coincidentally enough, Sheila) and her artsy/literary friends. I thought I might like this book because it's structured as an inquiry into ethical philosophy. As the title suggests, it's a novel about a writer trying to figure out the best way to live.

Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence was also a novel in the form of an inquiry. But where Pirsig's novel features internal combustion engines and mountain vistas and stark encounters with professors at the University of Chicago, Heti's novel reads like a yawning browse through a hip fashion magazine. Sheila poses stylishly at restaurant tables exchanging clever or tarty remarks with painters and other writers, and sometimes she transcribes the clever or tarty remarks from tape recordings. Nobody actually tries to answer the question "how to live". The people aren't likable, though I bet they wear great shoes.

I used to enjoy tearing apart a novel I couldn't stand, but as I tried to write about this novel I felt completely stalled, and suddenly couldn't find the point of writing anything at all. Sure, I hated this book, but I suppose that some people who love Tao Lin and Dave Eggers may like it, and why should I berate them for their tastes? It all seemed pointless. Had I lost my lit-blogger mojo completely? Apparently I had.

Maybe my self-assigned reviewing task would have been easier if I didn't try to uphold high standards for originality. I wanted, for instance, to write about The World Without You without saying "Tolstoy", and I wanted to write about How Should A Person Be? without saying "twee". In both cases, this challenge proved insurmountable, and I finally gave up.

This ordeal led me to realize that I am getting bored with the current state of my blog, Literary Kicks. I suppose this is understandable, since the site just turned 18 years old. The first version of Literary Kicks was a simple set of hypertext pages about a few of my favorite writers, written while I was pretending to write C++ programs for a Wall Street bank.

Since then, my life has changed a lot, and my reading habits have changed a lot. The world has also changed a lot, and literature has changed a lot. So, I think it's time for me to let the site change a lot, and that's what I'm going to do.

I'm not sure what I'm going to change it into, but I have a big urge to break away from any conventions that bind me. A few years ago, back when I was member of the Litblog Co-op, I briefly tried to position myself as a literary critic, because many of the best literary bloggers were establishing themselves as professional critics, and it seemed like a good path to follow. I've gradually come to realize that this is not my place in life.

I've always been more fascinated by the grand sweep of classic literature than by the contemporary scene, and I don't have the hunger to discern "the pulse of today" that a good literary critic must have. I often find myself exploring the interplay between literature and history, but current or emerging writers can't be read in the context of history. This is why I'm generally bad at discovering emerging writers: a new novel often feels to me like a novel in a vacuum. If I have to choose between, say, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding or an unread Joseph Conrad masterpiece bearing the glorious patina of a century's age -- well, sorry, Chad, but I'm going with Joseph Conrad. Look me up in a hundred years, and if they're still talking about The Art of Fielding, I'll check it out then.

But I've been straining to fit Literary Kicks into some mental picture of what a serious literary blog should do -- review new books, discover emerging voices -- and I've decided to allow myself to reinvent this site without any constraints. I'm going to drop the site on the floor and watch it crash into pieces so I can figure out how to put the pieces back together in a new way. This is what I plan to do during the month of August. By September, a new version of Literary Kicks will be up. I'm also planning on upgrading from Drupal 6 to Drupal 7, and trying out a few cool techie things as well.

I'll put up one more blog post before I sneak away, but I thought I owed it to my loyal readers to let you know the thought process behind these changes, and the reason the site will be going quiet in August. Mainly, I want to make this website fun for me again, and I have a feeling if it's fun for me, it'll be fun for you.

Okay ... I still have a few things left to say ... one more blog post in a couple of days, and then I'm gone.

20 Responses to "The Two Book Reviews I Couldn't Write"

As a long time "fan", I'm sure whatever you do will be brilliant and enjoyable. Hurry back.


by panta rhei on

looking forward to discover the compilation of lits and kicks that'll be composed over the summer... curious about the mosaic your ideas and inspirations may create!

meanwhile, have a great summer.....

Good for you, not to just continue what you've been doing because you've been doing it so long. And summer is a good time for gestation. "A whole summer — June, July, and August, — is not too good nor too much to hatch a turtle in."

by hypcollector on

....into the brilliant unknown...the mark of enduring greatness is continuous refinement. Take this tremendous vessel of creation and blow the doors off. Congratulations, in advance

by TKG on


Right on!!

Trying to write hack reviews about hack literature is not the way to go and it is only logical and ineluctable that you've awoken.

You have talent. The only reason people with talent hack it out and up about the fine arts hacks is for the cold hard cash.

Glob, MFA lit. Fate worse than death. Glob glibbit.

I love your comments here -- almost what I might say about The Current Literary Scene.

It's the 21st century glib globbit. Cheese it on the cheez wiz. Steak potatoes fruits and vegetables. Yeah. Yogurt granola and dofu.

Math this, it's ba NEY nay.

by mtmynd on

I understand your path and would suggest your 18yrs journey, not unlike our very own lives at 18, tend to discover the world we've yet to know. Add to that the tumultuous times we,re living in, this 21st Century, is but yet another new journey. All journeys don't necessarily demand a set destination but do require an open mind filled with a curiosity. It seems by this post that is awakening in you. Our evolution demands that burning desire to get beyond our complacency ... beyond our set ways to further know ourselves and 'exercise' our abilities to survive this new age we see evolving around us daily thanks in large part to the digital world. Here I am replying to your post using a flashy, hot Google Nexus 7... a device that both Soo and myself are amazed by. Part of our 21st Century digital immediacy that is filled with tremendous promise for all.

As you've mentioned here your given choice to pick up a century old Joseph Conrad over a new author is indicative to me that despite this New Age, it would not be new without that past supporting what we take for granted today. Is not our problem now rediscovering a supportive path within the cacophony of worldwide communications? Are we not inundated with information, so much so that it's becoming not only unimportant but more importantly, an aggravation for our need to keep our inner peace within reach?

Looking forward, amigo, to your rediscovery. Happy trails!

Reading and writing are so subjective, I only write reviews of books I like. If I don't like a book, I just don't talk about it. I probably don't even finish reading it.

I should add that if anyone is reading this who has given me a book, don't assume I dislike it because you haven't heard from me. I've got so many paths forking this way and that, I may need to be reminded.

Levi, Bob Dylan said, "A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do."

Looking forward to the changes!

by Michael.Norris on

History, literature, art: these are all intertwined, and intersect at various points

Books come out in an endless flood, we have, as mtmynd says, a cacophony of worldwide communications.

I think there may be a way to blend history, literature and art into something that rises above the flood and the cacophony.

Maybe that's what you are thinking of...

by Steve on

Just my personal opinion for what it's worth: I think the site has stalled a little with all the emphasis on philosophy.

I just discovered your blog a few days ago and before I even had a chance to settle in and get comfortable -- it's closing.

Sorry to hear it but I completely understand.

All the best.

by catalyst on

@ Howard -- From what I understand, LitKicks is not closing. Levi is going to redo some things and come up with a new version.

@ Levi -- Enjoy the rest of your summer. I'll be keen to see what you come up with in the coming months.

(please do not get rid of action poetry--I BLEED THERE!)

by marie louise em... on

I just wanted to wish you a good summer, may it be a good one, on all levels. And I can only hope that your blog will be as good as it still is.

I like what Michael Norris said, and would like to add to it. Historical fiction and metafiction abound. Many books have a theme that can be seen as philosophical. The artwork and stories found in many graphic novels are as compelling as any classic in a college lit curriculum.

Text as we know it is changing. Just as many novels first appeared one chapter at a time in magazines, now blogs, ebooks, books online, video, and good old paper books, chapbooks, zines, and graphic novels are merging.

by TKG on

I'd still like to know why you didn't like the Heti book. You don't need to make it a "review". That's one of the problems -- trying to be all proper and do things the way they are supposed to be done like everyone else does.

Just spew it out.

I personally thought her book sounds a lot more interesting than the one you liked. That book sounds like torture to me. More DRECK -- Dull Rich East Coast Kool-aid. It makes sense that stuff like that is published by the big publishing industries. It's so insular. It's what they know -- summer homes in the Berkshires. What the math! (maybe its a good book, despite my prejudices, I know)

The excerpts I read of Heti's book were kind of funny. The things some Amazon reviewers were knocking seemed rather obviously tongue in cheek to me.

by Michael.Norris on

Bill - I like the idea of serialized stories. We know it works on the internet - look at Levi's serialized memoir.

by TKG on

I'll third what Bill and Michael are saying. There are endless possibilities with the net and your coding skills. You can do creative novel things that are outside the establishment, and these things may well harken back to the old old days of how literature actually came about and evolved.

I think the reason for your stasis very clear. You tried to be something you cannot be. The lit blog establishment grew up over the last decade or so and is a satellite of the establishment publishing industry. These lit blog communities you tried to join and imitate were actually patterned after you and what you did and began almost two decades ago. It's never going to work that you imitate what began as an imitation of you by non-pioneering types.

You are creative and a pioneer. You have been independent and not part of any establishment or pre-defined community. You've done it on your own and had to do it that way because there were no forms (something Neal Cassady used to say in his rambles).

Why voluntarily put a strait jacket on?

Just stumbled upon your blog and thought, wow, this is good!

You DO write a review of those books even when you're "not" writing a review.

You have a great writing voice and tone, whatever you write will be good as long as it's this personal and honest.

But PLEASE, DON'T LEAVE US ALTOGETHER, you're way to good for that!

To Howard Sherman and The Writer:
This isn't the first time Levi has taken time off to retool his blog, and he comes back every time better than ever. Don't go away - check back in a month or two.

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