Reviewing the Review: February 28 2010

I’ve spent this weekend reading David Shields’ exciting Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a book that urges us to reject the notion that fiction is artistically or philosophically superior to nonfiction. This impressive book is empowering me to accept and embrace for the first time the dread and boredom I have always felt when I pick up a new issue of the New York Times Book Review and see a bunch of articles about novels and short story collections I’ve never heard of and have no clear use for.

If I try to encode this instinctual dread and boredom that I feel into words, all that emerges is a familiar bleating cry: who cares? Roger Boylan reviews an experimental posthumous novel by Gilbert Sorrentino called The Abyss of Human Illusion, apparently “his final take on life’s absurdity” that is thematically “a logical progression” from his two earlier books. Maria Russo, meanwhile, reviews the story collection Something is Out There by Richard Bausch, who attends to “the predicaments of the American male with insight and flair”. Stepping aside from that obvious trainwreck of a topic, Marisa Silver tells us that Eric Puchner’s novel Model Home “cannily trades on the very characteristics that have come to define a recognizable California ‘experience’ in order to blast them apart, revealing the uncertainty and terror beneath the glossy postcard vision we cling to and dismiss”.

There they are, three fiction writers hard at work expressing whatever it is they want to express, and three reviewers weakly playing along as if they were deeply moved by the results. I have not often felt empowered to simply ask “who cares?” in this weekly blog column before — okay, I’ve said it before, but I know it’s not an impressive rejoinder, and I’ve never before felt proud to say it. Maybe that’s one reason I feel excited by Shields’ book. Reality Hunger inspires me to admit that my only interest in these three books is in the nuggets of truth each may contain. I’m not interested in these writers’ aesthetic sensibilities, or in their abilities to spin wonderful sentences or capture charming dialogue. I know that Sorrentino and Bausch and Puchner are skilled in the art of writing, but I should not have to apologize for the fact that I as a reader have a much greater hunger for truth than for art. These three fiction writers owe me nothing and, honestly, promise me little. Who cares?

I plan to write something more coherent and complete about the new David Shields book soon, though, and meanwhile I can find some nuggets of truth in today’s Book Review. A cover piece by Pete Hamill on James S. Hirsch’s Willie Mays delivers a strong if not surprising line drive into the lush green outfield of baseball nostalgia. Jason Goodwin diagrams the reality games travel writer Paul Theroux plays in A Dead Hand, his first foray into metafiction. Charles Bock convincingly presents some of his own controversial thoughts about “truthiness” when he appreciates John D’Agata’s About A Mountain, a book about the attempt to bury nuclear waste inside the Yucca mountain range in Nevada, but objects to a single hamhanded maneuver that spoils the book:

At the heart of a crucial section, D’Agata writes, “There is no explanation for the confluence that night of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the death of a boy who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino.” But the accompanying endnote reads: “I should clarify here that I am conflating the date of the Yucca debate and the suicide that occurred at the Stratosphere Hotel. In reality, these two events were separated by three days.”

Charles Bock doesn’t like this and I don’t like it either. As for Cathleen Schine’s purplish essay about her early reading experiences, maybe my brain is improperly calibrated this morning but I can’t even make sense of this piece. The essay seems to be about her obsession with medieval writing and her early ignorance of classic 19th and 20th century literature. But then she reveals that her key literary obsession as a child was Dostoevsky, who was not medieval and pretty much embodied the essence of classic 19th century literature. So how does this article make sense? I just don’t get it.

Finally, my dissatisfaction with NYTBR rock critics continues. Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan sounds fairly fetching, but reviewer Ben Sisario doesn’t tell us whether or not the title comes from a Bob Dylan song (just as Charles Bock doesn’t tell us whether the title About A Mountain is supposed to be a play on a Nirvana song) and delivers tired snarky lines like “as long as a Yes concept album”, which only motivates me to point out that a Yes concept album will tend to be about 42 minutes long, the same as any other classic rock album, since that’s the technical limit of vinyl in the LP format.

16 Responses

  1. Levi — Reality Hunger sounds
    Levi — Reality Hunger sounds fascinating. I will definitely pick it up, and your shout-out is interestingly timed for me, as I’ve been grappling more and more with the realization that, despite having always seen myself as a fiction writer, I tend to write (and read) non-fiction so much more frequently these days, and sometimes feel more energized when I do so.

    I have to take issue with your point about Yes concept albums, though. Yes’ most (in)famous concept album, 1974’s “Tales From Topographic Oceans” — to which I assume he’s referring — is a super-extended piece with symphonic pretensions that spans two LPs, running at a total of 81 minutes even though it only contains 4 “songs.” As someone who finds the notion of listening to even 5 minutes of Yes daunting, I have to say that 81 minutes sounds reeeaaaalllly fucking long to me.

  2. “I know that Sorrentino and
    “I know that Sorrentino and Bausch and Puchner are skilled in the art of writing, but I should not have to apologize for the fact that I as a reader have a much greater hunger for truth than for art. These three fiction writers owe me nothing and, honestly, promise me little. Who cares?”

    Time to change the name of this website to “Non-Literary Kicks” because you clearly don’t give a fuck about literature anymore.

  3. “Reality Hunger inspires me
    “Reality Hunger inspires me to admit that my only interest in these three books is in the nuggets of truth each may contain. I’m not interested in these writers’ aesthetic sensibilities, or in their abilities to spin wonderful sentences or capture charming dialogue.”

    The aesthetics of a wonderful sentence holds as much truth as one could ever hope for, in and of itself, in my view.

  4. In some ways, I can
    In some ways, I can sympathize with you, Levi. I, too, have found myself less and less interested in reading random literary fiction authors who haven’t either come highly recommended by friends or trusted critics, or whose books don’t center on subjects I find inherently interesting.

    Perhaps its because I, like yourself, have a lifelong appreciation and respect for the classics of Western lit, and there is such a wide, wide chasm between what the literati considered “literary” 100 or even 50 years ago, and what passes for it today.

    To put it simply, I’ve grown tired of reading books that aren’t really about anything. Or perhaps I should say books in which nothing happens. To me, the whole point of writing a book is to tell a story. If you can tell that story in a way that is unique, or in a language that is florid or transcendant — or tell a story that is so original in and of itself — then that story just might deserve to be called “literary.” But if all you’ve got is a mastery of the English language or a mind for heady philosophy, but no chops as a storyteller, yours is the kind of book I will most likely put down after the first 20 pages.

    I’m sure Nabokov could have worked his linguistic gymnastics around Humbert and Dolores’ lives, described their situation in a million ways, and delved deep into their psyche’s — and he did do all that — but thank God he got them in that car and on the highway. Melville could have sent Ishmael out on a boat and had him spend night after night pondering the sea and the history of its devotees, but instead he threw in a white whale, a batshit Captain and a hell of a chase. It seems those authors realized that, in order for anyone but literature professors and their students to care — the characters needed to DO something.

    Maybe that’s why for the past few years I’ve found myself straying farther and farther away from what is currently considered literary, and spending more time reading non-fiction and crime novels. When it comes to crime — sure, there is a lot of worthless crap out there. I dare even say MOST of it is worthless crap. But if you look a little deeper, search a little harder, there are tons of writers who can construct flawless sentences and present characters that seem real, and approach universal truths every bit as weighty as anything considered in literary fiction today. Oh — and I also find this type of fiction tends to reveal itself earlier. I usually know by page three if I’m reading a writer of any talent, and thus waste a lot less time reading novels halfway before I throw them down in disgust.

    Thanks for letting me rant.

  5. if it’s okay to post other
    if it’s okay to post other reviews, i think the new douglas coupland can be skipped. after his excellent, ahead of its time jpod, the next two books have been laborious. generation A starts off well and i was pretty excited, but it turns into 3 or 4-page genre stories within stories, forced into the book under the flimsiest of pretexts. the end comes in a single sentence. the reaction is, all that for that? yugh. there’s something meta going on, but he doesn’t spend enough time with it to give it the depth to matter. the novel curiously lacks what’s coupland’s strong suit, his talent for conveying feeling. on the plus side, his scope wide. and his sentences continue to give pleasure, as he has maybe the most recognizable prose style since vonnegut.

    but i’m a quarter way into the new coetzee, summertime, and it’s exceptional. masterful direct writing, and in a change for him it’s almost entirely devoid of his preoccupation with allegory. recommended.

  6. Milton — okay, maybe he
    Milton — okay, maybe he meant a Yes double album. Still, I think it’s important for a writer to choose words carefully, and it’s a fact that you can’t measure a vinyl album’s tediousness by its length. Was “Tales From Topographic Oceans” actually longer than other double albums like “Tommy” or “Freak Out” or “Frampton Comes Alive”. Or did it just feel that way?

    Marc W. — if I weren’t interested in literature, I don’t know why I’d be excited by this new book of literary criticism by David Shields. I am, though, interested in exploring new approaches to literature. You try writing about the New York Times Book Review every weekend for 4 1/2 years, and let’s see if you don’t get bored by the endless stream of forgettable fiction reviews too.

    Bud — I totally agree with you (and so does John Keats). The question is, must that sentence be fictional to be wonderful? Can sentences that describe reality (unfortunately tagged with the mundane phrase “non-fiction”) be just as wonderful as sentences that describe imaginary events? That’s what David Shields’ book is about.

    Gaggy — love that wrap-up, thanks.

  7. Levi, as I read today’s
    Levi, as I read today’s Review of the Review, and all the comments, it occurs to me that the so-called crisis of paper books vs. digital books is not really the major issue of 21st centuty lit at all. The real issues are (a) what to teach and what to leave out, and (b) Can anything more be said, or said better or at least differently?

    Percy Shelley studied Homer; Henry James studied Homer and Percy Shelley; F. Scott Fitzgerald studied Homer, Shelley, and James; John Updike studied Homer, Shelley, James, and Fitzgerald…

    Every other generation of writers either loses or regains faith or reason, prose is turned inside out, back through itslef and out the other side, until some readers turn to nonfiction, where they can draw their own conclusions. But even nonfiction is sometimes fiction and vice versa.

    I realize my comments are based on the idea that great novels must have great themes. There are always good stories for the sake of entertainment. What am even talking about? What was in the coffee?

  8. To me, fiction and nonfiction
    To me, fiction and nonfiction flow in and out of one another and can’t be separated. Thomas de Quincey wrote nonfiction about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” which he applied to fictional works like The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which in turn, were probably inspired by supposedly true tales of sailors that became mythic with retelling, just as, in a way, Coleridge has become almost mythic thanks to de Quincey’s well-written and imaginative biography.

  9. Levi – my opinion is that
    Levi – my opinion is that fiction is not inferior to non-fiction; rather, most fiction written now is simply inferior stuff.

  10. I owe you one, Levi, for
    I owe you one, Levi, for making hay with the Shields book that I overlooked yesterday. I couldn’t agree with you more. First, the bar for fiction is higher than for non-fiction because the former must be exalting. Or, as S. Bellow said, “Still, a story should be interesting. Highly interesting. As interesting as possible—inexplicably absorbing.” But I’m not sure many novelists realize what they need to be doing to hold readers with their “glittering eye.”

    And you’re not the only one feeling this way lately. Elif Batuman discusses it in her hot non-fiction book, The Possessed. According to the NYTimes’ review, “Early in Elif Batuman’s funny and melancholy first book, ‘The Possessed,’ she describes her disillusionment, as a would-be novelist, with ‘the transcendentalist New England culture of “creative writing.”‘ The problem with creative writing programs, she says, is their obsession with craft. ‘What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?’ Ms. Batuman asks.”

    And, of course, my boy Krim wrote about this, too. In his 1969, The American Novel Made Me he rang the two-minute warning on the game of the novel. Keeping up had become a “frantic duty rather than the great thrill it once had been,” and he called for more of the New Journalism/non-fiction that had already become popular.

    Finally, why should non-fiction have to define itself by what it is not? The supreme dominance of the novel is probably ending, like epic poetry, the sonnet and other forms before it. In other words, the free ride is over. Being a novelist is no longer the easy artistic route to respect and glory.

  11. As an addendum to what I was
    As an addendum to what I was mentioning earlier — I came across an article today called The Hardboiled Way by Gary Lovisi, in which he says that the fundamental, core element of all true hard-boiled crime fiction is truth — a truth that may be brutal and ugly, but is not shrunk away from, nevertheless. In these next little quotes, he explains something that I was trying to get across in my earlier post:

    “Today, more than ever, hard-boiled fiction is relevant fiction that has meaning and stands for something, unlike the broader spectrum of literature, and most other mass-market entertainment. Modern authentic hard-boiled material (not Chandler clones or blood and guts retro-pulp), seriously examines crime or social issues, often taking us to places and depths we’d rather not be taken into at all.

    Today the hard-boiled tradition comes on strong, in some ways even bolder than ever. Today there are serious issues and debates in hard-boiled work that you don’t see any place else. And certainly not at this level of detail and intensity.
    Hard-boiled deals with crime, naturally.

    But it goes deep down into the black heart of crime. The corruption crime can bring into a person’s life, or into our society. The pain and decay it spawns on so many levels. The effect on the criminal and the victim. The reasons for it all.”

  12. Why the idea that literature
    Why the idea that literature excludes non-fiction?

    Literally, the art of writing is literature with the same good-bad extremes as any other art form. It seems I’m hearing literature is somehow only fiction.

    I don’t know about others, but I have certainly enjoyed reading several non-fictional books, articles and even commentaries because of the masterful way in which they were written. Were these things ‘literature’? Apparently not with some of the responders I read here.

    And perhaps it is just that – a preconceived notion so many have been accustomed to hearing from the scholarly school as to what is ‘real literature’. It shouldn’t be any more complicated than ‘real literature’ is ‘really well-written’ and ‘really inspires, teaches, instructs, amuses, offers suspense and satisfies the reader’. Do any of us want or need more than any of those qualities from what we read? If so, I think that attitude is sounding a death knell for the writers who feel they are unable to produce “a critically acclaimed novel that will go down in the annals of literary history.” That is way too much baggage to hold on to and ‘really’ unnecessary to the art of writing.

    As in any art form, writing is also the heart (passion) and soul (honesty) expressed therein which makes the art what it is intended to convey.

  13. Hey Levi,
    I too loved the

    Hey Levi,

    I too loved the Shields book, but I think at least one of those authors you maligned is the kind of writer Shields would be down with. From what I’ve read of Sorrentino he was just a Shields author: writing stuff with a complex narrative scheme, questioning the line between fact and fiction, dispensing with all that scene-setting crap and just giving you the gems. His late works seem to be the most distilled of all, in other words, the most Shieldian.

  14. If memory serves me
    If memory serves me correctly, Litkicks began as a site dedicated to the Beat writers. Then as time progressed it broadened in scope to novels… fiction books which showed the savvy of a new generation of up-and-coming writers making their mark in literary circles.

    Is this latest discussion focusing on expanding the vision of Litkicks once again… a more comprehensive, more expansive look into all genres? If so, I would encourage that move. It would put more ‘Kicks in Literature’ as the name implies.

  15. Yes, mtmynd, that’s pretty
    Yes, mtmynd, that’s pretty much the idea, and I’m glad you like it!

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