Time-Bound: Why Most Litblogs Suck

Since morphing LitKicks into a blog format last year, I’ve made it my habit to check other litblogs as often as I can. A few are really good, and almost all of them are capable of saying something worthwhile every now and then. But most of the well-known litblogs strike me as limited in one major way: they seek relevancy by mainly covering new literature and current writers. I believe this to be a misguided pursuit.

Unless it is a litblogger’s goal to be a corollary to the daily newspaper or TV news networks, I see no reason why the discussion of literature should be so time-bound. Yes, we are alive in the first decade of the third millenium A.D.; however, we are also simply present on earth as fully qualified members of the human race, and there is no reason we should feel less connected to Hesiod or Lao-Tzu or Gustave Flaubert or Anton Chekhov than we do to, say, Curtis Sittenfeld or Benjamin Kunkel.

Who cares what’s being published next week? Why should we need an excuse, like a new edition of collected letters, or an anniversary, to write about Edmund Wilson or Vladimir Nabokov?

Literature is not bound by time. Great books, like great trees, build their majesty imperceptibly through the ages. Slice cross-wise into a Shakespeare play or a Cervantes novel and count the rings — you will discover that they have never stopped growing. Relevance? Kafka wrote about Abu Ghraib, Nietzsche wrote about the Rwandan genocide, and Dostoevsky wrote about the attacks of September 11. None of these writers were alive to witness the events they turned out to be writing about; nevertheless, they can make our understanding of these events richer, and I would never think of restricting my attention span to exclude the rare moments of human brilliance that have a chance of illuminating my life today.

In summary, I charge most of the presently known litbloggers with a lack of depth. Rather than pointing fingers, I’ll point to a happy exception. MaudNewton.com is one of the best literary blogs because it’s practically the only one (besides LitKicks) that would venture to publish, apropos of nothing, a list of a contributor’s favorite short stories. There’s great pleasure in perusing a post like this, and there’s utility in it as well.

But nine out of ten “top litblogs” restrict themselves to whatever news items roll in from Google or pop up on the Blackberry, and I find this very disappointing.

What do you think about literature’s relationship with time? As a reader or writer, do you relentlessly seek out what is new? How does the dimension of time affect your understanding of fiction and poetry, or does it at all?

18 Responses

  1. Thought ProvokingThe second
    Thought Provoking

    The second question, for me, is very simple-as an avid reader and new but persistent writer/poet I absolutely do not vigorously pursue new literature. I would say that less than 10% of my total novel reading would be considered “new” material. I do have a few contemporary writers that I follow and will buy their new releases-but this is the exception, not the rule. One other small exception is that I stay current with several of the small literary ‘zines- to see what the small presses are doing with contemporary poetry as this affects my interests and aspirations directly. As for the first and third questions-I definitely think that literature should be measured by time. I guess what I am implying is that literature should be viewed in a historical context (I hope that I’m not missing the boat here). For example I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the first time earlier this year. While I thought that it was a well-crafted novel certainly worthy of its place in the traditional English literary canon. Paradoxically, though, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading the novel. Was it hard to read? No. Then why? I had a philosophical objection to the subject matter. As a liberal 21st century American male I found it apalling that the sole aspiration of these young girls was to find a suitor and get married. What about higher education? What about finding your own identity? Upon further analysis I realized that I was missing the point — this novel was referring to upper-middle class women in the late 18th Century, not American women in the 21st. What I failed to do was to take this novel in its historical context-in this sense time is relevant.

  2. After the delugeBefore I even
    After the deluge

    Before I even read this post, I was rereading Rimbaud’s Illuminations and couldn’t help feeling that nothing has changed. This week it seems especially significant.

    After The Deluge

    As soon as the idea of the Deluge had subsided, A hare stopped in the clover and swaying flowerbells, and said a prayer to the rainbow, through the spider’s web . . . .

    Oh! the precious stones that began to hide, –and the flowers that already looked around.

    In the dirty main street, stalls were set up and boats were hauled toward the sea, high tiered as in old prints.

    Blood flowed at Blue Beard’s, –through slaughterhouses, in circuses, where the windows were blanched by God

  3. I Heart ClassicsReally, I’m
    I Heart Classics

    Really, I’m not hip to new literature. I only know who Benajmin Kunkel is because I read an article (not on a litblog) earlier this week about listless men of a certain age that are irritating to date, and this ties into his new novel somehow, though I think the article’s writer cared less about the book and more about ways to discuss how the men she meets are irritating. That’s neither here nor there, I suppose, but there you go.

    The truth is, I don’t really have much interest in fiction published after 1970, except in certain cases, and genuinely love stuff from WWII and before. But that’s me. I don’t think this stuff has lost its relevance; if anything, I think it’s gained importance. I don’t really like cleverness in writing just for the sake of cleverness, and find that in most of the contemporary fiction I read, writers are just showing off. Sure, I think Faulkner showed off too, but it never came across as the sly winking that I think so many writers engage in these days. I don’t like sly winking, in crowded bars or in the books I read. Stop it.

    I think I started on a tangent.

    I love writing when it displays excellent craftsmanship, and turn my nose up at things that don’t do that for me. I don’t completely want to generalize, because I know that good writing is still being created, but when I think of writers I admire just because I love their writing so damned much, the most recent one I can think of is Milan Kundera, and well, he’s not really a darling chased down by all the blogging superstars, is he?


    As for my understanding of fiction & poetry in regards to time, well, I think that everything written is absolutely a product of the time and place where it was created, but that doesn’t mean those things lose relevance. A love story is a love story, regardless of whether it was written in 1820 or 2005. Even if the structure of the sentences differ, the underlying truths are the same. At least I think so.

  4. Litkicks is a blog now?I
    Litkicks is a blog now?

    I guess you are, but I wouldn’t want to define my site as a blog. I think “blogs” are so commonplace and so discussed everywhere that having a site that is not a blog – is the new blog.

    I really never considered litkicks as a blog, but now that I think of it, I guess it is.

    There are so many blogs, that I’m sure you can find a bunch that deal with old and new lit. But I understand why people want to focus on new lit. It’s kind of like talking about movies. Some people only want to talk about The Godfather or Pulp Fiction. Yeah, they’re great, but we’ve already discussed the shit out of them so let’s talk about Sin City or the new King Kong movie.

    Some people like their lit like they like their women, fresh with a saucy attitude. I mean really. When my wife turns 40 I’m going to trade her in for a couple of 20 year olds. Why? Because new stuff is exciting and sexy. No one wants a tape player when they can can have an ipod. It’s fun to be the first one to discover the latest hot author.

    Well, I kind of went tangent-crazy towards the end there, but the pont was made. I think. And please don’t tell my wife. Because, as great as the latest Chuck Palahniuk may be, sometimes you just want to curl up with a familiar, trusty Hemingway.

  5. Jamelah-You mentioned
    You mentioned Kundera. I was totally consumed by his writing a couple of years ago and read virtually every one of his novels in rapid succession. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is probably in my top five of all time and was the last novel that I read that truly blew me away. I truly had a cathartic and emotional moment when I finished it.

  6. Hi Malt — didn’t we have
    Hi Malt — didn’t we have this conversation once before? Or was that someone else, or am I suffering from deja vu? In any case, yes, we did decide to move to a blog format, which basically means to me that entries are ordered chronologically and organized by category, and that we try to keep a regular rollin’ rhythm so that there’s usually something new here if you check every day.

    And, just for the record, I do claim to have created (and abandoned) the first litblog in the world: Beat News, first entry dated Nov 14 1994. Al Gore wasn’t even on the internet back then.

  7. Eternity and ZeitgeistI scour
    Eternity and Zeitgeist

    I scour the Pen-Faulkner award lists and National Book Award lists to see what could be a good read but am no slave to having to read something just because it is selling or is the next best thing unless it does put a new, fresh twist on the writing game. I want to read what’s good and fresh. If it’s old, e.g., Catch-22, but after reading I get a fresh look at life, I’m OK.

    A good book tells the tale of the human condition without feeling dated. I’ve only read 2 of the top 10 novels for the 20th century listed by the Modern Library, yet I don’t feel short changed and I don’t consider the canon petrified. I never got through Crime and Punishment and I never miss a chance to not read my copy of Bros. Karamazov.

    Anything that succeeds in making a mental snapshot is worthwhile but I definitely prefer wikipedia.org to Herodotus and never finished Great Expectations though I enjoyed the Ethan Hawke film. If it’s good and fresh, I’ll read it but I do enjoy what is contemporary the most, because I am mostly finished with looking back on anything and, as a writer, I most want to get down what’s happening now.

    As for the blogness of Litkicks, I think it’s OK. I’ve only got one other lit-blog bookmarked on this PC.

  8. I liked ULB a lot — it’s
    I liked ULB a lot — it’s what got me started on Kundera anyway — but Immortality is the best book I’ve read (by him or anyone else) for a long, long time. And it’s been a long, long time since I read it.

    I read the last sentence several times because I didn’t want to be finished with it.

  9. Time and LiteratureIf I had
    Time and Literature

    If I had to think of such things, I guess I would have to say I think of literature and its association with time in much the same way I view thought and its association with memory. Some things I abbreviate and others I memorize by heart.

    Your analogy about taking a cross sectional perspective of Shakespeare is an interesting one. But if you stick with it long enough, ultimately historians become our literary figureheads instead of artists.

    I think contemporary authors, anytime, anywhere, are judged by their readers and peers within the context of those times (how many literate baby boomers read William F. Buckley in the sixties?). They are vulnerable to a completely different set of political, and social vicissitudes that usually don’t impinge upon the “dust to dust” authors we remember simply: “for the language that they used.”

    This probably sounds ludicrous to those that would insist that art and literature cleave forever to the influences of their contemporary social, economic and political cohorts. But in all honesty the only time I ever really connected Sartre, who was a ferocious writer (IMHO), to the Nazi invasion was when I flipped casually through his War Diaries (which I picked up at a Goodwill store for a quarter). And even there he wrote about the “negation of freedom” instead of who bombed what, and where.

    Saint Augustine’s Confessions wasn’t much more than an extensive journal of a personal struggle to achieve grace in the fourth century. Susanne Kimball, in some scholarly rag I picked up for a dime somewhere said:

    “His conversion is but a reflection of a universal process-of our errors and redemption. Every line is not merely a historical account, but holds hidden symbolism. His story takes on universal dimensions addressing all people.” But I’m preaching to the clergy. It sounds as if we might hold some common ground here.

    Or perhaps we should just agree that literature is on the decline and be done with it. When people would rather read self help books over literary works because “at least they contain information about human existence” (a comment Kimball credits to a colleague) the cause is lost. Empires have fallen simply because people stopped believing in them.

    Sooo, having said all that I’m not sure what you meant when you said Dostoevsky wrote about 9-11? But if we were playing poker I’d go all in against the ultimate “chronicler” of that event being a contemporary writer, especially an American one. My guess would be a mature and reflective Afghanistani author with an eight year old’s memory of a shit storm that caused him to question his existence and to think hard on his thoughts. Nothing new, nothing aggressively-progressive, just ol’ fashioned meta-cognition.

    I try to read more contemporary stuff but most of today’s androgynous, mealy mouthed little hacks irk my genteel sensibilities. Besides, did you know that in the book of the same name, Forrest Gump didn’t meet Bubba in the army at all? And that’s all I have to say about that…*wink*.

  10. Thanks Diag … of course,
    Thanks Diag … of course, when I talk about Dostoevsky, Kafka etc. in terms of relevance to world politics, I’m giving an example of only one type of relevance. I could have also talked about love, or families, or work … I guess I could think of a literary reference for pretty much every moment of my life.

    About Dostoevsky and 9-11, I guess I’m projecting my own interpretation of the meaning of terrorism in our time, and connecting it to books like Notes From Underground and Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky probed the human and emotional roots of “resentment”, and his conclusions score with me. A recent New York Times Book Review article said that Joseph Conrad wrote about 9-11, and I suppose this is true too.

    About Forrest Gump, however, I really have nothing to say except that some classic author must have at one point written something that evokes Tom Hanks’ really bad acting.

  11. About Forrest Gump, however,
    About Forrest Gump, however, I really have nothing to say except that some classic author must have at one point written something that evokes Tom Hanks’ really bad acting.

    Maybe it was Joseph Conrad…

    /backs away

  12. ProustI tend to literary

    I tend to literary cross mixing of sorts. The last novel I completed (Reading, not writing, ha…) was D.H. Lawerence’s ‘The Fox’. Now I page Palahniuk “Haunted.” ‘Coney Island of the Mind’ sits on my bookshelf next to John Keats collected works.

    What we write is merely self-expression. I am a bad boy by Aberdeen SD standards. The only merits I have are the fact I supposedly look like Tom Hanks, can write, and am better read then most of the people that teach English Literary at our little state school. I don’t work, I just take more classes, more money that I doubt if I’ll ever pay.

    I made the front page of the local newspaper four times over a phone call and I didn’t actually get in trouble for it.

    No doubt the great masters Kafka, Shakespeare realized that human nature manifests regardless of the circumstance. But there is no time like the present.

    Does it occur to you that blogging is just another way to get attention like HAM radio?

    I actually rarely read anything actually current. Where would I find it? I live in a town of 25,000 people 300 miles away from any city.

    People express themselves in some attempt, usually quite vain, to be understood. A part of most semiotic theory is that ever sign made has a reason. The word choice is an expression of some idea, whether it is appparent to the author or not.

    People write about new things to sound current. On the other hand; some authors are so heavily written about that it has reached a point of absurdity.

    Yes, if I have nothing better to do I’ll read Joyce. Do I want to read endless badly written graduate thesis papers about Joyce, no. Do I have that option, yes.

    In short, reading too much about literature instead of just reading literature strikes me as a waste of time. I don’t need the bloggers to understand something, I have B.S. degree from a Division 1 school. You’d hope I’d come to my own conclusions.

    I think it is very difficult to determine if new writing will be remembered. The thing is great lit isn’t bound by time, because 3000 years ago we still had manic depressive weirdo’s trying to express or expose or indict via the usage of a pen (or whatever they used).

    Oedipus Rex is still read, 2000 years after Freud dwelt upon on those themes. Human Emotions haven’t changed in 50,000 years since we became this particular brand of being. Cultural standards regarding how people are treated have changed. The conflict between what we can accept and cannot accept is the whole premise of literature, art.

    When I listen to FM radio I like to hear 80’s songs as much as 90’s songs as much as current songs. I don’t remember the 80’s all songs tend to love songs, and other then place names associations (I lived alot of places when I was a kid) or lyric musings the 80’s usually don’t have some deep emotional feeling-but sometimes despite not clearly being linked I can understand what is being expressed, 90’s songs like ‘Semi-Charmed Kind of Life’ have personal meaning mixed in with whatever the singer and the band was trying to get to.
    ‘I took the hit I was given and bumped again’ reminds me of my personal life with the meth and depression. With current songs (a few weeks to a year old) I have tied them to my life yet.

    The simile is that we relate to things on different levels. Time plays a part in it, but Proust describing how he slept and memory of it in ‘Swann’s Way’ seems to be the most accurate literary depiction of the nature of time ever written.

  13. My pleasure. In a bizarre
    My pleasure. In a bizarre way, G Sorrentino wrote an entire book of prose poetry devoted to “After the Deluge” and Willam Carlos William’s poems. An old litkicks favorite Robert Creeley wrote the afterword. “Splendide-Hotel” by Gilbert Sorrentino if anyone wants a truly different, but short read.

  14. BergsonYour message caused me

    Your message caused me to read up on Proust and Swann’s Way. Ironic because you said “reading too much about literature instead of just reading literature strikes me as a waste of time.” I somewhat agree with you. Then, your comment about Proust giving such a good literary depiction of the nature of time – that piqued my interest, so I looked him up on the internet and read about how Proust came along just as France was going into a productive period: The impressionists were painting, the Eiffel Tower was built, the Lumi

  15. Timely..The reason that old

    The reason that old literature seems better than the new stuff is that is has been filtered. How many books can you name from the 16th century? Most have been filtered out because they were unremarkable. It leaves us with a small collection of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Every time a generation dies off a collection of subpar literature goes with them, leaving behind only what they recommended to their children. Certain books become irrelevant, and those disappear over time. Now the market is so cluttered with mindless drivel and talentless hacks that I find it frustrating to try and sort through all the garbage to find that one novel worth the time. But when you do, you feel much better about it than reading something tried and true. I’ve always wanted to read an author that still writes, just so I can be excited for his next book to come out. I generally feel the same way about movies and music. It’s difficult to sift through the garbage heap to find something worthwhile. But if you find it…

    To be in on the ground floor has to be an amazing feeling. Imagine being in Greenwich Village in 1961 when Bob Dylan showed up. Or being in Paris with the Bohemians. Imagine being in university when the French Revolution was beginning. Or even being a college student when the Velvet Revolution began. I’ve spoken to the latter, and they have an indelible pride in being a part of something that changed so many peoples’ lives so drastically. To be there when electricity is in the air, to be a part of that brief sensation when everything is about to change. That is a feeling that surpasses literature, and only literature can bring back for those of us that couldn’t make it.

  16. Not a Prisoner of Time I
    Not a Prisoner of Time

    I agree that literary discussions don’t need to just discuss what is the “rant” at the moment. There are recent books, magazine articles, and books in the past which should not be overlooked by lit blogs.

    You certainly are right about the lit blogs not being like the daily paper. The internet is a different medium and shouldn’t be compared quite the same way. The internet is also a worldwide medium like “ham radio” and should also include conversation about ordinary events, in the present, past, or speculation on the future.

    There is plenty “happening” in the literary world that goes under the radar of the mainstream movements.

    Some of these events, when combined or cobbled together make
    for interesting “new movements” of the literary future. On the other hand, some past events and literary movements may have escaped scrutiny and need more discussion.

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