The other day I found a fascinating blog devoted to words, linguistics, languages and other related topics called Languagehat. I have been meaning to mention it for a while, and today I have good reason to. I don’t often talk about reference books on The Millions even though I use them every day. Lucky for us, Languaghat keeps track of these sorts of things. Today, he posts links to interesting reviews of new editions of two popular reference books, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.
In August, 2006, a few months after the first Federer–Nadal Wimbledon final, David Foster Wallace published “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” in the New York Times, a lengthy footnoted essay describing the sublimity of Roger Federer and the elements of top-flight tennis that can only be captured watching it live. The essay is not only the best piece of tennis writing I have ever read, but the best piece of sports writing, period. There are countless parts that merit reading out loud to whomever’s nearby. One among them:At least not entirely. TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television’s slow-mo replays, its close-ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we’re not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what’s lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting.Yesterday’s Federer-Nadal final reminded me of the piece, and, as I have done every year around this time for the past three, had me emailing it out to all my friends, beseeching them to read it, because this time, it really is worth it. It has become a fixation of our manic media culture to instantly assess a just-completed event’s place in history. And in the same way that it drives web traffic and sells newspapers to inflate the significance of a “gaffe” by a presidential candidate, rarely a week goes by without some game or another receiving the brand of “classic” status on ESPN. But every now and again the genuine article comes along, making it obvious that all the other hyperbole was just that. Yesterday’s Wimbledon final was that kind of event. I imagine DFW was watching. I hope he writes about it.
In 2007 and 2008, Frank Kovarik, who writes and teaches English in St. Louis, sent us a spreadsheet that he has used to catalog New Yorker fiction since 2003, and now, with another year of data included, we’re going to revisit it.Frank’s spreadsheet records not just the titles and authors of the stories published in the New Yorker, but things like gender, country of origin, and frequency of appearance. He also includes his own personal quality rating for each story (your mileage may vary; he writes about his favorites here).Frank has once again generously offered to make his spreadsheet available to Millions readers. If you’re interested, you can see it here.With seven years of data compiled, we can get some hard info on the New Yorker’s tendencies when publishing fiction.Frequency:
The first thing we always look at is if the New Yorker is bringing new writers into the mix or sticking with its old standbys. Just 10 writers account for 82 (or 23%) of the 358 stories to appear over the last seven years. Just 18 writers account for 124 (or 35%) of the stories. The New Yorker is sometimes criticized for featuring the same writers again and again, but it appears to be getting better on this front. The 18 “standbys” noted above and listed below accounted for only 7 of the 49 stories published in 2009 (or 14%). On the flip side of this argument, 15 writers appeared in the New Yorker for the first time in 2009 (at least since 2003).Gender:
Of the 358 stories in the New Yorker from 2003 through 2009, 131 or 36.6% were penned by women. (That’s down from 38.1% last year.)Nationality:
The fiction section of the New Yorker is a pretty multi-cultural place, but Americans still make up the bulk of the contributors. 184 of the stories, or 51% (up from 50% after 2008), are American (and this leaves off several writers who could be conceivably classified as both American and a native of another country). Coming in in second are the Brits at 29 stories and in third the Irish at 23 stories.Returning to the frequency question, below are all the writers who have appeared in the New Yorker at least five times over the last six years. These are the superstars of New Yorker fiction (stars indicate the number of stories, if any, they had in the New Yorker in 2009.):12:Alice Munro10:Tessa Hadley**William Trevor8:T. Coraghessan Boyle7:George Saunders**Jonathan Lethem**Louise ErdrichJohn UpdikeRoddy DoyleHaruki Murakami6:Antonya Nelson*Thomas McGuane5:Tobias WolffCharles D’AmbrosioEdward P. JonesRoberto BolañoLara Vapnyar