Derek followed through with his longstanding plan to rabblerouse at this year’s New Hampshire primary. Check out his blog for dispatches. Joining him are three other esteemed bloggers: Cem, El, and Aeri. I’m hoping they regale us with their thoughts, as well. By the way, the best over book about rabblerousing whilst following presidential campaigns is Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail by good ol’ Hunter S. Thompson.
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.
My soon-to-be-father-in-law has a huge collection of radio programs that he has taped and cataloged over the last two or three decades, and recently he gave me a couple of interesting tapes from the late 80’s. They contain a recorded performance of a baseball-themed show put on by the late baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and one of my favorite writers, Roger Angell. The show, which is about two hours long, consists of readings of baseball essays, stories, and poetry. The work of John Updike is represented as is that of Garrison Keillor. I was most interested in an excerpt from a book called The Glory of Their Times: The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It, a book that was put together by Lawrence Ritter, an economics professor at NYU. Ritter also happens to be a baseball fan, and shortly after Ty Cobb’s death in 1961, inspired by the outpouring of myth and legend that occasioned Cobb’s passing, Ritter decided to record for posterity an oral history of the early years of professional baseball. Over the next several years Ritter traveled 75,000 miles, crisscrossing the country, tape recorder in hand, seeking out the game’s grizzled veterans. The result is a book that is, I am now learning, cherished by aficionados of baseball literature, and since, I suppose, I must consider myself a member of this group, my copy should be arriving via post shortly.An AddendaI knew I had forgotten at least one of the books I read last year, and I think I forgot because I didn’t actually read it; I listened to it. Thanks to a friend who gave me a copy, Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker by James McManus was my driving companion for a week or so, which both doubled my reading output and made that much more tolerable the vast amount of time that I, like any Angeleno, must spend in his car.
Last night Derek and I went to a party at a squat on Western in a no-man’s-land area of LA. Apparently, the kids who were squatting there are about to be kicked out, so this was one last bash. We went because the Sharp Ease were playing. Several other bands were playing as well, and throughout the show people were sporadically destroying the place, a set of abandoned apartments above a non-descript furniture store. The place was already very trashed from months of parties. The doors to many of the rooms had been ripped off the hinges and the graffiti-covered walls were pockmarked with holes and dents. The Sharp Ease played their usual, drunken, high-energy set, and the crowd got pretty rowdy. By the time they finished singing, people were tearing down the walls and launching things – cans of paint, small appliances, cinder blocks – through the windows and leaving a litter of glass and debris all over Western Ave. Derek and I, sensing that it would get worse before it got better, drunkenly headed back to our homes.
It began as a way to pass the time at the Frankfurt Book Fair: find and log the strangest book titles of the year. And so the Diagram Prize For Oddest Title of the Year was born. Now, thirty years later, and indeed not to be outdone by the fine folks over at the Booker, we will soon have a Diagram of Diagrams.You can read about the history of the Diagram prize at Bookseller.com, see the list of past Diagram prize winners and vote for the Diagram of Diagrams.My personal favorites: 1982’s Population and Other Problems, 1986’s Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality (with a sequel!), 2002’s Living With Crazy Buttocks, and for those with a penchant for the macabre: 1995’s Reusing Old Graves and 2005’s People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It – (It’s the What to Do About It part that I need to know).Sadly, there are no links to text excerpts for any of these titles. It is left to my fertile imagination, then, to envision how one actually lives with crazy buttocks (and just how crazy they need to be to require instruction).I’m sure there are countless odd titles out there that have been neglected. Feel free to comment with your favorite unsung odd title, or tell us your favorite odd title from the full list.