Sordid, Unprofitable, Unrewarding: On ‘New Grub Street’ and Cynical Literature

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In today’s publishing world, it pays to be a doomsayer. We have an inexhaustible appetite for reports of literature’s demise. Go ahead, dust off that article on how the novel is dead for the thousandth time — only make sure you add that the whole industry is dying with it. Are you a publisher, the sort of person who purports to sell books? Give interviews with leading periodicals in which you admit that publishing is “at a crossroads,” and that we have lost the necessary magic to accomplish the nearly 600-year-old trick of turning printed matter into gold. Bring on the articles by journalists that remind us how journalism as we know it is passing away! Algorithms write our articles, videos replace text as the primary medium of communication, and soon all media will consist of an endless feed of indistinguishable information, which our children will scroll through lazily while they suck a ground-up mixture of kale and insects through a straw.

There’s something flattering about all this hand-wringing. It provides us with a sense of self-importance, to imagine we live in unprecedented times. One nice part about the apocalypse is the way it soothes one’s existential crisis. People who write, publish, and criticize literature have never been a particularly self-confident bunch, and the current climate — in which more than 300,000 books are published in America every year, not counting self-published titles — can encourage feelings of irrelevancy. Why write yet another review of yet another novel, when you can proclaim the absolute end of literature? Better to be a prophet than a drudge. Even authors can take comfort in the idea of a post-literary age, where the fact that all the great novels have already been written relieves us of the responsibility of writing our own.

Alas, all it takes to dispel this flattering illusion is a quick glance at New Grub Street, a novel by the English writer George Gissing. The book concerns itself with the self-aggrandizing and ultimately desperate lives of so-called “literary men” (and women) in Victorian London. This was a world that Gissing, a financially strapped, critically respected, and solidly middle-tier (what we would nowadays call “midlist”) author, knew well, and he renders it in harsh, bitterly funny terms. The resulting portrait of squabbling critics, disappointed writers, and the final triumph of literary middlemen is so obviously comparable to our own time that it ought to serve as required reading for anyone planning yet another thinkpiece on contemporary publishing.

Gissing’s greatest achievement in New Grub Street is his clear-eyed assessment of the complete uselessness of most literary production. In a crucial early scene, the young scholar Marian Yule sits in the Reading Room of the British Museum, struggling through some research, and has a vision of her own irrelevancy:

[Marian] kept asking herself what was the use and purpose of such a life as she was condemned to lead. When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here was she exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day’s market…She herself would throw away her pen for joy but for the need of earning money. And all these people about her, what aim had they save to make new books out of those already existing, that yet newer books might in turn be made out of them? This huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to become a trackless desert of print — how intolerably it weighed upon the spirit.

Gissing wrote this passage in 1891, but it could just as well have been written today. There was already enough literature for a human being to read in his or her lifetime during the Victorian Era; the fact that since then the overall number of books has grown by many orders of magnitude hasn’t changed the equation, any more than pouring 60 cups into a tablespoon is any different than pouring 60 gallons. The fear of one’s own irrelevancy in the face of so much text is ageless.

New Grub Street ought to be required reading for anyone interested in how cultural history repeats itself. This is partly a result of how clearly it reflects so many contemporary issues — a confusing publishing marketplace, a general lack of faith in the uses of literature — but also a result of the tone in which it treats them. As a frustrated, middle-tier writer with scores to settle, Gissing had no illusions about being exceptional. Like Marian Yule, he was half convinced of his own irrelevancy, and he wrote about his own era cynically and clinically, in a style that spared no one, especially himself.

Most of the characters in New Grub Street are not novelists. Instead, the book focuses on the class of “literary men” who spring up as a kind of support system to literature: critics, scholars, and editors. Ambitious, prideful, obsessed with status and social class, these pygmy giants spend as much time making a name attacking each other in the editorial pages of literary periodicals as they do writing about books: a situation with which the contemporary reader is no doubt familiar.

The king of all these critics is Jasper Milvain, the ambitious young man who serves as the novel’s ostensible villain. I say “ostensible” because, to a modern reader, Jasper is delightful, for much the same reason as the novel as a whole is delightful: his ability to cut through the bullshit inherent in his milieu and expose the cynicism underneath. Orphaned and poor, Jasper is plain about his ambitions: he plans on amassing enough cultural power to be offered the editorship of a literary journal, at which point he will have the economic security necessary to allow him to write and publish whatever he likes. Until then, however, he’ll write whatever he needs to get ahead: a decision that makes the more idealistic members of his profession uneasy:

‘You, now,’ pursued John. ‘What do you write about?’

‘Nothing in particular,’ [replied Jasper.] ‘I make a saleable page or two out of whatever strikes my fancy.’

‘Exactly! You don’t even pretend that you’ve got anything to say. You live by inducing people to give themselves mental indigestion — and bodily, too, for that matter.’

‘Do you know, Mr. Yule, that you have suggested a capital idea to me? If I were to take up your views, I think it isn’t at all unlikely that I might make a good thing of writing against writing. It should be my literary specialty to rail against literature. The reading public should pay me for telling them that they oughtn’t to read. I must think it over.’

Reading this passage, I was reminded of a certain kind of current thinkpiece that suggests writers stop writing, since there are already too many books in the world.

At heart, Jasper is a hustler. For him, the literary world isn’t a matter of talent, but of connections, just like any other industry. “To have money,” he proclaims “is becoming of more and more importance for a literary career…A lucky man will still occasionally succeed by dint of his own honest perseverance, but the chances are dead against anyone who can’t make private interest with influential people; his work is simply overwhelmed by that of the men who have better opportunities.”

Having recognized the reality of the literary market, Jasper serves it; he writes flattering reviews of influential people, produces insults on commission, and composes an endless stream of what he calls “rubbish of fine quality,” in which he takes a certain amount of pride.

“Many a fellow could write more in quantity,” he claims, “but they couldn’t command my market.”

Jasper is smart, shrewd, and fully aware of his own limitations; Victorian convention demands that Gissing make him the novel’s villain, but it’s clear that he has a great deal of affection for him. Now that a century has gone by, he seems like a hero for our time, if not theirs; the swashbuckling innovator with only the slightest scruples. By investing his villain with such energy, Gissing side-steps the moralistic hand-wringing that often accompanies cultural criticism. A lesser writer might have taken a more moral tack: the literary world is a farce, and isn’t it a shame. Gissing does away with the second phrase entirely.

But it isn’t simply Jasper’s gleeful cynicism that makes New Grub Street so perfect for today’s reader. The novel is full of small episodes that line up so perfectly with the current literary world that one wonders whether anything has fundamentally changed since the late 19th century — or if the age of Internet traffic is simply a reversion to the era of yellow journalism.

One of the novel’s funniest figures is a character named Whelpdale: a failed writer who is desperately seeking other modes of employment. At the beginning of the novel, he’s hit upon his first successful scheme, which even Jasper considers outrageous:

You don’t know what he’s doing? [Jasper asked.] The fellow has set up as a ‘literary advisor.’ He has an advertisement in The Study every week. ‘To Young Authors and Literary Aspirants’ — something of the kind. ‘Advice given on choice of subjects, MSS. Red, corrected, and recommended to publishers. Moderate terms.’ A fact! And what’s more, he made six guineas in the first fortnight; so he says, at all events. Now that’s one of the finest jokes I’ve ever heard. A man who can’t get anyone to publish his own books makes a living by telling other people how to write.

Any resemblance to current writers stumping for pay, whether living or dead, is of course purely coincidental.

But Whelpdale’s finest and most successful achievement comes at the end of the book: his development of a revolutionary magazine. Having gotten his hands on a paper called Chat, Whelpdale decides to rename it Chit-Chat, to make every article “no more than two inches in length” and to make it appeal to “the quarter-educated.”

‘No, I am perfectly serious,’ [Whelpdale continued.] ‘Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention…their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.’

Jasper had begun to listen seriously.

‘There’s something in this, Whelpdale,’ he remarked.

Indeed, the publication of Chit-Chat is a wild success, and Whelpdale (something of a failure throughout most of the book) eclipses even Jasper’s ambitions — to the point where he ends up marrying Jasper’s sister, much to the critic’s chagrin. In the race to the bottom, Whelpdale is the undisputed winner: the BuzzFeed of his day.

(Or is BuzzFeed just a pale imitation of Chit-Chat? Hard to say.)

But Gissing’s jaundiced eye towards “literary advisors” and publishing ventures is equalled by his attitude towards the business of fiction writing. The two novelists at the center of New Grub Street are hopeless idealists, and their ideas themselves are so absurd that at first you don’t recognize their relationship to certain contemporary aesthetic trends.

Take Harold Biffen, a novelist so poor he can’t afford an undercoat, but who is convinced he’s hit upon a revolutionary strand of aesthetic purity: total realism. Unlike other novelists, who are afraid to confront the truth of life straight on, Biffen plans to illustrate it in all its banality:

‘For my part, [Biffen continued,] I am going to reproduce [common life] verbatim, without one single impertinent suggestion of any point of view save that of honest reporting. The result will be something unutterably tedious. Precisely. That is the stamp of the ignobly decent life. If it were anything but tedious it would be untrue. I speak, of course, of its effect upon the ordinary reader.”

The resulting book, Mr. Bailey, Grocer, is just as tedious as Biffen suggests; near the end of the novel, Biffen actually succeeds in publishing it, but despite a favorable review from Jasper (an example of the villain’s kind heart) it sinks like a stone.

Gissing is engaging in a bit of self-parody here, being a social realist writer himself — but despite its evident ridiculousness, Biffen’s concept of total realism should be familiar to contemporary readers. What separate’s Biffen’s theory from someone like David Shields and his inexhaustible desire for the “authentic” presentation of reality, as opposed to the too-neat, “artificial” pleasures of fiction — or from the work of Karl Ove Knausgard, which so many reviewers have acclaimed for being boring in the most interesting way?

These satires seem fresh for several reasons. The first is that very little has actually changed in literary culture since the 19th century. The poles between which our discussions always vacillate are the same; on the one hand a flexible, inventive shysterism, born of necessity: Chit Chat, BuzzFeed, and the Ten Books You Must Read If You Ever Want to Get Laid Again; on the other hand, the sort of artistic puritanism that convinces artists that their purpose is greater than simply pleasing the public, of calculating the effect of their books “upon the ordinary reader:” the great power plays of aesthetic judgment.

But the second, and perhaps more important reason, is that Gissing’s honesty refuses to valorize anyone. He is cruel to both the critics and the deluded authors they criticize — and he saves his harshest criticism for himself.

New Grub Street’s ostensible hero is a novelist named Edward Reardon. Reardon is in some sense Gissing’s self-portrait; like his hero, Gissing was critically respected, but had failed to earn a living from his work, and wrote New Grub Street in an effort to pay his creditors. He considered the novel a piece of hack work, and Reardon represents the worst version of his own failure: one of the thousands of semi-talented writers who discovered that their abilities didn’t guarantee them a readership, much less a living. Having produced a few novels that were well-received but which sold poorly, he finds himself short on funds and afflicted with writer’s block, struggling to support a wife and child.

The portrait Gissing paints of Reardon is unflinching. He is occasionally charming but generally short-tempered, prone to sickness and lacking in courage; his unwillingness (or inability) to play the game at which Jasper Milvain succeeds so spectacularly dooms his family to poverty and destroys his marriage. If he is in fact a self-portrait, the resulting picture shows the extent of the self-doubt and contempt Gissing held towards himself at the time of the novel’s publication.

It was this state of ambivalence, however, that allowed Gissing to put paragraphs like the following in Reardon’s mouth — paragraphs that expose the novelist’s work as quixotic, if not idiotic:

What is reputation? If it is deserved, it originates with a few score of people among the many millions who would never have recognised the merit they at last applaud. That’s the lot of a great genius. As for a mediocrity like me – what ludicrous absurdity to fret myself in the hope that half a dozen folks will say that I am ‘above the average!’…I admit that everything is relative. There is no such thing as goodness or badness, in the absolute sense, of course. Perhaps I am absurdly inconsistent when — though knowing my work can’t be first-rate — I strive to make it as good as possible. I don’t say this in irony…I really mean it.

This would be touching, perhaps — a testament to small heroism — if it weren’t used an excuse for why Reardon’s family needs to give up their apartment and move to the worst part of London, simply because of his strivings.

All this makes New Grub Street a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on “the writing life” — in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece. The lesson of Gissing is that most novelists are bitter failures — always were, and always will be. If there’s any heroism in the writers he represents, it’s the bare fact of their persistence in the face of certain defeat. Mr. Bailey, Grocer might be a parody, but for its author, it’s a triumph. What more could an aesthetic puritan ask for?

Though it has its fair share of funny moments, New Grub Street can be a bleak read. It was written by a man who had seen his fair share of dreams dashed; practically anybody with any shred of decency meets a bad end, and its picture of society is as corrosive as it is perceptive. But for a contemporary reader, this bitterness can be clarifying. In an era in which “the writing life” is more important than the writing — Whelpdale’s job as “literary advisor,” grown to monstrous proportions — there’s something bracing about the book’s presentation of just how sordid, unprofitable, and unrewarding literature can be. It’s an unsympathetic (but also unpitying) look at a literary era. I eagerly await the writer who produces a similar look at our own.

On Reading Aloud

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Like many of you reading this magazine, I view work primarily as a distraction from reading.

In this, I consider myself relatively lucky; as a teacher, much of my work consists of reading, and although this reading – papers mostly, with some student fiction mixed in – isn’t always what I’d choose to read in my spare time, it’s a whole lot better than being asked to evaluate something dry and bureaucratic: manuals for outdated AV equipment, maybe, or a prospectus on public health.

In fact, I’m doubly lucky, because once a week my job shifts from the classroom to the nearby library archives, where I work in data entry, processing very old books. I’m not lucky because of the work itself, per se, which is rote; after nine hours (minus lunch) of scanning bar codes and typing in author, title, and publication history my brain feels both mechanical and somewhat foggy: a kind of drunken robot. I’m lucky because the rote nature of the work allows me to listen to books on tape.

I say allows, but I could just as easily say requires, since without the distraction these books provide I might be unable to finish my tasks at all.

(Here is where I will refrain from speaking at length of the distant sadness contained in a stack of micro-run poetry chapbooks from the 1970s: the men with mutton chops in quilted jackets, seated on the hood of a rusty car, and who thank said car in the acknowledgments; the practicing nuns with highly sexual poems regarding Jesus and the potency of wayward bulls.)

At its best, the book on tape leads the listener into a kind of reverie. By shifting the locus of linguistic labor onto the reader’s voice, the listener receives the vision of the story directly. I can think of nothing closer to the model of what John Gardner called “a vivid and continuous dream.” Your mind can wander, while you work. You type in this world. You live in another.

I know I shouldn’t use the term “book on tape.” It’s doubly anachronistic; tapes have long since been replaced by CDs, and CDs, in turn, by the seeming purity of a digital file, recorded in a studio somewhere and then uploaded to a central database where a listener can access it when needed: in the cold, dry basement of library storage, pressed up against a cinderblock wall, ears wrapped up in cushy, noise-canceling headphones.

But I can’t help holding on to the term. It reminds me of physical history, of which I was once a part. At twenty-nine, I’m just old enough to remember the time when, entering the public library in the small city of Bridgeton – a slowly dwindling farm-supply and lumber outpost in rural South Jersey – my mother and I would be confronted by a wide, tall shelf labelled “Books on Tape,” which, unlike the library’s books, were limited to one rental at a time. They were big, bulky plastic packages, much thicker than video boxes, sometimes containing up to eight tapes, and, if the book was especially long, composed of two packages, held together at the spine.

I don’t know who their target audience was, other than bookish ten-year-olds like myself, who enjoyed the experience of being read to, but I like to imagine it spanned all class and age brackets; a soybean farmer listening to Raymond Chandler while piloting his combine through an autumn field, or an aging tax attorney listening to Dickens while picking his kids up from some springtime soccer game.

I used the tapes primarily to fall asleep. As a small child I was terrified of the dark, and although for various reasons (divorce, other distractions) my parents had given up reading to me, a voice in the night remained a source of comfort. On a bad night – or if the book was especially riveting – I’d stay awake for the whole story, as I once did for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

(A giant howling dog, its snout outlined in phosphorus – not highly recommended as a nightmare cure.)

On a good night I was asleep before the warning came – end of side one – and the tape shuttled to a stop.

Thus I have an imperfect recollection of much of the most popular authors offered by my small-town public library: Dickens, Poe, Austen. Some chains, a raven, several weddings of dubious provenance.

I also came to the terrible misconception – misled, I think, by the subtitle Read by the Author, which I came to believe was common to every package – that the person reading was invariably the person who’d written the book: a mistake I blame for my wicked tendency to conflate author and narrator, Holden and Salinger, Wormwood and C.S. Lewis.

In those days I had very vivid dreams. I assume everyone’s dreams are more vivid in childhood – but I sometimes wonder, flattering myself shamelessly, if mine weren’t more vivid than most, falling asleep with someone else’s world playing into my ear.

Nowadays I face a problem: how to get access to books-on-tape, down in the archives? The library basement has no tape or CD player, and the computer I use is old and slow. Moreover, I don’t want to spend any money; paying for distractions in order to accomplish paid labor seems a little outrageous to me, or maybe it’s the fault of Bridgeton Public Library, for hooking me on the concept of free media, years ahead of the curve.

It makes sense that books-on-tape would be expensive. There’s the matter of copyright, and then there’s the matter of finding an actor to read for long stretches at a time. As any listener knows, the reader matters; I’ll never forget the aesthetic experience of hearing Basil Rathbone read “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe’s already purple prose brought to the maximum pitch of ridiculousness, or the nearly unpronouncable vocabulary of H.P. Lovecraft, forced through the gravelly larynx of underappreciated voice actor Wayne June.

It’s hard work to talk for an entire day.

Such actors add a level of subtlety and clarity to the experience – but are they necessary? When I think of the books-on-tape from my childhood, it isn’t the professional sheen I remember, but the sense of intimacy, of one voice speaking directly to the listener. Listening to a book-on-tape is always, in some sense, nostalgic; one remembers the primal experience of being read to as a child – and most of us weren’t lucky enough to have trained actors as parents.

Which is why I’ve become so enamored with the website Librivox, which bills itself, tongue-twistingly, as the “acoustical liberation of books in the public domain.” Essentially, it’s a database of books that are out of copyright, read by volunteers, and available for free.

Amateurism is part of the purpose here, but it has its drawbacks. Speaking charitably, one has to admit that the readers vary widely in their performance styles; as their website puts it, “[w]e’ll accept you no matter what you sound like.” The breadth of titles is fairly impressive, however, and not all that different from the stuff I once found in the library: classics, mostly, with a few odd treasures thrown in: Japanese ghost stories, sea-faring yarns, early pulp sci-fi.

Most impressive, however, is the amount of reading labor these people are willing to volunteer for free. Several weeks ago I spent my entire workday listening to a recording of Heart of Darkness made by Kristin LeMoine, a mother of two who has somehow found the time to record nearly a hundred full-length audiobooks, including works by H.G. Wells, Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott, and whose pleasant, straightforward, and clear reading style helped cool down some of Conrad’s more overheated descriptions. I’d trust her with Ivanhoe, if I ever have the time to listen to the whole thing.

How can I adequately thank Kristin LeMoine for her work? I suppose a short note on the LibriVox forums might do, but it couldn’t do justice to the odd intimacy of living with a stranger’s voice for the entirety of a working day, hearing the pops of their home microphone and the sudden sharp edits that show when they got up to go to the bathroom, or to feed their children.

So what makes a good reader? My youthful confusions aside, having written a book doesn’t always make you a good candidate for reading one, as evidenced by the poor performance of many of the authors featured in “X reads Y” podcasts. Perhaps this should be self-evidence from experience with fiction readings. Most writers overvalue the work of words on the page, and undervalue the excitement of rhythm and cadence. Or maybe they’re simply shy.

(Though this disillusionment doesn’t stop me from conjuring up writer/reader combinations made impossible by time and language: Woolf/Proust, Williams/Stein, and – my personal favorite – Beckett reading Flann O’Brien’s absurdist masterpiece The Third Policeman with the same lilting familiarity he brought to his own work.)

I suppose I have high standards for reading aloud. My father, once an aspiring actor, was an eager reader when it came to children’s books: a parent who could “do the voices,” as the kids like to say. I still remember sitting in our living room, watching the sun setting over the marshland in the window behind his head, while he read to us from Brian Jacques’s Redwall:

“The high, warm sun shone down on Cluny the Scourge. Cluny was coming!”

He intoned the second sentence, which repeated later in the chapter, like an ominous refrain, in a voice I remember as a basso profondo.

(Actually, my father is a baritone. These things deepen over time.)

Not all the readers at Librivox live up to this lofty example. Some recordings are ruined by a reader’s mumbling, others have poor fidelity, and others are simply ill-suited to the material; after all, everyone has their own preference when it comes to accents. Kristin Lemoine aside (who is, as far as I can tell, an American), I prefer the English and Irish readers. Maybe it’s simple exoticism, but I prefer the rolling cadence of the UK to the flat affect of the U.S. readership, especially when the work itself is English or Irish in origin.

And yet – part of the beauty of a site like Librivox is the sense of personal attachment evident in all these volunteers, professionalism be damned, and sometimes a less traditional voice lends an extra dimension to a story. Certainly gender is not an obstacle to good interpretation; if anything, women reading men (and vice versa) can adds depth to an episode, as when the aforementioned Kristin LeMoine narrates Marlowe’s visit to Kurtz’s former fiancee at the end of Heart of Darkness – a man might have succumbed to the temptation to turn the fiancee into a fool, but LeMoine renders her sympathetically, which only makes the tragic irony more painful.

Some of my most satisfying Librivox experiences have been episodes of productive disjunction; I have heard no greater depth of feeling than in the voice of Southern woman reading Thomas Hardy, and this reminds me of the original potential of books to bring you other states of mind, and to make connections.

I myself am not a Victorian Englishman, yet I feel a deep attachment to Hardy’s Wessex and its language. Why should I be so hypocritical, then, as to expect his words in an English accent?

Perhaps I’m too attached to reading aloud: to both being read to and reading to others. It’s an iron rule in my marriage, for instance, that I am not allowed to read passages in the book I’m currently devouring out loud to my wife, especially when she is in the middle of a book of her own. There is something mean-spirited and arrogant about the impulse to continually narrate. One can’t simply stand in the middle of a train platform, reciting Whitman in a basso profondo, without risking a police escort. There must be limits.

That being said, there are precious few opportunities in life to read and be read to, and there is something utopian to me about the creation of a site like Librivox, which – unlike Goodreads, which is slowly but surely evolving into yet another marketing arm of Amazon – operates solely on people’s inexhaustible appetite for reading and listening. It seems like a triumph of the old conception of the internet, which promised you access to thousands of other people who were willing to share their dreams and passions with total strangers: a conception which is increasingly being crowded out by more market-driven forces.

It is hard to explain, now that the internet has effectively annexed small towns such as the one in which I grew up, how important it was to me to go every week to the public library and pull those bulky plastic cases off of the shelves, one at a time, to take home. When I imagine the other people who walked through its Neoclassical facade and lingered a while at the same shelf, I can’t help but overlay my own experience onto them, and imagine they also used them a sort of portal into alternate lives: riding a steamboat down an African river as they ferried their children to basketball practice, or fretting over the foolish marriages of aristocratic Englishwomen as they double-checked the finances of their farm.

Time marches on, and there’s no use being nostalgic about old media. If I still lived near Bridgeton, I could get all the free audiobooks I wanted; the local library now provides free downloads to those who hold a library card.

But I am more interested in the way sites like Librivox have flipped the script on our conception of the audiobook; it has made us actors, once again. It used to be we went to library to hear stars of stage and screen intone the classics. It’s a delightfully democratic development that now, when we get a day off from work, we can settle down in front of our computers with a glass of water, turn on our microphones, and return the favor.

Image via Flickr/Jamie Pfister.

A Library of the Mind

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There is perhaps no more fitting summer job for a writer than processing books in the basement of a university library. To get up before the real heat of the day begins and descend into the air-conditioned cool of the dimly-lit basement archives is a particular kind of atmospheric trick, but emerging after a full day’s work into the thick evening is even better, since it mimics the way writers feel when they get up from a long grapple with a manuscript; your eyes are bleary, your head is half-dazed, and the hot summer night feels overly sharp, hyper-real, cluttered with shouts and sirens.

(I highly recommend an archiving job as a remedy for the effects of writer’s block, since it’s easy enough to pretend that a pile of close reading is a substitute for your own literary production. Your verbal overload is no less intense for being totally vicarious.)

All of this describes the job I worked last summer, in the rare books section of a local university library. I was assigned to a basement room nicknamed “the cage,” because most of the shelving was set off behind a wall of wire mesh, accessible only by a carefully guarded key. I did my work at a small desk in the corner, and when I wanted to enter the cage I had to ask for this key, and return it to its appointed hook straightaway when I was done.

The project that  I was hired to work on is somewhat difficult to describe. Sometime in the early aughts, a famous bookstore in New York—I can’t tell you which one, on conditions of job-related secrecy—closed its doors forever, at which point several wealthy patrons banded together to buy its entire inventory (distressed periodicals and all) and hand said inventory over to a local university library. This inventory consisted of thousands upon thousands of volumes: some rare, some middling, some eminently forgettable. They had early editions of Finnegans Wake, nestled next to paperback Modern Library editions of the collected works of Thackeray, propped up against a stack of 25 cent magazines for teen movie lovers of the 1950s.

I am not a rare books specialist; I am not capable of making fine distinctions. I do not know a first edition unless it is clearly marked in the front of the book, preferably in large type, all capitals. Thus my job consisted only of logging the books, regardless of content or merit, into the computer system: name, title, ISBN, and relative condition.

There have been moments of excitement. I have shelved books from the personal libraries of Anaïs Nin and Joseph Mitchell. I have learned terms which include, but are by no means limited to: bastard title page, bumped corners, colophon, ex libris, flyleaf, foxing, worn boards, and gutter tear. I have held William Gaddis first editions and signed versions of nearly every title in Joyce Carol Oates’s massive oeuvre.

But the actual function of my day was repetitive, nearly robotic.
Name, Title, ISBN
worn board edges
gutter tear in front flyleaf, board corners slightly bumped,
dj (short for “dust jacket”) worn
owner’s signature on front flyleaf “(illegible), Chicago, 1923”
inscription on front flyeaf: “To Brenda, for the memories, Cape Cod, 1932”
A New Yorker cartoon, featuring a man pushing a massive cube up a featureless hill, was taped to the wall above my supervisor’s desk. The caption: Extreme Sisyphus.

Common themes in books, 19th to early-20th century:

Detailed author portraits on the title page, covered in thin, almost tissue-like paper (to prevent blotting?)

Inexplicably small, but also thick, multi-volume editions of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, of which multiple volumes are missing

Inscriptions from fathers and uncles in said novels, in loopy, almost illegible cursive, along the lines of: may this add to your education

When one thinks of libraries in literature, the most famous reference point has to be Borges’s The Library of Babel, in which the Argentine writer (in a joking mood) conceived of an infinite library, composed of a series of hexagonal rooms, and posited (half-ironically) that the library was a stand-in for the perfect divine creation: “the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god.”

Often, during my summer in the archives, I would reflect on the fact that all my work was only the reconstruction or (to be more accurate) weird vivisection of an already existing bookstore. The books I catalogued came to me in numbered trays, with each section number corresponding to a section of the now-departed bookstore, and on days when my mind really wandered—which was a higher percentage than I would have admitted to my immediate superiors—I considered the possibility of reconstructing the bookstore in my head, using the section numbers and the books I’d processed, recreating a sort of bookstore-of-the-mind.

Usually, however, I was interrupted from my reverie by one or another common typo:

Worn bards, utter tear.

And, even if I managed to keep my mental concentration long enough to maintain one section of this library-of-the-mind, the idea of trying to juggle multiple sections ended up being too much, and I was forced to give up the whole project, having only completed one of Borges’s hexagons.

Which reminds me of another quote from The Library of Babel:

“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure.”

By the time I arrived at my archiving job, the project had already been going for nearly seven years, and over half of the books had been catalogued. Of course, each volume would still need to be judged and sorted by minds more discerning than mine, which meant that, like many projects conceived at the university level, it might last for much longer than the scope of ordinary human patience.

There is something strange about doing a job that you will never see finished, like Kafka’s Great Wall of China:

“Five hundred meters could be completed in something like five years, by which time naturally the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the building, and in the world.”

Common themes in books, early- to mid-20th century:

Books of obscure poetry inscribed by nuns

Books published under the auspices and regulations of the U.S. Military

Mass-market book plates with bucolic scenes: cows, dogs, and/or roosters

As a fiction writer, I am perhaps unusually interested in what makes a book last. Much of this I ascribe to pure ego. During my stint in the university library, I happened to come across the great English critic Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, which is a very odd and very vain book; it begins as an investigation of this very question, “why does a book last” (Is it prose style? Content? Political conviction?) only to devolve into a self-pitying investigation of why Cyril Connolly himself couldn’t write such a lasting book.

I assume that most readers of books do not engage in this sort of absurd behavior. Fiction writers have such high regard for themselves that they can’t see why they shouldn’t be immortal. Keeping their work in print is the next best thing available.

(An addendum: during my work in the archives I logged several thousand copies of Horizon, the British literary magazine which Connolly edited. Of the many names inside its covers, I recognized two.)

Still, if one puts pure vanity aside for a moment, the process by which a book survives more than a century is a fascinating thing. When I held a copy of Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone, or an early American edition of Wuthering Heights, I’d sometimes reflect on the many deaths the book had to avoid on its way to me. It had to be bought, first of all, and not left to linger on a bookstore shelf, and later pulped—or, as is sometimes the case, burned. Then someone had to keep it after the first read, keep the bindings dry, move it from house to house, and later, after that person died, the book had to be inherited, or else sold, instead of thrown away; at the very least it had to be packed in such a way that the book block didn’t warp and the pages didn’t go moldy: all the little deaths to which a hardbound book is vulnerable.

There is a certain kind of immortality to a passed-down book—the sense of having outlived many human lives.

So what makes a book last—not just in the minds of critics and readers, but also as a physical object? What’s essential here is a combination of initial popularity, physical hardiness, and a sterling reputation. There were more copies of The Moonstone in circulation than a host of other Victorian mysteries, so it had a good start, and the hardback edition I handled one summer morning seemed to have lasted pretty well, but nobody reads Wilkie Collins anymore (my apologies, Moonstone aficionados, bless your cosseted Victorian hearts), and so I have my doubts about what will happen when the library higher-ups finally handle the archive’s copy.

The local university library can’t possibly hold all of the books I archived, much less the whole of the departed bookstore; many of the books will be sold at sidewalk sales, to readers much less scrupulous about their storage.

Some, I’m sure, will simply be pulped—or burned.

Common themes in books, mid- to late- 20th century:

Signed copies of books which immediately go out of print, their authors forgotten

Male poets with sideburns who write poems about driving

Poets of any gender with sad, searching eyes who write about cancer

Long biographical notes which expose their authors’ desperate search for respect

There’s no keeping ego out of the conversation entirely, though. What fiction writer could work for a whole summer handling old novels without wondering about the fate of any book he or she might manage to publish in their lifetime? Based on even the slightest research, the percentages are bad. Is the work you’re producing destined to be recycled—or, now that everyone’s crowing about e-books, erased from the world’s collective hard-drive?

(As if it wasn’t worrying enough to get published in the first place.)

Or, if you’re the type to raise your concerns to the highest power, you can occupy yourself with a larger existential question: why, once you’ve witnessed a pile of words beyond human comprehension—when you’ve personally catalogued more books in a single day than it would be possible for you to read in an entire year—would you ever go on writing novels in the first place?

Forget about the death of the novel, for a moment—that old saw—and consider, instead, its terrifying, zombie-like nature. Old novels never die; they walk among us, tattered and moldy, neither living nor totally destroyed, giving off an offensive fungal stink that can best be described as a cross between rancid dust and damp feet.

Worse still, these zombie books have a way of infecting the living volumes which sit next to them; for every book is only a year’s neglect away from turning undead itself, a victim of time and circumstance, one more body for the undead legions.

From The Library of Babel: “The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms.”

Common trends in books, early-21st century:



Total lack of clarity

Despite all overarching existential concerns, I usually left my job at the archive feeling exhilarated. Part of this was just a matter of getting off work; like I said before, the job itself was rote and methodical, an amazing combination of repetitive stress and screen fatigue. Just being able to walk free in the summer evening was a glorious feeling.

But, during the best —when I could leaf through a whole stack of 19th-century French poetry in translation, or the collected prose of William Carlos Williams, or all the books Joseph Mitchell owned concerning Gypsies—I experienced a more than bodily thrill at having run my eyes over so many odd and obscure titles, so many volumes that had survived years and chance to arrive in my hands—a feeling that was only increased by the possibility of the books’ destruction, despite my careful cataloguing. I was there to log books, not to save them.

It was a feeling I can only compare to the narrator of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, a man whose work consists of pulping books into a paper compactor, which he describes as “holy work,” and whose responses to the avalanche of words echo my own:
…inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself… When my eye lands on a real book and looks past the printed word, what it sees is disembodied thoughts flying through the air, gliding on air, living off air, because in the end everything is air…
At times it felt as if I was swimming in sentences, with the sense of Heraclitus, dipping into the river over and over and coming up with new books, new iterations of language, as if by taking the job I’d turned on a continuous flow of literature. Here, individual work seemed frankly meaningless, reminding me that intertextuality is not some new thing—for language is always in conversation with itself.

Thus I spent my summer vacation: building a library of the mind.

Image Credit: Wikimedia/Alexandre Duret-Lutz from Paris, France

Some Other, Better Bernhard, or the Rights and Wrongs of Readership

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Maybe you’ve seen them, stranded in shoals of the fiction section in some out-of-the-way used bookstore: the black-clad members of the cult of Thomas Bernhard. Incurably bookish, ninety percent male, they hand you well-thumbed copies of The Loser and The Lime Works and stare fixedly into your eyes.

“Bleak stuff,” they say, “but then again, what is life but one long bleak expanse in which all human experience is ground down, endlessly ground down by bleakness and incurable human stupidity?”

They stuff his novels into your jacket pocket with furtive hands that smell of strong coffee and tobacco.

“Don’t worry,” they whisper. “It’s funny, if you can stand it.”

They say it like it’s a challenge.

I’m exaggerating, of course. We wouldn’t be experiencing such a flowering of Thomas Bernhard’s literary reputation if all his supporters were maladjusted young men malingering in coffee shops and contemplating the depths of human misery. But what is striking about even the most thoughtful and culturally astute admirers of Bernhard is that their praise often resembles the scenario I’ve mentioned above: an exhortation to read, read, read the mad Austrian, but always with a caveat: only if you dare.

Hence Claire Messud, recommending The Loser on National Public Radio, felt obligated to issue a warning: “you will not find it pleasant.” Thus Geoff Dyer, who has written exceptionally well about Bernhard, calling him “the funniest writer… also one of the most profound,” felt the need to add that “Bernhard is nothing if not interminable.”

Hello, I’d like to read the novel by Thomas Bernhard that was recently recommended me by the fellow from the Guardian. Yes, please: the interminable one.

But by far the most virulent example of this sort of behavior comes from the pen of Ben Marcus, in an essay he wrote for Harper’s in 2006. Although it’s more than half a decade old, it still serves quite well as a reference point for the current understanding of Bernhard, as well as a fascinating case study in what a certain kind of writer (or reader) takes away from Bernhard’s novels. Marcus writes:
Bernhard was altogether unconcerned with immunizing a reader against his surgical attacks on humanity, and if he made a blood sport of novel writing, he did it with a zeal and a gallows humor that is unrivaled in contemporary literature. His formally radical novels, which sometimes blasted into shape as a single, unbroken paragraph, were manic reports on such fixations as the futility of existence; the dark appeal, and inevitable logic, of suicide; the monstrosity of human beings; and the abject pain of merely being alive. Bernhard’s language strained the limits of rhetorical negativity: if his prose were any more anguished, it would simply transmit as moaning and wailing.
Novel-writing as “blood sport?” Rhetorical negativity? Moaning and wailing? Not to mention the military word choice: “blasted,” “transmit,” “attacks.” This is the sort of language that would normally be used to send readers running for the hills, but Marcus makes a strength out of disgust and darkness, fashions it into a sort of badge of honor, a platonic ideal of negativity that separates the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff. One gets the sense of a perverse sort of initiation into the pleasures of unpleasant fiction.

And yet, Bernhard is experiencing a flowering beyond what one would expect from a cult author. Consider the extensive reissue project undertaken by Vintage, culminating in the recent publication of Bernhard’s pseudo-memoir, Gathering Evidence, bundled with his satirical treatment of his own fame, My Prizes. Stroll through the B’s in the fiction section of your local Barnes and Noble – hurry, you might not have much time – and you’ll find a series of delightful paperbacks to catch your eye.

How did such an unpleasant author fashion such a stunning coup? Is it because he isn’t as unpleasant as everyone says he is? What if all this talk about the Bernhard’s “blood-sport” amounts to a colossal mis-reading of the entire canon, a mis-reading which says more about the readership than it does about Bernhard?

The first secret, shared only by the initiated, is that Bernhard is very funny.

Bernhard himself wrote a sort of self-mocking description of his particular brand of humor in his novel The Lime Works, placing the manifesto in the mouth of his antihero Konrad:
Whatever point a man like himself reached, arrived at, all he ever reached or arrived at was irritation, further irritation. But all of it was ultimately so comical, it’s all more comical than anything, which is why, he is supposed to have said, it is all quite bearable after all, because it is comical. All we have in this world is the very essence of comedy, and do what we will, we can’t escape from this comedy, for thousands of years men have tried to turn this comedy into tragedy, but their efforts had to fail, in the nature of things.
This from the mouth of a man who has subjected his wife to grotesque experiments and then shot her in the head with a shotgun. So yes, Marcus is partially right: gallows humor.

But not always gallows humor, and not always humor about the gallows. Sometimes the humor is about more quotidian stuff, like clothes. Consider this riff from The Loser, in which the protagonist Wertheimer ruminates on Tyrolian folk costume.
If she wanted to invite guests he wouldn’t allow it, said Franz, she also wasn’t permitted to dress the way she wanted, had always had to wear the clothes that he wanted to see on her, even during the coldest weather she was never allowed to put on her Tyrolian hat, for her brother hated Tyrolian hats and hated, as I also know, everything connected with Tyrolian folk costume, as of course he himself never wore anything that even vaguely recalled Tyrolian folk costume, thus here, in this region, he naturally always stood out, for here everybody always wears Tyrolian folk costume, above all clothes that are made from coarse loden wool, which is actually quite well suited for the quite dreadful climatic conditions in the lower Alps, I thought, he found Tyrolian folk costume, like anything that even reminded him of Tyrolian folk costume, deeply repugnant.
I would offer this as one of the funniest sentences in the history of European literature. It is also, no matter how you look at it, neither a keening wail of misery or a ruthless display of novel-writing as blood sport. It is representation of an author in fine and firm control of his ironic faculties, capable of resting a sentence on the keenest edge – the angle of absurd laughter.

I, for one, will never again hear the phrase “Tyrolian folk costume” without breaking out into hysterics.

Here’s more in the same vein: the following paragraph from Frost, cited in Marcus’ essay.
In fact: the hideous thing. You open your chest of drawers: a further molestation. Washing and dressing are molestations. Having to get dressed! Having to eat breakfast! When you go out on the street, you are subject to the gravest possible molestations. You are unable to shield yourself. You lay about yourself, but it’s no use. The blows you dole out are returned a hundredfold. What are streets, anyway? Wendings of molestation, up and down. Squares? Bundled together molestations.
What are streets, anyway? There are times, in the middle of his expertly modulated rants, when Bernhard resembles nothing so much as the most single-minded stand-up comedian you could ever imagine. What’s the deal with streets, anyway?

Having to get dressed! Glory at those exclamation points, let them tickle your eye. Having to eat breakfast!

Now, this is not to say that Bernhard is not bleak, not funny, not interminable (at times). I am only suggesting that in playing up certain sides of Bernhard his admirers are selling an image which is woefully incomplete, an image which neglects many of the sides which make a writer capable of masterpieces.

In fact, of all the sides of Bernhard which are routinely neglected, the humorous Bernhard sometimes gets the best treatment. Geoff Dyer, for instance, understands; understands so well, in fact, that there are beautiful humorous sections of his great pseudo-essay on D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, that seem as if they were pulled straight from The Loser. Even Marcus, in his Harper’s essay, admits to an appreciation of Bernhard’s “light comic relief.”

What seems always to be neglected, amongst this sea of praise for the author’s supposed hatred for all the things of this world, is what one might call the softer side of Bernhard: the side which incurable misanthropes, thinking they have found a brother with which to hurl rage and bile at the horrors of this world, might easily miss.

There is beauty in Thomas Bernhard, if you are willing to look for it, and sadness. Not despair, mind you, or aesthetic perfection; not intellectualization thereof, but the genuine article. There is even love, of a difficult kind, in the sense of love for a place in which you can no longer live, love for a homeland that has harmed you, and which you love deeply without ever quite forgiving.

Here, for example, is the unnamed narrator of Correction, writing about the way he and his friend took to school in the morning, through the Aurach river gorge.
Suddenly I no longer had to hold back anything. I said, putting off a little what I’d primarily meant to say, that my finest memory, and probably Hoeller’s as well, and Roithamer’s too, was my memory of our walks to school together… I could remember those thousands, hundreds of thousands of weather conditions on our walk to school, abrupt shifts in the weather, I felt them suddenly take place, transforming our way to school from one minute to the next and thereby transforming us inside from one minute to the next, and the incessant changing of colors in the woods and in the Aurach as it tumbled headlong from the woods down to the plain.
There is anger here, and bitterness, too, but there is another sort of emotional register on display, as well. It exists in that simple phrase which appears in the middle of the sentence: I felt them suddenly take place. It is this feeling that we need to concern ourselves with, as readers, to understand that Bernhard is capable of more than just wailing in rage and misery. It rests in a phrase like this one: the incessant changing of colors in the woods and in the Aurach as it tumbled headlong from the woods down to plain. This phrase – and many others like it in Correction, which deserves to be called Bernhard’s pastoral novel – displays a distinctly unfashionable but extremely important novelistic gift: the ability to set the reader firmly in the middle of an emotional state, an emotional state by which they cannot help but be deeply affected.

Sometimes this power rises softly, like that bit about the Aurach gorge. Other times it appears in the middle of a particularly vicious, sarcastic rant, and it feels like being in the eye of a tornado. It is, above all else, a distinctly pleasant feeling. After all, visceral linguistic sensation is one of the deepest pleasures afforded by fiction.

Bernhard is also capable of sadness. When I say sadness, I don’t mean the solitary, monomaniacal despair people often reference in regard to his obsessed narrators. I mean the sadness of humans in relation, in their inability to connect to each other.

Consider this section in The Lime Works, concerning Konrad and his wife:
At bottom it was nothing more than an infinitely sad story of a marriage, astounding, shocking if you chose, and yet it could just as well be regarded as almost laughably commonplace, even though it might seem strange, extraordinary, crazy to the superficial observer. But there was no use talking about it. The mitten: while watching her knit his mitten he asks himself: Why is she knitting that mitten, always the same one? but he also asks himself why, instead of continually working on that mitten, doesn’t she take time out to mend his socks, patch his shirts, his torn vest, all my clothes have big holes in them, everywhere, he said to himself, but she sits there knitting that mitten. Her own cap needs mending, so does her blouse, too, but not, she keeps working on that mitten. The lime works have been the finish of her, he thought, watching her work on that mitten.
Marcus claims the following about Bernhard: “His project is not to reference the known world, stuffing it with fully rounded characters who commence to discover their conflicts with one another, but to erect complex states of mind — usually self-loathing, obsessive ones — and then set about destroying them.” But the truth of the matter is that self-loathing, obsessive narrators can also be round, can also live in the known world, can have wives and childhoods and pains. And what can be more obsessive and also more real than a husband watching his wife obsessively knitting and re-knitting a single mitten – a mitten he doesn’t even want – while the rest of their lives crumble about them? This is not grand despair; it is small and desperate sadness.

Hundreds of examples abound of these small, precise emotional details. Roithamer’s trip to the music festival in Correction, where he miraculously shoots twenty-four paper roses and then, in despair, gives them all away to a random girl. The bicycle ride in Gathering Evidence, where Bernhard describes the initial freedom and eventual despair of a young child escaping his town on two wheels, only to have the grand machine break down and strand him in unfamiliar territory.

Grand despair is a great hobbyhorse for the intellectual, precisely because it can be intellectualized away, or worse, traded in conversation for some obscure aesthetic satisfaction. Small sadness provides no such feeling of satisfaction. It gets under your skin, it works its way deeper. What makes Bernhard such a compelling writer is that he builds his vistas of grand despair from the tiniest building blocks, the most rote disappointments. His lofty edifices rest on the lowliest and most traditional of observations, and though they are painful and stifling constructions – like the Cone in Correction that Roithamer builds for his sister – they are all the more horrible for feeling real.

Any famous author undergoes a reduction in the public eye. To those who have yet to read them, David Foster Wallace is footnotes, Lydia Davis is neurotic brevity, Georges Perec is that guy who didn’t use the letter e. Our responsibility as champions of the writers we love is to overcome the reductive impulse and try to portray as best we can the immense complexities of the writers we love, to resist at all times the propensity to fit capacious literary work into the smallest possible box. What makes the literary reputation of Thomas Bernhard so strange is that his champions seem to be uninterested in presenting anything but one side to the public, even as they recommend him.

One could think of many hypotheses for this. Perhaps people want to keep Bernhard to themselves, for fear of his being co-opted by the masses; this hinges on the idea that a suicide-obsessed Austrian writer of incredibly long sentences and rampant repetition will go over like gangbusters with the American middlebrow reading public. Fat chance.

Maybe the fault rests in the slippery nature of humor; this is, after all, the same country that took a hundred years or so to get around to Melville’s ironic turn of phrase. Who’s to say that in a hundred years people won’t be crowning Bernhard as misunderstood comic genius? Except that a vast percentage of the people who love Bernhard now already get the humor; the problem is that, like Ben Marcus, they only see it as suicide’s humor, and so they shelve it in with despair.

The fault, it seems to me, is the idea of Bernhard: his perfection as a literary figure, as opposed to his existence as an actual creator of prose. Consider this the ideal recipe for a cult writer. Take the bleakest of all bleakness, mix in enough convoluted prose style to warn off the philistines, sprinkle with a dash of black humor, then put it in the oven until it has baked to perfection. Only perfection never arrives, as it never arrives for Bernhard’s characters – characters one suspects the man’s more faithful readers sometimes wish they could become. So the faithful reader never eats, which is no great loss, since eating would entail too much pleasure; the idea of eating it is aesthetic pleasure enough.

But you are interested in writers, I assume, not the images of writers, and so it is my responsibility as a lover of Thomas Bernhard to give you the roundest message I can muster: for those of you who may have been frightened away by the overwhelming anhedonia of his supporters, I say, do not be afraid. There is no initiation. You do not need, as Ben Marcus once said, half-jokingly, 355 years of schooling and the safety of a steel cage to read Thomas Bernhard. Please partake of the paperback feast which Vintage has now set before you. Despite all reports to the contrary, there is pleasure here.

My Mother is a Book: On Elisabeth Gille’s The Mirador

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Elisabeth Gille was only five years old when the authorities took her mother away.

It was July of 1942, the height of the German occupation of France. Her mother, Irène Némirovsky, was once the darling of the Parisian literati, but once the Germans arrived her fortunes fell. Her novels were no longer publishable, due to Nazi race law, and her literary friends abandoned her, hoping to gain the good graces of the occupiers. She fled with her family to the small village of Issy-l’Évêque, but in the end it did no good — she was specifically targeted by the Gestapo as a “degenerate artist of deluded Jewish hegemony,” a “stateless person of Jewish descent.” The writing was on the wall.

“I am going on a journey now,” she told her daughters. A long journey, as it turned out, although not the longest of her peripatetic life. As a girl she had come west from Russia with her parents, running from the Bolsheviks. Now the Gestapo took her east again — across Germany, into Poland, and finally to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where she was killed in the gas chambers.

She left behind the unfinished manuscript of Suite Française, a novel which detailed the downfall of Paris and the French countryside under the occupation. The book languished for decades in her unpublished papers, mistaken for a diary.


Her daughters survived the war. The eldest, Denise, became an archivist; Elisabeth Gille, the younger sister, had a long and productive career as an editor and a translator. Then, in 1991, when Elisabeth Gille was in her fifties, she wrote an odd sort of book: a fictional memoir about her mother, a book which could easily seem to the casual reader as if it were written by Irène Némirovsky herself.

Not that Gille was trying to put one over on anybody. In French the book was called La Mirador – Dreams Reves, which translates loosely to Dream Memories. It had Gille’s name on the cover, and hers was the book’s first voice:
The child is born in a beautiful Parisian apartment. One imagines her cradle surrounded by bright-eyed fairies: her mother, the famous writer, her sister… the servants, the nurse, the governess… her father, wearing a light-colored suit, with a tender expression on his face and a champagne flute in his hand.
This is the familiar territory of memoir. “The child” is Gille herself; “the famous writer” is her mother, Irène Némirovsky. Consider the phrase “one imagines”; how many times have we read a memoir in which someone imagines childhood events which they themselves could not possibly have witnessed? Everyone runs up against some version of this when recollecting their own past: the point in which memory gives way to sense-images, sense-images to imaginings.

But Gille is only warming up. Soon her real narrative begins, and in a much different mode:
“I have always found the fragrance of linden blossoms aggressive, though it is in fact quite tender, at least in literature, inebriating the senses in the mild air of late-summer nights. Heady to the point of causing queasiness, it is the fragrance of village squares where young folk walk around and around in the evening air beneath the heavy-lidded gaze of old men perched on benches, fingers knotted over their canes … The fragrance of the promenade in Charleville at sundown or of Turgenev’s parks, where slender young women from the last century cling to their lovers’ arms. And a fragrance which has always brought on my worst migraines and driven my heart to gallop and thrash uncontrollably.”
Consider the sudden and somewhat shocking assumption of “I.” We are no longer in familiar territory. Is this an unpublished memoir? one wonders. Another of Némirovsky’s (highly autobiographical) novels? Or is it a journal entry, found in a drawer after years of neglect?

In fact, The Mirador is a combination of all these things. Throughout this fabulously hybrid text, Gille gives herself license to use whatever mode strikes her fancy, as long as it helps explicate the mother she never knew. She writes her mother’s memoirs for her, imagining her history. She discusses her mother’s novels in her mother’s own voice. She even quotes Némirovsky’s letters and journals, letting these quotes merge with the larger narrative so that the reader can no longer tell which text is Gille’s and which is her mother’s.

This is, to put it mildly, an audacious project. No matter how liberal we consider ourselves about the slippery line between memoir and autobiographical fiction – even if we are more Exley than Oprah on the matter – there is still something that seems suspicious about the enterprise of full-on fictional memoir. Is this allowable? Can one simply jump in and narrate the course of another person’s life?

Perhaps – if you do it right.

If the proof of any literary idea is in the execution – or, as Joan Didion writes, “the writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream” – then Gille’s book succeeds admirably. Her version of Némirovsky is curt, cynical, with just enough seductive lyricism to make her believable as a writer of fiction. She sulks and pouts her way through a pampered Russian girlhood, tries her best to fathom the 1917 Revolution, and then throws herself bodily into the Paris literati without so much as a hesitation.

“Bernard Grasset,” she writes of her first Parisian publisher, “was expecting a middle-aged man, perhaps a retired banker. Instead, standing before him he saw a petite, young, shy, and curiously dressed woman, peering at him nearsightedly.”

In fact, Gille’s version of her mother is so believable that when I write to you about Gille’s descriptions of people and places I am tempted to ascribe them to Némirovsky herself, as in this lovely description of an emigre ship bound from Finland to France:
“The ship, by one of those odd coincidences of which the period was so fond, was carrying theatrical sets, and during the entire ten-day crossing in turbulent waters, we had to continually push back the bundled-up stage curtains and backdrops that were constantly falling on us … Neither my father nor I suffered from seasickness and we were proud to be the only clients at the bar. I did my best to get closer to Andre by drowning my sorrows in drink, despite my father’s weak protests. The tiny bar had an upright piano on which the bartender, a Polish student, banged out Chopin pieces to pay his passage, struggling to be heard over the noise of the storm.”
The ship of Europe, a beleaguered stage set on stormy waters — it takes a writer, it seems, to fake another writer’s memoir.

Not that Gille’s version of her mother is perfect; as a child she sometimes behaves like a spoiled, self-hating brat, and as an adult she is deeply conflicted about her own Jewish identity. But it is a testament to Gille’s skill as a writer that the mother she creates is palpable and bristling. By the time the war comes, and the world begins to close in around her, you begin to feel for the woman, to understand her complexities and sympathize with her shortcomings. Most of all, you want to listen to her.

Which is just another way of saying that you want to listen to Gille — to listen to her dream. Ethical issues aside, The Mirador is an argument for fictional memoir as a fabulously flexible genre. (Perhaps it already is a genre — consider Stephen Elliot and Eric Martin’s hilarious and ruthless Donald.) The fictional nature of her enterprise allows Gille great latitude in painting scenes which are fundamentally novelistic, such as a scene in which frightened White Russians pass the time in the basement of a hotel requisitioned by the Red Army:
“After a night spent sleeping on the green felt of the billiard tables or cushions and overcoats on the floor, a few energetic souls attempted to establish a semblance of order. Young society ladies tore the fabric off of chairs and made armbands, offering their services to an amiable doctor who was nursing several dowagers suffering from fainting spells. A prince took it upon himself to remove all the lapdogs to a nearby room because their barking had becoming intolerable.”
Delightful, ironic description of the sort one would find in the best satirical French novelists.

Unburdened by absolute fact, Gille’s book is free to fulfill a myriad of fascinating functions. It is, in turn, a memoir (albeit a fictional one); an autobiographical novel (of someone other than the author); a history lesson; and an investigation into the literary process, as when the character of Némirovsky leafs feverishly through French industrial magazines and British books on the oil trade to provide adequate characterization for her creations. Each of these modes — with the possible exception of the literary investigations, which can sometimes seem a bit strained — is fundamentally successful; its remarkable how well The Mirador works as a whole, how it holds together.

The Mirador is so successful, in fact, that one gets to the end of the book before remembering that twinge of suspicion from the first page. Now that we have a handle on what Gille is doing — juggling memoir and fiction, criticism and text — we have to ask ourselves a stark question: what right does Gille have presenting this story, as if she could write her mother for the world?

Keep in in mind that when this book was first published Némirovsky had more or less faded from the literary world — it would take another 15 years for Suite Française to rehabilitate her international reputation — and some French readers would have approached the book as their first acquaintance with her work. Such readers could have easily mistaken Gille’s Némirovsky for the genuine article.

To put it harshly: is this art, or is this theft?

Perhaps we can split the difference and say it is both. But I would argue that it is the sort of theft all of us engage in every day, whenever we read a novel: we take the work of a writer and we re-envision it in our own image. Many of us go a step further and re-envision it on personal terms. We imagine where the author was when he wrote it, what he was reading, what he ate for breakfast. Imagine the grubby hands of countless grad students poring over the dirty letters sent between James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, scurrying back and forth between their correspondence and the final chapter of Ulysses, trying to understand the relationship between Joyce’s literary production and his sex life.

Elisabeth Gille was five years old when her mother was taken away to be killed – they barely knew each other. To know her mother was to know the texts she left behind, the same way all of us imagine our authors. The difference with Gille is that she went a step further and narrated the picture she saw. She closed the circle; she used the tools of fiction to bring the dead writer to life.


So if Gille is only doing what everybody else is doing – except more skillfully, in a more writerly fashion — then why do we react so strongly to what she has done? What is it about this book that is both powerful and a little disturbing?

Maybe it’s because Gille’s book skillfully conceals its own hybrid nature. It is doing many things under the guise of one specific thing: it seems, at first glance, to be a memoir, and we all know how much Americans in particular cling to the supposed veracity of their memoirs. The Mirador can even be mistaken as a Holocaust memoir, if the reader isn’t careful. There are several snares here for the woeful misreader.

The Mirador is an extremely crafty book. So crafty, in fact, that much of its complexity — its intertextuality, even — is only revealed upon reading its acknowledgements.

“This book was imagined on the basis of other books,” Gille writes. (What book isn’t? — so the reader might wonder.) “Firstly, those of my mother, Irène Némirovsky … Also Sholem Asch’s trilogy, especially Petersburg and Moscow. The scenes I describe at the Hotel Metropol are inspired by the latter.”

Gille is speaking here of the vivid hotel scene mentioned earlier in this essay: the princes, the fainting ladies, the incorrigible lapdog. Here we have a fictional memoir, stealing from a novel to provide a sense of the real — hybridity at is finest.

Fiction begets life begets fiction — perhaps the best argument for accepting The Mirador on its own terms is that it’s less about Irène Némirovsky than it is about literature itself: its endurance, its continual spur to the imagination. When Gille writes about her mother, she is writing about her mother’s literary tradition, one that parallels her mother’s own movement from Russia to France — a tradition that encompasses Alexander Blok and Alexander Pushkin, Musset and Molière , all of whom are referenced or quoted in The Mirador.

Her mother is a book made up of other books, and Gille is reading her.

Consider the beautiful final scene, in which Némirovsky remembers a trip she took with her father to Yalta, where he told her a story about Chekhov:
“My father and I walked along the shore for a long time. He told me that when Chekhov began to notice the symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his beloved brother Nikolai, he traveled around the world and then, after a terrible attack of hemotypsis, went to live in Crimea. Vera Komissarzhevskaya came to see him … In the twilight, the sandy-bearded, sickly Chekhov, wearing a pince-nez, and the lady with the enormous tragic eyes had paced up and down this beach just as we were doing, surrounded by the fragrance of roses and the ethereal melody of the waves. At his request, she recited Nina’s final monologue from The Seagull, which had been created for her.”
Time seems to collapse, and we are aware — if we have read the book correctly — of several layers of imagination. Gille imagines Némirovsky, Némirovsky imagines her father, her father imagines Chekhov. By imagining her mother and setting the cycle in motion, Gille is bringing us into a larger conversation, not just with her mother’s ghost, but with the inexhaustible world of writing.

It is fitting, then, that the book ends with the quote from the end of The Seagull:
“It was nice in the old days, Kostya! Do you remember? How clear, warm, joyous and pure life was, what feelings we had – feelings like tender exquisite flowers… Do you remember? ‘Men, lions, eagles, and partridges, horned deer, geese, spiders, silent fish that dwell in the water, star-fishes, all living things, all living things, have completed their cycle of sorrow, are extinct… For thousands of years the earth has borne no living creature on its surface, and this poor moon lights its lamp in vain. On the meadow the cranes no longer waken with a cry and there is no sound of the May beetles in the linden trees.”
A mournful speech, but not without hope. Note those linden trees: the same ones we found in The Mirador’s opening pages. Here we thought that Gille was talking about her mother in those early lines, when she was really talking about the ever-expanding library of literature: a library from which everyone is permitted to steal.

Bonus Link: Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française, and The Mirador

The Disappointment Author: Lethem v. Wood

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It is sometimes hard to remember — in our enlightened Internet era — that the line between writer and critic was once very sharp, and that there was no love lost between the camps. “There are hardly five critics in America,” Herman Melville once wrote, “and several of them are asleep.”

Not that you can blame the man, considering the drubbing he took at the hands of the critical establishment, but the quote gives a good sense of the bad blood brewing between writer and commentator all the way back in the 1850s. We don’t lack for contemporary examples, either; in 1991 Norman Mailer called critic John Simon “a man whose brain is being demented by the bile rising from his bowels,” after Simon panned Mailer’s novel Harlot’s Ghost.

But surely it’s not all bile and bellowing; there have to be other, more civilized examples of the writer playing nice in the critical sphere. Henry James, for example, had a prolific side gig as a writer of judicious criticism, and his essay “The Art of Fiction” is one of the most well-considered and fair-minded examinations of novelistic purpose you could ever hope to read. But even James, in the middle of his reasonable defense of novelistic art, couldn’t help giving a swift kick to an unnamed “writer in the Pall Mall” who opposes “certain tales in which ‘Bostonian nymphs’ appear to have ‘rejected English dukes for psychological reasons’” – Portrait of a Lady, I presume? It seems that, no matter their composure, writers look to draw a little blood when they enter the critical ring. Maybe it has something to do with accepting blows in silence all those years.

Which brings us to the latest example of a writer stepping into the ring to defend his work against a rapacious critic: award-winning author Jonathan Lethem v. award-winning critic James Wood, literary heavyweight bout par excellence. The first round of this fight happened recently, when the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay by Lethem entitled “My Disappointment Critic,” in which Lethem discussed his anger at Wood for panning his novel The Fortress of Solitude eight years ago.

Lethem is not some cranky author we can write off lightly and go about our business. He is himself a thoughtful critic, and, as if to remind us of this fact, the title of “My Disappointment Critic” (and some of its content) alludes to his book The Disappointment Artist, a series of excellent essays about growing up in Brooklyn, the pleasures and perils of being an autodidact, and Westerns – among other things. His essay on the way to escape a subway train when you fear being pursued by other passengers is one of the best evocations of frightened childhood and how it shapes (urban) consciousness I have ever read.

All this is to say that Lethem is more than familiar with a critic’s responsibilities. Even when you’re an author/critic with fame hanging heavy on your shoulders  — especially when you’re stepping into the ring to defend your own work — you’re held to the sort of standard all criticism is held to: you have to marshal evidence and portray your viewpoint convincingly. One might even argue that writer/critic dealing with his own work has a higher bar to vault, because if he fails at any of these aims he looks worse than a reviewer writing a poorly-argued review. He looks like a whiner.

So what are we to make of Lethem’s new essay, in which he steps into the ring to defend his eight-year-old novel The Fortress of Solitude from James Wood, critical heavyweight of the age? Is he merely grousing? Or is he making serious critical claims?

Lethem understands our concerns. He wants us to know right away that he knows what he’s doing.

“Why,” Lethem writes, “violate every contract of dignity and decency, why embarrass us and yourself, sulking over an eight-year-old mixed review? Conversely, why not, if I’d wished to flog Wood’s shortcomings, pick a review of someone else, make respectable defense of a fallen comrade? The answer is simple: In no other instance could I grasp so completely what Wood was doing.”

And later: “Was this how Rushdie or DeLillo felt — not savaged, in fact, but harassed, by a knight only they could tell was armorless?”

This is Lethem’s stated purpose: instead of taking the opportunity to complain about his own disappointment, Lethem is going to give his own disappointment greater cultural relevance. He is going to use his own experience to show us what James Wood looks like without the armor. He is going to accomplish something far more serious than simple griping: a true critical takedown.


The critical takedown is well-known cultural corrective with a long and glorious history. Renata Adler attempted something similar in her New York Review of Books article on Pauline Kael 31 years ago. James Wood himself performed similar treatment on Harold Bloom; it’s no surprise that Lethem quotes both of these projects above his essay.

The fellow critic providing cultural corrective to someone who has gotten too big for his or her britches — it’s practically a public service, if you do it right. In our current literary discourse critics can easily become unimpeachable. Wood gets the lofty heights of The New Yorker’s book section whenever he feels like it, and if he’s fudging his responsibilities, chances are a lot of people won’t notice. It’s more or less exactly the argument Adler makes in her takedown of Kael: most critics get sloppy on their soapbox. Their ingrained prejudices take over.

So there’s a precedent for the fellow critic accomplishing such a takedown, but rarely does the author being criticized make the attempt. Maybe this is because the burden of proof is uncommonly high when personal interest is involved. And Lethem’s criticisms, for all of their higher purpose, do spring from personal concerns: Wood failed to see what Lethem was getting at in The Fortress of Solitude.

“James Wood,” he writes, “in 4,200 painstaking words, couldn’t bring himself to mention that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility. This, the sole distinguishing feature that put the book aside from those you’d otherwise compare it to (Henry Roth, say). The brute component of audacity, whether you felt it sank the book or exalted it or only made it odd.”

This comment is, at its heart, disingenuous. Is the magic ring really the “sole distinguishing feature” that separates the Fortress of Solitude from Henry Roth? Wood would never make such a simplistic statement, nor would any other critic with a professional reputation to uphold. The act of criticism, in large part, is to figure out what distinguishes books from each other, and such distinctions never come down to one detail, whether it be a magic ring or a madeleine.

But let’s set this aside for now, and continue to Lethem’s critical conclusion about Wood’s review.
“Perhaps Wood’s agenda edged him into bad faith on the particulars of the pages before him. A critic ostensibly concerned with formal matters, Wood failed to register the formal discontinuity I’d presented him, that of a book which wrenches its own “realism”– mimeticism is the word I prefer– into crisis by insisting on uncanny events. The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive. I doubt Wood’s ever glanced back at the piece. But I’d like to think that if he did, he’d be embarrassed.”
I read Fortress of Solitude several years ago. I remember that magic ring. I remember it having the shaky status of a symbol, and that the boys who used it were themselves unsure of whether it represented real invisibility or some sort of wish fulfillment: imagination grounded firmly in realism (or whatever less offensive word Lethem wants to use). I certainly don’t remember it ever “wrenching” the book’s realism out of whack — it was one thread in the greater fabric of a mimetic narrative.

But let’s set that aside too — maybe Wood was wrong about the magic ring, and its singular symbolism within Fortress of Solitude. What we’re really dealing with here is a takedown of Wood, after all, not a defense of Lethem’s novel. That’s why Lethem proclaims his larger purpose early in the essay. That’s why he includes the paragraphs from Adler and from Wood himself, that’s why he tells us Wood is “armorless” as a critic. What we’re concerned with here is Lethem’s critical judgment of Wood as a critic: “The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive.”

Read that line again, substituting the word “book” for the word “review.” Now imagine that this sentence appeared in a book review. I assume your critical alarm bells are ringing.

Are we as readers expected to believe Lethem when he says that Wood was “erudite” and “descriptively meticulous,” (not to mention “jive”) without evidence?

Lethem obliges us. He drops a Wood quote at the start of the next paragraph.
“Wood complained of the book’s protagonist: “We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book … or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman.” …My huffy, bruised, two-page letter to Wood detailed the fifteen or twenty most obvious, most unmissable instances of my primary character’s reading: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Mad magazine, as well as endless scenes of looking at comic books. Never mind the obsessive parsing of LP liner notes, or first-person narration which included moments like: “I read Peter Guralnick and Charlie Gillett and Greg Shaw…” That my novel took as one of its key subjects the seduction, and risk, of reading the lives around you as if they were an epic cartoon or frieze, not something in which you were yourself implicated, I couldn’t demand Wood observe. But not reading? This enraged me.”
This is the only quote from Wood that Lethem uses in his essay, and he buries it within a full paragraph of editorialization. This on its own would give the average critical reader pause for thought. But when you look closer, when you read Wood in the original, you notice that there is a more fundamental disconnect at work. Lethem has fundamentally misunderstood what Wood was saying.

Here is the Wood quote in the original, concerning the main character from Fortress of Solitude:
“We never see [Dylan] thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book (there is a canonical mention of Steppenwolf, which is just more cultural anthropology, and just about it for literature in Dylan’s life), or encountering music that is not the street’s music, (italics mine) or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman. There is no need for Lethem to be conventional, of course; but there is a need for Dylan to have outline, to have mental personality.”
Wood’s point in his review of Fortress is that Lethem is a fabulous cultural chronicler of childhood, but that he fails when it comes to describing adulthood’s particular individual consciousness. There is something beautiful in Wood’s phrase “music that is not the street’s music” — maybe this is why Lethem chose to elide it in his quote. It reinforces how much Dylan Ebdus’s character is informed by group consciousness.

But all Lethem can see is Wood’s snobbery. “Wood is too committed a reader,” Lethem writes, “not to have registered what he (apparently) can’t bear to credit: the growth of a sensibility through literacy in visual culture, in vernacular and commercial culture, in the culture of music writing and children’s lit, in graffiti and street lore.”

But this is precisely what Wood is talking about. He is pointing out that Dylan, for all his theoretical interest in Sendak and Heinlein, is not very interesting as an individual; far from ignoring street culture, Wood points out that street culture is what makes Dylan who he is. When Dylan grows up and loses sight of the street, Dylan becomes boring. Wood’s snobbery is beside the point here; the critic admits that Dylan doesn’t need conventional interiority, a world of high-brow books or high-brow music — he just needs interiority, period. We’re reminded once again of Henry James, the snobby fussbudget who occasionally got it right — “the only obligation to which we may hold a novel is that it be interesting.” Dylan, in Lethem’s later pages, is no longer interesting, and Wood, as a critic, wants to try and explain why.


Maybe a close examination of Lethem’s article will shed light on the reasons why so many authors attack their critics, and why literary fights can seem so personal. Because authors, at heart, are much more interested in the verdict a critic renders than the evidence they display. And why wouldn’t they be? Authors understand that good reviews sell books and that bad reviews don’t — they are the most consumer-minded of all cultural observers, because they know as well as anyone how hard the literary marketplace can be. This isn’t even considering the personal aspect of having one’s work attacked in public, the feeling, as Edith Wharton put it, that “one knows one’s weak points so well… it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.”

Lethem, despite his own critical experience, isn’t immune to this view. “The review,” he writes, “wasn’t the worst I’d had. Wasn’t horrible. (As my uncle Fred would have said, ‘I know from horrible.’)”

Lethem looks at Wood’s review in a familiar cultural context — is it good, or is it bad? Will it sell my book or will it turn people away? Does it make me look foolish or paint me as a genius? What’s the judgment here?

But what if the purpose of a review is not just to render judgment, but to explicate the way literature works? One can’t fault Lethem for disliking having his own work on the operating table, but certainly he’s been on the cutting end before.

The pain of the writer is that he has to sit still while the critic pokes through the vitals of his work and shows them to the audience. When the critical work is at its finest, the audience is like a crew of medical students standing around a doctor at work — even when we disagree with the way things are being handled, we can still see the body of evidence and draw our own conclusions. The process itself helps us learn; it adds to our understanding of literature as a whole. That is, if the body on the table would only stop complaining.


This is extreme, I know. The body of work on the operating table has its own concerns. Staying alive, for example. An irresponsible critic, like an irresponsible doctor, runs the risk of killing the work — we don’t call it a “hit piece” for nothing. And if Lethem is right, and Wood is not doing high-level criticism anymore — if, like Adler’s vision of Pauline Kael, he has gone “shrill,” “stale,” has fallen prey to the tendency “to inflate” — then we have legitimate cause to worry for other books, other authors.

Where do we go to find if a critic — or an author — is being irresponsible, is failing at their literary mission? We go to the text, naturally — we render the evidence as best we can. This is the burden of proof, the burden the critic takes on when making judgments. This is the burden Lethem must assume if he is to be a critic of Wood’s own critical project.

“When Wood praises,” says Lethem, “he mentions a writer’s higher education, and their overt high-literary influences, a lot. He likes things with certain provenances; I suppose that liking, which makes some people uneasy, is exactly what made me enraged. When he pans, his tone is often passive-aggressive, couched in weariness, even woundedness. Just beneath lies a ferocity which seems to wish to restore order to a disordered world.”

Leaving aside the question of whether or not all critics (and readers) like things of certain provenances, we find ourselves again with the verdict but no facts. If Wood is passive-aggressive, why not show it? And what are we to make of Wood’s supposed ferocity, his drive to correct the world? Are we supposed to take Lethem’s word on Wood’s intellectual makeup?

Lethem gives Wood some credit: he points out that Wood wrote “4,200 painstaking words” about Fortress of Solitude. I would highlight another salient point: of these words, eight hundred (or nearly a fifth of the article) are direct quotations. Say what you will about the subjectivity inherent in what a critic chooses to quote, Wood uses ample evidence from Lethem’s own text to make his points — and nearly 600 quoted words come in blocks, without any editorializing from Wood at all; the critical equivalent of a primary source.

This is not just a feature of Wood’s review of Fortress — it is a feature of his critical style. Wood may be blinkered, he may be a high-culture pedant, but he quotes with vicious abandon: great block quotes of prose that give the reader a decent sense of how the writers he picks use language, so that no matter what verdict Wood renders the reader is capable of viewing the evidence on its own merits.

Take Wood’s review of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, for example. As readers, we are quite justified in our anger when Wood attempts to parody Hollinghurst’s style with his own prose; critics, whether they are also writers or not, are supposed to keep their own prose out of the critical game, lest we realize just how disingenuous they are. Or, as Hollinghurst himself put it, “it exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

But we can’t fault the rest of the review of Stranger’s Child for anything other than having an extremely intense, well-considered, and well-supported opinion, because we have the tools to respectfully disagree with the opinion if we like — Wood gives us reams of quotation on which to draw our own conclusions. I happen to disagree with Wood’s conclusions about Hollinghurst, as I do with many of Wood’s conclusions, but I do not make the mistake of thinking that my disagreement with Wood’s verdict means his article is a failure. I am interested in his ideas, I am interested in his evidence. Then again, it’s not my book under the scalpel — if I were Hollinghurst, I imagine I would be furious. Not being Hollinghurst, however — a fact I share with the vast majority of the readership of The New Yorker — I am free to enjoy the article on the merits.

Quibble how you will with the verdict Wood renders on The Stranger’s Child, just as Lethem does with the verdict he renders on Fortress of Solitude in 4,200 painstaking words, but it’s difficult to fault his methods — considerable quotation, much of it in blocks, and statements based on these quotations. This is why Wood remains a sometimes inspiring, sometimes infuriating, consistently debatable literary critic.

(A critic, mind you, who saw fit to send Lethem a postcard in return to the angry letter Lethem sent him when this review was published — and here, perhaps, we can allow ourselves a little incredulity — eight years ago. A postcard pointing out that he had actually liked a lot about Fortress of Solitude — maybe it’s Lethem, not Wood, who ought to be embarrassed upon re-reading the review, so many years later.)

Lethem has now written 1,700 words attacking, not just Wood’s article, but his entire approach to book reviewing, his “bad faith” — and he supports his argument with 47 of Wood’s own words. Whether or not you would like to see Wood exiled from his favored perch atop The New Yorker’s book section — and many do — this is not a ratio to inspire particular confidence.

It is very difficult to analyze anyone’s bad faith. Lethem himself points this out at the end of his essay; that he goes ahead and attacks Wood’s bad faith despite his own assertions is evidence of his critical perspective. Lethem has every right to be angry at Wood, for criticizing a work which he held dearly, for rendering a verdict that might hurt the work in the marketplace. But those of us who care about criticism are more interested in the evidence than the verdict, and in the case of Lethem v. Wood, the evidence is skimpy indeed.