One thing you could always say for me: I was a finisher. I may not have been a great reader, but by God I was dogged, and if I made it through the opening 10th of a book, then I was going all the way to the end. Though this started as merely an inclination, it eventually became a rule, for reasons I can't quite understand. There are, after all, so many books that deserve abandonment, and to this day I admire readers like my wife, who can jump ship after 80 pages. But I suppose my years as an altar boy left their mark, both in a too-easy conflation of negligence and sin and in a deeper, anthropomorphic sense that even a bad book might at the last minute change into something singular and not-to-be-missed. "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life," as Grace Paley put it, in her own American idiom. And if I was to be the little god of the worlds I made when turning the pages, then who was I to let a little boredom or disappointment turn me away? I mean, isn't the real God, if there is one, a finisher, too? This isn't to say there weren't challenges. The Book of Disquiet took me over a year, and several running starts. Ditto Being & Time. Proust I read over four summers, and though there was never a moment when he sunk me in the swamps of saudade, or gave me whatever is German for brain-freeze, it took a certain monogamous willfulness to return to, say, The Fugitive when fresher titles beckoned from the shelf. But then came baby #3. Let's call her N. She was not, exactly, planned on, though for several consecutive springs when my manic phase rolled in I had this sense that my own open destiny would probably include throwing myself out of the fatherhood plane one more time. Capping the family at two kids would have felt like stopping Proust after book six, somehow. I hasten to say of baby N, as of Proust: totally worth it. Except that all of a sudden I couldn't finish anything. When N was born, back in February, The Great War raged in Robert Musil’s diary. Socialism, in G.D.H. Cole’s five-volume history, had entered its anarchist phase. Now, in December, poor Robert Musil still hasn't reached an armistice, while socialism retains a markedly anarchist flavor. Here was me in the first few months after the delivery: I would open a novel, read along perfectly happily for a day or two, and then let it drop. I was waiting for the thing that would sweep me up and carry me through. But perhaps my reading list was too ambitious for my circumstances. (Like, who outside of grad school reads Musil at the same time as G.D.H. Cole?) I told myself I would move, temporarily, to something more sensible. But to no avail. My study grew littered with dog-eared New Yorkers, foreshortened short stories, longreads I sputtered out halfway through. Many of which I enjoyed, and hope to finish in the near future. For now, though, my year in reading comes back to me as a mixtape, as hip-hop: a swirl of enticing samples. Bits and pieces of Laura Oldfield Ford’s ’zine cycle, Savage Messiah. Phosphorescent sentences from Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo. Andrew O'Hagan’s essay on Satoshi Nakamoto. Ian Frazier’s on New Jersey Route 3. The poem "Far Rockaway" by Delmore Schwartz. The part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything when Antinous Bellori spots some angels in the woods. The part of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil where Virgil arrives in Brundisium and the translation hasn't yet gone bananas. The unimprovable first paragraph of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. And Joseph Conrad’s "The Secret Sharer," whose allegorical valences were not lost on me. Here I was looking down from the deck of a ship, not quite where I ever thought I'd be, while down there in the water, untethered but unreachable, swam another, truer self. [millions_ad] Okay, so I guess I did finish the Conrad. And by summer there were other things, small things, I was managing to see to the end. Like several short stories by Mavis Gallant, including "Speck's Idea," probably the single most perfect piece of fiction I read this year. Gallant at her best is every bit the equal of Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, or Joy Williams. Whose story "Stuff" was another highlight. As was Claire Vaye Watkins’s "I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness," from the Granta "Best of Young American Novelists" issue. Or like the essays in Zadie Smith’s forthcoming collection, Feel Free. Several years ago, I thought I noticed a turn in Smith's nonfiction, a loosening of the burdens of her remarkable erudition, like an astronaut swapping out the gravity boots, or like a swimmer kicking off from land. The places she now consistently reaches in her essays—on Joni Mitchell and Get Out and Anomalisa and joy—are not only nearer to the distant philosophical goalposts of the true and the just and the beautiful...they get us there with truth and justice and beauty of their own, and with an extraordinary, dab-worthy grace. In short, I feel lucky to be alive at a time when these essays are being written. People must have felt similarly fortunate reading A Room of One’s Own a century ago, or hearing it in its original form, as lectures. I somehow made it to 38 without having read it, and in a weird way, I'm glad I did. In a college classroom, I might not have understood it as I did this summer in Maine, as a book not only about feminism, or art (as if these were ever "only"), but about how to live, for everyone, everywhere. That was a good week for finishing things, come to think of it, because I also, finally, tackled Evan S. Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, those sterling examples of love as an act of ruthless attention. And I read much of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie, a monument of narrative nonfiction that belongs on the national required reading list. There was, too, the compellingly terrible first couple hundred pages of Harlot’s Ghost, part of an ongoing personal Norman Mailer project I probably won't complete short of a vasectomy. There are times these days when I find bad writing as exciting as good writing. Maybe more. And apparently it's not just me, because Mailer seems to bring the best out of his critics. Witness Elizabeth Hardwick, in her long-overdue Collected Essays: "the demonic, original clutter of Mailer's high style." Or witness Jonathan Lethem: "If, as in the Isaiah Berlin formulation, 'the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,' then Mailer's gift and curse was to have been a hedgehog trapped inside an exploding fox." Other, more recent titles I should mention: Ben Blum’s Ranger Games, a gripping and thoughtful blend of memoir and true-crime. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which I can't make up my mind about—usually a good sign. And Ta-Nehisi Coates’s "My President Was Black," with its arresting final cadences. I had read, and felt conflicted about, the epilogue to Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power when it appeared as a stand-alone in The Atlantic. (This is how I read now: epilogue first). If the evidence was hard to reproach, the rhetoric seemed to me flawed. But the book as a whole makes the argument far more persuasively, and—I know this is a little contrarian—I think it's a more fully realized piece of analysis than Between the World and Me. Coates is that rare thing in our public life: a writer willing to let us see him becoming. We'll need more of that in the year to come. And finally, while on the subject of public life and presidents and the winter that is now upon us, I suppose it's time—with apologies to any of his supporters left reading The Millions—to invoke He Who Must Not Be Named. For, as much as I've been pinning my distractibility on baby N (which would suggest I only have to persevere till she sleeps through the night), a novelist friend of mine recently proposed a counter-explanation. "Oh, yeah, man, that's not you, it's everyone," he said. "All of our colleagues, everyone I talk to, my mom and stepdad, their neighbors...It's been everyone's worst year in reading." His argument was that we're so inundated just at present with narrative and fantasy—with one particular person's narrative and fantasy—that the last thing we want in our reading lives is more imagination. If democracy dies in darkness, then dispense with the dreaming. Just give me the facts. Now, if I were a Trumpist, I'd probably say "just give me a break." There goes the liberal culture industry again, blaming him for their own failings, for every last thing they don't like. To which I simply ask: aren't you, too, tired of it? The insults, the feuds, the hysterical touchiness, the drag masculinity, the swamping of the drain, the bull in the nuclear china shop? Not to mention the buck stopping perpetually elsewhere. If politics has become a reality show, we've progressed in the last 18 months from the guilty pleasure of The Apprentice to the absurdity of The Celebrity Apprentice to, like, Season 7 of Real Housewives...and did anyone not stuck on an airplane even watch Season 7 of Real Housewives? Haven't you, too, found far more of your brain given over to Donald Trump than you should have give over to even a good president? Or to put it another way: isn't one definition of "a good president" "one you don't have to constantly keep your eye on?" Speaking personally, I'm realizing that I read just as much this year as any year...it's just that hundreds of my hours were given over to news, lest I fail to be aware of some developing crisis. And in the station wagon of representative government, the driver's not supposed to be hunched over his twitter feed, leaving everyone else to watch out for hazards. We - I mean to include Trump voters here, too - deserve better. We deserve, at a minimum, adult hands on the wheel. As to what duties an informed citizenry does have, in this or any other time, it's worth asking: is newspaper prose plus a handful of cultural swatches anyone's definition of an inner life? Will even the richest fragments be enough to shield us from ruin? Somehow, I don't think so. In the short run, the con man who now has the car keys may have exposed our gullibility, sending all of us scrambling to find out things we never had to know before. But the long-term damage may be to a quantity so abused as to have fallen into shame and disrepute: the capacity for belief. We will need, if we are to stitch ourselves together again, to find stories that bridge the unbridgeable, stories that make sense of the senseless, or simply present it in all its mystery, stories that respect the difference between facts and truth - stories worth believing in. In some small way, then, seeing a novel or a poem or a work of imaginative nonfiction through to completion may turn out to be not an irrelevance but an act of subversion. Or better yet: preparation. Here's to being a better finisher in 2018. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
At a wedding last summer, a guy seated at my table told me he hadn’t read a book in four years. I can’t remember the title of the traumatic work that occasioned his renunciation -- perhaps it was Ovid’s Metamorphoses -- but I distinctly recall panicking when asked by this prodigal reader to recommend something. Which magical text would show him the folly of his non-reading ways? I entertained suggesting something patently inappropriate. Maybe one of those erotic French tales put out by Grove Press would get him back on track, something like Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, Guillaume Apollinaire’s incest-laden Amorous Exploits of a Young Rakehall or Régine Deforges’s The Storm, the rawest of the lot. Or I could just say The Goldfinch and get it over with. However, with this tantalizing blank slate offered up before me, I froze. “Let me think about it.” I was mercifully saved by the start of a merciless best-man speech. Ann Patchett would have turned that young man around. In a Washington Post article titled “Owning a Bookstore Means You Always Get to Tell People What to Read,” Patchett writes: When Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in November 2011, I hadn’t really considered what an enormous boon it would be to my lifelong preoccupation with forcing books on people. There are many differences between Ann Patchett and me. She is a successful novelist and businessperson -- I am most definitely not -- but more important, I have a lifelong phobia of forcing books on people. Patchett continues on the joys of hand-selling: “[Customers] just smile up at me, trusting and curious, waiting to follow my instructions. It makes my heart soar.” The very thought nearly stops my heart, cursed as I am with the neurotic inability to look into the smiling, trusting, and curious eyes of would-be readers and give them what they want. One could charitably ascribe my hesitancy to recommend books an excessive respect for other people’s time: who am I to tell you how to spend so many hours? But that’s not really it. Reading is an investment, but unlike stock tips, there is profit to be had in even the most dubious recommendations. Nor does it have to do with the fear that the suggested title will reflect on my own aesthetic or moral deficiencies. And still, as a recent encounter with a new neighbor made painfully clear, I just can’t not make a mess of things. I first met him as he was pedaling by my house, bicycle-riding twins in tow. When I mentioned that I reviewed books, he naturally asked: “Oh, got any good ones to recommend?” For me, the equivalent of a politician’s “gotcha” question. The usual reaction occurred: a rush of blood to the face, followed by blubbering equivocations and panicked attempts to stall for time as I cycled through every book I’d read over the last weeks, months, years, then all the books I hadn’t read over that same time. Given what I had gleaned about him in our brief chat, which of these hundreds of titles would be best? Nothing was coming to mind. The helmeted twins glared at me, justifiably resentful that my deliberations were cutting into their playtime. Come on, champ. Anything. Erik Larson has a new book about the Lusitania. Too many syllables? Anthony Doerr just won the Pulitzer. Or Phil Klay. Iraq, and all that powerful stuff. But for some reason known only to my maker, I was seized by an almost Tourettic desire to scream out The Epic of Gilgamesh. I held it in, though as I squirmed I saw a flicker of doubt in his eye. He was wondering, I imagine, whether I had ever read, let alone reviewed, a book. Had a spy moved in next door, using the shaky cover of a freelance writer/editor? The twins grew more antsy, doing circles on the quiet street as they waited for their father to conclude with this stammering yutz. Inspiration! I’d just read a Kindle Single, Jeff Wise’s The Plane That Wasn’t There, which put forth a rather fanciful account of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Alas, it didn’t seem like the best time to explain how the plane had been diverted to an airfield in Kazakhstan as a Russian-sent warning for NATO to stop meddling in Ukraine. I would save that for a summer barbecue when I had him good and cornered. Good god, man, spit it out! A book about neighborly quarrels could be fun, like James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking With Fernet Blanca. No, too arch. Or perhaps he could lose himself in some of Ezra Pound’s Cantos? That ought to keep him busy. The light declining, I finally decided to put myself out of my misery. “Let me think about it.” The family pedaled off, fated to rely on more articulate acquaintances or Amazon’s algorithm for recommendations. Perhaps because of my book-recommending block, I respect those with the courage to impose their reading will on others. Take my friend’s boss, who stopped him in the hall and “suggested” he buy a 600-page, dry-as-dust tome called Successful Executive’s Handbook, never to indicate any relevant sections or even mention it again. That’s a power move worthy of a successful executive. Another good friend loved Norman Mailer’s massive CIA epic, Harlot’s Ghost, so much that for a period of six months he pressed it on people he met on the street, baristas, girlfriends, soon-to-be ex-girlfriends, and me. There was no dithering about whether you liked fiction or nonfiction, bios or memoir, character-driven or plot-heavy novels. You even hinted that you were looking for a book recommendation and the next thing you knew, there’d be a 1,400-page brick on your nightstand. A few weeks after loaning me his copy of the Mailer, which I didn't dive into quickly enough, he snatched it back to give to someone else. The new recipient trudged through 1,399 pages, hating every minute of it, before seeing “To Be Continued” at the bottom of the last page. This proved too cruel a joke. Released from her self-imposed burden, she refused to read the final paragraph as a matter of principle. A few days later, when we were having coffee, my friend offered Harlot’s Ghost back to me if I promised to read it promptly this time. “Let me think about it.” Image Credit: Flickr/ginnerobot.
1. 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. 2. 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. 3. 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. 4. 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. Image: Generationbass.com/Flickr
As I did in 2005 and 2006, I've decided to open this year looking ahead to some of the exciting or intriguing titles that we'll be talking about over the next few months.Possibly the biggest literary arrival of this young year will be that of Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest later this month. Unfortunately for some fans, the book is not the long hoped for sequel to Harlot's Ghost, a book that Mailer abandoned for this one, according to an interview. With this effort Mailer treads into charged territory, chronicling the early life of Adolf Hitler from the point of view of the devil or something like it. The curious can read an excerpt of the book that appeared in the January issue of Esquire.Also coming right around the corner is House of Meetings by Martin Amis. The book came out in the UK in September where John Banville in The Independent named it a "Book of the Year." The reviews have been generally good. The Observer called it a "compact tour de force." The Guardian was slightly more skeptical saying that the book is "an attempt to compress the past 60 years of Russian history into 200 pages, delivered as the monologue of someone whose name we're never told; an ambitious plan, held together by the sound of a voice."Also this month, Paul Auster's latest book Travels in the Scriptorium comes out. It sounds like another inscrutable, postmodern tale from Auster, this time starring a protagonist named Mr. Blank. In this case, Auster's inward looking tendencies are amplified as the book references many of his previous works. At both Condalmo and Strange Horizons, this particular Auster experiment has been deemed less successful.Louis Begley, author of About Schmidt, has Matters of Honor coming out this month. It starts with three unlikely roommates at Harvard in the 1950s and goes on to trace how the diverging outcomes of their lives came to be. If that sounds like a tired old tale, PW makes the same observation but then brushes it aside: "It's a story covered by everyone from Cheever to Roth, but Begley finds new and wonderful nuances within it."Colum McCann's fourth novel Zoli will hit shelves soon. The book is named for a Roma (or Gypsy) woman in Slovakia who we follow from her harrowing childhood during World War II to her becoming something of local literary celebrity. Through it all, however, she is unable to escape what her heritage signifies in her Communist bloc country. The book has been out for several months in Ireland and the UK where The Guardian hailed McCann's "near pitch-perfect control of character and narrative." For those who want a taste, a pdf excerpt from the book is available.Another big name with a new book out this year is Jane Smiley, whose Ten Days in the Hills arrives in February. Hills is being billed as Smiley's "LA Novel" (note that Jonathan Lethem's "LA Novel" arrives in March). PW sums it all up rather well: "Smiley delivers a delightful, subtly observant sendup of Tinseltown folly, yet she treats her characters, their concern with compelling surfaces and their perpetual quest to capture reality through artifice, with warmth and seriousness. In their shallowness, she finds a kind of profundity." On the other hand, I'm not convinced that the world needs another literary look at the Hollywood-caricature side of LA.February will also see the arrival of Daniel Alarcon's Lost City Radio. This is Alarcon's first novel, following his collection of stories, War by Candlelight, which was a finalist for the 2006 PEN Hemingway Award. Alarcon likely came to many readers' attention in 2003, when his story "City of Clowns" was featured in the New Yorker debut fiction issue. This new book scored a blurb from Edward P. Jones - "Mr. Alarcon, like the best storytellers, reveals to us that the world we have secreted in our hearts spins in a bigger universe with other hearts just as good and just as bad as our own." - always a good sign.Also in February, a new book will arrive from Nuruddin Farah, quite likely the best known Somali novelist and the winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998. Knots is about Cambara, a Somalian woman who has emigrated to Canada, where a crisis sends her on a journey back to Somalia. Farah is known for his strong female protagonists and this book appears to be no exception. Knots gets a glowing review from PW - "Despite its heavy subject, joy suffuses the novel" - and Farah will likely continue to be discussed as a potential Nobel winner.It would be strange to read a book by Jonathan Lethem that wasn't deeply rooted in his hometown of Brooklyn, but readers will get that chance in March when You Don't Love Me Yet arrives. The book is set in Los Angeles, but, while Fortress of Solitude had some amusing LA moments set in the office of a Hollywood agent, this new book concerns itself with the city's grungier east side neighborhoods, home to a star-crossed indie rock band whose members are classic LA misfits. Early accounts at PW and this bookseller's blog have found the book to be funny and entertaining but not up to par with the author's earlier efforts.If you'll indulge me in allowing a little non-fiction to sneak into this post, please note that William T. Vollmann has a new book coming out in March called Poor People, a rather slim tome, weighing in it at just 464 pages. This is the book that Vollmann mentioned when Ed and Scott saw him read back in spring 2005. From Scott's post: "Vollman is currently working on a book about the experiences of poor people in different countries. He says he asks everyone why they think they are poor, and the answers greatly vary. He says most of the Thais told him it's because they were bad in a previous life. Most of the Mexicans he spoke to told him it was because the rich stole from them."A book by Columbian writer Laura Restrepo will hit American shores in March. Delirium was originally written in 2004 and follows the life of a struggling literature professor who must investigate what has caused his wife to go insane. The book bears an impressive array of blurbs befitting a writer of Restrepo's stature (if not here, then overseas), including raves from Jose Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harold Bloom, and Vikram Seth.We'll also see a new novel from Kurt Andersen co-founder of the influential magazine Spy and host of the public radio show Studio 360. Heyday is set in the mid-19th century and it follows an immigrant, recently arrived on bustling American shores, who falls in with a group heading west, lured by the California Gold Rush. Random House calls the book "an enthralling, old-fashioned yarn interwoven with a bracingly modern novel of ideas." A short story about two of the book's main characters appeared in Metropolis in 2003.Debut novelist Joshua Ferris already has a backer in Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, who says Then We Came To The End is "a humane and affecting book." Mark also included the novel in his contribution to the Year in Reading series where he said that this "hilarious and gorgeously written novel might just change [his] mind about MFAs." Of course, Mark is fully aware that we all might not share his particular tastes, so he convinced publisher Little, Brown to let him publish the book's first chapter at TEV, where you can now check it out for yourself.Orange Prize winner Lionel Shriver also has a new book coming in March, The Post-Birthday World. PW describes as "impressive if exhausting" this novel that explores what might have been if its children's book illustrator protagonist had given into temptation and pursued an affair. Following the success of Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin and the subsequent re-release of her back catalog, The Post-Birthday World marks her first new effort since hitting the literary big time.The Savage Detectives, originally published in 1998 by the late Roberto Bolano, will arrive in April. The book has already appeared in other languages, which is how Francois of Tabula Rasa came to read it. he shared his reactions with us as a part of the Year in Reading series: "Pure bliss! In turn coming-of-age story, roman noir, literary quest, this is a real tour de force, reminiscent of Julio Cortazar and Jack Kerouac while remaining deeply original. Bolano passed away in 2003. He was fifty years old, and I just can't help thinking about what else might have been coming from him." New Directions, meanwhile, will publish a translation of Bolano's novella Amulet in January.There's not much available yet on Dani Shapiro's new book arriving in April. Buzz Girl notes that Black and White is "about mothers and daughters set in New York and Maine." The book follows Shapiro's well received 2003 book Family History.The biggest literary month of 2007 might be May which will start with the much anticipated, much delayed publication of Michael Chabon's new novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Chabon's first full-length adult novel since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a thriller set in an imaginary world inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt's short-lived plan during WWII to create a Jewish homeland in Alaska, rather than the Middle East. Sounds interesting, no? We've been following this book for quite some time now, as it was originally set to be released nearly a year ago. But Chabon put the brakes on the project when he decided it was moving along too fast.Yet another big name author with a new book out this year is Haruki Murakami, whose book After Dark hits shelves in May. The book was originally published in Japan in 2004, and has already been translated into some other languages, including Dutch. In keeping with the title, the novel tracks a number of nocturnal characters who dwell in Tokyo and have the sorts of encounters that tend to occur in the wee hours of the morning. Murakami's typical melding of dream and reality will be familiar to readers of this new novel as well. Still, I join Scott Esposito in hoping that Murakami breaks new ground with this new book.Also in May: the arrival of Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. Not much available on this one yet, save a stray synopsis or two. The novel begins with a family on a farm in northern California in the 1970s and moves to the casinos of Nevada, at which point a "traumatic event" breaks the family apart. The pieces are put back together in the novel's second part, which takes place "in the stark landscape of south-central France." Like I said, not much to go on just yet.Susanna Moore, best known for her novel In the Cut, has a new book coming out in May. The Big Girls is based on Moore's experience teaching writing in a federal prison in New York, and one early look at the novel found it to be, as one might expect, fairly disturbing. It'll be interesting to see other opinions of what sounds like a very emotionally charged book.The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins will arrive in June. Wiggins' last book, Evidence of Things Unseen, was a National Book Award finalist in 2003. This new book is a historical novel about the Old West photographer Edward Curtis.I'll close the list with two additional non-fiction books that I'm particularly looking forward to. Pete Dexter has a collection of his old newspaper columns coming out called Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. A number of the columns are from his time in Philadelphia, which should be of particular interest for me, since the city is now my home. In addition, I've always felt that the old school newspaperman's sensibility that Dexter brings to his fiction is one of his most appealing qualities as a writer, so I'm looking forward to getting the opportunity to delve into the pure stuff, as it were. Another journalist whose new collection is, for me, hotly anticipated is Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski is a Polish writer who, to me, is unsurpassed in his chronicling of the so-called Third World and its forgotten wars and struggles. I don't yet know what his latest, Travels with Herodotus, will cover, but I know I'll be reading it.While long, this list is by no means exhaustive, so please use the comments to share what you're looking forward to reading in 2007.
Christian writes in with this question:What ever happened to the sequel to Harlot's Ghost that Normal Mailer was to write at some time?Only a personality as audacious as Norman Mailer would have the brazenness to end a daring and ambitious 1400 page novel with the words "To Be Continued" without knowing whether or not he would ever write the second part. In fact, most writers would have the sequel in the bag, so to speak, before they would ever dare to make such a claim. Mailer, however, has always played by his own rules, and one of these rules is that if he doesn't want to write the sequel, he doesn't have to. A bit of research revealed that this is indeed the case; according to this interview that he gave last year, anyway. Says Mailer when asked when he will complete and publish the novel:Probably never. I was about to start the second volume about two years ago, and something happened that never happened before, which is a new muse came into the room just as I was on the altar. And said, "Come here." And I left the second volume of Harlot's Ghost at the altar and ran off with the new muse. I've been working on a novel that I'm going to either finish it or it is going to finish me, because it's a long book that will come out in pieces. But I don't think I'll ever get back to Harlot's Ghost. Also, the CIA has changed so much that I'm not sure that what I was interested in is still there.Mailer, it appears, has moved on. But as long as I've got you here, Mailer has a lot to say in this very entertaining interview. To my mind, the highlights include his description of an unnamed female New York Times critic (who is undoubtedly Michiko Kakutani): "I know one reviewer who is possessed of a power tool up the posterior aperture whenever she has to review one of my books." And also, on his fisticuffs with Gore Vidal, "it was very mean to take a heavy tumbler and bounce it off his head." Classic. One final note: I was rather shocked to discover that Harlot's Ghost is currently out of print. Someone ought to remedy that.