I recently reviewed the book Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The book surveys 22 years of American cultural history (1952 to 1974) and looks at a range of artists, including Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Thomas Pynchon, Marlon Brando, Jerry Lee Lewis, Andy Warhol, Anne Sexton, Gore Vidal, and many others. The New Sensibility was first defined by Susan Sontag in the mid-1960s.
Last April Elif Batuman wrote a great piece in The Guardian about life after her book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them became a best seller. The book is a memoir-like collection of essays chronicling her experiences studying the Russian masters.
In the essay Batuman writes about a funny exchange between her and Jonathan Franzen at a NYC restaurant:
At that point, Franzen turned to me. “Are you really 6ft tall?” he demanded. This was a rather thoughtful allusion to my first published work, “Babel in California“: an essay that includes my exchange with an academic who suggests that Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry story cycle will never be fully accessible to me because of the narrator’s “specifically Jewish alienation”. To which I reply: “As a 6ft-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.”
“I’m 5 11,” I told Franzen.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
Well, I wasn’t sure. I had been measured at 5′ 11½” in college, and then 5′ 11″ in graduate school. There was every likelihood that I was shrinking. “I have scoliosis,” I conceded. “And I do spend all day sitting at a computer.”
“Go get yourself measured again,” Franzen advised. “To me you look like a classic 5 10.”
There is also an interesting note about how her writing career began with an essay in n+1 magazine in 2005:
“Babel in California” appeared in the small – at the time, tiny – magazine, n+1 in 2005. It caught the attention of the editor of the New Yorker. In 2006, I published my first New Yorker article: a profile of a Thai champion kick-boxer who had opened a school in San Francisco. I started getting emails from literary agencies. I settled on my current agent, whom I like very much.
There will probably come a time when our current appetite for insight about David Foster Wallace ebbs, but I don’t see that coming any time soon. I just got around to reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s fascinating review of Wallace’s The Pale King in GQ. Sullivan is a first-rate essayist and it’s great fun to see him write about Wallace.
In reviewing The Pale King, Sullivan got my attention by focusing on something Wallace wrote in his essay on Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of Dostoevsky (which is collected in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays.) Wallace wrote:
“[This new] bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit. Part of the explanation for our own lit’s thematic poverty obviously includes our century and situation.”
I believe this “ironic distance” has become something of a default habit for many talented writers today.It is a shame that the “really urgent stuff” concerning the human condition is often pushed to the margins of novels today.
I recently went back to Wallace’s Dostoevsky essay and he mentions spending two months immersed in the world of Dostoevsky while preparing for the essay. I can only imagine what a delight a book-length treatment of Wallace thinking about Frank and Dostoevsky would be.
While many people mourn the disappearance of Sunday book sections in newspapers across the U.S., the number of quality sites online—The Millions and The Los Angeles Review of Books come to mind— for high-quality book reviews, criticism and literary essays continues to grow. I recently spent time clicking through the excellent site Full Stop, which is finishing its first year online.
The website’s mission is to “focus on young writers, works in translation, and books we feel are being neglected by other outlets while engaging with the significant changes occurring in the publishing industry and the evolution of print media.”
In visiting Full Stop, I came across a number of intriguing articles, including an interview with musician and writer Alina Simone who had no intention of writing a book until an editor at Farrar, Strauss & Giroux heard her music. The encounter led to her collection of essays You Must Go and Win. She explains:
“…(the editor) really just heard me on Pandora. I don’t really know what he was thinking. Maybe in some way it was based on the lyrics to my songs? I’m guessing that he had some feeling that I could write. I don’t know really what that was based on, exactly. He insists it was just the music – he heard the music and thought I could write a book. You know? I don’t know, maybe editors develop some sixth sense about a person.”
There is also a series on the website now called “The Situation in American Writing.” It’s based on a 1939 questionnaire The Partisan Review sent to a number of prominent writers. Full Stop updated the questions and writers like George Saunders, Kio Stark and Marilynne Robinson, who wrote the Pulitzer Award-winning novel Giliead, give their two cents. Robinson writes about the current state of literary criticism:
“For a long time the academy has been training people in a style of criticism that is marked by nothing so much as jargon, and by generalization that is pointedly inattentive to the character of any particular book. So there is a great breach between the persons of letters who would otherwise lead the public conversation about books and the vast majority of the reading public. No wonder they are so small a voice. It would no doubt enhance our awareness of the serious writing that does indeed go on if there were critics of the kind that used to introduce such writing to a serious readership.”
And then to the delight of a Japanophile like myself, there was a lengthy essay by Steve Vineberg about the new Criterion DVD release of the 1983 Japanese movie The Makioka Sisters, which is based on the novel by Junichiro Tanizaki.
Vinberg writes beautifully both about Japan and film:
“The movie — one of the most magnificent-looking ever released — is conceived largely in terms of wide, carefully composed long shots that emphasize the formality of traditional Japanese life; of the astonishingly graceful, flowing movement of the four sisters; of the sumptuous silk kimonos they wear, which glide and slither (and are never supposed to squeak), and in one breathtaking scene are hung and layered like screens for the set of a bunraku puppet play; and of the lyricism of the landscape, which Ichikawa and Hasegawa capture in different seasons. (Intriguingly, the music Ichikawa chooses is western: it’s by Handel. But its stately classicism seems ideal for the material.)”
I would say Full Stop is worth adding to your RSS reader.
Andrew Sullivan, who writes the popular “The Dish” column on Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” website, mentioned my recent essay on Catholic writers in The Millions. The title of his post is “The Poetry of the Latin Mass.” Sullivan writes:
“Robert Fay wonders why there aren’t great contemporary Catholic writers like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor. Fay blames the Sunday morning Mass, updated in the 1960s…”
I like that Sullivan adds a video clip from the great documentary Into Great Silence about the spiritual lives of the humble Carthusian monks in France.
Now that I’ve made it into Newsweek (ha!), I’ll have to shoot for Time magazine next month. 🙂
“One doesn’t have any business writing about literature unless one’s business is literature,” writes William Giraldi in his fascinating treatment of critic Adam Kirsch’s new book on Lionel Trilling, Why Trilling Matters. Giraldi notes that Kirsch himself is a throwback to critic-as-intellectual and calls him:
“An Ideal critic of the Coleridgean mold, he possesses a swift command of how history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology inform works of imaginative literature.”
Giraldi references a 1963 essay by critic Stanley Edgar Hyman who believed that a critic must maintain an active engagement with the predecessors of today’s writers. In other words, literature is not simply a product of social inequities or power relationships in the culture, but that writers engage with the great works that came before them; an argument that critic Harold Bloom has been making for years in books like The Western Cannon.
There has been talk for years that Trilling was a frustrated writer. As a professor at Columbia University, Trilling had the young poet Allen Ginsberg in class and was apparently envious of his “Byronic energies” (Giraldi, who is no fan of Ginsberg, asserts he “was start to finish a second-rate poet, his celebrated Howl the sophomoric and technically inept rant of a solipsist.” I’m not sure if it has ever been said better). Kirsch puts an end to speculation that Trilling wanted to be a writer; he accepted in his heart that his métier was commentary, not literary creation.
Giradli writes that for Trilling, reading was everything, and “the literary life was not only an occupation but a way of being in the world, a personal and social commitment to understanding who we are and how we fit.” Indeed a heady and elevated view of literature that should be resuscitated for our own fractured time.
I recommend Robert Fay’s essay about the end of the Latin Mass — and Catholic “drama of salvation” novels — even though I strongly disagree that “the Christian faith [has] been in full cultural retreat since the 1960s.”
In addition to Newton’s blog post, the essay has generated a certain “buzz” across the Internet.
The venerable Commonweal Magazine blogged about the essay, saying in part:
Over at the Millions, Robert Fay has an essay with the provocative title, “Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?” Fay tells a story of decline, arguing that there has been a profound falling-off in both the quantity and quality of Catholic writers since the mid-century.
Over in the UK, The Catholic Herald UK linked to the story, but took a curious approach, citing me as the source that writer David Foster Wallace considered becoming Catholic before his death:
Robert Fay says that novelist David Foster Wallace considered becoming a Catholic before he took his life.
I also had the privileged of emailing with the writer Gregory Wolfe (publisher of the journal Image) about the issue of Catholic writers. He left a comment on The Millions where he recommended his own 2008 essay on the same topic.
I was late to the party when it came to reading Joan Didion. For years I had the vague sensation that Didion wasn’t for me. It was one of those unapologetic prejudices people have for certain writers, a prejudice that ended when I picked up a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking. It was evident from the start why Didion was held in such high regard—she was good. And yet, because I’d read Magical Thinking and its meditation on her husband’s death, I decided to pass on Blue Nights, her new memoir about the death of her 39-year-old daughter.
If it’s a truism that a critic should always review the book in hand, and not the book they wish had been written, then I’ve eagerly crossed the line. My own “magical thinking” involved—not denying the death of writer John Gregory Dunne, as Didion initially did—but wishing that his death and her subsequent grief wasn’t the focus of the book. I found myself skimming over passages about the Beth Isreal ICU or long meditations on grief to find those where Didion recalls her marriage and life in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ‘70s.
I wanted to hear about two writers living a blessed life of work and play in a California that no longer existed. I wanted it to be LA in 1971 when Didion wore oversized Rachael Zoe-like sunglasses and chain-smoked cigarettes as if they were elixirs. I wanted to go back before all the dying:
“One summer when we were living in Brentwood Park we fell into a pattern of stopping work at four in the afternoon, and going out to the pool. (John) would stand in the water reading (he reread Sophie’s Choice several times that summer, trying to see how it worked) while I worked in the garden….Just before five on those summer afternoons we would swim and then go into the library wrapped in towels to watch Tenko, a BBC series, then in syndication, about a number of satisfyingly predictable English women…..At seven or seven thirty we would go out to dinner, many night’s at Morton’s. Morton’s felt right that summer. There were always shrimp quesadilla, chicken with black beans.”
You get the idea. There are similar passages capturing life in Malibu and stays in Hawaii. It’s the writer’s life as well as the life of a marriage, rendered simply by a great writer.
“…many night’s at Morton’s. Morton’s felt right that summer.” What a beautiful line. It’s worth reading an entire book just to hit upon such a line.
Yet the book is not a memoir of marriage, but a book about death and loss. And in her confrontation with grief, Didion soldiers under a strict scorched-earth policy, burning down any hint of solace or false comfort in her way.
“Only the survivors of a death are truly left alone,” Didion writes, “The connections that made up their life—both the deep connections and the apparently (until they are broken) insignificant connections—have all vanished.”
After reading Magical Thinking I can only assume Blue Nights will be even more punishing. A recent review by writer Rachel Cusk in The Guardian confirms this suspicion:
“Didion’s strategy, or rather her instinct – the instinctive response to chaos – is to repeat herself. She struggles to revive the form and style of her earlier book, to make it live again; she repeats anecdotes, and often sentences, word for word; she creates repeating prose patterns whose effect, in the end, is to confer the author’s own numbness on the reader.”
I recently published an essay on the online literary site The Millions titled, “Paris, Wikipedia and My Middle Age Crisis.”
Each man’s middle age crisis begins at an indeterminate age and offers a peculiar window into the architecture of masculine decline. In this respect it mimics death, which is both punctual and ruthlessly efficient in its demolitions. For many men, the crisis begins with the fear that your Emersonian Self-Reliance is spent, or even worse, you’ve sucked so deeply on the marrow of life that you are now as penniless as Henry David Thoreau . . . Go here to read the full essay.