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. 🙂