Monthly Archives: June 2006


After my recent post about book reviews and reviewers, I was interested to read Frances Burney’s thoughts about reviewing in the dedication to her 1778 novel Evelina. For background, Burney published the novel anonymously and was very nervous about getting found out and worried about what kind of reviews she would get. As she wrote the novel, she kept it a secret from her father and worried about what his response would be when he discovered it. In fact, she, with the help of her brother, found a publisher for it before it was finished and only then, very nervously, did she tell her father. She was battling against her own nerves, the uncertain status of women writers at the time (hence the anonymous publication, quite common for women), and her fear of her father.

She dedicates the book “to the authors of the Monthly and Critical Reviews,” taking the reviewers on directly, and starts off:

Gentlemen, The liberty which I take in addressing to You the trifling production of a few idle hours, will, doubtless, move your wonder, and, probably, your contempt.

Now, I don’t think we can take this at face value — it was tradition to write dedications that were more about the author’s rhetorical positioning than about saying anything sincere, and modesty was a familiar — and often feigned — trope. But as Burney moves through the dedication, her attitude towards reviewing gets interesting. She claims the reviewers as her “patrons,” since she has no aristocratic patron of the traditional type, the one to whom the dedication is usually made:

to whom can I so properly apply for patronage, as to those who publicly profess themselves Inspectors of all literary performances?

She calls on their “protection,” but then says:

The language of adulation, and the incense of flattery, though the natural inheritance, and constant resource, from time immemorial, of the Dedicator, to me offer nothing but the wistful regret that I dare not invoke their aid. Sinister views would be imputed to all I could say; since, thus situated, to extol your judgment, would seem the effect of art, and to celebrate your impartiality, be attributed to suspecting it.

So what is a dedicator supposed to do, right? Flattery is traditionally a part of the dedication, but if she flatters the reviewers, she’ll be seen as angling for a good review rather than saying anything truthful. But, of course, in saying all this, she IS angling for a good review — she’s flattering them while saying she’s not. She goes on:

As magistrates of the press, and Censors for the Public, — to which you are bound by the sacred ties of integrity to exert the most spirited impartiality, and to which your suffrages should carry the marks of pure, dauntless, irrefragable truth, — to appeal for your MERCY, were to solicit your dishonour; and therefore, — though ’tis sweeter than frankincense, — more grateful to the senses than all the odorous perfumes of Arabia, — and though “it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath,” I court it not! to your Justice alone I am entitled, and by that I must abide. Your engagements are not to the supplicating author, but to the candid public, which will not fail to crave “The penalty and forfeit of your bond.”

She is saying, in effect, even though I really, really want you to have mercy on me and write me a good review — it would be a heavenly gift –and notice how I’m flattering you as I say this, oh wonderfully impartial magistrates of public opinion, I won’t ask for one. And notice how eloquently I’m not asking you for a good review, since really, although I won’t say this directly to you, I’m communicating a bit of contempt for reviewers through my over-the-top language in the midst of my compliment-laden sentences. For after all, if it weren’t for writers like me, you wouldn’t have anything to write about, although, as a first-time author, I depend on you too:

Let not the anxious solicitude with which I recommend myself to your notice, expose me to your derision. Remember, Gentlemen, you were all young writers once, and the most experienced veteran of your corps, may, by recollecting his first publication, renovate his first terrors, and learn to allow for mine.

If you have an ounce of heart in you, you’ll remember what it’s like to be me, you’ll think about the person whose work you’re critiquing and you’ll write with a picture of the anxious young author who loves her book in the back of your mind. After all this, how can you be anything but kind?

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Muriel Spark’s Aiding and Abetting

I finished Muriel Spark’s novel Aiding and Abetting recently. I’m reading it for the Slaves of Golconda; they are discussing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the end of June and each of the members is reading one other Spark book, so this was mine. I figured I could post about it now and add my thoughts on the book during the larger discussion, if they are relevant.

This is a very short book – almost short enough to be a novella – at 165 pages with large print and margins. But so much happens in it, and Spark manages to give you lots of characters and action without creating the feeling that things are rushed and undeveloped.

How can you not like a main character with the name Hildegard Wolf? She is a wonderful character: smart, powerful, mysterious. And also deceitful. She is a psychiatrist with some unusual methods: she spends the first few sessions telling stories to the patient instead of the other way around. The patients love this, for the most part, and she is very successful. She has always had healing powers. In an earlier episode in her life she was a fake “holy stigmatic”; every month she would take menstrual blood and smear it on at least one of the places Jesus was wounded, hands, feet, or side, and people flocked to her for healing. People sent her money in return for her “miracles,” and this is how she survives until she is exposed as a fraud and has to flee. This, of course, makes one wonder about the legitimacy of her status as psychiatrist. She insists that she really did heal some people as a stigmatic, and she really does seem to help her patients, so the book becomes a meditation on the power of belief. Is she so bad for having helped people, even if she did so under false pretenses? All this, by the way, is backstory, sketched in early on before the action begins.

The other part of the story involves two men, both Hildegard’s patients, each of whom claims to be “Lucky Lucan,” an Earl who killed his daughter’s nanny in a failed attempt to kill his wife and then went into hiding for over 25 years. Hildegard, with the help of some of the novel’s other characters, tries to figure out which one is the murderer while keeping out of danger herself. This part of story touches on issues of class: at the time Lucan committed the murder, the story as people told it was mostly about Lucan himself – it was a shocking tale of upper-class “bad behavior” and the friends who aided and abetted his escape. The nanny herself, the victim, was forgotten. As time goes on, Lucan’s high-class friends begin to realize that Lucan is a murderer, not just an Earl who had string of bad luck. They lose their sense of privilege and Lucan begins to lose his friends.

The novel is a mystery story in a number of senses. Which patient is the real Lucan and which is the pretender? Or are they both fakes? How has Lucan survived all those years without getting caught? What is it about Hildegard that people respond to so strongly so that she can perform miracles when they believe in her? Is she, as a fake stigmatic, so different from the fake Lucan? Here is what the novel says about mystery:

The case of the seventh Earl is only secondarily one of an evasion of justice, it is primarily that of a mystery. And it is not only the questions of how did he get away, where did he go, how has he been living, is he in fact alive? The mystery is even more in the question of what was he like, how did he feel, what went on his mind that led him to believe he could get away with his plan? What detective stories has he been reading? What dreamlike, immature culture was he influenced by?

Isn’t that the real mystery – what people are like, what they experience, and what shapes them?

The writing here is simple and direct. It’s as though Spark knows she has a complicated story to tell in a limited space and so she must be efficient in her storytelling. The plot moves fast, the words do their job quickly, and yet somehow Spark manages to convey a completeness in those few words. She conjures up an entire world with just a few strokes.

I am now eager to see what The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is like, and if it is at all similar to this one. Come back for that post on June 30!

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Reader, can you help me?

Mike from Liquid Thoughts has these posts on Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, and they reminded me of how much I love that book and others like it. What I want your help with is giving me other examples of similar books, if you can. If you haven’t read Flaubert’s Parrot, it’s about this guy who’s obsessed with Flaubert and who’s trying to find the parrot that sat on Flaubert’s desk, but it’s also about Flaubert himself, his life and writing. It’s very playful; Mike calls it “Barnes’s intellectual game he calls a novel.” It’s really a combination essay and novel, although essay may be too serious a word for it. It’s got a couple different chronologies of Flaubert’s life that play around with the very idea of author chronologies, and it has a chapter about the color of Emma Bovary’s eyes.

I put Vladimir Nabokov’s book Pale Fire in the same category, although I don’t know what I’d call the category, exactly. But I love Pale Fire – a novel about a madman who’s obsessed with a poet. The novel’s form is experimental – it consists of a poem and commentary by the obsessed madman. The story takes place in the commentary itself, which is wildly inventive and funny and revealing. This guy is the ultimate unreliable narrator. The book is about reading itself – the writer/reader relationship, interpretation, imagination.

These two novels are experimental and postmodern, and I like that aspect of them, but I also love the passion in both of them – they are both about a love of literature, expressed in odd and quirky (and sometimes lethal) ways.

They remind of some nonfiction books, too, such as Mary McCarthy’s book Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, which I love. This book takes the form of fairly straightforward essays on McCarthy’s childhood, but interspersed between the essays are meditations on the process of writing the essays themselves, the way memory works and doesn’t work, what is left out, what McCarthy’s siblings remembered differently. She’s playing around with the memoir form, trying to make it more honest, perhaps, trying to make it do more than it usually does, although she does the “usual” memoir thing very beautifully.

Also, I’m reminded of Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, another memoir that is experimental in form and which I loved reading. It’s got a fairly sentimental story as its core, but it’s surrounded by a complicated apparatus – footnotes, revisions, very funny introductions and prefaces, and send-ups of acknowledgement and copyright pages. I think a lot of people thought all that was gimmicky, but I felt it was all part of the emotional current of the book, all part of Eggers’s attempt to capture the essence of his experience. Somehow all that “ironic” (he has a long section saying he’s not being ironic), postmodern stuff came across to me as part of a very earnest attempt to portray an awareness and self-consciousness about his life and his writing – a way to capture life more accurately.

And also, Nicholsen Baker’s book U and I, nonfiction, about Baker’s obsession with John Updike. I loved this book although I have a feeling that it’s the kind of book that in one mood is captivating and in another is annoying. It’s so over-the-top, both in Baker’s obsession with Updike and in the prose – it has some of the longest most complicated sentences with obscure vocabulary you’ll find just about anywhere. I found it irresistible; Baker makes you love Updike, even if you don’t. I don’t love Updike particularly, but I’m willing to because Baker does.

These are books I’m tempted to read again, just so I can have the fun of blogging about them while they are fresh in my mind. I would try to make you love them too. They all fit in one category for me, although I’m not sure what I’d call it – experimental, self-reflexive books that take literature and reading as their subjects, and do so with passion. Can you think of a label? Even more importantly, can you please give me more examples?

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At the races: on cycling

I’ve been riding in a series of races every Tuesday night for the last three weeks. They are held less than two miles from my house, so on Tuesday evenings my husband and I will roll out of the house on our bikes and ride over. When people ask me how I did, I have to find some way of telling them I’m happy with my performance, even though, in truth, I didn’t do very well. “I did pretty well — for me…” “I did badly, but better than the week before…” “I’m happy with how I did …” And then we have this discussion of how what really matters is how I feel about the results, that I’m having fun and am getting in great shape. Yeah, yeah.

Last night I actually did pretty well — I finished the race with the pack for the first time. The previous two weeks I stayed with them for 2/3 and then 3/4 of the way (they ride for about an hour) then had to drop out because I couldn’t maintain a 25-mile an hour speed and an average heart rate of 173 bpm or so. But this time I was with them up until the very last bit of it.

When I arrive, I look around at the other racers and see all these people, almost entirely men (the first two races a couple other women rode but last night I was the only one), who look so strong, and I think, no way. This is silly; I can’t compete. It must be something about seeing all those men with their low body fat percentages and their obviously rippling leg muscles that intimidates me. I’ve got big leg muscles, all right, but you don’t see them unless you look really closely, covered as they are with my feminine layer of fat. But you really can’t tell how someone will ride based on how they look. People who look a bit overweight will end up having some super-powerful muscles and they will leave you behind, or the scrawny guy who has the tiniest-looking muscles will fly up the hill like you wouldn’t believe.

I dread these races every week. Every Tuesday I think, really, I’d rather just stay home and read. I think, oh, I’ll just take it easy this week. I really don’t feel like riding hard. My day was too stressful and I just need a rest. I warm up for a race and have no energy; I’m sluggish and can’t work up speed. But something happens when I get really warmed up and the race begins — I get energy, and by the end of the race, I have a lot more energy than I did at the beginning, even though my muscles are very glad I’ve stopped.

When I did training rides with my old cycling club, I’d do this obnoxious thing where I’d say to everybody, oh, I’m going to take it easy today. I’d get that lethargic feeling, and I would know it was going to be a slow ride. But then I’d get energy from somewhere, start riding faster and working harder, and people would get annoyed with me because I’d be pushing the pace when I’d promised not to. Actually, I’m not the only one who did this — our conversations before the race would be about how everybody was tired that day and was going to take it easy. We may have believed it in the moment, but everything changed once the ride began.

All this tells me that I probably shouldn’t listen to those feelings of dread and weariness when they come. Or maybe I should listen to them but not believe them. I feel that dread before a lot of difficult things I have to do — it’s similar to the sense of dread and weariness I will often feel before I teach a class. But once the class begins, I get energy from somewhere and I end up having fun.

Difficult things like bike races don’t sap my energy: they create it. There is nothing worse for me than sitting around all day reading a book. I will feel weary and disgruntled by the time I go to bed. A perfect weekend day is really something like riding a race or doing a hard training ride in the morning, and then coming home, with new energy and the feeling I’ve accomplished something, and then sitting down and reading for as long as I like.

Speaking of reading, I recently finished Muriel Spark’s novel Aiding and Abetting, which I will post on soon.

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More on diaries (commenting on the comments)

So Danielle from A Work in Progress wrote this comment yesterday that intrigued me:

I have always been afraid to keep a diary. Either the contents would be so boring that anyone reading it would be bored to tears, or so private that I would hate for anyone to read it. Do you think diarists really do keep these journals only “for their own eyes”? Or do you think a part of them writes for some later unknown reader? And does that affect how they write and the contents?

I have tried a lot of times to keep a private journal. I’d succeed for a while, and then would write less and less and finally stop entirely. I always blamed my laziness for this. I was partly right, I suppose. Now that I think about it, I’m lazy about journal writing in the same way I’m lazy about cycling, which is to say, not lazy at all if I have the right motivation. If my husband didn’t ride, I probably wouldn’t either. I can consider this a failing, or I can just realize that riding my bike as much as I do is hard, and be thankful my husband rides too. And about the journal – I wonder if I didn’t keep it up because I had to do it by myself, and if, now that I’ve turned to blogging, I’m more likely to keep up the blogging because I have you all around to motive me. I admire people who can write journals regularly and not succumb to my kind of laziness, but I’m not like that.

But back to Danielle’s comment – I wonder if part of my problem with writing a journal came from an uncertainty about audience. Do diarists write for themselves alone? It seems to me that all diarists must have in the backs of their minds at least the possibility that people will read them, sneaking peaks while they are alive or reading them in some slightly more legitimate way after they are dead. I always knew – not that I’d become famous and people would read my diary wanting to understand the “real me” better – but that someone I knew might read the thing. That made any serious personal revelations difficult. If I tried to forget that and just write for myself, I would get self-conscious about it. It was me there, trying to put me on the page, with me as the reader, and that was just too much me around. Writing felt strained and awkward. And re-reading what I wrote was painful. I never found a way to be honest and never found a voice I was happy with, which is what I think I wanted from the journal. I’m curious what you real diarists out there make of this.

So I’m wondering if blogging might help me solve my audience problem. I mean, I’m not planning on writing anything all that personal (don’t worry!), so I won’t get that satisfaction out of the blog, but I will be able to write my thoughts on books and this and that and have an audience out there besides me. You all will help me legitimize my writing to myself. Isn’t this weird? One would think dealing with the issue of audience would be easier in a private journal than a public blog, right? I thought I would resolve what I thought about Danielle’s comment in this post, but I end up more uncertain. I guess what it comes down to is that for me, knowing there are readers out there does affect what and how I write, and I’m better off writing a blog where I can deal with that directly than a diary, where the audience issues overwhelm me.

Maybe this post is just a not-so-subtle way to guilt you into reading me?

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On Virginia Woolf

In the comments to my previous post, people got to wondering what they reveal about themselves in their blogging – not when they are writing about themselves but precisely when they aren’t. It’s impossible to know what you are communicating when you write anything, which strikes me as the scary thing about writing for the public and the thing that makes it worthwhile.

The best you can do is to read your writing after a lapse of time – then it’s a little like reading the work of a stranger, and you get a better sense of the quality of what you’ve written. I tell my students to write their papers enough ahead of time so that they can set them aside for a while and look at them fresh. I don’t think they listen to me though. Reading your writing after letting time go by can be painful. Here’s Virginia Woolf writing in her diary about re-reading it:

I got out this diary, & read as one always does read one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough & random style of it, often so ungrammatical, & crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; & take no time over this; & forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash & vigour, & sometimes hits an unexpected bulls eye.

I like the way she describes the future Virginia Woolf who will read the diary once again as a different self – when returning to an old diary, who exactly are you reading? She goes on to discuss the value of diary writing:

But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eyes only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses & the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct & instant shots at my objects, & thus have to lay hands on words, choose them, & shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea.

I wonder about this myself – how diary writing, or for me, blog writing, will affect other kinds of writing I do. I think the daily practice is invaluable. I’m curious – for those of you who write other things besides blogs, what is the relationship between the kinds of writing you do? Does one affect the other? Then Woolf asks:

What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, & find that the collection had sorted itself & refined itself & coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, & yet steady, tranquil composed with the aloofness of a work of art.

Sigh. Do you see why Woolf is one of my favorite writers? I love the idea that what she writes will take on meaning over time, even though when she first wrote, she was writing only what mattered in the moment. But what seems disconnected, disjointed, fragmentary at first, over time can come to seem connected, can begin to form a coherent story.

Is there anything more one can hope for from one’s daily writing?

Perhaps she contradicts herself here: what was at first a contemplation of the changing self becomes a hope that the self will, over time, begin to cohere. But perhaps she is merely playing with the tension between the disconnected events of life, the shifting self, and the desire to see wholeness.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006


So I began a new book called Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self by Patricia Meyer Spacks — I chose it because I was looking for interesting books about the eighteenth century, but then I began to realize that the topic is perfect for me to think about right now, having begun this blog only a couple months ago, because I’m sorting through what I think about privacy in a very direct way every time I write a post. Since this book looks at privacy through the lense of literature, largely the novel although including other genres, I’m afraid, reader, that you will be subjected to more quotations about Samuel Richardson. But not today.

Oh, sorry — I just found the quotation I wanted to give you and it’s about Clarissa. Okay, you will be endlessly subjected to quotations about Richardson, and I guess you’ll have to deal with it. This is Spacks talking about the contradictions in Clarissa’s attitude towards privacy:

Desiring to slide through life unnoticed, she resolutely separates herself — physically, as much as she can; psychically, almost completely — from others … Yet all eyes are upon her: the eyes of all she encounters, but also, by her prearrangement, the eyes of all who survive her: not only family and friends, but potential readers of the book to be compiled by Belford, for which she also arranges. She wants to slide through life unnoticed; she also wants all eyes upon her. She wants privacy; she wants fame.

This is quite the paradox — she wants to be alone and wall herself off from others but she arranges her own exposure through writing and reading; she wants privacy and fame both. It sounds a bit like blogging, doesn’t it? I write about exactly what I choose to write about, including some personal details and excluding others — a lot of others — and thereby I’m preserving my privacy. Sort of. Having a blog means that I’m violating my own privacy to some extent (if such a thing is possible — if I’m the one doing the violating, is it violation?). I’m both hiding and revealing myself. The thing that amuses me about the picture I put up of myself on the blog a while back is that it’s self-revelation — but not really. It’s Clarissa herself who’s hiding my face. Clarissa writes and writes and writes — the novel is made up of letters, a large number from Clarissa herself — but her character is in a lot of ways still obscure. Writing about oneself can be a way of revealing oneself, but, paradoxically, of shielding oneself too.

I recently came across this post from Tales from the Reading Room, where Litlove describes why she blogs:

If I did believe that identity was in fact composed of a myriad assortment of small narratives, and that our sense of self changed with the ebb and flow of the stories we told, wouldn’t it be intriguing to watch such a dynamic in action?

The wording here is interestingly ambiguous — who is intrigued? Watching the “ebb and flow of the stories we told” is intriguing for the writer and for the reader both, the “we” of Litlove’s phrase. The writer is discovering things as she writes just as the readers is discovering as she reads. I would add that what’s intriguing is not only watching the ebb and flow of a changing and fragmentary identity, but getting the sense of what is not said as well — of the person that lies behind the posts, undescribed and unrevealed. Making writing public somehow enhances the feeling of depths unexplored, kept private.

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Book reviews

Thanks to Ella and her post introducing some new book bloggers (including me — thanks again Ella!), I went over to check out Eve’s Alexandria, a cool blog with lots of great book reviews. I saw this post on Zadie Smith, her book On Beauty, and Victoria’s review of it. The story is that the review was negative, people left comments agreeing with the negative response, and Zadie Smith, or someone claiming to be Zadie Smith (impossible to tell), left a comment defending herself — not defending the novel per se, but clarifying that she doesn’t consider herself “the great young genius of the contemporary English novel,” a phrase from one of the comments. Victoria’s follow-up post is a discussion of negative reviews and the responsibilities of a book reviewer.

Victoria argues that a person has a responsibility to respond to reading honestly. She says:

I’ve often heard it said that a citizen’s democratic duty is to question its government and to speak out when said government loses its way (that way, inevitably, being subjective). As I see it this is also a reviewer’s duty: to engage with the written word thoughtfully at a visceral level, to question its values and its purposes, and then to *write* back.

I remember reading at least one blogger arguing something different, although I can’t remember who it was — that in a world where (some would argue) reading is a threatened activity, where getting published is difficult, where writers should be encouraged, the best response when one doesn’t like a book is to keep quiet about it. To ignore a bad or mediocre book, in this view, is to help ensure that it disappears and that better books get attention. The idea here isn’t to be false to one’s opinions, but simply to keep quiet about the negative ones.

Ultimately, I think, I come down on Victoria’s side — that it’s best to say what I think, positive or negative or mixed, and thereby take part in and encourage a debate. I’m no fan of scorching Dale Peck-type reviews that are more about showing off one’s ability to insult than about real engagement with a book, but I think lively debate about books is the best way to keep interest in reading alive. Only the kind of full engagement with reading that includes voicing negative opinions as well as positive ones will keep that debate going. Victoria says it beautifully:

I want to be energised by my reading. If we don’t write back with all our energy how will they, the novelists and the future novelists, know what we’re looking for?

I would, however, freak out if I thought an author had read my negative response to a book. I don’t want to discourage any writer. I want to make everyone happy. Zadie Smith’s comment — if it really was her — sounded pretty hurt. This is difficult. But I think the value of analyzing one’s response, be it positive or negative, outweighs the hope of encouraging reading by focusing on the positive (unless we’re talking about a book by a friend — in that case, preserving the friendship is more important).

One could also argue that negative reviews should have some kind of larger point to them — the negativity should serve the purpose of illuminating what it is that makes good writing or how the writer could improve. This argument is stronger, but I’m still not fully convinced. I guess I don’t like dictating the terms — for myself or for others — under which negativity is acceptable. I don’t think we need to treat books as delicate things that need preserving.

The subject is complicated by the fact that this is a blog and not a formal book review site — I think that the responsibility to be honest about negative opinions is greatest for someone who is paid to write reviews and those reviews get published in places where people look to get honest opinions about books (yes, maybe I’m naive — I know things don’t always work that way, but that’s the idea). Here, it’s not my “job” to give my best assessment of a book — no one’s paying me to do it — people who happen to read the blog have no reason to trust me or to think they are getting my full opinion. I choose what I want to write about and what I want to say about it and I don’t pretend to be complete or completely objective about anything.

But still — if another book blogger wants to keep quiet about books she doesn’t like, that’s fine, but I’d prefer to think through — by writing about it on my blog — why I like and don’t like certain things, recognizing that my view is subjective and others might not agree. I think to expend energy on books in this way ultimately helps out all writers.

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On poetry

I’ve had trouble, at times, fitting poetry reading into my life — I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who reads and appreciates poetry, but the image of myself as a reader and the kind of reader I actually am don’t always match. And it’s not just an image thing — I’ve truly wanted poetry to matter to me.

I think part of my problem with reading poetry has been that I’ve felt I needed to read a bunch all at once — to make my way through a book of poems in a relatively short time. I don’t know why I felt that way. Maybe it has to do with getting impatient if I’m in the middle of a book for too long.

At any rate, I’m trying not to care if it takes me months to read through a book, and to read poems only a couple at a time, for short periods of time here and there. If I try to read a whole bunch of poems at once, I feel like I’m not absorbing them and that there’s no way I will remember them. Even reading only a couple at a time, I may not remember them, but I’m more likely to. If I set out to read only two or three poems at a time, then I’ll spend more time with each one, and really feel like I’m engaging with them.

But that leads me to the other problem I have with reading poetry: I’m uncertain about how long to spend with each one. For me, it’s like looking at art in a museum — I get self-conscious about how long to look at each piece and when to move on. I begin to think about how long I’ve been standing there and how much longer I should stand there, rather than thinking about the art itself. With prose, while I may re-read a passage here and there to understand it better, the expectation is that a person will read through it once. But with poetry, obviously, re-reading is much more important.

I’m in the middle of Jane Hirschfield’s book Given Sugar, Given Salt, and I’ve found that she has many poems that consider the relationship of writing and life — how the page can merge with one’s experiences in the world. Here is one example. I like the image she has of memory as a book where the ink bleeds through the pages and the idea that even our blank pages — or new days — are already written on by our previous experiences:

Waking this Morning Dreamless After Long Sleep

But with this sentence:
Use your failures for paper.”
Meaning, I understood,
the backs of failed poems, but also my life.

Whose far side I begin now to enter —

A book imprinted without seeming reason,
each blank day bearing on its reverse, in random order,
the mad-set type of another.
December 12, 1960. April 4, 1981. 13th of August, 1974 —

Certain words bleed through to the unwritten pages.
To call this memory offers no solace.

“Even in sleep, the heavy millstones turning.”

I do not know where the words come from,
what the millstones,
where the turning may lead.

I, a woman forty-five, beginning to gray at the temples,
putting pages of ruined paper
into a basket, pulling them out again.

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Filed under Books, Poetry

More metablogging

I was excited to read this post from Kate’s Book Blog. Yes, she quotes me in this post, but that’s not why I was excited — it’s because the part after she quotes me is so interesting. She talks about travel writing first of all, and describes two kinds: travel writing that foregrounds the author’s own experience as well as the places traveled through and travel writing that tries to be objective and authoritative by removing the presence of the author. Kate prefers the former kind, and I fully agree — it strikes me as more honest if an author doesn’t pretend to be objective, since this, when it comes down to it, is impossible.

One of my favorite travel books along these lines is Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Here Wollstonecraft has a lot to say about what she sees in these countries, but she also writes a lot about her mental and emotional state as she is traveling and thinks about how this state affects the observations she makes. Before she left on the trip, she found out her lover had been unfaithful and she made a suicide attempt, and she doesn’t write about these details in the text, but she alludes to sorrow and heartbreak. It’s a short, beautifully-written, evocative book.

But Kate also makes a point about how blogging can be like travel writing:

How is this brief meditation on travel writing relevant to the practice of book blogging? My favourite litbloggers travel into books with an open mind and send back dispatches. They don’t purport to describe the book in objective fashion; they write about their encounter with the book revealing something about their previous reading, their preconceptions, their aesthetic sensibilities along the way. If it’s a return visit rather than a first encounter, they may reflect on shifts in their perception of the terrain this time around. And, most important, rather than expecting fellow readers to take their word as final, they encourage us to pick up the book and see it for ourselves.

Litblogging here is a “journey” through books, reported on subjectively, with self-awareness and without the illusion of objectivity — I like that. Aunt B. has something to say about this as well, from another angle:

That’s what I love about blogging–you throw out some ideas, you get some feedback, you come at those ideas from a slightly different way next time, you get more feedback. Writing in this setting isn’t about a finished, set, product, but about circulating ideas and clarifying what you think. I love to blog because, when I write, I know you, whoever you are, will read it.

Here, blogging is exploration, or travel, as well, this time with input from readers, and it’s about remaining open to change and revision. Ideas keep circulating (travel!) rather than settling down into something finished.

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Filed under Blogging, Writing