Category Archives: Essays

Recent Reading, 4/14/2018

Recently I finished two books that I loved: Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage. About the Smith essay collection, I read every word, and liked every piece, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read the whole thing if you’re not inspired to. It’s a pretty hefty book and some of the subjects she writes about might not interest every reader. But there are so many pieces that any reader will like. She’s such a fun writer: her sentences are so smart and so elegant that it’s a joy to watch her mind work. She moves among very different subjects within the same essay with ease and it’s a pleasure to let yourself be surprised by where she takes you.

Eloquent Rage has a lot of memoiristic material, but it’s really more of a personal exploration of feminism, and Black feminism in particular. She writes about her experiences as a Black girl and woman and at the same time looks at the experiences of Black girls and women more broadly: experiences in schools, in the church, in love, in friendship, in the working world, in pop culture. Her tone is informal and funny:

Eloquent Rage opening

She brings the meaning of “intersectionality” to life: she writes about the struggles of women generally, and about those of Black men, and about those of Black women (as well as those of other groups) and shows how they are all different, all inflected by sexism and racism in different ways. She has some challenging words for men generally, and for Black men, and for white women, and also for Black women. It strikes me that any reader might find this book uncomfortable at some point, as I did, because she really spares no one. But this book, at heart, is a love letter to Black women. Her definition of Black feminism is about keeping a love for Black women front and center. She wants justice for everyone, and works with people of all types to make that happen, but her guiding principle is making the lives of Black women freer, safer, and better.

The book is an easy read in a lot of ways: it’s accessible and engaging, consistently surprising and fresh, informed by philosophy and theory, but always in an approachable, clear way. It’s a difficult book in other ways, though: Cooper has some harsh truths to share about the sexism and racism particular to the U.S. and how those two “isms” combine to make the lives of Black women much more difficult than they should be. I think this is a book every American would benefit from reading.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

Recent Reading, 4/1/2018

Oh, it’s been over a year since I wrote here? Haha, I guess it has! Ah, well.

So, what am I reading? I just finished a novel in translation called In the Distance with You by Carla Guelfenbein, to be published by Other Press this June (translated by John Cullen). Guelfenbein is a Chilean author and the book takes place in Chile and various places in Europe. It’s inspired by Clarice Lispector and is about a Lispector-like author who spends the novel in a hospital room, while three other characters who knew her in various ways tell their stories. It’s about writing and writerly relationships, about literary lineages, about the way the past bears down on the present, about the pressures the world places on the body. It’s labeled a literary thriller, although the pace is slower than that leads one to expect. But there are plot revelations along the way that kept me reading happily, and the ideas about the writing life and the creative process were engaging.

I’m also reading Feel Free, an essay collection by Zadie Smith, and it’s so good! Smith is such a master of the essay. I like her novels, but her essays are better: she’s so entertaining, and so smart. She brings together things you would not expect to be brought together, in classic essay style. I’m about halfway through. The essays have been about politics, libraries, art, film, aesthetics, and more. Many of them I had read before in various publications — The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books — but I’m happy to read them again. One of my favorites, “Some Notes on Attunement” starts with Joni Mitchell and moves to Wordsworth, Seneca, Kierkegaard, and a drive through Wales, all while never losing site of where it started. But the essay is really about artistic taste and how we change our minds about what we like. It’s really so good. Here’s a passage from another essay I loved, “Dance Lessons for Writers”:

Zadie Smith Feel Free passage

What’s next? I’m thinking of picking Brittney C. Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, but we’ll see what I’m in the mood for later.


Filed under Books, Essays, Fiction

Stalking the Essay

Here’s a reason I’m a fan of Twitter: without it I wouldn’t have found out about a one-day conference at Columbia called “Stalking the Essay.” (Many thanks to Michele Filgate for mentioning it.) It was too tempting to pass up, so although I couldn’t get away for an entire day, I made it to the two afternoon sessions. They were fabulous. The entire day was organized by Phillip Lopate, one of my heroes as editor of the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, so it was a delight to get to see him. And then I got to see three other writers I’m fond of: Vivian Gornick, whose The Situation and the Story I’ve read; Colm Toibin, author of The Master, which I loved, and of Brooklyn which I hope to read soon; and David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger I’ve enjoyed criticizing and arguing with but from which I’ve gotten a ton of wonderful book recommendations. I also was introduced to some writers I haven’t read yet but hope to at some point: Patricia Hampl, Margo Jefferson, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Geoffrey O’Brien.

The first session was on “Criticism and the Essay,” and it dealt with boundaries among genres, for example, the book review versus the review essay, i.e., moving beyond the book itself to the broader context in which a book sits, or criticism, which implies an expert pronouncing judgment on a subject, versus the essay, which leaves room for not knowing, for lacking expertise. They talked about the challenge of writing what one wants to write while at the same time meeting the needs of a particular publication and a particular audience. They also talked about moving from writing polemically, i.e. letting a particular political point of view dominate one’s writing, toward writing essayistically, i.e. letting the subject rather than the point of view lead the piece.

The second session was on “The Personal and Impersonal Essay,” and the speakers in this part each gave a talk that was partly autobiographical, partly about how they negotiate the personal in their essay writing. Colm Toibin talked about how uncomfortable he is writing personally, but that he finds a way to write about himself indirectly, through the subjects that he chooses, which often end up (often unexpectedly) relating in some fashion to his personal experiences. Patricia Hampl spoke about what it is like to write autobiographically when, as she put it, nothing has ever happened to her. That turned out not to be true, of course. David Shields did a lot of what he does best: recommending great books and arguing for their greatness.

Perhaps the best part of the day came at the end when I got Shields and Lopate to sign books for me. There wasn’t a formal book signing, but all the speakers were milling around at the front of the lecture hall and looked approachable, so I got over my reluctance to talk to intimidating and famous (to me) strangers, and got their signatures. I did it without, I think, saying anything stupid.

So yay to Columbia for organizing an awesome event, and yay to Twitter for making it easier to publicize awesome events. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it to this one, but the next event (discovered on Twitter) that I’ve got my eye on is at Housing Works bookstore: “A Discussion of Women and Criticism” with Laura Miller and others.

I’ll go to this event if I can manage to tear myself away from this charming little guy:

Cormac 9 weeks


Filed under Books, Essays, Life


I’m currently reading Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and oh my god, what a good book it is! I’ve read six of the 14 essays so far, and while they aren’t all at the same level of fabulousness, they are all pretty close. I just finished an essay on Michael Jackson, which sent me off to watch this video and appreciate him in a way I never have before. The first essay is on a Christian Rock festival, which he captures perfectly in all its weirdness, and there are also essays on Hurricane Katrina (with a haunting ending), his brother’s near-death experience, and the TV show The Real World. This last essay is written in a funny, hyped-up, super-informal tone befitting the subject:

I’d suspected there were puppeteers involved in The Real World, invisibly instigating “drama,” but to think that the network had gone for it like that and hired a shrink? One who, as the kids went on to assure me, was involved not only in manipulating the cast during shooting but also in the casting process itself? And she’s worked on other shows? This explained so much, about The Real World, about all of it. When I wrote that business earlier about how the casting people have made the shows crazier and crazier, I didn’t know I was right about any of that! This person is an unacknowledged legislator of the real world. Turns out Dr. Laura is a psychologist, not a psychiatrist, which is better, when you think about it, because psychologists don’t have to take the Hippocratic oath, and she’s definitely, definitely done some harm. No chance I was going to call her.

Or there’s this somewhat more serious passage from the same essay (don’t miss the last line):

People hate these shows, but their hatred smacks of denial. It’s all there, all the old American grotesques, the test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe, and great gauntlet of doubtless eyes, big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would fuck with their money, their cash, and always knowing, always preaching. Using weird phrases that nobody uses, except everybody uses them now. Constantly talking about “goals.” Throwing carbonic acid on our castmates because they used our special cup and then calling our mom to say, in a baby voice, “People don’t get me here.” Walking around half-naked, with a butcher knife behind our backs. Telling it like it is y’all (what-what). And never passive-aggressive, no. Saying it straight to your face. But crying … My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows of the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them — too many shows and too many people on the shows — for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.

Those are good passages, but not even the best I’ve found, just the ones I read recently. Sullivan’s voice is amazing. I love discovering a new great essayist.


Filed under Books, Essays

Recent Reading

First, some numbers:

  • bike miles logged since January 1st: 1,775.
  • Hours ridden: 114.
  • Races completed (in unspectacular but acceptable fashion): 1.
  • Books read: 16.
  • Hours worked: too many.

Rather than writing reviews, I’m busy enough to be reduced to lists, but that’s better than complete silence, so here’s what I’ve been reading since I last posted:

  • I finished Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind, which was absolutely fabulous. If you like essays on literature and culture, read this! Smith is brilliant and charming, and I have become a fan (I read White Teeth a while back and liked it fine, but my response to this essay collection has been much stronger).
  • I finished Essayists on the Essay, a collection edited by Carl Klaus, which is exactly what the title promises. It’s very good if you want to get a sense of the essay as a genre and also if you want essay recommendations.
  • My mystery book group read Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, which I can appreciate as a very good example of a particular kind of mystery/thriller, but which I struggled with a little. I’m not a plot person, basically, and this was a lot of plot. I get tired of struggling to keep everything straight. But still, lots to appreciate here.
  • David Shields’s Reality Hunger deserves its own post, which it may not get. I give it five out of five stars for articulating a nonfiction aesthetic that I like very much and for having awesome book recommendations, and two out of five stars for being obtuse when it comes to the value of fiction. Also, I was never completely won over by the argument it implicitly makes about collage, quotation, and plagiarism.
  • Lorrie Moore, Anagrams, which was funny and inventive. It has an interesting structure, with four chapters or so that give you the same two characters but in different permutations: with different backgrounds, personalities, careers, etc. Eventually it settled down into one version of these characters and told a more coherent story. I was a little disappointed the opening structure didn’t continue through the whole book; once it settled down into one story, the whole thing got a tiny bit less interesting. But still, very good.
  • Darin Strauss, Half a Life: A Memoir. This tells Strauss’s experience of accidentally hitting and killing a high school classmate in a car crash when he was 18 and about to graduate. The accident wasn’t his fault, but of course the experience was still devastating. The story is well-told, and Strauss does a great job articulating what the experience was like. At times, I found the writing too vague and abstract for my taste; sometimes it was hard to wrap my mind around the thoughts and images. But still, it’s a brave book.


Filed under Blogroll, Books, Essays, Fiction, Nonfiction

Quarrel and Quandary

Quarrel and Quandary, a collection of essays, is the first book by Cynthia Ozick that I’ve read, and I finished it feeling impressed. Perhaps what stands out most strongly to me is her serious, firm, no-nonsense, occasionally devastating argumentation style. I would not ever want to be the subject of Ozick’s critique; she can be frighteningly effective when goes on the attack.

The essays cover a range of material. Many of them are literary in nature, including essays on Kafka, Dostoevsky, Sebald, Henry James, and others. Other essays explore broader literary phenomena such as the various adaptations of The Diary of Anne Frank and the treatment of the Holocaust in fiction. These last two are good examples of what I mean by her devastating argumentation style; she is angry at theatrical adaptations of the diary that downplay the horror of Anne’s fate in order to focus on the diary’s hopeful messages. In the essay on Holocaust fiction, she critiques Sophie’s Choice and Bernard Schlink’s The Reader for covering over some of the worst aspects of Holocaust history by focusing on exceptions and rare cases in the stories they tell. That essay (which you can read here) is a nuanced discussion of the tension between the right of authors to write about whatever they want and their responsibility to be ethical human beings.

Not all the essays are literary, though; there are some personal essays on, for example, Ozick’s first office job and her childhood spent in and around her family’s drugstore in the Bronx. One of my favorite essays, though, is one of the literary ones, an essay on essays called “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.” Those of you who know my reading tastes will not be surprised that I was particularly drawn to this one (although I found the gender dynamics of the essay kind of weird — why should an essay be figured as a woman? But Ozick is impatient with talk of gender: “Essays are written by men. Essays are written by women. That is the long and short of it.” Well, yes. But perhaps there’s more to the story?) I particularly liked her description of how essays work persuasively:

The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind. Yet this is not to say that there has never been an essayist morally intent on making an argument, however obliquely — George Orwell is a case in point. At the end of the day, the essay turns out to be a force for agreement. It co-opts agreement; it courts agreement; it seduces agreement. For the brief hour we give to it, we are sure to fall into surrender and conviction. And this will occur even if we are intrinsically roused to resistance.

Even if we disagree with an essayist, for the time we are reading his or her essay, we are won over. I feel this when I read my favorite essays; it’s not that I give up all of my own thoughts and criticisms, but that I come to enjoy following another person’s mind so much that I’m willing to follow them anywhere. That is, I’m willing to follow them while I’m reading them. Afterward is the time for critique. She goes on to contrast essays to other prose forms such as magazine articles, polemics, and tracts, all of which are clearly looking at us, focusing on us and trying to change our minds. She writes:

The genuine essay, in contrast, never thinks of us; the genuine essay may be the most self-centered (the politer word would be subjective) arena for human thought ever devised.

Or else, though still not having you and me in mind (unless as an exemplum of common folly), it is not self-centered at all.

Instead of being self-centered, the essay is sometimes focused on the world around the essayist; it’s a way for the writer to make sense of the materials of everyday life and how they connect with one another:

The mind meanders, slipping from one impression to another, from reality to memory to dreamscape and back again.

Rather than going directly after the reader trying to make a polemical point, the genuine essay simply goes on a journey the reader will find irresistible, whether it’s a journey through the self or through the world (or both). We can’t help but follow along and end up where the writer ends, convinced, at least for a time.

I found Ozick convincing, in most cases long after the essay’s spell wore off. My favorite essay style is actually looser, more hesitant and exploring than Ozick’s, but I couldn’t help but admire her sharp mind at work.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead

AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead is one of the first books I requested from NetGalley because it’s a collection of essays about writers and books, and I love a good collection about writers and books. I was a little disappointed in it, though; I thought the book’s idea sounded promising, but either I was mistaken about that, or the execution didn’t live up to the possibilities. I think the problem may be that the essays were uneven and perhaps, generally speaking, a little too short. They didn’t dig into their subjects deeply enough and so left me feeling a little dissatisfied.

The premise is that in each essay, a writer imagines a meeting with his or her favorite author, or perhaps an author he or she has written about or grappled with in some fashion. The various essayists tackle this task in different ways, some pretending that they have traveled back in time, some imagining they are meeting their subject in the present day or in some nebulous in-between space. In some cases, the authors know about things that have happened after their deaths, and in others they don’t.

Which, let me digress to say, is something I think about now and then: I remember somebody saying, or perhaps I read it, that the really sad thing about having to die is not knowing how things turn out. I agree with the feeling. I think about people who lived before the time of the novel and what it would be like not to know that a novel existed. Or not to know about Jane Austen or James Joyce or David Foster Wallace, or whoever. Who are the wonderful, amazing writers we won’t know about, and what genres will we not live to experience? Okay, best not to think about that too much…

Some of the essays in this collection are really charming — Cynthia Ozick on Henry James, Jay Parini on Robert Frost, Eugene Goodheart on Jane Austen, Francis King on Oscar Wilde, Jeffrey Meyers on Samuel Johnson. Others made me contemplate how difficult it is to create a convincing scene and realistic dialogue. There were some essayists who I presume were more academic types than fiction writers whose attempts at a kind of fiction writing were awkward. In a couple cases, I simply didn’t like the tone or the attitude expressed.

Mostly, though, I kept thinking about how none of this was real, how all of it was mere speculation. That’s what it’s supposed to be, of course, but it felt a little like reading a description of someone’s dream — an interesting dream, but not much more than that. If I’m going to read about an author’s life, I think I’d prefer either something more straightforwardly critical and argumentative, whether it’s a biography or a critical essay (no matter how imaginatively done) or a fully-realized novel along the lines of Colm Toibin’s The Master.

However, there are some essays I’m glad I read. Perhaps the best approach with this book is to read selectively, finding the essays about authors you find interesting and focusing on those. And for another view entirely, read Stefanie’s post on the book. The book did make me consider who I would write about if I had been a contributor to the collection: perhaps Virginia Woolf or Mary McCarthy. Oh no — it would be Laurence Sterne, definitely. But what in the world would I say to any of these people if I could meet them, even only in my imagination?


Filed under Books, Essays

On the Contrary

I enjoyed Mary McCarthy’s essay collection On the Contrary, although many of the pieces felt dated. But there’s a certain kind of datedness that’s interesting, particularly when the topic is literature. It’s fun reading about the literary scene as it existed for McCarthy in the 1950s — the authors she was paying attention to and the ones from previous generations whose reputations she was busy sorting out. She has a way of starting out with a ridiculous claim such as there are no characters in fiction anymore or nobody is writing real novels these days, and I get ready to dismiss the entire essay as absurd, but then she starts defining her terms and giving examples and building up her arguments, and before I know it, I am beginning to agree, at least a little.

Other essays in the book are about the political and social scene, including some essays on feminism; some of these struck me as both relevant to today (in that way some essays can make you think that things never change) and also as dated. The datedness comes from the way she drops references to people and events without explaining them, because of course her audience at the time didn’t need these things explained. This makes me think that McCarthy writes wonderfully well about topical subjects, because in spite of feeling as though I’m out of the loop and lacking the context to understand her references, the essays are quite entertaining and good. How often are topical essays interesting 50 or 60 years later? This book kept me engrossed the whole way through.

The best essays, though, are “Artists in Uniform,” which I wrote about here, and “Settling the Colonel’s Hash,” the title of which is truly awful, but which is a wonderful companion piece to “Artists.” “Settling the Colonel’s Hash” was inspired by responses she got to her the “Artists” essay, in particular, a letter from a school teacher wanting to know, among other things, “how closely do you want the symbols labeled?” Her students had spent a great deal of time discussing the story and while some of them insisted that it had no other meaning than the literal level, most students found it to be full of symbols.

Well, McCarthy didn’t answer this letter, except indirectly in the form of the essay itself, but she came down on the side of the students who read the piece on the literal level. There are symbols in the story, perhaps, but not the kind the students were looking for. The various shades of green she wore on the day described in “Artists in Uniform” were simply what she happened to be wearing that day, not an invention on her part meant to say something about fertility and growth. The contrasting greens she wore might possibly symbolize her desire to look like an artist, a little bohemian, but that’s where it ends. Similarly, the Colonel’s hash might say something about his desire to eat food considered properly manly, while McCarthy chose a more feminine sandwich.

This leads her into a discussion of various types of symbols, those that take the reader out of the text toward the world of archetypes and myths, and those that lead the reader back into the text:

In any account of reality, even a televised one, which comes closest to being a literal transcript or replay, some details are left out as irrelevant (though nothing is really irrelevant). The details that are not eliminated have to stand as symbols of the whole, like stenographic signs, and of course there is an art of selection, even in a newspaper account: the writer, if he has any ability, is looking for the revealing detail that will sum up the picture for the reader in a flash of recognition.

This is the interesting kind of symbol, she argues, the kind that merely is what it is — the shades of green McCarthy wore, the food she ate — while at the same time telegraphing, signaling something about her personality. In another example, there is the train in Anna Karenina:

The train is necessary to the plot of the novel, and I believe it is also symbolic, both of the iron forces of material progress that Tolstoy hated so and that played a part in Anna’s moral destruction, and also of those iron laws of necessity and consequence that govern human action when it remains on the sensual level.

One can read the whole novel, however, without being conscious that the train is a symbol; we do not have to “interpret” to feel that import of doom and loneliness in the train’s whistle …

The essay ultimately turns into an argument about how best to read, which does not involve the kind of symbol-hunting the unfortunate high school teacher encouraged her students to do:

The images of a novel or a story belong, as it were, to a family, very closely knit and inseparable from each other; the parent “idea” of a story or a novel generates events and images all bearing a strong family resemblance. And to understand a story or a novel, you must look for the parent “idea,” which is usually in plain view, if you read quite carefully and literally what the author says.

To illustrate this idea, she gives a close reading of her “Artists” essay, describing what her main point was and how the details of the story relate to that point. This is very satisfying, largely because “Artists” is such a great essay and it’s fun to hear McCarthy discuss the thoughts that went into it. It satisfies our curiosity about what the writer really meant and whether we “got it” or not.

And then she ends with this:

In any work that is truly creative, I believe, the writer cannot be omniscient in advance about the effects that he proposes to produce. The suspense in a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist himself, who is intensely curious too about what will happen to the hero…. Hence, I would say to the student of writing that outlines, patterns, arrangements of symbols may have a certain usefulness at the outset for some kinds of minds, but in the end they will have to be scrapped. If the story does not contradict the outline, overrun the pattern, break the symbols, like an insurrection against authority, it is surely a still birth. The natural symbolism of reality has more messages to communicate than the dry Morse code of the disengaged mind.

I’m not sure anything McCarthy says in this essay isn’t something I’ve heard elsewhere, but she says it all so well. There is something about the directness and forcefulness of her style that I love. Typical of McCarthy and the attitude that makes me love her is her statement that in “Artists in Uniform,” “I wanted to embarrass myself and, if possible, the reader too.” Any writer who sets out with that goal in mind is a writer I’m inclined to like.


Filed under Books, Essays

Artists in Uniform

Although I haven’t picked it up in a while because of limited reading time, I’ve been enjoying Mary McCarthy’s collection of essays On the Contrary. It has a lot of essays that are new to me, and a couple that I’ve read before and loved, one of which is “Artists in Uniform.” The essay tells the story of McCarthy meeting and striking up a conversation with a man, the Colonel, on a train journey across the U.S. The two of them have been sitting in a car with a few other people, and because the Colonel is a man who tends to get what he wants, everyone expects that McCarthy will have lunch with him, even though he never actually asked her. But McCarthy hears the Colonel making anti-Semitic remarks, and she decides she will refuse lunch. She argues with him and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself for his offensive comments, and although she eventually gives in and does have lunch with him, she keeps on arguing with him the entire time.

What makes the essay enjoyable is the way McCarthy describes their intellectual battle. The Colonel insists that there must be some personal reason McCarthy is so adamant about her anti-anti-Semitism; he can’t wrap his mind around the possibility that someone would have such a view just because it’s the right view to have. McCarthy believes what she does because it’s the right thing to believe, but the truth of the matter is that her grandmother was Jewish. She realizes she can’t let the Colonel know this, or he will dismiss her beliefs as personally motivated. So the two of them go at it: he keeps asking her questions trying to figure out what her personal connection to the Jews is, and she keeps trying to use reason and logic with him.

She sees that she’s much smarter than he is, and, given that it’s Mary McCarthy here, there’s no reason to doubt her. She’s aware of what’s going on in his head, all the twists and turns of his thinking, as he tries to figure her out. At the same time, she describes her own weaknesses and mistakes:

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t have lunch with anybody who feels that way about the Jews.” The colonel put down his attache case and scratched the back of his lean neck. “Oh, come now,” he repeated, with a look of amusement. “You’re not Jewish, are you?” “No,” I said quickly. “Well, then …” said the colonel, spreading his hands in a gesture of bafflement. I saw that he was truly surprised and slightly hurt by my criticism, and this made me feel wretchedly embarrassed and even apologetic, on my side, as though I had called attention to some physical defect in him, of which he himself was unconscious. “But I might have been,” I stammered. “You had no way of knowing. You oughtn’t to talk like that.” I recognized, too late, that I was strangely reducing the whole matter to a question of etiquette: “Don’t start anti-Semitic talk before making sure there are no Jews present.” “Oh, hell,” said the colonel, easily. “I can tell a Jew.” “No, you can’t,” I retorted, thinking of my Jewish grandmother, for by Nazi criteria I was Jewish. “Of course I can,” he insisted. “So can you.” … All at once the colonel halted, as though struck with a thought. “What are you, anyway?” he said meditatively, regarding my dark hair, green blouse, and pink earrings. Inside myself, I began to laugh. “Oh,” I said gaily, playing out the trump I had been saving. “I’m Irish, like you, Colonel.” “How did you know?” he said amazedly. I laughed aloud. “I can tell an Irishman,” I taunted.

McCarthy, despite having given in on the matter of lunch and despite making some minor tactical errors along the way (such as assuming the Colonel is religious, when he is not), is in control of the situation. She is watching the Colonel trying to catch her out and failing again and again.

She is in control, that is, until all the sudden she’s not. I won’t give away the essay’s ending, but the encounter does not conclude in the way McCarthy wanted it to. Her hopes of converting this man into a more enlightened way of thinking completely disappear. What the essay ends up being about, finally, is McCarthy’s own pride — pride in her intellect and in her ability to reason people into good behavior. Intellect will only get you so far, after all. If the Colonel doesn’t want to believe something, he won’t, and no amount of arguing will change his mind.

That dynamic captures what I like about McCarthy: she’s wickedly smart, but she’s not afraid to make herself look a little foolish. That, I think, is often what the best personal essayists do.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

Sex and the River Styx

Edward Hoagland’s book Sex and the River Styx is a collection of essays about nature, travel, and what he has learned from life. He self-consciously situates himself as someone nearing the end of his life looking back and taking stock. This is the first Hoagland book I’ve read (which I got from the publisher on NetGalley), although I’ve read single essays of his from various collections before. It’s an interesting book and a number of things stand out about it, most obviously the quality of the writing, as in this passage, where he writes about his own death:

. . . accepting death as a process of disassembly into humus, then brook, and finally seawater demystifies it for me. I don’t mean I comprehend bidding consciousness goodbye. But I love the rich smell of humus, of true woods soil, and of course the sea — love rivulets and brooks, lying earthbound, on the ground. The question of decomposition is not pressing or frightening. From the top of the food chain I’ll reenter the bottom. Be a bug; then a shiner shimmering in the closest stream … or partially mineralized — does one need retinas and a hippocampus? Because I don’t particularly want to be me, my theory is no. A green shoot a woodchuck might munch seems okay. I believe in continuity through conductivity: that the seething underpinnings of life’s flash and filigree, its igniting chemistry, may, like fertilizer, appear temporarily dead, but spark across species like the electricity of empathy, or as though paralleling the posthumous alchemy of art.

His descriptions are so specific, so precise, that you can imagine exactly what he’s describing. even if you haven’t actually seen it with your own eyes. I also admired the strong sense of joy that runs through the book, alongside the equally strong (or stronger, perhaps?) sense of doom. As one who loves nature deeply, Hoagland mourns over all that we’ve lost on the earth and all that we will lose in the future. When he says he’s glad he won’t be around to witness the future destruction that is inevitably on the way, I sympathize. But still, he has a strong sense of joy that he sees running through the entire creation; here is he thinking about the question of who or what, exactly, experiences joy:

Most of us nowadays agree that the birds that sing at dawn in the spring are expressing some degree of gladness in their surging notes, not merely a mechanical territoriality. But for a person like me who considers the toads’ sparkling, twinned-note, extended song on warm days in May and June to be actually loveliest of all, the answer is not that easy. I can’t swallow the notion that I — but not the toads — find it so lovely. (I also think I’ve seen and heard alligators and seen turtles enjoy themselves.) However, then the question shifts to whether amphibians that sing, such as frogs and toads, only began to respond to warmth and what we call beauty after they left the constancy of the water and ceased being fish. Not a sure-shot answer there either, unless you discount the evidence of your eyes when you’re closely watching fish. And water is an unboxed, undulant medium. What does it mimic when it sloshes?

This passage is from the first essay, which describes Hoagland’s childhood experiences with nature. Other essays tell of journeys that he made into Africa and India. The African trip recounted in “Visiting Norah” takes him to Uganda (his fifth trip to that continent) to see the family he has supported financially. He writes of happiness at seeing the people with whom he has been corresponding, but also his uncomfortable awareness of the vast differences in comfort and privilege between him and everyone he sees and how those differences infiltrate his every conversation.

Other essays are about stories from his interesting life; he writes about working in the circus, for example, and the lessons he learned about animals and humans both. He writes about what aging has taught him and in particular, what it means to be a man who is growing old. He writes about his stutter and how that turned him both inward into himself and outward toward nature.

Sometimes he sounds like a crotchety old man who thinks the world isn’t nearly as good as it was when he was young, but most of the time it’s easy to see that he may well be right, especially when he writes about what we are doing to nature — about rainforests lost and species destroyed. I’m inclined to be suspicious of his arguments about technology and how it turns us away from the natural world, but he may well be right there too.

This is a bracing, sometimes uncomfortable read, but in its best moments, it’s exhilarating as well. Hoagland’s vision of a world full of marvels and bubbling over with energy and joy is a beautiful one and should make us think carefully about what we are doing to it.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

The Essay

One of the things I liked about Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days is simply that I feel that I’m a lot like her. I recognized myself in a lot of what she had to say. I liked Gordon’s passages on feeling ambivalent about her femininity and feeling like an outsider in social situations, and I appreciated her discomfort with the role of faculty wife and her pleasure at critiquing the faculty wives she found herself surrounded by. Her sense of humor is one I share. I also felt a moment of recognition when I read this:

The signal [that she should become a writer] was embedded in Phillip Lopate’s newly published anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay. The contents of this book were a revelation to me. I read Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Natalia Ginszburg’s “He and I,” Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating,” Lopate’s own “Against Joie de Vivre” with delight, as well as with a growing conviction that I had found my genre.

I had known there was something wrong with the stories and novels I had been producing in spurts for decades … I was never very good at, or interested in, creating fictional worlds whose parts were set in motion by the force of psychological motivation. I never understood plot. Characterization, though it interested me, put me into a state of panicky agnosticism. I’d never had much confidence in my intuitions about how — as Eudora Welty put it — “some folks would do.” It seemed to me that folks might do any number of ways.

I’m not a personal essayist and don’t have any stories or novels of my own, but I share her uncertainty about fiction writing and bafflement in the face of plot. I can’t really comprehend writing a novel of my own, unless it were in the  plotless, essayistic Nicholson Baker style. I also share her experience of being inspired by Lopate’s anthology. I have that book to thank for my adoration of the essay genre, and if I were ever to want to write something besides the blog and the occasional book review, I would write personal essays. (I think I’m too lazy for that, though — another trait I share with Gordon, except she got over it long enough to write quite a lot!)

Gordon wrote two memoirs, but in this book’s title essay, she claims she was never comfortable with them. She did her best to tell the truth about her life, but she believes that the contemporary memoir requires you to fit your life into a preset mold where the writer suffers, often at the hands of parents, and seeks and eventually finds redemption or transcendence or some kind of healing. She shaped her story to fit this model but was aware of the distortions this created. The essay form does a better job of capturing the truth of a life:

I learned that the memoir and the personal essay are crucially different forms. The memoir tempts the memoirist to grandiose self-representation. The essay, with its essential modesty, discourages the impulse. The memoir tends to deindividuate its protagonist, enlisting him to serve as a slightly larger-than-life representative of the sufferings of a group or community, while the essay calls attention to the quirks and fallibilities we take as marks of our essential separateness. The erratic zigzag of essayistic thinking — the process that E.M. Cioran calls “thinking against oneself” — makes the essay proof against the triumphalism of memoir by slowing the gathering of narrative momentum. The essayist transects the past, slicing through it first from one angle, then from another, until — though it can never be captured — some fugitive truth has been defensively cornered.

She comes to regret having written her memoir at all, except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave her, and, presumably, because it made publishing a collection of essays easier (and also provided material for one of them). I imagine there’s an argument to be made that the memoir is capable of more than Gordon acknowledges here, but I’m sympathetic to her point. It’s the sense of incompleteness, exploration, and provisionality that I like most about the essay form.


Filed under Books, Essays

Book of Days

I happened upon Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days by chance at the library, and when I saw it contained a collection of personal essays, that it was introduced by Phillip Lopate, and that several of the essays were about academic matters, I snapped it up. I read the first few essays unsure of what I thought, but eventually she won me over, as good personal essayists do. By the end of the book, I was enjoying her company. Gordon has published two memoirs, but in this book she talks about falling in love with personal essays first and only publishing memoirs later because that’s what publishers want. With this book, she finally got her wish to publish an essay collection.

Gordon mines some of her childhood experiences for this book: she grew up as a faculty brat who had a difficult relationship with her parents, and she spent many years in therapy, including three years after high school in a psychiatric hospital. As a grown-up, she spent a lot of time thinking about the dangers of psychotherapy, what it’s like to be a faculty wife, and what it’s like to be an outsider, a lazy person, and someone who finds her profession late in life. I found these preoccupations appealing; she makes her tendency to be negative, suspicious, and doubtful interesting. She spent years essentially passive and directionless, unhappy at times in her marriage and uncertain what to do with her time, but these were years of preparation for the writing that would come later in life. Here is how she describes herself:

I am a passive woman. I am a gormless woman. My life has been characterized by an extreme and pervasive failure of agency. When I look back at my fifty-four years, I’m appalled at the proportion of my time I’ve passed lying on couches, smoking, dreaming, sometimes reading.

Disinclined to plan, incapable of self-advancement, I’ve spent much of my life like a child waiting to be given a gift. My deepest wish has never been to achieve, attain to, or possess any particular object or state; instead it has been to receive something. To tell the truth, I find it hard to believe people when they claim to have a goal. Do they really want to become pharmacists, learn languages, play instruments, start small businesses? Privately, I suspect they’re being disingenuous and what they really want is to be surprised.

Now that I type out this passage, I realize Gordon sounds like another nonfiction writer I admire: Jenny Diski. Both writers take pleasure in resisting our culture’s call to work hard, produce, and be cheerful about it. It’s an attitude I admire.

One of the book’s preoccupations is Gordon’s mistrust of therapy, which is hardly surprising, considering the kind she experienced. She spent countless hours in therapy rooms with a silent therapist who would wait until she spoke, and from this she learned to play the therapy “game” — becoming the troubled person the therapist expected her to be. Her years in the psychiatric hospital were basically a disaster. She and the other residents learned to be passive and manipulative, and rather than improving, they just became sicker. In Gordon’s case, she was a troubled youth, but not one who needed hospitalization. She might have thrived in college, turning to the outside world to find interests and meaning there, but instead, she just retreated to an inner life that felt increasingly empty.

Other essays focus on her adult life — her writing, her marriage, her ambivalent feelings about being a “faculty wife.” I didn’t always agree with her ideas, but arguing with her in my head was part of the fun. I sympathized with her feelings of isolation and of being on the outside looking in, but sometimes she seemed so busy making a point about being an outsider that she oversimplified what other people experience. I didn’t recognize her portrayal of feminism, for example, which is a picture of feminine solidarity at the expense of all individuality, a “cavalry, rumbling at full gallop.” To be a feminist, she says, is to swear absolute loyalty to the cause. I suspect that this is a generational difference; the feminism she experienced was very different from the individualistic, enjoy yourself and do whatever you want attitude of today. But I wanted her to recognize that there is more than one form of feminism, and that identifying as a feminist does not mean giving up her own ideas.

But still, I don’t need to agree with everything a writer says to enjoy their writing. In fact, it’s more fun if I don’t. What I do need is for a person to be interesting and to have new ideas and experiences to share and to be willing to look at his or her life honestly, and all this Gordon does very well. She makes good company, which is what I always hope for when I pick up an essay.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

The Common Reader

As part of my very slow read-though of Virginia Woolf’s major works, I’m am now reading The Common Reader, her collection of literary essays. And oh my goodness, have I made it clear how much I love Virginia Woolf? Because these essays are wonderful. This is my second time through the book, and I’m loving it. I just read her essay on Montaigne, and I marveled at the way she moves back and forth between writing about him in the usual way one writes about someone else and actually embodying him, taking on his persona. She will write something like “It is life that emerges more and more clearly as these essays reach not their end, but their suspension in full career” that is clearly evaluating Montaigne from an exterior perspective, but then in the same paragraph she will start describing his ideas as though she were Montaigne herself:

In short, the soul is all laced about with nerves and sympathies which affect her every action, and yet, even now in 1580, no one has any clear knowledge — such cowards we are, such lovers of the smooth conventional ways — how she works or what she is except that of all things she is the most mysterious, and one’s self the greatest monster and miracle in the world …

By slipping into his voice, she creates a strong sense of who Montaigne was; she brings him to life, and her affection for him shines through.

But then her own voice is incredibly convincing. Woolf writes with such assurance and poise — without coming across as arrogant — that I’m ready to believe whatever she says. I love this passage from the essay “Notes on an Elizabethan Play,” which compares plays and novels:

The play is poetry, we say, and the novel prose. Let us attempt to obliterate detail, and place the two before us side by side, feeling, so far as we can, the angles and edges of each, recalling each, so far as we are able, as a whole. Then, at once, the prime differences emerge; the long leisurely accumulated novel; the little contracted play; the emotion all split up, dissipated and then woven together, slowly and gradually massed into a whole in the novel; the emotions concentrated, generalised, heightened in the play. What moments of intensity, what phrases of astonishing beauty the play shot at us!

She makes everything clear — of course that’s how plays and novels work!

She also can conjure up the feeling of a place and time beautifully. Consider this passage about medieval England from her essay “The Pastons and Chaucer”:

For let us imagine, in the most desolate part of England known to us at the present moment, a raw, new-built house without telephone, bathroom or drains, arms-chairs or newspapers, and one shelf perhaps of books, unwieldy to hold, expensive to come by. The windows look out upon a few cultivated fields and a dozen hovels, and beyond them there is the sea on one side, on the other a vast fen. A single road crosses the fen, but there is a hole in it, which, one of the farm hands reports, is big enough to swallow a carriage. And, the man adds, Tom Topcroft, the mad bricklayer, has broken loose again and ranges the country half-naked, threatening to kill any one who approaches him. That is what they talk about at dinner in the desolate house, while the chimney smokes horribly, and the draught lifts the carpets on the floor. Orders are given to lock all gates at sunset, and, when the long dismal evening has worn itself away, simply and solemnly, girt about with dangers as they are, these isolated men and women fall upon their knees in prayer.

The essay is about Chaucer and how his writing springs from his time and place, but she takes a while to get to him, lingering instead on the landscape and the people who lived in his time and read his work. I finished the essay feeling as though I had  not just learned something about Chaucer but saw and heard and felt something about him too.


Filed under Books, Essays

Vermeer in Bosnia

I first heard about Lawrence Weschler’s book Vermeer in Bosnia from an NPR interview with the author quite a few years back, in 2004 probably, when the book first came out. There was something about the interview that got me interested, although now it’s been too long for me to say exactly what, and that feeling got reinforced by a couple key mentions on blogs, including Richard’s (I’m pretty sure).

Anyway, it was high time for me to read the book, and I’m glad I did. Weschler is a smart and sensitive writer. The book covers a number of different subjects — its sections are called “A Balkan Triptych,” “Three Polish Survivor Stories,” “Grandfathers and Daughters,” “Three L.A. Pieces,” “Three Portraits of Artists,” and “A Final Vermeer Convergence” — but no matter the subject the essays have a similar seriousness combined with a lightness of touch that make them both thought-provoking and pleasurable to read.

Some of my favorite essays in the collection are about art; as I read I couldn’t help but think that what I really want is to take an art appreciation class from Weschler, or to have him take me on a long, leisurely tour of an art museum. He is an excellent interpreter and also an appreciator, someone who can generate enthusiasm about his subject while also looking at it analytically. I adored his essay on David Hockney’s photocollages, which  made me think about photography in ways I hadn’t before and made me want to read more on the subject, even though I’ve never had a particular interest in photography before in my life. (I do, though, have a book by Geoff Dyer on the subject, The Ongoing Moment, which I bought because I love Geoff Dyer, not because I love photography. The lesson for me is that it’s the author not the subject that matters.) In each essay from the “Three Portraits of Artists” section, he describes time he spent with the artist as well as discussing the art itself, so you get a sense of the person who created the work.

But the best essays are in the “Balkan Triptych” section where Weschler looks at connections between art and war. He spent time in The Hague covering the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal, where onlookers and participants spent days listening to particularly nasty stories of atrocities committed by war criminals. He asks one of the jurists how he handles listening at great length to such horrible stories, and the jurist answers by saying that he goes as often he can to see paintings by Vermeer in the Mauritshuits museum. While contemplating what it is that draws this man to Vermeer, Weschler realizes that the Holland Vermeer painted was remarkably like the Bosnia of today:

For, of course, when Vermeer was painting those images which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just recently ceased to be): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty …

He realizes that behind the peacefulness of the paintings lies horrible violence, and, in fact, that Vermeer was, in a way, opening up the very possibility of peace in the midst of turbulent times:

I began to realize that, in fact, the pressure of all that violence (remembered, imagined, foreseen) is what those paintings are all about … It’s almost as if Vermeer can be seen, amid the horrors of his age, to have been asserting or inventing the very idea of peace.

The people Vermeer so carefully and realistically captured in his paintings come to stand for the idea that individual beings matter and have value. Art can, in a quiet but powerful way, offer hope in the face of cruelty and senseless violence.

There are two other essays in this section, each one similarly thoughtful and intriguing. Weschler’s writing is something to savor, and I hope I get the chance to read more of it.


Filed under Essays, Nonfiction

A Supposedly Fun Thing

So, yeah, I’m not posting as often as I usually do. I’m not sure where my energy has gone. I used to post regularly even when I was busier than I am right now, but these days I just don’t seem to be able to. I think I may have had things in a delicate balance for a while — I was busy, but I managed life just well enough that I had enough energy left over to write a bit here — and now that balance has gotten out of whack. I’m riding more than I used to, going to yoga more than I used to, seeing friends more than I used to, and that’s been just enough to make me grateful that blogging is optional, and that I can skip posting as often as I want. I think I’m also, slowly, becoming a more relaxed, less driven person (thanks to those yoga classes, perhaps?), so I’m more likely to conclude that the world will be just fine if I don’t write that blog post I was thinking about writing.

But I don’t want to go too much longer without writing about David Foster Wallace’s book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, even if it’s in a short and summary fashion. Because the book was just SO good. I’m sad now that I’ve read Wallace’s two essay collections and there aren’t any more out there to read. I’m imagining that there will be more collections of Wallace’s work coming out eventually, but they won’t be books he’s put together himself.

The book surprised me by being 350 pages long (and they are long pages with relatively small print) and containing only seven essays, one of which is less than ten pages long, and another of which is less than 20, which means that the remaining five are quite lengthy. Many of the pieces were first published in magazines (three of them in Harper’s) or journals, which makes me even more surprised that they are so long. But thank goodness people let Wallace publish long essays, because when he’s given room to explore a subject thoroughly, he really digs in deep and reports back in a most satisfying fashion.

Several of the essays are of the “explore an event or a subculture and describe it for the rest of the world” variety, and he takes his time to describe not only what he sees, but what he’s experiencing personally, so it’s an essay about the subject and also about the writer. They are very much personal essays, not purely journalistic ones (in fact, he sometimes makes fun of himself for the ways he plays at being a journalist).

I’m tempted not to mention the essays’s subjects, for fear that you will lose interest, because frankly I wouldn’t normally want to read about some of the things he writes about. And the truth is that Wallace is worth reading no matter what his subject. It’s the combination of journalism and personal essay, along with his distinctive witty, honest, self-deprecating, super-smart-but-low-key-about-it style that makes his essays so great. He has such a companionable voice that you are willing to read whatever he wants to tell you about, because surely he will have something interesting to say and will make the whole thing fun.

But I’ll tell you about the subjects anyway. The more journalistic essays are about the Illinois State Fair, David Lynch’s films (and the set of Lost Highway), the tennis player Michael Joyce, and a cruise. There is also a personal essay on Wallace’s experience growing up in the midwest playing tennis (which also touches on math and midwestern winds); an essay on television, irony, and fiction; and a short book review essay.

What really matters, though, is the voice in these essays. I think that Wallace tends to write in a similar voice whether he’s writing fiction or nonfiction. The fiction (well, Infinite Jest; I haven’t read his other fiction yet) is less personal and more varied, perhaps, but all of the writing has a similar sensibility and a similar use of language — wildly inventive, exuberant, funny, self-aware, playful, brilliant.


Filed under Books, Essays

Essays, essays, essays

I’ve finished The Best American Essays 2008 and it’s confirmed how much I like the series. I haven’t loved every essay in every volume, but I am reminded as I read them what I like about the genre — a good essay writer can make any subject interesting. I’m continually surprised at the subjects I like reading about, in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing.

I suppose you can say the same thing about any type of writing: a good novelist can make any subject interesting too. But there’s something about an essay’s quick exploration of a topic that doesn’t happen in the same way in a novel. A novel requires a greater time commitment, and it’s much harder to make unusual subject matter work, whereas an essay can delight and surprise in the course of a half hour or so, and I find myself thinking, wow, I never thought I’d love an essay on … strip clubs.

I can’t even tell you how uninterested I am in reading about strip clubs, but Joe Wenderoth’s essay “Where God is Glad” is an essay on a strip club and I loved it. He starts off on the right note: “I hate strip clubs,” but then he goes on to say that his new book’s cover has a picture of him standing in front of his favorite strip club, and I’m full of doubts. As the essay goes on, though, and he describes what his favorite strip club is like, which is to say, unlike any other strip club out there, I’m brought back around. It turns out that this place, unintentially as far as I can tell, undermines the whole notion of the strip club:

Now that I have stopped to describe the place in more depth, it seems clear to me that Tony’s is not really a strip club at all. I hate strip clubs, as I said, and people who like strip clubs hate Tony’s. Folks who like strip clubs seek something that Tony’s decisively does not offer. Tony’s is not “nice,” does not feel like a risqué Applebee’s. It doesn’t attempt to dignify the goings-on it shelters.

I’ll leave some mystery about what Tony’s is actually like in case you want to read the essay for yourself, but I will say that Wenderoth manages to make the subject profound and moving.

Something similar happened when I read Rick Moody’s essay “On Celestial Music.” I got a little worried when I saw the essay was long and read the title of its first section, “Otis Redding as Purveyor of Celestial Music.” I didn’t really want to read an essay on Otis Redding and the whole thing threatened to be pretentious and dull. But the essay was magical and I loved it. Moody won me over.

Not all the essays here did that — John Updike’s essay on dinosaurs was just okay and Lee Zacharias’s on buzzards (mixed in with some autobiography) gave me way more information on buzzards than I could handle.

But still, the shortness of essays makes it easier to take a risk and read something I’m afraid I won’t like, and sometimes I’m wonderfully surprised at how wrong I was.


Filed under Books, Essays


I’m about halfway through The Best American Essays 2008 and am greatly enjoying it. There are some stunningly good essays in the collection, and even the ones that aren’t stunningly good are still entertaining. There’s one on a lesbian wedding that I liked and one on how often great and famous quotations aren’t quoted correctly — the phrase “nice guys finish last” was originally “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place,” but the longer phrase was shortened to make a better headline.

I also really liked Jonathan Lethem’s essay on plagiarism called “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Lethem argues that our copyright laws are too strict. All art is essentially borrowing and we should be encouraging the free movement of art and ideas rather than trying to turn them into property and to increase profits from them as much as possible.

These aren’t the most original ideas in the world, but, it turns out, that is kind of the point. I enjoyed reading the essay because about halfway through it I decided to flip to the end to see how long the essay was and I noticed some interesting-looking endnote-type things there, although there weren’t any endnote numbers. I looked a little more closely and realized that the endnotes explained where he got his material from — and that much of the essay was plagiarized. I just now looked over the essay to write about it and realized that the essay is subtitled “A Plagiarism.” A big clue I missed, right?

That made the essay even more fun to read because from that point on, I kept flipping back and forth to see what was original Lethem and what was plagiarized. I had to laugh at myself for really liking a certain line that I later found out is plagiarized from the introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, something I’ve read multiple times and should have remembered:

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of the void but out of chaos.

That’s a good sentence to steal for my class on creativity, I think.

Lethem has taken big chunks of text from lots of different sources; I don’t really know what percentage of the essay is from other people, but that percentage is pretty high. But the essay isn’t really plagiarized, obviously, since he documents where his quotations come from pretty carefully. He also says the whole idea of writing a “collage text” isn’t new to him — of course.

One of the most interesting ideas in the essay is about how art participates in a gift economy, in addition to the market economy — the economy we are used to thinking of where things are bought and sold. The difference between the two is that “a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.” We buy things and feel no connectedness to the salesperson, but when we receive a gift, there is an emotional connection between us and the giver.

Art participates in both these economies at once — it can be bought and sold, obviously; we buy books, tickets to plays, and paintings to hang on our wall. But it also means something to us beyond that:

Art that matters to us — which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience — is received as a gift is received.

The way art participates in both kinds of economies is complicated, but what it means is that while art is a commodity, it can’t be fully reduced to a commodity. The problem with copyright laws as they exist now is that they push art too close to commodity status and try to negate the gift element of it:

But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. I don’t maintain that art can’t be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising.

Interesting, isn’t it? Should I give Lethem credit for these ideas? Who knows.


Filed under Books, Essays

Hating literary criticism

I’m happily reading along in The Story About the Story, an anthology of essays about literature, subtitled “Great Writers Explore Great Literature.” I’m about 3/4 of the way through, and I haven’t fallen in love with the essays I’ve read recently in the same way I did with some of the first ones in the anthology, but still, the selections are very good. Recently I’ve read really excellent pieces by Michael Chabon, Susan Sontag, and Cynthia Ozick, all of which left me with a longer list of books I want to read.

There’s a selection from one of my favorite nonfiction books ever, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, but the selection is one I don’t particularly like. Out of Sheer Rage is about how Dyer tried to write a book on D.H. Lawrence and failed, and in this section he writes about coming across a book of literary criticism on Lawrence and hating it so much he throws a temper tantrum and burns the book. I was all set to write a post on this passage, but it turns out I already wrote one. Briefly, my point was that I can’t stand it when people throw temper tantrums about how much they hate literary criticism. Usually when people do this they end up overgeneralizing and misrepresenting criticism and critics, and they often sound foolish and anti-intellectual, and they come across — to me at least — as people who haven’t actually read a whole lot of criticism, or as people who have read some bad things and never bothered to look into the field any further.

But I can’t get too upset at Geoff Dyer, since he does end up admitting that he’s being unreasonable, and it’s also the case that he’s writing a book called Out of Sheer Rage, an obvious signal to the reader that some unreasonableness lies ahead. And the truth is that a part of me finds the temper tantrum touching and amusing. Dyer cares about literature, and although I think he’s wrong to believe that criticism can harm literature somehow, at least his motivation comes from a devotion I can understand.

Really, though, what is it about criticism that bothers people so much? Yes, there is bad criticism out there, but in my experience (and I have read lots of the stuff, believe me), much of it is maybe a little dry and pedestrian but also useful and illuminating. Most critics, in my experience, are working out of a genuine interest in their subject and aren’t out to kill it, as Dyer claims many of them are. Why would critics devote their careers to killing the subject they study?

Perhaps my particular field of study biases my view; I specialize in eighteenth-century British literature, and criticism of that time period hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of controversy. People do fight political and theoretical battles over the literature of the time, but mostly it’s a relatively quiet field, one where trendiness and theoretical jargon aren’t required. A person can be an old-fashioned historicist and do quite well.

But still my point stands — when people lash out at criticism, they tend to focus on only a small part of it and ignore the bulk of what goes on.

This gets to my one quibble with The Story About the Story. The book is introduced and framed as a collection of essays on literature that stands in contrast to the usual dry, dull criticism published by academics. That may be true — these essays certainly are livelier than traditional criticism — but why can’t we have writerly, “creative,” criticism and academic criticism both? These essays are marvelously fun to read; they don’t pretend to do what academics do, and sometimes they attack it. But there is a place for more systematic studies of literature, for essays written by scholars immersed in the history of the time and familiar with the books more general readers haven’t read. It’s great to have people who will read in archives, pore over manuscripts and create definitive editions, study how ideas develop and get represented in novels, poems, and plays, and think carefully about what literature is and what it does. What’s wrong with that?


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

Eating, Talking, Reading, Riding

My trip to Vermont for Thanksgiving turned out to be a wonderful and much-needed break from schoolwork and grading, and Hobgoblin and I had a great time hanging out with friends. There were five of us total, and we spent our time eating (a lot), talking, reading, and walking the dogs. I love it that this is what we do when we visit these friends — they live surrounded by the Green Mountains, and although there are places to visit in the area, the best thing to do is a whole lot of lounging around, with occasional forays into the woods. It was very restful.

We did make one trip out into society, though. There is an excellent bookstore in the area, and since we are all very bookish people, we simply had to visit. I had a wonderful time browsing, and came away with a book called The Great Age of the English Essay, a collection of essays from eighteenth-century Britain. As far as I’m concerned, I can never have too many essay collections. I came across Zadie Smith’s new essay collection, Changing My Mind, which looks really good, but I decided to wait until it comes out in paperback to get it.

I spent most of the week reading Obama’s Dreams from My Father and just finished it a few minutes ago. I’ll say for now that I am hugely impressed by it, but will write up my thoughts in detail later.

Hobgoblin and I returned yesterday (Saturday), and today I had a chance to ride my bike, something I’ve neglected a bit in the past week because of my travels. My cycling club had a group ride today, and the plan was to ride for about four hours at a steady pace. That sounded fine, if on the long side, but it turns out that my definition of steady pace isn’t necessarily the same as everyone else’s. I got a little nervous when I showed up for the ride and found a dozen men and no women at all. But I couldn’t back out once I was there, so I decided that all I could do was give it a try. The first half of the ride went pretty well; I worked hard but did a decent job of keeping with the group pace. We rode over a few miles of dirt road, which was a little frightening, especially as the group seemed to fly over the rocks and ruts, but it was also fun and the landscape was beautiful.

It was on the way home that things started to go bad. I’m used to riding two or three hours, but not as many as four, and not four hours of really hard work, so during the third hour I found myself getting slower and slower and falling behind again and again. The group was very nice and waited for me now and then, but after a while I got to the point where I wanted to ride all on my own, so I could go at my own pace without holding anybody else up. So I headed off in a different, less hilly direction, and rode the last 1 1/2 hours on my own, getting slower and slower, but feeling a whole lot better now that I was by myself.

The ride was 72 miles total and was fun in spite of the tiredness. As long as I’m by myself, I can generally keep up my spirits, even if my legs refuse to work hard and my speed gets slower and slower. I know I will get there eventually. So now I’m about 135 miles away from my 5,000-mile goal, and I can probably finish in the next two weeks without any trouble. I think after that I may take a good long break. I will need it as training for the spring racing series will start in January.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Essays, Life

On clichés

I’ll admit I’m a skeptic when it comes to Alain de Botton’s writing, largely because The Consolations of Philosophy left me dissatisfied and wishing for more meaty philosophizing. I liked The Art of Travel quite a bit better, but my doubts have kept me from picking up How Proust Can Change Your Life, although I have a copy on my shelves that I bought after finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. So I was curious to see an excerpt from de Botton’s book in J.C. Hallman’s The Story About the Story.

I’m guessing that de Botton does better with literature than philosophy because I liked this excerpt pretty well, although — and I can’t fault de Botton for this of course — the best bits are quotations from Proust:

Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own “tone” …. I don’t mean to say that I like original writers who write badly. I prefer — and perhaps it’s a weakness — those who write well. But they begin to write well only on condition that they’re original, that they create their own language. Correctness, perfection of style do exist, but on the other side of originality, after having gone through all the faults, not this side. Correctness this side … doesn’t exist. The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame Straus!

Yes, yes, to attacking language!

But back to de Botton … the excerpt is largely about cliché and why clichés are so bad for us:

The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones.

Clichés narrow experience because they take emotions and responses that are varied and reduce them to sameness. Using them means covering up what makes a particular experience unique and returning again and again to the familiar and the shallow. Clichés may communicate very good ideas indeed, but it’s the same very good idea again and again, which can keep us from having new ideas:

Clichés are detrimental insofar as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.

When we have new experiences, we should strive to use language in a new way to describe them, and being open to new uses of language can help us have new experiences.

All this makes total sense to me, and I’m behind it completely, and yet I was reminded of the very different approach to cliché David Foster Wallace takes in Infinite Jest. There, we find characters who encounter clichés and look down their noses at them, as good intellectuals are supposed to do, but in this case, they do it at their peril. This comes up in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which are, I learned, a haven for clichés. You’ll find what looks like hundreds of them here. The characters who think they are too smart for the clichés are the ones who are most in danger; they desperately need AA and Don Gately, the book’s best character by far, knows that they are the ones most likely to start drinking again.

Gately understands people’s discomfort with clichés, but he has figured out a truth about them: they may possibly oversimplify and hide a complicated reality, as de Botton argues, but they can also function as a window into that complicated reality, a way to begin to understand it. A slogan like “One day at a time” can be the start of a hundred different stories or trigger a thousand different thoughts, and it can come to take on different meanings depending on what has happened to us. It doesn’t have to shut down new thoughts; it can be the start of them. Sometimes what people need is to cling to clichés for all the wisdom they have stored up in them and then find their own particular take on the meaning that lies behind them.

I’m as uncomfortable with clichés as any other person trained to look down on them, but something in me loves the fact that Wallace’s great experimental novel contains a defense of them. I suppose one way to fight clichés is to be willing to defend them if one can say something true by doing so.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction