“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Literary Links

• Tom McCarthy's Guardian article on technology and the novel is worth a read, and is also a good reminder of how funny Marinetti's Futurist manifestoes were (the Italian Fascism that came later wasn't quite as funny). There's shades of William Gaddis's proposed history of the player piano in the article, except that McCarthy celebrates the posthumanism that Gaddis despised. Regardless, I'm keen to have a look at C, McCarthy's new novel, which has been compared to Thomas Pynchon (by his publisher, at least) and is the only book on the longlist for the Booker in which I have any interest. (Every year I think the Booker can't get any more boring, and every year I am proven wrong. But that being said, I guess it's nice that they throw a few bones to the colonials.)

• If you're ashamed of your Amazon Kindle, you need be ashamed no more: you can now disguise it as a newspaper with this fancy sleeve. You could, of course, also just use an actual newspaper.

• The personal library of David Markson has been put on sale at the Strand Bookstore in NYC. It's a shame no research libraries bought the collection--kids these days!

• Here's a quick review of Cesar Aira's The Literary Conferencea book that is apparently about attempting to clone Carlos Fuentes(!). I've read two of Aira's books this year (How I Became a Nun and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter); both were brilliant and wonderful, but also completely different from each other. This one's meant to be even more strange. Hey Readings, why don't you have this in stock yet? Oh, right, that parallel importation thing. OK.

• 'Feted British authors are limited, arrogant and self-satisfied, says leading academic. Gabriel Josipovici dismisses the portrayal of Barnes, Rushdie and co as modern literary giants.' I suppose it's surprising that this is surprising; this Guardian article offers a nice little bit of schadenfreude, but it also seems like a lot of name-calling and ad hominem attacks. I agree these authors don't seem as interesting as they did a decade ago, but really the interesting question is to ask why this is the case.


Daniel Wood said...

On Josipovici: his comments were taken from an interview on his forthcoming book "What Ever Happened to Modernism?" -- and were appended to the Booker coverage more or less for the purposes of producing a journalistic beat-up.

The Evening Standard pursued Josipovici for further comment on the Guardian story, and received it:

Professor Josipovici today told the Standard it was ironic his book had sparked a literary storm for the same ideas he was condemning. He said: "The book questions the ridiculousness of the cult of personality and that is exactly what has happened. It's become the cult of personality. There are more than 200 pages in the book. The comments have been taken out of context. I don't want to say anything about the individual authors other than to say read the book."

See http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23861420-todays-leading-writers-are-schoolboy-show-offs-says-literature-professor.do.

The book isn't out yet, of course, but you can get a sense of it from what is available online. Josipovici developed the book from a series of lectures he delivered over the last few years (or perhaps developed the lectures from the book as a work-in-progress) and you can find a summary of one of the lectures at http://ellissharp.blogspot.com/2007/03/josipovici-on-modernism.html. Although that page offers only a summary, it does go some way towards fleshing out Josipovici's gripe with the Booker crowd: "Each author displayed a complacent omniscience about their characters."

For an even better idea of Josipovici's "philosophy of literature" (if it can be called that), I recommend his inaugural address to Sussex University, reprinted in his remarkable collection of criticism "The Singer on the Shore." Luckily enough, it's also online: http://www.mediafire.com/?7m7qvvn58uk5pu4. It also includes a sample of Josipovici's own fiction, one of the most haunting short stories I have ever read, and not much more than 500 words at that.

It's probably clear by now that I think Josipovici is one of the sharpest critics working today -- and, despite the Booker beat-up, also one of the most generous. I wish his comments about the Booker Prize hadn't been so sensationalised, because, in other contexts, he has made some very well-considered points about the shortcomings of the sort of fiction that is routinely nominated for the prize, and those points deserve an equally well-considered reply, not the sort of infantile rebuke that the Guardian inexplicably saw fit to print: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/28/books-expert-view-park-honan.

Emmett Stinson said...


Thanks for your exhaustive comments on this, which clearly puts it all in perspective. I figured there had to be more to this than meets the eye. As a scholar of modernist literature, myself, and no fan of the authors above, I'm actually interested in looking at Josipovici, and took out one of his books of criticism, a novel, and a book of short stories from the library yesterday. Moreover, I, too, harbour significant concerns about sensationalism in literary discourse (and I've just written an essay about it that will hopefully find a home somewhere). So this is all very interesting to me.

Aside from the above links, is there a particular book of his that you recommend starting with?

Daniel Wood said...

The place to start would be The Inventory, his first novel; he discusses the writing process behind it in the link I posted above (the mediafire.com link). In a sense, The Inventory demonstrates in fictional form the seeds of the philosophy of literature that Josipovici has developed in his later non-fiction. Beyond that, I would suggest the short fiction in his collection In the Fertile Land, and a couple of his latest books: Goldberg: Variations and Everything Passes. The latter book contains a number of ideas about the nature and "purpose" of fiction that (as I understand it) have informed the argument of What Ever Happened to Modernism?, so it dovetails nicely with his more recent non-fiction.

As for his non-fiction itself, I think The Singer on the Shore is fantastic, as is The Mirror of Criticism. Josipovici's criticism, however, is an acquired taste because he rarely enthuses over anything, even when he greatly admires a work, so that it is sometimes difficult to discern how he personally feels about the value of a given text. (Which probably goes some way towards explaining his aversion to the sensationalism that has attended his recent remarks.) Rather than enthusiasm and stylistic virtuosity, what makes his criticism special is the combination of his incredibly shrewd eye for literary detail and the exceptionally high standards to which he holds every work of literature he judges. In other words, he is very demanding of the authors whose work he writes about, but his writing is very rewarding for readers who then open up those texts with Josipovici as a sort of travelling companion.

Much of his other work deals less with self-identified literature than with the literary qualities of ostensibly non-literary texts, such as the Bible. I haven't read any of this work in-depth because, frankly, it's not my thing, but I am told by those who have read it that it too is first-rate.

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