“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

Friday, April 29, 2011

Literary Links: A Brief History of the Future

Here’s an awesome video of what people in 1994 thought the future of tablet computing would like (via dvice). Surprisingly, it looks like . . . a tablet:
• Sergio De La Pava's second novel, Personae, is out now! It appears to be another (very, very literary) take on the crime novel, with the book comprising an extremely unusual police report. Read a sample and then buy the book!
• Over at one of my favourite literary blogs, Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito takes apart a (very) bad review of Wallace’s The Pale King, but also offers a great incidental discussion of the too-limited way in which reviewers discuss a book’s ‘emotional content’: ‘Why impoverish the idea of emotionality in literature by pigeonholing it into something like “a round character whose pain you can identify with”? To take just one example, I find Sebald to be an amazingly emotional read for the fact that he so expertly evokes the sensation of nostalgia (among others), despite having nothing resembling conventional “emotionality” in any of his books. Even if you were to admit that Wallace was cerebral to the point of ignoring character–and anyone who has read him at all knows that’s not the case–there are other ways his books could have been emotional.’
Overland on why we should read more literature in translation. Here’s one reason: it tends to be way better than the stuff that passes for literature in the Anglophone world. Oh, and you might learn something about other cultures, too.
• Penguin has introduced a new crowd-sourcing service (which is masquerading as a social-networking site). What is crowd-sourcing, you ask? Well, read Jenny Lee’s great (and appropriately critical) article on the subject.
• Who knew Samuel Beckett was a PR machine?
• Lastly, we’re starting to get some interesting data on price and sales of ebooks on the Kindle. Quick quiz: which band had the highest growth since December? Answer: books under $2.99. Ah, yes, glad to see that the agency model is ‘working’ (if by ‘working’ you mean sacrificing market share to new players in the market). I’ve just written an article on this subject that should be out later this year, so I don’t want to say too much, but we’re going to start hearing a lot more about this soon, and it’s not going to be pretty . . .

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I'd Rather Be Clogging

Friday, April 22, 2011

Literature Is Not a Genre: On the Miles Franklin and Literary Merit

Most Australian bookshops have a ‘literature’ section, which has always struck me as a bit odd (most bookstores in the U.S. put all of their general trade fiction together, but have separate sections for ‘genre’ writing like SF and Crime etc.) since, while it seems to reflect the traditional high culture vs. low culture divide, all it really does is effectively ghetto-ise those works marketed as ‘literature’. Not only do I suspect this practice is bad for sales of ‘literary’ works, but also I strongly object to the notion that literature is a genre.
On a practical level, publishers do think of a literature as a genre—specifically as a genre that sells poorly—and I suspect that it is for this reason that so much trade ‘literary’ fiction is so very boring: it has been edited (and often written) in order to be accessible to the market (or, more specifically, to what publishers think the market wants—which ignores the fact that publishers are notoriously incorrect about what the market wants, given the standard claim that 80% of all titles will lose money or break even, while the remaining 20% of titles will generate all of the profit). I suspect, to appropriate—and possibly misuse—a suggestion Mark Davis makes in Gangland, that many publishers also presume the public is dumber than it really is (which is to say that certain pernicious forms of cultural elitism can result as much from cynicism as anything else), and one of the great successes of ‘genre’ writing over the last several decades has been the ability to write into a genre precisely by subverting the rules of that genre in productive ways (see, for example Rjurik Davidson’s great article on science fiction from Overland).
            But the truth of the matter is that literature as literature bears no relation to the form of the ‘literary novel’ that seems to circulate in Australia (usually a realist novel that more or less feels like a formal implementation of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel). Indeed, work in any genre can be literature, including essays (Montaigne and Joan Didion), philosophy (e.g. Soren Kierkegaard and Simone Weil), speculative fiction (Neil Stephenson and Ursula K. Le Guin), crime (a genre that many trace back to Edgar Allan Poe!), or any other type of text that includes letters and words.
            I’m not making this point to the argue that the novel is ‘dead’ (it’s not dead, but it is a form that is no longer predominant in our culture, which is, as far as I can see, something that will not change anytime soon), but rather to point out the problem with prizes like the Miles Franklin (which is currently being accused of sexism after its second all-male shortlist in three years. This angle to the story has already been aptly covered by Jo Case, Alison Croggon and many others) is that they tend to presume a unitary definition of literature that is based on little more than a set of particular cultural practices. Ultimately, these kinds of awards don’t tell us anything about literature as a space of potential, and everything about how our culture (or at least our cultural gatekeepers) values literature.
            I’m not interested in criticizing either the Miles Franklin judges or nominees (in fact, I know one of the nominees and would be very pleased to see him win the award on a personal level), but, and this needs to be clear, literary awards bear no relationship whatsoever to that thing called ‘literary merit’. The dream of ‘merit’ is always a right-wing dream, since ‘merit’ is presupposed regardless of the real-world inequalities that, as any sociologist can tell you, shape our world; the future education-level and wealth of children is still most likely to equal that of their parents. Merit, if it exists, is to be found in the next world (if it exists), not in this one.
            Books are commodities, pure and simple. Ninety-nine percent of all publishers publish books because they think those books will sell, not because of their ‘literary merit’. The notion of literary merit is a marketing strategy. This doesn’t mean that books can’t mean things to people, too (I think Marx would see this as the difference between exchange value and use value), but to think that books are not part of the world and subject to the same kinds of inequalities as the rest of the world is at best naïve and at worst pernicious. It is no longer enough for institutions like the Miles Franklin—or any other institution—to offer apologetics for exclusionary practices through recourse to simple claims of literary merit (and, to be clear, I’m not claiming that all books are equal; indeed, if all books are equal, then I would have to argue that some books are more equal than others). Disputes such as the current one over the Miles Franklin’s all-male shortlist, rather, should be viewed as opportunities to re-interrogate the way these elite, cultural institutions value literature, and, more specifically, what kinds of literature it is that they value.
            Early in 2010, Jacinda Woodhead wrote an essay about the need to incorporate other kinds of voices into literary culture, which also argues that the formal qualities of such diverse writing might need to be different. I think she points to an essential intolerance of formal differences in Australian literary writing. In Kalinda Ashton’s long and interesting interview about political fiction last year, she noted that, while she had never been censored or edited due to political content, per se, writers are ‘much more likely to hear qualms about experimental forms’. My argument is that this suspicion of new or different forms in Australian literature is, in fact, a means of maintaining the status quo and keeping other kinds of difference (whether based on economic status, gender, culture, ethnicity, etc.) out of Australian literature.
            It’s interesting to note in this context that Modernism (which is often portrayed as exclusively white, bourgeois and male) was a formally experimental shift in literature that also included a very large number of first-rate female authors, such as Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Hilda Doolittle, Mina Loy, Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West and Djuna Barnes. I’d suggest that part of this is attributable to the fact that, in its formal invention, Modernism (to a small degree) opened a window for other forms of expression to enter into the notion of the literary, which resulted in a greater (though still insufficient) diversity of writers. Unlike for the Modernists, however, the current problem isn’t one of staid Victorian aesthetics, but rather of a market tyranny that convinces cultural gatekeepers that a work can be literary only if it is truly boring (i.e. follows established formulas).
            I do believe in the power of literature, but this is because of the open space that literature provides: the potential of language, through highly charged rhetoric, to bring newness into the world. The limitless, inexhaustible possibilities of language enacted in literature remain, quite simply, one of the greatest collective achievements of humanity (but not because it reveals ‘universal, human truths’ and, in fact, quite the opposite: literature, by being language, has the possibility to exceed the limits of the human, a possibility that we experience every time we read a book from the distant past—which is to say, when we speak with the dead). But this possibility rests on the requirement that the notion of literature should not be reified, restricted and limited according to the dictates of an elite institution, a national culture or—worst of all—market mechanisms. The exclusion of new forms of literature is everyone's loss.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book Review: The Pale King

The Pale King
By David Foster Wallace

Today on Triple R's Breakfasters I reviewed David Foster Wallace's The Pale King. You can read the opening below, but you'll need to click on the link at the end to read the rest over at the Readings website:

In 2008, David Foster Wallace committed suicide, leaving behind a partially completed novel that has now been published under the title The Pale King. Michael Pietsch, who edited The Pale King, discusses the process of compiling the book in a detailed introduction and establishes from the outset that this is an incomplete work; indeed, the tag-line ‘an unfinished novel’ is given a prominent position on the title page. And the book itself makes good on that promise: the text of The Pale King doesn’t end so much as it simply ceases, followed by a series of Wallace’s notes and errata that suggest how the rest of the book might have turned out . . . (Click here to read the whole review).

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: I Hate Martin Amis et al.

I Hate Martin Amis Et Al.
By Peter Barry
Transit Lounge

Peter Barry’s I Hate Martin Amis et al., is an unusual debut novel that combines irreverent humour with brutal depictions of war and musings on literary history. The protagonist of the novel, Milan Zorec, is an Englishman born to Serbian parents. Although Zorec had trained to become a teacher, he has spent most of his life working as a school janitor and writing four novels in his spare time—all of which have been rejected by every publisher and literary agent he’s sent them to. Zorec’s life falls apart in England when his girlfriend leaves him and, after a brief stint in prison, he decides to head to Bosnia and join Serbian forces as a sniper (at the height of the Bosnian conflict in 1998)—but Zorec’s enlistment is instigated less by nationalist pride or filial piety than by the thought that his wartime experiences will provide the unique experiences needed to enable him to write a successful novel.
            Much of the novel derives its interest from this disjuncture: while Zorec encounters untold horrors in Bosnia, he always considers these events with the detachment of someone who sees them as the raw materials for his future novel. And as the plot unfurls it becomes clear that Zorec—despite being in many regards a pathetic figure—is a deeply unlikeable figure who in most regards is completely responsible for his own fate. This fact becomes even clearer as Zorec slowly discovers that he’s actually a more than competent soldier who experiences little difficulty killing unarmed civilians in the service of a cause that he doesn’t even believe in.
            Despite its dark subject matter, however, I Hate Martin Amis et al. is also a comic novel, and Barry shows a particular facility for absurd similes, such as when he writes, ‘The moon was looming over the horizon, huge, like one of those cheap paper lams with which students like to furnish their digs,’ or ‘Like a leaf in autumn, like a sunbaker on the beach, like a Rottweiler, like a worm, she turned.’ And Barry also successfully handles the transition of Zorec from a mildly unlikable schlub into a remorseless killer.
            But I Hate Martin Amis et al. is also about the frustrations of a rejected author and finds considerable humour at the expense of publishers and literary agents. It also reflects on literary history, and contains many references to Martin Amis’s novel, The Information, which is a book about a literary feud (and a book that is also highly in the debt of another, much better book—Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire); by and large these references to Amis work well (although I must note in passing that The Information is, without a doubt, the worst book by an author—Amis—who consistently writes terrible books (presumably in the spare time he finds in between making comments that many have deemed racist)). All in all, I Hate Martin Amis et al. is an enjoyable, unusual and generally successful first novel.            

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Book Review: The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise

The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise
By Georges Perec

Georges Perec’s 112-page novella, The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise, was originally published in an academic journal in France in 1969, but has just been released in English translation for the first time. It’s a wonderfully strange little book, and one that can’t be understood properly without a little bit of information on its provenance; as translator David Bellos explains in his introduction, a French computer company was searching for artists and writers interested in using computers to advance their artistic practice, and a then largely unknown writer named Georges Perec answered the call.
            Perec worked with a computer scientist named Jacques Perriuad, who had developed a flowchart (see image above) on how to ask your boss for a raise that mimicked the algorithmic functions of a computer program; Perec’s novella, then, is a fictional account of the flowchart, in which the protagonist of the book—addressed as ‘you’—is presented with a series of choices about how to approach your boss to ask for a raise. The result is this unusual prose experiment.
Those familiar with Perec’s work, however, won’t be surprised by its formal inventiveness. Perec was a member of the French group, Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de literature potentielle), an acronym that might be best translated into English as the ‘Workshop for Potential Literature’. Oulipo was famous for its use of formal conceits—the best know of which is the so-called ‘lipogram’, in which an author writes with the constraint of not using one letter of the alphabet. Perec, in fact, wrote what is almost certainly the most famous lipogram, called A Void, which is a book that does not contain the letter E.
            The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise is another such experiment, which was written as one continuous block of prose with no punctuation and no capital letters, and rigorously follows all of the steps one would have to go through to get a raise—which is sort of like the effect of writing a choose-your-own-adventure novel in which every possible outcome is simultaneously explored. Perec of course, raises this quest to the level of complete absurdity, as various events get in the way, such as your boss being unavailable as a result of having eaten rotten eggs, having swallowed a fishbone or having come down with a wildly infectious case of the measles that requires medical quarantine. The use of humour in the book stops the novella from simply becoming an exercise in pure formalism; the strange structure produces an unusual and striking new form of literature.
             Those with even a slight interest in experimental, mind-expanding literature will find much to love in The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise, which is a book that operates on principles wildly different from almost any other written work of literature (excepting perhaps Jorge Luis Borges’s famous, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’—a story about a book that very much resembles this novella), and is indubitably a minor classic written by one of the most important French authors of the last fifty years.