Posts tagged ‘John Updike’

February 2, 2014

“In Football Season” — John Updike

by Biblioklept

“In Football Season”

by John Updike

            Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn? As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books bend their heads forward to give a more flattering attention to you words, and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clear; by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco, powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a j sweater, seems to yield when the cloudless fall sky like the blue bell of I a vacuum lifts toward itself the glad exhalations of all things. This fra­grance, so faint and flirtatious on those afternoon walks through the dry leaves, would be banked a thousand-fold on the dark slope of the stadium when, Friday nights, we played football in the city.

“We”—we the school. A suburban school, we rented for some of our home games the stadium of a college in the city of Alton three miles away. My father, a teacher, was active in the Olinger High athletic department, and I, waiting for him beside half-open doors of varnished wood and frosted glass, overheard arguments and felt the wind of the worries that accompanied this bold and at that time unprecedented deci­sion. Later, many of the other county high schools followed our lead; for the decision was vindicated. The stadium each Friday night when we played was filled. Not only students and parents came but spectators unconnected with either school, and the money left over when the sta­dium rent was paid supported our entire athletic program. I remember the smell of the grass crushed by footsteps behind the end zones. The smell was more vivid than that of a meadow, and in the blue electric glare the green vibrated as if excited, like a child, by being allowed up late. I remember my father taking tickets at the far corner of the wall, wedged into a tiny wooden booth that made him seem somewhat magical, like a troll.

And of course I remember the way we, the students, with all of our jealousies and antipathies and deformities, would be—beauty and boob, sexpot and grind—crushed together like flowers pressed to yield to the black sky a concentrated homage, an incense, of cosmetics, cigarette smoke, warmed wool, hot dogs, and the tang, both animal and metallic, of clean hair. In a hoarse olfactory shout, these odors ascended. A dense haze gathered along the ceiling of brightness at the upper limit of the arc lights, whose glare blotted out the stars and made the sky seem romanti­cally void and intimately near, like the death that now and then stooped and plucked one of us out of a crumpled automobile. If we went to the back row and stood on the bench there, we could look over the stone lip of the stadium down into the houses of the city, and feel the cold Novem­ber air like the black presence of the ocean beyond the rail of a ship; and when we left after the game and from the hushed residential streets of this part of the city saw behind us a great vessel steaming with light, the arches of the colonnades blazing like portholes, the stadium seemed a great ship sinking and we the survivors of a celebrated disaster.

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September 23, 2013

RIP Álvaro Mutis

by Biblioklept

Alvaro-Mutis-600x300

RIP Álvaro Mutis, 1923 – 2013

Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis died in Mexico City today. He was ninety.

Mutis is likely most famous in the English-speaking world for his excellent series of picaresque novellas focusing on the Gaviero, which have been collected as The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. I first learned of the book through a friend who reviewed it on this blog; his review made me pick it up and read and riff on it myself. I don’t know if I can overstate how wonderful these novellas are. I’ve mixed them into my readings over the past year, breaking up the space between new novels by taking a trip with the Gaviero. They are something beyond palate-cleansers; they are the kind of adventure narratives that made me fall in love with reading in the first place. I feel strangely fortunate that there are two more I have yet to read.

Here’s John Updike’s thorough, excellent review of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.

And: a 2001 interview with Mutis by Francisco Goldman. From that interview:

FG: If you could travel with Maqroll to any period, which would it be?

AM: The 18th century. Casanova and I would have been friends. I would have been friends with the Prince de Ligne and I would have lived in Paris and Venice. I’d take the elegant life, the brilliant prose, like Voltaire—each time you read him you realize that he’s the real thing. And that is where my interest in the 18th century ends; once they get to the French Revolution and the horror and saving of mankind, that’s where I exit.

And a few last scraps from Un Bel Morir:

All the stories and lies about his past accumulating until they formed another being, always present and naturally more deeply loved than his own pale, useless existence composed of nausea and dreams.

A crack of wood waking him in the humble hotel on the Rue de Rempart and, in the middle of the night, leaving him on that shore where only God is aware of other people.

The eyelid twitching with the autonomous speed of one who knows he is in the hands of death. The eyelid of the man he had to kill, with repugnance, with no anger, to save the life of a woman whom he now found unbearable. 

All his waiting. All the emptiness of that nameless time used up in the foolishness of negotiations, proceedings, journeys, blank days, mistaken itineraries. All that life, from which he now begs, as he slips through the wounded dark toward death, some of the leftover scraps he thinks he has a right to. 

June 24, 2013

Pleasure and Sorrow in Álvaro Mutis’s Novella The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call

by Edwin Turner

The Tramp Steamer — Edward Hopper

1. Biblioklept has already published a review of Álvaro Mutis’s collection of novellas, The Adventures and Misadventures of MaqrollI didn’t write that review—my friend Dave Cianci did—but the review prompted me to read the book—or rather, to read Maqroll: Three Novellas, which I found used, wrote about here, and passed on to a friend before getting the NYRB edition with all seven novellas.

2. So I read The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call last week. At 66 pages (in a tiny font), it’s the shortest novella in the book. It’s also the first story where we don’t really get an adventure or misadventure of Maqroll, who more or less sits this one out. Instead, an unnamed narrator—a writer of mundane tracts but also poems—tells the story. And of course, because this is Mutis, there is a second storyteller embedded in this tale, a Basque sailor, captain of the titular steamer. The shifting, labyrinthine connections between the steamer, the narrator, the Basque sailor, and a Lebanese woman named Warda frame the plot of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call.

3. Even though Maqroll the Gaviero is on the margins of this tale, the text resonates with his weary, picaresque spirit. And even though his name doesn’t even appear until the novella’s second half, we nevertheless get one of the more lucid descriptions of our anti-hero thus far in the collection:

The other man, whose name he never understood clearly but who was also called Gaviero, was treated by Bashur with unreserved familiarity and listened to with the greatest attention in matters relating to commercial shipping and the operation of freighters in the most remote corners of the world. The Basque could not determine if Gaviero was a nickname, a surname, or simply a designation left over from the time he was a lookout in his youth. A man of few words, with a rather odd, corrosive sense of humor, he was extremely attentive and sensitive in his friendships, knowledgeable about the most unexpected professions, and, while not a womanize, very conscious of, one might say dependent on, a feminine presence.

4. As fate—and fate is the major theme of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call (and maybe all of Maqroll, and maybe all of Latin American literature, and maybe all of literature, but specifically the major theme of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, which organizes itself around the interconnections between its narrator and the Basque captain)—as fate would have it, the narrator knows the Gaviero,

an old friend whose confidences and tales I have been collecting for many years, considering them of some interest to those who enjoy hearing about the unusual, contrary lives of people who do not follow the common path of gray routine in an age of mindless conformity.

(The above citation is, of course, a wonderful metatextual review of Mutis’s big book).

The narrator doesn’t reveal that he knows the Gaviero though; he doesn’t wish to pollute the Basque captain’s story.

5. Back to fate and chance for a moment: “Chance is always suspect, and much that is fraudulent imitates it.” This might be the thesis statement of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call. Maybe.

6. The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, much like the novellas that precede it, is very much a study of heterogeneity, depicting of a world of shifting identities and ever-changing motivations and outcomes. Words like labyrinthmaze, and intertwine repeat in the text, whether Mutis is describing rivers or cultures or individuals. The text is larded with blends and syntheses, but I’ll grab one simple example, one of the rare times this particular novella returns to the Gaviero. Talking to the narrator, the Basque captain says:

I realized that my own provincial and national prejudices had kept me from seeing the enormous wealth of experience and the solid, warm humanity of this man, whose nationality I never learned, as I never learned the correct pronunciation of his name, which sounded vaguely Scottish but could also have been Turkish or Iranian. I found out later that he carried a Cypriot passport. But that doesn’t mean anything, because he himself hinted I should not put too much faith in its authenticity.

7. What is most authentic in the ever-shifting world Mutis depicts? I think it’s food. I can’t think of another writer who depicts scenes of gustation with such sybaritic pleasure. Mutis never neglects to describe a meal, even on a humble tugboat:

Each tug had two cabins for passengers, who shared with the captain the food prepared by two Jamaican women whose culinary talents we never tired of celebrating. The pork in plum sauce, the rice with coconut and fried plantains, the succulent stews made of river fish, and, and indispensable and always welcome complement to the meals, the miraculously refreshing pear juice with vodka that left us splendidly disposed to enjoy the constantly changing panorama of the river and its banks; thanks to the magic of that imponderable drink, everything took place in a velvety, contented distance that we never attempted to decipher.

8. Okay, authentic might not be right word. Everything in Mutis’s novella is authentic, true even when it’s not true. I suppose I mean stable. But: Our narrator warns us that if we try to replicate the pear and vodka drink we’ll fail, like all the others who try.

9. Let me try again: What is most authentic—I realize I’ve already employed the superlative; mea culpa—what is most authentic in the world that Mutis depicts is the strange intersections of pleasure and sorrow, the way these modes intertwine the labyrinths of our lives.

The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call is a beautiful, dark, sad love story.

10. I realize that I’ve failed to summarize the plot. Do you want that—a plot summary? I don’t have it in me, and someone did it way better. I’ll close with a long excerpt from John Updike’s thorough, excellent review of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (in a 2003 issue of The New Yorker):

Possibly alert to the dangers of doting on his hero, Mutis next provides a tale in which Maqroll hardly appears, except as a cherished acquaintance of the principals. In “The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call,” the shortest of the lot and one of the best, the narrator relates an experience he himself has had, in a voice close to what we know of Mutis’s own life: “I had to go to Helsinki to attend a meeting of directors of internal publications for various oil companies.” In Helsinki, he asks to be driven to the point from which he can see across the Gulf of Finland to St. Petersburg, a shimmering sight passingly eclipsed by the transit of a decrepit tramp steamer:

The captain’s bridge, and the row of cabins on the deck for crew members and occasional passengers, had been painted white a long time before. Now a coat of grime, oil, and urine gave them an indefinite color, the color of misery, of irreparable decadence, of desperate, incessant use. The chimerical freighter slipped through the water to the agonized gasp of its machinery and the irregular rhythm of driving rods that threatened at any moment to fall silent forever.

He sees the wretched, plucky ship, which fragmentary letters on its bow identify as the Halcyon, three more times—in Costa Rica, in Jamaica, and in the delta of the Orinoco River. Its apparition invades his dreams. While on another errand for the oil company, travelling downriver to a strike-threatened seaport refinery, he occupies one of the two cabins in a small tugboat; the other is occupied by a Basque sea captain called Jon Iturri, who, it turns out, was the captain of the ghostly tramp steamer, which broke up and sank in the Orinoco. Its owner, Iturri relates, was a Lebanese woman, a younger sister of Abdul Bashur, named Warda. At their first meeting, he says, he was stunned by her “almost Hellenic” beauty:

“Her blue-black hair was as dense as honey and fell to shoulders as straight as those of the kouros in the Athens Museum. Her narrow hips, curving gently into long, somewhat full legs, recalled statues of Venus in the Vatican Museum and gave her erect body a definitive femininity that immediately dispelled a certain boyish air. Large, firm breasts completed the effect of her hips.”

As he got to know her better, his admiration intensified: “Warda, when she was naked, acquired a kind of aura that emanated from the perfection of her body, the texture of her moist, elastic skin, and that face: seen from above, when we were in bed, it took on even more of the qualities of a Delphic vision.” But the lovestruck captain was fifty, and a non-Muslim, and Warda was twenty-four and, the longer she lived in Europe, ever more approving of the conservative ways of her native Lebanon. The tramp steamer, which she inherited from an uncle, was financing her European sojourn with its hard-won profits; she flew to Iturri’s ports of call and spent rapturous days in hotels with him, but their romance could last only as long as the fragile tramp steamer did. Warda’s perfect, elastic, symmetrical beauty was one with the listing, disintegrating body of the ship as it conveyed her aging lover from port to port. The story, Mutis tells us at the outset, “has something of the eternal legends that have bewitched us over the centuries”; he ends by assuring us that “there has been only one love story since the beginning of time.” Not a happy one.

February 3, 2013

“In Football Season” — John Updike

by Biblioklept

“In Football Season” by John Updike

            Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn? As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books bend their heads forward to give a more flattering attention to you words, and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clear; by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco, powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a j sweater, seems to yield when the cloudless fall sky like the blue bell of I a vacuum lifts toward itself the glad exhalations of all things. This fra­grance, so faint and flirtatious on those afternoon walks through the dry leaves, would be banked a thousand-fold on the dark slope of the stadium when, Friday nights, we played football in the city.

“We”—we the school. A suburban school, we rented for some of our home games the stadium of a college in the city of Alton three miles away. My father, a teacher, was active in the Olinger High athletic department, and I, waiting for him beside half-open doors of varnished wood and frosted glass, overheard arguments and felt the wind of the worries that accompanied this bold and at that time unprecedented deci­sion. Later, many of the other county high schools followed our lead; for the decision was vindicated. The stadium each Friday night when we played was filled. Not only students and parents came but spectators unconnected with either school, and the money left over when the sta­dium rent was paid supported our entire athletic program. I remember the smell of the grass crushed by footsteps behind the end zones. The smell was more vivid than that of a meadow, and in the blue electric glare the green vibrated as if excited, like a child, by being allowed up late. I remember my father taking tickets at the far corner of the wall, wedged into a tiny wooden booth that made him seem somewhat magical, like a troll.

And of course I remember the way we, the students, with all of our jealousies and antipathies and deformities, would be—beauty and boob, sexpot and grind—crushed together like flowers pressed to yield to the black sky a concentrated homage, an incense, of cosmetics, cigarette smoke, warmed wool, hot dogs, and the tang, both animal and metallic, of clean hair. In a hoarse olfactory shout, these odors ascended. A dense haze gathered along the ceiling of brightness at the upper limit of the arc lights, whose glare blotted out the stars and made the sky seem romanti­cally void and intimately near, like the death that now and then stooped and plucked one of us out of a crumpled automobile. If we went to the back row and stood on the bench there, we could look over the stone lip of the stadium down into the houses of the city, and feel the cold Novem­ber air like the black presence of the ocean beyond the rail of a ship; and when we left after the game and from the hushed residential streets of this part of the city saw behind us a great vessel steaming with light, the arches of the colonnades blazing like portholes, the stadium seemed a great ship sinking and we the survivors of a celebrated disaster.

August 28, 2012

A Rambling Riff on the Age of the Amateur, Book Review Ethics, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

by Edwin Turner

1.There’s been a lot of hubbub (at least in my particular echo chamber) the past few weeks about book reviews and the ethics of book reviews:

Too nice?

Too mean?

Just fine?

What about straight-up buying a book review?

And what about when authors get involved, via social media, in calling out reviewers?

2. A sloppy synthesis of what I’ve linked to above might be:

The traditional position of the serious book critic is perhaps being undermined via social media in the hands of well-meaning amateurs.

3. I’m not sure that I exactly agree with the statement above.

4. Still, we live in the Age of the Amateur.

(Saturday Night Live parodied this phenomena in a sketch called “You Can Do Anything!” that hits nail on head).

5. (SNL also unintentionally documented what happens when an amateur is given a forum beyond her untested abilities).

6. I suppose I could spend a few paragraphs parsing the delicate distinctions between literary criticism and book reviews and awarding fucking stars on Amazon or Goodreads, but I think you, gentle reader, probably get all that already.

7. (I consider myself an amateur book reviewer with an interest in but no pretension to literary criticism. I don’t intend to write about myself, but I do feel like I should clarify this).

8. (I know I just said that I don’t intend to write about myself, but again, perhaps germane:

I don’t read a lot of book reviews, especially contemporary book reviews. I mean, I hardly ever read contemporary book reviews. If I’m planning to review the work, a contemporary review may poison any pretense of objectivity I have.

With the occasional new major release, it’s almost impossible not to get a fix on some critical consensus—and I always scan of course.

I usually read a handful of reviews of a book I’m reading after I’ve drafted a review.

And I read lots of old reviews. Lots.

Again, maybe germane to all of this).

9.  But I’m riffing out all over the place. Let me get to the point. Let’s return to the second part of Point 2:

The traditional position of the serious book critic is perhaps being undermined via social media in the hands of well-meaning amateurs.

Is this true? I don’t know, exactly. A few points to consider:

Literary criticism has existed via two more-or-less stable forms for about a century now: Academic scholarship and popular media.

Academic scholarship tends to be highly-specialized and literally inaccessible for most people. I think academic scholarship and research about literature is important and I don’t want to knock it all—but most of it simply isn’t exposed to, let alone absorbed by, a reading public.

Popular media—magazines and newspapers—is clearly in a transitional phase. A lot of this boils down to the dissemination of new technologies, the advent of the so-called “citizen journalist,” and the oligarchization of mass media. Journalism, as taught in journalism school, prescribed a set of methods and ethics that seem frankly quaint when set against the internet and 24hr cable networks. How book reviews fit—if they fit at all—into the emerging paradigm of popular media is hard to say.

10. Obviously, one model for how book reviews/lit crit fits into the emerging paradigm of popular media  is Goodreads, which I really don’t know much about to be honest. Another is Amazon, which has so many problems I don’t even begin to know how to start. Both of these sites use star ratings though, which has always struck me as probably the worst critical model available.

11. (I got an email recently about Riffle, a new service “powered by the Facebook social graph and loaded with expert curated recommendations.” I mean, how’s that for a shudder down the metaphorical spine?)

12. (Re: Point 11—What is it with this term “curator”? Is it synonymous with: “I produce no original content”?)

13. So, to return to the pretense that I have a point:

I’ve written about 300 reviews on this site. Most for books, some movie reviews, and a few other things as well (uh, malt liquor). I didn’t really know what I was doing in the beginning—I mean, I wasn’t even intending to review books. I was just writing about books I’d pilfered, pinched. Stolen. (The name of the site was its mission statement).  At some point I started making critical judgments, trying to, you know, recommend books that I loved to people who I hoped would love them also.

And at some point I came across John Updike’s rules for reviewing books.

I’m not an Updike fan—wasn’t then, amn’t now—but his rules resonated with me, and I made a point of reading his criticism, which is generally excellent.

In short, I’ve tried to follow his rules.

14. (To clarify: A simple thesis for this whole riff: I think book reviewers need to follow some kind of aesthetic, ethical rubric, one that accounts for subjectivity in an objective way—and I think Updike’s list is great).

15. Updike’s first rule is his best:

Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

This one seems fairly straightforward, but is abused all the time, whether it’s Kakutani at the NYT pretending YA is not YA, or a reviewer at Book Kvetch lamenting that a metaphor-laced experimental novel isn’t a science textbook.

(I might have abused Updike’s first rule myself, but I’m not going to ransack the archives for self-incrimination).

16. Updike’s first rule is so graceful because it allows for a sliding scale of sorts, a range of possibilities beyond the critic’s own highly-subjective taste.

Put another way, it’s very easy to say, “I loved it” or “I hated it,” but Updike’s first rule places the onus of critical imagination on the reviewer. The responsible reviewer has to understand his or her audience (or at least has to try to understand his or her audience).

17. The subjective can’t be removed from reviews of course—nor should it be. I think the balancing act here might be described as taste.

18. I’ve occasionally broken some of Updike’s rules, especially when I super hated a book (usually #s 2 &3–didn’t bother to cite text—actually, I’ve done this repeatedly),

19. Sometimes a book confuses my approach to criticism.

20. Hence, Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, which I reviewed in hardback a few months ago, and which is now available in trade paperback, and which I will use now as some sort of loose illustration for whatever point there is in this ramble:

20120724-194425.jpg

21. (Okay. So, normally I photograph reader copies (and other books I obtain) and run a little blurb—usually the publisher’s copy or another review—and I was gonna do this with The Orphan Master’s trade paperback (citing my own review in this case), but the post lingered, thoughts accrued around it as I glommed onto all the ideas reverberating around my little echo chamber re: this whole riff. I bring this up in the recognition that a post purporting to address in some way the ethics of book reviewing should point out that the publisher in question (e.g. this blog, e.g. me) regularly posts what amounts to a kind of advertisement for forthcoming books).

22. So why The Orphan Master’s Son?

I use it as example (barring info re: Point 21 for a moment) of a book that didn’t do what I wanted the book to do.

Here’s the end of my review:

 Toward the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, I began imagining how the novel might read as a work divorced from historical or political reality, as its own dystopian blend—what would The Orphan Master’s Son be stripped of all its North Korean baggage? (This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it is the question I asked myself). I think it would be a much better book, one that would allow Johnson more breathing room to play with the big issues that he’s ultimately addressing here—what it means to tell a story, what it means to create, what it means to love a person who can not just change, but also disappear. These are the issues that Johnson tackles with aplomb; what’s missing though, I think, is a genuine take on what it means to be a North Korean in search of identity.

I think my review of The Orphan Master’s Son was/is fair, but it didn’t—couldn’t—exactly capture how I felt about the book: a mix of disappointment and admiration.

23. To be clear, I took pains to clarify that I thought highly of Johnson’s prose and that I thought most readers would really dig his book.

I gave it, I suppose, a mixed review, which is almost like giving it a negative review.

24. But I didn’t give it a mixed review to be nice—I tempered my criticisms with the knowledge that any attack I made on The Orphan Master’s Son was really a way of defining my own aesthetic tastes. Let me cite Updike’s fifth rule:

 If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

Ultimately, my problem with The Orphan Master’s Son boils down to me wanting Johnson to have written a different book. I feel like I have plenty of reasonable reasony reasons for wanting a different book—first and foremost Johnson’s prowess as proser and storyteller—but that’s no way to review a book. From my review:

I should probably clarify that I think many people will enjoy this novel and find it very moving and that the faults I found in its second half likely have more to do with my taste as a reader than they do Johnson’s skill as a writer, which skill,  again I’ve tried to demonstrate is accomplished.

25. Let me end here in repetition (and, perhaps, here in the safety of these parentheses point to how riffing in a rambling wine-soaked list somehow frees me from actually coherently writing about any of the things I promised to—or maybe it doesn’t—which is of course its own ethical ball of worms) by restating a basic answer to some of the basic problems of amateurism:

Book reviewers need to follow some kind of aesthetic, ethical rubric, one that accounts for subjectivity in an objective way.

September 17, 2010

Famous Authors’ Typewriters

by Biblioklept

Jack Kerouac's Typewriter

Another Kerouac Typewriter

Sylvia Plath's Typewriter

Cormac McCarthy's Typewriter

John Updike's Typewriter

George Orwell Tickling the Keys

Ernest Hemingway's Typewriter

How To Write

April 14, 2010

John Updike’s Rules for Reviewing Books

by Biblioklept

From Picked-up Pieces (1975):

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

January 3, 2010

The Anxiety of Influence

by Biblioklept

In her essay “The Naked and the Conflicted,” published in today’s New York Times, Katie Roiphe suggests that “we are awfully cavalier about the Great Male Novelists of the last century. It has become popular to denounce those authors, and more particularly to deride the sex scenes in their novels.” By the Great Male Novelists she is, of course, referring to Norman Mailer, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow. She continues: “Even the young male writers who, in the scope of their ambition, would appear to be the heirs apparent have repudiated the aggressive virility of their predecessors.” Roiphe picks a relatively slim sample of “young male writers” to prove her thesis, including David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, and Jonathan Franzen. Slim sample, but still, quite representative. Her big claim: “The younger writers are so self-­conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex.” Hmmm . . . Perhaps. Makes us think about how writers like Dennis Cooper, Wells Tower, Junot Díaz, or Stephen Elliott might fit into this scheme . . .

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