Reality Hunger is a book-length essay about literature and culture by David Shields that's getting a lot of attention for its provocative key argument: we are wrong to think of fiction as the most exalted form of literature, because as readers we mostly value writings that bring us reality and truth -- which are, by strict definition, beyond the scope of fiction. Shields presents today's literary community as blind and confused, trained to pine after the ideal of the perfect novel, the sublime work of art, when in fact we crave something more primal than artistic excellence when we read.
1, A font face captures Franz Kafka's handwriting, which turns out be rather pretty in a Kafkaesque sort of way.
2. Tablet Magazine interviews eternal Fug Tuli Kupferberg and points us to his excellent YouTube Channel. I love the audience participation in this little-known literary facts video, in which Tuli reveals that T. S. Eliot was Jewish, that Walt Whitman was heterosexual, that Homer's Iliad was actually written by a guy named Iliad, and that when Dylan Thomas drank himself to death his drink of choice was strawberry milkshakes. All true.
If you've been hanging around here, you know I'm a big advocate of e-books and digital publishing. I don't consider myself an expert in this business, but I read and usually agree with knowledgeable industry observers who advocate for change, radical experimentation and quick adoption of digital technologies, such as Kassia Krozser, Clay Shirky and Richard Nash.
But I'm stepping out onto my own limb with today's digital publishing headline, and I'm surprising even myself, because it's not the kind of thing I'd expect me to say. I don't know if any of my fellow digital progressives will agree with me, but here it is: I'm starting to wonder if the e-book revolution is going to happen at all.
Why is there so little good old-fashioned literary satire on the scene today? Reviewing Sam Lipsyte's The Ask in todays New York Times Book Review, Lydia Millet examines:
Literary satire has become a rare form in America over the past three decades. When it does make an appearance, it almost passes for a nostalgic gesture despite its typically cutting-edge content. As a result, Lipsyte is one of a handful of living American satirists (and when I say “handful” I mean a very tiny hand, with three fingers at most, including the thumb) who can tell a traditional story while remaining foul-mouthed and dirty enough to occupy the literary vanguard. This stuff wouldn’t play well at, say, meetings of the D.A.R. — too bad in a way, because it might not hurt them to hear it. Lipsyte is not only a smooth sentence-maker, he’s also a gifted critic of power.
You may be wondering why someone would write a top ten of 2009 list three months into 2010. Well I have two excuses. One: I didn't want to write a list until I was absolutely certain I had read every book that had a chance of making it on the list. All that reading takes a lot of time. Now, with my eyes blurry and my dreams dark, I can honestly say that I've read every book worth considering (with one exception, which I will admit to later) for the top ten.
Reason two is a tad more subjective: I've noticed with horror that nearly every Top 10 of 2009 list on the internet picks Michael Connelly's mediocre thriller The Scarecrow as one of the best of the year. Come on, folks! We can do better than that! I trust that anyone who included that one (not to mention some of the other stinkers I saw) on their list didn't have a chance to read the following titles. So, I finally decided to break my silence. 2009 was a banner year for crime fiction, and the following books deserve to be talked about. Enjoy.
There are biographies, and then there are psychological biographies. The fallacies and hazards of the psychobiography form are easy to name, but the form can produce miracles when used well. Donald E. Pease's Theodor Seuss Geisel, a brief, spirited new study of the life and work of the great Dr. Seuss, provides a satisfying and surprising look at the motivations and half-hidden meanings behind classic children's books like Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
The biographer brings out the heavy psychological equipment to analyze the first Dr. Seuss children's book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, published in 1937 when the author was 33 years old. The book depicts a child with a vivid imagination facing off against a stern father who rejects his son's artistic spirit. Pease argues convincingly that young Theodor Seuss Geisel's moral battle with his strict father shaped everything about his work, and that it was the very intensity of this father-son battle that gave the early Dr. Seuss books their power and energy.
It would be a shame if the predictable backlash against David Shields' exciting critique of contemporary literarature Reality Hunger (or against Ben Yagoda's related study Memoir: A History) actually discouraged any potential readers from checking out either book. The David Shields book has been stirring up a lot of strong words lately, and I'm finding the intensity of anger strange. Granted, as Laura Miller suggests in the Salon article above, some of Shields' bold statements are designed to be "controversial" (it sells books) -- however, they may still be worth something. It's galling that Jessa Crispin reacts to Shields book with defensive scorn, as if bloggers and critics who discuss the book were trying to tell her what to do. She says, "I don't know why people feel the need to make declarations about what literature should be all of a sudden."
As if I needed more prodding to write about David Shields' Reality Hunger, the book appears in today's New York Times Book Review, respectfully reviewed by Luc Sante, who urges (I nod approvingly here) a calm and sympathetic reading of the controversial work:
On the whole, though, he is a benevolent and broad-minded revolutionary, urging a hundred flowers to bloom, toppling only the outmoded and corrupt institutions. His book may not presage sweeping changes in the immediate future, but it probably heralds what will be the dominant modes in years and decades to come. The essay will come into its own and cease being viewed as the stepchild of literature. Some version of the novel will endure as long as gossip and daydreaming do, but maybe it will become more aerated and less controlling. There will be a lot more creative use of uncertainty, of cognitive dissonance, of messiness and self- consciousness and high-spirited looting. And reality will be ever more necessary and harder to come by.
At a corner near the center of the Google Maps image above there is a strange plaque celebrating a literary moment in history that could not have possibly seemed worthy of celebration when it occurred. Two famous writers visited a foreign city together, intending to rekindle their troubled and illicit romance, but the getaway went badly. One of the writers wanted to leave, but the other did not want this to happen, and shot the first writer. The wound was not fatal, except to their friendship.
This article is part of the Litkicks Mystery Spot series. The next post in the series is No. 1 Rue Des Brasseurs: Verlaine and Rimbaud. The previous post in the series is In Gatsby's Tracks: Locating the Valley of Ashes in a 1924 Photo.
"Situations have ended sad, relationships have all been bad
Mine have been like Verlaine and Rimbaud
But there's no way I can compare all them scenes to this affair
You're gonna make me lonesome when you go"
-- Bob Dylan, "Blood on the Tracks"
Congrats to everybody who knew the answer. Yes, as one deft commenter guessed, our wayward writers were French: they are Symbolist poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, who were staying at a hotel overlooking Grand Place in the center of Bruxelles, Belgium in July 1873 when their relationship ended ugly.
This article is part of the Litkicks Mystery Spot series. The next post in the series is A Little Country Village: Litkicks Mystery Spot #3. The previous post in the series is An Infernal Love Nest: Litkicks Mystery Spot #2.
A casual society of underground/alternative-minded writers calling themselves The Unbearables have been spreading joy and literary wisdom around downtown New York City for as long as I can remember. They protested the cravenness of the New Yorker magazine and the growing commercialism of the surviving Beat Generation writers during the 1990s, and now they're back with The Worst Book I Ever Read, a diverse collection of essays about terrible reading experiences that, I think, many literary folks will relate to. I interviewed ringleader Ron Kolm about this book.
Levi: The Worst Book I Ever Read shows a really eclectic range of choices. We've got the Bible, a dictionary, a 5500 page autobiography by Henry Darger. Michael Carter hates John Locke, and Sparrow picks a psychology book. Were you surprised by the range of responses?
If you are a publisher or publicist who sends me books to review, please note that I have changed my mailing address:
328 8th Avenue #337
New York NY 10001
Also, if you're a publisher or publicist who sends me books to review, please know that I'm probably sorry for being so absolutely terrible about getting back to you. My review copy situation is a mess, I never get around to answering emails in time, but I do appreciate when you send me a book I'm interested in and I will try to be better about keeping in touch.
And now ... some more interesting stuff:
I can't focus on the New York Times Book Review on a historic weekend like this one.
I am glad the health care reform bill has passed, for the following simple reasons:
• The insurance industry is as rotten as every other sector of high finance, and needs reform badly.
• Health insurance is ridiculously expensive.
• I'm not worried about socialism, Marxism or Maoism in America. I believe the most dangerous 'ism' in American government is militarism.
• I find it hard to believe Republicans are suddenly worried about deficit spending when they didn't mind spending a trillion dollars to let George W. Bush play war hero in Iraq. (See above, "the most dangerous 'ism' in America is militarism").
I'm definitely caught up in the political "game" right now, but I would like to take a moment to rise above my partisan point of view and look critically at the whole process that is about to culminate in Barack Obama's signing of the bill, a process that began the day Barack Obama got elected in November 2008.
(Last week I talked to Ron Kolm, who's been a friendly and productive presence in downtown New York's literary universe for decades, about his newest anthology. Here's the second half of that interview, where we talk about what it's like to be a friendly and productive presence in downtown New York's literary universe for decades. The painting of Ron is by Bob Witz)
Levi: How did you first become a part of the NYC literary scene? What were your first impressions of the "scene", and what are your impressions of it today?
Ron: To be honest, I’ve never really been a part of the NYC literary scene. There was a brief period when Eileen Myles was the Director of the Poetry Project that I got paid to read there and was part of the New Years Benefit Reading -- but I was writing fiction then; small dirty stories about a couple (Duke & Jill) that sold junk on the street, and since I wasn’t a Language Poet, or any of that ilk, I fell off their radar, which was fine by me. What I did do was work in bookstores. I was at the Strand in the early to mid 70’s, when Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith worked there. In the late 70’s I worked in the East Side Bookstore with guys who would later found St. Mark’s Bookshop –- that’s where I got stabbed by a junkie, etc. By 1980 I was managing a bookstore in Soho, pre-tourist trap Soho, which was owned by High Times Magazine. I had to take a subway uptown to their office, where I partook from the canisters of nitrous oxide standing around everyone’s desk, before getting the checks I needed to pay for things signed. Then I worked at St. Mark’s Bookshop, and finally at Coliseum Books.
The novel is dead to him, but so what? Can't he just go off and write whatever he wants to write without climbing up on a soapbox to make a speech about it? How does this offbeat preference of his merit a book-length manifesto? Why does this book exist?
-- Laura Miller, on Reality Hunger by David Shields
Laura Miller's question about this controversial book of literary criticism is a fair one, and deserves a serious answer. I wrote a bit about this two weeks ago, but I think I've come up with a better answer this week after attending a talk with David Shields at a Johns Hopkins University writing center Tuesday night.
Strange currents in the hometown rag today.
When I saw a book called The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter on the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review I figured it was a new McSweeney's book or some photoblog tie-in. It turns out to be a serious 500-page study, not of white people per se but of the concept of "whiteness" as it has rippled through history. The author is an African-American professor (and also, it turns out, a good artist), which gives the title some edge. The author of this article is Linda Gordon, also a professor and, based on the "Up Front" sketch of her face, a white person. So Nell Painter is talking about Linda Gordon's people here, and Linda Gordon also seems to have a lot to say about white people. Sounds like an okay book, though unfortunately a photoblog tie-in would probably sell better.
“After ten years on the stuff you live in this other world where everybody you know is one.” Keith Richards, in the documentary 25 x 5, The Further Adventures of the Rolling Stones.
The "cities of the plain" in the Bible are Sodom and Gomorrah, and Sodome et Gomorrhe is the French title of the fourth book of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. This volume opens with M. as voyeur again, this time eavesdropping on the Baron de Charlus and Jupien the tailor as they have homosexual sex in Jupien’s shop. M. had always been told by Saint-Loup that Charlus was a notorious womanizer, but now M. has first-hand knowledge of the Baron’s true nature. Charlus is a closeted homosexual, or in Proust’s term, an invert, and he prefers to have sex with workmen and men of the lower classes. Jupien, though he has just met the Baron, becomes his procurer and protector. M. now has an explanation for Charlus’ seemingly irrational behavior. It is due to his repressed homosexuality, and his fear of being “found out”.
1. Natalie Merchant has recorded a double album, Leave Your Sleep, containing her own musical settings of classic poems by Mervyn Peake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, e. e. cummings, Charles Causley, Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Edward Lear, Jack Prelutsky, Arthur Macy, Ogden Nash, Charles E. Carryl, Nathalia Crane, Robert Louis Stevenson and Christina Rossetti. I haven't heard it yet but definitely want to. Natalie will be at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in New York City on April 14 for a talk with Katherine Lanpher.