Brooklyn will get over it pretty quick.
(Please welcome a second Litkicks appearance by Claudia Moscovici, who recently told us about her experience writing the novel Velvet Totalitarianism. Today she introduces the main idea behind her book Romanticism and Postromanticism, an art-related idea that resembles some of the theories I've recently heard about genres and literary fiction. Enjoy ... -- Levi)
Artistic freedom and aesthetic value are interrelated. Art that is not considered valuable by the artistic establishment -- art critics, museum curators and art historians -- doesn’t even get the chance to be evaluated by the public. Such art doesn’t make it to museums of contemporary art like the Guggenheim. It also doesn’t get discussed in the art sections of influential newspapers and art magazines. Analogously, literature that is not considered valuable by the publishing establishment -- literary agents, editors, publishers and critics -- doesn’t get a readership because it never makes it into print. (Granted, of course, the Internet has recently opened up possibilities to express more diverse points of view that didn’t exist before.)
So artistic freedom isn’t just about creating whatever one wants in the privacy of one’s home or studio without the fear of being arrested or shot for it. Although this basic freedom is very necessary, artistic freedom also entails a correlate liberty: namely, the public’s freedom to be exposed to a wide variety of artistic and literary styles. That way we can make our own choices and express our personal tastes. When there’s only one politician or political party to vote for on a ballot it generally means there’s no real freedom of choice in politics. When there’s only one artistic current or style displayed in museums of contemporary art it means there’s no real freedom of choice in art.
In Paul Auster's City of Glass, a mad linguist named Peter Stillman pounds through the streets of Manhattan's Upper West Side, observed by a writer named Daniel Quinn who is impersonating a private detective named Paul Auster. Quinn tracks Stillman's movements in a red notebook and eventually realizes that his daily walks are spelling out the words "TOWER OF BABEL".
I'm impressed that many of you correctly identified the location of the Litkicks Mystery Spot #6. The book was published 25 years ago (!) to little immediate acclaim, and has gradually emerged as one of our era's modern classics. I'm sure I'm not the only person who can't walk through New York City's Upper West Side to this day without thinking of City of Glass.
You folks did great this time -- not a single wrong guess! Indeed, the answer to yesterday's quiz question is the La Mancha region in Central Spain, north of Toledo and south of Madrid, where Miguel de Cervantes set his great comic novel Don Quixote.
Cervantes did not live in the La Mancha region himself, but he was born nearby in Central Spain and was certainly familiar with the area. A town called Cervantes can also be found in this vicinity, though I have not been able to figure out whether he was named for this town or it was named for him (if anybody knows, please fill us in). Some literary experts believe that he chose the La Mancha region as the home for his hero just so he could name him "Don Quixote de la Mancha" (this was apparently funny, as "mancha" meant "stain").
The experimental novelist and one-time pulp/satire novelist David Markson (This Is Not A Novel, Wittgenstein's Mistress, The Last Novel, Epitath For a Dead Beat, Dirty Dingus Magee) has died at the age of 82, and many of the literary folks I follow are posting tributes. I'm impressed by the intensity of the reaction at Literary Saloon, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, HTML Giant, Gigantic Sequins, Filthy Habits, The Big Other, The Constant Conversation and Kenyon Review. These tributes prove that this author (who was never very well known or widely read) really broke through to a select group of readers in a unique way.
Can I pay respect to an author I've never been able to read myself? It's an interesting question. I've tried several of Markson's later novels and never got anywhere. Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of my very favorite philosophers, and I've read several thick books by and about him, so David Markson's postmodern send-up Wittgenstein's Mistress should have been a natural for me. I tried it and couldn't figure out what the hell the wandering narrative was trying to do, and ended up closing the book for good, gasping for air, after about seven meandering pages. I'm sure it's some intellectual failure of my own that's at work here, but I have no taste for self-referential postmodernism. I like books about life, books about people, books about things that happen -- and David Markson's books seem to be about the act of writing, about the fragmentation of thought, about, well, about themselves. It's not my cup of tea. Still, when I see the intense outpouring of emotion in the links above I can only wish I were a broader-minded reader, that I could better understand what all these other smart readers are so excited about.
(We're always excited to run a rave review on the rare occasion that one is deserved. Here's Garrett Kenyon on the latest work by a rising talent. -- Levi)
In 2005, while Americans of every stripe anxiously watched distant lands suffer the disastrous whims of our previous president, a minor miracle occurred stateside, right under our noses. That year, a young Russian-American writer named Olga Grushin published that rarest of literary accomplishments: a debut novel bearing the undeniable redolence of a modern classic. The Dream Life of Sukhanov was everything a first-novel shouldn't be: tight, timeless -- confidently executed with the subtlety and depth of a seasoned master. Some critics were so stunned by Sukhanov, they jokingly questioned whether it could really be the work of a novice. Another admitted he "felt like buying 10 copies and sending them to friends." He probably didn't. Which is unfortunate, because, by 2005, the firmament of American lit had become so reliably unremarkable that too few sets of eyes were paying attention when Sukhanov punctured the darkness and streaked across the sky.
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."
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.
I can't ever seem to get on board with the hot new young writers selected by our literary/critical/blogosphere group mind. I haven't gotten into Joseph O'Neill, or Marisha Pessl, or Junot Diaz, or Tower Wells, or Joshua Ferris. Is it my fault? Am I carrying too many prejudices with me, or not trying hard enough? Mark Sarvas recently seconded some comments Joshua Ferris made about readers or reviewers who don't like his latest work. Ferris said:
... they don't allow the book's rules to establish themselves before applying their own aesthetic criteria to it which I think is a mistake. I think a careful and adult reader allows the book to establish its world and then evaluates it on how well it does so.
Don DeLillo's been on my mind lately. I dug up his 1985 classic White Noise two weeks ago after finding my youngest daughter listening to an indie band called, of all things, Airborne Toxic Event. Rereading from the beginning, I was surprised how quickly White Noise drew me back in, how fresh, wise and witty this book was. Fun, even. But I've never had a similar experience with any other DeLillo work, and I find many of them (such as, for-instance, Game Six, his film about the 1986 Mets/Red Sox World Series) too incomprehensible to bother with.
The act of puzzling over a late Don DeLillo novel and trying to appreciate its rare essence has become almost a keystone of modern literary hipster life, and Geoff Dyer's review of the new Point Omega in today's New York Times Book Review smartly focuses on the experience and the mystique as much as on the work:
He has reconfigured things, or our perception of them, to such an extent that DeLillo is now implied in the things themselves. While photographers and filmmakers routinely remake the world in their images of it, this is something only a few novelists (Hemingway was one) ever manage. Like Hemingway, DeLillo has imprinted his syntax on reality and -- such is the blow-back reward of the Omega Point Scheme for Stylistic Distinction -- become a hostage to the habit of "gyrate exaggerations" (the phrase is in The Body Artist) and the signature patterns of "demolished logic."
Just what are we supposed to do with a new Don DeLillo novel? Like a Richard Serra sculpture, it is simply there. You look at it, or you walk around it. If somebody pays you to write a review, you read it.
Leah Hager Cohen fills us in today on Louise Erdrich's Shadow Tag, a fictional snapshot of a bad marriage, and crosses the line to explain the correspondence between the pained marriage in the book and the real-life drama involving Erdrich and her husband Michael Dorris, who killed himself in 1997. The question of whether or not a writer's real life is relevant to that writer's books underlies this piece, and many will question Cohen's decision to review fiction as biography. I think Cohen made the right decision. We read literary criticism to help us understand aspects of a work we might otherwise miss, after all, and in this case the correspondence between reality and fiction clearly helps us understand the book.
I like Amy Bloom's book titles: Even A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, and the new Where The God of Love Hangs Out, hungrily reviewed today by Francine Du Plessix Gray. I don't know if I'll ever find the time to read this novel, but I'm glad I read the title.
Call me unfashionable, but I'm not as interested as I should be in Will Blythe's coverage of a new Roberto Bolano, Monsieur Pain. Sure, I like Bolano, but the market's been just a little saturated with his books lately. At the rate I'm going, maybe I'll get around to reading Monsieur Pain by the year 2666.
The market for Lee Siegel's articles on everything that's wrong with modern culture has been saturated for a while too (in fact, it doesn't take much to saturate this demand). I'd be interested in almost any writer's take on the legacy of Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, published 30 years ago, but as usual Siegel's harumphing tone of superiority is a turnoff, and there's something just too ironic about a columnist famous for posting comments to his own articles critiquing the culture of narcissism.
I leave you today with one more clue -- a LitKicks exclusive, I believe -- towards the ultimate meaning of DeLillo's new novel (which I haven't read, and don't plan to). One of the main characters in Point Omega is named "Elster". The above-linked film Game Six, based on Don DeLillo's screenplay, concerns the 1986 Boston Red Sox and New York Mets. The backup shortstop on the 1986 New York Mets was Kevin Elster. You do the math.