Category Archives: Criticism

Bravo! for the new arbiters of art: us … and a commenters’ strike at The Guardian

Shawn Yu's Teaton Series

'Cavalier-Servant' -- Shawn Yu

Hello-and-goodbye, … unless, against long odds, you read on. Why so pessimistic? Though this is said to be the age of the image, people measuring attention spans have found that in ten seconds flat, an online video loses a fifth of its audience. How much less hope must there be for the seductive power of a mere text?

This new painting by Shawn Yu was still brightening my day on a part of my screen when I saw the report on video watching. It led me to marvel at how fast aesthetic attraction, not just dismissal, works on the net. Of how quickly we can recognise a certain je ne sais quoi in an artist’s work impossible to explain, even to ourselves, which guarantees that we will find that painter’s oeuvre consistently engaging – at the very least. As I’ve explained (see the second footnote here), it was a drawing Shawn made from a photograph of Bruce Chatwin that originally caught my eye as I was speed-skimming my way through images of that writer served up by search engines.

Every visit to Shawn’s site since has been rewarding. Lately, going there has been like popping into a magical gallery in which a wizard keeps putting up new paintings on the walls for an exhibition by a single artist, and on the same theme – in this case, kettles, teapots, jugs and coffee pots, of all things; some with and some without human companions. As someone who has always had trouble with collections of short stories, anthologies of poems, group shows by artists – or even a single artist displaying pieces on several themes in more than one style – the staggered presentation has felt so right that it might have been designed for me. Finding my way to it without any intermediary or other people’s interpretations of the pictures has only heightened the pleasure of looking at them.

I think Shawn is still a student but close to being hatched by his art school. There’s no saying whether he will or won’t stick with Surrealism. He does seem to me to have a very special feeling for that style. Some of his pictures have taken me back to standing in the Dali museum in Figuerres a few years ago, enjoying the expressions on the faces of other visitors as much as examining the exhibits. Like the great moustachioed one, Shawn’s blog shows that he can also be a fine realistic painter – impeccably accurate as an anatomist, just as Dali was. … But scrolling down his online exhibition, it has also occurred to me that Surrealism remains the only approach to depicting our world that captures the grain, the scent, the unending, stomach-churning topsy-turvyness of contemporary life.

Last week I was surprised to find – in another context – that Herbert Pothorn, a German architectural historian, thought that Surrealism had a precedent in a style that defined another age of uncertainty and chronic disruption:

The final phase of the Renaissance is known as Mannerism. In art history the term implies a highly personal mode of expression; it also indicates the adoption of the specific idiom or manner of a certain artist by others, or by a whole school. … [I]t also entails a love of exaggeration and artificiality, obtained by any means possible. Mannerism tends towards excess, towards distortion of perspective …It was the product of a spiritually uncertain age – an age caught between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, seeking for new certainties, and attempting to guide itself through all this insecurity with the help of fantasy […] Mannerist painting was … a forerunner of Surrealism, i.e. that trend or movement of ideas that aimed to re-establish the unconscious, freeing it from the tools and formulae of reason.

… Something paradoxical about the way we deal with people’s posts in the Blogosphere is that we’re as apt to dismiss some prematurely as we are to relentlessly monitor others for signs of behaviour we don’t approve of – scrutinising these post-writers’ beliefs and inconsistencies more often and minutely, from thousands of miles away, than we could have done from right next door in the past. Then there’s the fun of comparing our reactions with those of others – comparisons all the more exciting for our having no ties or obligations to our fellow blog watchers.

It seems as if lots of other visitors to the Guardian‘s site have been put off by that paper’s barbaric censorship policies; in particular, by its victimisation of Desmond Swords/Kevin Desmond (or HerMajesty here). You might imagine that the dramatic drop in the comments count for a weekly poetry blog there in recent weeks would have registered with the managers of that site as a protest against its suppression of free expression – and that they might have tried to make amends, or at least offer some form of apology. You might imagine that they’d have noticed that for several years, now, that blogger who refuses to accept being banned has been responsible for more lively debates and click count-boosting posts than anyone else. … You might imagine that they’d have noticed that without him, there is only word for the threads in that section: dull.

But no, they appear to be have decided to sit out what is virtually a commenters’ strike, and do nothing at all.

The reasons why so many of us are supporting Des are: (i) The Guardian’s site managers’ failure to understand that it is commenters, not their ‘above-the-line’ bloggers, who have made that spot on the web worth visiting – a fact that makes their obtuse and draconian censorship utterly counter-productive. (ii) He can be wonderfully witty and inventive in the way he undermines the stodgy, misguidedly technical and needlessly jargon-ridden introductions to the Poem-of-the-Week – by an author who has shown, when she posts in comments sections, that she is capable of being funny and lively, on occasion. [(iii) See addendum, below, which contains the most important part of the explanation.]

Yet above the line, week after week, she holds forth in her droning Voice of Authority – in a style of criticism I expect will come to be known as Early Debased – or Very Early and remarkably Debased (as someone said about a bell tower in a church in an English university town in the late nineteenth century that was referred to as the Meat Safe).

Why don’t people like her see what is happening to the presumption of literary authority? In my last post I mentioned keeping tabs on the staggering – and widening – gap between paid and unpaid critics’ assessments of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. On a trip to the page a few hours ago, I noticed that 579 of 660 readers of an exemplary review by ‘zashibis’ — who awarded the book a one-star rating — had marked it as helpful. Its opening establishes that zashibis is objective, and nurses no personal grudge against the much-fêted author:

Negative reviews get no love on Amazon, but, having been thoroughly taken in by the glowing reviews in the NYT, Time, the Economist, etc., I feel compelled to add a voice of dissent and caution.

I read and enjoyed The Corrections, so was looking forward to seeing what Franzen had been up to for the past 10 years …

My impressions of the book from reading its first twenty five-odd pages have been confirmed, to the letter, by dozens of detailed descriptions of the rest of the mega-tome by lay assessors. ‘Taken in’ is exactly how I would have felt fifteen years ago, before there was an publishing extracts from new novels on its site – or offering instant access to hundreds of uncredentialled but obviously astute zashibises. I wouldn’t have been able to get a refund for the hefty price I’d have had to pay for Freedom, and I’d have had felt miserably and furiously isolated in my bafflement by the laurels the literary establishment had heaped on it.

Censors like the Guardian’s will have to take over the world to reverse the flood tide against pontificators who specialise in king- and queen-making in the arts. All hail, Canute!


Late addendum:

(iii) As Scott Adams recently said about his brilliant satirisation of corporate idiocy,

Humor likes danger. If you are cautious by nature, writing humor probably isn’t for you. Humor works best when you sense that the writer is putting himself in jeopardy.
In the early days of my cartooning career, as the creator of “Dilbert,” part of the strip’s appeal was that I was holding a day job while mocking the very sort of company I worked for. If you knew my backstory, and many people did, you could sense my personal danger in every strip. (My manager eventually asked me to leave. He said it was a budget thing.)


Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, Criticism, Poetry, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Get poetry out of the ivory tower and give it back to poets

Elephant from a 15th c. bestiary (The Royal Library of Denmark)

Speculative representation of an elephant from clues in 15th century England … or … Academic interpretation of modern poetry in English, c. 2010

… ‘But, censorship aside — why does the academic infestation and degradation of poetry bother you so much?’ I haven’t yet replied to the friend who asked me that after reading the last three posts on this blog.

I could answer in two parts: first, that I suppose the fault lies partly with me. I’ve never given up a childhood glimmer of intuition in close sympathy with Mme. de Staël’s definition of poetry, c.1800, as ‘a momentary possession of all that is sought by our soul’. … Alright, I was a geeky, old-fashioned child who should have known better, having been born post-modern like you, readers – known that Modernism was about irreversible repudiation, disenchantment and disillusion, with no room for exaltation through the sublime.

For the second part, I might say: for the same reason I’d put the Kama Sutra near the top of my list of the dullest books ever printed.

What? that hallowed sex bible of the ancient Indians? is what I expect my friend to shriek. Yes, that one, which has never lived up to its billing, for me. (Or possibly the Indologist A.L. Basham, who said that ‘The Indian passion for classification […] led to the development of rather pedantic schools on […] sexual relations.’) I’ve found instructions for fiddling with the innards of personal computers a bigger turn-on than the venerable do-it-yourselves manual for the inculcation of lust that presumes mechanical contortions and not emotional and mental electrification to be the erotic gift that keeps on giving.

To see what that has to do with modern poetry, just close your eyes and imagine: your limbs are sweetly intertwined with your amour‘s, lips fine-tuned to the secret harmonies of lips. Suddenly, a voice that belongs to neither of you speaks. ‘Dopamine level’s rising nicely in both male and female subjects,’ it says. You look over your shoulder to see a large pair of tortoiseshell spectacles angled in your direction at first, then at the screen of a small computer, and then at another screen with a tangle of wires – with eek! …two of them ending in you and your partner.

‘Don’t pay any attention to me,’ a someone perched on the edge of your bed says in precise, forensic tones. ‘I’m just validating your trajectory from pre-consummation to full-on orgasmic attainment. So pleased your pheromones were gaining altitude fast enough that you didn’t notice me inserting my hormone calibrators into you!’ … If, defying all conceivable odds, you and your dear one do manage the uh, … usual culmination, … the all-knowing voice intones through heavy breathing a helpful summing-up with forward spin. ‘Excellent! Oxytocin and prolactin attaining high averages in both subjects. If you want my advice, kids, try and keep a lid on the prolactin – good for bonding initially, but you don’t want it getting too high as the rate of congress rises over the medium to long term. Can be a causative element in feelings of entrapment.’

… Perfectly ‘orrible, yes?
– except for those of you who surely depend on recipes for every meal you cook, and need food and wine critics to tell you what your own taste buds should, or could, if you would only let them. … What I’m saying is, I see reading poetry or experiencing any artistic creation as an intimate, highly personal exchange between an artist and every member of an audience. No intermediaries, thank you. Certainly not for poetry in English from roughly John Donne’s time.

I can think of nothing worse than having to digest the evisceration and explanation of a poem before I’ve had a chance to read it on my own — like many an unfortunate student of literature. Well, actually, I can. Infinitely more frightful would be the literary equivalent of a research sexologist straining to persuade me that if I would only consider this other position – I mean, interpretive possibility, I’d get over my instinctive aversion to those pinhead eyes too close together, … I mean of course, that shopping list for athlete’s foot remedies rearranged as an experimental Poem, and attain nirvana.

Literary assessments by a critic who is also a sensitive writer do not read like sexology. When Frank Kermode died a few weeks ago, the elegant NYT editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg had this to say:

In my years in academia, I had watched the study of literature go down any number of rabbit holes — chasing after theory and ideology and system. The very point of reading and talking about what we read seemed to have been lost in a kind of strangulating self-seriousness and alienation. That’s where Kermode came in.

He was drawn to the entanglements of the text and its rational mysteries rather than some scaffold of theory. In his many books and essays, he protected the reader’s freedom to be interested in whatever was interesting. That meant writing a prose that was never wholly academic and over the years became more and more open to the intersection of literature and the lives we’re actually living.

Could Kermode’s approach serve as the gold standard and guide to writing about poetry in the future? Can we ask academics to restrict their interpreting and grinding down to verse written in obscure, archaic forms of the language? Could they be persuaded to refrain from telling us what is and isn’t good poetry – or indeed a poem at all?

Asking those questions could be whistling in the wind, today. Poetry has been getting more and not less entangled with academia, as the lawyer-poet and critic David Orr has wickedly pointed out:

Partly as a result of the art form’s academic attachment, poets are increasingly knit together in complicated patterns based on mentorship, instruction or just basic university proximity. […] In “Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry,” for example, the critic Robert Archambeau smartly traces poets including Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass through their connection to Yvor Winters at Stanford. It’s a project that wouldn’t work (or at least, not quite so well) with Eliot or Frost or Williams, simply because times have changed.

That said, some of the inter­dependence in today’s poetry world isn’t a function of modernity but of insecurity, which is why you’ll occasionally find writers claiming to be “fourth-generation New York School poets,” as if latching on to your great-grandfather’s avant-garde were something to be proud of, rather than sheepish about. Presumably it feels better to be a poet carrying on the tradition of “X” than just a plain old poet talking to the void.

… But then there’s this internet, through which change – if enough people demand it – can come as unexpectedly as a sneeze. Nearly every publication of note in the old print world has been frantic to outdo the others, lauding Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom to the stratosphere and beyond. I’ve been monitoring the many very different reports on the book at – a few of them finely considered and beautifully written – by actual readers. Freedom’s standing with these reactors has fallen steadily over the weeks since its launch near the start of the month, bringing its average rating down by half a star to just three.

This was precisely what I wanted to see happen four years ago, after twice being misled by professional critics infecting each other with hype fever — steadily improving, credible, independent literary criticism.

So I’m optimistic about the net helping those of us who care to reclaim poetry for true poets, who want it left alone. I suspect that we’ll get the sexologists — no, I mean surely, poexologists, out of the way soon enough. ; )


Filed under Criticism, Poetry

On a Guardian poetry blog, scenes from the crumbling old order

The Clash - Jakub Julian Ziolkowski

Much that is rotten about the social order collapsing in the dying age of print is obvious from what was cut when censors ran amok on – of all things – a supposedly liberal newspaper’s poetry blog, the subject of the last entry here. Readers who never saw the comments hacked out of that discussion have been curious about what they said, so I’m putting up a selection in another part of this site.

The Guardian purge is well worth revisiting, for connoisseurs of pattern recognition. Censorship itself started with religious authorities who had glimpsed the beginning of their end in Gutenberg’s printing press. As hard as it was for their 15th-century ancestors to keep up with the subversive literature of their day, the toil of today’s online censors is even more quixotic. Yet they bash on, against the popular will, the masters that they serve as hopelessly misguided as hierarchs of the past were in insisting on their entitlement to authority – banding together for reinforcement in much the way they did, and deploying similar tactics.

It was the very smallness and insignificance of the group of actors associated with the poetry blog that made watching old patterns play out in the bloodbath so entertaining – not merely horrifying.

Here are seven parallels that stood out:

1. The use of propaganda. After a hundred-odd comments were slashed – by the reckoning of several readers – a supporter of Carol Rumens, the lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger enraged by attacks on academia’s effects on poetry, tried to justify the silencing of her opponents with this nonsensical post:

3 September 2010 3:47PM

An elegantly pruned blog, all excess foliage to the compost. These words of wisdom say it all: […]’Pruning grape vines is a basic principle that any grower, regardless of experience, must understand. Whenever you leave a vine unpruned, the first year you’ll have a massive big crop. Novice growers can feel delighted with their success and wonder what all the pruning fuss is about. […But …] when you actually prune a vine correctly, you remove as much as 95 to 98% of the previous season’s growth. […] The vine can’t produce enough energy to ripen an unregulated crop, and it’ll be poor quality.’

Propaganda is a branch of the art of persuasion. It nearly always relies on specious logic, like other kinds of communication that insult readers’ intelligence. Pruning a grapevine has absolutely nothing in common with suppressing free speech. Snipping leaves and branches serves a single, consistent aim – producing wine of a particular type. Not a bit like the right to free expression, which can serve as many aims as there are people expressing themselves, whose opinions can be diametrically opposed.

2. Defenders of the status quo are uniquely protected from criticism or reprisals – and on the public purse. SCFMH – whose posts are usually more intelligent — has revealed himself elsewhere on the net as Simon M. Hunter. Like Rumens, he appears to teach at a university. There is irony unbound in the reason why SCFMH can support a Rumens capable of calling her employers ‘you bastards’ without producing a single birth certificate blank where a father’s name should be – yet lecturing commenters not sitting in her classroom about their behaviour, and getting a few of them banned from the Guardian‘s site for no more than bracing, playful criticism. (I would place a large bet on no reader of or commenter on her blog’s ever having addressed an employer as she did, in full public view.)

That reason is called ‘tenure’. It was invented, as the Wikipedia says, ‘to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, …’

Who pays the salaries of most university lecturers? Ah, in Britain and the US, that would be us, the unwashed public. Shouldn’t we be entitled to as least as much freedom as they have to speak out?

3. Blatant hypocrisy goes unchallenged. Like feudal serfs, most readers of the Rumens blog were stopped from objecting to her treatment of dissenting commenters by the censors’ threat: ‘This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.’ (And indeed, all attempts to support Rumens’ critics disappeared.)

4. Defunct, repressive authorities have collaborators, enablers and appeasers. . . among those who should know better, but fear that they stand to lose more than they gain from a revolution. Look at the posts left in place after the grand cull on the morning of September the 3rd and you’ll find fine samples of smug support for the triumphant status quo.

5. No right of appeal for those muzzled and expelled. ….The Guardian’s censors and moderators will only discuss deletions in private, by email. As anyone who can see why transparency is essential to justice knows, that amounts to, ‘We’ll brook no challenges and will suppress all evidence of our repression and mistakes’.

6. The powerful never stoop to an apology. Rumens showed that she understood that something of the kind was required of her when she said vaguely, the following week, ‘Milton may be above criticism, ATF, but , alas, I don’t think I am…’. .. A whole-hearted apology clearly linked to the censorfest might have won her some points. Most of all, she owed – still owes – her critics a respectful discussion of what academia has done to modern poetry; of the wider implications of both her and her featured poet being academics. … And she and the Guardian could have won the undying loyalty of many a reader by conceding that the censorship went too far, and above all, by restoring the censored posts.

7. Futile attempts to carry privileges from the old order into the new. Noting cracks in the joists and foundations of their fortresses, some members of the old guard are naively trying to set the rules for the new order. Anxious to be seen as egalitarian in spite of the mountain of evidence to the contrary, Rumens said in the cull’s aftermath that her ‘blog has to have comments – that’s the admirable nature of the beast. It’s not about soloists.’ … Ah, but that’s the beauty of online media: there are no such rules. There are no externally imposed‘ has to have’s, shoulds, or musts. Millions of wonderful blogs on the net have no comments at all, year after year; millions of others have huge and lively comments sections that read like transcripts of beer busts.

… Indeed, the old order changeth … And yet, as an old friend put it, ‘These dictators never learn, do they? They can’t help themselves.’


Filed under Censorship, Criticism, Editors and editing, Poetry, Social trends, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Deconstructing Ian McEwan-envy, the UK and US versions

Beard said, ‘It’s all crap, Toby. Don’t listen. This is the queen’s birthday honours list. She doesn’t choose it, she knows fuck-all about it, and they all scramble to be on it, every booby and arriviste from science and the arts and the civil service who wants to strut about the place hoping to be taken for a member of the minor aristocracy.’

Solar, 2010

Reasons for the widespread hatred of Ian McEwan fall into three categories, as far as I can tell. While I can’t relate to the people positively bludgeoning him for the first of these, I’ve been as irritated as they are by the hyper-inflation of his reputation by marketing gnomes dedicated to generating mountains of cash for his publishers. We must blame these worthies for the McEwan novels that read like superb short stories glued together with monstrous padding, with an eye to profit — because collections of short stories do not sell as well as long-form fiction does.

In the second category, an exclusively British phenomenon, he is accused repeatedly – often by those who have never read a page of his words – of being a member of the ‘middle-class’ only interested in writing about that social segment for other people in it. Presumably, these critics believe that a prominent writer committing this sin is conspiring with others like him – and middle-class publishing executives – to perpetuate their economic advantages at the expense of those further down the social scale. They do make it plain that they consider the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged to be the only legitimate subject for a serious writer of fiction. Why, in other words, doesn’t silly old McEwan see that it’s his job to serve as the Dickens, Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Pinter or Jean Genet of the 21st century?

I have a question for these critics: why can’t they understand that there can be no one more devastatingly subversive than a perceptive writer concentrating on the privileged, their beliefs and biases?

Simply by choosing a scientist as his protagonist, and doing science today as his focus — as McEwan has in his latest novel, Solar — a writer in Britain is lobbing a small but deadly grenade at one of the most vicious, deeply rooted prejudices of upper-class England. Reviewing Never Pure, a book about the history of science for the New York Times last month, Katherine Bouton observed:

In the essay titled “The Scientific Person,” the professor shows how science gained from the upper classes’ disdain for learning and the learned. The Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, made up of gentlemen one and all, attempted to garner respect for science. But it failed: scientists continued to be seen, as Professor [Steven] Shapin puts it, as “swilling around in human urine,” eliciting a “polite retch reflex.” This left the field open to the rising class of those industrializing Britain.

So science has, in fact, been a critical social leveller – as far as possible from a tool for entrenching middle- and upper-class privilege..

Reviewers have on the whole missed McEwan’s impish commentary in Solar on the war between lovers of science and the humanities – the subject of C. P. Snow’s famous ‘two cultures’ debate. He gives Michael Beard, his book’s lovingly mocked anti-hero — an obese, Nobel prize-winning physicist — a transformative experience at Oxford, where he has arrived as a scholarship boy. To impress Maisie Farmer, the beautiful literature student who has until then resisted all his attempts to persuade her to go out with him – he turns himself into an expert on Milton by buying a one-hour tutorial on the subject from a fellow-student, and then speed-reading for a week. The plan works and, McEwan writes,

… was a turning point in his development, for he knew that no third-year arts person, however bright, could have passed himself off after a week’s study among the under-graduate mathematicians and physicists who were Beard’s colleagues. The traffic was one-way. [. . .] The reading was a slog, but he encountered nothing that could remotely be construed as an intellectual challenge, nothing on the scale of difficulty he encountered daily in his course. [ … ] He and his lot were at lectures and lab work nine till five every day, attempting to come to terms with some of the hardest things ever thought. The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week. He suspected there was nothing they talked about there that anyone with half a brain could fail to understand. He had read four of the best essays on Milton. He knew. And yet they passed themselves off as his superiors, these lie-a-beds, and he had let them intimidate him.

There’s a sly joke buried there, sinc McEwan himself – though he was never a science student or scientist – is showing off as a rare literary artist proving that the traffic is not necessarily all one-way. He writes so accurately about complex theories in science and medicine that reading some highly technical passages of Solar is about as thrilling as munching on sisal carpeting.

As he never attended Oxford or any other elite university, the charge of smug obliviousness to social discrimination constantly levelled at him is even more baffling.

But bigots will be bigots, as the third category of complaints about him also illustrates. This one is largely an American phenomenon. An online search will show no shortage of his countrymen congratulating Walter Kirn on his crude and atrociously written attack on Solar, extensively quoted on this blog a few weeks ago. Yet any lit-lover who took the time to study last week’s comparison of paragraphs by Kirn and McEwan writing on closely similar subjects would surely agree with Moristotle, a wise, dissenting American who diagnosed ‘a serious case of jealousy’ as the explanation for Kirn’s hatchet-job on a novelist who, I believe, could out-write him sedated and fast asleep.

The gist of Kirn’s complaint was that McEwan writes too well, and is guilty of over-the-top over-writing. Yet in the puff piece he lavished on another novel, the excruciatingly un-funny, cliché-ridden Absurdistan, a review that put it on the NYT’s ten-best-books-of-2006 list, he made elaborate excuses for the same aspiration and flaw, respectively, in a novelist who did not make him feel quite so insecure. About Gary Shteyngart’s collaboration with his own protagonist-narrator, Kirn said:

Shteyngart and Misha, exuberant depressives, don’t stint on the syntax or the verbiage when objects huge and rotten hulk into view. Their thick, overloaded style is what happens, though, when socialist realism decays into black comedy. This is the prose of heroic disappointment, faintly labored at moments but fitted to the task of shoveling up mountains of cultural debris. Hemingway’s clean sentences wouldn’t do here. A man needs commas, semicolons, adjectives. He requires linguistic heavy machinery.

He does, does he? …And yet Kirn would, if he could, forbid McEwan — a sentence-by-sentence master of English prose — the use of any such machinery. Reviewing Shteyngart’s new novel, the NYT’s redoubtable Michiko Kakutani said earlier this week that it ‘avoids the pretensions and grandiosity of Mr. Shteyngart’s last book, “Absurdistan,” … ‘. Well said, Ms. Kakutani.

Jealousy aside, why is Kirn so much more indulgent of Shteyngart’s literary showmanship than McEwan’s? There might have been a clue in this paragraph of an article by Judith Warner in the NYT earlier this month:

A tendency toward anti-intellectualism isn’t new in our country … [I]n his 1962 classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” Richard Hofstadter wrote of our culture’s longtime devaluation of the head in favor of the heart and a historic tendency to prefer people and phenomena — educational approaches, types of religious experience — motivated by passion or gut rather than intellect or reason. “Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion,” he wrote. “It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism.”

The emotional excessiveness of Shteyngart’s ‘exuberant depressives’ makes him a more sympathetic chronicler of the human condition for a Walter Kirn than someone like McEwan, who cares just as much, but chooses a cooler and more detached stance towards his characters.

The British alternative is neatly encapsulated in a protest against overflowing sentimentality getting in the way of good sense by a prison doctor, Theodore Dalrymple, in the Telegraph earlier this week: ‘Sentimentalists try to make up for a lack of feeling by emotional exhibitionism.’

Wit – black humour – is much preferred in Blighty to Shteyngart’s style of histrionic Russian-American lamentation, extended tantrums and breast-beating.

I wouldn’t ordinarily be wasting time on such odious comparisons. It’s just that putting Kirn’s obtuse butchering of Solar on the front page of the NYT‘s Sunday books section did look a bit too much like an aggressive attempt to bring McEwan to heel, and to impose the American approach to fiction-writing on the world as the model against which all other styles must be judged.

It’s not unlike the persistent attempts by Americans to rewrite the rules for football – not simply re-name a game they don’t know how to win any version of without padding themselves to look like blank, faceless, Egyptian mummies in motion. P.J. Rourke was only half-joking when he whinged in the Wall Street Journal near the end of the World Cup:

“Nil-nil” is not a sports score, “nil-nil” is a foreign policy. Judging by the many successes of the United Nations, it’s a foreign policy favored by the majority of the world’s foreign countries. Of course nil-nil is not an American foreign policy, or wasn’t until we got a president with a suspiciously foreign name. Americans like to win. And, come on global sports fans, you like to win too. In this one respect you’re all Americans at heart. So knock it off with the whole “everybody’s a loser” soccer thing.

No thanks, P.J., go away – we don’t want any… Solar is, by the way, one of the funniest contemporary novels I’ve read for a very long time. One sequence in it could make a short story brilliant enough to make Woody Allen turn chartreuse and weep. It has just two male characters travelling on a train together, and a bag of salt-and-vinegar crisps.


Filed under Class and literature, Criticism, Psychology, Social trends

What will yours be, madam/sir? A Walter Kirn or an Ian McEwan?

A sequel to Anti-Atlanticism: the lynching of Ian McEwan and Tony Judt has been taking shape, but I won’t have time to write it for a day or three. In the meanwhile, …

You are lying beneath shimmering eucalyptus trees, breathing in the invigorating perfume of their leaves, eavesdropping on the shffffffffffrrr-shhhhrrr-shffffffffffrrr of their movements in the caressing breeze … A waiter approaches your deck chair with the e-reader that you have rented with your hotel room. ‘We’re offering our guests a choice of complimentary e-books,’ he says. ‘These are sample paragraphs to help you make your selection. Both novelists are tackling the flitting-about part of today’s work world, the endless airport terminals, the plane rides. . . I’ll be back in ten minutes, …’.


Planes and airports are where I feel at home. Everything fellows like you dislike about them – the dry, recycled air alive with viruses; the salty food that seems drizzled with warm mineral oil; the aura-sapping artificial lighting – has grown dear to me over the years, familiar, sweet. I love the Compass Club lounges in the terminals, especially the flagship Denver Club, with its digital juice dispenser and deep suede sofas and floor-to-ceiling views of taxiing aircraft. I love the restaurants and snack nooks near the gates, stacked to their heat lamps with whole wheat mini-pizzas and gourmet caramel rolls. I even enjoy the suite hotels built within sight of the runways on the ring roads, which is sometimes as close as I get to the cities my job requires me to visit.

Up in the Air, Walter Kirn, 2001


Half an hour later, the Berlin flight was docked and he was fourth man off, towing his carry-on luggage, walking stiffly at speed, with unmanful little skips and hops (his knees, his body, indeed his mind, were no longer capable of simple running) down the sealed capillaries, the carpeted steel tubes that fed him through the airport’s innards towards the immigration hall. Far quicker to pound alongside the hundred-metre walkway than squeeze by the dreamy, motionless voyagers and their luggage blocking the runs. At least a dozen young men off his plane, hurrying more effectively, overtook him along this stretch, lean, crop-headed business types, raincoats flapping over their forearms, unhindered by their weighty shoulder bags, talking easily as they flew by. An avenue of ads for banking and office services, weakly humorous, effortfully eye-catching – clearly, advertising was an industry for third-raters – increased his irritation in the underventilated, overlit corridors.

Solar, Ian McEwan, 2010


Filed under Book publishing, Class and literature, Criticism

Anti-Atlanticism: the lynching of Ian McEwan and Tony Judt

The American War of Independence

Curiously regressive behaviour?

Tip-toeing in after an absence of a few months feels like becoming the ghost of un blog perdu. Haunting has a touch of the illicit about it, doesn’t it? — and I should be not here but scrabbling at the coal face. The same irresistible force behind my first comment on the net four years ago has put springs into these blog-tapping digits. It’s the hope of finding others who have noticed odd behaviour going unremarked in life offline, as far as I can tell.

Why has the Sunday book review section of The New York Times taken to attacking British writers with unique savagery? Discovering two particularly egregious examples in the same spring in which the phrase ‘anti-Atlanticist’ has gained traction in political commentary has me wondering which came first, a cooling ‘special relationship’ in diplomacy evolving into mutual disdain, or growing, widespread cultural friction reflected, now, in barbaric literary scalping?

The first review invites the question of whether the venerable NYT books section is trying to imitate very angry or deranged bloggers to sound younger and less stuffy. Its target was Ian McEwan. Assiduous hyping by his publishers has made this almost mathematically elegant, if uneven, writer the object of bloggers’ bile in direct proportion to the excessive praise lavished on his work by his promoters. But surely the NYT has a reputation for weighed words to protect?

In late April, a front-page critique in the Sunday review of McEwan’s new book, Solar, by the American novelist Walter Kirn read like the sort of baffling murder in which a victim is stabbed often and unnecessarily enough to become a mortuary reminder of Emmental cheese. Were the reviewer and his editors suffering from acute short-term memory lapses or desperate for some NoDoz when they failed to notice how redundant most of Kirn’s complaints were?

That might be obvious from a simple listing of metaphors he used — describing the book as (1) the work of a talented but dull architect; (2) a literary exam; (3) a corpse; (4) a crossword puzzle; (5) a diagram; (6) a culinary disaster wrought by an incompetent cook; (7) a lesson plan.

Here are some choice extracts:

… Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral. There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either. It’s impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read.

[…] What makes “Solar” such a noble nullity is that it answers these challenges so easily, with such a quotient of stress-free mastery that they feel less like challenges than like problems in a literary exam the author has devised as a means of proving his own prowess.

[…] Because a fictional character can exhibit only so much awareness of his own thematic utility, Beard [the novel’s protagonist] doesn’t notice any of this, merely regarding himself as a colorful eccentric. But readers will see him for what he is: a figure so stuffed with philosophical straw that he can barely simulate lifelike movement.

There’s little that’s lifelike about “Solar,” despite its relentless pretensions to relevance.

[…] The sequence occasions much calculated zaniness, none of it surprising or spontaneous, most of it as dreary as a diagram.

[…] Beard’s fall is at once so generic and so contrived that its climax feels neither inevitable nor cathartic but, rather, overbearing and schematic.

[…] This fine flourish of scatology is not only verbally overripe … but it doesn’t describe a smear of fecal matter.
In “Solar,” McEwan’s Cordon Bleu prose is like that: a buttery, rich sauce ladled onto overcooked, dry meat to help readers swallow an otherwise indigestible meal.

[…] The long-awaited disaster stands revealed as the last phase of a carefully crafted lesson plan.

I’m still trying to work out what ‘a quotient of stress-free mastery’ could mean, and whatever it does, what that might have to do with McEwan’s novel. Two protests from readers about Kirn’s hostility ran in the NYT’s books section the following week. ‘The tone was so venomous and vitriolic, it read as if a personal vendetta were taking place on the front page …,’ complained Elmera Goldberg from New York. Mary Vaughn Blake in Massachusetts said that in forty-eight years of reading the section ‘I don’t recall another [review] quite as hate-filled.’

Like McEwan’s American fans racing to his defence, supporters of a more vulnerable victim of the NYT’s book-vetters have expressed their distress about the treatment of Ill Fares the Land, a dissection of capitalism’s destructive effects on society by the superb British historian Tony Judt on May 2. At least half a dozen times in the last ten years I have guessed — correctly — that some old and famous writer in close touch with New York literati must be fatally ill from the startlingly uncritical and reverential, if not canonical, tone of an interview with, or assessment of a book by, that author. Far from any such consideration, the editors of the NYT books section sanctioned a clumsily personal blast at Judt, even after he revealed that he is gravely ill, too young, with ALS.

That review’s closing paragraph says,

Judt, the immigrant, should know. He has done better in America in terms of access and fame than an American of the same calibre would have done in Sweden or Germany. It is still easier to escape from the slums of America than from the banlieues of France.

But Judt did not come to the US as an impoverished immigrant. He is not American but British (as far as Wikipedia or I know) – simply, a British expatriate.

If he were an immigrant –as the reviewer and the NYT’s fact-checking department imagine – he would apparently have forfeited the right to criticise the staggering growth in income equality in the world’s richest country. Blogging at the Huffington Post, Don Agin said:

Who but the New York Times would assign a foreign conservative hack to review a new liberal anti-capitalism book by Tony Judt? The reviewer, Josef Joffe, is a former publisher-editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit. […] The choice […was…] unfortunate and silly […]. It may get the New York Times some attention, but it acts against the good of the public. Next time choose a centrist to review a book on the left or right.

[…]Joffe says Judt offers a very old idea: the “virtue of collective action for the collective good.”

Well, yes. But does the fact that it’s an “old idea” lessen its import? Joffe thinks so.

Judt is just as critical of Blighty as of the land of Uncle Sam. His book sets out some stunning numbers – of which the Walmart statistics are among the most obscene markers of inequality in the modern West that I have ever seen:

The greatest extremes of private privilege and public indifference have resurfaced in the US and the UK: epicenters of enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism. Although countries as far apart as New Zealand and Denmark, France and Brazil have expressed periodic interest in deregulation, none has matched Britain or the United States in their unwavering thirty-year commitment to the unraveling of decades of social legislation and economic oversight.

In 2005, 21.2 percent of US national income accrued to just 1 percent of earners. Contrast 1968, when the CEO of General Motors took home, in pay and benefits, about sixty-six times the amount paid to a typical GM worker. Today the CEO of Wal-Mart earns nine hundred times the wages of his average employee. Indeed, the wealth of the Wal-Mart founder’s family in 2005 was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the US population: 120 million people.

The UK too is now more unequal—in incomes, wealth, health, education, and life chances—than at any time since the 1920s.

Now, that is an extract from the book that ran in the New York Review of Books, whose standing among New York intellectuals is far higher than the NYT’s, and understandably envied by the newspaper’s book editors. Joffe himself goes out of his way to remind us of that fact in his first paragraph:

But unless the reader belongs to the choir to which Tony Judt preaches — call it the Europhile liberal left, who would rather sell their Prius than forgo their New York Review of Books — …

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the NYT reviewer and his prose doctors would rise above juvenile rivalry to give Judt the respect that a widely-admired scholar and public intellectual deserves – or at least, refrain from directing such a poorly argued screed at what could be his valedictory offering.

It would have been so easy for the editors to find a dozen reviewers with the credentials to write a measured, elegant and riveting assessment of Judt’s book that it’s hard not to suspect that something more powerful even than jealousy lay behind their choice of critic – and failure to demand a rewrite. Could that possibly be a reflection of ‘the anti-Britainism in Washington’ further north and east? Even supposing that the McEwan and Judt reviews were retaliation for the literary equivalent of latter-day redcoats eviscerating some American novelist — or novelists — dear to their hearts, couldn’t the skewering have been done gracefully, humanely, and with even the smallest thimbleful of wit?


Filed under Criticism, Editors and editing

A serendipitous postscript to: Bruce Chatwin, blogging pioneer

A good reporter thinking in what couldn’t be deemed his finest hour was complaining the other day that the net has killed serendipity. To that I say, stuff and nonsense. The fact is, it’s alive and well and has only done a bit of shape-shifting — just as Serendip, the inspiration for that gorgeous word, turned into Ceylon and then Sri Lanka.

After I’d posted my last entry here, I got curious about how posterity is treating Bruce Chatwin. Near the top of search engine offerings for my query, I found a surprising and highly original assessment of his work by a friend of his, the composer Kevin Volans.

No, that doesn’t count as an example of serendipity, but only the equivalent of a waiter appearing with poached eggs and a double espresso because I’d ordered — gosh!poached eggs and a double espresso. I was looking for other people’s opinions of the Chatwin oeuvre: that was what I got. What did signal serendipity was that the title of the Volans paper, written for last spring’s Oxford Literary Festival, was Some Japanese Influences on Style and Structure in Bruce Chatwin’s Writing. And as if that wasn’t sufficiently delectable on its own, he explains en passant that it was ‘the compositional structure of the books that first attracted me to Bruce’s work.’

Volans’ analysis justifies an obsession of mine — that we need much more of both cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary criticism in the arts, because it’s in the perspectives of outsiders that the most illuminating insight is found disproportionately. That’s not something I can prove statistically or in any objective way, of course. But though I have no formal training in either classical music or poetry appreciation, this segment of the — rather disorganised, only it doesn’t matter — paper immediately leapt out as fresh and true:

In place of metaphor Chatwin tends to use a structure also found in haiku or its older form waka – an AB form in which the first part sets up an expectation, and the second part provides a resolution (which is often unexpected). The resonance created between the first and the second parts substitutes for metaphor. […] This is the basis of the structure of Japanese linked poetry which was developed from the 8th century onwards. According to Yuasa, ‘…each poem takes up the suggestion of the last poem and yet opens up a new world of its own, so that the reader is carried though the whole series as through the exquisitely arranged rooms of a building.’ I think this is what Bruce aspired to in his more ambitious moments.

An AB structure runs throughout Bruce’s late work in particular – the
form is so common as to almost be a personal cliché – and is used both on a small and a large scale. […]

A: “Mrs. Gandhi wore a green and white striped sari. And sat down to a breakfast
B: that never came.” [ What Am I Doing Here ]

A: “They set down the coffin with a show of reverence.
B: Then, attracted by the smell of hot bread from a bakery along the street, they strolled off to get breakfast…” [ Utz ]

A: “Olwen had kicked. The hoof caught him under the chin,
B: and the sparrows went on chattering.” [ On the Black Hill ]

I wondered what Volans would make of the Shawn Yu portrait of Chatwin that I was attracted to because it gets behind the shimmering, beguilingly fey persona that the writer created. This passage in the Volans critique led me to suspect that he just might understand my choice of image:

[Artistry] transcends ‘personality’. Personality is formed and assessed socially and is habitual […] Beethoven the personality may have driven Beethoven the artist, but it was the intellect, the intelligence and the imagination of the artist that created the realms of his music. […] I say all of this because with Bruce Chatwin it is easy to be sideswiped by the glamour of the personality and the life of the author. Indeed, I think that at times the artist and the persona in Bruce were at odds with each other.

Volans believes that Chatwin was deeply influenced by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North — particularly in the writing of his impressionistic, idiosyncratic, collage- and blog-like account of his Australian odyssey:

For me Bruce’s novel with the most interesting structure is The Songlines. In form it’s almost an exact parallel of Basho’s A Visit to Sarashina Village: first a prose narrative which gives way to a set of linked verse. Basho, in the company of a pupil, sets off to see Mount Obasute under a full moon. The piece becomes a meditation on the meaning of travel, and journeying as a metaphor for transience of life itself. The linked poems at the end are by Basho and his disciple Etsujin.


[The Songlines ] is, of course, primarily a meditation on walking, travelling and its meaning. And the notebooks at the end have links: Petrarch talks of sleeping in a different bed each night. This links to Rimbaud (asking what am I doing here) – to a sleepless night in an hotel in Brazil – to the names of 2 hotels in Cameroon, the Windsor and the anti-Windsor – which provide a link a the British ambassador in Kabul, whose contradictory initiative and insensitivity to local culture leads to a Moorish proverb on the value of men – which prompts a story of a little man who prospects for jewellery in sewers in Miami: “’It is not, I can assure you, sir’ he said, ‘ an unrewarding occupation.’” And so on. And of course, many of the notes are quotations from other people’s writings.

Another point on which Volans and I might be singing in perfect harmony is about the commercialisation of the arts — an affliction I’ve bewailed before in writing about the fate today of journalism and book publishing.

By starting his career with In Patagonia Chatwin ran into a problem: all the arts are now run by their arch enemy: Business – in this case the Book Industry. And industries love labels. Work must be classified into genres. Is it fact or fiction? Is it a novel or is it a travel book? I recall one of the judges of the Booker prize being almost more annoyed at the brevity of Utz than anything else. The book didn’t fit into his classification of a novel, and therefore he felt it didn’t belong in the competition! (Imagine Capability Brown’s apoplexy at the sight of a stone garden).

I see hyper-serendipity as one of the greatest treats the net serves up. I’d have rated my chances of stumbling on Volans’ thoughts about Chatwin before I came online at close to zero. I am unlikely to have thought of asking a reference librarian about parallels in exotic cultural traditions for Chatwin’s literary style, and as for what rhythms a composer might discern in it — no, again, not even in a dream.

Yes, I do have an extraordinary friend or two who might, out of the blue, volunteer observations from a Volans-like perspective — or opinions as penetrating from some other viewpoint entirely. But that would be serendipity, too — the old-fashioned, ante-net kind.

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Filed under Book publishing, Criticism, Music and words, Poetry, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists