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

Go on, buy some art online: it’s safe to know what you like

Are our brains too small to understand modern art? That’s not my question. It was framed by Terry Teachout, a consistently interesting writer on culture for The Wall Street Journal.

Though I enjoyed his little speculative exercise, and though I feel much as he does about his examples selected from modern classical music and modernist literature, I think he was barking up the wrong tree. That isn’t just because it is often impossible to tell who really understands a work of art, and to what degree. What I’d like to know, instead, is how long — if ever — it’s going to take the average person to feel safe in liking what he and she does naturally and instinctively, caring nothing about lining up with either mass or expert taste.

This familiar complaint by a Simon Heffer in yesterday’s Telegraph has something to do with too many people’s fear of expressing — or acting on — their aesthetic preferences:

There was a dreadful phrase that one used to hear a lot 30 or 40 years ago, but which is now, fortunately, less common: “I know what I like.” The level of satisfaction with which it was uttered was matched only by the degree of contempt it used to excite in me. How did the speaker know? And what did it say about his or her determination to close off a no doubt underactive mind against any adventure, any new stimulus, any sense of curiosity?

While the particular form of arrogance he describes is intrinsically annoying, knowing what you like – even insisting that you do – is not necessarily the sign of a closed mind. Surely it can also be consistent with wide-ranging, possibly pathological, curiosity? A strong, visceral certainty about what one likes can be hard won – from years of exploration and adventuring.

I have been thinking about all that partly because I am still wondering about the subject of my last post. Could selling ‘fine’ art online liberate buyers to simply choose what they like, sparing them the embarrassment – or annoyance – of needing to talk about it to people who know more about it than they do? Or less?

So far, I have only had time to look at a small portion of the portfolio that Ana Margarida Johnson, one young artist who recently joined the conversation here, has put up for sale on her site (yes, with helpful price tags.) In keeping with my preference for saying as little as possible about art that I find attractive, I will only note that I seem to have been drawn to her picture titled Orange – in spite of (usually) loathing the colour – because (i) of the playful vibrance of its shapes, not just its palette; (ii) I once, long ago, enjoyed drawing and painting abstract, complex geometric constructions myself; (iii) the work of Wassily Kandinsky, which I loved in those years of messing around with paint, came to mind in my first glance at Ana’s creation (say, his Black and Violet); (v) it looks almost exactly like my conception of how human brains operate – not just in my childhood, but well into my twenties, when I continued to dismiss all scientific understanding of grey matter as hopelessly dull, by comparison.

And that reminds me …For reasons that mystify even me, a trailer for Brain Wave, a piece of performance art by the Whalley Range All-Stars, has decisively reversed a downward drift in my mood every time I have watched its excerpts, since I discovered it a few days ago. I mean that I sensed that its effect was far more complex than simply making me laugh, but without being able to say exactly why. And I would rather not know. In that respect – a delicious unaccountability – it made me think of Waiting for Godot, which somehow makes despair cheerful. It also called to mind Dada — and Marcel Marceau. ‘See wishful thinking fight it out with mental blocks and twisted logic,’ the notice for Brain Wave proclaims. I wouldn’t say that that’s what I saw – or didn’t see — in the trailer, which made me sharply regret being too far away to accept its invitation.

Do artists need any more than that from an audience?

If I went to watch that WRAS offering, I would hope to have a chance to meet the troupe’s Pig, too. This is not the only site on which that beast has been discussed obsessively, interminably, perhaps tediously, for some … but my excuse, this time, is a chance re-discovery of a truly terrible poem, my reward for tackling the consequences of a flood in a laundry room that went undiscovered for weeks:

Harmonious Hog draw near!
No bloody Butchers here,
Thou need’st not fear,
Harmonious Hog draw near, and from thy beauteous Snowt
Whilst we attend with Ear,
Like thine prick’t up devou’t;
To taste thy Sugry voice, which here, and there,
With wanton Curls, vibrates around the circling Air,
Harmonious Hog! warble some Anthem out!

from A Pindaricque, On the Grunting of a Hog , Samuel Wesley Sr., 1685


Filed under Visual art & artists

Can Google and Charles Saatchi save artists from (Damien) Hirstian self-promotion and the fate of Vincent van Gogh?

If I ruled the internet – and why not, if someone had to do the job – I might have a law requiring all artists to post prices for the paintings they exhibited online. I say this because it has been like torture inflicted on Tantalus not to know whether I can afford to buy a picture I fell in love with last week, checking surmises about the web site of Harold Francis Bell in my last post. I was wrong to suggest that HFB might have given up painting to concentrate on sculpture. There were two superb new portraits on his site, apparently of the same subject: a striking young woman in her late teens or perhaps early twenties, in a different mood in each picture. It’s the second one I specially covet, the portrait in white.

Most artists are as poor as most writers, which makes enquiries related to lucre uncomfortable in the extreme for people who, like me, detest monetary negotiations of every kind – well short of haggling. But except for the annoyance of the missing price tag – and PayPal button – not just on the Bell site, but hundreds of others, I find that I much prefer shopping for art online. No smarmy, oleaginous gallery owner or attendant stands slyly estimating my net worth as I walk around. No other prospective buyers wait for a turn at close inspection, ruffling my hair with impatient breathing. No inane comments distract me from being borne away to wherever a picture or sculpture takes me.

A discussion in the comments section among artist comrades on this very site last year taught me that many of them resent being dictated to by art galleries. So the question that interests me is, could search engines liberate both artists and art buyers from middlemen that both groups would rather do without?

The most innovative business mind sympathetic to artists’ struggles to make a living, and keen on helping, does not seem all that optimistic about the net as the solution to the problem – even though its owner has for several years had an outstanding online showcase for contemporary art. Answering questions at the Daily Beast last week, Charles Saatchi said:

The great majority of artists around the world don’t have dealers to represent or show their work. It makes it pretty well impossible to get your efforts seen, with most dealers too busy or too lazy to visit studios—[…] In reality, most dealers find new artists to show through recommendations from their existing stable—artists often urge their dealers to look favourably upon the work of their friends; furthermore, dealers usually believe artists are good judges of other artists’ work. All in all then, if you’re not in the right artistic social circles, didn’t go to a hip art school, don’t quite fit in, it can be hell to extract much interest from dealers and collectors.

Not once did he mention the internet as a meeting place for buyers and sellers. I wonder whether he has become disenchanted with the web’s potential as a marketplace cutting out dealers since The New York Times reported, three years ago, that

… he and his Internet team spend their days pondering ways of attracting more artists to [Saatchi Online]. In addition to Stuart, for art students, and Your Gallery, a separate area where artists of all ages can post their work and sell it directly without relying on a dealer or other middleman, the site offers links to museums around the world and a magazine with art world news and feature articles.

Much as I admire the Saatchi experiments, visiting sites showing works by more than one artist is, in my experience, much less enjoyable than time spent at single-artist platforms that catch my eye.

An individual showcase feels more intimate even than being a guest in a painter’s home; more like climbing into that painter’s head. It’s a chance to revel in various facets of the same sensibility; or of the same work – if, as on the Bell site, the software permits views that flicker pleasingly between a full-length picture and selected, magnified details. Whereas I clicked out of the multi-artist exhibition on the Imagekind site almost as fast as I clicked in, nauseated by the clashing colours and styles and too many images that shrieked ‘Hallmark,’ or ‘tea towel’, I lingered over the two new Bells, marvelling at how human beings learnt to depict sensitivity in a human face with thick and heavy oil paint – for instance, the tremulous uncertainty in the expression of the girl in white. Was it that same girl I was looking at in ‘Cheongsam,’ radiating self-confidence – or her sister? If the pictures were indeed two views of the same person, which expression was habitual for her? … and so on.

But how would I go about finding the Bell pictures on the net if chance didn’t put them in my way? At Empty Easel, someone advising artists about how to sell work online implies that the most important of seven tips for drawing buyers to their pictures is that these should ‘be optimized for search engines like Google and Yahoo. “Optimizing for search” just means using the same keywords in your descriptions and titles that art buyers use when searching for artwork online.’ The writer offers this example:

Untitled Fragments is the seventh painting in my series of geometric abstract artworks. I used bold colors and powerful brush strokes, as I do in all my paintings, in order to create a lasting visual impression. Art buyers (and art lovers) will see symbolic references to prominent 20th century abstract painters like Piet Mondrian and Georges Braque as I offer homage to their artistic vision through my own art. This artwork is still for sale, so if you’d like to purchase the painting just click on the buy artwork button below.”

Yes I can see the sense in that reasoning. Enabling steering by key words is probably as much as today’s search technology can help. It leaves a lot to be desired, though. Where Empty Easel’s sample of search bait mentions Mondrian and Braque, I might say Modigliani about the girl-in-white picture on the Bell site, and perhaps Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. But those names may not mean anything to someone who was never steeped as deeply in art history as I once was, or had time or the inclination to visit museums – so could be useless as both lures and guides.

What we want is a search engine you could direct by giving it the link to a particular picture, or uploading it. Starting with the image itself (rather than a description of it in words) and a simple instruction such as, ‘drawings like this,’ a searcher would receive a stream of offerings, with chances to narrow selections by, for example, dominant colours or classes of colour. I have gathered, though, that the software for image-based searching is still primitive – even if it is something of a holy grail for researchers because of the shift from text to pictorial (or video) communications that seems to be underway.

It makes me sad to say that I think it unlikely that artists linked chiefly by philosophy, or opposition to common enemies – for instance, crass art marketing and bullying dealers – could sell much serious art. In addition to the off-putting stylistic jungle I’ve mentioned in relation to Imagekind, I cannot see people as individualistic as most good artists agreeing on points as small but vital as, say, the price tags I want for works put up for sale. One collaborative, Art.net – also known as Art on the Net – specifically forbids any mention of money:

Our site is a non-commercial site and we request that artists not post prices or create commercial-like spaces here. We ask artists to not have things in their spaces such as order forms for art or commercial banners. Instead we hope artists will treat their spaces as if they were actual studios and gallery rooms.

The unseemly hawking must be done off-site:

Artists are encouraged to provide contact information for themselves in their spaces so that people interested in their work can contact them directly.

Though I find the reasons for that policy deeply sympathetic, I can’t help wondering why, since we are used to publishers and authors setting a price for books, painters should not be equally frank in stating what they consider their work to be worth.

So, to summarise conclusions from my woolgathering about the net as a virtual art gallery: in addition to price lists and swift payment tools like PayPal, I would prefer to see not collective displays but individual sites controlled by individual artists. And I want search companies to hurry up and improve their technology faster. Perhaps an ingenious startup will leapfrog over Google, inventing robust, efficient, picture-based sorting software before it gets there. . . Perhaps Charles Saatchi will finance this essential invention. Like Theo van Gogh, the art dealer whose faith in the genius of his desperate brother never wavered, even if almost no one else shared it, in Vincent’s lifetime – Saatchi does grasp what art means to artists. Baffled as I am by his enthusiasm for the stunts of Damien Hirst, I am impressed by his understanding what people good at making money seldom do, in my experience:

I hate to sound like a romantic adolescent, but I believe artists don’t generally see art as a career choice, they simply can’t overcome their desire to make art …


Filed under Visual art & artists

Editors, editing and infant mortality … (part 2)

[ Editors, editing and infant mortality (part 1) can be read here. ]


When Han Kan was summoned
to the imperial capital
it was suggested that he sit at the feet of
the illustrious senior court painter
to learn from him the refinements of the art.

‘No thank you,’ he replied,
‘I shall apprentice myself to the stables.’

And he installed himself and his brushes amid the dung and the flies,
and studied the horses – their bodies’ keen alertness –
eye-sparkle of one, another’s sensitive stance,
the way a third moved graceful in his build –

and painted at last the emperor’s favorite,
the charger named ‘Nightshining White,’

whose likeness after centuries still dazzles.


…and that’s my answer to this whinge in yesterday’s New York Times from a misnamed James Sunshine …:

‘…Your column [..] dealt with the standards of blogs, as though we all agreed on what a blog is and is not. I spent 45 years at The Providence Journal, and I still do not understand them. Nor do I like them.

Is a blog merely the private thoughts of the blogger, who has been given the privilege of saying what he happens to think at the moment without a qualified editor passing judgment on it for accuracy, taste, appropriateness and so on? …’

Don’t tell me what the dictionary says, even if it's the OED. The word twit means: someone (i) still insisting in 2010 that bloggers post nothing worthy of close reading or looking; (ii) rabbiting on about how the internet has killed serendipity; (iii) wailing that editors should be treated as protected species, under the delusion that they midwife more good literature than they stifle — in the womb.

First, serendipity … Yesterday I learnt that Yandex, Russia’s answer to Google, sent someone in Rumania to this site to look at Shawn Yu’s drawing of Bruce Chatwin — first published here. From that search result, I discovered – oh of course I read Russian, and with my eyes shut, who doesn’t? – that the Yu portrait has been chosen for nothing less than the home page of the site dedicated to the great nomad by Jonathan Chatwin, who is strangely not a relation, according to The Bibliophilic Blogger.

When I stumbled on the Yandex query, I happened to have been wondering what new work Yu and Harold Francis Bell, another artist lauded in this spot, might have put up on their sites lately. Bell appears to be in mid-redesign on his site, unless he has put painting aside to concentrate on his perceptive female-focused sculpture – if his slide show moving like a glimmering Chopin sonata is any guide. Yu’s blog says that he has just graduated from art school. It offers a fine self-portrait as compelling as Lang-Lang playing Beethoven, and a powerful nude in charcoal.

So much for serendipitous looking. As for reading, editors were on my mind when I checked the always stimulating blog of the novelist Helen DeWitt , whose reportedly brilliant The Last Samurai I have only failed to read because someone bossy, too close for comfort, keeps demanding that I do.

A brave – and much too rare – writer, she had the temerity to suggest last month that scribes submitting work to editors serving as gate-keepers and assayers should have ready access to information about those editors’ qualifications. She actually asked, in public, a question that – before the internet — could only have been put by one semi-inebriated writer to another in the darkest corner of a watering hole, and promptly forgotten about, for the security of both their careers:

Unlike the size of an advance, an editor’s intellectual strengths do not fluctuate with the economy or the sales of a writer’s last book. It would help to know what they were. […] It would be even more helpful if […] writers who had worked with an editor wrote brief accounts of their perception of the experience. […] This sort of suggestion seems to provoke suspicion if not down right hostility: wanting this kind of information was one of the reasons my last agent, Bill Clegg, had second thoughts about working with me.

[After that, she was understandably even angrier, as she explains here, in a saga that nearly had my eyes rolling out of their sockets.]

The first of two recent discoveries of bad editorial decisions revealed, about Simone de Beauvoir‘s seminal work of sexual politics, that …

Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier’s new translation of “The Second Sex” is the first English-language edition in almost 60 years, and the first to restore the material Parshley excised. In this passionate, awesomely erudite work, Beauvoir examines the reasons women have been forced to accept a place in society secondary to that of men, despite the fact that women constitute half the human race. Supporting her arguments with data from biology, physiology, ethnology, anthropology, mythology, folklore, philosophy and economics, she documents the status of women throughout history, from the age of hunter-gatherers to the mid-20th century. In one of her most interesting chapters, “The Married Woman” (a chapter Parshley particularly savaged), she offers numerous quotations from the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, Colette, Edith Wharton, Sophia Tolstoy and others.

Too bad that those were missing from the edition I read, years ago. As it was clear even from the hacked English edition that prolixity was characteristic of de Beauvoir’s warp and weft, why not leave well alone?

Regrettably, the work of David Foster Wallace has never lit the smallest flame under me — because I like the man who emerges in accounts of people who knew him, and have always been impressed by the huge numbers of discerning readers among his fans. Surely those admirers deserve not to have had to wait fourteen years to read this detailed, posthumous profile of him by David Lipsky that, we are now told, was spiked by editors in 1996, the year DFW’s Infinite Jest was published to wide acclaim:

[A]fter Lipsky spent five days with Wallace, staying as a guest in his house, driving and flying with him across the Midwest and interrogating him on increasingly personal subjects […] Rolling Stone killed the assignment, apparently concluding that its readers would not be interested in the author of a dense, challenging, wildly satiric, at times profoundly sad and gruesome 1,079-page novel after all.

Wallace took his own life in 2008, at the age of 46, devastating his loved ones and confounding a generation of readers and writers. The reputation of “Infinite Jest” still grows. Set in a near-future America fixated by its tools for chemical and electronic self-gratification, the novel seems more prescient with the rollout of every new compulsively entertaining digital device.

In this age of the Blogosphere, thank goodness, Lipsky could have put his rejected conversations with Wallace online in seconds and let us judge their merits ourselves.

By all means let’s have editors for the refinement of a small proportion of the finest of fine literary creations. Let them be like curators of museums guarding cultural treasures, or perhaps personal hair choppers-and-fluffers who travel with celebrities.

As for the rest of us … Every week, I seem to come across a new, unmediated, wonderful blog, delving into some subject I have always longed to know more about. I follow a few of these regularly. One-Way Street, for instance, which is mostly about architecture, has had some sharp posts on contemporary fiction, and last week offered the deftest evisceration by far – through excellent links — of the feeble responses of the Israeli government, and foreign public intellectuals defending it, to the outcry about the petrifying, unconscionable raid on the Mavi Marmara.


Filed under Editors and editing, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

The duchess and the newspaper — no, not the tabloid …

I have had a shock, scanning headlines I’ve missed in rushing around. Minutes after reading a wire service report about the money-grubbing, cash-to-cuddle-Andy Duchess of York, I wandered over to the Guardian site and had the strange impression of reading the identical story with a different cast of characters.

The ideal of an independent Fourth Estate is well and truly dead at Guardian News and Media. Anyone who doubts that must compare these excerpts:

UK tabloid: Duchess offered access for cash

By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press Writer Jill Lawless, Associated Press Writer – Sun May 23, 5:01 pm ET

LONDON – Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson said Sunday she was “very sorry” for her lapse of judgment after she was recording apparently offering to sell access to her ex-husband Prince Andrew in return for 500,000 pounds ($724,000).

The duchess said in a statement that she had financial problems, but “that is no excuse for a serious lapse in judgment and I am very sorry that this has happened.”

“I very deeply regret the situation and the embarrassment caused,” she said.

The tabloid News of the World posted video on its website that appears to show Ferguson discussing payment terms. She is heard to say “500,000 pounds when you can, to me, open doors.”

No such apology here:

The Guardian today introduced the second phase of its Open Platform initiative, expanding the content-sharing service to commercial partners. […]

[T]he commercial launch of Open Platform makes Guardian content available for advertisers and brands to tailor to specific online campaigns. […]

Access to the service is based on three levels: keyless, where headlines and basic data can be used without registration; approved, which allows full article content to be published; and bespoke, a customised service for licensing content and developing rich applications.


Guardian News and Media’s consumer media director Adam Freeman said the service benefitted partners by providing access to a global audience of 33 million users each month, while offering an incentive of £50,000 in media spend to the next partner that spends more than £100,000.

“The commercial launch of the Guardian’s Open Platform marks a unique and pivotal step forward for the online publishing landscape, and a new area of development for advertisers,” he said.

… Ah yes, a ‘new area of development’ and a once-respected newspaper’s explicit reinvention as a brazen mercantilist tool. Or am I dreaming? My last 48 hours have been a bit exhausting and could easily be inducing hallucinations.

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Filed under The Guardian

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

Is blogging together being like Iceland?

[… before I get to the topic, … a note for this blog’s Annals of Outrageous Hypocrisy. It’s the usual suspect, I’m afraid, Guardian News and Media (GNM). Any number of us who have commented on blogs on The Guardian’s website in recent years have seen our posts deleted when they support — or simply mention — bloggers disagreeing with the paper’s moderation decisions or policies. I last saw this happen only weeks ago. . . But hark! comrades, here is The Guardian – as quoted by Noam Cohen in The New York Timesonce again posing as the great liberator and friend of free speech:

… Last month, a British judge ruled that material obtained by Guardian journalists about a multinational corporation had to be kept secret. […] That is, The Guardian was forbidden to report that it had been gagged.

… When, thanks to his Twitter-ing, The Guardian’s editor got the gag order untied, he exulted:

But last week’s events show that a variety of Internet projects, including Twitter, are making it harder for the traditional gatekeepers to control of the flow of information.
Certainly, The Guardian was in full celebratory mode last week. “Twitter’s detractors are used to sneering that nothing of value can be said in 140 characters,” Mr. Rusbridger wrote about his initial tweet. “My 104 characters did just fine.”

Hmm …and now that you know what, er…. heavy-handed moderation …. feels like yourself, Alan Rusbridger, how about telling us that you understand how we feel about your minions’ restraints on our free speech? How about apologising for routinely dishing out through your moderators the kind of censorship and silencing you apparently can’t take yourself?]

de•lin•quent (dĭ-lĭng’kwənt, -lĭn’-)

adj. 1. Failing to do what law or duty requires.
2. Overdue in payment: a delinquent account.

[Latin dēlinquēns, dēlinquent-, present participle of dēlinquere, to offend : dē-, de- + linquere, to leave, abandon; see leikw- in Indo-European roots.]

… Yes, I know. . . I know. The long gap between posts – if nothing else – proves that nearly all shades of that word apply to the writer of this blog. But whereas most people wander from their accustomed haunts when the days are long and the weather balmy, some of us put off going away until the wind picks up, the thermostat plummets, and we can maximise our chances of surreal experiences. I’ve been busy haggling over steamer trunks, mules and camels, and calculating how many tents I’ll need.

I’ve been recalled to duty at this site by @ISA, also known as Philip Hall, who has just launched an experiment in collaborative blogging. If Phil had consulted me beforehand about timing – never mind that there’s no reason why he should have done — I’d have explained that I couldn’t accept either his invitation or his ‘all hands on deck’ summons over at Ars Notoria, or certainly not in the immediate future.

I wish the new site every success. Its launch has dovetailed tidily with reflections over the last few days on what I’ve learnt from running acciaccature — one year old next month, when I might not have access to a computer or even a net-capable mobile telephone. Moments before I had Phil’s birth announcement, and looking for attractive trunk-lining, I came across this paragraph in an excellent travelogue by Rebecca Solnit in last October’s issue of Harper’s Magazine:

Iceland is the only part of Europe that never begat monarchs or a hereditary aristocracy […] Iceland’s national parliament, or Althing—the word for “assembly” being, in Icelandic, thing—was formed in 930 a.d., about sixty years after the first settlers came over from Norway. They met at a site whose name, Thingvellir, “the plain of the thing,” still commemorates this ancient annual gathering, which was a combined parliamentary session, court review, and country fair.

Aha, I thought, re-reading that – a nation founded in the spirit of collaborative blogging, which Phil’s charter demonstrates to perfection. I dearly hope that Ars Notoria can avoid the obvious pitfalls of all such idealistic enterprises, never depicted more splendidly than by Orwell’s hypocritical, self-righteous oinks ‘more equal’ than the other beasts in Animal Farm.

About Icelandic government, though, what Solnit mentions as its most glaring flaw puzzled me at first. That, it seems, is cowardice – lily-livered citizen-governors – on which she quotes Svanur Kristjánsson, an Icelandic professor of political science:

“You can run into your prime minister at the store,” he said. “You know the minister, the president—you can make an appointment with the president.” But at the same time, there is “an incredible lack of civic courage” within the governing class, “a lack of people standing up and telling the truth,”

The idea seemed less surprising after I remembered the striking ratio in this very spot between the swarms of clicks, indicating reader interest, and the low comment count, for posts critical of The Guardian — taking it to task not just for silencing dissenting voices but far, far worse.

Whether or not Icelandic cowardice has any application at Ars Notoria – I’d guess none, if it turns out to be just a friendly chat forum, or one where bloggers with strange hobbies embrace fellow-hobbyists — countries could supply the best fast metaphors for what collaborative blogs should and shouldn’t aim at being.

Since most of the bloggers I know and love best are almost militantly independent, I suspect that we’re most like nations made up of hardy and idiosyncratic mountain peoples when we attempt to blog together. Think of Switzerland, a country of only seven and a half million inhabitants splintered into twenty-six cantons speaking either wholly different languages or different dialects of the same language, and operating something like fractal micro-Switzerlands with their own laws.

Well, … perhaps not Switzerland, as after the 19th century its tribes, acting collectively, seem to have acquired a mysterious gift for attracting peace to themselves – or certainly for keeping out of international disputes.

Afghanistan would be its opposite, since that’s a mountainous nation that you might suppose to have a magical knack for magnetising conflict.

Collaborative blogging – in my experiences to date, starting with Desmond Swords’ heroic blogger-nation, Lit-Lovers’ Forum, in 2007 – is rather more like Afghanistan.

When I can help with Ars Notoria (and if Phil’s invitation still stands) I almost certainly will – though that won’t be for several weeks. Why the note of hesitation? Since Phil has some connection never quite spelt out with administrators at The Guardian, I confess that I’ve been wondering whether we aren’t being invited to act, unpaid, as laboratory mice for an experiment in moderation-free blogging whose most constructive and productive features will simply be copied by that newspaper.

I have trouble completely believing my suggestion myself – since Phil, unlike GNM, is as far as possible from a hypocrite or, as the subject has been mentioned, coward. I’m more deeply in his debt than anyone else’s for posting notices of this site’s existence in other places, and he has been unstinting with every form of encouragement. But for family-related reasons he has openly explained, he feels bound by respect and affection to certain editors at that newspaper.

I don’t envy him his complicated tight rope act, supporting both us and them. If I’m right in my guess … and I could be wholly mistaken … and if the policy-makers and online publishing strategists at The Guardian make the apology they owe a few of us for outrageous mistreatment; if they can be modest enough to ask for our help in trying out new kinds of blogging platforms; if they compensate us in some way for our effort, I’ll sign on. Who would doubt that that’s the right way forward for any newspaper serious about thriving in the ethersphere?


Filed under Censorship, The blogosphere, The Guardian