WRB—Jan. 20, 2024
“scenes of suffering”
It is no accident that the Managing Editors’ descriptions of themselves as conflicted agents, still half in love with the thing they have rejected and compelled to catalog its attractions, are so suffused with pathos; presenting oneself as a divided being is not only an admission (I’d like to be a certain way, but I just can’t manage it), it is an appeal (look how torn I am and because I am torn how interesting I am). Of course it isn’t true.
In Nieman Storyboard, Katia Savchuk interviews David Grann, author of The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder (2023) and Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017), about his process:
Sometimes the interrogation can lead you to a humorous place. For Killers of the Flower Moon, I had a report describing that two detectives interviewed somebody at their house. When I first wrote the sentence, I said they showed up on the stoop and went inside. When I went back, I was like, “Did the house have a stoop?” I looked up the definition of “stoop” and called the local historical society to ask if they had photographs of the area. I wasted a good couple of weeks trying to figure out whether this house had a stoop. Finally, I just rewrote it without “stoop.” Often, you just have to change a word or cut an adjective.
But now, listening to those magical early albums, “depressing” strikes me as not so much offensive as inaccurate, just as Court and Spark, despite its rich, jazzy instrumentation, is by no means “happy”. Rather, Mitchell’s songs are records—literally—of searches for precise expressions of mixed, often conflicting feelings, and, not for resolution exactly, but for the clarity of perspective, of seeing “Both Sides Now” (not for nothing her most famous song). Mitchell is the doyenne of ambivalence and dialectical thinking—“You lay out a case and argue with yourself about it and with no conclusions,” she explained to Melody Maker in 1970—and the musical and emotional sophistication of her songs is found in their volte-faces, paradoxical moods and internal contradictions. They are the sound of someone turning something over, trying to ascend.
In Granta, Anna Parker on all the things the Sudeten Germans left behind when they were expelled after the Second World War:
I knew this house was where a “very old German lady” had lived—my parents had whispered this information to me—but she had left a year earlier, when she could no longer live alone. Her cottage had been empty since. When she had lived there, I had not understood the prying, curious glances my parents would direct at her lace-curtain-covered windows, or the awkward gravity that slowed their bodies when walking up the meadow path that crossed behind her house. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to make of the information, always delivered with a knowing air, that she was: a) “very old,” b) “German,” c) “a lady.” Or, which of these categories was the cause of my parents’ twitchiness. Nor why Sasha and Palička, my guides to the neighborhood, never acknowledged her presence at all.
In our sister publication in the Forest City, Greg Gerke on Louise Glück:
Glück’s vocality is her great mark—the tail of the comet—both the voice inscribed on the page and her voicing her speakers at readings. Her speakers give midnight confessions, but they stay flush and vibrant. Her tone poems are like Ingmar Bergman close-ups (face for voices, eyes and mouth as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs), rivaling his staunch dialogue of “Do you realize I hate you?” though they share the same chilly, cloistered settings: island life both real and metaphorical, or a person alone in a house or just with their lover, running through their memories of early or late life.
In Harper’s, Emily Gogolak relays her experience of trucking school:
One morning our conversation turned toward Judgment Day, which Rey narrated for us. When Jesus returns, he said, everybody will be awakened, those in hell will be brought out, and the final judgment will sentence people for eternity. “Hell is just a temporary waiting place,” he explained.
Ashley chimed in. “Have you heard that people think earth is hell?” she asked.
Earth can feel like hell if you let the devil get to you, Rey told her. He told us the story of Job and then gestured at the godforsaken pad in front of us. “I feel like I’m being tested now.”
In Spike, Joanna Walsh on the cycle from in fashion to out and back again:
The “skinny” in skinny jeans is a transposition, a (literal) figure of speech. It’s not so much the jeans are skinny, but that’s the figure they require of the wearer or the figure they promise to deliver. In ancient Greek rhetoric, this is hypallage, also called a “transferred epithet,” in which the syntactic relationship between two terms is interchanged. With “skinny jeans,” this transposition is two-way, so it also counts as another rhetorical device, personification: the jeans, claiming a human attribute of skinniness, begin to have more agency than their wearer. Low-waisted skinny jeans are a plague of frogs, an unavoidable act of God. Fashion, as it’s so often figured, as “dictation.”
[Obligatory: “dialectical.” One thinks of the central pun of David Bowie’s “Fashion” and its combination of “dumb” dance music and Robert Fripp’s abrasive guitar, he says, wearing a bathrobe over his pajamas as he writes this because he has been sick all week. That’s fashion. —Steve]
If you want to be fashionable, why not subscribe to the Washington Review of Books? And why not consider a paid subscription? It will keep you chic for a lot less than the designers charge.
In Poetry, A. E. Stallings reviews a new biography and collected poems of Anthony Hecht (Late Romance: Anthony Hecht—A Poet’s Life by David Yezzi, 2023; Collected Poems of Anthony Hecht, edited by Philip Hoy, 2023) [The Upcoming books in WRB—Nov. 4, 2023; we linked to a review of the biography in WRB—Nov. 8, 2023 and discussed a review of both in WRB—Dec. 20, 2023. I like Hecht quite a bit—I find “The Dover Bitch” a wholly successful entertainment—and so feel an obligation to excerpt the passage below. —Steve]:
I will add that, anecdotally, I know few women readers who find “The Dover Bitch” a wholly successful entertainment—the main joke, such as it is, being the title. Yezzi admits that, in 1963, Hecht’s reading of the poem at the 92nd Street Y “drew an uneasy response” from the audience and “some readers have perceived a sexist tone in the poem,” which concludes: “but there she is, / Running to fat, but dependable as they come. / And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d’Amour.” Of course, the speaker is a persona (fair enough), and the poem is arguably a commentary on Matthew Arnold’s possibly patronizing attitude toward his anonymous addressee in “Dover Beach.” But then what to make of “The Ghost in the Martini,” an erudite and elegant monologue in 24 quatrains in which the speaker, an urbane, older poet, prone to speaking in literary quotations (perhaps in a posh English accent), debates with his conscience whether to bed a 20-year-old fan he meets at the bar? The tricky thing is that the persona seems to overlap uncomfortably with Hecht at his least appealing: “Moody and self-obsessed, . . . Full of ill-natured pride, an unconfessed / Snob.” As Yezzi puts it, the levity is “self-indicting.” It’s a technical tour de force that still gives me the creeps. Maybe that’s the point.
In our sister publication across the pond, Susan Eilenberg reviews two of the latest attempts to understand Keats (Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph by Lucasta Miller, 2022; Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse by Anahid Nersessian, 2021):
Nersessian’s Keats is interested in pain not as a problem he must solve (even though he cannot) but as a responsibility and a temptation he morally and politically fails. The “perfect and unforgivable” ode “To Autumn” offends her (and not her alone) by having been written not about those who had died a month before in the Peterloo Massacre but about or out of a cessation of resistance to the death none of us escapes. Her Keats is not a healer, not even a failed one; he is a thug. Ignoring not just the “Hyperion” poems but the masochistic and sadomasochistic “Lamia” (“She burnt, she lov’d the tyranny”), she reads the odes as scenes of suffering and as provocations to violence, which is to be welcomed as inviting retaliation.
In the TLS, Gordon Fraser reviews two books on the formation and future of the American canon (Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon by Alexander Manshel, 2023; Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation by John Guillory, 1993, 2023):
And yet, as insightful as Guillory’s analysis was, thirty years have passed since his book first appeared. Manshel’s Writing Backwards, then, answers some of the questions with which Cultural Capital concludes. Guillory hoped that readers in the future would cultivate a relation to literature that did not treat it as evidence of “class distinction”. Instead, he hoped for a widespread aesthetic sensibility that enabled people to read literature as literature—“aestheticism unbound”, he called it. Re-reading Cultural Capital today provides what Emre calls in her introduction “the hopeless poignancy of good advice that no one took”. I suspect, though, that Guillory’s own analysis pointed to the implausibility of anybody actually taking his advice. The literature we read is frequently selected by institutions, Guillory recognized, and these institutions are occupied by people with political aims, whether narrowly partisan or otherwise.
The Great Chicago Book Sale is here. Use the code AD2035 to get up to 90% off.
- “asks not for whom the Baja Blasts.” [This is not, maybe, a “WRB topic,” but it’s a speech a version of which I myself have delivered to patient friends at the Columbia Heights Taco Bell Cantina. —Chris]
How to select the Word of the Year.
Popular haunted house novels from last year focus on bourgeois mores and real estate. [That’s the novel for you. —Steve]
Lots of good books coming out in March. “March and April had always been more low key than other months, tucked between the New Year, New You self-help push of January and the Big Beach Reads of the summer. Publishers trying to give breathing room to debuts by placing them in early spring have now, ironically, cluttered it up.” [I’m already exhausted. —Chris]
“Bookshelf Wealth” [As always, I assume that by the time a trend shows up in the Times it’s dead. This is why I do all my learning about trends from the Times. —Steve]
“The incredible shrinking podcast industry” [Finally. —Chris]
The Free Press is looking to raise capital.
“Feminist Media Is Mostly Gone.” [The WRB is the last feminist publication. —Chris] [Uneasy lies &c. What did you think we were up to with the pieces on fashion and Joni Mitchell above? I could talk about “Coyote” all day. —Steve] [I listen to “Coyote” whenever I get more than 30 miles from a major metropolitan area. It reminds me of road trips with my dad. —Chris]
New issue: Oxford American Issue 124: The Southern Art Issue
R.I.P. Arlington’s gas station-church. [I once stopped here for cigarettes before what may have been the strangest party I’ve ever attended, on a rooftop in Rosslyn. Go with God. —Chris]
Folger Consort will perform music mentioned in the work of Rabelais at the Folger Theatre at concerts today, at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., and tomorrow, at 2 p.m.
The National Building Museum is having a free community day for the opening of a new exhibit, Building Stories, tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“Aubade With Selichot” by Mónica Gomery
Look how the light bruises
the sky, how the crickets shred
quiet with their chatty back legs.
Look how the potted plants open
their palms for the sun, the back door
swings its hips, the dog leaps out
already talking, the house fills
with that silted reminder of fires
up north and the stairs creak
with the confidence of something
men made. Morning has a way
of shoring up the good milk,
strata of possibility taking
the coffee-stained stage. And you ask
again for a day of celestial advances.
You ask to be witnessed, wearing
your mother’s old shoes. Wearing
the sky’s yellow blue bruise.
[Gomery is the author of two poetry collections. This particular poem is from the Winter 2024 issue of the Kenyon Review. —Julia]
February 6 | FSG
by Sheila Heti
From the publisher: Sheila Heti kept a record of her thoughts over a ten-year period, then arranged the sentences from A to Z. Passionate and reflective, joyful and despairing, these are her alphabetical diaries.
[This publisher copy cracks me up. Is there any chance this is good? No one I’ve spoken to thinks so; I didn’t bother getting a copy, though I feel a little guilty about that having read everything else Heti has written. This bit was in the Times in spring of ’22, if you want to check it out. —Chris]
What we’re reading:
A reader recommended Chris check out Janice Radway’s old book on chick lit (Reading the Romance, 1984), so he’s looking into that. [We’re all pretty upset about how well he got my number with this rec. Quote: “What the psychoanalytically based interpretation reveals is the deep irony hidden in the fact that women who are experiencing the consequences of patriarchal marriage’s failure to address their needs turn to a story that ritually recites the history of the process by which those needs are constituted.” —Chris]
[Here’s an argument I had with a coworker this week that I’m interested in takes on: it seemed obvious that when Wentworth helps Anne into the Crofts’ gig at the end of the tenth chapter of Persuasion, his motivation is to remove her from the scene while he continues to flirt with Louisa (this is particularly sold in the 1995 adaptation). Anne’s interpretation (not represented on screen but striking in the novel), that this “was a remainder of former sentiment; it was an impulse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart,” looks more like wishful thinking, especially since we’re given immediately before the invitation to interpret, “The something might be guessed by its effects.” Of course, my colleague sees the interaction differently. Please help resolve this for us! —Chris] [I’m inclined to split the difference here—it can be true that Wentworth’s gesture has some origin in good feeling prompted by learning earlier on the walk that Anne declined Charles Musgrove’s proposal, and it can be true that he wants to remove her from the scene while flirting with Louisa, and both can be true at the same time. But, if I had to pick one, I’d side with Chris. It’s that free indirect discourse—you never know what Austen might be trying to slip through. —Steve]
Julia is reading Evelyn McDonnell’s The World According to Joan Didion (2023).
Mary Wollstonecraft, lately abandoned by Gilbert Imlay, quoted in Bachiochi (The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, 2021), in reference to Chris’ notes on Eva Illouz in What we’re reading for Wednesday:
I will not distress you by talking of the depression of my spirits, or the struggle I had to keep alive my dying heart.—It is even now too full to allow me to write with composure . . .—am I always to be tossed about thus?—shall I never find an asylum to rest contented in? How can you love to fly about continually . . . every other day? Why do you not attach those tender emotions round the idea of home, which even now dim my eyes? This alone is affection—every thing else is only humanity, electrified by sympathy.
- on Jane Eyre:
But the story is darker than that. Because in order for Rochester and Jane to enjoy their roleplay, an awful lot has to be repressed. First of all, as male master and female servant, they literally are in a relation of extreme dominance and subservience. And second, Rochester has a mad wife locked in an upstairs room of the house. The “madwoman in the attic” (as a famous feminist reading of the book has it) can be seen as a personification of Jane’s real position vis-a-vis Rochester, and of the cruel and degrading treatment she is effectively submitting in the process of being wooed by him.
[Cf. Namwali Serpell in WRB—Nov. 8, 2023. Cf. also this passage from Charlotte Brontë’s preface to The Professor commenting on why she wrote Jane Eyre the way she did—it’s at that link as well but behind the paywall, so I’ll reproduce it:
In the sequel, however, I find that publishers in general scarcely approved of this system, but would have liked something more imaginative and poetical—something more consonant with a highly wrought fancy, with a taste for pathos, with sentiments more tender, elevated, unworldly. Indeed, until an author has tried to dispose of a manuscript of this kind, he can never know what stores of romance and sensibility lie hidden in breasts he would not have suspected of casketing such treasures. Men in business are usually thought to prefer the real; on trial the idea will often be found fallacious: a passionate preference for the wild, wonderful, and thrilling—the strange, startling, and harrowing—agitates divers souls that show a calm and sober surface.
—Steve] [In her introduction to the second edition, Radway writes, “the contradictions within the genre have been intensified by a tendency to consolidate certain feminist agendas for women in the character of a working, independent heroine even while disparaging the women’s movement itself, usually through the speeches of the hero,” which immediately reminded me of this Serpell essay. I’ve also, basically unrelatedly, been thinking about this gloss in the same piece, which I’ll also reproduce here (in the spirit of Critical notes):
“Reader, I married him” wasn’t revolutionary because of what Jane said; after all, many earlier works had staged marriage as a détente in the gender wars. What was revolutionary was how Jane said it. It’s all in the syntax. Apostrophe, subject verb object. Marriage is something Jane does to Rochester; reading is something she names us into doing.
- on reviewing books:
First, there’s the constraint of discussing an entire book and author in a few hundred words (400–800 is pretty standard). But another weirdness to book reviews is that you are writing for at least two different audiences. Your review will be read by people who are unfamiliar with the book and reading in part decide if they’re interested in buying it. And you are writing for readers who have read the book and want to see what critics are saying. (I like to read a book blind and form my own opinion so I mostly read reviews after I’ve read a novel. I think lots of readers are the same.) There’s an additional duty to the author—even or perhaps especially when the review is highly critical—to accurately represent their work. All of this leads to book reviews feeling, for me, like a weird Frankenstein monster. A little bit of summary for the potential reader, a bit of critical analysis for those who’ve already read, some quotes to faithfully represent the author, etc. Somehow that has to be all stitched together in a coherent form in a few hundred words.
We would not want to spend time with Proust’s snobs. In their most honest moments, even his characters describe the fancy dinner parties they attend as boring and stifling. But to read about these soirées, and the people at them, is another matter. Similarly, if we were to encounter him in real life, Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins would be a bore; on the page, he is at once a bore, and, with his absurd boasts about the size of the chimney-piece at Rosings Park, a pure delight. In both cases the authors make us enjoy the sort of people we would try to flee at a cocktail party. It is not only that Proust’s prose and metaphors are exquisite, but that he turns the wretched maneuverings and deceit of his snobs into poetry. Out of pretense, dullness, and even malice, Austen, too, makes art.
Last Week’s New Yorker Review on a piece by Leslie Jamison in, well, you can guess:
Leslie Jamison is like, “Baby, baby, baby, oh.” Absurdly overindexed on enigmatic details, which becomes oddly hilarious midway through when she tells her students at Columbia she “wanted specifics—wanted them stress-eating cookies as big as their palms, their fingers smelling like iron after leaning against an ex’s rusty fire escape.” I’m glad she knows what she likes, but she’s telling on herself a bit—she’s prompting her students to write in her style, not to find theirs. Also telling on herself: The entire rest of the piece.
[Let her up Sam! —Chris]