WRB—Jan. 28, 2023
“as though sensing the American dream is already dead”
This is the 99th edition of the Washington Review of Books. It is called “WRB—Jan. 28, 2023.” And while you look at this series of links and commentary, I’ll give you the credits: Chris did most everything. Nic wrote that thing halfway down about the Rohmer biography. Grace is going to post this on Twitter later. Julia texted Chris all the stuff in the Poem section.1
To do list:
avail yourself of our world-famous classified ads, either by placing or responding to one;
Appeals of Varying Endurance:
For Real Clear Books, Miles Smith on the history of American Jane Austen appreciation, or lack thereof:
Austen was not as well-known in the United States or beloved in the first half of the 19th century as other British writers such as Sir Walter Scott. In 1853, Boston’s North American Review reminded its readers that “in this country” Austen’s “writings have not acquired popularity.” Not only was she not popular, her books were also considered inferior to those of William Makepeace Thackeray or Henry Fielding, authors that by the beginning of the 21st century were less well known than Austen, particularly in the United States.
Yet, at least one American recognized Austen’s talents. Sarah Josepha Hale, one of the United States’ first influential woman magazine editors, said Austen’s novels had great charm and that Sir Walter Scott had noted their quality. Hale reprinted a selection from Northanger Abby, which she called “simple in plot” while nonetheless noting that the heroine, Catherine Morland, was an excellent protagonist because she was natural and relatable.
The Virgin Suicides at 30 [The Thirty-Year-Old Virgins?]:
The boys’ idea, that the girls were “really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death”, is shown to be a misunderstanding of what the girls want, hinted to be not dissimilar from the boys’ own desires: to be loved, to be understood, to be told the truth and not just told to be happy. Their jointly inherited, carefully groomed suburban Earth is under threat; they hear Detroit burning beyond the neat lines of their neighbourhood lawns, their trees are succumbing to Dutch elm disease, and fish fly season rears its head once a year, covering their homes in a thick mesh of husks that smell “faintly of carp”. The momentum of the novel comes not only from the girls’ tragedy, but from the neighbourhood’s suspected demise; everyone is paranoid, as though sensing the American dream is already dead.
Notes on the Joan Didion “retrospective” at the Los Angeles-based Hammer Museum. [What is going on with Dirt’s italics?]
[I didn’t find Kristen Lavransdatter that complicated, but these graphs are crazy. (Ted Gioia on Sigrid Undset). I also don’t know if I agree with this: “This runs against every rule of narrative structure, especially in romantic storytelling, where the reader is supposed to admire the lovers as idealized participants in a lovey-dovey fantasy world.” Briefly (This isn’t the place to restage the entire Barthes book): Even in idealizing romantic shlock, isn’t it the drama of a staged crisis to be overcome which forms the real core of the narrative? “There can be no reconciliation if there has not been a sundering,” &c. —Chris]
Reviews [proceeding westerly]:
In the CRB, Caroline Reagan on Lucy Ives’ novel from last fall (Life is Everywhere, October):
The story devolves into absurdity, shooting off in disparate directions, circling around itself, evading a clear chronology. As Freud dictated long ago, the repressed returns via symptoms. Ives illustrates this on the level of form: In Life Is Everywhere, the repressed returns via intertextuality. What cannot be accounted for within the primary plot resurfaces through a seemingly infinite efflux of referents, redactions, and reappropriations, as primarily evinced through the materials within Erin’s bag.
But this is not quite right either. Ives sculpts content in the service of formal experimentation, rather than the obverse (i.e., the trauma plot). This is a novel that intentionally courts a number of genres and voices, commiting to none.
[“the world’s wackiest seminar on neocon poetics, The Gold Standard: Metonymy as Money, that legendarily deranged offering”: I’m howling. I’m sold. —Chris]
In the Chicago Review of Books, Mandana Chaffa reviews Gabrielle Bates’ debut collection of poems, out this week (Judas Goat, January): “Bates wields brevity so sharp it leaves one breathless, with layers of meaning appearing like invisible ink under a lightbulb with each re-reading.”
In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michael Clune reviews Elizabeth Anker’s book on paradoxy from last month (On Paradox: The Claims of Theory, December):
We must identify the aspects of theory that no longer work in the context of the academic humanities and let them go. Earlier versions of this response have been articulated by writers as various as Eve Sedgwick, Bruno Latour, Angela Nagle, and Rita Felski. Elizabeth Anker, in her new book On Paradox: The Claims of Theory, gives this response perhaps its most compelling formulation yet. The novelty of her approach is to identify theory’s style of thought with a fatal attraction to paradox, to something that appears absurd or contradictory but is actually true. She then argues that paradox, which initially served the purposes of the humanities, now undermines them. Paradox has been degraded into a rote, one-size-fits-all solution to every problem, a clichéd form of thought perfect for university administrators and right-wing YouTubers, but alien to the humanities’ educational and political work.
- (in his newsletter ) on a piece of publishing memoir work (Words and Music: Confessions of an Optimist, 2023):
You read a couple of memoirs by legendary book publishers, maybe Michael Korda and Bennett Cerf, and come away thinking that erudition and a facility with language are not enough to make it in this business—you must also be gracious, clever, and charming, with an unerring eye for saleable books of the highest quality.
Then Stephen Rubin publishes a memoir and forces you to reconsider.
Author of Words and Music: Confessions of an Optimist, Rubin oversaw the publication of some 4,000 books during a long career at Bantam, Doubleday, and Holt.
He is not erudite, if erudition implies any degree of refinement or profundity. He rates Stephen King the Anthony Trollope of our time and puts John Grisham’s The Reckoning on level with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.
He has no facility with language: “Nobody much really read Thomas Pynchon Books.” Name a cliche—humble pie, shark-infested waters, take your eye off the ball—he employs it.) “I am guilty of this barbarity. To recount what followed is precisely to inflict on the reader the tedious machinations of a dialogue de province. A hotshot publisher or agent in New York does not feel like a provincial; the tedium gives the game away. But one must be rational. If the object is not merely to entertain, but to instruct, those in need of instruction will feel the benefit.” (The English Understand Wool, August 2022)]
Reviews [over there]:
- in The New Statesman on the posthumous David Graeber out this week (Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertali, January):
It is not that Graeber fails to interrogate his own reading of historical sources. Rather, as he insists in Pirate Enlightenment, whether the claims are true or not, the fact that people were making them tells us something important about the era. This is broadly correct. Just as early-modern proto-science fiction about, say, lunar travel, shows us real transformations in the conception of what is scientifically possible, Daniel Defoe’s tales of egalitarian pirate societies tell us something about how politics was being reimagined in the period. And even where we have the authors of travel reports speaking as mouthpieces of incipient imperialism, they are also saying things no European could have said prior to 1492, about, for example, the unity and diversity of the human species, and the range of possible models for the successful organisation of society.
The Hedgehog Review is hosting a new series from Richard Hughes Gibson, “Criticism in Miniature”. We think this this statement on the late work of David Lodge lies very close to our own purpose here:
The brilliance of The Art of Fiction is that it reveals that something that readers do quite naturally—comparing the books we read—can be honed, and that reading in a Lodge-like way, attentive to the author’s technical choices, will enrich our encounters with fiction. Here criticism dwells in possibility.
My only complaint about Lodge’s book is that it came out thirty years ago and was not followed by a sequel. There have been subsequent columns and books on fictional technique for a general readership, but none to my knowledge have extended Lodge’s simple but effective approach of choosing a topic and then seeing what happens when you lay examples side by side. And, in my view, that is a shame, since Lodge would readily admit that his fifty columns did not exhaust the subject of the “art of fiction,” and, moreover, the book reads to me as one long invitation to gather remarkable specimens from one’s own library. The Art of Fiction, in other words, is constantly whispering to the reader, “Go try it yourself.”
[I was recently talking about the concept of “high-middlebrow” spaces with someone else invested in small, regionally focused journals of criticism. The WRB exists for you! Go try it yourself! —Chris]
[I meant to mention on Wednesday in connection with that New Republic Chekhov piece that there’s a streaming presentation of this production (Anya Reiss, dir. Jamie Lloyd) of The Seagull showing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall on Friday. Anyway, I’m going to go see it. —Chris]
“Baltimore Museum of Art Names New Director” [Reminder: that Carpaccio exhibit at NGA has two weeks left. I’m going this morning. This exhibit at the Phillips Collection ends on the same day. I’m doing my best to keep up more with art and theater for this space, but I’m not very good at it! (For instance, I only saw about these two exhibits in Philadelphia when I found this piece in Commonweal from last week. They close tomorrow! Disaster!) If you would like to help, please email me! —Chris]
[Also, I want someone to cover film criticism. Bimonthly, monthly, whatever you want. Something like Sarah does with the Children’s Literature Supplement. I can’t do everything! I have a full-time job! Anyway, I liked this piece in Spike on Don’t Worry Darling (2022). And “The Frictionless Charms of the Ferrante Cinematic Universe.” They’re both really sharp pieces I enjoyed reading. Email me! —Chris]
“a place where you can touch all of the products you see on Instagram” [This explains certain emerging features of the environment which have been concerning me recently. —Chris]
The foundation behind that trendy new psychoanalysis journal, Parapraxis [You may remember we noted its launch in November.], is hosting a series of online roundtable discussions, beginning with one on The Body Keeps the Score (2014) this afternoon.
Department of whether books are good or not:
“Acedia wasn’t caused by books, exactly, since a monk could suffer from it even without reading, but the book was initially as suspect a technology as the smartphone is today.” [Evagrius was probably right about this, as with most things. —Chris] “Monks were encouraged to read slowly and methodically, and they engaged with the text by writing notes in the margin. Kreiner says this marginalia helped them ‘to stay alert’ — though she also concedes that sometimes what they scribbled down had nothing to do with the text at hand.” [Today, little parenthetical notes serve the same function. —Chris] [We hope. —Nic]
More on distraction: “Sure, folks in Washington might well give up on Twitter. But for now, it’s still the place for reporter-massaging, idea-debating, networking, rumor-mill-monitoring and career-building. Any replacement will struggle to replicate all the ways it has transformed the city.” (Politico) “Is Twitter all bad? Of course not.” ()
The Nation in those days was still kind of a throwback, defiantly clinging to the old ways. Its pages were numbered, then, in a fashion that I assumed was designed somehow to placate libraries, or, if you dare remember such a thing, the Reader’s Catalog: Pages were numbered consecutively by volume (that is to say, by year), so that the second page of an issue from mid-November 1980 would not be numbered page 2, but page 1,512. There was no art (that was a Katrina-era innovation). There were just words upon words upon words; a few too many of them, to be honest, settling old Cold War scores, but enough of them lively, biting, engaged in the moment.
[I think they should bring back the continuous numbering. The big 16-point numbers they use now are a little much. IMO! —Chris]
February 28 | Melville House
by Susanne Wedlich
From the publisher: Slime. The very word seems to ooze oily menace, conjuring up a variety of unpleasant associations: mucous, toxins, reptiles, pollutants, and other unsavory viscous semi-liquid substances. Yet without slime, the natural world would be completely unrecognizable; in fact, life itself as we know it would be impossible
In this deft and fascinating book, journalist Susanne Wedlich takes us on a tour of all things slimy, from the most unctuous of science fiction monsters to the biochemical compounds that are the very building blocks of life. Along the way she shows us what slime really means, and why lime is not something to fear, but rather something to … embrace.
[Yeah. Sure. Go ahead. Write a book about slime. See if we have anything to say about it. —Chris]