Did you know there’s a Wikipedia entry for “Death of the novel“? Well, now you do, and it seems that Will Self is trying to will himself (see what I did there?) into its bibliography, with an article in the Guardian titled “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real).” According to Twitter, he’s wrong, and possibly a bad person. Here’s the thing, though: you can’t go by what Twitter says—it’s just, like, a bunch of people’s opinions, man. American opinions, even, unlike Will Self’s opinion, which is British. Imagine hearing the essay in a British accent (it is actually the text of a speech to be given today, so someone is hearing it in a British accent)—are you still so sure he’s wrong, Twitter? But listen, now that we’ve got our ears tuned to his words anyway, let’s hear what he has to say.
For one thing, he says, “I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.” So, the novel is as dead as easel painting is, which is to say: not dead, just caricatured as such. Well, since Self or his editor is the one doing that caricaturing, there’s not much there. There are more contemporary and relevant analogues he could have chosen instead of easel painting, of course; literature is, with very few exceptions, already exactly what he claims it will become (“confined to a defined”—come on, Self! no wonder no one reads this shit—”social and demographic group,” check; “requiring a degree of subsidy,” check; not “a subject [of] public discourse,” check). But to make such an argument would be to preclude a headline like “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real),” since its parenthetical would then be a foregone conclusion, like printing “Napoleon Bonaparte is dead (this time it’s for real).” No one’s going to read that. So perhaps Self isn’t really saying much after all, or nothing much worth getting worked up over, since it’s where we already find ourselves. But perhaps you take issue with my caricature of the current state of literature. Continue reading
Why do I listen to NPR? Lately, it seems as though it’s been overrun by heathens, although maybe I’m just mistaken as to its past. In any case, last week, an interviewee, an author, claimed that “literature is boring,” and the interviewer didn’t challenge her, didn’t so much as say a word. As much as I might want to credit this author with a biting, trenchant analysis of those awful new books often shelved as “literature,” she was placing the category of literature in opposition to her own, commercial fiction: Her shitty books about angels or vampires or dinosaurs or dinosaur angel vampires or whatever are, at least, not boring, like, I don’t know, Shakespeare? Jane Eyre? Jane Bowles? Reader, I wish I were joking. Anyway, while torturing myself in the car on an earlier occasion, I heard a different author who also ought to have remained silent—we’ll call him Author X and put the bag over his head for him—complain that publication at his Big Five house was taking so long that the “political” novel he’d written about [fill in the blank with current event] now won’t make sense because things are different all of a sudden, and, in the country where it all takes place, things will probably be even differenter when the book finally sees print. Gosh! Can you imagine? How will he ever earn back his advance? Our hero then went on to say that he had rewritten the book to better accord with how things are now in Country Y, and that version, the updated one, will be the one hitting the shelves this fall. (Actually, I’m not entirely sure of this last bit—as soon as he mentioned revising his book in light of the events transpiring in the country he’d written about, my mind leapt far away from what he was saying, as one does when a gun goes off under one’s window. Let’s call it self-preservation.)
Duende, a new online (and beautifully designed) literary journal run by the good folks in Goddard College’s BFA Program, is accepting submissions for its inaugural issue. The editors say,
If your poetry is rough-cut diamonds, slightly off-kilter; if your fiction will make us feel more human and less alone; if you enjoy exploration of new forms at the edges of the literary universe; if you can bring us elegant translations of literature from far corners of the globe; if your nonfiction is wild and honest; if your visual art is raw and earnest…show us. We want to see it.
According to one of my favorite poets, Nathaniel Mackey, “One of the things that marks the arrival of duende in flamenco singing is a sound of trouble in the voice, The voice becomes troubled. Its eloquence becomes eloquence of another order, a broken, problematic, self-problematizing eloquence.” Send your broken, problematic, self-problematizing eloquences for Duende‘s arrival (which is slated for October 2014) by May 15th. UPDATE: THE DEADLINE HAS BEEN EXTENDED TO JUNE 1ST.
And so we start the celebrations, commemorations, what have you, for the 100th anniversary of the First World War. We have already had a host of books and television programmes, even though we still have a few months to go before the exact anniversary of the point at which Gavrilo Princip fired at Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, and after that we have four more years of this. And we’ve already had the first controversies. Continue reading
Battling Boy, the most recent work by cartoonist Paul Pope, arrived from First Second Books last year, although I was late to the party, and what a strange party it is. Pope is one of comics’ most talented renderers-of-action, but on some pages, his talents actually undermine the story he’s trying to tell. Superficially simple–the combat-novice son of a godlike warrior arrives in a land besieged by monsters–the story invites all sorts of questions about the circumstances of its creation. Pope stages a series of fights with such fluidity–virtuosity, even–that even if his reader isn’t a comics nerd who had heard mention of Battling Boy for years, the book is still likely to read as the product of countless hours of labor. And even the immersed reader might be tempted to think, ‘All this work for a genre pastiche?’
Battling Boy shouldn’t be written off as shallow exhibitionism. There’s too much charm and levity throughout the story for that charge to stick. (If Pope’s drawing to impress, he’s obviously drawing to have fun, too.) For instance, collection of animal T-shirts endows Battling Boy with the power of their respective animals; when picking a shirt before a battle, the boy must choose carefully. Details like this display a lightness of touch not always present in Pope’s earlier work, even if they don’t register as particularly personal. (In fact, the concept is weirdly reminiscent of ’90s cartoon toy shill Mighty Max and his magic baseball cap.)
Battling Boy shouldn’t be written off as devoid of ideas, either. Pope has no shortage of those, and readers can find them in his renderings of space and movement. Comics are a visual medium; Pope’s innovations are visual in nature. Even the argument that Pope’s style is his substance doesn’t quite do him justice. His lines are too functional, carry too much of the narrative burden, to be celebrated-slash-dismissed as stylistic flourishes. And yet Pope is such a superlative artist that his comics will always disappoint to some degree as long as the quality of his plotting fails to match the quality of his cartooning.
In this way, there’s something sad about Battling Boy. Paul Pope delivered a work that is, in some respects, pretty great. Just not holistically great. And holistic greatness might still be what the greedy reader expects, based on what Pope’s able to provide.
The title of Joshua Landy’s How to do Things with Fictions should not lead you to believe that what is written therein is anything like a recipe book or a technical manual; no, instead, what Landy’s short book is after is proving that fictions do things at all—that is, rather than being about things, a fiction does things for its reader—or can—a claim, he argues, that is no longer obvious if it ever was. The reason for our dull-witted view of fiction is that “For some reason, we have systematically—albeit unwittingly—engaged in a long-term campaign of misinformation, relentlessly persuading would-be readers that fictions are designed to give them useful advice.” You can argue with that last part, but if you read the book, you’ll see that’s just the first of our reading deficiencies: if we look to fiction for advice [on how to live our lives], it can only be because we suppose that fiction has a paraphraseable content (as this post will have). If a fiction is about, then it can be paraphrased, and if it can be paraphrased, it can be reduced, and if it can be reduced, shouldn’t it be reduced?
By focusing on one relatively uninteresting aspect of fiction—its “subject,” for lack of a better word—we teach readers that the experience of a fiction is secondary or even tertiary to the reading—if it is considered at all. Thus, Cliff’s Notes. The very existence of such a thing as Cliff’s Notes should tell us that we have completely misunderstood fiction under Landy’s theory, and not at the level of the student, but at the level of the teacher: teaching for message, for content, for subject is teaching readers how to read fiction badly. There is a great deal more subtlety to Landy’s argument, and a great deal more nuance, but then, he has 250 pages to convince you, and this post will be much shorter than that. Continue reading