Recent Literary Disputes

I have to admit that neither Christian Lorentzen’s nor Kyle Minor’s respective takes on Alice Munro’s stories and books have altered my own criticism of her work, but they have inspired me, at least momentarily, to consider revisiting her work. Not sure how long that feeling will last, though, considering I’m currently experiencing massive withdrawal symptoms from having recently finished reading Helen DeWitt‘s brilliant two novels. I’ve also embarked on reading all of Zadie Smith’s work. Then there’s my still-in-progress Robert Coover marathon…

Michael Leong’s recent blog post pointed me to another take on a recent literary debate: Evie Shockley’s “Shifting the (Im)balance: Race and the Poetry Canon.”



Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William H. Gass, 2012

Photo by Frank Di Piazza

It’s probably too easy a move to begin my very brief remarks about Gass’s use of architecture as a metaphor by trotting out the old horse of a quote about language being the house of Being, before flogging it to death once and for all; but it seems appropriate, nevertheless, to do so, especially when I think about Gass’s positing that the sentence is a container of consciousness. Actually, the quote from Heidegger is useful only when held in contrast with Gass’s ideas about language. Whereas Heidegger placed speech, that is, the continuum of speech, which includes talking, listening, and silence, at the center of his theory of language, Gass does not see writing as a mere supplement to speech. The continuum of writing includes four modes: persuasive, expository, expressive, and literary; and two hybrid modes: argumentative (a fusion of persuasive and expository) and critical (a fusion of expository and expressive) modes. Of these modes, it is the literary that receives the primary focus in Gass’s critical writing. And so, one might perhaps properly say that, for Gass, writing, or, rather, the sentence is the house of becoming. And what is it exactly that becomes in a sentence? For Gass, the sentence is a container of consciousness, a “verbal consciousness, of course, one built of symbols, not sensations; yet one of perceptions all the same: perceptions followed by thoughts like tracking hounds, and infused throughout by the energies of memory and desire, the moods emotions foster, and the reach, through imagery and other juxtapositions, of imagination…” (“The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence”). Like any house, this container can take any number of forms:

[S]entences must be understood to contain all sorts of unused syntactical space; places that could be filled with more words, but, in any specific instance, aren’t…Sentences are like latticework, like fences, to be left open or prudently closed, their boards wide or narrow, pointy or level, the spaces between them, ditto….A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it’s like a hallway or a chapel; it’s like a spiral stair. To me, for instance, Sir Thomas Browne’s triplet—“Grave stones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oak.”—with its relentlessly stressed syllables (seven strong to one weak in the first row, seven to two in the second course, and six to one in the last) resembles a wall. I can even locate spots (the weak stresses) where its stones have crumbled. Families come to pieces the way the word does.

Yes, architecture is a theme running throughout William Gass’s oeuvre, not only in his critical work but in his fictions as well, particularly in The Tunnel, where tunnel-as-metaphor is used as the very structure from which the novel is built.

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Kyle Minor’s “Literary Pillars”

1. American Pastoral, Philip Roth
2. “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Katherine Anne Porter
3. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
4. Bats Out of Hell, Barry Hannah
5. Selected Poems, Wislawa Szymborska
6. Child of God, Cormac McCarthy
7. The King James Bible
8. The Stories of J F Powers
9. The Collected Works of William Shakespeare
10. Going to Meet the Man, James Baldwin
11. “Lust,” Susan Minot
12. The Never Ending, Andrew Hudgins
13. Sabbath’s Theater, Philip Roth
14. The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor
15. Desires, John L’Heureux
16. The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore
17. Questions for Ecclesiastes, Mark Jarman
18. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton
19. Seventeen & J, Kenzaburo Oe
20. “The Paperhanger,” William Gay
21. All Things, All at Once, Lee K. Abbott
22. The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer
23. In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien
24. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, Frank Stanford
25. Suttree, Cormac McCarthy
26. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander
27. Airships, Barry Hannah
28. Open Secrets, Alice Munro
29. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera
30. The Collected Stories of William Trevor
31. Selected Stories, Andre Dubus
32. All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Edward P. Jones
33. Friend of My Youth, Alice Munro
34. Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock
35. Nightwork, Christine Schutt
36. Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate., Johannes Goransson
37. The Necropastoral, Joyelle McSweeney
38. Train Dreams, Denis Johnson
39. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
40. Mao II, Don DeLillo
41. The Dew Breaker, Edwidge Danticat
42. Rabbit Tetralogy, John Updike
43. “The Apology,” Stephen Dixon
44. 60 Stories, Donald Barthelme
45. How They Were Found, Matt Bell
46. American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell
47. The Human Stain, Philip Roth
48. “Good Old Neon,” David Foster Wallace
49. The Collected Self-Published Volumes of Bill Knott
50. “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” Wallace Stevens & “In a Station of the Metro,” Ezra Pound
 Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.

Best of 2011, Part 1

A few days ago, I reached out to writers and other artists across the country to provide me with a list of some of their favorite books, music, films, events, moments, or whatever from 2011, which needn’t necessarily have happened or been made in 2011. So I’m happy to publish this first installment, featuring lists from Gabriel Blackwell, Samuel R. Delany, Giancarlo DiTrapano, Andrew Ervin, Eugene Lim, Brad Listi, Kyle Minor, J. A. Tyler, and Curtis White.

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A Sentence About a Sentence I Love: An Anthology, of Sorts

A few months ago, in April, to be exact, I started a series of posts entitled “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love” with a sentence about one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s magnificent sentences. This concentration, or, rather, this obsession with the sentence may have come from my, at the time, recent readings of William Gass’s essays wherein he concentrates much of his attention on the sentence as a primary building block in poetry and prose. Essays by Gass like “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” “The Architecture of the Sentence,” take as their focus the centrality of the sentence toward the construction of thought, and particularly of thoughts within the parameters of fiction. In “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Gass claims that sentences are “the most elementary instances of what the author has constructed….a moving unity of fact and feeling.” Moreover, sentences

must be sounded, too; it has a rhythm, speed, a tone, a flow, a pattern, shape, length, pitch, conceptual direction. The sentence confers reality upon certain relations, but it also controls our estimation, apprehension, and response to them. Every sentence, in short, takes metaphysical dictation, and it is the sum of these dictations, involving the whole range of the work in which the sentences appear, which accounts for its philosophical quality, and the form of life in the thing that has been made (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 14).

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Guest Post, By Kyle Minor: A Sentence About a Sentence I Love

“They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and turning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face.” – Cormac McCarthy, Child of God

James Kaelen’s Best of 2009

When John asked me to compose some sort of “best of” list for 2009, I thought immediately of film. Though I’ve read voraciously this year, most of the books I’ve consumed were written in the 20th Century. When I’m writing, I’m very particular about what I read. While editing my book We’re Getting On, I was reading Samuel Beckett’s Molloy and Malone Dies. While finishing Brute and Other Stories I read Cheever’s collected stories, The Sun Also Rises, and Jim Harrison’s The Man Who Gave Up His Name. That said, of the contemporary fiction I did manage to read, I was especially astounded by Kyle Minor’s In the Devil’s Territory — specifically the novella “A Day Meant to Do Less” which, slipping in and out of madness, contains at least forty of the most tormenting pages I’ve read recently. (In the Devil’s Territory actually came out in 2008, but who cares).

I did, though, see a number of films this year. I live in Los Angeles, and there are two independent theatres within easy walking distance, so I had almost no choice in the matter. Of the pictures that left the deepest impression on me, here are my top five, in particular order:

1. Antichrist — Lars von Trier directs one of the vilest things ever committed to celluloid. There were moments when I felt I would faint, and I pride myself on my constitution. Antichrist wasn’t the best film of the year, but no film has ever affected me so physically. I had to sit through all the credits just to gain the strength to stand.

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