Is there a David Bowie of literature?—such an asinine question, as dumb as asking, “Is there a Virginia Woolf of music?”—arguing against it arguably as asinine as answering it at all, even on its own terms, which is to say, which “David Bowie”? which “literature”?; not to mention the problem of even locating a “there” with any kind of certainty, and of establishing what and/or where or whatever “Is” in this case is.
“Dining Room” from Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution (Coffee House, 2004):
“Willie called his daughters into the dining room. He picked up a dining room table chair and threw it into a closed window. The window shattered. He said, ‘That’s a lesson about virginity. Do you understand?’ to which they replied, ‘Yes sir.'”
Okay, wow, I’ve probably quoted this passage here on Big Other like six or seven times. What I love here is the economy of language. Yes, this is a poem, but it’s also a full story. We learn so much about Willie, about his daughters, about their psychologies. And I love the deadpan delivery, the sonic pleasures (called, daughters, dining, picked, dining, closed, window, window, shattered, said, do, understand, etc.).
from Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life (Soft Skull, 2007):
“Then he sprayed a can into the bag and tied it around his neck over his head. Flopping, he danced. With his face pinkly invisible. We could see his mouth stretched like an O between the letters of the pink writing on the bag, A&P. When he fell down and we were all of us crying, I, being the oldest, called Children’s Protective Services and said, ‘Mr Rubens put a bag on his head.'”
When I first read this book, and when I came to this passage, I think I had one of those formative moments. I liked reading again. I mean, I like to read, but I don’t always love what I read. I think so many students are forced to read books they don’t like, and then they’re taught “how” to read those books (probably as if there is a right or wrong way), and then they grow up hating reading. I was lucky. I had a few great English teachers, and I grew up reading, enjoying reading, long before that. But then there are those moments in my adult reading life where I feel like I’ve discovered something new about reading. That’s what this book did for me. And it has to do with the phrasings. What does it mean, out of context, that “Mr Rubens put a bag on his head”? Maybe it’s funny. Certainly “Flopping, he danced” is kind of funny. But not in this context. I love the simplicity of language, the precision of clarity, and yet the multi-layered reading experiences one can have.
In the New Yorker’s latest article on the lives of the rich and famous, Joan Acocella writes about why Steig Larsson’s books are so popular. The first paragraph of this article contains this sentence:
If you have been in a coma, say, for the past two years, and have not read the Millennium trilogy, about a crusading journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and a computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, battling right-wing forces in Sweden, the set, at ninety-nine dollars, is not a bad bargain.
Acocella shames her readership for not getting on the bandwagon if they have not (figuring those who have not drank the potion of Larsson to have been without brain function because if one was alive and heard about this phenomenon, then one surely would have read it), while adding an additional plug (judging more money spent on Larsson to be well spent) for books that have outsold all books except the Bible.
It’s an insidious gambit and though some of my colleagues will ask, “What do you except out of the New Yorker?” I won’t hesitate to point out the mortifying endgame of the hype-machines.
Going along with this was an experience at a reading for a first novel by the editor of one the most well-known literary journals in this country. After the reading, attended by myself and a friend, the author of the book approached and accosted myself for not buying his book. To my discredit I said I didn’t have the money, when the truth was I didn’t have the money to buy his book–books by others who I wanted to read, I could afford. This author then turned to my friend and asked, “What’s your excuse?”
Thankfully and probably not ironically, those authors and their acolytes who push and push to make a sale are those work often lacks in certain literary qualities that speak to me (to be fair, Acocella does spend a paragraph of her article taking Larsson to task for banal writing in his books).
How does publicity and pressure play a role in what you read?
I’m in the middle of writing a review of Robert Steiner’s Negative Space, after having read it twice. It’s a marvelous novella mapping the mania of a cuckolded man, featuring lyrically meandering sentences, like this one:
“Smoldering ruins can occupy a panorama the way from our terrace I witness the olive grove, and the sea beyond it, and beyond the sea the horizon that cuts it, and beyond the horizon the bleeding sun, but eventually even ruin is nothing but gravity.”
I’ve read a hundred books, so far, this year, and this short book was one of the best, and so, I highly recommend it. And I’m grateful to Steiner for writing it, and to Counterpoint Press for publishing it.