Archive | Literature RSS feed for this section

Brief Thoughts On Fiction

30 Sep

I don’t have a lot to say in response to Matt Zeitlin’s post on fiction and James Woods’ disdain for the “hysterical realism” of Rushdie, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, et al.  I read more poetry than I do fiction, so I’d gladly defer to the opinions of people who have read many of these authors and more fiction criticism.

It seems that Woods (at least from his White Teeth review) is making two interrconnected arguments: 1) an argument about the formal comparative advantage of literature and 2) a larger moral argument about what these formal choices say about the world.

The first argument is concerned, put crudely, with the idea of the novel as a formal machine, and that literature does the best job of investigating (and representing, and interrogating, etc.) the interiors of human experinece. In poetry, we often talk about poetry as if we were creating little verse machines (though they need not be in verse or follow “traditional form”) and how those formal choices support or detract from what the poem is trying to do or what we’d like it to do.  This is analogous to Woods’ discussion of the “architecture” of Zadie Smith’s novel; for Woods, the novel’s architecture doesn’t hold up:

The passage might stand, microcosmically, for the novel’s larger dilemma of storytelling: on its own, almost any of these details (except perhaps the detail about passing the shit and piss through the cat-flap) might be persuasive. Together, they vandalize each other: the Presbyterian dypsomaniacs and the Mormon aunt make impossible the reality of the fanatical Muslim. As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.

But we might ask ourselves why the formal elements should support the sort of novel Woods finds sucessful? First we have to ask ourselves what we consider sucesses to be.  Let’s assume that we take Smith’s novel on its own terms and that we hold nothing against “hysterical realism”; what does a sucessful novel in this style look like?  An unsucessful one?  

It quickly becomes clear that we have to resort to some kind of standard or categories outside the novel, even if that it standard is simply the reader.  What would an ideal reader of “hysterical realism” be interested in and why would a work like White Teeth or Gravity’s Rainbow resonate with them?  I agree with Zeitlin here and think the answer doesn’t really have a foundational element; there is no core artistic concept or Platonic ideal that we have recourse to (as Ned notes). But that doesn’t mean Woods thinks there is only one formal structure that leads to sucessful novels, or to making the sort of statements he’d like fiction to make:

The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities–her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness. 

And now we come to the core question of values and Woods’ second argument.  Whether Smith (and by implication, Wolfe, Pynchon, DFW, and others) lacks moral seriousness is a question that can be answered.  Just not by me (I haven’t read their work nor do I want to wade any further into this lit crit morass I’ve dreged up for myself).

If we, like Zeitlin and Woods, see certain techniques as larger statements about a work or the world around us, then we can take these statements and evaluate them against some exisiting conception of the world and the sort of moral commitments you think are important.  Woods wants a literture that connects with the sublime and what is most deeply human about us.  That’s something I want too, though I’m not sure I can tell you why you should be prefer this (even assuming that literature does this better than any other medium, why should you want this in the first place).  In the end, I think you have to make reference to a lot of held assumptions and values that lie outside of fiction qua fiction.

When Worlds Collide

26 Jun

There aren’t many instances where I get to write about the meeting of the literary and political worlds, but TPM’s book discussion of Philip Gourevitch’s Standard Operating Procedure is one of them.  Gourevitch has his feet in both worlds as both the editor of The Paris Review and a journalist who wrote an excellent book on the Rwandan genocide, and makes him well suited to flesh out the varied stories and narrative strains the make up the abuses at Abu Ghraib .

What makes this book discussion more interesting than the usual fare is the inclusion of poet/memoirist Mary Karr (of The Liars Club fame) as part of the discussion and that fellow poet/memiorist Nick Flynn shows up in the comments section to chastise Gourevitch for not including more Iraqi voices in his account.  Gourevitch responds that part of the reason for not explicitly including the words of those Iraqi’s tortured at Abu Ghraib was his focus on the events as a particularly American story–that the abuses at Abu Ghraib, as Gourevitch  argues, were not inevitable, and were the result of tacit (and sometimes explicit) support of American officials. This is a story about the policy of torture.

Flynn’s concern is common one among writers: who to include and how to tell the story without distorting the truth or privileging one narrative over another.  But it is, I think, a secondary concern here, and one too focused on the (laudable) goal of including voices that were silenced or otherwise appropriated in the media swarm that followed Abu Ghraib.  SOP‘s major contribution seems to be the way it examines how the decisions and policy of the Bush administration translated to actions at Abu Ghraib, as Matt Steinglass observes :

What’s really powerful about this story is that it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever seen for examining the way that policy decisions translate into events. Think, for instance, of Jane Mayer’s amazing article for The New Yorker on Alberto Mora. The hardest thing to do in journalism is to draw connections between complex and fuzzy management and policy decisions, bureaucratic political maneuvering and the adoption of one or another document as official policy, and the consequences such documents and management tactics have for the accomplishment of an organization’s mission. The reporting that’s been done on how abuses at Abu Ghraib (and Bagram and Guantanamo) stemmed from the evolution of US torture policy has been probably the best, most gripping organizational reporting I’ve read.

I’m calling this one for Gourevitch because (as Karr also notes) a book that widens the narrative scope to all accounts is a different, though important, book.

Also in torture reporting: Spencer Ackerman goes to the Amnesty Guantanamo protest in DC and talks with former army chaplin CPT. James Lee, who was arrested, and eventually released, for suscpision of espionage.

Who Will Want to Watch “Watchmen”? (Part I)

2 Jun

I’m in general agreement with most of Mike’s observations about the Watchmen movie: that the source material is dangerously close to unfilmable and that it’ll be turned into a action film–albeit an action film uselessly layered with pseudo-political commentary and psychodrama window dressing. But contra Mike, after reading the wikipedia page (and having just finished rereading Watchmen), I think there are some signals that Zack Snyder might have a shot at translating the graphic for the screen. Let’s start with the bits that seem promising:

1. Synder has decided to keep the movie in alternate-1985 America: This seems like an important feature of not only the political environment the characters live in, but also in the look of the movie itself. This is a successful but inwardly empty America that has gotten much of what it wanted during the Cold War, thanks to Dr. Manhattan. America wins in Vietnam (and seemingly every other proxy war) and rides high on its sense of invincibility. Remove that stuff and you’ve got a different writer’s social commentary. If there’s going to be any sense of intelligent political musings, it’s best that it be in the context of Watchmen’s world rather than a botched gloss on current political events or turned into some generic screed against nuclear war.

2. Nite Owl looks kinda badass: Like Mike, this made me wince at first. Sure, spandex and bright colors look better on the page than on the screen (a not unwise choice, as Bryan Singer’s X-Men demonstrated), but the characters seem needlessly “sexed up”. But then I read this from Snyder:

The costumes, as they’re drawn, might not be accessible to many of today’s audiences. I also felt that audiences might not appreciate the naiveté of the original costumes. So, there has been some effort to give them a slightly more… I would say modern look — and not modern in the sense of 2007, but modern in terms of the superhero aesthetic. It was also important to me that they appealed to my own taste as a moviegoer. Lastly and possibly most important, I wanted to be sure that they comment directly on many of today’s modern masked vigilantes — who shall remain nameless…

If this is going to be a real movie–and not simply an action flick using the names and characters from an Alan Moore comic–then the movie has to be a commentary (or examination, or whatever) on superheros as they’re portrayed in the movies, just as Watchmen was, to some extent, an examination of heroes as they’d been written and drawn in comics up until 1985. These are two different media with their own tropes and cliches to be poked at and examined. This new Nite Owl seems pretty (movie) Batman inspired.

I also think Mike places too much emphasis on visual absurdity of the costumes: Continue reading

More Pressure to Renew My New Yorker Subscription

14 Aug

Not only has Ryan Lizza left The New Republic for the New Yorker, but now James Woods has decamped for the magazine.  I don’t have a strong opinion on Woods’s “hysterical realism” thesis (I haven’t read any DeLillo or Pynchon, and don’t read enough contemporary fiction), but I’ve always enjoyed the general tenor of his pieces and the literary section of TNR.

I not sure, however, if this Leon Wieseltier quote is meant to be playfully sarcastic or a public gripe about losing talent:

“The New Republic plays many significant roles in American culture, and one of them is to find and to develop writers with whom The New Yorker can eventually staff itself.”

Can’t someone get Marty Peretz (or whomever at CanWest) to pony up some more cash instead of just making someone Chief-Senior-Executive-Editor?

(HT: Moreover)