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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Books, Tastes, and Economic Realities...

I can't hide the fact that I am a "list" person. What I mean by that is the fact that I depend on lists to organize my life in more ways than one. Having said that, I suppose that I am not all that completely nuts about categorized literature lists in general, only those that help to educate and edificate. Perhaps technology has made us dependent on lists rather than liberate us from them. My reading lists are based on what I want to read, not what I need to read or what I consider "good." In that sense, it is important to have a clear idea of what these so-called "reading lists" or "bestsellers" really advocate.

Yesterday, I described my great distaste of B.K. Myers' "A Reader's Manifesto," and today I must point out another one of the many debates going on (albeit somewhat silently) on the topic of literature nowadays. On May 23rd, "The New York Times" ran a review by one William Grimes entitled "Volumes to Go Before You Die." The column was an open critique of Prof. Peter Boxall's effort to put together the list of 1,001 books to read before you die. Grimes' problem with the 1,001 book list is the fact that 1) it is a British effort, 2) that the British love lists and the fights they provoke, and 3) that most of the academic sources which supported the inclusion of some of the books were "mostly obscure." Going by what I wrote yesterday, I must continue to ask--and ask earnestly--what is going on with literature nowadays?

This past winter I was part of a committee of academics that was to decide upon the selections our students were to read in the coming summer. I quit the committee after the first day. The sessions were mostly bickering about the merits of this author and the lacking of an other. In a room full of seemingly intelligent people, dialogue was put to rest and what ensued was a gripe session, a verbal war that surrendered to nothing and yielded far less. I had decided to join the committee with the interest of playing a "role" of sorts. I wanted to be the one (I assumed correctly beforehand that I would be the only one) advocating the inclusion of the "Great Books" in the list for summer reading. This fact I made clear on the first day, when, in the only sign of politeness, we introduced ourselves and gave the reason as to why we wanted to be part of the committee. I said openly that I was there to advocate the "Classics," books despite the fact that the liberal-oriented/politically-correct interpretation might consider them racist, colonialist, imperialist, anti-semetic, sexist, oppressive, etc. There's merit to these books, I continued, because they fulfilled a part of society and stood the test of time. We all could recognize that and read them for what they mean today--not as support for unpopular policies, politics, philosophies and/or beliefs. The argument didn't go far. This is the reason why even the American political process has become a hard to endure joke: we are offending each other to absolute silence in the name of "political-correctness."

At any rate, Grimes main argument (much like my own in the committee) is that why the list included so many books from recent and contemporary writers but failed to include writers from what he calls "the age of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy." I agree with him (to a certain extent), but I have to recognize that ALL literature, regardless of what its aim is, should be included in the list. Therefore, we wouldn't have a list of 1,001, but rather a numberless list from which to read the rest of our lives. Wouldn't that be a better option? Wouldn't that be a better learning experience, not limited by choices or narrow paths? Isn't the effort to read in order to experience things that are beyond our own lives enough? Wouldn't it be better not to categorize books in lists of "best to read," "must reads," etc.? Grimes makes (in my biased personal opinion) a fatal mistake. He states: "Something is wrong here. Paul Auster gets six novels. Don DeLillo [gets] seven. Thackeray gets one: 'Vanity Fair.'" Of course, my guard went up. In two days I have read two unreasonable critiques of Paul Auster, my favorite writer. Of course I am going to go on the defensive. But what I don't have to do is defend Auster. His works speak for themselves, and if you know Paul Auster's work, you would know what I am talking about. He is not, like Shakespeare, beyond criticism, but the fact that he draws so much unfair and unwarranted critiques perhaps means that he is so good those who cannot compete then criticize. Then the old adage must be revised: "Criticism is the most sincere form of flattery." I am advocating both Thackeray and Auster, Garcia Marquez and Hesse.... I am advocating both Shelley and Rushdie, Wharton and Murakami. Grimes goes on to state that if you "[d]rop a couple of Austers, and there would have been room" for titles like Dreiser's "An American Tragedy." The question then becomes: Should we do away with these blasted lists? What about the so-called "bestsellers' lists?" Are they really bestsellers, or is this type of list another capitalist/corporate effort to promote one book over another? As I pointed out earlier, why take the opinion of a talk show hostess over that of professor emeritus Harold Bloom? I suppose he would know more about what "good" literature is, wouldn't he? A further complication can be seen when one examines (closely) the list of bestseller in the U.S. throughout the years. It can be considered a deterioration of "taste," or intellectualism, etc. It can be correlated to the rise of television, etc. It could be read from different angles and make it justify about any argument put forth. What are these lists for? Really?

I make no sense, really, and I'll be the first to state it. There's, however, a great discrepancy between the bestselling volumes of today, and the same category for, say, the year of Our Lord 1946. It is clearly a shift in economics, taste, education and lifestyles... and Grimes should take that into account, as should the rest of us...

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children," and the Question of Literary Fiction

"The Emperor's Children" is indeed a fine novel. I read a review online yesterday that accused Messud of over-writing, long-windedness and a pretentious style. I believe I had the same impression when I first read "The Last Life." I remember thinking that I could have written the book (how pretentious of me) in less than 250 pages and still say the same thing. But what was at fault with that assessment was the fact that it was my first Claire Messud novel, and I didn't really know her and her style and her wonderful and beautiful art. "The Emperor's Children" cleared up the issue quite satisfactorily for me. Messud is probably one of the finest writers alive today and, like Paul Auster, she "plays second fiddle" to people like Picoult, Rice, King, Grisham and others who fall under the blessing of a certain talk show hostess. It's a shame, really, but it seems that there's nothing to do when it comes to literary fiction (read the over-simplified definition from wikipedia HERE).


The novel rounds up very well, as the complications between characters become more and more dense. Of course the break-up between Julius and Cohen (the gay couple) is foreshadowed enough for the reader to see it coming. Now, the complications between Danielle and Murray was artfully written, full of tension and an awesome depiction of the human folly. Murray lies to his wife and says he will be in Chicago for the weekend in order to spend the weekend at Danielle's apartment. Of course, he is staying not too far away from his own home. But the problem really comes when a couple of planes hit the Twin Towers and create havoc beyond all ideologies, countries and civilizations. Murray has to come up with a plan to go back to his wife that very day. How to make her think he was able to come back to New York when all the airports were closed? Really, the book becomes an excellent picture of the confusion and human condition of that day. Bootie, Murray's nephew, writes an article criticizing his uncle and it sets off another avalanche of fireworks... characters were so "fleshed-out" and their trials so alive... Messud is really a great writer.


I didn't mean that the authors I mentioned in the paragraph above go without merit. I think that there's enough readership to go around. My concern is with that "vague" genre called literary fiction. How is this defined? Who makes the decision to label it such? More importantly, why is it such a turn off for people who might read a "beach book" voraciously but shun literary fiction after the first few pages? Literary fiction might deal with the so-called human folly, with the full condition of humanity, emotional turmoils, etc. I can certainly understand people have different taste, but to lump literary fiction as "pretentious" is simply a hasty generalization and slippery-slopish. B.R. Myers claims just that in "A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literature." The problem with his argument is not that it isn't true--some level of what he claims as pretentiousness must be taking place in academia and writing programs (although a writers' styles do not constitute pretentiousness. Perhaps overwriting, but not pretentiousness). He sweeps and over-encompasses contemporary American authors lumping them together, portraying them as intellectual clowns and posers and insists that the state of literary fiction is (with reference to Messud's title) a case of the emperor having no clothes. An entire chapter is dedicated to Paul Auster. Of course, my bias is immediate and collective: I love Paul Auster's work. I love it because it is deep, meaningful, insightful... in a word: perfect. Getting that out of the way is a good way to "problematize" Myers' argument further. Why is it that enlarging the message of a particular plot, story, or character to uncover what is "underneath" the words becomes pretentiousness? I am not quite sure about Myers' process of categorizing literary fiction, especially American literature, but one could say the same thing about all the literary fiction coming out of Europe and Asia. Certainly, they have the other types: chick lit, techno and legal thrillers, etc. Moreover, literary fiction also comes from thousands of places, written in other languages other than English... should we categorize all of that pretentious as well? One could say the same about the work of Haruki Murakami, or V.S. Naipaul, or Salman Rushdie. Perhaps Myers already has a second book in the works regarding false European erudition... oh God, did I really say that?

I am off to read "The Religion of the Samurai" next. I am excited to be finishing up the semester with so much ease, as I think the work from last semester is paying off now. Presently, the students graduating in June are taking their final exams... it seems like yesterday we started the year. Cheers!

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Death of a Reading List...

It isn't time to give up yet. That's not what I am referring to at all. But the truth is that I must resign to the fact that I have only read 10 books this year, as opposed to previous years when I averaged 30 by mid-May. "The Emperor's Children," a book I took to China with me thinking I was going to be finished with it by the time I got there after the 18 hour flight, is still very much in my hand, perhaps for the rest of the month. Because of the lack of time I continue to only take "baby steps" from chapter to chapter of Messud's divine masterpiece. My goal this year was to read classics, and while I am still sticking to some of the titles, I am revising the list some time this coming weekend to represent titles I intend to substitute. I can't count the number of people who have told me--at one time or another--that reading is not about lists or the number of books you can read in one year, but I beg to differ. If you look at my past years' reading lists (HERE), you'll be able to tell how far behind I am this year. Regardless, I am still reading some "chunklers," such as "The Pickwick Papers," and "Foucault's Pendulum."

"The Emperor's Children" has been a marvel to read. Finally, in the middle chapters, the tension between Murray Thwaite and Danielle reaches the climax Messud intended all along. While it is difficult to imagine the elder "intellectual" Thwaite in bed with Danielle, Messud uses a mixture of descriptive and metaphorical language that makes it passable. Danielle is indeed one of those young women highly impressed with any signs of a "big brain" or intellectual capacity. I knew some women like that in college (none of whom dated me, of course)--they enjoyed conversation more than looks and as a result gravitated towards the intellectual types. Murray's daughter (Marina) doesn't realize what's going on, and despite being Danielle's best friend, she cannot decipher the bed of lies her friend and her father occupy. Marina, of course, has taken a turn for the best, finally finishing her long over-due book, and starting a "romance" that seemingly will culminate in marriage to an Australian named Ludovic Seeley. The complications extend to the other characters, Julius (the token gay friend) and "Bootie" Tubb, Marina's cousin who has moved to New York to "make" it as a writer. More to follow.

Today in class we screened the film "Finding Forrester." I plan on showing this film in class prior to any big writing assignment (but only once a semester). My students were happy for the break, knowing little that a great writing lesson was upon them. If you listen closely, I pointed out to them, you'll take away a great deal of excellent writing advice. That is the rationale behind showing the film. At any rate, there's a scene where Sean Connery tells the protagonist, Jamal Wallace (played by Rob Brown): "Write a 5,000 word essay on why you should stay the f*** out of my place!" My students immediately pointed out that it is impossible to do so overnight. To which, of course, I offered to do... so now I have a 5,000 word assignment on why I should stay the f*** out of Mr. William Forrester's (fictional seclusive writer) place of residence. I may post it here so you can laugh at the amazing non-sequitorial nonsense I write.

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