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30 April 2012

Eat my shorts, Sweden...but you've got a point

(To retain a litle patriotism, all of the art here is by the AMERICAN artists William Joyce, Jim Lamarche, Loren Long, David Weisner, Peter McCarty, and Chris Van Allsburg, illustrators all.)

Here’s a modest idea:  In the world of literature, perhaps there is a formula to create the North American version of the Latin American ‘boom’ generation. I’m not going to sound the alarm and state that literature by Americans is dead on the world stage.  That alarm went off a few years ago.  

As an American, I was initially angered by Nobel secretary Horace Engdahl’s pronouncement in 2008 that my countrymen “don’t participate in the big dialogue of literature” and that “that ignorance is restraining.”  Well, bite me, you Scandanavian IKEA trash.  Are we really “too isolated...too insular?”  Do we really not read enough in translation?  Michael Dirda came to the rescue of American letters, admitting that we don’t read as much as we could, or perhaps should, from the rest of the world, but then reposted that the snob from the land of ABBA was showing his own “insular attitude towards a very diverse country.”  Damn straight.  David Remnick provided a wondrous, and accurate, jab when he accused the Nobel committee of being inept at noticing titanic and important writers when they come along, citing Proust and Nabokov as examples of great world authors the committee decided to take a pass on.  But...Engdahl could, scratch that, does have a point.  As Alexander Nazaryan so aptly put it in the pages of ‘Salon’:

“America needs an Obama des letters, a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th. One who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark — or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?”

That’s seems a pretty fair question to me, and one that seems to offer up only a resounding “none!”  And even if you strongly disagree, I do hope we can all agree that, given the diverse talents of our fellow countrymen and women, our pluralism, our existence in the information age, and the dynamism of our youth, we can do better than we have of late.  Our prominent writers are reaching or passing the sunset.  Cormac McCarthy will be 80 this July, Thomas Pynchon will turn 74 next week (and hasn’t had a book like ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ since I was do the math), and our best writer of the last 20 years or so, David Foster Wallace, is no longer with us (sadly, our best before him, John Kennedy Toole, met the same end, before any recognition).  Toni Morrison has written the same book repeatedly for two decades now.  Don Delillo is probably too engrossed in baseball and tech to know the cold war has ended, given that those seem to be his overarching concerns.   

Now we have...Jonathan Franzen?  His strip mall literature plays well in the suburbs of mediocrity, but nowhere else.  There is a new generation rising, but let’s leave that for a bit and head south.

At the dawn of the 20th century, South and Central American letters, while regionally vibrant and interesting, were insular and stagnant in the context of the ‘great conversation.’.  In Argentina, a whole genre had arisen around the romantic figure of the gaucho, the cowboy of the pampas.  It sold well in Buenos Aires, but barely trickled into Paris or Beijing.  Modernismo was growing, influencing literature beyond the western hemisphere, but none could have predicted the explosion that was to come.  Then, in 1900, ‘Ariel’ came along.  Written by José Enrique Rodó, the essay is a Latino ‘Tempest,’ pitting North America as a Caliban against South America’s Ariel.  By exhorting the youth to focus on the native heritages of indigenous populations and the heritage of European literature brought over by colonizers, the essay can now be seen as a blueprint for the rise of the particular flavor of modern and ‘Boom’ Latin American lit.  With it, the key concepts of modernismo – focus on artistic style and flare, classical notions of beauty, a rejection of utilitarianism and specialization, and fidelity to regional roots – came into sharp focus, and were laid for the greatest pioneer of the region, the man without whom the Boom, and much else besides, would be inconceivable:  Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges was one of the most widely read human beings on the planet in the last century (see where this is going?) and began his literary career as all writers do, by being a voracious reader (see where this is going?).  He was bilingual, translating Shakespeare and Wilde as a kid (see where this is going?).  He traveled the world as a youth and formed lasting literary friendships with other young people who shared his interests (see where this is going?).  As he began his poetic career, he used his cosmopolitanism to combine with surrealism and native influences.   After the death of his father and an accident requiring prolonged recovery, he combined the former elements with inter-textual allusions and philosophical musings (see where this is going?) to forge his own distinct style.  In doing so, he opened the door for the Boom, invented the philosophical short story as it now exists, and remained engaged with the reading of literature from across the globe (see where this is going?).

The Boom came in the 1960s, culminating for many with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 years of Solitude” and magical realism, a new type of writing forged from inherited ingredients (see where this is going?).  Modern literature in Latin America can be seen as an embrace or a rejection of this style, depending on author and region.

And what can we learn from all of this?  A lot.  There are certain things that we can cultivate as American letters attempts to revive.  Here is where this is going:

1.)   We need to start reading the world again.  There is amazing fiction across the globe right now, a true literary great conversation, and many people are missing out.  We will not begin to produce world authors if we cannot get out of new jersey bedrooms and the plight of the modern American family.  Publishing houses like New Directions are releasing wondrous works in translation, and someone needs to get the word out that translated literature can be both fun and enriching.  Book groups need to go beyond the best-seller lists.  The armies of movie snobs currently entrenched in urban culture need to carry their high regard and unbounded willingness to try foreign films into the book world.  We are so ready to attend that Dutch film fest, so why not pick up that Dutch novel compared to the works of Steig Larsson?  Which brings me to my next idea.

2.)   Genre fiction must die.  Now, I don’t mean my usual snobby refrain that mysteries or science fiction are not “real” literature.  Just the opposite.  The future of fiction, especially of a global American literature, might now be languishing in a genre, because we have put it there.  Why is it so important to know if what we are reading is ‘mystery,’ ‘horror,’ ‘romance,’ ‘fantasy,’ or even ‘children’s lit?’  Aren’t we intelligent enough to form our own categories of literature?  Shouldn’t quality and suitability be more important than target audience.  I’d go so far as to postulate that if a book is written only for a select audience, it is not participating in the great conversation.  The one example of this hindering through categorizing that comes to mind is the work of J. K. Rowling.  If I were on the Nobel committee, her name would be floated out on my list of candidates.  The objective of the Nobel Prize is to award an author for contributions that are “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”  And so as to dispel any notion that it is the Nobel Prize, or any other award, that confers greatness (Pearl Buck, anyone?), let me say that it is the criteria that interest me, not the award itself.  I can think of very few other universal works, read across the globe, that have moved literature in an ideal direction.  The refrain that it is “just kiddie lit” is crap.  Had they published today, Dickens, Stevenson, Wells, and Hugo would all be considered as ‘kiddie lit,’ and that would be a true crime.  The same goes for science fiction.  We are now living what for me, at least as a child, was then considered science fiction.  Our age is one of constant flux, unseen ethical dilemmas, and technological victory and defeat.  Science fiction embraces that in a way much of literature cannot.  I don’t remember much of Franzen’s work, but there are entire passages of Frank Herbert’s ‘The White Plague’ that still haunt me, and are still relevant.

3.)   We need to create a climate for our artists to thrive.  This may seem counter-intuitive in the age of austerity and belt-tightening, but both civically and privately, we need to invest in our culture.

4.)   Last, and most important, we need to take a close look in the mirror.  We need to see what America is, where it is going politically and socially, and how we look to the rest of the world. It won’t be the pretty picture, but something grotesque we have attempted to cover up or ignore with the banality of reality shows, celebrity culture, culture wars, Twitter, 24 hour news cycles, manufactured crises, and other sideshows.  The view might crush us, but we’ll be better for it, both as a nation and as a force on the literary stage.

More to come...


17 April 2012


(NB:  All images in this post are by the talented book artist Timothy Ely.)
A few days ago, in a bookshop, I noticed that a book I had picked up carried an endorsement from Stephen King, in which he recommended the tome as “a great f*cking read.”  I picked up another title a few days later, and again, there was Mr. King telling me how “amazing” it was and how jealous he was of the writer.  This crushed my atheistic, naturalist soul.  I promised in my previous post to offer a few remedies for the dreaded book blurb, especially given the incredible tool of the Internet, and here they are:

Friends:   Our friends are chosen for many reasons, and for many reasons they choose us.  One of those reasons, at least among those who read a lot, is taste in books.  And this use of similar tastes isn’t limited to literature.  Movies, music, food, sport, and much else unite people together into friendships, and often hold friendships together.  I have Four friends whom I can ask about books, or from whom I can often get a suggestion of something I might like.  What has amazed me most is that there are times where the book my friend selected for me was not a book they would personally enjoy, but a book they had spotted and had, while reading the dust jacket or recognizing the author’s name, thought immediately of me.  I have tried to exercise the same amount of generosity, of greatness of spirit, with a display of that word so perfectly captured by etymological roots, magnanimity.  Often, I fall short.  It is a difficult virtue, but worthwhile.  Cultivating friendships is important regardless of literary tastes, but I have found it fruitful to have a few friends to give me their own blurbs, to steer me toward some great discovery or some writer whose work has so far eluded my notice.

The TLS:  Fine, I don’t mean that everyone should base reading habits on the London Times Literary Supplement (see my last post), but it is helpful to find a periodical with similar taste to yours.  I have a friend who has found countless new literary adventures thanks to the advice of the New York Review of Books, and although she has disagreed with certain selections, she has found more to her taste than not.  For me, the periodical coming closest to my taste and interests is the TLS, and I have found many a gem.  To be fair, the paper has also saved me a great deal of money by providing detailed reviews, allowing me to more closely examine whether a book in question covers what I am interested in, or if the title that so enticed me in the book shop was less enticing after the first pages were opened.
Michael Dirda:  See above.  Dirda is a critic who appeals to my particular tastes, and so I give more weight to what he says.  Occasional howlers aside, I have found much use of his selections.  Find your own Dirda.

Dive in.  Read the first few pages in a bookshop or library and, if it seems good, bring it home.  As the Great One said, you miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.

The Internet.  In the information age, there is no longer an excuse to be uniformed in news, politics, science, and sport, and why should literature be any different?  There are wonderful online book blogs, book sites, and even book tree sites.  Use them!

Happy reading and, if you wish, leave me a blurb.

09 April 2012



One of my favorite activities, when not parenting, writing, cooking, cleaning, translating, shopping, listening to music, spending time with friends and family, exercising, or doing the laundry, is browsing in bookstores.  And one of the best parts of the browsing experience is finding something unexpected and unknown. This activity, however, is not without a particular danger, and that is the danger of being misled. The primary culprit in deception is the duplicitous blurb or endorsement on the back cover.  These snippets are often longer than the description of the book itself, and rarely offer any true insight as to the quality or enjoyment of the work.  In addition, these endorsements are often either less than honest or written for the gain of the endorsement writer.  For this reason, among others, I think the blurb, and trusting in the blurb, is a very bad idea indeed.  Beware the blurb bearing praise.

The first type of bad blurb is of the blatantly misleading variety.  A review of a book could perhaps state the sentence “I found this book riveting,” which is then quoted on the back of the upcoming paperback version of the book.  However, the context of the sentence is ignored and the buyer does not have the opportunity to read the entire sentence: “While I found this book riveting for the first couple of pages, it was largely trash.”   Nearly as bad, but harder to escape or rectify, is the misattribution of the source of the quote.  This happens frequently with the Times Literary Supplement.  Each year, the TLS asks about 40 well-known and mostly well-regarded authors to select a book or two they found to be the best they had read that year and to write a paragraph review.  Instead of citing the author of the review, many books will cite the publication, especially if the publication carries more gravitas than the author.  Hence, a few years ago, Thomas Nagel selected the creationist tripe “Signature in the Cell” as his choice for book of the year.  The publisher jumped on this as an endorsement from the TLS, not from Nagel, running ‘A TLS book of the year’ as the leading endorsement on future publications of the book. What was not disclosed was the acrimonious response and argument within the TLS over the very selection of the book.  Here, the author of the book and the publisher are not being dishonest at all, but the reader in the bookshop, unless that reader has more than a cursory knowledge of the TLS, has no idea of the nature of the endorsement.

The next type of bad blurb is the back-scratch (speaking of TLS), an endorsement by an author, institution, academic, or financially interested party.  One of my favorite books, by my favorite modern author, is a prime example of the sort of self-interested cronyism that spoils the back of a book.  On the back of Javier Marías’s ‘Your Face Tomorrow,’ the esteemed historian Anthony Beevor and major poet John Ashbury offer glowing praise.  I have no doubt that the praise is genuine in this case, but both are friends with Marías, and Marías thanks both in the acknowledgements of the work for their friendship and advice.  In addition, Marías has served as Ashbury’s major translator into Spanish, earning the poet further recognition, and more money.  No wonder Ashbury selected ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ as his choice of best the TLS.  The next copies printed dutifully informed the reader that in their hands was nothing less than a “TLS book of the year.’  I feel it is probably the book of the decade, but that is not the point.  Many books have blurbs by authors with similar books, and reciprocal blurbs are often given.  Many books contain blurbs by authors from the same publishing house, who have the same agent, who are friends, who like the opportunity to have “by the author of” next to their name on the blurb, and so on.  The praise could be real, but the buyer is only sometimes aware of the self-interest of the author of the blurb.  And of course, many blurbs are written out of simple praise, and some are written unwillingly or out of pity or the obligation to help a fellow writer trying to break in.  In many cases, the blurb writer is trying to be as helpful as they can.

Why are these blurbs written?  Very rarely is it at the instigation of the blurb writer.  Many writers have a “no blurb” policy.  The hesitation to write blurbs shows in the uniform cliché of the printed atrocities.  “Razor” and “wit” are frequent dance partners, as are “penetrating” and “insight,” “beautifully” and "written,” and that standard pairing in the land of academia, “original” and “contribution.”  If a work is by a first-time author, it is too often by a “fresh new voice,” or worse, it is a “brave and bold new work.”  Works by prolific or eminent authors are either their “magnum opus” or, in the case of scholarship, “sure to be the standard work in the field.”  Barf.  In truth, a blurb says nothing, conveys nothing, helps with nothing.  If a reader is looking for a book just like the one they just read, perhaps they should consult the flap copy, the synopsis on the back or inside cover of a book summarizing the contents, and make a judgment for themselves.  So, why does such an evil exist?  This tripe is dutifully written, and gleefully printed, because you, dear readers, love it.  According to market research, over half of all book buyers listed a blurb as the reason they purchased a new or unheard-of book.  Those chestnuts of mediocrity tell a buyer almost nothing about the book in hand, and yet they are read and their jejune advice followed.  This needs to end.  The blurb needs to die.  As readers, we deserve better, and writers deserve to avoid whoring for the blurbs of more famous writers or avoid writing blurbs to appease a publisher/agent/friend/mother/other demon.  So what can we use to help us find our preferred and particular types of literature, the unique authors who appeal to our individual tastes?  This is the information age, and I’ll attempt an answer – or at least offer suggestions far superior to the blurb - in my next post.

07 April 2012

Goodbye, Antonio


The first book I ever read by Antonio Tabucchi was ‘It’s Getting Later All The Time’ (Si sta facendo sempre più tardi) and it was love at first read.  The novel is epistolary, but whereas most novels in letters have distinct characters engaged in correspondence, or one character narrating the story in letter form, Si Sta Facendo offers the reader letters by seventeen different men, each to a woman they now or once loved, and a single letter of reply to all of them by a mysterious, timeless woman.  Tabucchi (pronounced Ta-bu-kee) doesn’t write page-turning potboilers, and so has gone fairly unnoticed in the United States.  A pity.  The reflections, the meandering and considered style, the philosophical intelligence, many of the important aspects of literature, are all present in his work. Above all of the humane qualities I admire in Tabucchi’s novels, the most interesting one is his pessimism.  By pessimism, I am referring to a philosophical position, not a person who is just a bitter and negative pain in the ass.  The following two quotes by Tabucchi illustrate the idea:

“People with a lot of doubts sometimes find life more oppressive and exhausting than others, but they are more energetic – they aren’t robots.” 

An intellectual is going to have doubts, for example, about a fundamentalist religious doctrine that admits no doubt, about an imposed political system that allows no doubt, about a perfect aesthetic that has no room for doubt.”

Born in 1943 to a horse trader in Pisa, Tabucchi studied history and philosophy during his university days, and went on to become a professor of Portuguese at the University of Siena.  His fascination with Portugal, with the cuisine, the people, the history, and, above all, with Portugal’s most famous modern writer, Fernando Pessoa, colored all of his work, but he neither shirked his Italian identity nor excused himself from commenting on the politics of his native land.  He fiercely criticized media tycoon Berlusconi for manipulating the Italian press to, among other things, secure control of government, and continued to criticize Berlusconi until the man stepped down from his long and controversial tenure as prime minister.  Internationally, Tabucchi responded to the fatwa on Salman Rushdie by helping to form the International Parliament of Writers, a group dedicated to combating censorship in literature and invasion into the lives of writers.  In his personal life, Tabucchi remained an academic and a man who surrounded himself with friends and family.  He shunned publicity, stating that he found self-promotion to be a tad obscene (amen).

Antonio Tabucchi died last week from cancer at 68. 

Like a blazing comet, I've traversed infinite nights, interstellar spaces of the imagination, voluptuousness and fear. I've been a man, a woman, an old person, a little girl, I've been the crowds on the grand boulevards of the capital cities of the West, I've been the serene Buddha of the East, whose calm and wisdom we envy. I've known honor and dishonor, enthusiasm and exhaustion.
...I've been the sun and the moon, and everything because life is not enough.”

Resquiat in pacem

05 April 2012

Reading through the end of March 2012

Here is what I have read so far this year.  Almost 30 books under the belt.  Perhaps 120 this year?  Doubtful. All of the art in this post is by the very talented Michael Sowa.  His work can be found here.

2012 reading

The yellow Dog by Georges Simenon
Voltaire’s calligrapher by Pablo de Santis
A man’s place by Annie Ernaux
A History of the world in 100 objects by Neil MacGregor
The Seamstress and the Wind by Cesar Aira
Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare by John Toohey
420 Characters by Lou Beach
The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano
The Trees in Winter by D.E. Sievers
Prince Henry the Navigator by P.E. Russell


Bligh by Anne Salmond
Hector and the Search for Happiness  by  Francois Lelard
Three Trapped Tigers  by  G. Cabrera Infante
Selected Stories  by  William Trevor
A Brief History of Thought by  Luc Ferry
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas  by  J. M. Machado de Assis
The Monsters  by  Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
The Housekeeper and the professor  by  Yoko Ogawa
Writers gone Wild   by  Bill Peschel


Gustave Caillebotte: Urban impressionist by various authors
The Armies by Evelio Rosero
Varamo by Cesar Aira
Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas
How Literature Works: 50 key concepts  by  John Sutherland
True Lies: Narrative Self-Consciousness in the Contemporary Spanish Novel by Samuel Amago
Rosebud: the story of Orson Welles by David Thomson
Terrestrial Intelligence  edited by  Barbara Epler


Quiet  by  Susan Cain
My Two Worlds  by  Sergio Chejfec

 Next time, a post about the passing of Antonio Tabucchi, a true loss to literature.