How should one narrate the life of a great writer? Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of Dostoevsky, now supplemented by his Lectures on Dostoevsky, revivified the form by situating the novelist within the ideological struggles of his day. The many fascinating primary sources about Dostoevsky’s life inspired Thomas Marullo to experiment with a new kind of biography in his brilliant Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Life in Letters, Memoirs, and Criticism. (A third volume is still to come.) The novelist Alex Christofi was similarly inspired, and while his innovative biography, Dostoevsky in Love, occasionally intrigues, it ultimately offers little that’s new. All three recognize the difficulty of distinguishing Dostoevsky’s actual life from the legends about him.
The Western tradition has never been more appealingly portrayed than in Rembrandt’s 1653 painting “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” Whether you stand in front of it at the Metropolitan Museum or look at it online, the painting turns you into a link in a chain that goes back three thousand years. Here you are in the twenty-first century, contemplating a painting made in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, which portrays a philosopher who lived in Athens in the fourth century B.C., looking at a poet thought to have lived in the eighth century B.C. Tradition abolishes time, making us all contemporaries.
Yet the painting hints that Homer doesn’t quite belong in the same dimension of reality occupied by you, Aristotle, and Rembrandt. Aristotle is portrayed realistically in the dress of Rembrandt’s time—sumptuous white shirt, simple black apron, and broad-brimmed hat. (It wasn’t until the twentieth century that art historians determined that the figure was Aristotle; earlier identifications included a contemporary of Rembrandt’s, the writer Pieter Cornelisz Hooft.) In other words, Aristotle is a human being like us, albeit an extraordinary one. Homer, however, is a white marble bust—a work of art within a work of art.
In his 1998 prose collection, Ripostes, Philip Marchand lays out the operative conditions for a working critic: “You have to know your mind, you have to have read widely, you have to have discarded or modified early enthusiasms for certain writers or modes of writing—it takes decades.” Elsewhere in the book, reviewing a poetry anthology called The Last Word, Marchand puts these principles into practice. “Much of the work in The Last Word,” he writes, “is ‘language poetry,’ a highly intellectualized form. Language poets attack the assumption that words point to external realities—the way, for example, the words ‘dairy queen’ in the line, ‘at the ladysmith dairy queen i want to get out,’ refer to a place where you buy soft ice cream. In these poets’ view, language refers only to itself, and their poetry tends to consist of phrases that have no semantic meaning.”
Whether or not one agrees with Marchand, it is clear that the analysis comes from a knowledgeable and considered place. Marchand was arguably the last person in Canada who made a living as a literary critic for mainstream newspapers—his work in the Toronto Star and, later, the National Post found its apogee in the 1990s and early 2000s. Marchand also espoused an increasingly rare approach: elevating rigorous close readings over affective or emotional responses. These days, the status of the professional critic—that is, someone who can earn a living writing criticism for the general public—has largely been subordinated to enthusiastic amateurs giving thumbnail reactions on Amazon and Goodreads. Compare Marchand’s sentences above to Goodreads “reviews” of Sharon Olds’s 2019 collection, Arias: “There are a lot of poems in this collection and some of them are quite weak,” or “I could use, like, a 50% reduction in poems involving body fluids [sic].”
Terry Pratchett’s 1988 summary of The House on the Borderland begins: “Man buys House. House attacked Nightly by Horrible Swine Things from Hole in Garden. Man Fights Back with Determination and Lack of Imagination of Political Proportions.” It ends: “The journey to the Central Suns sold me infinity.” Infinity is a rather lofty reward for persevering through a battle with pig-men. But Pratchett was right. William Hope Hodgson’s novel, published in 1908 (but likely written in 1904) is one of the most startling accounts of infinity that I’ve ever read.
What does it mean when a great writer like Philip K. Dick is considered to have an occasionally terrible prose style? Even so brilliant and well-regarded a defender of Dick’s novels as author Jonathan Lethem has referred, in a 2007 interview with the online journal Article for example, to Dick’s “howlingly bad” patches of prose. Lethem also made these sentiments clear in an interview that accompanied the publication of Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s by the Modern Library of America. (Lethem edited this and subsequent volumes.) In that interview, Lethem says [pdf] that Dick’s style is not a sentence-level style at all, but has more to do with scene construction and wild and crazy tonal shifting. Like any reader of Dick’s anxiously inventive fiction, however, Lethem knows that the writing is generally fine and occasionally excellent. It’s just that there are spots (sometimes lengthy) of distractingly awkward description, or silly interior monologue, or creaky exposition. As a genre writer who produced over 44 novels and something like 121 short stories, Dick’s prose style seems to disappoint, at least a little bit, his literary-minded devotees, myself included, of course. What are we to do?
No one in his right mind seeks the psychological truth about crime in detective stories. Whoever seeks such truth will turn rather to Crime and Punishment. In relation to Agatha Christie, Dostoevsky constitutes a higher court of appeal, yet no one in his right mind will condemn the English author’s stories on this account. They have a right to be treated as the entertaining thrillers they are, and the tasks Dostoevsky set himself are foreign to them.
IN London in October, at a dinner party in the home of the publisher Tom Maschler, head of Jonathan Cape, our host asked a question that was primitive but deep. “What is the best novel ever written?” I nominated “Madame Bovary.” A majority went for “Anna Karenina.” Anna had glamour, Emma didn’t. That was that. We hastened on to gossip about Salman Rushdie and so forth.
Afterward, though, as I sat alone in my room at Brown’s Hotel, I marveled that none of us had celebrated a story that took place in the world at large rather than in a stratified and codified little society. And Tom Wolfe a few months earlier had told the rest of us in the fiction trade to either do deep-dish reportage on members of little groups, right down to the name of the manufacturers of the shoes they wore, or take up macrame.
Yes, and now Putnam has published for the first time the full text of “Stranger in a Strange Land,” by Robert A. Heinlein (1907-88), an abridged version of which has sold 100,000 copies in hard cover and nearly five million in paper since its debut in 1961. An enormous number of readers have found this book a brilliant mind-bender, and yet I doubt that Heinlein’s name was ever uttered at a meeting of PEN or in the halls of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Despite his having written this book and about 40 others (“The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” “I Will Fear No Evil,” “Methuselah’s Children,” “The Puppet Masters” and on and on), this remarkable man, whom I never met, was included only in “Who’s Who in Science Fiction,” and died without having been considered worthy of an entry in the more inclusive annual “Who’s Who.” The president of the American Poultry Association is sure as heck in the big ‘Who’s Who” somewhere.
A collection of documents by the author Franz Kafka is now publicly available online, following intensive restoration, cataloguing and digitisation.
The digitised collection includes three draft versions of Kafka’s story Wedding Preparations in the Country, a notebook in which he practiced Hebrew, and hundreds of personal letters, sketches and travel journals.
“I desire to write an immortal book,” announces the character Mrs. Spring Fragrance in one of the first stories of the collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance, originally published in 1912. It stopped me cold, that beguiling phrase. What does it mean for a book to be immortal?
This question permeates the life and work of Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s creator, Sui Sin Far, born Edith Maude Eaton in 1865, a woman acutely aware of her role as one of the first North American writers of Chinese heritage. One path to immortality is through myths and parables—the first stories, which Far loved. While this collection is set in San Francisco and Seattle at the turn of the twentieth century, I am not reminded of realist fiction so much as of Greek myths and Aesop’s fables. Far’s stories have that speed, that cadence, that resounding thud of a moral message hitting the floor. Characters are painted in broad, familiar brushstrokes: sweet young wives, rich men, poor strivers, precocious children, star-crossed lovers. Events unfold swiftly, in high color. Far’s stories are meant for grand stages, the characters larger than life.
The first thing to say on the 40th anniversary of Midnight’s Children is that I’m more than glad it is still finding readers, who are still finding something of value in its pages. Longevity is the real prize for which writers strive, and it isn’t awarded by any jury. For a book to stand the test of time, to pass successfully down the generations, is uncommon enough to be worth a small celebration. For a writer in his mid-seventies, the continued health of a book published in his mid-thirties is, quite simply, a delight. This is why we do what we do: to make works of art that, if we are very lucky, will endure.
Pete Davis on Making Meaning Through the Radical Act of Limiting Your Options
In his story Sarrasine, Balzac, speaking of a castrato disguised as a woman, writes this sentence: “It was Woman, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive fears, her unprovoked bravado, her daring and her delicious delicacy of feeling” Who is speaking in this way? Is it the story’s hero, concerned to ignore the castrato concealed beneath the woman? Is it the man Balzac, endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it the author Balzac, professing certain “literary” ideas of femininity? Is it universal wisdom? or romantic psychology? It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes…
Years before becoming one of America’s most celebrated authors, John Steinbeck wrote at least three novels which were never published. Two of them were destroyed by the young writer as he struggled to make his name, but a third – a full-length mystery werewolf story entitled Murder at Full Moon – has survived unseen in an archive ever since being rejected for publication in 1930.
Now a British academic is calling for the Steinbeck estate to finally allow the publication of the work, written almost a decade before masterpieces such as The Grapes of Wrath, his epic about the Great Depression and the struggles of migrant farm workers.
“There would be a huge public interest in a totally unknown werewolf novel by one of the best-known, most read American writers of the 20th century,” said Professor Gavin Jones, a specialist in American literature at Stanford University.
“This is a novel that really nobody knows about. It’s a complete novel by Steinbeck. It’s incredible.”
The 233-page typescript has been stored in the vast archives of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin after Steinbeck’s unsuccessful attempt to have it published more than 90 years ago.
Before the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey burned up bestseller lists and made author E.L. James the fastest-selling author in history, a large number of people had already read the novel for free. The only difference was that in the original version, main characters Ana Steele and Christian Grey were named “Bella Swann” and “Edward Cullen”—characters from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels.
Master of the Universe, originally published online by James under a pseudonym, was a work of alternate universe Twilight fanfiction. Fanfiction is a type of transformative work—that is, a new creative work that is transformative of some original media. Imagine a story about the continuing adventures of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, though in the case of alternate universe fanfiction, perhaps Kirk is a barista and Spock is a veterinarian. And fanfiction (along with other fanworks, like fan art) is the basis of a huge, thriving, and long-standing online community (fandom) that has actually existed since long before it moved online. Master of the Universe was part of this community—until it wasn’t.
As Bethan Jones describes in an analysis of fandom debates around “pulling to publish” fanfiction commercially, criticism of Fifty Shades of Grey focused in part on the violation of a strong community norm against profiting from fanfiction. This norm stems in part from a desire to protect the status of transformative works as fair use rather than illegal copyright infringement. The “four factor” test to determine whether a use of copyrighted material is “fair use” considers the effects of the transformative work on the marketplace for the original work—by avoiding selling fanfiction, fans have hoped to cement their transformations firmly as fair use. In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, the book is so far removed from any elements of Twilight that copyright is almost certainly not an issue (though there are more recent, fascinating cases of this particular deep legal question).
What James’ “fifty shades of norm violations” actually illustrate is the strength of the fandom community as a gift economy. Anthropologists have used this term to describe a number of nonmarket societies, though there are also noncommodified spheres of exchange even in market societies (e.g., organ donation, the economics of zoo animals, or Burning Man). In his 1993 book about the WELL, one of the oldest virtual communities, Howard Rheingold described “a kind of gift economy in which people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo.”
Despite living in relative comfort, by 19th-century standards, in a rural parsonage in Haworth, Charlotte, Emily and Anne - as well as their less famous siblings - succumbed to some of the infectious diseases that characterised the Victorian age.
In The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder (2014), Peter Zeihan predicts the future of world politics and economic development in a way that an ACX fan would appreciate. He puts a timeline on it. The book isn’t about “some hazy distant future after we’re all dead and gone, but the future we will all be living in for the next fifteen years of our lives.” Zeihan’s subtitle hints at his big and bold thesis, which predicts “the dissolution of the free trade order, the global demographic inversion, the collapse of Europe and China,” which “is all just a fleeting transition” to a world largely abandoned by America.
People have fun making predictions like this (and mocking those who get things spectacularly wrong). With money and fame available to people whose predictions turn out right, and the ease with which we forget bad predictions, we should expect many such visionaries. However, regardless of whether you agree with Zeihan’s particular vision, The Accidental Superpower presents a set of analytical tools that should be useful for anyone interested in little questions like which countries will obtain power and wealth in the future, and which will collapse in war and poverty. (In case you didn’t catch it from the title, Zeihan says that America is going to be the biggest winner in the world to come.)
There is money to be made off the dead. Nikolai Gogol knew this when he wrote his masterpiece, Dead Souls, the story of a middle-aged man named Chichikov who buys dead serfs with the intention of mortgaging their souls for a profit. I chose to read this novel at the start of quarantine, when everyone else was reading War and Peace. I had already read War and Peace. It ruined my life. I wasn’t keen to have my life ruined again. I wanted some other grand, sweeping Russian epic to fill my time.
I wish I would have been more cautious in picking a book. Every time I read one of the Russian greats my life transforms into an eerie mirror of the work. I had already experienced a year of obsessive relationship analysis (Anna Karenina), six months beneath the thumb of a powerful boss whose political maneuvers were far reaching and whose requests quickly spiraled into the hellish and fantastic (The Master and Margarita), a week on the run with a depressive whose obsessive psychosis ended in a prison sentence (Crime and Punishment), a much-too-long friendship with a man whose preoccupations with his father were borderline incestuous (Fathers and Sons), and, after I finished War and Peace, years stuck in sprawling disillusionment that, unlike many characters in the novel, I have yet to overcome. Had I not learned my lesson? I wasn’t keen to fall into the trap of Russian literature again.