Category Archives: book reviews

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

I’m happy to report that Lady Chatterley’s Brother: Why Nicholson Baker Can’t Write About Sex, and Why Javier Marias Can, an ebook I have written with Scott Esposito, is now officially on the cyber shelves. It’s sort of like an electronic pamphlet, long and argumentative yet sprightly and topical, covering how two contemporary authors treat that most hazardous of subjects: s-e-x. The booklet consists of two long essays, each approximately 35 pages in length. Mine is called “I Know It When I See It: Nicholson Baker’s Sex Trilogy” and Scott’s essay is called “Just Do It: Javier Marias’ Sexless Sexuality.”

Cover of Lady Chatterley's Brother

The ebook is the first installment in the TQC Long Essays series, and happily it’s another iteration of the current crop of longish essays and pieces of nonfiction sprouting up to take advantage of ereaders. I am personally really enjoying how ereaders provide an as-yet-unthought-of market for pieces that are too long for traditional magazine space and too long for a regular website/blog posting and yet too brief for an actual book. It’s like a pamphlet without the staple binding.

As for the topic, it grew out of conversations Scott and I were having about Baker. I’ve written about Baker several times. I kind of have a thing for Baker, but when word came that his newest novel House of Holes was going to be another sex novel, I wanted to run for the hills. Instead, Scott forced me to articulate why I disliked these novels and why I felt they were an aberration on an otherwise wonderfully rewarding and idiosyncratic career. And he coupled all of my criticisms of Baker with his analysis of Marias. The result was, as they say, a learning experience.

Finally, it simply feels rewarding to write this kind of long, impassioned literary criticism. It’s not academic scholarship (obviously), but it’s also not your typical lite journalistic fare–either the too-brief newspaper book reviews, or the reviews that use books to make undercooked socio-political observations rather than actually analyzing the writing on the table. The hope is that essays like these debate books at full volume while also recognizing the personal grain of the actual writer, book reviews birthed within a writer’s sole sensibility. Or to put this much more simply: bookish essays that are fun to read in and of themselves, in addition to the commentary they provide.

For excerpts of these essays, please visit here. It’s available for sale in these formats: ePub, MOBI, Amazon Kindle, and PDF. You can buy it directly from Scott’s website via PayPal, from B&N.com, or from Amazon.

(Now that this project is complete, my personal plan is to buy the book on my Kindle and then enable the text-to-speech feature and listen to my own sentences come back at me with that pauseless, speak-n-spell voice they have rigged up in that little machine–like bedtime reading conducted by the Terminator.)

Notes on Notes on Sontag

Notes on Sontag
by Phillip Lopate
Princeton University Press, 2009

In many ways this is the perfect book about Susan Sontag, because Phillip Lopate is so much her opposite—warm where she is cold, personal where she is stiff-armed, steely maned where he is bald, self-doubting where she is authoritarian in her judgment, discursive where she is aphoristic. And yet, despite these differences in approach and sensibility, there is a genuine sympathetic vein running throughout this commentary. Lopate didn’t just read Sontag regularly; his professional life kept intertwining with hers. He was an undergraduate at Columbia when she was teaching there, young and married with a teenaged son. And they knew each other in the professional way of postwar intellectual Jewish writers in New York City. (Ah, it makes one want to move to New York!) They were both interested in many of the same foreign, obscure, aggressively arty films and novels, and they both ended up writing fiction and essays, but are mostly known for the latter. In Sontag’s case, she is of course famous for the aphoristically brilliant, perceptive, withering critical gaze at various artists and intellectuals, not so much “personal essays” as essays as personality. Judgment as a style. Lopate is of course the old king of the personal essay, a bard of wandering through the porousness of his own life tying knots of comprehension, then loosening them.

In fact, one of the most interesting parts of this book, for me, is when he discusses her fiction. He says, “Her fiction is, for the most part, unsuccessful. . . . She lacked broad sympathy and a sense of humor, which are usually prerequisites for good fiction. More germane, perhaps, she did not convincingly command a fictive space on the page.” She often thought of her essays as a distraction from fiction writing, which Lopate finds absurd: “I, who revere the art of essay writing, and who can never regard literary nonfiction as even a fraction inferior to fiction, find puzzling Sontag’s need to be thought primarily a novelist.” It is a strange provincialism of the mind, still prevalent today, that nonfiction is below the novel, that greedy fat king of prose, who, like a threatened toddler, takes all the attention and yet still demands more. He says that Sontag was always overvaluing her fiction while kicking the legs from under her magisterial essays, while he himself thinks that the ratio of critical acclaim portioned out to his essays (high) versus his fiction (not nearly as high) is perfectly fitting. (Why that is, why he’s so agreeable on this, is never explored, and is something I would love to know. Just how did he get this levelheaded about the great novelistic beast?)

But aside from this shop talk, there is just the sympathetic explication of her work. Sontag seems more complex and difficult here and yet warmer somehow in her chilly remove. The judgments on her work are complexly layered and precise, and it makes one want ot read more Sontag, while importing Lopate’s heightened example of sympathy.

The looseness of the book is also a pleasure. The book, a tidy, narrow volume issued by Princeton University Press, rambles, juts forward, and then recycles itself. It’s not redundant, but it’s also not a belligerently progressive, teleological argument. It’s a rumination, a chewing through of Sontag’s oeuvre. If it dwindles somewhat in energy toward the end, it’s only appropriate. Sontag’s career does the same, as does Lopate’s enthusiasm for it.

And finally, it’s one of the best things I’ve read by Lopate. Like Sontag, but yet so unlike her, the peculiar glimmer of his aesthetic sensibility is illuminated by his studious concentration on another writer’s work.

MFA = Mother of Failed Arguments

Laura Miller wrote a nice piece in Salon not that long ago, capably outlining the recent flare up in the To MFA or Not To MFA debate, this time describing Mark McGurl’s latest rebuttal in the L.A. Review of Books to Elif Batuman’s takedown of his book The Program Era and MFA programs in particular. (DG Myers, author of The Elephants Teach [which everyone considering an MFA should read], also has an interesting afterthought.)

As someone who has both attended an MFA program (Alabama ’04, roll tide) and has taught undergraduate workshops, I am tempted to weigh in on the matter. But all of this back and forth has made me realize the perennial exuberance of this Down with MFA/Up with MFA debate. I realized only recently that you could spend more time reading about books on the internet than you could spend reading the actual books, so that at the end of the day, you are already too full on digests before the real literary meal. (Yes, it’s taken me a while to discern this.) But there’s more: you could obviate the need for even that digest-like reading by spending all of your time reading about MFA programs, and whether or not they are in fact the bud of all that’s evil.

So consider this a personal devotion to avoid all MFA program essays, rants, and articles in the future. They never solve the problem; they never settle the debate; they’re almost all ahistorical posturing; and they only provoke another onslaught of comments; and these discussions, peculiarly, seem to diminish their participants and make them sound less cogent, reasonable, and/or sane than they otherwise might actually be. Batuman is a better writer than her MFA LRB article (and yet she keeps returning again and again to kick the shins of creative writing programs, protesting too much). And McGurl’s original rebuttal to the LRB, which he posted in full on his website, was a stronger, more succinct response than his latest LARB essay.

So, enough. It’s the worst kind of discussion–rants traded within the cave of an institutional navel.

David Foster Wallace Symposium Makes Waves

Hello. I am happy to announce that the latest issue of the Quarterly Conversation has been published and it contains a gigantic symposium/where-are-we-now collection of essays on David Foster Wallace. And I’m happy to be included.

My essay is about Consider the Lobster, Wallace’s second collection of essays. I talk about how Wallace’s nonfiction is, in general, just plain great, but also how his nonfiction fits within the current ecology of literary writing that is not fiction or poetry, i.e., creative nonfiction, literary journalism, literary fiction, the Essay, New Journalism, Lyric Essay, or whatever handy or not-so-handy moniker you prefer. I also talk a bit about everyone’s favorite manifesto from last year, David Shields’s Reality Hunger.

I don’t remember if I mentioned this in the essay but it feels worth being redundant: we seriously need two types of Wallace books to be published. And by Wallace books I mean posthumous collections of his work. First, we need a book of his uncollected nonfiction. There are a couple of late, great pieces: the Federer piece, the graduation speech. (Yes, I realize they published that last one, but I’m talking about publishing it in a version for actual grown-ups, rather than the annoying, cloying, exploitive, one-sentence-per-page edition that’s out now.) But there are also lots of early book reviews that are languishing in forgotten back issues of various journals. I had a phase during graduate school when I would obsessively locate these essays either within the bound back issues or through Interlibrary Loan (ILL!), typically during the times when I should have been collecting scholarship for my academic papers. There is one out there about fiction and the “conspicuously young” that’s a wonderful explication of the difficulties of graduate creative writing programs and how they affect teachers, students, and the publishing industry in general. It actually adds nutritional meat to the whole MFA Good/Bad debate. Anyway, before I go hunting through my files to start quoting from the thing, my main point is: there’s a good-sized book there and an audience who would appreciate it and buy it.

Second, we need a Portable Wallace, a la the Portable Faulkner. I realize that Wallace’s reputation is not foundering; he needs no Malcolm Cowley to call attention to his greatness or to marshall the forces of culture to keep him in print. I say this instead as someone who has taught college. The problem is Wallace is hard to teach–not in terms of explication/analysis (though, I mean, that too), but in terms of just having a usable edition of his work. Because his greatest piece of fiction is Infinite Jest, and because the most conveniently teachable pieces of his short fiction and nonfiction are scattered between various editions, it would be awfully nice to have a 500-paged paperback with a handful of essays and a good chunk of his fiction. That way you could show what Wallace was up to in various genres without having to dedicate an entire semester to it simply because of the books that one would have to buy.

Before I get too full of myself and start rattling off all the other books I think we need published (a collection of Cynthia Ozick’s essays on Henry James? an updated edition of Peter Taylor’s Collected Stories?), let me also mention all the other great DFW-related essays in the issue: my main man Scott Esposito on Infinite Jest; Edie Meidav on A Supposedly Fun Thing; CJ Evans on Brief Interviews; Lance Olsen on Oblivion; John Lingan on The Pale King; and Andrew Altschul on “The Suffering Channel,” among other things. I’m happy to be a part of this symposium, especially since after the initial publicity wave for The Pale King crested and dissolved, Wallace-related criticism seemed to dry up. Also, finally finally, there is still the regular round of reviews and interviews in the issue.

From Updike to Baker to Wallace

Hello.

I am happy to report that my essay about the cross-pollinations between John Updike, Nicholson Baker, and David Foster Wallace is up at the Quarterly Conversation. It’s part of the newest fall issue, which also includes essays and reviews covering Stefan Zweig, David Shields, that new “alternative history of the novel” by Steven Moore, and, as Nabokov might say, much, much more.

In the essay I argue that Baker is a kind of stylistic midpoint between Updike and Wallace, and that all three writers can be understood as stylistic sequels to one another. Finishing up the essay got me thinking about writer-on-writer influence in general and stylistic overlap in particular. At the same time I was teaching some of Henry James’s stories, and it was while reading “The Jolly Corner”–that long, digressive, thickened, dark night of the self–that I thought of Wallace’s prose, especially the prose in Oblivion, his last story collection. Does Late James have something in common with Late Wallace? There’s a more substantive, quotation-filled post there. But, as Hemingway might say, I’ll fish that swamp tomorrow.

New Interview, New Review, New New New

Hello. There is much to link to today.

First, I am happy to report that an interview I conducted with novelist Sam Lipsyte is up and ready for reading over at the Quarterly Conversation. This interview is another particle in the overwhelming wave of positive press surrounding his latest novel, The Ask, which, as I’ve said before in this space, you should read ASAP. (For a more thorough convincing, please go here.) Lipsyte has also written the novels Homeland and The Subject Steve, as well as the short story collection Venus Drive, and he is much, much funnier than this blog post.

Also, I’m happy to report that the latest issue proper of the Quarterly Conversation is also up and ready. This issue contains: essays on Nobel laureate Herta Mueller, Jonathan Swift, and Per Petterson; 19 book reviews, including appraisals of William Gaddis, Jose Manuel Prieto, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Roberto Bolano (yes! who has published another novel; he’s the busiest dead man I know); and an interview with David Shields, author of Reality Hunger, which is also going through its own wave of review, interview, and internecine online appraisal.

Plus, among the other reviews and interviews, there is, finally, my review of Joey Comeau’s novel Overqualified, a book told through a collection of employment cover letters sent to various corporations. Fun fun.

Finally, finally, there are two news blogs worth mentioning: the first is The Constant Conversation, which is (as the name implies) the new blog arm (leg? elbow?) of the Quarterly Conversation and a sort of harmonious, collaborative voice of its editors. It’s only like a week old and already there are heated intellectual volleys occurring daily. Plus, there is the new Paper Trail, the latest book-specific blog from the fine people of Bookforum. This is in addition to their already excellent curatorial wonder Omnivore.

All of this means that you will never run out of stuff to read, and that you will never get any work done again, unless the power goes out. You’re welcome.

Winter Review Goodness

Hello.

Christmas has officially come early, as the winter issue of the Quarterly Conversation is now up and so excited and running down the stairs in its pajama-clad feet.

In addition to my review of Sam Lipsyte’s latest novel The Ask, the issue is a stuffed-stocking of reviews and essays. It includes essays on Pynchon’s three California novels, Coetzee’s three post-Nobel autobiographical novels, and the fight/friendship/fictive-philosophical debate between William Gass and John Gardner, those two poles of postwar fiction whom we ideologically scrimmage in between whether we realize it or not.

What’s more, in addition to the standard slate of reviews, there is the epic Translate This Book! panel, where a huge roster of translators, writers, and publishers describe what contemporary works of literature have not yet been–but desperately need to be–translated into English.

See the whole splendid spread here.

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

Hello, hello, hello.

I am pleased to report that my review of Sam Lipsyte’s newest novel The Ask is now online at the Quarterly Conversation.

Please link right on over there and read it. However, if you are pressed for time now that we are in this Holiday Season, I offer you the abbreviated version of my review:

The Ask is a) awesome, b) a real thigh-slapper, and c) something you should buy right now, right now.

What’s more, it sustains the qualities present in Lipsyte’s last book, Homeland, which I remember buying at the Eliot Bay Book Co. probably around three years ago, while I was in Seattle on a business trip. I remember getting rained on during my long, long walk from my hotel downtown out to Pioneer Square, where the bookstore is located, and thinking that this was a very Seattle experience and that I should feel grateful. Homeland turned out to be one of those books that you start reading before you get off the property, it’s so good, and which I did down in the bookstore’s cafe basement, where I bought a complex brownie and a large coffee. It was all wonderfully warm and cozy.

As bonus, related content, here is a link to an article about that bookstore, which might be closing: The plot thickens for legendary bookstore. It’s from the L.A. Times.

New Quarterly Conversation Is Out and About

Hello. In yet more happy online news, the latest issue of the Quarterly Conversation is out. The issue is bursting at the cyber-seams, containing reviews of the latest from Ishiguro, Vollman, Pynchon, and Hemon, as well as several essays on literature in translation, which has become a specialty of QC.

The issue also includes reviews of six poetry collections, an essay by J.C. Hallman promoting “creative criticism,” plus a review I’ve written of Said and Done, a new story collection by James Morrison.