Thursday, December 01, 2005

Random literary round-up

No more posts until Monday, as I'm going to New York early tomorrow morning for an exciting conference at Columbia's Heyman Center on the theme "What Is Enchantment?". I'm the respondent for a paper by Simon During titled "William Beckford In Hell," which has agreeably sent me to reread various poems by Wordsworth and Shelley ("Hell is a city much like London"--one of my favorite lines in English poetry. . .) as well as a big chunk of During's very interesting book Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic. (And Beckford's own writings are pretty demented and cool, if you like that kind of thing.)

Miscellaneous light reading (this starts the "what I didn't buy at B&N" list): The Secret Lives of Fortunate Wives by Sarah Strohmeyer of The Lipstick Chronicles (good of its kind, I think, just not my kind [suburban housewife satire]; also the main female character Claire is much less appealing than the scheming sort-of-evil-and-awful housewife Marti, who I would like to have seen as the book's central character); and Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer, which I haven't quite finished but have found fabulously good. I really love Connelly, even his weaker books are better than most people's good ones, but I think this may be his best yet: it's written in a great first-person voice, but it's also got a serious Scott Turow-Richard Price-George Pelecanos feel that I like a lot. Very good quality stuff.

On a more highbrow note, on Monday I saw Cynthia Ozick give a provocative but ultimately to my mind self-defeating lecture on "The Rights of Imagination and the Rights of the History," in which she made the counterintuitive (for a novelist) argument that history is superior to fiction and that in certain circumstances fiction is indeed morally unredeemable (not her words; her examples concern failures of representation in Sophie's Choice and The Reader).

I think that as a writer or a literary critic you're better off critiquing books on the kind of evidence we deal with well (close reading, choices to do with plot and endings and argument) rather than this almost statistical argument about representation. (Ozick objects--I'm slightly simplifying her argument, but not by much--to Styron's choice to represent the suffering of a Polish Catholic in Auschwitz when only 5% of the victims were Polish Catholics, or to Schlink's decision to represent a female prison guard as illiterate when German society of the 1930s had very high literacy rates.) I asked a question afterwards that introduced an oblique analogy to put pressure on where this line of thought takes you--is it fair, then, to argue that people shouldn't write serial-killer thrillers because most women and children are killed by people they know & this covers up violence against women? But she didn't quite get my point, and clearly also found the comparison trivializing. Ah well. (The talk also included several pointed gibes against "narratology" and the use of the term "narrative" as in "the Palestinian narrative," which she snarkily associated with a certain literary critic "who had an office at Columbia.") I was going to write a more extended critique of her argument, but realized (also I'm just lazy) after I read the Complete Review's account of her essay collection Quarrel & Quandary that a version of the essay has already appeared in print, in which case anyone who's interested can check it out here. One interesting aside: Ozick kept talking in the Q&A about "documents" as something that are in some sense better than fiction, and mentioned Masha Gessen's Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's piece (a book I've been meaning to get hold of and read, it sounds great) as exemplary--it seems she's turned primarily to non-fiction as opposed to the novels of younger American writers.

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