rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
By the time you finish reading this review, I intend to convince you that you have seen a ghost. I believe that in the majority of cases I will be successful.

Yes, I do mean you, whoever you are, reading this now. And yes, by ghost I do mean a spectre raised from an untimely grave to torment the guilt of the living and deny the peace of the dead, and by seen I mean seen, with your eyes, or possibly in some circumstances heard with your ears; I mean these things absolutely literally.

Having said that, I will now proceed to tell you that this slender little book of literary criticism, The National Uncanny, is one of the very best books I have read in an extremely long time, one of those books which makes the inside of the reader's head a different and a better place. It is a study of the figure of the Native American as ghost in American literature, but it contains wildly impressive theoretical insights on a variety of different topics at the rate of slightly more than one insight per paragraph. I found myself trying to quote some of the better bits to my wife a while ago and discovered I was literally just reading out loud without being able to skip anything. This is not the way I am accustomed to academic criticism working, although it is the way I would always like it to work.

This is a cut because this entry is really very long indeed. )

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
By the time you finish reading this review, I intend to convince you that you have seen a ghost. I believe that in the majority of cases I will be successful.

Yes, I do mean you, whoever you are, reading this now. And yes, by ghost I do mean a spectre raised from an untimely grave to torment the guilt of the living and deny the peace of the dead, and by seen I mean seen, with your eyes, or possibly in some circumstances heard with your ears; I mean these things absolutely literally.

Having said that, I will now proceed to tell you that this slender little book of literary criticism, The National Uncanny, is one of the very best books I have read in an extremely long time, one of those books which makes the inside of the reader's head a different and a better place. It is a study of the figure of the Native American as ghost in American literature, but it contains wildly impressive theoretical insights on a variety of different topics at the rate of slightly more than one insight per paragraph. I found myself trying to quote some of the better bits to my wife a while ago and discovered I was literally just reading out loud without being able to skip anything. This is not the way I am accustomed to academic criticism working, although it is the way I would always like it to work.

This is a cut because this entry is really very long indeed. )
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Yesterday's review.

Greil Marcus is one of my formative writers. His Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century is the reason that in high school one of my life goals was to resurrect the Situationist International. It's a secret history that actually is one: it traces cultural ideas and slogans from medieval Europe into punk rock, a memetic linkage of certain kinds of counterculture. Probably the only book to talk about Johnny Rotten as a Lollard. I will never stop loving it. It was a shaping book. Marcus is also one of the writers who's taught me the most about criticism, about the linking of disparate elements and the uses of rhetoric and irony. I gather he's mostly famous as a rock critic, but I'm pretty sure he was one of the people who invented what is now called 'cultural studies'.

This is an early book of his, one I hadn't managed to track down, and it's not where I'd suggest starting, because it has several gaping flaws. It's meant to be a discussion of the posthumous life of Elvis, the ways in which Elvis Presley's image and recordings and interviews and artifacts have gone on (in extremely peculiar ways) without him. (I mean, why are there in the world so many paintings of Elvis on velvet? People do not do paintings of the Beatles on velvet, certainly not as an industry. There are provocative questions here.) The thing is, though, it wasn't conceived as a whole book-- it's a collection of various articles Marcus wrote about Elvis as a cultural phenomenon, some before Elvis died, some around that time, and the rest stretching over a period of years afterward. So it has no unifying thesis or theory.

And it leans heavily on an assumption which for me, at least, does require some basic explication or at any rate shoring up: Marcus is at times very defensive about his certainty that Elvis was a genius. I am of a generation where I did not hear, growing up, the music of Elvis Presley. My parents did not listen to it and it wasn't on the radio. I have encountered some of it since, and my problem with it is not just that the idiom is old, because I love, say, Robert Johnson as much as the next person who cut classes in college by mistake because 'Hellhound on My Trail' was on repeat. I have no idea what Greil Marcus hears in Elvis. I agree that there has to be something there, because people would not do the really weird shit they do because of Elvis if there weren't something. (There are so many comic books in the world with zombie Elvis in them. Marcus keeps having panels from different ones. It is amazing. There's a picture in this book of a love letter to Elvis, which might be an intentional art statement or not, in which the author, who has collaged the frame of the thing with lace and pictures of herself topless snuggling ceramic Elvis figurines, pauses in the middle of a diatribe that sounds like a fundamentalist revival gone sideways to write 'Tell me whether you are God', and neither Marcus nor I have the faintest idea whether she means it. Marcus has corresponded with her and still doesn't know. There has got to be a reason for this sort of thing.) It's just, this is the sort of book that would work better if Marcus admitted that whatever it is he hears is not, necessarily, universal; for one thing maybe then he could get into the question of what it is that causes some people to hear it while others do not, a question for which his current answer appears to be 'some people are Philistines', never a reasonable attitude for a critic. Speaking as one of those Philistines, I would in fact like to know! I always want to know why people like something!

However, in the later portions, when Elvis' death was not quite so fresh and there had been more time for people to run rampant with an image no longer connected to a living human being, the book's very incoherence begins to work for it. The chapter which is a pile of media quotations about instances in which people express the satirical notion of cannibalizing celebrities, intercut with various appearances and reappearances of the slogan from Paris, 1968, about how people who speak about revolution without understanding the subversive power of love have corpses in their mouths-- Marcus doesn't need any text of his own, just a pair of scissors, and the argument that builds here is complex, frightening, and not readily communicable through more conventional vectors. It begins to be one of those books that shapes itself around something through indirection, through talking about a great many things other than its own subject: reviews of other books, quotations from various musicians, anecdotes from Marcus' life, and the sense of some kind of vortex at the center, the whatever-it-is that Marcus is trying to catch by not looking at it.

I have no idea what he's trying to catch, because I don't think he did catch it in this book. Maybe if he'd intended it as a book from the beginning. At present, this stands mostly as a collection of extremely strange material. But a lot of its elements, sometimes unexpected ones, reappear in his later Prophesy and the American Voice, which does know exactly what it's talking about, and which I highly recommend. If you're a completist, or studying his methods, this makes a great runup to that. If not, well, how morbidly curious are you about posthumous Elvis paraphernalia?

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Yesterday's review.

Greil Marcus is one of my formative writers. His Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century is the reason that in high school one of my life goals was to resurrect the Situationist International. It's a secret history that actually is one: it traces cultural ideas and slogans from medieval Europe into punk rock, a memetic linkage of certain kinds of counterculture. Probably the only book to talk about Johnny Rotten as a Lollard. I will never stop loving it. It was a shaping book. Marcus is also one of the writers who's taught me the most about criticism, about the linking of disparate elements and the uses of rhetoric and irony. I gather he's mostly famous as a rock critic, but I'm pretty sure he was one of the people who invented what is now called 'cultural studies'.

This is an early book of his, one I hadn't managed to track down, and it's not where I'd suggest starting, because it has several gaping flaws. It's meant to be a discussion of the posthumous life of Elvis, the ways in which Elvis Presley's image and recordings and interviews and artifacts have gone on (in extremely peculiar ways) without him. (I mean, why are there in the world so many paintings of Elvis on velvet? People do not do paintings of the Beatles on velvet, certainly not as an industry. There are provocative questions here.) The thing is, though, it wasn't conceived as a whole book-- it's a collection of various articles Marcus wrote about Elvis as a cultural phenomenon, some before Elvis died, some around that time, and the rest stretching over a period of years afterward. So it has no unifying thesis or theory.

And it leans heavily on an assumption which for me, at least, does require some basic explication or at any rate shoring up: Marcus is at times very defensive about his certainty that Elvis was a genius. I am of a generation where I did not hear, growing up, the music of Elvis Presley. My parents did not listen to it and it wasn't on the radio. I have encountered some of it since, and my problem with it is not just that the idiom is old, because I love, say, Robert Johnson as much as the next person who cut classes in college by mistake because 'Hellhound on My Trail' was on repeat. I have no idea what Greil Marcus hears in Elvis. I agree that there has to be something there, because people would not do the really weird shit they do because of Elvis if there weren't something. (There are so many comic books in the world with zombie Elvis in them. Marcus keeps having panels from different ones. It is amazing. There's a picture in this book of a love letter to Elvis, which might be an intentional art statement or not, in which the author, who has collaged the frame of the thing with lace and pictures of herself topless snuggling ceramic Elvis figurines, pauses in the middle of a diatribe that sounds like a fundamentalist revival gone sideways to write 'Tell me whether you are God', and neither Marcus nor I have the faintest idea whether she means it. Marcus has corresponded with her and still doesn't know. There has got to be a reason for this sort of thing.) It's just, this is the sort of book that would work better if Marcus admitted that whatever it is he hears is not, necessarily, universal; for one thing maybe then he could get into the question of what it is that causes some people to hear it while others do not, a question for which his current answer appears to be 'some people are Philistines', never a reasonable attitude for a critic. Speaking as one of those Philistines, I would in fact like to know! I always want to know why people like something!

However, in the later portions, when Elvis' death was not quite so fresh and there had been more time for people to run rampant with an image no longer connected to a living human being, the book's very incoherence begins to work for it. The chapter which is a pile of media quotations about instances in which people express the satirical notion of cannibalizing celebrities, intercut with various appearances and reappearances of the slogan from Paris, 1968, about how people who speak about revolution without understanding the subversive power of love have corpses in their mouths-- Marcus doesn't need any text of his own, just a pair of scissors, and the argument that builds here is complex, frightening, and not readily communicable through more conventional vectors. It begins to be one of those books that shapes itself around something through indirection, through talking about a great many things other than its own subject: reviews of other books, quotations from various musicians, anecdotes from Marcus' life, and the sense of some kind of vortex at the center, the whatever-it-is that Marcus is trying to catch by not looking at it.

I have no idea what he's trying to catch, because I don't think he did catch it in this book. Maybe if he'd intended it as a book from the beginning. At present, this stands mostly as a collection of extremely strange material. But a lot of its elements, sometimes unexpected ones, reappear in his later Prophesy and the American Voice, which does know exactly what it's talking about, and which I highly recommend. If you're a completist, or studying his methods, this makes a great runup to that. If not, well, how morbidly curious are you about posthumous Elvis paraphernalia?
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
After finishing this, I noticed that it had been blurbed by John Updike, and some part of the back of my head said, 'well, that explains everything'. I realize that being blurbed by John Updike is more of an effect than a cause, but I cannot help but see it as symptomatic of everything that is wrong with this book.

There is a great deal wrong with this book. Which is a shame, because there is also a great deal right with this book, but.

This is a collection of articles about woman writers, sometimes focusing more or less on one book or period, sometimes on their personal lives, and most frequently on the work laid against the personal life. The articles ran in the New Yorker between 1990 and 2000. Women discussed include Olive Schreiner, Gertrude Stein, a joint article on Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, and Margaret Mitchell, among others. The biographical information is solid, the articles and book are well-organized, and Pierpont accomplishes one of the major goals of the critic: she provokes a desire in her reader to read the work she's discussing, if only to prove to yourself that you do not wish to read the work she's discussing. She finds something to catch the attention in even the work she considers least relevant, and her angle of approach is sometimes sharply valuable by itself (there is an article here about Mae West as a writer, and of course Mae West was a writer, because she wrote all the plays and films that made her famous and created the roles for which she became iconic, but people don't seem to talk about that very much).

However, I spent a lot of this book extremely annoyed, principally for two reasons. The first and more minor is that you can tell instantly which writers Pierpont enjoys, which ones she likes personally and which ones she might, if pressed, admit to considering overrated. Unsurprisingly, the essays about authors she likes are (mostly) better essays, and the essays about authors she does not like so strongly tend to come to conclusions that are less supported. For instance, her claim that the entirety of Gertrude Stein's writing life was based on emotional repression is contradicted very strongly by the excerpts quoted in the article, which makes one wonder about Pierpont's reading protocols for modernist fiction, which makes one wonder why she is writing about Stein in the first place, except that she seems to want to set her up as some sort of existential opposition to Virginia Woolf, an idea that though the two of them disliked each other I suspect either writer would have found ridiculous. This means that I eye about half the book with the wariness of a person who suspects that the assignment has been given out by an editor.

The exception to this trend is the essay on Anaïs Nin. Pierpont basically hates Anaïs Nin, but it is an explained hatred, a hatred based on solid research, on laying out fact after fact before the reader and continuously having the response many people, myself included, continuously have the more we hear about Anaïs Nin, a response which can be summed up as: WHAT. The first time I tried to read Anaïs Nin, as a teenager, I became convinced that someone was having me on; the more biographical information I run into about her the more convinced I become that the tragedy is that nobody was.

Anyway, all this pales beside the second reason I am so annoyed about this book, which I have been thinking of as Probably The Reason John Updike Liked It.

In Dancing at the Edge of the World, Ursula Le Guin has a long essay in which among many other useful things she discusses the cultural images of women writing, of women who write, and that eternal mythical dichotomy: you can have babies and a happy marriage, or books, saith The Canon. Not both. And Le Guin talks about some writers who have fallen out of said canon, and how, funnily enough, some of them had large families, and some had adored spouses, and some wrote at the kitchen table with the kids running by in the background suggesting that maybe there ought to be aliens (which happened to Le Guin with one novel, and it was apparently a reasonable idea). But there is this myth.

And the theme of this particular book is female writer as rebel, female writer as venturing into uncharted territory, as moving out of the myths and boundaries that have been imposed on women and their literary productions: well and good.

Why, then, does this collection spend so much time minimizing the possible happiness and validity of the personal relationships engaged in by all of these writers? The marriages and affairs that were unhappy get dwelt upon, the sibling relationships that grew into feuds, the mothers who were not supportive, the fathers who were sexually threatening. The mothers who loved and supported get painted as mildly perverse for it (Mae West), the spouses who were loving and interested get the importance of their relationships either mentioned only in passing (Hannah Arendt's final marriage) or sort of sunk into the background while Pierpont talks about other things (Alice B. Toklas, and how you manage this is beyond me). The miscarriages and the children walked away from get gone over in great detail, whereas the mothering that appears to have worked out all right (Doris Lessing's youngest son, Mary McCarthy's child) gets about three sentences. Pierpont also comes down on the side that there must have been something missing from Mae West's life because she cannot possibly have been happy just being that promiscuous, &c. &c., and the combination of this sort of thing with the abovementioned attitude towards relationships is mythmaking, is distortion, because what we are being given here is a collection of women who suffer for their art.

In some ways, fair enough. It can be a hard life not conforming to social norms. It is difficult making your life and your work what you want them to be. But I cannot believe but that there were times when their work was joy for every single one of these women, and I find it difficult to believe that they were quite so bereft of people they loved and who loved them and who could be relied upon as this book seems to think, even if the good times were only for a brief period. (Well. Except Anaïs Nin. I am not sure she ever loved anyone, because I think she was a sociopath. But that is different.) And I find it hard to buy this mythmaking when it is handed me about, say, Gertrude Stein, by a critic who dismisses some of the most uninhibited erotic poetry in the English language as "nursery-school contentment". It smacks rather of that inchoate feeling that suffering is more noble, somehow, which is an inchoate feeling that has been culturally inflicted on women for a very long time now.

Virginia Woolf once said that across a woman's life there falls the shadow of a sword, and on one side lies convention and on the other, who knows what. This is an attempt to report from who knows what, and it is not one that entirely fails. But it is not one that is seeing clearly, either. It is one that is trying to see patterns in these lives, and the patterns it sees very subtly conform to what the people who would like to believe that who-knows-what is not necessarily a good place might expect, see above re: John Updike. Oh, a valuable thing these women did, says this book, an amazing groundbreaking set of things, and we are so glad they did it so that we are where we are now, but isn't it sad about what it did to them.

And I grit my teeth, because the 'it' that did it, when it was done, is exactly the kind of cultural idea that is informing the deep layers of this criticism, and while this is as I said a real attempt, I am no longer content with only that.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
After finishing this, I noticed that it had been blurbed by John Updike, and some part of the back of my head said, 'well, that explains everything'. I realize that being blurbed by John Updike is more of an effect than a cause, but I cannot help but see it as symptomatic of everything that is wrong with this book.

There is a great deal wrong with this book. Which is a shame, because there is also a great deal right with this book, but.

This is a collection of articles about woman writers, sometimes focusing more or less on one book or period, sometimes on their personal lives, and most frequently on the work laid against the personal life. The articles ran in the New Yorker between 1990 and 2000. Women discussed include Olive Schreiner, Gertrude Stein, a joint article on Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, and Margaret Mitchell, among others. The biographical information is solid, the articles and book are well-organized, and Pierpont accomplishes one of the major goals of the critic: she provokes a desire in her reader to read the work she's discussing, if only to prove to yourself that you do not wish to read the work she's discussing. She finds something to catch the attention in even the work she considers least relevant, and her angle of approach is sometimes sharply valuable by itself (there is an article here about Mae West as a writer, and of course Mae West was a writer, because she wrote all the plays and films that made her famous and created the roles for which she became iconic, but people don't seem to talk about that very much).

However, I spent a lot of this book extremely annoyed, principally for two reasons. The first and more minor is that you can tell instantly which writers Pierpont enjoys, which ones she likes personally and which ones she might, if pressed, admit to considering overrated. Unsurprisingly, the essays about authors she likes are (mostly) better essays, and the essays about authors she does not like so strongly tend to come to conclusions that are less supported. For instance, her claim that the entirety of Gertrude Stein's writing life was based on emotional repression is contradicted very strongly by the excerpts quoted in the article, which makes one wonder about Pierpont's reading protocols for modernist fiction, which makes one wonder why she is writing about Stein in the first place, except that she seems to want to set her up as some sort of existential opposition to Virginia Woolf, an idea that though the two of them disliked each other I suspect either writer would have found ridiculous. This means that I eye about half the book with the wariness of a person who suspects that the assignment has been given out by an editor.

The exception to this trend is the essay on Anaïs Nin. Pierpont basically hates Anaïs Nin, but it is an explained hatred, a hatred based on solid research, on laying out fact after fact before the reader and continuously having the response many people, myself included, continuously have the more we hear about Anaïs Nin, a response which can be summed up as: WHAT. The first time I tried to read Anaïs Nin, as a teenager, I became convinced that someone was having me on; the more biographical information I run into about her the more convinced I become that the tragedy is that nobody was.

Anyway, all this pales beside the second reason I am so annoyed about this book, which I have been thinking of as Probably The Reason John Updike Liked It.

In Dancing at the Edge of the World, Ursula Le Guin has a long essay in which among many other useful things she discusses the cultural images of women writing, of women who write, and that eternal mythical dichotomy: you can have babies and a happy marriage, or books, saith The Canon. Not both. And Le Guin talks about some writers who have fallen out of said canon, and how, funnily enough, some of them had large families, and some had adored spouses, and some wrote at the kitchen table with the kids running by in the background suggesting that maybe there ought to be aliens (which happened to Le Guin with one novel, and it was apparently a reasonable idea). But there is this myth.

And the theme of this particular book is female writer as rebel, female writer as venturing into uncharted territory, as moving out of the myths and boundaries that have been imposed on women and their literary productions: well and good.

Why, then, does this collection spend so much time minimizing the possible happiness and validity of the personal relationships engaged in by all of these writers? The marriages and affairs that were unhappy get dwelt upon, the sibling relationships that grew into feuds, the mothers who were not supportive, the fathers who were sexually threatening. The mothers who loved and supported get painted as mildly perverse for it (Mae West), the spouses who were loving and interested get the importance of their relationships either mentioned only in passing (Hannah Arendt's final marriage) or sort of sunk into the background while Pierpont talks about other things (Alice B. Toklas, and how you manage this is beyond me). The miscarriages and the children walked away from get gone over in great detail, whereas the mothering that appears to have worked out all right (Doris Lessing's youngest son, Mary McCarthy's child) gets about three sentences. Pierpont also comes down on the side that there must have been something missing from Mae West's life because she cannot possibly have been happy just being that promiscuous, &c. &c., and the combination of this sort of thing with the abovementioned attitude towards relationships is mythmaking, is distortion, because what we are being given here is a collection of women who suffer for their art.

In some ways, fair enough. It can be a hard life not conforming to social norms. It is difficult making your life and your work what you want them to be. But I cannot believe but that there were times when their work was joy for every single one of these women, and I find it difficult to believe that they were quite so bereft of people they loved and who loved them and who could be relied upon as this book seems to think, even if the good times were only for a brief period. (Well. Except Anaïs Nin. I am not sure she ever loved anyone, because I think she was a sociopath. But that is different.) And I find it hard to buy this mythmaking when it is handed me about, say, Gertrude Stein, by a critic who dismisses some of the most uninhibited erotic poetry in the English language as "nursery-school contentment". It smacks rather of that inchoate feeling that suffering is more noble, somehow, which is an inchoate feeling that has been culturally inflicted on women for a very long time now.

Virginia Woolf once said that across a woman's life there falls the shadow of a sword, and on one side lies convention and on the other, who knows what. This is an attempt to report from who knows what, and it is not one that entirely fails. But it is not one that is seeing clearly, either. It is one that is trying to see patterns in these lives, and the patterns it sees very subtly conform to what the people who would like to believe that who-knows-what is not necessarily a good place might expect, see above re: John Updike. Oh, a valuable thing these women did, says this book, an amazing groundbreaking set of things, and we are so glad they did it so that we are where we are now, but isn't it sad about what it did to them.

And I grit my teeth, because the 'it' that did it, when it was done, is exactly the kind of cultural idea that is informing the deep layers of this criticism, and while this is as I said a real attempt, I am no longer content with only that.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I read this book yesterday. For some reason, I find that I can read fairly pleasantly even with eyestrain if I take off my glasses and hold the book the requisite quarter-inch from my nose-- and it does not seem to retard the recovery process-- but the same is not true of computer screens. I therefore expect my computer time to be limited for a while, and if there is anything people put up in the way of significant announcements on LJ/DW, you probably should not expect me to see it for the next week or so, and should contact me in some other way. (Still checking email-- once a day.)

Anyway. This book is a collection of correspondence between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq, which took place between late January and mid-July of 2008, and which was kept secret at the time, though always intended for publication.

I have something of a quandary in conveying to you why it is interesting that these two men should be writing to each other, because each of them takes a firm and vehement stand in this text that biographical criticism is a terrible thing, that people take far too much interest in both the public and private lives of writers, that the degrees of celebrity they have attained come with quantities of perjury and slander attached, and that they had far rather people just read their books and talk about those. In fact, that is much of what this book is about, comparing their experiences of being controversial writers, writers who are publicly hated, and discussing why this is and what can be done to endure it.

And I haven't read any of their other books, though I had heard of both men; I picked this up both because Thrud brought it home and because it seemed a reasonable starting point for each writer. Therefore I cannot, as a critic, do what they would certainly prefer and explain the background context of this book in terms of what each of them has written about politics, literature and so on in contrast to the other. All I have is what I can gather from this book, and the sense one has of what a writer is doing from being aware of cultural life (and that sense is what I am sure they would like me to pay no attention to).

Based solely on this book, then, and what each of them says about himself: Lévy is a public figure and celebrity in France, who has written novels, criticism, and reports on various war zones around the world. He has gone to Bosnia, Burma, Chechnya, and other places in significant upheaval and tried to promote international awareness of the atrocities that happen and the issues involved, as well as serving as an advisor to various important figures in these wars and to other statesmen. He has a complex political and personal relationship to Judaism which I am clear on philosophically but not clear about how it expresses itself in his life and other writings, because he didn't talk about that much here. He was a student of Derrida and otherwise associated with what those of us outside France tend to think of as Twentieth-Century French Literature.

Houellebecq is a public figure and something of a celebrity in France who now lives in semi-reclusive exile in Ireland. He has written novels, poetry, and a book on Lovecraft I had heard of. He is regularly accused of being racist, misogynistic, sex-obsessed, pessimistic, and something of a right-wing lunatic; he cheerfully admits to the pessimistic, and does not go sufficiently into the others here for one to make a judgment. He appears to think of most human progress as futile and occasionally despairs of the human race as a whole. His principal philosophy seems to be a kind of extremely atheistic hyper-individualism, rather what you might get if you crossed Sartre with an anarcho-libertarian-- at the age when many teenagers get into heavy metal, he encountered Pascal's Pensées, which had a similarly mind-exploding effect on him (if it is possible to be an atheist Jansenist, I suspect him of being one in some ways). He gives the impression that the literary establishment sees him as something of an enfant terrible.

I repeat, this is what I gathered about them from reading this book. It may or may not have anything to do with the way the rest of the world, including their other writings, sees things.

Their letters are wide-ranging, well-phrased, charming, and unafraid to contradict each other or anything else in the world. They do not reply to one another in the ways that one would expect, but through indirection, seizing on small things that have been said and amplifying them, running off in different directions. They tell secrets, they tell funny anecdotes, they talk about their fathers and their enemies (and I noticed before either of them did that they weren't talking about their mothers). They cite pretty much every major Western philosopher in attempts to explain their worldviews to one another, and then in the next letter jettison all of that because it has been misunderstood and start over. As an example of the art of correspondence, it is quite impressive, and might also serve as an introductory course on French literature (the book is very well-footnoted). There is not a dull moment in it, from the first sentence Houellebecq leads with: "We have, as they say, nothing in common-- except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals."

I do rather get the feeling, however, that I would find this book far more interesting and thought-provoking if I were to go out and read everything else both of them has written first, and then see how this is at being a text that deepens and contrasts their views. As a book of itself, it is very readable: as an introductory point, a place to begin either author, it succeeds, but I am not sure it was the right place. I agree, however, that I would prefer to gather information about them from their writings instead from the newspapers, so that is something. And as a conversation overheard between two people I don't know, I enjoyed this very thoroughly.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I read this book yesterday. For some reason, I find that I can read fairly pleasantly even with eyestrain if I take off my glasses and hold the book the requisite quarter-inch from my nose-- and it does not seem to retard the recovery process-- but the same is not true of computer screens. I therefore expect my computer time to be limited for a while, and if there is anything people put up in the way of significant announcements on LJ/DW, you probably should not expect me to see it for the next week or so, and should contact me in some other way. (Still checking email-- once a day.)

Anyway. This book is a collection of correspondence between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq, which took place between late January and mid-July of 2008, and which was kept secret at the time, though always intended for publication.

I have something of a quandary in conveying to you why it is interesting that these two men should be writing to each other, because each of them takes a firm and vehement stand in this text that biographical criticism is a terrible thing, that people take far too much interest in both the public and private lives of writers, that the degrees of celebrity they have attained come with quantities of perjury and slander attached, and that they had far rather people just read their books and talk about those. In fact, that is much of what this book is about, comparing their experiences of being controversial writers, writers who are publicly hated, and discussing why this is and what can be done to endure it.

And I haven't read any of their other books, though I had heard of both men; I picked this up both because Thrud brought it home and because it seemed a reasonable starting point for each writer. Therefore I cannot, as a critic, do what they would certainly prefer and explain the background context of this book in terms of what each of them has written about politics, literature and so on in contrast to the other. All I have is what I can gather from this book, and the sense one has of what a writer is doing from being aware of cultural life (and that sense is what I am sure they would like me to pay no attention to).

Based solely on this book, then, and what each of them says about himself: Lévy is a public figure and celebrity in France, who has written novels, criticism, and reports on various war zones around the world. He has gone to Bosnia, Burma, Chechnya, and other places in significant upheaval and tried to promote international awareness of the atrocities that happen and the issues involved, as well as serving as an advisor to various important figures in these wars and to other statesmen. He has a complex political and personal relationship to Judaism which I am clear on philosophically but not clear about how it expresses itself in his life and other writings, because he didn't talk about that much here. He was a student of Derrida and otherwise associated with what those of us outside France tend to think of as Twentieth-Century French Literature.

Houellebecq is a public figure and something of a celebrity in France who now lives in semi-reclusive exile in Ireland. He has written novels, poetry, and a book on Lovecraft I had heard of. He is regularly accused of being racist, misogynistic, sex-obsessed, pessimistic, and something of a right-wing lunatic; he cheerfully admits to the pessimistic, and does not go sufficiently into the others here for one to make a judgment. He appears to think of most human progress as futile and occasionally despairs of the human race as a whole. His principal philosophy seems to be a kind of extremely atheistic hyper-individualism, rather what you might get if you crossed Sartre with an anarcho-libertarian-- at the age when many teenagers get into heavy metal, he encountered Pascal's Pensées, which had a similarly mind-exploding effect on him (if it is possible to be an atheist Jansenist, I suspect him of being one in some ways). He gives the impression that the literary establishment sees him as something of an enfant terrible.

I repeat, this is what I gathered about them from reading this book. It may or may not have anything to do with the way the rest of the world, including their other writings, sees things.

Their letters are wide-ranging, well-phrased, charming, and unafraid to contradict each other or anything else in the world. They do not reply to one another in the ways that one would expect, but through indirection, seizing on small things that have been said and amplifying them, running off in different directions. They tell secrets, they tell funny anecdotes, they talk about their fathers and their enemies (and I noticed before either of them did that they weren't talking about their mothers). They cite pretty much every major Western philosopher in attempts to explain their worldviews to one another, and then in the next letter jettison all of that because it has been misunderstood and start over. As an example of the art of correspondence, it is quite impressive, and might also serve as an introductory course on French literature (the book is very well-footnoted). There is not a dull moment in it, from the first sentence Houellebecq leads with: "We have, as they say, nothing in common-- except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals."

I do rather get the feeling, however, that I would find this book far more interesting and thought-provoking if I were to go out and read everything else both of them has written first, and then see how this is at being a text that deepens and contrasts their views. As a book of itself, it is very readable: as an introductory point, a place to begin either author, it succeeds, but I am not sure it was the right place. I agree, however, that I would prefer to gather information about them from their writings instead from the newspapers, so that is something. And as a conversation overheard between two people I don't know, I enjoyed this very thoroughly.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A group of essays on books for children, originally published in the Washington Post and lightly edited into something resembling a book-shape, focused around books that are not as widely known as Perrin would like them to be.

This is neither amazing nor horrible. It is somewhat to the bad side of mediocre. In general, Perrin does manage to communicate why he likes the books, whether they were available in findable editions at the time of writing, and what age range he considers them appropriate for; he also usually gives interesting biographical detail about the authors, and in a couple of cases has dug up things that I have never heard of, think are genuinely obscure, and would be interested by (e.g. P. L. Travers' I Go By Sea, I Go By Land, which sounds like a fascinating and unusual WWII novel).

On the other hand, he is incapable of not telling you all about the plot. I do mean all. He tries to restrain himself from mentioning endings if the book is attempting to be surprising, but he can't resist alluding to the twists in veiled terms, and it's pretty amazingly transparent. I wanted to go through half of these and spoiler-cut, and I usually don't care about spoilers. I would like a review to make me interested in the book, not to make me feel as though I have already read it-- it's the difference between those movie trailers which mention a major plot point and the ones where you sit there going 'that was the entire film condensed into two minutes so I guess that saved the price of a ticket, huh'.

Also, this came out in 1997. That is... fairly recent past, so it is possible that maybe Perrin should not be quite so jumping-up-and-down amazed when there are people in kids' books who are not white Protestants. The kind of amazed where he's all 'it's so awesome how everything new is so inclusive!' and I am all 'you just actually recommended Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages without mentioning any of the huge gaping issues that anyone can deduce at this point in history just from reading the title'. *facepalm* He claims, too, that the Doctor Dolittle books are not racist. There are many good things about the Doctor Dolittle books. I read them and loved them as a child, and what stuck with me was the wonder of traveling to new places, the amazingness of the ability to speak to all kinds of animals, the indomitable spirit required in learning language after language after language. They are racist as fuck. Every time I reread them they've gotten worse (except Doctor Dolittle in the Moon, because it has so few human characters; I will always love that one). As things become better, more and more large swathes of the past are full of Problematic, but there is 'progressive for its time' and then there is... not, and Hugh Lofting is the latter and I think admitting to that nowadays does not mean you have to say you hate the books, you know? I mean I reread the things, because they are part of my childhood. Seriously, though, racist as fuck.

Anyway. Perrin's book at least does not perpetrate some of the issues I've seen in other writing about children's books, you know, the kind of writing that holds that children's books are somehow Beneath Literature, or that children are not a worthy audience and all that sort of annoyance. He is quite good about remembering that children are people, and also that people who aren't children often want and sometimes need for various reasons to interact with children's books. I appreciate that, because there are so few critics who do not treat childhood as a (possibly contagious) disease.

On the 'I am sitting here reading this as a book' level, it was moderately entertaining. Newspaper writing.

So I don't really recommend this, but I may well read several things mentioned in it, and it's entirely possible some of those will be rec-worthy. Mostly it just makes me want to reread I Capture the Castle. Again.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A group of essays on books for children, originally published in the Washington Post and lightly edited into something resembling a book-shape, focused around books that are not as widely known as Perrin would like them to be.

This is neither amazing nor horrible. It is somewhat to the bad side of mediocre. In general, Perrin does manage to communicate why he likes the books, whether they were available in findable editions at the time of writing, and what age range he considers them appropriate for; he also usually gives interesting biographical detail about the authors, and in a couple of cases has dug up things that I have never heard of, think are genuinely obscure, and would be interested by (e.g. P. L. Travers' I Go By Sea, I Go By Land, which sounds like a fascinating and unusual WWII novel).

On the other hand, he is incapable of not telling you all about the plot. I do mean all. He tries to restrain himself from mentioning endings if the book is attempting to be surprising, but he can't resist alluding to the twists in veiled terms, and it's pretty amazingly transparent. I wanted to go through half of these and spoiler-cut, and I usually don't care about spoilers. I would like a review to make me interested in the book, not to make me feel as though I have already read it-- it's the difference between those movie trailers which mention a major plot point and the ones where you sit there going 'that was the entire film condensed into two minutes so I guess that saved the price of a ticket, huh'.

Also, this came out in 1997. That is... fairly recent past, so it is possible that maybe Perrin should not be quite so jumping-up-and-down amazed when there are people in kids' books who are not white Protestants. The kind of amazed where he's all 'it's so awesome how everything new is so inclusive!' and I am all 'you just actually recommended Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages without mentioning any of the huge gaping issues that anyone can deduce at this point in history just from reading the title'. *facepalm* He claims, too, that the Doctor Dolittle books are not racist. There are many good things about the Doctor Dolittle books. I read them and loved them as a child, and what stuck with me was the wonder of traveling to new places, the amazingness of the ability to speak to all kinds of animals, the indomitable spirit required in learning language after language after language. They are racist as fuck. Every time I reread them they've gotten worse (except Doctor Dolittle in the Moon, because it has so few human characters; I will always love that one). As things become better, more and more large swathes of the past are full of Problematic, but there is 'progressive for its time' and then there is... not, and Hugh Lofting is the latter and I think admitting to that nowadays does not mean you have to say you hate the books, you know? I mean I reread the things, because they are part of my childhood. Seriously, though, racist as fuck.

Anyway. Perrin's book at least does not perpetrate some of the issues I've seen in other writing about children's books, you know, the kind of writing that holds that children's books are somehow Beneath Literature, or that children are not a worthy audience and all that sort of annoyance. He is quite good about remembering that children are people, and also that people who aren't children often want and sometimes need for various reasons to interact with children's books. I appreciate that, because there are so few critics who do not treat childhood as a (possibly contagious) disease.

On the 'I am sitting here reading this as a book' level, it was moderately entertaining. Newspaper writing.

So I don't really recommend this, but I may well read several things mentioned in it, and it's entirely possible some of those will be rec-worthy. Mostly it just makes me want to reread I Capture the Castle. Again.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Subtitle: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shōjo Manga.

Borrowed from [personal profile] rax's housemate Z. Why yes, I am spending the weekend in a house full of grad students who have piles of cultural theory all over the place. Not that this is much different from the state of things in general, but they're slightly different piles of theory from the ones my house has lying all over the place, which is always exciting.

Anyway. This book? SHINY. This is an ethnographic and sociological study of shoujo manga focused on the interface between production and consumption: the ways in which the main shoujo magazines create and maintain social spaces within their pages and the ways that those social spaces both act as a genuine artistically productive community and yet are centered around the commercial bottom line, and the ways that pop culture in general influences and is influenced by the ideas of girlhood formulated by and reflected in shoujo.

I realize that a percentage of you have at this point gone out to buy the book, and a different percentage of you have tuned out entirely. This is a very academic text, and it will be most useful to those of you actively into manga studies, but I think it would also be interesting to publishing geeks generally and very interesting to people working on fandom anthropology.

Prough did extensive fieldwork at all four of the major shoujo publishers (Kodansha, Shogakukan, Shueisha, Hakusensha) and, while she had the usual problem with getting access to manga artists (who usually work under pen names, have ridiculous deadline pressures, and tend to be reclusive), she interviewed many editors and staffers at several levels. This is therefore one of the most informative books I've seen on the production of manga in general and the ways that editors and artists work together. It is not remotely similar to the model U.S. readers and writers are probably most familiar with.

She also goes into detail about how shoujo magazines maintain a base of devoted readers who feel invested in the magazine's content-- they use features such as reader surveys with prizes, accessories and gifts included with the magazines, mail-order giveaways, and pages for fanart and for reader feedback. In order to get the mail-order gifts or the included accessory pack, you have to buy a copy of the magazine, which encourages readers to get their own; but the commonality of similar characters etc. on merchandise used in everyday life helps foster a social group among readers of the magazine. In addition, the manga contests the magazines run have become the principal way for the magazines to locate and groom new artists, meaning that the artists and the fanbase have many of the same interests and are of very similar demographics. Any reader has the hope of ending up published in her favorite magazine, either on the fanpages or as a professional. Prough analyzes the gendered tracks in the Japanese workforce-- you can be management track or clerical track, and most men are the former and most women the latter-- which means that for quite a while shoujo artists were young and female and shoujo editors were older and male, because editors are a management-track position. This seems to be changing somewhat, and the increasing presence of young female editors who came into the industry through reading the magazines as children indicates to Prough that the community-building constructions the magazines engage in, although essentially corporate and fueled by trendiness, company sponsorship, and the ever-present need to sell more manga, do in fact succeed in arousing a real sense of empathy, intimacy, and artistic inspiration among the readership.

I would love to see someone do a comparison between this and the internet gift-economy of English-language media fandom, which also gives rise to professional artists on occasion, but which not only does not have corporate sponsorship but is possibly technically illegal. (The Japanese publishing companies appear to deal with doujinshi via a lot of really intense denial, the school of ignore harder and maybe it will go away. This is fairly similar in some ways to English-language media fandom; what we don't have here, to my knowledge, is anything resembling this level of corporate-constructed version of fan community, and I am curious as to why not.)

Prough also takes a social trend (the late-nineties kogal style), and shows how it disseminates into shoujo and the manga both modifies and intensifies it-- her example here is a reading of Fujii Mihona's Gals!, which I was glad to see someone giving critical attention to as it is a) good b) sociologically fascinating and c) overlooked.

So yeah, I highly recommend this in several directions. I think it could do more with gender theory, though there is some here, and I'm not sure how I feel about Prough's view of josei as a subset of shoujo, because I do think there is a significant difference in the ways the companies expect their audience to react to character portrayals and to the magazines in general as the audience ages. (Prough talks some about the development of sexual content in magazines for a younger audience, but that's a different thing.) All in all, though, this is a thorough and interesting work covering ground I haven't seen before, and while it's incredibly dense and follows very conventional academic prose structures almost to a fault, it's still relatively readable. It also has a bibliography of Double Amazing Helpfulness, which I am going to be using as reference material for, uh, some time to come.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Subtitle: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shōjo Manga.

Borrowed from [personal profile] rax's housemate Z. Why yes, I am spending the weekend in a house full of grad students who have piles of cultural theory all over the place. Not that this is much different from the state of things in general, but they're slightly different piles of theory from the ones my house has lying all over the place, which is always exciting.

Anyway. This book? SHINY. This is an ethnographic and sociological study of shoujo manga focused on the interface between production and consumption: the ways in which the main shoujo magazines create and maintain social spaces within their pages and the ways that those social spaces both act as a genuine artistically productive community and yet are centered around the commercial bottom line, and the ways that pop culture in general influences and is influenced by the ideas of girlhood formulated by and reflected in shoujo.

I realize that a percentage of you have at this point gone out to buy the book, and a different percentage of you have tuned out entirely. This is a very academic text, and it will be most useful to those of you actively into manga studies, but I think it would also be interesting to publishing geeks generally and very interesting to people working on fandom anthropology.

Prough did extensive fieldwork at all four of the major shoujo publishers (Kodansha, Shogakukan, Shueisha, Hakusensha) and, while she had the usual problem with getting access to manga artists (who usually work under pen names, have ridiculous deadline pressures, and tend to be reclusive), she interviewed many editors and staffers at several levels. This is therefore one of the most informative books I've seen on the production of manga in general and the ways that editors and artists work together. It is not remotely similar to the model U.S. readers and writers are probably most familiar with.

She also goes into detail about how shoujo magazines maintain a base of devoted readers who feel invested in the magazine's content-- they use features such as reader surveys with prizes, accessories and gifts included with the magazines, mail-order giveaways, and pages for fanart and for reader feedback. In order to get the mail-order gifts or the included accessory pack, you have to buy a copy of the magazine, which encourages readers to get their own; but the commonality of similar characters etc. on merchandise used in everyday life helps foster a social group among readers of the magazine. In addition, the manga contests the magazines run have become the principal way for the magazines to locate and groom new artists, meaning that the artists and the fanbase have many of the same interests and are of very similar demographics. Any reader has the hope of ending up published in her favorite magazine, either on the fanpages or as a professional. Prough analyzes the gendered tracks in the Japanese workforce-- you can be management track or clerical track, and most men are the former and most women the latter-- which means that for quite a while shoujo artists were young and female and shoujo editors were older and male, because editors are a management-track position. This seems to be changing somewhat, and the increasing presence of young female editors who came into the industry through reading the magazines as children indicates to Prough that the community-building constructions the magazines engage in, although essentially corporate and fueled by trendiness, company sponsorship, and the ever-present need to sell more manga, do in fact succeed in arousing a real sense of empathy, intimacy, and artistic inspiration among the readership.

I would love to see someone do a comparison between this and the internet gift-economy of English-language media fandom, which also gives rise to professional artists on occasion, but which not only does not have corporate sponsorship but is possibly technically illegal. (The Japanese publishing companies appear to deal with doujinshi via a lot of really intense denial, the school of ignore harder and maybe it will go away. This is fairly similar in some ways to English-language media fandom; what we don't have here, to my knowledge, is anything resembling this level of corporate-constructed version of fan community, and I am curious as to why not.)

Prough also takes a social trend (the late-nineties kogal style), and shows how it disseminates into shoujo and the manga both modifies and intensifies it-- her example here is a reading of Fujii Mihona's Gals!, which I was glad to see someone giving critical attention to as it is a) good b) sociologically fascinating and c) overlooked.

So yeah, I highly recommend this in several directions. I think it could do more with gender theory, though there is some here, and I'm not sure how I feel about Prough's view of josei as a subset of shoujo, because I do think there is a significant difference in the ways the companies expect their audience to react to character portrayals and to the magazines in general as the audience ages. (Prough talks some about the development of sexual content in magazines for a younger audience, but that's a different thing.) All in all, though, this is a thorough and interesting work covering ground I haven't seen before, and while it's incredibly dense and follows very conventional academic prose structures almost to a fault, it's still relatively readable. It also has a bibliography of Double Amazing Helpfulness, which I am going to be using as reference material for, uh, some time to come.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Borrowed from [personal profile] rax.

This short but incisive book is a critique of what Keshavarz calls the New Orientalism, as exemplified by Reading Lolita in Tehran: a set of narratives, purporting to be factual, by people who at least theoretically have inside knowledge of a culture due to upbringing or heredity, which use this insider status to reinscribe a stereotypical and two-dimensional view of the culture in question. Older Orientalist works tend to be the views of outsiders-- traveler's tales, exoticism and sensationalism for an audience presumed to have no familiarity with the region described. In a world connected by air travel and the internet, the audience cannot be assumed to have less familiarity with any given place than any given traveler-- but the audience can still be assumed to have less familiarity than a person who was born in that place and raised in that culture.

New Orientalist works can be very popular and very insidious, because they sound to a Western audience as though a person who ought to know is saying 'everything you surmised is true', whereas in fact they have significant blind spots and often genuine factual inaccuracies about the cultures they are describing. Part of Keshavarz' project, in this book, is to illustrate facets of Iranian culture that do not fit the vision that most Westerners have built from the media and popular memoirs.

Keshavarz describes the multiplicity and variance of Persian literature, with particular attention to the writings of women in the twentieth century, especially bestselling poets and novelists. She contrasts this with the idolization of Western literary figures the female lit students have in Reading Lolita in Tehran, mentioning a sequence in which one of the students secretly names her daughter Daisy after Daisy Miller because Daisy Miller is the first woman she's had to look up to in literature. Keshavarz points out that as a child, she herself looked up to Shirin, the lover, queen, and educator from the twelfth-century romantic epic Shirin and Khusrau. She describes the stunned grief of her entire high school class at the news of the early death of the poet Forrough Farrokhzad, a woman whose life and work were intimately familiar to every girl there, and points out that this kind of loving engagement by a large public with modern poetry pokes a serious hole in one of the main Orientalizing myths: the idea that, say, Iran has produced great works of art and culture, but that that was long ago in a glorious past, which is completely removed from the present and can never come again.

Keshavarz also attacks the Western critical myth that the novel never became a major form in Middle Eastern countries by offering a close reading of Shahrnoush Parsipur's Women Without Men (1989), a post-revolutionary and very popular work of feminist magical realism that I have to go out and read immediately.

And she goes through Reading Lolita in Tehran with a steady hand, pointing out inaccuracies, biases, rhetorical devices, emphases, hidden priorities-- it's one of the better takedowns of a book I've seen in a very long time. The ignorance of Iranian literature she proves would alone be stunning, but she also describes serious problems with the book's explanations of theology, and demonstrates via quotation that everything in the book associated with America has positive adjectives, and everything associated with genuine Islamic faith negative ones. I find her argument entirely convincing. In addition, she mentions several other works that she suggests are also part of the New Orientalist narrative, such as The Kite Runner, and hopes that other critics will go into detail about the differing ways various works fall into this pattern.

Jasmine and Stars has given me a significant list of Iranian writers, painters, filmmakers, and theologians from the post-revolutionary period to look up, and it's also provided a quite useful critical framework. Keshavarz speaks of the New Orientalism in the context of Islam, of course, but I think that either that term needs to stretch to cover work about other cultures or we need an exact equivalent. (If there is one, someone tell me! The Keshavarz is from 2007 but is still most of what I get when I Google the term; but I do not claim to be as up on theory as I might.)

Because, you remember that book by Amy Chua I reviewed the other day, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? If that's not a New Orientalist text, nothing is. That's a person claiming to have insider knowledge about a culture using that supposed insider knowledge to reinforce hegemonic discourse, and the fact that it's about parenting rather than about an actual country obscures this a little, but the basic pattern is there, including the fact that both Chua and the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi, are writing from an internalization of the hegemonic discourse because it is what they use to regulate their own experiences, rather than having a consciously stereotype-reinforcing agenda. Of course these books are bestsellers: they combine the appearance of presumptive authority with the reassurance of preaching to the choir.

But, as Keshavarz so beautifully explains, they're bad for you. Because, and this is starting to become my personal motto both for writing and for life in general, things are always more complex than that. Hearing the same myths over and over will not help anyone really develop empathy for people from other cultures.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Borrowed from [personal profile] rax.

This short but incisive book is a critique of what Keshavarz calls the New Orientalism, as exemplified by Reading Lolita in Tehran: a set of narratives, purporting to be factual, by people who at least theoretically have inside knowledge of a culture due to upbringing or heredity, which use this insider status to reinscribe a stereotypical and two-dimensional view of the culture in question. Older Orientalist works tend to be the views of outsiders-- traveler's tales, exoticism and sensationalism for an audience presumed to have no familiarity with the region described. In a world connected by air travel and the internet, the audience cannot be assumed to have less familiarity with any given place than any given traveler-- but the audience can still be assumed to have less familiarity than a person who was born in that place and raised in that culture.

New Orientalist works can be very popular and very insidious, because they sound to a Western audience as though a person who ought to know is saying 'everything you surmised is true', whereas in fact they have significant blind spots and often genuine factual inaccuracies about the cultures they are describing. Part of Keshavarz' project, in this book, is to illustrate facets of Iranian culture that do not fit the vision that most Westerners have built from the media and popular memoirs.

Keshavarz describes the multiplicity and variance of Persian literature, with particular attention to the writings of women in the twentieth century, especially bestselling poets and novelists. She contrasts this with the idolization of Western literary figures the female lit students have in Reading Lolita in Tehran, mentioning a sequence in which one of the students secretly names her daughter Daisy after Daisy Miller because Daisy Miller is the first woman she's had to look up to in literature. Keshavarz points out that as a child, she herself looked up to Shirin, the lover, queen, and educator from the twelfth-century romantic epic Shirin and Khusrau. She describes the stunned grief of her entire high school class at the news of the early death of the poet Forrough Farrokhzad, a woman whose life and work were intimately familiar to every girl there, and points out that this kind of loving engagement by a large public with modern poetry pokes a serious hole in one of the main Orientalizing myths: the idea that, say, Iran has produced great works of art and culture, but that that was long ago in a glorious past, which is completely removed from the present and can never come again.

Keshavarz also attacks the Western critical myth that the novel never became a major form in Middle Eastern countries by offering a close reading of Shahrnoush Parsipur's Women Without Men (1989), a post-revolutionary and very popular work of feminist magical realism that I have to go out and read immediately.

And she goes through Reading Lolita in Tehran with a steady hand, pointing out inaccuracies, biases, rhetorical devices, emphases, hidden priorities-- it's one of the better takedowns of a book I've seen in a very long time. The ignorance of Iranian literature she proves would alone be stunning, but she also describes serious problems with the book's explanations of theology, and demonstrates via quotation that everything in the book associated with America has positive adjectives, and everything associated with genuine Islamic faith negative ones. I find her argument entirely convincing. In addition, she mentions several other works that she suggests are also part of the New Orientalist narrative, such as The Kite Runner, and hopes that other critics will go into detail about the differing ways various works fall into this pattern.

Jasmine and Stars has given me a significant list of Iranian writers, painters, filmmakers, and theologians from the post-revolutionary period to look up, and it's also provided a quite useful critical framework. Keshavarz speaks of the New Orientalism in the context of Islam, of course, but I think that either that term needs to stretch to cover work about other cultures or we need an exact equivalent. (If there is one, someone tell me! The Keshavarz is from 2007 but is still most of what I get when I Google the term; but I do not claim to be as up on theory as I might.)

Because, you remember that book by Amy Chua I reviewed the other day, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? If that's not a New Orientalist text, nothing is. That's a person claiming to have insider knowledge about a culture using that supposed insider knowledge to reinforce hegemonic discourse, and the fact that it's about parenting rather than about an actual country obscures this a little, but the basic pattern is there, including the fact that both Chua and the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi, are writing from an internalization of the hegemonic discourse because it is what they use to regulate their own experiences, rather than having a consciously stereotype-reinforcing agenda. Of course these books are bestsellers: they combine the appearance of presumptive authority with the reassurance of preaching to the choir.

But, as Keshavarz so beautifully explains, they're bad for you. Because, and this is starting to become my personal motto both for writing and for life in general, things are always more complex than that. Hearing the same myths over and over will not help anyone really develop empathy for people from other cultures.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Day before yesterday's review.

I was in fact looking for Wittgenstein's Remarks on Colour in the card catalog when I happened to see this listed. I had no notion it existed. Then after I jumped up and down grinning for a while, I think I kind of levitated to the relevant section of the stacks, and settled in for one of the most delightful hours I have ever had, consisting of Ludwig Wittgenstein telling me that Sir James George Frazer was a total idiot, for many original and awesome reasons. Oh little book where were you in my mythography classes. We always need more good reasons why Frazer was an idiot! It is an entire sub-field!

Anyway, for those of you who don't care about the history of the ongoing scholarly debates about the anthropology of myth (WHY DON'T YOU), this is also a really good book if you are, let us say, a fantasy writer and you would like to think more about the whys and wherefores of mythology and magic, because in completely debunking Frazer's explanations Wittgenstein also comes up with some good things I don't think anyone's said before.

SHININESS. )

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Day before yesterday's review.

I was in fact looking for Wittgenstein's Remarks on Colour in the card catalog when I happened to see this listed. I had no notion it existed. Then after I jumped up and down grinning for a while, I think I kind of levitated to the relevant section of the stacks, and settled in for one of the most delightful hours I have ever had, consisting of Ludwig Wittgenstein telling me that Sir James George Frazer was a total idiot, for many original and awesome reasons. Oh little book where were you in my mythography classes. We always need more good reasons why Frazer was an idiot! It is an entire sub-field!

Anyway, for those of you who don't care about the history of the ongoing scholarly debates about the anthropology of myth (WHY DON'T YOU), this is also a really good book if you are, let us say, a fantasy writer and you would like to think more about the whys and wherefores of mythology and magic, because in completely debunking Frazer's explanations Wittgenstein also comes up with some good things I don't think anyone's said before.

SHININESS. )
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
From Tuesday.

Thrud has a piece in this; unsurprisingly, it is about Osamu Tezuka. I recuse myself from saying what I think of it on the grounds that I proofread the thing.

The rest of it-- hm. Uneven, is the word I would use here. The good pieces can be quite good, but there is at least one piece so terrible that I have been having fantasies about hitting the author with a piece of rolled-up newspaper while just saying NO over and over again. The balance is tipped more towards the not-quite side of things, I'm afraid, but while I cannot necessarily recommend buying this, if you're interested in manga it would be worth checking out of a library. I'm not sure what to tell you if you're primarily interested in philosophy.

This book is one of a long-running series on popular culture and philosophy; its publisher has done volumes on everything from Bruce Springsteen to the iPod (Facebook and Philosophy is listed as in preparation). There is a companion volume on anime which I have not read. The series is an attempt at explanation and discussion of philosophy through the lens of whatever thing is the title of each book, and I would imagine that the success of this depends somewhat on how broad a thing that happens to be. Manga, of course, is an entire medium, which helps everything along a bit. The essays here fall into several categories: one, essays which analyze one or several manga by examining different philosophical viewpoints found in the work; two, essays which explain a philosophy (or several) by drawing examples from manga; three, essays which are perfectly reasonable manga criticism and have nothing particularly to do with philosophy; and four, essays which are sufficiently confusing or unrelated that I have no idea what they are doing here. The first two categories are clearly what the book is trying to do, the third is understandable and not only forgivable but happy-making, and the existence of the fourth troubles me.

Unfortunately, there's more than one in category four. )

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
From Tuesday.

Thrud has a piece in this; unsurprisingly, it is about Osamu Tezuka. I recuse myself from saying what I think of it on the grounds that I proofread the thing.

The rest of it-- hm. Uneven, is the word I would use here. The good pieces can be quite good, but there is at least one piece so terrible that I have been having fantasies about hitting the author with a piece of rolled-up newspaper while just saying NO over and over again. The balance is tipped more towards the not-quite side of things, I'm afraid, but while I cannot necessarily recommend buying this, if you're interested in manga it would be worth checking out of a library. I'm not sure what to tell you if you're primarily interested in philosophy.

This book is one of a long-running series on popular culture and philosophy; its publisher has done volumes on everything from Bruce Springsteen to the iPod (Facebook and Philosophy is listed as in preparation). There is a companion volume on anime which I have not read. The series is an attempt at explanation and discussion of philosophy through the lens of whatever thing is the title of each book, and I would imagine that the success of this depends somewhat on how broad a thing that happens to be. Manga, of course, is an entire medium, which helps everything along a bit. The essays here fall into several categories: one, essays which analyze one or several manga by examining different philosophical viewpoints found in the work; two, essays which explain a philosophy (or several) by drawing examples from manga; three, essays which are perfectly reasonable manga criticism and have nothing particularly to do with philosophy; and four, essays which are sufficiently confusing or unrelated that I have no idea what they are doing here. The first two categories are clearly what the book is trying to do, the third is understandable and not only forgivable but happy-making, and the existence of the fourth troubles me.

Unfortunately, there's more than one in category four. )
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Maureen Corrigan is the book reviewer for the NPR program Fresh Air, and a lit professor and writer of reviews for various publications. This is her memoir about reading and books and the things books have done to her life, good, bad, and indifferent.

In general there are two things that cause me to enjoy a memoir about reading (assuming it is at least moderately competently written). The first is the amount of insight the writer has into the whys and hows of their personal ways of reading, the reasons behind themselves as a reader; I tend to become annoyed with writers who settle on one explanation for their love of books and stick to it (especially if that reason is 'clearly it must have been escapism', Francis Spufford, I am looking at you). The second is the number of new-to-me books that the author makes sound interesting and worthwhile.

Corrigan is completely covered on that second front, because, bless her, she includes an entire separate list of the books recommended in her book, at the back, where you can find it easily, and it is a solid mix of things I have never heard of and things I have loved passionately for years, which bodes very well. I had been getting ready to get a piece of paper and a pen and go back through the entire text to note things down and I very much appreciate not having to do that.

As far as the first thing goes, she does the usual thing of weaving her own life and the books she was reading at the time together and discussing what effects the books had on her choices, and this is competently done, but she also does something I haven't seen in this genre before, which is that a pretty significant chunk of the book is devoted to actual interesting criticism. Apparently this trumps deep personal insights for me in terms of enjoyability. At any rate, she has some lovely close-reading work in here, and some thoughts on various genres that are original and insightful, and she's interested in many of the same things I am-- books about women, about aging, about work and other subjects not generally written about-- only her home genre is the mystery and not the fantastic, and so most of her examples are new to me. And glory be, she's a real feminist critic too, and a well-grounded one, cites Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic straight off and shares the heart-stopping terror over Charlotte Bronte's Villette that I have only previously seen among critics in Joanna Russ (seriously, there are ways in which Villette is the most frightening book I have ever read, period, end of sentence). She appears to have missed reading anything at all in fantasy or science fiction, which is enough to make one want to send her a huge pile of things poste restante, except that due to her radio celebrity people evidently do this to her all the time; but she is explicitly writing about female visions of utopia in twentieth-century American literature and oh there are things that could fit into her arguments.

Also, she read Gaudy Night while teaching at Bryn Mawr, which means she has all the same associations with it that I do, which Does Not Happen With Critics.

Honestly, my primary complaint about this book is that it's a memoir. Because as a memoir it is interesting, it is well-done, but it doesn't have the originality and free play of the criticism; I've seen things very much like it before. She's thought through her reasons for reading rather more thoroughly than many writers have, but still. I suspect this of being more publishable as a memoir than as a freestanding book of lit-crit using elements of memoir in portions of its argument-- I'm not even sure you can just publish generalist critical studies in a non-academic context right now, not when the point is the generalism and not a readily summarizable thesis statement. But I would cheerfully read stacks more of her critical essays, whereas, if I were told she'd written a more conventional autobiography, not so much.

If you read criticism for fun-- and if you don't, why don't you? it's the best way ever to pick up book recommendations, and to figure out which theorists you consider particularly pernicious, so that when people express fervent devotion to them at parties you can back away slowly-- if you read criticism for fun, you will not want to miss this. If you are an aficionado of the reader's memoir, it isn't terrible.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Maureen Corrigan is the book reviewer for the NPR program Fresh Air, and a lit professor and writer of reviews for various publications. This is her memoir about reading and books and the things books have done to her life, good, bad, and indifferent.

In general there are two things that cause me to enjoy a memoir about reading (assuming it is at least moderately competently written). The first is the amount of insight the writer has into the whys and hows of their personal ways of reading, the reasons behind themselves as a reader; I tend to become annoyed with writers who settle on one explanation for their love of books and stick to it (especially if that reason is 'clearly it must have been escapism', Francis Spufford, I am looking at you). The second is the number of new-to-me books that the author makes sound interesting and worthwhile.

Corrigan is completely covered on that second front, because, bless her, she includes an entire separate list of the books recommended in her book, at the back, where you can find it easily, and it is a solid mix of things I have never heard of and things I have loved passionately for years, which bodes very well. I had been getting ready to get a piece of paper and a pen and go back through the entire text to note things down and I very much appreciate not having to do that.

As far as the first thing goes, she does the usual thing of weaving her own life and the books she was reading at the time together and discussing what effects the books had on her choices, and this is competently done, but she also does something I haven't seen in this genre before, which is that a pretty significant chunk of the book is devoted to actual interesting criticism. Apparently this trumps deep personal insights for me in terms of enjoyability. At any rate, she has some lovely close-reading work in here, and some thoughts on various genres that are original and insightful, and she's interested in many of the same things I am-- books about women, about aging, about work and other subjects not generally written about-- only her home genre is the mystery and not the fantastic, and so most of her examples are new to me. And glory be, she's a real feminist critic too, and a well-grounded one, cites Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic straight off and shares the heart-stopping terror over Charlotte Bronte's Villette that I have only previously seen among critics in Joanna Russ (seriously, there are ways in which Villette is the most frightening book I have ever read, period, end of sentence). She appears to have missed reading anything at all in fantasy or science fiction, which is enough to make one want to send her a huge pile of things poste restante, except that due to her radio celebrity people evidently do this to her all the time; but she is explicitly writing about female visions of utopia in twentieth-century American literature and oh there are things that could fit into her arguments.

Also, she read Gaudy Night while teaching at Bryn Mawr, which means she has all the same associations with it that I do, which Does Not Happen With Critics.

Honestly, my primary complaint about this book is that it's a memoir. Because as a memoir it is interesting, it is well-done, but it doesn't have the originality and free play of the criticism; I've seen things very much like it before. She's thought through her reasons for reading rather more thoroughly than many writers have, but still. I suspect this of being more publishable as a memoir than as a freestanding book of lit-crit using elements of memoir in portions of its argument-- I'm not even sure you can just publish generalist critical studies in a non-academic context right now, not when the point is the generalism and not a readily summarizable thesis statement. But I would cheerfully read stacks more of her critical essays, whereas, if I were told she'd written a more conventional autobiography, not so much.

If you read criticism for fun-- and if you don't, why don't you? it's the best way ever to pick up book recommendations, and to figure out which theorists you consider particularly pernicious, so that when people express fervent devotion to them at parties you can back away slowly-- if you read criticism for fun, you will not want to miss this. If you are an aficionado of the reader's memoir, it isn't terrible.

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