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Posts Tagged ‘literary theory

The Laura Miller Interview: B-Sides and Outtakes

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The independent bookstore McNally Jackson, located in SoHo, New York, features a regular series called “Conversations on Practice” hosted by author and musician Glenn Kurtz. Kurtz, an excellent conversationalist, invites fellow writers to sit down with him to discuss their life and work. These are some of the most engaging nights going on in New York and Brooklyn’s thriving literary scene.

The other month Salon’s book critic Laura Miller was the guest. As a fledgling reviewer and interviewer, listening to an intimate conversation about Laura’s 20 years of experience in the field and her approach to the craft was of personal interest. 45 minutes flew, not seeming nearly long enough, and I was left with more questions than I’d had walking in.

Laura was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule—she has two deadlines a week—to let me pick her brain. The final version of the interview ran in The Rumpus last week; because of space, here are a few things that didn’t make it in:

In The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia you say, “A critic has to write as well as read, and while writing about a book can reveal things you’d never get from simply reading it, it can also make reading a less immediate and visceral experience.” When reading a book in anticipation of writing a review, what do you look for that you might normally pass over if reading for pleasure?

Key facts, like dates, names, places — Were they college freshmen when they first met, or seniors? At USC or UCLA? — that sort of thing. I had to overcome my tendency to skim over paragraphs with lots of capitalized words. I know I’m going to need certain facts when I sit down to write the piece, even if they aren’t the sort of thing I ordinarily dwell on.

I assume you have a lot of say in the books you choose to review for Salon. How much control do you have? Any considerations you keep in mind when deciding what to review?

Almost total. However, I do need to keep an eye on the readership for the various pieces I write, which is so easy to measure online. That’s one reason why I review more nonfiction than fiction, about three to one. I like the two genres equally, but if you could see a graph comparing the readership of my review column over the course of a month, you’d see a little mountain for most of the nonfiction reviews and barely a bump for the fiction. My employers don’t harangue me to write pieces that generate more traffic, but they don’t hire me to write pieces that only 5000 people are going to read, either.

How does reading and reviewing fiction differ from reading and reviewing non-fiction?

As a general rule, the average reader of, say, Salon is much more interested in nonfiction than in fiction. Even if a nonfiction book isn’t very well written, readers can often learn something from it, and even if they never actually read the book, they can still learn things from the review. People like learning things! So while a review of a work of fiction absolutely must discuss the book as an aesthetic object, often readers are perfectly happy to read a nonfiction review that basically decants the most interesting parts of the book and serves as an alternative to actually reading it.

Are you able to read a book without your critic-mind infiltrating?

The argument I make in my book is about the value of getting beyond the idea that our initial reading experiences are Edenic and that the eventual growth of our critical faculties represents a fall from grace or innocence. There’s a further stage of growth as a reader in which you can experience both the pleasure of getting lost in a book and the awareness of the book as a work of art. You can have both experiences at the same time, without the diminishment of either one. Actually, reading isn’t the only area of life in which this can happen; it’s one of the benefits of getting older, if you can manage it. You see experiences in many layers at once. But you do have to really work at it to get to that point. It takes practice.

What was the last book you read that used symbolism well?

Pretty much every good work of fiction does this. The most recent really good novel I read was “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides, but I suppose most readers would not peg that book as particularly symbolic. So, off the top of my head: the way that fertility serves as the epitome of female power and vulnerability at the same time in Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder.”

Read Laura’s reviews, essays, and interviews at Salon
Learn more about The Magician’s Book
Buy The Magician’s Book from Indiebound
Visit Glenn Kurtz’s website
If you’re in the New York City area, you should check out McNally Jackson’s events

Written by Gabrielle

November 1, 2011 at 5:50 am

On the Shelf: What’s a Bestseller?, Ed Champion Recommends, and Short Stories for a Busy Life

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The summer issue of Bookforum features a collection of critical essays about bestselling books. Ruth Franklin, literary critic and senior editor at The New Republic, discusses the history of the infamous list and book critic for the Washington Post Michael Dirda talks about how bestselling aspirations of publishers and authors affect the literary scene.Ruth Franklin begins her piece with a dose of humor and poignancy, “The term best seller has always been a misnomer. Fast seller would be more appropriate, since the pace of sales matters as much as the quantity.”

She looks into where the lists get their numbers from: the New York Times bases its numbers on approximately four thousand unnamed booksellers, the Wall Street Journal uses the respected industry source Nielsen BookScan, which grabs its numbers from three-quarters of the nation’s bookstores, and IndieBound goes by what the independent bookstores are selling., somewhat misleading, is based on orders not actual sales and is updated hourly. After this bit of technical background, Ruth dives right into the cultural history:

“If people look to literature to explain themselves to themselves, then the popular novelists of the past, whose books once lined the shelves of every well-appointed middle-class home, can tell us a lot about the preoccupations of the people who read them. The story that emerges from the novels that triggered national obsessions constitutes a map of the mainstream—and its changing boundaries over the years.”

“The book business began to change in the ’70s. Literary novels were still a regular feature during this era, with Ragtime, Sophie’s Choice, and Humboldt’s Gift all appearing on the list. . . . But if the list was not yet as mass-market-heavy as it would become in the ’80s and ’90s, there was nonetheless a marked decline in the literary level that reflects the changing marketplace.”

“A combination of factors brought about the homogenization of the best-seller list that began in the late ’70s and continues today. First, consumers’ shopping patterns changed: Readers who had once depended on the Book of the Month Club to supply them with popular fiction now could find discounted hardcovers at mall retailers like Waldenbooks. Then the ‘superstores’ pioneered by Barnes & Noble began to edge independents out of the market, which made publishers less inclined to publish the quirkier fiction in which the smaller bookstores specialized. Meanwhile, the conglomeration of publishing houses under larger and larger umbrellas meant that profits were often managed by distant executives who prioritized the bottom line over promoting literary culture, making editors less likely than ever to take risks on anything beyond the mainstream.”

You can listen to her discuss her research on ABC Radio National’s Book Show.

Michael Dirda pulls no punches, opening with “However you refer to it, list is a disaster for literary and general culture.” He goes on to explain, “I think it’s bad for readers, bad for publishing, and bad for culture. Above all, despite appearances, the best-seller list isn’t populist; it’s elitist.” He feels that if both bestseller lists and tables were to disappear “People would spend more time browsing a bookstore’s stock . . . they would actively engage with a greater portion of our literary culture” and that readers “might even discuss their tastes with the shop’s owner or staff, who would actually recommend a few appropriate titles.”

Echoing sentiments that can be heard from a few authors these days, he continues “In the past, a decent author photo, the solicitation of a few blurbs, and an occasional bookstore reading were all that a writer was expected to do to promote his or her work. No longer. You need an author website, Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube video, and blog to which you contribute posts every day.” In the end he offers some sage advice: “Think outside the list.”

Where do you find your next book? Who do you trust for suggestions? If you’re lucky enough to have independent bookstores in your town or city do you notice a difference between the books they carry and what the box stores display on their tables?

I’m fortunate to have great independent stores in my area—and to be honest, my local Barnes & Noble is large enough to carry more than the average fair compared to their less-trafficked counterparts. I’m also lucky to have access to, what I’ll call, professional readers who are up on what’s new and what’s great—inside and outside of the bestseller lists. One such person who I spent a Friday evening with at my local indie, WORD, for their Literary Karaoke night was Ed Champion, host of The Bat Segundo Show, a literary podcast, and editor of Ed Rants, a literary website. I’d mentioned that I was on a science fiction kick—no surprise to those who follow my blog—and he picked out two of his favorites. They are, in no particular order:

Spaceman Blues: A Love Song by Brian Francis Slattery
The publisher describes it as “a literary retro-pulp science-fiction-mystery-superhero novel, the debut of a true voice of the future, and a cult classic in the making.” If it’s as fun as the cover, it should be a great read.

You can listen to Ed’s interview with Brian in 2007 after the book was published. You can read an excerpt on Brian’s site.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
This biopunk novel is set in a future Thailand where the entire global economy is built on calories; where the heroine, Emiko, is a “windup girl,” a genetically modified being created by the Japanese as a toy. Lev Grossman of TIME magazine, in his roundup of top ten fiction for 2009, called Bacigalupi “a worthy successor to William Gibson” and described the novel as “cyberpunk without computers.” Boing Boing called it “an exciting story about industrial espionage, civil war, and political struggle, filled with heart-thudding action sequences, sordid sex, and enough technical speculation for two lesser novels.” The Windup Girl won both the Hugo and Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2010.

Ed also interviewed Paolo. You can listen to it here.

Another book that caught my attention this week, which is not science fiction, was:

Ladies and Gentlemen: Stories by Adam Ross
Acclaimed author of Mr. Peanut is back with a book of short fiction billed as a “darkly com­pelling col­lec­tion of sto­ries about broth­ers, lon­ers, lovers, and lives full of good inten­tions, mis­un­der­stand­ings, and obscured motives.” One of Adam’s biggest supporters, Rebecca of the wildly popular Book Lady’s Blog, says: “this collection establishes Ross as a writer unconstrained by format, one who doesn’t need the bells and whistles, twists and turns, regardless of how skillfully he deploys them.”

You can listen to Adam discuss his collection on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show.

What’s on your shelf this week?

Written by Gabrielle

July 21, 2011 at 5:44 am

On the Shelf :: a Reading Roundup

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There’s something very human about making lists. We’re always looking forward; we always have something on our minds. For me, along with all my fellow compulsive readers, it’s books. It takes all my willpower to leave a bookstore without buying something—and every so often I succeed; but it’s not without taking a picture of a cover or making a mental note of one more book I’d like to read. Here are a few that have been on my mind, or on my shelf, for some time now that are at the forefront of my reading list. Feel free to add them to your own.

Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth
I’ve seen Deb read twice for her book and both times she was downright funny and adorable. Revolution has gotten an incredible amount of praise in all the right places. Revolution is a memoir of the year Unferth took off to join the revolution in Central America. It was 1987; she was 18 and in love with a George, the philosophy major and reason for her newfound solidarity with the southern hemisphere.

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays by David Foster Wallace
I still haven’t read DFW and am somewhat ashamed to admit this, although not as ashamed as those who say they loved (loved!) Infinite Jest should feel. I’m convinced those people are either pretentious or lying, or both. Ok, I kid, don’t flame me. But seriously, I still haven’t read him and I feel like I’m missing out on an important piece of the literary universe. Consider the Lobster, I’ve been told, is his best nonfiction work so it seems like a good place to start.

Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The way I’ve heard this described it sounds like it has some worthwhile philosophical element to it, like Milan Kundera’s works, which I loved in my 20s. It makes sense since it’s a French novel and those people sure do love their philosophy. From what I understand it’s a novel about a cleaning lady who pretends to be ignorant meanwhile she’s a brilliant autodidact. I’ve picked it up off the Europa display about three times now. Next time I just might walk out the door with it—after paying, of course.

Mythologies by Roland Barthes
Speaking of French philosophers. I hear this is Barthes’ most accessible book. Born in 1915, Barthes was part of the Structuralist school founded in France in the 1950s and 60s that believed human culture could be studied through its use of signs. Mythologies, as the title would lead one to believe, is a look at modern (in Barthes’ time) myths.

Embassytown by China Mieville
This guy is huge in my area. China is a British fantasy writer (and a very attractive one at that). Embassytown is his latest and it sounds very scifi, dystopian. Everyone who I respect is raving about him so I think it’s high time I picked him up.

Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
With the HBO series going on, this one is on my radar. My friend Stephanie, who’s a big fantasy fan, says that this is trashy genre at its best.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Um, Neil Gaiman. Need I say more?

an essay on China and his work (2009) at TheMillions
a review of Embassytown at TheMillions (staff pick)
a review of Revolution at TheMillions
Deb Olin Unferth on The Bat Segundo Show
Neil Gaiman’s website

Written by Gabrielle

June 3, 2011 at 8:46 pm

translation matters :: borges edition

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the first time i gave any thought to literary translations was when a friend bemoaned her inability to read french. she felt she missing the true experience of a novel she was reading. for a while i was convinced that my translated dostoyevsky was inferior and the author possibly not worth reading until i mastered Cyrillic. since the initial shock of realizing that what was in my hands was not the author’s original work, i’ve come to trust the art of translation—especially those of well-regarded translators. translations matter, translators matter, and for those who don’t have time to master multiple languages, they are essential. there is no  lack of discussion within the literary community on this theme and i always enjoy hearing what authors and critics have to say.

i recently came across the essay of jorges luis borges, ‘two ways to translate,’ in his nonfiction collection, on writing. here’s an excerpt where he discusses two approaches to translation:

Universally, I suppose there are two types of translations: one is the practice of literality, the other, paraphrase. The former corresponds to the Romantic mentality, the second to the classical. I’d like to explain this statement in order to diminish its aura of paradox. The classical way of thinking is interested only in the work of art, never the artist. The classics believe in absolute perfection and seek it out. They despise localisms, oddities, contingencies. Poetry must be a beauty similar to the moon: eternal, dispassionate, impartial. The metaphor, for example, is not considered by classicism as either emphasis or personal vision, but as the attainment of poetic truth, which, once engineered, can be (and should be) seized by all. Each literature possesses a repertory of these truths, and translators know how to take advantage of it and to pour the original not only into words but into the syntax and usual metaphors of his language. This procedure seems sacrilegious to us, and sometimes it is. Our condemnation, nevertheless, suffers from optimism, since most metaphors are no longer representations, but merely mechanical. Nobody, upon hearing the adverb “spiritually” thinks of breath of air, or of the spirit; nobody sees any difference (not even of stress) between the phrases “dreadfully poor” and “poor as a church mouse.”

Inversely, Romantics never seek the work of art, but rather the man himself. Man (as we already know) is neither timeless nor an archetype, he’s Jack So-and-So, not John Doe; he possesses a way of being, a body, an origin; he does something, or nothing, has a present, past, future, and even his death is his own. Beware of twisting one word of any he wrote!

That reverence for the I, the irreplaceable human difference that is any I, justifies literal translations.

Written by Gabrielle

February 18, 2011 at 6:13 am

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