A Little Barb


The NY Times Book Review runs these fluffy little highly edited interviews with writers (and celebrities pretending to be writers) every week. The questions are always the same, or almost the same & the whole thing is actually kind of tiresome, but I’m a sucker for writer interviews & occasionally one finds gold in a worked-out claim. That is the case this week with Ursula K. Le Guin. Asked what general she particularly enjoys reading and which she avoids, she responds:

I read mostly novels, any kind of novels, and poetry, and all kinds of nonfiction, especially some kinds of science, biographies, some history, and books about and by Native Americans, and Tierra del Fuego, and Darwinian adaptation — oh, give me a book and if it’s interesting, I’ll read it. Avoidance? At the moment, I tend to avoid fiction about dysfunctional urban middle-class people written in the present tense. This makes it hard to find a new novel, sometimes.

I love that response, especially the way she slips in the shiv in the last sentence. I read (& re-read) a lot of Le Guin earlier this year: though it’s mostly a matter of my own taste, I think she’s best when she’s writing what I think of as “evolutionary science fiction.” 1 She tends to leave me cold when she moves over into fantasy & the supernatural.

A Perfect Novel?

I have just finished reading John Williams’ Stoner. It’s one of those books I’ve been vaguely aware of for many years without feeling compelled to read it, but I came across a copy the other day, picked it up & was drawn very quickly into the precision of its language & perfection of its portrayals of stymied disappointment.

Tim Greider’s 2013 New Yorker essay on the novel begins:

In one of those few gratifying instances of belated artistic justice, John Williams’s “Stoner” has become an unexpected bestseller in Europe after being translated and championed by the French writer Anna Gavalda. Once every decade or so, someone like me tries to do the same service for it in the U.S., writing an essay arguing that “Stoner” is a great, chronically underappreciated American novel. (The latest of these, which also lists several previous such essays, is Morris Dickstein’s for the Times.) And yet it goes on being largely undiscovered in its own country, passed around and praised only among a bookish cognoscenti, and its author, John Williams, consigned to that unenviable category inhabited by such august company as Richard Yates and James Salter: the writer’s writer.

I am, then, a belated member, apparently, of the “bookish cognoscenti,” but a grateful one, for this is the closest thing to a perfect novel that I have read: in addition to the qualities mentioned above, the construction of the story–through the use of point of view & especially through the subtle presentation of the movement of time & consciousness–never once falters. Morris Dickstein’s 2007 NY Times essay begins:

Since academic novels usually focus on the nasty rivalries and inflated egos of their characters, they have served as vehicles for broad satire, not serious themes. One great exception is Willa Cather’s 1925 novel, “The Professor’s House.” Cather used the traditional calling of a scholar and the atrophy of his marriage to convey her own growing alienation from the modern world. Her novel has only one successor, another book that invokes the life of learning as a rebuke to the wasteful wars and cheap compromises of the wider world. John Williams’s “Stoner” is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.

All true. The point of view of the novel is easy to describe, but its effects difficult to convey. Written in the third-person, the narrator’s omniscience is limited to the title character’s consciousness; the framing is also retrospective & elegiac–the reader knows that the story is being told after Stoner’s death. And at maybe half-a-dozen points in the novel, the narrator leaps briefly into the future before going on with the largely chronological presentation of a single life, from young manhood to a premature death. That span of time makes the various incidents of William Stoner’s life symbolic. Realistically described, the events of the novel represent the turning points in a human life and–I think this is true–in many, if not all, human lives: intellectual awakening, love & the failure of love, ambition & the failure of ambition, resignation (retirement) without despair. Life is impossible, this novel says, but must be lived honestly, which is to say heroically.

He Hasn’t Been Posting Anything: Maybe He’s Been Reading

Going into summer with a sabbatical (& trip to Hanoi) on the far side of it, I haven’t had much writing mojo, though that feels like it’s about to change. I have been reading voraciously & indiscriminately, however:

The Brothers Karamazov: One of those big 19th century novels I never got around to reading until now. Is it as great as The Idiot? Probably, but I’m still more drawn to Myshkin than to any of the three Karamazov brothers. I’ve always wanted to write a poem with the line “I am not Prince Myshkin nor was meant to be,” but have never found a context for anything so arch.

Incomplete Nature by Terrence W. Deacon: One of those big philosophical books by a scientist that confronts the big problems that science would like to pretend have been solved or don’t matter. Deacon proposes, with a great deal of detail & a series of rigorous arguments, to show how mind emerges from nature. I wish an editor had been a little more strict with the prose, but after finishing this long book I put it aside for a week, then picked it up & read through it again.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler: Philip Marlowe at his most incisive & laconic. A work of genre fiction that confronts moral ambiguity as only a great work of literature can. The language is crisp & loaded with nuance. (This sounds like a book blurb because I’d have to write an entire essay to do justice to my admiration for Chandler’s novel.)

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré: Toby Bell, like all of le Carré’s good guys, is going to suffer terribly for doing the right thing, while the bastards who did the wrong thing will almost certainly find ways to slither to safety. It is le Carré’s genius to show the process by which an ordinary man (it’s almost always a man) achieves moral clarity, then to show how he will be punished for acting on that clarity.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson: Since undergraduate days I have had an equivocal relationship to Emerson (while absolutely loathing Thoreau). As an example of biography, Richardson’s volume seems a nearly perfect exemplar of the Big Bio genre, gracefully detailed but with strong narrative motion. Emerson was among the first Americans to really grapple with Cartesian dualism & while he comes down too close to Plato for me to find him convincing, he really made a run at finding how mind emerges from nature. Richardson’s portrait also frees Emerson from a lot of the Transcendentalist goo that has stuck to him over time.

Seveneves by by Neal Stephenson: I’ve only read one other Stephenson novel (Snow Crash), having given up on The Diamond Age because of the cloying cuteness of a central character & a general sense of undigested sentimentalism. Snow Crash invents a plausible near-future techtopia with characters as subtle as any in literary fiction; Seveneves also creates a believable world that makes the end of life on earth its dramatic backdrop. (Though in addition to the seven Eves & their eden, there is also a Noah’s Ark–more than one, actually. The action starts in the relatively near future, but then leaps mid-way some thousands of years into the future. Surprisingly, the plot survives this fast-forwarding. I’m hoping for a sequel.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson: Another space opera. The plot is pedestrian, characters flat, and the ending diffuse: as a novel, this book is a mess, but it is nevertheless compelling g as an argument for what might be called biological pluralism. Robinson argues that “life is a planetary phenomenon,” by which he means that organisms (including humans) cannot thrive–or even survive–in biospheres other than the one in which they evolved. Intersteller colonies will inevitably fail.


Buddha by Karen Armstrong

The problem with Armstrong’s little biography of Buddha is that the Buddha has no biography — that’s the whole point of being a Buddha. There are fragments of biographical material on Siddhartha Gotama, of course, & quite a lot of historical & cultural information about his place & time. That’s what Armstrong uses to write her “biography” of Buddha & though she lays this all out in her Introduction, she never really seems to understand the difference. But the more basic problems with the book are these: 1. Armstrong appears to have the sort of knowledge of Buddhism you’d get from taking a couple of undergraduate classes; 2. she has a thesis about the Axial Age that assumes a kind of religious universalism & that universalism pretty much has to erase Buddhism (& Christianity & Islam &Judaism& etc.) There is not much mention of the fact that Buddhism is the one non-theistic religious tradition to have emerged in the first century BCE. Not a very useful book for Buddhists because Armstrong doesn’t seem to “get” Buddhism & probably not very useful for non-Buddhists because the version of Buddhism presented here is filtered through the screen of a universalist ideology.

Cranking Out Sentences

How come cranks, who are full of bunk, so often take a “debunking” tone? I’m interested in sentences & where they come from & I was hopeful that Verlyn Klinkenborg’s little essay in the NY Times would shed some light on that deep question. But all that we find out reading the essay is that sentences come from inside you & that they have a mysterious quality called rhythm. Now, I’m a poet & even more interested in sentences’ rhythm than in their origins, but rhythm too remains undefined. So why did I then buy the Kindle edition of Mr. Klinkenborg’s book? Well, I’m always looking for little nuggets of writing wisdom for my students & I suppose I thought I might find out more about where sentences come from in the book than in the newspaper essay. The book, called Several Short Sentences about Writing, more than lives up to its name — it ought to be called Several Hundred Short Sentences about Writing. I didn’t actually count them, at least in part because I could not read more than about twenty pages. This book is mind-numbingly boring. Perhaps if you aspire to develop a sort of hectoring version of a Mr. Rogers prose style, you will find this book helpful. It is, quite literally, a series of short sentences that purport to be about writing but which are more about the author’s belief that everything you learned in school about writing is wrong. Except that you should learn to diagram sentences.1 There is, as far as I can tell, no actual argument ion the book, no sequence of ideas that add up to anything like an actual idea. Klinkenborg strives to be aphoristic, but just sounds peeved. And why is the text presented as lines of “poetry”? In the Kindle edition, at least, the series of sentences are each given their own typographical paragraph, but then first letters of lines that are not first letters of sentences are capitalized as they would be in some presentations of verse. This is not verse, so what is the point of this weirdly misused convention.

Someone once said that writing a bad review is like swerving so as to intentionally hit the chipmunk crossing the road in front of you & in general I no longer bother to write such pieces; but the author of this book is on the Editorial Board of the NY Times & people might actually think he can help them learn something about sentences. He can’t. Get Stanley Fish’s little book on sentences if you’re looking for advice from a Times writer. Fish can be a twit in his column, but he know more than a little about writing, including the writing of sentences. Or if you are really ambitious about your sentences, you could take a look at Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, or the even more elegant The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt, though this lasttitle, by a poet, is aimed more at poets & readers of poetry than the other books noted here. In any case,2 there are plenty of alternatives to the hectoring, “debunking” & ultimately boring advice of Several Short Sentences about Writing.