Category Archive • Literature
October 20, 2004
Neal Stephenson interview

Malcolm Hutty emailed me, urging me to take note of this interview with Neal Stephenson, which I certainly will.

And Michael Jennings has already posted this choice quote from it at Samizdata, which deserves to be anthologised for at least the next several hundred years:

NealStephenson.jpg

Because she'd never heard of me, she made the quite reasonable assumption that I was a Dante writer – one so new or obscure that she'd never seen me mentioned in a journal of literary criticism, and never bumped into me at a conference. Therefore, I couldn't be making any money at it. Therefore, I was most likely teaching somewhere. All perfectly logical. In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she'd never heard of me was because I was famous.

This guy is also impressed. (UPDATE: As is she.)

This Stephenson interview is the kind of thing, I think, that people start copying, pasting and blog-posting about before they've got even half way through it.

The Stephenson picture above, plus another interview, are to be found here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:52 PM
October 11, 2004
Peter Padfield on the early years of the English novel

I have just done a review for Samizdata of a book by Peter Padfield about the history of Maritime Supremacy. What makes this book interesting is that it contains both blow by blow accounts of sea battles and a succession of o sketches of what these battles meant for the lives of those on land. Britain, of course, had its time of maritime supremacy, and its own highly distinctive sort of liberal, capitalist culture. Here is Padfield's account of the beginnings of the English novel. I do not personally enjoy reading the great works of fiction of the past, my fictional tastes being contemporary, and middlebrow if that. But I know that I am missing a great deal, and I do at least like to know about these works, and about the people who wrote them. So bluffers guide paragraphs like these are something that I especially appreciate.

The novel was an important vehicle. Its development had been foreshadowed even before William's revolution by the poet and popular playwright Aphra Behn, the first woman in England to earn her living by the pen. Her Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave (1688) told the story of a Negro of noble descent whom she had known while living in Suriname (now Dutch Guiana). Besides lighting the way for the future novel, Oroonoko, which was adapted for the theatre and played successfully for many years, was an important influence for change in the generally uncomprehending attitudes towards Negroes and the institution of European slavery.

Daniel Defoe took the imaginative embellishment of real persons and events a stage further in The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), often regarded as the first English novel. The son of a prosperous small businessman and religious Dissenter of Cripplegate, London, Defoe was also a living example of how trade had bred a clamorous and articulate middle class. His own attempts to set up as a merchant failed spectacularly, ending in the Fleet prison for bankrupts, and obliging him, like Aphra Behn, to earn his living from writing. Nonetheless, he remained a prolific publicist for trade, which he called his 'beloved subject'. He had previously taken part in the rebellion against James in the cause of both trade and religious dissent, and had written a verse eulogy of William of Orange as The True-Born Englishman – an illustration of the depth of the historical tide William had ridden, which must surely have brought about revolutionary change very soon with or without the 'Protestant wind' down-Channel.

Defoe's most famous protagonist, Crusoe, had made two slaving voyages to Africa before setting himself up as a planter in Brazil; there he told his Portuguese neighbours how easy it was on the coast of Guinea to buy Negroes 'for trifles – such as beads, toys, knives, scissors, hatchets, bits of glass and the like', as a result of which they persuaded him to guide an expedition to Africa and bring back slaves for them. On the way, he was shipwrecked and cast ashore on a deserted island; perhaps Defoe intended a moral. Basing Crusoe's subsequent experiences loosely on those of a real castaway, Alexander Selkirk, Defoe entered his mind so powerfully and portrayed his lonely struggle in such straightforward prose the book entered popular mythology and enjoyed immediate and lasting success at home and in continental Europe. Encouraged, he wrote a second novel, taking his readers into the mind of a girl, Moll Flanders, coping with even less promising circumstances in a debtors jail.

The next original genius of the English novel, Samuel Richardson, also came from the middle classes. He was a printer who had married well and established one of the best presses in London. In Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), he used the device of letters written by his characters to tell the story of a maid resisting extreme attempts at seduction from her former employer's son, until eventually the young man marries her; whereupon she embarks on a second, equally successful, struggle to disarm those who disapprove of the misalliance. This very moral and sentimental story and the novel method of its telling won extraordinary acclamation, and Richardson followed it in similar epistolary style with Clarissa: or the History of a Young Lady. Here the heroine's family attempts to force her into marriage for money; in her refusal and subsequent adventures, Clarissa exhibits more sublime moral virtues even than Pamela.

Meanwhile Richardson had provoked Henry Fielding, most accomplished and witty of the pioneers of the novel, into the genre. Fielding came from the gentry, but while studying at Leiden University his allowance had been stopped and like Defoe he had turned to his pen to earn a living, principally as a satirical playwright. In 1737 he lampooned Walpole so savagely that the Prime Minister retaliated by steering through an Act of Parliament requiring all new plays to be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain before being produced. It was a small dent in British liberties – plays could still be printed and published – but put an end to Fielding's career in the theatre. He studied law to become a barrister. When Richardson published Pamela, however, Fielding was evidently so struck by what he regarded as its sentimentality and prim morality – although, like Robinson Crusoe, the novel was based on a true story - he produced two parodies of the type. The second, Joseph Andrews, in which the protagonist, a footman, resists all attempts of a well-born lady to seduce him, was a masterpiece of observation and irony which took on its own life; together with two later novels by Fielding, Tom Jones (1749) and Amelia (1751), it established a pattern in plotting, characterization and authentic contemporary setting that was to dominate English fiction thereafter, and indeed spread across continental Europe.

These trailblazing books were written by middle-class or professional men, and won a huge middle-class readership which identified with the realistic characters and social settings depicted. The prominence accorded women is striking. Apart from Robinson Crusoe, the extraordinarily popular novels mentioned all had strong, admirable women as the central character or in a major role: a beautiful, high-mettled girl, Sophia Western, inspired Tom Jones's odyssey; like Amelia in Fielding's subsequent book, she was based upon the novelist's own beloved wife. This was an accurate reflection of the strong position women enjoyed in society, despite their unequal legal status, and another echo of the United Provinces of the previous century, where, as noted, women of all classes moved and expressed themselves freely as individuals, enjoying a far greater measure of independence than anywhere else in Europe at that time.

The novels, plays and journals were products of a free, trading society – their success or failure depending upon volume of sales – and also agents of change, undermining, often none too subtly, aristocratic or dogmatic assumptions, replacing them with more bourgeois attitudes. In the same way other branches of art were metamorphosed into new, more popular and subversive forms as they emerged from patronage into the market place.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:57 PM
September 06, 2004
To be or wot

I am still ploughing through more tons of mostly pointless paper, chucking most of it out, combining a mid life crisis with spring cleaning (in the autumn). And while doing some more of this today, I came across this bit of paper.

I made it in the mid-eighties. I had done some pieces for the IEA's journal, Economic Affairs, and had been on the receiving end of the editorial attentions of the IEA's Editorial Director Arthur Seldon. I hugely admire Seldon, and for as long as I was the Editorial Director of the Libertarian Alliance he was a role model.

But I was pissed off. So I typed out To Be Or Not To Be, and then said, right I'm Arthur Seldon. What happens? About five minutes later, there it was.

2beornot2be1.gif

The IEA didn't use this in the form you see, as I had originally done it. They re-scribbled it. Amazing. Even when being sent up, they couldn't resist behaving in the manner being lampooned.

Whatever. This probably says more about me than it does about Seldon, and it will not amaze you to learn that I have never made much money writing for … well, money. But I think this bit of paper speaks for every hack writer who ever had his stuff yanked around by an interventionist editor, regardless of the mere merits of the matter. Anyway, enjoy. I tried to get it so you could click to get it bigger, but I couldn't get this to work. Hope you can read it as is.

By the way, the title I have given to this posting is a combination of two things. First, "To be or what" is a send up version of Sylvester Stallone doing Hamlet wittily invented by the actress Betty Thomas, who was once upon a time one of the cops in Hill Street Blues. I love that she actually had Stallone shortening the original, which you would have thought wasn't possible. And I have changed "what" to "wot" in deference to Seldon, who really did use this word. It expressed his overwhelming desire that matters be made clear, and the IEA was all the better for it under his editorial leadership.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:05 PM
July 23, 2004
A word is born

I heard on the television this evening that apparently Charles Dickens invented the word "boredom".

Interesting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:44 PM
July 20, 2004
David Baddiel on Richard and Judy

BaddielSecretPurposes.jpgRichard and Judy, for the benefit of those cursed by having to live outside England, are a TV husband and wife act, and they now have an afternoon chat spot on Channel 4, which I often watch. Today, I caught them interviewing David Baddiel, who is better known as Frank Skinner's comic other half.

I sort of knew that Baddiel is some sort of book writer, but I didn't know that he is actually quite a noted novelist. Today, he was plugging – very interestingly – his latest novel, The Secret Purposes, which is about the many thousands of Germans, almost all of them Jews taking refuge in Britain from the Nazis, who were interned during the Second World War on the Isle of Man. All this was entirely new to me, I can tell you. Baddiel made it clear that the conditions they lived in were very benign, and in no way to be compared with the horrors of camps and ghettoes on the Continent. Indeed, he recounted that his German Jewish Grandfather, who was one of these internees and whose recollections got Baddiel started towards writing a story based in these events, was actually quite nostalgic for the time he spent there.

But the other interesting thing about all this is the way that Richard and Judy are doing an Oprah, and plugging books with their TV show. They were enthusiastic about this book, and this is bound to boost its sales.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:54 PM
July 12, 2004
Literature in decline

I'm sure the same thing is happening here. And how could I possibly complain? Literature is conspicuous here by its absence.

The populace of the United States may be divided by race, age, gender, region, income, and educational level. But according to a report released on Thursday by the National Endowment for the Arts, there is at least one thing that brings us all together: No group reads as much literature as it once did. If present trends continue, our aliteracy will only deepen over the next generation. After all, the steepest decline in reading has occurred among young adults, ages 18 to 24.

I don't think this is scandalous. I just think it's life. The question is not: why is this happening? The question is: how come it took so long? I mean, if you spend an entire century perfecting how to tell stories in the cinema, and then in the living room with domestic cinema machines, why would you expect everyone to carry on reading literature as if nothing had happened?

To me the surprise is how many, many people do still love to read.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:52 PM
June 17, 2004
Bill Bryson on the History of Nearly Everything – including Max Planck and J. Willard Gibbs

A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is Bill Bryson's latest book, needs no plug from a mere blogger like me. But I am going to plug it anyway. I am in the middle of reading it, and am enjoying it hugely.

BrysonEverything.jpgI don't just admire the book itself; I further hugely admire Bill Bryson's decision to write it in the first place. This decision now makes perfect sense, but when Bryson first embarked on this project he must have felt that he was taking quite a risk.

After all, this man is not a science writer; he's a travel writer.

But think about it for a moment. How do you now write a book about the history of science? Anyone attempting this faces huge problems. There is just so damn much of it, for starters. And then, there is the problem that however hard you try to explain it all, there are great chunks of it that just won't make sense to most people, no matter what you say, and no matter how perfectly you may understand it all yourself.

Above all, books that attempt to popularise science can be deadly dull. All those abstractions. All those fancy semi- or in-comprehensible ideas and diagrams and graphs and long, long words. How do you keep your reader's attention?

When you think about it, an expert travel writer is the ideal person to tackle all these problems. Rabitting on about foreign countries you have visited is, notoriously, a habit which can empty rooms which were at first jam packed with your most devoted friends. Successful travel writers have mastered the subtle art of not being travel bores, because they had to, to even get published. They know how to sprinkle engaging anecdotes into their narrative. They know how to enliven the journey with intriguing little trips down entertaining byways. They know how to keep you interested and amused and diverted.

Faced with the fact that they don't fully understand the place that they are writing about, they don't panic and treat this as a scandalous anomaly. On the contrary, they expect to be somewhat confused, and to be able to tell only some of the story. The Innocent Abroad is just the guy to tell you as much as you are ever going to get about General Relativity or the nuances of the Big Bang, and such a guide to the territory can supply further insights into the nature of science that a more seasoned observer of science might be too close to observe. So Bryson is the ideal man for this job.

It also helps enormously that the job is also just what Bryson himself has been needing.

Frankly, Bryson's books have been (a) that fantastically, superbly, insanely great book about small town America, called The Lost Continent (what was insanely great about it for me was probably that it was the first Bryson book I read), and then (b) several other travel books which are pretty great but not quite as great as The Lost Continent. Oh yes, and (c) there was that (those?) quite good book(s?) about the history of language. All good stuff. But, frankly, the travel books in particular were becoming something of a stale formula. With, as I say, the wisdom of hindsight, we can see that in Science, Bryson has at last discovered a new continent worthy of his whole attention. With Science, the Bryson formula is renewed and reinvigorated.

Risk? New, unexplored territory? A step into the unknown and a stab in the dark? This is exactly what Bryson has actually been missing for some time.

On the front cover, John Waller of the Guardian says that this book is a great "rough guide" to science, which shows that Bryson's publishers also entirely understand the travel guide nature of his achievement, and the appropriateness of this way of tackling the subject.

So anyway, here's a chunk from A Short History of Everything that struck me as especially entertaining.

In 1875, when a young German in Kiel named Max Planck was deciding whether to devote his life to mathematics or to physics, he was urged most heartily not to choose physics because the breakthroughs had all been made there. The coming century, he was assured, would be one of consolidation and refinement, not revolution. Planck didn't listen. He studied theoretical physics and threw himself body and soul into work on entropy, a process at the heart of thermodynamics, which seemed to hold much promise for an ambitious young man. In 1891 he produced his results and learned to his dismay that the important work on entropy had in fact been done already, in this instance by a retiring scholar at Yale University named J. Willard Gibbs.

Gibbs is perhaps the most brilliant person most people have never heard of. Modest to the point of near-invisibility, he passed virtually the whole of his life, apart from three years spent studying in Europe, within a three-block area bounded by his house and the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut. For his first ten years at Yale he didn't even bother to draw a salary. (He had independent means.) From 1871, when he joined the university as a professor, to his death in 1903, his courses attracted an average of slightly over one student a semester. His written work was difficult to follow and employed a private form of notation that many found incomprehensible. But buried among his arcane formulations were insights of the loftiest brilliance.

In 1875-8, Gibbs produced a series of papers, collectively titled On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances, which dazzlingly elucidated the thermodynamic principles of, well, nearly everything –
'gases, mixtures, surfaces, solids, phase changes ... chemical reactions, electrochemical cells, sedimentation, and osmosis', to quote William H. Cropper. In essence, what Gibbs did was show that thermodynamics didn't apply simply to heat and energy at the sort of large and noisy scale of the steam engine, but was also present and influential at the atomic level of chemical reactions. Gibbs's Equilibrium has been called 'the Principia of thermodynamics', but for reasons that defy speculation Gibbs chose to publish these landmark observations in the Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, a journal that managed to be obscure even in Connecticut, which is why Planck did not hear of him until too late.

I can't resist adding this next bit, about Planck, which is only a footnote. I have read a lot of scientific popularisations over the years, but this was totally new to me:

Planck was often unlucky in life. His beloved first wife died early, in 1909, and the younger of his two sons was killed in the First World War. He also had twin daughters whom he adored. One died giving birth. The surviving twin went to look after the baby and fell in love with her sister's husband. They married and two years later she died in childbirth. In 1944, when Planck was eighty-five, an Allied bomb fell on his house and he lost everything – papers, diaries, a lifetime of accumulations. The following year his surviving son was caught in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and executed.

How's that for bad luck?

It helps greatly that you really feel that Bryson has done his preparatory reading really thoroughly, and that all these out-of-the-way facts that he has dug up really are facts. I certainly haven't spotted any wrong notes so far.

I've only begun to enumerate the many virtues of this book, which is only appropriate since I have only begun to read it. As I read on, I will doubtless have further praise to heap upon it.

But now that Bryson has finished this book, what next? How about a history of art? Maybe that's a bit too obvious a follow up. But I would love to read it, as I'm sure would millions of others.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:49 PM
March 16, 2004
Crime and Punishment - and cheating

Yesterday evening I gave a speech about culture, etc., which seemed to go well enough. However, during it, I overheard myself say something which I had never heard myself say before.

This was in answer to a question about which was my favourite movie, and which was my favourite novel. I started by saying that, thank goodness, we don't have to decide.

But one should not entirely dodge such questions, and I found myself replying that two of my favourite films were: Some Like It Hot, which appears on lots of people's lists of best movies ever: and: a far less well known darkly comic thriller called Into The Night. If you follow that link you will find that perhaps this is one of those cult favourites that lots of people like, on the quiet. I'd forgotten that the cast is so full of movie directors, which is a sure sign of cultness.

Metropolitan never got a mention.

But next came the bit that I really wasn't expecting. I said that as I get older I realise that there are great things (I think I mentioned the "towers of Chicago"), and great works of art, that I will never experience, great novels I will never read. And I then said that of the novels that I have not yet read, the one I am most determined that I shall read, before I die, is Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky.

And that's true. For some reason I have got it into my head that this is one of those artistic pinnacles that I simply must find or make the time to scale. Someone or something seems to have convinced me that this is one of those great works of art that I simply must not go to my grave in serious ignorance of.

Where did I get this notion from? I really don't know. Just a lot of people telling me that it is supremely great, together with the fact that it is not that enormous, by the standards of Great Literature.

My procedure when wishing to acquaint myself with great works of literature is not to just read them, but rather to grab hold of as many movie of TV adaptations of the work in question, and get a rough idea of the story, and of the main characters, into my head. Then, I dip in among the book itself, as if doing a jigsaw puzzle, assembling a bit of the picture here, and a bit of it there, and gradually joining up the bits until I have the whole thing read. After which, if I really like it, I continue to dip.

This is because I find literature really, really difficult to read, in the manner enjoyed by its first readers. Without visual aids like these, I just haven't the patience, the attention span, or the sheer concentrated application to get through these things. Even the longest and most intractable piece of classical music (a Wagner opera for example) only lasts a few hours. A great book can occupy me for weeks.

I suppose the truth is that I don't like literature very much. I admire it. I realise that it matters, and I want to at least experience the occasional literary masterpiece, just to know how that feels. But the process of ploughing through hundreds of pages of prose while trying nevertheless to keep in mind exactly who all these people are and what they have all been doing is beyond me.

Perhaps I am actually a very slow reader. Maybe that is my problem. I don't know. But one way or another, my choices are, either find out about these great books with the help of the twentieth century movie and TV industries, or: remain for ever in ignorance of them.

Commenters are of course free to inform me that I am mistaken about the nature of my own pleasures and capacities, and that I would greatly enjoy reading right through this or that great novel (without any help from Hollywood or the BBC), based on the notion that because the commenter enjoyed reading this great novel, so would I,if only I were to do it. But the comments I now actively seek are suggestions for who has done a really good (movie or TV - available on DVD) adaptation of the one and only Crime and Punishment.

I've just done some googling in connection with C&P, for the first time, and I rather think that this might help.

Maybe it is cheating, but in this particular matter I either cheat, or flunk entirely.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:59 PM
March 12, 2004
Friedrich Blowhard on art as the violation of reality

I'm afraid I can't read everything the 2 Blowhards produce. But this definitely struck a chord, on the subject of fantasy in art. Friedrich Blowhard had just been with his pre-teen daughter to see a film aimed at the pre-teen market, because the events in it were (presumably) the stuff of pre-teen fantasy. Friedrich was knee-jerk scornful, but then thought about it a bit more:

But as I was leaving the theater, and starting to smugly dismiss this as merely a piece of commercial wish-fulfillment, I suddenly had a disabling thought: is it really fair to dismiss any movie - or any work of art - for being nothing but an unrealistic fantasy? What is it supposed to be - a realistic fantasy? To the extent that one’s emotions are involved, don’t elements of fantasy, of projection and of sympathy invade the act of watching even a surveillance camera tape?

Granted, I suppose it is possible to dismiss a film or a work of art for the sin of being somebody else’s fantasy - presumably, somebody who is a lot less cool, mature and worldly than you - but this judgment seems to me to include a great dollop of hypocrisy, not to speak of arrogance. I suppose it would be possible to dismiss a work of art as an incompetent presentation of somebody else’s fantasy, but if it’s not your fantasy, how would you know how well it was executed? So I guess that leaves us with one final case--the offending work of art is an incompetent presentation of your fantasy - which is, oddly, never the way people present such a critique. No, such critiques - usually delivered by people with very strong superegos - tend to focus on the insufficiently reality of the artwork.

I’ve never known what to make of this criticism, exactly. I mean, if reality is what one is after, why consume art at all? It seems to me that deliberately suspending reality, oiling away its frustrating, friction-filled bits, is one of the great pleasures of art, perhaps its central pleasure. (I will grant that it is often gratifying, somehow, if this contravention of reality is kept highly specific and concrete, while permitting the normal laws of reality to run undisturbed through the rest of the work. But focusing too closely on this secondary pleasure - what one might call the journalistic aspect of a work of art - is to overlook the real joy that the crucial, central violation of reality gives us.)

I would have lost the brackets from that last bit. Otherwise, hear hear.

And I also liked this comment on the above from David Mercer:

You just nailed on the head why I can't stand 'literary fiction': what's the point, there is no suspension of disbelief, it's all re-hashing the real world.

There are other reasons why I don't like modern literary fiction, but that is definitely part of it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:50 AM
February 18, 2004
Alice Bachini on plastic surgery and on getting shot by Mrs Du Toit

I strongly recommend this most enjoyable attack on plastic surgery by Alice Bachini. The attack is by Alice, not the surgery. That would be an even worse idea. It's not so much that I agree, although I think I probably do. It's how well written it is, and how amusing it is to read. I was going to copy and paste my favourite paragraph, but all of them as so good you'll just have to go there and read the lot.

I also think this posting is very funny. Here's all of it.

I really like reading Mrs Du Toit. It's a bit like taking a bracing run round the estate grounds at 6am, followed by a cold shower. In a good way, I mean. I think if I met Mrs Du Toit in real life, I would crumble into a corner and be all pathetic and English and unable to string two words together. If the word "marriage" was mentioned I would most likely run away and then get mistaken for a bunny rabbit and accidentally shot, and it would all be my fault. However, I really like reading Mrs Du Toit.

How to sum up my opinion? Well, put it this way: observe how I have categorised this posting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:04 AM
February 13, 2004
How to write stories
Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:39 PM
October 02, 2003
Printed books as the first modern art

Here's an interesting Blowhard insight:

Many people don't realize that the nothing-but-text, read-it-straight-through book that's still seen by many overly-serious people as the only kind of "real book" was a bizarre and anomalous publishing development; it was (in large part) a historical accident attributable to the difficulties of getting industrial-era publishing technology to manage images and text well.

A related myopia is that a lot of people don't seem to get that "books" and therefore also "literature" are not just one of the old arts – they were and are the first of the new. The first mass produced art, the first "modern" art. And I'll bet you anything that when those trashy "novels" (listen to the word for God's sakes!!), read by … everyone!!, there was all hell from the existing literati.

Now they fake up printed books to be like works of, you know, Real Art, and give them prizes for being profound and selling only twenty copies. It's as if they're trying to disguise their true roots.

Even more crazy, to me, perhaps because more recent and hence even more obviously ridiculous, is the attempt to dress up photography and colour printing as a fine, one-off, but-you-just-have-to-see-it-in-the-original-my-dear Art, instead of as machine arts. The whole point of photography, and of the printing press, is that you can have an infinite number of copies, each of which is just as good as the original.

How soon before the Art-snobbos demand to see the original digital electronic files of things, and to claim that no copy is really as good, and try to charge extra for the damn things? I wouldn't put it past them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:36 PM
September 08, 2003
Quite a little story

I've already linked to this Guardian item from my Education Blog because the main events take place in a school. It is very short but it tells a huge story, which on could easily imagine being the basis of a novel or a movie or something. So, a mention here too.

(There are times when the education-here-culture-there thing doesn't work.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:54 PM
September 07, 2003
Clive James on nasty reviews

I owe someone a link for putting me in touch with this, but for the life of me I cannot recall how I found this essay first thing this morning. Oh yes I do. The New York Times sent me their daily email, and I clicked on the piece. Oh well. Anyway, it's Clive James defending nasty reviews in his usual (i.e. highly readable) way.

Adverse book reviews there have always been, and always should be, lest a tide of good intentions rise to drown us all in worthy sludge.

Indeed.

In my own experience, dishing out grief has been a lot more fun than taking it. As a trainee critic, I was sometimes careless of the personal feelings of authors whose books I reviewed, and I simultaneously found, when I myself published a book, that my adverse reviewers were invariably careless of mine. Though I never grew thick skin (thin skin, after all, is what a writer is in business to have), I gradually got better at taking punishment. By no coincidence, I also grew more reluctant to inflict it. Anyway, personal attacks rarely work. They tend to arouse sympathy for the victim, and might even help sell the book. Legitimately destructive reviews, however, I both continued to write and grew resigned to receiving. They are part of the game.

Quite so.

But there's a catch. Over the course of literary history some legitimately destructive reviews have been altogether too enjoyable for both writer and reader. Attacking bad books, these reviews were useful acts in defense of civilization. They also left the authors of the books in the position of prisoners buried to the neck in a Roman arena as the champion charioteer, with swords mounted on his hubcaps, demonstrated his mastery of the giant slalom. How civilized is it to tee off on the exposed ineptitude of the helpless?

As the man says in the current Foster's advert, of the bungy jumper whose head gets bitten off by a crocodile: "That's gotta hurt son."

But there must be nasty reviews if we are not all going to have our brains chewed off by that rising tide of worthy sludge. So to speak.

Back in the early 19th century, the dim but industrious poet Robert Montgomery had grown dangerously used to extravagant praise, until a new book of his poems was given to the great historian and mighty reviewer Lord Macaulay. The results set all England laughing and Montgomery on the road to oblivion, where he still is, his fate at Macaulay's hands being his only remaining claim to fame. Montgomery's high style was asking to be brought low and Macaulay no doubt told himself that he was only doing his duty by putting in the boot. Montgomery had a line about a river meandering level with its fount. Macaulay pointed out that a river level with its fount wouldn't even flow, let alone meander. Macaulay made it funny; he had exposed Montgomery as a writer who couldn't see what was in front of him.

Exactly. When you encounter a river meandering level with its fount, you have to put the boot in, and just so as there's no misunderstanding, I well realise that I mixed that metaphor, not Clive James. He merely put the components next to each other on his literary pallet, as he is quite entitled to do. I was the one who put them in the blender and knitted them together into a new display of verbal fireworks.

I love mixed metaphors, and I quite agree that mixed or muddled metaphors are a sign of bad writing. Deliberately blending a mixed metaphor is different.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:43 PM
September 03, 2003
Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the literary left response to 9/11

Michael Blowhard links to this, and I'm going to as well, if only to see how long the link lasts.

It's Geoffrey Wheatcroft, discussing the response of the literary left to 9/11, in the September 2003 issue of Prospect, a favourite paper read of mine. What does he think of said literary leftists. The title – Two years of gibberish – provides a clue.

Concluding paragraphs:

A clue to this sorry performance may be found in the relationship between the literary-academic left in the west—or "what’s left of the left"—and militant Islam. On the face of it they should be opposite magnetic poles. So they once were. The Enlightenment knew what to say about religions, all of them: "Écrasez l’infame!" In the 19th century, the progressive party believed that one of the reasons for European superiority over the benighted regions of Asia and Africa was the conquest of superstition.

Today, credulous doting on Islam is not just an expression of western self-hatred. On the face of it, Islam and the western left have nothing in common at all. But they do, in fact, something profoundly important. They share the common experience of defeat. Islamic terrorism is not a function of success but of failure. As a culture and society, Islam enjoyed a glorious golden age between the 8th and 12th centuries, but it has been in decline for many centuries past, some would say since the first fall of Baghdad.

As the 20th century ended, it saw another great defeat. Marxism-Leninism long predeceased Soviet Russia; even democratic socialism has conceded victory to the competitive free market. There was, and is, a distinction between the practical and intellectual left. In the 1930s, the "practical" left on either side of the Atlantic weren’t much interested in communism, but got on with making the New Deal, or preparing the Labour party to win a decisive election. It was the intellectual left, or part of it, which lost its heart to Stalin. But if those Stalinoids were nasty enough when they explained away the Moscow trials, they weren’t silly, and they could plausibly believe that history was on their side. To re-read that catalogue of nonsense from two years ago is to realise that their descendants simply aren’t serious any longer. If the old Leninist left was buried politically in the rubble of the Berlin wall, the literary-academic intelligentsia disappeared morally in the ashes of ground zero.

Sadly, anti-communism as forthright as this is still somewhat rare. Being a talented writer is no excuse for supporting Stalin, although as Wheatcroft argues that both have their origins in the same fact. Talented literary writers, he says, just like other pro-Stalinists who didn't have to be, tend to be somewhat unhinged.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:00 PM
June 22, 2003
Harry Potter and the libertarian worldview

I'm indifferent to the whole Harry Potter thing. I read the first one, and felt no compulsion to read on. But given my political/philosophical proclivities, I was please to see this at Instapundit:

… here's a blog review that says the book has libertarian themes.

Interesting.

UPDATE!!!: But, you might want to read Natalie Solent about all this first. (Or try Natalie Solent, assuming blogbollocks does its usual with the latest entry.) Don't read that review, she says, it'll spoil it for you.

She says read this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:23 PM
April 11, 2003
On the how and the why of canons

Here is what may be another of those feeble Brian's Culture Blog postings that I warned you about. A quota fulfiller, as I've long been calling such postings on my Education Blog.

In my film list piece, I touched on the Posterity thing. How does stuff make it into the "canon"? This, after all, is why it matters if something is considered to be Art or not. If it is deemed to be art, more people will be told about it in future decades.

Well, I don't now have anything profound to add, but meanwhile, this, from Aaron Haspel, is good stuff, in answer to Michael Blowhard's original question:

Woody Allen's movie Crimes and Misdemeanors features an incredibly annoying TV writer, played by Alan Alda, who keeps repeating, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Well, the Canon is the fashion plus time. It's subject to exactly the same vicissitudes. Shakespeare largely owes his reputation as the greatest English writer to two 19th century German critics, the Schlegel brothers. Nobody read John Donne 100 years ago. In 1921 Sir Herbert Grierson published an anthology, featuring Donne, of "metaphysical" poets, borrowing the term from Samuel Johnson, who used it disparagingly. T.S. Eliot picked up on Grierson, emphasizing Donne's "difficulty" when difficulty was all the rage. An entire generation of academics, steeped in Eliot, began to teach Donne, things picked up steam, and now he is a "classic," and the streets are littered with college graduates who know nothing of Donne except that he is "metaphysical." Note that in this process one critic, maybe two, formed an independent opinion of Donne's actual merits.

The problem with art that is addressed by having a canon is how long it can take to get acquainted with it.

Profound thought. It is much, much easier to get a rough idea of a painting, and of how much you like it, from one minute's acquaintance, than it is to make a similar judgement of a novel, or even a longer poem. Not necessarily easy, but easier. So the relative power of the literature canon-arbiters is likely to be bigger than that of their confreres in the visual arts, a state of affairs that will only be reinforced when just about all paintings of any merit are available for view in decent repros on the Internet, which is surely not the case yet, but equally surely soon will be.

That's one of the advantages that Michael Blowhard has over me, besides being cleverer and more knowledgeable and everything about these things than I am. He likes pictures, and he can show them in a form that gives us a very good idea indeed of what he's talking about. I can do the same with architecture, once I get the aesthetics of this blog semi-organised.

But one of my biggest cultural enthusiasms is classical music, and although I can say that the Brahms Violin Concerto is very nice, I can't show it to you for twenty seconds confident that you will immediately get, at a glance, that it has a longish first movement, a delightful shorter slow movement with a famously prominent oboe part, and a nice upbeat gypsy-style finale. I can tell you all that, of course, but what have I really told you? Not much, frankly.

Thus, we can expect the classical music canon to remain more solidly in place, alongside the literary canon, for a while yet and maybe for ever, and at any rate compared to the paintings canon.

Or maybe, the paintings canon is going to get a lot, lot bigger, and a lot more blurry at the edges, to the point where time also becomes a consideration, the time it takes you to glance at that many pictures. And what Michael is doing is throwing a few thousand more pictures into the canon at this technologically opportune moment. He probably says that somewhere.

Gotta rush now. Tonight I'm giving a talk, about "culture" – wouldn't you know? - and I have to, er, get it ready. So apologies if any typos (and worse) take a bit of a while to get cleaned up.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:32 PM
February 16, 2003
Fiction I like

The theory is that eventually there will be people who come here every few days or so but who never go to my blog-womb, Samizdata, from one month to the next. They prefer culture to politics, you see. So for any readers of this sort, here's the news that I have a semi-cultural piece up there today, about Tom Wolfe's reportage of the latest scientific dramas he has discovered, concerning Neuroscience. Well, maybe not the latest, because the book I have been reading (Hooking Up) was published three years ago. But quite late. The regular Samizdata fare this weekend is demonstrations and wars and men second-guessing each other about how to hurt each other. But Tom Wolfe is culture, and is especially liked by people who don't much care for a lot of what passes for culture these days. (See my previous two rather bad-tempered postings here.)

Tom Wolfe is one of my favourite writers, but I only really enjoy his factual reportage. His novels just strike me as great engineering bricks of reporting, with the names changed and the facts altered until they aren't actionable, and life's too short for that. Mine anyway. But when he keeps the original names, dates and places, as in The Right Stuff or (a key BCBlog text) The Painted Word, or in almost all of the stuff in Hooking Up, I just love it. I'm now deep into all the New Yorker bashing at the end.

Is there any fiction that I do like? Three writers spring to mind, among many more whom I'll doubtless be telling you about in the months and years to come.

There's Nick Hornby, who has done four books so far: Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, About A Boy, and How To Be Good. Fever Pitch began as a Tom Wolfe type piece of journalism, but then went on to be a fiction movie. It was the one about the crazed Arsenal supporter, originally Nick Hornby himself, but played in the movie by Colin (Mr D'Arcy) Firth. High Fidelity began as a novel set in London, and became a movie set in the USA starring John Cusack and the sublime Jack Black, who may never do anything better.

I like the New York Democrat (I assume) writer of what US critics presumably regard as only middlebrow fiction, Susan Isaacs, my two favourites by her being Intimate Relations and Magic Hour, the first being about New York Democrat politics, and the second being a detective mystery, with a great plot that ought not to be revealed.

It must mean something that almost all of these books that I like involve happily ending romances. I like that, presumably in part because I have yet to achieve such a resolution in my own personal life but live in hope, and also because I believe I have various girl-hormones sloshing around in my brain chemistry. Tom Wolfe's fiction doesn't tend to end with a happy romantic settlement. His typical plot is hubris-nemesis, rather than boy-meets-girl-boy-gets-girl.

And the third writer of fiction I would like to draw your attention to here is: me. So far I have managed to write just two short stories, numbers 1 and 3 in the Libertarian Alliance Fictions series. (And guess what? Both are available as html files as well as pdf! How did that happen? You can now copy, paste and denounce.)

Both are also about the way that people with energetically pursued plans often get ahead in life, but not in quite the ways they'd originally planned. In the first of these, the hero and heroine live happily ever after, but in the second the anti-hero commits suicide, in what I hope is an entertaining way and for entertaining reasons.

I like these stories a lot or I would not have published them. I write to amuse myself, and until that happens I'm not going to foist the stories on anyone else.

There are only two so far because I find it impossible to just sit down and write a story. For me, a short story worth telling is rather like a scientific discovery. You can't just whistle one up, any more than you can contrive a Unified Field Theory just because you would like to and have promised it to someone by next Friday. I am wrestling with two more stories, but so far I can't sort them out.

But, once I have thought a story through to the end, one of the signs that it is a real story is that it could just as well be told by somebody else, albeit in a different way, much as a rival scientist might pip you to publication with the same idea that you also had, wording it all rather differently, but essentially telling the exact same story. Another symptom of this same thing is that I often dangle half-baked plots in front of friends and ask them to help me with the baking. Art as collective discovery, rather than art as individual creation. Discuss.

My preferred method of telling my stories is to pack the maximum of plot information into the minimum of verbiage, and to set the wheels of the plot rapidly in motion immediately. Later I may choose to load some atmosphere onto one of the carriages, but first I like to get the train rattling along properly. From then on, gratuitous atmosphere allowing, the basic point is to get to the destination with the minimum of time-wasting. Others might tell what is essentially the same story but take several hundred pages doing it. I'm too lazy for that. Well, maybe not lazy. But when I do get results in my life, it is by keeping on doing lots of little things, little things (like little blog pieces) that others can probably spare the time for, rather than a few big things which they might ignore unless I became a Big Name.

But that's enough about me. What do you think of my stories?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:33 PM