Marginal Footnotes

Books, Belfast and Various Literary Awards
September 27, 2006, 11:15 am
Filed under: Books, International, Literary, Uncategorized

So the “Web Log of the Mercantile Library, Cincinatti, Ohio” is horrified that

This Human Season, Louise Dean’s completely stupendous book about Belfast in 1979 that will make you cry and forsake all other books unless you are completely heartless, is not on the Man Booker short list.

This interests me because it’s a novel about Belfast, and I lived in Belfast for a while. And there are some very good novels about Belfast, such as Robert McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street or Eoin McNamee’s less good and more problematic novel Resurrection Man, a sardonic take on what is known as “Troubles trash”, a reference to fiction born out of the nearly four-decade long conflict in Northern Ireland (roughly 600 novels by 200 authors). Also Glenn Patterson, Brian Moore and various other very fine and horrifying writers.  Graham Greene once went to Belfast looking for evil, but he apparently didn’t find it and consequently did not publish a novel set there. Anyway, Belfast fiction is tricky because it’s difficult to represent honestly and unexploitatively the history of violence there, difficult to not overdo it, to paint a picture of Belfast which is all spy-thriller intrigue, all murderous psychopathology and religious friction, when in fact Belfast can be quite a nice town.

You can read The Guardian’s review of the novel here. 


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Men, Women and ‘Romance’ Fiction
September 26, 2006, 5:19 am
Filed under: Books, Literary, Uncategorized

Quick! Act now or you might miss the completely unfascinating and pedestrian debate occurring over at The Telegraph, a tit and then a tat in an entirely new theatre in what is apparently the still-ongoing Battle of the Sexes. An ill-advised and uninformed remark by BBC anchor Daisy Goodwin has ignited a dimwitted ‘debate’ between some guy plugging his forthcoming romance novel and journalist Liz Hunt on the question of–wait for it–whether men write compelling pieces of romance fiction!

I realize neither writer is allowed the space to engage seriously with the question, and why should they since the question itself is so unserious, but one might pause a moment to reflect on what it is, precisely, that romance fiction actually is? For Hunt, it is, predictably, Austen, Bronte, Mitchell. The Male Side, represented by Ray Connelly, appears to characterize romance fiction as any text which ‘brings a tear’, one that discusses ‘a bloke and his relationship’. It’s getting to damn deep for me already, and I don’t have the shoes for it. I realize this is all in good fun, but here’s some super-special nuggets of wisdom for your reading pleasure:

From Hunt:

“So they must seek that passion between the covers (of a book) and it is only another woman who really knows how to deliver it because she has been there – or would like to have been there – too.” 

“I would argue that only a woman can truly capture these emotions in a credible way, because she has experienced them or can imagine experiencing them in a way that a man simply cannot.”

“Women writers are better at detail, too – and details are essential in creating a romantic build-up: what he wore, what she wore, how they were standing, how they moved, how they touched.”

And from Connelly:

“Teasing aside, it seems to me that most stories are about people in relationships, and how relationships change people.”

“Nearly always, relationships are about love and, yes, desire, too, and love inevitably involves romance in its many and varied forms. But neither men nor women have a monopoly on falling in love.”

Phew! I am just whirling from the complexity, the downright sophistication and intellectual rigour of the case presented. It’s going to be a tough one to adjudicate.

Let me swivel in my chair here and look upon my modest shelves to see if I can come up with anything, you know, which might settle the debate. Presumably the only thing required to falsify Goodwin’s assertion and Hunt’ defense is a persuasive counter-example. Connelly offered Flaubert and Tolstoy. I’ll add:  

1. James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room. I wonder why neither author considered even in passing the potential ‘romantic’ possibilities of queer lit.

2. Jamie O’Neill. At Swim Two Boys. Ditto.

3. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Love in the Time of Cholera.

4. Ernest Hemmingway. A Farewell to Arms. One of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. Also, a love story.

5. Thomas Hardy. Jude the Obscure/Tess of the D’urbervilles. Is Hardy’s representation of Tess inauthentic because he, as a man, could never have ‘experienced’ life as she would, as a woman? Some would be highly inclined to challenge the premise of the question.  

And let’s not forget about Dante.


Eureka Street
May 30, 2006, 5:23 pm
Filed under: Literary, Uncategorized

'It is at these times that you feel you are in the presence of something greater than yourself.  And you are.  For as you look around the perimeter of your illuminated vision, you can see the buildings and streets in which a dark hundred thousand, a million, ten million stories as vivid and complex as your own reside.  It doesn't get more divine than that.
   And the sleepy murmurings of half a million people combine to make an influential form of noise, a consensual music.  Hear it and weep.  There is little more to learn on the earth than that which a deserted city at four in the morning can show and tell.  Those nights, those cities are the centre, the fulcrum, the very wheel upon which you turn.
   Sleeping cities and sleeping citizens alike wait upon events, they attend upon narrative. They are stopped in station.  They soon move on, they soon start again.
   And as the darkness begins to curl around its edges, the city shifts and stumbles in its slumber.  Soon it will wake.  In this city, as in all cities, the morning is an assault.  The people wake and dress themselves as though arming themselves for their day.  From all the small windows of all the small houses on the small streets of this little city, men and women have looked out on first-light Belfast and readied themselves to do battle with this place.
   But for now they are still abed.  Like Jake they lie, their stories only temporarily suspended.  They are marvellous in their beds.  They are epic, these citizens, they are tender and murderable.
   In Belfast, in all cities, it is always present tense and all the streets are Poetry Streets'.
[Robert McLiam Wilson. Eureka Street. London: Vintage, 1998. 216-17.]

Do yourself a favor and read this novel.


Talk About Missing It
May 28, 2006, 4:57 pm
Filed under: Literary, Media, Random, Uncategorized

I haven't read Benjamin Kunkel's debut Novel, Indecision, and maybe one day I'll get around to it even though I'm fairly sick of the genre.  But I did read Michiko Kakutani's (two posts on Kakutani in one day!) review of the novel back in August, where she assumes the voice of Holden Caufield to render her critique.  It seemed to me then that the review was anything but 'laudatory'.  In fact I thought it was criminally sarcastic (i.e. not funny).  So I was surprised to read in Michael Kimmel's article on 'lad lit' (the male version of 'chick Lit', how clever) in The Chronicle of Higher Education that Kakutani's review was in fact 'laudatory'.  Thinking I was insanely dense, I revisited the review.  I've pondered.  I've considered.  And I'm nearly positive that I'm not the one who missed the (bad) joke.  

But this is not all Kimmel misses, since his article is so misinformed that it boders on incoherent.  Somehow, it was Helen Fielding who invented 'chick lit' (Jane Austen, anyone?) and Nick Hornby who 'provides the touchstone texts' of 'lad lit' (along with Jay McInerney in America).  Where is Eggers in this formulation?  How are the 'lads' of contemporary texts (other than being aesthetically inferior) really any different from the Stephen Dedalus of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?  It is Stephen (and Holden Caufield) who haunts all books of this sort.  All are modern incarnations of the same 'enduring' type.

[Let's just bracket off for a moment the general problem of Kimmel's uncritical acceptance of demarcatory (derogatory) terms such as 'chick lit'.]    

Anyway, it appears that Kimmel's prevailing criterion for the 'enduring novel' is that it be romantic rather than cynical.  Setting aside that I have no idea what this means since the term itself is beyond problematic (does he mean they should be sentimental; embrace Wordsworthian transcendence; pivot on asinine coincidences; suggest an easily-discernable ethical reading of the Nussbaumian sort?), Kimmel achieves a singularly new low in critical standard-setting:

'And that may be guy lit's biggest problem: Its readers are unlikely to resemble the guys the books are ostensibly about. As long as the antiheroes stay stuck, and the transformative trajectory is either insincere, as in Kunkel's Indecision, or nonexistent, as in Smith's Love Monkey, these writers will miss their largest potential audience. For it is women who buy the most books, and what women seem to want is for men to be capable of changing (and to know that a woman's love can change them)'.

(a) Kimmel ought to perhaps ask what it is about the modern condition which requires the anti-hero, stasis, and skepticism; (b) he obviously needs to make more friends.  There are lots of 'lads' stuck in a post-post-modern lethargy who will relate fine with these types of texts (as if that matters, critically); (c) good writers don't write to sell books to specific audiences.  Also, this claim is internally contradicatory with the one identified in subpoint a, in which Kimmel calls for a certain universality out of a particularity (an actual aesthetic concept, though I doubt he knows this).  Writing for women who 'seem to want' whatever is both ridiculously misogynistic in its presumption about women and in general a terrible point of departure for any writer.

It isn't until I reach the end of the article that I see the problem: Kimmel is a sociologist (not that there's anything wrong with that).  His piece is ill-informed because he doesn't know anything about literature; it proposes asinine literary criteria because he has no interest in literature. And now I'm the stupid one for wasting my time with this rant.


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Washington: City of Art
May 28, 2006, 2:17 pm
Filed under: Literary, Media, Random, Uncategorized

Rather than writing my paper on the representation of Belfast in contemporary Irish fiction, I've decided to spend the initial part of my day procrastinating in my usual way of reading the news.  Sometimes I'm happy I've done this, but mostly not.  But today I apparently chose my clicks wisely and stumbled upon this delightful article by Paul Richard in the Post.  

Richard's article is a eulogy for a lost art.  His style, economical and therefore weighty, elegaically enacts his theme.  He at once celebrates the great sculptural art that defines Washington while lamenting its 'poignant death', the date of which he knows precisely.  This is the day of the Lincoln Monument's dedication.  Since that day, nothing has matched what Daniel French accomplished with his monumental portrait of Lincoln. 

This is indisputably the case, and this is why nearly everyone who visits Washington is struck most profoundly by the Lincoln.  Perhaps also they are struck because of what they know about Lincoln, and what he accomplished.  His accomplishments are matched aesthetically by French, and this is why the monument succeeds where other monuments merely signify.  French's genius is also manifest in the quiet humanism which embodies the memorial–Lincoln here is contemplative rather than active, serene rather than embattled.  We recognize that great leaders are made of moral courage and reflection, rather than hasty (re)action and pertinaciousness.     

All cities are cities of art.  Dublin is the city of stained glass windows, and of Joyce and Roddy Doyle; Belfast a city where the writing is literally on the wall, a city of murals; Florence the city of Michelangelo and Botticelli; New York and Paris cities of film; London the city of Dickens. 

Washington is also a city of art.  And although we may never have another Lincoln monument (who will ever again have the stature of Lincoln to justify such an endeavor?), Washington will continue to service the American consciousness about that imagined community we call a nation. 


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Pulp Fiction
May 24, 2006, 6:25 pm
Filed under: Literary, Media, Uncategorized

Pulp Fiction Week has started at Slate!  They say take Dashiell Hammett to the beach, but I say pick up Chandler's The Big Sleep and when you're done reading it, check out the film starring a young Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.

If you really like crime fiction, and I do, you might want to take a look at the sort of obscure New York writer Jerome Charyn, who does some interesting things with the genre.  He's written something like 35 novels now but anything from the Isaac Quartet is well worth reading. 


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Babs and Books
May 5, 2006, 4:09 pm
Filed under: Literary, Media, Uncategorized

To insert some pleasure in your day, go read this catalogue of quotations from the Morgan County (GA) Wine, Women and Books Club.  It's sheer delight.