Saturday, January 31, 2009

WHAT YOU DON'T HAVE TO READ and a few suggestions of what to read

THE FIRST

An Avalanche of shit is about the only way to think of the new books that are scheduled to come out in the near future even as publishers see themselves going out of business, cutting back and moaning that this is the most difficult time they have ever faced.

Of course people are not reading. That is nothing new. In the 1920s a literary book was lucky to sell and I mean really lucky two thousand copies… today with the population almost tripled things have not changed: a literary book still sells two thousand copies over a certain number of years.

What has changed is the sheer amount of crap that the publishers keep shoveling out. The big publishers have a large core of six figure salaried pencil pushers who have to be wined and dined to suit their personae as wise leaders who know what is good for the reading public.

As a guide to how to sift through the crap that is on offer and in the bookstores just beyond where they keep all the non-book stuff which of course is usually of more interest to the people who wander into a Borders or Barnes and Nobel I offer these tips:

You don’t have to read any novel or memoir by a person who claims to be a script writer.

You don’t have to read anything at all by anyone who appears with some regularity on television…

You don’t have to read anything that purports to tell you the real story behind whatever it is…

You don’t have to read anything by a person who has the indecency to admit that they are recent graduates of an Ivy League college or university…

You don’t have to read anything by a person who claims to be a journalist working for some major newspaper or of course television. By writing a book they are shortchanging their employers and anything that they really know is in the newspapers or at least should be…

You don’t have to read any novel or book of poetry in which the race or ethnicity of the author or of his or her characters is mentioned on the dust jacket. The book will be inevitably be second rate and compromised by this limitation

THE SECOND

HOWEVER there are a few tiny glimmers of literature that will be shyly taking themselves into the world:

From the Library of America : The American Writings of Lafcadio Hearn who was well known once upon a time for his writings about New Orleans and Japan… but in this volume of his writing about New Orleans, his travels in the West Indies and his miscellaneous journalism there is a story that is so startling and moving that once read you will have hard time going to bed for their you know you will be finding yourself either as a witness or as the center of the story:

Gibbeted Execution of a Youthful Murderer

“The execution of James Murphy yesterday at Dayton for the murder of Colonel William Dawson in that city on the night of August 31, 1875 was an event it must be said which the people of Montgomery County had long looked forward to with no small degree of satisfaction…”

The subtitle of the story gives a hint: A Broken Rope and a Double Hanging…

The story concludes: “The rope has cut deeply into the flesh of the neck, and the very texture of the hemp was redly imprinted on the the skin. A medical examination showed that the neck to have been broken.”

AND from Dalkey Archive: NOTES FROM THE EMPIRE by Fernando Del Paso… a meditation at 716 pages of the fates of Maximilian and his eventual widow… that French emperor of Mexico… You will remember the painting by Manet… a model of what an historical writing can and should be

AND also from Dalkey the last of Louis Ferdinand Celine’s great novels to be translated NORMANCE

AND AGAIN from Dalkey: THE LOOP by Jacques Roubaud , a companion to his THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON.

AN ASIDE: There is not a publisher in the English speaking world with such a selection of books to be published in this season and that is just a few of them…

NOT TO forget GHOSTS by Cesar Aira which I am reviewing for the Los Angeles Times… from New Directions, one of the few publishers that has never forgotten what their job really is…

Unlike 95 percent--- maybe I could push that to 98 percent--- of what will be published in the coming months will not be remembered a year from publication… I can guarantee that these five books will be still be read as long as books are being read and you will be able to re-read them with increased enjoyment...

THE THIRD

Contrary to the delirium of delusion that seems to have gripped the hacks who write for the newspapers, that teach in our universities and inhabit the television networks, I do think we are about to enter a truly dark period of history with only an increasing tide of terrible news.

I have begun to read again Ernst Robert Curtius’s EUROPEAN LITERATURE AND THE LATIN MIDDLE AGES which he began to write as Adolf Hitler took control ---in the midst of scenes of delirious hope for change--- of Germany.

I do so as a personal answer to this moment and as a way to remain sane midst the increasing barbarism which is our sure fate as things will get inevitably worse and worse.

What Curtius was trying to remind his readers is that while the Twentieth Century saw its progressive fruition in Auschwitz, in The Gulag, and at Hiroshima, there was still some tiny possibility that this might eventually be a continuing otherwise.

As someone living in New York City who lived through 9/11 and now in February 2009, as we are in the midst of the 19th year of the Iraqi War, I will refuse the easy temptation to despair and at the same time forsake the consolation of optimism.

THE FOURTH

I did take a little pleasure in seeing that the Book World of the Washington Post is about to cease publication. The last book I reviewed for them in 2002, commissioned by Michael Dirda, was Maurice Blanchot’s AMINDAB.

I never reviewed for them again and when I asked I was told that Marie Arana and the younger editors at the paper decided that my review of this novel by the most influential French critic of the 20th century was exactly the sort of book they never wanted reviewed in the paper. It was too intellectual, too obscure, too foreign. It sent the wrong message as to what they were really interested in.

Of course Blanchot is represented by 15 titles in St Marks Book Store and is even well stocked by Politics and Prose in Washington… but what the geniuses at the Washington Post decided was: they wanted to truly embrace their public of semi-literate political junkies whose only interest is in the aggregation of personal political power, forgetting that when you suck up to the public that public has to evacauate its bowels once a day, and the tongue attempting to block that path is no match for the…

10 comments:

Toast said...

You forgot the most important rule of all: You should never read anything by an author who has ever had anything to do with blogging.

Anonymous said...

why?

Toast said...

Seriously?

Anonymous said...

or comically, never forget the comic

Anonymous said...

A wise and witty post. In the morass that has beset the publishing industry, you have have gone to the heart of the matter. "Real" books seem to matter less and less. You are correct about the categories of authors you include in things not to read. The sad thing is that as the book publishers go so do those outlets for reviewing books. One can criticize the Washington Post Book World, but it was an outlet. In last week's NYTBR there was a brief review of a new novel from a small publisher. The review was ludicrous--almost perhaps better if they had not mentioned it.

Toast said...

Beset by a morass. That's got to hurt, but not only that, the morass is matter with a heart. Love the blogosphere — it's the beating heart of darkness of the main line to the pith of the kernel of the headquarters of the wellspring of the ground zero of mixed metaphor and cliché.

Kevin T. McEneaney said...

While you've had many excellent posts, this is your most eloquent, observant, and trenchant. We live, as the old Irish curse has it, "in interesting times." This country has adopted the worst aspects of low nineteenth century German culture--the worship of stupidity and inanity as a comic cure for the real challenges of life. This applies to every apsect of American "culture," including educational institutions, newspapers, and "literary" magazines. On a personal note, I'm happy to see that you discovered Nina Berberova. I must admit that you are more voracious reader than I am.

MLambe said...

Tom,

A very interesting blog. I have not read Lafcadio Hearn but intend to do so.

As to the amount of dross that is published, there is a company, I think their name is Half Price Books, that sells books by the yard to the office and home decorating market. They need product to 'decorate' homes of aspiring 'cognoscente'!

I suspect most of the current publishers will go the way of the record companies that we barely remember. The future probably belongs to on-demand publishing and downloads to electronic readers. And I doubt most publishers will be able to adapt. People still sing good songs and others listen to them, people will still write and people will read them in some form.

Anonymous said...

I have never read anything by Lafcadio Hearn, but I do know his translations of 19th Cent. French literature. I don't read French, but reading Hearn's translation of Flaubert's The Temptation of Saint Anthony made me wish I did to compare his rendering of Flaubert with the original. Maybe we are luck that the book publishing world is in a terrible state so no one will try and re-do such classic translations.

Anonymous said...

Some of Lafacadio Hearn's Japanese ghost stories were the basis of Masaki Kobayashi's 1964 movie Kwaidan.