"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Critiquing the Critics

When I was younger, I thought 'critical' comments meant harsh comments, until I realized there was such a thing as 'constructive criticism.' Now, as a 22-year-old, I'm reformulating my ideas about criticism once again. One of my courses this year is dedicated to exploring the creative side of literary criticism, and the more I read for the course, the more I realize that I'm just not satisfied by the narrow definition of criticism that pervades the academic world.

I've never been a big fan of the scholarly articles that college professors encourage us to read and quote in support of our arguments in term papers. Although these critics' ideas can be great - changing the way I read a novel, or teaching me a really important part of its historical context, for example - the way they express those ideas can be very clunky. And that's just the run-of-the-mill critics. What's worse is that, when you get to the really big name critics, whose ideas have spawned entire schools of criticism, the writing is even worse, sometimes totally opaque.

I really dislike having to show up in class and stumble sentence by sentence through an essay that no one except the professor understands - we always wind up floundering in the text, trying to understand it instead of actually discussing it. What I dislike even more, however, is the idea that I should have to spend hours reading and rereading a writer's argument in order to be able to make any semblance of a commentary on it in class or in my own essays. I get graded on the clarity of my essays; why should I cut Jacques Derrida or Roland Barthes more slack than my professors cut me? After all, they're supposed to be geniuses, while I am but a lowly student. Could they really not take a minute or two to stop philosophizing and clean up their prose?

So we have two problems. 1: the average critics try so hard to be clear and follow the rules of scholarly writing that they write utterly boring stuff. 2: the avant-garde critics try so hard to be original and break the rules that they write utterly incomprehensible stuff. What to do? How to write creatively without losing clarity? How to write clearly without sounding just like everyone else?

I suspect the answer may be a simple one (or a deceptively simple one): how about just writing well? But not within the rubric of good academic writing. I think scholarly criticism needs to take a deep breath and look around at other types of criticism being written outside of academia, and maybe then critics can learn something from their colleagues. Good writing has various virtues, including clarity, elegance, organic-ness (matching form to content), rhetorical power, etc. So yes, it's not easy to make them all work together. But some authors have succeeded very well. George Orwell wrote gorgeous essays while simultaneously making very important points about politics and language and political language. David Brooks, who writes for the New York Times, produces great little op-ed pieces about current events, managing to express an interesting cultural critique in a very short form. James Wood (you can find a lot of his articles in the New Yorker and other similar publications) writes literary analysis that is as fun to read as the novels he covers. Anthony Lane (also of the New Yorker) writes film reviews that are both entertaining and educational, offering a subtle instruction in how to watch and appreciate an enormous range of movies.

The problem is that not all of these authors fall under the category of 'critics' in academia. In a hypothetical example, if I were writing a term paper about marriage values in a certain novel, I could quote David Brooks on the importance of choosing a good life partner in modern life, but I would not get credit for that citation because it's not from an accredited scholarly source. Academia reinforces its ivory tower image by segregating its version of criticism from any other kind of journalistic or other forms of writing about culture. Because that, to me, is what criticism comes down to. People writing about culture, providing a new perspective on a book, a painting, a fashion trend, anything. I just read an essay by Benjamin Friedlander, where he describes the way books inspire such different reactions from different readers and then sums up the role of the critic very well: "What, after all, is a critic, if not a reader who takes his pen in hand in order to substantiate the reality produced in his or her head [by a certain book]?" (This is from his introduction to his book, Simulcasts, if you're interested).

So why such a strict definition of what counts as good enough to support the argument of a term paper? According to Friedlander, every critic's argument is a personal one, more or less well-argued or well-written. This is not like scientific writing, where accredited journals weed out properly and ethically run experiments from amateurs' crazy hypotheses. This is just people talking about books, arguing over fictional worlds, about people and events that never even happened. I think we should stop being afraid of putting the personal into the critical/argumentative mode of writing. When I read those accredited scholarly articles, I feel like I'm reading something written by the machine of academia, not by a person who has actually read the book they're talking about, let alone (god forbid!) enjoyed it.

When I think of criticism, I think of all sorts of different kinds of essay-form, non-fiction writing about cultural objects, and I want to be able to blend those forms and approaches freely. That phrase that I learned years ago, 'constructive criticism' - well, that kind of criticism can come from so many perspectives and angles. In fact, often the most constructive feedback a person or a work can get is the feedback of many different people, who come to a book or an author with different expectations and desires, for entertainment, enlightenment, or escape. As a writer/reader, I think it's valuable to cultivate flexibility, in order to write great, multi-faceted books and read other people's great, multi-faceted books in the way they'd like best to be read.

So there you go, I'm still learning things.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Review: Waverly

The proper name of this book is actually Waverly, or 'Tis Sixty Years Since, which helpfully reminds you that although it was written in the past, it is also written about the past - apparently the first historical novel in the English cannon. And it is also the first novel I've read in months that professes to be out simply to please you, not to educate you, shock you, or dismember your mental faculties until you are left with a shambles of a sense of reality.

Well, Sir Walter Scott, writing anonymously, did want Waverly to educate people. As a scot, Scott (ahahaha, I'm amazed more people don't make this into a poor joke) wanted the english to better understand and be more sympathetic toward the unfortunate Jacobites, supporters of King James Stuart, who rose of in Scotland twice during the 18th century and twice were quashed. It's not a political novel as such, because by the time Scott was writing, in the early 19th century, the rebellion and the question of succession were pretty much history - two generations gone. But the novel is definitely trying to show the highlanders and other Jacobites in a fair light without espousing their political cause.

I read this for class - otherwise, I probably wouldn't have made it all the way through, because it's very old-fashioned indeed. But I ended up really enjoying both the story and the very-present, but pleasantly ironic authorial voice that comments on the action and reminds you what you're feeling and what your hero's feeling at all times.

This hero is Edward Waverly, a young and very romantic man who goes up north from his English estate and gets caught up in the Jacobite rebellion, not because he's a great political leader or even a great soldier, but because he is in love with the ancient, fading highland way of life, and he makes personal connections with many of the rebels. There's much saving of lives, pledging of fealty, and heaving of tormented bosoms, but Scott's awareness and exploitation of Waverly's innocence and idealism gives it all an edge and doesn't require you to take it too seriously. The things that happen to Waverly first feed directly into his romantic dreams and then begin to unravel them, so it's both a national story and a coming-of-age story.

A lot of people in my class found it dull and slow-going and had trouble with the archaic language. For whatever reason, I got through the difficulties, though, and enjoyed it a lot. There were even moments (brief moments) when I didn't want to put it down and go make a cup of tea, because I had to know what was going to happen to poor Waverly and his friends. I also enjoy the challenge of sinking into another form of language, whether it's a foreign one or foreign version of my own. Probably that's the language major in me.

The question of language is particularly interesting at the moment because I'm starting work on my own historical novel project. I'm writing about France in the 17th century, but in English, so I not only need to imagine what the characters would have said and thought, but also need to translate that into English and once again into modern parlance. Last night I started re-reading Wolf Hall, and am just amazed at how Hilary Mantel manages to make medieval characters sound ancient and modern at the same time. I keep trying to skim it, because I'm short on time, but it's so good I just want to read every word over again. If you haven't gotten around to reading it since I reviewed it over the summer, I recommend it again heartily.

I also recommend Waverly, but only if you enjoy classics and sweeping narratives and want to spend hours imagining yourself tramping around Scotland with a sometimes silly, but also often endearing protagonist and also, of course, with Scott's authorial voice. If, like me, you're semi snowed-in, it's a great curl-up-by-the-fire read. So is Wolf Hall. This is definitely historical novel weather, when you want to dive headfirst into another world and linger there for hours, which is exactly what I'm doing this weekend. You can imagine me floating from Henry VIII's court to Paris's literary salons, with a brief detour through the kitchen for breakfast.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Winter Beauty

Winter has come to England, or at least my corner of it. We've had two days of snow so far and are expected a whole week of it. It's amazing for a California girl to see her whole world transformed like this, as if somebody had made a cast of every single contour of the streets and the trees and houses and replaced the real things with ice sculptures.
I have Christmas trees outside my window, snow monsters parked along the street, and a river of alternating snow and slush where the pavement should be. It's all a silver lining to these very dark and cold January days.
There's not too much more to say about it. Snow is quiet, and I think my favorite part about it is standing staring out at a landscape and resting my eyes from the usual hustle bustle of details and movement. Nothing moves fast, except the sudden bits of snow falling on my head from trees. Uneven landscapes are suddenly smooth and monochrome. 
Hope you got a sense of how pretty it is from these pictures - I haven't actually ventured further with my camera than my bedroom window, but maybe later in the week, if it keeps up, I'll go take some pictures in the park, which is so beautiful. In the meantime, I'm gonna make some banana pancakes.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Looking back

As the new year begins, I'm looking back, but not at 2012. More like 1745. I've been reading Waverly in preparation for one of my new courses this semester, which is focused on the historical novel. And even though the class hasn't even started yet, I'm already starting to pay a little more attention to my interest in historical fiction.

I was thinking yesterday how fun it's going to be to get back to historical fiction, which was a big part of my childhood reading. Then I realized that I won't really be getting back to it - I've been reading it all along. Some of my favorite books from the past year have been set in the past: The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell, Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner, Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, and, of course, the historical novel that's gotten talked about so much since it and its sequel won the Booker Prize, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Over the past few years I've also loved The True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey, and Atonement, again by Ian McEwan. Two of the top books on my to-read list are Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, and Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, both historical novels.

My list of favorite movies and TV shows is even more peppered with historical drama: The Hour, BBC's amazing recreation of its mid-century self, is one of my all-time favorite shows, and the best detective show I know of is Foyle's War, set during WWII. I also love the film versions of Atonement and of Une longue dimanche de fiancailles (A Very Long Engagement), originally by Sebastien Japrisot, adapted by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Historical movies and TV shows have an obvious allure for me, because I love to see historical costumes reconstructed so stunningly and in such detail. One drawback of historical novels is that they usually don't devote many words to describing clothes. I suppose that modern readers wouldn't stand for it, however fascinating it might be to me. I actually stopped watching another period piece the other day (actually an adaptation of a classic, not a historical novel), The Paradise, partly because there weren't enough close-ups of the costumes. That might seem a ridiculous reason, but I think that part of the appeal of historical stories for everyone is a chance to glimpse the past close-up and ogle all its oddities, from old-fashioned customs to clothes that have no zippers.

For me, the costume-obsession is just one part of my interest in the atmospherics and textures of the past. I loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for the way Mitchell works his narrative around the gritty details of life on Dejima, the Dutch portal to Japan in the 18th century. But there's a real thrill in not just physical, but also psychological detail. This is one of the best things about Wolf Hall, which plunges you into a first-person account of Tudor England from the unlikely, but captivating perspective of Thomas Cromwell.

The class of course, will not be just about what makes historical fictions fun and interesting, but also, I suspect, the ethics and mechanics of recreating history in stories. Not only that, we get to try our hand at historical fiction ourselves. I think some people dread taking classes on a genre or subject they love - I seem to hear a lot of people complain that high school English classes, and even college courses have ruined certain books for them. But when I find a good course on something I love, I look forward to enriching my appreciation of it, expanding my reading list within the genre, and meeting other people who are just as passionate about it as I am.

I'll report back about the progress of the course and what I've learned in a few weeks. In the meantime, are there any historical novels, films, or TV shows you love that I should check out? I love suggestions.