Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”

Monday, September 25th, 2017
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Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.

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“Coetzee has always been an intensely metaphysical novelist.”

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017
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“Chaste, exact, ashen prose” drawn to “passionate extremity.” (Photo: Creative Commons)

A dispiriting Saturday sifting through bins of unsorted papers from the garage, deciding whether I really need the proofs of books published long ago, wondering how long I should keep old Christmas cards from friends, trying to decipher the signatures on yellowed letters, and asking myself whatever will I ever do with all the photos of nieces and nephews at one year old, then two years old, then three…

So why was I holding on to a Christmas issue of The New Yorker from almost a full decade ago? Ah yes. “Squall Lines: J.M. Coetzee‘s ‘Diary of a Bad Year'” – a review written by a literary critic who maintains that “the novel exists to be affecting…to shake us profoundly. When we’re rigorous about feeling, we’re honoring that.” His essays make me weep with envy.

I can do no better on a slow Saturday night than to quote from James Wood‘s 2007 review on the Nobel Prizewinning South African writer Coetzee, a novelist who, also, makes me weep with envy.

Diary of a Bad Year’s protagonist is a novelist who is, in some ways, an alter ego, who laments that his art is “not great-souled,” that it lacks “generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.” But what a soul he has – as Wood comments, if not great-souled, than deep-souled:

Yet this is the cold air just beyond the reach of a fire. Coetzee’s chaste, exact, ashen prose may look like the very embers of restraint, but it is drawn, again and again, to passionate extremity: an uneducated gardener forced to live like an animal off the South African earth (“Life & Times of Michael K”); a white woman dying of cancer while a black township burns, and writing, in her last days, a letter of brutal truths to her daughter (“Age of Iron”); a white woman raped on her farm by a gang of black men, and impregnated (“Disgrace”); a recent amputee, the victim of a road accident that mangled a leg, helpless in his Adelaide apartment, and awkwardly in love with his Croatian nurse (“Slow Man”). Coetzee seems compelled to test his celebrated restraint against subjects and ideas whose extremity challenges novelistic representation.

***

James Wood

Coetzee is devoted to Dostoyevsky, and “Elizabeth Costello” made clear that part of that devotion has to do with what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called the “dialogic” nature of Dostoyevsky’s arguments. Bakhtin noted that it is impossible to infer from the novels what Dostoyevsky believed, because no single idea ever gains authorial dominance. Instead, ideas, like the characters themselves, are in constant circulation and mutual qualification. It is how Dostoyevsky the ardent Christian was able to argue against himself, awarding Ivan Karamazov the most devastating petition against conventional Christian belief ever mounted in a novel. Coetzee is interested in how we profess ideas, both in life and in novels. We tend to think of ourselves as intellectually stable, the oaken pile of principle driven reassuringly deep into the ground. All the Presidential-campaign cant about “values” testifies to this; to flip-flop is to flop. But what if our ideas are, rather, as Virginia Woolf imagined consciousness: a constant flicker of different and self-cancelling perceptions, entertained for a moment and then exchanged for other ones? Imagine a fervent Christian, who has always believed in the afterlife. One night, waking in terror, he realizes, for only a second, but absolutely, that there is no afterlife. The terror passes, and the next morning he reaffirms his public vows. He does not succumb to doubt. Still, the question remains: what has happened to his orthodoxy? If it has not been cancelled or refuted by the nightmarish doubt, does it now contain, like a trapped smell, the ghost of its opposite?

***

Devotion

Unlike the philosopher, the novelist may take an idea beyond its rational terminus, to the point where the tracks start breaking up. One name for this tendency is the religious, the realm where faith replaces reason. Coetzee has always been an intensely metaphysical novelist, and in recent years the religious coloration of his metaphysics has become more pronounced.

***

It is not the force of Ivan’s reasoning, he says, that carries him along but “the accents of anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world.” We can hear the same note of personal anguish in Coetzee’s fiction, even as that fiction insists that it is offering not a confession but only the staging of a confession. His books makes all the right postmodern noises, but their energy lies in their besotted relationship to an older, Dostoyevskian tradition, in which we feel the desperate impress of the confessing author, however recessed and veiled.

Here’s the good news: I can throw the 2007 New Yorker away! The article is all online! Read the whole thing here.

The voice of Virginia Woolf: “Do we write better? Do we read better? … Where are we to lay the blame?”

Friday, January 18th, 2013
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We have only one recording of Virginia Woolf – an April 1937 program for the BBC.  I discovered these short youtube tube recordings this morning – and what a gorgeous thing they are.  A highly recommended way to start the day, especially for all those who work in words.  Which is to say … everyone.

The talk was called “Craftsmanship,” and the remarks were part of a series called “Words Fail Me.”  What does Woolf have to say about words?  “They hate being useful, they hate making money, they hate being lectured about in public.”  The third video below incorporates the first two, and more.  But I’ll include the first two in case you only have time for a snippet before starting your workday.  A transcript of the recording is at the blog “At This Now” here (and now).

I wrote about Woolf a few days ago, but I’d never heard her voice until today.  Not at all what I thought it would be.  See if you agree.

The “scale of appraisal”: Woolf, Tsvetaeva, and Inspector Javert

Sunday, January 6th, 2013
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Cause of death?

Last night, I finally made the trek to see Les Misérables with my daughter and her friend.  The film has many nice touches – among them, Russell Crowe, as the solitary Inspector Javert, reviews the row of slaughtered boys the day after the 1832 uprising is quelled.  Moved by the sight of the very young Gavroche in the macabre line-up of bodies, he gently pins one of his military medals on the dead child.  Javert leaps to his death in the Seine a few scenes later.  (My daughter sent me a youtube video of Crowe being interviewed about his interpretation of the role – it’s below.)

Although my memory of Victor Hugo‘s book has faded over the years, I don’t recall any account that has linked Javert’s suicide with these useless and unnecessary deaths, in addition to the inspector’s  confusion at Jean Valjean’s unexpected act of mercy.  But the connection with warfare is an obvious one – some producer or artist should have thought of it before now – and it brought me back to my post of a few days ago, discussing Virginia Woolf‘s last letter, before her own suicide.  I had never connected her death with the German bombing of Britain, but her husband had.

According to Leonard Woolf, “319 days of headlong and yet slow-moving catastrophe” preceded her death in March 1941. Two of their homes were bombed in succession, and this may have triggered a recurrence of Virginia’s mental illness.

“Gavroche” by Gustave Brion

So it was, also, with Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, whose suicide was preceded by German attacks on the two cities she loved most, Paris and Prague.  (I wrote about her final days for the Los Angeles Times here.)

Lydia Korneevna Chukovskaya related this August 1941 conversation, which took place in Chistopol in Tatarstan, the evacuation destination for many writers:

“Tell me, please,” here she came to a stop, stopping me also, “tell me, please, why do you think that it’s still worth living? Don’t you really understand what’s coming?”

“Worthwhile or not – I stopped debating that long ago. They arrested people close to me in ’37, and in ’38 they shot my husband. Of course, life’s not worth living for me, and in any case it doesn’t matter any more how and where I live. But I have a daughter.”

“But don’t you really understand that everything’s over? For you, for your daughter, and altogether.”

We turned onto my street.

“What do you mean – everything?” I asked.

“Altogether – everything!” She made a large circle in the air with the strange little bag she carried. “Well, Russia, for example!”

Tsvetaeva, 1917

“And the Germans?”

“Yes, the Germans too.”

In her excellent book The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva, author Irma Kudrova writes:

I’ll risk taking this thought to its conclusion. In Tsvetaeva’s eyes the catastrophe that was going on was worse than the nightmare of war. A disaster of global proportions was underway, swallowing Russia too. The dark forces of the world had incarnated into ‘nonhumans’; they held absolute power and were pitiless toward man. The swarm of Hitler’s army, which was swallowing the Russian land, was only one of the faces of triumphant evil. It seems to me that it was precisely this – and nothing less – that Marina Ivanovna [Tsvetaeva] was talking about on 26 August 1941, four days before her death.

She was speaking to the only person she had met since leaving Moscow in whom she could sense a person like herself. She spoke, at last, in her own voice, without caution. Because it was her scale of appraisal, her characteristic viewpoint about what was happening: “from the roof of the world,” as she wrote in one of her poems.

 

Teachers of sorrow: Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and breaking-up letters

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013
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The meaning of sorrow…

Oscar Wilde went to prison for his erotic letters Lord Alfred Douglas – yet he wrote to Douglas sadly in 1896, “I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain.”

Then he wrote this:  “I had always thought that my giving up to you in small things meant nothing: that when a great moment arrived I could reassert my will-power in its natural superiority. It was not so. At the great moment my will-power completely failed me. In life there is really no small or great thing. All things are of equal value and of equal size. …”

“All things are of equal value and of equal size.” Because of that passage, I have been thinking about that letter for two days.  It may be true, after all – and if so, perhaps the most important thing he ever said.  The letter concludes: “You came to me to learn the Pleasure of Life and the Pleasure of Art. Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty.”

From the title of The Atlantic series,  ‘This Was Like Dating a Priest’: Famous Authors’ Breakup Letters,” you might expect these letters to be pure snark. Don’t believe it.  The Atlantic‘s  title is taken from a 1945 letter from Anaïs Nin to C. L. Baldwin, in which she sounds rather impressed with herself.  But some of the others are truly poignant, intelligent, and painfully self-aware.

“I’m going mad again.”

For instance this one, Virginia Woolf‘s final letter to her husband Leonard Woolf during the bombing of Britain in 1941.  Afterwards, she put stones in her pocket and drowned herself in the River Ouse:

“Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.”

Worth a read here.

Terry Castle’s advice to kids: become an orphan!

Monday, May 7th, 2012
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Breaking up is hard to do.

Terry Castle‘s new essay on “The Case for Breaking Up with Your Parents” is getting a lot of attention over at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

She begins by discussing her Stanford students, who seem to be in constant contact with their parents via email, texting, voicemail. Helicopter parents?  It’s worse than that, she says – we’ve now got snowplow parents, blowing everything out of their way as they blaze a path for their kids.  Not only do they mastermind student schedules and coursework, they’re in touch with kids up to half-a-dozen times a day.

Terry finds this all very depressing.  She concludes:

My own view remains predictably twisty, fraught, and disloyal. Parents, in my opinion, have to be finessed, thought around, even as we love them: They are so colossally wrong about so many important things. And even when they are not, paradoxically, even when they are 100 percent right, the imperative remains the same: To live an “adult” life, a meaningful life, it is necessary, I would argue, to engage in a kind of symbolic self-orphaning. The process will be different for every person. I have my own inspirational cast of characters in this regard, a set of willful, heroic self-orphaners, past and present, whom I continue to revere: Mozart, the musical child prodigy who successfully rebelled against his insanely grasping and narcissistic father (Leopold Moz­art), who for years shopped him around the courts of Europe as a sort of family cash cow; Sigmund Freud, who, by way of unflinching self-analysis, discovered that it was possible to love and hate something or someone at one and the same time (mothers and fathers included) and that such painfully “mixed emotion” was also inescapably human; Virginia Woolf, who in spite of childhood loss, mental illness, and an acute sense of the sex-prejudice she saw everywhere around her, not only forged a life as a great modernist writer, but made her life an incorrigibly honest and vulnerable one.

Or are her reflections pertinent only to the world of Stanford students, spending $50K a year  to be among the palm trees and sandstone? “The first step towards getting rid of parents is paying your own bills,” replies one pragmatic reader.  The responses in the comment section are all over the map.

Read the whole article, and the comments, here.

My single night as a Girtonian

Saturday, November 12th, 2011
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Bastion of sanity in late-Victorian Grim

“I give lessons to Amalie, chiefly in history; she reads a lot and we talk. History is my thing. My Cambridge degree is in history. I’m a Girton girl. If I have any spare time I work on my own notes, which might be a book some day.”

So says the governess Ruth Nibsmith about her young charge, as she conspires with art apprentice Francis Cornish, her partner in intelligence work for the British  in the years leading up to World War II.

Ever since reading those lines in Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone, Girton College has retained an certain cachet for me.  So naturally I jumped at poet Gwyneth Lewis’s invitation to attend the Girton’s annual guest night.

They aren’t “Girton girls,” however, the Welsh poet explained.  The phrase she used often in my brief tour was “Girtonian.”  She herself is a Girtonian, and now the Mary Amelia Cummins Harvey Visiting Fellow Commoner at her alma mater.  She’s currently working on a fascinating verse play about the “lost years” of Clytemnestra, and just published a new collection, Sparrow Tree, this year.

Gwyneth (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Girton College is way out on the outskirts of Cambridge and is decidedly not one of the architectural wonders of the city.  It was built in the 1870s in the grim, late Victorian style – rumor has it that the backup arrangement was for the building to house an insane asylum, if the college plans fell through.  This was England’s first residential college for women – but you never know what high-powered edjucation might do to the wimmen.

To that end, of course, it brings up the theme of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, which tackles the prejudices these early women scholars encountered – that novel, however, was based on Somerville College at Oxford.

Gwyneth took me past the Girton room where Virginia Woolf delivered her landmark talk, later published as A Room of One’s Own in October 1928.

We also visited Hermione, a very early woman scholar, in the Lawrence Room – the Roman-period Egyptian mummy (circa 20-40 A.D.) was found in Hawara, in the Fayum, in 1911.  We don’t know much about her.  She apparently died when she was younger than 25, and she’s identified only as Hermionê Grammatikê,  or “Hermione the literary lady” or “Hermione the language teacher.”

Most reminiscent of Gaudy Night was the formal dinner in the grand, high-ceilinged dining room, presided over by Girton’s glamorous Mistress, the geographer Susan Smith.  (I sat next to her husband at the candle-lit table; he’s early-music cornettist Jeremy West, who will be performing in Berkeley next February.)  Sherry to begin, white wine and red wine courses, a cheese course, a chocolate-and-coffee course, and postprandials by the fire.

Chillin'.

I have to take that last bit on faith.  Gwyneth whisked me to the station just as everyone was moving to the fire for more conversation – last train at 11.15 p.m.

Too quickly, alas, to meet the most endearing character of Girton:  Buster.  The once-feral tomcat has been not only adopted by the college, but given some sort of endowment guaranteeing lifetime food and medical care.  Gwyneth says he’s still not above swiping those who become overly familiar.

I’ll have to take that on faith, too.  All I saw was a food dish and his comfortable haunts. Bursar Deborah Lowther kindly provided a photo from her iphone.

Postscript on Nov. 13: Gwyneth kindly sent me the words from the note I saw posted in a hallway, from George Eliot to Emily Davies, the founder of Girton College. The letter, supporting women’s education in the proposed college, is dated 20 November, 1867:

My Dear Miss Davies,

We strongly object to the proposal that there should be a beginning made ‘on a small scale’. To spend forces and funds in this way would be a hindrance rather than a furtherance of the great scheme which is pre-eminently worth trying for. Every one concerned should be roused to understand that a great campaign has to be victualled for.

M.E. Lewes (pen name: George Eliot)

.
(Gwyneth on camera below)

SiCa Presents: Gwyneth Lewis from SiCa on Vimeo.

What’s the worst great book you ever read?

Saturday, August 13th, 2011
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Stick to "The Dubliners"

A cadre of leading authors and critics are on a roll over at Slate, dissing the great classics.  It’s over here.

Disses are always fun to read, so here’s a potpourri:

Poet and Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy says he would put himself first on the list, if he were rated at all, but then he characterizes Virginia Woolf as “noxious smoke and dusty mirrors.”

“Not far behind, and for completely different reasons, William Carlos Williams: So little depends on stuff lying around. The absolute worst, the gassiest, most morally and aesthetically bankrupt, the most earnestly and emptily studied and worshipped … that’s an easy one. Ezra Pound.”

James Joyce takes a drubbing more than once.

Author Lee Siegel confesses “I just can’t do Finnegans Wake”:

“As a graduate student in literature, I was surrounded by people who claimed not just to have read Finnegans Wake but to have understood it and I took another futile stab at it. I realize now that they were all frauds who later went to work in the subprime mortgage industry.” He concludes: The adult realization that whatever sublime beauties of language and idea are in Joyce’s novel, I have to let them go. Just as there are sublime places—Antarctica—that I will never visit. As I learned from Joyce’s Ulysses, the mystery of everyday life is fathomless enough. There is still a world in a grain of sand.”

"Lame" himself

Daniel Mendelsohn, frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, adds to the pile-on: “what spoils Ulysses for me, each time, is the oppressive allusiveness, the wearyingly overdetermined referentiality, the heavy constructedness of it all…it’s more like being on one of those Easter egg hunts you went on as a child—you constantly feel yourself being managed, being carefully steered in the direction of effortfully planted treats.”

J.D. Salinger?  Forget it.  Author Tom Perrotta recalls:

“On a recent episode of South Park, the kids got all excited about reading The Catcher in the Rye, the supposedly scandalous novel that’s been offending teachers and parents for generations. They were, of course, horribly disappointed: As Kyle says, it’s ‘just some whiny annoying teenager talking about how lame he is.'”

Not unsurprisingly, the most generous words come from Elif Batuman:

Generous spirit

Like many people, I enjoy learning which canonical books are unbeloved by which contemporary writers. However, I don’t think participants in such surveys ought to blame either themselves (“I’m so lazy/uneducated”) or the canonical books (“Ulysses is so overrated”). My view is that the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book. Literature is supposed to be beautiful and/or necessary—so if at a given time you don’t either enjoy or need a certain book, then you should read something else, and not feel guilty about it.

FYI on Elif:  Her The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, was plugged by Imitatio here. (hat tip, Dave Lull). Why the a surprise?  Imitatio is the organization founded to study the ideas of René Girard, and some consider her book to be a spoof of those same ideas, with an obsessed  and charismatic graduate student so unable to break the chain of mimetic desire that he finds peace and happiness only in a monastery.  My own opinion:  she has done a lot to revive an interest in his ideas for a new generation.  The site links to the glowing Guardian review that notes the hit memoir’s “detailed engagement with René Girard’s theory of the novel and mimetic desire.”

René told me he hadn’t read it, but when I explained the plot story about the graduate student, he chuckled sagely.

The “Great Minds Think Alike” Dept.:  Patrick Kurp over at Anecdotal Evidence has written about the same Slate piece today, with his own nominations for the overrated – it’s here.

Meanwhile, in the comments section at Slate, Terrence Wentworth offered this: “Cool idea, but reading author after author being bashed got depressing by the end. It was surprising how many respondents were willing to pass judgment on books they hadn’t finished. Saying “I couldn’t finish it” is not a very powerful argument for a book’s inferiority. And I thought being well read entailed knowledge of books one didn’t like or find agreeable. I think a call for praise of un-PC works would have been much more daring. But how many contemporary critics are even willing to look for beauty in, say, Ezra Pound?