Weekly Readings #10 (04/11/22-04/17/22)
what it was fashionable for my generation to feel
A weekly newsletter on what I’ve written, read, and otherwise enjoyed.
At johnpistelli.com, where I post weekly to biweekly essays on classic books in all genres, I didn’t get a chance to post this week, though you can look forward to two posts in the next seven days, both of them on major dramatists. On the other hand, I was happy to appear right here on SubStack this week in Tablet magazine’s The Scroll with a review of The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by Sam Quinones. Click below and scroll (so to speak) about 2/3 of the way down the page for my piece:
At my blog, Grand Hotel Abyss, where I write esoteric shitposts that will often form the basis of Grand Podcast Abyss,
I introduced the first of what we hope are many clips from the podcast on YouTube with some thoughts about what audience we’re trying to reach and with what message, concluding, “What we are faithful to, in the end, is a literary utopia, the republic of art”;
I suggested that the conflict over free speech on social media—which recently exploded into renewed public debate with Elon Musk’s attempted Twitter takeover—is less about the content of speech and more about our (justified) fear of how the platforms incentivize mobbing and virality (I discovered only after I wrote this that it echoes observations made by psychologist Jonathan Haidt last week in The Atlantic and on Bari Weiss’s podcast);
I responded to Joyce Carol Oates’s controversial Tweet claiming that much classic American prose of the 19th century “is actually just awkward, inept, hit-or-miss, something like stream-of-consciousness in an era before revising was relatively easy,” by linguistically, economically, and technologically contextualizing the shift in literary style between the 19th and 20th centuries while also defending the specific authors Oates named (Poe, Melville, James) as more attuned to style than their contemporaries;
and I demanded that publishers large and small stop their ridiculous and cowardly practice of accepting books for publication (sometimes in inexcusable ignorance about how they’ll be received today) and then pulling them at the first hint of social media criticism.
Elsewhere online, Christian Lorentzen writes a pan in the Financial Times of a celebrated new novel on the Cloud Atlas model. This sent me back to an essay I wrote a few months ago that tried to answer the question: “How did Cloud Atlas go from a novel to a genre?”—a genre whose innovation is to combine in one everything-is-connected book three previously distinct and even rivalrous narrative modes: historical fiction, realist fiction, and science fiction.
I suggest three reasons for this genre’s emergence. First, an attempt by novelists to use multiple genres and an expansive scope to outdo competing media (movies, TV, comics, etc.); second, a desire by novelists to incorporate overt political reflections into their work, aided by their representation of multiple settings and regimes, including the benighted past and the utopic or dystopic future; and third—running counter to the sentimentality Lorentzen no doubt rightly complains of—a leap by novelists into our posthuman future, what I call “the deeper or esoteric politics of the form itself,” perhaps beneath the awareness of the writers who wield the form:
We can express this political unconscious in a skeptical register—where behind its “postcolonial multiplicity lurks a neocon assurance of the smallness of the world and the fundamental Westernness of all who live in it”—or an ecstatic one—in which “such novels participate in an international effort to imagine life after the family as both livable and dignified” and “a move from the model of mankind as an aggregate of individuals to what it promotes as a more comprehensive model of man as a living being or species”—but these are probably the same idea stated in different vocabularies: a World Economic Forum brochure about a future where the individual, previously the novel-as-form’s raison d'être, is subsumed into a biotechnological metatext of aggregated interlinked information monitored by the higher global intelligence embodied, in this case, by the new novel’s own self-aware structure.
And then, against the genre, which I find not so much organically ambitious as artificially inflated, I quote Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical novella, Prater Violet, not least because Isherwood is a writer of a similar sensibility to David Mitchell’s and a similar ethical-political attitude to so many of today’s mainstream novelists:
Perhaps I had traveled too much, left my heart in too many places. I knew what I was supposed to feel, what it was fashionable for my generation to feel. We cared about everything: fascism in Germany and Italy, the seizure of Manchuria, Indian nationalism, the Irish question, the workers, the Negroes, the Jews. We had spread our feelings over the whole world; and I knew that mine were spread very thin. I cared—oh yes, I certainly cared—about the Austrian socialists. But did I care as much as I said I did, tried to imagine I did? No, not nearly as much.
Speaking of David Mitchell and Co., the libertarian economist Tyler Cowen provides a list of “The Best Fiction of Recent Times.” It’s a pretty unexceptional list; I have no major quarrels with it; only the presence of Neal Stephenson—whom I’ve never read—suggests its ideological provenance.
While I’ve only read five of the books on the list—My Struggle Book One, Submission, Cloud Atlas, Blindness, Disgrace—I’ve read the majority of the authors, just not always the novels Cowen specifies, e.g., The Rings of Saturn but not The Emigrants, My Name Is Red but not The Museum of Innocence, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle but not 1Q84, Perdido Street Station but not The City and the City, etc. The late works of the great Silent Generation writers aren’t/weren’t their strongest, which I assume accounts for Cowen’s omission of Morrison, DeLillo, Roth, and others, even though they wrote well into the 21st century, but let me put in a word for Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World and Foreign Bodies. The most startling omission, of course, is Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. (Well, besides, for example, Portraits and Ashes.)
Cowen concludes, “I do not feel that recent times lag far so behind some of the earlier, more classic literary eras”—too optimistic for me. I think the early 21st century, like the early 20th century, has been a bit of a trough, where even the best works were somewhat muted, but maybe the 2020s, like the 1920s, will witness a creative explosion.
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