In the 25 April Financial Times (a site at which more articles seem to be freely accessible recently) Erik Tarloff reviews three recent books by grand old American authors -- Mailer, Updike, and DeLillo (who, as Tarloff points out, is also getting on in years).
Tarloff doesn't believe American literature is more exciting than what the Brits have to offer:
During the 1950s and 1960s, the American novel mattered uniquely, virtually defining what English-language fiction was and what it could do. When these writers published, it was an event.
Now, though, when their work appears it no longer occasions great excitement.
We know their concerns, we have their range.
They retain their prestige, but they generate no special heat, and rarely even much curiosity.
It's unlikely any of them earn back their publishers' advances.
DeLillo's Cosmopolis has been getting generally poor reviews, so it's no surprise that it's an easy target: "It reads like cruel parody", Tarloff writes.
And: "DeLillo's prose is mannered, a jerky staccato, Hemingway on acid. Its rhythms make promises its sense can't keep."
In conclusion Tarloff wonders about these aging authors: "Where are their successors ?" -- which doesn't seem entirely fair, as there are certainly names one could throw out there while he doesn't consider any at all, insisting simply that: "In fictional terms, the centre of gravity has shifted back across the Atlantic."
Iris Murdoch's widower, John Bayley, is cashing in on her working library.
Dalya Alberge reports on it in yesterday's issue of The Times, as does Colin Blackstock in The Guardian.
Bayley apparently "said that he no longer had room at his Oxford house for Dame Iris's working library".
The collection, of between 900 and 1200 books, has been "valued tentatively at £150,000"
Bayley is selling it through Rachel Lee Rare Books, who are planning to hawk it at the Antiquarian Book Fair (5-8 June).
(We don't really have room either, but if anyone wants to buy it for us we're sure we could accommodate it somewhere.)
A 23 April article in the South African Cape Argus reports:
It is cheaper in South Africa today to buy a second-hand AK-47 assault rifle than it is to buy a new Harry Potter book by JK Rowling.
While on the one hand it's nice to see that books are literally valued higher than guns, at least in parts of the world, this is a pretty disturbing state of affairs.
The example comes from a campaign to exempt books in South Africa from the current 14 per cent VAT (value added tax, similar to sales tax) -- and an eye-catching example it is, though not really that apt.
The gun, presumably, should be subject to the same tax -- unless bought on the street (but then the Harry Potter book bought on the black market wouldn't include the VAT either .....).
The VAT-rate is a high one -- but it only adds about one-seventh to the total price.
The problem is, of course, that the underlying product itself is already incredibly over-priced, even before tax is included.
(We can't afford to buy books at anywhere near retail prices in the US -- and unfortunately the situation does not seem to be much better anywhere else in the world either.)
The VAT-exemption campaign so far does not look like it will be a successful one: a 24 April article in Business Day reports:
Giving books special treatment under the value-added tax (VAT) regime would place an onerous burden on the SA Revenue Service and would add unnecessary complications and costs to the system, head of the SARS VAT division Peter Franck said yesterday.
(While the idea of special (tax) treatment of books might seem appealing in some respects, we have to side with the SARS man on this (even though he is exaggerating the difficulties here): the tax system should be as simple as possible, with no exemptions.
(Look at the catastrophic mess America's system has become, bogged down in exemption after loophole and leading to ridiculous situations such as less of a tax burden on owners of cars (and so-called light trucks) that create more pollution, the obscenity of the mortgage interest rate deduction, and the ultimate abomination: the non-profit (for tax purposes) organisation.)
Books are special but, for tax purposes, they should be treated like all other commodities.
If the state wants to foster the local publishing industry -- or, better yet, reading itself -- there are other (and much better) ways for it to do it (build -- and stock ! -- public libraries, for one !).)
The cry about how few people still care about (or bother with) reading is a near global one.
For yet another example, consider Raj Paneken's lament from tiny and distant (from just about everywhere) Mauritius (in the local L'Express, 22 April):
Today reading has plummeted to its lowest point.
Very few people read nowadays.
That aversion for books is not only among our students but also at national level.
The reading public is constantly on the wane.
These words could have been (and probably often have been) written anywhere.
Literature is a subject which is already on its way to the scrap heap.
It may be a matter of time before it suffers the same fate as History, Greek or Latin
(Okay, we didn't know history had made it onto this particular scrap heap already -- though the ascent of Wunderignormaus George jr. Bush, who feels at ease leaving literature, history, and the English language (indeed, any semblance of culture and/or sophistication) in the dirt, should probably have tipped us off that it's gotten to this point.)
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Hilary Spurling's portrait of Sonia Orwell, The Girl from the Fiction Department.
(It came out a last year in the UK, and is being published by Counterpoint in the US in a month or so.)
Spurling stands up for and defends Sonia Orwell -- a literary widow who apparently has been much maligned.
It's nice, in a way, this standing up for a friend, but the taint of subjectivity -- in which the book is steeped -- ultimately diminishes the usefulness of the book.
A big part of the problem is that Spurling doesn't make clear what the charges against Sonia are.
Some of the reviews make much of her supposed stranglehold over access to Orwell's work, and her not allowing scholars to examine his papers, which is barely mentioned by Spurling.
Apparently, there was also considerable fuss about Sonia not allowing any biographical work to be done -- as Orwell specifically forbade a biography to be written.
But ultimately she did betray him, appointing Bernard Crick as authorized biographer.
Spurling seems to think this was acceptable -- Sonia was practically forced to do it ! apparently -- though, of course, it is nothing of the kind.
Spurling doesn't present enough about the (mis-)management of the Orwell estate by Sonia and her business manager, but the sordid details she does offer are enough to serve as another harrowing example of why authors should be very careful in whom they entrust control over their estates to.
(And a reminder that regardless of their wishes, they're unlikely to be obeyed: no biographies, Orwell stated -- clearly and absolutely.
That's not a difficult directive to follow, and yet Sonia couldn't even get that right.
And unfortunately there was no one to protect Orwell's interests and see to it that his final wishes were followed to the letter, as they should have been.)
Interesting, also, the British reviews of Spurling's book.
They include one by another Sonia-friend, Cyril Connolly's daughter Cressida (in The Spectator), where objectivity can't be expected (or found) -- as well as, more entertainingly, one by the controversial appointed Orwell biographer, Bernard Crick (in The Independent) -- who also treads carefully around most of the issues.
Crick admits: "Hilary Spurling has a go at me", and he does clear up a few points left quite vague by Spurling -- but not enough.
Overall, Jenny Diski's review (in the London Review of Books) offers the best background and explanation of various disputes, charges, and controversies -- though even she doesn't discuss them all adequately.
We're curious to see what the American critics make of all this.
The London Review of Books is opening a bookshop in Bloomsbury this week, and in yesterday's issue of The Observer Jonathan Heawood wonders: "can a tiny independent store survive in the face of the power wielded by today's big chains ?"
We recently mentioned the Orange Prize shortlist -- as well as the Orange ambition of determining the "50 best novels written by women" (in English).
Stephanie Merritt discusses the undertaking in yesterday's issue of The Observer.
One's faith in the voting public is certainly reaffirmed when one learns: "According to Mosse, there are already a significant number of votes for a Ms Evelyn Waugh."
Yesterday's issue of The Los Angeles Times offers a piece by German poet and critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Literature, served à la carte.
He believes: "The only industry with a similar structure to publishing is gastronomy."
He suggests publishing might be able to learn a few things from restaurant-successes -- though given the failure rate of new restaurants, and -- at the high end -- their dependence on a chef's reputation (as well as the incredible (and global) success of purveyors of what we can only consider imitation food, like McDonalds and similar fast "food" chains) we're not entirely convinced.
Still, some of his suggestions and comments are worthwhile.
It wouldn't be a bad idea for every country with a readership to publish a handy little book and store guide annually, compiled by rigorous, independent, feared testers capable of separating the wheat from the chaff.
With a focus that's not on the individual books themselves the idea isn't half-bad:
In the first part, the reader could learn about the various publishing companies.
Are we dealing with a factory or a manufacturer ?
What can the client expect: fast food or quality ?
The whole program would be put to the test.
Not only a company's profile, literary caliber, willingness to take risks and specialties, but also its design, typography and longevity would be evaluated.
In the guide's second half, the reader would find out what a bookstore can offer its clients: choice of titles, expertise and service.
Not a test most publishers (especially the dominant, conglomerate controlled ones) or booksellers would do too well at.
In the November 2002 issue of the crQuarterly we considered the question of Literary Legacies and authors' wishes, including those of Eloise-creator, Kay Thompson -- who famously refused to allow re-publication of all but the first Eloise book, as well as refusing to allow any movie or TV versions (after a disastrous version was screened).
Since Ms. Thompson died her estate has made a complete about-face, milking her creations for all they're worth.
The most recent Eloise rip-off is a TV movie by the Walt Disney behemoth -- defender of copyright everywhere and for all time !
ABC will be showing Eloise at the Plaza on Sunday night.
The reviews have not been good.
To put it mildly.
In yesterday's issue of The New York Times, Alessandra Stanley is certain: "Kay Thompson must be rolling, rolling, rolling in her grave."
And in the New York Post Linda Stasi writes about this "awful movie", finding that Eloise has been put "in a story so clichéd, trite and terrible it's unwatchable".
We don't know what Kay Thompson's will specifies, and perhaps her estate is acting according to her wishes.
Somehow, though, we doubt it.
As we understand it, copyright is meant to protect authors' rights.
It doesn't look like it's doing a good job of protecting Ms.Thompson's rights -- this (and many of the other actions undertaken by her estate) don't appear to be things she would in any way have approved of.
Unfortunately, there is no one to speak for her.
Even if her will specifically prohibits the sale of TV and/or film rights, her literary executors can easily decide otherwise -- there's no one who is going to complain (or rather, there's no one with legal standing to take action against such outrageous actions).
There are public policy reasons for going against Thompson's wishes -- the public is surely better served by the re-publication of the long-unavailable Eloise-books, for example -- and one might argue that it's just unfortunate that the Disney company made a hash of this TV film.
And, one can argue, the Thompson estate, which after all now holds the copyright, should be able to do as it pleases with it.
But what about the author's wishes, express or implied ?
Why don't they count for anything anymore ?
Why are the author's rights so easily severed upon death -- while protection of the property continues for decades ?
It seems to us this is a serious problem.
And it's yet another wake-up call for authors to think about how they can protect their legacies after their deaths.
Meanwhile, a somewhat better review of the ABC movie in the Hartford Courant ominously ends: "A sequel, Eloise at Christmastime, is already in production."
The Orange Prize for Fiction 2003 shortlist has been announced.
The Orange is, of course, a prize restricted to authors who are women -- though we're not certain about their definition, or how closely they examine the contestants (we still wonder if, for example, Jan Morris would be eligible -- or at what point s/he would have become so).
The only longlisted book we reviewed did -- much to our surprise -- make the cut: Donna Tartt's The Little Friend.
All the shortlisted books are reviewed at the Orange site; poet Peter Porter reviewed the Tartt-book, finding: "Donna Tartt's The Little Friend is a brilliant addition to Southern novel-making".
We don't quite agree -- though we note that Porter isn't that far-off with his contorted claim: the book does feel more made than written.
The Orange-folk are also "asking the British public to vote for the all time 50 best novels written by women".
Vote now !
"Any novel written by a woman, in English that has been published in the UK is eligible."
The May/June issue of "Barnes & Noble Presents Book Magazine" is now available online.
Nothing of particular interest -- except perhaps the publisher's note Presenting Our Partner (that partner being Barnes & Noble).
Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Féerie pour une autre fois is now available in an English version by Mary Hudson, Fable for Another Time, from the University of Nebraska Press (see also their publicity page).
Definitely something we'd like to have a look at.
Meanwhile, check out Jim Knipfel's review in this week's issue of the New York Press -- or some (French) information at this Céline site.
(See also Céline at books and writers.)
Bardin isn't exactly a household name -- but these books are, more or less, available (two also in French, and all three in German), and he seems to have something of a following.
These three books were published as a "John Franklin Omnibus" by Penguin in 1976, and though that edition seems to be out of print our copy attests to reprints in 1979 and 1983 -- a decent run for such a thriller collection.
The Omnibus comes with an introduction by Julian Symons, offering a few background titbits: Kingsley Amis was a fan, Symons had "yet to find an American writer or critic who knows his work at all", and when this edition was being prepared it was difficult to even figure out whether Bardin was even still alive (he was).
In all three novels the central characters worry (generally with very good reason) about going mad -- something that can get tiresome.
Still, Bardin handles this about as well as one can -- though we certainly could have done with fewer memory-lapses, alcohol-induced or otherwise.
Striking too, the very unhealthy daughter-father relationships lurking beneath some of what goes on here: shocking stuff, not as luridly exposed as one might nowadays but almost more horrible in the subtler presentation.
There are a lot of damaged folk here, and Bardin shows some good psychological insight in presenting these odd cases.
Along with the obligatory dose of murder, all three make for pretty good (if somewhat unsettling) reads.
The 15 May issue of The New York Review of Books is now available, with a few articles online, most notably Peter Singer on Animal Liberation at 30.
As he notes: "The phrase 'Animal Liberation' appeared in the press for the first time on the April 5, 1973 cover of The New York Review of Books."
Here he offers up a review of several recent books on animal rights and the like -- including Roger Scruton's Animal Rights and Wrongs.
(Somewhat to our regret, fur and feathers don't exactly fly in his discussion of Scruton's book.)
(Also available: the always worthwhile Freeman Dyson offers What a World !, a review of The Earth's Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change by Vaclav Smil.)
Part of the Spring 2003 issue of Bookforum is now available online.
Nothing of too much interest.
We had some hopes for Thomas McGonigle's interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet, but that chat contains insightful remarks such as McGonigle's: "But I find that being Celtic, as you are, that I'm constitutionally pessimistic" and mentions of McGonigle's daughter and other irrelevancies, all of which makes our eyes glaze over and mourn the minute and a half of our lives we've just wasted and that we could have better spent reading something that might actually be interesting or informative.
(McG. also reminisces:
When I interviewed Julian Greene when he was about ninety–four, I asked him what he had to look forward to, and he said he looked forward to purgatory.
It's a nice anecdote as far as it goes (and one has to admire McG's technique -- no doubt his next interview-victim will, much to his or her surprise, be regaled by an irrelevant anecdote that begins: "When I interviewed Alain Robbe-Grillet ..."), but it might have been nice if he had spelled the author's name right.
The first name is forgivable -- either Julien or Julian is okay -- but it's Green, not the Grahamesque Greene.)
Author interviews -- gotta love 'em.
(Especially when they're conducted by another author.)
(There are a few decent sound-bites in the interview -- but even most of those aren't particularly original, as when Robbe-Grillet states: "Young writers, it seems, are no longer that interested in culture per se. They are interested, instead, in having a career in literature."
Which one could have said about any generation of writers (or would-be writers) since god knows when.)
Robbe-Grillet's Repetition has now come out in the US; see, for example, William Poundstone's review in this week's issue of The Village Voice.
For more information about Robbe-Grillet (or rather: any -- since you certainly didn't obtain any from the Bookforum-chat) see also the Robbe-Grillet page at books and writers.
Katie Roiphe wonders: "Are critics paying too much attention to literary gossip ?" in The Fact in Fiction at Slate yesterday.
Actually, she doesn't wonder; she insists it is so.
She complains specifically about Joe Hagan's review of Paul Auster's wife's novel, What I Loved, and believes this "sordid literary sleuthing is part of a larger trend".
She seems pretty outraged:
Now it seems an actual confusion between the writer's life and the book has become more and more widespread.
Gossip masquerading as literary criticism crops up in papers as respected as the New York Times.
(Since Janet Maslin is now regularly reviewing so-called books like Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada in the pages of The New York Times it seems unlikely that that paper is all that respected any longer, but that's another issue .....)
Roiphe claims some expertise -- "Having lived with writers all my life, I've been on both sides -- the writer and the written about" -- and quite a bit of understanding -- for authors: "I've never once questioned anyone's right to put anything they want into their fiction."
Funny, then, that she's perfectly willing to question critics' rights as to how they approach a text.
(Funny, also, that she seems to think this is something new -- hasn't this sort of literary gossip and fact-checking gone on since time immemorial ?)
The ideal she speaks of -- "We should judge a novel -- but only on its merits as a novel" -- sounds just right to us, but it's not quite that easy.
Ms. Roiphe herself has written a work of fiction, Still She Haunts Me, which is apparently a fictional look at Lewis Carroll and his possibly questionable interest in little Alice.
It would be pretty hard to consider that novel without recalling and comparing the figures to their real-life counterparts (indeed, surely almost all readers bring so much baggage to the text -- everyone knows Carroll's Alice, has seen some of the naughty photographs, knows a bit of the history there -- that they couldn't read it purely as a novel if they wanted to).
In this case, it doesn't have directly to do with the author's life and experiences (though indirectly it very well might), but it still appropriates actual facts and figures.
Why shouldn't readers (and reviewers) approach Siri Hustvedt's book in the same way ?
Roiphe mentions Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada but doesn't try to explain how that pseudo-book could possibly be read without considering the author's background and experiences -- and all the juicy gossip.
The only reason that bound bunch of pages even exists is because it's supposedly based on real people and a real magazine -- a fictionalized Vogue-exposé that can skirt libel laws and still make good (or bad) fun of Anna Wintour.
She is right that there is something disturbing about this focus -- but, unfortunately, the public seems to lap it up (and the media is easily convinced to cover it, rather than reviewing real novels).
Weisberger's sorry excuse for a book has been written up in every and any major magazine and newspaper, not only with reviews (most of which have been wonderfully bad -- "the plot is slight, and the character development is anorexic" writes Cathleen McGuigan in a fairly typical reaction in the 28 April issue of Newsweek) but also endless puff pieces.
We wouldn't mind doing away with all the literary gossip, but what we'd really like is doing away with all the fiction that is merely dressed-up gossip (literary or otherwise) in the first place.
Dennis Potter's classic TV mini-series, The Singing Detective (see our review), has apparently been re-issued on DVD; in any case, there've been lots of media-mentions.
Stephanie Zacharek has a gushing piece on it in the 20 April issue of The New York Times (not that we'd take issue with any gushing -- it's a great work).
Other recent reviews of the DVD set can be found in:
A while back we reviewed the first two volumes of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, a comic book memoir of her childhood in post-revolutionary Iran that's coming out any day now from Pantheon.
Word of mouth seems pretty good and it looks like this book might receive a lot of attention.
(User interest in our review of the book has been very high -- though much of that will be from the international audience (especially in France) already familiar with her work.)
To further frustrate ... no, we of course mean: inform English-language readers, we have now added our review of volume three -- which has not yet been translated into English, and is only available in the French original.
(One more volume is due; we hope to review it when it appears in France.)
"Books, books, always books !" August Kubizek once wrote.
"I just can't imagine Adolf without books.
He had them piled up around him at home.
He always had a book with him wherever he went."
It sounds almost admirable, but instead is proof yet again that there's nothing inherently good about a love of (or excessive pre-occupation with) books -- this Adolf, of course, being Adolf Hitler.
Timothy W. Ryback writes about Hitler's Forgotten Library in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
Quite a bit of Hitler's collection is in the US -- though the "1,200 of Hitler's books in the Library of Congress most likely represent less than 10 percent of the original collection".
Hitler seems to have been quite the book-person (and how very un-reassuring that is).
Ryback reports that:
More telling still is the five-year insurance policy Hitler took out in October of 1934, with the Gladbacher Fire Insurance Company, on his six-room apartment on the Prinzregentenplatz, in downtown Munich.
In the letter of agreement accompanying the policy Hitler valued his book collection, said to consist of 6,000 volumes, at 150,000 marks—half the value of the entire policy.
The other half represented his art holdings.
If there's any comfort, it is that Hitler didn't pay proper attention to the only literary form that truly matters -- fiction:
By his own admission, Hitler was not a big fan of novels, though he once ranked Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Don Quixote (he had a special affection for the edition illustrated by Gustave Doré) among the world's greatest works of literature.
(Interesting that the fiction singled out here is all foreign and un-Teutonic, and not at all of the Wagnerian sort one might have expected.
Though, of course, his favourite author was Karl May -- also a grand-dreaming fraud (though of a much more harmless sort) like Hitler.)
The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of two of A.S.Byatt's 1960s novels: her first, The Shadow of the Sun, and also The Game.
The latter impressed, the former is something of a slog.
Of those who buy novels, slightly fewer than 20 per cent are men, according to Professor David Booth at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.
This tallies with the figures for the United States. According to the marketing research firm IPSOS-Insight, men constituted only 17.1 per cent of the market for adult fiction trade books.