Don't Worry Keith, We Don't Like You Either

Keith Gessen doesn't like Lit Blogs. He also doesn't like McSweeney's or the Believer. He thinks lit bloggers are self-promoting whores who, unlike Keith Gessen, are selling our collective birthrights for a mess of review copy pottage. We're "freelance publicists" who are only doing what we're doing because we want attention. Of course, we'd all be starting literary magazines like N+1 if we were making 40 dollars an hour copy editing in the fantasy trustafarian world that Keith Gessen lives in. But most of us don't live in that world. Which is fine. As any reasonably intelligent person can determine from reading Keith Gessen's magazine, N+1 and co. generally don't know what the hell they're talking about, and their greatest claim to fame to date is the embarrassing literary "career" of Ben Kunkel who—going on three years later—has yet to live up to his own Madison Ave. "The Next Michael Chabon/Jonathan Lethem/Dave Eggers" hype. Now, I'm not saying the literary world of New York is composed entirely of elitist insider snobs who wouldn't know a good book if it smacked them in the face, but I'm pretty confident saying that of the editorial staff of N+1. Even when they get it right, as they do with Michel Houellebecq in the recent issue, it's for entirely the wrong reasons, Marco Roth praising him for being different from a whole canon of books that Roth qualifies in his first paragraph as not really representing the best of French Literature anyway. Reading N+1, I often have the impression that I'm reading the lit-critical output of that Monty Python sketch where all the inbred upper class twits blow themselves away with shotguns at the end. Here are people with nothing to say and all the room they want to say it, bought and paid for by god knows who, trading on minor celebrity in the hopes of improving that celebrity. That they have money and distribution and that there are a lot of other people who think like they do is unfortunate and incontrovertible, but it is not a good reason to listen to what they have to say. I, for one, am finally done staring at the train wreck and I'm going to move along and stop blocking traffic. I suggest that everyone else do the same.

Review: King Solomon's Mines

What's interesting about the book, and what in the end makes it worth reading, is how Haggard can so easily be read as the voice of colonialism. Certainly his smug and cloying tone is like the false superiority that marked colonialism in general. He protrays the African natives as vicious and blood-thirsty caricatures, alternately praising them in the most patronizing way only to turn around and insult them in sweeping generalizations. After the white explorers cross the comically named mountains, "Sheba's Breasts" (complete with snow-capped nipples), they march into the "undiscovered" Kukuannaland, home of the eponymous mines. Once there they proceed to instigate a revolution, in which numberless natives die, and install their own puppet ruler, from whom they procure a promise that they may keep any diamonds and gold they may find in the mine.

Anonymous Comments

We've made it so that people can post comments anonymously, but anonymous comments go directly into a moderation queue, while registered users can post comments directly. This is because the last time we allowed anonymous comments without moderation, we were innundated with spam comments. I'm sorry that a few spam robots make things more difficult for everybody, but there you are.

Three Recommendations

Three recommendations today:

First is short fiction from the latest issue of Harpers magazine, Sans Farine by Jim Shepard, about an executioner during the French Revolution. In telling the story of a man whose very profession is hijacked by the revolution's proclivity towards beheading the innocent, Shepard manages to humanize the Terror without ever being melodramatic or emotionally manipulative. It's quite something.

Second is Tom Bissell's essay on Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises in the most recent issue of the Believer, which is shorter than most of Bissell's pieces for that magazine, but no less great. Read an excerpt at the link above.

Third, an interview with Alan Moore by the "Fanboy Radio Network." As to be expected by a radio show with that title, the hosts and the callers are all falling all over themselves to lick Alan Moore's buttcrack; nevertheless, they get some wonderful information out of him about his work and the history of comics, and the whole thing is worth listening to. Besides, if you're going to lick anyone's butt crack, it might as well be that guy.

Review: The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman

Hodgman's fake almanac, The Areas of My Expertise, is a prime example of a relatively new and increasingly popular genre. That genre is not the fictional resource book, which belongs to a long and noble tradition that goes at least as far back as Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, released in installments from 1881-1906 and collected in 1911. Rather, what areas is an example of is the comedy of literary-geekdom, a blend of reflexive humor, satire, silliness and surrealism that, if not invented by the McSweeneys' website, is at least exemplified by it.

Why I Hate National Novel Writing Month, and Why You Should Too

Edit: Instead of reading this old thing, why don't you read How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept NaNoWriMo?

So November is "National Novel Writing Month", where people are challenged to write a complete 50,000 word novel in one month. The concept owes it's origins to the 24-hour Comics Day, originally thought up by Scott McCloud (of Understanding Comics fame), though the stated purposes of these two challenges could not be more divergent. The 24-Hour comic was invented because Scott McCloud was dismayed at how slowly his friend Steve Bissette was working. "I'll bet he could do a full length comic in a day if he wanted to!" He thought. Doing a comic in a day was an exercise to stir up the creative juices in a comics creator, and the 24 hour comic website includes a "Random story seed" section to help you pick something for your exercise. "Is this really the best way to make a great comic?" asks the FAQ. "Probably not, ... but that's not the real goal. The goal is to have the experience of trying. It's a creative exercise that can teach you a lot about what you're capable of." This is noble and interesting.

Rather than being an exercise for creators, "National Novel Writing Month," instead posits itself as a challenge for non-writers. Quoth the website:

Review: Black Hole by Charles Burns

Charles Burns' Black Hole is the kind of graphic novel that should bring more readers to a medium whose audience is already growing. It is a story of high school alienation and the lurking fear of 'others' that crosses the humor and realism of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused with the dread and gore of the early EC Horror Comics. Burns has an ear for the dialog of his characters and era, and his vivid black and white illustrations seamlessly blend the surreal with the mundane.

Zap! Pow! Rayguns on Mars!

In 1898, a novel was published that gave us the first example of the ray gun, of the flying car, and consisted of an adventure on Mars that would presage much of the pulp science fiction to come. The book was called Edison's Conquest of Mars, and starred none other than Thomas Edison, rocketing to the red planet with his buddy Lord Kelvin to kill the aliens from H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. It sounds like a joke, or something Philip José Farmer would come up with in his more delerious moments, but it was a real book "authorized" by Edison himself as a sort of promotional tool— Thomas Edison as product placement. The man was clearly ahead of his time.

For a run down of the book's contents, we turn to Zapato Producations Intradimensional's hilarious blow-by-blow. Apparently the book was not a great work of literature, nor was it ever particularly popular. But as a novelty, you can't beat Thomas Edison and Lord Kelvin rescuing Aryan ur-babes and committing genocide on evil Martians.

Full text online or buy the book.

Criticism on the Web

One conversation going on right now in the Blogosphere is the function of book reviews on the Internet, as per this round-up by Critical Mass. Lev Grossman, critic for Time Magazine, seems to dislike "amateur" book reviews, though he's not explicitly talking about the web, but rather, about non-book-critics writing book reviews in print. Anyway the thread was picked up by blogizens, like Chekov's Mistress, who defends a certain type of "non-critical" book review.

Frankly, I'm not well read enough to be a critic and am quite content not to be (and who, like Art Winslow, can fill reams of notebooks on a book for a review). What's more, I only write about books that I like because - here's a professional differentiation - I don't have time, short of getting paid for it, to finish a book I don't like - and a likeworthy book is not the same as a review-worthy book.

I, however, am more likely to agree with The Reading Experience, who writes:

if I am going to review the book myself (on this blog or elsewhere), I am also interested in fostering a critical discussion of sorts by putting my own analysis/interpretation in the context created by the already existing commentary on the book. ... it seems to me that book reviews, periodical essays, and weblog posts might aspire to more than just the conventional thumbs up/thumbs down, read it/don't read it sort of review and attempt to fill up the critical vacuum left by the withdrawal of academic criticism from the practice of what seems to most people to be actual literary criticism.

"Critical vacuum" being the operative word; Reading Experience is arguing that blogging can compensate for a perceived lack in academic criticism. I would argue that the lack is in the rigor of reviewing practiced by most of today's mainstream reviewers, and further the marginalizing of serious reviewing in organs like the New York Times Book Review. That's the great thing about the web: you can make it into whatever you want. And what I want is intelligent criticism and literary discussion. Anybody else?