Skip to main content

Book Cover: How Fiction Works by James Wood
I planned to write through August about Darkness, about Disturbing Books - as I did last week. I have many thoughts, and an article and a book I've been looking at in particular. But I have no more clear conclusions to share, yet. In the middle of my journey, I'm still lost in a dark wood.

The more I look at Darkness, the harder it gets. It's not that I'm starting to cry. It's that evil, censorship, influence, mature morality, healthy art - these are tangled subjects, hard to be sure of. I will not write on them in a trivial way, or with nothing clear and new to say. It is foolish to enter disturbing territory, if there is no wisdom to share at the end of the journey. So I turn sideways, from J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, with its chapter on The Problem of Evil. That will be my subject next week.

I discovered J. M. Coetzee last November, when I wrote a diary on his Life & Times of Michael K. I found Coetzee's fiction compelling but chilly, lucid but hard to like. As James Wood put it, in A Frog's Life (a review of Elizabeth Costello):

There may be many readers who, on hearing of J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel Prize, immediately thought about the cost of clarity. There is so much, after all, missing from Coetzee’s distinguished books. His prose is precise, but blanched; in place of comedy there is only bitter irony (this is Coetzee’s large difference from Beckett, whom he so clearly admires); in place of society, with its domestic and familial affiliations, there is political society; and underfoot is often the tricky camber of allegory, insisting on pulling one’s step in certain directions. Coetzee has himself, with characteristic honesty, lamented that South African literature is ‘a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power … it is exactly the kind of literature one would expect people to write from a prison.’
The problem I found with Life & Times of Michael K., which seems to hold for most of Coetzee's fiction (especially pre-2000) is, there's nothing easy about it. He doesn't give you a locomotive plot, to keep you turning the pages hungrily; neither does he write characters who suck you into their touching humanity; nor does he decorate his fictional world with such precise and varied details, that you see and smell it. His South Africa is credible, but not immersive. It feels like warmth is irrelevant, he just wants to shed light, and even that comes slowly, in epiphanies in minor keys.

A few months later I discovered J. M. Coetzee's reviews and criticism. They are brilliant, showing careful, flexible thought and penetrating insight. After his arid storytelling, I was surprised at how well-furnished his criticism is. You can see how much reading and research he does, from all the information he imparts. He chews on his subject like a terrier, shaking it in all directions until he brings the whole thing to the ground.

I will be reading a lot more of Coetzee. So far, I've found his criticism more absorbing and warm-blooded than his fiction. I highly recommend Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999, which has chapters on Defoe, Richardson, Rilke, Kafka, Musil, Dostoevsky, Borges, Byatt, Rushdie, Lessing and others, including "What is a Classic?", starting from a lecture of the same name that T. S. Eliot gave.

(I expect Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 is nearly as good - but I haven't read much of it yet.)

Elizabeth Costello is an odd hybrid of fiction and essays. As James Wood puts it, in A Frog's Life,

Coetzee’s latest book, a series of philosophical dialogues bound into rather fitful fiction, might initially seem unappetising. For some time now, he has been in the habit, when invited to deliver a lecture, of employing a richly deflective device: he reads out a story about a writer asked to give a lecture. That writer is not an alter ego, though how much she shares with her creator is one of the device’s loitering teases. Her name is Elizabeth Costello, an Australian novelist born in 1928, famous like Coetzee for her rewriting of a classic novel (in Coetzee’s case, Robinson Crusoe; in Costello’s, Ulysses). The frame story allows Coetzee to share ideas while obscuring his overt possession of them. . . .

The paradox of the chosen form is that on the one hand Coetzee seems to be playing his usual withholding game: the famous ascetic, the pale undeliverer, the non-interviewee, who instead of tying himself to a series of propositions puts them in the mouth of a fictional creation and slips away behind her; yet, on the other hand, the ideas that Elizabeth Costello wants to propose in her lectures are so intense, so passionate and even at times irrational, that their extremity necessarily encourages us to follow them back to their recessed author, Coetzee himself. . . .

Elizabeth Costello collects eight of these tales – ironically called ‘lessons’ in Coetzee’s subtitle. In addition to her trips to Amsterdam and Appleton College, Costello talks about realism at a college in Pennsylvania, takes a job on a cruise ship to lecture to the passengers about the future of the novel (she is pessimistic), and, on a visit to Johannesburg, talks about the possibility of learning anything from the humanities. The book has a shape, rather a religious one: it inclines towards death. The penultimate chapter is a Kafka-like parable in which Costello seems to be at the gate of heaven, only to find that she must give an account of her beliefs to a presiding jury.

Against all likelihood, the book is more affecting than anything else he has written, and, I think, deeply confessional. . . .

I find Elizabeth Costello an engaging story, and protagonist; and I enjoy all the literary background and philosophical debate sandwiched within Elizabeth's travels and lectures. The book got me thinking about vegetarianism, and taught me about oral traditions and African Novels, and how textual analysis of the Bible lay the foundation for literary criticism. That knowledge is not reliable, it came from characters with their own views and flaws. As in Plato, the debates broaden your view of the subjects discussed.

James Wood is a successful and popular book critic, who is most famous for coining the term Hysterical Realism in a review of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, called Human, All Too Inhuman. It's a pretty long review. Hysterical Realism is an interesting topic, for another day. If you want a quick grasp of it, try Wood's much shorter piece, Tell me how does it feel?

James Wood's essays are enjoyable to read: They're well-written, with sound judgment, and a strong, broad grasp of literature to back them up.

The most satisfying Wood I've found, of the four I've looked into, was the most coherent, How Fiction Works. From the front sleeve:

In the tradition of E. M. Forster's  Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, How Fiction Works is a scintillating study of the magic of fiction--an analysis of its main elements and a celebration of its lasting power. Here one of the most prominent and stylish critics of our time looks into the machinery of storytelling to ask some fundamental questions: What do we mean when we say we "know" a fictional character? What constitutes a telling detail? When is a metaphor successful? Is Realism realistic? Why do some literary conventions become dated while others stay fresh?

James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.

Wood is like Austen to Coetzee's Eliot. This book is a joy to read, stuffed with wit and learning, told in a very likable voice. Like Austen, he has unerring good sense.

If you try that and want more, the richest of his three books of essays I've read is The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief. It has chapters on Harold Bloom's view of Shakespeare, Austen's Heroic Consciousness, God and Metaphor in Melville, Gogol's Realism, Woolf's Mysticism, Lawrence's Occultism, Pynchon and the Problem of Allegory, and Updike's Complacent God, among others.

Oh dear, this diary is already late. Two neighbors had a row, the police came, and I was busy as a witness and peacemaker. It's fine now, but it took awhile.

Do you have any favorite literary critics, anyone who writes essays or reviews that are a joy to read and teach you to see more in other books? Who are they? What are the best books you've ever read about books or literature? Are there any magazines, papers or websites, that you find good book articles in?

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar & (19+ / 0-)

    Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

    DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
    SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
    Sun 2:00 PM What's on Your E-Reader? Caedy
    Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
    Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
    alternate Mondays
    2:00 PM Political Books Susan from 29
    Mon 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery michelewln, Susan from 29
    Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
    TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
    alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
    alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
    Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
    WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
    Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
    Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
    THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
    Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
    alternate Thursdays 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
    FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
    Fri 8:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht; first one each month by ArkDem14
    Fri 10:00 PM Slightly Foxed -- but Still Desirable shortfinals
    SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
    Sat 12:00 PM You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews pwoodford
    Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 04:55:41 PM PDT

  •  David Lodge and Fredric Jameson (9+ / 0-)
    Do you have any favorite literary critics, anyone who writes essays or reviews that are a joy to read and teach you to see more in other books? Who are they?

    Warning - some snark may be above‽ (-9.50; -7.03)‽ eState4Column5©2013 "I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be" - Barack Obama 04/27/2013

    by annieli on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 05:30:29 PM PDT

  •  I rely a lot on The NY Review of Books (10+ / 0-)

    but do I have a favorite critic?  Hmmmm...

    Off the top of my head, I like Tim Parks.  I like André Aciman's work on Proust.  

    If I think of any more, I'll come back after dinner and a blood sugar boost to the brain.  

    It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

    by Radiowalla on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 06:01:52 PM PDT

  •  Books about books . . . (11+ / 0-)

    I know we discussed this at the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble, but I didn't really have an answer then and I don't really have much of one now. Nowadays, footnotes and the Sunday New York Times Book Review are where I get my reading lists from.

    Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall

    by Dave in Northridge on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 06:01:58 PM PDT

    •  The internet's a treasure trove, as my blogroll (10+ / 0-)

      indicates. Some of the best book publications have paywalls, but you can usually find a few reviews but any of their regular authors, and get a taste of their knowledge and style.

      Libraries are fantastic. Santa Monica has a huge section for literary criticism (far better than most bookstores), which makes for hours of pleasant browsing.

      I've thought it would be nice to find three good essays on one book I love, and then write a Platonic banquet, hosting the conflicting opinions.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 06:13:29 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  a novel about not writing (10+ / 0-)

    Strictly speaking Enrique Vila-Matas's Bartleby & Co. is a novel, not criticism at all but it's the most recent thing I've read to make me think differently about books and writing.

    It's a novel in footnotes to the work a hunchbacked clerk can't quite bring himself to write. Not having been able to write anything himself after one novel 25 years ago, he undertakes an accounting of "Writers of the No" who for many complex reasons give up on writing, or write very little or just go do something else. Chief among them is Melville's Bartleby who would "prefer not to."

    So, I've been chasing off after many of the writers he mentions and thinking about what makes the tipping point for a story that has to be told. Why do some writers produce so much and others comparatively little?

    (I'm not a writer but I have to struggle with myself to continue art-making.)

    I hope to read more James Woods. This comment of his from your link is very funny (about a book that was too dark for me).

    If I live the rest of my life without having to come across another book like Bret Easton Ellis's New York novel, Glamorama, I will have very happily been what Psalm 81 calls "delivered from the pots".
    Another great diary.
  •  Heh, I know we're going to disagree on (9+ / 0-)

    this point, but I found Zadie Smith's response to Wood far better and more memorable than Wood's original article.

    ((Grenade lobbed.))

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 07:29:09 PM PDT

    •  Your grenades are welcome, pico. I know that you (8+ / 0-)

      read and think before you throw them.

      It wouldn't surprise me to find I agree with you, but I'll reread the first piece and read the second before offering my view.

      I did think that Wood got a bit bent out of shape with Smith and literary fashion in 2000, which I hadn't seen him do elsewhere.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 07:50:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  My naive take - and this is just (5+ / 0-)

        from the top of my head, so I apologize if I'm misplacing the context of Wood's article - is that he was swept up in the anti-irony movement that started gaining speed in the mid- to late-90s and then found itself in the center of public debate after 9-11 (remember all the "irony is dead" statements?  People said that about irony in art, too.)  Or "New Sincerity", which is the kinder, but still ridiculous way of putting it.  DFW flirted with it, too, but he was smart enough to know it was unavoidable, and you can't move backwards.  

        I wrote a diary about the anti-irony movement a loooong time ago.  It kinda fascinates me, even though I disagree with it completely.  

        Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

        by pico on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 11:43:06 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Wood's calling out hysterical realism, (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, Monsieur Georges

          and the anti-irony movement's calling out irony (or, in the case of all the intelligent irony critics, calling out irony as employed for sophomoric humor), were parallel crusades. They were each reacting against a trend that was so fashionable, so over-used, that it felt like too much, like it was making discourse shallow in certain ways, squeezing the heart out of things that mattered.

          Looking at Wood's blast, and Smith's counterblast, I find more substance in Wood's piece - but mostly because it's longer, and he'd been thinking about his theme for quite a while before it crystallized. There is an element of his personal taste in the critique: Character is one of the crucial ingredients in great novels, and it's magical when an author creates a three-dimensional character, who jumps off the page and into our heart - one who always convinces, but sometimes surprises us. But he argues as though it's the keystone of the novel, when I'd say it's closer to one of the four elements.

          Smith is pretty winning - her writing, her thinking, her feeling. I must read more of her essays.

          Thought I'd better read your diary. I found David Beers' Irony is dead! Long live irony! very clarifying and sound.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Sat Aug 17, 2013 at 09:10:05 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Wood is getting worked up, making bon mots rain, (7+ / 0-)

      getting gymnastic with his knowledge and his arguments.

      He wrote this in 2001, so he was attacking a consensus: Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith were popular and wildly acclaimed. Wood clearly finds them overrated, and aims to overwhelm his reader with a tirade. He fights fire with fire, he builds his arguments and adorns his prose just like the writers he's accusing do.

      He is just as dazzled and swept away by the tsunami approach as all the other fans are. But he's also determined to pull away The Great Oz's curtain, and show us the flaws we haven't seen yet.

      Wood piles masses of details, mocks like Mercutio, bludgeons with slogans - "This is not magical realism. It is hysterical realism. . . It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up." The question is, when you get to the other side of this blizzard, how much has he illuminated and clarified?

      It would take me a fair amount of time, looking at this essay from all sides, to reach a balanced judgment with confidence. My gut sense is, Wood has done his work. He's burrowed into these books and, beside the bluster, he's pointing to real flaws that the critics around him were mostly missing. Here are three sharp points:

      The existence of vitality is mistaken for the drama of vitality.

      the characters who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry.

      Dickens shows that a large part of characterization is merely the management of caricature. . . Yet that is not all there is in Dickens, which is why most contemporary novelists are only his morganatic heirs. There is in Dickens also an immediate access to strong feeling, which rips the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them.

      I'm finding lots of llumination and a strong and binding argument in Wood's piece. He likes Smith, he finds more depth in her characters than Rushdie's. But reviewing White Teeth gave him a place to express an argument that had built up inside him.

      I'll address Smith's reply in another comment, perhaps tomorrow.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 11:42:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You noticed that, too: (4+ / 0-)

        "he builds his arguments and adorns his prose just like the writers he's accusing do."    Heh.

        But what a great, lively food fight we have here.  I just love it and I learn so much in the back and forth.  

        It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

        by Radiowalla on Sat Aug 17, 2013 at 09:20:53 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  "I learn so much in the back and forth." (4+ / 0-)

          Hear, hear.

          The complex dance of knowledge, ideas, tastes and feelings that I find here with you, with pico, Limelite, shari, No Exit, Free Jazz at High Noon, and several dozen other R&BLers is a shared joy and a fierce competition, an exhilaration and a relaxing break from the white noise of TV and empty conversation. It sharpens my understanding, and makes it more flexible.

          Happy to dance with you, compadre.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Sat Aug 17, 2013 at 10:11:49 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  So right! The discussions in the R&BLers (4+ / 0-)

            diaries are consistently the most thought-provoking, and generally the most enjoyable too, of all the fine series on DKos. IMHO, of course!

          •  I was actually referring to the food fight (4+ / 0-)

            between Wood and Zadie Smith and not to the lively but always, cough, cough,  genteel discussions here between book lovers.  

            But you are entirely right about how exhilarating these discussions are, thanks to you and the other moderators.  

            It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

            by Radiowalla on Sat Aug 17, 2013 at 02:52:56 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  The Wood and Smith pieces are both excellent (3+ / 0-)

              It's exhilarating to read fine writers who have strong opinions, but also notice the flaws in their own arguments while they're making them. Impressive complexity and self-awareness, and real wit too. Zadie Smith:

              writers do not write what they want, they write what they can. When I was 21 I wanted to write like Kafka. But, unfortunately for me, I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who'd briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault.
              Shame they're not here in R&BLers, though. Then they might really learn something.

              "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

              by Brecht on Sat Aug 17, 2013 at 03:07:19 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  meta (5+ / 0-)

    is difficult for me especially in the realm of literature

    i have enough difficulty finding the time to actually read fiction and i think it takes even more time to deal with meta

    however i am intrigued by the critics you have presented to us, both coetzee and woods, and this is a wonderful post, thoughtful as always.

    i had not realized coetzee is a literary critic but it makes sense to me. his fiction, while the writing is beautiful, is at a level of meta. i could feel his prefrontal cortex working in his fiction, and meta is all about prefrontal cortex.

    about woods, i am familiar with the writing of smith but not the others.  i can see his point of hysterical realism though my thoughts were along the line, very smart on the part of woods for coming up with this but what is the problem with that style of writing? smith's writing is exuberant and creative but a bit flat and while i loved 'white teeth', i thought it was flawed. it was fun but there were portions of meh.   i have read her more recent novels. same as well. however, i love how she deals with race and i love her creativity.

    i would be curious to find out what he thinks of haruki murakami.

    that said, i was thinking in terms of literary critics, i don't usually read them so this was a great diary for me.  

    •  I find meta too easy, I slip into it unconsciously (4+ / 0-)

      I'm keenly intuitive, and am always scrying for patterns, when I might learn more from inspecting the objects before my eyes. Especially as I often fall into patterns I know full well.

      This gives me a natural facility for talking about books, as I can connect any book to my well-tended themes and theories. But I repeat myself a lot. So I am deliberately turning towards my own path less traveled, aiming to write less diaries of gaseous meta, and more diaries concretely grasping and exploring single books. It's harder work for me (for starters, you have to read a book and really pay attention), but I learn from it. I feel it enriches my writing.

      I think Wood's critique of hysterical realism is a substantial essay, and a great starting point for a conversation about many recent novels. He raises several points. The heart of his argument is, I think, that these novels dazzle us with exuberance, information, and creativity, but they lack heart; they do not immerse us in characters with a full, convincing, breathing humanity.

      I agree with his point, but he may hammer it too hard. I love how protean novels are, how they have hundreds of methods of building a reality, or illuminating a truth. I do especially like it when a novel smells of humanity, when at least two or three of the characters both convince and surprise me. But there are a lot of other planks to build a solid novel with.

      Wood was just hungry for a novel that smelled of humanity, and a lot of the biggest novels of the 1990s didn't give him that. He knows he's being unfair to pin this on Smith:

      "And to give Smith her considerable due, she may be more likely to "get the balance right" than any of her contemporaries — in part just because she sees that a balance is needed, and in part because she is very talented and still very young. At her best, she approaches her characters and makes them human; she is much more interested in this, and more naturally gifted at it, than is Rushdie."
      I'd like to know what Wood thinks of Murakami too. I just checked Wood's 8 page index of New Yorker articles, but found none on Murakami. I did find one where he addresses the criticism that Coetzee is a cold writer, so I'll go read that now.

      I'm glad you liked the diary. Thank you, shari, for taking the time to read it and comment, even though it's outside of your usual path.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Aug 17, 2013 at 07:29:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Elizabeth Costello Has Sat on My Bookshelf Unread (5+ / 0-)

    for many years.  At your prompting, I took it down and read Ch. 6, The Problem with Evil, which is an extremely intellectual probing of the writer's conscience and an example of wrestling with hysterical realism and the effects it has on both reader and author.

    I did not feel that Coetzee withheld anything human in that chapter; I did feel that the writing was dispassionate, which produced a nice irony since Costello was in a passion of confusion about what to do or not do.  Coetzee lets us see her in full light as she wrestles with the demons of what obscene means, what censorship means, what evil means.

    The delicate irony when she considers self-censoring her own remarks about her subject author, decides to forge ahead, then ends up recommending self-censorship to her audience when it comes to choosing whether or not to read the subject book is gut-wrenching.  All this raking over the coals from reading vivid brutal details has done her psyche harm.  She can only believe it has done the author harm in writing it.  She wishes to preserve the shred of innocence that would be utterly shredded if the wider reading audience delved into the subject book.

    The problem with evil is do we talk about it in the light of day, or sweep it under the rug?  If the former, does it do us more harm than good; if the latter, same question?  A paradox.  The problem with censorship is each reader has his own threshold of tolerance, each has his own level of "sterner stuff."  Another paradox.

    Chacun à son goût.

    It's no easy task when a writer wants to tackle a paradox of life, especially when it revolves around the nature and manifestation of evil and the harm it can do to us, even when most abstract.

    Meta note: Should writers, if they're going to be criticized for being hysterically realistic on the one hand or ascetically pale on the other tackle the most difficult and disturbing Big Questions, or let them lie so as not to upset or offend? Another problem.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Sat Aug 17, 2013 at 09:09:55 AM PDT

    •  'Elizabeth Costello' is thought-provoking, (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Limelite, RiveroftheWest

      especially in The Problem with Evil. Coetzee makes some strong points - but he doesn't make them, Elizabeth does. And she has such conflicts and doubts over them.

      Also, I have this suspicion that both Elizabeth and Paul West relate to sides of Coetzee. He has been criticized harshly for the dark places he goes in his own novels.

      I found this chapter a smart, effective way to engage with a very tangled problem. It's given me a lot to think about - and I was thinking on this for a month before I read it. It will be an interesting challenge, trying to find some clarity and shape with this darkness, by next Friday.

      The problem with censorship is each reader has his own threshold of tolerance, each has his own level of "sterner stuff."
      Indeed. How do you protect some eager youth, who says "I love horror movies. They don't scare me" - only then they see the worst they've ever seen, and have nightmares for months. There must be plenty of kids who, showing off their mental toughness, took ten hits of LSD at once, and ended up visiting a planet they should never have gone to. But drugs are a tangent, to the deliberate portrayal of disturbing visions.

      In many respects, books are softer than movies, which shock so effectively. I'd guess that movies have inspired more nightmares. But books can involve so much of your imagination, and might end up permeating your thought more broadly. I wonder how it changed and hardened Ayn Rand, to keep writing books like that. Though celebrity and her cult probably did the worst of it, feeding her convictions and her dangerous hungers.

      I definitely want writers to "tackle the most difficult and disturbing Big Questions" - I just don't think Bret Easton Ellis is very qualified for it. The one sure conclusion I've reached so far is, you have no business handling the worst darkness, unless you're sensitive, serious, and thoughtful enough to put your gloves and goggles on, and try to get to the bottom of the mess.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sun Aug 18, 2013 at 02:56:03 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Damn, I'm a day late to a great discussion! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, RiveroftheWest, Radiowalla, shari

    When Coetzee writes about a subject, he puts so much into it, you'd think he'd spent his life studying nothing but that subject.  Amazing depth and breadth.

    I haven't read Wood; I've read only Zadie Smith's essays, which I love.  I don't know if her novels are calling to me.

    Other favorite writers on books:

    Noel Perrin (see A Reader's Delight.)

    William Gass.  One very enthusiastic critic.  His enthusiasm is contagious.

    Milan Kundera.  Has written several entertaining short books of short essays.  I haven't gotten around to any of his novels either, but I think I will before long.

    Vladimir Nabokov.  (see Essays on Literature, which I have read, and Essays on Russian Literature, which I haven't yet.)

    •  Coetzee enlightens me, and he's a fine example for (3+ / 0-)

      my own forays into criticism. Reminds me of Aldous Huxley's lucid brilliance, but I think he's more in touch with his heart. Huxley was an intimidating polymath, though.

      I can see from the one pico linked to, that I need to read more essays by Zadie Smith. Ideally on books. But her blend of insight, sense and warm writing voice is rather splendid, whatever she chooses to discuss. I would have read White Teeth by now, if I hadn't already watched the 3 hour British miniseries. So the whole plot's spoiled. But I'm more drawn to the essays, like you.

      Haven't read any Gass - I'll have to look at him and Perrin.

      I enjoyed Kundera's The Art of the Novel and, though I didn't agree with all he said, I got sucked into Nabokov's Essays on Russian Literature (though I only read a third). He's pretty savage to Dostoevsky - but he also spots and explains real flaws, really made me think again. A huge part of the book is on Anna Karenina, which he adores. So I want to read Pevear and Volokhonsky's award-winning translation of Anna Karenina, write an essay of reaction, and then go read what Nabokov had to say. I have so many ideas for book diaries, should I happen to live forever.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Aug 17, 2013 at 07:49:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Now that we are nearly at the end (4+ / 0-)

    of this discussion, on a quiet Sunday evening, can I make my timid confession?

    I have never read Coetzee.

    There it is!  I am purged of my sin.

    It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

    by Radiowalla on Sat Aug 17, 2013 at 06:59:42 PM PDT

    •  I would have said the same thing (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, Radiowalla, shari, RiveroftheWest

      a few months ago.

    •  You give me the idea of how to reorganize my TBR (4+ / 0-)

      list: Find all the essential authors I've never met, and put a book by each one at the top. Defining essential's tricky, but I think once I line them up, I can separate the muster from the mustest.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Aug 17, 2013 at 07:52:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  if it wasn't for my bookgroup (4+ / 0-)

      i would not have read coetzee willingly, fiction, that is. the bookgroup pushes me and that, i suppose, is a gift.

      i was quite put off by the coldness in his writing, which i could not figure out how it comes through.  

      yet i think he does care, deeply.  the sense of caring, however, is not easily accessible. which makes his writing all the more intriguing.

      my running thought while reading: i kept thinking, if someone had asperger's, would this be how that person would write?

      •  "i kept thinking, if someone had asperger's, would (3+ / 0-)

        this be how that person would write?"

        Very astute - I think you've hit it exactly.

        I've thought both that, and that there's a certain shyness in him; which is unusual, in someone who tackles such raw and controversial subjects. But it's not quite that he lacks feeling, it's more like he keeps most of it hidden, he never wants to push it on you. And his opinions, he appears to have thought long and hard on many deep matters - but still, his conclusions look tentative.

        I think he has feelings and opinions like a Redwood has roots. But he won't share them until they're thrice-tested and proven true. When I read Life & Times of Michael K. it seemed arid and bleak. But the more closely I looked, the more I found this glimmer of hope peeking through the cracks.

        I agree with you, this "makes his writing all the more intriguing".

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sun Aug 18, 2013 at 02:25:29 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site