On Saturday mornings, Splice rounds up the previous week’s best literary criticism and serves it up to you in a single dish. You didn’t have any plans for the weekend, did you?
It has been a huge week for online literary criticism: there are lots of rewarding things to read about new books, and lots of meta-discussion about writing about new books.
The week kicked off with a hubbub, thanks to Julie Myerson’s less-than-favourable review of Sharlene Teo’s début novel, Ponti, in last Sunday’s Observer. The review is pretty nasty (short version: “get an editor; better luck next time”) and on a tonal level it reads like an experienced novelist’s attempt to school a newbie in the craft of writing. Or, rather, to re-school her, since part of Myerson’s so-called critique is that Teo’s authentic voice — “more vivid, elastic and relaxed” — “is hiding somewhere beneath all th[e] knotty verbiage and MA creative writing-speak” of Ponti. Her advice to Teo, as a corrective to the miseducation doled out during the author’s time in a creative writing programme, boils down to this:
There comes a painful moment in every writer’s life when they must concede that the thrillingly descriptive phrase they’ve been fashioning for hours or days (or even, sometimes, in my case months) must go if it interrupts the story. If you let mere words muscle in between the tale and the telling — or, worse, allow them to push your reader away (or, as in this case, give her a severe case of brain-ache) — then daylight rushes in on the magic. Your fiction doesn’t live.
Of course, Myerson’s remarks elicited no shortage of responses due to its takedown of a first-time author and its bizarre disparagement of “mere words” — the very building blocks of literature. Two of the best responses appeared in a couple of tweetstorms: check out this thread by the novelist Sam Byers (“if writing is no longer spoken about as an art form, only as a ‘business’, it will always be difficult to convey the artistry that goes into it”) and this thread by the poet and reviewer Scott Manley Hadley (Myerson “utterly misrepresents the risks of creative writing degrees”).
And if you’d like to hear Teo speak for herself — and speak up for the creative writing programme that has helped her to shape her work — you can catch her on both the Papertrail podcast and The Riffraff.
Another piece of criticism that generated some discussion this week was Jane Rawson’s Overland essay on the contemporary Australian short story: its production, its reception, and its conventions:
An Australian short story is short. That is maybe the only thing everyone agrees on. They usually clock in at somewhere between 1000 and 3000 words. You might stretch a story to 5000, providing you don’t plan to get it published anywhere in Australia. … The modern-day Australian short story keeps it succinct. One plot, at most. One idea, if that.
Elsewhere, it was a big week for new writing over at LitHub. The most stunning piece of work arrives — as you might expect — from John Keene (pictured above), in the form of a fragmentary and aphoristic meditation on the ethics of literary style:
Literary style is the material articulation, in whatever genre and form, of an author’s attempt to record their vision, sensibility, and apperception of the world. The more fluid or less fixed the vision, sensibility and apperception, the more fluid and less fixed the style. No style stands outside the history in which it emerges, or outside the political, social and cultural context in which the author deploys it. The further outside history and context we perceive a style to be, the more likely we are to call it antiquated, anachronistic, unusual, unique, alienated, a failure, forward-looking. No style is solely the product of a given author, but a conversation with and response to a vast network of styles that preceded, parallel and follow that of the author.
Two other important essays at LitHub focus on the practice of literary translation. The first is by Kate Briggs, an excerpt from her book This Little Art, an urgent and passionate plea for readers of translated literature to recognise the creative labour of the translator:
It is unhelpful to presume that a translation could fail as the result of a single or sample of local mistakes: gotcha! Thinking that it might is the mindset of the reviewers gamely offering their own corrections for the local scrutinized part.
But it is also — is it not? — the mindset of the translator, with her constant attentiveness, the very close form of her attention, her overall care. Or, to put the point another way, I think we owe translators, and perhaps also ourselves as readers of translations, not gratitude, but rather some intellectual recognition of the fact that her work pertains not just to this or that part picked out for late scrutiny by the reader or the reviewer, but to every single one of the small parts forming the whole.
And Veronica Scott Esposito writes “in praise of the near-impossible-to-translate novel“, following a discussion with the translator Christina MacSweeney:
In the translation world, where the money is small, the fame and glamour almost nonexistent, and the work breathtakingly difficult, it’s the love for the projects that makes everything work. If you’re going to stick with a challenging translation for dozens of hours a week for months on end, you absolutely have to be inspired by it.
Some days, when I think about just how difficult literary translation is, I get the feeling that inspiration, plus metric tons of persistence, are all that stand between us and a hazy gray landscape of mediocre translations and English-only literature.
Esposito also has a fantastic interview with Sergio de la Pava in the latest issue of BOMB Magazine, engaging the author in an in-depth discussion of his new novel Lost Empress:
With this book I had moments of crisis that I didn’t have with my two earlier books. It took me a little longer to get there, and that’s a really bad place to be, when you’ve been working on something for three years and have nothing else in the hopper. About seventy percent of the way through, I stopped and thought, Maybe this just won’t be a thing. I felt what I had was a lot of good micro writing that wasn’t going to adhere on a macro level — my novels have a very low barrier to entry, because I like to put a lot of stuff in. I had a conversation with another novelist whom I really respect, and she was at a similar point. One thing she said to me was, “What will happen is you’ll keep living your life, and it’ll keep being transmuted into this work. You don’t have to worry about what you’re shooting for two years from now, because you’re going to live through these two years.” I’m not being nearly as articulate as she was, but basically this conversation was able to calm me down. After that, it got to be pretty fun.
Finally, here are a couple of longer, more intense, more theoretically inflected pieces of literary criticism, each reading a work of literature through lenses coloured by contemporary continental philosophy. First up, in 3am Magazine, Ryan Chang enlists Lukács in his reading of Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts:
Murnane says that he writes sentences in the air “with his eyes” before on paper, so that “he can see it written in the air as [he’s] speaking it”. Such a sentence would be for Murnane visible, if only mentally, so to speak, and is one tool to help him “expand his knowledge of the invisible”, meaning that such images may be only glimpsed, as it were, by language as a visual and not a meaning-referential medium. But to claim that privately — that is, mentally — visible words undo the cloak of invisibility would be patently false and miss the point. As it is demonstrated in Border Districts, Murnane’s shy yet insistent aesthetics… are not about revelation or understanding, but of staging the connections that make meaning. …
To return to Lukacs. Real causality inside of a reality intimated in a fiction is localised to fictional language; in other words, Murnane has honed in on what rhetorical fiction presumes: that the world we desire when we read fiction is already here, that we are amidst and made of images — and only images.
And in the Sydney Review of Books, Ali Alizadeh has a long, eloquent, and generous review of Robert Boncardo and Christian R. Gelder’s academic monograph on the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé: Mallarmé: Rancière, Milner, Badiou. The book is dense with the work of the three critical theorists named in the subtitle, but Alizadeh manages to give respectful consideration to each theorist’s reading of Mallarmé’s poetry while keeping the focus always on the poetry itself:
What is disputed is the substance of Mallarmé’s writing. He is the supreme manifestation of the inaccessible modern poet, a writer whose poetry, according to Alex Ross in a recent article in the New Yorker, remains ‘so inscrutable that it still causes literature students to fall to their knees in despair’. Even Mallarmé’s most enthusiastic admirers, imitators and propagators readily acknowledge the difficulty of his work. … There is something perhaps paradoxical in this characterisation of Mallarmé. In him we have the unlikely combination of, on the one hand, global literary fame and canonical eminence and, on the other hand, notorious complexity and textual impenetrability. Among the literary giants of modern Western letters, no other poet has been so highly venerated and yet so little understood. And yet it is perhaps precisely this rare combination of potentially divergent qualities which has made Mallarmé the poet of choice for many late twentieth and early twenty-first century-philosophers.
And away you go! See you back here on Monday…