Friday, January 18, 2008

TRUTH or DARE with Michiko Kakutani et al.

Speaking of idiots. Each December a hoard of print and net publications put out their BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR list. Virtually, all of them sound like that novel you're working on.

This is not to say that all of the choices suck; they don't. And every once in a while an interesting book pops up on a Best Books list. But few ever rise above the pandemic of predictability and, thus, mediocrity. Really, how may of the Best Books of 2006 do you remember? How many did you read? How many of those that you read changed the way you think? Changed the way you think about thinking -- and not thinking?

To my knowledge, none of these lists come with an all-important disclaimer: Best Books of the Year THAT WE ACTUALLY READ.
And just how many books can one critic read? Let's use The New York Times book critic Mishiko Kakutani as an example. Because I like her hair. (I'm not choosing The New York Times book critic Janet Maslin because of her flagrantly pedestrian taste, and bully for her for at least not pretending to be interested in brain expanding books.)

If Michiko reads even three books a day, she's still going to complete only 1,095 books a year, so my calculator says.* Reading three books of superbly written literature per day requires speed reading.** And that's akin to trying to dissect the nuances of Beethoven's Fifth while listening to it at 5x the speed. Assuming (falsely) that Kakutani reads equally from all categories, she therefore consumes 365 books each of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. (365 books of poetry!?! Oh, that's a good one, yes, haha, that's a regular laugh riot! Oh hahahaha!) 2006 saw the publication of 42,076 fiction titles alone.***

Funnily enough, Kakutani reviewed Stuart Kelly's THE BOOK OF LOST BOOKS: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read. Writes Kakutani: "The books in Stuart Kelly's clever and highly entertaining new book are works of literature that have somehow been lost to posterity... As Mr. Kelly notes, 'Loss is not an anomaly, or a deviation, or an exception,' it's the norm.'" Damn straight. And Michiko, babe, you're not helping.

Nor are the teeming minnows of other critics who are tangled in a web of conventionality, of old directions retrod, and nary an offramp in print. But I'd rather see an avant-garde book go unreviewed than reviewed by a critic not educated enough to analyze it. And most critics lack the skills -- or simply are put off by how much longer it may take to adequately explore a work of avant-garde literature than a TV novel. Even though that extra time is spent magnificently, deliciously, sensually producing far more dopamine per page than 99% of the Best Books of any given year.

Therefore, readers: If you like drugs and/or alcohol and/or caffeine and/or running marathons you will enjoy avant-garde literature. If you like sex before marriage and even more after, you will enjoy avant-garde literature.

Therefore, critics: In this new year rife with possibilities, I challenge all of you everydamnwhere to play Truth or Dare:

Either (1) tell the TRUTH about how many books you actually read in 2008 or (2) DARE to read and understand avant-garde books outside of your tiny radar screen wherein the whole of society is crashing under your dopey gaze.

* I no longer to math by hand because I don’t have to! And one might ask: Isn't the refusal to do math by brain as lazy as a book critic refusing to read books that require more than TV vocabulary, even if it's HDTV? No, it is not. "Why not" is a forthcoming post.
** Don't expect me to get through more than 20 fiction titles a year. I read every single and hyphenated word. Usually two or three times. Sometimes four, if it is particularly fine.
*** 2007 statistics not yet available. Source


Brian H. Rogers said...

which books would you recommend from your reading over the last few years?


Debra said...

Oy! “The last few” years is/was a very long time. And it depends on whether your question stems from (1) a personal desire to read more current/relevant/avant-garde/quality/whatever writing or (2) in response to my caterwaul over the ignorance of critics. My responses would differ. Thus:
(1) My personal favorites over the past few years (those that pop into my head right now but are not necessary those I’d recommend if I spent time looking at my bookshelves) are: The very new anthology, Wreckage of Reason; Xxperimental Women Writers of the 21st Century (full disclosure: I'm in it, but even if I weren't I'd still recommend it; contains some of the most inventive writing I've read in a long time); Diane William’s It Was Like Having a Tenderhearted Nature; Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland; Lidia Yuknavitch’s Reel to Reel; Lydia Davis’ Almost No Memory (haven't read her latest yet); Joe Amato’s Under Virga; Tory Dent’s HIV, Mon Amour; Christine Wertheim’s +|’me’S-pace; H. L. Hix’s Shadows of Houses; Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles; Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (I like most all of his work); Joyelle McSweeney’s Nylund The Scarcographer (though haven’t yet finished it); Jose Saramago’s Blindness and Seeing; Joe Wenderroth’s Letters to Wendy’s; and so many more that I’m forgetting right now because I can’t immediately recall where I read them; my memory is heavily tied to place/space.

(2) Pretty much anything from small, independent presses that almost never gets read or reviewed because the work is “too hard” for the critics and the small presses can’t pay for advertising space in the reviews. Exception: Review of Contemporary Fiction is the best place to learn about new, innovative fiction out on the market. Lovely presses to check out are Chiasmus, FC2, Calamari, Les Figues, Dalkey Archive, Clear Cut Press, Spuyten Duyvil. Trevor Dodge’s website (oh, I forgot his book, Everyone I Know Lives On Roads – beautiful!) has a list of indie presses, though it is not by any means complete.

I hope this helps.

best thoughts,

Brian H. Rogers said...

My question stemmed from No.1 - I was wandering around my Amazon wishlist (having been exposed to & enjoying your writing several years back by virtue of a healthy obsession with New Directions books), saw that you had a blog & got distracted. Even if I'm not the best of readers as of late, I'm always willing to engage with the school of "whatever writing." And I thank you for the suggestions, even though it may take me awhile to get to some of them (my wallet's in an argument with Amazon's 1-Click Ordering).

Have you seen the German movie rendering of Elementary Particles? I haven't gotten my hands on a copy & am curious how well it translates. There's also a movie version of Blindness coming out in a year or so & I'm honestly not certain how they're going to retain the flavor of the prose.

One last question (for this comment). When you say "very new anthology" do you mean "so new it's not even on their website" because I'm not seeing a link to that anthology anywhere.

Debra said...

I've not seen the German film of The Elementary Particles but will now look for it. I suppose the adaptation of it -- and Blindnes -- will depend on the director. The latter book, though... Hm, I really don't see (ha ha!) how they will be able to translate that feeling of "lost in unseeing", that specific vagueness, if you'll pardon the oxymoron. My reading experience of that book was so very exquisite that I am certain I will not see the movie, so as not to taint my memory of the prose.

The anthology, Wreckage of Reason, actually comes out in June, though there are "pre-copies" (i.e., good galley prints) available. Let me know if you want one.

And I'm glad you read my New Directions book. I wish ND were publishing more new fiction. Consider (merely consider) taking a peek at my third book, The Jiri Chronicles & Other Fictions. You might find it interesting as a collection of "whatever."


Brian H. Rogers said...

Well, if you know German, youtube comes in handy here, trailer-wise:

As for Blindness, if you saw the movie City Of God, it's that director. Meirelles, who even has a blog ( about the filming (which I can't read, but...pretty pictures).

And ah, June. That would explain my inability to find a copy. I would love to get my hands on a copy. While Googling for it I came across some of the other writers whose names were mentioned in it & started looking them up too. Just tell me what I have to do.

ND isn't publishing new fiction? Damnit (in a hypothetical world). What about their back catalog? It makes me sad to see Kenneth Patchen disappearing from store shelves.

Having read your Coffee House Press book as well, believe me, Jiri Chronicles is being considered. Not just merely. It's been on my wishlist for five months now. Perhaps that's how I'll in part "stimulate the economy" with that tax refund coming my way.