17 September 2005

A Strange Confluence

Now that school has started again—both for the kids and for the academics—the book reviews have returned from their summer doldrums to the occasional burst of analytic energy. Only occasional, mind you; and you'd be hard-pressed to find it in the US as consistently as in the UK. In no particular order, today one can find:
  • An item in The Times on the "real" Beau Brummel and his influence on fashion. Lawyers everywhere are his heirs, in a sense: Without Beau Brummel, we wouldn't have off-the-rack suits barely distinguishable from each other… and perhaps ditto for off-the-rack associates…
  • Across town, The Guardian publishes Joel Rickett's unusually sensible take on the pending purchase of Ottakar's, the second-largest book chain in England, by the parent of Waterstone's, the largest. (WH Smith sells a lot of books, but is really more like a news stand in both the selection available and its clientele.) Think for a moment about Border's buying Barnes & Noble. Or, if you don't believe in antitrust law or reader/consumer choice, don't. At least Harry Potter won't be working his magic on the US publishing industry, because US publishers have priced themselves out of being acquired by Harry's.
  • Jumping back across town, The Times carries two unusually thoughtful, if ultimately wrongheaded, items on "adult fantasy" (which, unless the author is either Terry Goodkind or Jacqueline Carey, seldom revolves around whips and orders to bark like a dog). On the one hand, Daniel Morden is lukewarm about Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys for what look to be the wrong reasons entirely: That the book didn't meet his expectations of what he (Morden) would do with it. On the other hand, Amanda Craig undermines her appreciation for "Robin Hobb" with breathless prose, inapt (and inept) comparisons, and neglect of "Hobb"'s most disturbing (and finest) work, which was published under the author's name instead of a pseudonym that was essentially required by market forces.
  • Across the pond, one finds a thoughtful, if not entirely approving, review of James T. Patterson's coverage of the end of the twentieth century for The Oxford History of the United States, covering the period from Nixon's resignation to Bush v. Gore. What I find curious is that Paul Kennedy seems to miss part of the point with his complaint that

    To say that 1974-2001 was a confused period is in no way to criticize Patterson; indeed, perhaps it simply confirms the awkwardness of the beginning and end dates. For there is no clear, defining event that gives framework and sense to these particular years. In large part, that may be why so many Americans have felt upset, bereft and adrift from their traditional political, social and religious moorings, whereas others felt liberated, super-charged and excited by their material prospects or changes in lifestyle. This has been a heady but uneasy quarter-century, a bit like the 1890s or the 1920s in some ways, and it is extraordinarily difficult for even the smartest commentator to guess which way the tides are flowing. Patterson certainly gives it a great shot.

    This seems to miss the point of "a history of the United States." The US distinguished itself from European tradition by electing its leaders, however imperfectly; it makes perfect sense to set "beginning and end dates" at proof that elections work even when they don't. Impeachment of Nixon did not cause a violent revolution or civil war; neither did the (probable) handing of the 2000 election to the (probable) loser. Neither of those results would have been conceivable in 17th-century Europe; can you imagine removal of George III from office, or accepting an adverse court ruling against Pitt the Younger becoming Prime Minister? I particularly like the title of Paul Kennedy's review; but then, I'm a big fan of Milton, Dryden, Pepys, Swift, and their approach to literature (if not always to their style). It sure beats George III's approach to science.

  • Nothing happening much this week east of the Hudson. Back to your lives, citizens; nothing to see in the NYTBR. Which, in a way, says more about the problems in the publishing industry than I might wish.
  • Returning back to London, The Guardian carries a strange juxtaposition of essay/reviews on the worth of fiction. On the one hand, a darling of the High Literati responds to a Nobel laureate's claim that "fiction is dead, vanquished by our need for facts." Unfortunately, for McInerney, "novel" means "literary novel," and implicitly excludes anything not so labelled. On the other hand, Stan Robinson isn't so pedestrian in his tastes or own approaches to literature and reality… and, if nothing else, Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below form an exceptionally pointed refutation of Naipaul's whinging that non-fiction is better suited than fiction to dealing with the big issues and capturing the way we live now. Maybe Naipaul had a point, but probably not the one he intended. If there is a form of fiction that is dead, dying, or at least seriously ill, it is the "literary novel"—the twenty-first-century successor to Jane Austen's ahistorical novels of manners.1 <SARCASM> But Robinson (PhD in English, one might add) merely writes that crazy science fiction stuff, so of course his opinion can't be worth anything. </SARCASM>

  1. For you Austen fans out there, this is not a putdown of Austen for what she wrote; it is a putdown of those who slave to imitate her effects while learning nowt from the two centuries in between, whether in the sense of literature or the sense of history.

Update, 19 September: And, from the other end of Nobeldom, comes Carlos Fuentes espousing the virtues of the novel. Of course, Fuentes isn't responding directly to Naipaul, as his examples are historical and not contemporary (although Faulkner isn't exactly a figure of the ancien regimé). Then, he has a bit to say on history, too:

"Between pain and nothing, I choose pain", Faulkner famously said, adding: "Man will prevail". And is this not, perhaps, the truth of the novel? Humankind will prevail and it will prevail because, in spite of the accidents of history, the novel tells us that art restores the life in us that was disregarded by the haste of history. Literature makes real what history forgot. And because history is what has been, literature will offer what history has not always been. That is why we will never witness—bar universal catastrophe—the end of history.