Against the coronation of James Wood

Over at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito has an interesting post-cum-slam not of Wood’s work, which he respects, but of the media lavishing attention on Wood while ignoring every other critic. I’m with him on this, and even if you’re not, it’s worth taking a look at his list of other critics worth reading. They’re not all to my taste—Birkerts bores me, for example—and he should have lengthened the list, but it’s a good resource if you want to learn more about contemporary criticism and don’t know where to start.

Steven Millhauser, “Cat ‘n’ mouse”

“The cat is chasing the mouse through the kitchen: between the blue chair legs, over the tabletop with its red-and-white-checkered tablecloth that is already sliding in great waves, past the sugar bowl falling to the left and the cream jug falling to the right, over the blue chair back, down the chair legs, across the waxed and butter-yellow floor. The cat and the mouse lean backward and try to stop on the slippery wax, which shows their flawless reflections. Sparks shoot from their heels, but it’s much too late: the big door looms…”

(Full story available at

“Ah, to free oneself of the inner life!”

This, per Bernard-Henri Lévy, was always Robbe-Grillet’s desire, and one he achieved in his novels. And that’s what makes those novels at once exciting and impossible to get through. Their emotional aridness, for me, has always been overwhelming, although after I put one of them down—unfinished, always—I’m still excited by the possibilities of his project. Perhaps his seeming anti-humanism, like Sartre’s, is really an ultra-stripped-down humanism, and so there’s a way into liking his fiction that I haven’t yet found.

Literature of Spain, an introduction

On his and Alex Tabarrok’s must-read economics blog Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen occasionally offers quick takes on fiction he’s reading or has read, and I’ve always found said takes interesting, and his tips reliable. And while I know a bit about Latin American literature, the Spanish-as-in-Spain stuff is, for me, if you’ll pardon the almost-Hispanicism, terra incog. So when I get around to getting to know it, I’ll be sure to follow Cowen’s recommendations, and start here.

The future of poetry

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel at the AWP convention with a representative of the NEA, who, by way of explaining how his agency would “save literature,” spoke about a program that gives money to municipal governments, which then use it to encourage everyone in their towns to read and discuss the same book. The effort struck me as inoffensive, if also ineffectual, and having less to do with literature than with the NEA trying to spend money in as many congressional districts as possible, and thus, presumably, buying the votes to keep its appropriations coming. But a fellow panelist leaned over to me and whispered, “God, that’s a sure way to make sure nobody ever reads a book again.” And I had to agree. Will more people read literary works if they think of them as a sort of castor oil for the brain? Hardly. Nor, Daniel Green points out, will poetry prosper by having someone—government, cultural elites, whoever—force it on those who “have to be cajoled and manipulated into noticing it.”