Sunday, December 19, 2010

Beauty & Sadness by André Alexis, with extra sadness

My review of André Alexis's Beauty & Sadness gets the full-page + cartoon treatment in the Toronto Star.

A wee taste:

It’s hard not to think, while reading André Alexis’s Beauty and Sadness, that its author got the title back to front. What moments of beauty there are in this intriguing, odd and occasionally perplexing mix of short fiction, literary essays and personal memoir are thoroughly drenched in sadness. In the book’s introduction, Alexis, who is in his early 50s, writes that “I have come to a time in my life when leave-taking, death, and change have begun to seriously impinge on my imagination.”

Read the whole thing here.

ADDED: Just as night follows day and drunk-dialing leads to grief, Mr Alexis has offered his own lower-case thoughts on my thoughts on his thoughts in the comments.


Iago said...

Hi dad.

aalexis said...

i don't think there's much "hurt pride" involved in my feelings about literary journalism. in my writing life, i've mostly gotten good reviews and, besides, i feel that, in order for a book to have any kind of traction it has to have opposition. off the top of my head, i can't think of a book worth anything that hasn't had detractors. so, as far as i know, the thing that drove my "outburst" is distress at the uncontested dominance of literary journalism - as opposed to literary criticism - these days.

(about philip marchand and the The Star ... philip has been, when he's commented on my work, unfailingly considerate. i'm grateful to him. my attacks on his status as a literary journalist have nothing of the personal to them. i'm sure he would say the same about his attacks on ondaatje's work. in fact, the Star has always treated me well. i guess, alex good's review of asylum could be considered a pan, but it was the only review i've ever laughed aloud at. it was like watching a monkey try to thread a needle. genuinely amusing. so, i hate that readers might feel there's some personal vendetta at work in my comments (or even in the violence of some of my responses to violent responses). i think the fall of the GLOBE's book section has been a more upsetting phenom than the star's because the globe is the only newspaper review section people in the industry take seriously. as you've written a novel, i'm sure i'm not telling you anything new. the Star was first in cutting its section to the bone, though. and it deserves the criticism.)

aalexis said...

pt. 2: when you write "Merely opinionated, self-aggrandizing reviewers are far outnumbered by the book-review equivalent of lifestyle reporters, who are all too happy to gush about the season’s latest product." i think you're opposing two types of the SAME thing. the "gush" and the "slag" are, in terms of critical content, equal. (i do wonder where you got your statistics on the various types of reviewers we have, though.) your point that the state of literary journalism has to do with publishing and with readership indifference to genuine literary assessment is true, i think, but the decline of criticism also has to do with the connivance of literary journalists with publishers and audiences. i mean, it's true that, in order to be published in these times, james wood - far from the worst sinner - has had to write "vividly" rather more than "consideredly", but it's important to point out the COST of his approach, whether the reasons for his approach are understandable or not. (i think we'd both agree that they ARE understandable.)

aalexis said...

pt 3 ... at some point, writers are responsible for their approaches, no? naomi klein and michael moore are good examples of particular approaches to political questions. we criticize, in the case of michael moore, a cynical playing with facts in order to gain approval from an audience. why shouldn't we do the same where james wood's stance is concerned? (in all this, i should add that i very much LIKE reading james wood.)he's made a choice and the consequences of that choice should be pointed out. it seems to me, you're exculpating literary journalists in an old-fashioned "liberal" way. that is, you're doing the equivalent of saying "these critics aren't bad, it's society that turned them evil." well, yes, i guess so, but they're still doing shit it would be better they didn't do. and, in light of the retreat of considered criticism from the fray, it's important we see the stuff literary journalists do for what it is: self-important fluff, mostly. literary journalists take great pride in promoting or slamming books, writers, and so on. they should - at least on occasion - look at themselves and examine the state of their own art form. very few are willing to do this in any deep or sustained way. well, in the end, why should they? few people will listen. so, we're left - we literary journalists - with two choices: shout your criticism about criticism in a mostly empty room or shut up and do your work as if everything's all right.

aalexis said...

utile though i've come to think my "empty room shouting" is, it's at least an effort to look at something - literary journalism - that i think needs serious looking at. (also ... i think CANADIAN literary journalism is among the worst in the world. can you think of another english-speaking country that has so few literary journalists of any merit?)

as for the rest of your review. meh. it's not what i'd call brilliant, but whatever. (there are only four stories in the collection, by the way, not five.) my impression is that most people prefer the stories and would rather not think about the rest. your own bias is showing in just how much space you devote to the section on book reviewing which, as you must know, holds little interest for anyone who is not a reviewer. i think few general readers would agree with your assessment that the section on reviewing is the most "lively" (going from anecdotal evidence, the general reader would more likely point to the james/fuentes story) but it was written in despair and frustration, so maybe some of the emotion came through. if people are still speaking about the book in five or ten years - an idea i find hard to credit - we'll see which of us was right.

nathan said...

Having read your lengthy objections to the points made in my review, and after giving the various matters you raise much thought, I have decided you are absolutely right, Andre: there are four stories in the book, not five.

My apologies.

Less glibly, much of what you write here (and in B&S, not coincidentally) reminds me of something I wrote a few years ago about (also not coincidentally) the notorious John Metcalf: "Metcalf is much better at identifying symptoms than diagnosing the underlying illness, and he is no good at all at prescribing a cure..."

I agree with you about the decline of book sections, but still think the idea that this has something to do with bad literary journalism (which, like the poor, has always been with us) is, at best, wishful thinking, since it assumes that people who don't care at all about literary criticism in the first place (i.e., the people who actually make the decisions that ultimately kill book sections) will somehow care more about it as long as it is written less "vividly" and with more "consideration." That's about as realistic a scenario as the idea that 400-page novels are just conglomerations of individually brilliant sentences.

I also agree that critics/reviewers/lit journalists should always be thinking hard about what it is they do, and agree that not enough do it enough of the time, myself included.

However, self-awareness and a lack of perspective are fairly rampant across the board when it comes to Canadian writing, yes? For one thing, there are many writers out there who still see criticism as some kind of unwelcome party-crasher, always showing up uninvited and ruining the fun. Or they see it as a second-class citizen, a parasite to literature's overgenerous host. I even read something where reviews were likened to traveling salesmen jokes...

The difference is that literary critics should/must take literary writing seriously, but there is not only no obligation for this seriousness to flow in the opposite direction, it is more often the case that writers are supposed to declare themselves supremely uninterested in anything a lowly reviewer might have to say about their work. I'm not complaining - such is life, and most reviewers ARE pretty lowly and unworthy of attention, in the end. I only point it out to say that, when it comes to thinking deeply about the interplay of literature and criticism, it is often only those doing the latter who are obliged to even acknowledge such an interplay exists.

So I can only reiterate the point I made fairly explicitly in the review (read it again, it's right there): that you are willing to make these kinds of criticisms, - even at the risk of sounding foolish, and at a time in your career when silence is likely the wiser and more political choice - is admirable and welcome. Despite what you seem to be arguing in the comments above, I never do, and never would, condemn you for making your opinions about the state of things plain. That our opinions on said state do not match up exactly (however much they seem to tack in the same direction) is part of the point, no?

After all, we can't beat a dead horse if we are too busy holding hands.

look a shevsky said...

Hi Nathan

(i'm pretending that its really early in the morning and that i'm a Talmudic scholar [but really i'm just drunk] and that this is your private email)

nathan said...

That does seem to be the dominant approach, yes.

Conversely, Shevsky, you could've pretended to be my son, and kept it short and friendly. To each his own.

aalexis said...

a few points in response: there are, obviously, two issues here. when i write about a "decline of criticism/reviewing", i'm referring to

a. a decline in the quality of thought displayed in reviews
b. the disappearance of review sections from our newspapers

the disappearance of review sections is a specific issue, a largely economic one, and can't be fixed with improved literary journalism. i nowhere suggested it could.

the decline in quality of thought, however, though a different matter, is tied to the decline in review sections. as they die out, review sections have tried to save themselves by presenting more "controversial" material: personal attacks, critic-centered (as opposed to work-centered) reviews, the "vivid". (i don't find these things "vivid". i find them tiresome because ultimately empty.) book review editors disguise this drop in quality by calling their new pieces "populist" and calling considered criticism "elitist". but, in any case, our newspapers are facing more serious issues. they're fighting to survive.

aalexis said...

where, then, do we go for considered criticism? this is where the despair comes in, for me. i really don't have an answer to that question. academic criticism has abandoned the field. (academics who write for popular venues suffer, professionally, for doing so.) our newspapers, drowning, are desperate for ways to recover readers. they can't afford to pay professional critics or really talented literary journalists for their expertise. so, i can't actually see an end to either decline: the decline of book sections OR the decline in quality of literary thought.

this despair is what i was expressing in "beauty and sadness" and like most "cris de coeur", the section in beauty and sadness that addressed the decline in literary journalism was meant as, well, a cri de coeur. the section it's in is called a "memoir", after all, and the important thing was the diagnosis - right or wrong? - and the expression of grief at the passing of something i think important: subtle criticism, considered criticism, the ability to get at the depth of a text. (the section was, explicitly i would have thought, about ME and my feelings. i would have written a very different essay, if i could see a solution to our current state. i wrote a final section to the essay that was "optimistic", because the walrus asked me to. in it, i suggested that a return to systematic thinking, as exemplified by james wood's "how fiction works", may represent a course that might help improve HOW we think about literature. but i still think our newspaper book sections are doomed. and it fills me with sadness.)

aalexis said...

as a writer of novels, one's prospects look radically different if you believe the reception your work will be given will be sophisticated as opposed to crude.

when i interviewed kazuo ishiguro, around the time of "never let me go", he spoke of his negative reviews with diffidence. he said something like "writers like myself and salman rushdie get the full spectrum of response. praise, blame, real appreciation, real scorn. it all evens out." he was describing a situation i wish my country could provide. we simply don't have that range or quantity of reviewing. as creative writers, we canadians get very little response. (poets get virtually none, so i don't want to cry poor mouth too loud here.) so, the decline in QUALITY of response hits canadian writers very hard.

that being the case, it's difficult not to wonder WHO i'm writing for, IF experimental writing - say - is feasible in an environment where it won't be appreciated, WHY i'm writing about my country at all if, to get real money, it would be better to set a book of stories or a novel in the USA or even the UK. What is it to be a writer when the quality of a readership is in decline? behind the question about literary journalists/critics, there is a harder question about readers in general. have we, as a society, lost - or are we losing - an ability to deal with the subtleties of text? what are the implications of that loss?

aalexis said...

i am much more pessimistic about all this AFTER the reception given the excerpt in the walrus. this has not, as i would have liked, turned into any kind of discussion about the status of reading/literary journalism/criticism. it has largely been about john metcalf who, in all this, is kind of trivial, except as a beginning point. (he's no more trivial than the rest of us, but still ...)

christ! i must now go and drink myself into a stupor, again.

aalexis said...

a further note on venue: i remember someone commenting that there are other places - online, for instance - where deep criticism takes place. or, for that matter, there are literary journals and magazines where really good critics work. the idea was "who cares about the decline in newspaper book sections?". i'm skeptical about the web. i haven't found much of depth there. but the situation with literary journals/magazines is also slightly depressing. one of my favourite places for literary reviews is the new york review of books. i could point to a number of interesting critics who "live" there. on the other hand, writers who don't get consideration in its pages have called it a "tomb" and, in practical terms, it doesn't have much influence outside of the world of intellectuals who frequent it. i console myself with the existence of places like the NYR books, but i do feel it's a kind of hollow consolation, that its readership is getting older and less relevant to the dominant culture.

Finn Harvor said...

"my attacks on [Marchand's] status as a literary journalist have nothing of the personal to them."

Andre, fair enough as a defense. But does that make the original comments themselves fair? In your lengthy rebuttal at Nota Bene, you observed:

Having read the lists, I thought, briefly, that it would have been more pertinent to compile a list of Canada’s most overrated, practicing reviewers. The only one I could come up with, however, was Philip Marchand. By tragic coincidence, Marchand is also our most underrated reviewer. It is very difficult to think of anyone else who is rated at all. And that says something about the state our literary critical culture is in, doesn’t it? In the UK, the list of highly (or lowly) rated reviewers would begin with Robert McCrum, Adam Mars-Jones, Boyd Tonkin, Gabriel Josipivici. In the Unites States, you’d have Wendy Lesser, Michael Dirda, Sven Birkerts, James Wood, Dale Peck, Stanley Crouch, etc. That we have only Philip Marchand (who is not very good and doesn’t write regular reviews anymore) tells you quite a bit about the state of our reviewing culture.

Much of this paragraph is interesting. It's the final sentence that rankles. The quality of Marchand's criticism is denounced with an unsubstantiated blanket criticism.

Your "not very good" needs evidence.