15 June, 2009Issue 9.8Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews

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Last month, the newly elected poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy told an audience of schoolgirls in Manchester that the MP expenses scandal was “just too much of an open goal for me so I’ll wait for something a bit more subtle to write about.” But evidently, Duffy has decided that she won’t follow in Cristiano Ronaldo’s footsteps. This week, Duffy “leaps into [the] expenses row” with “Politics”, a poem published on the front page of the Guardian. She writes: “…How it takes the breath/away, the piss, makes of your kiss a dropped pound coin….” She could have been writing about the poet laureate post itself: predecessor Andrew Motion (that’s Sir Andrew now) said the job was “very, very damaging to my work” and left him with a five-year case of writer’s block. Does Duffy’s first foray—after her pledge to lay off the topic—suggest she’s suffering the same?

Got Milk? The term “writer’s block” was coined by the Austrian Jewish psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, a Freud follower who fled from Hitler and set up shop in New York in the late 1930s. The condition was caused by “entrapment in rage over the milk-denying pre-Oedipal mother.” This week, the New Yorker‘s Joan Acocella traces the treatment of writer’s block through the ages. Apparently, Prozac is a mixed bag: “some report that the drugs tend to eliminate their desire to write together with their regret over not doing so.”

Following Holden’s Path. As Acocella points out, not every writer who retreats from the literary stage is a “block” victim. JD Salinger hasn’t published a piece since 1965, but he says he is prolific in private. “I love to write and I assure you I write regularly”, Salinger said in 1980. “But I write for myself and I want to be left absolutely alone to do it.”

The end of Salinger’s masterpiece Catcher in the Rye finds protagonist Holden Caulfield in a rehab facility (“a sanatorium, where he has gone because of a fear that he has t.b., not a mental hospital”, as the New Yorker noted). Now, the New York Post reveals that Salinger “is holed up in a rehab facility” as well. The tabloid reported this week that Salinger “has to communicate in longhand because he has gone totally deaf.” The information comes from his longtime literary agent, Phyllis Westberg, who has filed an affidavit in the lawsuit to block an unauthorized Catcher sequel from being published. (The affidavit is posted online at TheSmokingGun.com.) Salinger won a court case in the 1980s to keep his private letters out of print, and the Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog reports that in the current suit, “the Salinger camp might have a good leg to stand on” (as opposed to Salinger himself, who broke his hip last week).

The Talented Miss Highsmith. Speaking of reclusive American writers, crime novelist Patricia Highsmith “never became popular in the US“, Michael Dirda writes in the NYRB. At least, not until 1999, four years after her death, when Matt Damon and Jude Law starred in the film adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Now, a re-release of her Ripley novels—all 1,520 pages packed into one boxed set—has brought Highsmith’s reputation to a posthumous peak. Oprah Winfrey is a fan: “If you have only one summer vacation, spend it with Tom Ripley“, according to the daytime TV diva’s O magazine. The New York Times calculates that, if Tom Ripley was 25 when Highsmith wrote her first installment in 1954, then “he celebrates his 80th birthday in 2009“. Dirda credits Highsmith for writing “perhaps…the first…novel about lesbians [that] ends happily“: The Price of Salt, which was published pseudonymously in 1952 (and, as Terry Castle speculates in Slate, which perhaps inspired the cross-country car-trip in Lolita). The English critic AN Wilson is a convert as well. As he writes:

[W]hen the dust has settled and when the chronicle of twentieth-century American literature comes to be written, history will place Highsmith at the top of the pyramid.

Speaking of AN Wilson and conversion, Wilson—once an avowed atheist and the author of God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization—is featured in the Wall Street Journal‘s Houses of Worship column under the headline “Look Who’s a Believer Now“. He has recanted his recanting in a New Statesman essay.

Look Who’s Got “Major Backing” Now. We don’t mean to revive the debate over in-house favouritism in the nonfiction section of the New York Times Book Review. (Times in-house watchdog Byron Calame pointed out in 2005 that one-tenth of the nonfiction titles in the paper’s “100 Notable Books of the Year” were written by Times employees.) But we would like to shift the debate over to the fiction side. This past week, The Times published two positive reviews of Commencement—the fictional debut by NYT researcher J. Courtney Sullivan—within the span of two days! On 11 June, Janet Maslin called Commencement one of the year’s most inviting summer novels“. On 12 June, Maria Russo joined the chorus: “Sullivan’s gifts are substantial“. (Russo, to her credit, did note that at times the novel is a tad “too earnest”.) And if that wasn’t enough, NYTimes.com featured a fawning Q&A with Sullivan last week. (The questions—”what are you working on?”; “what is a typical day in your writing life?”—aren’t exactly hard-hitting.) This is on top of Nicholas Kristof’s proclamation on The Times website in March that Commencement is a “terrific” book that marks “the launch of a literary career“. Sullivan once wrote a piece for The Times on Cara Birnbaum’s Universal Beauty, which she described as “a book…with major backing“. She might as well have been describing her own.

Kristof Strikes Back. Speaking of Nicholas Kristof, the Magdalen College alumnus might have thought that Commencement was “terrific”, but he doesn’t have kind words to say about Mahmood Mamdani’s Survivors and Strangers, which was reviewed by Marc Gustafson in the 11 May edition of ORB. (Incidentally, Mamdani doesn’t have kind words to say about Kristof either. Two years ago, Mamdani wrote in the London Review of Books that “Kristof’s columns…mirror the ideology of Arab supremacism in Sudan by demonising entire communities”.) This week, Kristof takes to the pages of the New York Review of Books and blasts “Mamdani’s error-filled polemic“. Kristof questions whether Mamdani even bothered to fact-check the book. For instance, where did Mamdani get the idea that Darfur was a member of the League of Nations? (It was not.) Mamdani acknowledges on the Social Science Research Council blog that he “reproduced [it] from a Communist Party publication“. Talk about being “caught red-handed“!

James Joyce, IRA? John Walsh (not anti-crime activist John Walsh of “America’s Most Wanted” fame but anti-Derek Walcott activist John Walsh of Padel-gate fame) reviews Ulysses and Us (see Scarlett Baron’s take-down in last week’s Oxonian Review) and concludes that author Declan Kiberd spends too much time trying to “infer [Irish] Republican sympathies” in Joyce’s masterpiece. The Irish Times (famous for its lack of Irish Republican sympathies—it called for the execution of the Easter Rising rebels in 1916) reviews Ulysses and Us and concludes that it is a “beautiful, joyful book about a beautiful, joyful book“. The Seattle-based Stranger reviews Ulysses (yes, it’s 87 years late—but the alternative weekly paper wasn’t around in 1922) and concludes that the book is “an act of terrorism against the English“. Meanwhile, Dedalus devotees from Hungary to Buffalo celebrate Bloomsday this Tuesday, 16 June, the 105th anniversary of the (fictional) events of Ulysses. (US troops stationed in Kyrgystan jumped the gun and kicked off their Bloomsday celebration last month.)

A Day in the Life of James Joyce. Dedalus’s creator would say that he had a “good day at the desk” if he had managed to eek out “three sentences”. (Of course, if Joyce maintained his rate of 12,931 words in a sentence, that might be a good day indeed.) Alexander Raban Waugh, the brother of Evelyn, could churn out 24,000 words a week if he was “popping some benzedrine“. And Joyce Carol Oates could write 40 pages a day at her peak, according to the New Yorker‘s Louis Menand. In a survey of academic creative writing programmes, Menand classifies Oates as a “program product“—which is not quite accurate: she teaches in the creative writing faculty at Princeton but her own MA from the University of Wisconsin was in English. Menand explains that American universities began to grant degrees in creative writing after World War II to tap the flood of tuition assistance funds pouring out of Washington under the GI Bill. Even so, creative writing programs cost a pretty penny: the flagship Iowa Writers’ Workshop is $21,467 (£13,088) per year for out-of-state students. That’s nearly double the rate that non-EU students pay at Oxford, although it’s all for naught if the programmes are, as novelist Nelson Algren claimed, “worthless“.

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