- “It’s counterintuitive to think of the British Museum as a happening spot, but for a long time its reading room served as a premier gathering place for London’s brainy bohemians … It was also a pickup scene. Edward Aveling, a science lecturer, playwright, and political activist—and a notorious flirt—described the reading room as ‘in equal degrees a menagerie and a lunatic asylum’ and made a tongue-in-cheek proposal that it be segregated by sex so as to bring about ‘less talking and fewer marriages.’ ” (If you’re getting any ideas—don’t. The reading room has since closed.)
- As an adult, Derrida transformed English and humanities departments around the world; as a student, he had struggles of his own. When he was twenty, he submitted a paper on Shakespeare that earned him a failing grade, along with such (arguably prophetic) remarks as “quite unintelligible” and “totally incomprehensible”: “In this essay,” the instructor wrote, “you seem to be constantly on the verge of something interesting but, somewhat, you always fail to explain it clearly.”
- Dickens’s nighttime constitutionals gave him a chance to “see through the shining riddle of the street,” as G. K. Chesterton put it—but they also granted him a chance for emotional escape. “It seems as if they supplied something to my brain,” Dickens wrote, “which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose.”
- This month marks Trollope’s bicentennial, and though his renown is taken more or less for granted today, it wasn’t always so: Tolstoy found “too much that is conventional” in his work, and Henry James called him “mechanical.”
- Today in teens: they’re still out there, they are legion, they are wild, oppressed, they are everything you fear and want to be. “Teens are the only true nihilists left. Teens can use guns and have sex but their brains aren’t even fully formed. This is an amazing fact … Teens only care about the immediate culture. They are not stuck in dead-time nostalgia. They have never heard of Missy Elliot. They do not care. That is OK. Teens plow their carts over the bones of the dead.”
- What accounts for Jane Austen’s unprecedented posthumous success? “Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust are all remembered, and still read, but they do not have countless fans throughout the world who reread their books each year, who eagerly await the latest television or movie adaptation, who attend conventions in period costume, and who no doubt dream about the heroes and heroines of their novels.”
- Today, in the furniture of the greats: Charles Dickens’s desk (and chair) have been preserved for posterity. Having been “hidden away” for a hundred and fifty years, during which many people who were not Charles Dickens had the audacity to use them, they’ll soon assume their rightful place at London’s Dickens Museum, where they’ve been “secured for the benefit of all our visitors.”
- The many faces of Terrance Hayes: “When college students read Hayes, they talk about the underlying seriousness of poems about lynchings, fistfights or rape. But when poets talk about Hayes, they tend to address his invented forms: poems based on anagrams, on the Japanese slide shows called pechakucha and on puzzles.”
- Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a 1951 mystery novel, renewed interest in Richard III, that most maligned of monarchs: “The novel was immediately popular when it first appeared … Tey’s dissection of received history prompted readers to question … everything they had been taught. This could feel like an awakening.”
- Robert Moses is the subject of a new graphic biography—from France. “No New Yorker would mistake the book for a native product. There are editing glitches. Randalls Island becomes ‘Randall Island,’ Staten Island is rendered ‘State Island’ … Lines of dialogue like ‘You’ll stay for the dinner I’ve organized with some people from the municipality’ were probably not uttered quite like that.”
- Authenticity: Do you have it? Do your favorite writers have it? Has any individual in the history of humankind had it? “What do we mean by authenticity? Since we can hardly ask for documentary accuracy from fiction, what is it exactly we’re looking for? … All Dickens is packed with orphans or people in uncertain relation to family groups, or clubs. It’s impossible to read anything he wrote without feeling that the question of belonging was a major issue for him … Whether or not we like the books and quite regardless of any verisimilitude, it’s clear that the author is writing directly from his personal concerns.”
- The Earl of Rochester wrote directly from his personal concerns, too. Those concerns included dildos, premature ejaculation, drunkenness, and scatology. He was very authentic.
- And Camus, who had a few questions of his own about this sort of thing, is perhaps more relevant than ever today, in no small part because of the Arab Spring: “For the many Americans who grew up with ‘The Guest’ and The Stranger, what lies ahead is a literary, political, and cinematic revival of a writer whose work has found new urgency in the embers of the Arab Spring. For readers and writers throughout the world, Camus remains an open book.”
- While we’re questioning some of the basic tenets of writing—what do writers owe their subjects? “Do we have the right to tell their stories at all? Such complications become even more vivid when we consider them through the lens of privilege: the privilege of the storyteller to control or shape the narrative.”
- Maybe it’s easiest to circumvent these questions by trusting the state to tell us which stories are okay to tell. They know what they’re doing! That’s why a Tennessee lawmaker is moving to make the Bible his state’s official book. It’s a classic, after all.
- Wackford Squeers, Peg Sliderskew, Charity Pecksniff … the names of characters in Dickens novels are outré enough to put Thomas Pynchon to shame.
- Relatedly: naming one’s characters is arguably the fiction writer’s most critical task. “I make up names for people all the time—it’s part of writing. Very often, the name comes with the character, along with of a sense of who they are and what they do … All names are masks, as well as identifiers.”
- For her services to literature, Hilary Mantel—with whom we’ll feature an Art of Fiction interview in our next issue—has been made a dame.
- Early in the twentieth century, an unlikely duo developed the first mechanistic theory of the mind: Warren McCulloch, “a confident, gray-eyed, wild-bearded, chain-smoking philosopher-poet who lived on whiskey and ice cream and never went to bed before four a.m.,” and Walter Pitts, “small and shy, with a long forehead that prematurely aged him, and a squat, duck-like, bespectacled face.” They asserted that the brain “uses logic encoded in neural networks to compute.”
- Finally, without further ado: Mexican prison art. “The tradition of paño (from the Spanish ‘pañuelo,’ which means ‘handkerchief’ ) began in the correctional facilities of Western American States sometime in the 1940s. At the time, decorating handkerchiefs was the only way for illiterate Mexican prisoners to communicate with the outside world. To this day, paños are still often sent to friends and family instead of letters, while, in certain prisons, the handkerchiefs are a popular form of currency.”
Here’s a phrase you don’t read much nowadays: brown study. First cited in the sixteenth century (specifically in a book called Dice-Play), the expression—which describes a state of intense, sometimes melancholy reverie—really seems to have hit its stride in the nineteenth. Dr. Watson describes “falling into a brown study” in the course of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” In Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, Uncle Alec “paced up and down the lower hall in the twilight for an hour, thinking so intently that sometimes he frowned, sometimes he smiled, and more than once he stood still in a brown study.” In David Copperfield, Dickens uses it like this: “I fell into a brown study as I walked on, and a voice at my side made me start.” Meanwhile, here’s Conrad, in “Thrift and the Child”:
He ceased and sat solemnly dejected, in a brown study. What day? I asked at last; but he did not hear me apparently. He suffused such portentous gloom into the atmosphere that I lost patience with him.
These were all books written for a popular audience; presumably the phrase was in regular use in both the English and American vernacular. What seems puzzling now would not have to a population who knew brown as a color associated with sadness. Indeed, brown was once used the way we do blue today—to connote melancholy. And it’s a good phrase, well suited to stories sustained by brisk narrative pace; in such cases as these, it was doubtless useful to be able to sketch interiority in a couple of words. Read More
We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
Giving the lie to a critical crutch.
Copies of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch now bear an impressive gold foil sticker declaring it the “WINNER of the PULITZER PRIZE.” Before that accolade, though, critics had already branded the novel by using and abusing the adjective that’s launched a thousand blurbs—Dickensian. Despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of the word in appraisals of the novel, such assessments are rarely issued without caveats. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan apologetically notes that the term “is one of those literary modifiers that’s overused”; in the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King somewhat ruefully acknowledged that he wouldn’t be the last to employ Dickensian to describe Tartt’s novel. He was right.
For all this critical concurrence, it’s less than clear what we mean by Dickensian, or, for that matter, by any adjective with a particular author at its root. Francine Prose leads her review of The Goldfinch with this very question: “What do people mean when they call a novel ‘Dickensian’?” As Prose notes, a number of answers present themselves—Dickensian can signify sentimentality, an attentiveness to the social conditions, a cast of comically hyperbolic characters, a reliance on plot contrivances, or even simply a book’s sheer length. (I suspect one rarely means the relatively slim A Tale of Two Cities or Hard Times when one labels a novel Dickensian.) In other words, the proliferation of the senses of Dickensian makes one wonder if it, or other such words, are critically useful at all. As Cynthia Ozick has recently complained with regard to Kafkaesque—another perennial—the word “has by now escaped the body of work it is meant to evoke.” Read More >>