The Paris Review Daily

Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

The Sicilian Defense

January 10, 2014 | by

Photo: Martin Lopatka, via Flickr.

Photo: Martin Lopatka, via Flickr

Dear Mr. Ross,

Thank you for sharing with us your review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound. The piece is colorful and sharp, and it is with regret that we say it does not suit our needs at this time.

Too much of the writing reflects back to the writer himself—to you yourself. (And, inexplicably, to your father.) While we certainly don’t mind personal inflection, and even tolerate the insertion of an occasional “I,” a review must be grounded more firmly in the subject or book under consideration. (And less so in the reviewer’s father.)

Critiques such as yours are redolent of ego. We say this not as admonishment, but as something of which you may want to be aware as you continue what looks to be a promising writing career. We wish you the best of luck in placing this piece elsewhere, and will be happy to consider your queries in the future.

Sincerely,
The Editors
The New York Review of Books

The difficulties began when I attempted to write, for The New York Review of Books, a review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s critical biography of Philip Roth. My intention was simple: to demonstrate that I appreciated Roth’s work with a higher degree of sophistication than Pierpont. But articulating my Sophisticated Appreciation was tough to do. At first this didn’t bother me—an inability to articulate one’s Sophisticated Appreciation, I reasoned, may itself be proof of how complex and nuanced that appreciation is.

I’d been invited to submit to NYRB based on the success of an essay I’d written about Philip Roth for The New Yorker’s Web site. (An NYRB editor had e-mailed me to commend its “substantial humorousness,” and asked me to pitch an idea his way.) I wanted badly to be published in NYRB. I had some friends who’d been published in NYRB, and I was jealous of them. Moreover, my father is an avid NYRB reader—“It’s so wonderfully stuffy,” is his line; “the official periodical of leather armchairs and lowballs of Scotch”—and placing an essay in its pages, I believed, would recompense him for having twice paid my tuition to the universities where I’d learned to appreciate things sophisticatedly. (He would be pleased, too, to learn that I’d written something that wasn’t about him, as opposed to everything else I’d published—excepting the Roth piece—since finishing graduate school.)

NYRB’s editors expected six thousand words from my desk. Yet for several days I was too nervous to begin. More than anything else, the review would need to establish for NYRB’s readership how intelligent I was—establishing the writer’s intelligence seemed the purpose of most NYRB reviews, and I have always liked to fit neatly into prevailing systems. If it didn’t prove my intelligence, though, my review could only prove my lack thereof, and nothing was more terrifying to me than the idea of being exposed as intellectually inadequate. Read More »

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Paula Fox, Fighting Perfection

April 9, 2013 | by

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Our Spring Revel will take place tonight! In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Paula Fox, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. The following is excerpted from an essay that originally ran as the introduction to Desperate Characters.

A book that has fallen, however briefly, out of print can put a strain on even the most devoted reader’s love. In the way that a man might regret certain shy mannerisms in his wife that cloud her beauty, or a woman might wish that her husband laughed less loudly at his own jokes, though the jokes are very funny, I’ve suffered for the tiny imperfections that might prejudice potential readers against Desperate Characters. I’m thinking of the stiffness and impersonality of the opening paragraph, the austerity of the opening sentence, the creaky word “repast”: as a lover of the book, I now appreciate how the formality and stasis of the paragraph set up the short, sharp line of dialogue that follows (“The cat is back”); but what if a reader never makes it past “repast”? I wonder, too, if the name of the protagonist, “Otto Bentwood,” might be diffi cult to take on first reading. Fox generally works her characters’ names very hard— the name “Russel,” for instance, nicely echoes Charlie’s restless, furtive energies (Otto suspects him of literally “rustling” clients), and just as something is surely missing in Charlie’s character, a second “l” is missing in his surname. I do admire how the old- fashioned and vaguely Teutonic name “Otto” saddles Otto the way his compulsive orderliness saddles him; but “Bentwood,” even after many readings, remains for me a little artificial in its bonsai imagery. And then there’s the title of the book. It’s apt, certainly, and yet it’s no The Day of the Locust, no The Great Gatsby, no Absalom, Absalom! It’s a title that people may forget or confuse with other titles. Sometimes, wishing it were stronger, I feel lonely in the peculiar way of someone deeply married.

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Blurring the Lines: An Interview with Michelle Orange

March 19, 2013 | by

Orange300Last month I read a book by David Foster Wallace for the first time. (Dare I admit that? Not having read DFW is practically a sin in most literary circles; it was something that embarrassed me for years.) I finally read the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. When I finished the book, I was greedy for more essay collections in which the author gets me to read about something I didn’t realize I had any interest in.

Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life is exactly what I was looking for. While the author deserves comparisons to DFW and John Jeremiah Sullivan, she has her own distinct voice. Orange’s prose is animated by her innate curiosity and her convincing meditations on culture and her own life. I recently interviewed her via e-mail.

I was struck by the essay about your grandmother, in which you talked about the many ticket stubs she sent you on which she had scrawled short reviews. Movies, it seems, are more than a personal pleasure. It’s almost as if you genetically inherited the desire to watch cinema, to immerse yourself in the stories. Did you become a film critic partially because of your relationship with your grandmother?

There does seem to be something passed down about that kind of movie love, although in this case it skipped a generation—my mom is more of a special-event moviegoer. My father, though, is at least as devoted a movie-lover as my grandmother was, so I had it coming from several directions. What I sensed with my grandmother is that she seemed to need the movies as much as she loved them. Our trips to the Cineplex, where she would take seven-year-old me to see rated-R-for-mature-content movies like Night Shift, were the only time we spent alone together. They were memorable for that alone, but I think they embedded some of that need in me as well. She wasn’t interested in talking about a movie afterward. The pleasure was really in discovering and rediscovering that private response. Which is what made the ticket stubs so special to me—her effort to connect through this thing that we both loved so privately.

In “The Dream Girl Is Over,” you posit, “What if all life, but especially the part of it that involves consuming art and images, is in some sense a reminder?” Do you think that’s why those of us who are drawn to art, in whatever form we consume it, find some sense of recognition and familiarity in the work that we love?

There’s nothing better than encountering a voice that seems to have been living in your head, waiting for a microphone, or an interlocutor. It’s a feeling of being called. When art can make that connection it couldn’t be more personal. Read More »

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How Is the Critic Free?

September 4, 2012 | by

A non-question has recently preoccupied the literary corners of the Internet: How rude should a book critic be? I call it a non-question because its non-answer is the same as for people in social situations generally: it depends. It’s impossible to find a universal rule that licenses rudeness. There’s always going to be at least one observer who feels that a conflict could and should be handled politely. (And who knows? Insofar as politeness is a skill, maybe there's always room for improvement.) Also, there’s always going to be at least one observer who describes as honest what others call rude. But even if you give up on unanimity and settle for a majority opinion, you still can’t formulate a general decision. Try it and see. Was William Giraldi justified in adopting a rude tone about Alix Ohlin’s novel? Was Ron Powers, about Dale Peck’s? Only the particular questions are worth debating, and no matter how many questions like them you answer, you never reach a rule that has the purity of math. The most you can hope for is etiquette.

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Geoff Dyer on ‘Otherwise Known as the Human Condition’

April 19, 2011 | by

Photograph by Lawrence Impey.

“Writing, for me, has always been a way of not having a career,” Geoff Dyer explains, by way of introduction, in his new essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. His goal in such a retrospective, he adds, is not to illustrate the coherent themes of his work. Rather it is “to serve as proof of just how thoroughly my career had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” Dyer’s readers will find that sentiment unsurprising. He is the author of four novels, a critical study of John Berger, a book of photography criticism, and several books inexplicable in blurb form (e.g. Out of Sheer Rage, a National Brook Critics Circle Award finalist ostensibly about D. H. Lawrence but largely about the process of Dyer attempting to write about D. H. Lawrence; and Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, a travelogue as easily filed in humor as it might be in philosophy). Otherwise Known as the Human Condition is a curio cabinet of reviews ranging across photography, art, and literature, combined with Dyer’s experiential approach to topics as wide as forays into the foreign world, and his search for the perfect cappuccino-and-doughnut combination.

How does one approach selecting from a life’s work for an essay collection like this?

My editor, Ethan Nosowsky, and I both independently turned up with a provisional list of what we’d like to see. And we were pretty gratified at how, in a Venn diagram sort of way, there was so much overlap between the two. I’ve written a real lot, including things I’d forgotten about. The general rule would be that they had to at least raise some question—I’m thinking of the pieces about books here—something that transforms it from being a review to a sort of essay in its own right. People either are or are not interested in Denis Johnson, say, but there are a few things in that essay which are worth raising about people other than Denis Johnson. The better the piece, in some ways, the more irrelevant it would render this issue of whether or not you had read the book in question. The pieces also aren’t chronological, so you get a juxtaposition of a piece written maybe twenty years ago with a more recent one—and the slight contradiction that emerges because of that.

Most of these essays are personal at some level; do you look back on the sentiments and feel like the they hold up for you over time?

What I’ve really liked doing is combining what you might call art criticism or music criticism with something that is happening in real life. Something like “Blues for Vincent,” where I combined what is in a photograph with something in a love letter. So to answer your question in the most prosaic, literal-minded way: Of course I’m not in love anymore with the women to whom these love letters were sent. But I think there is an enduring truth in the sentiment, even if the sort of cast list has changed.

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A Week in Culture: Jane Ciabattari, Writer, Part 2

February 3, 2011 | by

This is the second installment of Ciabattari’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

Photograph by Panya Phongsavan.


DAY FOUR

11:00 A.M. Go out to a café to read a first novel I’m reviewing. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is about a family of alligator wrestlers. Talk about Southern Gothic. I’m finding the language fresh and original. Describing a deserted house in the swamp: “A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky; it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once and lost interest.”

6:30 P.M. The panelists for tonight’s National Book Critics Circle discussion I’m moderating, “Book Reviews, Revamped,” are all sitting in the office of Noreen Tomassi, the executive director of the Center for Fiction. I love this place. Floors of books, collections dating back to the nineteenth century.

Once the audience has gathered, we head downstairs to the second floor, where we have a discussion of the ways in which four publications are headed into the new decade.

Jennifer MacDonald, who is involved with revamping The New York Times Book Review, breaks news: in February Paper Cuts is merging into the ArtsBeat blog, and they have hired a new children’s book editor, Pamela Paul.

Robert Messenger, who launched the Wall Street Journal’s stand-alone print book section this fall, says he’s not reinventing a book-review section, he’s preserving an old form, and Rupert Murdoch wants him to edit for the reader, not for advertisers.

Craig Teicher talks about Publishers Weekly’s revival under a new owner, the poetry coverage, and the news blog he’s started.

Barbara Hoffert talks about writing the weekly prepub alert for Library Journal, and mentions the new opportunities for small presses and work in translation to be reviewed.

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