I can’t explain precisely why a sentence like “His eyes were as black as night” should feel like an insult, but it does.
In this particular line from this week’s Bookends column written alongside Zoe Heller, Francine Prose encapsulates the value of negative book reviews.
The debate as to whether we need negative book reviews has been raging (as much as any debate about book reviews “rages”) for a few weeks now. Prose and Heller agree that bad book reviews can be a good thing. They’re right, though Heller is a little rough on Isaac Fitzgerald, who has publicly refused to run negative reviews in his new role as books editor for Buzzfeed. Fitzgerald’s decision, and the justification he has given for it, do reek of the earnest positivism in which everything we read online these days should be worthy of upping, but it is not out of range for Buzzfeed. That, and it has a concurrent justification in terms of sheer utility: When someone is choosing between a Buzzfeed book review or one of the 87 other things you can read on any given Buzzfeed page — including, presumably, a post titled 87 Things You Can Read Instead of a Negative Book Review — why ask them to endure a downer?
All that said, I stand firmly with Prose and Heller. I enjoy reading authors who can deliver a deserving takedown, and on occasion I like writing one myself. Granted, the fun pales in comparison to the impatient joy I get when hearing that I absolutely must read a certain book. But having been through an MFA writing program, I recognize bad book reviews as one of the last defenses against novels that are simply recognized for having “strong dialogue” or “an opening line that really hooks readers.”
At any rate, it is refreshing to hear a full-throated defense of high standards. In a world where we accept that The Learning Channel can run “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” the right amount of negativity and rejection can be deeply affirming.
Read the full Bookends column.
- Michael Moats
This very short story is an excerpt from Marry Me by Dan Rhodes.
My fiancée suggested we get married while strapped together and falling ten thousand feet from an aeroplane. I wasn’t nearly as interested as she was in that kind of thing, and suggested we have a more conventional ceremony. She dismissed my misgivings. ‘Feel the fear,’ she said, ‘and do it anyway. That’s my motto.’ Not wishing to appear unmanly, I went along with her plan, and I have to admit that in the event it was a lot of fun exchanging vows in mid-air while a vicar plummeted alongside us.
Unfortunately, our parachute has failed to open, and our marriage is looking likely to prove shortlived. She’s screaming in terror, and I’m wondering whether this would be a good moment to remind her that it had been her idea.
- Dan Rhodes is the author of six other books: Anthropology and A Hundred Other Stories, Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, Gold, Little Hands Clapping, and (writing as Danuta de Rhodes) The Little White Car. Rhodes was named one of Granta magazine’s Twenty Best of Young Adult British Writers in 2003 and one of the Daily Telegraph’s Best British Novelists Under 40 in 2010. He is the winner of several awards, including the Author’s Club First Novel Award and the E.M. Forster Award. He lives in Derbyshire, England.
Some writing is so small and dense it feels like sucking on a pebble. Lydia Davis is a master of this style: she scatters jarring little realizations like pebbles on a beach for readers to find and collect. But what if the pebbles weren’t scattered? What if they formed a distinct trail?
Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, is a collection of small prose fragments laid in a row, telling a long story that begins with a courtship and ends in a busted marriage. When I say small, I mean small. Like this:
This is another way in which he is an admirable person. If he notices something is broken, he will try to fix it. He won’t just think about how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy.
The unnamed narrator and her husband lead a familiar type of life—New York City, careers in the arts, childbirth, adultery—but Offill finds a way to make every moment feel intensely personal and specific, like a movie voiceover by someone you instantly relate to.
When the Iraq War started I got an urge to collect photographic evidence. The best place for photos was BBC.com. Every day they published shots from the front lines: allied soldiers in full battle gear dozing in the shade of a corrugated metal roof; allied soldiers climbing out of a tank on an empty road at dawn; allied soldiers peering from behind a bullet-scarred cement wall. For four or five months, every Monday through Friday, I looked at the photos and saved them as JPEGs on my hard drive.
I was against the invasion. But I believed the pundits who said Saddam Hussein’s regime didn’t stand a chance. The pundits seemed to be competing with each other to see who could predict the quickest victory. Somehow I was afraid—deeply, weirdly afraid—that the war would end easily, without any real consequences for the United States, and we would keep on bulldozing countries, one after another, for no good reason. I collected photos in order to create a record of the war in case I needed to remind people that it actually happened.
The problem with the BBC photos was they rarely showed Iraqis. Occasionally I’d see an American soldier giving a bottle of water to some Iraqi children, and I’d wonder to what degree the photo had been staged. At best there might be an unnamed Iraqi man at the edge of the frame as soldiers rolled into his village. Inevitably he would be ducking into a doorway.
The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman has just come out. It’s the story of a young Manhattan lawyer who is visited by a series of strange visions that throw his life into turmoil. Sounds like a hilarious, Mel Brooks-y update on the Bible, right? Except the visions are showing him that New York City is about to be reduced to rubble and ash.
If you were Jonah, you’d run too.
We asked the author one question.
How are you celebrating the publication of The Book of Jonah?
Joshua Max Feldman: One of the great challenges of writing is that most often there’s no reliable way to know how you’re doing. There’s no box score to check, no stock price to follow, there’s no boss to hand down reprimands or praise. Typically, it’s just you and the writing: your mind and the words on the screen. It’s up to you, the writer, to decide whether the work of the last hour, day, month has represented progress or a wrong turn. Sometimes you’re sure; a lot of the time, you’re not. This is the real reason writers hate the question, “How’s the writing going?” Frequently, you just don’t know.
Joshua Max Feldman
There is, however, one day you can be sure your efforts haven’t been in vain–when the trust you’ve put in your muse is indisputably rewarded: publication day. Holding your book in your hands–or, okay, holding a Kindle with your name on the screen–is as much proof as you can ask that you did at least a few things right. So I’m celebrating the publication of The Book of Jonah with pride in the work I did and gratitude I can share it with readers. The mountains writers climb may be all in their heads, but I’m happy to have reached the top of mine.
- Brian Hurley
In Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice, lovable lead and burnout Los Angeles private investigator Doc Sportello stumbles across an early iteration of the world wide web. A young kid named Sparky, which in the Pynchon universe may be a nickname or an actual name, helps Doc use the emerging technology to track down a lead on a missing person, and adds that “someday everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape. Skips won’t be able to skip no more, maybe by then there’ll be no place to skip to.”
The line felt like a teaser for Pynchon works to come. Expectations (mine, at least) went higher when it was made known that Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge would be set in 2001, his first foray into the networked age. It was reasonable to assume that the novel would center around precisely the kind of monitoring and manipulation that has paranoiacs and libertarians and even average citizens riled up these days. The approach would be perfectly consistent with his well-worn subjects of paranoia and conspiracy, not to mention journeys, as skips try to find places to skip to.
Which explains why it takes a while to realize that paranoia is not really what Bleeding Edge is about. Continue reading
Last night on Girls we got a further glimpse at the content of Hannah Horvath’s long-gestating memoir—you know, the book that’s going to make her “the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” And it sounds pretty fabulous.
CAROLINE: You just have to write a whole new bunch of wonderful stories, that’s all.
HANNAH: A whole new bunch of wonderful stories? My whole life was in that book. Everything that’s ever happened to me. Okay? The handjob kidney stone. The time I fell asleep on a pile of pizza boxes. When I made out with the Cuban refugee then the thing happened with the glitter pens. All of it’s in there!
Combine this with the “first chapter” of Hannah’s book that was published on Nerve.com, and it sounds like this fictional character is ready for a real-life book contract. We love it when that happens. Where can we pre-order this thing?
- Brian Hurley
Two hundred years ago, in the spring of 1814, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin began her romance with Percy Bysshe Shelley—a romance shadowed by dreadful mortality, but which birthed Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus in 1818. February 1st is the anniversary of her death in 1851. The name Frankenstein as a unit of exchange has become synonymous with forms of bastard science, Promethean or Faustian transgressions and their mutant consequences. So profound is this shorthand metaphor, so great has been its escape, that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s teenage wit in producing the name Victor Frankenstein has been obscured. But it is there, buried in the lurid séance of the narrative. Mary Shelley’s tale is a sustained act of extraordinary ventriloquism in which the reader does well to remember that none of its creatures actually ‘speaks’ except for the mariner Robert Walton, who transcribes the entire catastrophe of Frankenstein and his creature in a manuscript intended for his sister Margaret.
That memorized manuscript—part confession, part reconstructed epistle—descends through several layers of ventriloquism, reaching absurd depths, the nadir of which is the obligatory Arabesque interlude when Shelley is writing what Walton recalls of what Frankenstein remembers of what the creature told him of letters that he copied from the originals sent by Safie, the ‘sweet Arabian,’ to Felix De Lacey after being translated into French by her old man confidant. The novel itself is a chimera, always straining at its bonds. In the second volume of the novel, the creature begins a monologue that continues for six chapters, except that it is Victor Frankenstein ventriloquizing his undead real-doll, in turn animated by Walton, whom we encounter from the position of Margaret reading his manuscript. Since, at the conclusion of the tale, Victor Frankenstein is dead, we are left with Walton animating Frankenstein’s corpse by assuming his voice. But what is animated inside the abused name of Frankenstein? Continue reading