My happy involvement over at Open Letters (the new December issue of which is up and ready for your delectation!) has given me a ringside seat at the creation of a first-rate literary journal - the work, yes, but also the wonder, the confusion, the unexpected humor of dealing with some very talented writers and some very personal and very abstruse subject matter. You learn a lot about your colleagues, a lot about your own writing, and (inevitably, one would hope!) a lot about the whole process of putting out a great product every month. There aren't many such journals in the world - the real front-runners, the ones that aren't hobbled by provincialism, warped by some extra-literary ideology, or impressed with inanity - perhaps a dozen, and from its first issue, the New York Review of Books has been in that number.
When Open Letters was first beginning, I worried that doing the work of creating such a journal would destroy my ability to enjoy reading such journals, but that hasn't happened - I still open an issue of the NYRB with unalloyed eagerness. But one thing has changed, and really there was no way it couldn't: I read these essays reflexively thinking how they'd have fared as OLM submissions.
In the current lingo, you always want a piece to pop. You want it to know it's an essay, to be confident not only in its material but also in its own performance. You want it to be thought-provoking, omniscient on its facts but appealingly questioning in its searching. You want it to have well-turned phrases, perhaps even a few stunners, and it would be nice if there were some good jokes in the mix too. It's impossible, of course - experts sometimes drone, dilettantes sometimes stumble over easy stuff, and anybody can lose their way in the course of 2000 words - but you still hope for it, every issue, every piece. And after hoping for that in all these issues of Open Letters, I now find myself hoping for them all the more when I read a journal like the NYRB.
I'm in luck this week because the 17 December 'Holiday Issue' is a particularly strong NYRB - this is full-length arts reviewing as it should be done. Even the annoying bits are often pleasantly annoying.
One of the aforementioned thrills in doing this kind of work is reading pieces that teach you new ways of looking at old subjects - of having your mind sometimes forcibly opened to new perceptions. Take Nabokov, for instance, an author I loathe for his prurient laziness. In this NYRB, John Lancaster by dint of great prose forces me to wonder if I haven't been too hard on the author. He's writing about the tiny literary fragment Nabokov's son Dmitri has decided to publish (even though his father wanted it destroyed), and the whole thing opens with this breezy little overview:
Nothing, but nothing, causes more posthumous difficulties for a writer's heirs and friends than a request to burn a manuscript after death. It is a crystalline case of being damned if you do and damned if you don't. The interested public wants one thing, and the departed loved one has demanded another. Adding to the complexity of the question is the hard-to-dispel thought that if the writer had, in the deepest recesses of her being, wanted to burn the manuscript, she would have done so herself. So the choice is between different kinds of betrayal, of the writer's wishes or of the readers who are, now, that writer's last chance of life. To burn the manuscript is to help the writer die. But is that what she wanted ...?
Lancaster draws an amusing distinction between authors who have readers and authors who have fans (I would argue that Nabokov has only ever had the latter), and he makes some very sensitive observations about the deeper meaning of this pathetic little literary fragment and the decision to publish it:
Nabokov, a man who made a point of seeming psychologically and artistically invulnerable, and who clung to so much through his memory and his insistence on pattern, was as deeply mired in the sense of loss as any artist of the twentieth century. It would have been hard to inflict another posthumous loss on him.
(Lancaster also gets the Best Cheap Shot award for this issue, with this hilarious aside about Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil: "a strong candidate for least readable alleged masterpiece in the European canon." Hee. An understandable sentiment, though I disagree!)
Then there's the aforementioned irritating pieces, as in Christopher Ricks' impossibly hysterical three-page denunciation of Jane Campion's new film "Bright Star" about Fanny Brawne and John Keats. He stiffly informs us that "the film does not respect John Keats" (in the movie, pint-sized pock-faced cherub Keats is played by the angularly sultry Ben Wishaw - we should all be so disrespected), and the entire piece reads like the outraged cry of a teenage girl when seeing her favorite book transposed to film: "They didn't DO it right! They RUINED EVERYTHING!"
Ricks' objections boil down to preferring one medium over another, though you'd never get him to admit that:
When he [Keats] what he writes in a letter finds itself staged explicitly as a "poetry class" (a tutorial, indeed) for Fanny, there is an infidelity to his manners, his voice, his humor, and his art not only as a poet but as one of the very greatest of letter-writers. "If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all": it was one thing for him to write this to his friend John Taylor (February 27, 1818), it is another for him to trot it out priggishly at Fanny in Campion's film. Elsewhere, voice-over is overused, as though none of us would have the patience to read for ourselves a few sentences from a letter that is before our eyes.
Alternately, it could be a movie, in which the director might not want people reading letters, might even have the temerity to think her voice-overs serve some artistic purpose (and you gotta love that "February 27, 1818" - wouldn't it be so much fun to see this movie with Ricks?). It's one thing to prefer a seminar on Keats to a movie dramatizing part of his life, but it's quite another to voluntarily go to that movie and then spend the whole time angrily saying, "This is not a seminar!"
But then, you see that quite often in putting together an issue like this. Often reviewers will be angry about something and not quite know it, and often that anger will be misplaced. Untangling things like that is one of the luckless tasks of editors, and when I read a journal like the NYRB, I often wonder about the delicacy involved in performing such psychic surgery on reviewers who are also experts in their fields. Take Stephen Greenblatt, for instance: he's got a review in this issue of the great Jonathan Bate's new biography of Shakespeare, Soul of an Age, and he himself is also one of the deans of Shakespearean studies, a recognized authority. What's an editor to do when caught between such a Scylla and such a Charybdis? Greenblatt has a tricky job to do - he respects Bate as a writer and scholar, but he didn't like Soul of an Age. And he didn't like it for reasons that could just as easily be held against his own biography of Shakespeare - mainly that it perforce traffics in surmise. Greenblatt sympathizes, but only up to a point:
Where does this leave the beleaguered biographer? In a no-man's-land of swirling hypotheticals and self-canceling speculations; stillborn claims that expire at the moment they draw their first breath. Here is a brief sampling: "It is not outrageous to imagine ..." "Could it have been at the same age ...?" "Could he be the voice not only of Guy but of William ...?" "Could he have been Shakespeare's apprentice in the acting company ...?" "It seems more than fortuitous that ..." "It is unlikely to be a coincidence that ..."
And so forth, perhaps to the editor's dismay. After all, a diligent reader could come up with a similar list from every biography of Shakespeare - including Greenblatt's. So what do you do? Point out that this is a crippling bit of hypocrisy and ask that it be removed? Or tactfully stand aside while on giant in the field administers a chastising love-tap to another giant in the field?
So much easier (though perhaps not as much fun!) when everybody's in agreement! That's certainly the case with Ingrid Rowland's as-always comprehensive and fascinating contribution to the issue, this time on the great architect Palladio, of whom she writes, "Palladio's architecture is never simply a matter of load and support; it is all about directing huge forces, physical, political, and spiritual." Or her pithy observation: "An architect who grasps the separation of surface areas with Palladio's insight is also likely to put the sink in the right place."
Likewise there's Neal Acherson's approving review of A.S. Byatt's new novel The Children's Book, which, he notes, has had a rocky time of it with the critics: "Some readers of The Children's Book in Britain, where it was first published, grew mutinous about all this omniscience [on Byatt's narrator's part]." Entirely true - readers (and reviewers!) in America tended to have the same reaction, bewailing in Byatt what they praise in Henry James. Acherson's defense is spirited and spot-on:
But she knows what she is doing, in supplying these rich backgrounds of politics and culture to the enthusiasms and delusions of her characters. And none of these passages entirely deserts those characters. On the contrary, the close-up tracking of their feelings would grow clautrophobic if they were not from time to time released into the broad context of their times.
Part of the task of first-rate journals like the NYRB is to take this kind of critical stand against the massed, mutinous mutterings of the reading class, occasionally to say "we know you all think X about this author, but the truth is closer to Y." And in the course of pursuing that task - and getting an issue out on time at every deadline - there's an odd phenomenon you can't help but notice: some authors invite, even demand, that kind of regular revisiting. When a publisher announces a forthcoming new biography of, say, Edith Wharton or Beaumarchais, the result is a tremor of interest. But when a new biography of one of those lightning-rod figures appears (Rimbaud comes to mind, and those wild-animal Bronte sisters), freelancers of all stripes will line up to write about it. And one of the foremost of those figures, at OLM anyway - and obviously at the NYRB - is John Donne. In a hugely enjoyable way, we never seem to be quite sure of him. In this issue, Mark Ford does the honors, ostensibly reviewing a recent biography but really just taking the opportunity to talk about the author, sometimes wonderfully:
As so often in Donne, it is the weird fusion of a complex, indeed outlandish train of reasoning with a jaggedly particular concrete image that delivers such an unexpected shock to the nervous system.
Going from the sublime to the oft-ridiculed, the issue also features Robert Darnton's level-headed update on Google's bid to digitally scan every book in the world (and Google's unspoken, unverifiable, totally unofficial guarantee not to then become a gigantic, ruthless, money-grubbing, book-hoarding chokehold monopoly). The piece is full of useful information and Darnton's usual doses of common sense, and by sheer coincidence, the accompanying photo of the gorgeous Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library features, if you look closely, a shot of ... an Open Letters editor! Ironic enough, isn't it, given that Open Letters sits squarely on the fault-line between print and virtual media: we're entirely, hopelessly in love with books and print culture, but we publish only online, and we charge nothing for the great journal we produce. No idea how the future of print books will unfold now that Google is so heavily involved, but Darnton's bulletins from the front are invaluable (and his new book - on books, of course - is pretty damn enjoyable too).
In fact, of course, the NYRB is itself invaluable - these highlights represent only about half this issue's jam-packed contents: there's a good 90 minutes of reading here - my copy is underlined all to heck and gone, and yours will be too, if you're the annotating kind!