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December 26, 2005

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Lorin Stein

Dear Mark,

I'm a fan of TEV, as you know. You've introduced me to books I would have missed and blogs I'd never have heard of, and I almost invariably find your posts instructive and fun to read--but I have to say, I'm puzzled by your latest on N+1. The TLS asks what N+1 is angry about. But the answer's obvious--all you have to do is look at the latest issue!

Here's Walter Benn Michaels assailing affirmative action. Here's Mark Greif wishing death on the sitcom. Here's James Wood politely skewering his critics. Here's J.D. Daniels (less politely) on growing up poor and making it into the middle class--possibly the single *angriest* essay I've read since Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place ... The list goes on.

So--the TLS columnist you cite clearly hasn't checked the magazine out. But you have, and you should know better, it seems to me. What's worse, the TLS is willfully misleading. I read that Observer piece--Benjamin Kunkel never said he was angry about dating. The TLS makes it sound as if he did. This is shitty journalism. There's nothing "marvelous" about it, if you ask me. I can't figure out why you bothered to retype it.

As for Marco Roth on Kafka, you say Roth's "hellbent to make sure we know just how much he knows about Kafka (and everything else)." All because he mentions *Faust*? Even I've read *Faust*! You go on to say that the possible connection between Kafka's Grete and Faust's is "so shockingly obvious as to not require underscoring." I can't tell what bothers you. Is Roth's point shockingly obvious, or is it ostentatiously arcane?

I haven't read the biography under discussion, and you don't defend it. Have I missed the source of your annoyance? I hate to ask the obvious--but is Roth wrong about the book?

It's hard to read your post without getting the sense that N+1 bugs you--bugs you deeply. But I can't tell exactly why. Is it something about the tone of the magazine? Something about its ideology? Its tack? Do you think it's lame for a scholar to post a memoir of studying (or, really, failing to study) with Jacques Derrida? Maybe it is--but is this your beef?

When you announce that N+1 is a "flavor whose month has passed," it doesn't clear things up. In fact it makes my heart sink because I want to hear what *you* think--not some prediction about the winds of fashion. Who cares about what flavor's in in a given month? I can't believe you do.

The funny thing is, I'd have thought you'd *like* N+1. You of all people. Who else is publishing such good, provocative stuff about literature and culture so consistently?

I've gone on longer than I meant to, but I need to end with some full disclosure. As a book editor, I send writers to N+1 all the time. Recently, I sent them a French book that we're publishing (a book I translated myself) and was delighted that they decided to publish an excerpt. To see an unheard-of (in America) French writer in the same pages as Elif Batuman, Keith Gessen, Sam Lipsyte, Pankaj Mishra, and the writers I've already mentioned seems pretty great and weird to me--and utterly in keeping with what I take to be the N+1 project.

I don't always agree with the editors. I thought Wood pointed out real weaknesses in their first issue, for instance. But I'm sorry to see you dismiss them without taking them on.

Your faithful reader,
Lorin

Citoyen Fantomas


Dear Lorin:

Has it become clear to you in the ensuing year and a half since you made this post why people detest N+1?

Or are you so desperately attached to the fact of having learned French at Sidwell Friends that now you think that anyone who’s wealthy and privileged enough—like all those tedious Harvard prats who cobbled together the funding for N+1 from whichever wealthy spendthrifts they were best able to bilk—to be taking “a serious look at new French fiction” (or whatever you praised Kunkel et al. for doing) must perforce be a Force for Cultural Good?

Well, N+1 is not a force for cultural good. It’s a fearful diasaster, all the more so because America needs a magazine like N+1 at the current moment, but there is not one forthcoming. But to a few of us, Lorin, like myself, who live on a shoestring budget but for some reason subscribed to N+1 from the first issue, it has turned out to be a colossal disappointment. Why? We were desperately hungry for some kind of magazine to get behind, in the way that a teenage David Bromwich got himself behind the Partisan Review, or Normal Mailer once got himself behind the Village Voice, or Richard Poirier got himself and a whole slew of worthy voices behind (briefly) Raritan. Although in point of fact, what we really crave is a successor to Barbara Epstein. Which is to say—a woman.

N+1 apes the old style of worthy Jewish intellectuals, alongside the old style of worthy Cyril-Connolly-style balanced intellectual survey—of the sort that recalls the Johnsonian pleonasm which opens “The Vanity of Human Wishes”—which treats all the artistic developments of all the separate countries of Europe as though they were worthy of serious consideration. And yet what was the problem with Mailer, Poirier, Connolly? Sexism. Surely a little bell inside your head tinkled when you saw how accurately McEwan parodied the voice of Connolly in Atonement, and perhaps you even saw the deeply woman-loathing sexism that lurked in the heart of Cyril Connolly, or yourself, or any other insecure heterosexual who has ever condescended to, or damned with faint praise, a woman writer.

In other words, Lorin, N+1 is (as far as I can tell) just one more manifestation of the ongoing backlash against feminism, and against full equality for women and gays in the literary world. Which, God willing, will all be burnt to the ground if we should be granted at last a worthy successor to the likes of Mary McCarthy, or Hannah Arendt. And guess what? When that woman emerges, she’ll have an ambivalent relationship to the whole N+1 crowd (rather as I understand Jenny Davidson to be doing, since she’s one of the only people who’s had the balls to actually write a letter to that shitty little excuse for a magazine and point out to them how utterly blinkered they really are).

I daresay that it will take a great woman writer to wipe out you, and Kunkel, and all those other little effete polite scribblers—who are not, Lorin, the Emersons and Thoreaus of their day. These people are the James Russell Lowells, the Thomas Wentworth Higginsons, the idiotic yammering palefaces—who will quake before the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Edgar Allan Poe, or any other non-Harvard-Yale-Farrar-Straus-aligned outsiders, who have always been the vital center of American culture.

Look at the 1890’s in Britain, Lorin. Can you point to a major writer from that decade who was actually CENTRALLY an Englishman? No. Kipling was born in India and was small and dark-coloured and bad at games, like a native. Conan Doyle was an Irish Catholic by way of Edinburgh; RL Stevenson was a Scot; Wilde was an Irishman; George du Maurier was of French extraction; WB Yeats was an Irish theosophist; and from that climate eventually the London tradition culminated in the likes of Henry James (a gay American Englishman) TS Eliot (an Anglo-Catholic American Englishman) or James Joyce (an Irish Catholic master taking full ownership of the English language). And of course by that time the English novel was in the hands of women (Woolf) or queers (Firbank, Forster).

At that moment in time, Lorin, no normal heterosexual male in England could actually fairly speak for England. The only true English voices at the turn of the century are the voices of assimilated outsiders. This is true of American literature at the moment as well, and it must drive people like you and Ben Kunkel out of your minds. That, after a long nightmare, straight white guys are just purely irrelevant.

If Ben Kunkel’s Indecision is still read in a hundred years’ time, it will be read in the spirit of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat or George and Weedon Grosmith’s Diary of a Nobody—as a piece of flustered, polite, harmless comedy that seems to have dated rather badly, at least as compared with Wilde or with Ulysses.

And frankly, if the sort of ghoulish French literature that you translate and write about is still read in a hundred years’ time, it will be read in the spirit with which we now read Edmund Gosse, and his murmurings over Swinburne or Beddoes or his own horrible life.

In other words, Lorin, I predict with fullest confidence that you will turn out to be the American Gosse, and that if you hope to survive as a footnote when someday the fuller history of American literature is written, then you’d probably best get to work on a memoir that tells, in the style of Gosse’s Father and Son (or Ackerley’s My Father and Myself) the story of you and your penis.

Because frankly, that’s something the America of the future might be interested in. How an ambitious privileged wealthy straight guy on the make could end up being unmanned by sheer biology.

But no. All of you people who fancy you are creating a new literate culture in New York are, in reality, merely kicking back cocktails before a revolution. Are you blind?

The sort of Euro-philia exemplified by you, and your plaintive defense of Kunkel, and of the sort of dull, self-important, ill-written horseshit that gets published in N+1 is perfectly ripe to be overturned. Because frankly, Americans don’t like Sebald or current French literature. And they never will. Houellebecq is not the second coming of Baudelaire. Houellebecq is a racist, sexist, self-annihilating dullard. His work reminds me of Naphta from Der Zauberberg, if Naphta had decided to round out the trifecta of Jesuit and Jew by being a pretentious Satanist belles-lettrist in the style of Huysmans (his Great Original) or Maurice Sachs or Giosue Carducci or Maurice Barres. (Have you read any of those writers, Lorin? I have. They are slightly more interesting to me than your work, or Kunkel’s work, but of a similar durability and ultimate worth.)

Frankly, I think intelligent people are getting sick of the pose struck by N+1. Oh yes yes yes, we have read Sebald, we have read The Piano Teacher and seen the movie with Isabelle Huppert. Yes, we jerked off to the autobiography of Catherine Millet. Yes, we think Catherine Breillat is a more important filmmaker than Scorsese or Judd Apatow. Yes, yes, we are alert to every new European novel that gets a bit of buzz going.

It’s a macho, frat-boy pose, Lorin. And it’s fucking bullshit.

Given your overwhelming Francophilia, can’t you take a look (say) at contemporary French cinema and say, quite frankly, it’s disgusting. It’s a bunch of women aping the attitudes of violently sexist men (Baise-Moi, A Ma Soeur / Fat Girl, Romance), and a bunch of men unpleasantly aping the attitudes of violated woman (Gaspar Noe, Patrice Chereau). And then a small cadre of people who are aiming for the heart of America, rather sickeningly, and sometimes hitting their target (like Jeunet and Caro).

But you only need to see a recent French film to realize that French culture, European culture in general (with England and Italy excepted) is really quite deeply unpleasant at the moment. This is the last stand ON BEHALF OF male chauvinism taking place currently, and in the films of Catherine Breillat you can see the ne plus ultra: an imbecilic and pretentious woman making imbecilic and pretentious films ON BEHALF OF male chauvinism.

The current cultural impasse will find no solution nor succor from France, Lorin Stein, nor from you and nor from N+1.

If there is a cultural center to New York City right now, it’s not in the pages of N+1. Personally, I’d say it’s on the weblog of Jenny Davidson, which frankly is about the only thing I can bear to read (in terms of cultural review and consideration) which is written by someone who is (A) an American under the age of 60; and (b) who went to Harvard. If Steve Burt and Jenny Davidson were to start an N+1-style magazine, I would personally work like a slave to see that such a magazine continued and flourished for a long time to come. Because it disturbs me that the minds which I find most subtle and adept are shut out of the whole kingmaking / Harold Bloom-style game that is played by those glorified Harvard frat-boys.

But you know why I would walk a mile to read a new article by Steve Burt and Jenny Davidson, and why I declined to renew my subscription to Kunkel’s rag after I got the last issue that was covered by the price of my four year subscription. Because I’d rather read something written by a sensitive indie kid like Steve Burt, or read anything by a learned lady like Jenny Davidson, than have to endure one more fucking minute of the dictatorship of full-on heterosexual Harvard assholes over American culture.

Frankly, Ben Kunkel and his crowd make me finally understand what Oswald was up to in that book depository. Sometimes a glamorous, sexy, and SEXIST Harvard asshole just has to be eliminated from the cultural scene in order to allow a genuine emancipation to occur. With JFK dead, it was finally time for women and blacks and homosexuals to demand their civil rights. And guess what? Once people realize that Ben Kunkel has nothing to say, and says it at tremendously persnicketly length, they will realize that he’s hardly an all-American folk savant like John Updike. They’ll realize he’s just another monied snob, and a dick. And even if he starts tipping 200 percent at every restaurant and moves to a cork-lined hovel in Sao Paolo, guess what? He’ll still NEVER be Proust.

Don’t you understand, Lorin? Some of us are not glamorous. Some of us did not go to Sidwell Friends like you, or Hotchkiss like Ben Kunkel, or whatever overpriced kennel-for-purebreds that bitches like Kunkel’s wife or the divinely vacuous Nell Freudenberger got sent to.

So why are you defending Ben Kunkel? Are you fucking insane? You care about the health of the American novel. (I can’t say that I did after Saul Bellow suddenly lunged to the right. In all that time, I think the only American novel that matches the best of Ian McEwan has been Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and it’s starting to seem like Franzen will end up being the one-hit-wonder JD Salinger of our time.) But if you do care about the health of the American novel, Lorin, can’t you see that people like Kunkel are destroying it?

Consider me your weatherman, Lorin, who can tell you which way the wind is blowing these days. The common reader, Lorin—in which category I consider myself, although I daresay that I personally have probably forgotten more than Ben Kunkel has ever read (although I might, ruefully, admit that Jenny Davidson has read and forgotten more than I have—but only if Jenny admitted that all that she has ever read and forgotten was largely crap, airport lit, kids’ books and mystery novels)—detests nothing so much as an overprivileged kid on the make.

Which is, frankly, why people are reacting so badly to the N+1 junto.

And to you.

Warm Regards,
CITOYEN FANTOMAS

marieca

highly enlightening. thank you for writing this.

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TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
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    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."