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December 08, 2006

Comments

Kit Stolz

A technical note: That blue type is barely readable on my screen, which usually has no trouble with types and fonts of different colors.

tao

peer pressure

Theresa Duncan

Hi Mark,

Your blog is fantastic, what a great boon to the L.A. books set.

I really like your critical edge and your knowledge of the politics that inform the publishing world. That said, what's with T.E.V. and Ms. Pessl?

I don't understand why her age is pointed out in Meghan's blurb. (Well, perhaps I actually do.)

If we were to begin pointing out every ugly old white guy who was mysteriously overpraised and overpaid we wouldn't get much sleep, would we?

I haven't read the book, as her emergence on the scene doesn't much trouble or interest me, so I can't argue for her merits as an artist.

But perhaps it's high time for young women to begin receiving a few cultural perks, just like old men do, n'est ce pas?

Peace,
Theresa Duncan

Lmm

Come now, let's not make this a "old white guy thing."

In the same article, Meghan points out the age of a young white male (Abusrdistan's author) while making similar criticisms about the book.

Do you honestly think young women don't get cultural perks? I'd say they get a lot more than old men. The perks of being old men are many, but not in the cultural realm.

Theresa Duncan

Actually, I didn't make this an "old white guy thing", but one must admit culture at this juncture is indeed an old white guy thing still itself.

The age of the male author was not quoted on this blog.

I'd like to know precisely what cultural perks you think young women get. Whistled at? Perfume contracts? Rich husbands? Attractive Barbie-esque accessories?

Not taken seriously by critics and singled out for a particularly keen and repetitive envy by the reading public?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Kind Regards,
Theresa Duncan

James

Theresa, please let's not turn this into a "literature is against all women" diatribe. First off O'Rourke mentions Pessl's age because she is saying she's a young, new writer and that she doesn't believe Pessl's book to be worthy of being in the NY Top 10 List.

Guess what? A lot of people feel the same way and maybe you would too, if you actually read the book before making accusations. It has more to do with age and inexperience than with gender and if you read O'Rourke's article you would understand that. She even puts Pessl in essentially the same camp as Franzen, Foer and Eggers while separating her from female writers like Claire Messud and Amy Hempel.

She's talking about the dichotomy that exists in styles and that doesn't necessarily correlate to age and sex. Claire Messud is 40 and Jonathan Franzen is 47.

Does sexism exist? It has and it shall but if you reference it as a crutch then you'll never walk on your own two feet. Sure, old WASP-ish men have been writing and winning forever but good literature is good literature is good literature.

Pulitzer Prize Winners: Harper Lee, Geraldine Brooks, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Walker, Pearl S. Buck, etc.

National Book Award Winners: Julia Glass, Alice Walker, Mary Gaitskill, Flannery O'Connor, Elizabeth Bishop, etc.

PEN Award Winners: Marilynne Robinson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ann Patchett, Yiyun Li, Annie Dillard, Paula Fox, etc.

And on and on.

TEV

Theresa,

Thanks for posting your comments and thank you for your kind words about TEV. There's certainly no foul in friends disagreeing.

In this case, I do share the position of the other commentators here. I think the salient point in O'Rourke's piece is not Pessl's gender (and I don't disagree at all that women still struggle to achieve a certain kind of parity and fairness in literary matters; viz Hitchens' latest outrage) so much as her age. It suggests - to me - that the NY Times is unable to resist the lamentable obsession with the new, the young, the novel (forgive the pun) that seems to afflict most of the publishing world.

Pessl's age and the alleged Nabokovian virtuosity of the novel strikes me more as a case of the dancing bear question (not that the does it well, but that he does it at all), and I have tried - three times before surrendering at about page 100 or so - to wade through it. I found it maddening and while I will always concede matters of taste are subjective, it's hard to reconcile the NY Times selection of the book with anything other than that kind of misdirected fixation on the young and new that I believe O'Rourke is discussing.

Perhaps the more interesting argument is the sheer foolishness of the notion of a 10 Best Books of the Year list. It's really an absurd notion and strikes one as little more than a holiday shopping list repackaged for added gravitas. But it's awfully silly, really, when one considers the sheer volume of books out that (a) the list can be reduced to a mere 10 and (b) the arbiters of taste at NYTBR feel they have consumed enough of what is out there that they're comfortable sitting in judgment. Personally, I find these kind of top 10 lists insulting to my intelligence and the inclusion of the Pessl merely serves to underscore that point. It's the stuff of Letterman, not of the so-called "Paper of Record."

There's plenty of gender bias out there (even as women buy 70% of all fiction), to be sure. But in this case, I think you're seeing something that isn't there.

Theresa Duncan

This is not the first time Pessl's supposedly unfair advantage and unearned positionson "Best Of" lists have been mentioned on this blog.

And I don't see how what I wrote above constitutes a diatribe in any aspect. Nor am I accusing anyone of anything. I was honestly inquiring as to what is the true nature of the problem people have with Pessl. I see much about her age and looks and little about the prose.

Also who's referencing anything as a crutch? That's just silly. Nor did I say anything at all about sexism.

No, I didn't read the book, as I pointed out right away. But I'm not criticizing the book, I'm inquiring about the uniquely personal critical tone around the book.

Frankly, as a critic for Artforum and Slate and other digital and paper rags I'm often more curious about a painting or book or film's reception by critics and the public than I am about the object itself.

There is a tone around this author that seems to me to have an obsessive neurotic tinge that to my mind has to do with current cultural reactions to pleasure, beauty and youth, things that are being suppressed in contemporary culture as the massive Baby Boomers demographic age.

And since when do writers have to have "seniority" or "experience" in order to be on Top Ten lists? I love Jonathan Franzen for being a great and honest chronicler of our age and his own peccadilloes, and he and his characters are often completely juvenile and arrested in a way that even an 18 year old might find hard to top. He may be 45 but he's not that mature.

The whole age and looks argument seems strange and beside the point to me, and I think that if there's a diatribe it's against Pessl.

Maybe the reviewers at The New York Times just like the book and it doesn't have anything to do with the author's persona.

And I still am genuinely interested in hearing what perks the writer above thinks young women get. I'm not being sarcastic or overly gender conscious, I really wonder what the person has to say.

I'm going out for breakfast at the Chateau Marmnot for a while but I look forward to reading more replies to my post when I get back.

Best Wishes,
Theresa Duncan

Theresa Duncan

Just read TEV's post and will reply later.

Anon,
TD

David  Womack

Mark,

Thanks for the blog. You should consider adding the Santa Monica Review to your literary L.A. links. SMR has been publishing local fiction for something like 20 years. That has to be worth a mention, maybe even a recommendation.

David

TEV

Theresa,

Sorry but you're going to have to pony up on this one and show me some concrete examples as to where I've ever made even the vaguest personal reference about Pessl. Read through the handful of mentions I've made - the ones I've written, not the ones written by others - and you'll find there's a consistent thread of finding the book itself not very good. That must then, logically, lead one to question wherefore the adulation if not legitimately about quality? And one can decry publishing's fixation on The Next Hot Young Thing without being remotely personal about Pessl.

I stand by that one pretty firmly. I have nothing against the young author - I just didn't like her book. And I'm not alone. (And my well-known admiration for Everything is Illuminated and White Teeth should demonstrate no innate bias against youth.)

The whole response-to-the-response thing can get a bit meta for my taste. For me, finally, it's about the book.

Hope you had a nice breakfast.

Anon,
mgs

JBB

Theresa, you say, "I see much about her age and looks and little about the prose."

Looks to me like O'Rourke's article in particular has lots to say about the prose, and based on what I've read on Pessl's book, I have to agree with much of what she says.

J

Lmm

"I see much about her age and looks and little about the prose."

I gotta agree with J, both TEV and O'Rourkes article have tons to say about her prose, much more than about her looks and age. Did you read the piece? Perhaps you should read it and the book before getting too indignant about the responses.

While I agree there have been some writers who perhaps get a little too excited (both positively and negatively) over her age, this is true of every young writer from every race, gender and sexuality. I don't see why

And I still am genuinely interested in hearing what perks the writer above thinks young women get. I'm not being sarcastic or overly gender conscious, I really wonder what the person has to say.

We've reached a state where women and men have inummerable double standards, many cut against men and many cut against women. I hope you don't think I was implying that men are the oppressed gender or something silly like that. But it should be quite obvious to anyone who lives in the western world that women have many perks, just as men do. One only needs to look at all the recent articles there have been on the declining grades and enrollment rate for men at college (while women still retain countless women only scholarships, fellowships, awards, prizes, etc.)

I wouldn't mind having this discussion, but I'm not sure Mark would really like that in this blog, and as I've said I don't see gender being an issue in the least for this topic. I'd also want to wait for you to explain what you mean by "cultural perks..."

Actually, I didn't make this an "old white guy thing", but one must admit culture at this juncture is indeed an old white guy thing still itself.

I find this quite hard to swallow, unless you have a very narrow definition of culture. How many "old white guys" are cultural icons? The music world, film world, art world and much of the book world is run by the young and hip. Plenty of white people in the mix there, but few old people.

The age of the male author was not quoted on this blog.

While the numberical age wasn't given, I meant that he was identified as a young writer in the same vein as Pessl and she identified similar flaws. My point was that Meghan doesn't have any problem with Pessl's gender, at least not on the basis of that article, though she seems to have something of an issue with age.


Theresa Duncan

I had spaghetti bolognese at the C.M., it's some of the best in town, by the way. Plus you can linger for hours for the price of one plate, as I just did.

You say that response to the response is too meta, and yet from what I'm reading here the p.r. swirl that surrounds her is more interesting than the book, hence the real story.

From my experience many of the "perks" women receive are more like shitty booby prizes. True, things can be easier on women in that they can choose to be some man's lapdog if they like, but for me that's like Charlton Heston enjoying being in the apes' zoo.

So I guess that's why you won't actually list what you think the cultural perks of being a young woman are, either because you're embarassed to enumerate the paltry and insulting few or because they basically don't exist. Most of what I think you are referring to are limiting and passive and a drag.

(And yet I still say vive la difference on most days.)

With all the reading I am going to do this week I still don't want to read Pessl's book, it hasn't piqued my curiosity enough. I love Meta and am reading a book about other very old books and the commentary on these other books by Michel de Certeau.

I do think culture remains in the liver spotted grip of the Baby Boomers nearly completely. Name one siginificant youth movement after punk rock (that isn't Hip Hop).

Please also name one young hip person who has really made a dent in culture at large after the mid-90s, or more specifically after Quentin Tarantino and Kurt Cobain. I love The Strokes but they haven't really broken that wide and they're nothing new. Pessl ain't doing it, though I wish her luck.

I wrote the initial post above to ask some honest questions and provoke discussion, and it seems I did. I'm not wedded to any certain view on these things, but my mind hasn't been changed by anything here either.

I do remember reading T.E.V. when Pessl's book first came out and mention being made of her looks, but I think your explanation that it was about being a "hot young thing" in general is honest.

In terms of hot young thingness, I think that the publishing industry needs these high profile new faces, and that HYT's might be looked at as advertisements for literature in general.

If you can entice some 25 year old nonreaders into a store because one of their coevals wrote something that intrigues them, they might buy another couple books when they're in there. Or even develop a lifelong reading habit. Perhaps the Times, a commercial venture like book publishing, needs to keep this in mind too.

When I was having a hard time at a studio a couple years ago a friend mentioned two 23 year olds who had sold a spec script for $2 million on their first try. I respectfully asked her not to tell me news like that while I was still working on the studio hell job, so I understand the chagrin Pessl causes some. (Though I would never have publicly expressed the opinion about the 23 year olds.)

I do feel though that the cultural license to fixate and criticize people like Pessl has become overly lax (like the plagiarism fixation) and that our critical dialog is straying into the territory of nitpicking and ressentiment.

As I said I really like T.E.V. and believe completely in your good intentions, and thanks for your respectful tone and honest responses here.

Yes indeed, it was lazy of me to comment without complete knowlege of O'Rourke's (skimmed) article and Pessl's book (never read). But it's Sunday, friends, and now we have an interesting thread anyway.

My blog The Wit Of The Staircase, nicely trafficked though it is, (relatively speaking) have never seen a 13-comment post!!

Mille Grazi For Your Thoughts And Indulgences,
TD

Theresa Duncan

I had spaghetti bolognese at the C.M., it's some of the best in town, by the way. Plus you can linger for hours for the price of one plate, as I just did.

You say that response to the response is too meta, and yet from what I'm reading here the p.r. swirl that surrounds her is more interesting than the book, hence the real story.

From my experience many of the "perks" women receive are more like shitty booby prizes. True, things can be easier on women in that they can choose to be some man's lapdog if they like, but for me that's like Charlton Heston enjoying being in the apes' zoo.

So I guess that's why you won't actually list what you think the cultural perks of being a young woman are, either because you're embarassed to enumerate the paltry and insulting few or because they basically don't exist. Most of what I think you are referring to are limiting and passive and a drag.

(And yet I still say vive la difference on most days.)

With all the reading I am going to do this week I still don't want to read Pessl's book, it hasn't piqued my curiosity enough. I love Meta and am reading a book about other very old books and the commentary on these other books by Michel de Certeau.

I do think culture remains in the liver spotted grip of the Baby Boomers nearly completely. Name one siginificant youth movement after punk rock (that isn't Hip Hop).

Please also name one young hip person who has really made a dent in culture at large after the mid-90s, or more specifically after Quentin Tarantino and Kurt Cobain. I love The Strokes but they haven't really broken that wide and they're nothing new. Pessl ain't doing it, though I wish her luck.

I wrote the initial post above to ask some honest questions and provoke discussion, and it seems I did. I'm not wedded to any certain view on these things, but my mind hasn't been changed by anything here either.

I do remember reading T.E.V. when Pessl's book first came out and mention being made of her looks, but I think your explanation that it was about being a "hot young thing" in general is honest.

In terms of hot young thingness, I think that the publishing industry needs these high profile new faces, and that HYT's might be looked at as advertisements for literature in general.

If you can entice some 25 year old nonreaders into a store because one of their coevals wrote something that intrigues them, they might buy another couple books when they're in there. Or even develop a lifelong reading habit. Perhaps the Times, a commercial venture like book publishing, needs to keep this in mind too.

When I was having a hard time at a studio a couple years ago a friend mentioned two 23 year olds who had sold a spec script for $2 million on their first try. I respectfully asked her not to tell me news like that while I was still working on the studio hell job, so I understand the chagrin Pessl causes some. (Though I would never have publicly expressed the opinion about the 23 year olds.)

I do feel though that the cultural license to fixate and criticize people like Pessl has become overly lax (like the plagiarism fixation) and that our critical dialog is straying into the territory of nitpicking and ressentiment.

As I said I really like T.E.V. and believe completely in your good intentions, and thanks for your respectful tone and honest responses here.

Yes indeed, it was lazy of me to comment without complete knowlege of O'Rourke's (skimmed) article and Pessl's book (never read). But it's Sunday, friends, and now we have an interesting thread anyway.

My blog The Wit Of The Staircase, nicely trafficked though it is, (relatively speaking) has never seen a 13-comment post!!

Mille Grazi For Your Thoughts And Indulgences,
TD

LMM

I do think culture remains in the liver spotted grip of the Baby Boomers nearly completely. Name one siginificant youth movement after punk rock (that isn't Hip Hop).

Please also name one young hip person who has really made a dent in culture at large after the mid-90s, or more specifically after Quentin Tarantino and Kurt Cobain. I love The Strokes but they haven't really broken that wide and they're nothing new. Pessl ain't doing it, though I wish her luck.

These are interesting questions. Significant youth movements after punk?

A hard question, becuase I frankly think true youth movements are pretty rare. Punk/hardcore would be one and the boomers hippies would be another, but it isn't like significant youth movements come along every other year.

If I could change the question slightly, to one of youth SCENES, I think there have been tons since punk rock. DIY hardcore, hip-hop, skateboarding culture, ravers, goths, etc.

The trend in modern society has been one towards fracturization and specialization. THe fact that there haven't been many musicians in the 90s and 00s to influence culture in the way that Bod Dylan or the Rolling Stones did is not a question of the boomers culture influence, but one of state of affairs.

In a modern age where youth tend to group around very specific music sects (I've known plenty of people who would only listen to metal or only listen to hip-hop or only listen to indierock, etc.) a Cobain or Taratino will come about rarely.

Still, if I don't have to name figures on the scale of Dylan, I think it is quite obvious that music is run by the young. What significant Baby Boomer musicians are left? Neil Young and Bob Dylan are still around, but they are hardly changing the face of music anymore. When thinking of 90/00s mainstream music the names that would come to my mind (Beck, Nirvana, Pixies, Jay Z, Biggie, Pavement, Sonic Youth, Wu-Tang, etc.) would all be young artists. Indie/DIY music would be entirely youth driven as well, of course. I really can't think of anyone from the Boomer generation who was too relevant in the 90s/00s. Perhaps Johnny Cash in the last decade comes closest.

It probably goes wihtout saying that actors lean on the young side during any time period. As for directors, since you brought up Tarantino, it is certainly true that most are Baby Boomers, but that again seems inevitable. In the 1960s most big directors weren't 20-30 years old. However, I think their are a fair number of importent post-Boomer directors:

Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Tarantino and Wes Anderson come to mind.

So I guess I'd just reiterate what I said before. Culture is still mostly in the hands of the young, as it has been since WWII at least, but modern culture is so fractured that significant youth movements or cultural icons are harder to come by. But just becuase 100 people are buying CDs by 100 different young bands instead of all buying 100 copies of the same young artist, doesn't mean baby boomers are in control.

tod goldberg

The most fascinating part of this whole discussion, in my opinion, is that Theresa announced that she was having breakfast at the Chateau Marmont. Is this the beginning of a new period of comment-leaving where one must depart mid-discussion for a venerable Hollywood hangout? I'll check back in after I return from the Betty Ford Center...

James

"the chagrin Pessl causes some"

Well if you're implying in any sense that O'Rourke had some underlying contempt for Pessl you might want to look up Meghan O'Rourke who is quite a young, female rising star in her own right.

I suggest doing some reading before one jumps headfirst into debating articles they skimmed about books they never read.

Maybe it's a personal dislike of my own but I really have a disdain for people who simply like to force debates without any solid ground of their own to walk on. Especially the accusations about TEV when TEV has been straight forward about Pessl from jump.

Theresa Duncan

You're right. Like Pessl for having an overly poised author photo, I should be punished for going to the Chateau Marmont. Why not start a thread about that, and we can see who piles on....

The C.M. is up the street and it has a nice garden. This is what I mean about a neurotic obsession with others' imagined pleasures. No detail is too small to fixate on. It's absurd.

It reminds me of that SNL skit where the black college student visiting home is accused of having "fancy college ways" for doing something as simple as using a napkin....

How does one "force" a debate, by the way? With an AK-47? Your participation in any debate is voluntary.

I still don't understand how my comments constitute an accusation of any kind. I asked TEV what he meant, he explained himself and I accepted his explanation.

That said, I thought about TEV's use of the "dancing bear" metaphor above and it kind of bothers me that an attractive 27 year old woman writing a novel is being compared to a beast trained to behave like a human. It's strange rhetoric, and follows a general pattern I was alluding to. It's a profound level of perhaps unconscious condescension.

Best,
TD

TEV

Theresa,

Tod's a friend and you misread his humor. It's not a pile-on, just a bit of fun.

And the only unconscious thought my strange rhetoric really reveals is a partiality to Samuel Johnson.

With that, I am backing off, lest this thread unintentionally combust ... I remain a steadfast believer in the good intentions of all.

John Shannon

Isn't it the "talking dog" metaphor? There actually are/were lots of dancing bears, some I imagine pretty good.

TEV

Well, it turns out it's a dog walking on its hind legs. Apparently, I've been misattributing it all this time - to which, no doubt, all sorts of sinister imputations can be made but I'm gonna merely have to plead an advanced case of CRS (Can't Remember Shit).

Thanks for the correction, John!

John Shannon

Well, then, a "walking-erect dog." I got it wrong, too. But, to be pissy, I don't really think it's a metaphor either, is it? Ironic example? There must be a trope-word to describe an example by absurdly extreme case.
Gotta run to ______________. (Alas, no lunch place local to me is cool enough to advertise.)

Jenny D

This is not at all related to the main thread of conversation, but I believe the original reference you're harking back to comes from Boswell's Life of Johnson: "I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: 'Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.'"

TEV

Yep - you're 100% correct, Jenny.

tod goldberg

I'm just back from a late lunch at Baja Fresh with Gordon Lish and Cormac Mccarthy where we dawdled over our Burrito Mexicanos and giant re-fill cups of root beer, the air thick with the smell of cooking meat and human desperation, our hearts bursting to the beat of a muted drum, so I apologize for not returning here sooner, though I did want to point out that the LA Times named the book one of their top 50 of the year, too. I've not read the book, too busy I've been at various fast-food Tex-Mex establishments thinking about life and the transitory nature of the prostate, but one of my shrewd talents, doubtlessly learned at the feet of the masters, is to speak at great length, and in convincing fashion, on books I've never read, so let me attempt to do so here about Ms. Pessl's novel: I believe the book is remarkable, vivid, touching and the words, oh, the words, they sing! Her ability to conjure image and emotion from a simple turn of a phrase is cunning and her style and wit far exceed her age and experience. Pessl is a writer to watch and I, for one, will do so with interest.

Theresa Duncan

I'm certain that many of the people commenting me here haven't read the book either.

I'll repeat: I'm not talking about the book, I'm talking about the way people talk about the woman who wrote the book. That's what I noticed.

This is all the time I have to devote to the subject.

I do seem to have touched a nerve.

Thank for the diversion,
TD

Theresa Duncan

p.s I just got back from Ca'Brea where I went to get some of those peanut butter sandwich cookies ($1.50, delicicious beyond belief).

The Sunset Strip looked wonderful on the way back to the beach, they were putting Christmas lights up outside all the titty bars and all was merry and bright.

Sorry for the typos in the post above, and thanks for the fun.

Enjoy your Baja Fresh snacks and angry perusal of Best Of lists this holiday season.

I'm not sure what I'll be doing for Yule, besides not reading "Special Topics In Calamity Physics"!

TD

p.s. Isn't it weird that 27 seems young now? Cause it's not, really.

lmm

I'm certain that many of the people commenting me here haven't read the book either.

I'll repeat: I'm not talking about the book, I'm talking about the way people talk about the woman who wrote the book. That's what I noticed.

Gut you already admitted you only briefly skimmed Meghan's article...

I dunno, I don't really buy the "but mommy, the other kids were doing it too!" defense. If other people are doing something they shouldn't, that doesn't make it cool for you to.

p.s. Isn't it weird that 27 seems young now? Cause it's not, really.

*shrug*
It is for an author.

Jimmy Beck

"p.s. Isn't it weird that 27 seems young now? Cause it's not, really."

At the risk of pointy-headed wankitude, 27 is younger than ever, at least in demographic terms. Life expectancy averages 77 years now in the US and Europe, versus 49 a century ago. Half of North American babies born in 2000 will live to age 90.

And yes, old farts like me are looking for solace anywhere we can find it.

Kandecia

I'm about halfway through Special Topics...., and I don't hate it, but I don't love it either. The main problem I have with the story, is that you really could care less about any of the characters. Just when you think you're getting somewhere, you realize you don't like these people and you don't care what happens to them. At first, I thought it was weird that she kept referencing books as a way to explain the main character's thought processes, but then it just became annoying. Midway through a scene, she references a book with a really long, or boring title, and I keep losing my train of thought. I've been reading this book for two weeks now, and granted I'm not giving it my full attention, this is especially long for me. I'll finish, because I'm halfway there now, but I definitely wouldn't give it a recommendation.

ed

A few things to note:

1. Mary Gaitskill did NOT win the National Book Award.

2. The age or the gender of any author should be moot -- it certainly is to me, although I do my best to read as far and as wide as I can. What I object to here are the blanket generalizations (which I'm afraid includes Mr. Sarvas' post here) that Pessl's book is bad, without citing specifics as to why this is so. O'Rourke's article is only slightly better (and perhaps more egregious, given its length) at pinpointing why Pessl's novel is the literary equivalent of the bubonic plague. Her objections are that Pessl writes "self-conscious prose" (what novelist doesn't?), includes a "hipster-geek daughter" (geek chic is SO 1999), and the complaint that Pessl writes in an apparently unstable timbre.

O'Rourke's complaint of "stylistic showmanship," I'd say, is the problem. And if this is truly about a woman writing ornate prose, then this brings up a larger question: why are men entitled to write novels about ideas and women aren't? Would there be so many outright dismissals of Mark Danielewski's ONLY REVOLUTIONS if he were a 27 year old woman?

On this point, I slightly agree with our intrepid breakfast-reporting optimist Theresa Duncan. (For the record, I toasted a bagel this morning and applied some cream cheese. No fancy restaurants for me, I'm afraid. Unless you count the competent Hangover Omelet I had the other day at a Denny's-like establishment in the Haight. I make no apologies for my occasional blue-collar culinary tastes.) Sure, Scarlett Thomas has managed to get a fair pass from everybody. But THE END OF MR. Y, while brainy at times, contains more "accessible" prose and characters. I am wondering why a book that is "difficult" cannot be masticated upon, particularly when the author is a young woman.

This is all quite curious to me, as I haven't seen ANY author outright dismissed like this WITHOUT explicit supportive examples in a long while.

3. I don't think the issue here is Pessl, per se, but, as Mark has acknowledged in this thread, the larger and more interesting issue of the NYTBR as cultural arbiter. If this is the case (and I suspect that it is), then why single out Pessl?

4. To Theresa Duncan: Your incessant idealism is as noble as Kim Bofo's, but I must agree with the other commenters. Do you even HAVE an argument here? Or are you merely strutting your peacock feathers? It is not "weird" at all that 27 is young for a writer. Do you even pay attention to the publishing industry? Most first-time authors are considerable older than 27; hence, the ridiculous attention to Pessl as "hot young thing," as opposed to the book in question. Perhaps if you were to apply the same scrutiny to your arguments that you do in reporting your meals, we might be able to have a conversation.

TEV

I only have one real disagreement with you here Ed, and it's one of personal choice where I don't think there's a right or a wrong. I think it's perfectly fine, certainly within the confines of a comments box, to dismiss a book as "bad" without enumerating all the reasons for deciding so. Sorry but life is short and there are too many books for me to feel the need to justify each call of opinion. Anyway, O'Rourke's summary of the book's problems resonates perfectly with me, so I don't find much more is needed. Neither her piece nor my post constitutes a formal review, which is where that kind of clarity would be called for. Anyway, there has been ample commentary all over the place on the flaws of Pessl's book - even fans like Laura Miller acknowledge its defects. I don't detect this same lacuna of specific criticism that you see.

But that's just me. And I'm kinda arbitrary that way ... ;)

Everything else, yo, I'm down with dat.

Theresa Duncan

As you mentioned, a comment section within a blog is informal, hence the fury-provoking mention of breakfast. I don't understand why this mention is a problem, really. Why is it?

27 is a grown woman. Comparing a woman this age's writing of a novel to a dog walking upright or a dancing bear is patronizing and bizarre.

William Vollmann has a line where a cabdriver ferrying him is slagging on women and when his wife finally asks to get out of the cab the driver's reaction is akin to "Oh, it talks." I see a bit of that here still in reaction to Pessl's "remarkable" feat. It's no so remarkable, and no, she's really not that young.

I pay attention to books and authors, not the publishing world so much, though of course Pessl's book is more a story about the publishing world, one which was so prevalent that it did indeed catch my attention again and again.

The dialogue around her is angry and ad hominem. I don't see how anyone could deny it.

Who's Kim Bofo?

Theresa Duncan

By the way, the NYTBR editor is online and awaiting your questions all week, he's featured in the Times' "Ask An Editor" feature this week.

I have never heard anyone serious say that the NYTBR is a cultural aribiter, ever. Within the New York media world (Do you even follow New York media? she asks, echoing hissy fit publishing-world sophisticate "Ed") it has been known as a joke for decades.

Here's Sam below, ask him about Pessl and other queries!


http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/11/business/media/11asktheeditors.html

Theresa Duncan

By the way, I will go and buy and review Pessl's book if TEV agrees to publish the review.

I'm a pro, Google my reviews for Artforum and Slate et al.

Then there was the Pynchon bonbon I wrote for the excellent TEV itself not long ago.

I'm standing by.

ed

Mark: Fair enough, although I ask because I AM interested in other opinions. In this case, however, I can adduce your reasons.

Theresa: Again, I urge you to do your homework before shooting off your mouth. Tanenhaus and I actually have quite a history.

DO I follow New York media? Does a Kodiak bear not mark his territory?

Theresa Duncan

Don't tell me to do my homework, Ed. I don't like it. You're not using your full name so I couldn't research you if I was willing to, which I'm not.

As for the rest of your post, give me a break.

Your childish machismo is about five times as embarassing as my breakfast reporting.

TD

TEV

OK folks, it's getting a bit testy here.

My policy is to keep a flame-free comment zone at TEV, so please keep it civil all around. If you're compelled to fling abuse, your email addresses are both here, please do it off-list.

Theresa, I'll drop you an email about your review offer.

Thanks, all.

Theresa Duncan

Well, as I mentioned, this seems like a big issue despite protestations to the contrary.

I do understand that men are policed and shamed over these issues to what also must be a tedious and profoundly annoying degree, but that's honestly not my intention.

The Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz wrote a couple weeks ago that there's a ton of bad art, and women have earned the right to be making half the bad art at this point, and yet they're not.

I'm not trying to compete with anybody or insist on women being handicapped, no sir.

Also Ed, sorry if I seemed disrespectful (but still, don't tell me to do my homework.)

Your friend Sam published the Top Ten list that created this whole brouhaha. Why not aks him how the list was calculated and whether he believes his reviwers are responding to hype or to merit?

I have had nice conversations like this with the Times editors who are featured in the Ask The Editor feature in the past.

I have also talked with the Times' film reviewers who have tacitly admitted to me they are reviewing for a very large and general audience and so write about what the average person can realate to.

Perhaps this standard is why Pessl was included as well.

I would look to Bookforum of NYRB for a more complicated standard.

Peace,
TD

Justine

As, uh, glad and thankful as I obviously am to see a young woman as overpaid and overhyped as some old white guy, it really was the wrong under-30, attractive, healthy-advance-earning, highly praised female writer on that list. 'Calamity Physics' a better novel than Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie's 'Half of a Yellow Sun'?

Don't freaking think so.

Hank

This isn't about a woman writing ornate prose or a novel of ideas. It's about a writer writing sloppy, self involved prose. And writers who don't? They're called the good ones.

I've heard a lot of people dismiss "Only Revolutions". What happened to writers being able to write a decent story without resorting to tired post-modern gimmicks? Did you read the novel Ed? And did you honestly enjoy it? I tried extremely hard to get lost in it but the prose and gimmicks just killed the experience for me. O'Rourke addresses her dislikes with the novel and even though she may not give a line-by-line case study, you're an adult and I'm sure you could pick up the novel for yourself and immediately deduce what she's referring to.

ed

Hank: What I object to is the wholesale dismissal of any book without a sound argument. If you want to turn in a perfectly competent C+ high school book review, then telling people that a book is bad and not going into any depth about it (as you and O'Rourke have done) is the surest way to offer thoughtless tripe which contributes very little to discourse. It is no less lazier than failing to click on a name and determining the person behind it, or confusing pellucid over-the-top silliness for bona-fide machismo. Have we now reached the point where demanding CLOSER reading instead of outright dismissal is confused with disrespect? That's all I'm asking here, and it's apparently too much for some people to handle.

Fran

Theresa, let me understand this: you seem (were?) angry that O'Rourke and TEV don't like and have slammed Pessl's writing. I think you've implied that they're both being sexist and ageist. Yet when I click into your blog, at the very top in a post that's supposed to be about a haircut, I see a topless implanted-looking female, there are several fashion-style objectifying scantily-clad images of females on your blog’s main page, in one post you link to an insult to a thirty-something woman and you show an image of her dressed sexy, which looks like her "growing old disgracefully" is because she has her legs out--horror of all horrors! a thirty-something woman looking sexy! stop the presses! only over-thirty males are supposed to look sexy, never over-thirty females!--and you said above here, "I do think culture remains in the liver spotted grip of the Baby Boomers...."

Implanted boob shots, an insult against a woman beyond thirty, "liver-spotted grip"? So who’s being ageist and sexist? I think you need a reality check: assuming they live long enough, everyone ages eventually; you will too. And every ageist thing you say and do today will likely come back and bite you in the ass tomorrow because your words will have helped keep ageism alive in society. Maybe you should read Pessl's book. If your posts here and your blog are representative of "you," I think you'd probably enjoy Pessl's writing. The little I read was ageist and sexist--the little I COULD read. The writing is barely readable in style and content. I think she's yet another young woman in a loooong list of young women who deludedly think they’re going to be young forever. Her book and she are also supplicants to males and male writers; that the text pays homage to so many male writers is one of the reasons I think it's getting so hyped. Pessl may be a writer and a female, but I think she clearly demonstrates she knows what her typical place is supposed to be, which is second place to males in this sexist society.

I'm the first person to scream about males getting most of the achievement attention in society; I scream about this on my blog almost daily. However, a solution isn't society token-achievement-rewarding young women simply because they're young. A solution (among many others) is the literary part of society steering away from books being about authors rather than about their writings; in my opinion at least, writing's supposed to be about writing more than about writers. Yet Pessl's publisher released her photos before they released excerpts from her book--is it any wonder some people focus on her more than on her writing? Her PUBLISHER has made the focus about HER. I've discussed Pessl and STICP in detail on my blog. In my opinion, she's yet another young writer in a long list of young writers, both male and female, who are not at a level of novelwriting craft to be published even, forget about being published AND hyped to the hilt as if they're great writers. Give me a break. I think this crap's Hollywood-at-work but in publishing now.

I do agree that some of the dismissiveness toward Pessl in general may be because she's female; males definitely get more attention when they write what she's written. But I really don't think what she's written deserves much attention, just like when males write the same. And younger female writers don't have as hard a time as older female writers do, just like they don't in many aspects of life in a leans-misogynistic, madonna/whore-dichotomy-driven society. If you want to scream about societal sexism and double-standards, scream about it where it's really at most of the time: against older women.

When a person implies "pleasure, beauty and youth" are being suppressed in society today--taking that person seriously is really difficult for me. Are you being for real there? I mean, I feel like asking, "What planet are you living on?" If you had said youth and beauty were being suppressed about MALES--that's true. I'm totally disgusted by what I think is a de-emphasis on male appearance today. But you're making that argument toward a female and toward Pessl--huh? Go stand on most supermarket checkout lines and peruse the magazine covers, go check out most magazine stands, go check out most movies and books, go check out TV, go check out most model photos--many are filled with young airbrushed females. If you're young and female and can be airbrushed into something pretty, you're likely to get more attention by the many sexist people in society, especially by the sexist males. In my opinion, that Pessl is young and female is more likely another reason why she's getting attention and NOT why she's being slammed a bit.

"But perhaps it's high time for young women to begin receiving a few cultural perks, just like old men do, n'est ce pas?"

--I think it's high time for WOMEN OF WHATEVER AGE to receive whatever perks of men of whatever age. It's high time for females to be appreciated for their achievements more and for males to be appreciated for their appearances more. It's high time for females to be pushed out of the bedroom and into the boardroom more, and for males to be pushed out of the boardroom and into the bedroom more.

"I'd like to know precisely what cultural perks you think young women get. Whistled at? Perfume contracts? Rich husbands? Attractive Barbie-esque accessories?"

--When young--or any other--females repeatedly sexually objectify females in their writings and behaviors, what kind of perks do they expect other than ones related to their sexual objectification? Or, in other words: if females want to be taken seriously as writers and not be looked at as sex objects, they shouldn't post big pictures of women-as-tits on their websites; putting the focus on their wombs is what those writers are doing then.

Theresa Duncan

Kate Moss looks awesome, giving the lie to the BBC boob's "ageing disgracefully" blurb.

The Helmut Newton model doesn't look implanted to me, just powerful.

Right On,

TD

Theresa Duncan

By the way Fran, what makes you think that the Helmut Newton model might not be an intellectual of some sort, or perhaps even a good writer, and how on earth could you tell just by looking at her?

What does being an attractive woman, or a young(ish) adult, or having bare breasts in a Helmut Newton photo (I love Newton's work, which for me is usually ironic and witty and about power of one kind of another) I ask for the umpteenth time here, have to do with one's writing?

If a ravishing 27 year old male beauty was writing the hot new novel it would remarked on but there is no fucking way it would be the same kind of issue.

--TD

Theresa Duncan

I don't know why my posts are appearing multiple times.

Again Fran, what makes you think I'm not taken seriously as a writer? Because there's a picture of boobies on my blog?

Why do I have to worry about an association with sex or sexiness descreasing my ability? I surely don't worry about it, becasue it surely doesn't.

Do you think men sit aroung hand wringing about what other men will think if they write about or reference sex? They surely don't.

Whether you are a male or female, or an eighteen year old pole dancer at The Lusty Lady, Fran, what you wrote is the opinion of a granny.

Mille Baci,
TD

ed

This is a hot thread. But can we at least all agree that gratuitous boobies have no bearing on a writer's ability? I know many talented writers. Some of them have gratuitous and even delectable boobies (including some men). But there is no correlation between this anatomical feature and their talent!

Theresa Duncan

Awesome post, Ed. Long live great literary boobies!

And may all your threads be hot.

TD

August

What a lovely discussion.

Re: the book itself

The complaint seems to be that ornate or self-involved prose makes for a bad book; it's utter nonsense. Some of our most treasured books in English fit exactly that description, and I'm not just talking about the Modernists. The problem, I think, is that most of the people who discuss "the book world", particularly in North America, tend to have this notion that novels are one sort of thing, written in one sort of style. They are supposed to be straight-forward, 'realist' (although there's a number of excellent arguments about why most novels aren't realist, but I won't get into them here), and socially relevant (I'm looking at you, "Half of a Yellow Sun"). It's no wonder people are putting down fiction and picking up non-fiction; who wouldn't feel bored by a form that we want to try and keep static for 100+ years. You don't want art, you want pleasant little late-Victorian fables that make you feel good about yourself and your reading prowess without legitimately taxing your brain. Now "Calamity Physics" is by no means the best or most intelligent novel I've read, not even the best or most intelligent novel I've read this year, but at least it points to the fact that other things can be done with and to the form.

That's reason enough to put it on such a list, in my opinion.

September

"Now 'Calamity Physics' is by no means the best or most intelligent novel I've read, not even the best or most intelligent novel I've read this year, but at least it points to the fact that other things can be done with and to the form.

That's reason enough to put it on such a list, in my opinion."

So what you're saying is regardless of how well crafted the prose is, we should celebrate Pessl's book just because she tried something different? That's ridiculous for so many reasons.

And how does realism correlate to "Victorian fables"? Yes, that Raymond Carver wrote some silly Victorian fables.

I'm really quite tired of people acting like all the gimmickry of today is something new. Ever heard of Donald Barthelme? William Gaddis? William Gass? Tristan Tzara? James Joyce, for Christ's sake? People have been experimenting with fiction for quite a few years. But said artisans also worked on their basic craft well before they jumped headfirst into what is deemed "experimental" fiction. Didn't Joyce write "Dubliners" before he ever attempted "Finnegan's Wake"?

You've got to be able to draw a straight line well before attempting to hang a urinal on a wall and call it art.


August

That Dubliners itself could be (and, actually, is) called experimental I'll let stand on its own. And again, if you want to get into "well, so and so did it, and so and so did it" way back in the past, you'll find that there are virtually no innovators in the 20th Century, particularly since the 1940s. They are all repeating the early English prose authors.

But that wasn't really my point. My point is that the books that win awards, the books that make it on these lists, time and again adhere very strictly to the standards of realism refined and stabilized in the late 19th Century. "Victorian fables" was of course a metaphor, referring to Serious Fiction about Serious Issues. And I'm actually not the first person to make the connection between the fiction that is currently (as in, right now, so you can put the questionable and rather dull Mr. Barthleme aside) most fashionable and the Victorians. It's something that's been passed around by some British and Canadian critics, although I know it's often difficult for the US market to pay attention to opinions beyond its borders (if I had a nickel for every time an American author was praised for "finally tackling an issue" that was major in Canadian literature fifty some years ago, I'd be a rich man--just because it's the first time an American has done it, doesn't mean it's the first time it's been done; I know that's not the issue here, but it's a subtext of so many of these arguments).

The "one must walk before one can run" argument is, of course, a foolish one when it comes to art. It's very much akin to Affleck's comments in Jay & Silent Bob (oooh, lowbrow), in which he says "first you do the safe movie, and then you do the artsy movie". A writer shouldn't have to sell out their vision of what their book should be because they haven't yet reached the height of their powers. A spectacular failure is worth more, in my opinion, than a successful mediocrity (the latter category making up most popular literary fiction of the last few decades, as far as I'm concerned).

Just as you are annoyed by the "gimmickry" of certainly literary works, I am annoyed by all the attention paid to the umpteenth straightforward novel about a middle-aged failure, or a mother dying of cancer, or a poor child overcoming her "situation". It seems very much Art By Committee. I'd prefer a difficult, disturbing, or even not-always-strong novel over yet another fictionalized version of an undergrad sociology paper.

Justine

Can't speak for O'Rouke, August, but I've followed this website long enough to state with confidence that TEV doesn't exactly read for plot or traditional narrative structure. Might it be possible that he, O'Rourke and others dislike Pessl's book despite, and not because of, its literary jousting, verbal & narrative gamesmanship?

"I am annoyed by all the attention paid to the umpteenth straightforward novel about a middle-aged failure, or a mother dying of cancer, or a poor child overcoming her "situation".

Seems to me you're describing standard midlist fare, and one reason why it stays midlist is precisely because it is so limited and familiar in scope. The books, particularly those by unknown authors, which break out enough to get actual 'attention' -- and there is so very little of it to be spread on so few books -- seem to follow along slightly other, harder-to-define lines -- like, for example, 'Calamity Physics' itself.

August

Justine: I do believe that is what they dislike about the book, and those are many of the things that the standard form of the novel, as I see it, has discarded, although I would disagree with you that it stays mid-list fare. I think it would pretty accurately describe much of Updike's fiction (whose work I despise), and very much among the reasons I tend to avoid much contemporary fiction. It just strikes me as odd to praise authors like Nabokov and others on the one hand, and then immediately discard those works which attempt many of the same things *because* they are attempting those things.

reader

http://www.villagevoice.com/books/0634,reidy,74218,10.html

Jesus

Comparing Marisha Pessl to Vladimir Nabokov is like comparing Harold Miner to Michael Jordan.

Harold Miner

"It just strikes me as odd to praise authors like Nabokov and others on the one hand, and then immediately discard those works which attempt many of the same things *because* they are attempting those things."

I think this is because you shouldn't receive accolades just for trying. It's the same for the other side of the coin. If you want to look at, say, minimalists. Carver [who most would actually side with realists] or Hemingway could be praised but there were a million copycats who tried and utterly failed.

Literature isn't grade school. You shouldn't get praise just for trying to make a papier mache piece of crap LOOK like a pinata.

ed

Wow, this conversation is still going on? Fantastic!

I must object to Justine's remark that a book stays midlist because of its familiarity. How are sales any indication of literary merit? Writers as magnificent as David Markson, Scarlett Thomas and Rupert Thomson remain midlist. Even Dana Spiotta, who was nominated for a National Book Award this year, remain midlist. You can take your ridiculous association between sales and artistic merit to a corporate boardroom.

As for Jesus: Well, Sweet Christ! Very FEW writers can be compared to Nabokov. He was sui generis, the kind of talent that comes once in a lifetime. But what's wrong with comparisons between a "lesser" author and a dependable name? Should I throw my Anthony Burgess into the dust heap because he is like Joyce (but NOT Joyce)?

Theresa Duncan

"The pestle with the castle has the brew that is true." --The Court Jester

Yeah, but most people didn't pay attention to brilliant Nabokov and probably never would have if not for Lolita. Fatty V.N. frenemy Edmund Wilson considered this novel a potboiler, and anonymously sent the Russian a potholder in the mail upon its publication.

With Pessl you get a creature that realigns the standard so that mortar trumps pestle, or Pessl holds pen: "little Lolita" owns the narrative, rather than being subject to it.

Mellifluously Yours,
TD

Jesus

ed, maybe because it's trite and easy to compare thousands of new writers to 5 major names. David Mitchell, Marisha Pessl and Daniel Handler aren't even alike yet all 3 boast blurbs citing their similarities to Nabokov.

theresa, that's clever considering you still haven't read the book.

Theresa Duncan

It's clever, period.

TD

Theresa Duncan

Also, Nabokov wrote so many different kinds of books that the "confusion of tongues" in comparing him to many different kinds of writers makes complete sense.

Doesn't the V.N. comparison just indicate that reviewers are relying on the same thing over and over again, not authors. I would love to be compared to Mitchell or Handler.

But I guess maybe forgot to mention I haven''t read Pessl's book.

Just back from the Little Joy bar in Echo Park, though, and man did I bend an elbow there...

Don't tell the Pope!

TD

miranda

I'm Pessl's age and generally reckoned as attractive. I write. I am not married to an investment banker, so I probably write in considerably less comfort than she does. Because of these things, I feel I am politically qualified to comment on her novel. Because I have not attempted to publish a novel, I do not feel there is a conflict of interest, or the flavor of sour grapes, involved in my opinion.

I did not like Special Topics in Calamity Physics, except that I found it finished with an unexpected punch. Otherwise, it seemed like a second-to-last draft in desperate need of a rewrite and some cuts, and a strong-willed editor. It seemed slightly derivative of several other, better novels and TV shows. People mention "preciousness" and "precocity" - but I thought the real issue was a completely unearned pretentiousness. Also, several supporting characters are underwritten (to the degree that including them was pointless: particularly Charles and Leulah). Pessl frequently misuses words and spells references incorrectly, picking something very similar to what she probably meant. The most memorable instance, to me, was when she refers to the "soft munch" of Hannah's footsteps in the woods. Crunch much, Marisha?

There is nothing Lolitian about Blue van Meer, though there may be something Humbertian about Gareth. I didn't care about the characters either, but I think that may have been intentional on Pessl's part, and was one of the more effective elements of the novel: books like this generally romanticize the student group at the center of the story. To portray them as not particularly interesting or decent people adds an element of satire, and I appreciated the choice of the name "Bluebloods" (get it? get it? ha ha ha) for the group, in light of their behavior after Hannah's death. The problem is that so much focus on so many unlikeable, intentionally irritating characters, who are described as charismatic but not proved to be, can turn readers off.

I read Goodbye, Lemon by Adam Davies just after reading STiCP. It's sentimental and predictable, but Davies's prose is just as intelligent and vivacious as Pessl's, without being overwritten. Davies is young, and it's an accident, here, that he's male; I'm not sure how many new books I read by women this year, to be honest, though I know I read a lot of older ones. The point I'm trying to make is that I know that Pessl's book was more ambitious and possibly "better," and certainly less formulaic in terms of plotting, but I also know that Davies's writing is better on a textual level, and his characterization is also very good. His book wasn't as good, but I enjoyed it more. (If he comes up with a quasi-original plot, he'll remind me a lot of young Michael Chabon.)

It particularly pissed me off that STiCP made the NYTBR 10 Best list, and David Mitchell's Black Swan Green did not. It is not necessary for the books of the youngest people to appear on the list, nor for the list to have gender balance, because it should really be about the ten best books of the year - not this many of the best books by men of this age, and that many by young women, and that many by women over 40, and that many by giraffes of a certain age. Some years the list ought to be 90% books by women, other years far less than 50%. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a book I admire greatly, was also a first novel by a woman, and would belong on the list any year. (Did it make it in 2004? I can't recall.)

In general, I agree with O'Rourke's article, point by point. She nails it when she mentions how many people call the book "tedious" - so much of it could have been trimmed, and if the length was to be retained, so much of it should have been rewritten, to drop incidents that had little to do with anything & develop the rest more skilfully. The ability to make up plausible-sounding book titles is not the ability to write a great novel, but maybe Pessl will get there with practice; she has potential. People wouldn't be angry about this book if nobody had anointed it.

miranda

PS On another tack, Scarlett Thomas is midlist for two reasons that I can think of....

A) She's British. It can take a while for young British literary phenoms to break out of the midlist in the US, if they ever do.

B) Her novels are marred by her preachiness. She tends to create characters who function as little more than mouthpieces for her views on animal rights. (I mostly agree with them, but I still find it tiresome when pages and pages are devoted to characters yammering about why everyone should be vegan.)

PopCo was a painful read for me, because I like codes, but I've already read No Logo, so brain-dumps from that book put into the mouths of characters were nothing new to me. It seemed like there was a good novel in there, about a girl whose custodial grandparents were cryptanalysts and who may still hold the secret to a buried treasure. However, there was also an immensely dull and irritating novel there, about a toy designer who is talked into becoming a vegan culture-jammer by certain of her coworkers while on a retreat.

I think Thomas needs to learn to integrate this material with more subtlety: it's fine to have a character go through these changes and come to certain decisions, but it's bad storytelling to stall the narrative for pages at a time while characters act like talking-point bulletins about the reasons for making the lifestyle changes. Doing this turns the book into the sort of simpy, preachy YA novel that nobody but the converted actually wants to read. Like Pessl's problem related to telling us that characters are supposedly charismatic but failing to actually make them compelling in action, Thomas does too much telling and not enough showing.

I have, unfortunately, heard this is a problem with her latest novel too; I'll give it a look, but I'm not expecting much.

Joy

I originally wrote a post on my blog praising Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but that was before I finished the book. I did like the novel as a whole, but found it increasingly tedious and messy as it went on. I still think it deserved to be published and I think Pessl has a great imagination and ability to think of vivid, if sometimes imprecise, descriptions.

Originally, I was put off by all the focus by bloggers and reviewers on Pessl's looks and age. I felt like her work was being written off based on her sex and youth. Now, having finished the book, I realize that while STICP deserved to be published, it was precisely Pessl's looks and youth that sky-rocketed the book to the notoriety it is receiving.

Put it this way: Americans love a young pretty genius. Publishers know this, and they know that if a book is marketed as the debut of one of those pretty geniuses, it will sell well, win prizes, and generate a lot of discussion. That's what happened here.

Theresa Duncan

The same goes with Mitchell's Britishness in keeping him off American Best Of lists.

If Pessl serves to help realign the standard of what a novelist is and looks like and what women are expected to naturally achieve without its being treated as extraordinary that she made it all by hewself with her own widdle hands to any degree, that's a big reason to give her a few points of extra credit in my view, as it makes the book a sort of cultural event, for better or for worse.

That said, it will be a great day when nobody gives a shit if an attractive woman wrote something and she is reviewed exactly like everybody else without it being an issue.

One of the great things about TEV is a very high and very sincere standard in judging books. But frankly, I don't share the same standard, and I wouldn't mind seeing accepted (and you have to admit, still rather "male") standards change, because it's more fun that way, and, as a female writer with a perhaps odd and interior prose style (screenplays being a different matter, natch) I would personally benefit.

If I benefitted from the existing standard, I would likely argue for its precedence. But that doesn't mean there can't be a standard that includes a vast array of styles, which to me would be the ideal.

For example, one of my favorite novels is Barry Hannah's RAY, in which you get a male midlife crisis, assholish misogyny (might as well get it out there, instead of denying its existence I say) and an amazing, vast interiority and wildly inventive style.

Also, I like "munch of the snow". I like writers who make the word serve the tale, not vice versa. It's the sort of malapropism one would mentally make anyway.

When I write I will often use the "wrong" word based on meaning and use it because thesound of the word fits better.

"Munch" seems to mean a muffled crunch, which is exactly what walking through snow sounds like.

I'm old and ugly and therefore perhaps unfit to judge, yet I would still like to announce myself an advocate of young and pretty creators of both genders, as this seems the wise and cosmopolitan thing to do.

TD

Jesus

Any basic, undergrad Creative Writing program will teach you that the sound of the word shouldn't take precedence over the lucidity. That's simply sloppy writing and tends to preciousness. The great writers hit both.

There were other fantastic books released this year by young, attractive female writers. "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" was amazing and Russell is attractive and she's 25. Just pointing out that Pessl isn't the only one but I think there's such a backlash because there was such an initial fervor.

stephan

I haven't read the book either. I tend to shy away from books that are so aggressively sold with an author's photograph, as this one was so regularly in print. But if anyone's looking for the pestle attacking the mortar, as Ms. Duncan remarks above, I would suggest you read Nude Men, by Amanda Fillipachi, spelling that wrong, who did it just as young (she was early twenties, I think) and ten years ago (I'm also sure she did it better; didn't read Ms. Pessl's book, but let this be my own free value judgment, one that surely comes with entry to this comments section).

August

"Any basic, undergrad Creative Writing program will teach you that the sound of the word shouldn't take precedence over the lucidity."

Could be one of the reasons nobody would touch an undergrad creative writing student with a ten-foot pole. This is again part of what I meant by Victorian fable; it's the notion that story is so much more important that any and all inventiveness with language, or any concerns that might require unconventional language are all secondary to plot, as though somehow literary fiction is simply a John Grisham novel dressed up in a better suit. It strikes me as preposterous that you would put so many restrictions on what is still, the state of publishing aside, a work of art. Nobody does this to painters, or to sculptors, and there are even musicians who are left to practice their art as though it were art, but god forbid a writer behave as though words do things other than tell pretty little stories.

Jesus

August, who says an undergrad anything is at the top of his/her writing ability? You were, according to your website, an undergrad English Major at Waterloo University? And did you get touched much by a ten foot pole? Once you publish something substantial and make some huge literary change then maybe your opinion will be valid. Until then I'm pretty sure I'll stick with those dumb American story writers like Hemingway and Carver.

August

Good for you. I'm glad that you've reached the point where you've run out of arguments are simply at the "if you aren't as good, you have no right to an opinion" stage. I think it means that the time when you were worth my attention has now passed.

(Although for the record, some of my undergraduate work was published, and I was running my own journal and reviewing books for the the Globe and Mail as an undergrad.)

ed

I'd just like to say for the record that "Borat" is an entertaining film.

miranda

I think a word means what it means until it is misused so much that the meaning changes. That's more linguistics than Writing 101. Stylistic choices can be interesting, but there are probably a pile of words that DO have the meaning the writer was intending to convey. It's obvious that the "soft munch" of Hannah's footsteps was meant to be crunch (it was on leaves, not snow, during the climactic camping trip just before Hannah's death). Pessl does this several times in STiCP; none of the other instances could be defended as a stylistic choice, because in all the other examples, it's clear she doesn't know the word she actually means. (Or, if you're making this excuse for her, Pessl knows the correct word: the choice of the incorrect word is intentional, and it's Blue who doesn't know better. It can be hard to tell, with novels that have first-person teen narrators, what is a mistake on the author's part and what is characterization.)

Mitchell's Britishness might be an excuse for the relative neglect of "Black Swan Green" on this year's lists, but I'm pretty sure "Cloud Atlas" made a ton of American best-of lists. It also won the Morning News Tournament of Books (as did Ali Smith's "The Accidental" - Smith is also British). BSG didn't make the Booker shortlist, anyway. But I liked it while I was reading it, and liked it even more after some reflection. It's a good example of words chosen carefully to suit the character: all of the adjectives are exactly appropriate to a boy of 13 with some literary skill.

Odile

I was curious about the book when I started to read the discussion, because the title of the book suggests there is some science angle to the book which I would applaud. I have a son who likes books with science history mixed in. The story or the characters then is less important to him. How you measure the pyramid is more important. After reading this discussion, it is still not clear to me if there's any science in the book.

John Albanese

Rest in peace Theresa. Dawn and I miss u.

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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

    Bs

    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.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe

    Rider_4

    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."