February 03, 2006


michael gorra

MOTEV has good taste--well, I think it comes with the Mom territory. I'm teaching Transit of Venus this term, putting it in as the last book in my Modern British Fiction class, in part because while it's set in England it's so decidedly NOT an English novel, it's marked by a narration that seems to come from nowhere in particular, transnational. But the book I connect it to isn't Howard's End but rather Women in Love, with which the term starts--surely that young astronomer is much more a Lawrence figure?

Steven Augustine

Yes, but doesn't the 'what is TRUTH' argument apply to writing that would be persuasive and powerful whether it were strictly factual or not? In the case of 'writing' (I use the term loosely here) that gets 100 percent of its force from being the supposed report of a supposedly lived experience...whether or not the events really happened is a crucial distinction. Interestingly, this argument could be applied with some justice to contemporary debates about Religion...


Michael, my uni days are long over but that's a class I wish I was taking.


MOTEV and I are in total agreement about memoirs and "truth" with a little t. I also don't see what the big deal is here, at all. In my opinion, memoirs are experiential -- and experience is a fuzzy thing indeed.


Not buying it. I read something labeled "memoir" expecting it to be true, knowing some of it isn't quite, and resigned to a lie here and there. The hazy parts and honest little fibs are functions of memory and ego. I can live with that. However, deliberately falsifying portions, for whatever sincere and heartfelt reasons, means it's no longer memoir but polemic, essay, fiction, what have you. That's not what I wanted when I picked up a book labeled "Memoir."

And because of the "so what?" response by far too many publishers and writers over this whole dust-up, I won't ever buy another book so labeled. I don't trust the definition anymore.

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  • 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."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    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


    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."