August 15, 2007



It's Adam Kirsch's column from today's issue of the NY Sun, so I don't think it truly counts as a blog post. Does it?
Though it doesn't matter if the writing is good.

John Freeman

This essay did run simultaenously in the New York Sun, you're right, but it is part of this project - "commissioned" by the NBCC and scheduled to dovetail with our program. Here's why it's run in two places though: #1 We don't have the budget to pay writers for their work, and that seems unfair, so we've told writers who have outlets where they can place these pieces (and get paid for them) to go ahead and we'll run them simultaneously. Some of these pieces will run the day they appear on Critical Mass also in the Hartford Courant, on poetryfoundation.org, and in many other publications.

And that leads to the focus of these project -- it's not about exclusivity. We want these pieces to be read by as many people as possible because, well, we hope they're good enough to merit a wide audience and we hope the books are good enough to deserve being read by a lot of people. On a great day, Critical Mass' readership is still in the low thousands, and print publications or popular web publications can still reach many more people.

The other pieces on Lowell you will see this week will be "original" -- as will next week's lead-off essay, and the posts we've got scheduled to follow it.

--John Freeman


This pleases me to no end – an essay good enough for print, posted on a blog. Who could've imagined? "...it's not about exclusivity. We want these pieces to be read by as many people as possible because, well, we hope they're good enough to merit a wide audience and we hope the books are good enough to deserve being read by a lot of people." Absolutely right. Does this mean bloggers and print critics can be friends again?


No, Daniel, not at all. You are considering a Venn diagram that would wreak great havoc upon the universe. It starts with this notion of "original," which is none other than an outright prevarication. It continues with "clarifications" such as the above. It ends with a Warriors-style rumble at Penn Station, with litbloggers and print critics getting into a violent but nevertheless entertaining knife fight. Film, as they say, at eleven.

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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."