April 29, 2009



Re the Australian article, our Productivity Commission is looking at if the current parallel import restrictions on books should be altered or removed.

The big chain booksellers eg Dymocks are for the change as they say it will result in cheaper books; smaller booksellers,authors and publishers are against the changes believing it will increase the likes of Dymocks's profits at their expense and have a detrimental effect on our culture.

Anyone interested can read submissions and the draft report at http://www.pc.gov.au/projects/study/books/draft


I find Mason's defense of Wood a little odd. He writes, "Rather, we can pity ourselves for missing the very point of literary criticism despite our passion for it: to present not the answer to a book but a very good series of questions about it. No other critic I read these days has the regular, consistent capacity to remind me not why I read but how one can: with– among many virtues– care."

Caring? That's our criterion for a great literary critic? Sorry, but I'm not buying. What I look for from a critic is insight, not caring. The problem I have with Wood is that his reviews are replete with summary judgments on books that are never, ever justified in the review itself. He's very good at stylistic analysis, but tends to jump from that to very large, very definite philosophico-critical judgments about someone's writing, with absolutely nothing connecting the two. This is just laziness, IMHO, not "caring".


Niall, ironically, I think you take the wrong meaning of "care" here. Mason means Wood reads very carefully, closely, attentively - something Wood's fans and foes alike would agree he does exceptionally well.


Oh, perhaps you are right. But even if that's the sense that he means it, I don't see that level of "care" in Wood's book reviews. Or rather, I see a certain level of care only in his stylistic analyses and appreciations - which are often very good and very well expressed - and not at all in his larger judgments of a book's value. I think his review of "No Country For Old Men" is a very good example of this. He tends to argue by stipulation rather than demonstration, which I think is contrary to what one expects of an insightful critic.


I think he's an insightful critic, no question, but it is his own ponderous, pretentious style that makes him unreadable for me. He constantly violates the precept that when one reads through something one has written and encounters a phrase that sounds especially fine, one should strike it out. (Was it Samuel Johnson who counseled this?)

It's one of the best pieces of advice for writers out there. Woods' writing is full of "fine phrases" that should have been stricken. Insightfulness aside, he comes across as a pompous windbag that makes it difficult for me to appreciate his insights.


I'm not offended by his style. Nor really by the concrete judgments he reaches. It's just that he never makes any attempt to justify those judgments in literary-critical terms. Because of this, I can't see him as a true literary critic. He is just pretty interesting book reviewer. If he were satisfied to just be a book reviewer, he wouldn't bother me at all. But he invests so much in being a great and profound literary critic, and his work just doesn't measure up to that standard. He's more Allastair Cooke than Lionel Trilling.


Niall, can you explain what you mean by "literary-critical terms"? I'm not sure what you mean.

By the way, Wood has been at pains in many interviews NOT to characterize himself as a critic. He's more comfortable with reviewer and actually told Michael Silverblatt he prefers "journalist" ...


I can't stand these prescriptive notions about writing, such as 'a writer should strike out fine phrases'. Great writers whose works would have been damaged by such narrow-sightedness range from Shakespeare to Melville to Mcarthy to... well, you get my point. I wish we had the breadth of imagination to appreciate both writing that slots neatly into elegant, standard usage and that which does not; the latter often expands our concepts of acceptable aesthetics.


Tev -

First, whether he says he wants to be called a "critic" or not, someone who writes a book purporting to tell us "how fiction works" is obviously selling himself as a critic, false modesty notwithstanding.

Second, by "literary-critical" terms I mean justifying an aesthetic or moral judgment about a work of literature by referring to a set of aesthetic criteria and then showing how the work in question meets or does not meet those criteria. For example, suppose I say that I thought Mann's "The Magic Mountain" was a terrible novel (which I do). Suppose I justify that by saying, "It's boring and it put me to sleep and, oy!, what's with the long sentences?", this would not be a literary-critical judgment. It would be a judgment based on my physical comfort or discomfort in reading it.

Suppose instead I justify my judgment by saying, "I prefer writers who create a world where their philosophy and principles are the basic forces at work, and I am allowed to discern those forces at work by myself by observing the action of the world created by the writer. I do not like writers, or works, the main purpose of which is to spout their preferred philosophy through chosen mouthpieces, smothering me in the obviousness of their ideas. This is something Mann does throughout The Magic Mountain, and that's why I don't like it."

You may not agree with my judgment or my aesthetic criteria here, but at least they exist and are put forth for examination and response.

I don't see Wood doing this. In his review of "No Country For Old Men", for example, he states, at the beginning of the review, that the book is “an unimportant, stripped-down thriller”. OK. Fair enough. Later on in the review, he calls the book "morally empty" and "hostile to Mind". Um, OK, maybe. Yet nowhere in the review does he explain any of these judgments. The only attempt he makes is to see the book is bad and empty and "hostile to Mind", because it deploys "weightless codes of thriller writing." Nowhere does he tells us what he thinks these codes are, nor why using them inevitably ruins a novel. He's just making stipulation after stipulation, without connecting them in any meaningful way to the reality of the novel he is reviewing.

Ditto for his recent review of Geoff Dyer's "Jeff in Venice/Death in Varanasi", where he judges the first half of the book to be (that term again!) "morally empty". Again, he doesn't tell us what this means, or why he thinks the first half is a good example of it. He just breezes past that judgment like a blown stop sign.

Hope these examples help.

Jacob Silverman

Wow -- that Seattle Times review is awful.

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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."