July 15, 2009



I think the charge of "insularity" levelled against American writers by Horace Engdahl didn't mean that Americans only write about peculiarly American preoccupations and experiences. I think he meant that, comparatively, much less foreign literature is translated into English, and so Americans aren't exposed to the broad currents of international literature. Whether he realized it or not, he was really making a comment about Americans as readers, not Americans as writers.

I really sympathized with O'Neill's account of his rootless upbringing, learning and forgetting languages, etc. I was born in Norway and lived there, speaking Norwegian for four years. Now I only know one phrase in Norwegian. I visited the city of my birth, Oslo, in '98, expecting to have my memory activated at every term. But nothing. Nada. I might as well have been visiting Winnipeg.

As to wheher the current younger generation of writers is up to the bar set by the olds, I think this is so because more and more in the US novels and short stories are not seen as ends in themselves, but as platforms and precursors for other media forms, like films, TV series or computer games. I notice this when I leave the US and go, say, to Latin America. There the point of the novel is the novel itself. No one is thinking about how to sell it again as something else. Literature has become much more contingent in the US, and therefore the talents of our writers less focused. Though there are, of course, exceptions.


Wonderful interview, all around! I'm glad for O'Neill's comments on the auditory imagination. Now I have a good excuse for why I can never follow the advice to read my work aloud while writing. There IS a difference between the ear and the eye.

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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.
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