Old Reviews, past VN "sightings" (underlined)

July 2014

It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?  No one denies that Donna Tartt has written the “It novel” of the year, a runaway best-seller that won her the Pulitzer Prize. But some of the self-appointed high priests of literary criticism—at The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, andThe Paris Review—are deeply dismayed by "The Goldfinch" and its success.
By Evgenia Peretz.

"... in the literary world, there are those who profess to be higher brows still than The New York Times—the secret rooms behind the first inner sanctum, consisting, in part, of The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review, three institutions that are considered, at least among their readers, the last bastions of true discernment in a world where book sales are king and real book reviewing has all but vanished." [   ] Tartt's "The Goldfinch a “rapturous” symphony? Not so fast, they say. “Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,” wrote critic James Wood, in The New Yorker. ... Days after she was awarded the Pulitzer, Wood told Vanity Fair, “I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.” // In The New York Review of Books, novelist and critic Francine Prose ... concluded, “I found myself wondering, ‘Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?’ ” [   ] “A book like The Goldfinch doesn’t undo any clichés—it deals in them,” says Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, perhaps the most prestigious literary journal in America. “It coats everything in a cozy patina of ‘literary’ gentility.” [  ] ".No novel gets uniformly enthusiastic reviews, but the polarized responses to "The Goldfinch" lead to the long-debated questions: What makes a work literature, and who gets to decide?// The questions are as old as fiction itself. The history of literature is filled with books now considered masterpieces that were thought hackwork in their time. Take Dickens, the greatest novelist of the Victorian period, whose mantle writers from John Irving to Tom Wolfe to Tartt have sought to inherit. Henry James called Dickens the greatest of superficial novelists " [   ]
 “It isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention,” The New York Times pronounced concerning Nabokov’s "Lolita". “Kind of monotonous,” the same paper said about Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. “He should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all at that crumby school.” “An absurd story,” announced The Saturday Review of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, while the New York Herald Tribune declared it “a book of the season only.” // That said, for all the snooty pans of books now considered classics, there have been, conversely, plenty of authors who were once revered as literary miracles and are now relegated to the trash heap. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/07/goldfinch-donna-tartt-literary-criticism


June 30, 2015

The Art of Persuasion, an Interview with Critic James Wood
 Steve Paulson

 There are book critics and bibliophiles – and then there’s James Wood.  Often called the best critic of his generation, he first made his name as the young scourge at The Guardian while still in his twenties.  In 1995, the British-born Wood moved to America and built his reputation with his lengthy, closely-argued reviews in The New Republic.  Now a staff writer at The New Yorker, as well as Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard, he presides over the literary scene like no other book critic today.  As a blogger at the Spectator put it, “Wood is arguably the most celebrated, possibly the most impugned, and definitely the most envied, literary journalist living...
Steve Paulson: You say the task of writers is to “seriously notice the world.” Is it the critic’s job to seriously notice what’s in this fictional world?
James Wood: It would seem that there’s a virtuous loop here. I return again and again to detail and to seriously noticing what’s in the world, for a good reason.  I don’t think I’m an especially observant person. Certainly not visually... [   ] 
SP: What you’re describing is along the lines of Buddhist contemplatives who talk about being fully in the present moment. Do you see any connections?...
JW: I do. I think mindfulness is pretty interesting. For instance, there’s been quite a lot of Buddhist literary work on Virginia Woolf because her fiction is very much about slowing down and preserving moments of time, and examining them with great patience. She also seems to have a metaphysics which is almost Buddhist. In “Mrs. Dalloway,” she talks about how the dead return to us and are never separate from us.  You can find something similar in Saul Bellow’s work. For a while Bellow got very interested in anthroposophy, which also talks about the community of the dead who are around us. Vladimir Nabokov also talks about the democracy of the dead. There’s something about slowing down and seeing the world that does seem to be one of our few modes of salvation if we’re not orthodox believers.
SP: All of those writers you mentioned had a great knowledge of literature. They didn’t just care about the present moment. They were also communing with dead writers and the history of literature.
JW: Absolutely. The three writers I just mentioned were profoundly well-read. That may be harder to sustain in contemporary letters. It’s amazing if you go back and look at something like the little primer that Edith Wharton wrote on writing fiction. When someone like Edith Wharton was writing about the novel, it was understood that you have the entire canon of novelistic history at your disposal, in several languages. So for Wharton, it’s completely normal to talk about the French novel, having read it in French, as well as the English novel. And for a long time that kind of intimate, non-academic scholarship was kept alive by writers and to some extent by literary journalists and critics who worked outside the academy. But it’s harder and harder to sustain. We seem to have less time to do the reading that we have to do.[  ]


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