dec 06




It’s no surprise that dystopic science fiction came of age right after the Manhattan Project. The Vietnam War created another wave of great political dissent in sci-fi; but after three years – plenty of time to get a potboiler written and published – there’s no contemporary science fiction directly critiquing the Iraq War.

I wonder if it’s because satire has proved to be an even more successful a way to skewer with absurdity. From The Onion to John Stewart and Stephan Colbert, each is taking cues from Philip K Dick and George Orwell: presenting scenerios simultaneously unthinkable and rooted in some truth, with the hope that whatever bad is getting done now will never climb to that level of horror

Most sci-fi these days is survellience or RFID chip-obsessed, and it’s slim pickings in any case. Although, I finally got around to reading John Twelve Hawks’The Traveler, which is much better than I had guessed. But this quote, in an interview with SFF World, really sticks with me, “When a person speculates about my identity, it reveals something about their own background and preferences. If the canvas is blank; the only thing people can see on its surface is themselves.” Publicity ploy or general anti-state paranoia, Hawks has never meet any agents or publicists in person and communicates with them using an untracable satellite phone. Take that, JD Salinger!

I might need to check Library Thing to verify, but I’d guess that makes me the only fan of both John Hawkes and John Twelve Hawks alive.

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“I almost fall off my Precor when a dark, good-looking character actor stops to ask my sign,” Alexandra Jacobs writes in her Pulitzer-worthy article for Elle magazine, “How to Marry a Millionaire (or At Least a Successful Screenwriter,” (as quoted in Glossed Over.)

Now, the kind of writer that would pen a piece like that – without even the sense to partially obscure her byline (e.g. Susan Sistrom) – is fit as anyone to review the latest Jackie Collins potboiler. But it looks like Jacobs has a history (1, 2, 3) of attracting angry letters to the editor whenever she’s handed anything more substantial.

Earlier, I said I wasn’t going to pay $4 or join TimeSelect to read Laura Kipnis’ response to Jacobs’ review. Well, a reader was kind enough to send me a copy. It’s certainly worthy of a (free) web presence:

To The Editor:

I’ve been asked on a few occasions why I didn’t include a section on competition between women in my new book, “The Female Thing.” After reading Alexandra Jacob’s attack on the book (Oct 29), at least I have the material for a new epilogue. Actually, it’s an attack on me (“Who is Laura Kipnis?”); she doesn’t bother reviewing the book. What’s with all the hostility? Sure, everyone understands that takedown reviews are a way to build a career – if that’s the kind of career you want – but there’s something else seeping through the animus, and it has a lot to do with why I wrote the book.

One of the main themes of “The Female Thing” is the depressing intractability of women’s self-loathing, despite many decades of feminist achievement and progress toward gender equity. One obvious solution is to project that loathing onto other women, so as to avoid meeting up with it in oneself. Clearly this is never going to be a vastly popular insight with the women for whom it’s proven a useful strategy. As we see here. Rather than grappling with the book in any intellectually honest way, Jacobs launches a lot of animosity at me, mostly for the crime of teaching in a university, which she seems to regard as self-evidently ridiculous. (We even get cliches about academics swilling sherry – this from someone concerned with my originality.)There are barbs about the book for having a bibliography (has she never previously encountered one?), and the crowing jab: that writing a new book after having written a previous one (“Against Love”) is just an attempt to cash in on the last one. Are book critics generally this resentful toward an author for writing a next book?

But I’m also not that surprised at the level of antagonism, since the book is pretty unsparing about such things as the female capacity for self-deception at the moment, and the price it exacts: intellectual dishonesty, smugness and bad faith. Of course, maybe it’s worth it compared to the pain of any kind of sustained self-examiniation – especially when it comes to motives for aggression. The frequently depressing situation of women at present is entirely bound up with the brittleness that ensues, both emotionally and intellectually. Thanks for the object less.

Evanston, Ill.

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I’m up to my ears in mediocre books. The reason is simple: with respect to public choice theory, more pages=more money. If you’re spending $30 on a hardback, you don’t want something that looks unsubstantial. But caveat emptor, reader… are you really going to make it to the end?

It’s a shame because some of the most innovative novels of the past century have been little more than novella-length. Would The Moviegoer, for one, be what it is today, if some editor sent it back requesting an additional 200 pages?

It’s especially frustrating to see writers that are otherwise brilliant, really struggling to sustain a story that should have ended several chapters back. I like Gary Shteyngart a lot. I would love his work if he cut out at least a hundred pages from each novel.

The reason nonfiction is so tedious is even more obvious: they’re selling you a thesis statement – something that can be condensed into several journalistic endeavors, something that adds authoritative heft to a tag line (“So-and-so is the author of Why This is That Way”.) There are very few nonfiction books that do more than restate a case made in the first chapter. The best nonfiction, however, tends to come from university press like Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh’s Off The Book’s, easily one of the best books this year.

But think of it this way: have you heard of Renata Adler’s Speedboat? The mediocrity is nothing new. Writing a mediocre best-seller almost always secures posthumous obscurity.

Which is why, you could do no better than give the writer on your Christmas list a copy of Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity, truly the greatest book on the craft I’ve ever read (with the Midnight Disease and Bird By Bird following closely behind.)

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I watched it last night and will likely see it again soon. Part of me wants to say its my favorite Lynch film yet, but I haven’t seen the others recently. This Boston Globe review captures the experience eloquently:

“Inland Empire” is a harrowing experience – the woman sitting next to me whimpered in abject fear at times – and it goes so deeply into issues of identity, abandonment, and vulnerability that it touches a baseline nerve. This isn’t about “a woman in trouble” so much as women in trouble: a Rorschach blot for an entire gender…
And there is Dern playing the three faces of Eve and then some, digging deeper into the meat of the female psyche with each new scene. They don’t give Oscars for the places she takes us, and perhaps that’s just as well. It’s still a performance of Olympian proportions.

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The extend to which female critics focus in on her laidback language is simply astonishing. It’s sort of like telling someone, “I’d agree with you if you weren’t wearing such a stupid looking dress.” Kipnis respondes to that criticism in an email debate with Daphne Merkin on Slate

In The Female Thing, I really thought it would be clear that I was parodying the style of women’s magazines and girl culture—not because the publishers were hoping to land me on Oprah (though I’m sure they wouldn’t have minded), but as an experiment in appropriation: refunctioning (in the Brecht sense) girly language and turning it on its head, into critique.

Like, Duh! Via google, I found the first few sentences of her letter to the NYTBR editor regarding Alexandra Jacobs’ review … but the link goes nowhere. I’’m not paying $4 for access to it, but I wish I could find some circumventing link someplace – “To the Editor: I’ve been asked on a few occasions why I didn’t include a section on competition between women in my new book, ‘’The Female Thing.’’ After reading Alexandra Jacobs’s attack on the book (Oct. 29), at least I have the material for a new epilogue. Actually, it’s …”


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When was the last time you read something fun? Something that kept you up at night with a flashlight under the covers? Little, Big did that for me. What a book! If you don’t trust me, listen to what Harold Bloom and Michael Dirda have said. This year is its 25th anniversary, a collector’s edition with Peter Milton illustrations is forthcoming. From the looks of this website, his aethetic matches Crowley’s perfectly.


Also, here’s a fantastic list of science fiction. There are plenty of non-obvious, frequently overlooked writers like Thomas Disch, JG Ballard, and Brian Adliss. And plenty of female writers get their due (although, there is the glaring omission of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.) Even the Philip K Dick choices seemed inspired rather than rote. I just read Dr Bloodmoney this week–why it isn’t ranked among his top 5, beats me.

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics is among the top 5 fiction releases for 2006 (per NYTBR.) Is it really better than Pynchon? Better than Irene Nemrovsky? Now I liked The Emperor’s Children and Absurdistan enough, but this one as I explain in my Washington Times review barely moves past cliche.

While this format is clever – books are also cited parenthetically throughout the novel – it is unconvincing because Blue isn’t a true bibliophile. There’s no whim or intellectual curiosity in her reading selections. Never would she deign to include Kurt Vonnegut or even J. D. Salinger in her library. She approaches Great Books with the same mechanical determination applied to her AP calculus homework.


In Ms. Pessl’s hands, Blue engages in namedropping rather than scholarship, so that the novel pays no more homage to Flaubert or Nabokov than a teenager who has listed books by those authors in her Myspace profile.

Of course, Blue is meant to be lugubriously precocious, but there is no sense of the puppeteer winking at us, as Nabokov with Kinbote and Humbert. So when the digressions border on the preposterous – Blue reads “Mein Kampf” in the second grade! – readers lose faith in the author.

Interestingly, her snarkily glib review of Leanne Shapton’s graphic novel, “Was She Pretty?,” frought with just as many self-satisfied assides as in her book. (“Obviously, no one works at T.G.I. Friday’s” … “I found myself hoping to introduce a few to my 96-year-old grandmother who survived the Depression, traveled the world alone, buried a husband, wore pants and still holds a valid driver’s license.”) appears in the same issue.

Between Pessl and the equally sneering Alexandra Jacobs (most ironically in her review of Laura Kipnis’ The Female Thing,) NYTBR is starting to look like a nasty episode of America’s Next Top Model. One wonders if either woman bothers reading the books assigned or judges them based on whether she percieves the author’s photo as prettier than her own.


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