writ large

Via Fuse #8 (and sometime maybe she’ll explain to us what Fuse #8 means) an interesting essay on the art of the book review by Brian Doyle who is the editor of Portland Magazine. This essay itself is written in a grandiose, generous voice by somebody who can poke fun at himself:

… or meeting a writer of startling grace and power whose stories stitch and braid into your heart — a Helen Garner, a Haruki Murakami. Or meeting again, with a shiver of warm recognition, writers who mattered to you once and who leap right back to the top of that teetering pile of books on your bedside table: Willa Cather, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Orwell, Eudora Welty. Or, another grinning low pleasure, reading a review and recognizing that brassy pub-argument voice, cocksure about writerly rankings — a voice I drift into myself, I confess, when I insist, banging my tankard, that Twain is the greatest of all American writers, and Bellow the greatest of modern ones, and Stevenson the most broadly masterful of all.

On the best of the genre:

And it is a form with masters, like John Updike (whose book reviews are literary essays of exquisite grace and erudition, far more interesting and pithy than his novels, with far less neurotic, lusty misadventure) or Christopher Hitchens (whose reviews are energetic, opinionated, bristly, tart and often hilarious), or James Wood (who is almost always startlingly perceptive and who, bless his heart, coined the happy phrase “hysterical realism” to describe much modern fiction).

And the not-so-wonderful:

And like any form it has its charlatans and mountebanks; what is more entertaining, among the dark pleasures of reading a newspaper, than realizing that the reviewer has not actually read the book in question, and is committing fizzy sleight-of-hand? Or reading a review that is utterly self-indulgently about the reviewer, not the book? Or a review that is trying desperately to be polite about a book with as many flaws as the New York Knicks? Or reading a reviewer, like Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, who must spend hours every day sharpening razors with which to eviscerate the books she reviews, and has liked, as far as I remember, only two books in the history of the universe, Ian McEwan’s “Saturday” and Richard Flanagan’s “Gould’s Book of Fish”?

My one quibble here is that I do not consider it a pleasure of any kind to realize that a reviewer hasn’t read the book — especially as this has happened to me personally (and by somebody reviewing for a paper in Oregon, by coincidence). My reaction had more to do with disgust and anger.

The article will disappear at some point into the pay-for-view archives, so read it while it’s hot.

15 Replies to “writ large”

  1. Have you read any Helen Garner? She wrote fiction for a while (The Children’s Bach was great) but now writes non fiction and journalism. The First Stone was incredibly controversial here in Oz, about a sexual harrassment case. But her last book, Joe Cinque’s Consolation, is a true crime book which is just wonderful in its analysis of why people don’t take action when they know something bad is happening. She’s an interesting woman.

  2. Okay, see, now that’s the kind of stuff I’ve been trying to learn, lately. I have to overhaul my ancient website (for my dayjob, not my writing), and I really need to figure out the newer techniques. Or better techniques!

    Your index page is very clean and cool, by the way!

  3. It was a lot of work to get that three column pure css index page going, so thank you for noticing. I’m pretty happy with it at the moment.

    There is no lack of references and tutorial online when you decide to pursue your own update.

  4. I am honestly impressed by your geekitude in this regard, since my html-fu is pretty much limited to adding para breaks and making words bold.

    However, I am sad that your fine new front page lacks an obvious link to your Librarything account.

  5. I don’t know if this is exactly what you had in mind, but I very nearly bought this app when I first started organizing notes for fiction:


    “Storyspace is a hypertext writing environment that is especially well suited to large, complex, and challenging hypertexts. Storyspace focuses on the process of writing, making it easy and pleasant to link, revise, and reorganize.

    Storyspace is available for Windows and Macintosh computers [although it started as a Mac-only program and was ported to Windows, so no worries about lurking PC code/platform issues — m]

    Storyspace creates hypertexts that you are free to publish or redistribute free. Storyspace hypertexts can be saved as stand-alone programs or exported to the World Wide Web. ”

    I was looking at this a couple of years ago and it sounds like it has been vastly expanded since then, so if you trial it, or buy it, please let us know how it works — I’d be interested to hear.

  6. Afternoon, A Story


    That’s what I get for not clicking on the links before posting.

    Still, if you try the software, please tell.

  7. That is something I’d definitely be into. Especially the maps. And the letters. Erm and the drawings… I’d really like family trees to be included as well.
    It seems to me Rosina that you are already on the way to doing this, given that you kindly post your character sketches and letters for us. I was so glad you provided a map in ITW – I liked looking at it to see where Elizabeth was walking and learn my way around Paradise and Hidden Wolf with her.
    It did add something to make the story more alive for me.

  8. Your new site is quite lovely especially in Mozilla FireFox. Alas, InternetExplorer 6 doesn’t do it justice.

    I think I recall sometime ago you stating a preference for Mozilla FireFox, but for those of us who check in on your site a work we must often cope with IE.

    So you may want to know that in IE one of the links in the header does not display. The link ‘monthly newsletter signup’ does not display in between the ‘the books’ and ‘archives’. All the other links display.

  9. I’m kinda partial to hypertext as a way of storytelling, but also find it to be something like an Access database: a thing of beauty when done well, but impossible to untangle when not. A lot of tv shows use hypertext as their splash screens; Veronica Mars and Supernatural do, and the Supernatural one is excellent (or at least, it was prior to the CW move, I haven’t looked at it much since then).

  10. Wow, I find such a thought amazing and so totally something I know I would get lost in – no matter what it’s called, hypertext, interactive storytellling, whatever… very intriguing!! And I can certainly appreciate those web-skills learning techniques as it sounds similar to my own experiences – kinda like if you have the idea but don’t quite know how to build it, google it and hope, hehe.

  11. This reminded me of something I ran across a while ago, but I can’t find it now. It was a website where you could try out a new way of “clicking” that is, no clicking at all. I think it was a university project. If I find it, I’ll let you know. I’m kind of hoping it was your site that put me onto it. But now I recall, it was a link suggested by Vincent Flanders on his great webs design site: http://www.webpagesthatsuck.com/

    I love his commentary, generally speaking. But before anyone feels threatened by Vincent’s comments on it, keep in mind, he is talking about how to design functional, useful commercial websites. He often comments on how artists and creative types get more leeway in their site designs, since it’s very personal, very evocative of the work they represent. His main targets are those businesses trying to get you and I to buy things online, and how many obstacles they put between potential clients and the products.

  12. Murgatroyd: If that software weren’t so expensive, I would have tried it long ago. I may still try it. Though really part of the allure is figuring out how to do the technical part myself.

    Pam–I had a quick look at Vincent’s website and came back with a treasure. That quick preview thing. I adore it. It’s so much easier to figure out what links to follow. Thanks for the link.

  13. Just trying to wrap my head around this concept of a non-liniar multi-media work of fiction. So say for example a collection of letters from a nurse to a soldier during the second world war? Maybe throw in the soldier’s orders, medical files, places, people they encounter, newspapers, etc..
    Or maybe a group, or a family’s corospondence to each other. Don’t know why But the movie “The Red violin” keeps popping into my head. Sounds interesting, let us know if how that works out :D

  14. This hypertext novel sounds amazing. I love epistolary novels – and the one that Nick Bantock did “Griffin and Sabine” where you could actually open envelopes and read correspondence? It added to the experience of reading the novel.

    Your concept would add to that experience exponentially – and talk about the possibilities and every time you re-read the novel it would be different depending on where you plunged in first.

    I vote you should do this – it would be very cool. Kind of along the lines of the letter from Lily and Simon in your newsletter but way more cool – WOW.


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