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Out-take #1

10 Jan

Some parts of the book got cut in the final editing process purely because they were part of the longness which was not that important. You may still wonder why you would be interested in reading about Icelandic skalds – but pause to reflect on the bitterness of the person who actually read the Icelandic skalds, and wrote about the Icelandic skalds, and then discovered that he was not going to be paid.

Note: The “he” in that sentence is not so much a figure of speech as it is my long-time confederate, Howard Mittelmark, who did most of the work on these Icelanders. This was absolutely not the reason it was cut from the final book. In no way was that the reason. Also, there were so many reasons that it’s hard to remember which reason I finally settled on,  and also I was drunk at the time.

A cynic might ask whether, given the economics of book publishing – and the fact that Howard’s name wasn’t on the book jacket, but only appears in a modest acknowledgement – Howard in fact got paid at all. Shame on you, cynic! Howard is a artist, and cares not for worldly matters. He is as the lilies of the field, and what looks like exploitation to you – why, to him, it is fertilizer. Also, he still owes me money.

So here’s our first out-take:

Norse and Icelandic literature (yes, this one’s Howard’s)

The descendants of the Scandinavians that inhabit Beowulf would go on to colonize Iceland in the 10th century.  Why they called it Iceland, we may never know. Once there, the settlers soon abandoned their seafaring ways, and then also discovered that  volcanic glacier-covered islands just below the Arctic circle are not ideal for farming. Like many others throughout history who found themselves with no employable skills, the Icelanders became writers. Before long, an Icelandic poet, or skald, was de rigueur in the court of any Norse king. In those days, poets were from Iceland,  in much the same way we expect a doctor to be Jewish, or a bond-trader to be an asshole.

Icelandic literature includes both poetry and prose.

The Poetic Edda are a collection of the oldest poems, all anonymous, a repository of ancient Norse mythology, filled with gods and heroes and giants, and tales of Yggdrasil, the world tree, and Ragnarok, the end of the world.

Skaldic poetry is a later body of work by named skalds, who were mostly attached to royal courts. The poems are mostly about how wonderful and mighty the king was. There are no known tales of Asskssr, god of the skalds, but one might still turn up.

Despite the skalds whose names have come down to us, the only medieval Icelandic writer whose name anyone needs to know, in the frankly inconceivable circumstance that anyone might, is Snori Sturluson. In addition to being a writer, Snori was a wealthy, powerful political figure (a violation of all reason, as well as international law since WWI). Snori’s best known work is called the Prose Edda, which collected all the mythology and explained all the poetic techniques necessary to carry on the skaldic tradition.

Among those techniques are kennings, obscure, often elaborate, metaphors requiring intimate knowledge of ancient Norse mythology. Kennings gave skalds an opportunity to show off their skills, and now serve the function of making skaldic poetry completely unintelligible. Fortunately, nobody other than Icelandic schoolchildren has to read any medieval Icelandic poetry. (If you are an Icelandic schoolchild, you have our sympathy, but someday you’ll go abroad and realize it was a small price to pay to live in a forward-looking social democracy with great health insurance.)

The prose sagas are much more widely read, and only in part because they have the advantage of not being poetry. The prose sagas variously relate tales of ancient mythology, Viking conquest, Scandinavian kings, even stories of Charlemagne. The most popular and important are the family sagas, multi-generational stories about the founding families of Iceland. They can be very novelly and quite entertaining, and they offer fascinating glimpses of life in medieval times.

The best known of these is Njal’s Saga, which features complex and believably human characters involved in an escalating blood feud, in the middle of which everyone in Iceland converts to Christianity.

As with much found in the family sagas, this recounts real events. In the year 1000,  Iceland voted and everyone officially converted. However, we learn from Njal’s saga, the consensus was reached with the understanding that you could continue now-illegal  pagan activities like eating horseflesh and sacrificing babies in the privacy of your own home, if you really wanted to.



Q & A

25 Dec

Why should people read Western literature nowadays?

First and foremost, people should read Western literature to appear superior. While 99% of Western literature was originally written to be entertaining, and at least 80% is still entertaining, there are many, many other entertaining things. If Western literature did not make you seem superior to other people, it would have nothing over playing Angry Birds or popping the bubbles in packing material. This superiority effect works for literally everyone. If you are a myopic, fugly weakling, reading Western literature will make you seem like a cool Bohemian. If you are a football player type, just read a little Proust and you become a Renaissance man. Even if you are a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, reading Western literature makes you seem superior to other Nobel-Prize-winning physicists. Western literature is also a great way of learning how the world works, without having to actually have life experience. (Keep in mind that life experience involves things like making a fool of yourself, losing all your money, getting syphilis, and being shot at point blank range.) In the role of educator, literature is roughly 60% better than television, movies, or listening to your parents. However, I will not lie to you: some great authors had no idea how the world works. However, the only sure way to figure out which authors these are is to become worldly-wise yourself. You can achieve this by reading many great authors, or you could leave the house. Remember: when you take this latter course, you will make a fool of yourself, lose all your money, get syphilis, and be shot. Then afterwards, your parents will want to know why you didn’t listen to their advice.

Did you feel nervous about passing judgment on these books?

I didn’t worry about it that much, given that all of the authors considered in this book are dead. Also, in researching this book, I was constantly reading the dismissive comments made by great authors about other great authors. No opinion I have could be more boneheaded than Tolstoy’s obsessive campaign against Shakespeare. While I didn’t aspire to misunderstand and under-rate, if it happened once or twice, I was willing to let the chips fall where they may. If I am ever called out on this, I intend to call these my “Tolstoy moments.”

Didn’t you find any of these books boring?

Many of the greatest works of literature are wretchedly boring in places. Sometimes it’s because the author is writing about things that no longer matter to us, such as Jesus Christ. However, sometimes it’s because the book is simply very tough to understand. It’s a strange fact that, the more challenging a book is, the more likely you are to fall asleep face-down in its pages. Conversely, even the most scornful reader of Dan Brown stays awake effortlessly through The Da Vinci Code. You might think that when you gave your brain a lot of riddles to solve, it would be more engaged than when it is announcing triumphantly that one plus one is two. Alas, that is so not the case. Perhaps the problem is that, as you give your brain more and more things to do, the chances of giving it something it doesn’t feel like doing increase exponentially. Eventually, the grumpy brain shuts itself off, leaving you drooling into the pages of The Divine Comedy. Often, however the same material that sent you to sleep becomes extraordinarily interesting in retrospect. Many times during the writing of this book, I’ve found myself excitedly telling someone about how fascinating a particular work was, seemingly having forgotten that I was puddle-eyed with boredom all through the reading of it. This was completely sincere: reading the book was a long hard slog uphill. Mulling over the book afterward was the pleasant downhill stroll, full of new ideas and poignant memories.

Which books really aren’t good enough to be in the Western canon?

Books end up in the canon for many reasons, some of which are nothing to do with quality. The canonical works are not the books that are most finely written; they are the ones that are still read. A good model for how this works is the ancient Greek classics. The primary reason that we read the Greek authors we do is that these books still exist thousands of years later. People copied them and/or preserved them, while the less beloved works rotted away unlamented. You could actually define “Western literature” as “books that are still in print.” So, while Defoe is not a great wordsmith, generations of people have bought Robinson Crusoe and recommended it to their friends. After this happens for a few hundred years, people begin to think there’s something to this Defoe guy. There are also books which remain in print because of their historical importance. The Romance of the Rose is an ungodly stew with no obvious merit to a contemporary reader. But everyone read it for over a hundred years. So you have to, too, if you do Medieval Studies at college. Books can also be important because they were the first books to incorporate innovations in literary technique. The Da Vinci Code will never be part of the canon; but if it had been written in 1532, it would be responsible for the invention of the fast-paced plot, and might still be taught in universities. And it would still be cheesy rubbish – like Chretien de Troyes’ tales of knights, or the bulk of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. It also helps a book’s longevity immensely if its home nation conquers a huge swathe of the world. World War II was worth fighting not only to defeat Hitler, but because it saved generations of non-German schoolchildren from reading Faust. Most early American writers – Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau – would be forgotten by history if America were not a world power. In fact, one happy result of America’s decline might be that The Scarlet Letter goes out of print.

Which contemporary authors do you think will be considered literary greats in the future?

There’s at least a chance that J.K. Rowling or Stephen King will enter the canon at some point. If their books continue to sell, they will become increasingly culturally important, while there’s no reason to believe they will become less readable. You may think this stuff is too lowbrow/middlebrow – if you have never read James Fenimore Cooper, or seen a performance of a play by Moliere. At 100 years old, Harry Potter will have become a respected elder, and reading about him may become a cultural duty as well as an absorbing way to pass the afternoon. At the other end of the spectrum, I have a gut feeling that David Foster Wallace will last. While snob value in itself doesn’t give an author much staying power, having the greatest snob value of all of one’s contemporaries does. John Dos Passos has gone the way of the dodo, but James Joyce we will have always with us. This peculiarity of canon-building could work in DFW’s favor. There’s a huge tranche of excellent writers – the Philip Roth/Jonathan Franzen realists – who are broadly similar to each other and will seem much more so in a hundred years. People will not continue to read them all, and it’s very hard to tell which of this group will survive. It’s like betting on which of the baby turtles will make it to the ocean as the birds swoop down on them. They are all very good at what they do, and what they do is very similar. The whim of a single literary star of the future could ensure Roth a place in the canon – or mean that he is totally forgotten in favor of a dark horse like Mary Gaitskill. We should also keep in mind that it’s likely that the bulk of any future canon will be filled by Chinese authors, Brazilian authors – authors from the next great powers of the world. In fact, for all we know, in the next two decades, Nigeria could become a world power and produce its Golden Age of literature. Then, when 21st Century Fiction is taught (if it is still taught), half of the assigned authors could be Nigerian, along with two Chinese authors, a Korean, and a sprinkling of Indians and Germans. Really, we need to get to work on fixing our economy if we want our writers to have the privilege of boring the college students of the 2300s.

Kirkus Reviews

21 Dec

THE WESTERN LIT SURVIVAL KIT (reviewed on October 15, 2011)

A clever tour d’horizon of what you might encounter in a Great Books course in college.

At first glance, Newman’s (Read This Next, 2010, etc.) work comes across as a comedy routine meant to poke many of the received-opinion greats in the eye with a sharp stick, much in the manner of Ovid, one of the author’s favorites. And that is certainly part, but far from all, of the truth. First, a typical zinger: “As a general note, all of Homer’s heroes were illiterates who considered rape and genocide normal. Generations of European boys were raised on Homer. Just saying.” The author is not here to venerate—though Shakespeare gets a pretty deep genuflection—or eviscerate: She appreciates genius and fine, intellectually thrilling writing. With each writer, she gets to the nub of a work or style from the outset (“The Bronte home was a little biosphere of literary misery”), and she is not afraid to venture her true feelings: Of Tristram Shandy: “Page for page, it’s possibly the funniest novel ever.” Newman is a serious fan of humor and a good roll in the hay: e.g., Sappho, Tom Jones and Gargantua and Pantagruel Montaigne’s Essays also get the nod, as do Dickinson, Kafka, Eliot and a holy host of others. Half the fun here is quibbling with her choices and tinkering with her rating system: How important are the books considered? How accessible are they? How much fun? Newman assigns each a number from 1 to 10, and despite all the levity, she has clearly (if seemingly surreptitiously) read deeply and brought serious rumination to the proceedings.

A sly piece of work—though you still should read the books.

So what makes something “literature”?

9 Nov

Really, what makes a book “literature” is that enough people call it literature. While there is no hard and fast rule about what inspires people to think a book is literary, there are certain features that tend to attract this description. Here are the most important. (NB: A book does not need all of these qualities to be called literature. Often one will suffice.)

1) Smart people enjoy the book more than stupid people.

There is a class of books – Ulysses being the best-known example – which the ordinary person cannot enjoy, and would happily dismiss as stupid gobbledygook. However, the literati with their great big pulsing brains insist that these books are magnificent.

2) The book is on an obviously serious subject.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a masterpiece. In fact, in today’s more demanding literary climate, it probably wouldn’t make it into the canon. It might not even get published. However, even now, a book about the Holocaust, slavery, or the plight of the underclass immediately gets at least five Literature Points out of a possible ten. Conversely, if you write a book about a love affair gone wrong, you really have to be Proust to be classed as anything but chicklit.

3) The book is very old, yet it is still sold in book stores.

When a book has been around for hundreds of years, and people still continue to buy it, we tend to think of it as literature even if none of its author’s contemporaries had any regard for it. Judging purely by quality, some of these books are really not classics, but just antiques. However, they have survived, while their weaker brothers have died, and there’s really no arguing with natural selection. This fact is, however, an excellent argument against intelligent design, since an all-merciful, omnipotent God would have stamped out The Fairie Queene in its infancy.

4) The book is more beautiful than it is interesting.

While most works of literature are interesting, they are often more concerned with style than story. A book that has more sheer beauty than it does unputdownable page-turniness is usually classified as literature. And some literary works are really coasting on their looks. If you have no response to the beauty of language, reading the longer poems of Keats is going to send you into a coma.

5) The plot keeps stopping dead while the author digresses about his philosophical preoccupations and emotional impressions, and tells irrelevant anecdotes about South Sea Islanders.

If Melville had stuck to the point, Moby Dick would be a hundred pages long. If Dostoevsky’s characters were taught by their parents that it’s impolite to discuss religion and politics, The Brothers Karamazov would be a novella. The high ratio of chatting to plotting is one of the most enduring (and sometimes unendurable) features of literature.

15 Jul

Coming in  2012 from Gotham Books in the US and Penguin in the UK, The Western Lit Survival Kit by Sandra Newman, an entertaining romp through 2500 years of great books, filled with jokes, insights, and reasons why nobody should ever have to read Theodore Dreiser.


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