Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘literary criticism’

Am reading a ton at the moment, and loving the feel of a brain alive. On the serious side of things, I started reading Susan Sontag’s collection Against Interpretation. I have only read bits and pieces of Sontag over the last ten years or so, I’ve never concentrated on her work in a systematic way and so begins a nice journey through her brilliant and critical mind.

From her essay “On Style” I’ve been highlighting left and right, but the following phrases/sections have stayed with me now for a few days:

“Art is seduction, not rape.”

“A work of art is a kind of showing or recording or witnessing which gives palpable form to consciousness; its object is to make something singular explicit.” (I love this. I have been repeating this to myself over and over.)

“Usually critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is. And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, know that it could well have been otherwise. The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole.”

On the sillier side of things, I received a gift in the mail yesterday. Ella Frances Sanders’ Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World.

This book, which is both funny and profound, is the way to a translator’s heart.

Here are some I love:

COMMUOVERE (Italian) – v. To be moved in a heartwarming way, usually relating to a story that moved you to tears.

MÅNGATA (Swedish) – n. The road-like reflection of the moon in the water.

KOMOREBI (Japanese) – n. The sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees.

MAMIHLAPINATAPAI (Yaghan). n. A silent acknowledgement and understanding between two people, who are both wishing or thinking the same thing (and both unwilling to initiate).

You can see more about this book here.


I’ve been thinking about experimental narratives lately, for a number of reasons, but mainly because I was working on a review of an extremely unique book called Giraffes in Hiding: The Mythical Memoirs of Carol Novack. I read this book all the way back in January, and then re-read it and then jumped around inside it for awhile, re-reading certain pieces and basically just trying to figure out how to write about it. I almost didn’t write about it because I didn’t feel like I was up to the task.

I wrote the review eventually (and happily, and honestly) because it bothered me too much that I couldn’t seem to find a way to write about it. Not knowing what else to do, I forced myself to come up with a metaphor that helped me envision the text as a whole. (Hopefully that metaphor will help potential new readers, too, but that isn’t for me to decide). Envisioning the text as a whole is, I think, where some people, maybe even many people, get stumped when they’re confronted with experimental writing. This mass and tumble of words and ideas just sort of spills off the page toward you, attacks you maybe, or just slides on by indifferently; either way, you’re not sure what to do with it, because:

  • it doesn’t look like anything you’ve ever read before
  • it’s maybe a little confusing, even purposefully confusing
  • you worry that you’re not smart enough or not well-read enough (in this tradition of non-traditional literature) to understand what’s going on
  • you’re not sure you like it, or, maybe you love it – but in either case you can’t say why exactly
  • you can’t “see” it the way you can “see” the shape and structure and filler of other narratives—it’s all globby or too spikey or too empty

Something that helped me find the courage to write this review is the series of articles and interviews “What is experimental lit?” by Christopher Higgs at HTML giant. His third essay is about reading strategies. He suggests:

For the former, what may prove to be invaluable might be a close attention to patterns of repetition, rhythm, connectivity and gaps between words and phrases, the moments of caesura, the sites of tension, the magnitudes of intensities, or the ways in which the text unsettles the limitations of genre and convention, subverts familiarity, articulates emotional states for which there are no nouns, or enacts the reader’s sublime.

So, okay, details. And I think most readers who are even open to considering experimental literature do this almost instinctively, because it is the first and only access into the text. Since the whole is denied upfront (not indefinitely, but often at first) the parts become really important. The sound of the words, the play of the language and how that engages with the ideas behind the work.

This was definitely the case for my reading of Giraffes in Hiding. I had to throw out my deep-seated and learned notions of how to experience a text and get as intimate as I could with the details. The details finally led me toward a conception of the whole. I found the experience interesting. I won’t say pleasant, because I am far too emotionally connected to my usual reading experience, and by that I mean I love being submersed into a continuous and coherent narrative. I am unapologetically Aristotelian.

But I’m open to experimental literature because I like the questions that it asks. I like being nudged to find new ways inside a piece of fiction, even if it proves difficult or frustrating. I may never gravitate toward this type of fiction instinctively, but I’m very glad there are other readers and writers who do—they enrich my reading world.

Here are links (series overview, Q&A overview) to the rest of Higgs’ series, for anyone interested.


I wrote last week how Wood champions literary realism at the end of How Fiction Works. But really, he does this subtly throughout the entire novel. Not by ever contending that experimental fiction doesn’t have as much to say about the relationship between fiction and life, but through a kind of censure, again related to craft, which is detectable in passages like this:

Is there a way in which all of us are fictional characters, parented by life and written by ourselves? This is something like Saramago’s question; but it is worth noting that he reaches his questions by traveling in the opposite direction of those postmodern novelists who like to remind us of the metafictionality of all things. A certain kind of postmodern novelist (like John Barth, say) is always lecturing us: ‘Remember, this character is just a character. I invented him.’ By starting with an invented character, however, Saramago is able to pass through the same skepticism, but in the opposite direction, toward reality, toward the deepest questions.

Wood is talking about José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a novel I’m now really eager to read. I do really like postmodern fiction, but there are times it can get tiresome. A bit shouty. But based on Wood’s description, it sounds like I would love Saramago’s way of negotiating a postmodern existential crisis.

What I understand Wood to be saying here is that he approves of Saramago’s existential exploration because it doesn’t just stop at revealing the artifice to the reader. Instead, it uses that revelation to ask a further question. His quote is lovely:

Yet the novel suggests that perhaps there is something culpable about being content with the spectacle of the world when the world’s spectacle is horrifying.

Because I am deep into my Houellebecq project at the moment, this makes me consider the metafictional aspect of his work. I am slowly getting the sense that Houellebecq is unable to forget for a moment that he is writing, that he is creating a story for others to read, to be consumed. A certain narrative personality—either Houellebecq himself or an authorial personality he uses when writing—hovers over his work. It isn’t so much like Barth and the constant reminder of the invented character, but more like Houellebecq just can’t get out of the way.

I’m slowly starting to get a feel for Houellebecq’s overall aesthetic, and his project, and the more I read of his work, the more I think that he uses this form of metafiction because he would consider it dishonest to write the kind of fiction that pretends the writer doesn’t exist. I find that notion of dishonesty pretty interesting.

But I’m still working through all of his work and I think I’ll wait to expand on this idea until I’ve finished, or at least, nearly finished. I want to think about it a little more in case I’m misreading him…

*Thank you to careful reader, Guilherme, who kindly reminded me that it is Saramago and not Saramango! This post now corrected.


I have been meandering my way through James Wood’s How Fiction Works for the last month or so and finally finished it up over the weekend. I think what I love the most about this little book is how easy Wood makes the study of literature appear. He condenses years of study and probably thousands upon thousands of hours of passionate, careful reading into a series of thematically-linked paragraphs. Paragraph 1 begins with narrative perspective and Paragraph 123 ends the book with a succinct appeal to craft:

…for the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable ageing. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.

This last sentence is Wood’s answer to the assertion that literary realism is no longer a viable genre. To get to this statement, he visits several of realism’s loudest denouncers (Roland Barthes, Rick Moody, William Gass…) and disagrees with their conclusions that because fiction suffers from convention it therefore cannot ever express what is real:

…just because artifice and convention are involved in a literary style does not mean that realism (or any other narrative style) is so artificial and conventional that it is incapable of referring to reality.

Wood concedes that literary techniques are constantly becoming conventional. Of course narrative techniques, expressions, metaphors and all the other building blocks of fiction are always and forever ‘at-risk’ of rendering themselves ineffective. What is called into question is their ability to render ‘truth’ in an original and novel way, but never their ability to reflect reality.

I’ve never been particularly fussed about the debate on literary realism. I think both perspectives provide insight into how fiction works as an art form, how it is negotiated by readers. I am definitely more rooted in literary realism, however, so I would never be the kind of reader to chuck it out the window anyway, but I appreciated Wood’s championing of the genre as well as his celebration of the writer who simultaneously embraces realism while writing to escape all that has already been written.

So, I’ve only touched on approximately 20 pages of this excellent 180-page book. I’ll see if I have more to say another day…