In 1959 Elizabeth Hardwick, novelist, reviewer, and wife of poet Robert Lowell, wrote a pointed critique of the book reviewing industry. She noted that the most trusted of review organs, the New York Times Book Review, was remarkable only for “the flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity — the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself.”
That was 1959. The year is now 2017 and coming to a close, and that means it’s time for me to come to you, hat in hand, to ask for your support for Dactyl Review, a literary fiction book review created by and for the literary community. If sixty years ago literary reviewers had begun to dwindle, as Hardwick noted, in the following decades we have seen the disappearance of the literary reader, the literary writer’s habitat. You may think rightly of this as an appeal to save an endangered species.
Every year, about this time, I try to explain why literariness matters, why we all need a little poetics in our lives. You can find some of these appeals here and here and here. The same still goes for 2018. Please be as generous as you can. We’ve got some great authors and reviewers here who need readers. And your donation is tax-deductible.
-VN Alexander, Editor
Russia. Russia. Russia. Ever since the Wicked Witch of the West succumbed to the Reality Circus Clown, the popular press has been serving up reconstituted Cold War propaganda, declaring that the Russian “enemy” is brainwashing us through Facebook posts and massaging our malleable minds via sexy Russian public television hostesses. Clapper, former U.S. intel head, went so far as to warn us that all Russians are genetically predisposed to lying and meddling.
Before we learn to love the idea of trying to bomb them into oblivion, let’s consider the question of the Russian Soul. Who are these people? What characteristics do they share, if any, with you and me?
U. R. Bowie offers his meditation on Russianness in an extraordinary travel log through Ultimia Thule, the farthest point, exploring dreams, lectures and diaries. Hard Mother (Ogee Zakamora, 429 pages) is a challenging novel; never boring; persistently humorous, it is organized with staggering complexity, interweaving dreams with fiction with anthropology, flashing forward, back and around. The book cover warns the reader to “keep both hands on the wheel.” Good advice. Continue reading
Dactyl Review is unlike any other fiction review site, helping readers find the particular kinds of “literary fiction” they prefer. Because Dactyl is not a commercial site, they don’t favor the newest books or books by best-selling authors. They publish reviews of only the best literary fiction, older and new, as judged by other literary fiction writers.
I had been director of the Dactyl Foundation in NYC for a dozen years, organizing art-science collaborations and hosting poetry readings, before it occurred to me that we were doing nothing to support literary fiction. As a literary fiction novelist myself, I was well aware that these unlikely-to-be-bestsellers could use some support. But it was not immediately clear to me what I could do to help. Hosting readings did not work. Poets tend to turn out for each other and buy each other’s work; they dedicate poems to each other and even write poems about each other’s poems, but not literary fiction novelists; they are as independent as cats. They keep to themselves, don’t do reviews, fear influence, and reserve their admiration for dead authors.
I was such a writer, I realized. What could I do to get mavericks, like myself, to form a community?
I listened to the audiobook of Purity (FSG, 576 pages) as I was held captive on a thirty-five hour road trip. Although the first fifty pages or so had some wit and interesting characters, such as Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange persona, Purity soon devolved into stylistically bland chicklit. Jenna Lamia narrates the part of the twenty-something title character, with, appropriately for the writing style, that special millennial lilt that seems to run out of energy at the end of every sentence. The remaining 526 pages were concerned with relationship negotiations between men and women, children and parents. People complain, worry about their self-image, elaborate the details of “he said, she said” and, instead of having interests in the world, all the characters try to control and manage how other people feel about them. The characters are pure self-interest without any self-reflection. Worse yet, the plot is straight about of a women’s drug store novel: Purity’s love relationships fail as she seeks a father figure, having grown up without one. Confronting hard economic times and suffering through dead-end jobs, she finally stumbles upon her father and discovers that she is an heiress.
Seriously. An heiress. Continue reading
Sea of Hooks (McPherson & Co) was nominated by Barbara Roether, author of This Earth You’ll Come Back To. In her review of Hill’s unusual novel, Roether writes,
There is a paradox that floats through the Sea of Hooks, which is that the experience of reading it is almost the opposite of how it is written. That is to say, while the story is told in its short collage-like segments, their effect is an almost seamless classical narrative. The way sections move from multiple perspectives, dreamtime, real-time, then meld together with such cohesive and penetrating storytelling, is a testament to the author’s insightful eye for detail and character.
Throughout most of our lives, we can ignore our fears about the threat of non-existence that yawns beyond the casket with as much reality as the non-existence out of which we came into our cradles. But when facing death, our own or that of a loved one, we feel compelled to review the idea of after life. Believers ratchet up their beliefs and atheists, like Hal in Jim Snowden’s Dismantle the Sun (Booktrope, 324 pages), hang tough.
According to conventional wisdom, atheists are imaginary creatures. No one (except other atheists) believes they exist, certainly not in the foxhole of impending death. This is why deathbed conversions are expected, even in the most “literary” of end-of-life novels, despite the fact that one of the accepted roles of a literary fiction author is to question how we make sense of our lives. If most novels have the same after-life-affirming answer, I wonder if these novelists are really asking themselves the question, or merely posing it rhetorically for the sake of a denouement. Every deathbed conversion, it seems to me, is another failure to actually question the meaning of life. Continue reading