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
Two professors of literature, old friends, one in England (RD, our narrator), one having emigrated to Australia (R), are writing letters to each other. This suggests one of the many metaphors in The Trick of It (Viking, 1989, 172 pp.): “Forgotten questions and meaningless answers passing each other somewhere over the Indian Ocean at thirty thousand feet—an image of human communication. Of love and literature and life.” So is this an old-fashioned epistolary novel? Far from it. The Trick of It is a marvelous, sparkling-new one-way-epistolary and modern piece of metafiction. I would rank it right up there with Don DeLillo’s White Noise as one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century. 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.
To describe a book as unclassifiable is, of course, to classify it, but that fact is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Jacob Smullyan’s Errata (Sagging Meniscus, 72 pages). Comprising thirty short chapters of mini-essays, stories and philosophical aperçus, it straddles numerous genres and grapples with the process of making sense.
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?
In a recent rant I wrote on the sad state of the contemporary American short story, I railed against what is sometimes known as ‘The New Yorker story,’ that all-too-common pedestrian thing called “domestic literary fiction.” Happily, there are always exceptions to egregious trends, and George Saunders (Tenth of December, Random House, 272 pages), who is a contributor to The New Yorker, is a big one. Exception, that is.
How is his fiction different from the normal, run-of-the-mill domestic stuff—the kind of fiction I can’t stand? A good place to begin would be with a comparison between his Tenth of December and another book of short stories recently published, The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I picked up Nguyen’s book with high expectations, having read his novel, The Sympathizer, which has great writing, wonderful sentences on every page.