All posts filed under: Books

Inside Story—A Review

A review of Inside Story by Martin Amis. Knopf, 560 pages. (October 2020) As literature’s cultural relevance washes out on the high tide of digital media, self-absorption becomes the order of the day. Those who can still be bothered to write “serious” books aren’t interested in telling other people’s stories. They want to tell their own. And in the age of profiles and self-promotion, it’s not surprising that auto-fiction—or what I like to call the ME novel—is the literary genre with the most purchase. ME writing, while centuries old, has exploded in the last decade: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (to name a few in fiction); Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering (for non-fiction novels)—while other excesses, like blog novels and memoirs written by 28-year-olds have even managed to find their way to audiences. Now Martin Amis’s new novel Inside Story joins this club of “life writing” (a genre he describes as “rather dubious”). Inside Story is a ME …

Postmodernism: Some Corrections and Clarifications

Before I proceed with a brief discussion of postmodernism and its contribution to the 20th century thought, a clarification: contrary to the common view, the “modernism” part of the word “postmodernism” does not denote “modernity.” Such an interpretation is wrong (and also raises the question of why postmodernism had not happened 200 years earlier). The “modernism” part of the word refers to the dominant literary and artistic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In other words, postmodernism is not what came after the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, Voltaire and Descartes—it is what came after the cubists, the existentialists, Kafka and Joyce. This correction is important for reasons of formal accuracy—but it is also a reminder that postmodernism was neither the first, nor the most important movement to attack the values of Western civilisation. Mannerism did it in the 1520s, followed by baroque, then the gothics and romantics, and, finally, at the turn of the 20th century, the modernists. The latter rebelled on a truly grand scale, negating and annihilating everything that had …

The Dishonest and Misogynistic Hate Campaign Against J.K. Rowling

When J. K. Rowling first outed herself as a gender-critical feminist, my first thought was: If Rowling can be cancelled, anyone can be cancelled. Not only is she one of the best known and best loved authors in the world (the writer of children’s books, for goodness sake), she also has a personal history that ought to make her un-cancellable. This was the mum who escaped an abusive marriage and lived off benefits, writing the first Harry Potter book in an Edinburgh café while rocking her sleeping baby in a pram. This was the woman who became a billionaire, but then lost her billionaire status by giving away so much money to charity. If anyone was safe, Rowling should have been safe. And it turns out that she was, because despite the best efforts of her critics, she hasn’t yet been truly cancelled. Her latest book, the murder mystery (written under the pen-name Robert Galbraith), was published on Tuesday and, as of Thursday, was number four on Amazon’s bestseller list for all literature and fiction. …

Corruption and Remorse—The Novels of a Watergate Conspirator

As an avid reader of pop fiction, I’m more partial to the Nixon administration than any other White House. The Reagan years may have produced more crooks, and the Trump years may have produced more chaos, but there is one measure by which the criminal and criminal-adjacent members of the Nixon White House were far more productive: they produced a hell of a lot more novels. In May 1976, disgraced vice president Spiro Agnew published his first and only novel, The Canfield Decision, about a sitting US vice president pondering his own run for the White House. This was followed in January 1977 by a political thriller entitled Full Disclosure from Nixon and Agnew’s former speechwriter William Safire. Safire would go on to write three more novels—Freedom (a massive Civil War epic), Sleeper Spy (an espionage thriller), and Scandalmonger (about muckraking journalists in the age of Thomas Jefferson). G. Gordon Liddy, one of the masterminds of the Watergate break-in who served 52 months behind bars before the balance of his sentence was commuted by President …

Under the Frog: Why Tibor Fischer’s 1992 Booker-Nominated Novel May Have Found its Moment

In Szeged Hungary, while teaching at the university there, I met a student who read Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog (1992) every single autumn. It was, she said, part of  her annual ritual, and I wasn’t that surprised. A crazy tale of a basketball team in post-war Stalinist Hungary—a time of terror retold with Fischer’s ink-black humour—it’s got something for almost anyone, and it’s rare to find readers happy to sample it just the once. Written following the fall of communism in 1989, a period Fischer covered as a journalist while living in Budapest, it nearly didn’t reach them at all. Under the Frog was rejected by all but two of the UK’s publishers, yet went on to become the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. It is still Fischer’s most successful—and best known—book. Fischer knew what he was writing about. Under the Frog was based on his Magyar parents, both of them basketball players who, in the wake of the doomed 1956 uprising against the Soviets, fled Hungary for …

At the Intersection of Art and Science: Revisiting EO Wilson’s ‘Consilience’

I first read EO Wilson’s Consilience in the late 1990s when I was a student in a contemporary literary theory class. The class was taught by a poet, Gerald Locklin, who assigned it as a counterpoint to the postmodern theorists we’d be reading that semester. Wilson makes the case for the unification of knowledge—in the convergence of diverse disciplines such as the sciences and the arts, he says, there is an important story to tell, “about where we came from and why we are here: Neither science nor the arts can be complete without combining their separate strengths. Science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science.” As someone who writes poetry, novels, and short stories, I have often drawn inspiration from science and its “fresh blood.” When I teach creative writing classes, I tell my students that aspiring writers not only need to read novels if they want to be a novelist, or poems if they want to be a poet, they need to …

The WEIRDest People in the World—A Review

A review of The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 704 pages (September, 2020). A decade ago, researcher and scholar Joseph Henrich, together with psychologists Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan, published a landmark paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled, “The weirdest people in the world?”1 No, the target of the label “weird” were not the Araweté horticulturalists of lowland South America, where mothers-to-be seek sex with multiple men in the belief that semen from multiple fathers is needed to form the fetus.2 Nor were they the Māori of New Zealand, who have been known to collect and preserve the heads of enemy chiefs they killed in battle as trophies of war, (the mokomokai.) The target of the weird label was Western people. More specifically, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or WEIRD. WEIRD was not meant as a pejorative, but as an apt description of this group of psychologically peculiar people, who are distinct from the majority of humanity both …

‘Science Fictions’ Review: Begone, Science Swindlers

A review of Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth by Stuart Ritchie, Bodley Head, 353 pages (July, 2020). As I sat down to review Stuart Ritchie’s new book, Science Fictions, I was interrupted immediately by mournful texts from a young man who was being hosed for his write-up of the results from a study. He’d asked me to take a look at it. A charity wanted to improve literacy in poor children. Children’s literacy had been measured before and after a “treatment” or intervention. There was no “control group” in the design. No similar sample of children who trundled along without the intervention, nor an intervention designed to match the treatment in all but the supposed crucial component. Had literacy increased at the second assessment because of the treatment or because the children were a year older? Your guess is as good as mine. The young man fed this problem back to his superiors and was called, peremptorily, to an online meeting. The charity had wanted a glowing …

Flannery O’Connor and the Ideological War on Literature

On June 15th, Paul Elie—a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and a frequent contributor to upscale magazines—published a 3,800-word essay in the New Yorker bluntly accusing the acclaimed Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) of racism. The essay, which has since gone viral, is ostensibly a review of Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, a new book by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, an O’Connor scholar at Fordham University. O’Donnell surveys O’Connor’s two novels, numerous short stories and essays, and voluminous correspondence (most of which was published following her untimely death aged 39 of complications from lupus) and concludes that O’Connor was “a walking contradiction when it came to matters of race.” O’Connor’s dark and mordantly humorous fiction was written as the civil rights movement tore through the South dismantling Jim Crow during the 1950s and 1960s, and it frequently mocks Southern whites for their condescension and rudeness toward blacks. However, O’Donnell also argues that “racism” is the correct description of O’Connor’s privately expressed views about black people in …

Chinese Science Fiction’s Disaster Dystopias

The Great China dream will replace all private dreams. ~Ma Jian, China Dream In Ma Jian’s new novel, the protagonist, Ma Daode, may be a corrupt, womanizing local official, but he is a corrupt, womanizing local official with a mission. His goal is to develop a drug that will allow President Xi Jinping’s vision of a glorious Chinese future to dominate not only citizens’ daily lives but their sleeping hours as well. This is his utopian quest. The China dream, Ma Daode suggests, “is not the selfish, individualist dream chased by Western countries. It is a dream of a people, a dream of the entire nation, united as one and gathered together into an invincible force.” This mindless worship of hierarchy and control permeates his thinking. China Dream was published in 2018, three years before the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and it provides insights into the Middle Kingdom that are becoming harder to find as control of local media tightens. It is a product of the “golden age” of Chinese science …