Commentary Magazine


Topic: Michiko Kakutani

Literary Fiction: An Autopsy

There are only two ways to use the word literature. Either it means everything that has been written (as in the “literary language” distinguished from the spoken language) or it means the best that has been written. Think of how the word is used in other contexts. In the sciences, a knowledge of the literature is a ready familiarity with everything that has been published on a subject — to know only some of it, to know only the “settled science” (in the partisan commonplace), is to admit to ignorance.

In certain clearly focused and well-defined fields, it is entirely possible to read and know the entire literature. You can master American slave literature or the literature of supraventricular and ventricular arrhythmias. In fact, the definition of the field eases the acquisition of the knowledge, because it gives rise to canons of relevance, levels of expectation, backgrounds of belief and agreement.

But there is writing that gives rise to a different kind of impulse altogether — the impulse to admire it, to express astonishment at it, to preserve it from loss or destruction, to pass it on to friends and family. This is writing that you like, quite apart from (or in addition to) any knowledge or benefit that you derive from it. As a class or category, as a field of human study, literature is simply that. Nothing more.

Critics have labored for centuries to single out the special qualities and necessary features of literature — it is mimesis, it is sublimity, it is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings — but even though it seems to refresh itself with each new effort, the labor has been defeated again and again. Give me a definition of literature and off the top of my head I can give you nine or ten literary masterpieces outside your borders.

Except as a way of saying “I like this book” (therefore it is literature) or “I don’t like that one” (therefore it isn’t), the word literature is feckless. Literature is simply good writing — where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition.

For the past quarter century, though, the word has become attached to a species of prose fiction that can best be identified by the via negativa. “Literary fiction” is not “genre fiction” (crime fiction, science fiction); it is not thrilling, exciting, suspenseful, page-turning fiction, ripped from the headlines and set to serviceable prose for comfortable beach reading; it is, as Lev Raphael quoted a best-selling mystery author as saying, fiction where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting.

You know what I mean. Literary fiction is serious fiction, although the epithet serious has problems of its own. Some of the funniest writing on earth requires the most careful consideration and thought. The term literary fiction was popularized by the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, and it has become standard usage for distinguishing fiction of deep and earnest intent from bestsellers and “genre fiction.”

The distinction is bunk. As Catie Disabato pointed out in a wonderful little piece at Full Stop last week, genres are not the niche markets that publishers have cultivated in order to sell books to readers who want to know in advance just what they’re getting: a genre is a “literary tradition that has thrived longer than the modern construct of ‘literary’ fiction.” The tradition of the novel includes mysteries, fantasies, science fiction, romances, horror, even Westerns. The question is not to what subgenre a book belongs. The question is whether it is any good. And if it is good only according to the conventions of a subgenre, and not in the larger tradition of the novel, then it is not any good at all.

Literary fiction — or what the British novelist Linda Grant has taken to calling LitFic — ought to be a haughty way of saying “good fiction.” But that’s not how the term is used. What, then, is it? Easy. Literary fiction (like 98.5% of poetry these days) is written by and for the entrenched bureaucracy of the creative writing faculty in the universities. There is good fiction, there is bad fiction, and there is fiction written in creative writing workshops.

There are only two ways to use the word literature. Either it means everything that has been written (as in the “literary language” distinguished from the spoken language) or it means the best that has been written. Think of how the word is used in other contexts. In the sciences, a knowledge of the literature is a ready familiarity with everything that has been published on a subject — to know only some of it, to know only the “settled science” (in the partisan commonplace), is to admit to ignorance.

In certain clearly focused and well-defined fields, it is entirely possible to read and know the entire literature. You can master American slave literature or the literature of supraventricular and ventricular arrhythmias. In fact, the definition of the field eases the acquisition of the knowledge, because it gives rise to canons of relevance, levels of expectation, backgrounds of belief and agreement.

But there is writing that gives rise to a different kind of impulse altogether — the impulse to admire it, to express astonishment at it, to preserve it from loss or destruction, to pass it on to friends and family. This is writing that you like, quite apart from (or in addition to) any knowledge or benefit that you derive from it. As a class or category, as a field of human study, literature is simply that. Nothing more.

Critics have labored for centuries to single out the special qualities and necessary features of literature — it is mimesis, it is sublimity, it is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings — but even though it seems to refresh itself with each new effort, the labor has been defeated again and again. Give me a definition of literature and off the top of my head I can give you nine or ten literary masterpieces outside your borders.

Except as a way of saying “I like this book” (therefore it is literature) or “I don’t like that one” (therefore it isn’t), the word literature is feckless. Literature is simply good writing — where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition.

For the past quarter century, though, the word has become attached to a species of prose fiction that can best be identified by the via negativa. “Literary fiction” is not “genre fiction” (crime fiction, science fiction); it is not thrilling, exciting, suspenseful, page-turning fiction, ripped from the headlines and set to serviceable prose for comfortable beach reading; it is, as Lev Raphael quoted a best-selling mystery author as saying, fiction where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting.

You know what I mean. Literary fiction is serious fiction, although the epithet serious has problems of its own. Some of the funniest writing on earth requires the most careful consideration and thought. The term literary fiction was popularized by the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, and it has become standard usage for distinguishing fiction of deep and earnest intent from bestsellers and “genre fiction.”

The distinction is bunk. As Catie Disabato pointed out in a wonderful little piece at Full Stop last week, genres are not the niche markets that publishers have cultivated in order to sell books to readers who want to know in advance just what they’re getting: a genre is a “literary tradition that has thrived longer than the modern construct of ‘literary’ fiction.” The tradition of the novel includes mysteries, fantasies, science fiction, romances, horror, even Westerns. The question is not to what subgenre a book belongs. The question is whether it is any good. And if it is good only according to the conventions of a subgenre, and not in the larger tradition of the novel, then it is not any good at all.

Literary fiction — or what the British novelist Linda Grant has taken to calling LitFic — ought to be a haughty way of saying “good fiction.” But that’s not how the term is used. What, then, is it? Easy. Literary fiction (like 98.5% of poetry these days) is written by and for the entrenched bureaucracy of the creative writing faculty in the universities. There is good fiction, there is bad fiction, and there is fiction written in creative writing workshops.

Read Less

Pops and Pale

I don’t usually link favorably to the New York Times, but all COMMENTARY readers should hie to Michiko Kakutani’s review of our chief culture critic Terry Teachout’s newly published biography of Louis Armstrong. Pops has been received ecstatically, and nowhere more than in Kakutani’s review today:

With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists…[he] writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man.

She’s right.

Also of note is the inclusion of “Beyond the Pale,” a stunning story by COMMENTARY’s longtime contributor Joseph Epstein, in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories. “Beyond the Pale” was originally published in COMMENTARY’s March 2008 issue.

I don’t usually link favorably to the New York Times, but all COMMENTARY readers should hie to Michiko Kakutani’s review of our chief culture critic Terry Teachout’s newly published biography of Louis Armstrong. Pops has been received ecstatically, and nowhere more than in Kakutani’s review today:

With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists…[he] writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man.

She’s right.

Also of note is the inclusion of “Beyond the Pale,” a stunning story by COMMENTARY’s longtime contributor Joseph Epstein, in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories. “Beyond the Pale” was originally published in COMMENTARY’s March 2008 issue.

Read Less

Where’s the Gratitude, Sarah?

One of the most amusing tropes of the past few weeks in relation to the release of Sarah Palin’s book has been the notion that, among everything else that is wrong and terrible about her, Palin should be ashamed of herself for her ingratitude. After all, she was plucked from obscurity and made world famous, and yet she has the nerve in the course of her book to take shots at those she feels didn’t do well by her during the election campaign last year. Evidently, it seems, Palin should have been grateful to “the McCain campaign” for “the McCain campaign’s” supposed kindness toward her. Michiko Kakutani, on the New York Times website this morning, offers the most complete rendition of this:

The most sustained and vehement barbs in this book are directed not at Democrats or liberals or the press, but at the McCain campaign. The very campaign that plucked her out of Alaska, anointed her the Republican vice-presidential nominee and made her one of the most talked about women on the planet — someone who could command a reported $5 million for writing this book. … [She is] thoroughly ungrateful toward the McCain campaign for putting her on the national stage.

The thing is, the “McCain campaign” is not a person; it was a bureaucratic organization, and an uncommonly confused and dysfunctional one at that. Perhaps the greatest mark of that dysfunction was the stream of unnamed McCain advisers who went out of their way to criticize Palin in remarks they were too cowardly to deliver for attribution. It was, to say the least, highly peculiar for them to have acted as they did. The only conceivable defense for it was that some of them might have been working to protect John McCain’s reputation by somehow downgrading Palin by comparison; but of course, political advisers to Republican campaigns do not talk to reporters on background for such selfless reasons. They do so to hedge their own bets, to maintain relationships they want to last after the campaign is over. The best way to do that is to reflect the same cultural and theoretical priorities as the journalists to whom they speak, as a means of distancing themselves from the dysfunction and receiving kind post-mortem treatment.

The only “gratitude” Palin owed to the McCain campaign was to McCain. She owed no gratitude to campaign advisers and employees who threw everything but the kitchen sink at her — quite the opposite, in fact. By naming names and revealing the unprofessional behavior of McCain campaign staffers who were doing his election effort no favors by engaging in Palin-bashing, she has struck a blow for a greater degree of campaign civility in the future, in part by letting future potential employers in the political realm know about the poor behavior of people they might hire to help get them elected. The best way to neutralize a hostile leaker in the world of electoral politics is to let the world know that the leaker is a leaker.

As for the sudden concern about whether Palin was “ungrateful,” what Kakutani and others seem to believe is that she should act like one of those people in a T-shirt two sizes too small for them who are plucked from the audience of The Price is Right to bid on the showcase items. Palin did not have her name plucked from a hat. She was one of 22 Republican governors — and the only woman among them, and someone with a 70 percent approval rating in her home state besides.

But of course the whole ingratitude trope is wildly disingenuous. The fact that Kakutani, and others like her, are suddenly concerned with Sarah Palin’s political manners is another mark of the fact that she is being graded on a reverse curve. If she has done it, by definition, it was done wrong.

One of the most amusing tropes of the past few weeks in relation to the release of Sarah Palin’s book has been the notion that, among everything else that is wrong and terrible about her, Palin should be ashamed of herself for her ingratitude. After all, she was plucked from obscurity and made world famous, and yet she has the nerve in the course of her book to take shots at those she feels didn’t do well by her during the election campaign last year. Evidently, it seems, Palin should have been grateful to “the McCain campaign” for “the McCain campaign’s” supposed kindness toward her. Michiko Kakutani, on the New York Times website this morning, offers the most complete rendition of this:

The most sustained and vehement barbs in this book are directed not at Democrats or liberals or the press, but at the McCain campaign. The very campaign that plucked her out of Alaska, anointed her the Republican vice-presidential nominee and made her one of the most talked about women on the planet — someone who could command a reported $5 million for writing this book. … [She is] thoroughly ungrateful toward the McCain campaign for putting her on the national stage.

The thing is, the “McCain campaign” is not a person; it was a bureaucratic organization, and an uncommonly confused and dysfunctional one at that. Perhaps the greatest mark of that dysfunction was the stream of unnamed McCain advisers who went out of their way to criticize Palin in remarks they were too cowardly to deliver for attribution. It was, to say the least, highly peculiar for them to have acted as they did. The only conceivable defense for it was that some of them might have been working to protect John McCain’s reputation by somehow downgrading Palin by comparison; but of course, political advisers to Republican campaigns do not talk to reporters on background for such selfless reasons. They do so to hedge their own bets, to maintain relationships they want to last after the campaign is over. The best way to do that is to reflect the same cultural and theoretical priorities as the journalists to whom they speak, as a means of distancing themselves from the dysfunction and receiving kind post-mortem treatment.

The only “gratitude” Palin owed to the McCain campaign was to McCain. She owed no gratitude to campaign advisers and employees who threw everything but the kitchen sink at her — quite the opposite, in fact. By naming names and revealing the unprofessional behavior of McCain campaign staffers who were doing his election effort no favors by engaging in Palin-bashing, she has struck a blow for a greater degree of campaign civility in the future, in part by letting future potential employers in the political realm know about the poor behavior of people they might hire to help get them elected. The best way to neutralize a hostile leaker in the world of electoral politics is to let the world know that the leaker is a leaker.

As for the sudden concern about whether Palin was “ungrateful,” what Kakutani and others seem to believe is that she should act like one of those people in a T-shirt two sizes too small for them who are plucked from the audience of The Price is Right to bid on the showcase items. Palin did not have her name plucked from a hat. She was one of 22 Republican governors — and the only woman among them, and someone with a 70 percent approval rating in her home state besides.

But of course the whole ingratitude trope is wildly disingenuous. The fact that Kakutani, and others like her, are suddenly concerned with Sarah Palin’s political manners is another mark of the fact that she is being graded on a reverse curve. If she has done it, by definition, it was done wrong.

Read Less

Are Michiko Kakutani and Michael Scheuer An Item?

In today’s New York Times, Michiko Kakutani gives a mixed review to Fareed Zakaria’s latest book, The Post-American World.  She faults it for, among others things, some “curious gaps and questionable assertions.”

One of those is Zakaria’s “dubious” contention that  “over the last six years, support for bin Laden and his goals has fallen steadily throughout the Muslim world.” Taking issue with this, Kakutani complains that Zakaria ignores the contrary views of “Qaeda expert” Michael Scheuer.

Interestingly, back in April, reviewing Martin Amis’s The Second Plane, Kakutani chastised Amis for “completely ignoring . . . experts like Michael Scheuer.”

Reviewing Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV back in October, she scored him, too, for guess what:  “he ignores experts like Michael Scheuer.”

And reviewing Dinesh D’Souza last February, she complained that “He ignores the host of experts like the former C.I.A. officer Michael Scheuer.”

Listening to this broken record makes me all the more curious about Kakutani’s review of Scheuer’s most recent book, The Road to Hell. She called it “wildly uneven,” “intemperate,” “shrill,” and a “messy agglomeration” “seeded” with “alarming rants.”

These appropriate judgments leave me wondering why, in repeatedly enlisting the crackpot Scheuer to chastise various authors, Michiko Kakutani completely ignores — of all people — Michiko Kakutani.

In today’s New York Times, Michiko Kakutani gives a mixed review to Fareed Zakaria’s latest book, The Post-American World.  She faults it for, among others things, some “curious gaps and questionable assertions.”

One of those is Zakaria’s “dubious” contention that  “over the last six years, support for bin Laden and his goals has fallen steadily throughout the Muslim world.” Taking issue with this, Kakutani complains that Zakaria ignores the contrary views of “Qaeda expert” Michael Scheuer.

Interestingly, back in April, reviewing Martin Amis’s The Second Plane, Kakutani chastised Amis for “completely ignoring . . . experts like Michael Scheuer.”

Reviewing Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV back in October, she scored him, too, for guess what:  “he ignores experts like Michael Scheuer.”

And reviewing Dinesh D’Souza last February, she complained that “He ignores the host of experts like the former C.I.A. officer Michael Scheuer.”

Listening to this broken record makes me all the more curious about Kakutani’s review of Scheuer’s most recent book, The Road to Hell. She called it “wildly uneven,” “intemperate,” “shrill,” and a “messy agglomeration” “seeded” with “alarming rants.”

These appropriate judgments leave me wondering why, in repeatedly enlisting the crackpot Scheuer to chastise various authors, Michiko Kakutani completely ignores — of all people — Michiko Kakutani.

Read Less

Hillary Evokes Bill

Hillary tonight: “I might stumble and I might fall down, but as long as you’re with me, I’ll get right back up.” Once again I am reminded of the detail in John Harris’s book The Survivor (as recounted by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times):

Do you know who I am?” Bill Clinton asked his adversary Newt Gingrich during the government shutdown of 1995-96. He answered the question himself: “I’m the big rubber clown doll you had as a kid, and every time you hit it, it bounces back.” The harder you hit me, he added, “the faster I come back up.”

I think everybody, including me, may have misread the Bill-Hillary relationship. Her evocation of this Clinton anecdote, and her indefatigable conduct in this primary, mark her not as Bill’s equal or as his conscience or as his power-sharer. It marks her as his acolyte.

Hillary tonight: “I might stumble and I might fall down, but as long as you’re with me, I’ll get right back up.” Once again I am reminded of the detail in John Harris’s book The Survivor (as recounted by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times):

Do you know who I am?” Bill Clinton asked his adversary Newt Gingrich during the government shutdown of 1995-96. He answered the question himself: “I’m the big rubber clown doll you had as a kid, and every time you hit it, it bounces back.” The harder you hit me, he added, “the faster I come back up.”

I think everybody, including me, may have misread the Bill-Hillary relationship. Her evocation of this Clinton anecdote, and her indefatigable conduct in this primary, mark her not as Bill’s equal or as his conscience or as his power-sharer. It marks her as his acolyte.

Read Less

I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again….

Everyone has a storyline in which she plays the starring role, and in which she is the heroine. What is little noted about Hillary Clinton’s increasingly aggressive determination to stay in the Democratic race come what may is that she believes she is doing something heroic. Last week, Bill said he was “so proud” of her because they keep coming at her and she keeps on going. This is very reminiscent of the story John Harris tells in his book The Survivor, as recounted by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:

Do you know who I am?” Bill Clinton asked his adversary Newt Gingrich during the government shutdown of 1995-96. He answered the question himself: “I’m the big rubber clown doll you had as a kid, and every time you hit it, it bounces back.” The harder you hit me, he added, “the faster I come back up.”

That was not bravado. It was a warning, and an accurate one. The Clintons are without shame, and therefore we all believe they are without honor and cannot possibly imagine themselves as heroes. But Bill very much believed, and believes, that he is a hero because he would not allow himself to be defeated, no matter what — and that part of his eventual victory would be that he could use the virulence of his foes to his advantage.

That is the core belief of the Clintons, the one example of the way in which they are both very, very tough. Hillary is emulating him in this respect, is my guess. She remembers when it was said he was through after the 1994 elections, but he would not give up, and when he saw an opportunity to climb back up, he took it, weathered the storm, and won reelection. And did the same thing throughout the Year of Lewinsky.

So when people wonder what on earth could be motivating her, when they see the poll results of the last two weeks and see that the Jeremiah Wright scandal hasn’t hurt Obama at all with Democrats, the answer is: She thinks she’s a hero. She wants to be like Bill, to take the blows and come back stronger from them. This was fine with Democrats as long as the Clinton foe was a Republican. Now that it’s a Democrat, they don’t like it one bit. But it doesn’t change the Clinton perception.

Everyone has a storyline in which she plays the starring role, and in which she is the heroine. What is little noted about Hillary Clinton’s increasingly aggressive determination to stay in the Democratic race come what may is that she believes she is doing something heroic. Last week, Bill said he was “so proud” of her because they keep coming at her and she keeps on going. This is very reminiscent of the story John Harris tells in his book The Survivor, as recounted by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:

Do you know who I am?” Bill Clinton asked his adversary Newt Gingrich during the government shutdown of 1995-96. He answered the question himself: “I’m the big rubber clown doll you had as a kid, and every time you hit it, it bounces back.” The harder you hit me, he added, “the faster I come back up.”

That was not bravado. It was a warning, and an accurate one. The Clintons are without shame, and therefore we all believe they are without honor and cannot possibly imagine themselves as heroes. But Bill very much believed, and believes, that he is a hero because he would not allow himself to be defeated, no matter what — and that part of his eventual victory would be that he could use the virulence of his foes to his advantage.

That is the core belief of the Clintons, the one example of the way in which they are both very, very tough. Hillary is emulating him in this respect, is my guess. She remembers when it was said he was through after the 1994 elections, but he would not give up, and when he saw an opportunity to climb back up, he took it, weathered the storm, and won reelection. And did the same thing throughout the Year of Lewinsky.

So when people wonder what on earth could be motivating her, when they see the poll results of the last two weeks and see that the Jeremiah Wright scandal hasn’t hurt Obama at all with Democrats, the answer is: She thinks she’s a hero. She wants to be like Bill, to take the blows and come back stronger from them. This was fine with Democrats as long as the Clinton foe was a Republican. Now that it’s a Democrat, they don’t like it one bit. But it doesn’t change the Clinton perception.

Read Less

Zadie Smith and Friends

I suspect that it’s difficult for critics to assess “charity lit” as honestly as they ought to. I’m referring to books like Nick Hornby’s Speaking with the Angel, Dave Eggers’s What Is the What, and now Zadie Smith’s The Book of Other People, which benefit autism research, Sudanese refugees, and children’s literacy, respectively. I’ve heard good things about the first and have written good things about the second, despite a dislike of Eggers that I’ve cultivated like a Venus flytrap for just about a decade. Three’s a trend, however, and that trend may suggest that young writers are afraid to meet readers on their own terms, without hiding in the warm glow of good intentions.

Each time this gang produces new material, the result asymptotically approaches a flawless and devastating self-parody. Michiko Kakutani’s review of Smith’s new anthology—which includes “well-known writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, and Nick Hornby”—is more enthusiastic than one might hope, but at least it’s forthright: “All the stories in this lively collection are portraits, mainly of human beings, though a monster with an identity crisis, a giant in search of love and a puppy in need of a home put in appearances as well.”

Pace John Gardner’s Grendel, Hilary Mantel’s The Giant O’Brien, and, er, John Grogan’s Marley and Me, Kakutani couldn’t have lit upon three better examples of the oddly childish preoccupations of this generation of writers. I don’t mean that I expect the stories themselves to be childish, but I won’t be surprised if many of them evince the sort of eccentricity-on-autopilot that characterizes many of these writers, talented though they may be. (Eggers wrote the “giant” story, by the way, having already done the “puppy” thing in a different book; come to think of it, though, he’s also already done the giant thing, too. Are these guys working from writing prompts?)

This review from Spiked Online is less generous than Kakutani’s, and hints at a problem: The clubbiness and congeniality of writing for a “good cause” can discourage judgment and encourage less than challenging, if not downright frivolous, material. When the “good cause” becomes literature itself—”saving the short story” or “getting people excited about reading again,” expect taste and artistry to go right out the window.

I suspect that it’s difficult for critics to assess “charity lit” as honestly as they ought to. I’m referring to books like Nick Hornby’s Speaking with the Angel, Dave Eggers’s What Is the What, and now Zadie Smith’s The Book of Other People, which benefit autism research, Sudanese refugees, and children’s literacy, respectively. I’ve heard good things about the first and have written good things about the second, despite a dislike of Eggers that I’ve cultivated like a Venus flytrap for just about a decade. Three’s a trend, however, and that trend may suggest that young writers are afraid to meet readers on their own terms, without hiding in the warm glow of good intentions.

Each time this gang produces new material, the result asymptotically approaches a flawless and devastating self-parody. Michiko Kakutani’s review of Smith’s new anthology—which includes “well-known writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, and Nick Hornby”—is more enthusiastic than one might hope, but at least it’s forthright: “All the stories in this lively collection are portraits, mainly of human beings, though a monster with an identity crisis, a giant in search of love and a puppy in need of a home put in appearances as well.”

Pace John Gardner’s Grendel, Hilary Mantel’s The Giant O’Brien, and, er, John Grogan’s Marley and Me, Kakutani couldn’t have lit upon three better examples of the oddly childish preoccupations of this generation of writers. I don’t mean that I expect the stories themselves to be childish, but I won’t be surprised if many of them evince the sort of eccentricity-on-autopilot that characterizes many of these writers, talented though they may be. (Eggers wrote the “giant” story, by the way, having already done the “puppy” thing in a different book; come to think of it, though, he’s also already done the giant thing, too. Are these guys working from writing prompts?)

This review from Spiked Online is less generous than Kakutani’s, and hints at a problem: The clubbiness and congeniality of writing for a “good cause” can discourage judgment and encourage less than challenging, if not downright frivolous, material. When the “good cause” becomes literature itself—”saving the short story” or “getting people excited about reading again,” expect taste and artistry to go right out the window.

Read Less

Weekend Reading

“Taking arms against Harry Potter, at this moment, is to emulate Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles. By opposing the sea, you won’t end it.” So wrote literary critic Harold Bloom in the Wall Street Journal seven years ago. This statement seems truer this weekend than ever before, as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, hits store shelves at midnight, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix tops the movie box-office charts.

But is the book any good? New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani praises the new book and the series as a whole: “Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.” These words would not surprise Bloom, who predicted that “The New York Times—the official newspaper of our dominant counter-culture—will go on celebrating [Potter,] another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies.”

A review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is unlikely in these pages, but that is not to say COMMENTARY does not acknowledge the critical importance of children’s literature. We only suggest that instead of allowing Harry Potter to be your child’s, or your own, weekend reading, choose a story for children of all ages: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Three Stories for Children,” with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, which appeared in the July 1966 issue of COMMENTARY.

“Taking arms against Harry Potter, at this moment, is to emulate Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles. By opposing the sea, you won’t end it.” So wrote literary critic Harold Bloom in the Wall Street Journal seven years ago. This statement seems truer this weekend than ever before, as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, hits store shelves at midnight, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix tops the movie box-office charts.

But is the book any good? New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani praises the new book and the series as a whole: “Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.” These words would not surprise Bloom, who predicted that “The New York Times—the official newspaper of our dominant counter-culture—will go on celebrating [Potter,] another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies.”

A review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is unlikely in these pages, but that is not to say COMMENTARY does not acknowledge the critical importance of children’s literature. We only suggest that instead of allowing Harry Potter to be your child’s, or your own, weekend reading, choose a story for children of all ages: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Three Stories for Children,” with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, which appeared in the July 1966 issue of COMMENTARY.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.