Category Archives: Book Reviews & Literaria
Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me is a slight book, and its breeziness and lack of depth will either strike a reader as charming and flâneur-like or will be irritating in the extreme.
What is called a memoir is actually little more than a commonplace book, including extracts of diaries, snippets of conversation, and notes taken with studied casualness and later transcribed into the text. The low point of this approach comes when Hayes describes replacing Sacks’ typewriter ribbon. Testing the new ribbon, the latter strikes random keys and types nonsense phrases, all of which Hayes dutifully reproduces in a two-page spread. It’s hard to avoid the sense that one is watching a doting mother hang her two-year-old’s incomprehensible fingerpainting in an expensive frame over the family mantle.
Throughout Insomniac City, in fact, Oliver Sacks is constantly performing Oliver Sacks for the delectation of his amanuensis Hayes; and Hayes never stops elbowing the reader to say, “Isn’t Oliver wonderful? Doesn’t he have a brilliant mind?” Anecdotes about “the great man” abound, but they remain sterile.
On his own, Hayes eccentrically tools around New York having “experiences,” offering $20 bills to homeless people and chatting with strangers, the quintessential ecotourist in other people’s existences.
The glimpses that Hayes offers into his and Sacks’ intimate relationship are tantalizing but vague, with a kind of maidenly lack of specificity that is out-of-place in a book whose entire purpose for existing is the relationship between the two men. Hayes is, after all, the reason that Sacks ended a period of celibacy that spanned more than 30 years, about which the public is evidently going to learn nothing more in this lifetime. Sacks doesn’t say much about it in his autobiography, published shortly before his death, and Hayes follows suit.
There would have been no need for pornographic detail, surely, but a bit more candor about the late-in-life relationship of two men, one of whom was nearly 40 years older than the other, would have been both useful and appropriate.
Instead, Insomniac City feels oddly and, one suspects, deliberately de-gayed to serve the needs of its high-end mainstream publisher and of its hip and urbane “New Yorker” public who are surrounded by gay people but really don’t want to talk about them all that much.
Hayes is too in love with his own beautiful little phrases to focus on substance, and, apart from noting that the prose is ornate, a reader might be forgiven for wondering why so much air has been pumped into the spaces between the words.
In the end, Insomniac City feels very much like “Oliver Sacks: The Souvenir Program,” pretty, superficial, and forgettable.
Kelly Cogswell’s Eating Fire may be the definition of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Cogswell documents the gleeful, intoxicating immediacy of lesbian “street” activism in the 1990s, but her memoir serves equally well as a eulogy for queer and progressive grassroots activism in general. The direct-action group she co-founded, The Lesbian Avengers, rose, made a significant splash (including internationally), splintered, and eventually disintegrated in precisely that period during which grassroots movements were breathing their last in the U.S.
The heady days of ACT UP, Queer Nation, die-ins at the headquarters of pharmaceutical companies, “actions” at the San Francisco opera house and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, “political funerals,” and many others were, whether their participants knew it or not, about to go the way of the dinosaurs, destroyed by the twin asteroids of social media and Bush-era fear-mongering. Nevermore would queer activism look the way it looked in the 1980s and 1990s; rarely, after 9-11 and the advent of the “War on Terror,” would Americans of any stripe rise up in concerted, coordinated, consistent efforts to challenge the rules of a rigged game.
Yes, there continue to be protests. Yes, there is “Occupy,” whose sell-by date was inborn in the way its very first actions were organized. Yes, there is Black Lives Matter, which, in its refusal of hierarchies and structure, has never, and apparently never will, become an organization that can do more than express outrage at the thousand circumstances that so much deserve expressions of outrage but which outrage alone cannot cure. Because who is not outraged? And because, once the people have vented their anger, what are they to do next? Black Lives Matter has not made clear that it knows, but neither have any of the other groups that have, in the last decade, “trended” and then largely collapsed under their own ideological purity, impatience with process, distrust of leadership, and refusal to compromise. They are, to generalize grossly, political groups that aspire to have an impact on political systems through a relentless, sometimes even puritanical rejection of politics.
Cogswell also writes, and well, about the trap of ideological purity, and one can only wish she had written more. In one memorable passage she describes the cancerous phenomenon that would eventually come to be known, in the Orwellian Doublespeak of the left, as “intersectionality”:
Nothing was separate, class or race. Gender. Sexual identity. Even place…. When The Gully [the online magazine dedicated to international queer issues that Cogswell and her partner, Ana Simo, published between 2000 and 2006] insisted that all these things were related, you should have seen the screaming all-caps e-mails including, “NOTHING is as important as class.” “NOTHING is as important as the environment.” “Even to mention such differences is an attack on a more egalitarian, color-blind world.” There was a contest of oppression, and they used every old lefty excuse in the book to silence people of color and women and queers.
Well, none of that has changed. Intersectionality, like many useful theoretical constructs applied to practice, began as an excellent shield (against ignorance, against tunnel vision, against intellectual and cultural hegemony, against the pitfalls of subjectivity), but it has ended as a swift and terrible sword, yielded with the jihadist’s inexorable sense of infallibility. In the ten years since the demise of The Gully, the only difference is that people of color and women and queers (along with trans and anti-marriage-equality activists) have become equally adept at silencing and shunning others through the joyous opportunities that online social media offer to screech at people with tainted perspectives.
In a brilliant essay, “Everything is Problematic: My Journey Into The Centre of a Dark Political World, and How I Escaped,” Aurora Dagny also describes what has become of activism in recent decades, identifying “dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism” as the key causes of the death of mass movements. (My heartfelt advice is to read it: http://www.mcgilldaily.com/2014/11/everything-problematic.) Dagny goes deeply into territory that Cogswell mostly limns, though it is quite clear that she understood, years before Dagny wrote, exactly what was happening and precisely how dangerous it was going to be.
Her account of how The Lesbian Avengers became labeled a “racist, white group”—their punishment for losing what was, at its core, a turf war with a black lesbian activist in another city—is instructive not for what it says about the Avengers, but for what it says about the impact of accusations of “awareness crimes” and the near impossibility of remedying an organization’s structural problems once they have been made. Like dunking, the ordeal once preferred for adjudicating the guilt of putative witches, the attempt to demonstrate innocence can itself be fatal. In the case in point, a person of color made the charge; therefore it had to be true (any curiosity regarding the accuser’s personal political agendas, fragile ego, or anxiety about losing control of her local fiefdom could, naturally, also be dismissed as racist).
In other words, whether or not the Avengers were “racist”—and to what extent or under what circumstances and against whom—was immaterial. Their actual work was unimportant (their first “action” in 1992 was in support of the “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum, proposed by then-chancellor of the New York City school system, Joseph A. Fernandez, as an attempt to “teach first graders to respect the city’s myriad racial and ethnic groups”; the curriculum was immediately attacked by the right who termed it “as big a lie as any concocted by Hitler or Stalin.”) Intentions were no longer important. A genuine desire for self-criticism and improvement was not important. Truth itself was not important.
That lack of interest in truth, in intellectual debate, in evidence, in intentions, in nuance; that dedication to dogmatism, ad hominem attacks, litmus tests, and character assassination has only fermented and soured. It is now virtually (and I choose the word advisedly) all that remains of queer and progressive activism.
The last third of Eating Fire, in particular, is a tale of bitterness, disillusionment, and resentment, though it’s unclear how any account of activism in those years could end differently. The reader feels Cogswell’s pain and frustration deeply, even as the description of the years she spent in essentially Brownian movement fails to cohere into a compelling narrative. It would be too painful (and, perhaps, unfairly pessimistic) to dismiss all those years of activism as pointless, yet Cogswell doesn’t know quite how to say what they meant or what her and her colleagues’ work accomplished.
In his 1978 play, Fifth of July, Lanford Wilson has June Talley, the former student radical, say this to her teenage daughter about the social and anti-war movements of the late 1960s:
You have no idea of the life we led…. You’ve no idea of the country we almost made for you. The fact that I think it’s all a crock now does not take away from what we almost achieved.
A few lines later, June’s friend, Gwen, gently scolds the daughter: “Don’t knock your mother, ‘cause she really believed that ‘Power to the People’ song, and that hurts.”
Yes, the loss of idealism is agony.
One occasionally wishes Cogswell had had a better editor (such when she is in the “throws of” some experience) and a decent fact-checker (such as when she swallows wholesale the myth of the crusading journalist, Yoaní Sánchez, the Cuban dissident blogger and anti-Castro darling who has credibly been accused of being a U.S. State Department plant), but Cogswell’s desire to vent anti-Communism and to damn the Cuban government defeats the journalistic and political impulses she presumably avows. (“NOTHING is as important as Cuba’s mistreatment of queers.”)
While it may be possible to read Eating Fire as empowering, it is equally possible to read it as a kind of obituary for the world “we almost achieved.” The days of direct political engagement, of people’s movements, of effective mass action against deaf and uncomprehending structures of power may return, but it will not be soon. Rather, these are days of opacity, of the enthronement of lies, of terror-mongering and isolation, of sharded activism, of fracture and dispersal. In such times, it can be both a comfort and an unbearable heartache to recall the fire that once was, to bring to mind its warmth and light.
 Myers, Steven Lee (1992, 13 December). New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/12/13/weekinreview/ideas-trends-how-a-rainbow-curriculum-turned-into-fighting-words.html.
In a January 2, 2015 OpEd published in the online version of the Italian magazine L’Internazionale, journalist and translator Frederika Randall discusses the novels of Italian writer Elena Ferrante, six of which have been translated into English, ultimately dismissing Ferrante’s work as no more than an “ingenious business venture.”
Writing in Italian (the translations below are all mine), Randall begins with a long reflection on the differences between Italian and Anglophone character (Italians expect life to be full of complication and inexplicable events; “liberal” Americans don’t). She doesn’t get down to her real point until the final paragraph:
But if people like [Elena Ferrante’s books], what’s the problem? Just this: If the best foreign critics are enraptured by an obvious commercial product, what does that mean for Italy’s intellectual reputation? Leaving aside [foreign reviewers’] commendable reluctance to imagine conspiracies, isn’t their notion of Italy perhaps no more than a stereotype? A sort of minstrel Italy, available for the entertainment of others but of little consequence?
Randall is a colleague and a fellow Italian-to-English translator, and so it pains me to say that what she’s written about Ferrante for L’Internazionale is seriously off-the-rails.
With regard to her criticism that Ferrante’s books are an “obvious commercial product” and an “ingenious business venture,” my question is: What book is not a commercial product? What publisher is not hoping—with every book it produces—to hit upon an ingenious business venture?
Is anybody in this business to lose money?
Ah, but Randall is talking about art. By which I mean Art. Or perhaps I should just take a page from observant Jews and start writing “A_t.”
As everyone knows, and as Randall implies, the only real art is that which no one knows about. If art is popular, if people like it, if they can understand it—and especially if it makes money—it is automatically sullied. (Talking of stereotypes, I would immediately classify that attitude as Italian appellation d’origine contrôlée.)
I’ve written elsewhere (Please Stop Talking about Art!) about the way in which the ritual invocation of the hallowed word undermines writers’ and translators’ credibility and helps keep us poor. Randall’s editorial on Ferrante, unfortunately, is another chorus of this time-worn song.
In support of her position, Randall quotes Ursula LeGuin’s November 2014 speech—inaccurately—on the occasion of the latter’s acceptance of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards. Randall has LeGuin saying that “profit is often the enemy of art.” But that isn’t what she said. LeGuin’s actual words were that “the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art.”
It’s a subtle change, but an extremely significant one. (Rather like the difference between “money is the root of all evil” vs. “the love of money is the root of all evil” from I Timothy.) I seriously doubt that LeGuin, who has made quite a nice living from her writing, is opposed to profit. She has certainly announced no plans to give her books away for free.
In any case, LeGuin was making a different point in her National Book Awards speech. Specifically, her context was the Hachette Group/Amazon conflict, the overpricing of eBooks to libraries, and what she called “commodity profiteers,” and she wasn’t saying that getting paid for writing or publishing was, per se, inimical to the work of artists. Here’s how LeGuin herself described the distinction she was drawing: “Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”
No one who cares about writing and translation could quibble with that. But Randall fails to establish a prima facie case for her proposition that Ferrante’s books were written solely “to maximise corporate profit” (book publishers, as far as I know, don’t typically earn any money from “advertising revenue”).
Even supposing that were the case, however, is Randall next going to take on movie producers, Apple, and the airline industry, all of which seem fairly doggedly focused on corporate profits? Or is that Ole Debbil “profit” only worrisome when he appears in the arts?
At any event, Randall’s sole evidence in the case of Ferrante is a classic circular fallacy: Ferrante’s books are suspect because they are successful. And a book that is successful cannot be good, must—by definition—be a hoax. She goes so far as to imply that even Ferrante’s choice to remain anonymous is a mercenary strategy designed to “increase her reputation and convince [readers and critics] of her seriousness.”
Well. Leaving aside the fact that any writer worth her salt ought to be doing whatever is possible to “increase her reputation and convince [readers and critics] of her seriousness,” anonymous authors and pseudonyms are hardly rare in literature. Moreover, it would be interesting to understand how an author makes herself famous or commercially successful by adopting an entirely unknown name. (The gimmick didn’t work out all that well for “Robert Galbraith,” did it?)
Randall is also misleading when she implies that Ferrante has been—thanks to the publisher’s crafty design—the darling of American and British bumpkin-critics from the beginning. Although translations of Elena Ferrante’s books are now getting serious play with the publication of the third of her “Neapolitan novels,” her earlier titles in English were modest sellers modestly reviewed. Troubling Love (2006), for example got a lukewarm (to put it kindly) notice from David Lipsky in the New York Times in October 2006; The Days of Abandonment did slightly better at the hands of Jean Hanff Korelitz, although Janet Maslin liked it more than Korelitz did.
In terms of “citizen reviews,” none of Ferrante’s first four novels—The Days of Abandonment (2005), Troubling Love (2006), The Lost Daughter (2008), and My Brilliant Friend (2012)—has cracked a 4 (out of 5) rating on Goodreads (as of this writing). The Story of a New Name (2013) and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014) have so far earned a 4.42 and a 4.29, respectively.
If “Elena Ferrante” were merely an artifice, and the translations of her books no more than a cynical attempt to enrich her publisher at the expense of art, it has taken a decade for Europa Editions to see much of a return on its diabolical ploy. I’m not sure even Donald Trump has that much patience for his investments.
Assuming that the publishing industry’s ingenious business ventures and commercial products are the real target, however, Randall might well have saved a pungent remark or two for Europa’s own editorial policies. Venal, backward, and dubiously legal as the practice is, Europa continues to insist that translators sign their copyright over to the publisher as a condition of being published. If literary cabals are afoot, this is one that truly deserves exposing.
Finally, the logical extension of Randall’s position creates a Catch-22 for Italian writers. On the one hand, Randall is scornful because Ferrante’s books are full of what Randall considers Italian clichés. To be sure, Ferrante’s settings and situations are deeply, thoroughly Italian (stereotype is in the eye of the beholder). But on the other, isn’t the degree to which a book transmits homegrown culture part of what makes it appealing to readers of translations? And if Italian writers can’t write about Italy for fear of being “folklorish,” what should they write about?
In fact, the vast majority of the Italian writers who approach me to translate their books make the same mistake: they set them anywhere but in Italy. At which point the question becomes: Why would anyone read a romance (or a murder mystery or a supernatural thriller or the sad tale of a failed marriage) written by an Italian with Italian characters—but set in New York or Lima or the Outer Hebrides? The Anglophone publishing market is already glutted—and glutted is far too mild a word—with romances and murder mysteries and supernatural thrillers and stories of bad marriages written in English by Americans, Brits, Canadians, and their fellow travelers.
Part of what makes a non-Anglophone writer’s take on these issues interesting to the English-speaking reader (and, thus to a publisher) is arguably its “foreignness”—its “italianità” in Ferrante’s specific case.
There’s a further irony—and not a gentle one—in Randall’s chiding of Anglophone critics for supposedly being duped by their own untutored desire for Italian stereotypes (the Naples of the criminal working-class, the Italian-America of The Sopranos) and for TV-ready environments and situations that presumably signal nothing but déclassé taste.
Wouldn’t it be just as accurate to say that Randall’s effort to cut Ferrante down to size was published in an Italian magazine because of the desire of L’Internazionale’s Italian readers (leftish, youngish, disgruntled-ish) to be reassured that the famous and successful are nothing more than well-connected hypocrites and sellouts—the venduti and the raccomandati of so much contemporary Italian cultural commentary? In other words, because Italians love their own stereotypes?
But if we want to give the lie to Randall’s assertion that only Italians are conspiracy-minded, here’s my entry: To understand why Ferrante’s books are getting so much attention lately, look no further than the fact that Ferrante’s translator—long-time New Yorker editor, Guggenheim winner, and PEN Translation Prize Committee member Anne Goldstein—is about as inside as a literary insider can get. In the world of A_t, no one is ever expected to recuse himself for conflict of interest, and James Wood’s raving in the New Yorker about books Goldstein translated might just possibly be related more to Goldstein’s connections than it is to Wood’s adoration of Tony Soprano, pizza, and mandolins.
Elena Ferrante may not be Calvino or Levi or Pasolini or Eco. But interest in Italian writers and, thus, in translations from Italian, floats all boats. There’s no reason other than snobbery for shooting holes in the deck.
In a 16 September 2014 post on the Lambda Literary site, “Dear Mr. Bezos”: Pushing Queer Romance Forward With Community Action,” Tracy Timmons-Gray congratulates herself for a letter-writing campaign—to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos himself, no less—that Timmons-Gray says was responsible for the sudden appearance of the categories “Gay Romance” and “Lesbian Romance” in Amazon’s general “Romance” storefront.
And, with them, of 11,000 gay and lesbian romance books that had previously been “hidden.”
Timmons-Gray hails this decision by Amazon as an acknowledgement of “the value of queer romance books [which] should be celebrated publicly like other books and not hidden.”
Certainly they shouldn’t be hidden. Customers who want such books should be able to find them, and the writers of genre fiction deserve whatever access to readers Amazon is able to provide (which, in a population of 14,947 LGBTQ romances—the updated figure as of this writing—is meager).
But whether celebration is in order is another matter. I remain unconvinced that the existence of these categories—or of 15,000 gay and lesbian romances on Amazon—represents either happy news for queer arts or a civil-rights victory.
In the first place, these nearly 15,000 books are overwhelmingly self-published—and it shows. Even when they’re not, the groan-inducing clichés of genre fiction are glaring.
[Zane] didn’t even think about stepping back so he could look at Ty’s face, the face he’d seen in his dreams and forced himself to remember every night as he lay awake. He just squeezed his eyes closed and held on to Ty like he might be taken away again, clutched at him as he would grasp for his very soul in a pit of a thousand reaching hands.
Adam knew the four Marines lifting weights. Three of them were werewolves, which had been a surprise at first, but ultimately hadn’t mattered. Sometimes Adam didn’t understand something being discussed, or he didn’t get a joke or a reference. He usually faked it until the subject got changed, but lately Adam wished he hadn’t worked so hard to stay ignorant of werewolf culture.
[Walker’s] pale brown/blond hair, dark eyes, and his strong form immediately put Ollie in mind of a young Brad Pitt. There was something tough about him, a bit of the bad boy, but that was undercut, or maybe the better word was highlighted, by a sense of vulnerability he kept almost, but not quite hidden…. When he sat down and saw that Walker had already ordered a carrot and lemon pancake with currants and crème fraîche on top for them, the deal was sealed.
He pulled the solid body in his arms tighter against his chest until hot, sweaty skin slid against his equally hot, sweaty skin…. He shifted his mental image to an extremely attractive cowboy he’d once tried to set Marty up with, before Marty spilled the beans about his then deeply closeted boyfriend, champion bullrider Tripp Colby.
Bad writing isn’t the most pressing issue, though, and by now even the most incensed defender of English prose has abandoned the dream of burning all the books that contain lines like “a pit of a thousand reaching hands” or “hot, sweaty skin slid against his equally hot, sweaty skin.”
Instead, what is genuinely dangerous for queer letters is that searching Amazon for LGBT literary fiction has become a hopeless obstacle course. Finding something decent to read now means having to wade through thousands of titles—most of them with covers that are NSFW—in the categories of erotica, beach-reading, potboilers, Gay Paranormal Werewolf Erotic Romance Stories, or Gay Transgender Holiday Romance Novelettes (I am not making this up).
As of five minutes ago, for example, the FIRST THREE BOOKS to appear in Amazon’s “Gay & Lesbian Literature and Fiction” section are: Flings: Sexy One Night Only Encounters; Gym Boys: Gay Erotic Stories; and Me and My Boi: Queer Erotic Stories.
Good for these writers and the writers of 15,000 jersey- and bodice-rippers. No one is objecting to the existence of their books or to their presence on Amazon.
But I do object to their being indiscriminately classified in the same category as David Leavitt, Patricia Highsmith, Monique Wittig, EM Forster, May Sarton, Neil Bartlett, Thom Gunn, Colm Toibin—and just about every single book on the Publishing Triangle’s list of the “100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels.”
As book selling has moved online, queer writing has paradoxically become more deeply hidden. The reader who wants to use Amazon to find out what’s new in gay literary fiction, for example, faces an arduous journey. Chronological listings are haphazard, randomly mixing new work with reprints, reissues, and multiple editions of the same title; “Gay & Lesbian Literature and Fiction” is a single category that merges the work of established authors with self-published potboilers and porn; keywords are applied so haphazardly that nonfiction, DVDs, and foreign-language titles all regularly appear in the same search results. In short, a worthy new queer book—unless a reader already know that it exists and can search for it by name—is guaranteed to sink out of sight.
Amazon has a long way to go before it creates a search function that helps readers find LGBTQ literature within the deluge of genre books—the category that currently overwhelms all other queer publishing.
But Amazon’s approach to cataloguing, which is based upon no established library system, is only a symptom. It’s not the problem itself. How Amazon sells books wouldn’t even matter if queer brick-and-mortar bookstores still existed as they once did in nearly every American city — and, with them, booksellers who made it their business to know what was going on in queer writing. But they don’t exist, and those that remain are a struggling handful.
And in that context, there’s something distorted about celebrating the fact that 15,000 gay and lesbian romances are now more visible on Amazon than is Close to the Knives, Trash, or Kiss of the Spider Woman.
In the protracted agony of serious queer literature, it is our own publishing industry—which now includes not just mainstream houses but laptop editors in basements and spare rooms across the continent—that should be taking a hard look at its priorities.
An expanded discussion of these issues can be found in the essay “Class/Mates: Further Outings in the Literatures and Cultures of the Ga(y)ted Community” published in Blue, Too: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers.