The Bat Segundo Show: Cynthia Ozick II

Cynthia Ozick recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #368. Ms. Ozick is most recently the author of Foreign Bodies. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #210.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Henry James forces him to have alarming dreams.

Author: Cynthia Ozick

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Ozick: The joy of dialogue. Oh, dialogue! It took me such a long time how to learn how to do dialogue. And I think I learned it from a single book. Which is Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. Which I actually studied to see how he made it concise and dramatic. And I think once you know the character, you have the voice. I suppose you could say that once you have the voice, you have the character. But I don’t think it works like that for me. Once you know the character, you can hear the character speak. And of course, they all speak in their own voices. I don’t know if that’s really related to music. I think that’s more related to seeing. Because you see the character. And if you see visually the character, then if I am looking at you, the voice that comes out of you is naturally yours. Because I see you. Whereas music is this mystery of mathematics. Including Confucius, music and math go together. And that’s a wonder about E.M. Forster. He’s one of the few writers who was very musical. I mean, seriously musical. And that’s in his writing as well. But I think the link with writing is more painting. We see this. It’s so interesting. John Updike had the ability to draw and write. So did Thackeray. Kipling. There are others. I can’t think of them now, but they’re so many linkages in writing and art. In other words, the pen and the eye. Whereas music is abstract math. So that’s where the voices come from. From the eye, I think.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that you mention Greene. Because of course, we know him for the colon. And in terms of looking at your dialogue in this book, what is rather interesting is that sometimes you have almost a Marianne Wiggins-like dash. And sometimes you have the quotes. I’m curious to the methodology behind that. How that developed.

Ozick: Well, that was pretty simple. I needed to have a dialogue in the historic present, so to speak. And dialogue before then. So for the earlier dialogue, I used the dash to distinguish it from the dialogue that’s occurring in the now. Even though the now is in the past tense. Because I have to confess. I have a lot of trouble with our common currency of present tense. Despite those great books of Rabbit [Angstrom]. I was once standing in a group of writers and was so humiliated. Because I mentioned my prejudice against writing in the present tense. And Updike was standing at my right elbow and said, “Well, my Rabbit books are in the present tense.” That was not a good moment. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, why the aversion specifically to present tense? It’s used a lot more, I think, now than it was thirty years ago.

Ozick: Absolutely. It’s ubiquitous. I don’t know. It just seems that it spoils storytelling. Because it escapes from the magical “Once upon a time.” This happened once. If it’s happening now, then there’s almost no history in it. It destroys the past. And, of course, you see that writers who write in the present tense have to go back and deal with the past. You see that they then have to revert to past tense anyway. And it has a kind of inconsistency. And it’s simply unpleasant to me.

Correspondent: You’re saying that a novel really should present itself almost as a sense of history.

Ozick: Exactly. It’s a story that happened. Not a story that’s happening. And I guess that really needs to be explored. Why should a story that happened be better than a story that’s happening? I don’t know. Help me. Why?

Correspondent: Well, I think when you have a situation like — there was a book by Elliot Perlman called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Named, of course, after the great text. I mean, I like the book. But it has this really absurd situation because it’s written in the present tense. And the narrator’s going, “He’s hitting me.”* When I read this, I thought, “This is just utterly preposterous.” It immediately takes you out of the story.

Ozick: (laughs) Right!

Correspondent: If he “hit” him, right. But “He’s hitting me.” It’s like — wait a minute.

Ozick: Then how can you be writing?

Correspondent: How can I be participating in this? But with the past tense, you can feel a greater sense of participation in the activity.

Ozick: You can believe in it!

Correspondent: Yes!

Ozick: You can believe in it. I mean, it really helps the suspension of disbelief if you present it as a history. And isn’t this the beginning of the modern novel? My Man Friday?

Correspondent: (laughs)

Ozick: We’re supposed to believe that.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ozick: And we do. Because it’s written like a history. No, I think you hit it when you said it has to do with history. And maybe that is a problem — if there is a problem — with much of American writing today. That it is rather amnesiac.

* — In all fairness to Mr. Perlman, I feel compelled to issue a slight correction. I told Ms. Ozick that I remembered the phrase “He’s hitting me” from Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. It has been a good six years since I read Mr. Perlman’s book — sent to me with a handwritten note by Ami Greko, one of the few publicists back in the day to grasp the litblog medium that is now simultaneously ubiquitous and passe. But I can find no indication of the phrase “He’s hitting me” within Perlman’s book. Yet the specific passage I was trying to remember when Ms. Ozick put me on the spot, presented below and written in the present tense, does indeed reveal how the reader can be thrown off when violent gerunds are involved. It still reads as absurd and remains just as applicable to the conversation at hand. This funny little episode also reveals how a fatal expressive error can be misremembered years later, perhaps subject to the same “rather amnesiac” problem with American writing that Ms. Ozick mentions. Authors, take heed when using the present tense!

“I’m going to fucking kill you!” I scream at him. I am punching his face repeatedly, left then right again and again against the smooth stone paving and I am going to kill him. He is squeezing tighter. I am killing him. I am trying to kill him as Anna is pulling me off. She has her arms around my shoulders. She uses all her strength to drag me off him. (80, U.S. hardcover)

(Image: Zugoli Lany)

The Bat Segundo Show #368: Cynthia Ozick II (Download MP3)

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Superficial Reading: Cynthia Ozick and Critical Pygmies

When Zadie Smith reworked E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End* into her excellent novel, On Beauty, few reviewers expressed dismay at her creative methodology. Frank Rich, who raved about Smith’s novel in The New York Times, noted “the blunt declaration of Smith’s intention to pay homage” in Smith’s first sentence. The Washington Post‘s Michael Dirda, who was even more effusive than Rich, called Smith’s novel “subtly laced with learned allusions” — which was something of an understatement. Similarly, Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” was also celebrated for appropriating numerous texts — even included in the 2008 edition of The Best American Essays.

In an age where Girl Talk and Creative Commons are as mainstream as Johnny Mathis, remixing and repurposing is clearly the usual, something to be celebrated among our greatest literary practitioners. Yet it is rather extraordinary that a few reviewers — all conspicuously out-of-touch with this present temperament — have seen fit to punish an author, one who has pretty much earned the right to do anything she wants, for reworking a novel considered to be a classic. What is most interesting about these feeble hatchet men is how little they comprehend the text they wish to feed to the dogs.

Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies has been bitchslapped by The Los Angeles Times‘s David Ulin, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Mike Fischer, and The Seattle Times‘s Michael Upchurch for a novel that is, respectively, “more schematic than engaged,” “doesn’t have the texture or plumb the depths that anchor James’ metaphor-rich prose,” and “a great premise — disappointingly handled.”

Upchurch’s indolent 300 word review — indistinguishable from a cranky Goodreads capsule banged out by a drunk in a matter of minutes — can be easily dispensed with. All Upchurch manages is a chickenheaded concatenation of pusillanimous modifiers (“crude,” “thin,” “choppy,” “baffling,” and so forth) for Ozick’s latest. He guzzles down his precious column inches praising James, as if desiring some librarian to pin a gold star to his lapel for dutiful reading, and he writes that Ozick “introduces [a] bracing, brutal twist without really developing it” without bothering to explain why. (This is not dissimilar Ulin’s sloppy pronouncement that Foreign Bodies “remains curiously unsatisfying.” More on Ulin in a mite.)

When one explores the Goodreads page for Ozick’s book, one discovers that even the reviewers who didn’t care for the book have more clarity and plenitude than Upchurch:

She is really a wonderful writer with a unique presentation and style. However I did not rate this higher as I liked none of the characters, not at all or even a little bit. They all had significant flaws and I found the reading experience unpleasant as they were just all so annoying. I did not care really what happened to any of them although I was curious enough to finish the rather short book and had hopes that they would change a little or something other than what they were throughout.

That comes from a Goodreads user named Allyson. Writing in her spare time, Allyson offers a more valuable negative review than Upchurch. She articulates — in fewer words than Upchurch — that she didn’t care for any of the characters, but notes that she was attracted to the style. And she also seems genuinely taken aback — certainly more than the newspaper naysayers. By contrast, Upchurch writes, “We also get prose that too often flails hyperbolically as it paints its grotesques.” Like Allyson, Upchurch doesn’t really expand on his observation. But Allyson is not so quick to condemn. The outside observer, curious about the balance between style and characters, is more interested in Allyson’s review. Therefore, why would any news outlet pay Upchurch money when we can get the same material for free? I understand that Upchurch has had his space cut. But Upchurch, in sticking with the superficial in his review, offers us no reasonable justification for his professional existence. He is as joyful as a starving urchin in Calcutta. One desperately wishes to feed him.

Of Foreign Bodies, David Ulin claims “there are no overt references to the novel, other than a few puns and one-liners.” Yet even in Ozick’s second chapter (the first after a letter), one encounters quite a number of Jamesian references.

In The Ambassadors, James’s Paris is often quite cold. Chad’s house, formed from “the complexion of the stone, a cold fair grey, warmed and polished a little by life,” takes “all the March sun.” Strether is led into “the rather cold and blank little studio.” Madame de Vionnet leads Strether into an antechamber that’s “a little cold and slippery even in summer.” By contrast, Ozick’s postwar Paris is piping hot, the victim of “a ferocious heat wave assault[ing] Europe.” Bea walks “through the roasting miasma of late afternoon” and in search of nonexistent air-conditioners. A superficial reader may view such an inversion to be merely the “mirror image” that Ulin claims it to be. But if Foreign Bodies is simply swapping the twin taps, why then would Bea also encounter a “visionary living robot” at a department store, which also has the “familiar” consolation of “cold air?” Ozick isn’t simply reversing The Ambassadors. She’s studying how French-American cultural relationships have developed over the fifty years since The Ambassadors. Ozick’s ravaged version of postwar Paris is quite different than the cultural mecca that enticed Strether, yet she daringly suggests that the new Paris appeals to Americans who are “vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink” — “literary tourists” who are hoping to “summon the past.” From The Ambassadors:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then.

Ulin declares Ozick’s novel as merely “a counterpart” and “a mirror image, James’s story turned around.” But this lazy thesis fails to account for the Suite Eyre spa in California, featured near the end of Ozick’s novel, which serves almost as an wry answer to Thomas Mann’s European spas. Where The National Post‘s Philip Marchand rightfully observes that “not every character in Ozick’s novel is based on Henry James,” for Ulin, Foreign Bodies “seems more schematic than engaged.” By contrast, The Barnes and Noble Review‘s Tom LeClair is more daring (and interesting) in his suggestion that Ozick is responding in a way to a particularly callow interviewer who began his conversation by telling Ozick that her work was cut off from contemporary culture (and who then got his ass handed to him). Evidence for LeClair’s theory can be found within the novel, which concerns itself with sexual candor, abortion, and several other subjects that occupy our present time. But LeClair, in attempting to pursue “the physical revulsion and spleen that circulate through the novel,” offers a more curious and less turgid investigation than Ulin. Ulin’s inability to see Lili as little more than a refugee who marries Julian suggests very highly that Ulin skimmed (if that) the book’s last 100 pages, which offer quite a bit more with a figure named Kleinman.

Ulin’s miserly efforts to corral Ozick’s novel against another are matched by Mike Fischer’s impoverished interpretation. Fischer lauds one Ozick passage that “James could have written” and notes that Foreign Bodies “is filled with similarly uncanny echoes of the Master’s voice.” But he is too much of an incurious James fanboy to consider Ozick’s book on its own terms. He is blindsided by how closely Foreign Bodies aligns with The Ambassadors. And like Ulin, he too seems to have skimmed the final 100 pages. Fischer observes “the washed-out watercolors of Marvin’s two maddeningly inconsistent children,” which isn’t so much a cogent observation but an inept attempt at wit. Fischer likewise doesn’t have the acumen to consider Margaret’s vital presence as anything more than a sketch representing “narrative neglect.” (Never mind that Ozick, imbuing Margaret with a pebble in her heel, is exploring the symbolic possibilities of spousal neglect cast against an American backdrop.) Fischer makes no mention of the book’s careful concerns with the corporeal. And there’s one vital clue for Fischer’s doddering take in this “narrative neglect.” Near the end of Fischer’s review, Fischer claims that Ozick’s readers “stumble in the dark,” because “we’re not given an object lesson on the moral ambiguity that is central to understanding James.” This is no doubt a reference to James’s “The Art of Fiction,” in which the Master threw a famous fit over Walter Besant’s “conscious moral purpose.” But “conscious moral purpose” (or even James’s “air of reality”) isn’t the sole reason to read a novel. (Indeed, this is precisely what James was arguing.) Only a precocious child would ascribe such a singular criteria when assessing a book. But Fischer — “a Milwaukee lawyer and writer” and, quite possibly, a moribund Grisham aspirant — wishes to fish with a puny pole that will never hit the sediment.

It’s bad enough that Upchurch, Ulin, and Fischer’s conservative-minded deference for the original text prevents this bubble gum chewing trio from appreciating what Ozick is trying to do. Updike’s first Rule for Reviewing — “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt” — has clearly been tossed out the window. But what makes these three reviews especially troubling is the instant drift to the superficial. This is especially dishonorable with a novel embedded with all manner of treasures. Not one of these three men proved capable of observing the canny way that Ozick closes the book at the turn of the year. Not one of these three men proved capable of understanding composer Leo Coopersmith’s role in the narrative, much less paying close attention to the way Ozick describes voices and musical instruments. (An opportunity to explore what Ozick’s novel in music might have been welcomed in a newspaper. But why attempt serious criticism when you’re firing blank bons mot?)

Robert Birnbaum, writing about Ozick in The San Francisco Chronicle, is quite right in suggesting that “the enterprise of book reviewing has become degraded.” When critical pygmies wish to denigrate an author that they lack the time or the curiosity to comprehend, one wonders why such infants aren’t devoting their pens to matters more suited to their collective ken: perhaps snarky synopses of television episodes or vapid profiles of Hollywood celebrities. If these are the hollow considerations we’re getting, then the death of newspapers couldn’t arrive any faster.

* — One fun fact: Forster, rather famously, didn’t care much for Henry James. Of The Ambassadors, Forster wrote:

The James novels are a unique possession and the reader who cannot accept his premises misses some valuable and exquisite sensations. But I do not want more of his novels, especially when they are written by some one else, just as I do not want the art of Akhenathon to extend into the reign of Tutankhamen.

Gregory Cowles Says Gaddis “Not Difficult,” But Doesn’t Know How to Read Properly

Displaying the kind of literary hubris that David Markson once skewered in This is Not a Novel (“See Professor Bloom read the 1961 corrected and reset Random House edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses in one hour and thirty-three minutes. Not one page stinted. Unforgettable!”), the New York Times‘s Gregory Cowles claims that William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic “is not in fact all that difficult. For long stretches in this book, he was less difficult even than my sudoku puzzles.”

Gaddis may not be “that difficult” to Mr. Cowles’s perception, but its probably because Mr. Cowles lacks basic reading comprehension. You see, Cowles cites Cynthia Ozick’s “Literary Entrails” (Harper’s, April 2007), claiming that Ozick “summarized the debate and insisted that whatever the merits or demerits of experimental fiction, Gaddis himself wasn’t so tough. To prove it, she quoted a lovely passage from ‘Carpenter’s Gothic’…”

Too bad for Cowles that Ozick’s original article is available online. While Ozick did indeed offer a summary for those who were spared the literary cockfight between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, the passage that Cowles quotes is the one that Marcus quotes in his article. So not only did Ozick not cite the passage that Cowles quoted, but she didn’t even write about Carpenter’s Gothic in her essay! (The Gaddis novel under discussion was A Frolic of His Own and, specifically, the Marcus-Frazen wars over that book.) Nor did Ozick claim that Gaddis was easy or difficult. Her point in chiding “the boys in the alley” is that literature should not be judged on how difficult it may appear to be, but on the merits of the text. Any side fights involving readability indices, the speed and perspicacity of one’s faculties (and penis size), and the like were, as Ozick quite rightly pointed out unnecessary.

Never mind that one believes in diversion and the other dreams of potions. If the two of them are equally touchy and contentious and competitive, what has made them so is the one great plaint they have in common: the readers are going away.

I’m sure that reading Gaddis probably isn’t “difficult” if you can’t be bothered to read correctly. And Ozick’s point still holds. So long as illiterates like Mr. Cowles wax arrogantly and inaccurately about literature, the readers will indeed go away. Fortunately, the rest of us reading passionately still have it in us to be humbled and delighted by literature. (And for the record, The Recognitions was slow going for me when I first read it in my twenties. But it was worth every difficulty.)

The Bat Segundo Show: Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #210. Ozick is most recently the author of Dictation.

Condition of the Show: Overtaken by a tyrannical dictator.

Author: Cynthia Ozick

Subjects Discussed: Balancing two authors, two secretaries and other stylistic repetitions that evoke typewriters in “Dictation,” purloining language from Henry James and Joseph Conrad’s letters, Henry James’s “forgotten umbrella,” “Literary Entrails,” parallels between the last two turns of the century, feeling like Queen Victoria, the language GNU within “What Happened to the Baby?” and open source GNU, crosswords in “Actors,” agonizing over every particular sentence, the slowness of sentences, auctorial fingerprints, John Updike, not wanting to be a writer of drafts, a lost manuscript by Lionel Trilling, whether postwar critics are being suitably remembered, those who mock Trilling for his moral seriousness, the origin of names, fiction as a pack of lies, being a stickler for the details vs. sustaining ambiguity, contradicting yourself in essays, when essays are unduly compared with fiction, John Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion,” the current literary critical environment, E.M. Forster, descriptive references to necks, on not leaving the house, not writing stories set in the present day, getting lost in one’s head, re-rereading Sense and Sensibility, how much Ozick has to think about a book before writing it, the reputation of America over the past fifty years, defining a “contemporary” novel, the dangers of writing in the present moment, clinging to brand names, books that rethink a particular epoch, religious identity in “At Fumicaro,” pretending about pretending, literary impersonation and multiple personalities, and anchoring fiction with reality.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about “Dictation,” the title story. This was very interesting to me for a number of reasons. Because here you have two writers, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, two secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and then on top of that, you have a number of repetitions throughout the story, as if to echo or beckon the typewriter. Like in the very beginning, when you have Henry James describing Almayer’s Folly, you kept saying, “He saw. He saw.” And there’s a number of interesting things you are doing in the syntax of the story that almost echoes the typewriter. So I wanted to ask how this particular stylistic device came about. I know you spend a lot of time on your sentences. So you had to have been at least somewhat aware of this.

Ozick: Well not so much of the repetition in consonance with the typewriter, no. I wasn’t aware of that at all. And I’m rather taken aback by hearing you say, “Have you actually seen this or heard this?” I have not. (laughs) I have not. I’m sorry to disappoint. That is not what I had in mind. What I had in mind really was the joy of the mischief when it occurred to me. And the stylistic aspect had to do more not with the sounds — if that’s what you’re getting at — but with the tones and styles of speech of these people in that era. Particularly with the formality of the young ladies, who must call each other “Miss.” To venture into a first name is really quite forward and not to be countenanced by polite society at first. And also the great pleasure of, I suppose, my parodying of James and Conrad. Though, here’s a confession, and having very much to do with style. I purloined certain phrases directly from the letters of James and Conrad. So there are sentences buried in there which are absolutely authentic. Because they’re stolen directly. Not full sentences, but phrases here and there. So that gave me a lot of joy too. Because it was a kind of imitation, mimicry, reflection of what these two amanuenses were up to in their mischievous plan.

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AUTHORS: Do You Have What It Takes?

It’s the ultimate reality series, the ultimate game show and the ultimate half-hour of intriguing storylines. The Ultimate Author is an awesome television program packed with entertaining, engaging and interesting events. Each week, contestants go toe-to-toe in a writing competition that tests their ability to develop attention-grabbing content.

Casting Call: June 16, 2007. Fort Lauderdale, FL.

[via gawker.]

Round Robin

  • In light of the assaults on eminent domain and flag burning (and with the frightening prospect of Justice Rehnquist resigning looming in the air), there’s at least some good news on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting/PBS budget cuts. Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted by a 284-140 vote to rescind the $100 million cutback. And that’s really what current politics is about these days: finding scant hope in small victories while the fiber and sanctity of this nation is gutted. So bust out the party poppers while the apocalypse ravages across the heartland.
  • The so-called “Pope” has published a book that urges all non-believing Europeans to live as though God exists. If that fails, then there’s always putting on a tin hat and looking for crop circles in the hinterland.
  • It looks like Limbaugh and Noonan are running away from the Klein book. Their latest amusing claim is that The Truth About Hilary was “written and published by a bunch of left-wingers.” Well, that’s pretty interesting, given that Sentinel, the publisher of the book, describes itself on its webpage as “a dedicated conservative imprint within Penguin Group (USA) Inc. It has a mandate to publish a wide variety of right-of-center books on subjects like politics, history, public policy, culture, religion and international relations.”
  • Cynthia Ozick talks with the Melbourne Age.
  • The Connection continues its series of writers talking about other writers who have influenced them. The latest audio installment is Russell Banks talking about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
  • Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell is on a book tour for his new novel, Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way.
  • So can James Frey follow up the intensity of A Million Little Pieces with his new memoir? Mike Thomas of the Chicago Sun-Times talks with Frey and learns that Frey’s life is “sort of surreally magnificent.”
  • James McManus has been tapped to write a poker column for the New York Times. Executive editor Bill Keller says that McManus’ column will be “a literate combination of the drama, strategy, psychology and color of card play that should interest both serious players and the simply curious.” This from a guy whose idea of literacy is questionable at best.

Afternoon Tea

  • Dean Koontz’s dog has written a book: a chapbook-sized ode to lapping toilet water.
  • An inmate has sued Stephen King for The Green Mile, claiming that there are, in fact, no magical black men inside prison.
  • It’s been reported elsewhere, but Cynthia Ozick’s book tour diary dishes fun dirt.
  • Amber Frey is set to release a memoir this week. Sample chapter titles include “Oh My God! Laci’s baby is due on my birthday!” and “You know, Scott, this murder might affect our relationship.”
  • The Rutles 2 is coming to DVD. Believe it or not, Salman Rushdie is in it.
  • A number of prominent Canadians highlight their top reads for 2004 (including Neil Peart, who champions John Barth’s The Book of Ten Nights and a Night!).
  • The Age does an admirable job trying to account for The Da Vinci Code‘s success.