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Political Posturing Lit

Photo shows "American Dirt" books sitting on a rack at a bookstore in New York on January 27, 2020. The publisher canceled the scheduled book tour amidst controversy and safety concerns. (Photo by LAURA BONILLA CAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Good morning. “Have you read a book review recently?” Larissa Pham asks in The Nation. “They all fixate on a certain quality. Critics—and the authors they cover—seem to be obsessed with self-awareness. Writing about oneself isn’t new at all, but what’s current (and quickly growing stale) is the overtly self-conscious way contemporary writers have chosen to go about it.”

Well, yes and no. Literary essays are certainly preoccupied with self-awareness. Some novels, too, but are reviews more “overtly self-conscious” today than before? For Pham, the answer is yes, but here’s where it gets tricky. What she means in part by “self-conscious” is reviewers increasingly acknowledging their “privilege” as a way of assuaging increasingly puritanical readers. In the books they review, too, Pham argues, they focus on the writer and his or her politics or character instead of the text itself: “Take Merve Emre sniffing at Durga Chew-Bose’s ‘experiences of bourgeois living’ in the latter’s debut essay collection, in an article for Boston Review from 2017. Emre concludes that Chew-Bose’s peripatetic, sometimes whimsical style of inquiry leaves her cold, asking, ‘What should we make of writing that serves primarily, and sometimes exclusively, to present the author as a more admirably complicated type of human subject than others?’ An excellent question and one at the heart of many recent pieces of criticism on the problem of the reflexivity trap, yet it’s unclear just what Chew-Bose’s lifestyle, bourgeois or not, has to do with it. The review seems weaker for the mention.”

Fair enough. For Pham, we should focus instead on the structures of a text, but we should do so because—strangely—it is when writers and texts are less politically self-conscious that they are the most powerful politically, even if a work cannot and should not be reduced to its political power: “In this moment we crave understanding. Right ways of writing that might transmute into right ways of being. But I suspect we’re looking in the wrong places. Trying to reconcile material actions with the world of a novel or even a memoir is not going to get you very far. What if we stopped trying to force literature—or authors—to teach us? What can art show us? It can make us feel less alone. It can describe a feeling. It can lift up stories we haven’t heard before, told from the point of view of people we haven’t heard from before. It can be revenge or merely vengeful. It can entertain, stupefy, propagandize, and perhaps even illuminate with startling clarity. But for any of this to happen, art needs to have a place for the reader to witness the stakes of what’s happening. That space seems to be rapidly diminishing.”

Hear, hear! Though I don’t know what she means when she says that “art needs to have a place for the reader to witness the stakes of what’s happening.” Let’s just be consistent and say art doesn’t change us. Art doesn’t “need” any space, nor do we “need” to create a space for it. Art will be fine. As long as there are humans, there will be art. As Uncle Frank told us: “But how . . . can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears).”

Also: Man, did I have to work hard to extract that nugget from an overly self-aware and posturing piece on self-awareness and posturing. You’re welcome.

In other news: Book sales surge in Australia: “According to Nielsen Book Australia, which tracks book sales nationally, the Australian market for books experienced a ‘steep decline’ early in the year, but turned a corner over Easter and has been growing ever since. Adult fiction has done particularly well, with the firm noting a 13% rise in sales value in the year to mid-October.”

A history of protest rock and Christian music: “Reading Lynskey’s account of protest music’s heyday in the 1960s, it’s clear that his preferred brand of progressive idealism will soon peak and then fade from the scene . . . Stowe follows Christian pop music as it evolves from sound-tracking the left-leaning countercultural Jesus movement, with its saucer-eyed teen burnouts baptized in the surf of ’60s Corona del Mar, California, to mobilizing Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution. Stowe’s narrative shares themes with Lynskey’s: Both authors recount the dilemmas of songwriters tightening—and often losing—their grasp on their message as they chase or abdicate fame. And Dylan is, of course, a star of both books.”

Who was Pappy Van Winkle and why does his Bourbon cost so much? “For the dedicated whiskey connoisseur, getting a taste of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bourbon is a Tolkien-worthy quest. With a small production run and a lengthy 15- to 23-year aging process that creates a limited-supply/high-demand situation, the spirit is decidedly elusive at its starting retail price of about $120. Bars that stock it can charge $75 a shot or more, and collectors’ sites list the whiskey for $5,000 a bottle. So, what is it about Pappy Van Winkle? Wright Thompson sets out to answer that question in Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last.”

If approved, the vaccine for COVID19 developed by Pfizer and BioNTech would be the first genetic vaccine to be used in people: “The active ingredient inside their shot is mRNA—mobile strings of genetic code that contain the blueprints for proteins. Cells use mRNA to get those specs out of hard DNA storage and into their protein-making factories. The mRNA inside Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine directs any cells it reaches to run a coronavirus spike-building program. The viral proteins these cells produce can’t infect any other cells, but they are foreign enough to trip the body’s defense systems. They also look enough like the real virus to train the immune system to recognize SARS-CoV-2, should its owner encounter the infectious virus in the future. Up until now, this technology has never been approved for use in people.”

Houman Barekat reviews David Keenan’s Xstabeth: “Aneliya, the Russian narrator of David Keenan’s enjoyably weird new novel, is worried about her dad. Tomasz’s modest music career is coming to an end; his wife left him years ago, and he lives in the shadow of his louche and much more successful best friend Jaco.”

Photo: Forum Romanum  

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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