Thursday, March 26, 2009

On blogging and hype and The Kindly Ones

Recently, Andrew Seal considered why he reads new books. Since my time of despair on this particular question has passed, I now read very few new books. Which is to say, I may still despair of having time to read the history or philosophy or theory or political economy I want to read, I no longer worry much about new novels. Where once I not only jumped at the new Amis or Powers or whoever, but also felt compelled to track down the latest hype-gathering novels, now I barely even notice when something new is afoot (hence Aleksandr Hemon's excellent novel The Lazarus Project almost completely escaped my attention until very late last year). I don't trumpet this as a virtue, just noting that I've allowed myself to quite happily fall out of the loop. I will still read, sooner or later, the newest works from, for example, Coetzee or Roth or Marilynne Robinson, but new books from new writers or writers of heavily hyped books are rarely of immediate interest.

There are exceptions. For example, it has been hard to avoid the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño in recent years, and though I've been spending time mining the classics, modernist or otherwise, I have ultimately succumbed. Though in a sense Bolaño is an exception, he is also a case in point. I did not run out and immediately buy his many books that have been blog-hyped, though I took note for future reference. I ended up reading The Savage Detectives last year because a friend had left it at our house and I was between books. In the wake of reading that book, which I was somewhat less than enthusiastic about, I was still unable to finally resist all the 2666 buzz; I asked for and received it for Christmas. And yet still it sits, patiently awaiting my attention.

A clearer exception is Jonathan Littell's controversial novel, The Kindly Ones. Though it's not really the buzz that has me wanting to read this book (after all, the buzz is not altogether positive, is it?). No. There has been an excess of words written about this book, much of which I have studiously avoided. Too much of what I have seen has been depressingly literal or reductive, reducing the book to either "Holocaust porn" or otherwise about something easily captured in a quick review. The book is this or that, and can be safely dismissed as such. But why do I feel as if I can sense that the book has not been fairly treated by such treatments, when I haven't yet read it myself? The answer is that the very voices that have elevated the novel to a must-read for me have done so by arguing for its virtues in a manner that seriously calls into question most other reviews (the tiresome remarks of reductive non-readers of the book notwithstanding). These voices are primarily Steve Mitchelmore's and, returning to the blogger who touched off this post, Andrew Seal's. It was, as is often the case, Steve who first put the book on my radar, and his own response to it, in typical fashion, bears little to no resemblance to any other. Meanwhile, Andrew's two fascinating posts (one, two) have deepened my sense that this is a book I need to read; I especially appreciate the attention Andrew pays in the first of his posts to some of the arguments used by other reviewers, positive or negative, in particular some of those employed by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books, and Samuel Moyn in The Nation (coincidentally, the only mainstream reviews of any interest to me).

I highlight Steve's and Andrew's posts not just to express my appreciation and to announce that I plan to read this particular novel, but to point out the continuing possibilities they represent. With a book like The Kindly Ones, the pressure on the reviewing establishment to respond quickly and reductively is immense. The historical and political baggage associated with the Holocaust just makes matters worse. Blogs, in theory, have the opportunity to take more time, allow more space, encourage critical exploration. Too often, it seems, bloggers get caught up in the reviewing pressure too. But there's no need to. Some books demand better attention than the newspapers are willing or able to give them--or, rather, some books bring into focus the demand made by all books of any value. As Andrew puts it, in a comment to an unrelated post of his, a comment in which he linked to the reviews of The Kindly Ones that appeared in the LA Times and the New York Times, "This is why I don't feel newspaper book review sections declining is a peril to the republic": I couldn't agree more. If it were up to newspapers to keep me informed on anything, let alone writing, I'd never have any idea what's going on.

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