Why Criticism Matters - Essay by Elif Batuman - NYTimes.com

This was fun to read. I admit I have scant knowledge of literary theory, though I have read some Jameson, and the reference here gives us much to think about regarding Proust and other French novels (our sometime collaborator Dirk will no doubt be interested), and the "negative criticism" of "neuro novels" is devastatingly amusing. What I found most stimulating of my own creative impulses (which could no doubt be alternatively explained in the language of neuro novels) was her interpretation of Freud's interpretation of dreams, as applied to fiction.

Why Criticism Matters - Essay by Elif Batuman - NYTimes.com

Yes, I suppose that criticism does matter, though not so much as the creation of the dreams.


Engels' Marxism

A discussion in LinkedIn, about whether or not it is ethical for the editor of a work to publish a review posing as an independent critic— is deceit ever ethical? —, reminded me of Engels' many reviews and promotional copy for works that he himself had worked out with Marx, including his enthusiastic blurb for a book that he had written entirely but that he published under Marx's name. 

Now was that deceitful? Well, yes, in the same way any promotional copy is. Or just a clever move to attract attention to ideas that he and Marx shared? Marx didn't mind for his own sake — the ideas expressed were his and Engels' — but was probably a little saddened that his brilliant friend would be so self-effacing as to disguise his authorship. And Engels was not really trying to fool people about his involvement in the theory of dialectical materialism, which was already notorious.

Their collaboration was closer and more complex than I had imagined. I just discovered this quite fascinating discussion. It shows where Engels took the lead, and where he followed or merely elaborated, and is a persuasive refutation of arguments that Engels had misunderstood or oversimplified Marx. Both the strengths and errors of their analysis have to be attributed to both of them.

Engels' Marxism

By the way, yes, of course it is unethical for an editor to pose as an independent reviewer, and also unnecessary: one can still say nice things about a book as an editor. Another note: I'm still looking for that pamphlet or book I mentioned above. But actually Engels was involved in almost all Marx's works, in some cases the primary author, from the Communist Manifesto on.

The anonymous dual portrait above is from this archive.


Choosing what to read

Dirk van Nouhuys' essay on the novels that have stayed with him (this blog, 2011.9.28) has got me thinking about how I choose fiction to read. Dirk has no patience for those lists of the 100 or 1,000 or however many books "you must read before you die"(try Googling "books"+"before you die" for examples), as though there could be one list for everybody (and as though there were only that many possibilities). I too think such lists are silly, but since I know I'm never going to read more than a tiny sample of all that's worth reading, I need some way to guide my choices.

So, how do I choose? For starters, I always try to read the selections of my local reading club in Carboneras, which are usually good and always promote lively discussions (all in Spanish, which I review on my Spanish-language blog Lecturas y lectores). Beyond that I have two major criteria:
  • The book promises to tell me something I really want to know, for example about a culture or a time or a place or a psychological experience, and/or 
  • I expect to learn something I can use about the craft of writing. 
I'm most interested in books that do both. Thus, so far I've been less engaged by Cormac McCarthy (fascinating craftsman, but I don't much care for or need to hear his strange view of the world) than by, for example, Mario Vargas Llosa (another amazing prose crafter, but one who engages social issues that I do care about).

But even limiting my reading to books that do one or the other of those things, my actual reading is still largely a matter of chance: what I happen to have heard about and what I can get easily.

I'm not going to try to create a list like Dirk's, but if anyone is curious about the books I have found important enough to read and comment on, you're invited to take a look at my "Little Library of the Lair" Fiction Readings or, if you read Spanish, the different collection in my Pequeña biblioteca comentada.

On another note, I'm glad to see that some of my earliest work is still being cited by scholars. A recent example is this MA thesis by Javier Fernández (University of Georgia, 2004), which makes good use of parts of my 1979 book Working-Class Émigrés from Cuba (Palo Alto: R&E Research Publications, 1979; published version of my 1975 PhD dissertation), which must have been in his university library — it's pretty hard to get these days, but a recent query made me aware that it has also been a resource to other younger scholars working on issues including migration, Latinos, the Cuban revolution or racial and gender conflicts. (For more about this work, see my entry in Academia.edu, Working-Class Émigrés from Cuba.)