Archive | April 10, 2009

Kulcherel Littorasy, Part Duh

I’d read most of the books on the first half of Jason Jewell’s cultural literacy test, but I predicted I would do worse on the second half.

Turns out I was wrong; the second half is out now, and in fact I did about as well on it as on the first one. But that’s largely because a) it’s heavily weighted toward pre-1945 fiction, and b) the post-1945 stuff includes a high percentage of science fiction. (To the best of my recollection only about three of these books were assigned to me in school.)

Peto - In the LibraryOnce again I have to grump about the cultural-conservative “signing statements.” It would be nice to be given some actual examples of “practically valueless” works that are “praised and showered with awards” by the academic left; I regard this claim as largely a right-wing myth. Certainly many of the left’s beloved race-and-gender writers – W.E.B. Du Bois, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Olive Schreiner (a favourite of Benjamin Tucker’s, by the way), Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, etc. – are damn good writers, and seem to be excluded from this list more for reasons of right-wing political correctness than on the basis of their merits. (Zora Neale Hurston, for example, is another race/gender author who’s popular with the academic left; but because she’s a libertarian she makes it onto Jewell’s list while the others don’t. Now c’mon; socialists kan rite gud too.)

A few more quibbles:

Why on earth is Huckleberry Finn missing? Jewell includes Tom Sawyer, and claims that it’s a frequent target of banning; maybe it is, but Huckleberry Finn is much more so, and is in any case a better book. (I’m almost tempted to think Jewell has confused the two.)

Chesterton is a delightful writer, but The Man Who Was Thursday is one of his least interesting novels. The Ball and the Cross, The Flying Inn, and The Lion of Notting Hill (inanely published as The Napoleon of Notting Hill) are much better.

I find the comparison between Wilde and Proust somewhat baffling; they don’t seem all that much alike to me. Okay, so they’re both turn-of-the-century figures, they’re both gay, and they both write beautifully, but that seems a rather superficial basis for lumping them together: Wilde sketches in quick, brilliant strokes, while Proust is an artist of meticulous detail.

Asimov is good with clever ideas, but he’s not a great writer; if you’re looking for serious literary merit in classic science fiction you’d do better with, say, Bradbury or LeGuin.

The notion that Interview with the Vampire is a “pale imitation” of Dracula is pretty silly (will anyone claim that Stoker is better at characterisation and dialogue than Rice? the only good dialogue in all of Dracula is Van Helsing’s “King Laugh” speech) – as is Jewell’s disapproval of Interview’s “moral ambiguity” (if you’re uncomfortable with moral ambiguity you’re going to have a hard time enjoying much of western literature). (For my own take on Anne Rice’s vampires – and a comparison with Chesterton! – see here and here.)

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