Thursday News: Critics and novelists; Asian American masculinity; Voltaire and the mathematician; and Science Fiction’s lament
Do Critics Make Good Novelists? – This week’s Bookends column — between Daniel Mendelsohn and Leslie Jamison — is a pretty interesting contemplation of the relationship between literary critic and novelist. Mendelsohn seems to suggest that critics are unsuited to writing fiction, while Jamison suggests that the prejudice against critics who also write fiction predetermines a certain narrow reading of their prose. Given the nature of the debate, its irony only adds to the terms, although I think Jamison has a better handle on that than Mendelsohn.
We seem to have more patience for the novelist who writes criticism (Henry James, Virginia Woolf) than for the critic who writes novels (Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling). This discrepancy suggests an implicit prejudice: The novelist who writes criticism is sending dispatches from inside the maelstrom — translating creativity into sense — while the critic who writes novels is learning to fly from a set of instructions, trying to conjure magic from recipes. The critic of the critic-novelist ratifies a certain Romantic notion of art: Creativity should rise from intuitive inspiration, not conceptual overdetermination. –New York Times
Books: Alex Tizon unearths “how to be a man” in new book on Asian masculinity – A really thoughtful piece by Joyce Chen on Alex Tizon’s Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self, which is itself an examination of Asian American masculinity from multiple perspectives — historical, cultural, national, artistic, etc. We talk so much about the construction of the feminine in Romance, but I think we tend to draw broader brush strokes when discussing constructions of masculinity, especially when race and sexuality are in play.
note: May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. Exhibits, events, and other resources can be found here.
Tizon broaches topics ranging from stereotypes of physical inferiority to perceived submissiveness to issues of interracial dating (specifically, what has caused Asian American women to dismiss their male counterparts as simply not “man enough” to date seriously). What is particularly impressive is that what the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-cum-professor achieves in breadth, he just as effortlessly presents in depth.
One particularly noteworthy attribute of Tizon’s work is that he interweaves these various threads of history into today’s media tapestry, finding ties between ancient ethics and Asian Americans in the media today. In a chapter titled “Tiny Men on the Big Screen,” for instance, Tizon discusses how the lack of strong Asian American male leads in movies is a kind of “symbolic annihilation.” In other words, he is addressing the damaging, totalizing effects of omission. –Hyphen Magazine
The Philosopher and the Prodigy: How Voltaire Fell in Love with a Remarkable Female Mathematician – Although the real story had a somewhat sad ending — both for the relationship and the lady in question — this account of the long-term love affair between the philosopher Voltaire and the married mathematician Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet, is a wonderful example of an unconventional romantic relationship between two very brilliant, influential, and independent people. One of my biggest complaints about historical Romance is that it too often forces its heroines into narrow roles that do not reflect the complexity and range of real women through history. Certainly a woman like Émilie could serve as broad inspiration for a very interesting historical Romance.
She invited him to her house in the country. He moved in. (The Marquis was often away on military campaigns.) With the essential assistance of Émilie, Voltaire would publish Elémens de la philosophie de Newton in 1738, a simplified guide to the famous scientist, which popularized his most advanced theories, including the gravity of planets, the proof of atoms, the refraction of light, and the uses of telescopes. Voltaire sincerely recognized the intellectual debt he owed his lover. The frontispiece of the work shows the philosopher touched by the divine light light of Newton, reflected down to earth by a heavenly muse, Madame du Châtelet. –Brain Pickings
Heinlein, Hugos, and Hogwash – So here’s what I find ironic about articles like this one, in which Science Fiction is excoriated for its “political correctness:” these are the folks who claim they want the focus on the WORK, and yet they spend hundreds and hundreds of words talking about the POLITICS. Dude, if you want people to focus on the work, TALK ABOUT THE WORK.
Still, I think it’s pretty amusing that there are people who actually believe that SFF is now some kind of paen to liberalism.
Heinlein’s two most famous novels are Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. The first challenges the orthodoxy of the Left as much as the second does that of the Right. But in his day, few science fiction readers were offended by his or anyone’s ideas. Science fiction was proud to be a literature of the new and startling. A spirit of intellectual fearlessness was paramount.
A darker time followed. The lamps of the intellect were put out one by one, first in society at large, then in literature, then in our little corner called science fiction. What we have now instead is a smothering fog of caution, of silence, of an unwillingness to speak for fear of offending the perpetually hypersensitive. –Intercollegiate Review