Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Globe Symposium on Henighan's Report on the Afterlife of Culture

The back page of the Saturday Globe -- welcome back! -- contained a Symposium on Henighan's A Report on the Afterlife of Culture. At issue: Nigel Beale's (yes, the very same who believes Burnett a better writer than Hood or Levine. Around the bibliomanse last week we were trying out his name as a expletive, but couldn't decide whether to nige or to beale made the best curse, so eventually gave up. {All in good fun, of course: to pull a Wells, in some circles, is as low as you can go, and I've learned to live with it.} ) review a few weeks past in the Globe of said Report.

You can read the original review on the blog. But as the Globe has a tendency to make these thinks pay to read, we'll just cut and paste the whole thing below.

Again, there's not much to say about Beale's response here. I'm always leery when a person asks us to trust him in the way Beale has. Sort of like being in a used car lot, and being told not to bother kicking the tires, no matter how threadbare they may look. But it seems at least that the Syposium has people talking: I received an email from a bookseller who said a well known writer rushed into the shop at 10 am looking for the book, and he overheard at least three individual conversations about it in his bookshop Saturday. So, as he said, hooray for critical reviewing! Here's to hoping the the Globe contains more of it as we embark on the fall book season.


As Beale's review demonstrates, crustiness combined with historical inaccuracies, questionable summaries and turgid prose soon becomes unconvincing

By quoting Dr. Johnson at the beginning and end of his review of my A Report on the Afterlife of Culture, Nigel Beale strikes the pose of a crusty fellow who's not going to put up with any nonsense - particularly, as his disparaging references to Susan Sontag and Naomi Klein make clear, leftist nonsense.

But in order to pull off the crustiness act you need to get your facts straight. As Beale's review demonstrates, crustiness combined with historical inaccuracies, questionable summaries and turgid prose soon becomes unconvincing. When Beale announced on his personal website on June 22 that he was giving my book a bad review in The Globe and Mail, he wrote of the title essay, which particularly irked him, that it "inhabits about a third of the whole [book]." In fact, this essay, which occupies 62 of the 339 pages, inhabits less than one-fifth of the book.

Beale's problems in summarizing what he reads begin here. He describes the essay's closing section as "rambling accusations that Ian McEwan manipulates history." This line refers to one paragraph of a 20-page section; the section's central theme is how, in Atonement, McEwan repudiates Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, arguing for the innate superiority of commercial fiction over that which creates complex artistic effects.

Maybe Beale doesn't get the subject of this essay right because he dislikes what it says. It is very revealing that when he scorns my call for a literary cosmopolitanism rooted in local detail, rejecting the examples of The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight's Children, he is unable to offer contemporary novelistic counter-examples. Instead, he floats the canard that these works aren't relevant to Canadians because they don't focus primarily on immigrants (although all describe marginalized communities and include forms of immigrant experience).

Beale then reverts to ideological type, claiming there's "a compelling case for the marketplace determining [literary] quality." So the great novelists of our time are Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling?

Rather than follow this argument through, Beale hides behind a bust of Shakespeare. Leaving aside the vast differences of context between Renaissance drama and contemporary novels, Beale's claim that Shakespeare is great because he is, apparently, a private-sector hero who "went with whatever he could find that would appeal to audiences," sees him once again tailoring history to suit his ideology. The historical Shakespeare belonged to the King's Players, who lived on "the royal patent," the equivalent of a long-term Canada Council Grant. Some private sector!

Beale lapses again when he inaccurately "corrects" me on the translation of Latin American literature in general and Roberto Bolaño in particular. In fact, U.S. publishers do translate less Latin American literature than they used to. The big names of past decades - Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende - continue to appear, but subsequent generations of Latin American writers are less widely translated into English than into European languages. I document this, and the shift has been the subject of academic studies; Beale was obviously too busy writing "B.S." in the margins, as he claims he did frequently, to notice these details.

The first Bolaño novel translated into English, By Night in Chile, was published by Harvill U.K. in February,2003, in a translation by Australian Chris Andrews. In the view of Andrews, and other observers, two articles (one of them mine and included in my book) on Bolaño's untranslated fiction in the London Times Literary Supplement in late 2004 were important to selling U.S. rights to Bolaño's two longest novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, to Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2005.

Bolaño's work arrived in English via the Barcelona-London-Melbourne-New York axis. Yet Beale, clinging to American centrality, decrees such contemporary complication of "translation routes" to be impossible. Beale's ideology becomes hostile not merely to the facts contained in my book, but to the factual world. When he claims that racists in East London are simply showing "pride in Englishness," it's time to take a hard look at the moral foundations of his pose of crusty skepticism.


I dislike many of Henighan's essays because they are poorly argued and sloppily constructed


I've never embraced an eel, but after wrestling over several days with Stephen Henighan's slippery rebuttal, I think I have a pretty good idea of what it might feel like.

His complaint is that I don't get my facts straight. Given space limitations, I can only respond to several of his challenges. However, I assure you that all of them are wholly unsubstantiated: The King's Players were established by King James in 1603, after Shakespeare had written many of his greatest plays, including Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra; taken significant financial risks; wowed many raucous audiences, and weathered judgment by rotten tomato.

Shakespeare retired a wealthy man. One does not get rich on government arts money, Canada Council grants or otherwise.

Philip Larkin, James Shapiro (in his book 1599) and many others have acknowledged Shakespeare's debt to the free market. C. J. Sisson, for example, in his essay The Theatres and Companies (in A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, Cambridge, 1934), says the necessity of appealing to the pit "saved the Elizabethan drama from becoming over educated and urbanized, and preserved its strength and universality, despite theorizers [and] men of wit and fashion."

Henighan's TLS claim is reminiscent of Al Gore declaring that he invented the Internet. Here's Scott Esposito, a close observer of the Latin American literary scene: "It's simply naive to insist that an essay published in the London Times carried greater force with FSG than the years of work New Directions (an American publisher) did to establish Bolaño in publications like The New Yorker. The fact is that if FSG hadn't published The Savage Detective and 2666, both Dalkey and ND would have gladly taken up either or both."

I do not "disparage" Susan Sontag or Naomi Klein, rather I accuse Henighan of rehashing their original ideas.

Finally, there is no ideology at work in my hostility toward Henighan's book. I dislike a good many of its essays for the simple reason that they are poorly argued and sloppily constructed.


Nigel Beale felt that many of the subjects under discussion in Stephen Henighan's book of essays, A Report on the Afterlife of Culture, deserved to be aired. But he found the book unfocused and inconsistent, and ultimately unconvincing. Henighan feels that Beale's criticism was error-filled and ill-founded.

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