Prufrock's Page

Friday, April 28, 2006

How Opal Mehta Got Reviewed

By now, we've all heard of the fate of Ms Vishwanathan. But, one wondered, how was her book received when first published? Was any reviewer perceptive enough to even mention that the book seemed similar to others in the genre? Here's a round-up of sorts.

In USA Today, Carol Memmott called it "a hysterically funny train wreck of a story littered with mean girls, drunken parties, bad boys and enough chandelier earrings to light up the Harvard lawn…you won't read a sweeter, funnier, more charming book this year." Sawnet's Sumita Sheth, though not entirely appreciative in her appraisal, said: "It may all be a little creepy and sad, but it is also funny. And funny is what Kaavya writes pretty well….This is a great first effort for such a young author." A quite forgiving Tracy McLeod wrote in Marie Claire that it "may not be the most sophisticated of reads, but it's a fun debut from an author who is still only 18 years old." Debra Pickett of the Chicago Sun Times went a step further by saying: "While some of Viswanathan's prose is unimaginative...the book's fresh and witty premise rescues it from getting mired in typical nerd-to-cool-girl cliches….she has made a strong start on what promises to be a long and brilliant career."

Thankfully, Thomas McGonigle got it right in the LA Times: "Readers, parents and kids: Beware." And a cheeky sentence in The Independent termed it "a shockingly cheerful teen caper."

Staggeringly enough, prefacing an interview with the author in the Hindu Literary Review, Sarmishta Ramesh said, “The book has received rave reviews from leading publications like the New York Times, the Chicago Sun, the Boston Globe, the LA Times and every other publishing house across the country.” She went on to call it a “funny” and “fast moving” drama.

Finally and alarmingly, the Boston Herald carried an AP report quoting, of all people, Amitav Ghosh: "No matter how old, Viswanathan’s success is no mistake, says Amitav Ghosh, a visiting professor who teaches creative writing at Harvard and didn’t see his first book in print until he was 30. 'She has astonishing poise,' said Ghosh. 'At Harvard, there are many, many very fine writers. Her writing has a kind of a pitch-perfect novelist’s diction. At her age, that is very unusual.' "

So there you have it. The professional reviewers have spoken.

Novel Ideas

The novel isn't dead, says Peter Costa. But its readers may well be. He goes on to discuss the two-year-old National Endowment for the Arts study that "showed that literary reading is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature. Alarmingly, but not surprisingly, the steepest rate of decline, a whopping 28 percent, is occurring in the youngest age groups."

His reason for despair: "Entire cultural epochs were captured in novels: Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms; Updike's Rabbit Run; Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Joseph Heller's Catch-22; and others come to mind.

"These books helped us understand our world and ourselves. Reading does that."

Yes, reading does that. But what Costa doesn't point out is that, more and more, those who read to understand the world and ourselves don't turn to novels -- as in the 19th century -- but to non-fiction. Witness the increase in popularity of books devoted to explaining science, in travelogues, in works on Islam, on women's lives, on American hegemony, and so much more.

Where does that leave the novel? Realism may be the supreme genre, as James Wood untiringly points out, but a 19th century realism that outlines the parameters and rules of an emerging society seems to have run its course. Perhaps the great virtue of the novel -- one that cannot be replicated by other media -- is in the creation of empathy, in making the reader identify with disparate characters, living under circumstances vastly dissimilar to his or her own.

Then again, the one development ignored by Costa and other theorists is already taking shape: in the near future, every published novel will deal with secretive Catholic societies and attempts to trace the lineage of Christ. Happy reading.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Cross Words

This afternoon, in order to complete a short book review, one needed to find out the publisher and Indian price of Sarah Waters' The Night Watch, a title one had seen at Crossword last week.

So one decided to call them, employing the numbers mentioned on their internet site. To begin with, one called their largest outlet, in Kemp's Corner.

Me: "Hello, do you have - "

CW: "Sorry, Sir, you'll have to call another number. Here it is."

One dialled again.

Me: "Hello, do you have a book called The Night Watch?"

CW: "The wha -?"

Me: "The Night Watch."

CW: "The Night?"

Me: "The Night Watch".

CW: "Hold on. (After a minute) Sorry, it's out of stock."

Somewhat wearily, one asked "Do you know how much it costs?"

CW: "Yes. Rs 290. It’s by Terry Pratchett* but we don't have it at present."

Me: "Okay, look, the book I need is by Sarah Waters, and..."

CW: "Who?"

Me: "Sarah Waters. I'd seen it at your shop a few days ago."

CW: "At our shop? Here? Hold on. (After a few minutes) No, we don't have it."

One tried their Bandra outlet. On both occasions, one was told that the number didn't exist. One tried yet again, this time dialling their outlet at Shivaji Park.

Me: "Hello, do you have The Night Watch?"

CW: "The wha-?"

Me: "The Night Watch."

CW: "Hold on. (After a few moments) Sorry, it's out of stock."

Prepared this time, one asked: "Would you know who it's by?"

CW: (agitated) "Icanlookitupbytitleorauthorandthescreenisn'tshowingtheauthor."

Me: "Well, do you have anything by Sarah Waters? S-A-R-A-H W-A-T-E-R-S?"

CW: "No."

And that was the end of an unproductive lunch hour.

* To be fair, there is a book by Terry Pratchett entitled Night Watch: Disc World 27.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Jack In The Box

What the heck. Couldn't resist a few more links.

* Jane Jacobs is no more, alas. The New Yorker reproduces an old interview with her: "Our songs and cities are the best things about us. Songs and cities are so indispensable. Even if we go into darkness, the time will come when people will want to know how these ruins were made—the essence of the life we made. "

* Carlos Fuentes' new book, The Eagle's Throne, is set in 2020, a time when Condoleezza Rice is President of the United States. Why her? "Why not? She has good legs. She can play the piano."

* Salman Rushdie echoes Amartya Sen: “We are being encouraged to define our identities into smaller and smaller boxes. However, we are 30 or 40 of those things. The more broadly we understand ourselves, the more easily we relate. The more narrowly we define ourselves, the more intolerant we are.”

* We-Wish-We'd-Come-Up-With-That-Ourselves-Dept: "Everyman does for death and dying what Portnoy’s Complaint did for masturbation."

365 Day Blues

I started this blog one year ago to the day at the suggestion of a friend. (Bish, if you haven’t yet guessed that I’m PrufrockTwo, my apologies.). I’d been putting it off for the longest time – content to read excellent blogs such as this one – and then jumped into a first post for no worthwhile reason other than a slack day at work.

Three hundred and sixty-five days and 630 posts later, it’s time for reflection. Most of my posts are, as even a cursory glance will show, merely a series of links to sources of literary news, reviews and interviews – sometimes accompanied by a personal comment or two, sometimes not. I do feel there’s merit in aggregating literary links in this manner – frankly, my blog is one that I’d love to read if maintained by another – but there’s no denying that its significance is limited. Anyone with a Net connection, time and a Google search could do the same.

In this context, the appeal of a blog lies in chiefly in its point of view and tone of voice. Apart from occasional parodies and mutterings on the state of the city's bookshops, this one is lacking in both those elements (in spite of the fourth-person voice that one is so fond of using!)

As for the anonymity that a few people have asked about, it’s not because I’m in any way associated with the world of letters and use a blog to voice opinions I otherwise can't. Quite the contrary. The truth is far more prosaic, and can simply be attributed to my wallflower genes.

What, then, of the future? Should I post less frequently, choosing to write thoughful, allusive and more readable posts in the manner of this gentleman, or this one?

Should I dive into confessions, narrated with wit and flair?

What about combining humour with magisterial disdain, as is the case with my forebear?

Perhaps I ought to widen my ambit to include social concerns, as this blogger does?

Or should I simply go on with literary links, but take care to always include a sharply-defined point of view?

While I’ll be taking at least a few days off to chew this cud, what I’m clear about is that this blog will continue, in whatever guise. Though updating it has often cut into time earmarked for reading, writing – and, occasionally, working – it has for the most part been a delight to maintain. Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

More On Everyman

In the New York Times, the reclusive Philip Roth speaks to Charles McGrath about his autumnal novella:

"This book came out of what was all around me, which was something I never expected — that my friends would die. If you're lucky, your grandparents will die when you're, say, in college. Mine died when I was a schoolboy. If you're lucky, your parents will live until you're somewhere in your 50's; if you're very lucky, into your 60's. You won't ever die, and your children, certainly, will never die before you. That's the deal, that's the contract. But in this contract nothing is written about your friends, so when they start dying, it's a gigantic shock."

"It should have dawned on me that Saul [Bellow] was going to die. He was 89, I think, when he died. Yet his death was very hard to accept, and I began to write this book the day after his burial. It's not about him — it has nothing to do with him — but I'd just come from a cemetery, and that got me going."

Monday, April 24, 2006


In his New Republic review of Harold Bloom's Jesus And Yahweh (which he dismisses: Bloom is not a critic anymore but "a populist appreciator" and is only intemittently interesting as a theologian), James Wood says:

"There are certain writers, such as Garry Wills and John Updike, who seem to aspire to a state of continuous publication, as if their readership were constantly reviewing them for tenure...The only way to conduct this kind of permanent revolution of print is to have the word factories ablaze all day and night, and to relish the inevitable duplication and mass production. Thus Updike repackages his writing by collecting his early stories, or by squeezing every last emission of his journalistic work into hardcovers, or by writing fiction that, figuratively speaking, repeats itself. (Villages, which appeared two years ago, is at times almost indistinguishable from at least four or five earlier fictions.) "

How Opal Mehta Got Caught

According to the Harvard Crimson, passages from the 17-year-old Kaavya Vishwanathan's How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life are strikingly similar to Sloppy Firsts, a 2001 novel by Megan McCafferty.

For example:

On page 213 of McCafferty's book: "He was invading my personal space, as I had learned in Psych. class, and I instinctively sunk back into the seat. That just made him move in closer. I was practically one with the leather at this point, and unless I hopped into the backseat, there was nowhere else for me to go."

On page 175 of Viswanathan's book: "He was definitely invading my personal space, as I had learned in Human Evolution class last summer, and I instinctively backed up till my legs hit the chair I had been sitting in. That just made him move in closer, until the grommets in the leather embossed the backs of my knees, and he finally tilted the book toward me."

Here's another:

McCafferty, page 6: “Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart. Guess which one I got. You’ll see where it’s gotten me.”

Viswanathan, page 39: “Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty. I had long resigned myself to category one, and as long as it got me to Harvard, I was happy. Except, it hadn’t gotten me to Harvard."

When the Crimson reached Viswanathan and informed her of the similarities the Harvard sophomore said, “No comment. I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Oh, dear. It does sound pretty damning.

(Link courtesy The Literary Saloon.)

Update: The Crimson today reprinted a statement issued by Vishwanathan through her publisher, Little, Brown: "While the central stories of my book and hers are completely different, I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words. I am a huge fan of her work and can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious. My publisher and I plan to revise my novel for future printings to eliminate any inappropriate similarities."

That's as good as admitting it, isn't it?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

I Just Read A Pair Of Manolo Blahniks

"You can hardly tell" whether a party might be "the new opening of a Gucci store or the launch of a book of essays," said Fran Lebowitz, the veteran partygoer and writer. "There's an effort to muddle that line to convince people, 'It's not a book of essays but it's a pair of shoes!' because people prefer shoes."

- From an entertaining essay in the New York Times, on book launches now and then.

Emitting Sparks

James Wood on Muriel Spark:

"All Muriel Spark's novels are fiercely composed and devoutly starved. Her brilliantly reduced style, of 'never apologise, never explain', seems a deliberate provocation: we feel compelled to turn the mere crescents of her characters into round discs. But while some of her refusal to wax explanatory or sentimental may have been temperamental, it was also moral. Spark was intensely interested in how much we can know about anyone and in how much a novelist, who most pretends to such knowledge, can know about her characters."

Just Good Friends

Melville and Hawthorne. Fitzgerald and Hemingway. James and Wharton. Richard Lingeman's Double Lives resurrects these and other American literary friendships, and gets a thumbs-up from The San Francisco Chronicle:

"Lingeman's highly accessible book is equal parts pure, gossipy fun and exhaustively researched biography. The author seems to know these writers and their work as intimately as he knows his own close friends, and his warmth and understanding suffuse every page."

Want To Be A Writer? You Crazy?

A panel in Yale recently discussed the link between creativity and mental illness. Psychology professor John Baer: "We know that for successful writers to be creative, they need to defy the crowd and ignore extrinsic constraints. Once you become famous, though, it's harder to do this. Successful artists bring a lot of stress upon themselves to be creative. Therefore, this increasing level of stress may be why they have greater incidents of mental illness." Great. First, you're unstable to attempt to write, and then when you're published, you're even more unbalanced.

Remnick's Reporting

Tina Brown at the helm of the New Yorker seemed unthinkable to many; yet, that's exactly what came to pass. Fortunately, the magazine put that sorry episode behind it and with David Remnick -- former Moscow reporter for the Washington Post -- it seems to have the editor it deserves for the 21st century. He now has a new book out, Reporting, a collection of his magazine profiles, which is praised by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, deputy editor of The Threepenny Review:

"Remnick's subjects exist on the page as themselves and as emblems, as historical actors and folkloric spirits, and this simultaneity is what creates a sort of fabulist urgency. This is not an easy tension for a storyteller to sustain, but Remnick neither depletes his characters' fullness for the sake of abstraction nor tamps down on resonance in pursuit of the particular. "