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As The Project kicks off this week and I start to work my way through the books on the list and share some critical thoughts in a public forum, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a responsible reader and critic. In a media landscape of sensationalist soundbites, popularist pandering and political doublespeak, it’s all to easy to think in parochial ways and to grandstand. The notion that we should honour speakers, writers, or political figures with an attentive or even loving ear seems increasingly foreign. In some cases spectacularly foreign – the current US presidential debates and their attendant reportage a case in point. 

What then might it look like to read and critique in a responsible way? I thought I’d share some thoughts and principles for what they’re worth, scattered and provisional as they are. Given the nature of The Project I have in mind here the reading of novels, but these principles, I suspect, can be expanded to other genres and forms of reading, mutatis-mutandis (I’ve always wanted to use that term!).

1. A responsible critic is a generous reader.

Meg writes of a talk she attended by young-adult writer John Green last month. Speaking at the National Book Festival in D.C., Green said there are two primary gifts his readers give him. The first, tongue in cheek,is financial support. The second he called the gift of generous reading, which he described as the virtue of approaching his books with an open mind and generous spirit. A responsible reader resists the temptation to decide ahead of time the worth of the book and particularly one’s view of it.

2. A responsible critic is first servant of the text and only then judge.

A good critic must first wear the hat of a reader before adopting the mantle of critic, using here the terminology of critic and theorist George Steiner in his essay, ” ‘Critic’/’Reader’ “. This sounds self-evident, but it’s amazing to me how often critics fail to participate as a true reader before casting judgement on a text. (A recent example that comes to mind is the criticism of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” by Rachel Held Evans, where I suspect many vocal critics haven’t failed to even look past the blurb before assaulting it)

Steiner makes the following distinctions between the reader and the critic: The critic aims to create distance between herself and the text in order to become both “judge and master” of the text, standing against the text in an adversarial, competitive, and parasitic relationship (he is not using this in a pejorative, but rather a descriptive sense… he is of course a critic himself!). The reader, however, submits to the text in dynamic passivity, eschewing as much distance as possible between himself and the text, entering into it as he is himself entered by the text. The reader is read by the text just as the text is read by him.

Any critic can assume judgement over a text, but a virtuous critic first chooses to experience and engage the text as reader.

3. A responsible critic attempts to become the model reader assumed by the text

What I have in mind here is simply that a virtuous reader plays first and foremost by the rules the text he is reading assumes. That is to say, while most texts (and particularly the literary novel that we have in view) support manifold interpretations,  anything simply does not go. Or as Umberto Eco has it, “between the unattainable intention of the author and the arguable intention of the reader there is the transparent intention of the text which disproves an untenable interpretation.” The Model Reader, according to Eco, is the one who can actualise the meaning of all that the textual strategy intends to say (on this account Eco’s Model Reader corresponds more or less to Wolgang Iser’s Implied Reader). This starts to enter into the fascinating but rather murky and complex waters of semiotics and Reader-Response theory, which I won’t belabour right now. For a brilliant and humourous essay that examines these issues in light of the reception of his own fictional novel, check out Eco’s “The Author and his Interpreters” here.

4. A responsible critic understands the author before criticising


Years ago when I first read Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis, one paragraph near launched itself from the page to possess my consciousness: “A student is not bound to reproduce slavishly the interpretations of others, but you are bound to assess critically what you read. Before you can say, “I disagree,” you must be able to say, “I understand.”” He followed this by one of the most simple but least modelled imperatives I have encountered in the real world of disagreement: “It is axiomatic that before you level criticism you should be able to state an author’s positions in terms that he or she would find acceptable.”

Fee has in his purview here secondary literature of a propositional nature, but the general ethos carries well over to the role of literary critic.

5. A responsible critic is a humble critic


The critic, like the author, is all too human, and really ought to stand before the text with a knowledge of his own limitations and short-comings. Yep, I need remember this one.

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The notion of responsible reading, particularly as I’ve sketched above in terms of virtue, is conspicuously and unapologetically a moral conception. With Vanhoozer I think that a virtuous reader is one with “a disposition of the mind and heart that arises from the motivation of understanding, for cognitive contact with the meaning of the text.” Recent thinking in virtue ethics, particularly through the work of Zagzebski, indicate the inextricable connection between intellectual virtues and moral virtues. As such, reading develops our intellectual virtues and, circularly, our intellectual virtues develop us as readers.

These five principles may be subsumed under the rubric of A Hermeneutic of Love. Scot McKnight, commenting on Alan Jacob’s book A Theology of Reading writes,

 

“genuine interpretation of another’s writing is an act of love or it is an act of abuse. Either we treat the author as a person who has given voice to his or her inner heart and that we can trust, listen to, and respond to. Or, we treat that person as a duplicitous voice that we can’t trust and that we can strip in order to use for our own power.”

 

I find this provocative, challenging, and critical. Ultimately, the way we choose to read and critique a text says more about our own character than it necessarily does about the author or the text itself. To read lovingly, as to love in general, is a challenge. As Katherine Porter wrote so eloquently, “Love must be learned, and learned again and again; there is no end to it. Hate needs no instruction, but waits only to be provoked”.  Or with St Francis, “grant that I may not so much seek … to be understood, as to understand, to be loved, as to love.”

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John Updike is a brilliant contemporary American novelists as well as respected critic (I’m incredibly excited to get to his Rabbit Angrstrom Tetrology on the list, even though it means reading 4 books instead of the usual 1 a week). Over at Book of words is a reprint of Updike’s Rules of Reviewing Books, which is an excellent starting point for the would be reviewer:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.…

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never…try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.


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Here friends are the first five books of The Project:

  1. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
  2. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  3. The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson
  4. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
  5. The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

Several of you have mentioned a desire to read along with some or many of the books and I’m quite excited to hear from you as I review! The company will be nice.

The plan is to pick 5 books at a time with some diversity of date of publication and style/content in mind. I will then announce them a couple of weeks ahead of time to give any of you who want to join me a chance to get hold of a text. Then, quite simply, one book read a week and one review posted.

But in this first installment I’ll be immediately breaking with that plan as I just finished the fifth book last week. So in this instance I will spread the five reviews over the next two to three weeks. I plan to have a fairly standard model of review but will from time to time engage with ideas and interpretation of particular novels that really grab me in separate posts.

I’ll announce the second group of five books in the next day or two. If you want me to read or review anything in a particular order, let me know 🙂

Let the games begin!

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My wife tells me that I can be a little obsessive with my hobbies and projects. She also tells me that I have a serious book problem. This is not going to help either opinion.

The Project, as I’m calling it, is simple: I am going to read and review 100 of the best novels of the last century in, I hope, 100 weeks. My own idiosyncratic top 100.

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This idea had its genesis over my weekly lunch and beer with a good friend a couple of months ago. We were discussing the general state of our literate society and I was lamenting, as a good former English major is apt to do, the ubiquity of piffle that seems to be in everyone’s hands these days… if they bother read at all. I was thinking, I’m sure, of 50 Shades of Grey, which seems to be handed out with train tickets in this country judging by a glance over your average peak-hour carriage. This was particularly sad, I argued, given the swelling contingent of great contemporary novelists. My friend asked for some examples and suggested I name my top five novels and authors of the last 25 years, which I hazarded in an extemporaneous muster that felt rushed and inadequate the moment I closed my mouth.

I went home and spent the next few hours assembling something more satisfying, which succeeded primarily in getting myself excited to get hold of a new book or two.

A few days later I visited the local bookstore and bought a copy of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, one of the authors I recommended. I’ve loved his writing for years now and vaguely remembered reading this, his magnum opus, when I was in high school. I’m typically a rather fast reader but working through this took me weeks. (Protracted more than a little, no doubt, by the arrival of our daughter.) But it was predominately the language – the gushing onslaught of esoteric, wicked and oddly biblical verbiage that drags your protesting conscience through one of the most blood-drenched landscapes any novelist has dared paint. McCarthy reminded me of how mindblowingly reeling a good novel could be.

So, like any powerful drug, I wanted another shot.

And so began my quest to compile a list of contemporary must-reads. In the process I stumbled across 101books.net, Robert Bruce’s excellent site which provided the last piece of the puzzle. Robert is blogging his way through Time Magazine’s 100 greatest novels. I think the concept is brilliant and is a perfect excuse for me to read more and finally get back to blogging.

Trouble is the Times List, like the Modern Library’s top 100, didn’t quite satisfy. Among other things the former was too heavily US-centric and where the Modern Library list was slightly more geographically balanced it presented a shameful 8 out of 100 books written by women. Not to mention post-colonialist and ethnically diverse authors writing in English.

Any list that attempts to construct a sort of canon of great literature must by nature of the endeavour also privelege older novels that have established themselves over the more recent. But I have read a lot of classic novels and wanted to read some more recent fiction…

And I didn’t want to read anything that I have read too recently (or that I hated!)…

And I wanted new books for my library…

And I wanted to read Australian authors that I’ve sadly neglected (rare specimens indeed in the prestigious aforementioned lists)…

Ultimately, I wanted a list that met some pretty specific criteria and above all, that I could be excited about each individual book. A list that didn’t exist.

 So I thought it would be fun to create my own using the logic above and the following explicit criteria:

  1. Must be a novel (no short stories)
  2. Must be originally composed in English (no translations)
  3. Must be published within the last 100 years (1913 – 2012)
  4. Must be literary fiction (this is inescapably ambiguous, but given that I’m the final arbiter of my list this is an internal argument in my own troubled head)
  5. At least 25% of the novels must be written by women
  6. At least 10% of the novels must be written by Australians
  7. No author can be represented more than twice
  8. Attempt an even spread of date of composition

Well, if you’ve waded your way this far, here is The Project:

1

Sons and Lovers

DH Lawrence

1913

UK

2

Of Human Bondage

W Somerset Maugham

1915

UK

3

A Portrait of the Artist as the Young Man

James Joyce

1916

UK

4

Ulysses

James Joyce

1922

UK

5

A Passage to India

EM Foster

1924

UK

6

The Great Gatsby

F Scott Fitzgerald

1925

US

7

An American Tragedy

Theodore Dreiser

1925

US

8

Mrs Dalloway

Virginia Woolf

1925

UK

9

The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway

1926

US

10

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Willa Cather

1927

US

11

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Thornton Wilder

1927

US

12

To The Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf

1927

US

13

The Sound and the Fury

William Faulkner

1929

US

14

As I Lay Dying

William Faulkner

1930

US

15

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley

1932

UK

16

I, Claudius

Robert Graves

1934

UK

17

Appointment in Samarra

John O’Hara

1934

US

18

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neal Hurston

1937

US

19

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler

1939

UK

20

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck

1939

US

21

The Day of the Locust

Nathanael West

1939

US

22

The Man Who Loved Children

Christina Stead

1940

AUS

23

Darkness at Noon

Arthur Koestler

1940

HUN-UK

24

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Carson McCullers

1940

US

25

The Power and the Glory

Graham Greene

1942

UK

26

Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh

1945

UK

27

All The Kings Men

Robert Penn Warren

1946

US

28

Under the Volcano

Malcolm Lowry

1947

CA

29

The Heart of the Matter

Graham Greene

1948

UK

30

The Harp in the South

Ruth Park

1948

AUS

31

Nineteen Eight-Four

George Orwell

1949

UK

32

The Catcher in the Rye

JD Salinger

1951

US

33

Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

1952

US

34

Wise Blood

Flannery O’Connor

1952

US

35

The Adventures of Augie March

Saul Bellows

1953

CA-US

36

Go Tell it on the Mountain

James Baldwin

1953

US

37

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury

1953

US

38

Lord of the Flies

William Golding

1954

UK

39

Lucky Jim

Kingsley Amis

1954

UK

40

Lolita

Vladimir Nabakov

1955

RUS-US

41

On the Road

Jack Kerouac

1957

US

42

Voss

Patrick White

1957

AUS

43

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe

1958

NIG

44

Rabbit Angstrom Tetrology

John Updike

1960

US

45

To Kill a Mocking Bird

Harper Lee

1960

US

46

Revolutionary Road

Richard Yates

1961

US

47

A House for Mr. Biswas

V. S. Naipul

1961

TRIN

48

Catch-22

Joseph Heller

1961

US

49

A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess

1962

UK

50

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

Ken Kesey

1962

US

51

Pale Fire

Vladimir Nabakov

1962

RUS-US

52

The Golden Notebook

Doris Lessing

1962

UK

53

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

John le Carré

1963

UK

54

Herzog

Saul Bellows

1964

CA-US

55

The Crying of Lot 49

Thomas Pynchon

1966

US

56

Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys

1966

DOM-UK

57

Slaughterhouse Five

Kurt Vonnegut

1969

US

58

Gravity’s Rainbow

Thomas Pynchon

1973

US

59

Sophie’s Choice

William Styron

1979

US

60

Earthly Powers

Anthony Burgess

1980

UK

61

Housekeeping

Marilyn Robinson

1980

US

62

Waiting for the Barbarians

JM Coetzee

1980

SA

63

Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie

1981

IND-UK

64

Schindler’s Ark

Thomas Kenneally

1982

AUS

65

The Color Purple

Alice Walker

1983

US

66

Money

Martin Amis

1984

UK

67

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy

1985

US

68

White Noise

Don DeLillo

1985

US

69

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

1985

CA

70

Beloved

Toni Morrison

1987

US

71

The Satanic Verses

Salman Rushdie

1988

IND-UK

72

Oscar and Lucinda

Peter Carey

1989

AUS

73

Possession

A.S.Byatt

1990

UK

74

American Psycho

Bret Easton Ellis

1991

US

75

Cloudstreet

Tim Winton

1991

AUS

76

Border Trilogy

Cormac McCarthy

1992

US

77

The Blue Flower

Penelope Fitzgerald

1995

UK

78

Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace

1996

US

79

The God of Small Things

Arundhati Roy

1997

IND

80

American Pastoral

Phillip Roth

1997

US

81

Underworld

Don DeLillo

1997

US

82

Amsterdam

Ian McEwan

1998

UK

83

Disgrace

JM Coetzee

1999

SA

84

Drylands

Thea Astley

1999

AUS

85

Human Stain

Phillip Roth

2000

US

86

White Teeth

Zadie Smith

2000

UK

87

The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood

2000

CA

88

The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen

2001

US

89

Journey to the Stone Country

Alex Miller

2002

AUS

90

The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini

2003

AFG-US

91

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Susanna Clarke

2004

UK

92

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro

2005

JAP-UK

93

Gilead

Marilyn Robinson

2005

US

94

Carpentaria

Alexis Wright

2006

AUS

95

The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz

2008

DOM-US

96

The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobsen

2010

UK

97

A Sense of An Ending

Julian Barnes

2011

UK

98

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan

2011

US

99

The Deadman Dance

Kim Scott

2011

AUS

100

Foal’s Bread

Gillian Mears

2012

AUS

If you are a book lover I’d love for you to read any of these along with me and share your thoughts as I blog. I will pick books in groups of five and announce them ahead of time to give the opportunity for anyone interested to be involved.

I would love to hear from you. What do you think of the project? What books did I miss that you would include on your list?

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