Friday, August 17, 2007

Cultural Critical Differences in Reading Material

I love the title of this post, it sounds like a Routledge-published, NYU-edited cultural studies reader!

One inconvenient thing when moving to a different country is the sudden loss of all of one's cultural gateposts and references.
For example, the pronunciation of Latin/Ancient Greek names differs, even Latin quotes are not the same. It is not "Et Tu, Brutus?" but "Tu Quoque, mi fili" which is used in France, both quotes drifting away from Suetonius who actually used a Greek sentence "καὶ σὺ τέκνον." To my great dismay I never learned Ancient Greek, so the above characters may mean anything, really. But you can copy and paste and send it to your former best friend when you're having a huge falling out, to show off how classy and educated you are. It's cool to be arrogant and condescending in Ancient Greek, no?

Another problems is the way canonic texts are edited differs from one publisher or translator to another, so one famous Freud essay may be published along different essays than in the French translation.
To go back to the classics, I usually read the Latin authors in bilingual editions which are never, never expurgated or censored in France. Somehow it is impossible for me to read Latin alongside English, so here I buy English-only translations which are always, always expurgated.
Supposedly to shorten the editions, but I get very crabby when the publisher (Penguin, Thou Art Responsible For Depriving Unsuspecting Readers of Juicy Content) decides in my name what I shouldn't read. Even if they are "boring descriptions": these may include some historical content or geographical elements I am interested in.

Also, when in need of fiction reading I always run into the same problem: the untrustworthiness of literary critics in say, the NYT or the LAT. Many of them do have an agenda (the grotesque review of Jon Savage's latest by Camille Paglia comes to mind, it's all about her as usual). When they don't, it is impossible for me to know whether the authors are getting a review in there because they are school cronies of the paper editors.
I suspect most of them are, as with the overpraised chick-lit for Wall Street male traders opus, Merger & Acquisitions by one Dana Vachon. The name means something like "large cow" in French, so it is a bit unfortunate. One look at the guy's picture, he is not even cute but that's OK, many writers are not (on a side note, I kinda want to read Nathan Englander because I find his pix rather sexy, with his floppy curly hair dangling on his forehead).
The praise for the book was a bit unsettling for me as it was often referencing Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis, two writers for which I have very little interest. But some of the reviews were mentioning the book was about the work life on Wall Street, and regardless of the location of the action, I have been pining for books about "work" for a long time.
So I bought the thing, read it in something like 2 hours and realized that yes, once again it was a blatant example of reviewers/authors cronyism. The content is so mediocre I fail to understand why this book found a publisher in the first place. The action is totally unbelievable, as are all the very schematic and caricatural characters. The writer tries very painfully to be funny and fails systematically: descriptions of spilled beverages may work well in visual slapstick comedies but certainly not on paper.

I was very disappointed as I read it on the trail of Joshua Ferris' first book which I liked enormously, save for the end. I was expecting something rather similar. I must also point out that both Ellis and McInerney are much more interesting writers than Vachon, and God knows how boring I think there are.
So unfortunately the only way for me to find some literary guidance is to rely on my friends' advice as well as on the recommendations provided by my one and only distinguished literary correspondent (Hi Mike!). The latter has recommended James Wood to my attention, so I'll follow what Wood will publish in the New Yorker. In the meantime, I'll try to get to read the latest Christian Jurgensen. And will get wary of NYT and LAT reviews...

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