The battle between high culture — that of the real artists, their patrons, critics and audiences (which could be all of us) — and the anarchists and populists, is as vital as ever. This is what cries out for harder reading and thinking. There are other forces which are not on the side of the angels: increasing democratisation, the economic forces of globalisation, producing a rootless technocratic class and offering so many tempting routes to materialist excitements; there are the infinite tentacles of the internet. It is not so much the withdrawing roar of the waves down the naked shingles that depresses, as the ceaseless clamour of their electromagnetic counterparts, so difficult to avoid, so impossible to control, and (on balance, despite all the brilliant stuff) so massively, heedlessly Philistine.
Such idiosyncratic filing systems may have edifying or aesthetic advantages, but the task of organizing books is one that grows in complexity the more one tries to simplify it. Jigsawing new, more delicately drawn puzzle pieces out of a given set of titles, however brainy, often creates more confusion than it erases, spiraling inward into subcategories of subgenres of co-authored anthologies that are impossible to browse.
Reader, I have two selves. For many months, or sometimes years, I work on a novel in the privacy of my home. Each book presents problems of its own: characters that are not yet fully alive, subplots that threaten to overtake the main story, a narrative structure that needs to be rethought. Whatever the challenge, the work is never easy. Fear sits beside me. Doubt is my daily bread. If I’m lucky, I finish the book and it gets published. Then I give readings, do interviews on the radio or television, attend book parties and writers’ workshops and literary festivals. I become, however briefly, a public figure.
The line between public and private selves is different for different writers. Some are comfortable sharing many details of their lives. Neil Gaiman tells fans about his book projects, encourages people to get involved in refugee relief and tweets pictures of his wife and baby son. Other writers prefer relative anonymity. Thomas Pynchon famously doesn’t give interviews and is rarely photographed. Most writers probably fall somewhere in between.
Boys like sticks and girls prefer dolls, or so the tidy evolutionary story goes. Because stone-age men hunted game and competed for mates, boys want to play rough, take risks and assert dominance. Because women mainly cared for babies, girls still hope to nurture. Given these hard-wired differences, it is only natural that it can sometimes seem that men are from Mars and women from Venus.
In “Testosterone Rex” Cordelia Fine of the University of Melbourne takes aim at those who suggest that evolutionarily determined sex differences—and the power of testosterone—can explain why most CEOs are men and few physicists are women. She argues that essentialist presumptions that rationalise an unequal status quo are “particularly harmful to women”.
In the end, I got something other than the love story I had been expecting. In fact, this is a feminist novel, with Rose ever reminded that biology shapes destiny. She is keenly, cynically aware of her currency as a woman, and eager to feel “the grandeur of being responsible for oneself”. O’Neill writes with frankness about female sexuality, here crude and hungry. Rose is an inversion of the chaste princess: “She liked the idea of being ruined. She was curious to see what would happen to her if no man would marry her.”
Elif Batuman seems to be making a career for herself writing about academia under the titular auspices of Dostoyevsky novels. Her first book, a collection of essays called The Possessed, is part campus memoir, part comic ode to Russian literature. Its through-line arrives as a kind of call to action: this is the sort of novel American authors could to be trying to write, but aren’t. Now, with The Idiot, Batuman has gone and written one herself. The result is an uproarious debut that funnels her same academic wit and intellectual earnestness into the overactive mind of Selin, a linguistics-obsessed Harvard freshman who arrives on campus in the fall of 1995.