Looking back, looking ahead

January 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s the first day of 2011 and perusing the Internets, I notice a bunch of literary types looking back and making resolutions about moving forward. The Globe and Mail recently published a list of thirty writers’ choices for their favourite books from 2010. Contributors include Alison Pick, Charlotte Gray, André Alexis, and Karen Solie; the resulting list is predictably eclectic and intriguing. Over at Pickle Me This, Kerry Clare has put together a list of worthy books she read last year that were not published in calendar year 2010. Jessa Crispin reflects on how a slim volume about Coco Chanel set the tone and the path for her entire reading experience in 2010. And The Washington Post‘s Jonathan Yardley confesses disappointment in the fiction of 2010 (and the state of American literature in general).

Looking ahead to the coming year, The Los Angeles Times‘ book blog, Jacket Copy, provides a list of 37 resolutions by writers, critics, and bloggers. The contributors variously vow to ignore Goodreads, to be more engaged with Goodreads, to read Infinite Jest, to finish reading Infinite Jest, and to drink less. Of the group, the resolution closest to my heart is that of writer and bookseller Emma Straub:

In 2011, I’m going to challenge myself more as a reader. More nonfiction! More esoteric subjects! I want to give myself the chance to say, you know, that really wasn’t for me, and the chance to be surprised by loving something unexpected.

This dovetails with something Stephen Burn says in his contribution to The New York Timesseries of essays about why, in 2011, criticism still matters:

I sometimes fear that a narrow artistic palette can be mistaken for critical standards, and I believe it’s past time to dispense with prejudices about character, emotivity, and realism that hardened during the 19th century: a strongly realist character-based novel isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t the only thing. A contemporary novel offers an opportunity to measure fiction’s mutating forms – to note, perhaps, the dominance of time as a thematic obsession in works of the last 20 years, or the emergence of the family epic, with its generational conflicts, as it becomes perhaps the signature subgenre of the American novel today. Equally, critics might overhaul their sense of a static literary past and think instead of the novel actively engaging with its forebears.

The entire series is well worth reading, but perhaps I’ll give the last word about criticism to Kate Roiphe, and wish you all a very happy and prosperous 2011:

If the critic has to compete with the seductions of Facebook, with shrewdly written television, with culturally relevant movies – with, in short, every bright thing that flies to the surface of the iPhone – that’s all the more reason for him to write dramatically, vividly, beautifully, to have, as Alfred Kazin wrote in 1960, a “sense of the age in his bones.” The critic could take all of this healthy competition, the challenge of dwindling review pages, the slash in pay, as a sign to be better, to be irreplaceable, to transcend.