David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

From the introduction to Steven Moore’s The Novel:

In the early 1990s I was an editor at Dalkey Archive Press, which specialized in what one bookseller disparaged as “egghead” fiction. The most difficult and demanding novel we published was probably Julián Ríos’s Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel, sort of Spain’s answer to Finnegans Wake. It received fine reviews across the country, including a spirited one from Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, but since the New York Times Book Review adamantly ignored it (despite Carlos Fuentes’s pleading) and a promised review in the Voice Literary Supplement fell through, I decided to try to reach that hip demographic with an ad in the VLS captioned “Are You Reader Enough for Larva?” The mock-macho appeal was intended to attract those who like a literary challenge, as well as those who are open to new artistic experiences. Since I’m convinced those who malign innovative fiction do so more for personal, temperamental reasons than for the aesthetic ones they publicly espouse, here’s a test you can take to see if you’re the right kind of reader for writerly texts:

1. You are an average Joe or Jane and have moved to a big city offering lots of culture. One night you’re strolling past an art-house theater and the manager is out front giving away tickets to fill the house (the money’s in the concessions). Having nothing better to do, you take a seat and soon learn the movie is in a foreign language and has no subtitles. Do you:

(a) automatically get up and leave, knowing you won’t completely understand it?

(b) stay and get what you can out of it: appreciate the cinematography, the background music, the way an actress holds her purse, the possibility of a sex scene, etc.?

2. A neighbor gives you a free ticket to the ballet in gratitude for babysitting her cat last week. You go and discover it’s not a simple story ballet like Gisele or Swan Lake but an evening of abstract dance. Do you:

(a) give your ticket away because you don’t “understand” modern dance?

(b) stay and enjoy the show: the unusual choreography, the beautiful bodies poured into bodystockings, the weird music, etc.?

3. Speaking of weird music: you go to a club hoping for some good ol’ rock ’n’ roll, but instead of a long-haired band there’s a bald DJ spinning some techno-ambient concoction unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. Do you:

(a) pull an Ashbery by crying, “I don’t understand this at all” and burst into tears?

(b) let the music wash over you, let yourself find the pulse, maybe even ask that purple-haired girl in the striped tights to dance?

4. You’ve had enough of the big city and decide to return home. Waiting for a bus, you pick up a discarded copy of Larva and, because you have a long bus-ride ahead of you, begin reading. You quickly discover it is not a conventional novel. Do you:

(a) discard it and stare out the window all the way back home?


From an old interview with Steve Albini:

I can dig the Ramones and the Birthday Party and the Stooges and SPK and Minor Threat and Whitehouse and Link Wray and Chrome and Pere Ubu and Rudimentary Peni and Four Skins and Throbbing Gristle and Skrewdriver and the Ex and Minimal Man and US Chaos and Gang Green and Tommi Stumpff and the Swans and Bad Brains all at the same time, and if you can’t then fuck you.


  1. The book has a very strange cover – where are her clothes? Isn’t she cold? Am I the only one who doesn’t read novels in these circumstances?
    Love the slipped-in Lou Reed quote (actress/purse), though.

  2. Steve Moore seems to be to lit what Ray Carney is to film.

  3. “Writerly text” is a breathtakingly dimwitted phrase. In a book about the history of the novel no less. The invidiousness of that quiz is pretty astonishing, too, so thanks for the Albini antidote.

    And my copy of Hebdemeros by de Chirico has an introduction by Ashbery from the 60s, so I don’t know where the fuck Moore is coming from on that one.

  4. Thank you for linking to the review — I never would’ve worked out what he meant by “pull an Ashbery.”

    I’m sympathetic to Moore’s tastes and goals, but the execution seems a bit off.

  5. What Ray says about Moore I have to say about Josipovici, “What Ever Happened to Modernism”, though ‘sympathetic’ may understate the case. Another alternative history of the novel, among other things; surely not as blatant in its posturing (though one wouldn’t know that from the press it’s gotten).

  6. I am more sympathetic to Moore than waggish. While some of us are puzzling over the third critique, disinterested judgment and other matters of dubious importance, Moore zeros in on the major issue in play in actual aesthetic judgments. For Moore, and I suspect most shoppers at the Strand, aesthetic judgments are all about seeming intelligent, giving off a whiff of sophistication and a dab of pretension. The elect walk among us, yes. They may seem to defecate and eat, yes. But they have a well thumbed copy of larva sneaking out of their skinny jeans; a tessera to the kingdom of the chosen.

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