You know how people will sometimes hum a phrase or say a word or two that haunts them, as though just that phrase, just those words, could mean everything? It's the literary equivalent of the magical name of the beloved. I need only think: Belinda or Geoffrey
But it was all a mystery. Here we are,
And there we go:--but where?
(Byron, Don Juan V.39)
Look there, look there, King Lear implores, pointing to the dead Cordelia. We know she's dead, but he wants her to "stay a little," which is so much less to ask, in this final scene, than his icy, impossible demand in the first scene that she "mend her speech a little."
How can you use the market place to predict future classics? How could you even bet on the literary future? EBay has found a way -- a really interesting one. The futures markets tell us that Darren Shan (author of the young adult series Cirque du Freak) is more than twice as valuable as of today than New Yorker darling David Mitchell. But Ken Follett is a cut above that.
How do I know?
Sometimes you notice an aesthetic effect or technique and assume that there must be a name for it. But how can you look it up? Maybe you can just ask.
I've been thinking about quotations out of context for a long time: probably since Ray Bradbury made me fall in love with Yeats without my reading a word of him except Bradbury's quotations in title and epigraph. When such quotations are great -- and really that's the most fundamental reason for wanting to quote, or at least for remembering quotations, getting them by heart -- there are two ways they can be great:
At the end of a work of fiction, the ideal reader knows as much as the author. How could it be otherwise? There is nothing else to know.
This means that the end of the work is the end of omniscience.
Bloopers are bloopers, but the study of bloopers is Theory. The study of bloopers can also be fun, and should be (even if an air of quasi-tragic resignation in the face of bloopers is the central, melodramatic posture of deconstruction). It can also tell us a little about the ways that we're all essentially essentialists.
I am, at any rate.
If you're in New York and seeing You can't get there from here but you can get here from there, the show that Claire Bowen described in a recent post, you should also try to see another astonishing union of literary work and vivid display in the the seven hour production of Gatz at the Public Theater
When I was a kid I hated what I called I-books, first person narratives. It was not only that there was something unseemly about people telling the kinds of stories I liked (genre: heroic, adventurous, courageous) about themselves. There was also something just a little bit viscerally off-putting about them.
While Beckett once advised another writer to stop "blazing away at the microcosmic moon," it's sometimes an irresisitible temptation to try to "flush the coverts of the microglot," as J.L. Austin put it (in "A Plea for Excuses"). And why resist it?
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature. He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).