Alternative Culture & Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital

By Vanessa Bell

I procrastinate.  Every time I look at my blog I think, Oh, no! Must I really write a  900-word post about Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital?

I’m a typical American “lady” blogger…just wordy.

I used to feel like a member of an alternative culture, or a girl group. But blogging isn’t as much fun as it used to be: it is more mainstream now that Netgalley offers us the same review copies which traditional media review.  Our charm and quirks are lost in our earnest plot summaries.  We even have our own blogging rituals, like Women in Translation Month in August and All Virago, All August.

Twelve of my blogger friends have stopped blogging in recent years. I miss Nancy at Silver Threads, who wrote lively posts on her reading of the classics and older books, and  Tom at A Common Reader, who reviewed literature in translation and crime fiction.

And now  I Prefer Reading is tired and has gone on break.  She wrote,

I’ve been feeling less enthusiastic about blogging for a few months now. I’ve been watching quite a bit of Book Tube & I like the idea of maybe a Book Haul & a monthly wrap up instead of longer reviews with a bit of Literary Rambling thrown in. I don’t know but I need a break to think about it all.

It is no small thing to write posts, columns, or reviews as a hobby.  But mainstream publications no longer deride book blogs, presumably because we are no longer  a threat.

And so, while reflecting on the changing “alternative”  blog culture, I will write very briefly about Kawabata’s The Old Capital, set in Kyoto and published in 1962.

In this spare, elegant novel, Kawabata describes the consolation of nature and its changing depictions in design in post-war Kyoto: can  traditional kimono design, hand-weaving, and other crafts survive industrialization and the shattering changes wrought by World War II?

In The Old Capital, the  heroine, Chieko, is an ardent nature lover:  she feels bliss at the sight of the first violets of spring, the blossoms on the weeping cherry trees, and the gigantic camphor trees.  She also marvels over the details of the joyous seasonal festivals she attends and the elaborate ceremonies at temples.

Chieko lives with her adoptive parents, her father, Takichuro, a kimono designer, and her practical mother, a housewife.  But Takichuro’s dry goods business is foundering and he believes  has lost his talent for design.  Chieko gives him a Paul Klee book, which inspires him to do an abstract obi design.  But the talented young weaver he hires to weave the obi is  harsh in his criticism of the new design.  Only Chieko believes in her father.  (And with reason.)

Chieko could not ask for more loving parents, but she  is curious about her origins. Her parents  tell her they kidnapped her (her mother says, “Your real parents were probably crazed with grief” ).  She says, “Tell me the truth.  I was a foundling, wasn’t I?” But her mother feels the pain of abandonment would harm her daughter.

Then by chance at a festival Chieko  meets a woman who looks just like her.   Naeko is her identical twin, and is overjoyed to find her  sister, whom she knew her father had abandoned.  But Naeko, a laborer, does not want to transcend class boundaries, and says it is enough to have met her once.  But they do see each other a few times, and their bond is cemented  via their love of nature and a modern obi design.

A gorgeous book!  This is very spare, but I loved it.  The translation is by J. Martin Holman.

And I’m well under 900 words.   I can breathe again.

Man Up! It’s Hard to Be a Critic

A. O. Scott has written a new book, Better Living Through Criticism.  If you’re like me,  you do not know who A. O. Scott is.  He is the movie critic for the New York Times.  No, he is the film critic.

I do not see many films at the germy cineplex here.  In the last few months, I have seen Star Wars, Joy, and The Lady in the Van.  The first two are what I call movies; the last may be a film.  And I must say, Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for an Oscar for her role in Joy, is the Prettiest Actress Ever Stuck Playing the Inventor of a Mop.

I am never going to read a book with the title  Better Living Through Criticism.  I am a great fan of Pauline Kael’s witty essays, which  have titles like “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?”

But I did read Nathan Heller’s lively review in The New Yorker of Scott’s book.

I cannot criticize a book on the basis of a review (or is it criticism?), but I can’t resist because I gather that Scott’s book is a lament about being a Gen-Xer who went to an Ivy League school and now writes criticism and doesn’t get the respect he wants.  Heller says Scott makes “a case for his embattled craft.” It seems that Scott assumes that readers of blogs and Yelp!  cannot tell the difference between film criticism and the reviews of  “Blogging Bob” (a character invented by Heller).

Heller is a young smart writer. He opens the review with a description of  George Orwell’s writing reviews for money and not respecting the work.  Then Heller segues into the difference between critics and “Blogging Bob.”

What’s the point of a reviewer in an age when everyone reviews? A common defense of the endeavor centers on three qualities: expertise, eloquence, and attention. Critics have essential skills that Blogging Bob does not. They know more. They are decent writers, who can give a fair encapsulation of a work and detail their responses. And they’re focussed: since their job is studying and explaining the object at hand, they are especially alert to its nuances.

Yes, it’s funny–but “Blogging Bob?”

Then Heller condescendingly adds that Blogging Bob, a tax accountant, may indeed have a lively voice and know about films. But the damage is done.  Nice try, but the name Blogging Bob says it all.

A. O. Scott may or may not be Critic Claude. I have invented the character Critic Claude in response to Heller’s invention of Blogging Bob.  This is not Scott’s fault.  And yet I am so, so very tired of white male Ivy League-educated critics complaining about the waning of criticism when they have jobs that others would kill for.  The quotations from Scott’s books are not especially promising.  “Will it sound defensive or pretentious if I say that criticism is an art in its own right?”

Yes, it sounds defensive because we already know that.

Here is another quote from Scott:

It is my contention here that criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood; that criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name—the proper name—for the defense of art itself.

Criticism has its place; We have no problem with that.

But I, too, have seen some changes in the culture.  It’s a tough life!  Scott graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and then found work at prestigious publications in New York. Heller also graduated from Harvard and ditto.  I got my master’s from a state university  and could barely pay the rent with my teaching job. (I switched professions.)  And most of the Latin (slave) teaching jobs, German teaching jobs,  etc., are long gone except at eastern private schools that pay much lower wages than the public schools.

I ask myself, What would Pauline Kael do?   She wrote: “Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply, just because you must use everything you are and everything you know.”

We love the internet; we hate the internet.  Our little blogs are not criticism. Godspeed, Mr. Scott!   But criticism isn’t the most embattled profession.

Your True Self Fries Away

Facebook is crack.”–Henry Higgins (John Cho) on Selfie, a cancelled TV show


Karen Gillan and John Cho in "Selfie" (a canceled sitcom)

Karen Gillan and John Cho in “Selfie” (a canceled sitcom about social media addiction)

In a recent review in The Washington Post of the scientist Susan Greenfield’s new book, How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains,  I was fascinated by her thesis that the internet ruins lives.  She cites a Korean couple whose baby starved while they pursued video gaming.

Although the reviewer Matthew Wisnioski is not a fan of Greenfield, I felt a pang of recognition as I read his recap of some of her evidence. He begins the review:

This is your brain on digital technology. A flick of the thumb sparks a pale glow. You wait for the dopamine rush of an incoming message. Like a pathological gambler, you check again. And again. You feed your narcissistic impulses with tweets. Lacking face-to-face cues, you knock a “friend” down a peg on Facebook. Keeping loneliness at bay, you “like” a few others. Hours of catapulted birds later, you finger the off button. Repeat the cycle. You hardly notice as the synapses of your true self fry away.

How well I know this feeling.   I do not tweet and I do not do Facebook, but  I have certainly been an internet addict. When I first went online the ’90s, I found a site that was rather like Goodreads, except people wrote much longer posts and  IMed constantly.

That addiction, however, was nothing compared to my blogging addiction. When I began Mirabile Dictu a few years ago, I resolved to post every day. Why? I still don’t know. I enjoyed the project for the first year. I enjoyed it less last year. And then I found I was reading less because I posted so much. And that’s frightening, because posting is not, in my opinion, the same thing as writing.

Has blogging ruined my writing? It certainly ruined my reading.  When I discovered that I was reading less, I decided to cut back on blogging.

And so I am carefully measuring out my time online.  Thank God, I have managed to read one book a day this year.  Because that’s who I am, you know?  A reader.

The internet can be a good thing or a bad thing.  Blogging is a wonderful opportunity to express our love of books, and I have become acquainted with several bloggers and generous writers who agreed to be interviewed here.  .And yet lurking at the back of our minds is the knowledge that many critics and writers mock bloggers.

Didn’t I tell you about the time Lynne Sharon Schwartz plagiarized a passage from my blog?

Her last novel, Two Part Invention, was a story of plagiarism. Based on the story of Joyce Hatto and her husband William Barrington-Coupe, a recording engineer who snitched musical phrases from other artists and synced them into his wife’s recordings, the novel is a sympathetic take on the couple’s strange enterprise, with names and details changed. The characters don’t quite come to life, the writing is flat, I was ready to put the book down, and then I came to the part where she “borrowed” an incident from my blog.

I had posted about trying to get ice for my mother at the nursing home, and noted that I could push but not too hard because I  didn’t want anyone to hold it against her as a patient. I added a few lines about my mother’s former pushiness when I was in fourth grade.  I wrote,

It’s like the time in fourth grade when she complained to my teacher when I got a B instead of an A in geography. For the rest of the year, the teacher humiliated me by asking, “Are your grades good enough for your mother?”

In Schwartz’s novel:

Her quarterly report card gave him nothing to reproach her with. Until, in the fourth grade, she presented a report card to him as usual for his signature… He gave the report card a cursory glance, a small folded four-sided document on stiff paper that attempted to look official. He was searching for his fountain pen, when he noticed the B+ in geography.

Christ, she didn’t even bother to change fourth grade to another grade .

All right!  I’m over it.

Except for a few little things.

Such as that it’s immoral.

Merriam-Webster tells us that plagiarism is:

  • to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own
  • to use (another’s production) without crediting the source
  • to commit literary theft
  • to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source

In other words, it is unethical.

I like to get credit for my own work.

It must be quite a blog if sleazeballs think they ought to plagiarize it.

Are they high-fiving each other?

And what on earth must their creative writing students endure if their teachers feel free to plagiarize?


We listened to Aretha when I was a waitress.  Her version of “Respect” was better than Otis Redding’s, we thought.

We thought a lot about respect.  None of us was really getting it.

Ellen Burstyn and Chris Christopherson in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More.

Ellen Burstyn and Chris Christopherson in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More.

I was a bad waitress.  I was too intent on reading Doris Lessing to pay attention to my customers.  I once dropped a plate of spaghetti on somebody’s lap.  He left a huge tip because I was so embarrassed.

Once a group of 30 Amish people came in and ordered milkshakes.  We had one milkshake machine.  We served them.

But we didn’t get respect.

We didn’t really expect it.

In the Midwest, even if you’re smart, you don’t get respect.  You’re not allowed to brag about your achievements.  You are not allowed to brag in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, or Minnesota.

If you’re a waitress, your achievements are minimal.

If you’ve won a prize, it’s hard to work it into the conversation.

If a friend stops speaking to you when you’ve won a prize he or she expected to win, that’s another reason not to brag.

When bloggers congratulate themselves and boast about their achievements, I’m always thinking, They can’t be serious.  Sometimes I think English bloggers get more respect than Americans.  But then I can think of more star English bloggers than American bloggers.  Who ARE the star American bloggers?

So now I’ll congratulate myself.  I have been blogging here for exactly a year.  When I started Mirabile Dictu on Dec. 11 last year, I wasn’t looking for respect.  I simply needed to do better.

I was tired of reading critics in The New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Guardian (and if I’ve missed anybody, let me know) who said that blogs, Twitter, and other social media were too “nice” and ruining criticism.

Well, fuck, I thought.  Don’t they know we could do better?

I liked some of these critics; some of them I liked less.  I dismissed what they said.  We were not writing essays; how could they mistake us?   But I was also a little worried.  Were reactions on Goodreads changing the way editors edited books? I hoped not.

If they are, that’s too bad.

Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles, used to be an editor.  When she said at a reading that she knew what people liked to read, something clicked in my brain that said, Uh oh.  I like her book very much, but when people think they know what we like to read…no, that’s not good.

Anyway, I didn’t start this blog to get respect or figure out what people like to read.  I just  decided to do (marginally) better at keeping a book journal that is also my diary.

So what have I accomplished this year?

1.  I  intended to write more punctiliously and less often than I did at my old blog.  I still write very, very often. Possibly more often than I used to.

2.  I intended to be more tactful.  I have been marginally.  I lost a reader over Jane Austen, though.

2.  This year 58% of the books I’ve read so far are by women and 42% by men.   Last year my book journal stats were so out of whack in favor of women that I tried to correct them.

3.  I have (I think) written about more contemporary writers this year than last.

4.  I continue to read a lot of classics and reprints.  I have read fewer Viragos. I hope more will turn up at the Planned Parenthood sale.  I haven’t read any Persephones this year.  I recommend Enid Bagnold’s The Squire (which is one of Persephone’s present offerings):   I read it a few years ago.  I need to read more books by small presses.

5,  I interviewed five of my “Best of 2013 So Far” writers (see sidebar): Peter Stothard, author of Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra,  Steve Yarbrough, author of The Realm of Last Chances, Karen E. Bender, author of A Town of Empty Rooms, D. J. Taylor, author of The Windsor Faction, and Lionel Shriver, author of Big Brother.


It is about writing for myself, being honest about books (a book can be brilliant even if it’s not absolutely to my taste), trying not to over-explain, and amusing myself  with semi-personal essays.


Interview bloggers about blogging.

WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF BLOGGING?  I do need to find out about more blogs.  Some seem to have burned out.  I recently weeded several from my blogroll, not because they were bad, but because I never visited them.  Please recommend your favorites.

My Cat Sent an E-Mail

I want the real life
I want to live the real life–“The Real Life,” John Mellencamp

Parody of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks

Parody of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

I love the internet.

An online book group I belonged to once gathered at The Southern Festival of Books.

I have done e-mail interviews.

I have written fan e-mails to favorite writers (though I think they would prefer real fan letters).

I have read blogs and international newspapers.

I have read approximately 40 books by Trollope as a longtime member of Ellen Moody’s Trollope19thCStudies at Yahoo Groups.

On the other hand, my family believes I should get offline because of the National Security Agency electronic surveillance program.

It is devastating to learn that this seven-year-old NSA surveillance program of metadata from cell phones and e-mail flourishes under Obama. According to Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker (June 24, 2013), the information has not yet been used to abridge “any citizen’s freedom of speech, expression, or association,” as far as anyone knows.  But he adds,

The harm is civic.  The harm is collective.  The harm is to the architecture of trust and accountability that supports an open society and a democratic polity.  The harm is to the reputation, and, perhaps the reality of the United States as such a society, such a polity.

This is not why we voted for Obama.

The NSA surveillance may not affect us much so far, but what if a future government starts a Fahrenheit 451-style purge based on misinterpretations of the data (in Ray Bradbury’s book and Truffaut’s movie, the government favors book burnings and reports of subversion among readers and thinkers)?

There has been a kind of flatness about Obama’s presidency  It is not that he hasn’t done good:  no one else could have passed a Health Reform bill (people have tried), he got the troops out of Iraq, recognized climate change, and has supported gay marriage.

Still, there has been that shiftiness about Guantanamo.  We would have liked to see the Patriot Act revoked.

One can’t help but think the NSA agents and government subcontractors have us exactly where they want us on the internet.  Everything we do is here forever.

Most of us are boring.  I don’t have a cell phone.  My e-mail is hardly incendiary.  Three of the more riveting emails I’ve written lately?  “Have you seen Argo?”  “No, it’s not too bad out,”  and “My book hasn’t arrived.”

At my blog the “surveill-ors” can read about bicycling and novels.  Most disturbing is the fact that they will think I am a really bad writer.  If I’d only known, I would have written more carefully.  I’M JOKING!

E-mail is not the greatest invention.  I prefer to write real letters, though I seldom do it anymore.  In Nora Ephron’s book, I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections, she  wrote a funny list, “Things I Won’t Miss.” Third on the list was e-mail.

E-mail can get you into trouble.  Once I sent a personal e-mail to an entire group by mistake.  Worse, my cat once sent the rough draft of an email to my boss by jumping on the keys.  That did not end well.

And yet I love the internet.  I will continue blogging.

Why We Blog & Review Copies: Should We or Shouldn’t We?

Does your book room look like this?

Does your book room look like this?

I am under the radar at mirabile dictu.

I can write what I like, post a rough draft if I like (and I do), re-edit it after publication if I feel like it, yank it, put it back or forget it.

There is something empowering yet cozy about blogging.  We have opportunities to write about books that journalists and reviewers ignore.   Professional writing is probably more satisfying, but in my experience the good professional pre-internet work always disappears, while the sloppily-written-on-the-computer stuff remains forever in cyberspace.  My ex- found the worst thing I have ever written, and then emailed me.  I was  glad to hear from him after so many years, but wanted to say, Couldn’t you have read this one instead?

Last December, I had to rethink what I wanted to do with my blog.  At my old blog, things had gotten beyond empowering.  I had a lot of traffic, a lot of spam, and a lot of unkind comments, which I didn’t enjoy waking up in the morning to delete.  I was and am, of course, always thrilled when writers drop by to comment to say they liked my blog, but am much less thrilled when writers whose work I’ve trashed come by.

Many came only for the post I wrote on the actress Elizabeth Taylor.  (They weren’t interested in the post about the writer Elizabeth Taylor.)   There was also the writer whose book I reviewed, who later plagiarized an anecdote from my blog in her most recent novel.

I decided to start a blog where I would be kinder, though still honest and occasionally fierce.  I wanted to start a blog where I would write of the mirablie dictu  more often than the horrendum dictu (though that is not forbidden). I wanted to start a blog where plagiarists would be less likely to spend time.  This latter, of course, is one of the big problems of the internet.


Should we or shouldn’t we accept review copies?  Bloggers sometimes debate this.

The thoughtful blogger, Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader, who reaches 10,000 readers a month, recently decided to stop accepting review copies.  He makes exceptions for European literature in translation from small publishers.

He explained,

This is an independent book review website and while I’ve only ever reviewed books I enjoyed reading, I find that by taking review copies I can’t plan my reading properly.  I’m passing over books I discover on my own in favour of books which I’ve agreed to take on review.

I very much respect his decision.  He is a serious reviewer.

My impression is that this problem is greater for English bloggers than it is for Americans.  Star bloggers Dovegreyreader and Random Jottings tell us how many boxes of free books they receive; some other bloggers tell us whether the books they review are review copies or not.  I do feel I trust these bloggers enough that I don’t need to know about their review copies, but perhaps it’s a kind of Caveat Emptor.  In the U.S. we are either receiving fewer review copies, or not worrying about it.

I do receive a few review copies.  Last year I packed up some of my review copies in a box and misplaced them.  I am now sorting through them.  Some go into the “read” pile, but what should I do with the others?   This year I have accepted very few books, and am beginning to make inroads.  I have perhaps ten excellent review copies waiting I will write about, but since I am in the middle of Anna Karenina….

I did at one point at my old blog have a no-review copy policy.  In April 1010, I said that I could no longer accept them because I could no longer shelve all my books.

Then a new unsolicited review copy arrives and suddenly I, too, am dismayed by the plethora of books. ..How did this new mysterious unsolicited book end up here?  A publicist got my name somewhere–I don’t remember dealing with this publisher before so it’s probably from a very old list. Alas, I don’t want the book. It doesn’t look good, it doesn’t look bad, someone’s going to love it, but I cannot accept more books from publishers.

So, what do you think?  Should bloggers accept free review copies, or not?  Does it affect the way the book is read and reviewed?