The Must-Read Lesson of Benjamin Kunkel’s “Diana Abbott: A Lesson”

In 2005, Benjamin Kunkel perfected the art of the meta-book review when he created the character of Diana Abbott, a dilettantish literary critic attempting to wrestle with the task of reviewing J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello on the eve of the South African novelist’s Pulitzer win. In an act that perfectly mirrored the form and function of Elizabeth Costello, at least as described by Kunkel (through Abbott), the author found a way not only to critique Coetzee’s body of work, but to show its effect on a person’s thought process. He’s able to distill the best parts of a writer’s stream-of-consciousness because he’s simultaneously having Abbott edit her own work; likewise, he’s able to leap to wild conclusions without having to connect them through the prison-like introduction-body-conclusion of a traditional essay.

As usual Diana wishes she could get all the facts out of the way and proceed straightaway to the good stuff, the flashing ideas, the nourished glow of the interpretation. She wishes she could somehow establish in one fell swoop the method of the book, and survey in a sentence its difficult-to-summarize contents.

The best thing about Elizabeth Costello, according to Kunkel-Abbott is that “arguments set forth in papers or speeches (or hinted at in book reviews) are not so much the products of pure reason as they are allegories of our circumstances, the confessions of our flesh young or old.” Here then, is the reflexive execution of that thought–an allegorical book review that reflects Kunkel’s own insecurities as portrayed by a twenty-eight-year-old writer. We don’t just read a book, after all, we experience it–either in subway-ride-sized gulps, a gluttonous all-nighter, or as a languorous beach-side mixed drink. Why, then, should the book review divorce itself from the situation in which the reader finds him or herself? Why pretend to be an account of facts, when it–and all other reviews–must try to do more than simply regurgitate information. To say something is pointless; why speak, if not to connect? 

And so we learn about Abbott’s fastidious approach. About the way that she dresses as if for the office, even though she works from home. About the way she hammers the delete key and straightens her hair, not so much writing and reading as performing some sort of literary sumo on Coetzee, sizing him up, attempting to come to grips with what is, essentially, an unknowable topic–or at least, one which we must, by nature, disagree upon. We learn that she no longer indulges with her vibrator while on deadline, To say that all of this is besides the point and has no place in a book review is to miss the truth that a book review, like the fiction it covers, need not restrict itself to a single (f)utile goal.

More importantly, in writing this way, Kunkel attempts to address the writer’s biggest fear: that of being late to the party. That all the writing has been done before, and all that remains now is a poor man’s mimicry: “a troupe of allusionists and pasticheurs…. There is far too much literary history for Diana ever to master it, and far too much for her ever to escape from it; it is her fate never quite to be either sophisticated or naive.” Rather than follow in the rigid molding of his predecessors, then, Kunkel opts for a new form of criticism (OK, well, not “new,” but rarely exercised), and it’s glorious.

Here’s the conclusion:

The way to write is not as if you have just learned the craft, at the school of the masters; the way to write is as if you have somehow always known how.

So here’s to the free-form experience of a daily blog, to the thoughtless and thankless task of writing not as others instruct but in fact faster than the mind, so that it is a muscle–the heart, perhaps–that compels the text you see, and not the pretty, possibly poisonous plotting of a cautious writer striving merely to fit in. Let us all write until we find ourselves hidden between the lines.

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