The week’s best arts and culture reads – including an analysis of the business of ghostwriting, a defense of snark, and thoughts on what makes a great critic.

Does God act morally to Job?
Joan Acocella | New Yorker  | 9 December 2013
Reflections on the Book of Job. “The story is bewildering, from beginning to end. How could God, being God, allow Satan to seduce him into destroying a good man? More important is the moral: that we have no right to question God for doing such things. Furthermore, the Book of Job seems to claim that all wrongs can be righted by property. If everything was taken away from Job, the problem is settled by God’s giving it all back”.       

Colin Wilson’s flashy brilliance
Obituary | Telegraph | 8 December 2013
A self-proclaimed genius, he shot to fame with The Outsider, “a somewhat portentous overview of existentialism and alienation”, published in 1956 when he was 24. “He established himself as a modish eccentric, dressing in turtleneck sweaters and open-toed sandals and spending his nights in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath”. Published at least 100 more books, mainly about crime and the occult. (Metered Paywall)  

The critical importance of snark
Tom Scocca | Gawker | 5 December 2013
We need snark – the “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt” common to internet writing – as an antidote to smarm. Smarm is the bogus language of politics, academia, corporations, public relations: “Smarm is a kind of performance – the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance…Smarm aspires to smother opposition or criticism, to cover everything over with an artificial, oily gloss.”       

When fantasy becomes belief
John Gray | New Statesman | 5 December 2013
Review of The Book of Legendary Lands, by Umberto Eco, an “enchanting” book about places celebrated in myths or created in fictions, from El Dorado to Uqbar. “Eco’s theme is the slippage from fiction to illusion in the human mind.” Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 19th Century fantasy novel The Coming Race told of super-humans descended from survivors of Atlantis; by the mid 20th Century some Nazis believed this as fact.

What makes a great critic?
David Wolf | Prospect | 5 December 2013
Interview with literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn. “It suits me to do things in my own time. The New York Review of Books is not very interested in hanging a hot issue on a peg right away. Also, I often like to incorporate the reaction to something – whether a book or a movie or a TV show – into my analysis of it. This, to a large extent, betrays my training as a classicist: I’m always writing as if everything has been over for 2000 years.”         

The lucrative business of ghostwriting 
Alex Mayyasi | Priceonomics | 3 December 2013
Ghostwriters exist for the same reason that Bill Gates doesn’t mow his own lawn: It’s just not worth his time. “The appeal is pretty clear. If you are an executive making $10 million a year, will you really stop working for two to three months to write a book? Or if you’re an athlete?” Established ghostwriters get $50,000 per book; the very best up to $1 million. And they work fast: perhaps ten hours of interviews and four months of writing per book.

The Oscar Wilde of cconomists
Martin Walker | Wilson Quarterly | 2 December 2013
Entertaining and informative review of The Memoirs Of Walter Bagehot – an imaginative recreation by an American scholar, Frank Prochaska, based on Bagehot’s life and writings. Bagehot emerges not only as an economic and political sage, and a great editor (of The Economist), but also as a fine aphorist. Wilde himself might have envied this one: “It is good to be without vices, but it is not good to be without temptations.”

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