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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism

The Din in the Head

Cynthia Ozick

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To purchase The Din in the Head

Title: The Din in the Head
Author: Cynthia Ozick
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2006
Length: 243 pages
Availability: The Din in the Head - US
The Din in the Head - UK
The Din in the Head - Canada
  • These pieces were previously published in various magazines

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Our Assessment:

A- : a mixed bag, but always lively, sharp writing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 28/5/2006 Sven Birkerts
The NY Observer . 26/6/2006 Anna Shapiro
The NY Sun . 3/5/2006 Adam Kirsch
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/7/2006 Walter Kirn
TLS . 3/11/2006 Clive Sinclair

  From the Reviews:
  • "Her new collection, The Din in the Head, catches her in full polemical stride: The critic takes on a culture muddled by its aesthetic priorities and distracted by "this hubbub, this heaving rumble of zigzag static," the electronic chaos invoked in her title essay." - Sven Birkerts, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The key is extra-textual: In essay after essay in this volume, she’s bleeding for what is happening and has happened to erode the quality of literature and of literary appreciation -- and, boy, I could not be more with her -- but she also seems to be carrying on an argument that long preceded any given essay and is not explicitly stated within it. (...) Let me immediately say that every essay in The Din in the Head is worth reading. If anything, you wish that the pieces were longer, that they’d been allowed, within the protection of book covers, to expand from their magazine origins." - Anna Shapiro, The New York Observer

  • "What unites all these subjects, and gives The Din in the Head a polemical coherence, is Ms. Ozick's passionately moral defense of literary experience. The novel's exploration of interiority, for her, is an emblem of all the other values founded on the sanctity of the self, including political freedom." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

  • "Ozick, a champion of the elevated and an apologist for the complicated, has every right to discourse from on high, but sometimes she addresses the angels exclusively. (...) She's a bohemian fundamentalist, convinced that if imaginative literature should lose its special status as the final arbiter of humanness, the deity will unleash another Great Flood." - Walter Kirn, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Certainly she is a fearless critic, as the essays collectively entitled The Din in the Head demonstrate." - Clive Sinclair, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Cynthia Ozick's The Din in the Head collects her recent non-fiction, and much of it will be familiar to readers of the publications her work regularly appears in (The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, etc.; oddly, only the three pieces that first appeared in The New Yorker are credited as being previously published). It makes for a mixed bag of a collection: book reviews -- themselves varying greatly in length and depth, depending on the publication they were originally written for --, longer biographical pieces (notably on Helen Keller and Gershom Scholem), and stray pieces including a single page on "Kipling: A Postcolonial Footnote" and "An (Unfortunate) Interview with Henry James".
       One of the books Ozick writes about is Saul Bellow's Ravelstein, a novel (in)famously and very obviously based on the life of Allan Bloom. Ozick vigorously denounces reading such reality into fiction, beginning her review

     Roman à clef ? Never mind. When it comes to novels, the author's life is nobody's business.
       Yet this is a collection of essays that largely focusses on writers' lives -- including many who, if not always larger than life, often at least appeared larger than their work. As she writes in her piece on Delmore Schwartz:
     Like Sylvia Plath a generation later, like Shelley a century before, Delmore Schwartz is one of those poets whose life inescapably rivals the work.
       And, yes, there's a piece on Plath as well. Many of the authors she writes about were not (primarily) fiction writers, but even in pieces such as her study of "Young Tolstoy" or her imagined interview with Henry James, biography is central.
       Ozick does differentiate between the reader (one hesitates to say: simple reader) and the critic/biographer/scholar, allowing that the latter's rooting around in biography has some validity -- but it stands in contrast to her repeated insistence that one of the values of the novel is the sheer essentially escapist pleasure to be found in it. (She's a grand supporter of the novel, and thinks it's far from dead, and one of the pleasures of this collection is her continuing enthusiasm for the form.) Many of these pieces are the sort of essays that look at whole lives and entire careers (and about non- and thwarted novelists at that); it's almost a shame she couldn't indulge her novel-support more freely.
       In her Foreword Ozick notes that she can't say the essays in the book "are unified by a single theme", but several currents run through it. One is obsolescence, the once famous whose reputations haven't outlived them. There's Helen Keller ("Her name, if not entirely in eclipse, hardly elicits the awed recognition it once held"), Delmore Schwartz ("his fame is long dimmed; the wunderkind he once was is unremembered"), or Lionel Trilling ("remembered largely, if not chiefly, as Columbia's first Jew"). Ozick's efforts aren't at resurrection, but there is a sense of regret, of something lost.
       Ozick is well aware we live in changed times -- one where there is: "a pervasive indifference to serious critical writing" (and everything that goes with it). She writes about the Franzen-Oprah ! to-do, noting that:
Fifty years ago, it was still taken for granted that there would be serious personal discourse about serious writing by non-professionals, by people for whom books were common currency.
       Ozick's Foreword centres on Susan Sontag, who once championed "the cultural rupture, the linked discordances" and then -- so Ozick -- recanted ("and who could claim that The Volcano Lover was not a recantation ?"), turning back (too late ?) to what Ozick believes the novel should be (so important, because it is the novel that holds and does so much more than any other genre, that is truly representative -- of life, our age, the world). But there's too much else mixed in here to make the volume a convincing defense of the novel or a certain type of writer or much of anything else. Interesting stuff -- including personal touches, from her revisiting her first novel, Trust, to studying with Trilling -- but a bit too varied a lot.
       So the collection feels a bit ragged in its make-up, the various pieces penned over the last few years all tossed together here. Her Foreword suggests the title she presumably originally had in mind for the book ("On Discord and Desire", which -- dropping the 'on' -- would have fit nicely in line with the four previous ampersanded collection-titles ...), which covers much of the material ... but then the hope for 'the din in the head' (found, of course, in the novel -- "And nowhere else") is also a prevailing one in many of the pieces.
       Ozick is always well worth reading, and there's very little here that disappoints. Some of the shorter reviews don't give her enough space to play with, but the longer considerations are excellent, and there are few real missteps. (Only the long piece on Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran -- too much of which is simply a retelling of Nafisi's book -- is really something of a letdown.) Indeed, of most of the material the only thing one wishes for is: more.

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The Din in the Head: Reviews: Cynthia Ozick: Other books by Cynthia Ozick under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Cynthia Ozick is the author of numerous works of fiction, as well as several collections of essays. She has been awarded a number of prizes and honors, and she has received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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