Commentary Magazine


Literary Blog

Blue Lit, Red Lit

Amazon’s “Election Heat Map” has Governor Romney ahead of President Obama by 59 percent to 41 percent based on purchases of “red” books versus “blue” books. Pretty much without exception, the books on both lists are topical and perishable, if they do not yet belong in the trash (soon, though). Killing Lincoln, a popular retelling of the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 by the TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, is the bestselling “red” title. (The Day Lincoln Was Shot, by an earlier journalistic hack, must be out of print.) Winner-Take-All Politics, a 350-page pile of muckraking on the “growing inequality of incomes,” is the top “blue” title.

Since the divide between blue liberals and red conservatives is as much cultural as political, this self-sorting into blue and red bestseller lists makes some sense. Anyone who reads very much contemporary literature, though, knows that any such self-division is impossible: there are not enough “red” books for a short reading list. Anything by Charles McCarry, of course, especially Shelley’s Heart. The historical novelist Thomas Mallon, who has written historical reconstructions of Watergate and the McCarthy era. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with its vituperation toward “the American berserk.” (As if to compensate for the acclaim he received from conservatives, Roth went public a few years later with his Bush-bashing.) [Update: Guido Brunetti nominates Mark Helprin on the basis of Refiner’s Fire, and Josiah Neeley reminds me that I should have mentioned Tom Wolfe. The latter is an especially stupid omission given that I will be reviewing Back to Blood, one of the best novels of 2012 and perhaps Wolfe’s best to date, in December’s COMMENTARY.] If you go back a couple of generations, you can expand the red list to include Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a novel that is not often recognized as a masterpiece of anti-Communist literature), Nabokov, Eudora Welty. But even with a few big names on the right side, the left has all the trend-lines and momentum. In the last few weeks, I’ve had to avoid Facebook, because I haven’t wanted their relentless politicking for Obama to lower my opinion of some contemporary novelists. If any contemporary writer has come out for Romney, I’ve missed it.

Whether the deep blue tinge of contemporary literature is the unanticipated consequence of a historical event (the leftist domination of humanities faculties in the universities), or whether writers are blue for the same reason English professors are blue (their self-regard depends upon it), is an open question. ’Twas not always so, however. Once upon a time literature was as likely to be red as blue:

    Blue Literature

  • Plato, Republic
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses
  • Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Dante, Divine Comedy
  • Spenser, The Faerie Queene
  • Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
  • Defoe, Moll Flanders
  • Johnson, Rasselas
  • Voltaire, Candide
  • Blake, Songs of Innocence
  • Brontë, Wuthering Heights
  • Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  • Thackeray, Vanity Fair
  • Dickens, Great Expectations
  • Eliot, Middlemarch
  • Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  • Hardy, Jude the Obscure
  • Wells, The Time Machine
  • Proust, In Search of Lost Time
  • Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  • Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
  • Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
    Red Literature

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
  • Virgil, Aeneid
  • Augustine, Confessions
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
  • More, Utopia
  • Montaigne, Essays
  • Milton, Paradise Lost
  • Fielding, Tom Jones
  • Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
  • Austen, Emma
  • Brontë, Jane Eyre
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  • Melville, Moby-Dick
  • Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
  • Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • James, The Portrait of a Lady
  • Conrad, Nostromo
  • Kafka, The Trial
  • Joyce, Ulysses
  • Cather, My Ántonia
  • Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Blue literature is a literature of ideals with a strong nose for justice, a healthy suspicion of inherited position or class, and a fundamentally “Whiggish” confidence in human advancement. The themes of red literature are limitation, decline, responsibility, a distaste for monomania (or any kind of mania, for that matter), a commitment to institutions, and a strong feeling for place and the past. The party lines aren’t particularly neat and tidy, however, because all literature is liberal in the classic sense — literature is the affirmation of human freedom and the dignity of the individual. And perhaps the division shows little more than that “blue” and “red” are a matter of temperament and disposition more than anything else. The skeptics are found on the right; the forward-looking personalities on the left. Oh, and religious types become increasingly red as the present heaves near.

____________________

Update, II: The choice above that has caused the most consternation is Huckleberry Finn in the red list. It’s true that Mark Twain went over to the blue side, at least in his extraliterary opinions, later in life. Here is a pretty good article that sorts through the biographical evidence. Huckleberry Finn, though — classified on the basis of its content, not its author — is unambiguously a red-state book. It is a sustained attack on politically correct thinking. Huck knows what the right thing is. The right thing is to turn Jim over to his “rightful owner.” When he finds that he is unable to do so, despite a conscience that will give him no rest, Huck feels guilty. “I knowed very well I had done wrong,” he says, “and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show. . . .” But then he stops and thinks. Suppose he had “done right and give Jim up.” Would he feel any better?

No, says I, I’d feel bad — I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use of learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

There is another way of putting Huck’s moral decision: he decides to act on behalf of whoever is closest to hand, the person he is nearest to. He stands by Jim because closeness trumps correctness (and because he promised to). This is the ethic of loyalty, the spirit that holds together friendships and families and the other kinds of voluntary association that red-staters like to call “mediating institutions,” a bulwark of freedom. This preference for the informality of attachment over the formality of virtue runs throughout the novel. The villains are those who defend abstract principle or public morality — the Grangerfords, Colonel Sherburn, even Tom Sawyer — and the hero is a black slave who, out of personal loyalty, stays with the boy who has been shot in an adventurous and entirely gratuitous escape, never a “better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was resking his freedom to do it.”

Amazon’s “Election Heat Map” has Governor Romney ahead of President Obama by 59 percent to 41 percent based on purchases of “red” books versus “blue” books. Pretty much without exception, the books on both lists are topical and perishable, if they do not yet belong in the trash (soon, though). Killing Lincoln, a popular retelling of the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 by the TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, is the bestselling “red” title. (The Day Lincoln Was Shot, by an earlier journalistic hack, must be out of print.) Winner-Take-All Politics, a 350-page pile of muckraking on the “growing inequality of incomes,” is the top “blue” title.

Since the divide between blue liberals and red conservatives is as much cultural as political, this self-sorting into blue and red bestseller lists makes some sense. Anyone who reads very much contemporary literature, though, knows that any such self-division is impossible: there are not enough “red” books for a short reading list. Anything by Charles McCarry, of course, especially Shelley’s Heart. The historical novelist Thomas Mallon, who has written historical reconstructions of Watergate and the McCarthy era. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with its vituperation toward “the American berserk.” (As if to compensate for the acclaim he received from conservatives, Roth went public a few years later with his Bush-bashing.) [Update: Guido Brunetti nominates Mark Helprin on the basis of Refiner’s Fire, and Josiah Neeley reminds me that I should have mentioned Tom Wolfe. The latter is an especially stupid omission given that I will be reviewing Back to Blood, one of the best novels of 2012 and perhaps Wolfe’s best to date, in December’s COMMENTARY.] If you go back a couple of generations, you can expand the red list to include Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a novel that is not often recognized as a masterpiece of anti-Communist literature), Nabokov, Eudora Welty. But even with a few big names on the right side, the left has all the trend-lines and momentum. In the last few weeks, I’ve had to avoid Facebook, because I haven’t wanted their relentless politicking for Obama to lower my opinion of some contemporary novelists. If any contemporary writer has come out for Romney, I’ve missed it.

Whether the deep blue tinge of contemporary literature is the unanticipated consequence of a historical event (the leftist domination of humanities faculties in the universities), or whether writers are blue for the same reason English professors are blue (their self-regard depends upon it), is an open question. ’Twas not always so, however. Once upon a time literature was as likely to be red as blue:

    Blue Literature

  • Plato, Republic
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses
  • Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Dante, Divine Comedy
  • Spenser, The Faerie Queene
  • Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
  • Defoe, Moll Flanders
  • Johnson, Rasselas
  • Voltaire, Candide
  • Blake, Songs of Innocence
  • Brontë, Wuthering Heights
  • Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  • Thackeray, Vanity Fair
  • Dickens, Great Expectations
  • Eliot, Middlemarch
  • Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  • Hardy, Jude the Obscure
  • Wells, The Time Machine
  • Proust, In Search of Lost Time
  • Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  • Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
  • Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
    Red Literature

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
  • Virgil, Aeneid
  • Augustine, Confessions
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
  • More, Utopia
  • Montaigne, Essays
  • Milton, Paradise Lost
  • Fielding, Tom Jones
  • Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
  • Austen, Emma
  • Brontë, Jane Eyre
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  • Melville, Moby-Dick
  • Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
  • Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • James, The Portrait of a Lady
  • Conrad, Nostromo
  • Kafka, The Trial
  • Joyce, Ulysses
  • Cather, My Ántonia
  • Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Blue literature is a literature of ideals with a strong nose for justice, a healthy suspicion of inherited position or class, and a fundamentally “Whiggish” confidence in human advancement. The themes of red literature are limitation, decline, responsibility, a distaste for monomania (or any kind of mania, for that matter), a commitment to institutions, and a strong feeling for place and the past. The party lines aren’t particularly neat and tidy, however, because all literature is liberal in the classic sense — literature is the affirmation of human freedom and the dignity of the individual. And perhaps the division shows little more than that “blue” and “red” are a matter of temperament and disposition more than anything else. The skeptics are found on the right; the forward-looking personalities on the left. Oh, and religious types become increasingly red as the present heaves near.

____________________

Update, II: The choice above that has caused the most consternation is Huckleberry Finn in the red list. It’s true that Mark Twain went over to the blue side, at least in his extraliterary opinions, later in life. Here is a pretty good article that sorts through the biographical evidence. Huckleberry Finn, though — classified on the basis of its content, not its author — is unambiguously a red-state book. It is a sustained attack on politically correct thinking. Huck knows what the right thing is. The right thing is to turn Jim over to his “rightful owner.” When he finds that he is unable to do so, despite a conscience that will give him no rest, Huck feels guilty. “I knowed very well I had done wrong,” he says, “and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show. . . .” But then he stops and thinks. Suppose he had “done right and give Jim up.” Would he feel any better?

No, says I, I’d feel bad — I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use of learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

There is another way of putting Huck’s moral decision: he decides to act on behalf of whoever is closest to hand, the person he is nearest to. He stands by Jim because closeness trumps correctness (and because he promised to). This is the ethic of loyalty, the spirit that holds together friendships and families and the other kinds of voluntary association that red-staters like to call “mediating institutions,” a bulwark of freedom. This preference for the informality of attachment over the formality of virtue runs throughout the novel. The villains are those who defend abstract principle or public morality — the Grangerfords, Colonel Sherburn, even Tom Sawyer — and the hero is a black slave who, out of personal loyalty, stays with the boy who has been shot in an adventurous and entirely gratuitous escape, never a “better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was resking his freedom to do it.”

Read Less

Review: You Say You Want a Revolution

Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (New York: Liveright, 2012). 385 pages.

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher ruined my life. All I wanted was to be a novelist, but Mr. O’Connell didn’t think I had much feel for literature. So he sent me home one day with two books of criticism. I even remember what they were — Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and R. P. Blackmur’s Form and Value in Modern Poetry, both of them in those distinctive Anchor editions that were the same size as cheap paperbacks but looked really serious. In those days, I was a dutiful student. I read the two books, and I was hooked. Like on drugs, I mean. Never again could I read a novel without scouring the criticism on it. I’d even prepare myself for a novel by reading the criticism on it first. When Mr. O’Connell asked for contributions to the school literary magazine at the end of the year, I turned over a review of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Michael Gorra has had an equally shameful codependency with criticism, I suspect. A Smith College professor whose literary scholarship has been on post-World War II and postcolonial British novelists, Gorra is better known as one of the most uncompromising and enjoyable reviewers now working. He won the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian award in 2001. (He is also a celebrated travel writer.) Gorra’s fourth book might have been called Experiment in Narrative Criticism. An attempt to loop together biography and criticism, Portrait of a Novel tells the story of Henry James’s first great novel, perhaps his greatest — the story of how James came to write The Portrait of a Lady, and also the story James wrote.

The story is a good one, and Gorra tells it deftly. But the motive behind his book, the reason it is about the making of a masterpiece and not its interpretation, is even more important. Portrait of a Novel is an opening shot in a revolution, an intrepid attack on the ceremonies of academic criticism. Gorra is not the first to call for a revolution; Mark Bauerlein has assailed academic criticism’s “diminishing returns,” and Mark Edmundson has called for an “end to readings,” the only kind of criticism that English professors seem capable of. The microscopic focus of academic interpretation, the stretching of its subject to excessive lengths, its fervid humorlessness, its exclusive concern with a literary text’s inner tensions to the utter neglect of literature’s extensions — the references and even the applications to a world outside the text — have narrowed the appeal of literary criticism and quite naturally cost it readers. Portrait of a Novel is not only a gift to non-specialist readers, who have been starved of literary discussion. It is also a troop movement in a campaign to wrest authority over criticism from the academic interpreters.

Hence Gorra’s resort to narrative, the preferred genre even of non-fiction right now. Gorra sets out a double narrative: he traces the development of James’s novel, beginning his own book with James’s opening scene and ending with James’s (revised) ending, but he counterpoints this retelling with a biographical survey of James’s life. Because the summary of The Portrait of a Lady supplies the order of events, Gorra is able to dispense with strict chronology whenever biographical details are most needed.

He introduces James’s cousin Minny Temple, for example, in introducing James’s heroine Isabel Archer. Minny’s “frank, playful independence,” he says, “provided an inspiration” for Isabel’s. Although Minny died eleven years before James wrote the novel, and though James came to love her even earlier, Gorra includes his own beautiful portait of Minny out of chronological order, where it helps to make sense of the novel and not the life. This becomes his habit. He brings forward the poet and critic John Addington Symonds, whom James met once in 1876, in order to discuss Symonds’s Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion, published privately fifteen years later, in connection with hypotheses about James’s sexual orientation.

There are two versions of The Portrait of the Lady — the original version, serialized in Macmillan’s magazine and the Atlantic Monthly and then published in book form in the last week of October 1881, and the revised version published in 1908 as two volumes in the famous New York Edition of James’s fiction. James revised the novel, Gorra says, to “make its opening chapters fit the book that it had by its last chapters become.” Gorra prefers the revised ending, in which an “older” James has both the language and the “emotional experience” the “younger James” lacked — the language and emotion to compose the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” He is referring to the moment when Caspar Goodwood kisses Isabel Archer, igniting a “flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed,” before she breaks out of his grasp and returns to the monster who is her husband.

Gorra does not explain how he knows this is the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” The only other times in the novel James uses the noun flash are to suggest that Isabel’s confidence in her own moral sense was an “aid to detecting an occasional flash of cruelty,” and that after marriage to the cruel dilettante Gilbert Osmond, she lived “in a world illumined by lurid flashes.” The sexual claim serves to confirm Gorra’s earlier surmises about “the shape of [James’s] erotic longings.” James was a homosexual, you see; “nobody today doubts” it; James was a homosexual, even if he considered Oscar Wilde an “unclean beast” and even if he was a stranger, as Gorra acknowledges, to “our contemporary understanding of homosexuality as an identity, something as central to one’s sense of self as one’s ethnic inheritance or biological sex” — even if he was not subject to the moral fashions of our own day, that is.

And here is where the limitations of Gorra’s method crop up most annoyingly. Narrative absolves him of the need to argue for his conclusions. The special ingenuity of his double-narrative mode, in which text and life are arranged in parallels, gives the appearance of proving a case even where no case is made. The thing about parallels is that they never meet.

Gorra chooses The Portrait of a Lady for his subject, because it is “the link between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, the bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped into modernism.” Like nearly every other controversial contention in the book, this remark is more suggestive than clarifying. Although James’s debt to Eliot is discussed in passing, the only relevant mention of Woolf is when Gorra offers that “what James does in this chapter [ch 42, in which Isabel comes to grips with the truth about her marriage to Osmond] is much closer to Woolf’s own achievement in To the Lighthouse than it is to Eliot’s Middlemarch.” Gorra then adds that, in his exploration of Isabel Archer’s mind, James “goes so much farther than his predecessors that it amounts to a difference in kind.” Nothing more is said of the difference, perhaps because Gorra expects his readers to assume nobody today doubts what he is saying.

Gorra himself has few predecessors. In 1934 the English painter Frank Budgen wrote a biographical account of Ulysses, which Joyce himself described as “original” in its “method of approach.” Budgen’s title (James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses”) recalls Gorra’s subtitle. If they did not invent the genre, James H. Sledd and Gwin J. Kolb gave it its name — The Biography of a Book — when they appended that phrase to their history of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, published on its bicentennial in 1955. Walter Blair’s Mark Twain and Huck Finn (1960) is probably the first biography of an American masterpiece, unless it were Charles Olson’s quirky Call Me Ishmael (1947).

But an instructive contrast to Gorra’s book is Paul Gutjahr’s biography of The Book of Mormon, which was published by Princeton in August of this year. An English professor at Indiana University, Gutjahr narrates the career of Joseph Smith’s “Gold Bible”; he doesn’t merely shuffle its contents and draw parallels to the life of Mormonism’s founder. Gutjahr is interested in the book as more than just a text; he shows how the Book of Mormon has animated a community of faith and its detractors, how it has shaped thinking and influenced American culture.

Gorra glances at the contemporary reception of The Portrait of a Lady, but he is entirely unconcerned with the novel’s later career. When James dies and the novel ends — in that order, in his telling — his narrative job is finished. Michael Gorra writes in an accessible and jargon-averse style, but his Portrait of a Novel is little more than an occasion for a renewal of interest in Henry James’s great novel, which in itself is a welcome development but hardly enough to spark a revolution in criticism.

Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (New York: Liveright, 2012). 385 pages.

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher ruined my life. All I wanted was to be a novelist, but Mr. O’Connell didn’t think I had much feel for literature. So he sent me home one day with two books of criticism. I even remember what they were — Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and R. P. Blackmur’s Form and Value in Modern Poetry, both of them in those distinctive Anchor editions that were the same size as cheap paperbacks but looked really serious. In those days, I was a dutiful student. I read the two books, and I was hooked. Like on drugs, I mean. Never again could I read a novel without scouring the criticism on it. I’d even prepare myself for a novel by reading the criticism on it first. When Mr. O’Connell asked for contributions to the school literary magazine at the end of the year, I turned over a review of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Michael Gorra has had an equally shameful codependency with criticism, I suspect. A Smith College professor whose literary scholarship has been on post-World War II and postcolonial British novelists, Gorra is better known as one of the most uncompromising and enjoyable reviewers now working. He won the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian award in 2001. (He is also a celebrated travel writer.) Gorra’s fourth book might have been called Experiment in Narrative Criticism. An attempt to loop together biography and criticism, Portrait of a Novel tells the story of Henry James’s first great novel, perhaps his greatest — the story of how James came to write The Portrait of a Lady, and also the story James wrote.

The story is a good one, and Gorra tells it deftly. But the motive behind his book, the reason it is about the making of a masterpiece and not its interpretation, is even more important. Portrait of a Novel is an opening shot in a revolution, an intrepid attack on the ceremonies of academic criticism. Gorra is not the first to call for a revolution; Mark Bauerlein has assailed academic criticism’s “diminishing returns,” and Mark Edmundson has called for an “end to readings,” the only kind of criticism that English professors seem capable of. The microscopic focus of academic interpretation, the stretching of its subject to excessive lengths, its fervid humorlessness, its exclusive concern with a literary text’s inner tensions to the utter neglect of literature’s extensions — the references and even the applications to a world outside the text — have narrowed the appeal of literary criticism and quite naturally cost it readers. Portrait of a Novel is not only a gift to non-specialist readers, who have been starved of literary discussion. It is also a troop movement in a campaign to wrest authority over criticism from the academic interpreters.

Hence Gorra’s resort to narrative, the preferred genre even of non-fiction right now. Gorra sets out a double narrative: he traces the development of James’s novel, beginning his own book with James’s opening scene and ending with James’s (revised) ending, but he counterpoints this retelling with a biographical survey of James’s life. Because the summary of The Portrait of a Lady supplies the order of events, Gorra is able to dispense with strict chronology whenever biographical details are most needed.

He introduces James’s cousin Minny Temple, for example, in introducing James’s heroine Isabel Archer. Minny’s “frank, playful independence,” he says, “provided an inspiration” for Isabel’s. Although Minny died eleven years before James wrote the novel, and though James came to love her even earlier, Gorra includes his own beautiful portait of Minny out of chronological order, where it helps to make sense of the novel and not the life. This becomes his habit. He brings forward the poet and critic John Addington Symonds, whom James met once in 1876, in order to discuss Symonds’s Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion, published privately fifteen years later, in connection with hypotheses about James’s sexual orientation.

There are two versions of The Portrait of the Lady — the original version, serialized in Macmillan’s magazine and the Atlantic Monthly and then published in book form in the last week of October 1881, and the revised version published in 1908 as two volumes in the famous New York Edition of James’s fiction. James revised the novel, Gorra says, to “make its opening chapters fit the book that it had by its last chapters become.” Gorra prefers the revised ending, in which an “older” James has both the language and the “emotional experience” the “younger James” lacked — the language and emotion to compose the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” He is referring to the moment when Caspar Goodwood kisses Isabel Archer, igniting a “flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed,” before she breaks out of his grasp and returns to the monster who is her husband.

Gorra does not explain how he knows this is the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” The only other times in the novel James uses the noun flash are to suggest that Isabel’s confidence in her own moral sense was an “aid to detecting an occasional flash of cruelty,” and that after marriage to the cruel dilettante Gilbert Osmond, she lived “in a world illumined by lurid flashes.” The sexual claim serves to confirm Gorra’s earlier surmises about “the shape of [James’s] erotic longings.” James was a homosexual, you see; “nobody today doubts” it; James was a homosexual, even if he considered Oscar Wilde an “unclean beast” and even if he was a stranger, as Gorra acknowledges, to “our contemporary understanding of homosexuality as an identity, something as central to one’s sense of self as one’s ethnic inheritance or biological sex” — even if he was not subject to the moral fashions of our own day, that is.

And here is where the limitations of Gorra’s method crop up most annoyingly. Narrative absolves him of the need to argue for his conclusions. The special ingenuity of his double-narrative mode, in which text and life are arranged in parallels, gives the appearance of proving a case even where no case is made. The thing about parallels is that they never meet.

Gorra chooses The Portrait of a Lady for his subject, because it is “the link between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, the bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped into modernism.” Like nearly every other controversial contention in the book, this remark is more suggestive than clarifying. Although James’s debt to Eliot is discussed in passing, the only relevant mention of Woolf is when Gorra offers that “what James does in this chapter [ch 42, in which Isabel comes to grips with the truth about her marriage to Osmond] is much closer to Woolf’s own achievement in To the Lighthouse than it is to Eliot’s Middlemarch.” Gorra then adds that, in his exploration of Isabel Archer’s mind, James “goes so much farther than his predecessors that it amounts to a difference in kind.” Nothing more is said of the difference, perhaps because Gorra expects his readers to assume nobody today doubts what he is saying.

Gorra himself has few predecessors. In 1934 the English painter Frank Budgen wrote a biographical account of Ulysses, which Joyce himself described as “original” in its “method of approach.” Budgen’s title (James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses”) recalls Gorra’s subtitle. If they did not invent the genre, James H. Sledd and Gwin J. Kolb gave it its name — The Biography of a Book — when they appended that phrase to their history of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, published on its bicentennial in 1955. Walter Blair’s Mark Twain and Huck Finn (1960) is probably the first biography of an American masterpiece, unless it were Charles Olson’s quirky Call Me Ishmael (1947).

But an instructive contrast to Gorra’s book is Paul Gutjahr’s biography of The Book of Mormon, which was published by Princeton in August of this year. An English professor at Indiana University, Gutjahr narrates the career of Joseph Smith’s “Gold Bible”; he doesn’t merely shuffle its contents and draw parallels to the life of Mormonism’s founder. Gutjahr is interested in the book as more than just a text; he shows how the Book of Mormon has animated a community of faith and its detractors, how it has shaped thinking and influenced American culture.

Gorra glances at the contemporary reception of The Portrait of a Lady, but he is entirely unconcerned with the novel’s later career. When James dies and the novel ends — in that order, in his telling — his narrative job is finished. Michael Gorra writes in an accessible and jargon-averse style, but his Portrait of a Novel is little more than an occasion for a renewal of interest in Henry James’s great novel, which in itself is a welcome development but hardly enough to spark a revolution in criticism.

Read Less

Jacques Barzun Dies at 104

Jacques Barzun, the great cultural historian whose writing career spanned more than six decades, has died in San Antonio at the age of 104. A gifted scholar with a clear bracing style that appealed to ordinary educated readers, Barzun published formative books in an astonishingly wide variety of fields, including the humbug of race (Race: A Study in Modern Superstition, 1937), intellectual history (Darwin, Marx, Wagner, 1941), classical music (Berlioz and the Romantic Century, 1950), practical rhetoric (Simple and Direct, 1975), and cultural criticism or what he bemoaned as the “conversion of culture into industry” (The Culture We Deserve, 1989).

Perhaps Barzun’s most famous and influential book was one of his earliest — Teacher in America, published when he was not yet forty. (Here is the Preface to a 1983 reprint of the book.) At the outset, Barzun announces that he will not be holding forth on the grand subject of education (“brooding and wrangling about education is bad”), but will be talking simply and directly about a homelier subject — teaching, the face-to-face transaction between a man or woman of learning and his or her students. (And Barzun believed that teaching was a transaction, not a relationship. He was suspicious of teachers who became overfamiliar with their students.)

Addressed to young teachers just starting out, Teacher in America expressed skepticism toward methods (especially those of progressive education), multiple-choice tests, Great Books, vocationalism. I first read the book when I headed off to graduate school, and it has remained with me ever since. I can hear Barzun’s voice when I speak to my students, especially when I abandon my lecture notes and chase their need to understand down strange and overgrown paths. University men and women who want to extinguish the bonfire of the humanities could do worse than adopt Teacher in America as their guide. A book that deserves to be called a classic if any book does, it is still in print from Liberty Fund.

Most of what Barzun wrote was merely the extension of his teaching to the printed page. And all of it avoided theory and took a straightforward practical approach, which was only to be expected from someone who admired William James. (His Stroll with William James is the best introduction to James’s thought and character.) In addition to his famous “writing manual” Simple and Direct, Barzun also wrote (with Henry F. Graff) The Modern Researcher, first published in 1957 and now in its sixth edition. It is the single best how-to book on scholarly inquiry. (I speak from personal experience, since I could never have written my PhD dissertation without its help.)

Although he did not encourage disciples, Barzun was beloved by an astonishing number who remained his students for life, even if they had never sat in his classroom. I was one of them. After receiving a beautiful note of appreciation from him for an essay I had written on the controversy over Carol Iannone’s appointment to the National Endowment for the Humanities, I asked whether he might contribute a preface to my book The Elephants Teach. Cheeky of me, I suppose — but my history of creative writing was consciously written in l’esprit de Barzun. “We have here,” he wrote of my book, “a panorama — a pageant, rather — of the American will-to-art.” Barzun recognized his spirit, inhabiting a house of intellect constructed from his own patterns, but was too modest to say so outright.

Born in 1907 in a Parisian suburb, Barzun came to America for good at 13 and graduated from Columbia University seven years later. He stayed on in New York until he was 89, when he transplanted himself to the Republic of Texas. Although he is being described in the obituaries as a “public intellectual,” he was not that. In a word, he was a humanist — a historian, a teacher, a man of culture, a university man (who was saddened to see the loss of the university as a seat of learning), and an American envoy of the once-proud tradition of “French clarity.” There will never be anyone like him again.

____________________

Update: Some of Barzun’s spiciest remarks on intellect and the intellectual life are collected here. For those who have never read Barzun, they give a sample of his style, which should leave you wanting more.

Jacques Barzun, the great cultural historian whose writing career spanned more than six decades, has died in San Antonio at the age of 104. A gifted scholar with a clear bracing style that appealed to ordinary educated readers, Barzun published formative books in an astonishingly wide variety of fields, including the humbug of race (Race: A Study in Modern Superstition, 1937), intellectual history (Darwin, Marx, Wagner, 1941), classical music (Berlioz and the Romantic Century, 1950), practical rhetoric (Simple and Direct, 1975), and cultural criticism or what he bemoaned as the “conversion of culture into industry” (The Culture We Deserve, 1989).

Perhaps Barzun’s most famous and influential book was one of his earliest — Teacher in America, published when he was not yet forty. (Here is the Preface to a 1983 reprint of the book.) At the outset, Barzun announces that he will not be holding forth on the grand subject of education (“brooding and wrangling about education is bad”), but will be talking simply and directly about a homelier subject — teaching, the face-to-face transaction between a man or woman of learning and his or her students. (And Barzun believed that teaching was a transaction, not a relationship. He was suspicious of teachers who became overfamiliar with their students.)

Addressed to young teachers just starting out, Teacher in America expressed skepticism toward methods (especially those of progressive education), multiple-choice tests, Great Books, vocationalism. I first read the book when I headed off to graduate school, and it has remained with me ever since. I can hear Barzun’s voice when I speak to my students, especially when I abandon my lecture notes and chase their need to understand down strange and overgrown paths. University men and women who want to extinguish the bonfire of the humanities could do worse than adopt Teacher in America as their guide. A book that deserves to be called a classic if any book does, it is still in print from Liberty Fund.

Most of what Barzun wrote was merely the extension of his teaching to the printed page. And all of it avoided theory and took a straightforward practical approach, which was only to be expected from someone who admired William James. (His Stroll with William James is the best introduction to James’s thought and character.) In addition to his famous “writing manual” Simple and Direct, Barzun also wrote (with Henry F. Graff) The Modern Researcher, first published in 1957 and now in its sixth edition. It is the single best how-to book on scholarly inquiry. (I speak from personal experience, since I could never have written my PhD dissertation without its help.)

Although he did not encourage disciples, Barzun was beloved by an astonishing number who remained his students for life, even if they had never sat in his classroom. I was one of them. After receiving a beautiful note of appreciation from him for an essay I had written on the controversy over Carol Iannone’s appointment to the National Endowment for the Humanities, I asked whether he might contribute a preface to my book The Elephants Teach. Cheeky of me, I suppose — but my history of creative writing was consciously written in l’esprit de Barzun. “We have here,” he wrote of my book, “a panorama — a pageant, rather — of the American will-to-art.” Barzun recognized his spirit, inhabiting a house of intellect constructed from his own patterns, but was too modest to say so outright.

Born in 1907 in a Parisian suburb, Barzun came to America for good at 13 and graduated from Columbia University seven years later. He stayed on in New York until he was 89, when he transplanted himself to the Republic of Texas. Although he is being described in the obituaries as a “public intellectual,” he was not that. In a word, he was a humanist — a historian, a teacher, a man of culture, a university man (who was saddened to see the loss of the university as a seat of learning), and an American envoy of the once-proud tradition of “French clarity.” There will never be anyone like him again.

____________________

Update: Some of Barzun’s spiciest remarks on intellect and the intellectual life are collected here. For those who have never read Barzun, they give a sample of his style, which should leave you wanting more.

Read Less

Timing Is Everything, Except When It’s Not

Over at The Millions this morning, Bill Morris gives some examples of the “iron fact” that “[i]n book publishing . . . timing is everything.” Joe Posnanski’s biography of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, for one, was drowned in revelations about child rape by Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s onetime assistant. The Bonfire of the Vanities, for another, got a lucky boost from the “Bloody Monday stock market crash in the fall of 1987,” which made Tom Wolfe’s novel seem like an “almost magical bottling of the ’80s zeitgeist.”

But Morris’s “iron fact” is badly rusted by his own self-contradictory evidence. Depending on how you tilt your head, the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, either doomed a book to failure (Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl, published within days of the attacks, included light-hearted references to terrorism) or insured its success (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, published a little over two weeks before the attacks, suddenly seemed “prescient to just about everyone”). Why was one a failure and the other a success, if “timing” influenced the fortunes of both, is left unexplained. For that matter, Morris might have considered an even more tiresome refutation. Anne Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, which romanticizes terrorists, was published in June 2001, and instead of being discredited by events, went on to secure the PEN/Faulkner and Orange literary prizes.

Whatever interest his essay may have is undercut by Morris’s opening sentence, in which the “literary life” is equated, sans irony, sans qualification, with “book publishing.” Here is the sentence in full: “There are few iron facts in the crapshoot of the literary life, but here’s one: In book publishing — no less than in music, war, and sex — timing is everything.” Offhand I can’t think of a better case study of the bacterial infection that has confined literary criticism to a convalescent ward. The confusion of literature with publishing reclassifies literary critics into adjuncts of the book promotion department.

Small wonder Morris is so fascinated with the sub-literary question of “timing.” As John Barth says somewhere, being up-to-date is the least important qualification for a great artist. Moby-Dick, first published on this date in 1851, was so “timely” that it had to wait seven decades, till Raymond M. Weaver’s biography of Melville and Carl Van Doren’s study of The American Novel (both published in 1921), to find more than a handful of readers. Morris’s inclination to equate literary success with publishing success, in fact, is what the bacterium looks like under the microscope.

You might think that a literary critic would feel some obligation to resist book promotion and nose out the good books that are being under-promoted. Criticism might even regain its health if it took a Moneyball approach to contemporary literature. Like batting average among baseball oldtimers who can’t seem to shake themselves out of their game’s folk psychology, timeliness is the measure of how a book is overvalued in literary culture. Fifty years ago this week two different novels about the timely question of the “nuclear threat,” Allen Drury’s A Shade of Difference and Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, hovered near the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Who remembers them today? A solicitude for “timing” shifts the question to the book’s subject. “What is it about?” becomes the decisive thing to ask about it. An important subject makes an important (and a timely) book, regardless what is being predicated about it.

In literature, however, almost exactly the reverse is true. The marriage plot, as Jeffrey Eugenides had fun reminding everyone last year, is the repetitive subject of a great many novels. Nothing very timely in that (or at least not in the way Morris conceives of time). “Aboutness,” as I like to call the question of the subject, circles around and around what is central to a novel: how it handles its subject. To coin a literary slogan: treatment is everything.

How might a Billy Beane among critics turn around the moribund franchise of “literary” fiction? “If we look closely at our reactions to most great novels,” Wayne Booth wrote in The Rhetoric of Fiction (also published fifty years ago this fall), “we discover that we feel a strong concern for the characters as people; we care about their good and bad fortune.” This caring has little or nothing to do with timing: we don’t love or hate based on the luck of external events.

The source of our feeling lies elsewhere: “[W]e cannot avoid judging the characters we know as morally admirable or contemptible,” Booth goes on. Moral judgment is as basic to reading a novel as a foundation inspection is to the purchase of a new home. It is, however, undervalued in literary culture today. Perhaps the main reason American fiction is in decline is that its moral component is neglected — both by writers and critics. It is never discussed in the creative writing workshops, which consequently limits their effectiveness as “feeders” of contemporary fiction. It is ignored in book promotion for business reasons. (No one ever bought a book, the publicists seem to believe, because its characters were admirable or contemptible.)

In the neglect of its moral component, we may get “timely” fiction or “literary” fiction, but not fiction that invites its readers to a judgment. Success is measured in splashy coverage from critics with little genuine interest in literature, and the real value of fiction is disdained — along with its readers.

Over at The Millions this morning, Bill Morris gives some examples of the “iron fact” that “[i]n book publishing . . . timing is everything.” Joe Posnanski’s biography of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, for one, was drowned in revelations about child rape by Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s onetime assistant. The Bonfire of the Vanities, for another, got a lucky boost from the “Bloody Monday stock market crash in the fall of 1987,” which made Tom Wolfe’s novel seem like an “almost magical bottling of the ’80s zeitgeist.”

But Morris’s “iron fact” is badly rusted by his own self-contradictory evidence. Depending on how you tilt your head, the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, either doomed a book to failure (Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl, published within days of the attacks, included light-hearted references to terrorism) or insured its success (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, published a little over two weeks before the attacks, suddenly seemed “prescient to just about everyone”). Why was one a failure and the other a success, if “timing” influenced the fortunes of both, is left unexplained. For that matter, Morris might have considered an even more tiresome refutation. Anne Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, which romanticizes terrorists, was published in June 2001, and instead of being discredited by events, went on to secure the PEN/Faulkner and Orange literary prizes.

Whatever interest his essay may have is undercut by Morris’s opening sentence, in which the “literary life” is equated, sans irony, sans qualification, with “book publishing.” Here is the sentence in full: “There are few iron facts in the crapshoot of the literary life, but here’s one: In book publishing — no less than in music, war, and sex — timing is everything.” Offhand I can’t think of a better case study of the bacterial infection that has confined literary criticism to a convalescent ward. The confusion of literature with publishing reclassifies literary critics into adjuncts of the book promotion department.

Small wonder Morris is so fascinated with the sub-literary question of “timing.” As John Barth says somewhere, being up-to-date is the least important qualification for a great artist. Moby-Dick, first published on this date in 1851, was so “timely” that it had to wait seven decades, till Raymond M. Weaver’s biography of Melville and Carl Van Doren’s study of The American Novel (both published in 1921), to find more than a handful of readers. Morris’s inclination to equate literary success with publishing success, in fact, is what the bacterium looks like under the microscope.

You might think that a literary critic would feel some obligation to resist book promotion and nose out the good books that are being under-promoted. Criticism might even regain its health if it took a Moneyball approach to contemporary literature. Like batting average among baseball oldtimers who can’t seem to shake themselves out of their game’s folk psychology, timeliness is the measure of how a book is overvalued in literary culture. Fifty years ago this week two different novels about the timely question of the “nuclear threat,” Allen Drury’s A Shade of Difference and Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, hovered near the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Who remembers them today? A solicitude for “timing” shifts the question to the book’s subject. “What is it about?” becomes the decisive thing to ask about it. An important subject makes an important (and a timely) book, regardless what is being predicated about it.

In literature, however, almost exactly the reverse is true. The marriage plot, as Jeffrey Eugenides had fun reminding everyone last year, is the repetitive subject of a great many novels. Nothing very timely in that (or at least not in the way Morris conceives of time). “Aboutness,” as I like to call the question of the subject, circles around and around what is central to a novel: how it handles its subject. To coin a literary slogan: treatment is everything.

How might a Billy Beane among critics turn around the moribund franchise of “literary” fiction? “If we look closely at our reactions to most great novels,” Wayne Booth wrote in The Rhetoric of Fiction (also published fifty years ago this fall), “we discover that we feel a strong concern for the characters as people; we care about their good and bad fortune.” This caring has little or nothing to do with timing: we don’t love or hate based on the luck of external events.

The source of our feeling lies elsewhere: “[W]e cannot avoid judging the characters we know as morally admirable or contemptible,” Booth goes on. Moral judgment is as basic to reading a novel as a foundation inspection is to the purchase of a new home. It is, however, undervalued in literary culture today. Perhaps the main reason American fiction is in decline is that its moral component is neglected — both by writers and critics. It is never discussed in the creative writing workshops, which consequently limits their effectiveness as “feeders” of contemporary fiction. It is ignored in book promotion for business reasons. (No one ever bought a book, the publicists seem to believe, because its characters were admirable or contemptible.)

In the neglect of its moral component, we may get “timely” fiction or “literary” fiction, but not fiction that invites its readers to a judgment. Success is measured in splashy coverage from critics with little genuine interest in literature, and the real value of fiction is disdained — along with its readers.

Read Less

The Worst National Book Award List since the Last National Book Award List

The nominees for the National Book Award in fiction were announced earlier today, and they are truly a bad lot:

• Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her
• Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King
• Louise Erdrich, The Round House
• Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
• Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds

The list reads more like the Acknowledgments at the back of a novel, where creative writers nod and smile at other creative writers, than like a selection of the best American fiction published this year. Only Díaz’s collection of stories belongs on it. This Is How You Lose Her should win easily. I reviewed Erdrich’s The Round House in the October issue of COMMENTARY. (Verdict: Don’t bother.) It may come as a surprise, when you study the roll of past winners, to discover that Erdrich has never won the National Book Award. Little else could explain her nomination for the Award this time around.

Dave Eggers is how a middlebrow novelist reads when he has soaked in the groundwater of “literary fiction” for long years. But the worst part of the list — the revealing part of the list — is the two Iraq war novels that were nominated. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an entertaining and funny satire. Jacob Silverman, writing at Slate, called it a “near-masterpiece.” Which it is, I guess, if you like derivative fiction: Yossarian Comes Home from Iraq, it might have been called, or Catch-22: All Disdain Revised and Updated.

Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, though, could be nominated only by those who had lost all contact with (and any interest in) the reality of war. This is how the Iraq war sounds from within the closed doors of a writing seminar:

I moved to the edge of the bridge and began firing at anything moving. I saw one man fall in a heap near the bank of the river among the bulrushes and green fields on its edges. In that moment, I disowned the waters of my youth. My memories of them became a useless luxury, their names as foreign as any that could be found in Nineveh: the Tigris or the Chesapeake, the James or the Shatt al Arab farther to the south, all belonged to someone else, and perhaps had never really been my own. I was an intruder, at best a visitor, and would be even in my home, in my misremembered history, until the glow of phosphorescence in the Chesapeake I had longed to swim inside again someday became a taunt against my insignificance, a cruel trick of light that had always made me think of stars. No more. I gave up longing, because I was sure that anything seen at such a scale would reveal the universe as cast aside and drowned, and if I ever floated there again, out where the level of the water reached my neck, and my feet lost contact with its muddy bottom, I might realize that to understand the world, one’s place in it, is to be always at the risk of drowning.

What is the purpose of such a passage? Beyond testifying to the aesthetic delicacy of the narrator, I mean. Why would anyone besides his mother want to keep reading? There is nothing at all to be learned from the passage — neither facts about combat nor philosophical wisdom of any kind — nor is there any story, any narrative drive forward. This is what becomes of war fiction when American writers are divorced from their own literary tradition, to say nothing of their own experience.

Fountain’s novel and Powers’s are invaluable in showing that American fiction has yet to forge a distinctive idiom for the wars of the 21st century. That this failure should be rewarded with National Book Award nominations, however, is embarrassing. No critic who is not a stranger to American war fiction could have felt any impulse to honor them. But the four judges of the Award are creative writers — not a critic among them — and asking them to judge fiction by the criteria of readers instead of writers is like asking cupcake bakers to judge the heartiest foods. By the criteria of creative writing, Fountain’s novel and Power’s indeed capture our time in luminous prose by two writers who are destined to become the voice of their generation. Or something.

By the criteria of readers, though, the novels are dreadful. So are two of the three remaining nominees. Not that amazing fiction was not published this year. Christopher R. Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder is the year’s best novel. Pauls Toutonghi’s Evel Knievel Days is far more fun to read — far more of a reader’s novel, with far more to say — than any of the four novels put up for the Award. Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You is a return to the kind of fiction that used to be (in Wayne Booth’s words) preoccupied with human content. To say nothing of Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe’s investigative romp through Miami, a novel that readers who still like to read a novel (instead of imagining themselves writing one) will take to bed — and go to bed early. Add Díaz to the list and you have five works of fiction any one of which might deserve a National Book Award.

The nominees for the National Book Award in fiction were announced earlier today, and they are truly a bad lot:

• Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her
• Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King
• Louise Erdrich, The Round House
• Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
• Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds

The list reads more like the Acknowledgments at the back of a novel, where creative writers nod and smile at other creative writers, than like a selection of the best American fiction published this year. Only Díaz’s collection of stories belongs on it. This Is How You Lose Her should win easily. I reviewed Erdrich’s The Round House in the October issue of COMMENTARY. (Verdict: Don’t bother.) It may come as a surprise, when you study the roll of past winners, to discover that Erdrich has never won the National Book Award. Little else could explain her nomination for the Award this time around.

Dave Eggers is how a middlebrow novelist reads when he has soaked in the groundwater of “literary fiction” for long years. But the worst part of the list — the revealing part of the list — is the two Iraq war novels that were nominated. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an entertaining and funny satire. Jacob Silverman, writing at Slate, called it a “near-masterpiece.” Which it is, I guess, if you like derivative fiction: Yossarian Comes Home from Iraq, it might have been called, or Catch-22: All Disdain Revised and Updated.

Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, though, could be nominated only by those who had lost all contact with (and any interest in) the reality of war. This is how the Iraq war sounds from within the closed doors of a writing seminar:

I moved to the edge of the bridge and began firing at anything moving. I saw one man fall in a heap near the bank of the river among the bulrushes and green fields on its edges. In that moment, I disowned the waters of my youth. My memories of them became a useless luxury, their names as foreign as any that could be found in Nineveh: the Tigris or the Chesapeake, the James or the Shatt al Arab farther to the south, all belonged to someone else, and perhaps had never really been my own. I was an intruder, at best a visitor, and would be even in my home, in my misremembered history, until the glow of phosphorescence in the Chesapeake I had longed to swim inside again someday became a taunt against my insignificance, a cruel trick of light that had always made me think of stars. No more. I gave up longing, because I was sure that anything seen at such a scale would reveal the universe as cast aside and drowned, and if I ever floated there again, out where the level of the water reached my neck, and my feet lost contact with its muddy bottom, I might realize that to understand the world, one’s place in it, is to be always at the risk of drowning.

What is the purpose of such a passage? Beyond testifying to the aesthetic delicacy of the narrator, I mean. Why would anyone besides his mother want to keep reading? There is nothing at all to be learned from the passage — neither facts about combat nor philosophical wisdom of any kind — nor is there any story, any narrative drive forward. This is what becomes of war fiction when American writers are divorced from their own literary tradition, to say nothing of their own experience.

Fountain’s novel and Powers’s are invaluable in showing that American fiction has yet to forge a distinctive idiom for the wars of the 21st century. That this failure should be rewarded with National Book Award nominations, however, is embarrassing. No critic who is not a stranger to American war fiction could have felt any impulse to honor them. But the four judges of the Award are creative writers — not a critic among them — and asking them to judge fiction by the criteria of readers instead of writers is like asking cupcake bakers to judge the heartiest foods. By the criteria of creative writing, Fountain’s novel and Power’s indeed capture our time in luminous prose by two writers who are destined to become the voice of their generation. Or something.

By the criteria of readers, though, the novels are dreadful. So are two of the three remaining nominees. Not that amazing fiction was not published this year. Christopher R. Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder is the year’s best novel. Pauls Toutonghi’s Evel Knievel Days is far more fun to read — far more of a reader’s novel, with far more to say — than any of the four novels put up for the Award. Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You is a return to the kind of fiction that used to be (in Wayne Booth’s words) preoccupied with human content. To say nothing of Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe’s investigative romp through Miami, a novel that readers who still like to read a novel (instead of imagining themselves writing one) will take to bed — and go to bed early. Add Díaz to the list and you have five works of fiction any one of which might deserve a National Book Award.

Read Less

High Holy Days, and a Fifth Anniversary

Kol Nidre, the solemn service that leads into Yom Kippur, will be held in synagogues around the world this evening. Not actually a prayer but rather a “legal formula for the annulment of certain types of vows,” as Herman Kieval wrote in a brilliant 1968 article in COMMENTARY, Kol Nidre is a bit of religious theater by which the Jewish believer is transported across space and time into a primordial face-to-face encounter between good and evil, repentance (called teshuvah, or “turning,” by the Jews) and redemption.

The climax of the Yom Kippur service will come tomorrow afternoon, when the cantor’s repetition of the musaf “standing prayer” will undertake a mimetic reenactment of the Temple’s sacrificial service. Although the literal meaning of Kol Nidre is the cancellation of vows (“Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; our oaths shall not be valid oaths”), its dramatic function, then, is the discarding of ordinary habits and expectations at the entrance way to the absolute, the sub-zero of religious faith. By the time the believer falls to his knees during musaf tomorrow, hungry, stinking, and exhausted, he will have nothing left to give but his soul.

I already have my Yom Kippur reading picked out: Jon Levenson’s new Princeton book Inheriting Abraham, the first title in the new series “Jewish Ideas” sponsored by the Tikvah Fund and selected by former COMMENTARY editor Neal Kozodoy.

But these High Holy Days are meaningful to me in another sense too, a deeply personal sense. Five years ago, between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, I was diagnosed with Stage Four metastatic prostate cancer. “The thing about Stage Four,” the late Christopher Hitchens said, “is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.” Average survival time for men with M+ prostate cancer (as it is abbreviated) is one to three years. I was given a one-in-three chance of living another five years. Yet here I am, prepared for the fifth time since then to abandon all my oaths in order to start again. Every year at this season I must repent for vowing not to die (if I have anything to do with it). Late tomorrow night, around midnight, I will take the same vow again. In between, though, I must hover semi-deliriously in the disquieting faith that the Creator of the Universe will decide, as the liturgy has it, who will live and who will die in the coming year. Yom Kippur is the most difficult theatrical production I’ve ever had to sit through.

Please forgive this resort to confessionalism. And for my Jewish friends: may the seal be for good! Talk to you Thursday.

Kol Nidre, the solemn service that leads into Yom Kippur, will be held in synagogues around the world this evening. Not actually a prayer but rather a “legal formula for the annulment of certain types of vows,” as Herman Kieval wrote in a brilliant 1968 article in COMMENTARY, Kol Nidre is a bit of religious theater by which the Jewish believer is transported across space and time into a primordial face-to-face encounter between good and evil, repentance (called teshuvah, or “turning,” by the Jews) and redemption.

The climax of the Yom Kippur service will come tomorrow afternoon, when the cantor’s repetition of the musaf “standing prayer” will undertake a mimetic reenactment of the Temple’s sacrificial service. Although the literal meaning of Kol Nidre is the cancellation of vows (“Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; our oaths shall not be valid oaths”), its dramatic function, then, is the discarding of ordinary habits and expectations at the entrance way to the absolute, the sub-zero of religious faith. By the time the believer falls to his knees during musaf tomorrow, hungry, stinking, and exhausted, he will have nothing left to give but his soul.

I already have my Yom Kippur reading picked out: Jon Levenson’s new Princeton book Inheriting Abraham, the first title in the new series “Jewish Ideas” sponsored by the Tikvah Fund and selected by former COMMENTARY editor Neal Kozodoy.

But these High Holy Days are meaningful to me in another sense too, a deeply personal sense. Five years ago, between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, I was diagnosed with Stage Four metastatic prostate cancer. “The thing about Stage Four,” the late Christopher Hitchens said, “is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.” Average survival time for men with M+ prostate cancer (as it is abbreviated) is one to three years. I was given a one-in-three chance of living another five years. Yet here I am, prepared for the fifth time since then to abandon all my oaths in order to start again. Every year at this season I must repent for vowing not to die (if I have anything to do with it). Late tomorrow night, around midnight, I will take the same vow again. In between, though, I must hover semi-deliriously in the disquieting faith that the Creator of the Universe will decide, as the liturgy has it, who will live and who will die in the coming year. Yom Kippur is the most difficult theatrical production I’ve ever had to sit through.

Please forgive this resort to confessionalism. And for my Jewish friends: may the seal be for good! Talk to you Thursday.

Read Less

“Morte D’Urban” at Fifty

Fifty years ago this week J. F. Powers published his first novel and masterpiece Morte D’Urban, a satirical study of a Catholic priest who, tempted by the worldly rewards of popular preaching, nevertheless remains “true to his vow of poverty — to the spirit, though, rather than the letter.”

Powers (1917–1999) wrote about parish priests, wrote about them almost exclusively, from the first publication of his first story in a little magazine in 1944. His priests are now familiar types in popular culture, but Powers was the first to dramatize the man of God whose spiritual vocation has disappeared into fundraising and “pastoral” work, which is a fancy name for social visits with aging congregants. “What gave his fiction its force,” Joseph Bottum wrote in calling Powers the greatest Catholic writer of the 20th century, “was the contrast between those little foibles of priestly life and the constantly looming reality of what a priest actually does in the sacraments.”

Nowhere does Power display the contrast more powerfully than in Morte D’Urban. The main character, “fifty-four, tall and handsome but a trifle loose in the jowls and red of eye,” belongs to the Order of St. Clement (a religious order founded by J. F. Powers):

In Europe, the Clementines hadn’t (it was always said) recovered from the French Revolution. It was certain that they hadn’t even really got going in the New World. Their history revealed little to brag about — one saint (the Holy Founder [Powers’s private joke]) and a few bishops of missionary sees, no theologians worthy of the name, no original thinkers, not even a scientist. The Clementines were unique in that they were noted for nothing at all. They were in bad shape all over the world.

Father Urban’s job is to improve their shape, if only financially: He “stumped the country, preaching retreats and parish missions, and did the work of a dozen men.”

The novel begins, appropriately enough, with a fundraising appeal. “For nineteen cents a day, my friends, you can clothe, feed, and educate a young man for the priesthood,” Father Urban says. “For nineteen cents a day, my friends. Tax deductible. By the way, should you want them later, you’ll find pledge cards and pencils in the pew beside you.” He is afraid that Rome is about to begin a “re-evaluation of religious orders, a culling of the herd.” (Powers was prescient in anticipating Pope Paul VI’s and 1965 decree on religious orders, which directed them to “promote among their members an adequate knowledge of the social conditions of the times they live in and of the needs of the Church,” so that “they may be able to assist men more effectively.”) The Clementines exert little influence. Without a “new approach,” Father Urban fears they will be among the first to go. The rest of the novel is the chronicle of his attempts, increasingly hilarious, increasingly baffled, to prod his order closer to “the fast-changing world of today.”

Powers’s subject is usually described as a uniquely Catholic subject, although elsewhere I have called it the basic problem of being religious. Brian Fallon, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, gives a good Catholic wording to it: “why would God entrust His Church to a bunch of fishermen and tax collectors?” The problem is not a uniquely Catholic problem, but Powers catches the uniquely Catholic angle on it and in a uniquely Catholic idiom. Perhaps this explains why, after struggling against the designation “Catholic writer,” Powers eventually acquiesced to it. [Editor’s note: But see below.]

Morte D’Urban is not a novel for Catholics only, however. It is a personal favorite of mine, and always will be, because I read it while sickest from chemotherapy. Afraid of death, I was diverted by Father Urban’s.

The novel won the National Book Award for fiction in 1963, although Robert Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times said the year half a century ago was “an arid year for fiction” (Powers beat out Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Dawn Powell’s The Golden Spur, Clancy Sigal’s Going Away, and John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers). In his acceptance speech Powers told an anecdote about his daughter Jane, who brought a story she had written for her father’s reaction. “A good, strong story line, dialogue, description, and characterization,” he recalled — “all excellent. But I was beginning to wonder, as the story got better and better, how it would all end. To wonder, yes, and to worry.” Jane’s story stopped in the middle of a sentence. “There, in that little scene,” Powers continued, “I can see the power and the glory of the storyteller — and the responsibility evaded. ‘The man of letters,’ Allen Tate has said, ‘must recreate for his age the image of man, and he must propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the true.’ ”

A profound truth, profoundly understated: the novelist carries out his responsibility, recreates his image of man, in how it all ends. By the end of the novel, Father Urban has become Father Provincial (a Jesuit term, which Powers borrows for rather different purposes), the head of the Clementines’ Midwest territory. Debilitated by headaches that leave him disoriented and mute, he takes to opening his breviary and closing his eyes between the waves of the attacks. “Thus he tried to disguise his condition from others,” Powers says, “and thus, without wishing to, he gained a reputation for piety he hadn’t had before, which, however, was not entirely unwarranted now.” This sentence, with its most important content tucked away in an afterthought, is characteristic of his style — as is Powers’s disinclination to say anything more about Father Urban’s newfound piety. The message is pretty clear, though. In the end, Father Urban abandons “the fast-changing world of today” for the presence of grace (that’s the title of Powers’s second collection of stories, published seven years after Morte D’Urban). The mysteries of the sacraments prove to be his vocation, and the Church’s true reality.

Mary Gordon predicts sadly that Powers will not be remembered. He belongs, after all, to the Glossy Age of American fiction when more writers than ever before were adept at perfecting a verbal surface. Powers’s prose is not loud and insistent: his mode is irony, and if Bottum is to be believed, the tenor of his irony, the social institution of the American priesthood in the second half of the 20th century, is gone for good. Yet readers still manage to stumble across Morte D’Urban, 50 years after its publication (thanks to NYRB Classics, it remains in print). And I wouldn’t bet against readers continuing to stumble across copies of it in another 50 years.

Update: J. F. Powers’s daughter Katherine A. Powers, who is editing a collection of her father’s letters to be called Suitable Accommodations: An Unwritten Story of Family Life (and herself a distinguished literary critic who writes a book column for the Barnes & Noble Review known as “A Reading Life”), wrote to correct one thing I say above. J. F. Powers, she writes, “never did reconcile himself to the label of ‘Catholic writer,’ but only occasionally rejected it publicly as such rejections were certain to be construed (he believed) as rejecting the Church — which he did not, though her embrace of mediocrity and banality, especially in the liturgy, and dereliction of duty in the matter of predatory priests was an increasingly difficult thing to bear.”

Fifty years ago this week J. F. Powers published his first novel and masterpiece Morte D’Urban, a satirical study of a Catholic priest who, tempted by the worldly rewards of popular preaching, nevertheless remains “true to his vow of poverty — to the spirit, though, rather than the letter.”

Powers (1917–1999) wrote about parish priests, wrote about them almost exclusively, from the first publication of his first story in a little magazine in 1944. His priests are now familiar types in popular culture, but Powers was the first to dramatize the man of God whose spiritual vocation has disappeared into fundraising and “pastoral” work, which is a fancy name for social visits with aging congregants. “What gave his fiction its force,” Joseph Bottum wrote in calling Powers the greatest Catholic writer of the 20th century, “was the contrast between those little foibles of priestly life and the constantly looming reality of what a priest actually does in the sacraments.”

Nowhere does Power display the contrast more powerfully than in Morte D’Urban. The main character, “fifty-four, tall and handsome but a trifle loose in the jowls and red of eye,” belongs to the Order of St. Clement (a religious order founded by J. F. Powers):

In Europe, the Clementines hadn’t (it was always said) recovered from the French Revolution. It was certain that they hadn’t even really got going in the New World. Their history revealed little to brag about — one saint (the Holy Founder [Powers’s private joke]) and a few bishops of missionary sees, no theologians worthy of the name, no original thinkers, not even a scientist. The Clementines were unique in that they were noted for nothing at all. They were in bad shape all over the world.

Father Urban’s job is to improve their shape, if only financially: He “stumped the country, preaching retreats and parish missions, and did the work of a dozen men.”

The novel begins, appropriately enough, with a fundraising appeal. “For nineteen cents a day, my friends, you can clothe, feed, and educate a young man for the priesthood,” Father Urban says. “For nineteen cents a day, my friends. Tax deductible. By the way, should you want them later, you’ll find pledge cards and pencils in the pew beside you.” He is afraid that Rome is about to begin a “re-evaluation of religious orders, a culling of the herd.” (Powers was prescient in anticipating Pope Paul VI’s and 1965 decree on religious orders, which directed them to “promote among their members an adequate knowledge of the social conditions of the times they live in and of the needs of the Church,” so that “they may be able to assist men more effectively.”) The Clementines exert little influence. Without a “new approach,” Father Urban fears they will be among the first to go. The rest of the novel is the chronicle of his attempts, increasingly hilarious, increasingly baffled, to prod his order closer to “the fast-changing world of today.”

Powers’s subject is usually described as a uniquely Catholic subject, although elsewhere I have called it the basic problem of being religious. Brian Fallon, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, gives a good Catholic wording to it: “why would God entrust His Church to a bunch of fishermen and tax collectors?” The problem is not a uniquely Catholic problem, but Powers catches the uniquely Catholic angle on it and in a uniquely Catholic idiom. Perhaps this explains why, after struggling against the designation “Catholic writer,” Powers eventually acquiesced to it. [Editor’s note: But see below.]

Morte D’Urban is not a novel for Catholics only, however. It is a personal favorite of mine, and always will be, because I read it while sickest from chemotherapy. Afraid of death, I was diverted by Father Urban’s.

The novel won the National Book Award for fiction in 1963, although Robert Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times said the year half a century ago was “an arid year for fiction” (Powers beat out Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Dawn Powell’s The Golden Spur, Clancy Sigal’s Going Away, and John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers). In his acceptance speech Powers told an anecdote about his daughter Jane, who brought a story she had written for her father’s reaction. “A good, strong story line, dialogue, description, and characterization,” he recalled — “all excellent. But I was beginning to wonder, as the story got better and better, how it would all end. To wonder, yes, and to worry.” Jane’s story stopped in the middle of a sentence. “There, in that little scene,” Powers continued, “I can see the power and the glory of the storyteller — and the responsibility evaded. ‘The man of letters,’ Allen Tate has said, ‘must recreate for his age the image of man, and he must propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the true.’ ”

A profound truth, profoundly understated: the novelist carries out his responsibility, recreates his image of man, in how it all ends. By the end of the novel, Father Urban has become Father Provincial (a Jesuit term, which Powers borrows for rather different purposes), the head of the Clementines’ Midwest territory. Debilitated by headaches that leave him disoriented and mute, he takes to opening his breviary and closing his eyes between the waves of the attacks. “Thus he tried to disguise his condition from others,” Powers says, “and thus, without wishing to, he gained a reputation for piety he hadn’t had before, which, however, was not entirely unwarranted now.” This sentence, with its most important content tucked away in an afterthought, is characteristic of his style — as is Powers’s disinclination to say anything more about Father Urban’s newfound piety. The message is pretty clear, though. In the end, Father Urban abandons “the fast-changing world of today” for the presence of grace (that’s the title of Powers’s second collection of stories, published seven years after Morte D’Urban). The mysteries of the sacraments prove to be his vocation, and the Church’s true reality.

Mary Gordon predicts sadly that Powers will not be remembered. He belongs, after all, to the Glossy Age of American fiction when more writers than ever before were adept at perfecting a verbal surface. Powers’s prose is not loud and insistent: his mode is irony, and if Bottum is to be believed, the tenor of his irony, the social institution of the American priesthood in the second half of the 20th century, is gone for good. Yet readers still manage to stumble across Morte D’Urban, 50 years after its publication (thanks to NYRB Classics, it remains in print). And I wouldn’t bet against readers continuing to stumble across copies of it in another 50 years.

Update: J. F. Powers’s daughter Katherine A. Powers, who is editing a collection of her father’s letters to be called Suitable Accommodations: An Unwritten Story of Family Life (and herself a distinguished literary critic who writes a book column for the Barnes & Noble Review known as “A Reading Life”), wrote to correct one thing I say above. J. F. Powers, she writes, “never did reconcile himself to the label of ‘Catholic writer,’ but only occasionally rejected it publicly as such rejections were certain to be construed (he believed) as rejecting the Church — which he did not, though her embrace of mediocrity and banality, especially in the liturgy, and dereliction of duty in the matter of predatory priests was an increasingly difficult thing to bear.”

Read Less

A Passion for (Literary) Fashion

Stephen King turns 65 today. Happy birthday! Dwight Allen’s essay “My Stephen King Problem,” published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July, does an excellent job of summing up why I too have never been able to read America’s most popular novelist. “The writing is at times so weak,” Allen writes of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon — “so pat, so lazy — that I no longer imagined that King was attempting anything other than getting his story from Point A to Point B, even if he was doing that none too quickly.” King’s “pacing,” in book after book, is consistently “off.” The novels unfold “at a slug’s pace,” because they are “bloated” with scenes that go on too long and “unremarkable” social observations and period detail that is “slathered thickly on, as if to hide some vacancy.” For a novelist who is lauded for his single-minded devotion to story, King is addicted to much else besides, and surprisingly boring.

On King’s disappointments as a novelist Allen specifies almost exactly why The Shining and Under the Dome made me squirm (even if, unlike him, I could never get sufficiently worked up to spell out my discontent). When Allen moves on from the shortcomings of King’s novels to the question why they appeal to so many readers, though, I find myself being left behind:

Clearly, King’s readers — many of whom seem to get hooked on him when they are adolescents — don’t care that the sentences he writes or the scenes he constructs are dull. There must be something in the narrative arc, or in the nature of King’s characters, that these readers can’t resist. My sense is that King appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult. . . . King coddles his readers, all nice, good, ordinary, likeable people (just like the heroes of his books), though this doesn’t completely explain why these readers are so tolerant of the bloat in these novels, why they will let King go on for a couple hundred pages about some matter that has no vital connection to the subject of the book.

The commentators to his article were appalled by Allen’s “snobbery,” his “air of superiority,” his “irritating condescension.” As it happens, I largely agree with them: when this style of armchair psychologizing substitutes for literary analysis, the critic should pack up and go home. But the tone and the amateurism are not the worst thing about his speculations. The worst thing is that Allen himself admits they are inadequate, since they fail to explain why King’s readers are “tolerant of the bloat.”

A better explanation is needed. Why are so many of King’s readers bloat-tolerant? As one of Allen’s commentators (a confessed King fan named Erik) cried, “I want story, I want meat, and I want to be transported by something other than my admiration of the author’s talent.” But why are so many of King’s readers satisfied with such mediocre cuts of the meat?

The usual answer is that “genre fiction” appeals to some readers (more readers), while “literary fiction” appeals to other readers (fewer readers). As I’ve said before — more than once, for that matter — this apportionment is clumsy and pathetic, the tactless swapping of critical terminology for marketing labels. The only question about a book is whether it is any good, even though good is a term absolutely relative. There are a lot of “genre” writers who are very good writers: the cowboy novelist Eugene Manlove Rhodes, the crime novelist Jim Thompson, the detective novelist Ross Macdonald, the spy novelist Charles McCarry, the boy’s novelist John R. Tunis, the SF novelist William Gibson, the horror novelist Dean Koontz, the romance novelist Jane Austen.

Class divisions in literature cannot explain why some writers are good, both in the lower class and the higher, and some are atrocious. Allen caught the sleeve of a better explanation when he set out his expectations for any work of fiction:

Among the things I hope for when I open a book of fiction is that each sentence I read will be right and true and beautiful, that the particular music of those sentences will bring me a pleasure I wouldn’t be able to find the exact equivalent of in another writer. . . .

This is pretty much my standard too, my basic minimum and my ne plus ultra. Isaac Rosenfeld says somewhere that, if he is to enjoy a piece of writing, something interesting must be going on in the sentences. The whole of the controversy over William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin’s fiction was over the importance of sentences: for Giraldi, it is a necessary and sufficient condition of literature that its sentences do something more than “limp[] onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor”; for his detractors, it was “mean” of Giraldi to expect any such thing.

But the question remains. Why are some readers capable of ignoring or overlooking Stephen King’s flat and uninteresting sentences, while other readers are incapable of doing so? Again, this is no class division. First-rate critics like Arthur Krystal and Thomas Mallon have praised King’s books (although they remain silent about King’s prose). [Editor’s Note: See below.] And in fact, I mean to say just exactly what my phrasing implies: the readers who are able to ignore or overlook sentences that are swollen stiff with cliché have a talent that lesser readers — readers who can’t get past these miserable sentences — seem to lack. It’s a talent not unlike the willing suspension of disbelief. Here, though, it is the willing suspension of disgust.

My guess is that readers who are “transported” by King’s novels permit themselves the pleasure of enjoying literary fashion, while critics for whom the novels never rise above their sentences are squares and recluses and phobics who feel compelled to resist fashion at all costs. As the essayist Paul Graham points out, fashions are “arbitrary” and “invisible to most people.” You pick up an old photograph of yourself from the Seventies, wearing bell-bottom jeans and hair down to where it stops by itself, and you laugh. It rarely dawns on you, though, that the photograph of you from last week will be just as laughable in forty years.

But exactly the same is true of fiction. Take Harold Bell Wright, for example. Wright, who wrote 18 novels between 1902 and 1942, was the Stephen King of his era. Harper and Brothers once tabulated his sales and discovered that Wright’s books averaged more than 700,000 copies sold. Over 12 and a half million copies of his books were sold during his lifetime, that is. His most famous novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), sold 1,635,000 copies — an astonishing figure for the time. Wright was the “apostle of the wholesome,” just as King is the apostle of horror. Like King’s, his novels supplied material to the movies (Gary Cooper’s first starring role was in the 1926 production of Barbara Worth). Like King, Wright was jeered by the critics, but was beloved of his readers, who went back to him again and again for the red meat of story. Even a “snob” critic like William Morton Payne, writing in a “snob” magazine like The Dial, recognized Wright’s appeal:

The story [The Winning of Barbara Worth] has a great deal of character-interest, and of the interest that goes with tense situations and the solving of difficult problems. Its materials have been used many times before, but they are made to seem almost fresh by the largeness of their treatment. Still, the descriptive parts seem to us overdone. . . . The style of the book is matter-of-fact, and without any sort of distinction. But in spite of its long-windedness, and of the stretches which rival its own desert [setting] in aridity, the story is not unmoving or unsatisfying, and we can see in it many of the elements of popularity.

Yet no one reads Harold Bell Wright today. Begin at the climatic scene from The Winning of Barbara Worth and you can see why:

     In the office of The King’s Basin Land and Irrigation Company, James Greenfield was aroused by a knock at the door. He lifted his head from his arms and looked around as if awakened out of a deep sleep.
     Another knock, and he slipped the picture he held in his hand into his pocket and called, “Come in.”
     The door opened and Jefferson Worth stepped into the room.
     For a moment the president of the wrecked Company sat staring at his business rival, then he leaped to his feet, his fists clenched and his face working with passion. “You can’t come in here, sir. Get out!” he said with the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog.
     Jefferson Worth stood still. “I have business of importance with you, Mr. Greenfield,” he said, and his air of quiet dignity contrasted strangely with the rage of the larger man.
     “You can have no business with me of any sort whatever. I have nothing to do with your kind. This is my private office. I tell you to get out.”
     Jefferson Worth turned calmly as though to obey, but instead of leaving the room closed the door and locked it. Then, placing the small grip he carried upon the table, he deliberately went close to the threatening president and said coldly: “This is rank nonsense, Greenfield. I won’t leave this office until I’m through with what I came to do. I have business with you that concerns you as much as it does me.”
     “You’re a damned thief, a low sharper! I tell you I have nothing to do with you. Now get out or I’ll throw you out!”
     Jefferson Worth answered in his exact, precise manner, as though carefully choosing and considering his words: “No, you won’t throw me out. You’ll listen to what I have come to tell you. The rest of your statement, Greenfield, is false and you know it. It will be just as well for you not to repeat it.” The last low-spoken words did not appear to be uttered as a threat but as a calm statement of a carefully considered fact. James Greenfield felt as a man who permits himself to rage against an immovable obstacle—as one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path. With an effort he regained a measure of his self-control.
     “Well, out with it. What do you want?”

After a hundred years, the phrases that are both routine and awkward are both obvious and laughable (“the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog,” “one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path”). The dialogue is wooden and phony. The narrative force is detectable, but just barely — you have to push yourself across its length. Raise your hand if you wished for more. (Project Gutenberg has a digital copy if your hand is still in the air.) The plain truth is that literary fashion has changed and moved on, and the mannerisms that were invisible to readers in 1911 have become ridiculous.

Stephen King’s novels are like badly acted films. Those who enjoy them are endowed with the God-given ability to turn a blind eye to the defects and allow themselves to be carried away. In a hundred years, when it becomes clear that what they agreed to overlook were fashions that are now impossible to ignore, the novels’ appeal will have diminished to the vanishing point.
____________________

Update: After writing the above, I received the following letter:

I’m afraid that the usually precise D. G. Myers in his astute Literary Commentary blog (9-21-2012) has confused me with another critic. Although I allotted some space to Stephen King in a piece I wrote for the New Yorker, I was careful not to praise his books or his prose. I simply acknowledged in neutral tones Mr. King’s burgeoning reputation. Like Mr. Myers, I find King’s novels impossible to read for the simple reason that his sentences send me packing long before I know what he’s writing about.
                                                                                                                   Arthur Krystal

I am pleased to make the correction, and to offer Mr. Krystal my deepest apologies. Also glad to enroll him among the King skeptics.

Stephen King turns 65 today. Happy birthday! Dwight Allen’s essay “My Stephen King Problem,” published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July, does an excellent job of summing up why I too have never been able to read America’s most popular novelist. “The writing is at times so weak,” Allen writes of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon — “so pat, so lazy — that I no longer imagined that King was attempting anything other than getting his story from Point A to Point B, even if he was doing that none too quickly.” King’s “pacing,” in book after book, is consistently “off.” The novels unfold “at a slug’s pace,” because they are “bloated” with scenes that go on too long and “unremarkable” social observations and period detail that is “slathered thickly on, as if to hide some vacancy.” For a novelist who is lauded for his single-minded devotion to story, King is addicted to much else besides, and surprisingly boring.

On King’s disappointments as a novelist Allen specifies almost exactly why The Shining and Under the Dome made me squirm (even if, unlike him, I could never get sufficiently worked up to spell out my discontent). When Allen moves on from the shortcomings of King’s novels to the question why they appeal to so many readers, though, I find myself being left behind:

Clearly, King’s readers — many of whom seem to get hooked on him when they are adolescents — don’t care that the sentences he writes or the scenes he constructs are dull. There must be something in the narrative arc, or in the nature of King’s characters, that these readers can’t resist. My sense is that King appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult. . . . King coddles his readers, all nice, good, ordinary, likeable people (just like the heroes of his books), though this doesn’t completely explain why these readers are so tolerant of the bloat in these novels, why they will let King go on for a couple hundred pages about some matter that has no vital connection to the subject of the book.

The commentators to his article were appalled by Allen’s “snobbery,” his “air of superiority,” his “irritating condescension.” As it happens, I largely agree with them: when this style of armchair psychologizing substitutes for literary analysis, the critic should pack up and go home. But the tone and the amateurism are not the worst thing about his speculations. The worst thing is that Allen himself admits they are inadequate, since they fail to explain why King’s readers are “tolerant of the bloat.”

A better explanation is needed. Why are so many of King’s readers bloat-tolerant? As one of Allen’s commentators (a confessed King fan named Erik) cried, “I want story, I want meat, and I want to be transported by something other than my admiration of the author’s talent.” But why are so many of King’s readers satisfied with such mediocre cuts of the meat?

The usual answer is that “genre fiction” appeals to some readers (more readers), while “literary fiction” appeals to other readers (fewer readers). As I’ve said before — more than once, for that matter — this apportionment is clumsy and pathetic, the tactless swapping of critical terminology for marketing labels. The only question about a book is whether it is any good, even though good is a term absolutely relative. There are a lot of “genre” writers who are very good writers: the cowboy novelist Eugene Manlove Rhodes, the crime novelist Jim Thompson, the detective novelist Ross Macdonald, the spy novelist Charles McCarry, the boy’s novelist John R. Tunis, the SF novelist William Gibson, the horror novelist Dean Koontz, the romance novelist Jane Austen.

Class divisions in literature cannot explain why some writers are good, both in the lower class and the higher, and some are atrocious. Allen caught the sleeve of a better explanation when he set out his expectations for any work of fiction:

Among the things I hope for when I open a book of fiction is that each sentence I read will be right and true and beautiful, that the particular music of those sentences will bring me a pleasure I wouldn’t be able to find the exact equivalent of in another writer. . . .

This is pretty much my standard too, my basic minimum and my ne plus ultra. Isaac Rosenfeld says somewhere that, if he is to enjoy a piece of writing, something interesting must be going on in the sentences. The whole of the controversy over William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin’s fiction was over the importance of sentences: for Giraldi, it is a necessary and sufficient condition of literature that its sentences do something more than “limp[] onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor”; for his detractors, it was “mean” of Giraldi to expect any such thing.

But the question remains. Why are some readers capable of ignoring or overlooking Stephen King’s flat and uninteresting sentences, while other readers are incapable of doing so? Again, this is no class division. First-rate critics like Arthur Krystal and Thomas Mallon have praised King’s books (although they remain silent about King’s prose). [Editor’s Note: See below.] And in fact, I mean to say just exactly what my phrasing implies: the readers who are able to ignore or overlook sentences that are swollen stiff with cliché have a talent that lesser readers — readers who can’t get past these miserable sentences — seem to lack. It’s a talent not unlike the willing suspension of disbelief. Here, though, it is the willing suspension of disgust.

My guess is that readers who are “transported” by King’s novels permit themselves the pleasure of enjoying literary fashion, while critics for whom the novels never rise above their sentences are squares and recluses and phobics who feel compelled to resist fashion at all costs. As the essayist Paul Graham points out, fashions are “arbitrary” and “invisible to most people.” You pick up an old photograph of yourself from the Seventies, wearing bell-bottom jeans and hair down to where it stops by itself, and you laugh. It rarely dawns on you, though, that the photograph of you from last week will be just as laughable in forty years.

But exactly the same is true of fiction. Take Harold Bell Wright, for example. Wright, who wrote 18 novels between 1902 and 1942, was the Stephen King of his era. Harper and Brothers once tabulated his sales and discovered that Wright’s books averaged more than 700,000 copies sold. Over 12 and a half million copies of his books were sold during his lifetime, that is. His most famous novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), sold 1,635,000 copies — an astonishing figure for the time. Wright was the “apostle of the wholesome,” just as King is the apostle of horror. Like King’s, his novels supplied material to the movies (Gary Cooper’s first starring role was in the 1926 production of Barbara Worth). Like King, Wright was jeered by the critics, but was beloved of his readers, who went back to him again and again for the red meat of story. Even a “snob” critic like William Morton Payne, writing in a “snob” magazine like The Dial, recognized Wright’s appeal:

The story [The Winning of Barbara Worth] has a great deal of character-interest, and of the interest that goes with tense situations and the solving of difficult problems. Its materials have been used many times before, but they are made to seem almost fresh by the largeness of their treatment. Still, the descriptive parts seem to us overdone. . . . The style of the book is matter-of-fact, and without any sort of distinction. But in spite of its long-windedness, and of the stretches which rival its own desert [setting] in aridity, the story is not unmoving or unsatisfying, and we can see in it many of the elements of popularity.

Yet no one reads Harold Bell Wright today. Begin at the climatic scene from The Winning of Barbara Worth and you can see why:

     In the office of The King’s Basin Land and Irrigation Company, James Greenfield was aroused by a knock at the door. He lifted his head from his arms and looked around as if awakened out of a deep sleep.
     Another knock, and he slipped the picture he held in his hand into his pocket and called, “Come in.”
     The door opened and Jefferson Worth stepped into the room.
     For a moment the president of the wrecked Company sat staring at his business rival, then he leaped to his feet, his fists clenched and his face working with passion. “You can’t come in here, sir. Get out!” he said with the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog.
     Jefferson Worth stood still. “I have business of importance with you, Mr. Greenfield,” he said, and his air of quiet dignity contrasted strangely with the rage of the larger man.
     “You can have no business with me of any sort whatever. I have nothing to do with your kind. This is my private office. I tell you to get out.”
     Jefferson Worth turned calmly as though to obey, but instead of leaving the room closed the door and locked it. Then, placing the small grip he carried upon the table, he deliberately went close to the threatening president and said coldly: “This is rank nonsense, Greenfield. I won’t leave this office until I’m through with what I came to do. I have business with you that concerns you as much as it does me.”
     “You’re a damned thief, a low sharper! I tell you I have nothing to do with you. Now get out or I’ll throw you out!”
     Jefferson Worth answered in his exact, precise manner, as though carefully choosing and considering his words: “No, you won’t throw me out. You’ll listen to what I have come to tell you. The rest of your statement, Greenfield, is false and you know it. It will be just as well for you not to repeat it.” The last low-spoken words did not appear to be uttered as a threat but as a calm statement of a carefully considered fact. James Greenfield felt as a man who permits himself to rage against an immovable obstacle—as one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path. With an effort he regained a measure of his self-control.
     “Well, out with it. What do you want?”

After a hundred years, the phrases that are both routine and awkward are both obvious and laughable (“the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog,” “one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path”). The dialogue is wooden and phony. The narrative force is detectable, but just barely — you have to push yourself across its length. Raise your hand if you wished for more. (Project Gutenberg has a digital copy if your hand is still in the air.) The plain truth is that literary fashion has changed and moved on, and the mannerisms that were invisible to readers in 1911 have become ridiculous.

Stephen King’s novels are like badly acted films. Those who enjoy them are endowed with the God-given ability to turn a blind eye to the defects and allow themselves to be carried away. In a hundred years, when it becomes clear that what they agreed to overlook were fashions that are now impossible to ignore, the novels’ appeal will have diminished to the vanishing point.
____________________

Update: After writing the above, I received the following letter:

I’m afraid that the usually precise D. G. Myers in his astute Literary Commentary blog (9-21-2012) has confused me with another critic. Although I allotted some space to Stephen King in a piece I wrote for the New Yorker, I was careful not to praise his books or his prose. I simply acknowledged in neutral tones Mr. King’s burgeoning reputation. Like Mr. Myers, I find King’s novels impossible to read for the simple reason that his sentences send me packing long before I know what he’s writing about.
                                                                                                                   Arthur Krystal

I am pleased to make the correction, and to offer Mr. Krystal my deepest apologies. Also glad to enroll him among the King skeptics.

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The Novelists’ Acknowledgments

Joyce ended Ulysses with a flourish:

Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914–1921

And for a good long while, the appended dateline became a fashion in the English-language novel. It may have served Joyce’s thematic purposes, as Edmund Wilson claimed, but for most of Joyce’s imitators, it was little more than a way to fuss over their book, unwilling to let it go without a seal or private notation of some kind.

Today the fashion is for Acknowledgments. Although historical novelists like James Michener and Leon Uris included Acknowledgments to admit to their sources (and to thank the staffs of research facilities, where necessary), the current fashion is for something different. The long and winding Acknowledgments, which express gratitude for financial support before thudding softly into a long list of friends who deserve to see their names in print for one reason or another, seem to date from the late Eighties. The earliest example I’ve been able to find — I hope other readers can find earlier examples — is in Richard Russo’s 1988 novel The Risk Pool:

The author gratefully acknowledges support from Southern Connecticut State University and Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, while he was working on this book. Special thanks also, for faith and assistance, to Nat Sobel, David Rosenthal, Gary Fisketjon, Greg Gottung, Jean Findlay and, always, my wife Barbara.

Although Russo does not designate the means of support he received from the two universities (besides salary, I mean), his first line is revealing. When an academic scholar receives a grant or paid leave of absence, he is required by the terms of his acceptance to acknowledge the source of his assistance. The current fashion for Acknowledgments, in other words, is a painful side effect of the university writers workshops, which provide a livelihood for most “literary” novelists now working.

In the New Yorker last month, Sam Sacks derided the current fashion. An earlier generation would never have consented to including such a thing:

Writers who saw themselves as magi, practitioners of a mysterious art, would never have dreamed of breaking the spell they’d cast by guilelessly stepping out of character to thank their house pets. . . . But there can be little mystique in a craft that is now taught in classrooms in every polytechnic university in the country. Novelists seem largely to have accepted the financially useful frame of mind that their books are products foremost, shaped by many hands and market-tested by many professionals.

Indeed, the fashion belongs to the boomer generation, the first literary generation to be wholly supported by academic appointments. But there is an important difference between Acknowledgments in a scholarly monograph and the self-congratulatory foofaraw of the novelists’ Acknowledgments. I speak from experience. Although I did not separate them into a separate section with its own special name, I performed the ritual of thanks and appreciation at the end of the Preface to my book The Elephants Teach. After noting where portions of the book had previously been published, I included the names of 22 friends “who improved me by their attention and criticism.” Each of them, however, had contributed something specific to the book: they had read the manuscript (in whole or part), suffered while I tried out my argument on them, pointed me in a productive direction. Even so, the roll call reads to me now like a self-indulgence.

And yet there is a difference. And the difference is not merely, as Sacks says, that earlier novelists “saw themselves as magi,” while scholars have never done so. The difference is this.

At one time a novel was a deception. It pretended to be anything besides a novel. The intention was not to trick the reader into believing the novel was a real document from another time and place, although some readers have been tricked (George MacDonald Fraser’s first Flashman novel convinced some reviewers that it was a genuine literary find, an unpublished 19th-century manuscript newly discovered and offered to 20th-century readers). The purpose was to divide the world of the novel, the fictional world, from the world in which the novel was merely a novel — the real world, where the events of the novel never happened. Lolita does not know itself as a novel but as a prison memoir, “The Confession of a White Widowed Male.” Alexander Portnoy does not think he is writing a novel: his Complaint is a monologue on a psychoanalyst’s couch.

Even the “Notice” warning against “attempting to find a motive in this narrative” (PER G. G., CHIEF OF ORDNANCE) and the “Explanatory” note that Mark Twain squeezes between the title page and the first sentence of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn serve the purpose of the fictional illusion rather than trying to dispel it:

     In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the ordinary “Pike-County” dialect; and four modified variations of this last. The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.
    I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
                                                                                                                   THE AUTHOR.

The world of Huckleberry Finn is its own world, with motives different from ours, although its speech is just as precise as ours. For a long time after the convention of the intrusive puppet-master novelist was thrown off, the question of a fictional narrative’s provenance, where the story came from, how a narrator came to tell it, was dramatized. It too belonged to the world of the novel. Perhaps the most common device was the frame story. Many novelists, though, disguised their novels to look like another kind of document altogether. Here’s the title page, for example, of perhaps the best baseball novel ever written:

THE SOUTHPAW
By HENRY W. WIGGEN
Punctuation freely inserted and
spelling greatly improved

By MARK HARRIS

Where the novel is a false document, any Acknowledgments (if they are made) would also be falsified — the fiction would remain intact from top to bottom. The copious Acknowledgments of recent novels, though, belong to a different and less inviting world, where financial support must be secured and logs must be rolled. What seems largely to have disappeared from contemporary fiction is not the novelists’ self-understanding of themselves as magi, but the need to pretend that a novel is anything other than a novel — anything other than the discharge of an academic professional’s academic duty, that is.

Joyce ended Ulysses with a flourish:

Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914–1921

And for a good long while, the appended dateline became a fashion in the English-language novel. It may have served Joyce’s thematic purposes, as Edmund Wilson claimed, but for most of Joyce’s imitators, it was little more than a way to fuss over their book, unwilling to let it go without a seal or private notation of some kind.

Today the fashion is for Acknowledgments. Although historical novelists like James Michener and Leon Uris included Acknowledgments to admit to their sources (and to thank the staffs of research facilities, where necessary), the current fashion is for something different. The long and winding Acknowledgments, which express gratitude for financial support before thudding softly into a long list of friends who deserve to see their names in print for one reason or another, seem to date from the late Eighties. The earliest example I’ve been able to find — I hope other readers can find earlier examples — is in Richard Russo’s 1988 novel The Risk Pool:

The author gratefully acknowledges support from Southern Connecticut State University and Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, while he was working on this book. Special thanks also, for faith and assistance, to Nat Sobel, David Rosenthal, Gary Fisketjon, Greg Gottung, Jean Findlay and, always, my wife Barbara.

Although Russo does not designate the means of support he received from the two universities (besides salary, I mean), his first line is revealing. When an academic scholar receives a grant or paid leave of absence, he is required by the terms of his acceptance to acknowledge the source of his assistance. The current fashion for Acknowledgments, in other words, is a painful side effect of the university writers workshops, which provide a livelihood for most “literary” novelists now working.

In the New Yorker last month, Sam Sacks derided the current fashion. An earlier generation would never have consented to including such a thing:

Writers who saw themselves as magi, practitioners of a mysterious art, would never have dreamed of breaking the spell they’d cast by guilelessly stepping out of character to thank their house pets. . . . But there can be little mystique in a craft that is now taught in classrooms in every polytechnic university in the country. Novelists seem largely to have accepted the financially useful frame of mind that their books are products foremost, shaped by many hands and market-tested by many professionals.

Indeed, the fashion belongs to the boomer generation, the first literary generation to be wholly supported by academic appointments. But there is an important difference between Acknowledgments in a scholarly monograph and the self-congratulatory foofaraw of the novelists’ Acknowledgments. I speak from experience. Although I did not separate them into a separate section with its own special name, I performed the ritual of thanks and appreciation at the end of the Preface to my book The Elephants Teach. After noting where portions of the book had previously been published, I included the names of 22 friends “who improved me by their attention and criticism.” Each of them, however, had contributed something specific to the book: they had read the manuscript (in whole or part), suffered while I tried out my argument on them, pointed me in a productive direction. Even so, the roll call reads to me now like a self-indulgence.

And yet there is a difference. And the difference is not merely, as Sacks says, that earlier novelists “saw themselves as magi,” while scholars have never done so. The difference is this.

At one time a novel was a deception. It pretended to be anything besides a novel. The intention was not to trick the reader into believing the novel was a real document from another time and place, although some readers have been tricked (George MacDonald Fraser’s first Flashman novel convinced some reviewers that it was a genuine literary find, an unpublished 19th-century manuscript newly discovered and offered to 20th-century readers). The purpose was to divide the world of the novel, the fictional world, from the world in which the novel was merely a novel — the real world, where the events of the novel never happened. Lolita does not know itself as a novel but as a prison memoir, “The Confession of a White Widowed Male.” Alexander Portnoy does not think he is writing a novel: his Complaint is a monologue on a psychoanalyst’s couch.

Even the “Notice” warning against “attempting to find a motive in this narrative” (PER G. G., CHIEF OF ORDNANCE) and the “Explanatory” note that Mark Twain squeezes between the title page and the first sentence of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn serve the purpose of the fictional illusion rather than trying to dispel it:

     In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the ordinary “Pike-County” dialect; and four modified variations of this last. The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.
    I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
                                                                                                                   THE AUTHOR.

The world of Huckleberry Finn is its own world, with motives different from ours, although its speech is just as precise as ours. For a long time after the convention of the intrusive puppet-master novelist was thrown off, the question of a fictional narrative’s provenance, where the story came from, how a narrator came to tell it, was dramatized. It too belonged to the world of the novel. Perhaps the most common device was the frame story. Many novelists, though, disguised their novels to look like another kind of document altogether. Here’s the title page, for example, of perhaps the best baseball novel ever written:

THE SOUTHPAW
By HENRY W. WIGGEN
Punctuation freely inserted and
spelling greatly improved

By MARK HARRIS

Where the novel is a false document, any Acknowledgments (if they are made) would also be falsified — the fiction would remain intact from top to bottom. The copious Acknowledgments of recent novels, though, belong to a different and less inviting world, where financial support must be secured and logs must be rolled. What seems largely to have disappeared from contemporary fiction is not the novelists’ self-understanding of themselves as magi, but the need to pretend that a novel is anything other than a novel — anything other than the discharge of an academic professional’s academic duty, that is.

Read Less

The Political Value of Novelists

Pauls Toutonghi was in San Francisco the other day to promote his new novel Evel Knievel Days when he spotted a sign above a tire store:

THE FOUR SADDEST WORDS
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
ARE
GORE VIDAL IS DEAD

Toutonghi was immediately provoked into reflection. At a time when the “political rifts” between Americans are “both deep and intransigent,” at a time when (quoting the Pew Center) “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” why aren’t our novelists bringing Americans together? What our politicians seem incapable of doing, the novelist does in his writing on a daily basis:

The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists — good novelists — are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

So why, Toutonghi asks, are American novelists not to be found in “the mainstream of political discourse”? The short answer is that few of them are as generous to their opponents as Pauls Toutonghi. Anyone who reads much contemporary fiction — I am condemned by professional responsibilities to do so — would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three American novelists who have put any effort at all into imagining that political conservatives’ view of the world might be correct.

The locus classicus, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a celebrated novel in which George W. Bush is relentlessly bashed (even his twin daughters come in for a bashing) and the dangerous view of freedom, the evil view the novel is written to reject, is espoused by a neoconservative bogeyman.

The neocon explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media — to lie to them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example — “in the service of a greater truth.” You have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you,” he says. But don’t even those people have the right to think whatever they want? Isn’t that precisely what freedom means, even if it means that freedom is a pain in the ass?

“That’s exactly right,” [the neocon] said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

So much for considering opposing views and possibilities. In Point Omega, Don DeLillo does not even try to imagine the interior workings of a foreign-policy neoconservative’s mind — the neocon lies about the “haiku” war in Iraq, the “war in three lines,” by silence and omission. Franzen, DeLillo, and their peers in the American literati belong to the party of Pauline Kael: they can’t believe that a Republican ever wins an election, because they don’t know anyone who has ever voted for a Republican.

In Second Sight, the seventh novel by Charles McCarry (one of the scarce American novelists on the right), a famous TV journalist finds himself at a dinner party where, during the conversation over dessert, Richard Nixon is defended. The left has “made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him,” his hostess says. It is “the politics of self-congratulation.” The journalist is “visibly shocked and offended.” Never before in his life has he ever heard anyone defend Richard Nixon. “It’s a good thing you only sound like that in the privacy of your own home,” he says stiffly.

How many contemporary American novelists, I wonder, are willing to voyage imaginatively into a defense of Richard Nixon? Or even George W. Bush? As I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here and here), Bush-bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of American fiction. Imaginative, though? I can think of other things to call it.

The first condition of lowering the temperature on political discourse in America (that is, the assumption of good faith on the part of your opponents) is missing from any contemporary American fiction that dips into politics. Until American novelists are capable of believing that a political conservative might just be telling the truth as he understands it (or even that a political conservative might actually read them), they will continue to be, as Pauls Toutonghi laments, “relegated to the farthest margins of society — to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs.” And deservedly so.

Pauls Toutonghi was in San Francisco the other day to promote his new novel Evel Knievel Days when he spotted a sign above a tire store:

THE FOUR SADDEST WORDS
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
ARE
GORE VIDAL IS DEAD

Toutonghi was immediately provoked into reflection. At a time when the “political rifts” between Americans are “both deep and intransigent,” at a time when (quoting the Pew Center) “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” why aren’t our novelists bringing Americans together? What our politicians seem incapable of doing, the novelist does in his writing on a daily basis:

The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists — good novelists — are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

So why, Toutonghi asks, are American novelists not to be found in “the mainstream of political discourse”? The short answer is that few of them are as generous to their opponents as Pauls Toutonghi. Anyone who reads much contemporary fiction — I am condemned by professional responsibilities to do so — would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three American novelists who have put any effort at all into imagining that political conservatives’ view of the world might be correct.

The locus classicus, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a celebrated novel in which George W. Bush is relentlessly bashed (even his twin daughters come in for a bashing) and the dangerous view of freedom, the evil view the novel is written to reject, is espoused by a neoconservative bogeyman.

The neocon explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media — to lie to them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example — “in the service of a greater truth.” You have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you,” he says. But don’t even those people have the right to think whatever they want? Isn’t that precisely what freedom means, even if it means that freedom is a pain in the ass?

“That’s exactly right,” [the neocon] said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

So much for considering opposing views and possibilities. In Point Omega, Don DeLillo does not even try to imagine the interior workings of a foreign-policy neoconservative’s mind — the neocon lies about the “haiku” war in Iraq, the “war in three lines,” by silence and omission. Franzen, DeLillo, and their peers in the American literati belong to the party of Pauline Kael: they can’t believe that a Republican ever wins an election, because they don’t know anyone who has ever voted for a Republican.

In Second Sight, the seventh novel by Charles McCarry (one of the scarce American novelists on the right), a famous TV journalist finds himself at a dinner party where, during the conversation over dessert, Richard Nixon is defended. The left has “made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him,” his hostess says. It is “the politics of self-congratulation.” The journalist is “visibly shocked and offended.” Never before in his life has he ever heard anyone defend Richard Nixon. “It’s a good thing you only sound like that in the privacy of your own home,” he says stiffly.

How many contemporary American novelists, I wonder, are willing to voyage imaginatively into a defense of Richard Nixon? Or even George W. Bush? As I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here and here), Bush-bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of American fiction. Imaginative, though? I can think of other things to call it.

The first condition of lowering the temperature on political discourse in America (that is, the assumption of good faith on the part of your opponents) is missing from any contemporary American fiction that dips into politics. Until American novelists are capable of believing that a political conservative might just be telling the truth as he understands it (or even that a political conservative might actually read them), they will continue to be, as Pauls Toutonghi laments, “relegated to the farthest margins of society — to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs.” And deservedly so.

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The Literary Fallacy Revisited

Ted’s wonderful addition to our knowledge about the provenance of the “crazed veteran” stereotype is also a welcome reminder to be skeptical — very, very skeptical — when listening to literary types like me. For we are prey to what Bernard DeVoto, the historian and twenty-year columnist for Harper’s, called the literary fallacy. That is: the shiftless and insular mistake of thinking that we can somehow (in DeVoto’s words) “judge our society by means of literature and nothing else.”

DeVoto published The Literary Fallacy in 1944. (Fred Siegel, writing in COMMENTARY two years ago, called it DeVoto’s most important book, despite a Pulitzer Prize in history for Across the Wide Missouri and a National Book Award for The Course of Empire.) To the literary way of thinking, DeVoto said,

the criterion of an idea is its rightness as idea, not the knowledge which it represents or its correspondence to reality. The method of literary thinking proceeds from idea to idea by way of idea, with no check or control outside idea. It deduces ideas from assumptions, general principles, and universal abstract truths. It requires facts to conform to logic and it ascertains facts by determining what logic implies.

A literary historian may succeed, then, in tracing the figure of the “crazed veteran” through the literature of the Vietnam vet from Joseph Hayes to Philip Roth without any awareness at all that the true source might exist outside the literature. The fallacy has a power not unlike that of psychosis: no facts can penetrate from without, because they are converted into literary facts at the door.

Some novelists make sport of the fallacy. They have a lot of fun trying to show that the game of fiction — what Philip Roth calls the “game of let’s pretend” — is indistinguishable from the many ordinary ways in which we construct and comprehend the physical world. (Paul Auster comes to mind. See my review of his novel Invisible.) I like to think of this as the Kafka strategy, in which objective reality can be altered by a single sentence. (Except that Kafka then remains faithful to the alteration, which became as inalterable for the length of his fiction as any reality.) The glorification of the literary fallacy is Derrida’s deconstructionist axiom (self-refuting, but never mind) that literary thinking must proceed from idea to idea by way of idea, because there is no getting “outside idea.”

There’s a better way for writers to come to terms with the literary fallacy. Not surprisingly, it is Philip Roth who says it best. In American Pastoral, defending his approach to telling another person’s story, Nathan Zuckerman reflects:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations . . . and yet you never fail to get them wrong. . . . You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle out of ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

And how we know we’re dead — intellectually, at least? When we give up on trying to get them right. Whatever lies outside literature and encourages some writers to struggle (and fail) to get it right, including the history of slandering Vietnam veterans that Ted so ably sketches below, is the only thing that gives literature any value. Otherwise it is a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, like so much contemporary American fiction.

Ted’s wonderful addition to our knowledge about the provenance of the “crazed veteran” stereotype is also a welcome reminder to be skeptical — very, very skeptical — when listening to literary types like me. For we are prey to what Bernard DeVoto, the historian and twenty-year columnist for Harper’s, called the literary fallacy. That is: the shiftless and insular mistake of thinking that we can somehow (in DeVoto’s words) “judge our society by means of literature and nothing else.”

DeVoto published The Literary Fallacy in 1944. (Fred Siegel, writing in COMMENTARY two years ago, called it DeVoto’s most important book, despite a Pulitzer Prize in history for Across the Wide Missouri and a National Book Award for The Course of Empire.) To the literary way of thinking, DeVoto said,

the criterion of an idea is its rightness as idea, not the knowledge which it represents or its correspondence to reality. The method of literary thinking proceeds from idea to idea by way of idea, with no check or control outside idea. It deduces ideas from assumptions, general principles, and universal abstract truths. It requires facts to conform to logic and it ascertains facts by determining what logic implies.

A literary historian may succeed, then, in tracing the figure of the “crazed veteran” through the literature of the Vietnam vet from Joseph Hayes to Philip Roth without any awareness at all that the true source might exist outside the literature. The fallacy has a power not unlike that of psychosis: no facts can penetrate from without, because they are converted into literary facts at the door.

Some novelists make sport of the fallacy. They have a lot of fun trying to show that the game of fiction — what Philip Roth calls the “game of let’s pretend” — is indistinguishable from the many ordinary ways in which we construct and comprehend the physical world. (Paul Auster comes to mind. See my review of his novel Invisible.) I like to think of this as the Kafka strategy, in which objective reality can be altered by a single sentence. (Except that Kafka then remains faithful to the alteration, which became as inalterable for the length of his fiction as any reality.) The glorification of the literary fallacy is Derrida’s deconstructionist axiom (self-refuting, but never mind) that literary thinking must proceed from idea to idea by way of idea, because there is no getting “outside idea.”

There’s a better way for writers to come to terms with the literary fallacy. Not surprisingly, it is Philip Roth who says it best. In American Pastoral, defending his approach to telling another person’s story, Nathan Zuckerman reflects:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations . . . and yet you never fail to get them wrong. . . . You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle out of ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

And how we know we’re dead — intellectually, at least? When we give up on trying to get them right. Whatever lies outside literature and encourages some writers to struggle (and fail) to get it right, including the history of slandering Vietnam veterans that Ted so ably sketches below, is the only thing that gives literature any value. Otherwise it is a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, like so much contemporary American fiction.

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Re: The “Crazed Veteran”

David notes that American fiction has done little with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan — but that, given the way literature and movies have treated Vietnam veterans and the fact that, even after four decades “Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars,” the absence of veterans from post-9/11 fiction “is probably a very good thing.”

Agreed. But in passing, David asks where the image of the “crazed vet” came from. That question cannot be answered without reference to B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitely’s Stolen Valor, one of the most remarkable and surprising books I have ever read. Like Whitely herself, I came to the subject with the belief, inspired by years of media coverage, that the “crazed vet” (always a Vietnam vet) was a reality. The virtue of Stolen Valor is the way that it methodically and systemically uses documents obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, reveals fraud after fraud, fake after fake, and lie after lie from supposedly traumatized veterans who in reality rarely even served in the military or saw combat at all.

And these lies started well before the 1978 release The Deer Hunter and, indeed, even before 1971 — the publication date of the earliest book David cites. Burkett and Whitely point out that Robert Jay Lifton, a former Yale psychiatry professor, propagandized against the Vietnam War in 1969 on the grounds that ending the war was (as the American Psychiatric Association put it in a 1971 statement) imperative “to build a mentally healthier nation.” The irony is obvious: the works David cites were fictional in that they advanced the narrative that Burkett and Whitely explode. But they were not even inventive works of fiction: they merely elaborated (sometimes skillfully, sometimes less so) a preexisting trope that was invented for political reasons.

Perhaps the reason why today’s writers have little to say about combat and veterans is they are uneasily aware that, while they can’t get away from Vietnam in their own minds, the device of the crazed vet has — thirty years after Rambo — become a cliché best avoided. Or perhaps the answer is a bit more optimistic: the “crazed veteran” was a product of the anti-war movement, and the anti-war movement (including its literary vanguard) has by and large recognized that going after veterans, no matter how good it may make them feel, is bad politics.

David notes that American fiction has done little with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan — but that, given the way literature and movies have treated Vietnam veterans and the fact that, even after four decades “Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars,” the absence of veterans from post-9/11 fiction “is probably a very good thing.”

Agreed. But in passing, David asks where the image of the “crazed vet” came from. That question cannot be answered without reference to B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitely’s Stolen Valor, one of the most remarkable and surprising books I have ever read. Like Whitely herself, I came to the subject with the belief, inspired by years of media coverage, that the “crazed vet” (always a Vietnam vet) was a reality. The virtue of Stolen Valor is the way that it methodically and systemically uses documents obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, reveals fraud after fraud, fake after fake, and lie after lie from supposedly traumatized veterans who in reality rarely even served in the military or saw combat at all.

And these lies started well before the 1978 release The Deer Hunter and, indeed, even before 1971 — the publication date of the earliest book David cites. Burkett and Whitely point out that Robert Jay Lifton, a former Yale psychiatry professor, propagandized against the Vietnam War in 1969 on the grounds that ending the war was (as the American Psychiatric Association put it in a 1971 statement) imperative “to build a mentally healthier nation.” The irony is obvious: the works David cites were fictional in that they advanced the narrative that Burkett and Whitely explode. But they were not even inventive works of fiction: they merely elaborated (sometimes skillfully, sometimes less so) a preexisting trope that was invented for political reasons.

Perhaps the reason why today’s writers have little to say about combat and veterans is they are uneasily aware that, while they can’t get away from Vietnam in their own minds, the device of the crazed vet has — thirty years after Rambo — become a cliché best avoided. Or perhaps the answer is a bit more optimistic: the “crazed veteran” was a product of the anti-war movement, and the anti-war movement (including its literary vanguard) has by and large recognized that going after veterans, no matter how good it may make them feel, is bad politics.

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New York, New York

Maureen Corrigan’s review of The Scientists yesterday at NPR makes an interesting claim in its first paragraph. Marco Roth’s new memoir of growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the Eighties nudges Corrigan into a taxonomy of New York literature:

Every New York story ever written or filmed falls into one of two categories. The first — like Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or the musical On the Town — regards New York as the representative American city, a jam-packed distillation of the country’s dreams and nightmares. The second group views New York as a foreign place — a city off the coast of the U.S. mainland that somehow drifted away from Paris or Mars.

The normal response to any two-part invention like this is to begin coughing up exceptions. (What about Edith Wharton’s Old New York? The Lower East Side and Jewish Brooklyn of Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, and Daniel Fuchs? The Harlem of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin? The Queens of Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker?) The protesting sputter of exceptions may be the whole purpose of such an exercise, which can’t stand up to logical scrutiny on its own. To divide every “story ever written” into just two categories is to invite you to think about the stories carefully and in detail.

But I’m thinking about something else. Ever since I started book blogging four years ago, I have been moaning about “the almost complete disappearance of regionalism from American fiction” and groaning how very few writers these days are “striking roots in any single American soil.” It’s one of my tiresome little themes. Even when a novelist is successful in evoking the peculiar genius of a place — recent examples would include Michael Chabon’s borderland between Berkeley and Oakland in Telegraph Avenue, Pauls Toutonghi’s Butte in Evel Knievel Days, Richard Ford’s wind-blown prairie town in Canada — the place is not his native ground. Chabon’s previous novel was set in a possible (not an actual) Alaska; Toutonghi’s, in Milwaukee; Ford’s, in suburban New Jersey. The last true regionalist in American fiction may be Louise Erdrich, who maps the same corner of North Dakota where the Indian reservation collides with the white man’s town in novel after novel.

There have been New York regionalists. To think of Wharton as a New York regionalist is to arrive at a new appreciation of her. Francine Prose sticks close to the city — if the metropolitan region of New York stretches north to the Taconics, east to Fire Island, and west to the New Jersey suburbs. (There is nothing south of New York.) Paul Auster writes again and again of New York, although the unmarked intersection where fictional worlds meet physical reality is where he prefers to set up camp.

The truth is that New York is either an anthology of places — Cynthia Ozick’s Bronx, Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn, Alice McDermott’s Long Island, Richard Price’s Jersey City — or it is Manhattan, which can turn pretty quickly into a symbol rather than a human habitation (as in Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin). Even Saul Bellow, whose 1947 novel The Victim is one of the best books about the city, edges away from geography and into allegory:

On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok. The whole continent seems to have moved from its place and slid nearer the equator, the bitter gray Atlantic to have become green and tropical, and the poeple, thronging the streets, barbaric fellahin among the stupendous monuments of their mystery, the lights of which, a dazzling profusion, climb upward endlessly into the heat of the sky.

The best New York book of all time is Alfred Kazin’s 1951 memoir A Walker in the City, because it explores Brooklyn at street level. That’s really the only way to know New York, which is why an entire literature is required to study the city as a whole. Early last year the novelist Edmund White named his choices for the ten best New York books. Not to duplicate him, I’ll list ten more (in chronological order):

  1. Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)
  2. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)
  3. Dawn Powell, Turn, Magic Wheel (1936)
  4. Ann Petry, The Street (1946)
  5. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
  6. Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959)
  7. Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
  8. Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker (1995)
  9. Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler (1997)
10. Zoë Heller, The Believers (2009)

Maureen Corrigan’s review of The Scientists yesterday at NPR makes an interesting claim in its first paragraph. Marco Roth’s new memoir of growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the Eighties nudges Corrigan into a taxonomy of New York literature:

Every New York story ever written or filmed falls into one of two categories. The first — like Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or the musical On the Town — regards New York as the representative American city, a jam-packed distillation of the country’s dreams and nightmares. The second group views New York as a foreign place — a city off the coast of the U.S. mainland that somehow drifted away from Paris or Mars.

The normal response to any two-part invention like this is to begin coughing up exceptions. (What about Edith Wharton’s Old New York? The Lower East Side and Jewish Brooklyn of Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, and Daniel Fuchs? The Harlem of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin? The Queens of Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker?) The protesting sputter of exceptions may be the whole purpose of such an exercise, which can’t stand up to logical scrutiny on its own. To divide every “story ever written” into just two categories is to invite you to think about the stories carefully and in detail.

But I’m thinking about something else. Ever since I started book blogging four years ago, I have been moaning about “the almost complete disappearance of regionalism from American fiction” and groaning how very few writers these days are “striking roots in any single American soil.” It’s one of my tiresome little themes. Even when a novelist is successful in evoking the peculiar genius of a place — recent examples would include Michael Chabon’s borderland between Berkeley and Oakland in Telegraph Avenue, Pauls Toutonghi’s Butte in Evel Knievel Days, Richard Ford’s wind-blown prairie town in Canada — the place is not his native ground. Chabon’s previous novel was set in a possible (not an actual) Alaska; Toutonghi’s, in Milwaukee; Ford’s, in suburban New Jersey. The last true regionalist in American fiction may be Louise Erdrich, who maps the same corner of North Dakota where the Indian reservation collides with the white man’s town in novel after novel.

There have been New York regionalists. To think of Wharton as a New York regionalist is to arrive at a new appreciation of her. Francine Prose sticks close to the city — if the metropolitan region of New York stretches north to the Taconics, east to Fire Island, and west to the New Jersey suburbs. (There is nothing south of New York.) Paul Auster writes again and again of New York, although the unmarked intersection where fictional worlds meet physical reality is where he prefers to set up camp.

The truth is that New York is either an anthology of places — Cynthia Ozick’s Bronx, Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn, Alice McDermott’s Long Island, Richard Price’s Jersey City — or it is Manhattan, which can turn pretty quickly into a symbol rather than a human habitation (as in Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin). Even Saul Bellow, whose 1947 novel The Victim is one of the best books about the city, edges away from geography and into allegory:

On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok. The whole continent seems to have moved from its place and slid nearer the equator, the bitter gray Atlantic to have become green and tropical, and the poeple, thronging the streets, barbaric fellahin among the stupendous monuments of their mystery, the lights of which, a dazzling profusion, climb upward endlessly into the heat of the sky.

The best New York book of all time is Alfred Kazin’s 1951 memoir A Walker in the City, because it explores Brooklyn at street level. That’s really the only way to know New York, which is why an entire literature is required to study the city as a whole. Early last year the novelist Edmund White named his choices for the ten best New York books. Not to duplicate him, I’ll list ten more (in chronological order):

  1. Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)
  2. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)
  3. Dawn Powell, Turn, Magic Wheel (1936)
  4. Ann Petry, The Street (1946)
  5. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
  6. Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959)
  7. Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
  8. Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker (1995)
  9. Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler (1997)
10. Zoë Heller, The Believers (2009)

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The “Crazed Veteran”

On this 11th anniversary of 9/11, I am struck by how little of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wormed their way into American fiction. The main character in Michael Chabon’s brand new Telegraph Avenue is a veteran of the first Gulf War, but by the time the novel opens in 2004, his Army hitch is already 12 years behind him, and his problems are no longer a veteran’s problems. The protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (2004) spends his time denouncing the Iraq war when he is not daydreaming about murdering President George W. Bush. Stephen King makes an Iraq war veteran the hero of Under the Dome (2009), but only, perhaps, because he regrets the atrocity he committed during the war. The voice of reason in William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters is a former Navy SEAL who “has murdered many men — in Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia — some of whom didn’t even know they were in the same room with him.”

The tone of admiration is even rarer than a character who is also a veteran. Robert Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran who began his career with The Alleys of Eden (1981), a novel about an Army deserter who stays behind to live with a bar girl in Vietnam because he can “never feel innocent again in the United States,” tried to explain why to the Virginia Quarterly Review:

Most of the best writers in Vietnam did not go there voluntarily. They maintained that sense of distance from what they were doing because they weren’t there from a natural personal impulse. They were not ontologically comfortable with the role they were cast in. . . . If you go there involuntarily the intensities of war make you doubt even more profoundly why you are there.

But I wonder if there isn’t a simpler explanation, one that is rooted in Butler’s own generation (and revealed in Butler’s own attitude). From his first appearance in American fiction, the Vietnam veteran was already well on his way to becoming a stock figure: the unhinged killer, the suicidal maniac, the post-traumatic ghost of himself. In Joseph Hayes’s Like Any Other Fugitive (1971), the vet is suffering from battle fatigue and instead of surrendering to the police when falsely accused of a crime, he leads them on a cross-country chase. In Edward Connelly’s Deer Run (1971), the vet wants to escape his painful memories of Vietnam by starting a commune, which goes badly. In Harry Mark Petrarkis’s In the Land of Morning (1973), the vet’s alienation from post-war America is symbolized by his fear of sleep, which feels to him like a “black, bottomless pit too close to death.” In Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die (1973), the vet is a violent and suicidal goon who is first seen beating up a sailor, muttering that nobody makes trouble “if you get a good one in first.”

Michael Cimino’s film The Deer Hunter (1978), in which Christopher Walken gives an unforgettable performance as the ex-U.S. infantryman who stays behind in Saigon to become a vacant-eyed and empty-souled legend at Russian roulette, and then Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) with Marlon Brando as the war-crazed former Green Beret, sealed the Vietnam vet’s fate in American culture. By the turn of the decade, TV critics were complaining that the “deranged veteran” had become a predictable stereotype, but what they didn’t understand was that that was its whole purpose. To identify a character as dangerously berserk, all a writer needed was to describe him as a Vietnam veteran. Even novelists who should have known better — or at least worked harder — fell for the narrative shortcut. As Philip Roth reminded his readers late last week in his “Open Letter to Wikipedia,” the “executioner” of the main characters in The Human Stain (2000) is “the tormented, violent Vietnam vet Les Farley.” He could have saved on words by merely saying “Vietnam vet.”

Where did the image of the “crazed vet” come from? The figment is not to be found in novels about veterans of the Second World War. Even when the veterans are emotionally scarred by battle, as in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) or N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), their biggest problem in these novels is readjusting to a civilian culture — as represented by the corporation or the Indian reservation — which gives them neither the opportunity nor the resources for sniffing out the meaning of their experience. The fault of the Vietnam vets, though, is in themselves.

Or perhaps in the attitude displayed by Robert Olen Butler — the attitude of “ontological discomfort” with war, and the suspicion that anyone who chooses voluntarily to join the military has a “natural impulse” for killing and violence. A writer who feels superior to men and women in uniform is unlikely to be interested in their experience, in combat or out. Small surprise the literature of 9/11 is almost entirely a bystander’s literature. And since American writers seem incapable of imagining veterans as anything other than ontologically unhinged, their absence from post-9/11 fiction is probably a very good thing.

Update: Last Friday, Jacob Silverman had a long satisfying review of four recent Iraq war novels at Slate: T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It ’Til It Hurts, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, David Abrams’s Fobbit, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (A fifth title, which Silverman does not get to, is Brian Castner’s The Long Walk.) Silverman’s conclusion is instructive:

It’s clear . . . that these new American wars have bred manifold types of isolation. Here, actual indigenous peoples are rare, whether enemy or civilian; the one named Iraqi that appears in The Yellow Birds is killed almost as soon as he’s introduced. There is little attempt to explore the perspectives of the very people these wars are being waged upon. . . . Three of these four war novels take place primarily in the United States, with the setting of Fobbit basically representing a miniaturized America plopped down in Baghdad. Even Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk . . . is mostly a stateside affair. A decade on, we read about life over here, so we don’t have to think about what we’ve done over there.

The only one of these I’ve read is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I found dreary and far-fetched. But if Silverman is right about them as a set, these four novels belong less to the Global War on Terror than to post-Vietnam American writing. They echo Tim O’Brien’s observation in Going after Cacciato (1978), the first truly good novel about the Vietnam war, in which the American soliders, who had little knowledge of the country in which they were fighting and less contact with its people, “did not know good from evil.” Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars even after four decades.

On this 11th anniversary of 9/11, I am struck by how little of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wormed their way into American fiction. The main character in Michael Chabon’s brand new Telegraph Avenue is a veteran of the first Gulf War, but by the time the novel opens in 2004, his Army hitch is already 12 years behind him, and his problems are no longer a veteran’s problems. The protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (2004) spends his time denouncing the Iraq war when he is not daydreaming about murdering President George W. Bush. Stephen King makes an Iraq war veteran the hero of Under the Dome (2009), but only, perhaps, because he regrets the atrocity he committed during the war. The voice of reason in William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters is a former Navy SEAL who “has murdered many men — in Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia — some of whom didn’t even know they were in the same room with him.”

The tone of admiration is even rarer than a character who is also a veteran. Robert Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran who began his career with The Alleys of Eden (1981), a novel about an Army deserter who stays behind to live with a bar girl in Vietnam because he can “never feel innocent again in the United States,” tried to explain why to the Virginia Quarterly Review:

Most of the best writers in Vietnam did not go there voluntarily. They maintained that sense of distance from what they were doing because they weren’t there from a natural personal impulse. They were not ontologically comfortable with the role they were cast in. . . . If you go there involuntarily the intensities of war make you doubt even more profoundly why you are there.

But I wonder if there isn’t a simpler explanation, one that is rooted in Butler’s own generation (and revealed in Butler’s own attitude). From his first appearance in American fiction, the Vietnam veteran was already well on his way to becoming a stock figure: the unhinged killer, the suicidal maniac, the post-traumatic ghost of himself. In Joseph Hayes’s Like Any Other Fugitive (1971), the vet is suffering from battle fatigue and instead of surrendering to the police when falsely accused of a crime, he leads them on a cross-country chase. In Edward Connelly’s Deer Run (1971), the vet wants to escape his painful memories of Vietnam by starting a commune, which goes badly. In Harry Mark Petrarkis’s In the Land of Morning (1973), the vet’s alienation from post-war America is symbolized by his fear of sleep, which feels to him like a “black, bottomless pit too close to death.” In Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die (1973), the vet is a violent and suicidal goon who is first seen beating up a sailor, muttering that nobody makes trouble “if you get a good one in first.”

Michael Cimino’s film The Deer Hunter (1978), in which Christopher Walken gives an unforgettable performance as the ex-U.S. infantryman who stays behind in Saigon to become a vacant-eyed and empty-souled legend at Russian roulette, and then Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) with Marlon Brando as the war-crazed former Green Beret, sealed the Vietnam vet’s fate in American culture. By the turn of the decade, TV critics were complaining that the “deranged veteran” had become a predictable stereotype, but what they didn’t understand was that that was its whole purpose. To identify a character as dangerously berserk, all a writer needed was to describe him as a Vietnam veteran. Even novelists who should have known better — or at least worked harder — fell for the narrative shortcut. As Philip Roth reminded his readers late last week in his “Open Letter to Wikipedia,” the “executioner” of the main characters in The Human Stain (2000) is “the tormented, violent Vietnam vet Les Farley.” He could have saved on words by merely saying “Vietnam vet.”

Where did the image of the “crazed vet” come from? The figment is not to be found in novels about veterans of the Second World War. Even when the veterans are emotionally scarred by battle, as in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) or N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), their biggest problem in these novels is readjusting to a civilian culture — as represented by the corporation or the Indian reservation — which gives them neither the opportunity nor the resources for sniffing out the meaning of their experience. The fault of the Vietnam vets, though, is in themselves.

Or perhaps in the attitude displayed by Robert Olen Butler — the attitude of “ontological discomfort” with war, and the suspicion that anyone who chooses voluntarily to join the military has a “natural impulse” for killing and violence. A writer who feels superior to men and women in uniform is unlikely to be interested in their experience, in combat or out. Small surprise the literature of 9/11 is almost entirely a bystander’s literature. And since American writers seem incapable of imagining veterans as anything other than ontologically unhinged, their absence from post-9/11 fiction is probably a very good thing.

Update: Last Friday, Jacob Silverman had a long satisfying review of four recent Iraq war novels at Slate: T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It ’Til It Hurts, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, David Abrams’s Fobbit, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (A fifth title, which Silverman does not get to, is Brian Castner’s The Long Walk.) Silverman’s conclusion is instructive:

It’s clear . . . that these new American wars have bred manifold types of isolation. Here, actual indigenous peoples are rare, whether enemy or civilian; the one named Iraqi that appears in The Yellow Birds is killed almost as soon as he’s introduced. There is little attempt to explore the perspectives of the very people these wars are being waged upon. . . . Three of these four war novels take place primarily in the United States, with the setting of Fobbit basically representing a miniaturized America plopped down in Baghdad. Even Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk . . . is mostly a stateside affair. A decade on, we read about life over here, so we don’t have to think about what we’ve done over there.

The only one of these I’ve read is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I found dreary and far-fetched. But if Silverman is right about them as a set, these four novels belong less to the Global War on Terror than to post-Vietnam American writing. They echo Tim O’Brien’s observation in Going after Cacciato (1978), the first truly good novel about the Vietnam war, in which the American soliders, who had little knowledge of the country in which they were fighting and less contact with its people, “did not know good from evil.” Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars even after four decades.

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There’s an Elitist Under My Bed

The productive brawl over “blistering” criticism continues to produce. Yesterday William Giraldi defended his original review of two books by the Lafayette College creative writing professor Alix Ohlin, and earlier today Ron Hogan cracked Giraldi in the jaw for everything he said. Both combatants mention me in passing, but I’ve already had my say. I’m on Giraldi’s side, and in the minority.

One of Hogan’s accusations against Giraldi, though, rankles because it is a cliché and an error: “William Giraldi is an elitist.” A self-owning elitist too (whatever that means). Writing as if in correspondence with a young critic, Giraldi had observed: “You’ll be dealing with people for whom thinking is not a particularly strong skill set — they feel very much, they react very well, but they don’t have much talent for thought.” By people, here, Giraldi is referring specifically to writers, especially contemporary writers trained in creative writing workshops, where — despite the original intentions of creative writing’s founders — criticism never ventures, for fear of being assaulted. There’s nothing particularly shocking in what Giraldi says. It is a variation on T. S. Eliot’s famous remark about Henry James: “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Except that most of the writers who tumble out of the creative writing workshops do not have especially fine minds.

But here is how Hogan responds:

Let’s look at this from another angle: I’m the guy who flat out says being a book critic is nothing special, and one of the key things I meant by that is that you don’t get to position yourself above other people just because you found somebody to subsidize you while you sit around and read books. You want to go back to this MFA bullshit and how not everyone who writes a book is a special snowflake? Fine: You’re not a special snowflake, either. Yes, it’s very nice that you’ve made the decision to have fun reading books, and to share what you’ve gotten out of that with the rest of us. But it doesn’t necessarily make you better than anybody else, and if you’re just going to cop an attitude about what a perceptive reader you are, and how fancy your book learning is — well, you’re not really here to tell us about books, you’re here to tell us about you. And did I mention that you’re not a particularly special snowflake?

Position yourself above other people, it doesn’t necessarily make you better than anybody else, cop an attitude about what a perceptive reader you are: this is what Hogan means by calling Giraldi an elitist. The very act of criticism, on this view, is a declaration of superiority. Criticism could not possibly be a disinterested stream of ideas directed over an object worth considering; it is positioned and copped; it is a power play.

Color me nauseated. “Elitist” is one of those slurs, like reductionist and extremist, that always applies to the other guy, never to oneself.

And the irony is that Ron Hogan is just as much an elitist as William Giraldi. When I said as much this morning on Twitter, all hell broke loose. But it is the simple truth: anyone who lives by books and ideas is an elitist by definition, engaging in an elite activity (treating books seriously) on behalf of an elite (those who treat books seriously). The dictionary-bound will object that I am not using the word correctly: an elitist, they pipe, is someone who advocates domination by an elite. Thus the word belongs to the jargon of the left, which likes to see itself as for “the little feller” while its opponents and antagonists are “out of touch.” This is beginning to sound familiar.

The word élite entered into English from the French, where it originally meant “selection, choice.” In medieval Latin, where the French found the word, electa denoted “choice.” Literature, as I have said again and again, just is a choice: either the word refers to everything that has ever been written, in which case it is unmanageable, or it refers to a selection of some kind. Criticism is the activity of choosing the best for recommendation and reading. Yes, it is the positioning of some books above others. And it depends upon perceptive reading, whether the critic cops to the attitude or not.

That’s pretty much what Hogan does in Beatrice, his own book blog. He singles out books for attention and praise. You will search his blog in vain for any word of bestselling novelists (the populists of the literary world) like Stephen King, James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer, E. L. James, or even Stieg Larsson. Hogan’s very choice of what to write about is elitist — first because it is a choice, second because it is the choice of a select few, a better sort.

Something like this, by the way, was Jane Austen’s opinion of the man or woman who reads seriously. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is upset when he learns that Louisa Musgrove, whom everyone thought he was courting, had become engaged to Captain Benwick. Anne Elliot wants to know why he is upset (she hopes it is not because Louisa has been taken). Wentworth explains:

I regard Louisa Musgrove as a very amiable, sweet-tempered girl, and not deficient in understanding, but Benwick is something more. He is a clever man, a reading man. . . . [ch 20]

A “reading man” is “something more” than a person who is “amiable” and “not deficient in understanding.” Hogan describes his critical credo as this: Have fun reading books. But his criticism is not merely amiable; it is something more.

We are all of us — all of us who take books seriously — elitists. The elitist under our bed, who haunts our political nightmares, is us.

The productive brawl over “blistering” criticism continues to produce. Yesterday William Giraldi defended his original review of two books by the Lafayette College creative writing professor Alix Ohlin, and earlier today Ron Hogan cracked Giraldi in the jaw for everything he said. Both combatants mention me in passing, but I’ve already had my say. I’m on Giraldi’s side, and in the minority.

One of Hogan’s accusations against Giraldi, though, rankles because it is a cliché and an error: “William Giraldi is an elitist.” A self-owning elitist too (whatever that means). Writing as if in correspondence with a young critic, Giraldi had observed: “You’ll be dealing with people for whom thinking is not a particularly strong skill set — they feel very much, they react very well, but they don’t have much talent for thought.” By people, here, Giraldi is referring specifically to writers, especially contemporary writers trained in creative writing workshops, where — despite the original intentions of creative writing’s founders — criticism never ventures, for fear of being assaulted. There’s nothing particularly shocking in what Giraldi says. It is a variation on T. S. Eliot’s famous remark about Henry James: “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Except that most of the writers who tumble out of the creative writing workshops do not have especially fine minds.

But here is how Hogan responds:

Let’s look at this from another angle: I’m the guy who flat out says being a book critic is nothing special, and one of the key things I meant by that is that you don’t get to position yourself above other people just because you found somebody to subsidize you while you sit around and read books. You want to go back to this MFA bullshit and how not everyone who writes a book is a special snowflake? Fine: You’re not a special snowflake, either. Yes, it’s very nice that you’ve made the decision to have fun reading books, and to share what you’ve gotten out of that with the rest of us. But it doesn’t necessarily make you better than anybody else, and if you’re just going to cop an attitude about what a perceptive reader you are, and how fancy your book learning is — well, you’re not really here to tell us about books, you’re here to tell us about you. And did I mention that you’re not a particularly special snowflake?

Position yourself above other people, it doesn’t necessarily make you better than anybody else, cop an attitude about what a perceptive reader you are: this is what Hogan means by calling Giraldi an elitist. The very act of criticism, on this view, is a declaration of superiority. Criticism could not possibly be a disinterested stream of ideas directed over an object worth considering; it is positioned and copped; it is a power play.

Color me nauseated. “Elitist” is one of those slurs, like reductionist and extremist, that always applies to the other guy, never to oneself.

And the irony is that Ron Hogan is just as much an elitist as William Giraldi. When I said as much this morning on Twitter, all hell broke loose. But it is the simple truth: anyone who lives by books and ideas is an elitist by definition, engaging in an elite activity (treating books seriously) on behalf of an elite (those who treat books seriously). The dictionary-bound will object that I am not using the word correctly: an elitist, they pipe, is someone who advocates domination by an elite. Thus the word belongs to the jargon of the left, which likes to see itself as for “the little feller” while its opponents and antagonists are “out of touch.” This is beginning to sound familiar.

The word élite entered into English from the French, where it originally meant “selection, choice.” In medieval Latin, where the French found the word, electa denoted “choice.” Literature, as I have said again and again, just is a choice: either the word refers to everything that has ever been written, in which case it is unmanageable, or it refers to a selection of some kind. Criticism is the activity of choosing the best for recommendation and reading. Yes, it is the positioning of some books above others. And it depends upon perceptive reading, whether the critic cops to the attitude or not.

That’s pretty much what Hogan does in Beatrice, his own book blog. He singles out books for attention and praise. You will search his blog in vain for any word of bestselling novelists (the populists of the literary world) like Stephen King, James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer, E. L. James, or even Stieg Larsson. Hogan’s very choice of what to write about is elitist — first because it is a choice, second because it is the choice of a select few, a better sort.

Something like this, by the way, was Jane Austen’s opinion of the man or woman who reads seriously. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is upset when he learns that Louisa Musgrove, whom everyone thought he was courting, had become engaged to Captain Benwick. Anne Elliot wants to know why he is upset (she hopes it is not because Louisa has been taken). Wentworth explains:

I regard Louisa Musgrove as a very amiable, sweet-tempered girl, and not deficient in understanding, but Benwick is something more. He is a clever man, a reading man. . . . [ch 20]

A “reading man” is “something more” than a person who is “amiable” and “not deficient in understanding.” Hogan describes his critical credo as this: Have fun reading books. But his criticism is not merely amiable; it is something more.

We are all of us — all of us who take books seriously — elitists. The elitist under our bed, who haunts our political nightmares, is us.

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Giraldi, Ohlin, and the Controversy over “Mean” Reviews

Last Sunday in the New York Times Book Review, the novelist William Giraldi tore into two new books of fiction by Alix Ohlin, a creative writing professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Giraldi was disgusted with Ohlin’s prose, which “limps onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor.” He gives plenty of examples. One character is described as “brilliantly smart” (“imagine for a second the special brand of languor required to connect those two terms,” he remarks). Wisdom rises to the level of “Nice guys finish last.” Ohlin has a special weakness for language that she finds close at hand: “a fresh start,” “a dive bar,” “the tip of the iceberg,” and “the whole nine yards.” This is the kind of writing that results “when you need to fill a page but have nothing important to say,” Giraldi says.

The problem is not simply a lazy conception of prose. At bottom is a failure of vision. “When self-pity colludes with self-loathing and solipsism backfires into idealism,” Giraldi says, “the only outcome is insufferable schmaltz.” His conclusion is worth quoting at length. Much of the argument over fiction recently has been waged over women writers, who are obliged to struggle against the critical patriarchy for voice and recognition. An admirer of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, Giraldi is having none of it:

The more genuine argument to be had concerns the writer’s “moral obligation to be intelligent” — in John Erskine’s immortal coinage — and, by extension, the moral obligation to write well, to choose self-assertion over mere self-expression, to raise words above the enervated ruck and make the world anew. Every mind lives or dies by its ideas; every book lives or dies by its language.

Implicit in these words is not merely an understanding of fiction that Giraldi himself puts on stunning display in his first novel Busy Monsters (which I reviewed here and went on to praise here). What is even more scathing, Giraldi indicts a literary culture in which mere publication — the two published books required for a creative writing professor to earn academic tenure — has quashed any sense of responsibility toward the reading public, the principles of fiction, the high calling of art.

Full disclosure: Giraldi and I are friends, although he and I have never met. We became friends after I reviewed his novel, traded salutations by email, and then began scuffling good-naturedly over writing and writers. We discovered a remarkable similarity of thinking about many literary questions. His phrase the moral obligation to write well, for example, is one that I have also used (first here and then here), although it seems to have originated with Professor Jack L. Sammons of the Mercer University School of Law. If I remain loyal to Giraldi in what follows — that’s what friends do — the overriding reason is that he and I are share a loyalty to the institution of literature. That’s the basis of our friendship.

Giraldi’s review was greeted by a chorus of outrage. It was “mean-spirited,” “vicious and self-regarding,” a “jealous tantrum,” and most outrageous of all, a “particularly insufferable chunk of Strontium 90.” The novelist J. Robert Lennon rushed to Salon.com to say that he “felt terrible for Ohlin.” Johannes Lichtman dismissed the review as a “failure in four parts,” although he acknowledged that Giraldi was on to something nevertheless: “Ohlin is not a prose stylist — nor, in these two books at least, does she aspire to be.” (She is a “good storyteller,” Lichtman quickly added, trying to salvage a shiny trinket from the wreckage.)

Ohlin herself put on a brave public face. “All people in creative fields know there are risks involved in putting their work out into the world,” she tweeted sagaciously, going on to add: “If the occasional negative review is the price for this lucky writer’s life, then I will happily pay it.” Oh, the pluck! The poise! The good sense! All that happiness and prime can happy call!

Her reaction suggests that Ohlin agrees there was something personal in Giraldi’s attack, and it is her person, not her books (or, more to the point, her literary practice and habits of mind), which requires defense. At least she advanced no defense of her writing, falling back instead on sunny chatter about her literary career. But Giraldi was not attacking a person. He was attacking a style, a work-shy and negligent writing practice that does not take seriously the writer’s self-elected obligation to write as well as she possibly can. As he explained afterwards to the Boston Globe, his review was an “attack on laziness, on the ubiquity of indolence that is currently polluting our literary culture.”

The only critic who grasped what was at stake in the whole controversy was Ron Hogan, who challenged Giraldi on his own ground, attacking Giraldi’s own prose (“ ‘Emotional verity’? ‘Coruscated import’? ‘The lassitude of at-hand language’? Somebody’s clearly getting a lot out of his word-a-day calendars!”). In other words, Hogan answered the baroque style’s attack upon the plain style with an attack upon the baroque style. And like Giraldi too, Hogan managed the astonishing feat — astonishing only because so few in the Republic of Letters are able to reproduce it — of avoiding the ad hominem and sticking entirely to the question of literary principle.

I think that Hogan is wrong about Giraldi’s style (and that Giraldi is right about Ohlin’s), but this is a fight worth engaging in. It is, in fact, the full and final defense of “mean” reviews. Critics have a duty to review books harshly, I wrote nearly a year ago: “The circulation of ideas begins with books, and bad books circulate bad ideas. . . . When critics fail to bulldoze such nonsense under, it spreads like knotweed, choking American thought.”

American fiction is in decline, because so much of it is “literary fiction,” written not to defend a style — not to declare This and only this is how fiction should be done! — but to have a career, usually in a college or university somewhere, about which a creative writing professor can feel lucky. The indolence of Alix Ohlin’s prose represents a betrayal of the literary vocation, and William Giraldi attacked it in the name of defending the value and dignity of good writing. Those who would sneer at him for being “mean” prefer the convention of social pleasantness, a heartfelt relativism which holds that every judgment is a personal preference anyway.

Literature needs fewer nice people and more loyalists.

Last Sunday in the New York Times Book Review, the novelist William Giraldi tore into two new books of fiction by Alix Ohlin, a creative writing professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Giraldi was disgusted with Ohlin’s prose, which “limps onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor.” He gives plenty of examples. One character is described as “brilliantly smart” (“imagine for a second the special brand of languor required to connect those two terms,” he remarks). Wisdom rises to the level of “Nice guys finish last.” Ohlin has a special weakness for language that she finds close at hand: “a fresh start,” “a dive bar,” “the tip of the iceberg,” and “the whole nine yards.” This is the kind of writing that results “when you need to fill a page but have nothing important to say,” Giraldi says.

The problem is not simply a lazy conception of prose. At bottom is a failure of vision. “When self-pity colludes with self-loathing and solipsism backfires into idealism,” Giraldi says, “the only outcome is insufferable schmaltz.” His conclusion is worth quoting at length. Much of the argument over fiction recently has been waged over women writers, who are obliged to struggle against the critical patriarchy for voice and recognition. An admirer of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, Giraldi is having none of it:

The more genuine argument to be had concerns the writer’s “moral obligation to be intelligent” — in John Erskine’s immortal coinage — and, by extension, the moral obligation to write well, to choose self-assertion over mere self-expression, to raise words above the enervated ruck and make the world anew. Every mind lives or dies by its ideas; every book lives or dies by its language.

Implicit in these words is not merely an understanding of fiction that Giraldi himself puts on stunning display in his first novel Busy Monsters (which I reviewed here and went on to praise here). What is even more scathing, Giraldi indicts a literary culture in which mere publication — the two published books required for a creative writing professor to earn academic tenure — has quashed any sense of responsibility toward the reading public, the principles of fiction, the high calling of art.

Full disclosure: Giraldi and I are friends, although he and I have never met. We became friends after I reviewed his novel, traded salutations by email, and then began scuffling good-naturedly over writing and writers. We discovered a remarkable similarity of thinking about many literary questions. His phrase the moral obligation to write well, for example, is one that I have also used (first here and then here), although it seems to have originated with Professor Jack L. Sammons of the Mercer University School of Law. If I remain loyal to Giraldi in what follows — that’s what friends do — the overriding reason is that he and I are share a loyalty to the institution of literature. That’s the basis of our friendship.

Giraldi’s review was greeted by a chorus of outrage. It was “mean-spirited,” “vicious and self-regarding,” a “jealous tantrum,” and most outrageous of all, a “particularly insufferable chunk of Strontium 90.” The novelist J. Robert Lennon rushed to Salon.com to say that he “felt terrible for Ohlin.” Johannes Lichtman dismissed the review as a “failure in four parts,” although he acknowledged that Giraldi was on to something nevertheless: “Ohlin is not a prose stylist — nor, in these two books at least, does she aspire to be.” (She is a “good storyteller,” Lichtman quickly added, trying to salvage a shiny trinket from the wreckage.)

Ohlin herself put on a brave public face. “All people in creative fields know there are risks involved in putting their work out into the world,” she tweeted sagaciously, going on to add: “If the occasional negative review is the price for this lucky writer’s life, then I will happily pay it.” Oh, the pluck! The poise! The good sense! All that happiness and prime can happy call!

Her reaction suggests that Ohlin agrees there was something personal in Giraldi’s attack, and it is her person, not her books (or, more to the point, her literary practice and habits of mind), which requires defense. At least she advanced no defense of her writing, falling back instead on sunny chatter about her literary career. But Giraldi was not attacking a person. He was attacking a style, a work-shy and negligent writing practice that does not take seriously the writer’s self-elected obligation to write as well as she possibly can. As he explained afterwards to the Boston Globe, his review was an “attack on laziness, on the ubiquity of indolence that is currently polluting our literary culture.”

The only critic who grasped what was at stake in the whole controversy was Ron Hogan, who challenged Giraldi on his own ground, attacking Giraldi’s own prose (“ ‘Emotional verity’? ‘Coruscated import’? ‘The lassitude of at-hand language’? Somebody’s clearly getting a lot out of his word-a-day calendars!”). In other words, Hogan answered the baroque style’s attack upon the plain style with an attack upon the baroque style. And like Giraldi too, Hogan managed the astonishing feat — astonishing only because so few in the Republic of Letters are able to reproduce it — of avoiding the ad hominem and sticking entirely to the question of literary principle.

I think that Hogan is wrong about Giraldi’s style (and that Giraldi is right about Ohlin’s), but this is a fight worth engaging in. It is, in fact, the full and final defense of “mean” reviews. Critics have a duty to review books harshly, I wrote nearly a year ago: “The circulation of ideas begins with books, and bad books circulate bad ideas. . . . When critics fail to bulldoze such nonsense under, it spreads like knotweed, choking American thought.”

American fiction is in decline, because so much of it is “literary fiction,” written not to defend a style — not to declare This and only this is how fiction should be done! — but to have a career, usually in a college or university somewhere, about which a creative writing professor can feel lucky. The indolence of Alix Ohlin’s prose represents a betrayal of the literary vocation, and William Giraldi attacked it in the name of defending the value and dignity of good writing. Those who would sneer at him for being “mean” prefer the convention of social pleasantness, a heartfelt relativism which holds that every judgment is a personal preference anyway.

Literature needs fewer nice people and more loyalists.

Read Less

An Apology for Fiction

“The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not,” Elizabeth Bowen famously said two-thirds of a century ago. “It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.” This is as good an apology for fiction as I’ve ever come across, although J. V. Cunningham adds some distinctions that complicate things enormously:

Fiction is fiction: its one theme
Is its allegiance to its scheme.
Memoir is memoir: there your heart
Awaits the judgment of your art.
But memoir in fictitious guise
Is telling truth by telling lies.

Maybe lies is not the best word for what fiction does, then. It’s not possible, after all, to tell the truth by telling a lie. Maybe it would be better to say that fiction makes believe something happened that did not. As the philosopher Kendall Walton pointed out in his treatise Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990), this small change would place fiction in the company of children’s games — “playing house and school, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians . . . fantasies built around dolls, teddy bears, and toy trucks.” Fiction would then be seen as merely a sustained and self-consistent game of pretending. Some grown-ups involve themselves in role-playing games; some, in fiction.

The comparison remains apt, though. As Walton observes, there is a huge difference between make-believe and private fantasies or daydreams, even when they are deliberate. Make-believe has three special advantages: objectivity, control, and joint participation.

A make-believe world is objective in containing pain and suffering, and in permitting its visitors to be afflicted by them without actually being hurt by them. “We realize some of the benefits of hard experience without having to undergo it,” Walton says. In make-believe, the players actively control the direction and progress of the game. “Brother, save me,” my son Dov calls to his twin; “I’m falling off a cliff.” “I’ve just discovered that I can fly!” his brother Saul calls back. “Here I come to save you.” By contrast, daydreams are passive: they happen to the daydreamer, who floats along or is drenched by them. And finally, as the example of my sons’ play suggests, make-believe entails the possibility of joint participation among the players.

These, then, are the three values of fiction. They give objective reality to mere imaginings; they can be controlled and thus explored, asked about, or rearranged to test a different outcome; they require more than one person, demanding cooperation and shared responsibility.

But what about Bowen’s “uncontradictable truth,” which fiction must contain to warrant, if not the lie, then at least the time passed in making believe? Within the world of make-believe, statements are true if and only if they are true about the make-believe world. It doesn’t follow, however, that because they are true about a make-believe world, they are false statements about our own actual world. Perhaps there is much overlap between the two worlds; perhaps the statement is true about both. Which means that fiction is not merely a way of making worlds, but also a way of making communities in which fiction’s claims are either accepted and become the occasion for further exploration and inquiry into the truths of different worlds or rejected in the wild arrogance that this world alone is sufficient for probing the truth of every possible human utterance.

“The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not,” Elizabeth Bowen famously said two-thirds of a century ago. “It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.” This is as good an apology for fiction as I’ve ever come across, although J. V. Cunningham adds some distinctions that complicate things enormously:

Fiction is fiction: its one theme
Is its allegiance to its scheme.
Memoir is memoir: there your heart
Awaits the judgment of your art.
But memoir in fictitious guise
Is telling truth by telling lies.

Maybe lies is not the best word for what fiction does, then. It’s not possible, after all, to tell the truth by telling a lie. Maybe it would be better to say that fiction makes believe something happened that did not. As the philosopher Kendall Walton pointed out in his treatise Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990), this small change would place fiction in the company of children’s games — “playing house and school, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians . . . fantasies built around dolls, teddy bears, and toy trucks.” Fiction would then be seen as merely a sustained and self-consistent game of pretending. Some grown-ups involve themselves in role-playing games; some, in fiction.

The comparison remains apt, though. As Walton observes, there is a huge difference between make-believe and private fantasies or daydreams, even when they are deliberate. Make-believe has three special advantages: objectivity, control, and joint participation.

A make-believe world is objective in containing pain and suffering, and in permitting its visitors to be afflicted by them without actually being hurt by them. “We realize some of the benefits of hard experience without having to undergo it,” Walton says. In make-believe, the players actively control the direction and progress of the game. “Brother, save me,” my son Dov calls to his twin; “I’m falling off a cliff.” “I’ve just discovered that I can fly!” his brother Saul calls back. “Here I come to save you.” By contrast, daydreams are passive: they happen to the daydreamer, who floats along or is drenched by them. And finally, as the example of my sons’ play suggests, make-believe entails the possibility of joint participation among the players.

These, then, are the three values of fiction. They give objective reality to mere imaginings; they can be controlled and thus explored, asked about, or rearranged to test a different outcome; they require more than one person, demanding cooperation and shared responsibility.

But what about Bowen’s “uncontradictable truth,” which fiction must contain to warrant, if not the lie, then at least the time passed in making believe? Within the world of make-believe, statements are true if and only if they are true about the make-believe world. It doesn’t follow, however, that because they are true about a make-believe world, they are false statements about our own actual world. Perhaps there is much overlap between the two worlds; perhaps the statement is true about both. Which means that fiction is not merely a way of making worlds, but also a way of making communities in which fiction’s claims are either accepted and become the occasion for further exploration and inquiry into the truths of different worlds or rejected in the wild arrogance that this world alone is sufficient for probing the truth of every possible human utterance.

Read Less

Jacqueline Susann and the “Sex-Boiler”

Today is the 94th birthday of the late Jacqueline Susann, whose Valley of the Dolls (1966) was one of the most notorious examples of a uniquely American literary genre — the “sex-boiler.” In the publishing trade, these novels used to be called “bodice rippers.” As the trade name implies, some of them are historical romances (women haven’t worn bodices, after all, since the 18th century). And indeed, Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber (1944), set in what Fanny Butcher called “that lustiest of all English history’s periods, the time of Charles II,” may have been the first of its kind. But later examples of the genre discarded the trappings of history for contemporary stomping grounds. Think here of Peyton Place (1956), Grace Metalious’s saga of lust, lechery, adultery, and alcoholism — but mainly lust and lechery — in a small New England town. Nor are sex-boilers “women’s pornography”; nor are all of them written by women. Harold Robbins wrote some of the biggest-selling sex-boilers of all time, especially The Carpetbaggers (1961).

A sex-boiler is a novel, more often than not a roman à clef, which is written to capitalize upon the reading public’s taste for sex. This is a surprisingly recent fashion, at least in literary history, and what with internet pornography and looser production codes in movies and on TV, it may already be passing out of fashion again. As I have written elsewhere, the very use of the word sex to refer to the sex act is recent. It is not much more than a century old:

Before the twentieth century, “sex” referred to what is now called romance, more or less. Once it was uncoupled from flirtation, courtship, seduction, marriage, pregnancy, and children — once it was narrowed to genital strife — [sex] ceased to be an idea and became a scandal. Novelists wrote sex scenes, and the remainder of human sexual experience wasn’t even left to the imagination, because few novelists even imagined it was there. The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.

The sex-boiler is the popular novel in which human intrigue and striving are almost entirely for the sake of the sex act. That’s what all the intrigue and striving culminates in. Human experience boils over with sex, and the novelist makes a nice fat killing.

Consider the history of bestsellers in America. In 1943, The Robe, Lloyd C. Douglas’s historical novel about the Crucifixion, topped Publishers Weekly’s list of bestselling fiction. The next year — the year Forever Amber was published — Lillian Smith’s “social-problem” novel about miscegenation and interracial romance, Strange Fruit, grabbed the top spot. As Bruce Clayton writes, Smith’s novel “was denounced in many places for its ‘obscenity,’ although sex is barely mentioned.” It is just possible that the hint of sex, and not the earnest inquiry into a social problem, was the novel’s greatest selling point. At all events, Forever Amber finished fourth in sales that year. By 1945, it had climbed to the top of the list, although The Robe clung to second place. This is a significant moment in literary history. Looking back, you can watch sex and religion struggling for supremacy in American readership.

Religious novels continued to sell hugely into the Fifties: Russell Janney’s The Miracle of the Bells, Douglas’s The Big Fisherman, Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal, and Thomas B. Costain’s The Silver Chalice all achieved the status of No. 1, with The Robe returning to the top in 1953, more than a decade after its original publication. The religious novels were pressed by historical romances, especially by Daphne du Maurier, and a growing number of social-problem novels like Frederic Wakeman’s The Hucksters, which examines advertising, and Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which examines anti-Semitism. But it was probably the success of James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951), with its four-letter soldiers’ words and its frank treatment of a deeply erotic adultery, that loosened the taboos more than any single American book.

Peyton Place followed five years later, although it was edged out of the top spot on the bestsellers’ list by James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed, a novel about adultery that was the polar opposite of a sex-boiler. Cozzens’s book made you never want to have sex again. The title was the hottest thing about it. Thousands upon thousands of readers were tricked into reading it by the title alone. The unexpurgated Grove Press edition of Lady Chatterly’s Lover ended the Federal government’s long history of postal censorship in 1959. The “serious” novelists were slow to take advantage — Couples and Portnoy’s Complaint broke down the last prohibitions on sex in “serious” fiction in the late Sixties — but by then, Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace and Terry Southern had thoroughly sexualized American fiction. Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1962) was an attempt to adopt the popular sex-boiler to serious literary purpose. Its very title suggests an important feature of the genre. The sex-boiler is a group chronicle of desperate sex-seekers.

Valley of the Dolls was the first sex-boiler to attain first place on the bestsellers’ list, nosing out Harold Robbins’s The Adventurers (another of the kind). Both of them returned to near the top in 1969, but Portnoy’s Complaint outsold them that year. So did The Godfather, which has a strong whiff of the sex-boiler about it. Mario Puzo introduced a great many boys late in the Baby Boom to the steamier facts of life. Judith Kranz, Danielle Steel, and Jackie Collins perfected the invention in the Eighties, but except for Steel, they had passed from the literary scene by the end of the century. By the time E. L. James appeared with Fifty Shades of Grey, the sex-boiler had to get kinky to attract new readers.

Today is the 94th birthday of the late Jacqueline Susann, whose Valley of the Dolls (1966) was one of the most notorious examples of a uniquely American literary genre — the “sex-boiler.” In the publishing trade, these novels used to be called “bodice rippers.” As the trade name implies, some of them are historical romances (women haven’t worn bodices, after all, since the 18th century). And indeed, Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber (1944), set in what Fanny Butcher called “that lustiest of all English history’s periods, the time of Charles II,” may have been the first of its kind. But later examples of the genre discarded the trappings of history for contemporary stomping grounds. Think here of Peyton Place (1956), Grace Metalious’s saga of lust, lechery, adultery, and alcoholism — but mainly lust and lechery — in a small New England town. Nor are sex-boilers “women’s pornography”; nor are all of them written by women. Harold Robbins wrote some of the biggest-selling sex-boilers of all time, especially The Carpetbaggers (1961).

A sex-boiler is a novel, more often than not a roman à clef, which is written to capitalize upon the reading public’s taste for sex. This is a surprisingly recent fashion, at least in literary history, and what with internet pornography and looser production codes in movies and on TV, it may already be passing out of fashion again. As I have written elsewhere, the very use of the word sex to refer to the sex act is recent. It is not much more than a century old:

Before the twentieth century, “sex” referred to what is now called romance, more or less. Once it was uncoupled from flirtation, courtship, seduction, marriage, pregnancy, and children — once it was narrowed to genital strife — [sex] ceased to be an idea and became a scandal. Novelists wrote sex scenes, and the remainder of human sexual experience wasn’t even left to the imagination, because few novelists even imagined it was there. The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.

The sex-boiler is the popular novel in which human intrigue and striving are almost entirely for the sake of the sex act. That’s what all the intrigue and striving culminates in. Human experience boils over with sex, and the novelist makes a nice fat killing.

Consider the history of bestsellers in America. In 1943, The Robe, Lloyd C. Douglas’s historical novel about the Crucifixion, topped Publishers Weekly’s list of bestselling fiction. The next year — the year Forever Amber was published — Lillian Smith’s “social-problem” novel about miscegenation and interracial romance, Strange Fruit, grabbed the top spot. As Bruce Clayton writes, Smith’s novel “was denounced in many places for its ‘obscenity,’ although sex is barely mentioned.” It is just possible that the hint of sex, and not the earnest inquiry into a social problem, was the novel’s greatest selling point. At all events, Forever Amber finished fourth in sales that year. By 1945, it had climbed to the top of the list, although The Robe clung to second place. This is a significant moment in literary history. Looking back, you can watch sex and religion struggling for supremacy in American readership.

Religious novels continued to sell hugely into the Fifties: Russell Janney’s The Miracle of the Bells, Douglas’s The Big Fisherman, Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal, and Thomas B. Costain’s The Silver Chalice all achieved the status of No. 1, with The Robe returning to the top in 1953, more than a decade after its original publication. The religious novels were pressed by historical romances, especially by Daphne du Maurier, and a growing number of social-problem novels like Frederic Wakeman’s The Hucksters, which examines advertising, and Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which examines anti-Semitism. But it was probably the success of James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951), with its four-letter soldiers’ words and its frank treatment of a deeply erotic adultery, that loosened the taboos more than any single American book.

Peyton Place followed five years later, although it was edged out of the top spot on the bestsellers’ list by James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed, a novel about adultery that was the polar opposite of a sex-boiler. Cozzens’s book made you never want to have sex again. The title was the hottest thing about it. Thousands upon thousands of readers were tricked into reading it by the title alone. The unexpurgated Grove Press edition of Lady Chatterly’s Lover ended the Federal government’s long history of postal censorship in 1959. The “serious” novelists were slow to take advantage — Couples and Portnoy’s Complaint broke down the last prohibitions on sex in “serious” fiction in the late Sixties — but by then, Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace and Terry Southern had thoroughly sexualized American fiction. Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1962) was an attempt to adopt the popular sex-boiler to serious literary purpose. Its very title suggests an important feature of the genre. The sex-boiler is a group chronicle of desperate sex-seekers.

Valley of the Dolls was the first sex-boiler to attain first place on the bestsellers’ list, nosing out Harold Robbins’s The Adventurers (another of the kind). Both of them returned to near the top in 1969, but Portnoy’s Complaint outsold them that year. So did The Godfather, which has a strong whiff of the sex-boiler about it. Mario Puzo introduced a great many boys late in the Baby Boom to the steamier facts of life. Judith Kranz, Danielle Steel, and Jackie Collins perfected the invention in the Eighties, but except for Steel, they had passed from the literary scene by the end of the century. By the time E. L. James appeared with Fifty Shades of Grey, the sex-boiler had to get kinky to attract new readers.

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James Gould Cozzens at 109

James Gould Cozzens, perhaps America’s best forgotten novelist, was born 109 years ago today in Chicago. The excellence of at least three of his novels, Castaway (1934), The Just and the Unjust (1942), and especially Guard of Honor (1948), is not diminished by the fact that most contemporary readers will remember Cozzens, if at all, from Dwight Macdonald’s infamous COMMENTARY essay “By Cozzens Possessed,” the deadliest critical hit job in history. Ironically enough, COMMENTARY was also the venue in which Joseph Epstein sought, a quarter center later, to resuscitate Cozzens’s reputation:

The more impressive of Cozzens’s novels fall well outside the mainstream of modernist fiction. He does not go in for wild invention. In a mature James Gould Cozzens novel a cause has effects, effects ignite further causes, which in turn light up other effects. If you happen to believe that this is how life works—as, it happens, I do—then James Gould Cozzens may be for you. If you don’t, then perhaps you would do better to consider the problems of modern reading in the novels of Italo Calvino or set off on a tour of ancient Egypt with Norman Mailer.

Not a stirring recommendation. As Epstein himself might have said it otherwise, “One cheer for Cozzens!” The resuscitation failed.

I have a soft spot for Cozzens, because he is indirectly guilty for my own choice of a literary career. As a kid, I was mockingly called “the family lawyer,” because I would argue the case of my younger brother and sisters when they got in trouble. I must have been in the sixth grade — I hadn’t yet gone on to junior high school — when I decided that maybe my parents were right about me, after all. I wrote to the Harvard Law School for advice. In reply, I received a reading list. On it was Cozzens’s The Just and the Unjust, a novel about a murder trial that focused almost exclusively (almost exhaustively) on the lawyers. Their work, I mean — not their personalities and back stories and romances. The novel spans just three days, but it is crowded with the effort involved in prosecuting, defending, and judging a case. By the end, the main character — an assistant district attorney — is deeply tired, “not physically in a way to make him sleepy, but in the protracted drain of nervous energy.” That really was Cozzens’s subject: how men and women drain themselves with rewarding work. I could see why Harvard Law had recommended the novel: no better account of a lawyer’s day-to-day responsibilities could be imagined. But I preferred the accounting to the responsibilities.

Castaway is a puzzling and suspenseful tale of a man trapped in a deserted modern department store. Cozzens begins by quoting from Robinson Crusoe, and in similar fashion, his hero must carve out an existence on an island of commerce, which contains little to sustain a human life. Guard of Honor is Cozzens’s masterpiece. The sociologist Robert A. Nisbet once told the New York Times, when asked to name the postwar books most likely to achieve literary immortality, that Lolita and Guard of Honor both express “something distinctive and important about our age.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a World War II novel, but a novel about the war behind the lines. It examines the effects of integration upon the U.S. Army Air Force over just 48 hours at a base in Florida. It is not a novel of combat, but of professionalism: the USAAF officers in the novel are at work, on problems serious and trivial.

“There are two species of novelist,” as my friend William Giraldi says in this morning’s New York Times Book Review: “one writes as if the world is a known locale that requires dutiful reporting, the other as if the world has yet to be made.” Cozzens belongs to the league of the former — the meticulous realists — but he makes you realize that a “known locale” is not really known after all, because really knowing it requires a protracted drain of nervous energy.

James Gould Cozzens, perhaps America’s best forgotten novelist, was born 109 years ago today in Chicago. The excellence of at least three of his novels, Castaway (1934), The Just and the Unjust (1942), and especially Guard of Honor (1948), is not diminished by the fact that most contemporary readers will remember Cozzens, if at all, from Dwight Macdonald’s infamous COMMENTARY essay “By Cozzens Possessed,” the deadliest critical hit job in history. Ironically enough, COMMENTARY was also the venue in which Joseph Epstein sought, a quarter center later, to resuscitate Cozzens’s reputation:

The more impressive of Cozzens’s novels fall well outside the mainstream of modernist fiction. He does not go in for wild invention. In a mature James Gould Cozzens novel a cause has effects, effects ignite further causes, which in turn light up other effects. If you happen to believe that this is how life works—as, it happens, I do—then James Gould Cozzens may be for you. If you don’t, then perhaps you would do better to consider the problems of modern reading in the novels of Italo Calvino or set off on a tour of ancient Egypt with Norman Mailer.

Not a stirring recommendation. As Epstein himself might have said it otherwise, “One cheer for Cozzens!” The resuscitation failed.

I have a soft spot for Cozzens, because he is indirectly guilty for my own choice of a literary career. As a kid, I was mockingly called “the family lawyer,” because I would argue the case of my younger brother and sisters when they got in trouble. I must have been in the sixth grade — I hadn’t yet gone on to junior high school — when I decided that maybe my parents were right about me, after all. I wrote to the Harvard Law School for advice. In reply, I received a reading list. On it was Cozzens’s The Just and the Unjust, a novel about a murder trial that focused almost exclusively (almost exhaustively) on the lawyers. Their work, I mean — not their personalities and back stories and romances. The novel spans just three days, but it is crowded with the effort involved in prosecuting, defending, and judging a case. By the end, the main character — an assistant district attorney — is deeply tired, “not physically in a way to make him sleepy, but in the protracted drain of nervous energy.” That really was Cozzens’s subject: how men and women drain themselves with rewarding work. I could see why Harvard Law had recommended the novel: no better account of a lawyer’s day-to-day responsibilities could be imagined. But I preferred the accounting to the responsibilities.

Castaway is a puzzling and suspenseful tale of a man trapped in a deserted modern department store. Cozzens begins by quoting from Robinson Crusoe, and in similar fashion, his hero must carve out an existence on an island of commerce, which contains little to sustain a human life. Guard of Honor is Cozzens’s masterpiece. The sociologist Robert A. Nisbet once told the New York Times, when asked to name the postwar books most likely to achieve literary immortality, that Lolita and Guard of Honor both express “something distinctive and important about our age.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a World War II novel, but a novel about the war behind the lines. It examines the effects of integration upon the U.S. Army Air Force over just 48 hours at a base in Florida. It is not a novel of combat, but of professionalism: the USAAF officers in the novel are at work, on problems serious and trivial.

“There are two species of novelist,” as my friend William Giraldi says in this morning’s New York Times Book Review: “one writes as if the world is a known locale that requires dutiful reporting, the other as if the world has yet to be made.” Cozzens belongs to the league of the former — the meticulous realists — but he makes you realize that a “known locale” is not really known after all, because really knowing it requires a protracted drain of nervous energy.

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Review: Dreams of His Father in Cairo

Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (New York: Crown, 2012). 292 pages.

“Evel Knievel Days” is the name of a summer festival held every year in Butte, Montana, to honor the notorious late stunt rider who was born there. “And what a festival it had become,” exults the narrator of Pauls Toutonghi’s upbeat second novel:

It lasted for seventy-two hours on the final weekend in July. It was a circus of motorcycle daredevils and demolition derbies; the cops cordoned off most of downtown and routed the majority of traffic through the suburbs. I’m really not making this up. It seems exaggerated or unlikely or impossible. But nothing galvanized this corner of Montana like stunt jumping and the destruction of machines.

Thus does Toutonghi introduce his keynote and theme. Evel Knievel Days opens during Evel Knievel Days in 2008, but the festival is not its locus and the only daredevil is its narrator, whose exploits balance precariously on the edge of exaggeration and unlikelihood before ending with a gasp of happy relief — something like stunt jumping, come to think of it.

Khosi Saqr is the son of an Egyptian Copt who had come to Montana for an engineering degree and the great-granddaughter of William Andrews Clark (Butte’s legendary “copper king,” who appears later in the novel as a ghost). He lives at home with his mother in an falling-down house he likes to call the Loving Shambles (possibly the closest house in America to an EPA Superfund site), and works as a tour guide in the Copper King Mansion, a local museum that was once his great-great-grandfather’s house. An obsessive compulsive and something of an agoraphobic — his friends call him a hermit — Khosi has never been able to leave Butte, even though he is a “card-carrying member of MENSA.”

His parents split up when Khosi was three. Since then he has spent much of his time speculating about his father’s reasons for deserting him and returning to Egypt. “I’ve imagined entire stories for him,” Khosi says,

but they lead me to the same emptiness. And the most embarrassing thing? I’ve always wanted to say Daddy, that infantile and diminutive word. I never had the chance to say it, never got to write it on birthday cards or Father’s Day cards or letters home from camp.

The emptiness at the center of his life (“my hidden galaxy, my empty suitcase, my vacant motel room,” as he puts it elsewhere) is complicated by the fact that his father is the native of a “country on the other side of the world,” about which — about whose people — he knows nothing, despite his own Egyptian name:

I have a family tree somewhere, but I don’t know where, and it’s probably in Arabic, or possibly French, or possibly both. The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side [the Clark side]: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it’s fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance.

The two halves of his history come together, fleetingly, when his father resurfaces in Butte to secure his ex-wife’s signature on divorce papers. Khosi glimpses him lurking outside the Cooper King Mansion in a gray wool overcoat, despite the summer heat, but he only realizes after his father has fled again that the suspicious-looking man was his father. Khosi decides to follow him to Cairo.

From this point on — the last seven-tenths of its length — Toutonghi’s novel is filled with events that strengthen from strange to stranger. The opening chapters of Evel Knievel Days give the book every indication of being a standard second-generation immigrant novel like John Okada’s No-No Boy or Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air (two of the better examples), where the claim to originality is little more than to be perhaps the first to explore the “double consciousness” of Egyptian Americans (in animated prose).

Once Khosi arrives in Cairo, however, where people have been living for 7,000 years (as his taxi driver tells him), everything changes. Toutonghi later gives a rational explanation for the strange events: having left the U.S. too abruptly to be properly immunized against exotic foreign diseases, Khosi is bitten by a mosquito and contracts yellow fever. But the strangeness is allowed to linger for many chapters before any explanation is offered. “Sure, this wasn’t jumping over the Grand Canyon, like Robert Craig Knievel,” Khosi says of his efforts to navigate the strange city, “but for me — for me it was close.”

With a little help from the ghost of William Andrews Clark, who shows up in a Coptic Christian church to issue advice and warnings in a silly parody of movie Western slang that works precisely because it is so silly (“What are your sins, pardner?” “Let ’er rip.” “Sometimes life’s got a sting like bumblebee whiskey”), Khosi tracks down his father’s fiancée, a beautiful young antiquities dealer who does not believe anything Khosi says. (She has been told that Akram Saqr’s son died as an infant.)

Khosi is saddened to learn that his father is a liar, but worse is to follow. When his father finally turns up, he asks Khosi to pretend to be someone else. He introduces his only son as the son of a dead friend. His father’s dishonesty almost gets Khosi killed at the hands of gamblers. His mother arrives in Cairo with food from home, but things don’t improve. His father’s fiancée accuses Khosi of stealing a priceless ancient bracelet. Escaping from the police, he collapses from yellow fever and floats through a delirium in which his parents make peace with each other at last. Nursed back to health in a Muslim Brotherhood hospital, he attends his father’s wedding, confusing the guests, who can’t figure out whether he is family or a waiter. After everything, he decides to remain in Cairo instead of returning to America.

Although it is very funny, Evel Knievel Days is not a comic novel. It is a romance in pretty much the same sense that The Tempest is a romance: strange events crowd out natural events, not because the setting is a magical realm, but because reality becomes magical and strange when it is no longer conventional and familiar. Khosi’s decision to remain in Cairo cures him of his compulsions. In an epilogue, he reveals that he was on the streets during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations two and a half years later in Tahrir Square. By then, the Egyptian reality has turned mundane again. And Khosi can begin a normal life.

Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (New York: Crown, 2012). 292 pages.

“Evel Knievel Days” is the name of a summer festival held every year in Butte, Montana, to honor the notorious late stunt rider who was born there. “And what a festival it had become,” exults the narrator of Pauls Toutonghi’s upbeat second novel:

It lasted for seventy-two hours on the final weekend in July. It was a circus of motorcycle daredevils and demolition derbies; the cops cordoned off most of downtown and routed the majority of traffic through the suburbs. I’m really not making this up. It seems exaggerated or unlikely or impossible. But nothing galvanized this corner of Montana like stunt jumping and the destruction of machines.

Thus does Toutonghi introduce his keynote and theme. Evel Knievel Days opens during Evel Knievel Days in 2008, but the festival is not its locus and the only daredevil is its narrator, whose exploits balance precariously on the edge of exaggeration and unlikelihood before ending with a gasp of happy relief — something like stunt jumping, come to think of it.

Khosi Saqr is the son of an Egyptian Copt who had come to Montana for an engineering degree and the great-granddaughter of William Andrews Clark (Butte’s legendary “copper king,” who appears later in the novel as a ghost). He lives at home with his mother in an falling-down house he likes to call the Loving Shambles (possibly the closest house in America to an EPA Superfund site), and works as a tour guide in the Copper King Mansion, a local museum that was once his great-great-grandfather’s house. An obsessive compulsive and something of an agoraphobic — his friends call him a hermit — Khosi has never been able to leave Butte, even though he is a “card-carrying member of MENSA.”

His parents split up when Khosi was three. Since then he has spent much of his time speculating about his father’s reasons for deserting him and returning to Egypt. “I’ve imagined entire stories for him,” Khosi says,

but they lead me to the same emptiness. And the most embarrassing thing? I’ve always wanted to say Daddy, that infantile and diminutive word. I never had the chance to say it, never got to write it on birthday cards or Father’s Day cards or letters home from camp.

The emptiness at the center of his life (“my hidden galaxy, my empty suitcase, my vacant motel room,” as he puts it elsewhere) is complicated by the fact that his father is the native of a “country on the other side of the world,” about which — about whose people — he knows nothing, despite his own Egyptian name:

I have a family tree somewhere, but I don’t know where, and it’s probably in Arabic, or possibly French, or possibly both. The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side [the Clark side]: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it’s fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance.

The two halves of his history come together, fleetingly, when his father resurfaces in Butte to secure his ex-wife’s signature on divorce papers. Khosi glimpses him lurking outside the Cooper King Mansion in a gray wool overcoat, despite the summer heat, but he only realizes after his father has fled again that the suspicious-looking man was his father. Khosi decides to follow him to Cairo.

From this point on — the last seven-tenths of its length — Toutonghi’s novel is filled with events that strengthen from strange to stranger. The opening chapters of Evel Knievel Days give the book every indication of being a standard second-generation immigrant novel like John Okada’s No-No Boy or Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air (two of the better examples), where the claim to originality is little more than to be perhaps the first to explore the “double consciousness” of Egyptian Americans (in animated prose).

Once Khosi arrives in Cairo, however, where people have been living for 7,000 years (as his taxi driver tells him), everything changes. Toutonghi later gives a rational explanation for the strange events: having left the U.S. too abruptly to be properly immunized against exotic foreign diseases, Khosi is bitten by a mosquito and contracts yellow fever. But the strangeness is allowed to linger for many chapters before any explanation is offered. “Sure, this wasn’t jumping over the Grand Canyon, like Robert Craig Knievel,” Khosi says of his efforts to navigate the strange city, “but for me — for me it was close.”

With a little help from the ghost of William Andrews Clark, who shows up in a Coptic Christian church to issue advice and warnings in a silly parody of movie Western slang that works precisely because it is so silly (“What are your sins, pardner?” “Let ’er rip.” “Sometimes life’s got a sting like bumblebee whiskey”), Khosi tracks down his father’s fiancée, a beautiful young antiquities dealer who does not believe anything Khosi says. (She has been told that Akram Saqr’s son died as an infant.)

Khosi is saddened to learn that his father is a liar, but worse is to follow. When his father finally turns up, he asks Khosi to pretend to be someone else. He introduces his only son as the son of a dead friend. His father’s dishonesty almost gets Khosi killed at the hands of gamblers. His mother arrives in Cairo with food from home, but things don’t improve. His father’s fiancée accuses Khosi of stealing a priceless ancient bracelet. Escaping from the police, he collapses from yellow fever and floats through a delirium in which his parents make peace with each other at last. Nursed back to health in a Muslim Brotherhood hospital, he attends his father’s wedding, confusing the guests, who can’t figure out whether he is family or a waiter. After everything, he decides to remain in Cairo instead of returning to America.

Although it is very funny, Evel Knievel Days is not a comic novel. It is a romance in pretty much the same sense that The Tempest is a romance: strange events crowd out natural events, not because the setting is a magical realm, but because reality becomes magical and strange when it is no longer conventional and familiar. Khosi’s decision to remain in Cairo cures him of his compulsions. In an epilogue, he reveals that he was on the streets during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations two and a half years later in Tahrir Square. By then, the Egyptian reality has turned mundane again. And Khosi can begin a normal life.

Read Less




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