Commentary Magazine


Literary Blog

The Tax Criticism Pays on Publicity

“Resounding praise for the ordinary fictional article of commerce is so much the order of the day that when a novel appears which truly demands praise, the task of reviewing it presents special difficulty. Words worn threadbare in the service of mediocrity look appallingly perfunctory when returned to their intended uses.” — Dorothea Brande opening a review of Caroline Gordon’s None Shall Look Back in the American Review (February 1937)

“Resounding praise for the ordinary fictional article of commerce is so much the order of the day that when a novel appears which truly demands praise, the task of reviewing it presents special difficulty. Words worn threadbare in the service of mediocrity look appallingly perfunctory when returned to their intended uses.” — Dorothea Brande opening a review of Caroline Gordon’s None Shall Look Back in the American Review (February 1937)

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The Girl Who Is Always Just Out of Reach

Sarah Terez Rosenblum, Herself When She Is Missing (Berkeley, Calif.: Soft Skull Press, 2012). 272 pages.

Her publisher is casting Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s tantalizing debut as a postmodern novel “told in lists, 3×5 notecards, and even the occasional screenplay.” I was immediately hooked. I’ve been a sucker for the Junk Drawer Novel — the novel into which everything is thrown, without apparent order — ever since I tore through E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel as a very young man. Seven years later, nauseated by the Left’s reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, I turned Right and found I could no longer abide Doctorow’s politics. Yet I remained vulnerable to his cagey and sundry method for telling the story of atomic spies who were exactly like the Rosenbergs. I realized that, along with straightforward narrative, Doctorow had also evaded the truth about the Rosenbergs, but still I admired the way he was able to digress without a jolt into little essays on Old versus New Left, the genealogy of the Cold War, crowd control at Disneyland, the irresponsibility of graduate studies. I admired the form even as I shuddered at the content.

Rosenblum’s lesbian romance had almost exactly the opposite effect upon me. Herself When She Is Missing is a brilliant case study in romantic obsession, and in particular the special kind of romantic obsession that nearly everyone has suffered through (and no one, so far as I know, has ever written about): namely, the obsessive attraction to a partner who is elusive, emotionally unavailable, just out of reach. Unlike Doctorow, Rosenblum has no political ax to grind. She is more interested in the experience of lesbianism than in its ideology:

Both earnest Women’s Studies majors, Andrea and Linda touch each other carefully, Linda keeping meticulous score of how many orgasms they each have. After Andrea goes down on Linda, Linda thanks her politely, then plops herself between Andrea’s legs. “Scootch up,” she says. Their mouths and hands have no relation to Bogart and Bergman, no connection to history or literary passion or anything greater than themselves.

I love that “Scootch up.” Is there a heterosexual equivalent to politically correct sex? When lesbianism is uncoupled from ideology, it is no longer earnest or equitable, but it is a lot more familiar: “Andrea has no word to describe sex with Jordan”; Jordan is the lover whom the protagonist is powerless to resist; “in fact, the act empties her of words.” Rosenblum’s ambition is to connect lesbian passion to literary passion, to something greater than the lovers themselves.

Herself When She Is Missing mostly succeeds, although the story must be pieced together after the fact. Andrea, a UCLA graduate student in her early twenties, meets fortyish Jordan at a concert given by Cry Wolf, a brother-and-sister rock duo. Andrea has followed Cry Wolf since she was a teenager, nursing a crush on the sister of the act, writing her love letters, driving hours to grab a spot near the head of the line for tickets. In fact, she selected UCLA’s English program, moving to the coast from Wisconsin, in order to be closer to the singers, who live 15 minutes away in Venice. Andrea goes to their concerts by herself, because (as she confesses to Jordan at their first meeting) it is embarrassing to be “obsessed like this.” “Are you kidding?” Jordan replies. “This isn’t obsession; this is what makes us who we are.”

Their affair begins two months later. Jordan is living with another woman, but as Andrea observes afterwards, she has cheated on everyone she has ever been with. The sex is so good it is “drastic.” For the first time in her life, Andrea feels like “one solid person” — whenever she is having sex with Jordan, that is. Meanwhile, Jordan proves herself trustworthy only when she is having sex with Andrea. (There is a lot of talk about sex in the novel, but few sex scenes.) Andrea takes to calling her the Criminal Mastermind. Jordan embezzles money from the church where she works as an office assistant, steals from her live-in lover Patricia. She is also a racist. But Andrea focuses on the sex and ignores the warnings. After two years or so together, Jordan deserts her for a hairdresser. And then, after another two years, she makes her way back into Andrea’s life, only to leave again after another two years or so. “Her departure is implied by her arrival,” Rosenblum writes, “inevitable, like a cresting wave.” Jordan is unapologetic about her behavior. “I just hold a little something back,” she explains to Andrea. “No one wants everything I have.”

But Andrea does, and the portrait that emerges of the self-abnegating lover, who forfeits her integrity “because she can’t live without the sex,” is frightening and unforgettable. The novel’s biggest problem, however, is that its form interferes with its content. The documentary bricolage, the avoidance of one-thing-after-another storytelling, encourages Rosenblum to resort to set pieces. When these are dramatic vignettes, they are tense and arresting, such as the time Andrea arranged for her best friend Roslyn to meet the oft-discussed Jordan at a diner. After some back and forth, Jordan manufactures a pretext to stalk out of the restaurant. “She couldn’t charm me,” Roslyn comments, “so she decided to throw a fit.”

       “It’s not that simple.”
       “Andrea,” Roslyn takes her hand, an unexpected move, “simple is exactly what it is.”
       “What, you think she’s stupid?”
       “Not stupid, no.” Roslyn settles her sunglasses on top of her head.
       “She’s sensitive; don’t judge her.”
       “She’s not worth judging. I’m judging you.”
       “Don’t do that either.” Andrea stands.
       “Where are you going?”
       “I have to find her.” Jordan must be halfway down the block by now.
       “Andrea, when is enough enough?”
       “You don’t understand. I can’t let her walk away angry — who knows what she’ll do?” Voice rising, Andrea pulls cash from her pocket.
       “You know what? I can’t do this.” On her feet, Roslyn throws money on the table.
       “What is that, a threat?” Andrea swallows, certain she’s going to be sick.
       “I feel like a goddamn enabler.”
       “You can’t leave me alone in this.” Panicked, Andrea waves her arms crazily, her gesture taking in the diner, absent Jordan, everything empty inside.
       “Look how scared you are. This isn’t a normal way to feel.”

With a few deft strokes, Rosenblum captures both the fear of abandonment which lurks within romantic obsession as well as the unmistakable tones of women’s friendship. (“To hell with her,” a man would have said, or words to that effect. “Let her go.”) The stacks of 3×5 cards, the lists of Things Jordan Convinces Andrea (Against Her Better Judgment) to Do or Other Reasons to Stay (In Order), set off from the narrative in an IBM Selectric typeface, encourage Rosenblum to dwell on the kind of close and detailed over-analysis of another person’s actions and motives that someone engages in after a breakup. As a result, Herself When She Is Missing is full of observations and almost entirely devoid of ideas. Jordan is just not interesting enough, or representative enough, to support the weight of the analysis. Rosenblum writes beautifully, sharply, distinctively. But after a while, readers may get tired of hearing about the girl who is always just out of reach. They may react like Andrea’s friend Roslyn: “You can call when you get your shit together; until then, please don’t.”

On the evidence of the talent on display in her first novel, though, Sarah Terez Rosenblum is a good bet to get it together wonderfully and completely in her next book. In the mean time, Herself When She Is Missing is an insightful window into the obsessiveness of a lesbian romance.

Sarah Terez Rosenblum, Herself When She Is Missing (Berkeley, Calif.: Soft Skull Press, 2012). 272 pages.

Her publisher is casting Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s tantalizing debut as a postmodern novel “told in lists, 3×5 notecards, and even the occasional screenplay.” I was immediately hooked. I’ve been a sucker for the Junk Drawer Novel — the novel into which everything is thrown, without apparent order — ever since I tore through E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel as a very young man. Seven years later, nauseated by the Left’s reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, I turned Right and found I could no longer abide Doctorow’s politics. Yet I remained vulnerable to his cagey and sundry method for telling the story of atomic spies who were exactly like the Rosenbergs. I realized that, along with straightforward narrative, Doctorow had also evaded the truth about the Rosenbergs, but still I admired the way he was able to digress without a jolt into little essays on Old versus New Left, the genealogy of the Cold War, crowd control at Disneyland, the irresponsibility of graduate studies. I admired the form even as I shuddered at the content.

Rosenblum’s lesbian romance had almost exactly the opposite effect upon me. Herself When She Is Missing is a brilliant case study in romantic obsession, and in particular the special kind of romantic obsession that nearly everyone has suffered through (and no one, so far as I know, has ever written about): namely, the obsessive attraction to a partner who is elusive, emotionally unavailable, just out of reach. Unlike Doctorow, Rosenblum has no political ax to grind. She is more interested in the experience of lesbianism than in its ideology:

Both earnest Women’s Studies majors, Andrea and Linda touch each other carefully, Linda keeping meticulous score of how many orgasms they each have. After Andrea goes down on Linda, Linda thanks her politely, then plops herself between Andrea’s legs. “Scootch up,” she says. Their mouths and hands have no relation to Bogart and Bergman, no connection to history or literary passion or anything greater than themselves.

I love that “Scootch up.” Is there a heterosexual equivalent to politically correct sex? When lesbianism is uncoupled from ideology, it is no longer earnest or equitable, but it is a lot more familiar: “Andrea has no word to describe sex with Jordan”; Jordan is the lover whom the protagonist is powerless to resist; “in fact, the act empties her of words.” Rosenblum’s ambition is to connect lesbian passion to literary passion, to something greater than the lovers themselves.

Herself When She Is Missing mostly succeeds, although the story must be pieced together after the fact. Andrea, a UCLA graduate student in her early twenties, meets fortyish Jordan at a concert given by Cry Wolf, a brother-and-sister rock duo. Andrea has followed Cry Wolf since she was a teenager, nursing a crush on the sister of the act, writing her love letters, driving hours to grab a spot near the head of the line for tickets. In fact, she selected UCLA’s English program, moving to the coast from Wisconsin, in order to be closer to the singers, who live 15 minutes away in Venice. Andrea goes to their concerts by herself, because (as she confesses to Jordan at their first meeting) it is embarrassing to be “obsessed like this.” “Are you kidding?” Jordan replies. “This isn’t obsession; this is what makes us who we are.”

Their affair begins two months later. Jordan is living with another woman, but as Andrea observes afterwards, she has cheated on everyone she has ever been with. The sex is so good it is “drastic.” For the first time in her life, Andrea feels like “one solid person” — whenever she is having sex with Jordan, that is. Meanwhile, Jordan proves herself trustworthy only when she is having sex with Andrea. (There is a lot of talk about sex in the novel, but few sex scenes.) Andrea takes to calling her the Criminal Mastermind. Jordan embezzles money from the church where she works as an office assistant, steals from her live-in lover Patricia. She is also a racist. But Andrea focuses on the sex and ignores the warnings. After two years or so together, Jordan deserts her for a hairdresser. And then, after another two years, she makes her way back into Andrea’s life, only to leave again after another two years or so. “Her departure is implied by her arrival,” Rosenblum writes, “inevitable, like a cresting wave.” Jordan is unapologetic about her behavior. “I just hold a little something back,” she explains to Andrea. “No one wants everything I have.”

But Andrea does, and the portrait that emerges of the self-abnegating lover, who forfeits her integrity “because she can’t live without the sex,” is frightening and unforgettable. The novel’s biggest problem, however, is that its form interferes with its content. The documentary bricolage, the avoidance of one-thing-after-another storytelling, encourages Rosenblum to resort to set pieces. When these are dramatic vignettes, they are tense and arresting, such as the time Andrea arranged for her best friend Roslyn to meet the oft-discussed Jordan at a diner. After some back and forth, Jordan manufactures a pretext to stalk out of the restaurant. “She couldn’t charm me,” Roslyn comments, “so she decided to throw a fit.”

       “It’s not that simple.”
       “Andrea,” Roslyn takes her hand, an unexpected move, “simple is exactly what it is.”
       “What, you think she’s stupid?”
       “Not stupid, no.” Roslyn settles her sunglasses on top of her head.
       “She’s sensitive; don’t judge her.”
       “She’s not worth judging. I’m judging you.”
       “Don’t do that either.” Andrea stands.
       “Where are you going?”
       “I have to find her.” Jordan must be halfway down the block by now.
       “Andrea, when is enough enough?”
       “You don’t understand. I can’t let her walk away angry — who knows what she’ll do?” Voice rising, Andrea pulls cash from her pocket.
       “You know what? I can’t do this.” On her feet, Roslyn throws money on the table.
       “What is that, a threat?” Andrea swallows, certain she’s going to be sick.
       “I feel like a goddamn enabler.”
       “You can’t leave me alone in this.” Panicked, Andrea waves her arms crazily, her gesture taking in the diner, absent Jordan, everything empty inside.
       “Look how scared you are. This isn’t a normal way to feel.”

With a few deft strokes, Rosenblum captures both the fear of abandonment which lurks within romantic obsession as well as the unmistakable tones of women’s friendship. (“To hell with her,” a man would have said, or words to that effect. “Let her go.”) The stacks of 3×5 cards, the lists of Things Jordan Convinces Andrea (Against Her Better Judgment) to Do or Other Reasons to Stay (In Order), set off from the narrative in an IBM Selectric typeface, encourage Rosenblum to dwell on the kind of close and detailed over-analysis of another person’s actions and motives that someone engages in after a breakup. As a result, Herself When She Is Missing is full of observations and almost entirely devoid of ideas. Jordan is just not interesting enough, or representative enough, to support the weight of the analysis. Rosenblum writes beautifully, sharply, distinctively. But after a while, readers may get tired of hearing about the girl who is always just out of reach. They may react like Andrea’s friend Roslyn: “You can call when you get your shit together; until then, please don’t.”

On the evidence of the talent on display in her first novel, though, Sarah Terez Rosenblum is a good bet to get it together wonderfully and completely in her next book. In the mean time, Herself When She Is Missing is an insightful window into the obsessiveness of a lesbian romance.

Read Less

Getting Améry Wrong (along with Everything Else)

I’ve been reluctant to comment on Anna Breslaw’s outrageous essay at Tablet last Friday, which declared that the European Jews who survived Hitler’s war against them were really “villains masquerading as victims.” John Podhoretz, the editor of COMMENTARY (whom I am proud to call my friend), has said pretty much everything that needs to be said, single-handedly exposing Breslaw’s rant for what it is and demolishing Tablet’s non-apologetic apology for the article.

Anyone who has read her essay knows that Breslaw does not merely insult Holocaust survivors but cancer patients too. As someone who voluntarily decided to adopt what Breslaw derides as the “extreme will to live,” I suppose I should be angered by her ignorant and dismissive comments about cancer patients:

If you have ever had cancer, or been kitty corner to cancer, you know there is a lot of waiting and pleasantries and HMO negotiation and the same bad jokes (and some good ones; my aunt who had a double mastectomy recently offered me the use of her $2,000 silicon falsies for a date). When you tell someone a relative has cancer, their immediate response is never shock but often, “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer” as if this knowledge is a comfort of some kind.

I’ll just say that I do not recognize my experience in this passage. And the comment “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer,” which was never spoken to me or my wife (and would seem to be a clumsy attempt to suggest the patient is not alone), is hardly the worst breach of cancer etiquette.

No, what pisses me off is what has been little remarked so far. Namely: Breslaw’s misappropriation of the great Holocaust writer Jean Améry as a source and ally in her attack on Holocaust survivors:

Evil, as Jean Améry says, overlays and exceeds banality. There is no “banality” of evil. In At the Mind’s Limits, Améry — a Holocaust survivor — discusses “concentration camp syndrome”: “The character traits that make out our personality are distorted. Nervous restlessness, hostile withdrawal into one’s own self. . . . It is said that we are ‘warped.’ ” He goes on to describe how the option of forgiveness is obsolete for him, and yet the acknowledgement that it would be moral and fair to forgive (a step that he felt unable to take because of this very emotional “sickness,” thrust on him by the very people he should forgive) created an impossible duality, one that doubtless led to his 1978 suicide.

Every word of this which is not an outright error is a shallow distortion. Améry would have spit upon Breslaw’s suggestion that some Jews were able to survive the death camps only because their “extreme will to live” led them to do something “villainous,” something they were unwilling to discuss afterwards. The reality of the camp, Améry wrote, was total. It obliterated human dignity, the self, the mind, everything Améry summed up as “the word.” The Jew in the death camp was not even a victim in the usual sense of the word. “The soldier died the hero’s or the victim’s death,” he said, “the prisoner that of an animal intended for slaughter.”

This is the sense in which Améry wrote that “evil overlays and exceeds banality.” Banality is an experience within the normal range of the human; the subjection to evil, which Améry identified with the experience of torture, “is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.” It exceeds the mind’s limits. At the first blow, the prisoner realizes he is helpless. And this changes everything. “The expectation of help, the certainty of help, is indeed one of the fundamental experiences of human beings,” Améry wrote. It is, indeed, one of the defining experiences of the human. To find himself beyond help is to find himself beyond the human experience. He is beyond villainy and victimhood, face-to-face with a reality that has obliterated his will to either. To speak of such a man as a “villain masquerading as a victim” is to display a depthless failure of understanding.

(And by the way, Améry’s suicide, as he himself explained in his 1976 philosophical essay On Suicide, was an act of freedom, an assertion of extreme will, a refusal to fall victim to “the very people he should forgive,” the insistence that he, not they, would decide when he should die.)

Breslaw may have quoted the great Jean Améry, then, but she did not understand the first word of him. And she herself acknowledges as much, although she does not even know her own mind sufficiently to see that she has done so. In her opening paragraph, she attributes her bad opinion of survivors to “gut instinct.” Then, seven paragraphs later, immediately after quoting him, she praises “Améry’s impulse to question his gut instincts” — an impulse that, by all appearances, Anna Breslaw entirely lacks.

I’ve been reluctant to comment on Anna Breslaw’s outrageous essay at Tablet last Friday, which declared that the European Jews who survived Hitler’s war against them were really “villains masquerading as victims.” John Podhoretz, the editor of COMMENTARY (whom I am proud to call my friend), has said pretty much everything that needs to be said, single-handedly exposing Breslaw’s rant for what it is and demolishing Tablet’s non-apologetic apology for the article.

Anyone who has read her essay knows that Breslaw does not merely insult Holocaust survivors but cancer patients too. As someone who voluntarily decided to adopt what Breslaw derides as the “extreme will to live,” I suppose I should be angered by her ignorant and dismissive comments about cancer patients:

If you have ever had cancer, or been kitty corner to cancer, you know there is a lot of waiting and pleasantries and HMO negotiation and the same bad jokes (and some good ones; my aunt who had a double mastectomy recently offered me the use of her $2,000 silicon falsies for a date). When you tell someone a relative has cancer, their immediate response is never shock but often, “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer” as if this knowledge is a comfort of some kind.

I’ll just say that I do not recognize my experience in this passage. And the comment “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer,” which was never spoken to me or my wife (and would seem to be a clumsy attempt to suggest the patient is not alone), is hardly the worst breach of cancer etiquette.

No, what pisses me off is what has been little remarked so far. Namely: Breslaw’s misappropriation of the great Holocaust writer Jean Améry as a source and ally in her attack on Holocaust survivors:

Evil, as Jean Améry says, overlays and exceeds banality. There is no “banality” of evil. In At the Mind’s Limits, Améry — a Holocaust survivor — discusses “concentration camp syndrome”: “The character traits that make out our personality are distorted. Nervous restlessness, hostile withdrawal into one’s own self. . . . It is said that we are ‘warped.’ ” He goes on to describe how the option of forgiveness is obsolete for him, and yet the acknowledgement that it would be moral and fair to forgive (a step that he felt unable to take because of this very emotional “sickness,” thrust on him by the very people he should forgive) created an impossible duality, one that doubtless led to his 1978 suicide.

Every word of this which is not an outright error is a shallow distortion. Améry would have spit upon Breslaw’s suggestion that some Jews were able to survive the death camps only because their “extreme will to live” led them to do something “villainous,” something they were unwilling to discuss afterwards. The reality of the camp, Améry wrote, was total. It obliterated human dignity, the self, the mind, everything Améry summed up as “the word.” The Jew in the death camp was not even a victim in the usual sense of the word. “The soldier died the hero’s or the victim’s death,” he said, “the prisoner that of an animal intended for slaughter.”

This is the sense in which Améry wrote that “evil overlays and exceeds banality.” Banality is an experience within the normal range of the human; the subjection to evil, which Améry identified with the experience of torture, “is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.” It exceeds the mind’s limits. At the first blow, the prisoner realizes he is helpless. And this changes everything. “The expectation of help, the certainty of help, is indeed one of the fundamental experiences of human beings,” Améry wrote. It is, indeed, one of the defining experiences of the human. To find himself beyond help is to find himself beyond the human experience. He is beyond villainy and victimhood, face-to-face with a reality that has obliterated his will to either. To speak of such a man as a “villain masquerading as a victim” is to display a depthless failure of understanding.

(And by the way, Améry’s suicide, as he himself explained in his 1976 philosophical essay On Suicide, was an act of freedom, an assertion of extreme will, a refusal to fall victim to “the very people he should forgive,” the insistence that he, not they, would decide when he should die.)

Breslaw may have quoted the great Jean Améry, then, but she did not understand the first word of him. And she herself acknowledges as much, although she does not even know her own mind sufficiently to see that she has done so. In her opening paragraph, she attributes her bad opinion of survivors to “gut instinct.” Then, seven paragraphs later, immediately after quoting him, she praises “Améry’s impulse to question his gut instincts” — an impulse that, by all appearances, Anna Breslaw entirely lacks.

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The Literature of Conversion

Over at the blog of his publisher Tin House this morning, the novelist Christopher R. Beha recommends six books on conversion to Roman Catholicism, the subject of his novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder. In my review, I had observed that Beha’s superb first novel “includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair.” I was happy to see, then, not only that Graham Greene’s 1951 novel made the list, but also that Beha acknowledges that it “significantly influenced What Happened to Sophie Wilder.” It is not often that a critic’s guess is so authoritatively proven right!

One other book mentioned in What Happened to Sophie Wilder also makes it onto Beha’s list — Thomas Merton’s 1948 autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. This is the book, Beha notes, that “sets Sophie along the path to her conversion.” More significantly, though, it articulates what Beha calls the “common theme” of Catholic novelists: how to “reconcil[e] faith with the demands of the modern world.”

I’d submit that this is not a difficulty that faces Catholics and Catholic novelists alone. It is the difficulty of being religious. Perhaps the difficulty is more glaring, more uncomfortable, for converts than for those who are raised within a faith. (Orthodox Jews refer to the two classes as BT’s, for baalei teshuvah or converts, and FFB’s — those who have been frum [religious] from birth. Too bad Christianity doesn’t have a similar nomenclature.) But it is not this difficulty, in itself, that makes the experience of conversion so inviting a subject for good writers.

Adding to Beha’s list would be easy, especially if it were expanded to include Protestants and Jews. To my mind, the best accounts of conversion ever written belong to John Donne:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday,
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour I can myself sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

Although I am a stranger to Donne’s religious vocabulary (I am often tempted, but not by God’s “old subtle foe”), I admire how beautifully Donne has dramatized the extent of the transformation in a person’s life that is wrought by conversion: behind, before, above, no matter where he looks, the religious person finds the meaning of everything has been transfigured.

William James’s chapters on conversion are the weakest in The Varieties of Religious Experience. James sounds like Rielle Hunter on the subject. Conversion, he says, changes “the habitual center of [a man’s] personal energy”:

It makes a great difference to a man whether one set of his ideas, or another, be the center of his energy; and it makes a great difference, as regards any set of ideas which he may possess, whether they become central or remain peripheral in him. To say that a man is “converted” means, in these terms, that religious ideas, previously peripheral in his consciousness, now take a central place, and that religious aims form the habitual center of his energy.

What James leaves out of account is God (“Only thou art above”). What he gets right is the importance of ideas. In his novel, Beha was also very good on this aspect of conversion, which usually goes unremarked. After Sophie reads The Seven Storey Mountain while a guest in a Catholic home, she discovers an entire literature — a subterranean literature for someone like her who was raised on the Western literary canon — a self-contained literature with its own rules and conventions, its own strategies and expectations, its own classics and commercial hacks. Beha grasps what few outsiders to religion understand: conversion also changes a person’s reading habits. Rilke gives way to Ratzinger, or Hemingway to the Hafetz Hayim.

A special subgenre of the literature is reserved for narratives about conversion to Judaism. The best-known title is Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, in which “After Passover, he [Frank Alpine] became a Jew.” The autobiography of the Holocaust scholar David Patterson, who converted at the age of 42 (“Or perhaps it would be better to say that I stepped across a threshold leading to the path toward becoming a Jew”), is remarkably moving. It’s called Pilgrimage of a Proselyte.

Younger Jewish writers have begun to explore a more uniquely Jewish phenomenon — the experience of “return to Orthodoxy” (as it’s called, even when the Jew who “returns” was never Orthodox to begin with). In The World Without You, his recent saga of a secular liberal Jewish family, Joshua Henkin includes one daughter who has become a baalat teshuvah, a “born-again” Jew. She is also, not surprisingly, the only one of the three daughters with children. The single best account of the Jewish “return,” though, is Zoë Heller’s astounding and under-valued novel The Believers. Anyone who loved Christopher Beha’s first novel should read Heller’s immediately afterwards — for a rich appreciation of the differences in religious conversion, and in writing about it.

Over at the blog of his publisher Tin House this morning, the novelist Christopher R. Beha recommends six books on conversion to Roman Catholicism, the subject of his novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder. In my review, I had observed that Beha’s superb first novel “includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair.” I was happy to see, then, not only that Graham Greene’s 1951 novel made the list, but also that Beha acknowledges that it “significantly influenced What Happened to Sophie Wilder.” It is not often that a critic’s guess is so authoritatively proven right!

One other book mentioned in What Happened to Sophie Wilder also makes it onto Beha’s list — Thomas Merton’s 1948 autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. This is the book, Beha notes, that “sets Sophie along the path to her conversion.” More significantly, though, it articulates what Beha calls the “common theme” of Catholic novelists: how to “reconcil[e] faith with the demands of the modern world.”

I’d submit that this is not a difficulty that faces Catholics and Catholic novelists alone. It is the difficulty of being religious. Perhaps the difficulty is more glaring, more uncomfortable, for converts than for those who are raised within a faith. (Orthodox Jews refer to the two classes as BT’s, for baalei teshuvah or converts, and FFB’s — those who have been frum [religious] from birth. Too bad Christianity doesn’t have a similar nomenclature.) But it is not this difficulty, in itself, that makes the experience of conversion so inviting a subject for good writers.

Adding to Beha’s list would be easy, especially if it were expanded to include Protestants and Jews. To my mind, the best accounts of conversion ever written belong to John Donne:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday,
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour I can myself sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

Although I am a stranger to Donne’s religious vocabulary (I am often tempted, but not by God’s “old subtle foe”), I admire how beautifully Donne has dramatized the extent of the transformation in a person’s life that is wrought by conversion: behind, before, above, no matter where he looks, the religious person finds the meaning of everything has been transfigured.

William James’s chapters on conversion are the weakest in The Varieties of Religious Experience. James sounds like Rielle Hunter on the subject. Conversion, he says, changes “the habitual center of [a man’s] personal energy”:

It makes a great difference to a man whether one set of his ideas, or another, be the center of his energy; and it makes a great difference, as regards any set of ideas which he may possess, whether they become central or remain peripheral in him. To say that a man is “converted” means, in these terms, that religious ideas, previously peripheral in his consciousness, now take a central place, and that religious aims form the habitual center of his energy.

What James leaves out of account is God (“Only thou art above”). What he gets right is the importance of ideas. In his novel, Beha was also very good on this aspect of conversion, which usually goes unremarked. After Sophie reads The Seven Storey Mountain while a guest in a Catholic home, she discovers an entire literature — a subterranean literature for someone like her who was raised on the Western literary canon — a self-contained literature with its own rules and conventions, its own strategies and expectations, its own classics and commercial hacks. Beha grasps what few outsiders to religion understand: conversion also changes a person’s reading habits. Rilke gives way to Ratzinger, or Hemingway to the Hafetz Hayim.

A special subgenre of the literature is reserved for narratives about conversion to Judaism. The best-known title is Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, in which “After Passover, he [Frank Alpine] became a Jew.” The autobiography of the Holocaust scholar David Patterson, who converted at the age of 42 (“Or perhaps it would be better to say that I stepped across a threshold leading to the path toward becoming a Jew”), is remarkably moving. It’s called Pilgrimage of a Proselyte.

Younger Jewish writers have begun to explore a more uniquely Jewish phenomenon — the experience of “return to Orthodoxy” (as it’s called, even when the Jew who “returns” was never Orthodox to begin with). In The World Without You, his recent saga of a secular liberal Jewish family, Joshua Henkin includes one daughter who has become a baalat teshuvah, a “born-again” Jew. She is also, not surprisingly, the only one of the three daughters with children. The single best account of the Jewish “return,” though, is Zoë Heller’s astounding and under-valued novel The Believers. Anyone who loved Christopher Beha’s first novel should read Heller’s immediately afterwards — for a rich appreciation of the differences in religious conversion, and in writing about it.

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Fiction and the Figures of Anti-Semitism: A Rejoinder on The Prague Cemetery

Omri,

Many thanks for the bracing challenge of your letter. There’s nothing I like better than a quarrel over books, especially a book as important as Umberto Eco’s novel The Prague Cemetery. Any book by Eco is important by virtue of having been written by Eco. Few other men or women since the Renaissance have been capable of sweeping with such insight and authority across such a wide array of fields — semiotics, linguistics, literary criticism and theory, philosophy, aethetics, the history of ideas, anthropology, religion, and popular culture (to name only a few). Quite apart from all that, The Prague Cemetery is important because it tackles an important subject, and does so in a way that is important in its failure.

You are right that I don’t think The Prague Cemetery is much of a novel, although there is much to admire in it. It is packed tight with historical information about everything from the economics of authorship in 19th century France to the specific details (very nearly the recipes) of contemporary Parisian cuisine. There’s a reason for the data-driven quality of the prose. Eco believes even the driest of humanistic scholarship is a story. One of the world’s greatest living scholars, he sees it as no abandonment or betrayal of his vocation to present his research findings in the form of a novel. In fact, he has done more perhaps than anyone to broaden the scope of the contemporary novel — to retrieve it from preciosity and self-regarding aestheticism and make it a serious contribution to culture again.

Despite the learning and the ambition, though, The Prague Cemetery remains an unsatisfying novel. You disagree. You say I am wrong to have suggested, in my original review in COMMENTARY, that the book “would have been more successful as a literary history of anti-Semitism.” Even worse, according to you I have begged the entire question of fiction, and in doing so I have badly missed the point of the novel.

May I take up your objections in reverse order? The main problem with The Prague Cemetery, I wrote back in January, is that it fails to satisfy the “first requirement of narrative fiction.” I wasn’t laying down arbitrary rules for fiction. The requirement here is Eco’s own. I quoted from an interview that Eco gave to the academic journal Diacritics in spring 1987:

The principal requirement of narration is that the plot offer alternatives with a certain frequency, and these alternatives cannot be predetermined. The reader must not know exactly what decision a character will make.

In writing The Prague Cemetery, Eco forgot his own “principal requirement for narration.” At no time do any of his characters decide a question that might have been decided otherwise. There is no ethical dilemma anywhere in the novel, because Eco is absorbed with something else. The Prague Cemetery devotes its energy to spinning the web of intrigue that produced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The book’s core term is Next (“Next I called,” “the next hours,” “The next morning,” “The next day,” “The next to arrive,” “the next few days (or nights),” “over the next six months,” “Over the next few years”). In short, The Prague Cemetery is a chronicle of how The Protocols of the Elders of Zion came to be written — a fictional chronicle, a narrative with a historical theme and consisting of episodes arranged in chronological order and loosely connected by the passage of time, but it is not really a novel. Not, at least, by Eco’s own lights. In the Diacritics interview, Eco goes on to say this:

If I tell you that a tribe of Indians attacks a stagecoach and that right away the Seventh Cavalry comes to the rescue, that isn’t narrative. For it to be narrative, someone on the stagecoach must decide whether to fight or not. The reader’s identification is rooted in the characters’ decisions; he either supports them or rejects them. The ethical response to a text is rooted in this identification.

The invitation to identify with the decisions of the characters is, in my opinion, the distinguishing mark of narrative fiction. No other form of human knowledge relies upon identification (in Eco’s sense) to do what it sets out to do. The “ethical response to a text” is the magic by which fiction contributes to human understanding. Without it, a text is not a narration, but merely a chronicle.

The Prague Cemetery lacks this ethical dimension, because it leaves none of the characters’ decisions open to question. But that’s because the characters “writ[e] themselves into a structure that exists in a different fiction,” you protest. “The Protocols exists ‘outside’ [Eco’s] novel, and inasmuch as it has its own material history, theirs is of necessity predetermined.”

And so we arrive at the heart of our disagreement. I say The Prague Cemetery would have been better as a literary history of anti-Semitism, you say you’re “willing to have that textbook remain unwritten in exchange for The Prague Cemetery.” Tabulating the results of Google Scholar searches, you imply that quite enough scholarship has been written on the Protocols. (The reality is that, over the past half-century, there have been only a handful of full-length studies, most notably Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide in 1967 and Cesare De Michelis’s The Non-Existent Manuscript in 1998.) You prefer The Prague Cemetery as fiction, because it reflects our “postmodern condition.”

Now, you are surely right that its postmodern aspect must have been what initially attracted Eco to his subject. Simone Simonini, his main character, the notary, forger, plagiarist, and mouchard (police informer) whom Eco advances as the author of the Protocols, is the only character in the book without a historical counterpart. Partly this is because no one knows exactly who wrote the Protocols, but partly this is because the invention echoes Eco’s theme.

No one person wrote or could have written the fiction of Jewish world conspiracy. “An entire historical era was required,” as I said in my original review: “an era of instability and revolutionary ferment, a style of political thinking that preferred hidden nefarious enemies to good-faith public opponents, and a literary market in which a special kind of popular fiction known as the roman-feuilleton, the novel published in serial installments in partisan French newspapers, served as the press attaché to political ideology.” To adapt Eco’s remark about Dan Brown, which you quote, the real author of the Protocols was a creature of the 19th-century conspiracy-theorizing out of which anti-Semitism emerged (and which eagerly received it). Like any other forger and plagiarist, he had no other existence, no independent existence.

And this conception of the Protocols’ authorship also echoes Eco’s postmodernism. The postmodern era, according to Eco, is the “era of repetition.” Postmodern texts recycle bits and pieces of earlier texts, retaking them, remaking them, entering them into what Eco calls an “intertextual encyclopedia” in which more than half the fun is recognizing the excerpts, quotations, allusions, and parallels. The naïve reader reads for a message; the postmodern reader — the Model Reader, in Eco’s phrase — “enjoys the way in which the same story is worked over to make it appear to be different.” This Model Reader may be “culturally very sophisticated,” or he may only be immersed in a culture in which the same elements, the same excerpts and quotations and allusions and parallels, appear over and over and over till recognition, no longer a conscious act, becomes the satisfaction of familiarity.

What Eco is proposing in The Prague Cemetery is that some such culture of repetition and familiarity is the true author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The fantasies and motifs of anti-Semitism were recycled and repeated and reworked and repeated in the 19th century until their original author could have been anyone who was intimate with the “intertextual encyclopedia” of Jew hatred. The thesis is daring: the cultural process of repetition, not any individual “author,” is responsible for the Protocols.

Eco does not present the thesis as a historical argument, however, but as a fictional character. If he had written The Prague Cemetery as the literary history of a forgery, he could not have invented the character of Simone Simonini, non-existent author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but he might have had something better: a clear hypothesis. The gain would have been substantial; the loss, less so.

Sincerely,

David

Omri,

Many thanks for the bracing challenge of your letter. There’s nothing I like better than a quarrel over books, especially a book as important as Umberto Eco’s novel The Prague Cemetery. Any book by Eco is important by virtue of having been written by Eco. Few other men or women since the Renaissance have been capable of sweeping with such insight and authority across such a wide array of fields — semiotics, linguistics, literary criticism and theory, philosophy, aethetics, the history of ideas, anthropology, religion, and popular culture (to name only a few). Quite apart from all that, The Prague Cemetery is important because it tackles an important subject, and does so in a way that is important in its failure.

You are right that I don’t think The Prague Cemetery is much of a novel, although there is much to admire in it. It is packed tight with historical information about everything from the economics of authorship in 19th century France to the specific details (very nearly the recipes) of contemporary Parisian cuisine. There’s a reason for the data-driven quality of the prose. Eco believes even the driest of humanistic scholarship is a story. One of the world’s greatest living scholars, he sees it as no abandonment or betrayal of his vocation to present his research findings in the form of a novel. In fact, he has done more perhaps than anyone to broaden the scope of the contemporary novel — to retrieve it from preciosity and self-regarding aestheticism and make it a serious contribution to culture again.

Despite the learning and the ambition, though, The Prague Cemetery remains an unsatisfying novel. You disagree. You say I am wrong to have suggested, in my original review in COMMENTARY, that the book “would have been more successful as a literary history of anti-Semitism.” Even worse, according to you I have begged the entire question of fiction, and in doing so I have badly missed the point of the novel.

May I take up your objections in reverse order? The main problem with The Prague Cemetery, I wrote back in January, is that it fails to satisfy the “first requirement of narrative fiction.” I wasn’t laying down arbitrary rules for fiction. The requirement here is Eco’s own. I quoted from an interview that Eco gave to the academic journal Diacritics in spring 1987:

The principal requirement of narration is that the plot offer alternatives with a certain frequency, and these alternatives cannot be predetermined. The reader must not know exactly what decision a character will make.

In writing The Prague Cemetery, Eco forgot his own “principal requirement for narration.” At no time do any of his characters decide a question that might have been decided otherwise. There is no ethical dilemma anywhere in the novel, because Eco is absorbed with something else. The Prague Cemetery devotes its energy to spinning the web of intrigue that produced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The book’s core term is Next (“Next I called,” “the next hours,” “The next morning,” “The next day,” “The next to arrive,” “the next few days (or nights),” “over the next six months,” “Over the next few years”). In short, The Prague Cemetery is a chronicle of how The Protocols of the Elders of Zion came to be written — a fictional chronicle, a narrative with a historical theme and consisting of episodes arranged in chronological order and loosely connected by the passage of time, but it is not really a novel. Not, at least, by Eco’s own lights. In the Diacritics interview, Eco goes on to say this:

If I tell you that a tribe of Indians attacks a stagecoach and that right away the Seventh Cavalry comes to the rescue, that isn’t narrative. For it to be narrative, someone on the stagecoach must decide whether to fight or not. The reader’s identification is rooted in the characters’ decisions; he either supports them or rejects them. The ethical response to a text is rooted in this identification.

The invitation to identify with the decisions of the characters is, in my opinion, the distinguishing mark of narrative fiction. No other form of human knowledge relies upon identification (in Eco’s sense) to do what it sets out to do. The “ethical response to a text” is the magic by which fiction contributes to human understanding. Without it, a text is not a narration, but merely a chronicle.

The Prague Cemetery lacks this ethical dimension, because it leaves none of the characters’ decisions open to question. But that’s because the characters “writ[e] themselves into a structure that exists in a different fiction,” you protest. “The Protocols exists ‘outside’ [Eco’s] novel, and inasmuch as it has its own material history, theirs is of necessity predetermined.”

And so we arrive at the heart of our disagreement. I say The Prague Cemetery would have been better as a literary history of anti-Semitism, you say you’re “willing to have that textbook remain unwritten in exchange for The Prague Cemetery.” Tabulating the results of Google Scholar searches, you imply that quite enough scholarship has been written on the Protocols. (The reality is that, over the past half-century, there have been only a handful of full-length studies, most notably Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide in 1967 and Cesare De Michelis’s The Non-Existent Manuscript in 1998.) You prefer The Prague Cemetery as fiction, because it reflects our “postmodern condition.”

Now, you are surely right that its postmodern aspect must have been what initially attracted Eco to his subject. Simone Simonini, his main character, the notary, forger, plagiarist, and mouchard (police informer) whom Eco advances as the author of the Protocols, is the only character in the book without a historical counterpart. Partly this is because no one knows exactly who wrote the Protocols, but partly this is because the invention echoes Eco’s theme.

No one person wrote or could have written the fiction of Jewish world conspiracy. “An entire historical era was required,” as I said in my original review: “an era of instability and revolutionary ferment, a style of political thinking that preferred hidden nefarious enemies to good-faith public opponents, and a literary market in which a special kind of popular fiction known as the roman-feuilleton, the novel published in serial installments in partisan French newspapers, served as the press attaché to political ideology.” To adapt Eco’s remark about Dan Brown, which you quote, the real author of the Protocols was a creature of the 19th-century conspiracy-theorizing out of which anti-Semitism emerged (and which eagerly received it). Like any other forger and plagiarist, he had no other existence, no independent existence.

And this conception of the Protocols’ authorship also echoes Eco’s postmodernism. The postmodern era, according to Eco, is the “era of repetition.” Postmodern texts recycle bits and pieces of earlier texts, retaking them, remaking them, entering them into what Eco calls an “intertextual encyclopedia” in which more than half the fun is recognizing the excerpts, quotations, allusions, and parallels. The naïve reader reads for a message; the postmodern reader — the Model Reader, in Eco’s phrase — “enjoys the way in which the same story is worked over to make it appear to be different.” This Model Reader may be “culturally very sophisticated,” or he may only be immersed in a culture in which the same elements, the same excerpts and quotations and allusions and parallels, appear over and over and over till recognition, no longer a conscious act, becomes the satisfaction of familiarity.

What Eco is proposing in The Prague Cemetery is that some such culture of repetition and familiarity is the true author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The fantasies and motifs of anti-Semitism were recycled and repeated and reworked and repeated in the 19th century until their original author could have been anyone who was intimate with the “intertextual encyclopedia” of Jew hatred. The thesis is daring: the cultural process of repetition, not any individual “author,” is responsible for the Protocols.

Eco does not present the thesis as a historical argument, however, but as a fictional character. If he had written The Prague Cemetery as the literary history of a forgery, he could not have invented the character of Simone Simonini, non-existent author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but he might have had something better: a clear hypothesis. The gain would have been substantial; the loss, less so.

Sincerely,

David

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The Fiction of the Fiction of Anti-Semitism: A Letter on The Prague Cemetery

David,

Given your basically correct view of fiction as the master key to ethical development — it hammers the self into the ground as a marker, against which the chasm of intersubjectivity will get measured and bridged — I’m a little confounded by your review of Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery in COMMENTARY (January 2012).

There you conclude that the novel, which is an exploration of how the psychoses of anti-Semitism get codified as works of language and transmitted as categories of thought, would have been “more successful” as a non-fiction “literary history of anti-Semitism.” For myself, I’m willing to have that textbook remain unwritten in exchange for The Prague Cemetery.

First the requisite throat-clearing. There’s no doubt that a literary history of anti-Semitism written by Umberto Eco would become canonical. One can imagine essays that would blend his scholarship on medieval history, semiotics, and aesthetically-mediated judgment. Some tropes have inertia and tenacity while others are much thinner, requiring careful preservation and insulation to survive. Accusations of Jewish dual loyalty, always intertwined with insinuations about Jewish wealth, are ubiquitous. They thrive even in societies where there are few or no Jews to accuse of disloyalty. But the link between Freemasonry, Darwin, and Jews — unpacked with clarity by Hamas Deputy Minister of Religious Endowment Saleh Riqab on Al-Aqsa TV a few years ago — remains to be dug up. Somebody had to put that insanity in a book.

But are we really that deprived of non-fiction on the Protocols? Google Scholar returns over 6,000 results on the topic. Restricting by “literary history” still gets over 150 hits. Sure Eco would have added something. But would it really have been that much?

Anyway, our more pointed difference isn’t so much about costs as benefits. You don’t seem to see much value in having The Prague Cemetery be fiction. Beyond the “literary history” opportunity cost, you just don’t think it’s a very good novel. I want to push on the reasons you give, because I think they’re question-begging in the most precise way. More on that at the very bottom.

The value of Eco’s fiction is that he gets to dazzle with form/content games that are beyond almost any other author. In Foucault’s Pendulum the characters develop a grand conspiracy, explaining to the reader what makes a grand conspiracy work, as a plot unfolds that may or may not be a real grand conspiracy but that tracks in its features the fake one (I can’t find the exact quote right now but the key is something like “it explains everything or it explains nothing,” a cheeky inverse of the si omnia, nulla maxim that ate up a decade of theorizing in my field of rhetoric). In The Prague Cemetery the reader gets a fictionalized account of . . . a fiction. Dark, fanciful, and deliberately surreal plot points are woven into the writing of a dark, fanciful, and surreal plot. The slightly unreal pathos of the novel tracks with the pathos of the Protocols.

Eco’s ability to play those games is just as singular as his ability to pen interesting literary histories, so the opportunity cost is analogous. The question is whether those aesthetic gymnastics have any value. A good semiotician, Eco knows that literary works can and should index all kinds of social conditions. There’s value in gesturing toward what might be called — forgive me — our vaguely reflexive postmodern condition. Explanations have lost their innocence. We are constantly bouncing back and forth, on the level of daily politics and certainly on the level of daily political journalism, between the substance of arguments and how they’re produced. Between journalism and journalist, biased reporting and bias, policy and politics, and so on.

One of my favorite examples on this point actually comes from an interview with Eco. He was asked about Dan Brown’s disgrace of a novel. The naïve answer is to say that The Da Vinci Code is the pop version of Foucault’s Pendulum, and that Dan Brown is a poor man’s Umberto Eco. It’s hardly original, but good enough for cocktail parties. But Eco’s response was on a different level. I can’t shake the feeling that his answer is quietly and very straightforwardly brilliant:

My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff. . . . [I]n Foucault’s Pendulum I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures.

All of which brings us back to why I think it’s question-begging (and symptomatic!) that you find the novel underwhelming. You take issue with how none of the characters “faces any decisions that could have gone the other way.” That’s the result of them writing themselves into a structure that exists in a different fiction. The Protocols exists “outside” the novel, and inasmuch as it has its own material history, theirs is of necessity predetermined.

More explicitly you insist the novel finally breaks apart when “the form of the novel uncomfortably begins to mirror the Protocols: a cycle of set speeches with noisy narrative machinery to get from one to another.” I would suggest that’s the point.

Sincerely,

Omri

David,

Given your basically correct view of fiction as the master key to ethical development — it hammers the self into the ground as a marker, against which the chasm of intersubjectivity will get measured and bridged — I’m a little confounded by your review of Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery in COMMENTARY (January 2012).

There you conclude that the novel, which is an exploration of how the psychoses of anti-Semitism get codified as works of language and transmitted as categories of thought, would have been “more successful” as a non-fiction “literary history of anti-Semitism.” For myself, I’m willing to have that textbook remain unwritten in exchange for The Prague Cemetery.

First the requisite throat-clearing. There’s no doubt that a literary history of anti-Semitism written by Umberto Eco would become canonical. One can imagine essays that would blend his scholarship on medieval history, semiotics, and aesthetically-mediated judgment. Some tropes have inertia and tenacity while others are much thinner, requiring careful preservation and insulation to survive. Accusations of Jewish dual loyalty, always intertwined with insinuations about Jewish wealth, are ubiquitous. They thrive even in societies where there are few or no Jews to accuse of disloyalty. But the link between Freemasonry, Darwin, and Jews — unpacked with clarity by Hamas Deputy Minister of Religious Endowment Saleh Riqab on Al-Aqsa TV a few years ago — remains to be dug up. Somebody had to put that insanity in a book.

But are we really that deprived of non-fiction on the Protocols? Google Scholar returns over 6,000 results on the topic. Restricting by “literary history” still gets over 150 hits. Sure Eco would have added something. But would it really have been that much?

Anyway, our more pointed difference isn’t so much about costs as benefits. You don’t seem to see much value in having The Prague Cemetery be fiction. Beyond the “literary history” opportunity cost, you just don’t think it’s a very good novel. I want to push on the reasons you give, because I think they’re question-begging in the most precise way. More on that at the very bottom.

The value of Eco’s fiction is that he gets to dazzle with form/content games that are beyond almost any other author. In Foucault’s Pendulum the characters develop a grand conspiracy, explaining to the reader what makes a grand conspiracy work, as a plot unfolds that may or may not be a real grand conspiracy but that tracks in its features the fake one (I can’t find the exact quote right now but the key is something like “it explains everything or it explains nothing,” a cheeky inverse of the si omnia, nulla maxim that ate up a decade of theorizing in my field of rhetoric). In The Prague Cemetery the reader gets a fictionalized account of . . . a fiction. Dark, fanciful, and deliberately surreal plot points are woven into the writing of a dark, fanciful, and surreal plot. The slightly unreal pathos of the novel tracks with the pathos of the Protocols.

Eco’s ability to play those games is just as singular as his ability to pen interesting literary histories, so the opportunity cost is analogous. The question is whether those aesthetic gymnastics have any value. A good semiotician, Eco knows that literary works can and should index all kinds of social conditions. There’s value in gesturing toward what might be called — forgive me — our vaguely reflexive postmodern condition. Explanations have lost their innocence. We are constantly bouncing back and forth, on the level of daily politics and certainly on the level of daily political journalism, between the substance of arguments and how they’re produced. Between journalism and journalist, biased reporting and bias, policy and politics, and so on.

One of my favorite examples on this point actually comes from an interview with Eco. He was asked about Dan Brown’s disgrace of a novel. The naïve answer is to say that The Da Vinci Code is the pop version of Foucault’s Pendulum, and that Dan Brown is a poor man’s Umberto Eco. It’s hardly original, but good enough for cocktail parties. But Eco’s response was on a different level. I can’t shake the feeling that his answer is quietly and very straightforwardly brilliant:

My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff. . . . [I]n Foucault’s Pendulum I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures.

All of which brings us back to why I think it’s question-begging (and symptomatic!) that you find the novel underwhelming. You take issue with how none of the characters “faces any decisions that could have gone the other way.” That’s the result of them writing themselves into a structure that exists in a different fiction. The Protocols exists “outside” the novel, and inasmuch as it has its own material history, theirs is of necessity predetermined.

More explicitly you insist the novel finally breaks apart when “the form of the novel uncomfortably begins to mirror the Protocols: a cycle of set speeches with noisy narrative machinery to get from one to another.” I would suggest that’s the point.

Sincerely,

Omri

Read Less

Review: The Tyranny of Grief

Joshua Henkin, The World Without You (New York: Pantheon, 2012). 336 pages.

Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but some ways are more familiar than others. In Joshua Henkin’s third novel in 15 years, political and religious differences are the weapons of choice, but the real source of family unhappiness is emotional tyranny. Compared to it, mere differences of opinion and belief shrink into insignificance.

The World Without You, which is being released today, is about a large Jewish family of four children. “Three,” says David Frankel, the father of the brood. “We had four children,” explains Marilyn, the family matriarch, “but one of them died tragically in Iraq, you’ve probably heard of us, we’ve been on TV.” A year after the death of Leo — the youngest, the only son, who was covering the Iraq war for Newsday when he was killed — the Frankels and the sons-in-law and the grandchildren, also including Leo’s widow Thisbe, have gathered at the family’s summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts, on the July 4th weekend for a memorial service and the unveiling of the grave stone.

Much of the novel’s pleasure comes from getting to know each member of the family. Few American novelists, living or dead, have ever been as good as Henkin at drawing people. The World Without You weaves from one Frankel to another, effortlessly filling in backstories, stitching past to present, exposing old wounds and lingering tensions. It is a tribute to Henkin’s skill that the narrative never flags. The action of the book is in the characterization.

The three Frankel girls are (in birth order): Clarissa, a 39-year-old ex-cellist living in Brooklyn, “home to the world’s greatest population explosion,” who is desperate to have a child before it is too late (“We need to have sex right now,” she is prone to telling her husband when the home ovulation kit says the time is ripe); Lily, a “lawyer for government whistle blowers” who lives in Washington and dreams of prosecuting President Bush for war crimes; and Noelle, a stunning redhead who was unashamedly promiscuous in high school, but who turned to Orthodox Judaism while on a trip to Israel, where she now lives with her husband and four sons. “My sister the Hasidic Jew,” Lily sneers: “The rabbi’s wife” — although her husband is not a rabbi and they are not Hasidic.

The center of the family is Marilyn, an attending physician at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. A Bush-hating liberal who has written 24 anti-war op-eds since her son’s death, Marilyn has “become a mascot for the left.” When President Bush invited her to the White House, she made a public scene about not going. “She wouldn’t allow her son to be used that way,” Henkin writes, channeling Cindy Sheehan, “to become an instrument in the service of the war.” As a doctor, she is a woman of high principle; or a “fanatic,” as her daughter-in-law thinks of her. She believes that sales reps for pharmaceutical companies deserve a special place in hell, for example, and “makes a point of not prescribing any medication that’s been pressed too forcefully on her.” If the medicine might benefit her patients, too bad for them!

With Marilyn in the lead, the Frankels are a family of good secular Jewish liberals. Even their shampoo is politically correct:

A nail file sits on her mother’s nightstand. Beside it is a bottle of No-Poo. It’s shampoo without shampoo, from what Noelle understands, the idea being that shampoo leaches out your hair’s essential nutrients, though the one time she tried it, she found that in addition to leaching out essential nutrients shampoo also leached out dirt.

Noelle is the hold-out. Becoming Orthodox, she found herself “peeling back layers of herself, molting an identity she had wanted to molt for years and hadn’t realized she was capable of molting.” Proud to be a Jew and grateful to the Jewish state that gave her “finally something she could claim as her own,” Noelle has struck out in a different direction from the rest of her family. She cast an absentee ballot for Bush from 6,000 miles away — “and not just once, but twice!” For a family that “holds all fifty million people who voted for him responsible for Leo’s death,” this is heresy. The number of the Iraq war dead is continually updated on a tiny chalkboard next to their phone. “Leo hated that war,” the Frankels reassure one another. Naturally, then, when a fight breaks out among the sisters, the heretic finds herself under attack. “You and Amram, too,” Lily shouts at her sister, “living in your warmongering country, practicing your delusional religion.” “It’s your religion, too,” Noelle says. “It most certainly isn’t,” Lily replies.

And she is right. The Frankel family religion is the Frankel family — the daughters who attended Yale and Princeton (leaving out Noelle, who did not go to college), the brilliant high-achieving sons-in-law, a Nobel Prize-caliber neuroscientist and one of “D.C.’s best young chefs” (leaving out Noelle’s husband Amram, who graduated from SUNY Oneonta and is jobless at the moment), the family’s competitive thirst to do whatever necessary to triumph at board games and tennis, the books and photos and sporting equipment and musical instruments and Williams Sonoma cookware and children’s names carved into the open rafters of the summer house in Lenox, the fun-loving beloved son and brother whose early death has driven the family onto the rocks. “[T]hey’ve made a life out of being indignant,” Noelle observes. Leo’s death is the ultimate indignancy.

If the class setting is familiar, Henkin does something unusual with it. With great subtlety, he reveals that the Frankels’ grief over Leo, as deep and sincere as it is, is not the source of the family’s dysfunction. Marilyn chooses the weekend of her son’s memorial to announce that she has decided to leave her husband after 42 years of marriage. Not because of anything he has done — except perhaps that he does not talk as often as she thinks he should — but because he is not sufficiently upset over their son’s death. Noelle praises her father for being “the voice that understands there are things you can’t know,” but it is David’s very understanding that Marilyn cannot forgive. She demands authority over the family’s grief. Any emotional response that fails to meet her standards is subject to interrogation and banishment.

The British novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett may be the great archivist of family tyranny, but Joshua Henkin has written a novel that will appeal to a contemporary American audience which identifies tyranny with the state instead of private lives. One measure of how well he has succeeded is that, when Marilyn is right about something, not for a minute do you rack up her success to superior moral and political views.

The narrative strategy in The World Without You is what I have described elsewhere, in praising Zoë Heller’s The Believers, as a strategy of narrative disinterest. Henkin has no dog in the Frankel family fight. Although the reader will have a favorite, he does not. There is no central character through whom he filters perception and dissembles his own loyalties and values. The Bush-bashing that has become so commonplace in recent American fiction is never given the author’s voice. Henkin is not one of the Frankels; he has no stake in the outcome of their disagreements and dysfunction. He has only a good deal of affection for them, and a good deal of pity, and the confidence that his reader will come to feel about them much as he does. About that, he is right.

Joshua Henkin, The World Without You (New York: Pantheon, 2012). 336 pages.

Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but some ways are more familiar than others. In Joshua Henkin’s third novel in 15 years, political and religious differences are the weapons of choice, but the real source of family unhappiness is emotional tyranny. Compared to it, mere differences of opinion and belief shrink into insignificance.

The World Without You, which is being released today, is about a large Jewish family of four children. “Three,” says David Frankel, the father of the brood. “We had four children,” explains Marilyn, the family matriarch, “but one of them died tragically in Iraq, you’ve probably heard of us, we’ve been on TV.” A year after the death of Leo — the youngest, the only son, who was covering the Iraq war for Newsday when he was killed — the Frankels and the sons-in-law and the grandchildren, also including Leo’s widow Thisbe, have gathered at the family’s summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts, on the July 4th weekend for a memorial service and the unveiling of the grave stone.

Much of the novel’s pleasure comes from getting to know each member of the family. Few American novelists, living or dead, have ever been as good as Henkin at drawing people. The World Without You weaves from one Frankel to another, effortlessly filling in backstories, stitching past to present, exposing old wounds and lingering tensions. It is a tribute to Henkin’s skill that the narrative never flags. The action of the book is in the characterization.

The three Frankel girls are (in birth order): Clarissa, a 39-year-old ex-cellist living in Brooklyn, “home to the world’s greatest population explosion,” who is desperate to have a child before it is too late (“We need to have sex right now,” she is prone to telling her husband when the home ovulation kit says the time is ripe); Lily, a “lawyer for government whistle blowers” who lives in Washington and dreams of prosecuting President Bush for war crimes; and Noelle, a stunning redhead who was unashamedly promiscuous in high school, but who turned to Orthodox Judaism while on a trip to Israel, where she now lives with her husband and four sons. “My sister the Hasidic Jew,” Lily sneers: “The rabbi’s wife” — although her husband is not a rabbi and they are not Hasidic.

The center of the family is Marilyn, an attending physician at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. A Bush-hating liberal who has written 24 anti-war op-eds since her son’s death, Marilyn has “become a mascot for the left.” When President Bush invited her to the White House, she made a public scene about not going. “She wouldn’t allow her son to be used that way,” Henkin writes, channeling Cindy Sheehan, “to become an instrument in the service of the war.” As a doctor, she is a woman of high principle; or a “fanatic,” as her daughter-in-law thinks of her. She believes that sales reps for pharmaceutical companies deserve a special place in hell, for example, and “makes a point of not prescribing any medication that’s been pressed too forcefully on her.” If the medicine might benefit her patients, too bad for them!

With Marilyn in the lead, the Frankels are a family of good secular Jewish liberals. Even their shampoo is politically correct:

A nail file sits on her mother’s nightstand. Beside it is a bottle of No-Poo. It’s shampoo without shampoo, from what Noelle understands, the idea being that shampoo leaches out your hair’s essential nutrients, though the one time she tried it, she found that in addition to leaching out essential nutrients shampoo also leached out dirt.

Noelle is the hold-out. Becoming Orthodox, she found herself “peeling back layers of herself, molting an identity she had wanted to molt for years and hadn’t realized she was capable of molting.” Proud to be a Jew and grateful to the Jewish state that gave her “finally something she could claim as her own,” Noelle has struck out in a different direction from the rest of her family. She cast an absentee ballot for Bush from 6,000 miles away — “and not just once, but twice!” For a family that “holds all fifty million people who voted for him responsible for Leo’s death,” this is heresy. The number of the Iraq war dead is continually updated on a tiny chalkboard next to their phone. “Leo hated that war,” the Frankels reassure one another. Naturally, then, when a fight breaks out among the sisters, the heretic finds herself under attack. “You and Amram, too,” Lily shouts at her sister, “living in your warmongering country, practicing your delusional religion.” “It’s your religion, too,” Noelle says. “It most certainly isn’t,” Lily replies.

And she is right. The Frankel family religion is the Frankel family — the daughters who attended Yale and Princeton (leaving out Noelle, who did not go to college), the brilliant high-achieving sons-in-law, a Nobel Prize-caliber neuroscientist and one of “D.C.’s best young chefs” (leaving out Noelle’s husband Amram, who graduated from SUNY Oneonta and is jobless at the moment), the family’s competitive thirst to do whatever necessary to triumph at board games and tennis, the books and photos and sporting equipment and musical instruments and Williams Sonoma cookware and children’s names carved into the open rafters of the summer house in Lenox, the fun-loving beloved son and brother whose early death has driven the family onto the rocks. “[T]hey’ve made a life out of being indignant,” Noelle observes. Leo’s death is the ultimate indignancy.

If the class setting is familiar, Henkin does something unusual with it. With great subtlety, he reveals that the Frankels’ grief over Leo, as deep and sincere as it is, is not the source of the family’s dysfunction. Marilyn chooses the weekend of her son’s memorial to announce that she has decided to leave her husband after 42 years of marriage. Not because of anything he has done — except perhaps that he does not talk as often as she thinks he should — but because he is not sufficiently upset over their son’s death. Noelle praises her father for being “the voice that understands there are things you can’t know,” but it is David’s very understanding that Marilyn cannot forgive. She demands authority over the family’s grief. Any emotional response that fails to meet her standards is subject to interrogation and banishment.

The British novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett may be the great archivist of family tyranny, but Joshua Henkin has written a novel that will appeal to a contemporary American audience which identifies tyranny with the state instead of private lives. One measure of how well he has succeeded is that, when Marilyn is right about something, not for a minute do you rack up her success to superior moral and political views.

The narrative strategy in The World Without You is what I have described elsewhere, in praising Zoë Heller’s The Believers, as a strategy of narrative disinterest. Henkin has no dog in the Frankel family fight. Although the reader will have a favorite, he does not. There is no central character through whom he filters perception and dissembles his own loyalties and values. The Bush-bashing that has become so commonplace in recent American fiction is never given the author’s voice. Henkin is not one of the Frankels; he has no stake in the outcome of their disagreements and dysfunction. He has only a good deal of affection for them, and a good deal of pity, and the confidence that his reader will come to feel about them much as he does. About that, he is right.

Read Less

The New Catholic Fiction

As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction. True, I once ventured the guess that Richard Russo is — “after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995 — perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today.” I remain convinced that Empire Falls, which I continue to admire, is a deeply Catholic novel. These are, however, the stabs of an outsider. An ignoramus too.

My knowledge of Catholicism is confined to desultory unsystematic reading, warmed by feelings of closeness toward the Church of Rome after the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Add that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism share the fate of being dismissed as “legalistic and moralistic.” (The epithets are William James’s from The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Yet religious sympathy only makes it easier to misinterpret religious experience by converting it into a more familiar religious vocabulary. And after teaching a course on American Jewish fiction this past term to a class that was overwhelmingly Christian, I know from firsthand experience just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.

Fair warning, then. Treat everything that follows with the skepticism of an unbeliever.

William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha are two of the most impressive young novelists around. Both published their debut novels within the past year. Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was issued by Norton last August. (I reviewed it here.) Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder came out from Tin House earlier this week. (My review is here.) Both novels are Catholic, at the most obvious level, in being about characters who are openly Catholic — although in opposite directions. Charles Homar, the narrator of Giraldi’s joyous romp, is a renegade Catholic. “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all,” he insists; “you have to experience this virus yourself really to get my gist, though in the meantime trust me.” (A good example of Giraldi’s prose style, by the way.) Beha’s Sophie Wilder is a convert. “From the Latin, to turn,” Sophie understands. “As in Eliot: Because I do not hope to turn again.”

Despite this difference, Charles and Sophie have something profound in common. They are what James calls sick souls. They are, in Othello’s language, “Unreconcil’d as yet to Heaven, and Grace.” They are intimates of evil and the failure of love. They are afflicted by man’s fallen nature — their own sin and other people’s — and find no peace in the knowledge that man, created in the image of God, reflects his glory. As Charles puts it, “Our species swam laps in a cesspool,” which leaves him with “the pressing need to get monastic, take a vow, wear a robe.” His language is comic, but his need is not. Both he and Sophie are in need of redemption, and both Busy Monsters and What Happened to Sophie Wilder are odysseys of a soul in search of redemption.

Between them, in short, Giraldi and Beha may have begun to redefine Catholic fiction. As a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor emphasized God’s mystery — what she called, in a famous article, the “added dimension.” “A dimension taken away is one thing,” she wrote; “a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer must strike the right balance between nature and grace, and this for O’Connor entailed seeing life “in its concrete reality.” An older generation of Catholic novelists was distinguished, in other words, by what George Weigel calls a sacramental vision. Paul Horgan (“whom almost no one remembers today”) was motivated by a similar vision, Weigel says, which he describes as a way of “seeing ‘things as they are’ [the title of Horgan’s most-Catholic novel], because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary.” Such a way of seeing, Weigel concludes, is “a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

But this way of seeing is not Giraldi’s and Beha’s way of seeing. They see the torments of the soul that thirsts for God; they see that, unreconciled to heaven and grace, the sick soul must go on searching for reconciliation. Their emphasis is not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil. Giraldi and Beha will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists. If I am right, though, they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers. To say nothing of a new generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.

But then again, I may be all wet.

Update: In a message to him, I suggested to Christopher Beha that his Sophie Wilder was a saint. “You wrote a saint’s life,” I said. Wisely, he did not reply.

As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction. True, I once ventured the guess that Richard Russo is — “after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995 — perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today.” I remain convinced that Empire Falls, which I continue to admire, is a deeply Catholic novel. These are, however, the stabs of an outsider. An ignoramus too.

My knowledge of Catholicism is confined to desultory unsystematic reading, warmed by feelings of closeness toward the Church of Rome after the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Add that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism share the fate of being dismissed as “legalistic and moralistic.” (The epithets are William James’s from The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Yet religious sympathy only makes it easier to misinterpret religious experience by converting it into a more familiar religious vocabulary. And after teaching a course on American Jewish fiction this past term to a class that was overwhelmingly Christian, I know from firsthand experience just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.

Fair warning, then. Treat everything that follows with the skepticism of an unbeliever.

William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha are two of the most impressive young novelists around. Both published their debut novels within the past year. Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was issued by Norton last August. (I reviewed it here.) Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder came out from Tin House earlier this week. (My review is here.) Both novels are Catholic, at the most obvious level, in being about characters who are openly Catholic — although in opposite directions. Charles Homar, the narrator of Giraldi’s joyous romp, is a renegade Catholic. “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all,” he insists; “you have to experience this virus yourself really to get my gist, though in the meantime trust me.” (A good example of Giraldi’s prose style, by the way.) Beha’s Sophie Wilder is a convert. “From the Latin, to turn,” Sophie understands. “As in Eliot: Because I do not hope to turn again.”

Despite this difference, Charles and Sophie have something profound in common. They are what James calls sick souls. They are, in Othello’s language, “Unreconcil’d as yet to Heaven, and Grace.” They are intimates of evil and the failure of love. They are afflicted by man’s fallen nature — their own sin and other people’s — and find no peace in the knowledge that man, created in the image of God, reflects his glory. As Charles puts it, “Our species swam laps in a cesspool,” which leaves him with “the pressing need to get monastic, take a vow, wear a robe.” His language is comic, but his need is not. Both he and Sophie are in need of redemption, and both Busy Monsters and What Happened to Sophie Wilder are odysseys of a soul in search of redemption.

Between them, in short, Giraldi and Beha may have begun to redefine Catholic fiction. As a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor emphasized God’s mystery — what she called, in a famous article, the “added dimension.” “A dimension taken away is one thing,” she wrote; “a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer must strike the right balance between nature and grace, and this for O’Connor entailed seeing life “in its concrete reality.” An older generation of Catholic novelists was distinguished, in other words, by what George Weigel calls a sacramental vision. Paul Horgan (“whom almost no one remembers today”) was motivated by a similar vision, Weigel says, which he describes as a way of “seeing ‘things as they are’ [the title of Horgan’s most-Catholic novel], because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary.” Such a way of seeing, Weigel concludes, is “a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

But this way of seeing is not Giraldi’s and Beha’s way of seeing. They see the torments of the soul that thirsts for God; they see that, unreconciled to heaven and grace, the sick soul must go on searching for reconciliation. Their emphasis is not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil. Giraldi and Beha will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists. If I am right, though, they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers. To say nothing of a new generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.

But then again, I may be all wet.

Update: In a message to him, I suggested to Christopher Beha that his Sophie Wilder was a saint. “You wrote a saint’s life,” I said. Wisely, he did not reply.

Read Less

Review: Born from Above

Christopher R. Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Portland, Ore.: Tin House, 2012). 256 pages. $15.95.

The equivocation in his title is the key to Christopher R. Beha’s first novel. “What happened to so-and-so?” friends ask. They mean that so-and-so has disappeared from their social network, their gossip circle — not that so-and-so has disappeared for good. They want to know what so-and-so has been doing the last few years, like them, to settle into a marriage, raise children, promote a career. They don’t mean, “What changed? When did she become a different person?” Not until the end of Beha’s scrupulous novel does it become clear that what happened to Sophie Wilder is a more profound question than it first appears.

Author of The Whole Five Feet (a memoir of a troubled year spent reading straight through the Harvard Classics on their centennial) and an associate editor at Harper’s magazine, Beha has written a deeply literary first novel. I don’t mean that it is another frail workshop novel in which disappointments and epiphanies that would go overlooked anywhere else are exaggerated to compensate for the absence of a plot. There is a surprising amount of action in What Happened to Sophie Wilder. And if it is not quite the action of a spy thriller, it is more action than most would enjoy having visited upon them — sexual betrayal, the suffering of end-stage cancer, the drying up of talent and ambition, the crisis of faith.

Beha’s novel is literary in being about literature. Charlie Blakeman is a novelist whose first book caused barely a ripple. Sophie Wilder is the author of Visiting Professor, a collection of stories that caused a stir. Both have foundered upon the dilemma of a follow-up. They met in college at New Hampton, a liberal arts outpost somewhere in New Jersey. More appropriately, they met in the freshman-year fiction-writing workshop taught by a “near-famous novelist.” Sophie’s first story for the class, a 75-page Gothic tale about orphaned children, a pack of wolves, and murder (a novella, really), is unlike anything written by mere freshmen. Her literary opinions are unusual too. When asked whether she likes the Beats, she replies:

There’s no control, no sense of form. They romanticize their methods, as if we should read how they wrote instead of what they wrote. Eventually it all turns sentimental, like a conversation with a sloppy drunk.

Like Charlie, I was immediately smitten. And like everyone else in her life, I was puzzled and concerned when Sophie, who showed such promise, stopped writing. Initially this appears to be the sense of Beha’s title: what happened to Sophie Wilder the writer? Everyone keeps asking, especially the agent who got her a two-book contract with a major New York publisher. When Charlie meets her again after six years — Sophie had sabotaged their college romance by sleeping with his older cousin — they immediately fall to discussing their first books. Charlie admits his was not very good, but at least it was a start. “I’ll do better with the follow-up,” he says. “You’re precocious,” Sophie says. “It takes most writers years to regret their first book.” Charlie asks how her own follow-up is going. Sophie tells him it’s finished. Charlie responds enthusiastically, asking when he can read it. “It’s not that kind of finished,” Sophie explains. “No one’s ever going to read it.”

Charlie persists in misunderstanding her, but Sophie means that she is finished with the literary life. In the years since they were college lovers, Sophie has converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Her agent is excited by the news. “It’s like Graham Greene or something,” he says. “I mean, who converts anymore? Unless they’re converting away.” The fleeting reference to Greene is nice, because What Happened to Sophie Wilder includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair. Raised by parents who were indifferent to religion (“they lacked the feeling for it, what she would learn to call the capax Dei, the capacity to experience God”), Sophie is not prepared for what happens to her when, by chance, she picks up an old copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. The book does not convert her. She finishes it and realizes, “There had been no change within her yet.” But Merton leads to other Catholic writers, and Sophie discovers “an entire strain of human feeling and thought,” which until then had been “utterly foreign to her.” A literary intellectual, she commences the study of a new literature.

Then the unexpected happens. Attending mass at a small Catholic church, Sophie suddenly feels — she doesn’t know how else to say it — “for a time, occupied.” Later she would agree that the “occupying force” was the Holy Spirit. At the time, though, she knows only that she has been taken over by “something outside of herself, something real, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor.” She rebuilds her life around the moment of revelation, although it never recurs. In the language of Christian theology, she is gennathei anothen — “not ‘born again,’ exactly, but ‘born from above.’ ”

She finds a use for her religious faith when her father-in-law emerges from years of estrangement and mystery to ask for her help. Bill Crane is hospitalized after surgery, and he wants out. St. Vincent’s will only release him to the care of a family member. He wants nothing more, but Sophie learns that he is suffering from end-stage stomach cancer. Her religious instruction forbids her to abandon him. And so she moves into his squalid apartment, intending to care for him as the light goes out; perhaps even, she reflects, to save his soul. Crane is furious: he wants only to be left alone to die. As the pain spreads and deepens, he begs her to kill him. For a time, Sophie stands by Catholic law. But in the end, she relents.

What happens next is amazing. Amazing and frustrating, since book-reviewing ethics prevent me from spoiling the novel’s ending. I’m not sure I could do it justice anyway. This much I can say. The last pages of the novel reorganize everything that has come before. You don’t close the book, but immediately return to the beginning to sort things out with a newfound understanding — and not just of Beha’s novel.

Beha writes his novel from alternating points of view; or, as Sophie herself would say, in alternating styles (“What was style, if not a point of view? A set of values?”). Every other chapter is narrated in first person by Charlie, who remains devoted to the principle of fiction (“[T]he story made the truth irrelevant,” he believes. “The telling was what mattered”). The even-numbered chapters are told in third person, from Sophie’s perspective — the perspective of a devotee to a different principle altogether. The difference in their values culminates in two different endings, two utterly different and incompatible versions of What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Outside the styles and values of his two main characters, Beha gives his readers no assistance in determining what really happened. Fiction is challenged by religion; religion is challenged by fiction; and readers are challenged on the grounds of their deepest values.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a remarkable first novel, which should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature. Along with handing them something good to read, it will renew their faith in what literature is capable of achieving.

Christopher R. Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Portland, Ore.: Tin House, 2012). 256 pages. $15.95.

The equivocation in his title is the key to Christopher R. Beha’s first novel. “What happened to so-and-so?” friends ask. They mean that so-and-so has disappeared from their social network, their gossip circle — not that so-and-so has disappeared for good. They want to know what so-and-so has been doing the last few years, like them, to settle into a marriage, raise children, promote a career. They don’t mean, “What changed? When did she become a different person?” Not until the end of Beha’s scrupulous novel does it become clear that what happened to Sophie Wilder is a more profound question than it first appears.

Author of The Whole Five Feet (a memoir of a troubled year spent reading straight through the Harvard Classics on their centennial) and an associate editor at Harper’s magazine, Beha has written a deeply literary first novel. I don’t mean that it is another frail workshop novel in which disappointments and epiphanies that would go overlooked anywhere else are exaggerated to compensate for the absence of a plot. There is a surprising amount of action in What Happened to Sophie Wilder. And if it is not quite the action of a spy thriller, it is more action than most would enjoy having visited upon them — sexual betrayal, the suffering of end-stage cancer, the drying up of talent and ambition, the crisis of faith.

Beha’s novel is literary in being about literature. Charlie Blakeman is a novelist whose first book caused barely a ripple. Sophie Wilder is the author of Visiting Professor, a collection of stories that caused a stir. Both have foundered upon the dilemma of a follow-up. They met in college at New Hampton, a liberal arts outpost somewhere in New Jersey. More appropriately, they met in the freshman-year fiction-writing workshop taught by a “near-famous novelist.” Sophie’s first story for the class, a 75-page Gothic tale about orphaned children, a pack of wolves, and murder (a novella, really), is unlike anything written by mere freshmen. Her literary opinions are unusual too. When asked whether she likes the Beats, she replies:

There’s no control, no sense of form. They romanticize their methods, as if we should read how they wrote instead of what they wrote. Eventually it all turns sentimental, like a conversation with a sloppy drunk.

Like Charlie, I was immediately smitten. And like everyone else in her life, I was puzzled and concerned when Sophie, who showed such promise, stopped writing. Initially this appears to be the sense of Beha’s title: what happened to Sophie Wilder the writer? Everyone keeps asking, especially the agent who got her a two-book contract with a major New York publisher. When Charlie meets her again after six years — Sophie had sabotaged their college romance by sleeping with his older cousin — they immediately fall to discussing their first books. Charlie admits his was not very good, but at least it was a start. “I’ll do better with the follow-up,” he says. “You’re precocious,” Sophie says. “It takes most writers years to regret their first book.” Charlie asks how her own follow-up is going. Sophie tells him it’s finished. Charlie responds enthusiastically, asking when he can read it. “It’s not that kind of finished,” Sophie explains. “No one’s ever going to read it.”

Charlie persists in misunderstanding her, but Sophie means that she is finished with the literary life. In the years since they were college lovers, Sophie has converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Her agent is excited by the news. “It’s like Graham Greene or something,” he says. “I mean, who converts anymore? Unless they’re converting away.” The fleeting reference to Greene is nice, because What Happened to Sophie Wilder includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair. Raised by parents who were indifferent to religion (“they lacked the feeling for it, what she would learn to call the capax Dei, the capacity to experience God”), Sophie is not prepared for what happens to her when, by chance, she picks up an old copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. The book does not convert her. She finishes it and realizes, “There had been no change within her yet.” But Merton leads to other Catholic writers, and Sophie discovers “an entire strain of human feeling and thought,” which until then had been “utterly foreign to her.” A literary intellectual, she commences the study of a new literature.

Then the unexpected happens. Attending mass at a small Catholic church, Sophie suddenly feels — she doesn’t know how else to say it — “for a time, occupied.” Later she would agree that the “occupying force” was the Holy Spirit. At the time, though, she knows only that she has been taken over by “something outside of herself, something real, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor.” She rebuilds her life around the moment of revelation, although it never recurs. In the language of Christian theology, she is gennathei anothen — “not ‘born again,’ exactly, but ‘born from above.’ ”

She finds a use for her religious faith when her father-in-law emerges from years of estrangement and mystery to ask for her help. Bill Crane is hospitalized after surgery, and he wants out. St. Vincent’s will only release him to the care of a family member. He wants nothing more, but Sophie learns that he is suffering from end-stage stomach cancer. Her religious instruction forbids her to abandon him. And so she moves into his squalid apartment, intending to care for him as the light goes out; perhaps even, she reflects, to save his soul. Crane is furious: he wants only to be left alone to die. As the pain spreads and deepens, he begs her to kill him. For a time, Sophie stands by Catholic law. But in the end, she relents.

What happens next is amazing. Amazing and frustrating, since book-reviewing ethics prevent me from spoiling the novel’s ending. I’m not sure I could do it justice anyway. This much I can say. The last pages of the novel reorganize everything that has come before. You don’t close the book, but immediately return to the beginning to sort things out with a newfound understanding — and not just of Beha’s novel.

Beha writes his novel from alternating points of view; or, as Sophie herself would say, in alternating styles (“What was style, if not a point of view? A set of values?”). Every other chapter is narrated in first person by Charlie, who remains devoted to the principle of fiction (“[T]he story made the truth irrelevant,” he believes. “The telling was what mattered”). The even-numbered chapters are told in third person, from Sophie’s perspective — the perspective of a devotee to a different principle altogether. The difference in their values culminates in two different endings, two utterly different and incompatible versions of What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Outside the styles and values of his two main characters, Beha gives his readers no assistance in determining what really happened. Fiction is challenged by religion; religion is challenged by fiction; and readers are challenged on the grounds of their deepest values.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a remarkable first novel, which should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature. Along with handing them something good to read, it will renew their faith in what literature is capable of achieving.

Read Less

The Decline and Fall of Literary Journalism

Professor Norman Sims, who says that he “more-or-less invented or revived the term,” has replied to my criticisms of literary journalism. His reply was posted earlier this morning at Critical Mass, the blog that Mark Athitakis maintains for the National Book Critics Circle.

Now, I had objected that, when it is used to describe a certain kind of journalism (“journalism of the better sort,” to coin a phrase), the term literary journalism is pretentious. Sims does not entirely disagree:

“Literary” is a sacred and self-congratulatory term, and it is matched with “journalism,” a profane term. English departments tend to prefer “creative nonfiction,” a term with even more inherent difficulties. “Creative” implies that it can be made up — and it often is — and “nonfiction” says what it is not. The choice of terms was debated in the [International Association for Literary Journalism Studies], and that scholarly group decided to go with literary journalism.

So it is a bureaucratic term — or a newer substitution for an older one, rather like the personnel department’s becoming the department of human relations. “The standards have been vigorously debated in an international conversation,” Sims declares. All right, then. A consensus has been reached and the question is now closed. There is even a professional organization dedicated to propagating the faith! And I, I am a stranger to it.

Not only that: I am not permitted to call myself a literary journalist. “I’d call Myers a ‘critic,’ not a literary journalist,” Sims says, as if the difference were immediately obvious to everyone. It is acceptable, though, to go on referring to Edmund Wilson as a literary journalist. Not because he reviewed books for the New Republic, the Dial, the Nation, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. Certainly not because he supported himself on the proceeds from his reviews. No, indeed. “If you look at Wilson’s writing in American Jitters (1932), and especially his piece ‘The Jumping-Off Place,’ you’ll find excellent examples of Wilson’s reporting and literary journalism done early in the Depression,” Sims says. “And of course he was an extraordinary literary and cultural critic as well,” he allows.

The problem with all this is that Sims’s history is farblondzshet, as the French might put it. “The first modern use of ‘literary journalism’ was probably in 1937 by Prof. Edwin H. Ford at the University of Minnesota,” Sims writes in a footnote, “but it didn’t catch on until I published The Literary Journalists in 1984.” I really like that qualification “modern.” Even after he slips it in, though, his claim remains false from top to bottom.

The term literary journalism dates from the mid-19th century. The earliest use of it in this country that I’ve been able to track down was in an unsigned editorial in the Yale Literary Magazine in June 1842.

“It is a common remark,” the editorial opens, “that every age has its own Literature.” While earlier ages had their dramas and their poetry and their satires and their romances, the literature of the time had “assumed a lighter costume, and one more adapted to the character of the age.” It had taken the form of the Review. Britain had the Westminster Review, the Dublin Review; Paris, its “Moniteurs and Gazettes, and in the metropolis the rage for Literary Journalism is actually surprising.” Germany, after all, is the “book-publishing nation of Europe,” but even there “the love of Literary Journalism has never been carried farther than la belle France.”

The contemporary usage was on the mark. Literary journalism arose with the 19th century reviews — the Edinburgh Review in 1802, the Quarterly Review in 1809, the Westminster Review in 1824. (The first Review on these shores, the North American Review, was founded in 1815. It was followed by the Democratic Review in 1837 and the American Whig Review in 1844.) As Gertrude Himmelfarb explains in The Spirit of the Age (2007):

The essays in each Review were just that: reviews of a book or several books, or of a lecture, an essay, a pamphlet, a journal, or even the text of a bill in Parliament. There had been book-review journals before that, but they were little more than booksellers’ organs, brief notices of new publications. The new quarterlies contained long reflective, critical essays, often using the book as the pretext for an excursion into the subject at large.

“Literary journalism” seems to have been the American name for the contents of the Reviews. In 1859, the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe’s old journal, welcomed two new Reviews that had “entered fully upon the career of literary journalism. . . .” The term was only beginning to be established, but by the end of the century, it had become accepted usage. In discussing Andrew Lang’s merits in the Bookman for April 1896 (he may not be a critic, but “he has the qualifications of fine scholarship, a long love of books, and a long habit of using them, without which no fine handling of literature is possible”), Annie Macdonell wrote:

Mr. Lang is the perfect master of the manner which suits him best, and very straightforward, lucid, and swift it is; and if he has founded no school, he has had incalculable influence in forming a lighter, brighter, simpler style of literary journalism.

Nor is it true that this use of the term was somehow “pre-modern.” Back in 1861, the Christian Review had praised Macaulay for raising the tone and modifying the character of “modern literary journalism.” The term and the practice were both strikingly modern, emerging at the same time as the modern profession of letters. Patronage was dead; creative writing was not yet born. Literary journalism — that is, reviewing books for the periodicals — was the means of economic support for the average writer with literary ambitions. By the 1860’s, John Gross wrote in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), “literary journalism was at last becoming a secure enough profession for it to attract a steady flow of talent from the universities.”

For over a century, “literary journalism” meant this and only this. “Nona Balakian describes herself as a literary journalist,” Alden Whitman said of the writer after whom the National Book Critics Circle’s book-reviewing prize is named, “meaning that for the last quarter-century and more she has been a workaday book reviewer, interviewer, essayist and editor whose product has appeared largely in the pages of the New York Times.”

The term was used in exactly this sense by most writers, including T. S. Eliot (who described “serious literary journalism” as a “precarious means of support for all but a very few”), W. H. Auden (who pointed out that, “In earning his living, the average poet has to choose between being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of advertising copy”), Allen Tate (who spoke darkly of the need to “resist the organized literary journalism of New York”), Granville Hicks (“The responsible literary journalist must be prepared to judge a political novel on more than one level”), Christopher Lasch (who described Oswald Garrison Villard as “one of the last great eccentrics who distinguished American literary journalism”), James Dickey (who dismissed a rival’s verse as “high-falutin’, bad-punning literary journalism of the trashiest and most tiresome sort”), Saul Bellow (who complained that the universities and the mass media “have between them swallowed up literary journalism”), Joyce Carol Oates (who griped about being assigned to “the sort of ready-made category that literary journalism seems too often to insist upon”), and Paul Auster (“I never thought of myself as a critic or literary journalist, even when I was doing a lot of critical pieces”).

The term was a commonplace for most writers, because they had come of age in a literary ecosystem (in Andrew Fox’s good phrase) in which book reviewing was both a means of support and a way to start out. With the post-World War II rise of what I called the “elephant machine” — the creative writing workshop, which produced graduates who went on to teach creative writing and institute new workshops, which produced graduates who went on to teach creative writing and institute new workshops — the old profession of literary journalism, as Bellow said, was swallowed up.

In England, where creative writing took longer to gain a foothold, literary journalism remained a career option for much longer. Indeed, so commonplace was the assumption that writers relied upon literary journalism as a boost and a support that the bellyache about literary journalism also became something of a commonplace. In 1961, V. S. Pritchett listed the obstacles to literary success: “too much money, too little money, popular journalism, literary journalism, marriage, ‘the pram in the hall.’ ” Three decades later, James Wood summarized the critics’ complaints about his literary generation: “We were all watching too much television or writing too much literary journalism to produce great books.”

Wood’s use of the term suggests that Sims is not even right when he argues that the meaning of literary journalism has shifted since 1984, when he published an anthology called The Literary Journalists. It’s more likely that the currency of the term in Sims’s sense dates to 1992, when reviewers began to use it at last to distinguish a certain kind of book or writer. Kenneth Brower, reviewing Bob Reiss’s The Road to Extrema in the New York Times, complains about a device flourished with regularity throughout the book:

Who is it that introduced the abrupt, jarring discontinuity into American literary journalism? John McPhee?

Just four months later, writing in the Washington Post, David Streitfeld identified Joseph Mitchell with literary journalism. “During the late ’30s and ’40s,” Streitfeld wrote, Mitchell

created a new kind of magazine feature, one that took the energy and initiative of journalism and hitched it to larger literary goals.

The new meaning of the term — its nonce meaning — was ratified when it was associated with two of the writers who are most often advanced as exemplars of “literary journalism.”

Yet the original meaning of the term remains valid, and at least to my mind, this meaning — its traditional meaning — is preferable. And for all the reasons I gave in first criticizing the new genre a month ago. Short version: there is nothing to distinguish “literary” journalism from journalism of any other sort.

Sims is no help. Sometimes literary journalism is whatever it pleases him to call literary journalism (“I am a historian of the form, so . . . I’m entitled to use the term to describe the work of Edmund Wilson, James Agee, Martha Gellhorn, Joseph Mitchell, John McPhee, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe,” etc.); at another time, literary journalism is journalism that uses the techniques of literature (“the active presence of the author’s voice in the narrative,” for example, or “the tools long associated only with fiction,” etc.).

If it is the former then literary journalism is simply non-fiction with status honor. If it is the latter then it is nothing. For though there have been many “privileged criteria” (as E. D. Hirsch Jr. has called them) for distinguishing literature from non-literature, the historical fact is that every attempt to isolate the special and unique qualities of literature has failed. Literature is either a selection of the best that has been written, in which case some journalism qualifies; or it is everything that has been written, in which case all journalism qualifies.

It is time to return to the original meaning of literary journalism.

Professor Norman Sims, who says that he “more-or-less invented or revived the term,” has replied to my criticisms of literary journalism. His reply was posted earlier this morning at Critical Mass, the blog that Mark Athitakis maintains for the National Book Critics Circle.

Now, I had objected that, when it is used to describe a certain kind of journalism (“journalism of the better sort,” to coin a phrase), the term literary journalism is pretentious. Sims does not entirely disagree:

“Literary” is a sacred and self-congratulatory term, and it is matched with “journalism,” a profane term. English departments tend to prefer “creative nonfiction,” a term with even more inherent difficulties. “Creative” implies that it can be made up — and it often is — and “nonfiction” says what it is not. The choice of terms was debated in the [International Association for Literary Journalism Studies], and that scholarly group decided to go with literary journalism.

So it is a bureaucratic term — or a newer substitution for an older one, rather like the personnel department’s becoming the department of human relations. “The standards have been vigorously debated in an international conversation,” Sims declares. All right, then. A consensus has been reached and the question is now closed. There is even a professional organization dedicated to propagating the faith! And I, I am a stranger to it.

Not only that: I am not permitted to call myself a literary journalist. “I’d call Myers a ‘critic,’ not a literary journalist,” Sims says, as if the difference were immediately obvious to everyone. It is acceptable, though, to go on referring to Edmund Wilson as a literary journalist. Not because he reviewed books for the New Republic, the Dial, the Nation, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. Certainly not because he supported himself on the proceeds from his reviews. No, indeed. “If you look at Wilson’s writing in American Jitters (1932), and especially his piece ‘The Jumping-Off Place,’ you’ll find excellent examples of Wilson’s reporting and literary journalism done early in the Depression,” Sims says. “And of course he was an extraordinary literary and cultural critic as well,” he allows.

The problem with all this is that Sims’s history is farblondzshet, as the French might put it. “The first modern use of ‘literary journalism’ was probably in 1937 by Prof. Edwin H. Ford at the University of Minnesota,” Sims writes in a footnote, “but it didn’t catch on until I published The Literary Journalists in 1984.” I really like that qualification “modern.” Even after he slips it in, though, his claim remains false from top to bottom.

The term literary journalism dates from the mid-19th century. The earliest use of it in this country that I’ve been able to track down was in an unsigned editorial in the Yale Literary Magazine in June 1842.

“It is a common remark,” the editorial opens, “that every age has its own Literature.” While earlier ages had their dramas and their poetry and their satires and their romances, the literature of the time had “assumed a lighter costume, and one more adapted to the character of the age.” It had taken the form of the Review. Britain had the Westminster Review, the Dublin Review; Paris, its “Moniteurs and Gazettes, and in the metropolis the rage for Literary Journalism is actually surprising.” Germany, after all, is the “book-publishing nation of Europe,” but even there “the love of Literary Journalism has never been carried farther than la belle France.”

The contemporary usage was on the mark. Literary journalism arose with the 19th century reviews — the Edinburgh Review in 1802, the Quarterly Review in 1809, the Westminster Review in 1824. (The first Review on these shores, the North American Review, was founded in 1815. It was followed by the Democratic Review in 1837 and the American Whig Review in 1844.) As Gertrude Himmelfarb explains in The Spirit of the Age (2007):

The essays in each Review were just that: reviews of a book or several books, or of a lecture, an essay, a pamphlet, a journal, or even the text of a bill in Parliament. There had been book-review journals before that, but they were little more than booksellers’ organs, brief notices of new publications. The new quarterlies contained long reflective, critical essays, often using the book as the pretext for an excursion into the subject at large.

“Literary journalism” seems to have been the American name for the contents of the Reviews. In 1859, the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe’s old journal, welcomed two new Reviews that had “entered fully upon the career of literary journalism. . . .” The term was only beginning to be established, but by the end of the century, it had become accepted usage. In discussing Andrew Lang’s merits in the Bookman for April 1896 (he may not be a critic, but “he has the qualifications of fine scholarship, a long love of books, and a long habit of using them, without which no fine handling of literature is possible”), Annie Macdonell wrote:

Mr. Lang is the perfect master of the manner which suits him best, and very straightforward, lucid, and swift it is; and if he has founded no school, he has had incalculable influence in forming a lighter, brighter, simpler style of literary journalism.

Nor is it true that this use of the term was somehow “pre-modern.” Back in 1861, the Christian Review had praised Macaulay for raising the tone and modifying the character of “modern literary journalism.” The term and the practice were both strikingly modern, emerging at the same time as the modern profession of letters. Patronage was dead; creative writing was not yet born. Literary journalism — that is, reviewing books for the periodicals — was the means of economic support for the average writer with literary ambitions. By the 1860’s, John Gross wrote in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), “literary journalism was at last becoming a secure enough profession for it to attract a steady flow of talent from the universities.”

For over a century, “literary journalism” meant this and only this. “Nona Balakian describes herself as a literary journalist,” Alden Whitman said of the writer after whom the National Book Critics Circle’s book-reviewing prize is named, “meaning that for the last quarter-century and more she has been a workaday book reviewer, interviewer, essayist and editor whose product has appeared largely in the pages of the New York Times.”

The term was used in exactly this sense by most writers, including T. S. Eliot (who described “serious literary journalism” as a “precarious means of support for all but a very few”), W. H. Auden (who pointed out that, “In earning his living, the average poet has to choose between being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of advertising copy”), Allen Tate (who spoke darkly of the need to “resist the organized literary journalism of New York”), Granville Hicks (“The responsible literary journalist must be prepared to judge a political novel on more than one level”), Christopher Lasch (who described Oswald Garrison Villard as “one of the last great eccentrics who distinguished American literary journalism”), James Dickey (who dismissed a rival’s verse as “high-falutin’, bad-punning literary journalism of the trashiest and most tiresome sort”), Saul Bellow (who complained that the universities and the mass media “have between them swallowed up literary journalism”), Joyce Carol Oates (who griped about being assigned to “the sort of ready-made category that literary journalism seems too often to insist upon”), and Paul Auster (“I never thought of myself as a critic or literary journalist, even when I was doing a lot of critical pieces”).

The term was a commonplace for most writers, because they had come of age in a literary ecosystem (in Andrew Fox’s good phrase) in which book reviewing was both a means of support and a way to start out. With the post-World War II rise of what I called the “elephant machine” — the creative writing workshop, which produced graduates who went on to teach creative writing and institute new workshops, which produced graduates who went on to teach creative writing and institute new workshops — the old profession of literary journalism, as Bellow said, was swallowed up.

In England, where creative writing took longer to gain a foothold, literary journalism remained a career option for much longer. Indeed, so commonplace was the assumption that writers relied upon literary journalism as a boost and a support that the bellyache about literary journalism also became something of a commonplace. In 1961, V. S. Pritchett listed the obstacles to literary success: “too much money, too little money, popular journalism, literary journalism, marriage, ‘the pram in the hall.’ ” Three decades later, James Wood summarized the critics’ complaints about his literary generation: “We were all watching too much television or writing too much literary journalism to produce great books.”

Wood’s use of the term suggests that Sims is not even right when he argues that the meaning of literary journalism has shifted since 1984, when he published an anthology called The Literary Journalists. It’s more likely that the currency of the term in Sims’s sense dates to 1992, when reviewers began to use it at last to distinguish a certain kind of book or writer. Kenneth Brower, reviewing Bob Reiss’s The Road to Extrema in the New York Times, complains about a device flourished with regularity throughout the book:

Who is it that introduced the abrupt, jarring discontinuity into American literary journalism? John McPhee?

Just four months later, writing in the Washington Post, David Streitfeld identified Joseph Mitchell with literary journalism. “During the late ’30s and ’40s,” Streitfeld wrote, Mitchell

created a new kind of magazine feature, one that took the energy and initiative of journalism and hitched it to larger literary goals.

The new meaning of the term — its nonce meaning — was ratified when it was associated with two of the writers who are most often advanced as exemplars of “literary journalism.”

Yet the original meaning of the term remains valid, and at least to my mind, this meaning — its traditional meaning — is preferable. And for all the reasons I gave in first criticizing the new genre a month ago. Short version: there is nothing to distinguish “literary” journalism from journalism of any other sort.

Sims is no help. Sometimes literary journalism is whatever it pleases him to call literary journalism (“I am a historian of the form, so . . . I’m entitled to use the term to describe the work of Edmund Wilson, James Agee, Martha Gellhorn, Joseph Mitchell, John McPhee, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe,” etc.); at another time, literary journalism is journalism that uses the techniques of literature (“the active presence of the author’s voice in the narrative,” for example, or “the tools long associated only with fiction,” etc.).

If it is the former then literary journalism is simply non-fiction with status honor. If it is the latter then it is nothing. For though there have been many “privileged criteria” (as E. D. Hirsch Jr. has called them) for distinguishing literature from non-literature, the historical fact is that every attempt to isolate the special and unique qualities of literature has failed. Literature is either a selection of the best that has been written, in which case some journalism qualifies; or it is everything that has been written, in which case all journalism qualifies.

It is time to return to the original meaning of literary journalism.

Read Less

On Satire

Monday’s review of They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? — Christopher Buckley’s ninth political satire — raises the question of just what satire is. Trouble is, no one is really sure. The term has become a verbal shrug (“You know?”) for any kind of fiction at all with a humorous smack. As George Meredith famously said in his Essay on Comedy (1877), “If you detect the ridicule, and your kindliness is chilled by it, you are slipping into the grasp of Satire.” At its most precise, then, satire denotes humor that is mean as distinguished from humor that is nice. Peter De Vries advanced a similiar distinction in his novel Sauce for the Goose (1981):

Mrs. Dobbin had once read an article on humor in one of the magazines with smooth complexions, which analyzed satire by sorting its practitioners into two classes. Satirists were either soft-mouthed or hard-mouthed. They both brought their prey back dead, true, but some mangled it in purveyance while others did not.

If De Vries is to be believed, however (and no one understood the use of humor in fiction any better than he), the distinction belongs to satire instead of blocking it off from other types of humor. And De Vries has got to be right, because not all satirists are chilling meanies (Christopher Buckley, for example, is warm-hearted toward his prey).

The question about satire is an ancient one, and I have no intention of rehearsing history’s answers. Mainly because they have been remarkably uniform, from Diomedes Grammaticus in the 4th century B.C.E. (quoted by Dryden in the Discourse on Satire), who said that “Satire amongst the Romans but not amongst the Greeks, was a biting invective poem, made after the model of the ancient comedy, for the reprehension of vices,” all the way down to Stephen Greenblatt, who characterizes it in Critical Terms for Literary Study (1990) as the kind of literature explicitly engaged in attack. Literary history stands united. Satire is fiction that delivers a good bitch slap.

Who am I to stand athwart history? But I would like to observe that two errors result from the uniform confusion of satire with biting humor. First, fiction that is not satirical is subjected to misunderstanding. (The best example of a first-rate novelist who has suffered from the confusion is Francine Prose.) Second, the element of humor, which is not the dominant note in satire, no matter what the critics think, is overemphasized, leading to misinterpretation of a different sort.

WTF? Satire is not supposed to be funny? Only a pompous fool or a turgid academic (but I repeat myself) would arrive at such a conclusion! Don’t get me wrong: a satirist has to make his readers laugh. Otherwise there’s no reason to read him in the first place. But that’s not all he is supposed to do. That’s not even the main thing. The German romantic novelist Jean Paul (a.k.a. Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) explains:

A satire on everything is a satire on nothing; it is mere absurdity. All contempt, all disrespect, implies something respected, as a standard to which it is referred; just as every valley implies a hill.

This is why the view of satire as ridicule or biting invective or attack is upside-down. Despite outward appearances, satire is fundamentally affirmative, even if its methods are not. De Vries quoted Robert Frost in support of the notion: “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.”

Satire’s principal method is what in philosophy is called the reductio, the reduction of an idea or attitude to absurdity. But as Jean Paul points out, the satire itself cannot be an absurdity, or nothing is accomplished. (There in a sentence is the weakness of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “satire.”) The satirist reduces his puffed-up targets to absurdity, because he wants to clear the ground for a more durable standard of meaning. If he could describe it with outer seriousness, rather than mocking its competitors with outer humor, he’d probably do so. But he writes the best way he can, and avoids what is beyond his capacities. “I have recently read a couple of serious-type articles about what I am actually up to,” De Vries said, “and I can only conclude that my stuff is really over my head.”

What, then, distinguishes satire from other varieties of fiction and other types of humor? The definition in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the best, because it is the cleanest: Satire is caricature joined to literary form. Other varieties of fiction depend upon characterization rather than caricature; other types of humor dispense with literary form (plot, scene, meter). Satire is a genre of serious literature which keeps its seriousness carefully concealed like a weapon of last resort. Bitch slaps are optional: they are a technique, not a genre.

Monday’s review of They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? — Christopher Buckley’s ninth political satire — raises the question of just what satire is. Trouble is, no one is really sure. The term has become a verbal shrug (“You know?”) for any kind of fiction at all with a humorous smack. As George Meredith famously said in his Essay on Comedy (1877), “If you detect the ridicule, and your kindliness is chilled by it, you are slipping into the grasp of Satire.” At its most precise, then, satire denotes humor that is mean as distinguished from humor that is nice. Peter De Vries advanced a similiar distinction in his novel Sauce for the Goose (1981):

Mrs. Dobbin had once read an article on humor in one of the magazines with smooth complexions, which analyzed satire by sorting its practitioners into two classes. Satirists were either soft-mouthed or hard-mouthed. They both brought their prey back dead, true, but some mangled it in purveyance while others did not.

If De Vries is to be believed, however (and no one understood the use of humor in fiction any better than he), the distinction belongs to satire instead of blocking it off from other types of humor. And De Vries has got to be right, because not all satirists are chilling meanies (Christopher Buckley, for example, is warm-hearted toward his prey).

The question about satire is an ancient one, and I have no intention of rehearsing history’s answers. Mainly because they have been remarkably uniform, from Diomedes Grammaticus in the 4th century B.C.E. (quoted by Dryden in the Discourse on Satire), who said that “Satire amongst the Romans but not amongst the Greeks, was a biting invective poem, made after the model of the ancient comedy, for the reprehension of vices,” all the way down to Stephen Greenblatt, who characterizes it in Critical Terms for Literary Study (1990) as the kind of literature explicitly engaged in attack. Literary history stands united. Satire is fiction that delivers a good bitch slap.

Who am I to stand athwart history? But I would like to observe that two errors result from the uniform confusion of satire with biting humor. First, fiction that is not satirical is subjected to misunderstanding. (The best example of a first-rate novelist who has suffered from the confusion is Francine Prose.) Second, the element of humor, which is not the dominant note in satire, no matter what the critics think, is overemphasized, leading to misinterpretation of a different sort.

WTF? Satire is not supposed to be funny? Only a pompous fool or a turgid academic (but I repeat myself) would arrive at such a conclusion! Don’t get me wrong: a satirist has to make his readers laugh. Otherwise there’s no reason to read him in the first place. But that’s not all he is supposed to do. That’s not even the main thing. The German romantic novelist Jean Paul (a.k.a. Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) explains:

A satire on everything is a satire on nothing; it is mere absurdity. All contempt, all disrespect, implies something respected, as a standard to which it is referred; just as every valley implies a hill.

This is why the view of satire as ridicule or biting invective or attack is upside-down. Despite outward appearances, satire is fundamentally affirmative, even if its methods are not. De Vries quoted Robert Frost in support of the notion: “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.”

Satire’s principal method is what in philosophy is called the reductio, the reduction of an idea or attitude to absurdity. But as Jean Paul points out, the satire itself cannot be an absurdity, or nothing is accomplished. (There in a sentence is the weakness of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “satire.”) The satirist reduces his puffed-up targets to absurdity, because he wants to clear the ground for a more durable standard of meaning. If he could describe it with outer seriousness, rather than mocking its competitors with outer humor, he’d probably do so. But he writes the best way he can, and avoids what is beyond his capacities. “I have recently read a couple of serious-type articles about what I am actually up to,” De Vries said, “and I can only conclude that my stuff is really over my head.”

What, then, distinguishes satire from other varieties of fiction and other types of humor? The definition in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the best, because it is the cleanest: Satire is caricature joined to literary form. Other varieties of fiction depend upon characterization rather than caricature; other types of humor dispense with literary form (plot, scene, meter). Satire is a genre of serious literature which keeps its seriousness carefully concealed like a weapon of last resort. Bitch slaps are optional: they are a technique, not a genre.

Read Less

Ray Bradbury, 1920–2012

The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died last night in Los Angeles at 91.

Although I have not read him since high school, Bradbury was a formative literary influence — and not upon me alone. Andrew Fox, himself an excellent SF writer, testifies to Bradbury’s lifelong influence upon him in this moving tribute.

As John Fund said over at National Review Online, Bradbury was a great conservative. Perhaps there is no better image of his conservatism than this. In Fahrenheit 451, his classic dystopian novel from 1953 about a world that burns books, there is a band of wandering scholars, headed by a mysterious man named Granger, who memorize books to preserve them from total destruction. Granger himself has memorized Plato’s Republic; or, as he puts it, “I am Plato’s Republic.”

The irony is delicious, because Plato too wanted to suppress books. “[W]e can admit no poetry into our city save only hymns to the gods and the praises of good men,” Socrates tells Glaucon in Paul Shorey’s translation [607a]. “For if you grant admission to the honeyed Muse in lyric or epic, pleasure and pain will be lords of your city instead of law. . . .” By poetry is meant everything that would now be called literature. In Bradbury’s city as opposed to Plato’s, cultural memory preserves even the calls for its own extermination.

It may be no exaggeration to suggest that Bradbury understood literature’s place in human life, to say nothing of the utopian seduction, better than Plato.

The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died last night in Los Angeles at 91.

Although I have not read him since high school, Bradbury was a formative literary influence — and not upon me alone. Andrew Fox, himself an excellent SF writer, testifies to Bradbury’s lifelong influence upon him in this moving tribute.

As John Fund said over at National Review Online, Bradbury was a great conservative. Perhaps there is no better image of his conservatism than this. In Fahrenheit 451, his classic dystopian novel from 1953 about a world that burns books, there is a band of wandering scholars, headed by a mysterious man named Granger, who memorize books to preserve them from total destruction. Granger himself has memorized Plato’s Republic; or, as he puts it, “I am Plato’s Republic.”

The irony is delicious, because Plato too wanted to suppress books. “[W]e can admit no poetry into our city save only hymns to the gods and the praises of good men,” Socrates tells Glaucon in Paul Shorey’s translation [607a]. “For if you grant admission to the honeyed Muse in lyric or epic, pleasure and pain will be lords of your city instead of law. . . .” By poetry is meant everything that would now be called literature. In Bradbury’s city as opposed to Plato’s, cultural memory preserves even the calls for its own extermination.

It may be no exaggeration to suggest that Bradbury understood literature’s place in human life, to say nothing of the utopian seduction, better than Plato.

Read Less

Review: Who Killed the Dalai Lama?

Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (New York: Twelve, 2012). 352 pages. $25.99.

“They happened to get lucky — real lucky — with their timing,” a CIA official says of the co-conspirators at the heart of Christopher Buckley’s latest novel. Exactly the same can be said of Buckley. His ninth novel was in press, its dog-chomping title decided upon long before, when Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller broke the story that Barack Obama had boasted of eating “dog meat (tough)” as a boy, and the #ObamaEatsDog meme went viral. Then, just days after Buckley hit the bookstores with a new book that satirized the expensive sport of dressage (among other things), the New York Times obliged him with a 2,200-word front page story on Ann Romney’s immersion in “in the elite world of riding.”

You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Not that Buckley needs it. He may be the best comic novelist now writing in America, perhaps the best since Peter De Vries. His most celebrated novel is probably Thank You for Smoking (1994), a satire on the tobacco lobby and anti-tobacco zealots, which was filmed by Jason Reitman nine years later. I prefer Little Green Men (1999), his tale of a TV talk-show host who is abducted by aliens from a golf course.

The only child of William F. Buckley Jr., he was a speechwriter for Vice President George Bush before getting out of politics to mock it in hilarious restrained prose. The White House Mess, a 1986 parody of White House memoirs, established from the start of his career that Buckley had perfect pitch for the mendacious sincerity of Washington, D.C. Above all his characters want to preserve a reputation for high principle and upright conscience, even if everything they say reveals that they are, as Nick Naylor puts it in Thank You for Smoking — his second novel — “unholier than thou.” After God Is My Broker (1998), a caricature of self-help books that was cowritten with the science reporter John Tierney, Buckley knocked out a string of six political satires over the next 13 years. His targets included White House sex scandals, Islamism, bloggers, and the Supreme Court nomination circus.

In They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? the 59-year-old Buckley trains his sights upon China and especially America’s anxious relationship with China. In Washington, a defense contractor observes, “[t]hey’re more nervous about China than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Which makes life difficult for defense contractors, who only want to sell weapons to the government so that Americans can “sleep a lot more soundly.” Chick Devlin, head of the munitions giant Groepping-Sprunt (no one is better than Buckley at deflating an entire industry with one made-up name), hatches a plot to “gin up a little anti-China mojo.” As he explains to Walter “Bird” MacIntyre, his chief lobbyist:

“Last time I checked, their flag was flaming Communist red. Yes, I believe the time has come to educate the great dumb American public — God love them — to educate them about the . . .” — Chick paused, as if searching for just the right word — “the peril we as a nation face from from a nation of one point three billion foreigners. . . . If we can do that, then those limp dicks and fainting hearts and imbeciles in the United States Congress — God love them — will follow.”

Bird enlists the help of Angel Templeton, a dead ringer for Ann Coulter. “Tall, blond, buff, leggy, miniskirted,” Angel chairs the Institute for Continuing Conflict, which its detractors call the Institute for Never-Ending War. It is headquarters for “the so-called Oreo-Cons—‘Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.’ ” These are hawks who do not much care what Congress does “so long as they kept the Pentagon and the armed forces well funded and engaged abroad, preferably in hand-to-hand combat.” No one is more anti-China than Angel Templeton:

Am I the only person in this town who’s tired of hearing that the twenty-first century is going to be ‘the Chinese Century’? Could someone tell me — please — why America, the greatest country in history, only gets one century? And by the way, who decided this was going to be their century? Some thumb-sucking professor at Yale? Please.

Together Bird and Angel cook up a scheme. They plant the rumor that Beijing is out to murder the Dalai Lama. “You know the saying,” Bird tells Angel, “ ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time — and those are the one you need to concentrate on’?” The Dalai Lama collapses on his way to a meeting with the Pope. In the hospital in Rome, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is given two months to live. But here the plot thickens. The medical report is stolen by the Chinese government, who keep the Dalai Lama’s condition a secret. The director of Chinese intelligence explains why: “Once he learns that he’s dying, he’s sure to petition to be allowed to return to Tibet.” And that the Chinese cannot permit.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? then becomes a fast-paced plot and counter-plot and counter-counter-plot involving not just Bird and Angel but the Chinese Politburo at its highest level and the inner bowels of the National Security Council to boot. Everyone, it seems, would prefer to see the Dalai Lama dead — the Chinese to remove the face and symbol of anti-China resistance, the Americans to blame the Chinese. And when the Dalai Lama finally dies, it is not clear if the cancer killed him, or if he was murdered; and if so, by whom. Buckley makes great use of the story’s twisting back-and-forth, not merely as a supporting medium for his tickling one-liners, but as a source of humor in its own right. National governments are basically spy agencies, he seems to be implying: plotting against enemies foreign, domestic, and inter-agency is the principal form of government work.

It is Bird’s wife Myndi, incidentally, who is into what he calls “the horse thing.” She is trying out for the American equestrian team which will compete for the Tang Cup in Xi’an, China. When her mare injures a tendon, she asks Bird for a $225,000 replacement mount. “The bloodlines are stunning,” she reassures him. “The House of Windsor doesn’t have bloodlines like this.” Bird balks at the price; Myndi gets angry. “Look,” she says — “we agreed when I decided to try out for the team that we were going to do this together.” Bird is struck by her conception of togetherness: “She’d compete for a place on the U.S. Equestrian Team and he would write the checks.” As for him, Bird’s avocation is writing novels — absurd techno-thrillers in the manner of Tom Clancy, to whom Buckley has long acted the part of scourge. When Angel teases him about his unpublished tetralogy, Bird explodes: “What is it with you people? Is being a novelist considered some kind of disability?”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Buckley’s novel is its tone of quiet respect, even reverence, for Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama. Along with Chris Matthews, he is the only character in the book to appear under his own name. “Americans love the guy,” Bird says. “The whole world loves him. What’s not to love? He’s a seventy-five-year-old sweetie pie with glasses, plus the sandals and the saffron robe and the hugging and the mandalas and the peace and harmony and the reincarnation and nirvana. All that. We can’t get enough of him.” In fact, Buckley gives little of him — but the little he gives is deeply moving. Not just for the reader, but for the characters in the novel too. Everyone who comes in contact with him is affected by him. Without any sermonizing at all, Buckley offers a serene and alluring image of anti-politics — the life of religion, which gives meaning to human conduct. Although he fires off a few zingers about public figures (“The vice president’s tongue is several time zones ahead of his brain,” the Chinese Foreign Minister says of a character who resembles Joe Biden), Buckley is more interested in more substantial figures.

The powerful example of the Dalai Lama accounts for Buckley’s own political attitudes in his latest novel. Ever since he famously broke with his father’s old magazine the National Review by announcing that he would vote for Barack Obama, Buckley has had a testy relationship with American conservatism. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? is his first novel since the 2008 election. Its satirical transformation of neocons into “Oreo-Cons” is unlikely to win back many friends on the right. (“Norman Podhoretz?” Angel scoffs at one point. “That’s your definition of a major Jew?”) And a hint of sanctimony creeps into his political reflections early in the novel. The U.S. deployment of “killer drones,” he says,

was stark evidence that somewhere along the line Uncle Sam had quietly morphed into Global Big Brother. With wings. The proud American eagle now clutched in one talon the traditional martial arrows, in the other a remote control.

This is political speech more familiar among the neo-isolationist left. “If we’re really in the endgame of the American experiment,” as one character puts it in They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, for Buckley the cause is not a decline of American power or the loss of American exceptionalism — the cause is a decline of religion and the loss of religious influence like the Dalai Lama’s. If Christopher Buckley remains a conservative, in other words, he is a conservative in the mold of Whittaker Chambers. The difference is that he laughs at American politics while he retreats from it, and gets the rest of us to laugh at it too. “How sad it would be if our people saw what was going on in the world,” the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party says wryly when news of the Dalai Lama’s death is blocked at China’s borders. In Buckley’s fiction, what goes on in the world is less comic than what goes on outside its view — less meaningful too.

Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (New York: Twelve, 2012). 352 pages. $25.99.

“They happened to get lucky — real lucky — with their timing,” a CIA official says of the co-conspirators at the heart of Christopher Buckley’s latest novel. Exactly the same can be said of Buckley. His ninth novel was in press, its dog-chomping title decided upon long before, when Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller broke the story that Barack Obama had boasted of eating “dog meat (tough)” as a boy, and the #ObamaEatsDog meme went viral. Then, just days after Buckley hit the bookstores with a new book that satirized the expensive sport of dressage (among other things), the New York Times obliged him with a 2,200-word front page story on Ann Romney’s immersion in “in the elite world of riding.”

You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Not that Buckley needs it. He may be the best comic novelist now writing in America, perhaps the best since Peter De Vries. His most celebrated novel is probably Thank You for Smoking (1994), a satire on the tobacco lobby and anti-tobacco zealots, which was filmed by Jason Reitman nine years later. I prefer Little Green Men (1999), his tale of a TV talk-show host who is abducted by aliens from a golf course.

The only child of William F. Buckley Jr., he was a speechwriter for Vice President George Bush before getting out of politics to mock it in hilarious restrained prose. The White House Mess, a 1986 parody of White House memoirs, established from the start of his career that Buckley had perfect pitch for the mendacious sincerity of Washington, D.C. Above all his characters want to preserve a reputation for high principle and upright conscience, even if everything they say reveals that they are, as Nick Naylor puts it in Thank You for Smoking — his second novel — “unholier than thou.” After God Is My Broker (1998), a caricature of self-help books that was cowritten with the science reporter John Tierney, Buckley knocked out a string of six political satires over the next 13 years. His targets included White House sex scandals, Islamism, bloggers, and the Supreme Court nomination circus.

In They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? the 59-year-old Buckley trains his sights upon China and especially America’s anxious relationship with China. In Washington, a defense contractor observes, “[t]hey’re more nervous about China than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Which makes life difficult for defense contractors, who only want to sell weapons to the government so that Americans can “sleep a lot more soundly.” Chick Devlin, head of the munitions giant Groepping-Sprunt (no one is better than Buckley at deflating an entire industry with one made-up name), hatches a plot to “gin up a little anti-China mojo.” As he explains to Walter “Bird” MacIntyre, his chief lobbyist:

“Last time I checked, their flag was flaming Communist red. Yes, I believe the time has come to educate the great dumb American public — God love them — to educate them about the . . .” — Chick paused, as if searching for just the right word — “the peril we as a nation face from from a nation of one point three billion foreigners. . . . If we can do that, then those limp dicks and fainting hearts and imbeciles in the United States Congress — God love them — will follow.”

Bird enlists the help of Angel Templeton, a dead ringer for Ann Coulter. “Tall, blond, buff, leggy, miniskirted,” Angel chairs the Institute for Continuing Conflict, which its detractors call the Institute for Never-Ending War. It is headquarters for “the so-called Oreo-Cons—‘Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.’ ” These are hawks who do not much care what Congress does “so long as they kept the Pentagon and the armed forces well funded and engaged abroad, preferably in hand-to-hand combat.” No one is more anti-China than Angel Templeton:

Am I the only person in this town who’s tired of hearing that the twenty-first century is going to be ‘the Chinese Century’? Could someone tell me — please — why America, the greatest country in history, only gets one century? And by the way, who decided this was going to be their century? Some thumb-sucking professor at Yale? Please.

Together Bird and Angel cook up a scheme. They plant the rumor that Beijing is out to murder the Dalai Lama. “You know the saying,” Bird tells Angel, “ ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time — and those are the one you need to concentrate on’?” The Dalai Lama collapses on his way to a meeting with the Pope. In the hospital in Rome, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is given two months to live. But here the plot thickens. The medical report is stolen by the Chinese government, who keep the Dalai Lama’s condition a secret. The director of Chinese intelligence explains why: “Once he learns that he’s dying, he’s sure to petition to be allowed to return to Tibet.” And that the Chinese cannot permit.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? then becomes a fast-paced plot and counter-plot and counter-counter-plot involving not just Bird and Angel but the Chinese Politburo at its highest level and the inner bowels of the National Security Council to boot. Everyone, it seems, would prefer to see the Dalai Lama dead — the Chinese to remove the face and symbol of anti-China resistance, the Americans to blame the Chinese. And when the Dalai Lama finally dies, it is not clear if the cancer killed him, or if he was murdered; and if so, by whom. Buckley makes great use of the story’s twisting back-and-forth, not merely as a supporting medium for his tickling one-liners, but as a source of humor in its own right. National governments are basically spy agencies, he seems to be implying: plotting against enemies foreign, domestic, and inter-agency is the principal form of government work.

It is Bird’s wife Myndi, incidentally, who is into what he calls “the horse thing.” She is trying out for the American equestrian team which will compete for the Tang Cup in Xi’an, China. When her mare injures a tendon, she asks Bird for a $225,000 replacement mount. “The bloodlines are stunning,” she reassures him. “The House of Windsor doesn’t have bloodlines like this.” Bird balks at the price; Myndi gets angry. “Look,” she says — “we agreed when I decided to try out for the team that we were going to do this together.” Bird is struck by her conception of togetherness: “She’d compete for a place on the U.S. Equestrian Team and he would write the checks.” As for him, Bird’s avocation is writing novels — absurd techno-thrillers in the manner of Tom Clancy, to whom Buckley has long acted the part of scourge. When Angel teases him about his unpublished tetralogy, Bird explodes: “What is it with you people? Is being a novelist considered some kind of disability?”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Buckley’s novel is its tone of quiet respect, even reverence, for Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama. Along with Chris Matthews, he is the only character in the book to appear under his own name. “Americans love the guy,” Bird says. “The whole world loves him. What’s not to love? He’s a seventy-five-year-old sweetie pie with glasses, plus the sandals and the saffron robe and the hugging and the mandalas and the peace and harmony and the reincarnation and nirvana. All that. We can’t get enough of him.” In fact, Buckley gives little of him — but the little he gives is deeply moving. Not just for the reader, but for the characters in the novel too. Everyone who comes in contact with him is affected by him. Without any sermonizing at all, Buckley offers a serene and alluring image of anti-politics — the life of religion, which gives meaning to human conduct. Although he fires off a few zingers about public figures (“The vice president’s tongue is several time zones ahead of his brain,” the Chinese Foreign Minister says of a character who resembles Joe Biden), Buckley is more interested in more substantial figures.

The powerful example of the Dalai Lama accounts for Buckley’s own political attitudes in his latest novel. Ever since he famously broke with his father’s old magazine the National Review by announcing that he would vote for Barack Obama, Buckley has had a testy relationship with American conservatism. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? is his first novel since the 2008 election. Its satirical transformation of neocons into “Oreo-Cons” is unlikely to win back many friends on the right. (“Norman Podhoretz?” Angel scoffs at one point. “That’s your definition of a major Jew?”) And a hint of sanctimony creeps into his political reflections early in the novel. The U.S. deployment of “killer drones,” he says,

was stark evidence that somewhere along the line Uncle Sam had quietly morphed into Global Big Brother. With wings. The proud American eagle now clutched in one talon the traditional martial arrows, in the other a remote control.

This is political speech more familiar among the neo-isolationist left. “If we’re really in the endgame of the American experiment,” as one character puts it in They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, for Buckley the cause is not a decline of American power or the loss of American exceptionalism — the cause is a decline of religion and the loss of religious influence like the Dalai Lama’s. If Christopher Buckley remains a conservative, in other words, he is a conservative in the mold of Whittaker Chambers. The difference is that he laughs at American politics while he retreats from it, and gets the rest of us to laugh at it too. “How sad it would be if our people saw what was going on in the world,” the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party says wryly when news of the Dalai Lama’s death is blocked at China’s borders. In Buckley’s fiction, what goes on in the world is less comic than what goes on outside its view — less meaningful too.

Read Less

“Literary Journalism”: What It Is, What It Is Not

This morning, over at Critical Mass (the blog of the National Book Critics Circle), Geoff Dyer reveals the five “works of literary journalism” that he likes best. Dyer won the Circle’s 2011 criticism award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays. It’s not his fault that his list of favorites is dull and vapid. The classification of “literary journalism” is dull and vapid.

As a term, literary journalism is first cousin to “literary fiction,” another dull and vapid classification the republic of letters could do without. Apparently, literary journalism is fancy journalism, highbrow journalism. It is journalism plus fine writing. It is journalism with literary pretensions. But here’s the thing about literary pretensions. They are pretentious. They are phony. Good writers don’t brag about writing literature, which is a title of honor. Good writers accept the moral obligation to write well — that is, they subjugate themselves to the demands of the text under hand — and they leave the question of literature, the question of lasting value, up to the literary critics.

The word journalism does not denote a genre, but a venue. Journalism is what gets printed in journals and their digital successors, including blogs and even Twitter. Literary journalism is periodical writing about literature. I am a literary journalist, because I write about books for COMMENTARY. Edmund Wilson is the patron saint of literary journalists. But when he wrote book-length criticism that was not originally conceived as a series of contributions to the journals (Patriotic Gore, for example), Wilson was no longer writing as a journalist. And when he wrote journal pieces like those collected in The American Earthquake but originally published in the New Republic (about “the arts of the metropolis, from Stravinsky conducting Pétrouchka to Houdini, nightclubs and burlesque shows, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, the painting of O’Keeffe and George Bellows,” as his biographer describes them), Wilson was no longer writing as a literary journalist.

Most of what gets referred to as “literary journalism” is some combination of history and travel writing — history because it undertakes to determine what happened in a past, travel writing because it depends upon first-hand observation in addition to documented evidence. Those who object that journalism (of any kind) is not history are doing little beyond disclosing their own prejudices and assumptions. “The question in history,” Michael Oakeshott wrote, “is never what must, or what might have taken place, but solely what the evidence obliges us to conclude did take place.” Thus the historian and the journalist share the same obligation — an obligation to the evidence. What did take place might have taken place five minutes or five centuries ago, but as long as it belongs to the past, historian and journalist share the same interest in it.

Nor do their objectives differ, no matter how far apart their methods and prose might seem to put them. Oakeshott again: “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.” Both historians and journalists recreate the past in the name of reporting what the evidence obliges them to conclude took place. Historians may claim to be more comprehensive and objective; “literary” journalists, to be more compelling and timely. But these claims are justified merely by the fact that some historians and some journalists have bought into them. They are self-advertisements, not logical distinctions.

There is no reason for anyone to repeat them, nor to compile lists of their favorite “literary journalism.”

This morning, over at Critical Mass (the blog of the National Book Critics Circle), Geoff Dyer reveals the five “works of literary journalism” that he likes best. Dyer won the Circle’s 2011 criticism award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays. It’s not his fault that his list of favorites is dull and vapid. The classification of “literary journalism” is dull and vapid.

As a term, literary journalism is first cousin to “literary fiction,” another dull and vapid classification the republic of letters could do without. Apparently, literary journalism is fancy journalism, highbrow journalism. It is journalism plus fine writing. It is journalism with literary pretensions. But here’s the thing about literary pretensions. They are pretentious. They are phony. Good writers don’t brag about writing literature, which is a title of honor. Good writers accept the moral obligation to write well — that is, they subjugate themselves to the demands of the text under hand — and they leave the question of literature, the question of lasting value, up to the literary critics.

The word journalism does not denote a genre, but a venue. Journalism is what gets printed in journals and their digital successors, including blogs and even Twitter. Literary journalism is periodical writing about literature. I am a literary journalist, because I write about books for COMMENTARY. Edmund Wilson is the patron saint of literary journalists. But when he wrote book-length criticism that was not originally conceived as a series of contributions to the journals (Patriotic Gore, for example), Wilson was no longer writing as a journalist. And when he wrote journal pieces like those collected in The American Earthquake but originally published in the New Republic (about “the arts of the metropolis, from Stravinsky conducting Pétrouchka to Houdini, nightclubs and burlesque shows, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, the painting of O’Keeffe and George Bellows,” as his biographer describes them), Wilson was no longer writing as a literary journalist.

Most of what gets referred to as “literary journalism” is some combination of history and travel writing — history because it undertakes to determine what happened in a past, travel writing because it depends upon first-hand observation in addition to documented evidence. Those who object that journalism (of any kind) is not history are doing little beyond disclosing their own prejudices and assumptions. “The question in history,” Michael Oakeshott wrote, “is never what must, or what might have taken place, but solely what the evidence obliges us to conclude did take place.” Thus the historian and the journalist share the same obligation — an obligation to the evidence. What did take place might have taken place five minutes or five centuries ago, but as long as it belongs to the past, historian and journalist share the same interest in it.

Nor do their objectives differ, no matter how far apart their methods and prose might seem to put them. Oakeshott again: “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.” Both historians and journalists recreate the past in the name of reporting what the evidence obliges them to conclude took place. Historians may claim to be more comprehensive and objective; “literary” journalists, to be more compelling and timely. But these claims are justified merely by the fact that some historians and some journalists have bought into them. They are self-advertisements, not logical distinctions.

There is no reason for anyone to repeat them, nor to compile lists of their favorite “literary journalism.”

Read Less

Your Summer Reading List

April may be the cruelest month because it blooms with dreams of summer. Already the pleas for summer reading recommendations are filling up my inbox. The best novels of 2011 — Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, Roland Merullo’s The Talk-Funny Girl, and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia — are all being released in paperback this coming summer. But if you insist upon a new book, because the indolence of sunny days requires the toughening grip of literary obligation or something, here are some titles you might consider, starting next month and running through early September.

• M. H. Abrams, The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and Other Essays (Norton, September). One hundred years old in July, Abrams sees his ninth book of criticism into print — essays on Kant, Keats, Hazlitt, and reading poems aloud (their “fourth dimension”).

• Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England (Knopf, August). A bookish young man finds his natural inclinations thwarted by his uncle Lionel Asbo (self-named for Anti-Social Behaviour Orders), who is determined to teach him the joys of pit bulls, internet porn, and serious criminality.

• Kurt Andersen, True Believers (Random House, July). The author of Heyday, winner of the Langum Prize for the best historical novel of 2007, returns with a novel about contemporary politics, Supreme Court appointments, the Occupy Movement, and the secrets of ex-Sixties radicals.

• Gina Apostol, Gun Dealers’ Daughter (Norton, July). The first American publication by the award-winning Philippine novelist tells the story of a Manila girl, a Communist terrorist while in college, who keeps reliving her radical past now that she is a wealthy woman living in Manhattan.

• Dorothy Baker, Young Man with a Horn (NYRB Classics, August). Baker’s superb 1938 jazz novel based on the life of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke is being reprinted for the first time in three-and-a-half decades.

• Deni Y. Béchard, Cures for Hunger (Milkweed, May). Once his mother tells him that his father was a bankrobber, there is no stopping young Deni Béchard — he hitchhikes to Memphis, steals a motorcycle, beats up classmates, kisses girls. A memoir of growing up by the author of Vandal Love.

• Christopher R. Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Tin House, June). In his debut novel, the author of the charming memoir The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everthing Else tells the story of a young writer who is sucked into the mystery of an old flame, who resurfaces after ten years.

• Gordon Bowker, James Joyce: A New Biography (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June). In the first new life of the Irish novelist in thirty years, the biographer of Malcolm Lowry and Lawrence Durrell draws upon newly discovered material to tell the story of Joyce’s “flight into exile.”

• Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (Twelve, May). In Buckley’s latest political satire, Washington lobbyist “Bird” McIntyre joins forces with a leggy blonde telegenic conservative named Ann Coulter — I mean, Angel Templeton — to turn American public opinion against the Chinese by spreading the rumor that they want to assassinate the Dalai Lama.

• Peter Carey, The Chemistry of Tears (Knopf, May). The Australian novelist, a perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize, tells the story of a 200-year-old automaton which is rediscovered and restored by an unmarried museum conservator who has been looking for love in all the wrong places.

• Stephen L. Carter, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (Knopf, July). The Yale law professor, better known for nonfiction books like Integrity and Civility, imagines an alternate history in which Lincoln is not assassinated but merely impeached for abuse of power during the Civil War.

• Lisa Cohen, All We Know: Three Lives (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, July). Three brief lives of three unusual and forgotten women — a dazzling New York intellectual who never finished the books she was contracted to write, an obscure friend to famous actresses and dancers who established her own identity in a collection of memorabilia, and the fashion editor of British Vogue who stood invisibly at the center of culture.

• Richard Ford, Canada (Ecco, May). Love him or hate him (I hated him), Frank Bascombe has been left behind. Ford’s narrative style is now more straightforward, and though leisurely, it is effective for telling the story of two children — twins, Air Force brats — whose parents are unprofessional bankrobbers.

• Joseph Frank, Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture (Fordham University Press, June). The great scholar of Dostoevsky collects essays on French and German writers — Valéry, Camus, Malraux, Ernst Juenger, Gottfried Benn — and problems in literary criticism.

• Michael Frayn, Skios (Metropolitan, June). The unique British novelist, who likes to write philosophical farces, is back with his 11th novel: Dr. Norman Wilfred, an eminent authority on the scientific organization of science, is held hostage on a private Greek resort island while his impersonator enthralls conference attendees there.

• Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (Liveright, August). The critic and travel writer knits together biography, literary interpretation, and travelogue in reconstructing the fascinating background of The Portrait of a Lady, James’s first masterpiece.

• Kate Grenville, Sarah Thornhill (Grove, June). The Australian novelist rounds off the trilogy she began with the 2006 Commonwealth Prize-winning The Secret River, the saga of an ex-convict’s family whose wealth has been heaped up by expropriating Aboriginals. William Thornhill’s youngest daughter is on the road to marriage and contentment when the family secret is revealed.

• Frank Turner Hollon, Austin and Emily (MacAdam/Cage, June). Two star-crossed lovers, a 347-pound man and the woman he met at a Tampa strip club, set out for Los Angeles with a car full of cats to seek eternal bliss along the Hollywood Walk-of-Fame. A comic novel by a Southern writer better known for his legal thrillers.

• Joshua Henkin, The World Without You (Pantheon, June). An American Jewish family gathers at its summer home in the Berkshires to mourn the youngest of the four children, a journalist killed while on assignment in Iraq. Henkin excels at characterization, and he outdoes himself here in a novel that might have been called Six Characters in Search of Family Happiness.

• Danilo Kiš, Psalm 44 and The Lute and the Scars (Dalkey Archive, August). Two new translations by John K. Cox of the great Serbian novelist and story writer (died 1989). Psalm 44, written when Kiš was only 25, is his only novel about Auschwitz, where his father died. The Lute and the Scars was his last collection of stories, left in manuscript at his death and published posthumously. The Attic, his previously translated first novel, is being released at the same time by the indispensable Dalkey Archive.

• Don Lee, The Collective (Norton, July). Old college friends — a writer and an artist — band together to create the Asian American Artists Collective (the 3AC, as it is more familiarly known), although it does nothing to shield them from misery. The second novel by the director of the creative writing program at Temple University.

• Peter Levine, The Appearance of a Hero: The Tom Mahoney Stories (St. Martin’s, August). The titular hero of these connected stories is blurbed as a “21st-century Gatsby,” and who can resist that? As he enters the middle of his life, a good-looking and popular businessman realizes that something is missing, and begins to disappear from the lives of those who know him.

• Claire McMillan, Gilded Age (Simon & Schuster, June). It is hard to resist Elle magazine’s description of this first novel about a young divorcée who returns to upper class Cleveland society after a stint in rehab: “a beach read with a touch of literary pedigree.”

• Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Holt, May). Britain’s gifted historical novelist follows up Wolf Hall, her 2009 Booker Prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, with a sequel on the fall of Anne Boleyn.

• Missy Marston, The Love Monster (Vehicule, September). Margaret H. Atwood has psoriasis, a boring job, a cheating ex-husband, and her pants don’t fit. When she meets a love-sick alien speaking in the voice of Donald Sutherland, she begins to hope again. A comic first novel by an irreverent Canadian.

• D. T. Max, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking, September). In one of those coincidences which prove God loves literature, a staff writer for the New Yorker issues the first biography of the tormented master of postmodern metafiction the same year The Pale King, the novel Wallace left unfinished when he hanged himself in 2008, was snubbed by the Pulitzer Prize. A life as involving and grueling as the fiction.

• Daniel Mendelsohn, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays on the Classics and Pop Culture (New York Review Books, August). Honored by the National Book Critics Circle for his reviewing, Mendelsohn is perhaps best known for The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. In his latest collection of essays, his interests range from pop culture (Avatar, Mad Men) to bestsellers and phony memoirs.

• Toni Morrison, Home (Knopf, May). The Nobel winner’s fourth novel since taking home the Prize: a Korean War veteran, at loose ends in Seattle, returns home to Georgia to rescue his sister, the victim of a sinister white doctor who has been performing medical experiments upon her.

• Reynolds Price, Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir (Scribner, May). The Southern novelist, who passed away in January 2011 at the age of 77, left this memoir unfinished at his death. It covers the last few years of his aimless twenties as he was suspended between unpublished youth and literary adulthood, upon which he ventured with the publication of his first novel, A Long and Happy Life, in 1962.

• Sarah Terez Rosenblum, Herself When She’s Missing (Soft Skull, June). In the spirit if not the style of A Visit from the Goon Squad and Stone Arabia, first novelist Sarah Terez Rosenblum narrates the cross-country love story of two rock groupies. Told in lists, 3 x 5 cards, and even a screenplay, the book is a postmodern lesbian romance.

• Richard Russo, Interventions (Down East, June). Designed as a tribute to the printed book in an age of electronic texts, Russo offers the title novella and three other stories in a unique format — four individually bound volumes gathered in a slipcase and accompanied by four full-color prints of paintings by Kate Russo, the writer’s daughter. (Russo’s memoir Elsewhere will be published by Knopf in November.)

• Francesca Segal, The Innocents (Voice, June). A “reboot of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in a London Jewish enclave.” — Mark Athitakis. The Ellen Olenska character, named Ellie Schneider here, brings uncompromising American independence back home to London after several years in New York. Can’t wait for this one.

• Colm Tóibín, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families (Scribner, June). The author of The Master examines how writers’ unhappy family relationships — Jane Austen and her aunts, Tennessee Williams and his mentally ill sister, W. B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, John Cheever and everyone he ever lived with — work their way into fiction.

• Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (Crown, July). The second novel of immigration by the author of Red Weather is about a half-Egyptian boy growing up in Butte, Montana — the scene of another great immigrant novel — and dreaming of daredevil stunts.

• Mario Vargas Llosa, The Dream of the Celt (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June). In his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize, the Peruvian novelist tells the story of Roger Casement, the Irish revolutionary and diplomat who campaigned against slave labor in Africa and South America.

• Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins (Harper, June). Not quite two months before its scheduled publication date, and already the latest from the author of The Zero, a celebrated 9/11 novel, has 28 mostly enthusiastic customer reviews at Amazon.com. What began as flirtation on the Italian coast in 1962 flowers into a love affair fifty years later in Hollywood.

Read up, because new novels from Tom Wolfe, Louise Erdrich, A. M. Homes, Mark Helprin, and Michael Chabon are coming in the fall.

April may be the cruelest month because it blooms with dreams of summer. Already the pleas for summer reading recommendations are filling up my inbox. The best novels of 2011 — Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, Roland Merullo’s The Talk-Funny Girl, and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia — are all being released in paperback this coming summer. But if you insist upon a new book, because the indolence of sunny days requires the toughening grip of literary obligation or something, here are some titles you might consider, starting next month and running through early September.

• M. H. Abrams, The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and Other Essays (Norton, September). One hundred years old in July, Abrams sees his ninth book of criticism into print — essays on Kant, Keats, Hazlitt, and reading poems aloud (their “fourth dimension”).

• Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England (Knopf, August). A bookish young man finds his natural inclinations thwarted by his uncle Lionel Asbo (self-named for Anti-Social Behaviour Orders), who is determined to teach him the joys of pit bulls, internet porn, and serious criminality.

• Kurt Andersen, True Believers (Random House, July). The author of Heyday, winner of the Langum Prize for the best historical novel of 2007, returns with a novel about contemporary politics, Supreme Court appointments, the Occupy Movement, and the secrets of ex-Sixties radicals.

• Gina Apostol, Gun Dealers’ Daughter (Norton, July). The first American publication by the award-winning Philippine novelist tells the story of a Manila girl, a Communist terrorist while in college, who keeps reliving her radical past now that she is a wealthy woman living in Manhattan.

• Dorothy Baker, Young Man with a Horn (NYRB Classics, August). Baker’s superb 1938 jazz novel based on the life of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke is being reprinted for the first time in three-and-a-half decades.

• Deni Y. Béchard, Cures for Hunger (Milkweed, May). Once his mother tells him that his father was a bankrobber, there is no stopping young Deni Béchard — he hitchhikes to Memphis, steals a motorcycle, beats up classmates, kisses girls. A memoir of growing up by the author of Vandal Love.

• Christopher R. Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Tin House, June). In his debut novel, the author of the charming memoir The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everthing Else tells the story of a young writer who is sucked into the mystery of an old flame, who resurfaces after ten years.

• Gordon Bowker, James Joyce: A New Biography (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June). In the first new life of the Irish novelist in thirty years, the biographer of Malcolm Lowry and Lawrence Durrell draws upon newly discovered material to tell the story of Joyce’s “flight into exile.”

• Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (Twelve, May). In Buckley’s latest political satire, Washington lobbyist “Bird” McIntyre joins forces with a leggy blonde telegenic conservative named Ann Coulter — I mean, Angel Templeton — to turn American public opinion against the Chinese by spreading the rumor that they want to assassinate the Dalai Lama.

• Peter Carey, The Chemistry of Tears (Knopf, May). The Australian novelist, a perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize, tells the story of a 200-year-old automaton which is rediscovered and restored by an unmarried museum conservator who has been looking for love in all the wrong places.

• Stephen L. Carter, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (Knopf, July). The Yale law professor, better known for nonfiction books like Integrity and Civility, imagines an alternate history in which Lincoln is not assassinated but merely impeached for abuse of power during the Civil War.

• Lisa Cohen, All We Know: Three Lives (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, July). Three brief lives of three unusual and forgotten women — a dazzling New York intellectual who never finished the books she was contracted to write, an obscure friend to famous actresses and dancers who established her own identity in a collection of memorabilia, and the fashion editor of British Vogue who stood invisibly at the center of culture.

• Richard Ford, Canada (Ecco, May). Love him or hate him (I hated him), Frank Bascombe has been left behind. Ford’s narrative style is now more straightforward, and though leisurely, it is effective for telling the story of two children — twins, Air Force brats — whose parents are unprofessional bankrobbers.

• Joseph Frank, Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture (Fordham University Press, June). The great scholar of Dostoevsky collects essays on French and German writers — Valéry, Camus, Malraux, Ernst Juenger, Gottfried Benn — and problems in literary criticism.

• Michael Frayn, Skios (Metropolitan, June). The unique British novelist, who likes to write philosophical farces, is back with his 11th novel: Dr. Norman Wilfred, an eminent authority on the scientific organization of science, is held hostage on a private Greek resort island while his impersonator enthralls conference attendees there.

• Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (Liveright, August). The critic and travel writer knits together biography, literary interpretation, and travelogue in reconstructing the fascinating background of The Portrait of a Lady, James’s first masterpiece.

• Kate Grenville, Sarah Thornhill (Grove, June). The Australian novelist rounds off the trilogy she began with the 2006 Commonwealth Prize-winning The Secret River, the saga of an ex-convict’s family whose wealth has been heaped up by expropriating Aboriginals. William Thornhill’s youngest daughter is on the road to marriage and contentment when the family secret is revealed.

• Frank Turner Hollon, Austin and Emily (MacAdam/Cage, June). Two star-crossed lovers, a 347-pound man and the woman he met at a Tampa strip club, set out for Los Angeles with a car full of cats to seek eternal bliss along the Hollywood Walk-of-Fame. A comic novel by a Southern writer better known for his legal thrillers.

• Joshua Henkin, The World Without You (Pantheon, June). An American Jewish family gathers at its summer home in the Berkshires to mourn the youngest of the four children, a journalist killed while on assignment in Iraq. Henkin excels at characterization, and he outdoes himself here in a novel that might have been called Six Characters in Search of Family Happiness.

• Danilo Kiš, Psalm 44 and The Lute and the Scars (Dalkey Archive, August). Two new translations by John K. Cox of the great Serbian novelist and story writer (died 1989). Psalm 44, written when Kiš was only 25, is his only novel about Auschwitz, where his father died. The Lute and the Scars was his last collection of stories, left in manuscript at his death and published posthumously. The Attic, his previously translated first novel, is being released at the same time by the indispensable Dalkey Archive.

• Don Lee, The Collective (Norton, July). Old college friends — a writer and an artist — band together to create the Asian American Artists Collective (the 3AC, as it is more familiarly known), although it does nothing to shield them from misery. The second novel by the director of the creative writing program at Temple University.

• Peter Levine, The Appearance of a Hero: The Tom Mahoney Stories (St. Martin’s, August). The titular hero of these connected stories is blurbed as a “21st-century Gatsby,” and who can resist that? As he enters the middle of his life, a good-looking and popular businessman realizes that something is missing, and begins to disappear from the lives of those who know him.

• Claire McMillan, Gilded Age (Simon & Schuster, June). It is hard to resist Elle magazine’s description of this first novel about a young divorcée who returns to upper class Cleveland society after a stint in rehab: “a beach read with a touch of literary pedigree.”

• Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Holt, May). Britain’s gifted historical novelist follows up Wolf Hall, her 2009 Booker Prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, with a sequel on the fall of Anne Boleyn.

• Missy Marston, The Love Monster (Vehicule, September). Margaret H. Atwood has psoriasis, a boring job, a cheating ex-husband, and her pants don’t fit. When she meets a love-sick alien speaking in the voice of Donald Sutherland, she begins to hope again. A comic first novel by an irreverent Canadian.

• D. T. Max, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking, September). In one of those coincidences which prove God loves literature, a staff writer for the New Yorker issues the first biography of the tormented master of postmodern metafiction the same year The Pale King, the novel Wallace left unfinished when he hanged himself in 2008, was snubbed by the Pulitzer Prize. A life as involving and grueling as the fiction.

• Daniel Mendelsohn, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays on the Classics and Pop Culture (New York Review Books, August). Honored by the National Book Critics Circle for his reviewing, Mendelsohn is perhaps best known for The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. In his latest collection of essays, his interests range from pop culture (Avatar, Mad Men) to bestsellers and phony memoirs.

• Toni Morrison, Home (Knopf, May). The Nobel winner’s fourth novel since taking home the Prize: a Korean War veteran, at loose ends in Seattle, returns home to Georgia to rescue his sister, the victim of a sinister white doctor who has been performing medical experiments upon her.

• Reynolds Price, Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir (Scribner, May). The Southern novelist, who passed away in January 2011 at the age of 77, left this memoir unfinished at his death. It covers the last few years of his aimless twenties as he was suspended between unpublished youth and literary adulthood, upon which he ventured with the publication of his first novel, A Long and Happy Life, in 1962.

• Sarah Terez Rosenblum, Herself When She’s Missing (Soft Skull, June). In the spirit if not the style of A Visit from the Goon Squad and Stone Arabia, first novelist Sarah Terez Rosenblum narrates the cross-country love story of two rock groupies. Told in lists, 3 x 5 cards, and even a screenplay, the book is a postmodern lesbian romance.

• Richard Russo, Interventions (Down East, June). Designed as a tribute to the printed book in an age of electronic texts, Russo offers the title novella and three other stories in a unique format — four individually bound volumes gathered in a slipcase and accompanied by four full-color prints of paintings by Kate Russo, the writer’s daughter. (Russo’s memoir Elsewhere will be published by Knopf in November.)

• Francesca Segal, The Innocents (Voice, June). A “reboot of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in a London Jewish enclave.” — Mark Athitakis. The Ellen Olenska character, named Ellie Schneider here, brings uncompromising American independence back home to London after several years in New York. Can’t wait for this one.

• Colm Tóibín, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families (Scribner, June). The author of The Master examines how writers’ unhappy family relationships — Jane Austen and her aunts, Tennessee Williams and his mentally ill sister, W. B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, John Cheever and everyone he ever lived with — work their way into fiction.

• Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (Crown, July). The second novel of immigration by the author of Red Weather is about a half-Egyptian boy growing up in Butte, Montana — the scene of another great immigrant novel — and dreaming of daredevil stunts.

• Mario Vargas Llosa, The Dream of the Celt (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June). In his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize, the Peruvian novelist tells the story of Roger Casement, the Irish revolutionary and diplomat who campaigned against slave labor in Africa and South America.

• Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins (Harper, June). Not quite two months before its scheduled publication date, and already the latest from the author of The Zero, a celebrated 9/11 novel, has 28 mostly enthusiastic customer reviews at Amazon.com. What began as flirtation on the Italian coast in 1962 flowers into a love affair fifty years later in Hollywood.

Read up, because new novels from Tom Wolfe, Louise Erdrich, A. M. Homes, Mark Helprin, and Michael Chabon are coming in the fall.

Read Less

Maybe the Pulitzers Ran Out of Writers

In the aftermath of the Pulitzer Prize board’s inability to give out a fiction award yesterday, the three jurors who selected the three finalists have got mad, and the critics have been speculating like mad. My own theory is that the Pulitzers ran out of writers.

Literary prizes have little to do with literary merit (and the little gets less every year). They are just another medium of book advertising. The best evidence is how few books win more than one of the big three awards — Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle — in any one year. The last novel to be honored with both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award was E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News nearly two decades ago in 1994. Only six works of fiction have been dual winners:

1955    William Faulkner, A Fable
1966    Katherine Anne Porter, Collected Stories
1967    Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
1982    John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich
1983    Alice Walker, The Color Purple
1994    E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

It is less unusual for the National Book Critics Circle Award to go to a book that wins another prize the same year. Nine times since the award was established in 1976 it has gone to a book that also won another laurel:

1979    John Cheever, Stories (also won Pulitzer)
1982    John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich (also won National Book Award and Pulitzer)
1991    John Updike, Rabbit at Rest (also won Pulitzer)
1992    Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (also won Pulitzer)
1993    Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (also won National Book Award)
2004    Edward P. Jones, The Known World (also won Pulitzer)
2005    Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (also won Pulitzer)
2008    Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (also won Pulitzer)
2011     Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (also won Pulitzer)

If anyone were to draw up a list of the 14 most striking and distinctive and influential American books of the past six decades, however, very few of the titles on these two lists would be on it. The lack of multiple awards is significant, but even more telling is how badly the multiple awards correlate with lasting reputations.

The dirty little secret of literary prizes is that they must not be given out more than once to the same writer. Saul Bellow won the National Book Award three times (1954, 1965, 1971); William Faulkner, twice (1951, 1955); William Gaddis, twice (1976, 1994); Bernard Malamud, twice (1959, 1967); Wright Morris, twice (1957, 1981); Philip Roth, twice (1960, 1995); and John Updike, twice (1964, 1982). But no American writer who has begun his or her career since 1976 — no one belonging to the “boomer” generation or after — has won more than once.

The Pulitzer Prize appears to have an unwritten policy forbidding repeat winners. The last writer to win the more than once was John Updike, who took home the Prize for Rabbit Is Rich in 1982 and then again for Rabbit at Rest nine years later. Here is a complete and unabridged list of the American fiction writers who have won the Pulitzer more than once: William Faulkner, Booth Tarkington, John Updike.

The rationale for the Pulitzer’s unwritten prohibition against repeat winners becomes clear when you examine the cover of Steven Millhauser’s new volume of stories, We Others:

Given Millhauser’s genius for short fiction, We Others should have been a serious contender for the Prize. (It was Janice Harayda’s choice for the Pulitzer That Wasn’t.) But the reason it wasn’t considered is obvious. Millhauser captured top honors in 1997 for Martin Dressler, making it possible for Knopf to fill a box on his grid-like cover with “winner of the Pulitzer Prize” — an honor that goes on the same level as the title. Winning a second Prize adds nothing to what Knopf can do to sell Millhauser’s books. The Pulitzer is an advertising sticker to slap on a writer’s dust jacket. And one sticker is all it takes.

If writers can only win the Pulitzer once, though, and if few books commandeer more than one trophy per year, the store of American fiction writers is going to be exhausted sooner rather than later. More than anything else, that may explain why no Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded this year.

In the aftermath of the Pulitzer Prize board’s inability to give out a fiction award yesterday, the three jurors who selected the three finalists have got mad, and the critics have been speculating like mad. My own theory is that the Pulitzers ran out of writers.

Literary prizes have little to do with literary merit (and the little gets less every year). They are just another medium of book advertising. The best evidence is how few books win more than one of the big three awards — Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle — in any one year. The last novel to be honored with both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award was E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News nearly two decades ago in 1994. Only six works of fiction have been dual winners:

1955    William Faulkner, A Fable
1966    Katherine Anne Porter, Collected Stories
1967    Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
1982    John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich
1983    Alice Walker, The Color Purple
1994    E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

It is less unusual for the National Book Critics Circle Award to go to a book that wins another prize the same year. Nine times since the award was established in 1976 it has gone to a book that also won another laurel:

1979    John Cheever, Stories (also won Pulitzer)
1982    John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich (also won National Book Award and Pulitzer)
1991    John Updike, Rabbit at Rest (also won Pulitzer)
1992    Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (also won Pulitzer)
1993    Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (also won National Book Award)
2004    Edward P. Jones, The Known World (also won Pulitzer)
2005    Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (also won Pulitzer)
2008    Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (also won Pulitzer)
2011     Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (also won Pulitzer)

If anyone were to draw up a list of the 14 most striking and distinctive and influential American books of the past six decades, however, very few of the titles on these two lists would be on it. The lack of multiple awards is significant, but even more telling is how badly the multiple awards correlate with lasting reputations.

The dirty little secret of literary prizes is that they must not be given out more than once to the same writer. Saul Bellow won the National Book Award three times (1954, 1965, 1971); William Faulkner, twice (1951, 1955); William Gaddis, twice (1976, 1994); Bernard Malamud, twice (1959, 1967); Wright Morris, twice (1957, 1981); Philip Roth, twice (1960, 1995); and John Updike, twice (1964, 1982). But no American writer who has begun his or her career since 1976 — no one belonging to the “boomer” generation or after — has won more than once.

The Pulitzer Prize appears to have an unwritten policy forbidding repeat winners. The last writer to win the more than once was John Updike, who took home the Prize for Rabbit Is Rich in 1982 and then again for Rabbit at Rest nine years later. Here is a complete and unabridged list of the American fiction writers who have won the Pulitzer more than once: William Faulkner, Booth Tarkington, John Updike.

The rationale for the Pulitzer’s unwritten prohibition against repeat winners becomes clear when you examine the cover of Steven Millhauser’s new volume of stories, We Others:

Given Millhauser’s genius for short fiction, We Others should have been a serious contender for the Prize. (It was Janice Harayda’s choice for the Pulitzer That Wasn’t.) But the reason it wasn’t considered is obvious. Millhauser captured top honors in 1997 for Martin Dressler, making it possible for Knopf to fill a box on his grid-like cover with “winner of the Pulitzer Prize” — an honor that goes on the same level as the title. Winning a second Prize adds nothing to what Knopf can do to sell Millhauser’s books. The Pulitzer is an advertising sticker to slap on a writer’s dust jacket. And one sticker is all it takes.

If writers can only win the Pulitzer once, though, and if few books commandeer more than one trophy per year, the store of American fiction writers is going to be exhausted sooner rather than later. More than anything else, that may explain why no Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded this year.

Read Less

Sorry, No Pulitzer Prize in Fiction This Year

The Pulitzer Prize jury in fiction could not decide which of the three finalists — Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, or David Foster Wallace’s posthumous Pale King — was least mediocre. No award this year, then. It was the tenth time that no Pulitzer in fiction has been handed out, the first since 1977. Janice Harayda has compiled a list of ten famous American novels that failed to win the Prize. Her choice for the worst snub? For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was passed over in favor of no award at all in 1941. In a poll conducted by the Saturday Review prior to the award announcement that spring, Hemingway outpolled Kenneth Roberts’s Oliver Wiswell by 21 to 6. The New York Times reported:

No explanation of their failure to select any novel for the award was made public by the [Pulitzer Prize] trustees. The terms of the award are ‘for a distinguished novel published during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.’ It was pointed out that the final qualification might have weighed against Mr. Hemingway’s novel, which dealt with the Spanish Civil War.

No award was made in 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954 (when The Adventures of Augie March was ignored), 1957, 1964, 1971, 1974 (when the Pulitzer trustees refused to honor the jury’s selection of Gravity’s Rainbow), and 1977.

The best fiction of 2011 was John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, Roland Merullo’s The Talk-Funny Girl, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. The Pulitzer’s failure to recognize any of them does not diminish their fascination and finesse.

The Pulitzer Prize jury in fiction could not decide which of the three finalists — Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, or David Foster Wallace’s posthumous Pale King — was least mediocre. No award this year, then. It was the tenth time that no Pulitzer in fiction has been handed out, the first since 1977. Janice Harayda has compiled a list of ten famous American novels that failed to win the Prize. Her choice for the worst snub? For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was passed over in favor of no award at all in 1941. In a poll conducted by the Saturday Review prior to the award announcement that spring, Hemingway outpolled Kenneth Roberts’s Oliver Wiswell by 21 to 6. The New York Times reported:

No explanation of their failure to select any novel for the award was made public by the [Pulitzer Prize] trustees. The terms of the award are ‘for a distinguished novel published during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.’ It was pointed out that the final qualification might have weighed against Mr. Hemingway’s novel, which dealt with the Spanish Civil War.

No award was made in 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954 (when The Adventures of Augie March was ignored), 1957, 1964, 1971, 1974 (when the Pulitzer trustees refused to honor the jury’s selection of Gravity’s Rainbow), and 1977.

The best fiction of 2011 was John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, Roland Merullo’s The Talk-Funny Girl, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. The Pulitzer’s failure to recognize any of them does not diminish their fascination and finesse.

Read Less

Passover in Fiction

Passover starts in an hour or two. Jewish families everywhere will arrange the seder plate, turn down the heat on the matzah-ball soup, and set a Haggadah in front of each seat — more likely than not, the Maxwell House Haggadah. Ever since Abraham Cahan described the holiday as a “feast and a family renuion which form the greatest event in the domestic life of our people,” Passover has been a fixture on the American Jewish literary calendar.

The theologian and novelist Arthur A. Cohen explains why in The Tremendum (1993), his book on the Holocaust:

The Passover Haggadah commands that every Jew consider himself as though he had gone forth in exodus from Egypt. The grammatical authority of of the Haggadah makes clear that this is no metaphor, whatever our wish to make apodictic language metaphoric. The authority is clear: I was really, even if not literally, present in Egypt and really, if not literally, present at Sinai. God contemplated my virtual presence then, thirty-odd centuries ago. The fact that history could not prevision and entail my presence is irrelevant.

Cohen goes on to argue that what is true for Sinai is true a fortiori for “the death camps,” and perhaps that is so: but the literary and moral imperative derives from Passover. Jewish fiction adopts this apodictic mandate. For it places the reader at far-flung and distant events of Jewish life — really, if not literally.

Cahan explicitly invokes the grammatical authority of the Haggadah in his novel The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). The Yiddish poet Tevkin, although a “free-thinker since his early manhood,” celebrates Passover every year as an expression of his Zionism. Raising the first glass of wine, he tells his children (who are treating the seder as a joke) that “Scenes like this bind us to the Jews of the whole world, and not only to those living, but to the past generations as well.”

Cahan’s poet insists that the seder is not a “religious ceremony” but a “national custom.” Over the years, however, the significance has deepened for him. “He was bent upon having a Passover feast service precisely like the one he had seen his father conduct,” the book’s narrator observes, “not omitting even the white shroud” — the kittel worn by the master of the seder for at least ten different reasons. “Father looks like a Catholic priest,” his Communist son cries. Undaunted, Tevkin lowers the first glass of wine and says: “This is the Fourth of July of our unhappy people.” At the end of the seder, Eastern European Jews used to shout “Next year in America!” instead of “Next year in Jerusalem!” In The Rise of David Levinsky, the next year has come.

Allusions to Passover are not uncommon in American Jewish fiction — David Schearl learns the words to Had Gadya, one of the seder’s concluding songs, in Call It Sleep (he is his parents’ “one little goat”), Augie is caught by the gangsters he tried to double-cross just as the synagogues are letting out on the first night of Passover in The Adventures of Augie March (“I was not permitted to pass by,” he remarks), Frank Alpine makes atonement for robbing Morris Bober’s store in The Assistant (“After Passover he became a Jew,” the novel concludes) — but full-length seders are fairly rare.

“Passover has always been my favorite holiday,” says the narrator of Isaac Rosenfeld’s novel Passage from Home (1946). The reason Bernard likes it so much is that he gets to drink four cups of wine — “and it was to wine, rather than the history of my people,” he says, “that I owed my sense of reverence.”

The day before Passover, “when the house was undergoing the annual cleaning in preparation for the feast,” Cousin Willy comes to visit. Strictly speaking, Willy is not really a cousin; even more strictly, he is not even a Jew. He is a “hillbilly” from Tennessee; he had been a “miner, a newspaperman, a sailor, and had seen the world.” He and Bernard are fast friends. Willy slips him extra cups of wine.

“The first of the ‘four questions’ asks why this night of Passover differs from all other nights of the year,” Bernard says. But the real question was: “how did this Passover differ from all other Passovers of all other years?” The Haggadah furnishes a “lengthy answer” to the first question. Bernard’s answer to the second is shorter: at ten years of age, he gets drunk for the first time. In the middle of the seder, he rises unsteadily to his feet and tries to explain the true meaning of the holiday, but the words spill out “thick and silly, ending in a laugh.” Many years later, apparently writing an autobiographical novel, he recalls the moment as the beginning of his life as a sensualist:

[I]t occurred to me that this holiday, which we celebrated in such worldly fashion with chopped liver and gefülte fish and chicken soup floating a thick scum of yellow fat, the droplets winking like the glass grapes — even the matzoh had such a lively, freckled brown face — this holiday, I suddenly felt, was something my family could not understand, a celebration not even of this earth, its meaning lying beyond the particular individual. . . . It was an event only I could understand.

For Rosenfeld, in short, the holiday commemorates both a personal deliverance and the acceptance of a literary rather than a religious obligation: to tell the story of the young American intellectual, “sensitive as a burn,” whose independence from Jewish tradition is narrated in language deeply embedded within the tradition.

I am going to pass over in silence the wacky 65-page interfaith seder in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995), because I have treated it at length elsewhere, in order to conclude with a writer I much prefer. Dara Horn’s third novel, All Other Nights (2009), may be the first American novel to acquire its theme and structure from Passover.

Horn’s title comes from the first of the four questions — the same question Isaac Rosenfeld turned back onto himself. Horn turns the question back onto history. Her novel, the story of a Jewish spy in the Confederacy during the Civil War, finds the place where Jewish history and American history are knotted together — namely, in the experience of slavery.

Jacob Rappaport begins his career as a spy at a Passover seder in New Orleans. Every moment of the service has a double meaning for him. The meal is served by slaves while Southern Jews “sang the Hebrew hymns thanking God for freeing them from bondage.” His host, a Confederate patriot, recites the imperative passage: “In every generation . . . each person is obligated to see himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt.” The Southerners around the seder table smile and nod, confident they will soon “come out of” bondage to the North. “Pour out Thy wrath on the nations that do not know Thee,” Jacob’s host drawls slowly, drawing out the words with passion. To which the assembled company responds: “Death to the Union! Death to Lincoln!”

In every generation, Horn implies, the imperative of freedom must be followed, because in every generation, the Jews must free themselves again — from their ignorance of their own religion, from their dependence upon other people’s thinking, from the mental slavery that holds them in irons. Next year in America! Next year in Jerusalem! Hag kasher v’sameyah!

Passover starts in an hour or two. Jewish families everywhere will arrange the seder plate, turn down the heat on the matzah-ball soup, and set a Haggadah in front of each seat — more likely than not, the Maxwell House Haggadah. Ever since Abraham Cahan described the holiday as a “feast and a family renuion which form the greatest event in the domestic life of our people,” Passover has been a fixture on the American Jewish literary calendar.

The theologian and novelist Arthur A. Cohen explains why in The Tremendum (1993), his book on the Holocaust:

The Passover Haggadah commands that every Jew consider himself as though he had gone forth in exodus from Egypt. The grammatical authority of of the Haggadah makes clear that this is no metaphor, whatever our wish to make apodictic language metaphoric. The authority is clear: I was really, even if not literally, present in Egypt and really, if not literally, present at Sinai. God contemplated my virtual presence then, thirty-odd centuries ago. The fact that history could not prevision and entail my presence is irrelevant.

Cohen goes on to argue that what is true for Sinai is true a fortiori for “the death camps,” and perhaps that is so: but the literary and moral imperative derives from Passover. Jewish fiction adopts this apodictic mandate. For it places the reader at far-flung and distant events of Jewish life — really, if not literally.

Cahan explicitly invokes the grammatical authority of the Haggadah in his novel The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). The Yiddish poet Tevkin, although a “free-thinker since his early manhood,” celebrates Passover every year as an expression of his Zionism. Raising the first glass of wine, he tells his children (who are treating the seder as a joke) that “Scenes like this bind us to the Jews of the whole world, and not only to those living, but to the past generations as well.”

Cahan’s poet insists that the seder is not a “religious ceremony” but a “national custom.” Over the years, however, the significance has deepened for him. “He was bent upon having a Passover feast service precisely like the one he had seen his father conduct,” the book’s narrator observes, “not omitting even the white shroud” — the kittel worn by the master of the seder for at least ten different reasons. “Father looks like a Catholic priest,” his Communist son cries. Undaunted, Tevkin lowers the first glass of wine and says: “This is the Fourth of July of our unhappy people.” At the end of the seder, Eastern European Jews used to shout “Next year in America!” instead of “Next year in Jerusalem!” In The Rise of David Levinsky, the next year has come.

Allusions to Passover are not uncommon in American Jewish fiction — David Schearl learns the words to Had Gadya, one of the seder’s concluding songs, in Call It Sleep (he is his parents’ “one little goat”), Augie is caught by the gangsters he tried to double-cross just as the synagogues are letting out on the first night of Passover in The Adventures of Augie March (“I was not permitted to pass by,” he remarks), Frank Alpine makes atonement for robbing Morris Bober’s store in The Assistant (“After Passover he became a Jew,” the novel concludes) — but full-length seders are fairly rare.

“Passover has always been my favorite holiday,” says the narrator of Isaac Rosenfeld’s novel Passage from Home (1946). The reason Bernard likes it so much is that he gets to drink four cups of wine — “and it was to wine, rather than the history of my people,” he says, “that I owed my sense of reverence.”

The day before Passover, “when the house was undergoing the annual cleaning in preparation for the feast,” Cousin Willy comes to visit. Strictly speaking, Willy is not really a cousin; even more strictly, he is not even a Jew. He is a “hillbilly” from Tennessee; he had been a “miner, a newspaperman, a sailor, and had seen the world.” He and Bernard are fast friends. Willy slips him extra cups of wine.

“The first of the ‘four questions’ asks why this night of Passover differs from all other nights of the year,” Bernard says. But the real question was: “how did this Passover differ from all other Passovers of all other years?” The Haggadah furnishes a “lengthy answer” to the first question. Bernard’s answer to the second is shorter: at ten years of age, he gets drunk for the first time. In the middle of the seder, he rises unsteadily to his feet and tries to explain the true meaning of the holiday, but the words spill out “thick and silly, ending in a laugh.” Many years later, apparently writing an autobiographical novel, he recalls the moment as the beginning of his life as a sensualist:

[I]t occurred to me that this holiday, which we celebrated in such worldly fashion with chopped liver and gefülte fish and chicken soup floating a thick scum of yellow fat, the droplets winking like the glass grapes — even the matzoh had such a lively, freckled brown face — this holiday, I suddenly felt, was something my family could not understand, a celebration not even of this earth, its meaning lying beyond the particular individual. . . . It was an event only I could understand.

For Rosenfeld, in short, the holiday commemorates both a personal deliverance and the acceptance of a literary rather than a religious obligation: to tell the story of the young American intellectual, “sensitive as a burn,” whose independence from Jewish tradition is narrated in language deeply embedded within the tradition.

I am going to pass over in silence the wacky 65-page interfaith seder in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995), because I have treated it at length elsewhere, in order to conclude with a writer I much prefer. Dara Horn’s third novel, All Other Nights (2009), may be the first American novel to acquire its theme and structure from Passover.

Horn’s title comes from the first of the four questions — the same question Isaac Rosenfeld turned back onto himself. Horn turns the question back onto history. Her novel, the story of a Jewish spy in the Confederacy during the Civil War, finds the place where Jewish history and American history are knotted together — namely, in the experience of slavery.

Jacob Rappaport begins his career as a spy at a Passover seder in New Orleans. Every moment of the service has a double meaning for him. The meal is served by slaves while Southern Jews “sang the Hebrew hymns thanking God for freeing them from bondage.” His host, a Confederate patriot, recites the imperative passage: “In every generation . . . each person is obligated to see himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt.” The Southerners around the seder table smile and nod, confident they will soon “come out of” bondage to the North. “Pour out Thy wrath on the nations that do not know Thee,” Jacob’s host drawls slowly, drawing out the words with passion. To which the assembled company responds: “Death to the Union! Death to Lincoln!”

In every generation, Horn implies, the imperative of freedom must be followed, because in every generation, the Jews must free themselves again — from their ignorance of their own religion, from their dependence upon other people’s thinking, from the mental slavery that holds them in irons. Next year in America! Next year in Jerusalem! Hag kasher v’sameyah!

Read Less

Statistics Prove the Bias against Women in Literature

Or do they? At the New Republic this morning, Ruth Franklin picks up the now familiar complaint about the “bias” against women in literature. Statistics show that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” she observes, “and (not coincidentally) women’s books are reviewed far less often than men’s.”

But the “problem in fact goes deeper,” she adds. Or, if she were to fish Occam’s razor out of her drawer, she might say that the explanation is far simpler: “[P]art of the reason books by women are being reviewed in lower numbers is that they are being published in lower numbers.” The real question is why. (Maybe women are writing fewer publishable books?) Franklin is not interested in any such question, however. For her — for the literary feminist — the bias against women in literature is self-evident and requires no further proof:

Regardless of where it begins . . . it is clear from these statistics that the bias against women in publishing takes multiple forms. [Meg] Wolitzer argues that books by women tend to be lumped together as “women’s fiction,” which segregates women writers and prevents them from “entering the larger, more influential playing field.” Publishers perpetuate this bias in ways large and small. . . .

As it happens, the economist Thomas Sowell demolished this logical fallacy just yesterday. Only five of the top 20 hitters in the history of major league baseball were righthanded hitters, but it doesn’t follow from this that baseball is “biased” against them. “Human beings are not random events,” Sowell points out. “Individuals and groups have different histories, cultures, skills, and attitudes. Why would anyone expect them to be distributed anywhere in a pattern based on statistical theories of random events?”

But it is precisely this refusal to consider individual histories — this blind deference to statistical aggregates — that distinguishes the complaints about “bias” against women, as I tried to show on Monday. When Franklin goes beyond statistics to provide evidence, she is interesting (“Big novels by men often have text-only covers, while novels by women tend to be illustrated by domestic images”), but beside the question. Book covers have nothing whatever to do with literature. And when she enunciates a moral conclusion, she runs out of evidence:

The underlying problem is that while women read books by male writers about male characters, men tend not to do the reverse. Men’s novels about suburbia (Franzen) are about society; women’s novels about suburbia (Wolitzer) are about women.

As it so happens, I reviewed both Franzen’s Freedom and a novel by Meg Wolitzer’s mother Hilma Wolitzer for COMMENTARY. I much preferred Wolitzer’s An Available Man, which I described as a “refreshing comedy of regeneration after grief.” Freedom I dismissed as “just an old-fashioned adultery novel.”

Okay, one male critic is not a tendency. But the claim that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” advanced as if it were prima facie evidence of bias, obliterates the individual history of at least one man who has championed several women writers.

And that’s my whole point. Sweeping generalizations about what male and female readers “tend to do” completely overlook the unforgiving reality of literature — a reality, by the way, that Franklin herself never overlooks when she turns from speaking of tendencies to speaking of books. To consider a book or a person as a specimen of a class rather than a unique instance is the locus classicus of a critical and moral error. Marilynne Robinson is right: another human being is a mystery to me, and the wonder of literary texts is that they open the mystery a little. But if I wince at the cover, whether “text only” or a “domestic image,” and decide in advance that what I am holding in my hands is further evidence of a bias in publishing, then the book remains closed. And so does the mystery.

The job of the critic is to discover and praise good books, whether they are written by men or women. The job of the writer is to write them. And neither job is made any easier by complaining about the “place of women in the literary world.” What is relatively easy, and what Franklin supplies plenty of evidence for, is to write articles and compile statistics on the bias against women in literature. But this raises a question. Is there really a “bias” or only a critical discourse of bias?

____________________

Update: As an experiment, I examined the reviews and reviewers of Dana Spiotta’s wonderful Stone Arabia, published last summer. Of the 14 reviews in major publications or websites that I was able to track down via Google, eight were by men and six by women. Franklin’s observation that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications” is not incorrect in this case, then. Of the eight men who reviewed the novel, though, only one treated Spiotta’s novel, which is set in suburban Los Angeles, as “about women” (in Franklin’s phrase). John Strawn concluded his Oregonian review by describing Denise Kranis, the main female character, in terms of a woman’s traditional role as a nurturer: “Because Nik [her brother, the other main character] is mediated through Denise, with her large capacity to succor, he comes across not merely as vain and self-important, but as an artist of courage and conviction.”

The other male reviewers found pretty large themes in Stone Arabia, even if none of them quite said that the novel is “about society.” Ron Charles came closest in the Washington Post: “Spiotta explores . . . broad, endemic social ills in the small, peculiar lives of these sad siblings,” he concluded. “Her reflections on the precarious nature of modern life are witty until they’re really unsettling.” In the Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin found that Denise stands for the external world — for something other than oneself as an “exclusive interest” — and I said something similiar here at COMMENTARY, suggesting that Denise represents “responsibility to others” and “submission to the real.” For William Giraldi, writing at Salon, Denise is more like her brother than Ulin and I let on, more inward-looking, a “brooding isolato in constant existential crisis,” given to “exacting introspection.” But Giraldi’s most important word was exacting. “Some of the sharpest observations in Stone Arabia involve her musings on memory,” he noticed.

These sweepings will be discarded as anecdotal evidence, but they suggest that gender difference in the “literary world” is a whole lot more complicated than Ruth Franklin is prepared to acknowledge.

Or do they? At the New Republic this morning, Ruth Franklin picks up the now familiar complaint about the “bias” against women in literature. Statistics show that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” she observes, “and (not coincidentally) women’s books are reviewed far less often than men’s.”

But the “problem in fact goes deeper,” she adds. Or, if she were to fish Occam’s razor out of her drawer, she might say that the explanation is far simpler: “[P]art of the reason books by women are being reviewed in lower numbers is that they are being published in lower numbers.” The real question is why. (Maybe women are writing fewer publishable books?) Franklin is not interested in any such question, however. For her — for the literary feminist — the bias against women in literature is self-evident and requires no further proof:

Regardless of where it begins . . . it is clear from these statistics that the bias against women in publishing takes multiple forms. [Meg] Wolitzer argues that books by women tend to be lumped together as “women’s fiction,” which segregates women writers and prevents them from “entering the larger, more influential playing field.” Publishers perpetuate this bias in ways large and small. . . .

As it happens, the economist Thomas Sowell demolished this logical fallacy just yesterday. Only five of the top 20 hitters in the history of major league baseball were righthanded hitters, but it doesn’t follow from this that baseball is “biased” against them. “Human beings are not random events,” Sowell points out. “Individuals and groups have different histories, cultures, skills, and attitudes. Why would anyone expect them to be distributed anywhere in a pattern based on statistical theories of random events?”

But it is precisely this refusal to consider individual histories — this blind deference to statistical aggregates — that distinguishes the complaints about “bias” against women, as I tried to show on Monday. When Franklin goes beyond statistics to provide evidence, she is interesting (“Big novels by men often have text-only covers, while novels by women tend to be illustrated by domestic images”), but beside the question. Book covers have nothing whatever to do with literature. And when she enunciates a moral conclusion, she runs out of evidence:

The underlying problem is that while women read books by male writers about male characters, men tend not to do the reverse. Men’s novels about suburbia (Franzen) are about society; women’s novels about suburbia (Wolitzer) are about women.

As it so happens, I reviewed both Franzen’s Freedom and a novel by Meg Wolitzer’s mother Hilma Wolitzer for COMMENTARY. I much preferred Wolitzer’s An Available Man, which I described as a “refreshing comedy of regeneration after grief.” Freedom I dismissed as “just an old-fashioned adultery novel.”

Okay, one male critic is not a tendency. But the claim that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” advanced as if it were prima facie evidence of bias, obliterates the individual history of at least one man who has championed several women writers.

And that’s my whole point. Sweeping generalizations about what male and female readers “tend to do” completely overlook the unforgiving reality of literature — a reality, by the way, that Franklin herself never overlooks when she turns from speaking of tendencies to speaking of books. To consider a book or a person as a specimen of a class rather than a unique instance is the locus classicus of a critical and moral error. Marilynne Robinson is right: another human being is a mystery to me, and the wonder of literary texts is that they open the mystery a little. But if I wince at the cover, whether “text only” or a “domestic image,” and decide in advance that what I am holding in my hands is further evidence of a bias in publishing, then the book remains closed. And so does the mystery.

The job of the critic is to discover and praise good books, whether they are written by men or women. The job of the writer is to write them. And neither job is made any easier by complaining about the “place of women in the literary world.” What is relatively easy, and what Franklin supplies plenty of evidence for, is to write articles and compile statistics on the bias against women in literature. But this raises a question. Is there really a “bias” or only a critical discourse of bias?

____________________

Update: As an experiment, I examined the reviews and reviewers of Dana Spiotta’s wonderful Stone Arabia, published last summer. Of the 14 reviews in major publications or websites that I was able to track down via Google, eight were by men and six by women. Franklin’s observation that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications” is not incorrect in this case, then. Of the eight men who reviewed the novel, though, only one treated Spiotta’s novel, which is set in suburban Los Angeles, as “about women” (in Franklin’s phrase). John Strawn concluded his Oregonian review by describing Denise Kranis, the main female character, in terms of a woman’s traditional role as a nurturer: “Because Nik [her brother, the other main character] is mediated through Denise, with her large capacity to succor, he comes across not merely as vain and self-important, but as an artist of courage and conviction.”

The other male reviewers found pretty large themes in Stone Arabia, even if none of them quite said that the novel is “about society.” Ron Charles came closest in the Washington Post: “Spiotta explores . . . broad, endemic social ills in the small, peculiar lives of these sad siblings,” he concluded. “Her reflections on the precarious nature of modern life are witty until they’re really unsettling.” In the Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin found that Denise stands for the external world — for something other than oneself as an “exclusive interest” — and I said something similiar here at COMMENTARY, suggesting that Denise represents “responsibility to others” and “submission to the real.” For William Giraldi, writing at Salon, Denise is more like her brother than Ulin and I let on, more inward-looking, a “brooding isolato in constant existential crisis,” given to “exacting introspection.” But Giraldi’s most important word was exacting. “Some of the sharpest observations in Stone Arabia involve her musings on memory,” he noticed.

These sweepings will be discarded as anecdotal evidence, but they suggest that gender difference in the “literary world” is a whole lot more complicated than Ruth Franklin is prepared to acknowledge.

Read Less

“Where Are the Women?”

“Where are the women?” Rep. Carolyn Maloney demanded of five clergymen who appeared before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Obama administration’s “contraception mandate” in February. Exactly this question, in just these words, has become the the first challenge in any catechism of our times.

Maloney’s demand effaced the religious differences between the five witnesses (a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a Lutheran minister, and two Southern Baptist scholars, a theologian and a biomedical ethicist), but her refusal to see the men as individuals went entirely unremarked in the news coverage that followed. A photo of the five men went “viral,” as the saying now goes, and disregarding the most basic of journalistic standards, newspapers ran it without identifying the five men (see here, for example, and here). If a quintet of women was similarly treated as a faceless and nameless blur, if the philosophical differences between them were erased (and indeed the racial difference too, since one of the five clergymen was black), a question like Maloney’s would have been seen for what it was — a spasm of bigotry.

Not in our day, though. In our day the question “Where are the women?” is received as a knockdown argument. It is unanswerable. It embarrasses the pathetic sexist into silence. In our day, after all, feminism is taken for granted as established science. A good person would no more struggle against it than he would struggle against the theory of relativity. The universal relevance of the woman question has been accepted once for all.

But what if its self-evident justice is not a sign that feminism is the common opinion of all good people, but merely the governing ideology of our day? What if feminism’s universal acceptance is a “pseudo-universalism which assumed that the culture of the dominant group was a universal culture, the culture of true civilization, against which all else was barbarism”? The quoted words belong to a feminist, Rosemary Ruether, who pointed out that this was exactly the assumption of the early Christian church, which treated Jewish difference as invisible.

Indeed, since Christianity reckoned itself the messianic fulfillment of their election at Sinai, the Jews’ distinctiveness was beneath notice to the early church. “But the Jews held out against it in principle,” Ruether wrote in Faith and Fratricide, “and struggled to be recognized as a people who defined their own identity independently of this imperial ideology, challenging thereby its universality.”

Imagine Maloney’s question being asked before a tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition. “Where are the Christians?” the inquisitor would thunder at a table of Jews. In February, the five clergymen were not given the opportunity to answer Maloney’s question. Here is the correct answer: “In your seat, Congresswoman.”

These reflections are provoked by a hastily written 2,100-word article that was posted over at Jezebel last Friday. “The Literary Canon Is Still One Big Sausage Fest,” by someone with the Shakespearean name of Doug Barry, was occasioned by my scandalous MLA Rankings of American Writers. “What Myers’ list . . . shows is that, of 25 lionized, aggrandized, perpetuated American scribblers,” Barry whimpered, “only five — or a good tip on a small lunch check — are women.”

I’m not really sure why Barry needed 2,100 words to ask the same question Maloney asked in four. But perhaps even more surprising is his confidence that what he is writing is a brave new dissent from literary orthodoxy, a loud fart in the temple of belles lettres, when everything he has to say is almost as unusual and pioneering as movie villains who can’t seem to hit the action hero no matter how many times they shoot at him. “The canon according to Myers’ appraisal of the MLA’s information attempts to validate male hegemony,” Barry concludes. “That’s all it exists for.” Which explains, I suppose, why at last count Barry’s article had been “liked” on Facebook 155 times more often than my original list at COMMENTARY.

The truth is that the complaint “Where are the women?” is 155 times more likely than a validation of male literary hegemony. Any time a list of writers is drawn up these days someone somewhere will complain about the insufficient number of women. What no one has ever been able to define is the precise proper proportion of women on any list of writers. For Barry, five of 25 is too few — “a good tip on a small lunch check.” It is prima facie evidence of the patriarchy.

And yet President Bill Clinton had almost exactly the same proportion of women in his cabinet over the eight years of his presidency:

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, 1993
Madeleine Albright, 1996
Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, 1993
Robert E. Rubin, 1995–1999
Lawrence H. Summers, 1999
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, 1993
William J. Perry, 1994
William S. Cohen, 1997
Attorney General Janet Reno, 1993
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, 1993
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, 1993
Dan Glickman, 1995
Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, 1993
Mickey Kantor, 1996
William M. Daley, 1997
Norman Y. Mineta, 2000
Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, 1993
Alexis Herman, 1997
Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, 1993
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros, 1993
Andrew M. Cuomo, 1997
Secretary of Transportation Federico F. Peña, 1993
Rodney Slater, 1997
Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O’Leary, 1993
Frederico F. Peña, 1997
Bill Richardson, 1998
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, 1993
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown, 1993
Togo D. West, Jr., 1998

Five of 28: President Clinton was obviously more patriarchal than literary scholars, whose research choices over the past two-and-a-half decades have accomplished little more, despite the campaign to “open up” the canon, than to validate male hegemony.

The other sad truth is that feminist courtiers like Barry take no account of history in their loud routine complaints about the paucity of women in the American literary canon. Toni Morrison has been the subject of nearly 2,000 pieces of scholarship in the past 25 years, which is pretty remarkable considering her masterpiece Beloved was published 25 years ago this fall.

Henry James has been favored by not quite twice the amount of attention, but James had exactly a century’s head start. Watch and Ward, his first novel, was published in 1871, while Morrison’s first, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. That Morrison has begun to catch up so quickly is, to a different frame of literary mind than Barry’s, far more startling than the fact that, in his phrase, James “crowns the list.”

By all means, let us read more women writers! I have done my small part, writing the first critical appreciation of Francine Prose. In the nearly two years since I described her in COMMENTARY as “without peer in contemporary American fiction,” not one more article on her has been published. The same could be said for Chava Rosenfarb, whom Ruth R. Wisse enshrined in The Modern Jewish Canon in 2000, but who still awaits her first scholarly notice. (The other women writers named by Wisse — Esther Kreitman, Shulamith Hareven, and Adele Wiseman — have fared slightly better, but only slightly.) Three years ago Nicola Beauman published a good biography of The Other Elizabeth Taylor, and though NYRB Classics republished two of her novels in February — Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek — she remains widely ignored by those who are quick to complain about the number of women on any literary list.

The examples could be multiplied indefinitely, but the point will elude the complainers. The point is this. If you want more women writers to receive more critical attention, you have to give them the attention. You have to read them and then you have to write about them. As I’ve said before, you need to start doing the work. Complaining isn’t work. It’s party-going.

“Where are the women?” Rep. Carolyn Maloney demanded of five clergymen who appeared before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Obama administration’s “contraception mandate” in February. Exactly this question, in just these words, has become the the first challenge in any catechism of our times.

Maloney’s demand effaced the religious differences between the five witnesses (a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a Lutheran minister, and two Southern Baptist scholars, a theologian and a biomedical ethicist), but her refusal to see the men as individuals went entirely unremarked in the news coverage that followed. A photo of the five men went “viral,” as the saying now goes, and disregarding the most basic of journalistic standards, newspapers ran it without identifying the five men (see here, for example, and here). If a quintet of women was similarly treated as a faceless and nameless blur, if the philosophical differences between them were erased (and indeed the racial difference too, since one of the five clergymen was black), a question like Maloney’s would have been seen for what it was — a spasm of bigotry.

Not in our day, though. In our day the question “Where are the women?” is received as a knockdown argument. It is unanswerable. It embarrasses the pathetic sexist into silence. In our day, after all, feminism is taken for granted as established science. A good person would no more struggle against it than he would struggle against the theory of relativity. The universal relevance of the woman question has been accepted once for all.

But what if its self-evident justice is not a sign that feminism is the common opinion of all good people, but merely the governing ideology of our day? What if feminism’s universal acceptance is a “pseudo-universalism which assumed that the culture of the dominant group was a universal culture, the culture of true civilization, against which all else was barbarism”? The quoted words belong to a feminist, Rosemary Ruether, who pointed out that this was exactly the assumption of the early Christian church, which treated Jewish difference as invisible.

Indeed, since Christianity reckoned itself the messianic fulfillment of their election at Sinai, the Jews’ distinctiveness was beneath notice to the early church. “But the Jews held out against it in principle,” Ruether wrote in Faith and Fratricide, “and struggled to be recognized as a people who defined their own identity independently of this imperial ideology, challenging thereby its universality.”

Imagine Maloney’s question being asked before a tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition. “Where are the Christians?” the inquisitor would thunder at a table of Jews. In February, the five clergymen were not given the opportunity to answer Maloney’s question. Here is the correct answer: “In your seat, Congresswoman.”

These reflections are provoked by a hastily written 2,100-word article that was posted over at Jezebel last Friday. “The Literary Canon Is Still One Big Sausage Fest,” by someone with the Shakespearean name of Doug Barry, was occasioned by my scandalous MLA Rankings of American Writers. “What Myers’ list . . . shows is that, of 25 lionized, aggrandized, perpetuated American scribblers,” Barry whimpered, “only five — or a good tip on a small lunch check — are women.”

I’m not really sure why Barry needed 2,100 words to ask the same question Maloney asked in four. But perhaps even more surprising is his confidence that what he is writing is a brave new dissent from literary orthodoxy, a loud fart in the temple of belles lettres, when everything he has to say is almost as unusual and pioneering as movie villains who can’t seem to hit the action hero no matter how many times they shoot at him. “The canon according to Myers’ appraisal of the MLA’s information attempts to validate male hegemony,” Barry concludes. “That’s all it exists for.” Which explains, I suppose, why at last count Barry’s article had been “liked” on Facebook 155 times more often than my original list at COMMENTARY.

The truth is that the complaint “Where are the women?” is 155 times more likely than a validation of male literary hegemony. Any time a list of writers is drawn up these days someone somewhere will complain about the insufficient number of women. What no one has ever been able to define is the precise proper proportion of women on any list of writers. For Barry, five of 25 is too few — “a good tip on a small lunch check.” It is prima facie evidence of the patriarchy.

And yet President Bill Clinton had almost exactly the same proportion of women in his cabinet over the eight years of his presidency:

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, 1993
Madeleine Albright, 1996
Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, 1993
Robert E. Rubin, 1995–1999
Lawrence H. Summers, 1999
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, 1993
William J. Perry, 1994
William S. Cohen, 1997
Attorney General Janet Reno, 1993
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, 1993
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, 1993
Dan Glickman, 1995
Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, 1993
Mickey Kantor, 1996
William M. Daley, 1997
Norman Y. Mineta, 2000
Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, 1993
Alexis Herman, 1997
Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, 1993
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros, 1993
Andrew M. Cuomo, 1997
Secretary of Transportation Federico F. Peña, 1993
Rodney Slater, 1997
Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O’Leary, 1993
Frederico F. Peña, 1997
Bill Richardson, 1998
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, 1993
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown, 1993
Togo D. West, Jr., 1998

Five of 28: President Clinton was obviously more patriarchal than literary scholars, whose research choices over the past two-and-a-half decades have accomplished little more, despite the campaign to “open up” the canon, than to validate male hegemony.

The other sad truth is that feminist courtiers like Barry take no account of history in their loud routine complaints about the paucity of women in the American literary canon. Toni Morrison has been the subject of nearly 2,000 pieces of scholarship in the past 25 years, which is pretty remarkable considering her masterpiece Beloved was published 25 years ago this fall.

Henry James has been favored by not quite twice the amount of attention, but James had exactly a century’s head start. Watch and Ward, his first novel, was published in 1871, while Morrison’s first, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. That Morrison has begun to catch up so quickly is, to a different frame of literary mind than Barry’s, far more startling than the fact that, in his phrase, James “crowns the list.”

By all means, let us read more women writers! I have done my small part, writing the first critical appreciation of Francine Prose. In the nearly two years since I described her in COMMENTARY as “without peer in contemporary American fiction,” not one more article on her has been published. The same could be said for Chava Rosenfarb, whom Ruth R. Wisse enshrined in The Modern Jewish Canon in 2000, but who still awaits her first scholarly notice. (The other women writers named by Wisse — Esther Kreitman, Shulamith Hareven, and Adele Wiseman — have fared slightly better, but only slightly.) Three years ago Nicola Beauman published a good biography of The Other Elizabeth Taylor, and though NYRB Classics republished two of her novels in February — Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek — she remains widely ignored by those who are quick to complain about the number of women on any literary list.

The examples could be multiplied indefinitely, but the point will elude the complainers. The point is this. If you want more women writers to receive more critical attention, you have to give them the attention. You have to read them and then you have to write about them. As I’ve said before, you need to start doing the work. Complaining isn’t work. It’s party-going.

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