Since I’m the argumentative sort (this will be no news-flash to most of you), it’s easy for me to get so caught up in yelling at the Penny Press that I overlook one of the biggest reasons to read it – and the biggest single reason why you should all be reading Open Letters every month: it’s only in the admittedly amorphous field of ‘literary journalism’ that you’ll find really smart, really articulate authors cutting loose with wit, acid, accumulated experience, and a certain free-floating brilliance you often won’t see in their more considered (i.e. less deadline-driven) prose. We all revere Edmund Wilson, after all, but who wouldn’t honestly prefer reading him dishing up his thoughts on John Dos Passos than slog through To the Finland Station again? The same thing with Virginia Woolf: the difference between reading one of her novels and reading her glorious, chatty, discursive book-essays is the difference between listening to your parish priest give a sermon during Mass on Sunday morning and listening to him freely discoursing after supper and supper’s cordial glass of wine – the former is no doubt good for your soul, but the latter is good for your mind, for your mercurial heart.
It’s only in literary journalism (a bugboo of a title, I know, by which I essentially mean short essays about somebody else’s art-production: a theater review, an author career-overview, one of Locke Peterseim’s brilliant movie reviews, somebody writing intelligibly about dance, etc) that an author will ask questions for which he doesn’t already have a whole seminar’s worth of answers prepared; it’s only in literary journalism that you’ll find lifelong serious readers actually talking about books, as opposed to lecturing about them. This difference is facilitated – almost necessitated – by the nature of the genre: a book-critic is forcibly reminded that his subject exists on a continuum: the author is still alive (usually – or not usually, in my own case), the work is still ongoing, so not all the answers are in. Great theater reviews can’t avoid this provisional humbling: they’re seeing one, at most two performances of a show before deadline comes calling. Literary journalism – especially the online variety – is more plastic than literature … corrections can be made, debates can flourish in letter columns, and everybody’s still filling all their spare time with reading. It’s thrilling.
Well, it can be, when it’s done well. Which, admittedly, is not all that often. We’ve all read countless book reviews, movie reviews, TV reviews, etc. that were ‘phoned in’ (a rhetorical holdover from when it was literally true, when distant reporters would commandeer a phone line and call in their stories to waiting typists back at the newsroom – the implication of haste has largely scrubbed off the term, but the implication that the resulting prose wasn’t considered at all by its writer is still with us, and still accurate) – a writer will pick up a couple of obvious points off the surface of a work, roll them around for a few paragraphs, then toss off a semi-witty exit-line and call it a day. The goal of any editorial team worth its salt is to use such pieces as seldom as possible, to hunt continuously for better, more lively prose to publish. It can’t always be found in time for deadline, but when it is – oh! Then you can have some great reading experiences!
Take the latest Harper’s – not the place I tend to go for such pith and merit, and my trepidation only increases when the subject of one such potential experience is Arthur Koestler, a boring, overrated author who’s nevertheless managed to snare and hold a certain amount of critical attention for the last fifty years. Literature periodically turns up such people, like rocks in a plowed field, and then you just have to wait patiently for the vogue to die down (which it sometimes doesn’t do – I’m still waiting for the world to wake up to the fact that 90 % of Hemingway is garbage and 100% of Gertrude Stein is too, but thanks to the heedless engines of academia, it isn’t likely to happen).
I was encouraged this time around by the fact that the article in Harper’s was written by Nicholas Fraser, one of the best book-essayists working today. And he didn’t disappoint: his review of Michael Scammell’s mammoth new biography of Koestler is infinitely better reading than the 200 pages of that book I managed to wade through before feeding it to my dogs – hell, it’s infinitely better than almost everything Koestler himself wrote. And the joy here, as I opened so many windy paragraphs ago, is that of great prose finely honed against the ticking clock:
… he repaired to the English countryside and played chess, preferring the company of his dogs to that of humans. In his later years, he wrote many books in which he alternately proffered science as a solution to the ills of mankind and attacked scientific pretensions on the grounds that science had become an orthodoxy as powerful and misleading as the Communism of his youth. Some of these books sold well, but without exception they have aged badly. Koestler attained brief moments of notoriety in the late 1960s when he said that man’s violence might be tamed by the development of a drug that diminished aggression. He became famous for encouraging and even attending unsuccessful spoon-bending sessions. Koestler insisted that his later work was important; he was wrong, of course, but one must appreciate in the aging, cranky Koestler the true skeptic’s disposition to overthrow any orthodoxy in sight.
That ought to stand as the final word on the author – at least until some equally talented writer comes along and offers a spirited challenge to that ‘he was wrong, of course’ – I hope it happens in Harper’s: the symmetry would be appealing.
Still, it’s not usually Harper’s where I go to find such great stuff; usually, I start with those twin titans of the literary-criticism world: the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books.
In the latter, Tim Dee writes a very lively “Diary” essay about bird-watching (with a tip of the hat to Jeremy Mynott’s Birdscapes, which also got a favorable review at Open Letters) – or rather, bird-watching versus birders:
It’s easy to distinguish between the two types. Birders are the green-clad, kit-festooned action men of blasted headlands, sewage farms and reservoir causeways. They take pelagic trips and dribble a bucket of rancid bouillabaisse behind a boat to entice rare petrels: this is called ‘chumming’. What is crucial for them is the moment between sighting a bird and identifying it. There is a potent second or two (this can extend to hours if a tricky rarity is glimpsed) when the bird is wrested from a backdrop of wind or sea or marsh, or singled out from a cloud of lookalikes, and then named. In their itch to tag the wild, birders travel through the world as if they were closing it down.
But the prettiest gem this time around comes from the TLS, where Juliet Fleming turns in one of the most delightful, insightful theater reviews I’ve read so far this year. She’s writing about Peter Hall’s new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the Rose Theatre, and practically every line of her review is ebulliently quotable, starting with the very first, which made me laugh out loud:
Could it be that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a very good play?
She’s talking about what a poorly-constructed, scatterbrained, ultimately silly play it is, but she’s mindful of the fact that a play – especially one by Shakespeare – can be all of those things and still work incredibly well, and she’s absolutely right that this is a defining characteristic of the play in question:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in particular, celebrates the power of theatre to move audiences in ways for which there is no accounting.
This is wonderful stuff (as is her throwaway quip while narrating the performance’s action: “So far, so adequate”), and yet it will likely never be anthologized anywhere or reprinted in any venue – it enjoys its only brief lifespan right here, in this evanescent staging where so much fine, fun writing happens. Like I said: thrilling.