Profundity (and the other stuff) in the Penny Press!

Only weeks after allowing a ‘What the fuck?‘ comment to end my subscription to The Atlantic (a subscription going back a looooo-ooooong way, as you might imagine – I’m just glad I don’t have to explain it to William Dean Howells), I finally broke down and re-subscribed to The New Republic (my last subscription ran out during the storied Harrison era). And I used the one sure-fire metric, when it comes to magazines: the beat-to-Hell test. If I buy a news-rack copy of some magazine and read it for so long and so involvedly that the copy starts to fall apart, I have a pretty good sign that the magazine in question has meat on its bones.

My store-bought copy of the June 28th New Republic is falling apart, and I haven’t even finished everything in it yet.

There’s Isaac Chotiner’s gleefully thorough demolition of John Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. And there’s Leon Wieseltier’s searing, beautiful “Washington Diarist” column, a thoroughly anthologizable piece called “They Died for Westphalia” about the ongoing carnage in Syria that has some harsh words for just about everybody involved (great line: “Whose faith in Obama can survive the spectacle of his faith in himself?” Great line: “What is the difference, really, between a man who cares but does nothing and a man who does not care?” Great line: “Henry Kissinger responded to the massacre of the children with a hissing reiteration of his contempt for humane intentions in foreign policy” … and so on, the most powerful three columns of prose you’re likely to read all month). A snappy piece by Jeffrey Rosen on the evolution of ‘originalism’ in the US Supreme Court (a thoroughly wrong-headed piece, but snappy just the same). The list goes on and on – no wonder my copy is beaten all to Hell and gone by now.

There are two shining highlights in this issue. First is the cover article, a long, intensely thoughtful piece on the crackpot ‘science’ of happiness and all that’s wrong with it. The essay is by the stalwart statistician Deirdre McClosky, who explodes every bit of quackery involved with “hedonics” and plumps instead for the surprisingly expansive joys of a “prudently adequate income” and the greater “scope” it gives to people who have it – scope that they can abuse, certainly, by playing video games or reading celebrity magazines all day long, but scope that they nevertheless have, where their counterparts in earlier centuries did not:

Love, in short, is arguably thicker on the ground in the modern Western capitalist world, or at any rate is not obviously thinner on the ground than in the actual world of olden and allegedly more solidarity-drenched times, There is your happiness.

I like it, of course. It’s a hard-won and very practical measurement (the type of thing that might be expected from an economist who’s weathered Iowa winters the way they used to make ‘em), and more importantly, it’s clothed in strong, wonderful prose from start to finish.

And speaking of Iowa! Surely the best thing in this issue is the long multi-focus article on Homer by the mighty Peter Green, currently the Classics poo-bah of the University of Iowa. Green focuses his attention on several recent Homer-related books, including Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of the Iliad, Anthony Verity’s new translation of the Iliad, and Madeline Miller’s debut novel The Song of Achilles. About Mitchell’s controversial cutting-and-pasting of his source material, Green writes, “I suspect I will not be the only reader to be annoyed by having my mind made up for me in advance by the translator, especially when the ongoing debate remains so hard-fought.” (In my own review, I more or less agreed). About the Verity version he writes, “Verity tells us that his version ‘does not claim to be poetry’ – not the best way, surely, of promoting a great poem – and in fact much of it hardly qualifies as verse.” (In my own review, I wasn’t nearly so harsh). And about the Miller novel, he’s largely devastating:

Never, not for one moment, does her overpowering atmosphere of passionate adolescent innocence let up, even when describing a sexual encounter between her doomed lovers. I suspect it is this that has been responsible for the novel’s success … But through it all there persists the high innocence of the lovers’ relationship, and after a while one begins to wish that these two adolescents, in particular the killing machine that is Achilles, would for God’s sake grow up.

In my own review, I found a good deal more than that to praise, as did my Open Letters Monthly colleague Sam Sacks in his review … but then, it’s the spice of such considered disagreements that is one of the life-supports of the critical world.

Unless, of course, the disagreeing reviewer is just being a downright ass. Readers won’t expect that from the ordinarily excellent Jenny Diski, but hey – she’s full of surprises! In the latest London Review of Books, she takes aim at no less a subject than the wildly popular BBC Edwardian drama Downton Abbey, which every sensible person in Christendom rightfully loves. It bothers her, it seems, and it’s got plenty of company:

I write as an entirely partial observer. Victorian and Edwardian costume drama has never appealed to me. The Forsyte Saga, The Onedin Line, Lark Rise to Candleford, The House of Eliott, The Duchess of Duke Street [and Upstairs, Downstairs for good measure]: I never saw more than one episode of any of them. I even have to will myself to watch modern film or TV adaptations of Dickens, Trollope or James, and when it comes to Jane Austen adaptations, I refuse.

Her main point is that all this ‘Vicwardian’ stuff is just a yearning for better times – not social times, but TV times:

Although of course the pre and post-Great War setting permits a crowd-pleasing familiarity with fashion and the well-worked ‘world will never be the same again’ trope, the real trick was to steep it in nostalgia, not really for a period of history as such, but for period television. It’s about making yet another costume drama out of a crisis.

It takes only a quick second to see that such a slippery ‘criticism’ is essentially free-floating – it doesn’t actually pin down anything about Downton Abbey itself. But that’s not the thing that really bugged me about this Diski piece – instead, it was that initial harrumph about not liking this kind of period drama, about being averse to them right out of the starting gate. I’ve seen this gambit half a dozen times in the last couple of years, and always with this new and disturbing variation: Writer X opens by flatly admitting she has a completely closed mind on Subject Y, then she proceeds to arrogantly bash Subject Y around, making Twitter-worthy punch-lines and sweeping, deep-sounding critiques until she runs out her word-count. But where in decades past Writer X would then wrap up the piece by changing her mind, even just a bit, toward Subject Y, this new variation of the gambit has no such thing: “I’ve always hated Subject Y; I’m therefore never going to give Subject Y a fair shake; and here are all the things I’ve always hated about Subject Y.”

When did this become an acceptable essay-gimmick? When did editors start green-lighting pieces in which the writer declares a bias, natters on about the bias, and then walks off-stage with the bias still firmly in place? Is it supposed to convey some perverse kind of credibility? If so, there’s a crucial step missing: the trying of Subject Y. As it is, the whole gambit reeks of the ‘dogma = certainty/certainty = dogma’ stance of the George W. Bush anti-thought interregnum. Jenny Diski’s life-long antipathy to this kind of costume drama doesn’t recommend her for authoring a piece like this – it disqualifies her, and I honestly don’t know why editors seem to have collectively forgotten that fact. “We’re looking to commission a 6000 word piece on the 2011-12 hockey season.” “I hate hockey, and I always have, and I always will.” “Great! You’ve got the job!” Yeesh.

I’ll just re-read the Peter Green until the heartburn goes away.

1 Comment to Profundity (and the other stuff) in the Penny Press!

  1. Sam's Gravatar Sam
    June 25, 2012 at 3:10 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if this comment is warranted then, but I’ve always loved Stevereads, reading this great post made me continue to love it, and I’ll probably love all future posts, long may they be written.

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