A satisfyingly literary core of The New Yorker this week, which is always pleasing and this time helped to compensate for certain lacks of satisfaction found elsewhere in the 11 November issue. It was great fun, for instance, to read Dan Chiasson’s nice long look at the poet Marianne Moore and to read his generally intelligent take on her life and work. Of her recondite verse he says “the clandestine emotionality is a form of defense,” which is very good, and he has this neat bit evoking the feel of her creative world: “The sound of the typewriter keys (Moore was among the first important poets to write exclusively on the typewriter) is almost audible in her lines, which proceed, one syllable at a time, with what she called a “pleasing jerky progress.”
(Slightly less enjoyable was his gratuitous-seeming swipe at literary critics of the previous generation in general – “the moderately intellectual” – and one in particular: Mark Van Doren; I don’t know Dan Chiasson, but if he at this point in his life has read as many books, written about as many books, and taught as many books to as many grateful students as Van Doren did, I’ll owe him a bottle of wine)
Equally satisfying was Joan Acocella’s long piece on Boccaccio’s Decameron and its new English-language translation by Wayne Rebhorn. I found that translation altogether more impressive and less tiring than she did, but it hardly matters – the highlight of this piece is her lively discussion of the Decameron itself, which she says is full of “unfraught sex” and about which she quite rightly says “This is probably the dirtiest great book in the Western canon.”
But it can’t all be dead poets and classics, can it? No, this same issue also features two of its strongest writers taking on … TV shows. With decidedly different results.
I expect this, but I don’t know why I should. Television has been around for 100 years, it’s been ubiquitous for seventy years, it forms at least a small part (and often a huge part) of the lives of almost every single non-canine person I know – and yet I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of truly first-rate pieces of television criticism I’ve read in a lifetime of looking for it. Off the top of my head I can list four or five dozen great book critics, writers who not only act as stand-in readers but who transmute their observations into memorably good prose. Granted, books and the literary tradition have been around a lot longer than TV, but the ratio still seems bafflingly steep to me – especially considering the fact that the sheer number of people who watch TV dwarfs the number of book-readers out there in the world. You’d think there’d be first-rate TV criticism everywhere, but instead, what I’ve come to expect is a very frustrating combination of smart writing and unmistakable tone-deafness – like listening to a high school valedictorian try to give a nuanced assessment of Lucia di Lammermoor.
Case in point: Emily Nussbaum writing about the great, perversely genius show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. She starts off strong:
In its ninth season, it is still reliably original, as well as depraved. It’s as unhinged as “Monty Phython” but as polished as “30 Rock” … Mostly it is very, very funny. Laugh-out-loud funny. At its finest moments, cackling-in-the-basement-while-huffing-glue funny.
All true, although she chooses different episodes to highlight than I would have. But it hardly matters which episodes she picks, because although she makes a point of stressing that the show is funny, her dissection of it is so loaded with un-funny quotes (“Do you guys think that our location is the problem?”) that readers unfamiliar with the show will avoid it like the plague – and readers who’ve watched it and loved it from the beginning will have intensely confused reactions: on the one hand, they’ll be proud that their show is written up in The New Yorker, but on the other hand, they’ll want to hide the article from any prospective new converts.
And they’ll have it easy compared to Doctor Who fans! The beloved BBC show turns a venerable 50 this year, and for some reason known only to a chuckling God, The New Yorker handed the job of writing a long retrospective to their in-house expert on … the American Revolution. The results are nothing short of grim. When writing about American history, Lepore is consistently one of the most solid writers the magazine has. But right from the start of her long piece on a TV science fiction show, she’s spouting more pretentious pseudo-intellectual gibberish than the woolliest Williamsburg hipster:
“Most of what works best in ‘Doctor Who’ comes out of ancient forms of serial historical writing, from the Odyssey to the Old Testament.”
“’Doctor Who’ is, unavoidably, a product of mid-twentieth-century debates about Britain’s role in the world as its empire unraveled.”
“’Doctor Who’ is a chronicle of the impossibility of rescue.”
“’Doctor Who’ is also a TV show about TV: a fantasy about the bounds of fantasy.”
“When Doctor Who, a character who operates as an allegory for Britain, becomes a remnant of a nearly exterminated race, a timeless atrocity is folded into the national narrative.”
These kind of highbrow malapropisms fire at the reader so steadily that reading the piece is almost physically unbearable, despite the frequent quotes throughout from series impresario Steven Moffat adamantly pointing out that the show is “mad science” entertainment, not Kierkegaard’s lost post-doctoral dissertation. For all I know, Lepore might be a fan of the show herself, but that, too, hardly matters: she comes across in this essay has somebody who’d never heard of Doctor Who before she got this assignment (the reference in that last quote to some character called “Doctor Who” is particularly tinny). Hell, she comes across as somebody who’d never heard of television before she got this assignment. Just her and her friends John Adams and Ben Franklin standing around this mysterious flat metal-and-glass object muttering questions: “So it pulls images out of the ether?”