Posts from December 2012

December 8th, 2012

A Touch of Vertigo in the Penny Press!

There’s a momentarily disturbing flash of vertigo that accompanies reading a critical pronouncement from somebody you trust. It’s your own fault, which doesn’t make things any easier: after all, you had to give that trust in the first place. That’s a slow process; you start out warily, distrusting not only random chance (almost anybody can write a good 800 words at least once in their life) but serendipity (you distrust the longest the critics you agree with the most, or you should). There’s a certain glow on the page when an active, engaged mind has managed to capture itself in words, and that glow is the sum and essence of why reading is better than standing out in the rain. I follow that glow; I hunt for it in every venue I can tolerate, which is why I subscribe to as many magazines as I do (and the sheer number of non-subscribed magazines I buy on a regular basis is a dark secret known only between me and my chic, super-slim Barnes & Noble cashier).

Sometimes, too often – and by means of a black alchemy I’ve never been able to deconstruct – writers who are entirely without that glow climb high anyway, gain bully pulpits they in no way deserve and hold on to those pulpits while churning out an astonishing amount of crap. The huge proliferation of digital writing in the last ten years (during which, thanks to computers and the Internet, more words have been circulated for the reading of others than in all the rest of human history combined) has been a warning and a boon on this topic: the Republic of Letters is no longer policed by an outgunned and sometimes complacent constabulary of 25 movie critics, 20 book-critics, 5 theater critics, 2 art critics, and 2 trenchcoat-wearing, suicide-contemplating omnivores. We live in an age of opinion proliferation – nothing is produced, written, filmed, collaged, manufactured, upgraded, posted, spoken, acted, or televised anymore without also instantly being reviewed. Everybody’s a critic.

It greatly expands the amount of crap, yes, but it also greatly expands the number of potentially trustworthy opinionizers – and the process of giving that trust remains comfortingly identical: you listen to somebody over time, compare (as much as possible) their judgements with your own, and eventually reach a point where you say, “Oh, So-and-So! I definitely want to know what So-and-So thinks about X.”

That’s where the vertigo comes in – because once you trust a critic, you don’t want to disagree with that critic. Not fundamentally, not in on a crockery-throwing level. Friendly disagreement is the very seed-bed of intellectual growth, a fundamentally humanist process I wouldn’t do without in a million years, despite the fact that my uninterruptedly Irish heritage graces me with, erm, a Brendan Behan-level of certitude (Behan-levels of other things too, but that’s a post for another day). When John Cotter champions some artist or poet or writer, I might (just possibly) mock, but I also listen; when Sam Sacks spins his Whartonian web around some new novelist I myself would have dismissed, I might (just possibly) mock, but I also sit back and quietly re-evaluate. When Gordon Wood takes to task some recent work of history I liked, I swallow my initial indignation and read to see if he saw some flaw I missed. When B. R. Myers takes a moment to eviscerate some new piece of work, I take a moment to pray it isn’t something I liked, and I school myself to patience if it is.

It’s the moment you aren’t sure – or rather, the first moment you are – the gives rise to the vertigo. It’s like what I imagine a ‘trust fall’ would be, if I were ever flat-out insane enough to try one.

I experienced that moment of vertigo a few times in the new issue of the Atlantic, for instance. I thought Ann Patchett’s essay about her own bookstore would be unbearably precious, but it wasn’t. I thought Jeffrey Goldberg’s case in favor of more guns in civilian hands would be reactionary knee-jerking designed to goose readership, and although it’s getting just that readership, the piece itself is a marvel of careful narration, genuinely thought-provoking. I thought Walter Mosley’s short story “Reply to a Dead Man” would be glossy-magazine slumming of the kind Stephen King does with such hideous regularity, but it was quietly masterful, a perfect vindication of the Atlantic‘s decision to run fiction more regularly.

But those things, as momentarily disorienting as they were, couldn’t come close to the vertigo-moments produced in my own little patch of yard: book-reviewing. Perhaps nowhere else is the feeling so personal, the hope of agreement so sharp, and in this issue the two main attractions at the back are powerhouses: the Atlantic‘s own literary editor Benjamin Schwarz, and The New Republic‘s Isaac Chotiner.

With Schwarz, at least this time around, there wasn’t much danger: he’s reviewing, celebrating really, the at-last completion of The Essays of Virginia Woolf in six volumes from Hogarth, and since Virginia Woolf’s book-essays are the font from which every last one of us springs whether we know it and like it or not, I didn’t really have a moment of wondering whether or not Schwarz would pan her. Instead, I got to sit back and revel in his gorgeous praise of her work, the praise of a master of the form for she who is mistress over all: “Taken as a whole, Woolf’s essays are probably the most intense paean to reading – an activity pursued not for a purpose but for love – ever written in English.”

No, my real worry came when I got to Chotiner’s piece, for two reasons: first, he’s a more naturally pugnacious writer than Schwarz (which is a great quality when he’s punching somebody I hate, but otherwise …), and second, his subject this time around is Salman Rushdie’s latest book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. I’ve been watching with appalled fascination the growing tsunami of bad reviews this book has been gathering from all sides – fascination and confusion, since I liked the book and wouldn’t have considered it deserving of vituperation even if I hadn’t (another part of my confusion arose from my mounting conviction that most critics weren’t really getting what Rushdie was trying to do in the book, which is always frustrating).

Chotiner hates it, and true to form, he hates much more: his piece is called “How the Mullahs Won,” and his outrageous thesis is that the 1989 fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini flattened Rushdie’s talent:

Before the fatwa, Salman Rushdie wrote two great books, Midnight’s Children (1980) and Shame (1983). Since the fatwa, he has not written any.

And he summons in support of this claim the very observation I’d have summoned first to refute it:

Before the fatwa, Rushdie brilliantly exposed the corrupt dynasties and pathologies of two sundered societies (India and Pakistan). Since the fatwa, Rushdie has allowed flamboyant language and narrative trickery to overshadow biting political satire and acute characterization.

The essay that opens out from these points is rigorously intelligent and beautifully written – and entirely, almost molecularly, wrong, wrong, wrong. Nowhere is theJoseph Anton’s power or considerable under-fire charm given anything but accidental credit – instead, it’s death by a thousand small cuts, with the court’s summation being that although Rushdie’s courage during his wandering exile-years was exemplary, the exile itself completely mis-directed him from his creative purposes. As far as vertigo goes, this was Hitchcock-level.

That vertigo – the feeling of knowing you’re about to disagree with a critic whose judgement you respect – is fairly disorienting, sure, but the salvation is that it does no long-standing harm. I’ll follow my standard practice and re-read Joseph Anton in a year or so (once the dust settles, as it were), with a completely open mind but also, inevitably now, with Chotiner’s tirade in the back of my mind. If he’d uttered that tirade here in my book-filled, dog-haunted living room, over wine, I’d have howled in amazement, but I suspect we’d have embraced at night’s end just the same. Because very much unlike the real thing, there’s a distinct element of fun in this kind of vertigo.

And who knows? He might end up being right.

July 2nd, 2012

The Camelot harem in the Penny Press!

Of course I was never really going to stay away forever from my once-beloved Atlantic. It’s true that I cancelled my subscription over a certain brain-dead phrase being allowed to stand in the place of critical thought, but that hardly blinds me to the wealth of work and thought that still goes into every issue. I can’t bring myself to subscribe again (that ‘wtf’ phrase had to go through editors! And worse, it had to strike the writer as not only cogent but worthy of the Atlantic! It still rankles), but reading is another thing. Shyly, almost self-protectively, I skipped straight to the back of the latest issue, to the Books section presided over by Benjamin Schwarz, where both he and his hand-picked freelancers will be holding court in a way that might fascinate or frustrate me but will never simply annoy me. Or almost never.

Straight to Schwarz himself, for instance, who this time around reviews Henry Kamen’s new history of the Escorial, the labyrinthine Spanish fortress that was headquarters to, among others, King Philip II of Spain. Kamen has spent the better part of a lifetime studying the history of Spain, so it’s understandable the Escorial would loom in the background of his thoughts and eventually prompt a book of its own, but Schwarz puckishly warns: “… ultimately artistic wonders of the world are too important to be left to the historians.” Deep research or not, all books are held accountable on this particular threshing floor, and Schwarz is one of those few remaining omni-competent reviewers who can take a book like this one and find plenty in it that’s comment-worthy, including shortcomings that would have eluded a lesser critic:

Kamen overstates and under-argues his case. Moreover, he fails to illuminate with precision – or even to probe – the degree to which the man who commissioned the building determined its form and strange beauty, rather than the architects, Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera, who actually designed and built it. In this way, Kamen’s characterization throughout the book of Philip as the Escorial’s “creator” is wrongheaded, or at the very least unearned.

And as if to flaunt that omni-competence, Schwarz rounds off his column-space with an equally-good review of Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s new history of …Wonder Bread. And despite the inherent triviality of the subject, the review is interesting – not just because Bobrow-Strain has managed to tease an actual story out of his archival rooting but because Schwarz has sensed that story in a book I would have passed by with hardly a second glance.

And then he steps aside for the showpiece of the issue: Caitlin Flanagan’s essay “Jackie and the Girls,” which purports to tell the story behind some of those recent Jacqueline Kennedy “historic conversations” with Arthur Schlesinger that were briefly bestsellers last season. Flanagan joins the Schlesinger interviews with Mimi Alford’s recent JFK tell-all Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath, but as usual in the excellent Flanagan’s case, her essay is also powerfully personal. She writes movingly about having been under the spell of the iconic Kennedy photographs her entire life, especially the photos showing JFK as a doting father to his two small children, Caroline and John – and especially because of the shearing contradiction those photos pose to the endless stream of allegations that JFK was compulsively, even morbidly adulterous all through his married life. Flanagan calls any resistance to that ever-growing legend of infidelity “a loser’s game” – and indeed, it never seems to cross her mind that there’s even a remote possibility that, for instance, Alford is simply lying about what happened between her and the President.

The essay is a masterpiece, full of Flanagan’s sharp wit (at one point she describes two other alleged mistresses “returning to their desks with wet hair so they could go on with their important work of autographing his photographs and wondering how to type”) and carefully-demarcated vulnerabilities. She wants to believe in President Kennedy, she implies, but these (to use a pungent term from the Clinton administration) “bimbo eruptions” keep getting in the way. The result is a piece with a curiously bitter after-taste … a piece almost entirely stripped of the background kindness that usually marks this author’s prose. Jackie Kennedy herself is certainly done few favors:

She was a shopaholic who loved to party and ride horses and vacation in the most happening ports of call, to settle her boyish, perfectly dressed frame into well-upholstered chairs with her pack of Salems and her glass of champagne and to exercise her savage gifts for mimicry and comic malice.

To put it mildly, nobody who ever actually knew the woman would recognize much of her in this shrill caricature, and she gets off easy compared to her husband. It’s an old reflex for me to be Kennedy-wary when thumbing through the pages of The Atlantic; the late (and, I admit, very much missed) Christopher Hitchens couldn’t come near the subject of JFK without lashing out – often in startlingly and uncharacteristically uninformed ways (long-time Stevereads readers will recall the time I myself publicly took him to task for one such attack, in a letter The Atlantic printed but to which he didn’t – couldn’t? – respond). Flanagan of course mentions Hitchens, while in the sad, eerie process of channelling him:

As for John Kennedy – what did he do for us? He started the Peace Corps and the Vietnam War. He promised to put a man on the moon, and he presided over an administration whose love affair with assassination was held in check only by its blessed incompetence at pulling off more of them (“That administration,” said LBJ … the mists of Camelot beginning to clear, “had been operating a damned Murder, Inc.”) He fought for a tax break the particulars of which look like the product of a Rush Limbaugh fever dream, he almost got us all killed during his “second Cuba” (writing of JFK and the missile crisis, Christopher Hitchens noted: “Only the most servile masochist … can congratulate [Kennedy] on the ‘coolness’ with which he defused a ghastly crisis almost entirely of his own making”), and he brought organized crime into contact with the highest echelons of American power. More than anyone else in American history, perhaps, he had a clear vision of what his country could do for him.

That’s the old Hitchens mania, in full blossom for post-Hitchens readers (and on this subject Schwarz is little better, referring to JFK last month with tossed-off slurs like “drugged up” and “mobbed up”), a complex and in many ways superb President drawn among these heartless hinds and rendered into a bumbling, cartoon Priapus. Flanagan can write about those famous Kennedy photographs “These pictures represent the pure distillation of what the word father means in the deepest imagination of many people, even (especially) those who have never lived with or even known their own,” but she’s not willing to connect that imaginative stirring either with the lurid fantasies of people like Mimi Alford (he called her on the phone all the time! He asked her how her classes were coming along! What her homework was like!) or with her own vicious knee-jerk reaction (or Hitchens’) to the man’s life and legacy. Instead, we get this nonsense about JFK ‘starting’ the Vietnam War or somehow causing the Cuban Missile Crisis (not to mention sleeping with – how many women is it now, in the White House? Two hundred? Two thousand? Two hundred thousand?) – for all the world as though history were just a football you could toss around at Hyannisport.

As I’ve mentioned before, however, it’s the mark of a first-rate critic that they can keep you happily reading even while writing things you don’t agree with at all. The book-catalogues of every season are crammed to their indexes with serious, meaty works I’d prefer Benjamin Schwarz review in The Atlantic instead an interesting but necessarily featherweight thing like a new book on Wonder Bread, and yet he made it worth my while to read the review (and with a cash-bulging envelope – and perhaps a beagle puppy – he might convince me to read the book). Likewise for Flanagan, who’s fascinating despite her flailing this time out.

The other glimmer of good news in this issue? In Jeffrey Goldberg’s doltish “What’s Your Problem?” back-page feature, there’s just the slightest hint that the feature itself might finally be closing up shop. If this turns out to be true, let’s hope The Atlantic decides to replace it with content. You can never have enough content in The Atlantic – a view, coincidentally, shared by a certain maligned Commander-in-Chief, who was an avid reader of the magazine – when he wasn’t rogering Marlene Dietrich atop the Resolute desk in full view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that is.

My vote: give the extra page to Schwarz and his crew: you can be sure they won’t waste an inch of it.

 

March 16th, 2012

WTF in the Penny Press!

By this point, I’ve pretty much accepted that my once-beloved Penny Press has turned into a crown of thorns, a punishment to be inflicted over bowls of guksu jangguk where once it was a soothing boon after a long week of yelling at my basset hound.

So I can read with equanimity the “Soapbox” feature at the back of the latest Publishers Weekly in which freelance writer and former bookstore manager Barbara Bloom writes, “Except for magazines and newspapers, I can’t think of another industry that prints prices on it’s products …”

And, turning to the Fiction reviews, I can remain calm when I see that Alice Randall’s execrable Ada’s Rules: A Sexy Skinny Novel received not only praise but a starred review.

And I can keep from flinching all during James B. Stewart’s long and well-written piece in the New Yorker in which he talks about the worst of New York’s super-rich and how assiduously they work to avoid paying anything like their fare share of city income tax – and in which he casts the worst of the bunch as the piece’s hero.

And because the Penny Press has become this painful bed of Procrustes, I can even suppress my age-old reflex to look upon the Atlantic as a refuge. True, it’s the home of Benjamin Schwarz, one of the country’s greatest book-critics, but just look at the rest of the magazine: hideous, artless cover (no offense to Ben Bernanke, who actually has a pleasant face!), opening blizzard of one-page semi-vacuous little quasi-pieces on headline-y subjects, the increasing identification as a Beltway publication largely unconcerned with the mind or heart of the culture … in every way, writers of gorgeous prose and deep thought – writers like Schwarz – are more and more isolated oddities, holdouts against such a tide.

Still, despite my sang-froid, I must have had some small tender spots left, and it was the Atlantic that found one of them.

I was reading James Parker’s short piece on George R. R. Martin’s ongoing epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” (and the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones), and yes, I was irritated. How could I not be, when Parker was using the same stupid gimmick that irritated me so much when Roger Kimball did it a little while ago in The Weekly Standard? The stupid gimmick of fake-distancing yourself from your subject so that you can cause your audience to gasp all the more breathlessly when you then swoop in and reveal your knowledge – “Wow!” we’re supposed to react, “He said he didn’t really care about the subject, and yet, he seems to know everything about it! How formidable must he be when he does care!” It’s a disgusting ploy, something that should embarrass anybody older than fifteen, but there Parker is, wheezing away at it:

Historical fantasy, as a genre, is not my cup of tea. The books are too long. The names are too silly. An there’s that stony-faced proclamatory style – as if irony were a late-20th-century novelty, like the digital watch.

Nevermind that the Martin books aren’t “historical fantasy” – even allowing for that, the reaction some readers might have, “well, if this kind of writing isn’t your cup of tea, you’re probably not qualified to assess it,” is meant to be squelched in the very next line, when Parker insufferably starts dropping names – Tolkien and Mervyn Peake within three lines of each other, with Cretien de Troyes and T. S. Eliot thrown in for good measure. The whole message of the idiotic gambit – “well, this whole genre is really beneath my notice, but if I choose to bestow my notice, hooo boy! Will you sure be impressed!” – is completely antithetical not only to reading but to criticism; it’s a juvenile attempt to keep the spotlight squarely on the writer, not on his subject. But even so, having been recently inoculated as it were, I might have overlooked it – especially if Parker actually managed to say some interesting things about this oft-chronicled subject.

Then I hit the wall:

In the ninth episode [of the first HBO season], the character we had presumed to be the hero of the epic – Lord Eddard (or Ned) Stark, strong, upright, and focally placed within the story (also: played by Sean Bean) – got his head chopped off. What the fuck?

That last line isn’t mine – it’s Parker’s, appearing in the pages of the Atlantic, which was founded in Boston in 1857 and has been edited by, among others, Jim Fields, William Dean Howells, the great Bliss Perry, and the epoch-defining Bill Whitworth. I read, as part of an author’s commissioned and considered thoughts on HBO’s critically acclaimed Game of Thrones adaptation, What the fuck? – and I read it not only because Parker was too lazy to realize he wasn’t writing an email to a friend but also because the Atlantic‘s editors saw no problem with leaving it in.

So something small and remarkable is now going to happen: I’m going to let my subscription to the Atlantic run out. Political savant and perpetual literary dilettante William F. Buckley always used to quip that you could never tell what would be the last straw for a magazine’s long-time reader (and it’s safe to say the Atlantic has no longer-term readers than I) – but you could rest assured it would be something “very small and perhaps inconsequential.”

In my case, after a very, very long time reading the Atlantic, it was three little words. Later in the week, I’ll go by Mount Auburn Cemetery and apologize to Fields.

November 14th, 2011

The Folds of Irony in the Penny Press!

Oh, the multiplicitous ironies in the latest batch of the Penny Press I consumed at my little hole-in-the-wall periodical-reading restaurant! Everywhere I turned, it was inescapable!

Take last week’s TLS for example. Nicholas Thomas reviews the new biography of Captain Cook by Frank McLynn and finds it wanting. That verdict itself might not be so surprising – McLynn can often run hot and cold even with the same reviewer – but the context in which it’s delivered is positively riddled with irony, because in pillorying McLynn, Thomas (a specialist in South Pacific art and history and a very amiable guy) raises the spectre of that greatest of all Captain Cook biographers, John Beaglehole – only to pillory him too! We’re told Beaglehole’s book is “marred by an opinionated style” and actually has the temerity to draw conclusions about its illustrious subject:

Beaglehole’s Cook is almost narrow-minded, an indefatigable, practical rationalist, remarkable for his clear grasp of geographic, navigational, or nautical problems, and his single-minded approach to solving them. He is great, in Beaglehole’s mind, in part because he has none of the sentimental or philosophical frippery of the eighteenth century around him.

The irony here of course being that if Thomas finds a book like Beaglehole’s – vast, authoritative, utterly absorbing, beautifully written – wanting, he undercuts any credibility he’d otherwise have in finding any other book about Cook wanting. We might listen to a critic who called the latest Boris Akunin novel a disgrace to the great Russian literary tradition, but we instantly stop listening if that same critic says War and Peace is also a disgrace to the great Russian literary tradition, and we don’t just disbelieve him about Tolstoy – we associatedly disbelieve him about Akunin even if we haven’t read him.

A similar piercing irony crops up in the latest Harper’s. That issue features a long and leapingly enthusiastic review of Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably by Terry Eagleton, and the piece contains ironies of its own, mainly deriving from the fact that like every other ‘review’ of this big fat essay collection, it’s really a boisterous stiff-upper-lip encomium – for a guy who isn’t even dead yet. “He could tell you just who to talk to about Kurdish nationalism in the southeastern Turkish city of Batman, as well as what to order in the only decent restaurant there. He can give you the lowdown on everyone from Isaac Newton to Gore Vidal, Oscar Wilde to Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab…” Etc…. in every case, those ‘can’s are just itching to be ‘could’s – and it gets in the way of reviewers assessing the ample weak spots of this collection.

But the piece is part of a larger irony too. Hitchens has achieved most of his current notoriety for his brattish nose-tweaking to the concept of religion (particularly all the young people I know who adore him adore him for that reason), the sort of ‘you adults are just DUMB to believe this stuff!’ braying most of us got out of our systems in high school. But another essay in the same issue of Harper’s could serve as good ammo for Hitchens’ numerous droned-over debate opponents: Alan Lightman writes a piece about modern cosmology that contains a digression worth quoting in full:

… according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen. For example, if the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it actually is, then all the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water. Although we are far from certain about what conditions are necessary for life, most biologists believe that water is necessary. On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than what it actually is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together. As another example, if the relationship between the strengths of the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force were not close to what it is, then the cosmos would not harbor any stars that explode and spew out life-supporting chemical elements into space or any other stars that form planets. Both kinds of stars are require for the emergence of life. The strengths of the basic forces an certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be “fine-tuned” to allow the existence of life. The recognition of this fine-tuning led British physicist Brandon Carter to articulate what he called the anthropic principle, which states that the universe must have the parameters it does because we are here to observe it.

Carter’s principle forms the basis for a 1988 book called The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tipler, one of the most persistently thought-provoking books of the 20th century, and it’s ironic to fin that principle being elaborated cheek-by-jowl with more regurgitated Hitchens Got-baiting.

And there’s irony to be found over in the latest Atlantic, in which Benjamin Schwarz reviews Higher Gossip, the new posthumous collection of literary journalism from the pen of John Updike. I’m no fan of Updike’s book reviews – too bland, too timid, too falsely everyman – but as he always does, Schwarz actually makes me think about perhaps revisiting the guy’s work. Certainly Schwarz ranks that work – a vast collection – highly:

This huge body of work, 4,314 pages in all, secured Updike a place among America’s few great men of letters (since Edmund Wilson’s death, only Gore Vidal and Updike can be added to the pantheon).

The irony of that outrageous parenthetical should be abundantly clear already, but just in case it isn’t, here’s a bit from the second half of Schwarz’ book-column this month, on the fourth volume of the official history of the Bank of England:

Nevertheless, this book contains probably the most revealing record of a central bank’s struggles in the modern era. (Others might bestow that crown on Allen H. Meltzer’s magisterial an plainly written multivolume A History of the Federal Reserve, but that great work is more strictly a monetary history, and Meltzer doesn’t treat the Fed’s other duties, such as bank regulation, in the same rich detail as Capie does the actions of the Old Lady.)

Hee. So: the choicest irony of all – Schwarz is certainly leaving at least one name off his list of great 20th century men of letters. It could just be an old-fashioned modesty, but I’m guessing otherwise. I bet the idea never occurred to him.

 

September 20th, 2011

Shame and Acclaim in the Penny Press!

Naturally, I was as outraged as anybody else by the long litany of greed and corruption detailed in Taylor Branch’s Atlantic cover story “The Shame of College Sports,” but I was equally irritated by the never-pretty sight of a heavyweight professional historian getting carried away with himself in the bright spotlight of one of the nation’s greatest magazines.

The problem isn’t Branch’s writing, which is top-notch as always, nor his research, which is depressingly thorough and damning. The problem is the central conceit he appears gravitationally drawn to:

Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene – corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution – is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.

Yes indeed, slavery analogies should be used carefully – and Branch doesn’t do that. The first step to ‘carefully’ would be ‘sparingly,’ but the whole college-athlete-as-slave motif shows up six times in this article. And even the repetition would be excusable if the idea itself were warranted, but it’s not. What it is, of course, is a gross historical insult.

Coaches may be oblivious or worse (and I know from worse; I had an up-close ring-side seat for the height of Hayden Fry’s reign over the University of Iowa); recruiters may be unscrupulous; school administrators may be complicit and greedy … but college athletes are still there voluntarily, and the last time I checked, the most central defining aspect of slavery is that it’s involuntary. And the slaves who are there involuntarily dream of their freedom – not of eventually owning the plantation: Branch’s simplistic moral geometry omits one of the central forces driving the whole shoddy, money-grubbing apparatus that is college sports today – the players themselves.

Those players – the stars among them most of all – aren’t bought in Ghana and shipped to East Lansing. Their parents and coaches and recruiters might dream of endorsements and trophies and money, but the players themselves have dreams too – of endorsements and trophies and just mountains and mountains of money. Branch comes to what he styles as an inevitable moral conclusion – that these college players should be paid something for playing, especially considering how much the colleges are gaining from having them around. But colleges make money from all their students, and the bespectacled kid in the computer science lab who’s going to leave college and make $4 billion doesn’t expect to be paid while he’s on campus. Star college players in football and basketball and baseball can expect to make millions from professional franchises when they graduate – franchises that would never have had a chance to see what they could do post-high school if not for all those expensive new college sports arenas. Calling those athletes slaves when so many of them will go on to lives of ridiculous wealth (or even when so many of them have the chance for such ridiculous wealth) is the kind of grotesque blunder only an impassioned historian could commit.

Fortunately, as always with The Atlantic there are compensations. There’s the mighty Ben Schwarz, for instance, this time writing a perfectly-constructed brief appreciation of the problematically unfriendly American writer Ambrose Bierce, or the always-great B. R. Myers, this time writing about, of all things, Australian crime-fiction and getting in several shots at the often distressingly minimal writing of the modern murder-thriller:

“I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue,” Elmore Leonard says. I’ll bet you don’t buy books for it, either. If the novel is to survive in this distracted digital age, it must do more, not less, of what only the novel can do.

That (plus his priceless quip that crime fiction is “largely a matter of people answering doorbells”) can restore so much of what the put-upon reader needs – especially after that cover, showing an athletic black arm branded by the NCAAP. I realize cover-designers are trying to get people talking, but still …

April 17th, 2011

Agreeing to Disagree in the Penny Press!

The linear procession that is my weekly plow through the latest furrow of the Penny Press couldn’t have started off worse this time around – not even with a ‘short’ story by Alice Munro: The New Yorker featured a long piece by Jonathan Franzen that was just about as appalling an exercise in narcissism as anything I’ve seen from somebody who doesn’t run a book-blog. Franzen, of course, is the author of Freedom, the big gaseous novel that’s going to win the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Zee-Magnee Prizes for Greatest Thing Ever Created By Anybody, Including When God Created the Universe. He’s also one of the ground-zero survivors of the suicide of his friend and fellow author David Foster Wallace, and I understand and accept where that confluence leads. It’s probably inevitable that some writing would result from it – after all, in such circumstances, even the least literary person in the world might be moved to put pen to paper. Franzen is not the least literary person in the world – he himself has commented many times on his apparently uncontrollable urge to, as he puts it, “narratize” himself – so something like this essay was probably going to happen at some point.

But I find myself asking the same question about this piece – a clumsy half-cloning of a literary appreciation of Robinson Crusoe (for which an expedition to Selkirk Island was enacted, of course – nobody reads at home anymore, silly!) and a reminiscence of a lost and troubled friend – that I ask about so much of Franzen’s work: did it have to be so bad? Did it have to show so little thought, or rather, so much completely misdirected thought? I know Franzen would probably say it’s his arch and awkward impulses that make him worth our time as a writer, but there’s a difference between adopting an arch and awkward kitten and working full-time at the animal shelter.

Franzen’s been writing things – fiction, nonfiction, and the pure self-absorption he and Wallace perfected for a whole new generation – for years; how could he not have seen how maladroit this piece would end up being, if he insisted on keeping the mechanical framework of the Defoe device? It’s maddening to watch him churn out the requisite travel-essay paragraphs (it’s so windy there!), the requisite lies (tobacco addicts always, always, always claim their vacations from the busy world were also vacations from tobacco, when if that’s how addiction worked, nobody would be addicted), and the requisite posturing (litt’rary authorities are startled awake and hauled on stage, as though Franzen felt compelled to say, “hey, don’t forget – I’m an incredible intellectual heavyweight, in addition to being this shy and sensitive guy”) – especially maddening because behind all that stuff, he’s actually got something to write about this time. I would have read a Daniel Defoe essay from him with interest, but yoking it so stubbornly like this to a very, very different kind of essay – more interesting, yes, but also more shameful to actually publish – is a beginner’s mistake, or else the mistake of somebody who no longer has those ‘first readers’ every writer needs so badly.

So our author goes to Selkirk Island to read Robinson Crusoe – but also because he has to do something in the wake of his friend’s suicide. As a result, neither the trivia nor the trauma is well-served, but the trauma is at least arresting … and interestingly conflicted. I was surprised – and I shouldn’t have been – by the sharpness of the anger in Franzen’s writing about what Wallace did. And of course I was fascinated, who wouldn’t be, by the new personal details Franzen reveals about Wallace’s final year and downward spiral, the idea Franzen has that Wallace considered his suicide to be, in drug addict terms, “one last score” and an act of vengeance against both himself and his closest friends. But just because such details are fascinating doesn’t mean I should have been reading them – the personal, wounded parts of this weird piece are the best writing Franzen’s ever done, but they should have remained in his journal where they belong. I wish I could get this point through the Yaddo-addled brains of all our most lionized young writers: the reading public doesn’t, in fact, need you to “narratize” every aspect of your lives – exercising more restraint and more narrative control would actually make you better writers.

Fortunately, that first course didn’t ruin the meal. I moved on to the new Harper’s, and once there I did what I now happily always do: I turned straight to the “New Books” column and settled in to read Zadie Smith. I don’t know Smith, and I have no idea what she thinks of her new gig as Harper’s fiction critic, but sometimes even Irish Catholics know when not to question a good thing, so I just sit back and enjoy the show. I’ve rhapsodized here before about Smith as a literary critic, and here that rhapsody is put to the worst test the love of any book critic can face: what do you do when a great critic writes about a book you just don’t care about?

In this case, Smith writes about Edouard Levy’s Suicide and Peter Stamm’s Seven Years, and I couldn’t care less about either book, which made the going tough. But even so, the wonderful, winning tone, the voice Smith is creating in these columns won me over (finding the right voice being, of course, essential to the long-term business of writing anything) – won me over to her column, that is, not to the pretentious pieces of poop she reviews in it this time around. Here’s hoping next month she gorges herself on murder mysteries, or else takes in Black Lamb and Gray Falcon and tells us all about it. And in the meantime, this particular issue of Harper’s has one other thing that’s enormously worth your attention – no, not that laughably hideous cover illustration, which struck me as a bizarre practical joke until I remembered what century I live in … no, Nicholson Baker’s scintillating essay “Why I’m a Pacifist” is the non-Smith highlight of this issue, a refreshingly meaty essay where I’d expected to find yet more Franzen-style narcissism. It was so good it almost convinced me that some of its daffiest contentions just might be true.

But, much to my surprise, the real saving grace of my Penny Press trawling this time around came from a source I’d almost completely discounted: the good old Atlantic, whose slide into just another Beltway glossy has been decried here and elsewhere. Much to my dismay, I’ve come to associate the Atlantic with reading disappointment, and certainly a glance at this issue seemed to confirm that: a ‘genius’ issue without one true genius on display, a ‘culture’ issue as though that were a special, distant place (Selkirk Island, perhaps?) for which we should designate an isolated visit once in a while … and that Editor’s Note! Has 2011 yet seen so vertiginous a combination of arrogance and cringing? The Editors intend, I think, to offer some kind of justification for their decision to include to short stories in their ‘culture’ issue even though they’ve long since banished fiction from their ordinary (non-culture?) issues. Airy words are aired about the special qualities shared by the two stories in question, one by Stephen King, the other by Mary Morris, but I knew better than to get my hopes up, and I was right: the stories have a lot in common, beginning with the proudly-declared triviality of their origins and ending, I suppose, in how boring and awful they both are, but when the Editors describe them as “entertaining, interesting, and gloriously open,” they’re adding a whole lot of sawdust to the bread.

No, it wasn’t the special ‘cultural’ offerings on hand that made the issue for me: it was the workhorse rear-end (…) of the thing that did the trick, as always. Once all the ‘geniuses’ are done being interviewed about how incredible they are, the real power-hitters come out, and we get three fantastic essays in a row. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes the impossible: an essay about Malcolm X that I actually found interesting. Christopher Hitchens reassures me that his medical treatments must be going well, because he turns in a long and utterly beguiling essay on yet another subject that doesn’t usually interest me at all: the poet Larkin and his various smutty doings. And best of all, towering over this week’s Penny Press offerings, there’s the mighty Benjamin Schwarz, writing about James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce – and in the process writing about yet another subject that doesn’t interest me at all: Los Angeles. Only a whole lot of money could ever possibly induce me to visit Los Angeles again, and nothing on Earth could make me re-read Mildred Pierce – and yet there I was, eagerly lapping up every word Schwarz wrote about both, solely on the basis of how wonderful those words are:

Moreover, in Mildred Pierce, Cain wrote the greatest work of American fiction about small business. He made compelling the intricacies of real-estate deals and cash flow, of business planning and bank loans, and of relations with suppliers and customers (“She had a talent for quiet flirtation,” as Cain explained of Mildred’s technique, “but found that it didn’t pay. Serving a man food, apparently, was in itself an ancient intimacy; going beyond it made him uncomfortable, and sounded a trivial note in what was essentially a solemn relationship.”) He rendered the plodding method and the fundamental gamble of small-time commerce – the foundation of Los Angeles’s service-oriented economy – not just absorbing but romantic.

As usual with this critic, I could go on quoting (Hitchens on Larkin is equally quotable), and reading this piece by him and that piece by Zadie Smith (and knowing that Sam Sacks is there, every week, over in the Wall Street Journal) reminded me yet again that the current state of heavyweight American book-criticism is in good hands. Even if they all occasionally write about books I wouldn’t cross the street to read.

October 22nd, 2010

Calculating Column-Length in the Penny Press!

The November Atlantic has one of those big special features that always sound more interesting than they end up being. In this case it’s “Brave Thinkers,” and the whole it can be painlessly skipped, or skimmed. Ditto the now-obligatory piece on the so-called Tea Party, a phase of national mania that should no more be covered in The Atlantic than it should be in Natural History. In earlier Stevereads entries, we’ve lamented the increased commercialization of The Atlantic – lamented the fact that half a dozen very intelligent young people of my acquaintance skim or skip not only the magazine’s special features but the entire magazine itself. A hundred years ago – hell, twenty years ago – that would have been unthinkable.

Times change, yes, and writing priorities change (except, I’d hope it goes without saying, here at Stevereads), and The Atlantic moved out of Boston – so really, we’re lucky it still boasts any of the intellectual spirit and gravitas that made it great.

To get that, I always turn to the back pages of every issue, to the Books section run by Benjamin Schwarz, and this time around, I was pleased in triplicate when I got there. The books-and-the-arts section of The Atlantic this time around features not one, not two, but three of the greatest books-and-the-arts critics alive today, all rubbing against each other cheek-by-jowl. The only thing more enjoyable than that would be having all three of them over here for wine and all-night book-chat.

Ironically, it’s the very quality of his assembled material this time around that must present something of a problem for Schwarz, and here I’m using classic Miss Marple thinking, in which the goings-on in humble little St. Mary Mead are asserted to form instructive parallels with the big teeming metropolis. Because I once had Schwarz’ job, and it could get mighty frustrating.

My St. Mary Mead was scenic little Iowa City, where for a time I was the Arts Editor of a local newspaper. And the frustration comes from the fact – surely immutable regardless of the size of your venue – that those special features? Those Tea Party bloviations? They require space, and there’s only so much of that to go around. In Iowa City, the special feature – indeed, the only thing most Iowans considered ‘news’ at all – was sports. The unbroken mastery of Dan Gable. The mighty empire of Hayden Fry – these were the things our well-intentioned but lowbrow publisher wanted to see in the back section of his paper; all that artsy-fartsy crap was just good as garnish.

The result was that some of the most handsome, muscular young men in the newsroom could sometimes act like out-and-out beasts. There were many, many days where their hunger for the limited number of pages we shared between us was nothing short of ravenous – and when any self-respecting Arts Editor had to brave their monosyllabic objections and fight for the right to review every dumb Woody Allen movie that came down the pike.

I don’t imagine that pitiless calculus ever really changes when you’re talking about the physical print media (you’d think it would be eased a bit online, where space is more or less infinite, and yet my colleagues at  Open Letters patiently inform me that there simply isn’t room for all the giant-killer-shark reviews I’d like to run…). I imagine Benjamin Schwarz has to deal with a species of it himself, and that must be frustrating.

Never more so than in a case like this, where the acerbic, hyper-intelligent B. R. Myers and the rollicking, lancingly smart faux-bumpkin Clive James have to divvy up that limited pages-space with Schwarz himself, who’s as passionate as Myers and as pithy as James and at times exhibits a moral faith in the redemptive power of literature that both those old salts either seldom feel or wouldn’t ever confess. The three of them together are riveting reading (kind of like when all the big guns at Open Letters are firing simultaneously, although there may be a touch of St. Mary Mead in that too).

The calculus is frustrating for Atlantic readers as well, since when confronted with a limited amount of space and giants like Myers and James wanting chunks of it, Schwarz does what any arts editor would do: he abbreviates himself in order to free up room for his guests. In this issue he’s writing about H. L. Mencken’s translation to the firmament by being inducted into the Library of America (“Better late than never” is the dry-ice way Schwarz opens his review), and he’s fantastic as always:

Mencken told American intellectuals that their country’s popular culture – not just its folk culture – was a worthy, in fact vital, subject to scrutinize. True, Mencken’s jaundiced view could lapse into a sterile cruelty (in this he resembled his admirer, Evelyn Waugh, who had an appointment to meet him the day after Mencken suffered the stroke that ended his creative life). But usually he regarded the carnival of his country’s buncombe with an indulgent horror. To hate like this is to love forever.

(In the classically waggish manner, Schwarz doesn’t bother to identify the source of the slangy adaptation of his final line – we’re all adults here, after all). Mencken is one of those authors I’ve never warmed to – his verbal showmanship has always seemed to me to be mocking not just pretension but intellect itself – but that’s one of the things we want our best critics to do: take up the praise-song of some figure we hate and make us reconsider (I could tell you all sad stories of the valiant efforts along these lines I’ve made myself, and yet my OLM colleagues remain close-,minded about the glory that is the Legion of Super-Heroes). I wanted Schwarz to make the whole case, to present the full-length definitive Mencken piece he could make so glorious. Instead, I got six paragraphs.

Then we were on to B. R. Myers and another province of the critic’s role: championing gems that are unjustly overlooked. Myers makes a regular side-show out of doing just that, but the practice carries perils – foremost of which is that you can back the wrong horse. In this issue, Myers backs a nag called Patrick Hamilton, a much-neglected novelist of the early 20th century who richly deserves to become entirely neglected. The advocacy here never goes anywhere, mainly because Myers sticks to the OLM-style review in which copious quotes from the matter under consideration are served up for the reader. When it comes to Hamilton and his wretched prose (it’s not even purple – it’s more a dirty orange), just one of those quotes should be enough to send all but the most masochistic reader sprinting for the hills. Still, the spectacle of the effort is reassuring: even Myers, it turns out, is human enough to have a soft spot for lost causes.

And then there’s the glory of this entire issue, a review by Clive James of Larry Stempel’s new history of that greatest of all American art forms, the Broadway musical. James is a ruddy-faced wizard, and although his long, discursive essay here is a soup-to-nuts review of Stempel’s book, it’s also a fantastic, fast-paced, and eminently quotable mini-version of that Broadway history itself.

James is in top form here, and if this is the essay for which Scwarz had to make ample room, the trade-off is almost worth it. The priceless (and pricelessly phrased) observations follow so fast one upon the other that it’s tempting just to quote them all, but I’ll restrict myself to a couple:

“I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair …” Ensign Nellie Forbush sings that line three times in one stanza, as if it were an interesting line in the first place. It isn’t, but just try for a moment forgetting it. Some alchemy of words and music, some enchanted something or other, benumbs the critical powers.

or this, about the casting of Rossano Brazzi for the lead in “South Pacific”:

As European and distinguished as a Romanesque cathedral with only superficial bomb damage, Brazzi was perfect in every way but one. He was lying when he said he could sing. When Rodgers and Hammerstein found out that he couldn’t carry a tune any further than a few inches, they insisted that his voice be dubbed, even though Brazzi himself was adamant that he could do the job. Dense as well as proud, he never got over not being allowed to, and for much of the filming, as the recorded sound was played in so that he could make with the mouth, he behaved like a beast with its amour propre on the line. They could have got me for half the money.

The whole piece is like that; James has reached the point in his critical life where his unabashed inclusion of himself in the very substance of what he’s writing about is just something he does as a matter of course – he no longer cares about the narrow confines of feigning impersonal objectivity, if he ever did care about them, and his fans wouldn’t have it any other way. The point is, he delivers the goods, every time, which a smart writer once described as the only inescapable obligation of any author.

Needless to say, I wanted this particular Books section to go on like that forever, these three magnificent critical voices, so unlike each other but so united in their abiding conviction that this stuff matters enough to bring your best thinking – and your liveliest prose – to bear on it. I’m not going to reconsider Mencken any time soon, and I’m never, gawd help me, going to read another Hamilton potboiler again, and I am (um, to put it mildly) already a big fan of the Broadway musical (that hypothetical wine-and-books evening would almost certainly end, around 4 in the morning, with James and I bellowing our endless mental repertoires of Broadway songs known and unknown – we could sell tickets!), so in one cramped way of looking at things, I ‘got’ very little out of this issue.

But in all the ways that matter, I’m inestimably richer. So the Hawkeyes can go suck eggs. So there.