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?”
It was a gruesome, entirely telegraphed one-two punch this week in the Penny Press: first, Esquire had a “How To Be a Man – The Fatherhood Edition,” and then The New Yorker had a double-sized science fiction issue. As the cognoscenti might put it, oy.
Horrified – as pretty much anybody would be – by the prospect of a New Yorker science fiction issue, I tackled the Esquire first. I nibbled around the articles at the peripheries, the ones not necessarily about fatherhood, although even most of those outlying districts were pretty gawd-awful. The slogans for the “Fiction for Men” section, for instance: “Outlaws. Cigarette punches. Sex. Blood. Bank robbers. Revenge. Fear. Lust. Greed. These are stories for men, by the biggest writers in America.” The sensible part of me was immediately warning me that the entire section would be an angering waste of time – after all, the reading demographic that’s so confidently summoned by those word-blurbs isn’t “men” … it’s “teenage boys.” And that sensible part was right: the short stories that followed were hideously awful. Stephen King and his son Joe Hill team up to provide something called “In the Tall Grass,” which consequently has twice the genetic defects found in either man’s prose alone … both inbred and sterile. Colum McCann turns in a Civil War story that’s as bloated and sold on itself as his wretched novel Let the Great World Spin. Lee Child presents a new Jack Reacher short story that’s so bad the second half doesn’t even bother to check in and see what happened in the first half. After that, as if sensing how tired their teenage-boy readers must be going this long without a picture of a scantily-clad woman or a full-color ad for cigars, the editors give us “short short” fiction – several writers turn in one 79-word paragraph apiece, apparently under the impression that a 79-word paragraph can do stand-in duty for an entire story. Since it can’t, all of these blue-book exercises fail to be much of anything at all – with the single and hilariously ironic exception of the only one written by a woman. Tea Obreht’s entry is at least intriguing:
At dawn, he found that several young women had appeared, without any warning or clothes, in the millpond by which he had concealed himself overnight. Rather than risk capture attempting to explain that it was they, not he, who had intruded, he was obliged to flee with the stolen bicycle under his arm. Years later, court martial revoked, he would meet her again, marry her, the only girl among them who had thrown a book at his retreating back.
But there it was, waiting patiently for me: “Fatherhood for Real Dads,” and it was just as pandering and pea-brained as I’d feared, absolutely full of advice and tips that wouldn’t have looked one bit out of place in 1959. It’s full of pointers on how to teach your kid (it’s not stated, but the strong implication of every word is that ‘your kid’ will be a boy) how to be responsible, how to stand up to bullies, ease into smoking those cigars (not optimal, maybe, but as our editors put it, “you can only do what you can do”), and all the rest. The lock-step conformity being tacitly praised in every word of the feature would have made Hitler’s heart beam with pride. And as for tolerance – in “Tips and Tricks for Real Dads,” along with things like “Eczema: Stelatopia moisturizer; banana peels,” or “The kid keeps accidentally kicking you in the nuts: Protect your nuts. It’s gonna happen,” I fully expected to read something like, “Gay? wrap the kid up, walk down to the basement, and throw him in the furnace.” Maybe it got cut for space reasons.
I wasn’t expecting any relief, but it came just the same – and from a very unlikely source: Scott Raab interviewing Bill Murray. Not that either isn’t always a relief from any kind of tedium – it’s just that both are that dreaded sub-species of guy’s guy: Chicago men. And as our sainted former president Jed Bartlet once observed, when you put two Chicago men together, you suddenly realize why they call it the Windy City. To compensate for the fact that Chicago is hands-down the major city with the least noticeable indigenous personality, Chicago men always immediately set in with the grandiose crapola about how tough guys do things, about the Chicago way … about, gawd help us all, respect.
So there I was braced for it, but instead, the interview was great – Raab mainly got out of the way of his subject (this isn’t one of those jobs where he’s sent to interview the latest young unshaven Hollywood thing and has to do most of the being-interesting himself)(although those pieces can be mighty fun to read, mainly because Raab is mighty interesting and could probably just free-associated for 1000 words and keep my attention), and he and Murray have a written chemistry I could read for pages and pages. At one point Raab asks Murray if he ever thought about doing stand-up:
Murray: No. I saw them work, and they seemed so unhappy. If an audience didn’t like them, they’d get so miserable about it. It looked too miserable. I did it once and it was fun. But I only had to do it once to realize I could do it, but I don’t want to do it. I’ve done it a little bit lately – I’ll emcee a concert, something like that.
Raab: It’s no surprise you can do it. You’re Bill Murray.
Murray: But you still have to be funny. If you’re not funny, then it’s “Guess who’s not funny?”
So then, a bit of relief before the real plunge. Into the New Yorker science fiction issue.
The problem with such a thing manifests before you’ve passed the cover – in fact, in this case, it’s summarized by the cover, a Daniel Clowes cartoon called “Crashing the Gate” that doesn’t show anybody crashing a gate … instead, it shows three science fiction cliches, a raygun-toting space cadet, a robot, and a bug-eyed monster, blasting through a book-lined living room wall to interrupt an Upper West Side literary cocktail party. I’m sure the magazine’s editors – and maybe Clowes too – would say the whole thing is batter-dipped in irony, but I’m not buying it: this is meant to reinforce the ghetto walls, not tear them down. The problem with a New Yorker science fiction issue is that The New Yorker thinks science fiction is ridiculous, and The New Yorker is completely convinced – and rightly so – that most of its readers think so too. So the issue can’t help but be one protracted exercise in condescension.
That’s exactly what it is, but oh, it was so much worse than I expected. There are numerous one-page pieces where some big names in the despised sub-genre – Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Karen Russell, China Mieville, Margaret Atwood, and the mighty Ursula Le Guin – toss off quick reflections on What Sci-Fi Has Meant To Me, and although there’s nothing worthwhile in any of these pieces (indeed, only more condescension: by having a bunch of authors mistily reflect on their childhood memories of sci-fi reading, you quietly stress the idea that science fiction is mostly for children)(to have an entire science fiction issue in which not one adult talks about currently reading science fiction is … well, I’d call it a travesty, but I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point), there are some bizarrities: Mieville referring to The Stars My Destination as Alfred Bester’s recognized masterpiece, for instance, or Le Guin implying that the only reason science fiction stories are disparaged by the mainstream is because of their unusual trappings … not because genres – all genres – can inspire lazy, bad prose (also – she writes an entire piece on the ‘boy’s club’ nature of science fiction without once mentioning her friend James Tiptree? Like I said – bizarre).
And the main attractions weren’t any better. There are short stories by Sam Lipsyte, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz (the Table of Contents also lists a short story by Jennifer Egan, but her contribution, “Black Box,” turns out to be a collection of miscellaneous Twitter-posts of no discernible content – perhaps an editorial error?), and although Lethem is a perennial disappointer, even the Lipsyte and Diaz are just plain bad: lazy, undercooked slumming, virtually designed (or maybe explicitly designed), again, to reinforce for snobby, hidebound readers that science fiction above all isn’t all that good. And the feature rounds off all these little outrages with one last little outrage: Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” is not only distracted (half of it is devoted to something called “Community,” apparently because the world’s longest-running science fiction show just doesn’t merit a whole essay of its own), but because Nussbaum very obviously isn’t a long-time Doctor Who fan. She tries gamely enough, but the gaps are glaring – and so, again, is the condescension: why give the assignment to any of the thousand long-time Doctor Who fans who could have done it with not only rhetorical skill (which Nussbaum has in abundance) but also a fan’s … er, respect?
That’s not, alas, a rhetorical question. The answer is: because if The New Yorker did that, it would lose all those ‘cool points’ it’s racked up with the hipster-literary crowed pictured on Clowes’ cover. If it turned over any of these piece supposedly appreciating the living, breathing genre of science fiction to people who are actively, fiercely in love with that genre (instead of a handful of ‘old masters,’ two-thirds of whom haven’t written a sci-fi novel in years and one of whom … coughAtwoodcough … has, no matter what you might think, never actually written a science fiction novel at all), you’d lose the ability to write the whole two-week exercise off as a pleasing-the-nerds piece of irony.
And unlike in Esquire, this time there was no relief. Reading Anthony Lane on Wes Anderson – a twee reviewer writing about a twee director – doesn’t exactly count, nor does a posthumous essay by Anthony Burgess. No, unlike Esquire, this whole thing is a wash. Time to turn to Outside and read about bear attacks (and picture the victims as New Yorker editors, or else pansy-punching Esquire dads) …