Posts from June 2015

June 1st, 2015

Unlikely Spring in the Penny Press!


harpersReading the cover story of the latest Harper’s, David Bromwich’s magisterial, damning assessment of the Obama presidency, certainly did no wonders for my lunch-time digestion. Just the first paragraph reads like a cold halibut across the face:

Any summing-up of the Obama presidency is sure to find a major obstacle in the elusiveness of the man. He has spoken more words, perhaps, than any other president; but to an unusual extent, his words and actions float free of each other. He talks with unnerving ease on both sides of an issue: about the desirability, for example, of continuing large-scale investment in fossil fuels. Anyone who voted twice for Obama and was baffled twice by what followed – there must be millions of us – will feel that this president deserves the kind of criticism he has seldom received. Yet we are held back by an admonitory intuition. His predecessor was worse, and his successor mostly likely will also be worse.

I read Bromwich’s long piece with mounting admiration at his rhetorical ability and almost not one single scintilla of agreement at his conclusions, and the combination ended up being so depressing that I turned with great relief to the “Spring Books” issue of The Nation – and was very nearly depressed all over again. I opened the “Spring Books” issue and encountered … well, hardly a big lineup of books any normal readership would be likely to read this Spring – or any other Spring. There’s a review by Aaron Thier of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, a William Deresiewicz review of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, a dual review of Moira Weigel of Keywords by Raymond Williams and Distant Reading by Franco Moretti … you see what I mean: not exactly anybody’s idea of ‘it’ books, although the pieces themselves, typically for The Nation, were first-rate.

But my spirits not only perked up but soared when I got to Corey Robinson’s long nationessay in the same issue! It’s even less a “Spring Books” piece than the others – it discusses Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth, The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt, and Becoming Eichmann by David Cesarini, for Pete’s sake – but what it lacks in edge-of-summer topicality it more than makes up for with edge-of-your-seat brilliance.

Robinson looks at the literary firestorm that was sparked into existence by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, including multiple excoriations by some of the most prominent Jewish intellectuals of the day, and the discussion is invigorating throughout – in fact, I wanted the piece to keep going, and I knew I was in good hands right from the beginning of the piece:

Like so many Jewish texts throughout the ages, Eichmann in Jerusalem is an invitation to an auto-da-fe. Only in this case, almost all of the inquisitors are Jews. What is it about this most Jewish of texts that makes it such a perennial source of rancor among Jews, and what does their rancor tell us about Jewish life in the shadow of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel? What does the wrongness of Eichmann‘s readers reveal about the rightness of its arguments?

The fact that the Penny Press regularly provides me with such gems is the reason I keep the whole anachronistic machinery of magazine subscriptions wheezing and clanking along. Bravo, Corey Robinson!

May 16th, 2012

Beasts at Bay in the Penny Press!

Once you get past the bewildering front cover of the latest Men’s Journal (depicting – yet again – Lance Armstrong and breezily mentioning how now that his ‘scandal is behind him’ he can happily get on with embracing a different sport from professional bike-racing – a phrasing that suggests vindication, when the only thing missing from that ‘scandal’ was actual fine-focus video footage of Armstrong ‘doping’ his own blood in order to win races … not exactly much of a vindication, but the cover and accompanying article are easily enough skipped), you get to a fascinating little piece by James Nestor that starts at Boucan Canot beach on the fabled island of Reunion, where no humans are allowed to swim – because Boucan Canot has become “the shark attack capital of the world.”

The local marine experts have come up with a daring and ingenious attempt at a solution: instead of waging a short and bloody campaign to wipe out the area’s sharks, they’ve opted instead to tag as many of them as possible with tiny transmitters that would act like a missile defense system, warning officials – and swimmers – of approaching danger. The star of Nestor’s piece is a free-diver named Fred Buyle, who can hold his breath for seven minutes and displays a remarkable calm when surrounded by enormous prehistoric predators. The article is quick and fascinating, and Nestor ends it perfectly:

I asked Buyle if he now considers Boucan Canot a safe place to swim or surf. “I’ll put it this way,” he said, laughing. “Without my websuit, goggles, and fins, I wouldn’t swim in that water if you paid me a million dollars. I’m not crazy, you know.”

Animals and sanity also come together in “Wild Things,” an absolutely superb long essay by David Samuels in the latest Harper’s about the Bronx Zoo, the people who created it, the people who run and visit it every day, and of course the animals who inhabit it. The piece is utterly fantastic, the kind of thing that by rights we’ll be seeing again in one of those ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies of magazine writing, and it’s not as dolefully depressing as it might otherwise have been, mainly because Samuels has the wit to end it with a scathingly funny vignette in which Mayor Bloomberg makes a political visit to the zoo to give a press conference. Samuels has a great deal of pointed fun at the mayor’s expense:

When the press conference is over the mayor walks over to the railing of the exhibit, takes a grape from the hand of one of his aides, and tosses it to the gibbon, in what is either a sign of respect or an attempt to buy off a heretofore unknown but potentially troublesome constituency.


April 15th, 2012

Hatchets and Ratchets in the Penny Press!

There were annoying things to wade through in the Penny Press this week, but I knew ahead of time what a glowing prize awaited me at the end, so I waded with a smile on my face!

Unfair to say ‘wading’ was involved in reading the wonderfully-written Vanity Fair piece by Michael Joseph Gross on Internet piracy, privacy, and a whole cluster of similar topics that will involve all of us at some point in the very near future. Gross’ article was just the smooth, intelligent read I’ve come to expect from this writer, although annoyances did manage to surface around the edges of his subject, like when one of his sources was talking about encryption security for popular websites:

Even so, the most influential Web sites, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, balked at adapting to the new reality they’d helped bring into existence. No communications on any of those sites were fully encrypted yet. Without mockery [former hacker Jeff] Moss recites their arguments in a plain tone, strained only by mild weariness: “It’s too expensive. We never designed it to be all encrypted. And, you know the Net is not a private place anyway. It’s not really our problem.” His response, in the same tone, is that, since these corporations built their empires by encouraging everybody to share everything, they have a responsibility to provide security.

Needless to say (or maybe it isn’t), that last line is mighty annoying – and a good, quick indicator of some of the worst ways the Internet has changed society, blurring the line between professional obligation and personal responsibility with the end goal in mind of absolving idiots of the consequences of their own behavior. If a young couple in White Plains is scraping by with two jobs, living in their four-room apartment and never having any more than $300 in the bank, and they take it into their heads to believe some bank’s promises that they can, after all, afford a house … if that young couple, knowing their own finances to the last penny and, presumably, knowing the difference between daydreams and reality, decides to take on the mortgage for that house anyway, that young couple deserves everything that happens to them. They don’t deserve a federally-funded bailout; they don’t deserve immunity from prosecution when they have to abandon that mortgage, and they most certainly don’t deserve victim-status on the evening news.

Likewise the last line of that quote. Those enormous Internet sites that ‘encourage’ people to share everything about themselves have absolutely zero responsibility to provide encrypted security for the people who decide to do just that, and it’s a sign of our infantilizing times that anybody would thing otherwise. I know dozens of young people who post every single thing they do and think on Facebook in real-time as they do it and think it; the concept of privacy seems literally inconceivable to them. Which is fine, I guess, and may be the world they’re choosing to live in – but if you make that choice, you can’t then cry foul if it backfires. If you jump into a big river, you can’t blame it if you end up drowning.

So I guess it could be said that I have nobody but myself to blame that I intentionally jumped into Lewis Lapham’s cover essay in the new Harper’s on the dangers of Americans forgetting their history. I knew going in that Lapham can be a windbag of the first order, and I knew going in that such a subject – how kids these days just don’t know nothing, and how egghead academics aren’t helping matters – was guaranteed to bring out the worst in this writer. But I read “Ignorance of Things Past” anyway, so I guess I deserve the frustration that comes from reading Colonel Blimp nonsense like this:

Not being a scholar affiliated with a tenure track, I don’t much care whether the mise en scene is Athens in the fourth century B.C., Paris in the 1740s, or Moscow in the winter of 1905. I look for an understanding of the human predicament, to discover or re-discover how it is with man, who he is and how it is between him and other men. To consult the record in books both ancient and modern is to come across every vice, virtue, motive, behavior, obsession, consequence, joy, and sorrow to be met with on the roads across the frontiers of the millennia. What survives the wreck of empires and the sack of cities is the sound of a human voice confronting the fact of its own mortality.

No use pointing out the shrieking irony of such a passage (and the piece is one big crazy-quilt of such passages), I suppose – how the relentless New Age-y abstracting of history into moralizing sermons like this one about ‘the sound of a human voice confronting the fact of its own mortality’ (or whatever) is exactly why so many Americans know nothing about history, how the knee-jerk equating of detailed knowledge with tenure-track academia is absolutely lethal to the study of anything (and, despite Lapham’s probable protestations, is the most toxic legacy of the George W. Bush interregnum), how claiming you care about history too much to be concerned with the actual facts of history is pretty much fatuous beyond belief … etc. No, no use pointing out any of that – I just hiked up my waders and made it to the opposite shore, to the two glories of the week’s Penny Press … in, of all places, The Atlantic, which I’d only just recently anathematized here at Stevereads (although there was a curious and brilliant piece in that Harper’s – “Byzantium” by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, something I’ll want to re-read a few times before I’m even 100 % certain I understand everything the author was trying to do).

And the added irony? I don’t agree with either of the pieces I so loved and am so praising! First up was the great B. R. Myers reviewing not only Chad Harbach’s much-praised debut novel The Art of Fielding but also diagnosing the very culture of the current book-world that feels compelled to position one or two ‘it’ novels every season for compulsory consumption by party-going literary hipster elite. Myers rightly scorns that self-appointed elite, and it’s certainly a pleasure to watch him scorn some of its past honorees. And he’s right that The Art of Fielding was positioned as just such a book last year (and he’s right that “aren’t we great?” article about it in Vanity Fair didn’t help things any). And it’s great to listen to him fulminate, since virtually nobody does it better:

Enough; writing too much about a novel this slight is as unfair as writing too little. Sometimes the only ay to counter the literary establishment’s corruption of standards is to take a highly praised trifle apart, for one’s own benefit if no one else’s, but as I have said, the publicity that launched The Art of Fielding was a rather innocuous affair. Just the year before, a mediocre book that is already half forgotten had been touted as a classic for the ages, and its author likened to the greatest novelist of all time; that was some serious bullshit. Misrepresenting a dull story as an engrossing one is nothing in comparison.

The only thing he’s wrong about is The Art of Fielding itself! He’s so incensed by the machinery surrounding the novel (although he kindly exempts Harbach himself from having much of a hand in that machinery) that it tends to burr his sensitivity to the gigantic merits of the novel at the center of that machinery. He’s certainly wrong to equate it with a self-regarding pile of dredge like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. And he might even be wrong in his implication that all book-reviewers are name-dropping lemmings incapable of finding even an ‘it’ novel genuinely good, or genuinely great. Some of the people who praised The Art of Fielding so much last year wouldn’t be caught dead at a cocktail party, after all.

The opposite problem cropped up in the issue’s other powerhouse offering: Clive James wrote a gorgeous, rambunctious piece lauding the living daylights out of Dwight Macdonald, not only for the new reprint of Masscult and Midcult but for every bloomin’ word he wrote:

A supreme author of critically gifted prose, Macdonald at his dazzling best was just as open: anything produced by anyone, he would examine for its true quality. That’s what a cultural critic must do, and there are no shortcuts through theory. But deep down he knew that, or he would never have bothered to coin a phrase. Back again because they never really went away, Dwight Macdonald’s essays are a reminder that while very little critical prose is poetic, great critical prose always is: you want to say it aloud, because it fills the mouth as it fills the mind.

This is just as awkward as disagreeing with Myers! I’ve avoided jumping on the Macdonald bandwagon this time around specifically because I’ve always thought his prose was overrated (I read this reprint just recently, and I still think so), and here’s one of my favorite living critics singing hymns of that very praise!

Still, even such unwanted deviations aren’t enough to dim the pleasure of finding two such pieces back to back in a periodical I’d only just recently dismissed as all but intellectually irrelevant (“what the fuck?“) – it was a very pleasant surprise, in light of which I’m prepared to take the high road and forgive both Myers and James. This time.


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 24th, 2011

Desolation (and small consolation) in the Penny Press!

I made my faithful way through the main attractions of the latest Harper’s in order to reach the end. I read about evil Mormons, and I read some bombastic editorializing, and I read an entertaining little squib of a story by Justin Torres (clearly a young author to watch – still prone to gimmicks, still not quite seeing that they are gimmicks, but with a very alluring confidence in his own prose), but the whole time I was holding my mental breath, waiting to get to Zadie Smith’s “New Books” column.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I consider (somewhat to my surprise, having been underwhelmed by her fiction) Smith one of the best fiction reviewers working today (my Open Letters Monthly colleague Sam Sacks would also be on that short list), and it was an amazing, unlooked-for little gift when she suddenly started writing her detailed, lively pieces regularly for Harper’s. She’s one of the only literary journalists who can so naturally meld the personal with the professional that her pieces always feel like sparkling, invigorating talk about books, rather than the considered and reworked essays they are. She differs from Sacks in this way; his own reviews are almost awe-inspiringly removed from the purely personal – they read like scripture: “And Jereboam begat Gath, and Gath begat Askelon, and Askelon thought the metaphorical underpinning of the latest Julian Barnes was splenetic at best,” etc. Smith will sometimes swoop in mid-review from a stunning textual survey to a childhood vignette on her mother’s porch, then back again, whereas watching Sacks attempt such a thing would be as painful as watching William James try out his signature fox-trot on “America’s Got Talent!” … each to their own strengths: neither can Smith match Sacks’ gravitas. An author reading a pan of his work by Smith can put the magazine down and say, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” The same author reading a pan of his work by Sacks (at a surgical 200 words, in the Wall Street Journal) is likely to say, “Well, I think they’re still hiring down at the sawmill.”

I celebrate all these first-rate critics for their differences (except when they differ from ME, as each and every one of the scamps has been known to do at one time or another), and I eagerly look forward to reading their latest thoughts in the venues lucky enough to have them. Sometimes, this can be distressing – in the latest Harper’s, Smith begins by singing the praises of the great science fiction author Ursula Le Guin, and that immediately set off alarm bells. First-rate critics of science fiction are extremely rare, and Smith certainly doesn’t qualify (nor does Sacks – “Due to the number of moons in the night sky, the reader must surmise that Equinox of the Lobster-Men does not, in fact, take place on Earth at all …”). But all begins well enough – she heaps much-deserved superlatives on Le Guin’s two masterpieces, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and only occasionally does she inadvertently reveal her underlying discomfort with the genre. Whenever her snobbish instincts begin to bubble too near the surface, she taps them off by tossing in a term in German – we get Verfremdungseffekt and Jus for no conceivable reason other than Smith wanting to avoid having her fellow Po-Mo lit-snobs pull her hair in the hallway after class. What remains is a solid, inviting appreciation of Le Guin’s work and attitude, which is always welcome.

Smith follows the Le Guin foray up with something in many ways even less comfortable: the latest book by the fantastic Magnus Mills. An author (and, one suspects, a reader) like Smith has absolutely zero chance of ever fully getting an author like Mills, but she’s game to try. It isn’t a pretty attempt – at one point she starts just jerkily reciting the names of Shakespeare plays in order to regain her balance (call it the book-nerd’s “Serenity Now!”), and it’s clear the whole encounter has shaken her a bit. She finishes up by wholesale retreating – she runs to the comforting arms of Rimbaud.

And then she drops her bombshell!

I have to fess up to my own irrational fantasy – the one where it’s possible to write a novel, teach class, bring up a kid, and produce a regular column: at the moment a speculative fiction for me. With regret I must say good-bye to New Books – at least for a while – and welcome my brilliant successor, Larry McMurtry.

I moaned aloud over my zuurkoolstamppot: No! Perhaps the most important thing Smith shares in common with Sacks – and Clive James, and Ferdinand Mount, and Michael Dirda, and Sam Anderson, and Anthony Lane, and even Christopher Hitchens – is perhaps the one essential trait all first-rate literary journalists must have: humility in the presence of the written word. The author under review might screw up, he might misfire, he might be an idiot – but he’s engaged in a holy task, and it trails a holy solemnity behind it. The author might make the biggest mess since God created basset hounds, but the best literary critics take that mess seriously because the act of creation is holy to them (which is why they can get so all-fired angry when a thing is done poorly, or lazily, or insultingly).

Larry McMurtry is 80 years old. He’s the author of two very, very good novels (The Last Picture Show and Buffalo Girls) and two great ones (Lonesome Dove and Moving On) – think about that for a minute: two very, very good novels, and two great ones – that’s more than almost all authors can do, or even approach. This is not a man who can be humble in the presence of the written word, and with good reason: this is a man in whose presence the written word is humble. Which makes him a great choice to write book-commentary for Harper’s or anybody else on Earth – wherever it happens, I’ll buy it. But it makes him a lousy choice to write a regular column dutifully reviewing new books. What’s he supposed to say, about any of them? Larry McMurtry is supposed to set aside time to make notes on a jaggedly-written coming-of-age story set in contemporary Iceland? Larry McMurtry is supposed to patiently deconstruct the way a precocious author’s circus-metaphor goes astray? Larry McMurtry is supposed to be doing this? What’s next, making Herman Melville clerk in a customs house?

It won’t work. McMurtry will stay on-target for one paragraph, perhaps two, and then the book will be forgotten and the rest of the column will be “and then Renny Price and Wally Stegner and I – all three of us drunk as newts – snuck into Katy Anne Porter’s kitchen late at night and commenced a grand attempt to bake her a cake. She flicked the light on and covered us all with a sawed-off shotgun, and it was only a call from Bunny Wilson that saved our hides …” And that will be undeniable fun to read, but the world of serious fiction-criticism will lose a very high-profile venue until such time as McMurtry sees fit to vacate it.

Don’t mistake me: it’ll be great to have more McMurtry prose in the world, in any venue, at any time. But I’m nevertheless wondering if Zadie Smith might respond to a good old-fashioned letter-writing campaign …

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.

August 6th, 2010

Silence and Violence in the Penny Press!


Our regularly scheduled installments of In the Penny Press have been drastically thrown off by the catastrophic technical problems that have beset Stevereads all through this horrible, horrible spring and summer, and the main problem with such an imbalance is that it can only grow greater with every passing day. As the great Seinfeld character Newman said when asked why the U.S. Postal Service spawns so many psychos, “The mail Never Stops …”

An full and accurate catching-up therefore won’t be possible, but I thought I’d re-establish things with a couple of quick notes about some more or less current issues.


Like the latest Vanity Fair, for instance, which boasts not only a creepy photo of Angelina Jolie on the cover but also a creepy photo of Bradley Cooper on the inside (Cooper has got to be the creepiest-looking extremely handsome Hollywood star since Tony Perkins, and probably for the same reason: he never blinks). In other thought-provoking photos, this issue features a curious little juxtaposition: there’s a very expensive two-page spread for the new Pillars of the Earth mini-series on cable TV, which bespeaks a flush and active publicity department. But then a few pages later, there’s one of those little sidebar-interviews the magazine uses to spotlight up-and-coming young stars; this one features Eddie Redmayne, the pouty-mouthed British starling who’s the only thing Pillars of the Earth has in the way of male cutie-patooties (now that Rufus Sewell has ripened into respectability) and who’s lately been the toast of New York for his performance in “Red,” in which he manages to hold his own against the full-gale force of Alfred Molina in scenery-chewing mode. So what does young Eddie have to say for himself? Nothing. The space is given over to the usual hyperventilating prose, but no interview – not even a single quote. Young Eddie agreed to do the photo shoot in Brooklyn, showed up dressed in his best Bohemian casual, and then said not one word worth James Wolcott’s taking down. Which bespeaks a publicity department of an entirely different description.


Much deeper contradictions lurk in the centerpiece of the latest Harper’s, in which Dan Baum writes a gripping, very engaging piece on the gamut of his feelings about buying, registering, training for, and carrying a loaded handgun. This is Harper’s, and its demographic slant is fairly predictable, so Baum’s piece is window-dressed with quite a bit of moral ambivalence. Moral ambivalence on the subject of so-called ‘gun control’ always irks me, I’ll admit, since the very idea of an armed populace is insane and entirely unsanctioned by the U.S. Constitution, but it bothers me even more when the writer doing the hand-wringing is such a bald-faced hypocrite as Baum is. He spends a great deal of his article agonizing over just how he feels about carrying a loaded weapon bought and designed to kill human beings, but one of his concluding paragraphs gives the game away for anybody who still needed a clue:

I will draw my gun from its holster if I reasonably believe myself or another person to be in imminent danger of death or grievous bodily injury. I will fire two bullets into the center of the attacker’s chest. My 125-grain hollowpoints will not only carve permanent cavities through his body, they’ll also send out pressure waves that might rupture his solid organs – his liver, spleen, and kidneys. If he’s going to die, he’ll likely die on the spot or within a day. I will be sure to have my hands empty and raised by the time the police show up, because they’ll be scared and liable to shoot anyone holding a gun. The only way to win a gunfight, goes the saying, is not to be there when it happens. I can expect the police to arrest, handcuff, and jail me. I’m I’m not charged, or I’m acquitted, the attacker or his family will probably sue me. I used hollowpoints, I will say on the stand, because they deliver more energy to the target and are therefore more likely to stop the attack – and the shooting – quickly. Also, being more likely to stay in the attacker’s body or embed themselves in walls without passing through, hollowpoints are less dangerous to bystanders, which is why police use them. I didn’t cock the revolver, yell “Freeze,” or shoot to wound, because if I’d had the time to think about doing any of that I’d have had time to run away. But the poor guy only had a knife, the plaintiff’s lawyer might say, to which I’ll respond that a man with a knife can close twenty-one feet in a second and a half – less time than it takes to draw and fire. Then it will up to a jury to decide my fate. The gun carrier’s ethic holds that it’s better to be tried by twelve than carried by six.


As usual when dealing with gun nuts, there’s so much wrong with this paragraph, this seedy little justification, that you hardly know where to start picking it apart. With the jailhouse-lawyerese of ‘grievous bodily harm,’ when Baum neither knows what that means in a courtroom nor is qualified in any way to determine it in the field? How the ‘The situation left me no choice’ tone is utterly contradicted by the 8-year-old’s relish in those ‘permanent’ cavities? The patronization of excusing the panic of the police on grounds that they’ll be scared, whereas the narrator certainly isn’t at all (“I will fire two bullets into the center of the attacker’s chest …”)? The smarmy two-faced concern of using hollowpoints because they’ll stop the shooting quickly, when the fastest way to do that would be not to start shooting in the first place? Or that unbelievable business of pleading to the jury that if he’d had time to warn – or wound – his attacker, he’d have had time to run … painting for us a scenario in which the poor SOB had time for one and only one course of action: to shoot his ‘target’ dead (two shots, mind you – there simply isn’t time for only one)? We’re told that a man with a knife can close the distance of twenty-one feet in less time than it takes to draw and fire – which means the poor SOB has no choice but to open fire while the ‘attacker’ is still fifty, sixty, maybe even a hundred feet away. Maybe even across the street, but looking really menacing .. painting for us a scenario in which a jumpy citizen unempowered by law enforcement is carrying a lethal weapon that he admits he will only ever use Entirely without thinking. Lovely.

But it’s that final line that bugs me the most, because it so stinks of gun-nut sloganeering. Yeah, man: better to be tried by twelve than carried by six. Yeah. Totally. Probably what the guy you shot and killed was thinking, while he was approaching you, yelling because you side-swiped his car, taking out a pen with which to jot down your insurance information. Bet he didn’t like being carried by six at all, but hey, you’re the victim here.

March 18th, 2010

Flecks of Gold in the Penny Press!

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.

January 22nd, 2010

The Little Old Lady from Connecticut in the Penny Press!

I should state up front that I readily admit to the regular high quality of Harper’s. I’ve been a subscriber for years on and off, and I’ve been a front-to-back reader of every issue longer than most of you have been alive. It must be doing something right, to keep me coming back so long after I’ve abandoned so many other periodicals (and once I leave ‘em, they tend to fold – sorry Omni, nothing personal). They do many things right.

My problem with Harper’s is a certain little old lady from Connecticut. I’m sure you know her: she’s outlived her war hero husband and still lives in their dignified home; she always dresses properly and always counts her change. She utterly dominates the rest of her family, and if she were to admit this uncomfortable fact, she’d chalk it up to wisdom and life experience rather than money and the careful way she doles it out and withholds it.

She doesn’t have to be from Connecticut, of course – I’ve met her in dozens of cities in virtually every state in the Union. But wherever she calls home, she exercises an enormous sway over the editorial policy and content of Harper’s, and it gets wearisome.

You know what this lady likes to read. She watches Fox New religiously, not because it reflects her own beliefs but because it forms her own beliefs – Fox tells her not only what to care about but how to care about it, and as some of you will already know, that particular world-view is as rigid, as reflexive, and as hate-filled as the worst fanatical religious sect in the world. In fact, given that the Fox News ideology has spawned two enormous ongoing wars with hundreds of thousands of casualties, it has a fair claim to being the worst fanatical religious sect in the world.

The tenets of that sect are easy to learn. Just think of the schoolyard, and you’ll have it. Conformity is mandated, bullies rule, and the only form of speech is the taunt.

That lady from Connecticut believes in America, but at the same time she believes America is feckless, stupid, and helplessly at the mercy of ‘them.’ ‘They’ want to cut our military funding and fill the ranks with gays (who will be allowed to marry)(base commanders and ship captains will be forced to perform the ceremonies). ‘They’ want to raise our taxes and spend the money on frilly programs designed to help illegal immigrants. ‘They’ want to outlaw guns and mollycoddle criminals. ‘They’ have all sorts of far-out ideas about the world (and about respecting other cultures, for Heaven’s sake), ideas that just aren’t sensible. If America could just get rid of ‘them,’ it could go back to being the great country it was in 1955.

The lady from Connecticut won’t ever tell you who ‘they’ are – she’s never heard it explicitly from Fox News, and besides, she doesn’t need to tell you – you know. We all know. The gays. The Hispanics. The blacks. The intellectuals. The liberals. The J-e-w-s. She just wishes they’d all go back where they came from, instead of ruining everything for everybody else.

For reasons that surpass my understanding, Harper’s tailors a large percentage of its contents toward pleasing that lady from Connecticut, and it bugs the hell out of me every issue.

Take the latest issue, February 2010.

It goes without saying that the lady from Connecticut hates President Obama. After all, he’s black, liberal, and intellectual (and he might be gay – it’s a mess). And Harper’s chose to open this issue with a screed whose only purpose is to fan that hatred.

I don’t know Roger Hodge, but his ‘Notebook’ piece here, “The Mendacity of Hope,” is the most vile piece of I.Q.-lowering crapola I’ve read in a long time. The opening salvo is all I have the stomach to quote, but it gives you all the tone-setting you need:

A year has passed, and yet we have not been delivered. Some believed that Barack Obama had come to restore the Republic, to return our nation to the righteous path. A new, glorious era in American politics was at hand.
If only that were true. We all can taste the bitterness now.

Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantanamo, restore the constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass.

This is pure Fox News. This is yelling. And it has the same weird, sick effect all schoolyard taunting does: it makes you want to yell back. No matter how earnest or intelligent you are, it makes you want to yell at Roger Hodge “Shut up! Shut up!” But you know such a response is no more helpful than the original incitement, so you end up saying nothing – but that’s frustrating too, since it gives taunting the field.

As those of you who are old enough to remember Spy magazine will recall, the famous Harper’s Index has always specialized in taunting innuendo. ‘They’ rule here entirely – Harper’s Index is pretty much exclusively an ongoing rap-sheet for ‘them.’ Under the guise of bare-bones factual graphing (which Spy used to gleefully expose as one cooked quasi-statistic after another), the Index pushes the Fox mentality more strongly than any other part of the magazine. And the dark genius of it is that it prompts the reader to join in the math:

Chance that a would-be enlistee in the U.S. military aged 17 to 24 is rejected because of a criminal record: 1 in 20.

Chance that he or she is rejected because of physical unfitness: 1 in 3.

Conclusion: They’re filling our army with criminals! And repeat.

But as maddening as such tactics are, they aren’t as bad as the magazine’s ‘Readings’ feature, because that feature can often contain gems, short pieces that really are worth your attention. But those gems are invariably lodged cheek-to-cheek with xenophobic race-baiting out-of-context snippets designed to make the lady’s Connecticut beach house seem to her like the only sane place left on Earth.

This issue’s ‘Readings’ starts off with an excerpt from Jaron Lanier’s fantastic, heartfelt book You Are Not A Gadget, and that’s good. But such things are always counterbalanced by excerpts that reinforce the lady’s belief that the rest of the world is populated by silly little foreigners.

The piece titled “POTUS Blossom” is a perfect example. It’s setup is allegedly this:

From 3,290 questions submitted last fall by readers of the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua for President Barack Obama in advance of his November 16 town-hall meeting in Shanghai. Translated from the Chinese by Colin Jones.

Of those 3,290 questions, the Harper’s editors chose the ones most likely to please the lady’s preconceptions, with predictable results:

Tell me, how do you like Eastern beauties?

Can you tell us if UFOs exist? What is really going on at Area 51? I think Americans need to explain this to the rest of the world.

Can I discuss with you China’s purchasing Hawaii with U.S. dollars?

If you had to choose three flowers to describe your wife and daughters, what would they be?

Nowhere does Harper’s come out and say ‘See how funny and odd those little Chinese are?’ But what other purpose can there possibly be in translating one ‘clueless foreign’ question after another, especially if you know your readers will have no access to the remaining 3,240 questions? The purpose couldn’t be clearer: it’s to reassure that lady in Connecticut that she’s right to think foreigners are weird, childlike, and none too bright.

Constantly issuing those coded reassurances is demeaning to Harper’s reputation as one of the greatest magazines in history, and reading them every single month – knowing exactly what they’re for and seeing exactly how effectively they’re made – is demeaning for any reader who’s ever had an honest, non-fearful thought about the world.

The rest of these ‘Readings’ are no better. A long excerpt in which poet Derek Walcott windily muses back and forth over his word-choice in one of his poems isn’t designed to give that lady from Connecticut a glimpse inside the creative process: it’s designed to reinforce her belief that all modern poetry is bunk. The excerpt relaying a Denver ballot-initiative calling for an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission is designed to reinforce her worry that there are loonies out there who not only believe in UFOs but want to force her to believe in them too (the fact that it’s a ballot initiative and not just a pamphlet is crucial here). The deconstructed radical-form short story by Aura Estrada is meant to reinforce her belief that all ‘modern’ fiction makes no sense. This stuff is assembled here to give wry, knowing documentation to that lady’s belief that the world is one crazy, incomprehensible place.

The main meat of the issue starts on page 31, and things immediately improve. For all its shameful pandering, Harper’s has a core of actual literary excellence – there is a reason why readers like me keep coming back. Mark Schapiro’s report on ‘the carbon-trading shell game’ exposes some corporate ‘green’ practices that deserve exposing and only dances to the line of calling all ‘green’ procedures a fraud but doesn’t actually cross that line. Shahan Mufti’s account of an unlikely real estate boom in Pakistan is wonderfully written:

Baluchistan, like the rest of Pakistan, was slowly being chewed away by wars, big and small, internal and international. I had flown to this town on the Persian Gulf with a dream of making my home. There, on top of Koh-e-Batil, it dawned on me that, like Major –General MacGregor before me, I had become tangled in a Great Game. Nothing will induce me to come again.

Rivka Galchen’s short story “Once an Empire” is dumb but not offensively so, and Darryl Pinckney’s piece on becoming addicted to As the World Turns, though cowardly (you have to read the piece to find out that it’s a gay love story plot line that primarily intrigues Pinckney; that fact isn’t mentioned in the table of contents or the piece’s teaser-line), is entertaining. The photo portfolio on the Afghani sport of quail-fighting is beautiful and only mildly fraudulent (it flatly states “the birds do not fight to the death” and this is flatly untrue – it’s only there to calm the nerves of the lady from Connecticut), and there is the oddly comforting presence of that same old two-tone box ad for Walter Karp’s The Politics of War. The ad has been right there, advertising the same book, in every issue of Harper’s for the last ten years. The sheer inexplicable strangeness of that fact has long since passed the point of no return.

There are book reviews in the back, some of them good, some very frustrating – and one that’s both.

You get this dual reaction – thrilled and frustrated at once – when a really talented book reviewer trashes something you liked (this happens to me on an almost monthly basis over at Open Letters). I got that this time around with Wyatt Mason’s fantastic hatchet-job of Joshua Ferris’ new novel The Unnamed, which I thought was terrific. Mason clearly disagrees:

Whatever the underlying cause, the routine inconsistency and incompetence of the novel’s most basic feature – its prose – undermines the reader’s ability to take the book seriously, as seriously as it must be for its premise to take imaginative hold.

It’s brutal, honest, entirely misguided brilliance from start to finish – it made me want to call Josh and make sure he’s holding up OK under the barrage, and it simultaneously made me want to call Wyatt and get him to write something for Open Letters. It’s a thrilling little demonstration that probing, non-cheerleading literary criticism still has its place in the sun.

And every issue of Harper’s can be relied upon to do this one better, to serve up something truly magnificent. In this issue it’s the short essay called “The Company of Drawings” by John Berger. At first it reads like a pompous makeweight phoned in by a giant:

We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.

But gradually, in layered vignettes, always returning to that ‘we who draw’ koan, Berger shapes a piece about the valiant indeterminacy of art that is deeply, richly rewarding.

The regularity of that euphoric little moment in Harper’s keeps me coming back – and every time I do, my patience is tested that much further by the magazine’s idiotic final goodbye-wave to that lady in Connecticut.

Of course I refer to the moronic ‘Findings’ feature on every issue’s last page. Unlike the Harper’s Index, these allegedly scientific little summaries are offered without any verification, even fraudulent verification. Instead, we get one lie after another stacked like cordwood:

NFL quarterbacks play better if they are better looking

In China (them again!)’s Hubei province, a gang of macaques trained in kung fu turned on their human master.

Studies of birds and mammals showed that males have more consistent personalities.

Researchers discovered four new species of king crab, concluded that female leatherback turtles are right-flippered, and revealed that the pitch of blue whale songs was getting lower.

Gerbils in Israel are more cautious than those in Jordan.

Needless to say, all these things are plucked so far out of their original context as to constitute simple falsehoods, as are the rest of this and every issue’s ‘Findings’ – not only are they designed to make that lady in Connecticut giggle a little (not an unworthy goal in itself – lord knows, it’s good for her), they’re designed to make her distrust not just fringe science but all science. It’s the George W. Bush years, caught in amber, on display every issue.

It’s hard to feel unmixed delight about a magazine that leaves such a rancid taste in your mouth at the end of every issue. No doubt it makes the lady from Connecticut smile her little self-satisfied smile, content for one more month in knowing that as crazy and deplorable as the world might be, at least the right kind of people are taunting the right targets, that there’s nothing so “smart” it can’t be reduced to an excerpt or a statistic.

But I, for one, wish Harper’s would cancel her damn subscription and give the rest of us more attention. Some of the greatest poetry and prose in the world was written by those funny little Chinese, after all, and we already know that only crackpots believe in UFOs. The editorial voices that routinely find brilliance like that John Berger piece should be given free rein over every issue. She’ll find something else to read.