Posts from January 2015

January 6th, 2015

Yesterday’s News in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

Beginning any new year always means batting clean-up on the odds and ends of the old year, and this latest transition was no different: I wrapped up my annals of the Penny Press in mid-December, but the Penny Press didn’t know that – it kept pouring into the sainted Open Letters Monthly Post Office box regardless of what bloviating I was doing here at Stevereads, and so it’s only natural that there’d be stragglers.

tlsTake the December 19 & 26 issue of the TLS, for instance, in which Kathryn Murphy does a very good review of the English-language translation of Ivan Klima’s My Crazy Century, although she points out “cultural references are not glossed, and the essays, which appeared interspersed with the biographical chapters in the original, are presented without any explanations.” I reviewed Klima’s book here and have thought about it quite a bit since then (I haven’t bothered to hunt for it on my bookshelves, since I think we both know it won’t be there anymore)(*sigh*).

Or, in the same issue, a very engaging review of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great (which I reviewed here under its timid American title Napoleon: A Life) by the redoubtable Victor David Hanson, who points out quite rightly, “It is a tribute to Roberts the distinterested scholar and the fair-minded historian that there is evidence collected in this vast and intellectually honest work that can be used to question the author’s own favourable assessments of Napoleon’s career.” Certainly I’ve been questioning plenty of Roberts’ assessments in the weeks since I reviewed it.

And a real highlight among the straggles was the cover story for the January/February issue of The Atlantic, a stinging essay by James Fallows called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” in which he analyzes in damning detail deep-seated flaws in atlantic coverboth the philosophy and the tactics of the U.S. military, and he very much spreads some blame to the American populace itself:

Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.

The article includes a very powerful insert by Robert Scales, who links his own experiences commanding troops in combat in Vietnam with the current shocking state of U.S. military equipment:

With few modifications, the weapon that killed my soldiers almost 50 years ago is killing our soldiers today in Afghanistan. General Ripley’s ghost is with us still. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths. Over the next few decades, the Department of Defense will spend more than $1 trillion on F-35 stealth fighter jets that after nearly 10 years of testing have yet to be deployed to a single combat zone. But bad rifles are in soldiers’ hands in every combat zone.

True, the enormous majority of the rest of the issue’s contents was decidedly lackluster (and let’s not even talk about its literary coverage in these bleak post-Schwarz days), but that piece by Fallows will be in the much-contested running for the Best of the Penny Press honors here at Stevereads in Decemeber.







September 19th, 2014

Mansplaining in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

As I foresaw, Sarah Boxer’s ridiculous article in the July/August issue of Atlantic drew ample responses. In her article, Boxer does the full-Millions take on why so many mothers are missing from Disney movies. Naturally, her explanation in “Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?” involved a vast evil male conspiracy, and in the new Atlantic some readers dare to take issue with her. Jim Jordan, for instance, from Charlotte, North Carolina, writes:

Despite the interesting observations in this article, there is no conspiracy, subconscious or otherwise, to negate mothers. The elimination of mothers in fantasy stories is a disguised compliment to motherhood.

The understood principle is that a good mother makes life so easy that nothing is impossible. If you have a mother’s ever-present guidance and wonderful encouragement, you can do anything. There is no challenge to build a story around if Mother stays, so Disney tells her to go.

Dads, on the other hand, are often viewed by children as aloof in real life. Kids secretly hope Dad would prove fun, caring, and plenty strong if circumstances forced him to get involved, so Disney makes their dreams come true. Using the simplest plot device (killing Mom), Disney brings forth a darling Daddy and allows a nearly impossible quest to take over the narrative.

Likewise Wayne Grant (he’s from Raleigh, North Carolina) points out some fairly obvious non-conspiracy theories:atlantic

In Sarah Boxer’s musings on the high mortality rate of cartoon mothers, she correctly identifies this interesting fact, but completely misunderstands why it is so. She describes cartoons as “reality-defying” for leaning on the device of a capable, caring father to advance the story, while offing the mothers. Does she really think cartoons are intended to be reality-affirming? What these motherless stories represent is the novelty of the capable and present Dad. By her own statistics, fathers are exclusively in charge of only 8 percent of U.S. households. In the real world of kids, the primary ruler is almost always Mom. So how can you have kids find the courage to face peril – the hallmark of cartoons – if Mom is there to make everything all right? She has to be done in! This is not “misogyny made cute.” This is coming-of-age Storytelling 101, and a recognition of the central role mothers play in real life.

And Sarah Boxer’s response?

The first two letters, both written by men, are lovely examples of what is now popularly known as mansplaining … both drip with condescension; both damn with faint praise (using interesting as an accolade); and both employ declarative sentences to tell me how it really is.

Things like this just make me sigh – and not in a good way. It neatly displays so many of the things I hate about modern-day pseudo-feminism, mainly that it has a congenital inability to pick worthwhile fights (as is immediately demonstrated by the fact that every pseudo-feminist who read that line saw – physically saw – only the word “genital”). While she’s complaining about the dripping condescension of the two letter-writers, she’s busy dripping plenty of her own, in this case in the form of a ready-made term to mock anything of any kind said by somebody with testicles: that stupid word “mansplaining.” She mocks her correspondents for using declarative sentences – as if, what? They’re supposed to write their letters in strings of anagrams? I seem to recall her own article was chock-full of declarative sentences – was she “mansplaining” to her readers? And her reaction if either of those men had called her article “lovely”? Yeesh.


April 20th, 2013

Park Street Papers!

park street papers

Our book today is Park-Street Papers, a charming 1908 volume made by Bliss Perry, the sweetest-natured man ever to run the venerable Atlantic Monthly (with all  due apologies to the shade of the almost equally venerable Edward Weeks, who ran a wonderful shop for a long time but who would have readily admitted that he could have fuzzy days just like plain folks). Perry helmed the magazine from 1899 to 1909 and was its genial “Toastmaster,” writing signed and unsigned commentary and patter for every issue, dealing with the endless stream of authors who visited Number 4 Park Street, trying to keep the budget from flying apart at the seams, and maintaining throughout it all the disposition of a saint, often stealing quiet moments to sit and look out The Atlantic’s big bow windows at the city beyond:

They look down upon the mild activities of Park Street, to the left upon the black lines of people streaming in and out of the Subway, in front toward the Common with its fountain that never flows and its Frog Pond gleaming through the elms, and to the right toward the monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Is all this fairly typical of American life – its work and play, its resourcefulness and its carelessness, its tolerant respect for the past, its posthumous honors gladly paid to leaders of forlorn hopes? Or is it merely a view of Boston, something local, provincial; and our outlook from Park Street windows, instead of summarizing and symbolizing the American, the human spectacle, is it only “Frogpondinium” – as scoffers have dubbed it – after all?

He himself was never in any real doubt as to the answer to that question, and the excerpt – from early on in Park-Street Papers, shows both how friendly his prose always was and how easy it was. He was fond  – over-fond, perhaps – of those big, simple writing conceits that smarter authors tend to avoid: organizing a piece around the things he can see from his desk, organizing a piece around the view out his windows, organizing a piece as though it were a banquet – that sort of thing came ready-made to his hand.

Most of the pieces collected in Park-Street Papers began life as “Atlantic Prologues” in the magazine itself. There are grinning tributes to the magazine, as well as several examples of Perry’s strongest suit as a writer: long, loving profiles of authors. He writes with insight and affection about such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and he’s at his best – in fact it’s the best thing in this book – when writing about Francis Underwood, “The Editor Who Was Never An Editor,” a quiet, unassuming man who was present at the legendary 1857 dinner party at which The Atlantic was created (these things seem always to happen over food) and who remained something of a presiding spirit there for many years.

Perry was just such a presiding spirit himself, and although he only served for a decade, he did more than anybody else to set The Atlantic’s attitude, lucy reads park street papersthat curious mixture of serenity and agitation that has always characterized it at its best. His secret? Avoid the pointlessness of slavish imitation in search of a larger audience:

The Atlantic has many competitors. The more the better. Each of them fulfills some public service peculiar to itself – even if it be only to serve as an “awful example.” Each of them reaches many persons whom the Atlantic cannot reach without changing its character and aim. The colored illustrations of one, the unimpeachable innocuousness of another, the agility of a third in jumping to the majority side of every question, do not arouse the Atlantic’s envy.

Park-Street Papers brims with just that kind of quiet confidence, in the faith that good writing will always find good readers. Ironically, that faith isn’t borne out by Perry’s own writing (who reads Whittier anymore? Or Aldrich? Or Perry himself, for all that?), but it doesn’t matter: the faith itself is the important thing. And if you’re lucky enough to come across this merry, optimistic volume on the bargain carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop (or, you know, the electronic equivalents), don’t hesitate to spend the $3 – it’s a glimpse into a publishing, writing, and editing world that no longer exists and whose like may not come again. Here lives again a list of authors whose names were once on the lips of every conscientious reader, and here also lives again a Boston of a cruder, gentler, slower time – also now gone, except for some of that remaining exquisitely reserved Yankee architecture.

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.

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.


November 14th, 2011

An Additional, Deeper Irony in the Penny Press!

Perhaps the greatest irony in the week’s Penny Press also cropped up in The Atlantic, where historian Taylor Branch responds to some of the many reader opinions generated by his recent article about college athletics. In that article, Branch outlines the enormous amounts of money colleges make off their ‘amateur’ players, who are technically student-athletes and who don’t get paid. Certainly there are iniquities in that system, but Branch chose to underscore them in an untenable way: by reviving the old college-athletes-as-slaves argument and hammering on it.

Such a gambit raised a few hackles, most certainly including my own, and in this latest issue, Branch responds:

Let me respond to Steve Donoghue on the slavery analogy. He is one of many readers who find it extreme and inaccurate, but I stand by the comparison because I think it illuminates patterns of thought. My analogy was qualified, of course. College athletes are not literally slaves. However, they have in common the fact that immense wealth has been create from their skilled, diligent labor, in such a way that denies them the full rights of American citizenship.

… Anyone who wonders how slavery survived so long would do well to ponder the NCAA. It rests on fiat an inertia. People shy away from considering its basic justification, because there is none. Similarly, people once despised the abolitionists, not in defense of slavery in principle, but precisely because they were upset that the abolitionists were right.


My grandmother would have said “Stop digging before you bury yourself.” First, you can’t stand by a comparison that’s flawed not at its fringes but at its heart, any more than you can qualify an analogy by vitiating its central tenet. College athletes aren’t denied any “rights” as American citizens that all other college students aren’t also denied; the “rights” to which Branch is alluding have been specifically abrogated by the athletes themselves, when they entered their colleges and Big Ten universities with their eyes wide open. Those athletes don’t get nothing in exchange for their physical skills – and they get a whole hell of a lot more than the slaves in Branch’s analogy did: not just food and shelter, but a free ride at their school (often to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars that non-ball-bouncing students actually have to pay) – a degree from Yale or Brown or Stanford. Yes, the schools exploit the popularity of college athletics to generate money off the ‘diligent’ work of these athletes, but the ‘pattern of thought’ illustrated is greed, not ownership. And there’s plenty of greed to go around; as I pointed out in that earlier post, the entire superstructure about which Branch achieves such moral indignation is built on the greed of its student athletes and their parents. And their greed would be utterly unrecognizable to the slaves in Branch’s analogy – they’re hungry not to be free but to be multi-millionaires in four years or less. They know that they’re not allowed to demand a multi-million salary while they’re students – they voluntarily become students anyway, to play the long odds for those multi-millions the instant they graduate. There is no part of that reality which compares in any way with slavery, a system whose inhabitants entered into it involuntarily, with no hope of freedom, much less mind-staggering wealth. What Branch should have written this time around was “Look, the more I researched the iniquities and inequalities of college sports, the more hot under the collar I got, and in rage I wrote those slavery-comparison bits, but I see now I went too far.”

And even such a backtrack wouldn’t explain that second quoted paragraph! People despised abolitionists because they hated the fact that abolitionists were right? As with the slavery analogy, so too here: it’s almost possible to forget that the writer of this nonsense is in fact one of the greatest historians America has ever produced, author of the incredible America in the King Years trilogy that should be required reading at every college and university in the country (this is, of course, the deeper irony). I know he must know this, but after reading that second quoted paragraph, I feel compelled to point it out anyway: Racists hated abolitionists because they thought those abolitionists were “nigger-lovers” – most certainly NOT because they secretly knew slavery was wrong. Slavery in America flourished because bigots actively used the Bible and majority tyranny to enforce it – not because of some self-loathing Freudian contortion.

I’ve almost never read such a statement from a working professional, and I can’t account for it. We’re all entitled to our occasional howlers, but yeesh – to put it mildly, William Lloyd Garrison would have been amazed to learn that the mobs screaming for his blood were actually agreeing with him …



July 18th, 2011

Glimmers of Hope (and a Chaser of Outrage) in the Penny Press!

It’s that time again: The Atlantic’s annual Fiction Issue has reached newsstands, serving as both a reminder that the magazine doesn’t publish a new short story in every issue like they used to but also as, presumably, a barometer of their findings in the field. Or maybe that second assumption isn’t right: since the magazine doesn’t publish fiction anymore, maybe every one of the stories in this issue was produced by special request. It doesn’t seem likely to me – some of these authors aren’t exactly marquee names – but in any case, a group of editors had to sit in council and decide to present these nine stories to their readers, and that betokens judgement.

Such judgement is largely borne out by the issue, I must say. In any special presntation like this, there’ll usually be a flat background-hum of stories that are only so-so. That shouldn’t be true – especially when it’s The Atlantic and especially when it’s only once a year, there ought to be no so-so stories in this batch at all. But when we consider the rather dismal state of workshop-generated commercial fiction these days (too vast a company to list in detail, but a glance at corporate ‘We Recommend’ lists of any large retail bookseller ought to give you a good idea of the gloppy, lachrymose muck that currently dominates the market), I suppose we should be lucky the entire fiction issue isn’t background-hum.

Instead, there are distinct high notes. True, we have Stuart Dybek doing his immigrant shtick and, as always, trusting it to carry far more weight than its tricky knees will support. And true, we have somebody named Lysley Tenorio doing pretty much the same thing (although she displays a good deal more sensitivity to written English than Dybek), with pretty much the same results. But the issue starts off with something much worthier: a story called “The Last Copy” by Ariel Dorfman, about a man who’s finally published his novel – using a vanity press – and then belatedly realizes that a copy might eventually reach the virtuous young nun with whom he had a torrid one-night-stand years ago. He used that one-night-stand as the barely-disguised basis of Chapter 2 of his book, and the thought that she might read it and lose her good opinion of him (he feels hers might be the last good opinion of him anywhere in the world) prompts him to a frenzied quest to reclaim every last one of the 1,000 copies he had printed. That’s a nifty little idea for a story, and Dorfman’s tossed-off side-characters along the way (the feckless self-publisher, the pompous Grand Old Book Critic) are priceless – and the ending is almost pure schmaltz, which I actually like in a short story (and have been known to use myself, on the infrequent occasions when I write in that format). It was a wise editorial decision to start this issue off with “The Last Copy” – it makes a very good first impression (as does Tomer Hanuka’s winsome cover, a quick, slightly disturbing little tribute to the consoling power of reading).

In any issue like this, you’re going to expect to find a couple of Big Names slumming for a quick pay-check, and this particular issue is guilty: both Wendell Berry and Jerome Charyn show up for the occasion. Charyn’s effort in last year’s issue was stronger than his diffuse and blunted offering this year, “Little Sister,” which never quite delivers on the punch of its premise. But Berry’s simple, stripped-clean story “Sold” is remarkably evocative, an old woman remembering the years of her life and marriage, gradually ushering the reader into a mindframe of pure acceptance that feels so natural only because the author has whittled the sentiments to make it so (that, plus Mother Nature – I suppose it’s just faintly possible that Berry himself is no longer the black-haired rock-ribbed young hick I so vividly recall). “Sold” is the very opposite of slumming: it’s an exactingly personal little revelation.

photo by greg ruffing

Two of the other stories are very good, though not quite as good (and barred from it, I’m guessing, not by a stronger strain of autobiography than Berry uses but by less confident control of it): Sarah Turcotte’s “Scars” relates the decision of a woman who’s had breast cancer surgery to cover her scars with elaborate tattoos, and Turcotte does a good job eliciting the faintly sordid sensuality that always exists between tattoo artist and customer; and Elizabeth McKenzie’s “Someone I’d Like You to Meet” shares a quick vignette (deftly quick – McKenzie has a fantastic ear for the pacing of a story) about a young woman bringing her intended home to meet her milksop father and her complex, almost unbelievably prickly mother – a hackneyed enough premise entirely saved by the strength of McKenzie’s convictions – and her ear for dialogue:

Thus her mother spoke. “I just want you to know that in general, when a man wants to make a good impression on a woman’s family, he bends over backward to do it. He thinks ahead. He leaves nothing to chance. He looks around the bathroom, he cleans up the hairs he left in the sink, and, most of all, he makes sure he doesn’t leave his towel wadded up on the floor for his future mother-in-law to find.”

“He liked you a lot,” Veblen boldly conjectured.

“He did? Nobody likes me when they meet me.”

Veblen replied faithfully. “Not true.”

“He didn’t have a field day, spinning theories about me?”

“No, Mom. He could barely speak.”

“Have him take some antihistamines for the dermatitis, and some anti-inflammatories for the muscle pain.”

“And call you in the morning?,” Veblen replied.

“Honey, if this is what you want, we’re happy for you. Are you sure this is what you want?”

Veblen looked into the bedroom, where Paul was now snoring, his body plastered in a pinkish-grey liniment, and just at that moment he twitched decisively.

“What more could I want?” she said.

illustration by rory kurtz

The best story in this issue also springs from a hackneyed plot: Austin Bunn’s “How to Win an Unwinnable War” is about young Sam, child of divorce, who compensates for the fractured nature of his home life by obsessing about the precise mechanics of nuclear war. Conservatively, in my life I’ve read 50 short stories with the exact same premise, but I don’t begrudge that – it’s a good premise, and I don’t fault writers for going straight to good premises. But I expect compensations – the lazier the premise, the more energy I expect from the execution.

Bunn doesn’t disappoint. In fact, he seems to make a dare out of not disappointing, by crowding his work with as many short story cliches as he can think of – the slutty divorced mother, the bluff, oblivious dad, the wacky professor, the caustic wheelchair-kid, etc. – and then somehow making the whole thing feel original and gripping, as poor inarticulate Sam tries desperately to get what he needs from the clueless adults all around him:

“Every Goliath has a David,” the professor said to him.

“Who’s that?” Sam asked.

“Just a kid,:” the professor said, “who changed history.” Though this was his way of making Sam feel better, stories like this one only made him sick to his stomach. He doesn’t want to change history, just outlive it.

The last story in the issue is called “The Great Zero” by Jonathon Walter, and it’s the only one in the issue about which I can tell you almost nothing – because I got no deeper into it than the first line, which goes like this: “A farmer stood in the center of a field that was really no field at all with his hands in his pockets.”

It wasn’t just that the sentence was clunky and childishly ungrammatical – it was the fact that this was the first sentence of one of only nine short stories to make it into The Atlantic‘s annual Fiction Issue. Not only did Jonathon Walter have to decide on that sentence and keep it through the course of who knows how many revisions, but his ‘first readers’ all had to see it – you literally can’t miss it – and either like it or keep their objections to themselves. And more than that, every single person involved in selecting this story for this issue – from the first readers at The Atlantic to some assistant editor to the editor in charge of the whole shebang – had to see that line and somehow, for some reason, nod approvingly instead of handing it back to the author for a quick, obvious revision. And I can guess the reason for that domino-chain of neglect: the virulent sub-genre of hick-lit (as practiced by its various high priests over the last twenty years) has led both young, reverse-pretentious writers who don’t know any better and editors who should know better to think that if a sentence (or, gawd forbid, an entire book) tries to evince a certain ungainly, folksy charm, it gets a hall-pass from grammar and syntax. I thumbed right past the rest of the story (something about the Dust Bowl? I didn’t look too closely, for fear of encountering more fields wearing pockets), but the proud survival of that line made me briefly furious with every ‘creative writing’ teacher Jonathon Walter has ever encountered in his life.

And ‘briefly angry with creative writing teachers’ was precisely the wrong mental position to be in when I turned the page from Walter’s story and found the issue’s essay (the only one, this time – provided we pass over the one-page …. thing … that John Barth …. produced – it being fairly obviously wrong either to call the process ‘writing’ or to call the result a ‘piece’), “Don’t Write What You Know” by Bret Anthony Johnston. That this essay is a great big pile of crap isn’t totally surprising – like little remoras to basking whale sharks, Fiction Issues will invariably draw sucker-mouthed parasites in the form of bloviations about writing. But even so, I was taken aback by just how big and multi-layered a pile of crap this piece was – Johnston is now the head of the creative writing department at some obscure East Coast school, so, silly me, I briefly thought he might know what he’s talking about. And maybe in some other context he does – but in this essay, any scraps of such knowledge are choked and then buried under piles and piles of hypocrisy.

“Don’t Write What You Know,” our wacky professor instructs his students – what! Wow! DON’T write what you know, when, like, everybody they’ve ever talked to has told them they SHOULD write what they know? Radical!

Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.

Fair enough, and as someone who reads oceans of self-published, often extremely amateurish fiction, I can wholly agree with the point.

But not with the person making it, since Johnston has never, in his entire brief writing career, written a single word that wasn’t completely one-to-one autobiographical (including, of course, this essay). He says, “In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I’ve been accused of writing what I know on a good many occasions” – but it’s a laughable equivocation, or it would be if it weren’t so infuriating. Like so many freelance essayists today, Johnston has convinced himself that “In the interests of full disclosure” is some kind of magical Get Out of Jail Free card, for all the world as if a guy taking the witness stand in a murder trial would be commended for his honesty if he opened by saying, “In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you: I shot the deceased in the head repeatedly, until he was dead. Now … your questions?” All Johnston has ever done as a bill-paying adult has been to write what he knows – so his hypocrisy offends the nostrils of the Almighty.

Which would be bad enough, but then he adds prickish behavior to the stew. I knew already that creative writing teachers are inclined to be pricks (it comes from their conviction that they’ve got something better to do with their time), so I guess it was too much to hope that a smarmy hypocrite would take the high road. But even so, this was hard to take:

To be perfectly clear: I don’t tell students not to ferret through their lives for potential stories. I don’t want, say, a soldier who served in Iraq to shy away from writing war stories. Quite the opposite. I want him to freight his fiction with rich details of combat. I want the story to evoke the texture of the sand and the noise of a Baghdad bazaar, the terrible and beautiful shade of blue smoke ribboning from the barrel of his M-4. His experience should liberate his imagination, not restrict it.

So let’s make sure we got the point of all that, shall we? That poor grunt from Iraq should certainly feel free to ‘freight’ his fiction with what he knows – but all you Atlantic readers out there should remember that I, Bret Anthony Johnston, can offhandedly and without really trying do a much, much better job evoking that ribboning M-4 smoke. I might never have seen any kind of combat – might even quail at the thought of yanking a nose-hair – but I wanted to make sure everybody knew who the real mensch here was. Yeesh.

And you know what? I could forgive even the prickish showboating if there were solid advice anywhere in this piece. But instead, we get this:

When a fiction writer has a message to deliver, a residue of smugness is often in the prose, a distressing sense of the story’s being rushed, of the author’s going through the motions, hurrying the characters toward whatever wisdom awaits on the last page. As a reader, I feel pandered to and closed out. Maybe even a little bullied. My involvement in the story, like the characters’, becomes utterly passive. We are there to follow orders, to admire and applaud the author’s supposed insight.

“Stories fueled by intentions,” we’re told, “never reach their boiling point.” What-all the story’s writer is supposed to do if he isn’t actually intending to tell a story couldn’t be plainer: he should be gazing at himself in the mirror. With teachers like this, with philosophies like this, suddenly the graduates of these kinds of programs become more comprehensible. Just as distressing, but more comprehensible.

Still! Only one essay in a roster of eleven slots! That’s very nearly a full dozen short stories, which would, if achieved, be the equivalent of one year’s worth of monthly fiction. This issue should be commended for that if nothing else – that, and the fact that it’s sundered its unholy alliance with fascist Canadian faux-festivals and gone back to the tried-and-true money-losing expedient of good old-fashioned publisher ads …


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.