Monthly Archives: October 2013

On Seriousness

Last week I took New Yorker critic James Wood to task for his review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch the tone of which struck me as unusually condescending. I’m spending a lot of time these days thinking about the unconscious bias at play in the way readers assess the work of women. I think there’s still a tendency to trivialize the work of female authors, particularly books that aren’t overtly “literary,” but lean toward the fantastical or focus exclusively on the domestic sphere. I felt while reading Wood’s critique that he was guilty of not taking Tartt seriously and I ascribed this, at least in part, to the fact that she’s a woman. My sense was that a similarly “fabulous” book by a male writer would have been treated as a legitimate attempt, whereas Wood wasn’t shy about saying that he wished Tartt had written a different book altogether.

Then a reader of the blog called me out for rushing to judgement and I started thinking more about it. The truth is that I haven’t read The Goldfinch. And it now strikes me as slightly unfair to imply that Wood let sexism color his review without having actually read the book in question. The reader who reached out to me maintained that Wood has a known prejudice against “unserious” books and that this probably explained his dismissal of it. Okay, fair enough. I’m going to reserve final judgment and read the book. Regardless, the whole thing has sparked a conversation in my head about the idea of “serious” versus “unserious” books. What exactly defines a “serious” book? And who gets to decide? Who, in the end, does it serve to place books within a critical hierarchy?

There are growing number of people out there who believe that traditional criticism has outlived its usefulness. They charge marquee critics, like Wood, with showering an undue amount of praise on a very particular stripe of book: the unabashedly literary novel, when the truth is fewer and fewer people are actually reading books like this. Over and over again, the critics champion the work of a literary darling straight out of Iowa or Syracuse, and over and over again readers overrule their choice by voting with their wallets. Or so the logic goes.

The emergence of social media has been a real boon for this sort of populist approach to books. Pockets of like-minded readers and writers are now banding together using platforms like Goodreads to form informal book lobbies that bypass the critics entirely. And in an era when publishing budgets are shrinking and publicity duties fall increasingly to authors themselves, this has been an invaluable tool. Thanks to Twitter, many books that would otherwise have sat collecting dust on basement remainder tables have found their audience. I don’t think anyone can argue that this is a bad thing. Books are written to be read and every book should be afforded a chance to find its watermark. Not every author sets out to innovate; some are in it simply to entertain, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But (and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming) just because “popfiction” is assuming more legitimacy doesn’t mean that the critics no longer have a real role to play.

In a recent interview with Scratch magazine, Jonathan Franzen suggested that the internet and social media are in danger of democratizing fiction to such an extent that they threaten to erode our powers of discrimination, and I think he’s on to something. In our push toward inclusiveness we are sometimes guilty of lumping the great in with the merely passable and that’s a problem. All books deserve to be read, but not all of them deserve to be celebrated. We still want to elevate work that we recognize to be exceptional, even in those instances when this work doesn’t excite the appetites of the layreader.

If there is a poster child for the literary melting pot approach, it’s Jennifer Weiner, who, in 2010, criticized The New York Times for failing to sufficiently cover both women’s fiction and popular fiction. For evidence, Weiner pointed toward the disparity between the paper’s coverage of Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom and comparable work being done by female writers. Consequently, Franzen has become the stand-in for the sexist literary establishment (a state of affairs that starts to seem more than a little suspect when you look at how much energy he has devoted to calling attention to the work of female writers like Alice Munro, Christina Stead, Paula Fox and, yes, Edith Wharton). In the Scratch interview, Franzen talks about being the focal point of so much ire:

I can only do what I’ve always done, which is try to be gender-balanced in the books I recommend, the authors I write criticism about, the characters I put into my novels. I wince as much as anyone else does when I read the table of contents of Harper’s or the New York Times Book Review and see mostly male names. The point where I draw the line is when politics starts dictating literary judgments. I don’t think we should call pedestrian writing great, or vice versa, just because it makes someone feel better.

He then goes on to defend the role of “traditional publishers and reviewing” in helping to separate the literary wheat from the chaff.

People have, predictably, attacked Franzen for daring to point out the inherent shallowness of technologies like Twitter, but I think they’re overlooking his fundamental message. It’s true that many of us on the lower rungs of the literary ladder can’t afford to turn our backs on social media, but that doesn’t mean that the populist mentality that pervades that world should pervade everything. We still need experts willing to distinguish merely “pedestrian” writing from truly great writing. The reader who argued for Wood helped me remember this. I don’t want to defend Tartt’s book because doing so aligns with my politics. That would be doing her a disservice. She’s not running for office; she’s writing a novel, and her novel deserves to judged on its strengths and weaknesses alone. If it’s not a serious book, it shouldn’t be treated like one.

There is certainly a place for popular fiction, but I’m not persuaded that it merits the same attention or respect as authentically ambitious work. I happen to love Blondie, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the distinction between her and Bach, or even her and Joni Mitchell.

All that said, I still get uncomfortable with the idea that such a small collection of people is charged with deciding what’s serious and what’s not. And I do wish that the big name reviewers represented a broader swath of humanity. There’s a compelling argument to be made for expanding the current definition of what constitutes seriousness.* But as long as most of our influential reviewers come to the table through prescribed channels, we’re unlikely to rigorously examine the standards we use to judge books.

We don’t want an insular group of experts to dictate our tastes. The opinions of the masses now chattering away on platforms, like Twitter, should be given voice by people qualified to filter out the noise. I think we’re in the process of ferreting out these people now. Websites like The Millions and The Rumpus are helping us do this. Eventually the gifted reviewers who are cutting their teeth on online forums will move up. The critical ecosystem will become more biodiverse and better for it. In the meantime, I’ve started reading Wood’s How Fiction Works in an effort to really understand what kind of work he deems serious, because this seems like an important piece of the puzzle.**

 

 

*Most reviewers, for instance, still seem to privilege craft over storytelling to an infuriating degree. An expert grasp on the language is a wonderful thing, but if it’s not used in service of a story capable of snaring the reader’s attention it’s unlikely to endure.

**If you’re interested in learning more about Wood’s philosophy and don’t have time to go to the source material, it’s worth starting with this wonderful essay by novelist Charles Finch on The Millions.

Will Work for a Nominal Fee

This weekend The New York Times ran a call to arms for uncompensated creatives by writer and illustrator Tim Kreider that’s got the Internet’s chattering underclasses feeling even chattier than usual. In his op-ed, Kreider calls for an all out moratorium on unpaid writing work.

The complexities of this argument are clearly not lost on Kreider, as much as some people (read: editors doling out low to no-paying writing gigs like candy) would like to argue otherwise. As he writes:

In fairness, most of the people who ask me to write things for free, with the exception of Arianna Huffington, aren’t the Man; they’re editors of struggling magazines or sites, or school administrators who are probably telling me the truth about their budgets. The economy is still largely in ruins, thanks to the people who “drive the economy” by doing imaginary things on Wall Street, and there just isn’t much money left to spare for people who do actual things anymore.

And Kreider understands that working a series of fiscally indefensible gigs until someone decided you actually warranted a paycheck has always been de rigueur for writers at the early stages of their careers. But as he notes, the “apprentice” stage that many people once happily endured in their 20s is now stretching further and further out, thanks in large part to an information economy in which “‘paying for things’ is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom.” The so-called “democratizing” force of the internet has had upsides for artists, certainly, but this is not one of them.

The move away from compensating all writers but those at the highest levels is also frequently justified as the unfortunate but natural byproduct of the industry’s imploding profit models. But, as Kreider rightly points out, the “crisis in journalism” is more and more being used as a smokescreen for unrepentant greed. Many magazines that can afford to pay no longer do, because . . . well, they don’t have to.

I agree, in principle, with everything Kreider says. But I differ with him in method. In his piece, he extolls young writers in particular to reject unpaid assignments. He writes: “As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint.” The trouble here is that Kreider assumes that you can mobilize a group of people known as “young writers” in the same way you can mobilize a group of workers on a factory floor and you just can’t. For all of the burgeoning talents who read Kreider’s words and decide they would be betraying their fellow artists simply by doing the same sort of intellectual indentured servitude he did to get a toehold in publishing, there will be a bajillion more lined up and waiting. Aspiring writers are like ants; there are always more of them and they are tireless. And because these ants can’t be organized as a block they really have no collective bargaining power at all.

No, really, the only people with the influence required to force changes are the big names–the writers who can predictably deliver the clicks editors are after. It’s only when the creatives with real cultural clout start to draw a line that the powers-that-be will take note. When Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, and John Krakauer stand up and say, I will not be affiliated in any way with an organization that fails to fairly compensate its talent, then editors and owners may start listening. If celebrities stop allowing their words to be reprinted on Huffington Post until Arianna finally knuckles under and starts compensating her professional contributors, you can bet she’ll re-examine her business model.

Let’s not fool ourselves: unpaid writing gigs are never going to go away. Beginners will always be asked to make unfair sacrifices and they will make them, because, for artists, the need to express oneself trumps the profit motive–until it doesn’t anymore. Thus it ever was. But Kreider’s manifesto is still worth taking seriously. Because as he says:

Practicalities aside, money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.

Artists don’t necessarily deserve to get rich, but everyone deserves some respect.

The Portrait Artist

Darryl Estrine 5Last week Longform ran a Guide to Gay Talese and gave me the perfect excuse to set aside my current reading projects and spend a couple of days revisiting my favorite Talese pieces. I’m not a big re-reader. Truth be told, my overwound internal clock–the part of my brain dedicated to keeping tabs on the time I have left versus the titles I’ve yet to tackle (Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick, To The Lighthouse . . .)–often leads me to tear through things much faster than I should. There are, however, a few writers I return to over and over again: Flannery O’Connor is one; Talese is another.

Talese is often referred to as the master of narrative nonfiction, and he is that, but in my view that label is too limiting. It threatens to cut him off from a broader audience that cleaves to fiction as if dipping a toe into the real world will somehow lead to a slow descent into mass market true crime. As a rule, I object to the segregation of fiction from nonfiction. Good writing is good writing. (For recent examples of this, see Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family and Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers to name just a couple.) That said, calling Talese a nonfiction writer does him a disservice, because his work, like fiction, is primarily dedicated to illuminating the human experience. What Talese really is is a short story writer who deals in the real.

If you’re new to Talese and only have time for one piece, people are likely to tell you to read “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” and, lord knows, you should. Widely believed to be the best magazine article of all time, “Frank” is absolutely masterful–a feat of writerly dexterity with no rival. The story stands on its own, but the sheer audacity of Talese’s accomplishment really isn’t clear until you know the backstory, which is that Esquire sent him to LA to write a cover story on old Blue Eyes and when he arrived he found that Frank had denied him all access. Rather than sit in his hotel room and get drunk on the magazine’s dime, Talese instead chose to report “around” Sinatra, interviewing everyone in his retinue and family who would agree to speak to him and watching Frank from a distance in an effort to collect as much information and insight as he could. The result is astonishing: a Technicolor portrait of giant in decline. In other words, you should really read it. But when you’re done with “Frank” I hope you will take the time to read my favorite Talese story: “The Loser.” 

If “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is Talese’s showpiece, “The Loser” is, for my money, his masterpiece. Also written for Esquire, the story is a snapshot of Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson’s life in the wake of his second loss to Sonny Liston. Like “Frank,” it is a portrait of a man who wakes up to find himself on the other side of greatness and it is one of the most moving stories, fiction or nonfiction, I’ve ever read.

The technical hurdles Talese had to mount to write this article are quieter, but no less daunting. Rather than constructing a picture of someone out of scraps and gossip and inference, in “The Loser” Talese paints what is possibly one of the most intimate portraits of a public figure ever put on paper. In the article, Patterson reveals dark corners of himself that few of us would share with our nearest and dearest–and he does so with the full knowledge that this information is destined for print. Patterson tells Talese, for instance, that he is so horrified by the prospect of facing his fans after a defeat that he travels with a disguise–a false mustache and dark glasses–and he has been known to hide in the shadows of an airplane hangar to avoid being confronted post-fight. And the vulnerability is only amped up as the article progresses. By the end of “The Loser,” I felt I knew Patterson in the same way that I knew Maurice Bendrix at the close of The End of the Affair. I had seen his fatal flaws up close and, rather than condemning him, I understood that they were inextricable from his most noble nature.

How Talese managed to nurture the kind of trust required to write an article, like “The Loser,” is part sweat and guts and part magic. When I worked with Talese, he made no bones about what distinguished his reporting from other people’s: time. By the time “The Loser” was written in 1964, Talese had been reporting on Patterson for more than five years. He knew the man; he had worked tirelessly to cultivate his trust. I cannot imagine a portrait of a public figure like this one appearing today. This is, of course, partly because few reporters now have the luxury of putting in this kind of time with their subjects. But it is also because few are curious or steadfast enough to do the hard work. And it may also have something to do with the growing taboo against revealing one’s own weakness, the ongoing pathologization of human frailty. Regardless of the reasons, stories like this are in short supply and they are deeply important. They breed compassion by stripping off the layers and helping us see one another more clearly. Few fiction writers get as close to the bone as Talese manages to in “The Loser.” The fact that he was able to capture the essence of a real man is what makes him, in my mind, unparalleled in the world of nonfiction.

Noel Gallagher on the Merits of Fiction

Noel Gallagher has a thing or two to say about fiction writers and readers:

What would be our Bible, then?

I only read factual books. I can’t think of… I mean, novels are just a waste of f***ing time. I can’t suspend belief in reality… I just end up thinking, ‘This isn’t f***ing true.’ I like reading about things that have actually happened. I’m reading this book at the minute – The Kennedy Tapes. It’s all about the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis – I can get into that. Thinking, ‘Wow, this actually f***ing happened, they came that close to blowing the world up!’ But… what f***ing winds me up about books…

This is already the best sentence I’ve ever heard.
…is, like… my missus will come in with a book and it will be titled – and there’s a lot of these, you can substitute any word, it’s like a Rubik’s Cube of shit titles – it’ll be entitled The Incontinence Of Elephants. And I’ll say “What’s that book about?” And she’ll say, “Oh it’s about a girl and this load of f***ing nutters…” Right… so  it’s not about elephants, then? Why the f*** is it called The Incontinence Of Elephants? Another one: The Tales Of The Clumsy Beekeeper. What’s that about? “Oh it’s about the French Revolution.” Right, f*** off. If you’re writing a book about a child who’s locked in a f***ing cupboard during the f***ing Second World War… he’s never seen an elephant. Never mind a f***ing giraffe.

Why are album titles different? Why don’t you call yours Some Songs That I’ve Written, then?
Because people who write and read and review books are f***ing putting themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us who f***ing make records and write pathetic little songs for a living.

Thing is, I write books, and…
Hey. I know you write books and all that shit. I’m just saying. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize [for fiction]. What a c***. Whoever that is, has got to be. I don’t get it. Book sellers, book readers, book writers, book owners – f*** all of them.

Book owners?
Yeah. And I own books! But about shit that happened. That’s what I’m talking about. Fifty Shades Of Grey? Fifty shades of s****. I’m not having it. Novels… how could you read that? Do you write novels? Don’t tell me you write novels.

I’ve written a novel.
What was it about?

About a guy who sees a girl…
Here we go. Already the shittest book of all time.

 

 

Wood Has Notes

No writer can work in a vacuum and, no matter how good you are, there comes a time when it’s necessary to open the door to your musty garret and get a little air in the room. Some of us do this in workshop; some hand off our manuscripts to a trusted reader and wait (cringing) for their comments; others polish and polish and polish and then ship it right to their editor, who then sets about carefully dismantling it. In all cases, the piece is usually better for it. Writing is a solitary occupation, but it’s also an inherently social act, and it’s impossible for any writer to know whether she’s successfully reached her audience without actually pilot testing her work in the real world. There is, however, a time when it’s utterly inappropriate to offer an author “notes”–when, in fact, doing so is as insulting as it is futile: after publication. Which is why I was taken off guard by the paternalistic conclusion of James Wood’s review of Donna Tartt’s new book in this week’s New Yorker.

Woods, who clearly wanted very much to like Tartt’s newest, The Goldfinch, spills a lot of ink damning the book with faint praise. “To be fair,” he writes, “Tartt has considerable talents in the field of magical misdirection. Few readers who started ‘”The Secret History”‘ did not feel the need to finish it. Her books can return you to several of the primal and innocent delights of childish reading. But misdirection is practiced evasion, and narrative secrets are tested by the value of their revelations.” The implication here, of course, is that the particular narrative misdirections employed in The Goldfinch are not quite elegant enough to pass muster with him. Fair enough. Wood is only fulfilling his mission as a critic here (albeit with characteristic pompousness). Where I take issue with the review is at the end when he completely jumps the “critical” shark and, and adopts the role of “gentle guide” instead. He writes:

“. . . I kept on trying to imagine a different novel, stripped of its unreasonable raison d’etre and its childish sweets, a more rigorous fiction entitled, perhaps, not “The Goldfinch” but just “Theo Decker.” A novel with no stolen painting, no inexplicable theft and unlikely explosion, no shoot-outs, no sudden death and fatal abandonments, and fewer Dickensian or Nesbittian shops. Instead, there might have been the affecting story of, say, a thirteen-year-old-boy, the victim of divorce, sent West from New York to the alien aridity [sic] of Las Vegas, forced to live with his unsuitable father. It was hard to imagine as the pages went by, but not impossible, because Las Vegas provokes the best sustained writing in this novel. When Theo’s father watches football on television, and the afternoon light begins to thin, and Tartt tenderly and evocatively paints this slight desolation of Sunday afternoons in the desert, does she have any idea of the very different writer she might still choose to be?”

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a review that strikes just this note of condescension. It’s possible that Tartt has been waiting for clearer instruction from just such a man on what sort of writer to be, but I’m more inclined to think that she, like every writer of her acknowledged caliber, is in the habit of writing exactly the type of fiction she feels called to write and that she deserves the respect of being reviewed accordingly. Wood’s is free not to like The Goldfinch, but to tell Tartt to write a different book altogether seems beyond his ken.

 

 

October 18

 

 

 

 

 

  • Alice Monro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, because there’s a giant hole in my reading resume where Monro should be and, 
  • Peter Mountford’s A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, because I just finished Mountford’s soon-to-be-released follow up The Dismal Science (Tin House, 2014) and I just can’t get enough. Stay tuned for a link to my review of his latest.

 

Things I love

Francine Prose on Roberto Bolano’s 2666:

Four hundred pages in, I thought I was beginning to have some idea of what the book was about, though later I realized how little I’d known. The five books get steadily more engrossing as they comment and reflect on, refract, deepen, and complete one another, five sections so unalike that they suggest different genres, all converging on the dead women lying half-buried or simply tossed aside in the nightmare moonscape of Santa Teresa. On my second reading of 2666, I was surprised to notice how often buzzards and vultures are mentioned, because after I’d finished the book the first time, it had occurred to me (out of nowhere, or so I had thought) that the shape of the narrative is like the flight of some carrion-eating bird with a wingspan so enormous that to see it take off and soar seems miraculous. Bolaño’s terrifying and gorgeous vulture of a novel keeps landing in Santa Teresa—but the wider arc of its flight (which includes Nazi Germany) reminds you that evil touches down in one country this time, next year in another place. The erratic but relentless flight plan of human evil from one era and continent to the next is, as much as anything, the subject of 2666.