|. . . 2007-11-18|
Two artists in dudgeons, one low, one high:
And every single person in the real world looks at this, and that's why we make our films the way we do. Because you don't have the freedom, you don't have the integrity, you have to remake everything we've done anyway. I go to see Martin Scorsese, and I say, Don't you think I should tell you about the lenses? And he says, What do you mean? And I said, Well, you're remaking my film, which is Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs was probably written in one week, we shot it in a month and you're going to remake it! Ha ha, good luck! What the fuck is this about? I mean, come on. In other words, if you read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then you'd actually have a very clear idea [laughs] about what's really happening in the U.S. right now. So what do we do? You tell me. [...] If Martin Scorsese can make a piece of shit called The Aviator and then go on to remake a Hong Kong film, don't you think he's lost the plot? Think it through. "I need my Oscar, I need my fucking Oscar!" Are you crazy? There's not a single person in the Oscar voting department who's under 65 years old. They don't even know how to get online. They have no idea what the real world is about. They have no visual experience anymore. They have preoccupations. So why the fuck would a great filmmaker need to suck the dick of the Academy with a piece of shit called The Aviator? And now he has to remake our film? I mean this is bullshit. This is total bullshit. I love Marty, I think he's a great person. And the other one is Tarantino. Oh yeah, let's appropriate everything. Are you lost? Yes, you are lost.
Let's see, if we chide the writer who makes reference to low-brow material, who appropriates cultural material — because appropriations are a bit like sampling in rap, really borderline plagiarism, everyone knows this — we'll have to roll back to T.S. Eliot. Oops, we have to throw Eliot on the scrap heap, too — apparently he risked some high-low mixing, and some appropriations. Forget Joyce, of course. We'd better go even further back. Once you begin looking at the underlying premise — a blanket attack on the methods that modernism uncovered — the kind of bogus nostalgia for a pure, as opposed to an impure, literature, what you really discover is a discomfort with literature itself. [...] It's not about reading. That's the problem. It really is about — I'm repeating myself — class anxiety. Once you have an eye for this you spot it in odd places. I read a review in Book Forum where a critic, quite incidentally, in attacking Michel Houellebecq, said in an aside, "But then again, the French regard Hitchcock as art." Well, now, wait a minute! These battles were fought and won. These victories were decisive ones, fifty years ago. There's no rolling that back. Hitchcock is art. So if you pin Hitchcock's scalp to your belt: "Not only have I seen through Michel Houellebecq, the charlatan, but in fact I'm going to tell you that the auturists were wrong and Hitchcock is low-brow and unsavory," you've discredited yourself so absolutely that you deserve to read nothing but Trollope for the rest of your life.
OK, first, Trollope worked a day job for the fucking post office, so let's leave Trollope out of this fight.
Otherwise, it's a fight I felt like starting myself when I read this shallow attack on shallowness two years ago. (Why didn't I? Well, I work a day job, see....) For John Leonard, the difference between profundity and immaturity comes down to name-dropping:
Is it so unreasonable to want to know more of what he thinks about Julio Cortázar and less of how he feels about Obi-Wan Kenobi? [...] Superpowers are not what magic realism was about in Bulgakov, Kobo Abe, Salman Rushdie, or the Latin American flying carpets. That Michael Chabon and Paul Auster have gone graphic, that one Jonathan, Lethem, writes on and on about John Ford, while another Jonathan, Franzen, writes on and on about "Peanuts," even as Rick Moody confides to the Times Book Review that "comics are currently better at the sociology of the intimate gesture than literary fiction is," may just mean that the slick magazines with the scratch and sniff ads for vodka and opium [sic] are willing to pay a bundle for bombast about ephemera.
This approaches J. Jonah Jameson levels of wrong-headedness. As if Ulysses would've been improved by more of Lohengrin and less of "The Low-Backed Car". As if John Leonard ever actually took time to honor Alfred Bester for referencing Joyce or Patricia Highsmith for referencing James and Camus.
He asks me, "Do you care how many times I have seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or what's going on in my head while I watch Sara Evans sing 'Suds in the Bucket' on the country music cable channel?" And I answer: "No more than I care what's going on in your head while you watch Carol Burnett. I don't even care what you think about books. Moreover, if you were a movie critic or a music critic, I still wouldn't care about your renting a Demy video or your pseudo-ironic celebrations of Evans — but you'd tell me all the same. What matters in our relationship isn't whether I care; all that matters is what the NYRB and New York Magazine will publish."
In Leonard's horror at public lapses of taste, this professional book-and-televison critic failed to notice that his subject is not a professional critic of anything and The Disappointment Artist is not a collection of criticism: it's a linked collection of autobiographical essays whose hooks happen to be American cultural artifacts. Lethem could hardly have been more explicit about it. In his long tribute to the The Searchers, the "critical" argument is confined to two paragraphs terminated by the sentence "Snore."
Sure, some generic ambiguity exists: there's that strain of criticism-as-New-Journalism which was domesticated down from mutants like Meltzer and Bangs into the cage-raised free weekly strains. But those conventions presume a like-minded community, whereas Lethem peddles his wares to a middlebrow camp unlikely to have any interest in his ostensible topics. Therefore the focus stays on Lethem-as-character.
So let's imagine our successful young novelist writing a similar autobiographical essay about reading Kafka or Cortázar:
"And suddenly I realized: I write fiction too. Just like him."
Yeah, there's news.
"Professional pundit publishes asinine remarks; bloggers rant."
But god damn it, I can't seem to let it rest at that. What irks me is the feeling that I share some aspect of some response with Leonard — and, in a different way, or a different aspect, with Lethem, too. And again, Lethem's admirably blatant about it: he put Disappointment right there in the title for us.
Even if you don't care for my stuff, I recommend this essay by tomemos which starts from Leonard but goes in a very different direction.
Can't speak for Leonard but my celebrations of Evans are strickly appreciations of artistry.
My guess was that Leonard admired Evans but threw "the country music cable channel" in for distancing — thus the "pseudo-" of his irony.
+ + +
In other news, today W. N. P. fulfills the dream and takes early retirement!
|. . . 2007-11-19|
Pop critics never paid much attention to Smokey Robinson's work from the 1970s and early 1980s. Maybe it's because a couple of his biggest hits were weak and written by other hands. And I guess Pure Smokey, an attempt to apply Norman Whitfield naturalism to middle-class family life, may be too peculiar for most tastes. (Although anyone capable of swallowing Mott the Hoople....)
But Smokey's Family Robinson, Where There's Smoke..., Warm Thoughts, and Touch the Sky all sound (and feel and move) like an Apollonian auteur at a comfortable peak. Off the singles-and-touring treadmill, Smokey's voice gained suppleness. Unlike the empty-pated yodel-birds who still rule contemporary R&B, he was able to maintain intellectual focus across a long groove. And whereas most quiet-storm songwriters travelled from point A to point A with an extended loll at point A, Robinson found a way to structure the new expanse.
Twist endings hadn't been all that uncommon in country or soul 45s — two lovers, both of them are you — but unless delivered by the most extravagantly soulful of voices, their effect was shallow: a startle, a novelty.
Instead of jokes, Robinson began to produce simulations of realistic emotional shifts, and the sting in the tail usually carried an anodyne. In numbers like "Into Each Rain, Some Life Must Fall", from behind an ostentatiously presented, ludicrously threadbare conceit, Smokey pulls a magically affecting image. Starting as post-separation lament, "Heavy on Pride, Light on Love" builds into a frenzy of middle-aged lust; starting from rarified sentiment, "Touch the Sky" reaches the same destination. As a collector of romantic-vengeance songs, I'm fondest of "The Hurt's On You," which seems at first like the usual smarmy sarcasm, then pivots on a single line into an expression of genuine empathy — of community, even.
But as pure concept, the most remarkable example is his belated answer to "The Love I Saw in You (Was Just a Mirage)": If nothing lasts forever, than our love can achieve the immortality it desires only by embracing impermanence.
Castles made of sand
Don't let our love be like
Castles made of sand
Blown about by strong ocean breeze
Scattered, scattered, in a million tiny pieces
Washed away when the tide starts to change
And nothing left, no, nothing, no trace of where it stood
If our love is made of sand
Then let it be a desert land
A desert land
Let it be strong and free
And wide and warm
Like a desert land
Let it be strong and wild
And free and warm
Like a desert land
|. . . 2007-11-20|
nnyhav writes: "I want to bring to your attention that when Lethem is elided from the interview, what remains reads like a Donald Barthelme short."
[greyhound and master are approaching in the distance] Rosie hates that dog. And her owner is totally oblivious. I just think he's goofy — Rosie really dislikes that dog. I'm going to hold on to you, Rosie.
So, we talked last — almost two years ago? We were going to reconvene for your essay collection, and things didn't work out. And we connected after that, and you gave me the impression that you had things on your mind — maybe not of great urgency, that were pressing on you. [laughs] — vituperation. Since the novel, you have published some stories and published an essay collection, which is something of a hybrid. Certainly they are essays — but not exactly. These were written for the purpose of being in one collection?
Hey, hey. Stop it. OK, OK. [Dog and owner pass by.] See what I mean? There is something odd. Good girl, Rosie. So, this was at a point everything you wrote was for publication? I was focusing on your having said that you wrote it and there had been no commission? The Searchers is a perennial in top 10 movie lists. Is there writing you didn't include or you discarded?
Have you read Greil Marcus's Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads? You must have read Dylan's Chronicles. I found it to be an odd awkward read, though I enjoyed it. I liked the audio version read by Sean Penn, which gave me a better feeling for it. Yeah, I didn't access it well on the page.
What do you make of the review that Brent Staples published in the New York Times last week on The Disappointment Artist? My first question was, "Why publish that now?" Not that there should be a time limit and in fact I liked that — Maybe it's a break with the industry's conventional wisdom that a book has a six-week window — so this was not tied to the publication date. It's as much if not more about him than about you.
See how fierce she is?
American newspaper book reviewing seems to be insubstantial, and for me the only reason to read them is for a particular writer, not for news or judgment about a book. The magazines are just a hair better. Why are newspapers so stingy with how many books they notice? Do these things actually sell books? I mean the good versus the bad. Some critical mass has to be achieved.
The short-story collection, the essays, so here you are and here it is summertime — are you sitting by idly doing nothing? A novel! Were the stories diversions while you figured it out? Appendices?
At the moment do you look at — where is the seam or break in your career trajectory? They think that because it's more personal and — Can you recall the content of your first novels? Are you propelled by or moved by some desire to be original, to never repeat or recapitulate or cover old ground? Do you even think in those terms? [laughs] Maybe another way of asking that big, sloppy, puppy dog question that I tried is: As you create a larger body of work, how self-conscious are you about — No, but thinking about, "Have I learned something?" Maybe it's not as concise a thought as "Am I a better writer?" or something like that. Perhaps, "Can I do this?"
You had to read Roth as opposed to — I don't get the sense that you've had that kind of personal experience or reflected on that kind of personal experience. That you really thought about where you lived and traveled. You had to read it to get it? The naming of some specific real world thing gives it an additional potency? Or even whether there is an accurate description — Is that what you want from your reader? If I'm watching a movie, do I want to be conscious that I am watching the movie?
OK, thank you. [laughs]
There is that recurring issue of all that's relevant is what's on the page. A porous, permeable self-contained entity. Um — yeah. [laughs] You still live in Brooklyn — an area that has a very high writer population per capita. You said something about living — there's the writing, which is a big part of your life. When you live in Brooklyn, what's your life experience outside of writing? What do you do? Is your living always tied to being a writer? How conscious or self-conscious are you about what you do? Do you skydive? That's seems to be an expected writerly thing to do. You're a pain the ass. Hey! Quiet.
If you are Borges or that type of writer, you are expected to not have a life outside books and letters and to sit in a room and fill up pages. I'm not expecting it, or anything. When you talk about a life that is including things that are [more] specific, that are real, then one becomes curious about what those things are that you are seeing and experiencing and most of all utilizing to make stories and tell stories. Not that I really want specifics — just to know that you are doing something other than sitting in a room all day and writing, or trying to. [laughs]
So much for short attention spans. Ian McEwan wondered how short attention spans allowed for the consumption of big books like The Da Vinci Code — he speculated that attention spans might not be a matter of biology but of culture. Our training inclines us to look at realism as the truth because we can readily identify these things — There is some laziness possible when one reads certain texts. I notice some writers will insert "fictional" facts — They'll create places and flowers and all sorts of things and that's taken notice of as if the rest of it is of a different metaphysical status. Seemingly smart and savvy people fall prey to this impulse. To what do you ascribe their motives? With imagination — [laughs] Does that suggest a steady downward spiral of the critical conversation? It's worse than reactionary.
[laughs] What you read about Houellebecq now is that he reportedly fell asleep in a TV interview. All this ambient trivia. The danger of becoming what you are fighting.
If "x without x" [Garfield without, Lethem interview without] ever becmes a thing, someone should totally to a "Kenneth Goldsmith's 'Soliloquy' without Goldsmith"
Clearly, Bob Newhart should get busy filing lawsuits.
Sentemental comedy of Goldsmith's attempt to revive comedy
Update: Cerebus without.
|. . . 2007-11-23|
You read a story and suddenly there's a part that becomes just words because you know nobody ever did it like that, or said it that way but you have to pretend just to find out what happened. What I am describing is like that, too. Everything flattens out and isn't real.- The Captain, Equinox
My challenge was to not point out how our friendship, or Ian's encouragement of my artistic ambitions, or, for that matter, the laughter we shared watching Godard's Alphaville at the Bleecker Street Cinema, expressed possibilities of connection that our daily orgy of nihilism denied.- Jonathan Lethem, "The Beards"
I agree with Leonard that there's a thinness in much highly-praised contemporary fiction. But the thinning agent's not foreign blood.
In serious mainstream prose it's easier to incorporate John Wayne as a villain than to reproduce his attraction as a lead. An ambitious story or novel must make Ignatz genuinely destructive and Krazy purely female. The sensitive protagonist has no siblings; the jolly uncle is a child molester; superhuman privileges bring no joy and improve nothing.... These are generic conventions. They're integral to the story being told, but when I strike them my stride falters. I don't slip, but I slide a bit.
What disappoints Leonard are Chabon's, Franzen's, Moody's, and Lethem's references. What disappoints me is the familiarity of their disappointments. It isn't specific to these novelists, or to subjects like soul music or comic books. The same story's been told of painters and boxers, poets and actresses, gypsy fiddlers and twelve-tone composers: the transmutation of exhilarating matter into glum defeat.
Artists like Herriman, Hawks, and Gaye delight through the thrownaway (even if well rehearsed) gesture that transfixes. By nature, they're anti-plot — or at least anti-character-development. When narrative attempts to depict such lyric effects, they can only be given too little or too much attention. If it's made the point of the story, the point of the story must be loss. It only takes a few minutes to hear a song by Schumann or Mimms — and then where's the hero? Even as articulate an artist as Smokey Robinson can only tell us that rich guys love cocaine.
Alternatively, the writer may try to suggest some aspect of the experience in passing, using the critical equivalent of free indirect discourse, or may, like Stephen King and James Joyce, flatly cite brandnames.
In any case, narrative is saved: life is only interrupted. The choice has nothing to do with the referent itself, nothing to do with "high" or "low". Wagnerian opera was as bad for John Jones as hip-hop was for Arthur Lomb.
It may, however, say something about the referrer. Across media, a downward turn indicates depth. Chris Ware, like Lethem, started in high-art institutions, became revulsed by academic pretensions, was attracted by genre practitioners, established himself as a star in the most conceptually daring end of low-art publishing, and then (with a success that stunned his new peer group) was welcomed into the market covered by the NYRB&TBR. For both Ware and Lethem, disappointment was a vehicle.
On the other hand, prose fiction can embody its own sort of lyric effect. Lethem's "Sleepy People" is an example whose lack of critical regard shows how low beauty places in most readers' and reviewers' criteria. Although in some ways the career of Karen Joy Fowler anticipated Lethem's, her preference for comic structures puts her in constant danger of being reshelved from high-middlebrow to chick-lit or YA. And the most enthusiastically referential of storytellers — Howard Waldrop, Guy Davenport — unable to sacrifice the gaiety of their scholarship, remain coterie property.
|. . . 2007-11-28|
Jonathan, if you're reading this -- rather than ask you to back out of a business commitment, rather than deprive the fans of what will probably be an excellent story, I propose that you simply retitle the story and rename the characters. "Omega The Unknown" has little or no commercial cachet, so call the book something else. Call the kid something other than James-Michael Starling. Make the book your own, and I'll have nothing to complain about.
If I'd wanted to make a comic book that had no connection to anything anyone had ever done before, that didn't utilize existing characters, I likely wouldn't have been talking with Marvel in the first place. The allure of working with Marvel was to take something that existed and repurpose it, give it a different spin. After all, I work with solitary materials all the time.
And it seemed, of course, that Gerber, like so many of the comic book writers that I'd so admired, had himself done so much of this kind of repurposing and knitting in to the collective tapestry. So I couldn't imagine there being a reason not to do it. I was quite disconcerted when his reaction was so unhappy.
The levelling of cultural class distinctions was before anything else a fact of consumption, celebrated by consumers: '60s postmodernists pigged out on several civilizations' worth of colorful munchies, and eventually we reached the boys-must-have-their-toys retail world of Nick Hornby.
Commendably, Chabon and Lethem have kept content-producers in mind and on the page. What impressed me most about Kavalier and Clay's reception wasn't its Pulitzer Prize but its approval by comics professionals. The Fortress of Solitude doesn't just reference soul music and graffiti to gesture at its protagonist's inner life: it includes soul musicians and taggers as characters, and its turn away from them created genuine reader distress — a rare formal achievement in the high-mainstream.
Still, even the well-wisher can be blindsided. "It's all folk music," and folk will insist on fussing over their quaint differences.
* * *
Restricted to graphic evidence, a Martian researcher would conclude that cartoonists have bullied high artists pretty much since comics began. For every ambiguously dismissive Roy Lichtenstein or Mike Kelley appropriation, there must be dozens of gag panels about Manet, Renoir, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, Moore, Rauschenberg, or, well, Lichtenstein.
So why's so much offense expressed by the aggressors?
Money's the obvious answer. That's supposed to be the reason we do everything, right? We're freakin' on rational gameplay! When Rolling Stones asserted copyright on a cover version or a Beatle repurposed a song structure, it can't be compared to the credits we find on rural blues 78s or to retitled bebop permutations of "I Got Rhythm": raising the stakes changed the game.
But these financial differences seem more justification than explanation. As Lethem's rightly pointed out, most high-mainstream fiction writers aren't awarded MacArthur Fellowships or big Hollywood pay-offs: the midlist's dying everywhere. Most attempters at high art have to live hand to mouth, or on someone else, or by not-so-highly-artistic labor. Similarly, not all SF and fantasy writers or comics professionals can be fully described as class-traitor hacks pumping out propaganda for the Man.
Even if the income discrepency was real, there'd have to be more behind this inter-genre hostility and defensiveness. Otherwise, we'd see the same intransigence within the genre. Instead the temporary setting aside of such distinctions is a characteristic pleasure of any living art: Will Eisner chatting at the convention; F&SF pages shared by Neil Gaiman and a first sale; Ian McKellen drinking with the stunt crew....
Noncombatant Eddie Campbell suggests that the comics world's exaggerated concern over Roy Lichtenstein's "plagiarism" springs from the same source as the high art world's unconvincing defenses of Lichtenstein's "originality":
And that is the problem with art today: the artist believes he must find a style (or a schtick really) and defend it with his life. And if all the schticks are already taken, he must pull one out of his ass. He must find one, invent one, fabricate one, for he can be nothing if he cannot be original. It's what I once saw termed 'the neurosis of innovation'.
But given its studio labor hand-offs, house styles, ghosting, and swipes, the comics world must have appropriated that neurosis from the high art world — which seems odd if it's meant to explain hostility towards the high art world.
My guess is that on both sides of the Lichtenstein line, resentment came first — as that fine young critic Dennis P. Eichhorn said before he threw up, "This is WRONG!" — and was then intensified by embarrassment over the resentment's irrationality.
What is WRONG depends on conflicting unexamined notions of what's right.
The markets for literary fiction, paintings, and sculpture came over time to center on The Artist: the artist is the guarantor of value; value increases with proximity to the artist; the "property" at stake is the individual masterwork and the master's name. Kurt Vonnegut was willing to lend out the "Kilgore Trout" character only until he feared it threatened the more important Kurt Vonnegut franchise. Even if Lethem would be fine with a band naming itself the Subtle Distinctions or Monster Eyes, he might not feel flattered by a political blogger assuming the pseduonym "Jonathan Lethem".
In more openly collaborative arts, the big return came from cross-media cross-laborer merchandising. Whether financial or emotional, the stablest investment was in a recognizable character or setting. No matter who wrote the book, if it's Superman it's DC's. And the self-evidence of "creator's rights" isn't just a side-effect of employee exploitation by particular employers: Vaughn Bodé's lack of full-time legal staff made Ralph Bakshi's Wizards no less vile a theft. If Steve Gerber ran SG Comics, he'd have a staff of artists and writers; if someone lifted a gag or a layout, water off a duck's back. His desire to protect "Omega"-as-name is generically as one with Lethem's desire to re-write "Omega"-as-name.
Continuous copyright extension, pushed by corporations but justified by individuals, ratchets mutual befuddlement into pandemonium. The collision of these two contexts bruises feelings, threatens litigation, and brought on much of the shock and/or awe of post-WWII high art.
On the other side of what used to (before the train wreck) be the tracks, studios feel compelled to signal closure ever more vehemently, then to repress the memory. The star system was once a way to let contract players like Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. rise and fall and rise again; "Leon Schlesinger"'s Elmer and Daffy would exit stage up or down, and be back for the next matinee. But with every movie a blockbuster and every director an auteur, the most exploitable "property" becomes the individual work, and contemporary Hollywood prefers remakes to series or reissues. After losing the groove it lost the plot.
Freed of fleshy wear and tear, pledged to continuity, superhero series exhibit the syndrome most starkly: the big narrative statement kills, the trademark resurrects. For the smartest producers, apocalyptic death and painful rebirth convey the horror of our quotidian nightmare: our economic house of bubbles; our self-help books that change lives like socks; our sin-again-born-again spiritual amnesties; our flips from force-fed to famine.... The weaker producers merely participate.
|. . . 2007-12-16|
Ah ha, I can hear you saying, well I can tear the heart out of this pretty damned easily, I can smell its derivations from a mile away, in fact I need only open the book at random to find just what I want, just the right food for my article: I do not feel you have made the slightest critical effort to grapple with its form or its intentions. What you have actually succeeded in doing is to injure a fellow who feels himself to be a kindred spirit.- Malcolm Lowry to Jacques Barzun, May 6, 1947
I have always been grateful to him for the tact he showed in refraining from reviewing any of my novels. We have had many exhilarating talks, have exchanged many frank letters. [...] In the present case, however, things have gone a little too far.- Vladimir Nabokov to NYRB, August 26, 1965
Readers of our previous episode may have noticed that superhero comics aren't the only serialized genre with a weakness for apocalyptic conclusions.
And also that I never quite settled its central question. After all, my posited clash-of-values clashes high and low alike. Why should the low take special umbrage?
The answer's Purloined-Newspaper close at hand. Inveighing much more loudly than society painters or classical musicians, critics and teachers have traditionally raised the hackles who later come home to roost. To quote the powerful formula of the critic's mooching, pretentious, and despised name saint, "Let's you and him fight."
Nor was this the first time I might have found occasion to mention our own dear form. The "downward turn" marks the serious review as well as the serious novel — it almost defines the subgenre.
What completely defines the entire genre is our naked dependency on reference. We obtain the product of someone else's hard work, usually for free, and then as our own hard work read, hear, or view it. From such moral low ground it's absurd for a TV critic to insult a novelist's interest in comic books or for a jazz critic to protest cultural "appropriation" — and yet the pot still calls the kettle a minstrel show.
Working artists may feel ripped off by extra-generic not-quite-peers who haven't paid their dues, and peacemakers like Campbell and Lethem reasonably argue that the apparent deadbeat may well be paying dues to a different union. But opinions cost nothing. What respect is due the pure parasite?
Let all such artists as understand one another, therefore, plagiarize each other's work like men. Let each borrow his friends' best ideas, and try to improve on them. If A thinks himself a better poet than B, let him stop hinting it in the pages of an essay; let him re-write B's poems and publish his own improved version. If X is dissatisfied with Y's this-year Academy picture, let him paint one caricaturing it....
Clearly there's no place for critics in this practitioners' paradise — but I can't help but add that philosophers would be banished as well: If R G C doesn't believe professional photographer N should protect all possible sources of income and credit, let him stop advising it from the pages of a book; let him open a studio and lead by example.
Greatest of sinners, we're distinguished only by the blatancy of our sinning. As Lethem and Campbell say, all art is referential art. Even when aesthetic experience is more "contrast" than "compare", it manifests against a web of associations.
And performing against that web we project similar illusions. Mainstream fiction writers aren't sensitive to every nuance of human nature, mystery writers can't track down criminals, and literary critics don't approach their prey with intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic. When we encounter such misconceptions among our readers we may be taken aback, but they arise naturally from formal demands. Certain narrative effects require trust and so a storyteller doesn't (usually) push against the audience's idea of plausibility. Similarly when our goal is to build a discursive structure we need only evidence enough to fasten the joints, and ignorance itself may find utility as a (hidden) dado.
Some of us exult in fraudulence as a windfall; some accept it as a mutually understood rule of the game, not worth further comment; some blazon our bad conscience on our pennons. "I find myself speaking about my adoption everywhere I go in this world."
* * *
Here we go, then:
I don't read much contemporary mainstream fiction.
Partly that's because I don't like much. Too often it tastes like watered-down soup, promising only an occasional fly. I've always been ungenerous and impatient towards DeLillo, for example, and I've got no interest in Franzen despite his being right about Peanuts.
Partly it's lack of urgency. At the moment I have easier access to exorbitantly priced academic publications than I ever expect again. Little magazines, comic books, and pulp fiction instantly drop out of print and out of sight. Whereas, much as I look forward to Chabon's big novels, I know I'll be able to find them later: few public libraries skimp on Pulitzer winners.
And I don't read for the sake of conversation, or at least not that sort of conversation: I care no more about the New York Times bestseller list than I do about the Super Bowl.
Although of course if I had a friend on a Super Bowl team I'd be very pleased for him, and maybe even inquire after the score....
The friend, in this case, being Jonathan Lethem.
We're not especially old or intimate friends — no anecdotes of sex behind the drum kit — and my position's not unique: Jonathan's at ease in a wide range of social settings, and dozens of people can claim closer acquaintance.
Instead it's been a familiar sort of intellectual friendship — "a warm affection sometimes [invigorated] by exasperation." We approach very similar tastes and ideas with very different impulses from very different departure points. In particular, we share (and argue over) a stubborn antagonism to genre boundaries: I first met Jonathan while he was making his name as a writer of sf stories, but I first admired him as the editor of an artsy zine called Idiot Tooth.
As I gave up trying to write fiction and as Jonathan more often performed man-of-letters chores, a greater portion of our conversation took place in public, most concentratedly in what he called our Spy vs. Spy act for the New York Review of Science Fiction. In a way, this continues the act. But in another way....
* * *
In another way, I need to confess one more lie of omission, right at the beginning. It wasn't only the pressure of my day job that kept this essay unfinished in 2005 and 2006 and earlier this year. It was disgust at what the essay promised to become.
I write to gossip about artifacts, not about their authors. I've rarely felt conflicted when mentioning people I know. Just switching from first name to last is enough to do the trick.
Here, though, following Leonard's lead, I'd be dealing with some general issues but restricting specifics to Lethem's career — that is, I'd use him as a very convenient whipping boy.
"Now look, Ray, when you found yourself with that book in your hand, what did you think about? Could it have been... 'consumption for use'?"
That's a poor reward for friendship. When Yvor Winters and Allen Tate publicly attacked The Bridge, they don't seem like courageous upholders of poetic standards. They seem like opportunistic back-stabbing creeps.
I can't say I escape a similar charge. But since I found myself unable, finally, to avoid setting up this ambush, I'm glad at least to be caught in the same crossfire. What else are friends for?
Josh Lukin writes:
"What respect is due the pure parasite?" I'm sorry to bring it up again, but that question reminded me of my feeling that this is somehow the exemplar of its genre (Farber would appreciate it, IMO).
If Ansible only had an "As We See Others" column . . .
"and yet the pot still calls the kettle a minstrel show." -- I know you don't aim for targets this low, but you have inadvertantly devised the perfect put-down for Mister Sasha Frere-Jones.
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Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2007 Ray Davis.