pseudopodium
. . . Jonathan Lethem

. . .

It's got its good paragraphs, but E. E. Cummings's allegorical reading of Krazy Kat -- with Kat as democracy caught between Mouse-anarchy and Pupp-fascism -- has always rubbed me the wrong way.

For starters, Cummings refers to Krazy as "she" throughout, whereas the strip used "he" much more often. (Bowing to public pressure, Herriman experimented with unequivocal she-ness once, but decided it just didn't suit that dear kat.) Following a natural train of thought, Ignatz's rage could be better described as homophobic than as anarchistic: he hates Krazy not because Krazy is a symbol of authority, or repression, or respectability, or even stability, but because Krazy is eccentric, flamboyant, unaggressive, affectionate, and a little kwee.

For the main course, any historically-dependent reading misses Herriman's achievement: a complete universe grown from one necessarily inexplicable but endlessly fecund triangle. Jonathan Lethem came closer to the mark in his story, "Five Fucks," where the triangle is a mysteriously universal solvent; even Lethem took the easier way out, though, in making the triangle violently entropic rather than pleasurably generative.

As Herriman demonstrated in later strips ("A mouse without a brick? How futile."), Coconino's reality depends on support from each point of the triangle; as he demonstrated throughout the strip's three decades, the triangle supports an infinite unfolding of reality. Lacking that central mystery, other comics, no matter how minimalist or how beautifully drawn, seem artificial and puffy by comparison.

. . .

There's no denying the mythic catchiness of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. And there's no admitting his possibility. Just where would a glib dumb prissy pushy tall dark handsome breast-beating alcoholic intellectual low-brow heterosexual urban nostalgic two-fisted prose stylist idealist spring from? Los Angeles? Regretfully, no. And how would he make a living? As a private detective? I think not. Marlowe can only be explained as a self-loathing writer's pastless futureless power fantasy, who springs only from a book and makes a living only in books.

Which entices moviemakers into a dried river bank surrounded by giant ants, n'est-ce pas, cherie? Movies are supposed to be able to handle detectives; it says so right here in my Popular Culture Handbook. But how can the movies straightfacedly present such an unjustifiable character? ("With Cary Grant" is the best answer, but Chandler didn't manage to talk the studio into it.)

The first successful Chandler adaptations saved themselves by keeping some snappy lines and imagery and ditching the leading man: Edward Dmytryk's "Marlowe" reverts to sleazy Hammett-style professionalism and Howard Hawks's "Marlowe" anticipates James Bond's irresistable aplomb.

Less successful as film but more interesting as critique, two later adaptations tossed out the easy stuff like Chandler's dialog in favor of Chandler's essential oddity. Proving again that hostility towards one's source material is the healthiest stance for a director, Robert Altman's attempt to destroy Marlowe is cinema's first real tribute to the character. The Elliott Gould "Marlowe" could be an aging trust-fund kid who's retreated into fantasy, but there's no way of knowing for sure; the movie preserves his inexplicability while giving it a believable presentation (this Marlowe is as passive, inarticulate, threadbare, and isolated as most self-deluded personalities) and environment (this Los Angeles is too universally self-absorbed to take notice of any particular citizen's delusions). And Sterling Hayden's towering and toppling "Roger Wade" is just the self-loathing powerful writer to shove the Chandler subtext explicitly into our face and down our throats where it belongs.

The only movie ever influenced by The Long Goodbye was The Big Lebowski, a hoot-and-a-half in which Altman's ego-gored hostility is replaced by the Coen Bros.' aimless playing around. Since Jeff Bridges' character pretty much shares their attitude, the result is the most warm-heartedly engaged take on "Philip Marlowe" yet, even if there's not much Brotherly affection left over for any of the other characters....

For a long time -- like, a really long time, let's not even go there -- I've dreamt about my own fully explicated version of a Chandler detective: he's a paranoid schizophrenic who's assigned cases by the voices in his head and whose secretary / leg-man is his pet parakeet. But I have a hard time writing fiction so I've never committed this dream to print. Probably just as well.

Perhaps a similar dream prodded at young Jonathan Lethem, who came up with an admirably tailored science-fiction-y explanation for the Chandleresque narrator of Motherless Brooklyn: Tourette's syndrome. The gap between the narrator's careful prose style and his hit-me-harder banter? Tourette's syndrome affects speech and not writing. The narrator's weirdly monastic dedication to the case? Tourette's syndrome is associated with obsessive-compulsive behavior. His inability to sustain a sexual relationship? Say no more. If anything, it's too well-tailored: even the narrator eventually notices the snug fit, but, of course, is able to explain that explaining his every trait as a symptom of Tourette's syndrome is actually just another symptom of Tourette's syndrome. Clothes make the man if you're selling clothes, syndromes make the character if you're selling pop psychology, but a novel's air gets kind of stuffy by the end....

Which also counts as a Chandleresque effect: Chandler's The Long Goodbye was more like The Long Squirm in a Pinching Suit (but in an interesting way, if you know what I mean), and I could never spend more than a couple of minutes in Playback without rushing back outside for a breather....

. . .

Doug Asherman queries: "Here's something probably no one cares about, but....is there a conspiracy to hide all the good music from us? And the good books? Are people in the arts laughing at us for buying their crap? And if so, what can we do about it?"

Meanwhile....

Disclaimer: Ray Davis is a paid contributor to The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors.
 
Despite my familiarity with Salon, I was surprised by the Reader's Guide. It's like stooping to pick up what looks like an ordinary mediocre valise only to find that it's been packed full of mediocre lead bricks. According to the official mission statement, "We decided to let our contributors' enthusiasm and curiosity be our guides." These guides would seem to share one enthusiasm (the New York Times Book Review), one curiosity (what's on the front page of the New York Times Book Review?), and one path (to the trade paperback table at Borders).

I'm hardly a specialist in late-twentieth-century fiction, but if I'd wanted to provide a service to readers I would've found room for Joanna Russ, Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Carol Emshwiller, Jack Womack, Bob Gluck, Barbara Comyns, Thomas Disch, Alexander Trocchi, Wendy Walker, M. John Harrison, Pat Califia, John Crowley, would've asked someone to tell me more about Patrick O'Brian and Dorothy Dunnett....

In fact the book includes only two authors that really matter to me: Karen Joy Fowler (given a short entry) and Samuel R. Delany (a short entry). Broadening my selection to writers I merely respect would add Elmore Leonard (a short entry) and Toni Morrison (a long entry, because she publishes in the mainstream genre) to the overlap.

And it's not because I haven't heard of the book's choices, which are beautifully (if unintentionally) parodied by John Updike's inset guide to "Timeless Novels about Loving," apparently repurposed from TV Guide:
"Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - A young bourgeois wife seeks spiritual and sexual fulfillment away from the marital bed and runs grievously into debt."

"The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - Among the Puritan pioneers of Boston, a promising clergyman falls afoul of a dark-haired protofeminist and her wizardly older husband."

Yeah, my list is idiosyncratic. An idiosyncratic list is what you'd expect to get from a serious pleasure reader. Whereas the Salon.com Guide is what you'd expect to get from a serious follower of publicity.

The depersonalized author selection ensembles beautifully with the reviewers' khaki prose. Dumbed down for ease of swallowing, it's the house style of virtually every free weekly paper: "authority" and "irreverence" and "wittiness" depilated of information or personality or humor. Journalistic blatherers used to flatter their readership by pretending it was full of good taste and morality while somehow simultaneously dumb as a stump. Nowadays the readership's still dumb as a stump yet somehow full of detached ironic wit.

Thus it makes sense that the only writer given full stylistic rein is "Pagliacci Dave" Eggers, who ends his celebrity roast of Kurt Vonnegut:

"So. Vonnegut is good. If you like books, and like to read them even if they are easy to read and frequently funny, you will like the work of Kurt Vonnegut, a writer. Also: He has a moustache."
Robert Benchley, move over! ... Or roll over. Do something, man! ... Guess he's dead.
Even John Clute, one of the most eccentric stylists ever to write a review, is sanded down to transparency here. Which is extra sad, since his argument against the tyranny of the "mainstream literary" genre lances so precisely the core of this book. Restricting yourself to mainstream fiction in the late twentieth century is like restricting yourself to heroic tragedy after 1650. The mainstream's just not where good writing is being done. Unless you crave watery flavorless writing.
How did this awful thing happen? One clue may be found in the opening of the entry for Angela Carter:
"Carter enjoyed little renown during her life, but after her death...."
"Little renown"? Say what? Angela Carter? The only way I can make sense of this is to translate it as "I wasn't assigned Carter in high school and I didn't read the New York Review of Books back then, but after I graduated...." An editor should've caught the gaffe, but since an editor wrote it, it was probably immune.
Someone on the staff did make time, though, to reduce my already undistinguished sentence:
"An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany in 1979 began Return to Nevèrÿon, an archeological fantasy series that was to occupy him on and off through the 1980s."
to complete nonsense by deleting "in 1979." Maybe someone in the publishing business could clear this up for me: Are copyeditors paid more for adding lots of mistakes to a manuscript, like programmers whose productivity is measured by lines-of-code? Or do they fuck things up out of sheer gotta-leave-my-mark egotism, like programmers who work nights and weekends?
Another clue: from what I can gather, my topic was originally assigned to a friend of the editors who decided only when the deadline was nigh that it was too hard to finish the research. These aren't enthusiasts trying to communicate their enthusiams: they're a clique trying to act like grown-ups.

From the mission statement:
"We encouraged our contributors to think of you, the reader, as an intelligent, interested friend or relative who'd just asked, 'So tell me about John Updike. What are his books like?'"
I find it unlikely that your auntie would be asking you such a thing unless she was checking how well you'd learned your lessons.
What we got here is not just smugness, but downright noisy celebration of shared limited knowledge. It's like that guy in the museum painstakingly explaining every perfectly obvious thing to his wife. It's like my geeky friends parroting TV shows. It's what they teach you to do in school. And it's what makes a successful journalism career. Salon.dot critics are they who seek to enjoy, without incurring the Immense Debtorship for, a thought thunk.

See Also: Anyone who enjoys this crap should probably seek out the opinions of more journalists. Those intrigued by my crackpot theories can find them expressed more calmly in a 1998 response to Jonathan Lethem.

Ray Davis will be appearing with other contributors to The Salon.com Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, Thursday, September 14, 7:30pm.

. . .

Knowing our fondness for the Chinese literary tradition of relyricized tunes, Jonathan Lethem forwards a link to this useful on-line anthology. The Divine Hand will guide you to your own kind of music and your own special song; mine own is assuredly "Hey! Hey! We're not Monkeys!", although "In Heaven There Is No Walrus" makes some good points.

. . .

"Psst! What'd you answer for number 2?" Department

"The editors of Tin House asked some of their favorite people the following five questions.... 2) What is your least favorite film adaptation of a book?"

Moby
Robert "Pinky" Pinsky
Winnie
Robert "The Brain" Hass

+ + +

There are, however, two worthwhile things in the Winter 2001 issue, both of them originally pointed out to me by Judith: the Hollywood studio photographs excerpted from John Divola's plunder, and Jonathan Lethem's excellent "Defending The Searchers."

. . .

And so ends the story of: HATE, ZIP-POW!, and REVENGE

The Comics Journal message board supplies a surprising addition to the short list of "Krazy Kat" / film noir crossovers (and Fritz Lang / Jonathan Lethem connections):

Fritz's parting present to me was a collection of his favourite comic strips by George Herriman.... he wrote on the flyleaf:
Dear Jan

May you acquire Krazy's philosophy which makes a brick on his - (her?) - noggin the purveyor of true love. For the Krazy's of this world there are no austerities.

Sept 29th - 47 Fritz Lang

. . .

What I Learned from Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager

  1. I knew the fairy tales weren't Andersen's first publication. I'd somehow assumed, not really thinking about it, that he'd bummed along more clearly marked literary routes and got run off each by their rent-a-cops before being forced down this low-prestige path.

    He certainly started with a diet of humiliations. Crow for breakfast, crow for tea, crow for in-betweens. Maybe a few early worms in season, you know, while hunting crow.

    But in fact he didn't take the risk till he had something to lose. He waited till he had an internationally successful inspirational poem anyone can be inspired, the real money's in inspiringand an internationally successful mainstream inspirational novel before he started writing oblique colloquial self-defeating stories whose only excuse were they were for kids.

    And the critics disapproved right off. Waste of talent.

    "It is not meaningless convention that one does not put words together in print in the same disordered manner as one may do quite acceptably in oral speech."

    It's as if after winning the National Book Critics Circle Award Jonathan Lethem began scripting superhero comics. Or if after attaining some stability in academia, Samuel R. Delany started writing niche-market porn.

    The fucker had guts.

    "Of course I shan't enjoy the experience in this world."
  2. Andersen had to meet Dickens; Dickens had to meet Andersen. In the newspapers, they were twin urchins of different dead mothers. Smile on their lips, tear in their eye, lectures in their circuit, and the kids love 'em.

    The meeting was excruciating. Much worse than Proust meets Joyce. Neither Proust nor Joyce were clingers.

    Andersen was a poet who wanted to be a dancer; Dickens was a pro who wanted to be a pro. Andersen was sentimental; Dickens deployed sentiment. A Dickens reading was scripted; an Andersen reading was the original recreated. Andersen was a drama queeen spaz; Dickens was a charming smoothie. Andersen didn't realize how annoying he'd been till Dickens stopped answering his letters.

    You know who Andersen really should've met in England, though? John Keats. Keats was nine years older, but they were equally enthused by an ideal of aesthetic community, and when they found it gated, they shared public abuse for their pretensions and developed similarly perverse attempts at guardedness.

    The only hitch would be that Keats died age 25, and Andersen hit his stride age 30. But if Keats had lived to hit his own stride, and then lived a decade or two more, I bet they would've gotten along real good.

Responses

Kierkegaard got his start jumping on HC Andersen, and I can't find it on the web, but there's a marvellous grovelling letter extant from A to K thanking him for not attacking him as much as he might have or not attacking him in some later publication, I forget which. -- PF

"Grovelling" seems a little strong, if we're thinking about the same thing. Some years after Kierkegaard attacked his novel, when the younger man was a little better established, Andersen sent him a newly published volume of fairy tales with the note:

"Either you like my little ones Or you do not, but they come without Fear and Trembling, and that in itself is something."

Looking back at what I wrote, a couple of clarifications might be useful:

  • I at first avoided reading Wullschlager's book because the reviews and auxiliary journalism led me to think it committed the contemptible and common sin of contempt for its subject. Instead I found an intelligent and scrupulous biography which incorporated the best Andersen criticism I've seen.
  • Pretty much any characterization I've applied to Andersen might also apply to myself, aside from the ones relating to courage and genius.

* * *

A strong misweeding of Negative Capability Brown

Whether meant as brickbat or bouquet, I thank you.

Grovelling may have been strong, or I am misremembering completely - I do have in mind something like dear mr kierk thank you so much that my little thingums are not chewed up by you and spat out again that was so nice. I read it years ago of course and so can't quite remember right.

. . .

An Intellectual Situation

I'm a subscriber, and so there's nothing altruistic in this: I wish n+1 the best. Surprisingly, however, despite its unhurried schedule and its editorial board, it is not always at its best. And its worst, like the worst blogging, merely apes what it promised to supplant.

Tellingly, "The Blog Reflex" exemplifies its worst.

Here's the pivotal sentence:

"But those things didn't happen, at least not often enough."

When a critic surveys a genre or medium, the difference between "didn't" and "didn't usually," between "none" and "some," is not minor, and the difference between "some" and "not enough" depends on whether we know where to find "more and better." For example, when I say "The New Yorker doesn't publish nearly enough interesting poetry," I might silently be comparing it to Jacket. If there is any literary blogging whose material seems both worthwhile and unlikely to become accessible through any other avenue, then what's the comparison point for "not often enough"?

Offered a chance to explore the new or even to encourage "those things" to happen a bit more often n+1's anonymous writer instead conforms to journalistic habit and resculpts the punditry deposited by more established print organs. Expressing disingenuous disappointment along the lines of the "surprise" I expressed in my first paragraph, it re-affirms the already not-known: Nothing to see here; really a shame; well, let's move on....

It's an eerily familiar process. During a public back-and-forth with Jonathan Lethem some years back, it turned out that his Village Voice piece "The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction" had originally been titled "Why Can't We All Just Live Together?" and had sprung from a desire to draw attention to Carol Emshiller's work. No matter our intentions as editor or author, the conventions of professional and semi-professional journalism pressure us to flatter ignorance, and, by so doing, snub the Ideal Reader of literature.

Which, among the bloggers I read, contributes much of the strange appeal of web self-publication.

Responses

SEK writes:

The non-hipster hip in "The Intellectual Scene" pieces has grown tired, but if you overlook the posturing, there's still some fine prose and sharp thought in there.

I even enjoy some of the posturing.

Perhaps 'not often enough' to justify the time blog-reading can swallow up.

. . .

Renew in the Repress

In 1998, the Village Voice published "Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction" by Jonathan Lethem. Lethem and I exchanged email on the subject, and he later edited that portion of our correspondence for publication.

Recently, after noticing a couple of academic sites which pointed to the Voice cut of the essay, I asked Jonathan for permission to post our sequel online, and he's graciously agreed. (To use his exact words, "Get it shackled at the ankles to the Voice piece if you can!")

Readers of the world: Mistakes Were Made.

[On a more strictly personal note, those emails from September 1998 also mention my decision to withdraw from fiction workshops, my lack of interest in becoming a reviewer, and my desire to "produce fewer promises and more (if un-genre-publishably weirder) writing instead. Still mulling over what that might mean...."]

. . .

Reference Work, 1

For JL & JL
"NEVER MIND - ALL APOLOGIES"

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.
- Chris Doyle
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.
- Jonathan Lethem

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.

Equally newsworthy:

"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.

... to be continued ...

Responses

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.

. . .

Reference Work, 2

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.

... to be continued ...

. . .

Reference Work, 3

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.
- Steve Gerber
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.

- Jonathan Lethem

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.

... Next: The Startling Conclusion! ...

. . .

Reference Work, 4

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?

And Mister Wimpy is the referee
Our Hero

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?

Near-universally, the answer is zilch. I could cite Lou Reed on John Rockwell and Robert Christgau, but more subtly Eddie Campbell cites R G Collingwood:

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?

Responses

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.

. . .

"Thea's main objective in life seemed to be to make her contemporaries feel awful."

Since I'm a long-time champion of Patricia Highsmith, my friends have naturally asked me what I thought of the new biography. Well, when I gave up the idle fantasy of writing a critical biography I also seemed to lose interest in reading one, and so I haven't read it. But of the opinions formulated by people who have, I commend with pleasure Jonathan Lethem's, and would only add to his suggestions two novels of particular import to biography readers: the alternate-history life-of-Highsmith Edith's Diary, dedicated to the unlikely proposition that Things Could Be Worse, and Those Who Walk Away, which narrates the healing powers and jarringly hard limits of empathy in a way and in settings that Henry James might recognize without quite endorsing.

Responses

Dave Haan differs:

Betty Noir's not my thang, but it seems a shame to overlook the Sunday Times' appreciation in its lit-quotes of the year, under the VS Naipaul award for most repellent author:

"[Patricia Highsmith] kept 300 snails as pets. She drank a quart of gin a day. She considered robbery worse than murder. She left the United States to live in Europe because of what she called 'the Negro problem' by which she did not mean discrimination against Negroes, but the civil rights movement that had Negroes demanding their rights. A houseguest once left her window open; she threw a dead rat inside. She took tips left on restaurant tables. She'd drive 60 miles to get a cheaper spaghetti dinner. She called Hitler's extermination policy a 'semicaust' because only half the world's Jews died."

The rest of Kornbluth's take

and Joan Schenkar has a couple items up there as well.

Oh, and for heaven's sakes how did I leave The Price of Salt out of my additional recommendations "of particular import to biography readers"?

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.