pseudopodium
. . . Salon.com Reader's Guide

. . .

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.

. . .

"a specialized shop, department of a store, etc., usu. catering to fashionable clients"

On Best Behavior Pamphleteer Juliet Clark writes:

Re the Salon.com Guide to Feeling Hip Because You've Heard of John Updike:

I'd like to point out that Eggers misspelled "aficionado," and the copyeditor didn't catch it.

I think your copyediting/programming analogy is apt in a lot of ways. In fact the whole Salon Guide reminds me to a painful degree of startup culture: young people who won't be young much longer demanding to be taken seriously for not being serious; seeking the Big Time while clinging to a fantasy of countercultural identity; using strained irony, self-created urgency, and an excess of spin to mask a fundamental laziness.

All I can suggest is that you sell your author copy and use the money to buy a good book. Wouldn't that be, like, "ironic"?

And David Auerbach weighs in more fatalistically:
I do think that the Salon guide fills a void. We currently have no one to tell us which of the many, many idiomatically similar novels are the real thing and which are the product of overheated middle-class ramblings. The academics can't be bothered with it, since they're too busy keeping their own little flame alive. People like Lewis Lapham hate it all, and people like Michiko Kakutani are either indiscriminate (if you agree with them more often than not) or too harsh (vice versa), and they lack consensus-building skills. The remainder of the book-reviewing populace don't have enough credibility to be reliable. So I think contemporary mainstream book reviews, if there's a strong enough drive to hold people's interest, will go the way of movie reviews and devolve into capsule reviews, top ten lists, and "personality-based" reviewers. I don't think I can blame anyone for this process; it just happens when the collective standards of the producers and the consumers are low enough that the work being produced becomes undifferentiated.

Consequently, tho, Carol Emshwiller will certainly be ignored, and even someone like Disch, who has needed to work his material into ostensible potboilers for the last 20 years. There is a need for something of a unified conception, and Carol Emshwiller may as well be Les Blank for all they care. (Which might make Michael Brodsky Kenneth Anger.) There definitely is a "celebration of shared limited knowledge", but who were the Salon editors to deny those who looked towards them for guidance?

Oh, I don't really blame the Salon editors; I imagine it's pretty hard to resist the temptation to milk the cash cow when it's looking up at you with those big brown eyes. I just wish I hadn't seen the result. And I probably wouldn't have if the usual uncentrifugeable muddle of curiosity, vanity, and sense of responsibility hadn't talked me into becoming a contributor.... Being a critic, of course, although I blame myself, I attack them.

If Auerbach's right about the editors' ambitions, the match was doomed a priori, since I'm even less of a consensus-builder than Michiko Kakutani. (Case in point: For the last twenty years every single time I've tried to read the NYTBR I've ended up throwing it across the room, and so I didn't even recognize her name.) When it comes to art, I don't see that consensus is necessary, or even desirable. That's probably what attracts me to the subject: I wouldn't be so exclusively an aesthete if I were a more enthusiastic politician.

One clarification / pettifoggery as regards "personality-based" reviewing: It's true that I believe a critic can only speak as an individual, and that criticism is most useful when individual works receive close attention as individual works. That means that I consider generalities issued from a presumed position of consensus to be bad criticism. It doesn't mean that I consider class-clown-ism a guarantee of good criticism. In my Salon.com tantrum I emphasized voice because voice was being emphasized by the book's publicity and reviews, but what really set me off was the 400-page-long lack of new insight into individual works: a generic free-weekly voice was just the means to that dead end.

In my own practice I use an overtly performative voice only because I have to. When I attempt a detached tone, I become too stumble-footedly self-conscious to move; when I do the jutht a darn-fool duck shtick, life seems better. That's a personality flaw, not a deliberate choice. Behind the Dionysian mask, I'm ogling those Apollonians plenty: I empathize with Jean-Luc Godard's film criticism but I'm in awe of Eric Rohmer's; Lester Bangs is a role model but I'd be so much more uncomplicatedly proud of something like Stephen Ratcliffe's Campion; my favorite Joycean is eyes-on-the-page Fritz Senn; my favorite historian is no-see-um Henry Adams; I loathe the bluster of Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia....

What matters is whether you communicate anything of what you see. If you don't have to keep twitching and waving and yelling "Hi, Mom!" while you do it, all the better.

. . .

Celebrate

Today Samuel R. Delany is 60 years old.

Delany more than any other writer of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is truly dedicated to and efficacious in building better American citizens, and so this should really be a national holiday and Delany himself subsidized as a national treasure -- with a PBS documentary series, and statues in every city, and appropriate selections publicly taught at each grade level -- it's not like he would stop writing; on the contrary, he would be able to write much more -- but the USA doesn't tend to do such things, so I recommend in default that everyone who reads this go to their nearest bookstore and buy as many Samuel R. Delany books as they can afford and, should they be a Hollywood producer, also buy a good many Samuel R. Delany film rights, and that way maybe he would still be able to write much more. (ATTN Will Smith's agent: The Motion of Light in Water is the EPIC SAGA of a GENERATION shown via the TRUE STORY of a GENIUS who TRIUMPHANTLY OVERCOMES a NERVOUS BREAKDOWN! OSCAR OSCAR OSCAR)

I wanted to find a good summation statement from Delany's out-of-print work to stick here, but even when pressed he tends not to waste time summing up his own work, so here's what I wrote for The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors, although editorial requirements forced me to sorely constrict myself on the nonfiction and the mainstream fiction and actually pretty much on everything:

An ambitious autodidact in the grand tradition, Samuel R. Delany has been called the "most individual of America's individualist writers." For four decades and in a half-dozen genres, Delany has outraged and comforted readers with formally innovative, determinedly eclectic, and uniquely heartfelt work.

Kathy Acker described his fiction as "a conversation between you and Samuel Delany about the possibilities of being human." Unlike many exploiters of "transgression," Delany seems driven by the desire to honestly communicate previously unspoken human experience; even his grungiest material is surprisingly warm in tone. As William Gibson wrote, "I remember being simply and frequently grateful to Delany for so powerfully confirming that certain states had ever been experienced at all, by anyone."

Delany's early work exuberantly cross-bred space opera conventions with linguistic theory, female starship commanders, sexual triads, sword-wielding Orphic avatars, artist-criminals, pop culture, and the emotional complexities of sadomasochism. This phase ended in 1968 with the publication of his super-science swashbuckler Nova and the writing of his first pornographic novel, the Grand Guignol fantasy Equinox.

After a long silence, Delany re-emerged in the mid-1970s with three startling novels: Hogg (unpublished until 1995), a clear-eyed depiction of professional rapists and sexual exploitation of children, and perhaps the most effectively offensive work in American literature; Dhalgren, the portrait of a bisexual drifter in a late 1960s city, and a massive hybrid of era-summarizing ambition, hyper-naturalist technique, science fictional motifs, poetics, urban gangs, and structuralist theory; and Trouble on Triton, an "ambiguous heterotopia" which seamlessly blends interplanetary warfare, Jamesian character-determined prose, and feminist satire while describing a blond hetero hero's imagined victories and true defeats.

An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany published in 1979 the first volume of his archeological fantasy series Return to Nevèrÿon, a "Child's Garden of Semiotics" (complete with slave revolts,women warriors, dragons, bondage, an alternative Genesis, and the invention of writing) that was to occupy him on and off through the next ten years. The disarmingly straightforward approach of the series contrasted with 1984's rococo Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a tragedy of intercultural-interspecies communication and sexuality which remains to date Delany's last science fiction novel.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Delany devoted himself to criticism, autobiography, and studies of interracial and interclass urban relations. Often the strains are intertwined, as in The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction in the East Village, a beautiful and moving account of the early 1960s. The effect of AIDS on the sexual cultures and industries of Manhattan became a focal point in Delany's writing with the fantasy-journalism layering of "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," and continuing in his pornographic mystery The Mad Man (in which a young African-American scholar finds true love with a homeless redneck and true satisfaction with a considerably wider range of partners), and in a forthcoming book on Times Square.

. . .

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Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
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