Here in the Diaspora the holiday of Sukkot comes to an end with Shmini Atseret and Simhat Torah, a 48-hour day-of-rest (in Israel, the two are compressed into one). Add in Shabbat on Saturday and the Jews must endure another three days without A Commonplace Blog. That will be it for the knock-off-work holidays till April. Back on Sunday!
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Over at The Story Is the Cure, a new blog written by an MFA student at Wichita State, Casey Pycior is sure that I am “blaming MFA programs (and those who teach in them)” for what I had called, back in May, “the almost complete disappearance of regionalism from American fiction.” I despair of correcting this misconception when even my publisher assigns me to the side that is against creative writing.
Here a large share of the mistake is mine, because I never bothered to define regionalism the first time around. A geographer gives the standard definition in his discipline: “Regionalism is taken to mean the awareness of togetherness among a people of a relatively large area.” The region must be a subdivision of a larger political or geographical unit: “Scotland, for instance, is only a regionalism if viewed from a Britain-wide perspective. . . .”
This is why regionalism is usually described in literature as a movement, not a scattering of individual cases. It is the “awareness of togetherness” that connects a self-aware group of writers, who experience their common region as a deeper influence upon their thinking and story-telling than what the novelist Mary Austin called “the lesser influences of a shared language and a common political arrangement.” In fact, Austin blamed the whole disappointed wait for “the great American novel” on the “genuine inability of various regions to see greatness in novels that dealt with fine and subtle distinctions in respect to some other region.”
How ironic it is, then, that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is being hailed as the great American novel (at last!). Interviewing him for Boundary 2 last year, Christopher Connery acknowledged that “[i]t’s hard to say that regionalism has much purchase on the general literary imagination these days,” but went ahead and asked Franzen what regionalism meant to him. His reply measures the extent of regionalism’s disappearance from American fiction. Franzen launches into a long meditation on the Midwest, where innocence is prolonged because of a lack of “immediate contact” with New York and Washington and Hollywood, a “time lag” in learning about what people the same age living on the coasts had already learned about, which “produces both a sense of optimism and a kind of reactive curdled cynicism.” Defining the boundaries of the Midwest, though, Franzen says:
 David B. Knight, “Identity and Territory: Geographical Perspectives on Nationalism and Regionalism,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72 (1982): 518.
 Mary Austin, “Regionalism in American Fiction,” English Journal 21 (Feb. 1932): 98–99.
 Christopher Connery, “The Liberal Form: An Interview with Jonathan Franzen,” Boundary 2 36 (Summer 2009): 40–42.
 C. S. Lewis, “The Idea of an ‘English School,’ ” in Representations and Other Essays (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), pp. 74-75.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 2:04 PM
Monday, September 27, 2010
In an excellent post over at The Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella defends both religious toleration and the proposition that toleration has its limits.
I agree entirely, but for entirely different reasons. Vallicella defends religious toleration, because “the existence of these competing worldviews is a good and enriching thing in that it helps us clarify and refine and test our own views and practices and helps us progress toward truer and more life-enhancing systems of thought and practice.” What Vallicella describes, however, is not really religious toleration, but intellectual diversity, which may be a necessary precondition to intellectual honesty but not necessarily to religious integrity.
My argument for religious toleration is naggingly formal. Arguments in defense of Revealed Religion are forever circular, and thus can never be decided—by those inside or outside the circle.
Hillel Halkin makes this point brilliantly in his new Jewish Encounters biography of Yehuda Halevi. Halevi’s most famous book was The Kuzari (ca. 1140), a vindication of Judaism. While Christianity and Islam “make claims for a single savior or prophet that cannot be empirically justified and demand an act of faith on the part of the believer,” the book argues, according to Halkin, Judaism by contrast “is based not on faith but on historical experience.” God handed down his Torah in front of six hundred thousand Israelites who witnessed Mount Sinai’s smoking. Judaism is attested to, in short, by “many miracles,” and not just one.
But of course, as Halkin goes on to note, Halevi’s reasoning in The Kuzari is circular:
My view is that arguments across the circles are fruitless. There is no possible means of settling the religious dispute over first principles. Toleration, on my showing, would entail the unspoken agreement to put up with religious differences without ever undertaking the impossible mission of reconciling them, which—in the absence of any logical method for doing so—can only end in coercion or violence. Note, however, that toleration differs subtly from tolerance. The latter is an act of weakness, and seems much like indifference as a consequence. Toleration, though, is always from a position of power. Religious opinions that differ from the established view (from my own religious commitment, that is) are granted the freedom to express and spread themselves, because they are not a threat. They are not a threat precisely because their arguments, spilling out from within a different circle, cannot serenade me with any degree of persuasion. When they become a threat because they are backed by violence, then and only then have the limits of toleration been reached. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Daniel Huff are surely right that Islamists’ death threats should be a criminal offense.
My idea of toleration, then, is very close to Miriam Burstein’s third way between the positive and negative varieties: “in which everyone keeps their mouth shut while feeling rather grumpy.”
Within the circle of faith-accepted premises, Vallicella’s “good and enriching” arguments can occur. Perhaps they are the antidote to grumpiness. But you must first accept the premises to have your understanding of what follows from them “clarified and refined and tested.”
In short, religious argumentation (or theology, for that matter) is a lot like fiction. (That’s how Halkin blocks the objection to Halevi’s circular logic, in fact. The Kuzari is a work of fiction.) You must accept a donnée before you can be instructed or delighted or both at once. And this is the whole of what I have to say on the question of religious toleration.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 3:48 PM
Thomas L. Jeffers, Norman Podhoretz: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 393 pp. $35.00.
Norman Podhoretz has been called many things—ultra-hawkish, U.S.-centric, neo-imperialist, Israel firster. And those are among the kinder things. His admirers know him as the editor who transformed Commentary into America’s best magazine. Along with the late Irving Kristol, he was the architect of the neoconservative intellectual movement, perhaps its leading advocate for “exporting democracy.” His counsel was sought by President George W. Bush, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and later by presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani. He is notorious for describing Islamism’s war against the West as “World War IV” and for advising that the U.S. bomb Khomeinist Iran.
What Podhoretz has not been called often enough is a good writer, one of the most influential American prose writers of the last half century. Making It, his 1967 “auto-case study” which revealed that a thirst for success is the dirty little secret of the intelligentsia, ignited the boom in American memoirs. (He followed up with the equally outrageous and invigorating Breaking Ranks and Ex-Friends.) Trained originally as a literary critic under Lionel Trilling and F. R. Leavis, he made an immediate name for himself at twenty-three when he broke ranks with the critical consensus, writing in Commentary that The Adventures of Augie March was a grand failure, but a failure nevertheless. (Bellow never forgave him.) Doings and Undoings, his 1964 collection of essays, was nearly the last gasp of the New York intellectuals, the last successful attempt to write criticism of novelists’ ideas.
The virtue of Thomas L. Jeffers’s new biography is that it locks in on Podhoretz the writer, tracking his intellectual development through his essays and memoirs. A reader with a curiosity about postwar American intellectual history who is a stranger to Podhoretz’s work will find an excellent one-volume introduction to both in this biography. Podhoretz the man does not disappear beneath the surface of the writing, but Jeffers has small patience for scandal. As a direct consequence, his book has been denigrated as “extremely admiring,” “tightly aligned with its subject,” “exhaustive but frustratingly uncritical.” Podhoretz’s detractors are upset that his biographer does not share their opinion, along with their unthinking assumption that, as a matter of course, biography is the art of debunking a great man. Jeffers’s life belongs to an older tradition, in which the reasons that a man deserves his reputation—and a book-length treatment—are amply justified.
Podhoretz was born in 1930, and grew up in his native Brooklyn. The streets were tough, and fights between Jews and blacks and other second-generation immigrant kids were common. “I got beaten up a couple of times, and I don’t think I ever really won a fight,” Podhoretz later wrote, “but I was good or staunch enough to hold my own and not be totally humiliated.” The important thing was not to run away. “It was good training for the life I was to lead,” he said.
Indeed, Podhoretz has never run away from a fight in his life. In one of my favorite passages, John Podhoretz—the only son—relates how he brought a friend home for dinner when he was twelve or thirteen. His sister broached the subject of homosexuality:
Although not everyone will appreciate it for this reason, Jeffers’s biography contains an engrossing account of how Podhoretz built up his remarkable prose style—a variety of what I have elsewhere called the harsh style. Early in his career, he wrote in a letter to a friend that being obliged to submit multiple drafts to Commentary managing editor Robert Warshow—a wonderful writer in his own right—was teaching him to concentrate on “the qualities of things instead of on their meaning [his emphasis], and it seems to have wrought a revolution in my style.” The revolution not only transformed Podhoretz’s own style, but also that of the magazine of which he assumed editorial control in 1960. Commentary became a haven for what the great literary critic Ruth R. Wisse, one of Podhoretz’s discoveries, a regular contributor to the magazine since 1976, called the no-apologies style:
Posted by D. G. Myers at 11:08 AM
Sunday, September 26, 2010
This summer Time magazine put Jonathan Franzen on its cover. “Great American Novelist,” he was called. Lev Grossman helpfully explained:
Grossman does not seem to be sneering at Franzen, although I understand what he means. By
Perhaps Lev Grossman and Time magazine just got tired of waiting. It’s pretty obvious, though, that no one—not Grossman, not Franzen, not Ed Pilkington, the Guardian’s interviewer—has any clear idea what he means by the expression. And no wonder. The expression is difficult to take seriously.
One of the few critics ever to do so was Julian Hawthorne. Although he might have protested with some justice that his father would have had already been given credit for the damn thing if he hadn’t insisted on calling his books “romances,” Hawthorne considered the claims of Henry James and W. D. Howells, who had “done more than all the rest of us to make our literature respectable during the last ten years,” but concluded:
 “Library Table,” Round Table 10 (July 3, 1869): 10. The editors believed that Harriet Beecher Stowe, “before all our other fiction-writers,” would have written it by then.
 Anna B. McMahan, “The New Fiction,” Our Continent 2 (Nov. 22, 1882): 618.
 “Wanted—An American Novel,” Literary World 14 (June 16, 1883): 192.
 Julian Hawthorne, “Agnosticism in American Fiction,” Princeton Review 60 (Jan.–June 1884): 13–15.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 12:53 PM
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
If A Commonplace Blog is off the air for the next three days, there must be another Jewish holiday to blame. And what do you know? The holiday of Sukkot begins this evening. Everyone into your huts!
Posted by D. G. Myers at 4:17 PM
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
In the style of the novelist Rick Moody, answering the Paris Review’s question, “What does American mean to you? Do you consider yourself an American writer?” (h/t: Mark Athitakis).
Q.: What does literary fiction mean to you? Do you consider yourself a reader of literary fiction?
A.: What other kind of fiction would I read? (Can you read something that is not written?) I guess to read literary fiction means, you know, that I have winced routinely at midlife crises and that I have the limitless freedom to be ashamed of shameless adulterers, and that I am proud of a country that I don’t recognize in its pages, and that there must be something wrong with me because my political conscience is not swollen like a goiter, and that baseball is an occasion for gloppy sentimentalism and total ignorance, and it means that I must listen to men who are so sensitive they’ve never shown any courage in their lives, and it means that I am a stranger to transcendence, and it means that I am familiar with artificial word-order and outlandish yokings of verb and adverb or adjective and noun, and it means, let’s see, that I am not embarrassed by another person’s sexual experience, just need to know the stuff that some guy does in bed, and it means one place is pretty much like another place and not worth paying much attention to at any rate, and it means sentences are really, really well-crafted (even if the craft is more readily apparent than their meaning, which sometimes is not apparent at all), and it means that I don’t mind listening to people yapping incessantly about how terrible America is, and how terrible Bush is, and did you know America was once a slave-holding nation, and O what about the Native Americans, don’t forget them, and it means that radical personal autonomy is the only possible mode of life worth pursuing, even though most of the people I know derive most of their happiness from their families, and it means that I ought to covet urban apartments filled with fine objects and cool gadgets and unusual cookbooks that I won’t find on Amazon and no children, and it means that the best people know nothing whatever about cars or guns or tools or how to fix anything, and it means that I hear a lot of opinions but very little knowledge, and it means I can’t possibly imagine what men and women do all day at work when they’re not reading literary fiction. Wow, it really means a lot of really good things, doesn’t it?
Posted by D. G. Myers at 2:21 PM
Yesterday Wuthering Expectations celebrated its third anniversary. In reflecting upon his experience of book blogging, the Amateur Reader (who has remained anonymous for three years) cited William H. Pritchard as his model (the critic “can embrace limits as a provocation to speak out”), and then proceeded to sketch the kind of book blog that gladly embraces the limits. He has in mind the bloggers who “write on a book or idea however they want, for however long they want.” He gives an example of his own practice: the time he spent two weeks on the nineteenth-century Scottish novelist John Galt.
He also singles out Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence, of course (“the best written book blog, easily”—ditto). Last year I noticed that Kurp was doing the kind of thing the Amateur Reader describes, thinking about a book as he worked his way through it rather than waiting till the end to gather his thoughts. “The effect is that of a serial review,” I observed. “Instead of a book review that satisfies the publisher’s (and author’s) thirst for publicity—a book review that delivers a finished verdict—you have the adventure of a mind as it inches toward conclusions.” This, as I noted at the time, is the original meaning of the word essay.
My own blogging practice is different. I am far more worried—far too worried—about finish. My training under second-generation New Critics is showing, I’m afraid. Every time I begin a sentence, I hope that I can achieve the effect of absolute completion, to which nothing could be added or taken away. And this goes all the way down to my handling of books. I almost never say something until I have finished a book and can say something conclusive (with luck, even definitive) about it.
The Amateur Reader’s practice, and Kurp’s, is the better. My literary ambition is unobtainable (and therefore neurotic), while theirs is inviting, modest, and open to surprise, change of mind. I must sustain the illusion of self-consistency as if my thought formed a virtuoso whole across years of critical writing, even when I am fully aware of the gaps in my knowledge and the holes in my reasoning. My style of criticism is an old, discredited style—a pretense of completeness in an age of open sources and endless links. In the three years of its existence, Wuthering Expectations shows how book blogging differs from (and improves upon) centuries of after-the-fact literary criticism.
Congratulations to the Amateur Reader! And here is to a blogging run that is ten times longer than it has lasted so far!
Posted by D. G. Myers at 8:22 AM
Monday, September 20, 2010
On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI officially beatified one of the greatest writers of English prose. John Henry Newman has now taken three of the four steps toward canonization by the Church of Rome. Till now only Thomas More among great English writers has been recognized as a saint, although he wrote his greatest books in Latin.
In his homily, the Pope dwelled on what he called Newman’s
Replying to this article in September’s American Spectator by the English philosopher Roger Scruton, who seeks to recover Newman’s vision of a liberal arts education “liberated from the phony subjects and dubious social mores that have occupied the American campus,” Burstein observes that
What Burstein does not say is whether Newman’s conception of education must be abandoned as a relic of the past (and the peculiar treasure of Catholics), or whether it can be adapted at all to a secular setting like her own state university. The Pope claims that “all those engaged in academic formation can continue to learn” from Newman—all, not just nineteenth-century Catholics. I’d be interested to hear what Burstein thinks.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 3:38 PM
Friday, September 17, 2010
Kol Nidre begins this evening, and with it begins the Jews’ annual 24-hour rite of fasting and repentance.
In shul, the biblical book of Jonah is read. If it is the “perfect candidate” for the day’s reading, it is also a book that I know practically by heart. To get beyond my own received ideas about it is increasingly difficult.
What should I read, then? Guy Davenport’s “Jonah” is a story about the prophet. Moby Dick, perhaps. Or Charles Olson’s study of Melville entitled Call Me Ishmael (I’d prefer not to). The best choice might be Orwell’s long essay “Inside the Whale,” but the last thing I need is encouragement to be even more of a political animal than I already am (I do want this t-shirt, though).
Under the Library of Congress subject heading “Repentance—Fiction,” only one title is catalogued, although in several editions: Defoe’s Moll Flanders. But though I have many sins to repent for, a career as a thief is not among them. If I really wanted to make myself miserable (one of the goals of the day) I could take along Mark Pendergrast’s Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. (About one or two in the afternoon, my head will be pounding a relentless message: Coffee! Coffee! Get me some coffee!)
Abraham Rabinovich’s Yom Kippur War would remind me of what else has occurred on the day. Or Haim Sabato’s novel about the war, Adjusting Sights. (I could order the Kindle edition right away, but then I couldn’t read it in shul.) The only distinguished work of fiction that has anything to do with the “sabbath of sabbaths” is I. B. Singer’s Slave, one of my favorite novels growing up. I have not reread it since then. It is the story of unwavering faith under difficult circumstances. Much more than the book of Jonah, it seems the perfect candidate for the day. Why not? If nothing else, I can reacquaint myself with the young and more innocent reader that I am no longer.
If I have offended any readers of A Commonplace Blog over the past year, I ask them please to forgive me. For my native and defining sin of hair-trigger combativeness, I will be repenting for the rest of my life.
Gmar hatimah tovah!
Posted by D. G. Myers at 1:45 PM
Over at The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney registers his dissent from Elif Batuman’s essay “Get a Real Degree” in the London Review of Books. As I pointed out in a comment, it is a pretty dumb mistake to summarize Batuman as saying “Down with creative writing.”
Cheney does not make that mistake, but he accuses her—and other critics who worry about creative writing’s influence upon contemporary fiction—of arguing in bad faith. “Mostly, I'm just tired of people complaining about some monolithic thing called ‘MFA writers’ and their boring books/stories,” he says. “It’s a straw man argument, because to be convincing (to me, at least) a critic must show that a giant glob of the fiction being published in the U.S. today is 1.) boring; 2.) boring because of the effect of writing workshops on the writer—that, in fact, this writer would be less boring had she or he studied investment banking.”
I am among those critics who has advanced that “straw man” argument. “[F]or an entire generation of American writers,” as I put it several years ago in The Elephants Teach, “a tour of duty in graduate writers’ workshops followed by a life of teaching creative writing has been the standard training and common experience of its time.” Just yesterday I suggested that contemporary American novelists were unlikely to revive the proletarian novel, “because they have passed almost their entire adult lives in creative-writing programs and have small interest in the lives of ordinary, ‘proletarian’ men and women.”
My complaint has never been, however, that most of “the fiction being published in the U.S. today” is “boring.” I have argued instead that the “standard training and common experience” of contemporary novelists, attaching them to a rootless profession that organizes them nationally rather than encouraging them to put down roots in a local habitation, has had the effect of bleaching region and a strong sense of place from much American fiction.
Creative writing also has class effects. One of the things that struck me about Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was that the Berglunds, a former All-American basketball player (that’s the wife, naturally) and an environmentally conscious lawyer, were immediately familiar to me as class types. They differed little or not at all in their tastes, habits, opinions, and sources of income from the characters in “a giant glob” of recent American fiction (to use Cheney’s phrase).
The same couple shows up with dismaying frequency—in Joshua Ferris’s novel The Unnamed, for example, Sam Lipsyte’s Ask, Pearl Abraham’s American Taliban (the parents are notable imagines of their class), and even Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men. Lawyers, academics, graduate students, government grant-holders, NGO do-gooders—the circles are very small. And just to show that I am not saying that their class homogeneity insures that the novels are “boring,” I’d observe that this charge can also be leveled against novels that I have praised to the skies, such as Francine Prose’s Goldengrove and Zoë Heller’s Believers. Many of the best novels published in the U.S. recently have been set among the upper crust of American society, which is described by Angelo Codevilla as America’s ruling class:
Creative writing has become a bureaucratized national system for securing contemporary American writers’ place in the right class, among the right people. This is why so much of their fiction is concerned with identity and attitude and the language that expresses them, and so little is concerned with the work that ordinary men and women do. And this is why, when an immensely talented novelist like Jonathan Franzen becomes aware of the class trappings, he falls to observing them with a shrewd and candid eye rather than breaking with them altogether.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 9:32 AM
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Over at Lit Drift, Jessica Digiacinto asks, in a fed-up voice, why awful writing is tolerated. The proximate cause of her despair is last year’s Death Wish imitation Law Abiding Citizen, written by Kurt Wimmer. The film is “so full of every writing Don’t,” Digiacinto says, “it makes our mouths hang open in disbelief.”
I know exactly what she means. Several years ago I delivered myself of a lament about “Bad Writing” that earned me a bit of notoriety in academic quarters. “We work our asses off writing, rewriting,” Digiacinto says; “we beat ourselves up. . . .” And by we she means at least herself and me. Many’s the time that, like her, I have thrown up my hands in disgust when some scholar, in a profession dedicated to preserving and studying literary texts that were written with care, is praised and rewarded for writing that consists of little more than stringing together current commonplaces, uncrackable clumps of with-it terminology, careless voluble obscurity, and idées reçues.
Bad academic writers differ not at all from bad commercial writers. Instead of composing in words, bad writers compose in ready-made phrases. They do not notice when they have substituted approximation for exactitude, because their minds are elsewhere, usually on the unthreatening shrug of familiarity they want from their readers.
Digiacinto and I must simply accept the fact that an attentiveness to language is a minority pursuit. My wife has recently fallen in love with Daniel Silva’s series of thrillers with their Israeli hero Gabriel Allon. Eager to read anything that represents an Israeli as a hero, I picked up one of the books (my wife has already read five of them), but I was unable to outlast the first few pages—the prose was exasperatingly limp. My wife, who is a physician, has a motto that she teaches to her fellowship students: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” In literature, though, “good enough” is no good at all.
Update: As long as I have quoted the great J. V. Cunningham once already today, I guess it’s all right to do so a second time. Why is awful writing tolerated? “Tolerance is almost identical to indifference.”
Posted by D. G. Myers at 10:46 AM
My critical essay on Michael Gold’s 1930 novel Jews Without Money is the main feature this morning at Jewish Ideas Daily.
My argument is that, although Jews Without Money is a “proletarian” novel—the best proletarian novel ever written—its greatness owes little to its proletarian (i.e. its Marxist) dimension. Instead, the novel is a testament to the ability of poor Jews to make a full life for themselves, even a crowded life, in desperate straits.
If any novel deserves to be known as a proletarian novel, Jews Without Money is it. Gold, a lifelong obedient member of the Communist Party, seems to have been the one who first called for a movement of proletarian literature, although his original term was “proletarian realism.” Writing in the New Masses, a radical magazine he co-founded in 1926 to “revive the spirit of the old Bohemian-left-liberal alliance,” Gold said that the literature of the future would be proletarian: that it would perform a “social function” rather than being written “for its own sake.”
Jews Without Money was written according to this formula. Gold uses the word proletarian self-consciously, repeatedly, to give the novel an identifying mark. A fictionalized account of his growing up on the Lower East Side, the novel ends with Gold’s vision of liberation from poverty and social injustice:
O Revolution, that forced me to think, to struggle and to live.
O great Beginning!
If only for one book—he never wrote another novel, and descended into a Party hack very quickly after 1930—Gold establishes himself as his father’s son. The novel is not a single coherent narrative but a series of vignettes, each of which shows the spirit of poor Jews trying to live in an inhospitable climate (“only children are hardy enough to grow on the East Side,” Gold remarks). The characters are poor, but they are not bounded by their poverty. Their unhappiness is caused, not by “America, the thief,” but by personal betrayal, desertion by a spouse, separation from family, the disappointment of children. Their triumphs are fueled by the help they offer one another, the decency they manage to find in mean surroundings.
What Jews Without Money proves is that it is not material conditions but their spirit that defines human beings.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 8:42 AM
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
In a short essay on Ethan Frome over at Interpolations, Kevin Neilson quotes two passages by the novel’s narrator, who says about himself only that he has “been sent by my employers on a job connected with the big power-house at Corbury Junction,” although he drops the interesting clue that he has been reading a “volume of popular science—I think it was on some recent discoveries in bio-chemistry. . . .” From this Neilson deduces that he is an “engineer, likely a manager or a supervisor. . . .” And on the strength of this deduction, Neilson objects to the prose that Edith Wharton grants to him:
Now, I am not exactly sure what Neilson is objecting to here. That putting such prose into the mouth of such a man is a sin against authenticity, fatally compromising the novel’s realism? That it is impossible, destroying the novel’s tragic effect? Merely implausible, making the novel a clumsy vehicle for carrying the reader away?
Two things, at all events, that I don’t think Neilson allows for. Ethan Frome was published in 1911, thirty years after electricity first began to be generated at central stations. If the history of the Boston Edison Company is any indication, the spread and use of electrical power in Massachusetts (the setting of the book) was only becoming widespread around the time that Wharton wrote. The cost of electricity per kilowatt hour dropped by half in the city between 1886 and 1909, according to Boston Edison. The price decrease was the result of engineering improvements and increased demand.
In short, Wharton attaches her narrator to “the big power-house at Corbury Junction” in order to fix the novel’s framing story firmly in the present. An electrical engineer who had risen to have become a manager or supervisor by 1909–’11 would have had to graduate from college around, say, the turn of the century. As historians of the American university can tell you, even engineering students in the late nineteenth century received an education that would strike current engineering students as excessively literary and humanistic. Even if they did not intend to pursue one of the “learned professions,” young engineers were expected, as university graduates, to be liberally educated. A man of Wharton’s narrator’s background would be far more articulate and even poetic than his counterpart today. Neilson does not account for this historical difference.
What is more, his occupation—his interest in popular science—is intended to defamiliarize the narrator, to make him a visitor from a different world and time, almost exactly like Mr Lockwood in Wuthering Heights. The narrator’s distance from events is designed to give Ethan Frome’s story the quality of strangeness, even uncanniness. Once the frame is set by arranging to have the story told to an up-to-date visitor, it is dispensed with, and the question of authenticity or plausibility is no longer relevant (the question of possibility is another matter entirely). The frame is merely a device for generating the fiction.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 6:03 PM
The news has only now reached me that George Hitchcock has died at the age of ninety-five after a long illness (h/t: Mark Athitakis).
George started teaching at Santa Cruz in 1970, the year I enrolled there as a freshman. He was, I believe, the very first faculty member I met. I knew him by sight, of course. As Jim Hair’s eye-catching photograph from 1973 testifies, George was a striking physical presence, six foot four with a gray mane falling away from a receding hairline, hard to miss. One evening during freshman orientation I was eating in the College V dining hall with my roommate, and went to fetch a glass of milk. George was ahead of me. He lifted the lever on the milk dispenser; nothing came out. He turned to me. “The cows are running dry,” he said in his basso profundo voice. “All over the world, the cows are running dry.” It was my first lesson in surrealism.
George edited kayak, a one-man poetry magazine (hence the name), for twenty years between 1964 and 1984. According to Elaine Woo’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times, the magazine’s name “reflected the management philosophy of an editor who had come to despair the committee approach to choosing literary submissions.” While at Santa Cruz, I co-founded a little magazine (along with Raymond Carver, John Kucich, and Paul Skenazy) called Quarry. It operated by committee, although the rest of us would have been wiser to defer more often to Carver.
Despite our literary differences, George was extremely generous to me. After I had helped him with something—I can’t even remember what it was now—he sent me a thank-you gift: a signed edition of Philip Levine’s Red Dust, published by Kayak Books in 1971. Perhaps he was trying to tell me something about my taste in poetry. I wrote clotted imitations of Robert Lowell’s early Catholic verse in those days. My poems quoted from the Jewish liturgy in the original Hebrew and required pedantic explication to make any sense. George’s favorite poets made no sense either, but they had a lot more fun doing so.
Two pieces of literary arcana from those years. I interviewed George for the campus television station. (“What do you think of the concept of the poète maudit?” I asked at one point. “Tell me what you mean,” he replied. I launched into a learned disquisition, weaving in references to Baudelaire and Rimbaud, wasting precious air time. “Well,” I concluded, “what do you think?” “Not much,” he said.) I also reviewed his delightful surrealistic novel Another Shore for the student-edited City on a Hill Press. I wish I could find a clipping of the review, but I can’t. The now defunct Story Line Press reprinted the novel in 1988. Copies of it can still be had for a reasonable price. Although the novel is utter nonsense, it is a merry read.
Indeed, that is my dominant memory of George. Although he could be formidable in literary warfare, and though his literary loyalties were as unforgiving as his commitment to the political Left (perhaps even to the Communist Party), he was fundamentally a happy man, who wanted other people to share the poetry that made him happy.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 2:19 PM
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
My comment Sunday on the news that President Obama is reading Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom was not intended to be a political comment, especially not if the word political means “partisan.”
Whether Obama is more or less sophisticated than the “anti-intellectual slob” who preceded him in office is not a question that interests me very much, nor one (I suspect) that any of us is in any position to answer. It is true, I believe, that President Bush cultivated an image of the well-socialized rural Southerner as thoroughly as Obama cultivates an image of the well-read sophisticate who is “the product of three elite schools.” (The hair in the soup is that Bush, despite his reputation, is a heavy reader, something that was kept from the public until the President’s last weeks of office—“awfully late in the day,” as the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen marveled in some perplexity.) For politicians, books and authors are props, which are either carefully staged or sedulously avoided depending upon what the “base,” as the saying goes, demands.
The real question about politics and literature lies elsewhere. In Grand Strategies, Charles Hill suggests that literature can serve as a “tutor” to statecraft. Adam Kirsch scoffs at the suggestion, because (after all) the rational man can no longer approve what the classical poet once glorified: “imperialism and conquest.” For Kirsch, then, the important thing is to determine Hill’s own politics, by which he means Hill’s side in current political squabbles. Thus Hill is “at least a social conservative,” Kirsch warns, since he “dwells often on the sanctity of marriage and family. . . .”
And this is what politics has been narrowed to: as the old Mineworkers’ song used to ask, “Which Side Are You On?” “Will you be a lousy scab,/ Or will you be a man?”—there is no third possibility. Either you deserve a slur or an honorific, and the political problem is to distribute them correctly.
Kirsch can hardly be blamed for not having read Hill’s book with any comprehension, subject as he is to the current commonplace about politics. Hill himself proposes a different understanding. Take his views “on the sanctity of marriage and family,” for example. They do not identify him as a “lousy scab” who irrationally opposes gay marriage (in contradistinction to a rational “man” like Kirsch, who supports it). Rather, Hill argues that marriage, as a legally binding form of contract, is one of the political mechanisms by which primitive uncivilized tribes organize themselves into a modern civilized state.
On Hill’s showing, politics are the extra-personal “strategies” by which people knit themselves together into a polity, and all the members of a polity engage in these “strategies,” even when they take sides to redefine them. (Hence gays’ insistence upon marriage rather than being content with “civil unions.”) The political question in literature is not which side an author is on, but which political “strategies” grab his attention and how he exhibits them in operation in the daily round of life.
 Autobiographical note: both of my grandfathers were coalminers who belonged to the UMW.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 12:53 PM
Sunday, September 12, 2010
When President Obama was “spotted” on Martha’s Vineyard (as if he had not planned to be seen) with Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom, hearts in the republic of letters were set aflutter. The association, after all, was mutually beneficial. Obama benefitted from the prestige of “literary fiction,” while Franzen experienced the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of being brushed with the wings of power. The President does not even have to read the book for the benefits to pile up. And let’s be honest, he probably won’t wade all the way across Franzen’s 500-page novelistic expanse. Obama has admitted that he is has little time for anything more than SportsCenter.
Why Franzen’s Freedom, though? The official story is that a local bookseller “gave” the President an advance copy. What would Obama have done if handed a copy of Sh*t My Dad Says instead? Tony Blair’s memoir would have created too many unflattering comparisons. Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad might have been just as prestigious—and Obama would have been boosting a writer who needs and actually deserves it—but no one has heard of the book, and the President might have seemed “out of the mainstream” if he carried it to the beach so that everyone could see it.
The truth is that Freedom was a perfectly safe choice. Already the second hottest-selling book on Amazon, Franzen’s novel is neither experimental nor a minority taste. And it won’t challenge the President’s political preconceptions. It is the sort of big fat socially relevant novel that was wildly popular in the ’fifties. It belongs to the same company as The Wall or Anatomy of a Murder or Advise and Consent. It is an utterly middlebrow novel whose reputation for “seriousness” is the result of a successful marketing campaign.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 6:22 PM
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Nine years ago today I was driving from Houston to College Station when Islamists hijacked four passenger jets in a coordinated attack upon the United States. I was giving my colleague Itshak Borosh a ride to work that morning; otherwise I would have been listening to the radio.
When I arrived, the worst was over. Having driven an hour and a half in radio silence, I was oblivious to what had occurred. I greeted the department’s computer technician merrily. “How are you today?” I chirped. “How the f——k do you think I am?” he said. Taken aback, I asked what was wrong. “Don’t you know?” he said. But I didn’t. He told me that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and both towers had collapsed. I stared at him uncomprehendingly. His words made no sense. Nothing in my experience had prepared me to make sense of his words.
I lived in New York for six years, working as a business reporter. Even though the Twin Towers were only about a decade old by then, they seemed to a newcomer as if they had always been there, anchoring lower Manhattan, inhumanly huge, immovable, as permanent as a mountain. To imagine their having collapsed was unimaginable.
I rushed to my office and switched on the radio. No one on the air knew what to say. I found video of the Towers’ collapse on the BBC site. I watched it several times, struggling to do more than gasp.
My lecture course in American literature was due to start, but I couldn’t teach. I still had no words for what I had seen and heard. As I left the building, I ran into a colleague, a James scholar. “Can you believe it?” I asked numbly. (Intuitively I grasped that no one would be thinking about anything else.) “Well, this is inevitably what happens when there is such a disparity of power,” he announced. I was so shocked that I could not react. My colleague nodded as if we understood each other, and went on his way. Only after he had entered the building did I begin to shake with anger.
I have written elsewhere about my students’ reaction, which was far more determined and clear-thinking than my own. Later I learned that most of my colleagues had gone on with their classes as if nothing had occurred. Itshak later told me that he had not even mentioned the day’s events to his students.
But I was in no mood to teach. I cancelled my afternoon class and drove as fast as I could back to Houston. I only wanted to be with my wife. We sat beside each other on the couch till late into the night, watching again and again as video showed United 175 striking the south tower and the Towers collapsing. Since then, of course, network television will not air the footage. My twin sons, born eighteen months after the attack, have never seen it, and I don’t know how to begin to tell them about it. I bought them a copy of Mordicai Gerstein’s Man Who Walked Between the Towers, an illustrated account of Philippe Petit’s tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. The book ends by observing that the Towers are gone, but does not say why.
A national silence is slowly enveloping the bloodiest attack on American soil in American history.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 10:56 PM
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
This is just to wish all my Jewish readers a shanah tovah and to prod my non-Jewish readers into wishing me a happy new year!
Talk to you on the other side of the world’s birthday.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 4:46 PM
Wednesday, September 01, 2010
I have been charged—by whom is irrelevant—with being “against creative writing.” And it is true that I have been hard on creative writing, both here at A Commonplace Blog and in the afterword to The Elephants Teach. But as I say in that book, the debate over creative writing has been settled. Anyone who would be “against” it these days, in the sense of opposing its very existence, would be wiping at the front of his trousers after he had already wet them.
What is at issue is how creative writing should be taught. What ideas, principles, models, or parallels should be kept in mind when thinking about creative writing as an academic discipline?
My complaint is that not enough thought has been directed at the question. Creative writing is taught in classrooms around the country (indeed, throughout the English-speaking world) pretty much the same way it has been taught for a generation. As I described it in a memoir of Raymond Carver, who taught it like this, “[S]tudent work, mimeographed and handed around in advance, provide[s] the text for study and discussion; and in the name of establishing a ‘community of writers’ which offer[s] its members ‘communal criticism,’ students dominate the discussions.” The photocopier and the .pdf have replaced the mimeograph machine, but the basic mechanism has remained unchanged.
Francine Prose’s Blue Angel contains an accurate, and telling, portrait of the creative writing classroom. Swenson listens to a student reading her story to the class, and then must “think of something to say, some way to improve this heartbreaking, subliterate piece of shit. . . .” He is not permitted to say that, of course; “classroom etiquette” stops him from saying even that a student can do better. He must never say that she—or anyone—should “bag it and start over, as if no real writer would do that, as if he himself hadn’t pulled the plug on dozens of stories and novels.”
Swenson’s first rule in class is this: “We usually start off saying what we liked about the story.” Then and only then is the class unleashed to tear into the story. They criticize it invariably from the standpoint of anecdote and personal experience. The “most sacred covenant of the workshop,” however, is that the author must never defend her own story.
The students offer suggestions for improving the story, primarily by making it more authentic:
“No,” says [another student]. “Close your eyes. Concentrate till you see the street and the girl and her boyfriend. Till you’re sort of . . . dreaming them. Then write down what you see.”
It is not enough. For two reasons. First, good writing requires more than the “power of observation,” even more than the “power of language.” As Auden says, it is sometimes necessary to write badly in order to write well—in order, that is, to tell truth, to realize an intention, to keep a promise to the reader. And, yes, something like research is needed too. In other words, good writing must be a discipline of knowledge.
But this is the second and more significant reason why teaching a faith in observation and the power of language—the current aim of creative writing—is not enough. As it is now conceived and organized in the university, creative writing is not a discipline of knowledge at all. It is merely a bureaucracy for the public employment of writers and the boosting of English course enrollments. It has no larger purpose; or none that has been thought through.
What purpose should it have? I cannot say for certain, but perhaps the question might at least be debated. When it comes to specifics, I am on this question a reactionary: I believe that creative writing ought to return to its original model. Literary criticism and even literary scholarship ought to be integrated into the writing of stories, poems, and memoirs.
But I am not saying that this is the only possible conception of the subject, that the original model of creative writing should be adopted wholesale, replacing a discredited practice with an untried one. In his book Creative Writing and the New Humanities, the Australian poet Paul Dawson argues for a very different model. He says that creative writing should undertake a social purpose, that it should train writers who will “act as a medium between the academy and the public sphere.”
Dawson and I could not be farther apart in our thinking about creative writing. At bottom, though, is a fundamental agreement: creative writing must be reconceived and reorganized as a discipline of humanistic knowledge, with a far more rigorous pedagogy than is now indulged, and with the recognition that writing demands learning. The “power of observation” is something that writers can develop on their own time. Closing your eyes and dreaming may be essential to the creative process, but not in the classroom.
I guess I don’t see how such a stance as this puts me “against creative writing.” Indeed, I am more for it than many of its current practitioners. I think it can be better, and do not subscribe to the etiquette that prevents me from saying so.
 Francine Prose, Blue Angel (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), pp. 51–55. Ellipses in original.
 Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 203–04.
Posted by D. G. Myers at 11:07 AM