Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dwight Garner

The Big One

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In a heartfelt appreciation of the novelist Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, the New York Times critic Dwight Garner describes him as “the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists…[that] included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.” These four names seem fated to be linked together for as long as any of them is still read and remembered, and they’ve played varying roles in my own life. I was drawn first to Mailer, who for much of my adolescence was my ideal of what a writer should be, less because of his actual fiction than thanks to my repeated readings of the juiciest parts of Peter Manso’s oral biography. (If you squint hard and think generously, you can even see Mailer’s influence in the way I’ve tried to move between fiction and nonfiction, although in both cases it was more a question of survival.) Updike, my favorite, was a writer I discovered after college. I agree with Garner that he probably had the most “sheer talent” of them all, and he represents my current model, much more than Mailer, of an author who could apparently do anything. Bellow has circled in and out of my awareness over the years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to figure out what he means to me, in part because of his ambiguous status as a subject of biography. And Roth was the one I knew least. I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint and one or two of the Zuckerman novels, but I always felt guilty over having never gotten around to such late masterpieces as American Pastoral—although the one that I should probably check out first these days is The Plot Against America.

Yet I’ve been thinking about Roth for about as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, largely because he came as close as anyone ever could to having the perfect career, apart from the lack of the Nobel Prize. He won the National Book Award for his debut at the age of twenty-six; he had a huge bestseller at an age when he was properly equipped to enjoy it; and he closed out his oeuvre with a run of major novels that critics seemed to agree were among the best that he, or anyone, had ever written. (As Garner nicely puts it: “He turned on the afterburners.”) But he never seemed satisfied by his achievement, which you can take as an artist’s proper stance toward his work, a reflection of the fleeting nature of such rewards, a commentary on the inherent bitterness of the writer’s life, or all of the above. Toward the end of his career, Roth actively advised young writers not to become novelists, and in his retirement announcement, which he delivered almost casually to a French magazine, he quoted Joe Louis: “I did the best I could with what I had.” A month later, in an interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times, he expanded on his reasoning:

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore…I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.

And on his computer, he posted a note that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Roth’s readers, of course, rarely expressed the same disillusionment, and he lives most vividly in my mind as a reference point against which other authors could measure themselves. In an interview with The Telegraph, John Updike made one of the most quietly revealing statements that I’ve ever heard from a writer, when asked if he felt that he and Roth were in competition:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

I think about that “list of admirable novelists” all the time, and it wasn’t just a joke. In an excellent profile in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpoint memorably sketched in all the ways in which other writers warily circled Roth. When asked if the two of them were friends, Updike said, “Guardedly,” and Bellow seems to have initially held Roth at arm’s length, until his wife convinced him to give the younger writer a chance. Pierpont concludes of the relationship between Roth and Updike: “They were mutual admirers, wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse.”

And they also remind me of another circle of writers whom I know somewhat better. If Bellow, Mailer, Updike, and Roth were the Big Four of the literary world, they naturally call to mind the Big Three of science fiction—Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. In each case, the group’s members were perfectly aware of how exceptional they were, and they carefully guarded their position. (Once, in a conference call with the other two authors, Asimov jokingly suggested that one of them should die to make room for their successors. Heinlein responded: “Fuck the other writers!”) Clarke and Asimov seem to have been genuinely “thrilled to have each other in the world,” but their relationship with the third point of the triangle was more fraught. Toward the end, Asimov started to “avoid” the combative Heinlein, who had a confrontation with Clarke over the Strategic Defense Initiative that effectively ended their friendship. In public, they remained cordial, but you can get a hint of their true feelings in a remarkable passage from the memoir I. Asimov:

[Clarke] and I are now widely known as the Big Two of science fiction. Until early 1988, as I’ve said, people spoke of the Big Three, but then Arthur fashioned a little human figurine of wax and with a long pin— At least, he has told me this. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me. I have made it quite plain to him, however, that if he were to find himself the Big One, he would be very lonely. At the thought of that, he was affected to the point of tears, so I think I’m safe.

As it turned out, Clarke, like Roth, outlived all the rest, and perhaps they felt lonely in the end. Longevity can amount to a kind of victory in itself. But it must be hard to be the Big One.

Are authors really too nice?

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Like it or not, authors have to live with other authors. Some may prefer otherwise, and do their best to keep their distance, but most of us end up spending a fair amount of time—in person, in print, and online—interacting with our fellow writers. You can check it up to camaraderie, careerism, or the simple sense that there’s no one else with whom we can talk about the things that matter most to us, as well as the knowledge that, for better or worse, we’re going to be collaborating and competing with these people for a long time. As a result, most of us generally avoid criticizing one another’s work, at least in public. Which isn’t to say that writers aren’t neurotic, needy, petty people—most of us certainly are. But while we may secretly begrudge a friend’s success or agree that this year’s big book is a big bore, we generally keep these opinions to ourselves or share them only in private. As a result, only a handful of major novelists—Updike, Vidal, maybe a few others—have also been major critics. It isn’t for lack of intelligence; it’s more out of prudence or caution.

That’s why I don’t agree with Dwight Garner’s recent assertion that Twitter has somehow made writers less willing to criticize one another in public. Most writers have long since concluded, and rightly so, that it isn’t worth the headache. At best, we tend to reserve our critical arrows for those unlikely to be hurt by what we say, or even to read it at all, which is the real reason why the dead, the famous, and the canonized are such tempting targets. But when it comes to writers on our own level, there’s little to gain and much to lose by criticizing them in print. This isn’t omerta, or a gentlemen’s agreement, but a modus vivendi that avoids problems down the line. Even Norman Mailer, no stranger to conflict, came to the same conclusion. Fifty years ago, in his essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” he took potshots at contemporaries like Styron, Salinger, and Roth, and some never forgave him for it. Ever since, he avoided criticizing his peers, or lobbed his missiles at more resilient targets like Tom Wolfe. And if Mailer, of all people, decided that being a critic was more trouble that it was worth, I can’t blame other writers for concluding the same thing.

And yet it’s also a genuine loss. Dave Eggers isn’t wrong when he advises us not to criticize a novel until we’ve written one, or a movie until we’ve made one. There’s no question that we’d avoid a lot of the nonsense written about movies and books—like the idea, for instance, that a director is the sole author of a film, despite all evidence to the contrary—if more criticism were written by people with experience in the creative field in question. As someone who has done a bit of freelancing myself, I can say that while critics can be driven by ambitions and impulses of their own, these are qualitatively different from the process that underlies the creation of any extended, original work of art. Ideally, then, a literary critic would know something about how a novel is put together, with all the compromises, accidents, and beartraps involved—and there’s no one more qualified to do this than working novelists themselves. But for all the reasons I’ve listed above, there are good reasons why most writers prefer to keep out of it, especially when it comes to the contemporaries about whom they know the most.

In short, the people best equipped to write intelligently about contemporary literature—the writers themselves—have more than enough reason to stand down, and it isn’t necessarily realistic or fair to expect otherwise. Consequently, our best literary critics have often been those with some experience of creative work who have since thrown in their lot on the critical side, which is how we end up with valuable voices like Edmund Wilson or James Wood, who have written novels of their own but found their true calling elsewhere. This isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s a pretty good one, and I’d much rather be reviewed by a critic who at least knew what writing a publishable novel was like. In the end, though, this will always be an issue for literary criticism, which differs from all other fields in that critics and their subjects use the same tools and draw on the same pool of talent. It makes objectivity, bravery, and expertise in a critic all the more precious. And if you want to know what a writer really thinks of his peers—well, just corner him at a party, and believe me, you’ll get an earful.

Written by nevalalee

August 24, 2012 at 9:50 am

Criticizing the critical critic

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Last week, Dwight Garner of the New York Times—arguably one of the two or three most famous literary critics now at work, along with his colleague Michiko Kakutani and The New Yorker‘s James Wood—wrote a long opinion piece titled “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical.” In it, he decries what he sees as the decline of serious criticism, as well as the hostility toward the role of critics themselves, who are seen, at least by authors, as negative, dismissive, and cruel. To illustrate this view, he quotes a decade-old interview with Dave Eggers, who says:

Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

(Incidentally, Eggers conducted this interview with my old college literary magazine, whose fiction board I joined a few months later. Garner doesn’t quote the interview’s last few lines, which, if I recall correctly, became something of a running joke around the Advocate building for years afterward: “And if anyone wants to hurt me for that, or dismiss me for saying that, for saying yes, I say Oh do it, do it you motherfuckers, finally, finally, finally.”)

Well, Garner finally, finally, finally goes after Eggers, a writer he says he admires, saying that he “deplores” the stance expressed above: “The sad truth about the book world,” Garner writes, “is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them.” What the world really needs, he argues, are uncompromising critics who are willing to honestly engage with works of art, both good and bad, and to be harsh when the situation requires it. He says that the best work of critics like Pauline Kael “is more valuable—and more stimulating—than all but the most first-rate novels.” He points out that any writer who consents for his or her novel to be published tacitly agrees to allow critics to review it however they like. And he bemoans the fact that social media has made it hard for critics to be as honest and hard as they should be. Twitter, he says, has degenerated into a mutual lovefest between authors, and doesn’t allow for anything like real criticism: “On it, negative words have the same effect as a bat flying into a bridal shower.”

The trouble with Garner’s argument, aside from its quixotic attempt to persuade authors to feel kindly toward critics, is that I don’t think it’s factually correct. Garner quotes Jonah Peretti’s observation that “Twitter is a simple service used by smart people,” which isn’t true at all—Twitter, for better or worse, is used by all kinds of people, and when we venture out of our own carefully cultivated circles, we’re treated to the sight of humanity in its purest form, including people who didn’t realize the Titanic was real. The same goes for the comments section of any news or opinion site, which is generally a swamp of negativity. The trouble with social media isn’t that it encourages people to be uncritically positive or negative: it’s that it encourages unconsidered discourse of all kinds. Twitter, by design, isn’t a place for reasoned commentary; at its best, it’s more like a vehicle for small talk. And we shouldn’t judge it by the same standards that use for other forms of criticism, any more than we should judge guests at a cocktail party for not saying what they really feel about the people around them. That’s also why attempts at criticism on Twitter tend to look uglier than the author may have intended—it’s the nature of the form.

And when we’re dealing with the choice, admittedly not a great one, between uncritical positivity and negativity, I’d have to say that the former is the lesser of two evils. That’s what Eggers is saying in the interview quoted above: he isn’t proposing, as Garner would have it, “mass intellectual suicide,” but an extreme solution to what he rightly sees as an extreme problem, which is the ease in which we can fall back into dismissive snark, long before “snark” had even attained its current meaning. It’s best, of course, to make nuanced, perceptive, complex arguments, but if we don’t have the time for it—and being a good critic takes time—then it’s marginally better, at least for our own souls, to be enthusiastic bores. I’ve argued before, and I still believe, that every worthwhile critic builds his or her work on a foundation of genuine enthusiasm for the art in question. Hard intellectual engagement comes later, as a sort of refinement of joy, and when it doesn’t, that’s the worst kind of intellectual suicide, which disguises itself as its opposite. Dwight Garner is a really good critic. But to get where Garner is now, you need to pass through Eggers first.

Written by nevalalee

August 23, 2012 at 10:13 am

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