Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gertrude Stein

The frankly bad

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“You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad,” Gertrude Stein once told the young Ernest Hemingway. It was Paris in the early twenties, and Hemingway had just confessed that he had been reading Aldous Huxley, whom Stein contemptuously described as “a dead man.” (In fact, Huxley was still alive, and he would go on living for decades, surviving Hemingway himself by more than two years.) But it isn’t hard to guess what she meant by this. In his memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recalls that he had been reading Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and other writers “to keep my mind off writing sometimes after I had worked.” When Stein asked why he even bothered, his reply was a simple one: “I said that his books amused me and kept me from thinking.” And her response—that he should read only the truly good or frankly bad—strikes me as genuinely useful. On the one hand, we can’t subsist entirely on a diet of great books, and there are times when we justifiably read to avoid thinking, or to keep our minds off the possibility of writing for ourselves. Anything else would destroy us. On the other hand, the danger of reading what Stein called “inflated trash” is that we’ll lose the ability to distinguish between fake value and the real thing. When we don’t have the time or energy to fully engage with a book, it might be better to stick with something that we know is frankly bad, so we don’t waste time trying to make the distinction.

Personally, I’ve learned a lot from works of literature that occupy the middle ground between mediocrity and greatness, but I’ve also found myself unapologetically seeking out books that are frankly bad. They aren’t even great trash, as Pauline Kael might have put it, but trash of the most routine, ordinary kind. The most obvious example is my fascination with the novels of Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace, two men who were among the bestselling writers of the sixties and seventies, only to be almost entirely forgotten now. Yet I keep reading them, and I can rarely resist picking up their books whenever I see one at a thrift store, which is where most of them seem to have ended up. (As I type this, I’m looking at the back cover of Wallace’s The Prize, which is described by its jacket copy as “one of the most compelling bestselling novels of all times.” As far as I can tell, it’s long out of print, along with all of Wallace’s other novels.) I particularly like them on long plane rides, when I’m too tired or distracted to focus on anything at all, and I can skim dozens of pages without any fear of missing anything important. On a recent trip to Europe, I carried so many of these books in my bag that it set off some kind of special alarm at security—the sensors evidently detected an unusual amount of “organic material,” in the form of yellowing mass market paperbacks. And when the security agent pulled out my flaking copies of The Prize and Hailey’s Overload, I felt like a confused time traveler with very bad taste.

This isn’t the place for a full consideration of either writer, but I feel obliged to share a few passages that might help to explain what they mean to me. Here’s my favorite line from Hailey’s Airport:

In the Cloud Captain’s Coffee Shop, Captain Vernon Demerest ordered tea for Gwen, black coffee for himself. Coffee—as it was supposed to do—helped keep him alert; he would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome.

As I’ve noted here before, another writer might have written, “He would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome,” trusting that the average reader would know that people sometimes drink coffee to stay awake. An author who wanted to be perfectly clear might have added, “Coffee helped keep him alert.” But only Hailey would have written “as it was supposed to do.” As for Wallace, take the moment in The Prize when a distinguished scientist contemplates cheating on her husband with a younger colleague:

Lindblom discoursed with nervous enthusiasm about the work in progress. His love for algae strains and soybean nodules and Rhodophyceae and Chlorella dinned on her eardrums…Trailing Lindblom, she peered at her watch. She had arrived at 11:05. It was now 11:55. The zero hour that she had set herself loomed close. The ultimate decision. Question One: Should she do it? There were two courses open: (a) mild flirtation, a holding of hands, an embrace, a kiss, romantic whispering, to be followed by similar meetings devoted to the same and no more; or (b) sexual intercourse.

That’s a big load of organic material. Yet it also wouldn’t be quite right to say that I’m reading these writers “ironically.” I view them totally without affection, and I don’t gain any cultural cachet by being seen with them on an airplane. You could even argue that I’m guilty of a weird reverse snobbism by reading books that aren’t beloved by anyone, but I prefer to think of it as a neat act of triangulation. The real risk of spending time with “frankly bad” books is that you’ll either dull your own taste or turn your default mode as a reader into one of easy condescension. I’ve found that Hailey and Wallace allow me to indulge my need for bad books in the least harmful way possible. Both authors are long dead, so their feelings can no longer be hurt. They were smart men who made enormous amounts of money by aiming squarely at the mainstream, and they clearly knew what they were doing. These weren’t cult books, but novels that millions of readers bought and promptly forgot. Neither left a devoted following, and they’ve dated so badly that they can barely be endured even as period pieces. But they’re still readable in their own way, and they can hardly be mistaken for anything except what they are. For all their attempts to inject sex and scandal into their Parade magazine view of the world, they’re the most complacent books imaginable, and I could even argue that they tell us something valuable about the complacency of their original readers. But that would be taking it too far. They amuse me and keep me from thinking—as they were supposed to do.

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September 5, 2018 at 8:13 am

Quote of the Day

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January 16, 2014 at 7:30 am

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October 19, 2011 at 7:31 am

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