Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Updike

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.

Bringing the news

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“I think there is a tremendous future for a sort of novel that will be called the journalistic novel or perhaps documentary novel, novels of intense social realism based upon the same painstaking reporting that goes into the New Journalism,” the journalist Tom Wolfe wrote in Esquire in 1973. This statement is justifiably famous, and if you think that Wolfe, who passed away yesterday, was making a declaration of intent, you’d be right. In the very next sentence, however, which is quoted much less often, Wolfe added a line that I find tremendously revealing: “I see no reason why novelists who look down on Arthur Hailey’s work couldn’t do the same sort of reporting and research he does—and write it better, if they’re able.” It might seem strange for Wolfe to invoke the author of Hotel and Airport, but two years later, in a long interview with the writer and critic Joe David Bellamy, he doubled down. After Bellamy mentioned Émile Zola as a model for the kind of novel that Wolfe was advocating, the two men had the following exchange:

Wolfe: The fact that [Zola] was bringing you news was a very important thing.

Bellamy: Do you think that’s enough? Isn’t that Arthur Hailey really?

Wolfe: That’s right, it is. The best thing is to have both—to have both someone who will bring you bigger and more exciting chunks of the outside world plus a unique sensibility, or rather a unique way of looking at the world.

I’m surprised that this comparison hasn’t received greater attention, because it gets at something essential about Wolfe’s mixed legacy as a novelist. As an author, Wolfe hovered around the edges of my reading and writing life for decades. In high school, I read The Right Stuff and loved it—it’s hard for me to imagine an easier book to love. After I graduated from college, I landed a job at a financial firm in New York, and the first novel that I checked out from the library that week was The Bonfire of the Vanities. A few years later, I read A Man in Full, and not long ago, when I was thinking seriously about writing a nonfiction book about The Whole Earth Catalog, I read Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In each case, I was looking for something more than simple entertainment. I was looking for information, or, in Wolfe’s words, for “news.” It was a cultural position for which Wolfe had consciously prepared himself, as he declared in his famous essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Speaking of the big social novels that had supposedly failed to emerge from the sixties, Wolfe wrote:

That task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage. Young writers are constantly told, “Write about what you know.” There is nothing wrong with that rule as a starting point, but it seems to get quickly magnified into an unspoken maxim: The only valid experience is personal experience.

As counterexamples, Wolfe cited Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Zola, and Lewis as writers who “assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter.” But he didn’t mention Arthur Hailey.

Yet when I think back to Wolfe’s novels, I’m left with the uncomfortable sense that when you strip away his unique voice, you’re left with something closer to Hailey or Irving Wallace—with their armfuls of facts, stock characters, and winking nods to real people and events—than to Dickens. That voice was often remarkable, of course, and to speak of removing it, as if it weren’t bound up in the trapezius muscles of the work itself, is inherently ludicrous. But it was also enough to prevent many readers from noticing Wolfe’s very real limits as an imaginative writer. When A Man in Full was greeted by dismissive comments from Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike, who accurately described it as “entertainment,” Wolfe published a response, “My Three Stooges,” in which he boasted about the novel’s glowing reviews and sales figures and humbly opined that the ensuing backlash was like “nothing else…in all the annals of American literature.” He wrote of his critics:

They were shaken. It was as simple as that. A Man in Full was an example—an alarmingly visible one—of a possible, indeed, the likely new direction in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century literature: the intensely realistic novel, based upon reporting, that plunges wholeheartedly into the social reality of America today, right now—a revolution in content rather than form—that was about to sweep the arts in America, a revolution that would soon make many prestigious artists, such as our three old novelists, appear effete and irrelevant.

This is grand gossip, even if the entire controversy was swept away a year later by the reception of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, another vast social novel with an accompanying declaration of intent. But it also overlooks the fact that Wolfe’s novels are notably less valuable as reportage than even Updike’s Couples, say, or any of the last three Rabbit books, in which the author diligently left a record of his time, in the form of thousands of closely observed details from the America of the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

And the real irony is that Updike had quietly set himself to the exact task what Wolfe had attempted with much greater fanfare, as Adam Begley notes in his recent biography:

What did [Updike] know about his hero’s new job [in Rabbit is Rich]? What did he know about the business of running a Toyota dealership? As he did for The Coup, he rolled up his sleeves and hit the books. And he also enlisted outside help, hiring a researcher to untangle the arcane protocols of automobile finance and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, what the salaries are for the various employees, what paperwork is involved in importing foreign cars, and so on. Updike visited showrooms in the Boston area, hunting for tips from salesmen and collecting brochures. He aimed for, and achieved, a level of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to a legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: “No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.”

This is nothing if not reportage, six years before The Bonfire of the Vanities, and not because Updike wanted, in Wolfe’s words, “to cram the world into that novel, all of it,” but in order to tell a story about a specific, utterly ordinary human being. Automobile finance wasn’t as sexy or exotic as Wall Street, which may be why Wolfe failed to acknowledge this. (In Rabbit Redux, instead of writing about the astronauts, Updike wrote about people who seem to barely even notice the moon landing.) Wolfe’s achievements as a journalist are permanent and unquestionable. But we still need the kind of news that the novel can bring, now more than ever, and Wolfe never quite figured out how to do it—even though his gifts were undeniable. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a closer look at his considerable strengths.

The minor key

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“What keeps science fiction a minor genre, for all the brilliance of its authors and apparent pertinence of its concerns?” The critic who asked this question was none other than John Updike, in his New Yorker review of David G. Hartwell’s anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which was published at the end of the eighties. Updike immediately responded to his own question with his usual assurance:

The short answer is that each science-fiction story is so busy inventing its environment that little energy is left to be invested in the human subtleties. Ordinarily, “mainstream” fiction snatches what it needs from the contemporary environment and concentrates upon surprising us with details of behavior; science fiction tends to reverse the priorities…It rarely penetrates and involves us the way the quest realistic fiction can…”The writer,” Edmund Wilson wrote, “must always find expressions for something which has never yet been exposed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered.” Those rhapsodies, for instance, which Proust delivered upon the then-fresh inventions of the telephone, the automobile, and the airplane point up the larger relativities and magical connections of his great novel, as well as show the new century breaking upon a fin-de-siècle sensibility. The modest increments of fictional “news,” of phenomena whose presentation is unprecedented, have the cumulative weight of true science—a nudging, inching fidelity to human change ultimately far more impressive and momentous than the great glittering leaps of science fiction.

I’ll concede that Updike’s underlying point here is basically correct, and that a lot of science fiction has to spend so much time establishing the premise and the background that it has to shortchange or underplay other important qualities along the way. (At its highest level, this is less a reflection of the author’s limitations than a courtesy to the reader. It’s hard to innovate along every parameter at once, so complex works of speculative fiction as different as Gravity’s Rainbow and Inception need to strategically simplify wherever they can.) But there’s also a hidden fallacy in Updike’s description of science fiction as “a minor genre.” What, exactly, would a “major” genre look like? It’s hard to come up with a definitive list, but if we’re going to limit ourselves to a conception of genre that encompasses science fiction and not, say, modernist realism, we’d probably include fantasy, horror, western, romance, erotica, adventure, mystery, suspense, and historical fiction. When we ask ourselves whether Updike would be likely to consider any of these genres “major,” it’s pretty clear that the answer is no. Every genre, by definition, is minor, at least to many literary critics, which not only renders the distinction meaningless, but raises a host of other questions. If we honestly ask what keeps all genres—although not individual authors—in the minor category, there seem to be three possibilities. Either genre fiction fails to attract or keep major talent; it suffers from various systemic problems of the kind that Updike identified for science fiction; or there’s some other quirk in the way we think about fiction that relegates these genres to a secondary status, regardless of the quality of specific works or writers.

And while all three of these factors may play a role, it’s the third one that seems most plausible. (After all, when you average out the quality of all “literary fiction,” from Updike, Bellow, and Roth down to the work put out by the small presses and magazines, it seems fairly clear that Sturgeon’s Law applies here as much as anywhere else, and ninety percent of everything is crud. And modernist realism, like every category coherent enough to earn its own label, has plenty of clichés of its own.) In particular, if a genre writer is deemed good enough, his or her reward is to be elevated out of it entirely. You clearly see this with such authors as Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, who was plucked out of that category to complete more effectively with Proust, Joyce, and Kafka—the last of whom was arguably also a genre writer who was forcibly promoted to the next level. It means that the genre as a whole can never win. Its best writers are promptly confiscated, freeing up critics to speculate about why it remains “minor.” As Daniel Handler noted in an interview several years ago:

I believe that children’s literature is a genre. I resisted the idea that children’s literature is just anything that children are reading. And I certainly resisted the idea that certain books should get promoted out of children’s literature just because adults are reading them. That idea is enraging too. That’s what happens to any genre, right? First you say, “Margaret Atwood isn’t really a science fiction writer.” Then you say, “There really aren’t any good science fiction writers.” That’s because you promoted them all!

And this pattern isn’t a new one. It’s revealing that Updike quoted Edmund Wilson, who in his essays “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” and “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” dismissed the entire mystery genre as minor or worse. Yet when it came to defending his fondness for one author in particular, he fell back on a familiar trick:

I will now confess, in my turn, that, since my first looking into this subject last fall, I have myself become addicted, in spells, to reading myself to sleep with Sherlock Holmes, which I had gone back to, not having looked at it since childhood, in order to see how it compared with Conan Doyle’s latest imitators. I propose, however, to justify my pleasure in rereading Sherlock Holmes on grounds entirely different from those on which the consumers of the current product ordinarily defend their taste. My contention is that Sherlock Holmes is literature on a humble but not ignoble level, whereas the mystery writers most in vogue now are not. The old stories are literature, not because of the conjuring tricks and the puzzles, not because of the lively melodrama, which they have in common with many other detective stories, but by virtue of imagination and style. These are fairy-tales, as Conan Doyle intimated in his preface to his last collection, and they are among the most amusing of fairy-tales and not among the least distinguished.

Strip away the specifics, and the outlines of the argument are clear. Sherlock Holmes is good, and mysteries are bad, so Sherlock Holmes must be something other than mystery fiction. It’s maddening, but from the point of view of a working critic, it makes perfect sense. You get to hold onto the works that you like, while keeping the rest of the genre safely minor—and then you can read yourself happily to sleep.

Childhood’s end

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my childhood. One of the inciting factors was the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which I enjoyed a great deal when I finally saw it. It’s a blue-chip horror film, with a likable cast and fantastic visuals, and its creators clearly care as much about the original novel as I do. In theory, the shift of its setting to the late eighties should make it even more resonant, since this is a period that I know and remember firsthand. Yet it isn’t quite as effective as it should be, since it only tells the half of the story that focuses on the main characters as children, and most of the book’s power comes from its treatment of memory, childhood, and forgetfulness—which director Andy Muschietti and his collaborators must know perfectly well. Under the circumstances, they’ve done just about the best job imaginable, but they inevitably miss a crucial side of a book that has been a part of my life for decades, even if I was too young to appreciate it on my first reading. I was about twelve years old at the time, which means that I wasn’t in a position to understand its warning that I was doomed to forget much of who I was and what I did. (King’s uncanny ability to evoke his own childhood so vividly speaks as much as anything else to his talents.) As time passes, this is the aspect of the book that impresses me the most, and it’s one that the movie in its current form isn’t able to address. A demonic clown is pretty scary, but not as much as the realization, which isn’t a fantasy at all, that we have to cut ourselves off from much of who we were as children in order to function as adults. And I’m saying this as someone who has remained almost bizarrely faithful to the values that I held when I was ten years old.

In fact, it wouldn’t be farfetched to read Pennywise the Dancing Clown as the terrifying embodiment of the act of forgetting itself. In his memoir Self-ConsciousnessJohn Updike—who is mentioned briefly in It and lends his last name to a supporting character in The Talisman—described this autobiographical amnesia in terms that could serve as an epigraph to King’s novel:

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, these disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self—skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormenter, relentlessly pushing his cartoons ad posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless high school—strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot.

Updike sounds a lot here like King’s class clown Richie Tozier, and his contempt toward his teenage self is one to which most of us can relate. Yet Updike’s memories of that period seem slightly less vivid than the ones that he explored elsewhere in his fiction. He only rarely mined them for material, even as he squeezed most of his other experiences to the last drop, which implies that even Updike, our greatest noticer, preferred to draw a curtain of charity across himself as an adolescent. And you can hardly blame him.

I was reminded of this by the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” which is about nothing less than the ways in which we misremember our childhoods, even if this theme is cunningly hidden behind its myriad other layers. At one point, Scully says to Reggie: “None of us remember our high school years with much accuracy.” In context, it seems like an irrelevant remark, but it was evidently important to Darin Morgan, who said to Entertainment Weekly:

When we think back on our memories from our youth, we have a tendency—or at least I do—to imagine my current mindset. Whenever I think about my youth, I’m like, “Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that?” And then you drive by high school students and you go, “Oh, that’s why I didn’t do it. Because I was a kid.” You tend to think of your adult consciousness, and you take that with you when you’re thinking back on your memories and things you’ve done in the past. Our memories are sometimes not quite accurate.

In “Forehead Sweat,” Morgan expresses this through a weird flashback in which we see Mulder’s adult head superimposed on his preadolescent body, which is a broad visual gag that also gets at something real. We really do seem to recall the past through the lens of our current selves, so we’re naturally mortified by what we find there—which neatly overlooks the point that everything that embarrasses us about our younger years is what allowed us to become what we are now. I often think about this when I look at my daughter, who is so much like me at the age of five that it scares me. And although I want to give her the sort of advice that I wish I’d heard at the time, I know that it’s probably pointless.

Childhood and adolescence are obstacle courses—and occasional horror shows—that we all need to navigate for ourselves, and even if we sometimes feel humiliated when we look back, that’s part of the point. Marcel Proust, who thought more intensely about memory and forgetting than anybody else, put it best in Within a Budding Grove:

There is no man…however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded…We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you are not the result of training at home, by a father, or by masters at school, they have sprung from beginnings of a very different order, by reaction from the influence of everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.

I believe this, even if I don’t have much of a choice. My childhood is a blur, but it’s also part of me, and on some level, it never ended. King might be speaking of adolescence itself when he writes in the first sentence of It: “The terror…would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end.” And I can only echo what Updike wistfully says elsewhere: “I’ve remained all too true to my youthful self.”

American Stories #5: Couples

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

At a time when many of us are more conscious than usual of living through history, for better or worse, we’ve naturally started to look for parallels from the past, which partially explains the cultural impact of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War. One undervalued source of insight is the fiction of John Updike, who around the time of Rabbit Redux began to conceive of his novels as snapshots of the eras in which they took place. (It’s the kind of strategy that you can pursue only when you’re reasonably sure that you’ll be able to publish a book every few years for the rest of your life.) Updike’s contribution is especially valuable because his personal wariness toward progressivism—he was in favor of American intervention in Vietnam—allowed him to engage in a level of detailed, everyday reportage that might elude many writers who were more committed to social change. Couples, which is set in the waning days of Camelot, has the clearest affinities to our own time, and it marks the author’s most ambitious attempt to weave a single narrative out of our national and private selves, as Adam Begley writes in his biography Updike:

In an elaborately patterned novel, the chain of significance that links sex, children, the Kennedys, adultery, divorce, and abortion is just one strand of meaning among many…In the novel’s first scene, the Hanemas, Piet and Angela, are getting ready for bed after a party. In an attempt to seduce his wife, Piet does a handstand in the bedroom; Angela, who’s seen this stunt before, tells him, “Shh. You’ll wake the children.” This rebuke only eggs him on; he toddles toward the bed on his knees, imitating their younger daughter: “Dadda, Dadda, wake up-up, Dadda. The Sunnay paper’s here, guess what? Jackie Kenneny’s having a baby!”

Months afterward, the daughter tells her father: “Daddy, wake up! Jackie Kenneny’s baby died because it was born too tiny.” A few pages later, Piet thinks to himself as his children watch television: “This poison was their national life. Not since Korea had Piet cared about news. News happened to other people.”

The novel’s centerpiece is a satirical tour de force, lasting almost thirty pages, set on November 22, 1963. Foxy, Piet’s lover, hears the news of the Kennedy assassination during a dental appointment—as Updike did—and her reaction echoes her guilt over the affair: “She tried to picture the dead man, this young man almost of her generation, with whom she could have slept.” Her dentist, Freddy Thorne, is planning to throw a party that night, and he laments on being told that he should cancel: “But I’ve bought all the booze.” On the next page, we read:

The Thornes decided to have their party after all. In the late afternoon, after Oswald had been apprehended and Johnson sworn in, and the engines of national perpetuity had demonstrated their strength, Georgene called all the houses of the invited and explained that the food and liquor had been purchased, that the guests had bought their dresses and had their tuxedos cleaned, that she and Freddy would feel lonely tonight and the children would be so disappointed, that on this terrible day she saw nothing wrong in the couples who knew each other feeling terrible together. In a way, Georgene explained to Angela, it would be a wake, an Irish wake, and a formal dinner-dance was very fitting for the dead man, who had had such style.

Updike based the account on a real party, of which he recalled years later: “We didn’t know what gesture to make, so we made none.” And the result should resonate with all of us who have ever heard the news of an unspeakable tragedy and then blithely gone on with our lives. (A quip about the discovery that Oswald was a leftist echoes the train of thought that runs through so many minds after the latest mass shooting or terrorist attack: “Did you hear? It wasn’t one of ours, it was one of theirs.”) “We had become detached from the national life,” Updike said later. “Our private lives had become the real concern.” This doesn’t seem to be our problem now. But it still rings true when Piet watches his friends dancing and thinks: “It seemed that the couples were gliding on the polished top of Kennedy’s casket.”

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2018 at 9:00 am

The art of the bad review

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Mark Twain

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 7, 2016.

Every few years, whenever my spirits need a boost, I go back and read the famous smackdown that Martin Amis delivered to the novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris, just for the simple pleasure of it. It’s one of the great savage reviews of all time, and it checks off most of the boxes that this sort of shellacking requires. Amis begins by listing the hyperbolic claims made by other reviewers—“A momentous achievement,” “A plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize”—and then skewering them systematically. But he also goes after the novel, significantly, from a position of respect, calling himself “a Harris fan from way back.” Writing of the earlier books in the series, he says that Harris has achieved what every popular novelist hopes to accomplish: “He has created a parallel world, a terrible antiterra, airless and arcane but internally coherent.” When Amis quotes approvingly from the previous installments, it can only make Hannibal look worse by comparison, although Harris doesn’t do himself any favors. As Amis writes:

[Lecter] has no need of “need”: Given the choice, he—and Harris—prefer to say “require”…Out buying weapons—or, rather, out “purchasing” weapons—he tells the knife salesman, “I only require one.” Why, I haven’t felt such a frisson of sheer class since I last heard room service say “How may I assist you?’” And when Lecter is guilty of forgetfulness he says “Bother”—not “Shit” or “Fuck” like the rest of us. It’s all in the details.

Amis’s review falls squarely in the main line of epic takedowns that began with Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” This is a piece that was probably ruined for a lot of readers by being assigned in high school, but it deserves a fresh look: it’s one of the funniest and most valuable essays about writing that we have, and I revisit it on a regular basis. Like Amis, Twain begins by quoting some of the puffier encomiums offered by other critics: “[Cooper’s] five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention…The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.” (Twain proposes the following rule in response: “Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as ‘the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest’ by either the author or the people in the tale.”) Both Twain and Amis are eager to go after their subjects with a broadsword, but they’re also alert to the nuances of language. For Amis, it’s the subtle shading of pretension that creeps in when Harris writes “purchases” instead of “buys”; for Twain, it’s the distinction between “verbal” and “oral,” “precision” and “facility,” “phenomena” and “marvels,” “necessary” and “predetermined.” His eighteen rules of writing, deduced in negative fashion from Cooper’s novels, are still among the best ever assembled. He notes that one of the main requirements of storytelling is “that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Which, when you think about it, is even more relevant in Harris’s case—although that’s a subject for another post.

Martin Amis

I’ve learned a lot from these two essays, as I have with other bad reviews that have stuck in my head over the years. In general, a literary critic should err on the side of generosity, especially when it comes to his or her contemporaries, and a negative review of a first novel that nobody is likely to read is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But occasionally, a bad review can be just as valuable and memorable as any other form of criticism. I may not agree with James Wood’s feelings about John le Carré, but I’ll never forget how he sums up a passage from Smiley’s People as “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” Once a year or so, I’ll find myself remembering John Updike’s review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which notes the author’s obsession with muscular male bodies—“the latissimi dorsi,” “the trapezius muscles”—and catalogs his onomatopoetics, which are even harder to take seriously when you have to type them all out:

“Brannnnng! Brannnnng! Brannnnng!,” “Woooo-eeeeeee! Hegh-heggghhhhhh,” “Ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhh,” “Su-puerflyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!,” “eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye,” Scrack scrack scrack scraccckkk scraccccck,” “glug glug glug glugglugglug,” “Awriiighhhhhhhht!”

And half of my notions as a writer seem to have been shaped by a single essay by Norman Mailer, “Some Children of the Goddess,” in which he takes careful aim at most of his rivals from the early sixties. William Styron’s Set This House on Fire is “the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy who could write like an angel about landscape and like an adolescent about people”; J.D. Salinger’s four novellas about the Glass family “seem to have been written for high-school girls”; and Updike himself writes “the sort of prose which would be admired in a writing course overseen by a fussy old nance.”

So what makes a certain kind of negative review linger in the memory for longer than the book it describes? It often involves one major writer taking aim at another, which is already more interesting than the sniping of a critic who knows the craft only from the outside. In most cases, it picks on a target worthy of the writer’s efforts. And there’s usually an undercurrent of wounded love: the best negative reviews, like the one David Foster Wallace delivered on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, or Renata Adler’s demolition of Pauline Kael, reflect a real disillusionment with a former idol. (Notice, too, how so many of the same names keep recurring, as if Mailer and Updike and Wolfe formed a closed circle that runs forever, in a perpetual motion machine of mixed feelings.) Even when there’s no love lost between the critic and his quarry, as with Twain and Cooper, there’s a sense of anger at the betrayal of storytelling by someone who should know better. To return to poor Thomas Harris, I’ll never forget the New Yorker review by Anthony Lane that juxtaposed a hard, clean excerpt from The Silence of the Lambs:

“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gunbelts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”

With this one from Hannibal Rising:

“I see you and the cricket sings in concert with my heart.”
“My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.”

Lane reasonably responds: “What the hell is going on here?” And that’s what all these reviews have in common—an attempt by one smart, principled writer to figure out what the hell is going on with another.

A lump of darkness

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I’ve spent the last few days leafing with interest through the new second volume of the collected work of the graphic artist Chip Kidd, whose portfolio includes iconic covers for such books as Jurassic Park, The Secret History, and seemingly half of the prestige titles of the last thirty years. Kidd is the closest thing that we have to a celebrity book designer—he’s certainly the only one whom even a fraction of readers would be able to name—and his credit on the inside flap of a dust jacket remains one of three surefire indications that an author has made it. (The others are a headshot taken by Marion Ettlinger and an interview with The Paris Review.) He’s undeniably a major talent, even if the covers from the back half of his career don’t stand out as strongly from the pack as his earlier work, in part because his innovations and style have been absorbed into what people expect from a particular kind of hardcover. Kidd’s fondness for vintage art, his use of miniature photography, and his knack for visual paradox have all turned into shorthand signifiers of a certain level of class, and you could make a similar case for Kidd himself, who, not coincidentally, worked with Lisa Birnbach on a new edition of The Official Preppy Handbook. I don’t know how much he earns these days for an average commission, but I doubt that it’s dramatically higher in absolute terms than it is for many other designers, and it can’t be more than a modest fraction of the overall cost of producing a book. Kidd’s imprimatur has become an economical way for publishers to assure authors that they’re special, without having to spend a lot of money on the advance or the marketing budget, even if they’re positively correlated in practice. There’s also a feedback cycle at work, as Kidd is associated with the best books because of his longtime association with top authors, and he remains the first name likely to come to mind when a publisher is trying to project confidence in a title.

Which doesn’t mean that all of his ideas are automatically accepted. Browsing through Chip Kidd: Book Two, one of the first things that you notice is how many of his designs were rejected, sometimes on the way to a successful solution, but occasionally ending in a kill fee. A note of regret often slips through, as with it does with Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti: “My role in the project pretty much ended there; sad, because we had done so much great work in the past on his previous titles.” He sometimes pointedly employs the passive voice: “It was decided in-house that we should follow the design scheme of the previous book.” “It was determined that we needed [Obama’s] face.” “It was taken out of my hands and further abstracted.” “The approach, sadly, was nipped in the bud.” Kidd’s favorite clients are mentioned warmly by name, while a writer who didn’t like his cover designs becomes “the author.” He has a poor track record with HarperCollins, which nixed his initial designs for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and the paperback reissue of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Even John Updike, with whom Kidd had a long and productive relationship, killed the original cover—with lettering by Chris Ware—for My Father’s Tears: “Doesn’t this jacket strike you as, well, kind of wimpy?” Perhaps Kidd’s harshest words are reserved for the cover of You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs, of which he recalls of a few failed attempts:

The answer was either to start over or bail. I couldn’t bear the thought of the latter…Somehow even this [last] image wasn’t blowing everyone’s dress up, and the plug was pulled. The dreaded kill fee. Adding insult to injury was what they finally came up with. You’ll have to google it, and you won’t believe it.

My point here is that even Chip Kidd, of all people, doesn’t have final say over how a book will eventually appear, and that’s doubly true of authors. Kidd hints that “third-rate writers are the hardest to work with because they subconsciously want the jacket to make up for the mediocrity of their work,” but it can be difficult for even a writer at the top of his craft to force through a difficult cover. The Tunnel by the late William H. Gass, for instance, might well be the least commercial novel ever put out by a major publishing house, and it required a huge leap of faith from Knopf. Gass, who died last week, wrote up a memo with his specifications for its design, and it makes for fascinating reading. Here’s a short section:

The book should be bound in rough black cloth. The spine should be broad and flat the way Viking Press’s edition of James Joyce’s Letters is, or Finnegans Wake. The title of the book, THE TUNNEL, should appear at the top left edge of the spine, indented, in silver…My name may have to go on the jacket and if so it should appear on the bottom of the spine up and down like the title and on the opposite or inner side of the spine panel. Otherwise there should be nothing on the book’s cover or dust jacket. It should be completely empty and dark like outer space or the inside of a cave. The reader should be holding a heavy really richly textured lump of darkness. The book’s size should be larger than normal. Again, the size of Finnegans Wake seems about right. It is important that my name appear nowhere on dust jacket or cover, and that nothing else be put on the jacket—no bio, picture, blurb, etc. The publisher will no doubt want their name on the book so it might be embossed at the bottom of the spine (but left black) and printed in silver at the bottom of the spine of the jacket.

This went over about as well as you might expect, and the result doesn’t look much like what Gass wanted. The interior of the book, by contrast, is beautifully designed and faithful to his vision, which implies that Knopf’s uneasiness about the cover was more about not totally crippling a novel that was already going to be a hard sell to most readers. It didn’t exactly work, as we read in Gass’s obituary in the New York Times: “Mr. Gass was one of the most respected authors never to write a bestseller.” But perhaps the lesson here is that the cover of a book, which is one of the few places where something like control seems like it ought to be possible, is just as much the product of compromise as anything else in publishing. (One of Kidd’s most memorable anecdotes involves the cover of Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84, which the printer initially refused even to produce, since it couldn’t guarantee that all of the elements would properly line up. They eventually negotiated a slippage factor of a quarter of an inch, and the book’s design was robust enough to look good even when the alignment was off—which feels like a metaphor for something.) And it may simply be that The Tunnel came out twenty years too soon. As I tweeted yesterday, it certainly seems like the novel of our time, as when its narrator writes of Hitler, whom he calls a “twerp”:

What I wonder about are all of those who weren’t twerps who willed what Hitler wished…they, who idolized a loud doll, who loved the twerps-truths, who carried out the wishes of a murderous fool, an ignoble nobody, a failure so unimportant that failure seems a fulsome description of him.

He concludes: “I would have followed him just to get even.” It might be time for a new edition. And Kidd would probably be the one to design it.

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2017 at 8:36 am

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