Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Leon Wieseltier

An awkward utilitarianism

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Two decades ago, the critic James Wood published a scathing review in The New Republic of James Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow. Wood acknowledged that the book was “very diligent,” but he found that it suffered from at least two fatal flaws. The first was that it was insufficiently reverent toward the novelist whom Wood considered “the greatest writer of American prose of the twentieth century,” a shortcoming that he framed in amusingly petty terms: “[Atlas] writes of Bellow as if he were writing a life of Joyce Carol Oates or Richard Ford, some middler who oddly managed to bag the Nobel Prize.” And a page or so later: “Atlas proceeds as if he were writing the life of Stanley Elkin, not the unfolding of a will-to-greatness.” His second objection was that Atlas had paid undue attention to the unpleasant details of Bellow’s personal life. After quoting from a speech that Bellow once gave at his birthplace—“We are people capable of freedom, and some of us are even willing to take chances for the sake of freedom”—Wood made an extraordinary argument:

A biographer should write the history of this passage to freedom, should see that a superior soul with superior gifts has to be accounted for. It is an elitist assumption, no doubt; but without such an assumption the biography of a great writer leaks away its rationale. Bellow’s “sins”—how he treated his wives, and how self-regarding he was—were committed in the process of creating an imperishable body of work. It is not so much that they should be “forgiven,” whatever this means, than that they must be judged in the light of the work of which we are the beneficiaries. An awkward but undeniable utilitarianism must be in play: the number of people hurt by Bellow is probably no more than can be counted on two hands, yet he has delighted and consoled and altered the lives of thousands of readers.

It’s fair to say that the final sentence—which could be applied equally well to, say, James Levine or Roman Polanski—probably wouldn’t fly today. But it’s worth looking at some of the “sins” that caused Wood to recoil so strongly. He doesn’t cite any specific passage from Atlas’s biography, but he must have been thinking of moments like this, which concerns Bellow and his second wife Sondra Tschacbasov:

On Labor Day, Bellow came to pick up [his son Adam], but Sondra wouldn’t let him go. Bellow alleged that she tore his clothes and “bruised” him. “He beat me up,” Sondra countered, claiming she was “bedridden for a week. Did I give him a slap? I did. But he retaliated violently—more than once.”

This doesn’t make for pleasant reading, regardless of your feelings toward Bellow himself. Just two years ago, however, the scholar Zachary Leader published the first bulky volume of The Life of Saul Bellow, a massive undertaking that was widely seen as a respectful corrective to Atlas’s work. (The second half, which covers the last four decades of Bellow’s life, is due later this year.) In the course of his research, Leader was allowed to read an unpublished memoir by Tschacbasov, in which she gives a graphically detailed version of the same incident: “He was spoiling for it, I could see his tense lip and twitch that always telegraphed a simmering rage…I slapped him and he grabbed me by the ponytail and swung me around punching me with his other hand. I was bruised for a week and took out a restraining order.” And in a letter that Tschacbasov wrote to her lawyer shortly afterward, she describes her injuries as “severe bone bruises behind one ear, cuts on my left temple and left eyelid, and a bad bruise on my left breast. My scalp is a mess of lumps and bruises.”

As Principal Skinner once said to Superintendent Chalmers: “Oh. That’s much worse.” And remember, this is from the biography that was supposed to rehabilitate Bellow’s reputation. (It also includes an account of an incident of which Tschacbasov wrote to Bellow: “As you know, you dragged me from the car by my hair across the lawn, kicked me and whipped me with your cap.”) Leader spends much of his discussion of this episode parsing whether Tschacbasov’s slap—which she didn’t mention to her lawyer—could be “mistaken for an attack,” and he concludes: “Both parties were shading the truth.” He also apologetically explains that he’s only bringing up these accusations at all “because they are part of the life Bellow lived as he wrote Herzog.” In the finished novel, which is clearly based on the end of Bellow’s marriage, Herzog merely fantasizes about beating up his wife Madeleine, who is leaving him for another man:

Herzog…pictured what might have happened if instead of listening so intensely and thoughtfully he had hit Madeleine in the face. What if he had knocked her down, clutched her hair, dragged her screaming and fighting around the room, flogged her until her buttocks bled. What if he had! He should have torn her clothes, ripped off her necklace, brought his fists down on her head.

“In early versions of the novel, Herzog uses physical force on Madeleine,” Leader writes, referring us in a short footnote to another study of the most autobiographical of American novelists—and then he just moves on. As far as I can tell, none of the reviews of Leader’s biography, and there were a lot, dealt with this material at any length. Of course, that was two years ago, and if we haven’t gotten around to Bellow yet, like André Gide, it’s because it hasn’t occurred to us. He can get in line. Which is a form of utilitarianism in itself.

And I’d like to think that James Wood might have second thoughts now about his “awkward but undeniable utilitarianism,” or at least about its undeniability. Learning to deny it is largely what the events of the last six months have been about, and it matters what our most prominent literary critic thinks about our greatest novelist, even—or especially—if their relationship was even closer than they let on. In The Shadow in Garden, James Atlas’s book on the art of biography, he refers to Wood as one of Bellow’s three “nonconsanguineous” sons, and he notes of the critic’s negative review of a memoir by the novelist’s actual son Greg Bellow:

At least Wood was upfront about his partisanship: he mentioned that he had co-taught a course with Bellow at Boston University. And if you looked back at a tribute in The New Republic Wood had written eight years earlier, just after Bellow’s death, it emerged that they had been close friends: their daughters had played together; Wood and Bellow had played piano (Wood) and recorder (Bellow) duets. And they grew still closer toward the end: “In the final year of Bellow’s life, as he became very frail, I would read some of his own prose to him.”

It’s hard for anyone to acknowledge the worst about a man whom he loved—but it’s equally true that if our current moment can’t force James Wood to rethink Saul Bellow, then it might not be worth as much as we hope. It can’t just be an excuse to find more reasons to hate Brett Ratner. We have to look closely at the men who might be our fathers. It’s worth noting that along with Wood, Atlas lists two other men as Bellow’s three surrogate sons. One was Martin Amis. The other was Leon Wieseltier, Wood’s editor at The New Republic, who was accused last year of decades of sexual harassment, and who also wrote admiringly after Bellow’s death: “I always had the feeling about Saul that he was inwardly at war, that he breakfasted with his demons.”

The mogul empire

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Earlier this month, the news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist were abruptly closed by their owner, the billionaire Joe Ricketts, after their staff voted to join the Writers Guild of America East. Ricketts, who founded Ameritrade and controls the Chicago Cubs, took down the home pages of both publications—including, temporarily, their archives, which made it hard for their suddenly jobless reporters to even access their own clips—and replaced them with a letter stating that the sites hadn’t been successful enough “to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded.” Back in September, however, Ricketts wrote a blog post, “Why I’m Against Unions At Businesses I Create,” that cast his decision in a somewhat different light:

In my opinion, the essential esprit de corps that every successful company needs can’t exist when employees and ownership see themselves as being on opposite ends of a seesaw.  Everyone at a company—owners and employees alike—need to be sitting on the same end of the seesaw because the world is sitting on the other end. I believe unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.  And that corrosive dynamic makes no sense in my mind where an entrepreneur is staking his capital on a business that is providing jobs and promoting innovation.

Of course, his response to his newly unionized employees, who hadn’t even made any demands yet, wasn’t exactly conducive to esprit de corps, either. As a headline in the opinion section of the New York Times put it, Ricketts, who supported Donald Trump after spending millions of dollars in an unsuccessful bid to derail his candidacy, seems to have closed his own businesses entirely out of spite.

And this isn’t just a story about unionization, but the unpleasant flip side of a daydream to which many of us secretly cling about journalism—the notion that in the face of falling circulation and a shaky business model, its salvation lies with philanthropic or ambitious billionaires. We’ve seen this work fairly well with Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post, but other recent examples don’t exactly inspire confidence. In 2012, The New Republic was acquired by Chris Hughes of Facebook, who cut its annual number of print issues in half and revamped it as a “vertically integrated digital-media company,” leading to the resignations of editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier. (Foer rebounded with a book pointedly titled World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, while Wieseltier has suffered from unrelated troubles of his own.) Go a little further back, and you have the acquisition of the New York Observer by none other than Jared Kushner, which went about as well as you would expect. As Rich Cohen writes in Vanity Fair:

The Observer was a hybrid—tabloid heart, broadsheet brain. A funny man in a serious mood, a serious man with a sense of humor…Kushner either did not get this or did not care. Millennials have a thing about broadsheets. They’ve grown up reading on phones, that smooth path of entry. They can’t stand unwieldiness—following a piece from front page to jump, and all that folding, and the ink stains your fingers.

Kushner took the Observer to tabloid size, discontinued its print edition, and even fired Rex Reed, turning the paper into a ghost town. He and Hughes are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they both seized a vulnerable publication, tried to turn it into something that it wasn’t, and all but destroyed it. Ricketts, who shut down Gothamist a mere eight months after buying it, simply took that process to its logical conclusion. And these cases all point to the risk involved when the future of a media enterprise lies in the hands of an outside benefactor who sees no reason not to dismantle it as impulsively as he bought it in the first place.

Obviously, there are countless examples of media companies that fared poorly after an acquisition, but I’ve been thinking recently about one particular case, in which The New Republic also figures prominently. The American News Company was the distribution firm and wholesaler on which many magazines once depended to get on newsstands, and its collapse in 1957 is widely seen as an “extinction event” that caused a meltdown of the market for short science fiction. (For additional details, see this post, particularly the comments.) Here’s how Frederik Pohl describes it in The Way the Future Was:

ANC was big, mighty, and old. It had been around so long that over the years it had acquired all sorts of valuable property. Land. Buildings. Restaurants. Franchises. Items of considerable cash value, acquired when time was young and everything was cheap, and still carried on their books at the pitiful acquisition costs of 1890 or 1910. A stock operator took note of all this and observed that if you bought up all the outstanding stock in ANC (a publicly held corporation) at prevailing prices, you would have acquired an awful lot of valuable real estate at, really, only a few cents on the dollar. It was as profitable as buying dollar bills for fifty cents each…So he did. He bought a controlling interest and liquidated the company.

The truth is slightly more complicated. The American News Company had been on the decline for years, with the departure of such major clients as Time, Look, and Newsweek, and its acquirer wasn’t a “stock operator,” but Henry Garfinkle, the wealthy owner of a newsstand chain called the Union News Corporation. There were obvious possibilities for vertical integration, and for the first year or so, he seems to have made a real effort to run the combined company.

Unfortunately, in the face of falling sales for the industry as a whole, his efforts took the form of a crackdown on small niche magazines that were having trouble sustaining large audiences, in a cycle that seems awfully familiar. (As one contemporary account stated: “The American News Company found that the newsstand demand for some of the more intellectual magazines like The New Republic, Commonweal, Wisdom, and Faith was so small that it was profitless to carry them.”) His brutal tactics alienated publishers, including Dell, its largest client, which filed a lawsuit for restraint of trade. More magazines left, including The New Yorker and Vogue, which, combined with an ongoing antitrust investigation, was what finally led Garfinkle to cut his losses and liquidate. Yet there isn’t much doubt that Garfinkle’s approach played a role in driving his clients away, and he had plenty of help on that front. He had started his empire with a single newsstand that he bought in his teens with a loan from a generous patron, and when he took control of the American News Company, the transaction was masterminded by his general council, who had joined the firm the year before. As one author describes this attorney’s “hardball legal tactics”:

[He] later claimed to have engineered Garfinkle’s successful coup. At the publicly held company’s annual meeting in March 1955, Garfinkle headed a dissident group that eventually forced the management to resign. This bold move allowed Garfinkle to gain control of the ninety-one-year-old company, which called itself the world’s oldest magazine wholesaler. Garfinkel revamped the ailing company, renamed it Ancorp National Services, Inc., and gained a near stranglehold on the distribution of newspapers and magazines in the Northeast.

This passage appears in Thomas Maier’s biography Newhouse. The benefactor who gave Garfinkle his start was Sam Newhouse, Sr., and the general counsel who oversaw the takeover—and remained at the company throughout all that followed—was none other than Roy Cohn. I’m not saying that Cohn, on top of everything else, also killed the science fiction market. But if history has taught us one thing, it’s that publications should watch out when a buyer like this comes calling.

The despairing writer

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Whenever I read Kafka, I wonder: what sort of dejection is this, that leaves one the strength to write, and write, and write? If you can write about the wreckage the wreckage is not complete. You are intact. Here is a rule: the despairing writer is never the most despairing person in the world.

Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish

Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2012 at 10:00 am

Posted in Writing

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