Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Norman Mailer

A season of disenchantment

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A few days ago, Matt Groening announced that his new animated series, Disenchantment, will premiere in August on Netflix. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased by the prospect of another show from the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama—not to mention producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein—and I expect that I’ll probably watch it. At the moment, however, it’s hard for me to think about Groening at all without recalling his recent reaction to the long overdue conversation around the character of Apu. When Bill Keveny of USA Today asked earlier this month if he had any thoughts on the subject, Groening replied: “Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” It was a profoundly disappointing statement, particularly after Hank Azaria himself had expressed his willingness to step aside from the role, and it was all the more disillusioning coming from a man whose work has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As I noted in my earlier post, the show’s unfeeling response to this issue is painful because it contradicts everything that The Simpsons was once supposed to represent. It was the smartest show on television; it was simply right about everything; it offered its fans an entire metaphorical language. And as the passage of time reveals that it suffered from its own set of blinders, it doesn’t just cast doubt on the series and its creators, but on the viewers, like me, who used it for so long as an intellectual benchmark.

And it’s still an inescapable part of my personal lexicon. Last year, for instance, when Elon Musk defended his decision to serve on Trump’s economic advisory council, I thought immediately of what Homer says to Marge in “Whacking Day”: “Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.” Yet it turns out that I might have been too quick to give Musk—who, revealingly, was the subject of an adulatory episode of The Simpsons—the benefit of the doubt. A few months later, in response to reports of discrimination at Tesla, he wrote an email to employees that included this remarkable paragraph:

If someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology. If you are part of a lesser represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla were someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

The last two lines, which were a clear reference to the case of A.J. Vandermeyden, tell us more about Musk’s idea of a “sincere apology” than he probably intended. And when Musk responded this week to criticism of Tesla’s safety and labor practices by accusing the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting of bias and proposing a site where users could provide a “credibility score” for individual journalists, he sounded a lot like the president whose circle of advisers he only reluctantly left.

Musk, who benefited from years of uncritical coverage from people who will forgive anything as long as you talk about space travel, seems genuinely wounded by any form of criticism or scrutiny, and he lashes out just as Trump does—by questioning the motives of ordinary reporters or sources, whom he accuses of being in the pocket of unions or oil companies. Yet he’s also right to be worried. We’re living in a time when public figures and institutions are going to be judged by their responses to questions that they would rather avoid, which isn’t likely to change. And the media itself is hardly exempt. For the last two weeks, I’ve been waiting for The New Yorker to respond to stories about the actions of two of its most prominent contributors, Junot Díaz and the late David Foster Wallace. I’m not even sure what I want the magazine to do, exactly, except make an honest effort to grapple with the situation, and maybe even offer a valuable perspective, which is why I read it in the first place. (In all honesty, it fills much the same role in my life these days as The Simpsons did in my teens. As Norman Mailer wrote back in the sixties: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.”) As the days passed without any comment, I assumed that it was figuring out how to tackle an admittedly uncomfortable topic, and I didn’t expect it to rush. Now that we’ve reached the end of the month without any public engagement at all, however, I can only conclude that it’s deliberately ignoring the matter in hopes that it will go away. I hope that I’m wrong. But so far, it’s a discouraging omission from a magazine whose stories on Harvey Weinstein and Eric Schneiderman implicitly put it at the head of an entire movement.

The New Yorker has evidently discovered that it’s harder to take such stands when they affect people whom we know or care about— which only means that it can get in line. Our historical moment has forced some of our smartest individuals and organizations to learn how to take criticism as well as to give it, and it’s often those whose observations about others have been the sharpest who turn out to be singularly incapable, as Clarice Starling once put it, when it comes to pointing that high-powered perception on themselves. (In this list, which is constantly being updated, I include Groening, Musk, The New Yorker, and about half the cast of Arrested Development.) But I can sympathize with their predicament, because I feel it nearly every day. My opinion of Musk has always been rather mixed, but nothing can dislodge the affection and gratitude that I feel toward the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, and I expect to approvingly link to an article in The New Yorker this time next week. But if our disenchantment forces us to question the icons whose influence is fundamental to our conception of ourselves, then perhaps it will have been worth the pain. Separating our affection for the product from those who produced it is a problem that we all have to confront, and it isn’t going to get any easier. As I was thinking about this post yesterday, the news broke that Morgan Freeman had been accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior. In response, he issued a statement that read in part: “I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected.” It reminded me a little of another man who once grudgingly said of some remarks that were caught on tape: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” But it sounds a lot better when you imagine it in Morgan Freeman’s voice.

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2018 at 9:21 am

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.

The stuff of thought

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On December 4, 1972, the ocean liner SS Statendam sailed from New York to Florida, where its passengers would witness the launch of Apollo 17, the final manned mission to the moon. The guests on the cruise included Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Mailer, Katherine Anne Porter, and the newscaster Hugh Downs. It’s quite a story, and I’ve written about it elsewhere at length. What I’d like to highlight today, though, is what was happening a few miles away on shore, as Tom Wolfe recounts in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Right Stuff:

This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity. What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17. I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.

Wolfe’s “ordinary curiosity” led him to tackle a project that would consume him for the better part of a decade, driven by his discovery of “a rich and fabulous terrain that, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the far side of the moon for more than half a century: military flying and the modern American officer corps.”

And my mind sometimes turns to the contrast between Wolfe, trying to get the astronauts to open up about their experiences, and the writers aboard the Statendam. You had Mailer, of course, who had written his own book on the moon, and the result was often extraordinary. It was more about Mailer himself than anything else, though, and during the cruise, he seemed more interested in laying out his theory of the thanatosphere, an invisible region around the moon populated by the spirits of the dead. Then you had such science fiction writers as Heinlein and Asimov, who would occasionally cross paths with real astronauts, but whose fiction was shaped by assumptions about the competent man that had been formed decades earlier. Wolfe decided to go to the source, but even he kept the pulps at the back of his mind. In his introduction, speaking of the trend in military fiction after World War I, he observes:

The only proper protagonist for a tale of war was an enlisted man, and he was to be presented not as a hero but as Everyman, as much a victim of war as any civilian. Any officer above the rank of second lieutenant was to be presented as a martinet or a fool, if not an outright villain, no matter whom he fought for. The old-fashioned tale of prowess and heroism was relegated to second- and third-rate forms of literature, ghostwritten autobiographies, and stories in pulp magazines on the order of Argosy and Bluebook.

Wolfe adds: “Even as late as the 1930s the favorite war stories in the pulps concerned World War I pilots.” And it was to pursue “the drama and psychology” of this mysterious courage in the real world that he wrote The Right Stuff.

The result is a lasting work of literary journalism, as well as one of the most entertaining books ever written, and we owe it to the combination of Wolfe’s instinctive nose for a story and his obsessiveness in following it diligently for years. Last year, in a review of John McPhee’s new collection of essays, Malcolm Harris said dryly: “I would recommend Draft No. 4 to writers and anyone interested in writing, but no one should use it as a professional guide uncritically or they’re liable to starve.” You could say much the same about Wolfe, who looks a lot like the kind of journalist we aren’t likely to see again, in part because the market has changed, but also because this kind of luck can be hard for anyone to sustain over the course of a career. Wolfe hit the jackpot on multiple occasions, but he also spent years on books that nobody read—Back to Blood, his last novel, cost its publisher a hundred dollars for every copy that it sold. (Toward the end, he could even seem out of his depth. It probably isn’t a coincidence that I never read I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel about “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one” that was published a few years after I graduated from college. Wolfe’s insights into undergraduate life, delivered with his customary breathlessness, didn’t seem useful for understanding an experience that I had just undergone, and I’ve never forgotten the critic who suggested that the novel should have been titled I Am Easily Impressed.)

But that’s also the kind of risk required to produce major work. Wolfe’s movement from nonfiction to novels still feels like a loss, and I think that it deprived us of two or three big books of the kind that he could write better than anyone else. (It’s too bad that he never wrote anything about science fiction, which is a subject that could only be grasped by the kind of writer who could produce both The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) Yet it isn’t always the monumental achievements that matter. In fact, when I think of what Wolfe has meant to me, it’s his offhand critical comments that have stuck in my head. The short introduction that he wrote to a collection of James M. Cain’s novels, in which he justifiably praised Cain’s “momentum,” has probably had a greater influence on my own style—or at least my aspirations for it—than any other single piece of criticism. His description of Umberto Eco as “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac” is one that I’ll always remember, mostly because he might have been speaking of me. In college, I saw him give a reading once, shortly before the release of the collection Hooking Up. I was struck by his famous white suit, of course, but what I’ll never forget is the moment, just before he began to read, when he reached into his inside pocket and produced a pair of reading glasses—also spotlessly white. It was a perfect punchline, with the touch of the practiced showman, and it endeared Wolfe to me at times when I grew tired of his style and opinions. His voice and his ambition inspired many imitators, but at his best, it was the small stuff that set him apart.

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.

American Stories #2: Citizen Kane

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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

In his essay collection America in the Dark, the film critic David Thomson writes of Citizen Kane, which briefly went under the portentous working title American:

Citizen Kane grows with every year as America comes to resemble it. Kane is the willful success who tries to transcend external standards, and many plain Americans know his pent-up fury at lonely liberty. The film absorbs praise and criticism, unabashed by being voted the best ever made or by Pauline Kael’s skillful reassessment of its rather nasty cleverness. Perhaps both those claims are valid. The greatest film may be cunning, slick, and meretricious.

It might be even more accurate to say that the greatest American movie ever made needs to be cunning, slick, and meretricious, at least if it’s going to be true to the values of its country. Kane is “a shallow masterpiece,” as Kael famously put it, but it could hardly be anything else. (Just a few years later, Kael expressed a similar sentiment about Norman Mailer: “I think he’s our greatest writer. And what is unfortunate is that our greatest writer should be a bum.”) It’s a masterwork of genial fakery by and about a genial faker—Susan Alexander asks Kane at their first meeting if he’s a professional magician—and its ability to spin blatant artifice and sleight of hand into something unbearably moving goes a long way toward explaining why it was a favorite movie of men as different as Charles Schulz, L. Ron Hubbard, and Donald Trump.

And the most instructive aspect of Kane in these troubled times is how completely it deceives even its fans, including me. Its portrait of a man modeled on William Randolph Hearst is far more ambiguous than it was ever intended to be, because we’re distracted throughout by our fondness for the young Welles. He’s visible all too briefly in the early sequences at the Inquirer, and he winks at us through his makeup as an older man. As a result, the film that Hearst wanted to destroy turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to his legacy—it makes him far more interesting and likable than he ever was. The same factor tends to obscure the movie’s politics, as Kael wrote in the early seventies:

When Welles was young—he was twenty-five when the film opened—he used to be accused of “excessive showmanship,” but the same young audiences who now reject “theatre” respond innocently and wholeheartedly to the most unabashed tricks of theatre—and of early radio plays—in Citizen Kane. At some campus showings, they react so gullibly that when Kane makes a demagogic speech about “the underprivileged,” stray students will applaud enthusiastically, and a shout of “Right on!” may be heard.

Kane is a master manipulator, but so was Welles, and our love for all that this film represents shouldn’t blind us to how the same tricks can be turned to more insidious ends. As Kane says to poor Mr. Carter, shortly after taking over a New York newspaper at the age of twenty-five, just as Jared Kushner once did: “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.” Hearst understood this. And so does Steve Bannon.

Written by nevalalee

January 2, 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.

The writing in the dust

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A few days ago, I found myself thinking at length about what might well be the most moving passage in the entire Bible. It’s the scene in the Gospel of John in which the Pharisees, hoping to trap Jesus, bring forward a woman taken in adultery and ask him if she should be stoned according to the law, only to hear him respond: “Whoever is sinless in this crowd should go ahead and throw the first stone.” After the other onlookers drift off one by one, embarrassed, leaving just the woman behind, Jesus asks if anyone has condemned her. When she answers no, he says: “I don’t condemn you either. You’re free to go, but from now on, no more sinning.” (The story was memorably, if freely, adapted as one of the most powerful scenes in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.) In The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar writes of the passage:

The earliest ancient manuscripts of John do not have it, and modern scholars are virtually unanimous in concluding that it was not an original part of the Fourth Gospel…An impartial evaluation of the story has been impeded by its preservation as part of the Gospel of John…The fundamental question is whether this anecdote is a fragment that survived from an otherwise unknown gospel. Had it been discovered as a separate piece of papyrus, it would have attracted serious scholarly attention in its own right.

In the end, the seminar endorses it mildly, less as a real incident than as a reflection of what we know about Jesus himself, and the companion volume The Five Gospels includes the remarkable line: “While the Fellows agreed that the words did not originate in their present form with Jesus, they nevertheless assigned the words and story to a special category of things they wish Jesus had said and done.”

I feel the same way. But I haven’t even mentioned the one detail that has always struck me—and many other readers—the most. When the Pharisees first pose their question, Jesus doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he stoops down and silently draws on the ground with his finger. He responds only after they insist on a reply, and then he bends down to write in the dust again. It’s impossible to read this without wondering what he might have been writing, and nearly three centuries ago, the biblical commentator Matthew Henry did as good a job of summarizing the possibilities as anyone could:

It is impossible to tell, and therefore needless to ask, what he wrote; but this is the only mention made in the gospels of Christ’s writing…Some think they have a liberty of conjecture as to what he wrote here. Grotius says, It was some grave weighty saying, and that it was usual for wise men, when they were very thoughtful concerning any thing, to do so. Jerome and Ambrose suppose he wrote, Let the names of these wicked men be written in the dust. Others this, The earth accuses the earth, but the judgment is mine. Christ by this teaches us to be slow to speak when difficult cases are proposed to us, not quickly to shoot our bolt; and when provocations are given us, or we are bantered, to pause and consider before we reply; think twice before we speak once.

That last line seems reasonable enough, and Henry concludes: “He did as it were look another way, to show that he was not willing to take notice of their address, saying, in effect, Who made me a judge or a divider?”

And the passage, authentic or not, is also precious as one of the few everyday actions of Jesus that have been passed down to us. I’ve spoken elsewhere of a gospel of nouns and verbs, but nearly all of it occurs in Jesus’s words, not in descriptions of him preserved by others. Jesus writes on the ground; he falls asleep in a boat; he feels hungry; he breaks bread and pours wine; he weeps. There isn’t much more. Part of this reflects the fact that the gospels emerged from an oral tradition, but it also testifies to its debt to its literary predecessors. In his great book Mimesis, Erich Auerbach writes of the Old Testament story of the binding of Isaac:

In this atmosphere it is unthinkable that an implement, a landscape through which the travelers passed, the servingmen, or the ass, should be described, that their origin or descent or material or appearance or usefulness should be set forth in terms of praise; they do not even admit an adjective: they are serving-men, ass, wood, and knife, and nothing else, without an epithet; they are there to serve the end which God has commanded; what in other respects they were, are, or will be, remains in darkness. A journey is made, because God has designated the place where the sacrifice is to be performed; but we are told nothing about the journey except that it took three days, and even that we are told in a mysterious way: Abraham and his followers rose “early in the morning” and “went unto” the place of which God had told him; on the third day he lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. That gesture is the only gesture, is indeed the only occurrence during the whole journey, of which we are told…It is as if, while he traveled on, Abraham had looked neither to the right nor to the left, had suppressed any sign of life in his followers and himself save only their footfalls.

At first glance, this style might seem primitive compared to that of the Iliad or the Odyssey, but as Auerbach points out, its effect on its audience goes much deeper than what we find in Homer:

The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels…Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.

This is the tradition to which Jesus—a historical person who feels much closer to many of us than the distant, shadowy figure of Abraham—was subordinated by the author of the gospels. As a literary strategy, it was a masterstroke, and it went a long way toward enabling Jesus to strike up an existence in the inner lives of so many. (Which doesn’t mean that its virtues are obvious. Norman Mailer once said of the gospels: “Where you don’t have a wonderful sentence, what you get is some pretty dull prose and a contradictory, almost hopeless way of telling the story.”) It also means, for better or worse, that Jesus can mean all things to all people. We no longer see him clearly, and he’s being used even as I write this to justify all forms of belief and behavior. My version of him is no more legitimate than that of anyone else. But I prefer to believe in the man who drew that line in the sand.

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