Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Saul Bellow

The apostolic succession

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Ever since I began working as a biographer—which is one of the few acceptable ways of earning a living as a private eye of culture—I’ve naturally become interested in what other writers have had to say on the subject. My favorite example, as I’ve noted here before, is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which isn’t just the best book that I’ve read on the art of biography, but one of the best that I’ve read about anything. James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden offers an engaging look at the profession from the inside, even if you sometimes get the sense that Atlas wrote it mostly to settle a few old scores relating to his biography of Saul Bellow. And there are certain loose, baggy monsters of the form that can’t help but comment on their own monstrousness. A book like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry functions both as a straight work of scholarship and as a bizarre mediation on its own creation, and by the last volume, the two elements become so unbalanced that you’re forced to confront the underlying strangeness of the whole biographical enterprise. Such hybrid books, which read like unwitting enactments of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, tend to have three qualities in common. One is the biographer’s extensive use of the first person, which allows him to insert himself into the narrative like a shadowy supporting player. Another is the inordinate amount of time or wordage devoted to the project, which usually occupies multiple decades or volumes. And the last, which should probably serve as a warning, is that this tendency is often most pronounced when the biographer is investigating the life of another living writer, which leads to insidious problems of identification, admiration, and resentment. As Sherry said of his biography of Greene to the New York Times: “I almost destroyed myself. By the time I had finished, my life had been taken from me.”

Which brings us to Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, which combines all of these ingredients into one of the strangest books I’ve ever seen. It first caught my eye over a decade ago, with its striking cover inspired by Philip Castle’s poster for A Clockwork Orange, but I’m glad that I’m only reading it now, when perhaps I have a better understanding of the emotions that it expresses. After describing his first encounter as a young man with Burgess, whom he compares to a baboon with “vampiral” red eyes,  Lewis writes:

My need to know about Burgess twenty years ago: what lack or absence in me was being compensated for? I was youthful, full of ambition and ideals; he was a constellation, larger than life-size, a writer’s writer, crammed with allusions. He was, as Carlyle said of Danton, “a gigantic mass of ostentation,” and the piratical swagger was alluring and I had an abiding affinity with it. The facets which you are taken in by when you are young—the languages, the apparent wide knowledge—genuine academics and professionals, people in the know, see it as so nonsensical, it’s beneath them to contradict Burgess’s bluster. His success came from impressing people who didn’t quite know better; he was left alone by those who did. He fell into that gap, and made a fortune for himself.

If it isn’t abundantly clear by this point, Lewis goes on to explain that his feelings have curdled toward his old mentor, whom he later describes as a “pretentious prick” and a ”complete fucking fool.” But Lewis also adds incongruously: “Twenty years on from my days as a student prince, if I’m allegedly repudiating the lion of my late adolescence, it’s no doubt because deep down I continue to feel close to him.”

Not surprisingly, many reviewers regarded the book as an act of “character assassination,” as Blake Morrison put it in The Guardian, or a case study in the pathology of hero worship. But the tangled lines of influence are even weirder than they seem. Lewis’s real mentor wasn’t Burgess, but Richard Ellmann, his thesis adviser, the biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde who is generally regarded as the greatest modern practitioner of literary biography. He played a similar role in the life of none other than James Atlas, who devotes many pages to Ellmann in The Shadow in the Garden, writing of his first encounter with the man who agreed to supervise his work at Oxford: “Steven [sic] Dedalus had stumbled upon his Leopold Bloom.” In a lengthy footnote on the very first page of Anthony Burgess, Lewis uses almost identical language to describe their relationship:

Ellmann was my supervisor (though he didn’t do much supervising) for a doctoral dissertation on Ezra Pound, of which I wrote not one word. We became friends and used to dine lavishly at the Randolph…We were both aware of a Bloom/Dedalus dynamic in our relationship. I was immensely cocky and callow, Ellmann wholly lacked the Oxford way of people being interested in each other only for their own advantage.

It was probably impossible to be mentored by Richard Ellmann, of all people, without thinking of the surrogate father and son of Ulysses, but in Lewis’s case, the Joycean labyrinth was even more twisted—because it was through Ellmann that Lewis met Burgess in the first place. His biography opens with an account of the evening of May 7, 1985, when Ellmann and Lewis picked up Burgess at a train station and gave him a ride to Oxford: “We all went to find Ellman’s rusty, seldom-washed car…Ellmann took us through the city, turning corners by mounting the kerb, grazing bollards and scattering cyclists.” And all the while, Lewis informs us, Burgess had been “murmuring to Ellmann about Joyce.”

And it gets even stranger. One of Ellmann’s other students was the biographer Henry Hart, who later wrote an essay on his mentor titled “Richard Ellmann’s Oxford Blues.” Hart is also the author of the biography James Dickey: The World as a Lie, another book full of mixed feelings toward its self-mythologizing subject, of whom he writes: “To my great relief, Dickey expressed little animosity toward my project. But he obviously had worries, the main one being the way I would address the romanticized versions of his life that he had aired so free-spiritedly in conversations and publications.” Hart addresses these problems in depth, as the full title of the book indicates. (The subtitle, he claims, was Dickey’s idea.) And I’m fascinated by how Richard Ellmann, the author of perhaps the most acclaimed literary biography of all time, produced three separate protégés whose work—Atlas on Bellow, Hart on Dickey, Lewis on Burgess—all but explodes with ambivalence toward their subjects, their own ambitions, and the whole notion of biography itself. Thinking of Ellmann and his literary progeny, I’m reminded, as many of them undoubtedly were, of Stephen Dedalus’s famous speech in the library scene in Ulysses:

A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil…Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten…Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

That uneasy succession, which assumes unpredictable shapes in its passage from one generation to another, must be as difficult for biographers as for anyone else. And Ellmann may well have had other students whose names I don’t know yet. There’s obviously a good story here. Somebody should write a book about it.

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 ghost story

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Back in March, I published a post here about the unpleasant personal life of Saul Bellow, whose most recent biographer, Zachary Leader, has amply documented the novelist’s physical violence toward his second wife Sondra Tschacbasov. After Bellow discovered the affair between Tschacbasov and his good friend Jack Ludwig, however, he contemplated something even worse, as James Atlas relates in his earlier biography: “At the Quadrangle Club in Chicago a few days later, Bellow talked wildly of getting a gun.” And I was reminded of this passage while reading an even more horrifying account in D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, about the writer’s obsession with the poet and memoirist Mary Karr:

Wallace’s literary rebirth [in the proposal for Infinite Jest] did not coincide with any calming of his convention that he had to be with Karr. Indeed, the opposite. In fact, one day in February, he thought briefly of committing murder for her. He called an ex-con he knew through his recovery program and tried to buy a gun. He had decided he would wait no longer for Karr to leave her husband; he planned to shoot him instead when he came into Cambridge to pick up the family dog. The ex-con called Larson, the head of [the addiction treatment center] Granada House, who told Karr. Wallace himself never showed up for the handover and thus ended what he would later call in a letter of apology “one of the scariest days in my life.” He wrote Larson in explanation, “I now know what obsession can make people capable of”—then added in longhand after—“at least of wanting to do.” To Karr at the time he insisted that the whole episode was an invention of the ex-con and she believed him.

Even at a glance, there are significant differences between these incidents. Bellow had treated Tschacbasov unforgivably, but his threat to buy a gun was part of an outburst of rage at a betrayal by his wife and close friend, and there’s no evidence that he ever tried to act on it—the only visible outcome was an episode in Herzog. Wallace, by contrast, not only contemplated murdering a man whose wife he wanted for himself, but he took serious steps to carry it out, and when Karr heard about it, he lied to her. By any measure, it’s the more frightening story. Yet they do have one striking point in common, which is the fact that they don’t seem to have inspired much in the way of comment or discussion. I only know about the Wallace episode because of a statement by Karr from earlier this week, in which she expressed her support for the women speaking out against Junot Díaz and noted that the violence that she experienced from Wallace was described as “alleged” by D.T. Max and The New Yorker. In his biography, Max writes without comment: “One night Wallace tried to push Karr from a moving car. Soon afterward, he got so mad at her that he threw her coffee table at her.” When shown these lines by a sympathetic reader on Twitter, Karr responded that Wallace also kicked her, climbed up the side of her house, and followed her five-year-old son home from school, and that she had to change her phone number twice to avoid him. Max, she said, “ignored” much of it, even though she showed him letters in Wallace’s handwriting confessing to his behavior. (In his original article in The New Yorker, Max merely writes: “One day, according to Karr, [Wallace] broke her coffee table.” And it wasn’t until years later that he revealed that Wallace had “broken” the table by throwing it at her.)

There’s obviously a lot to discuss here, but for reasons of my own, I’d like to approach it from the perspective of a biographer. I’ve just finished writing a biography about four men who were terrible husbands, in their own ways, to one or more wives, and I’m also keenly aware of how what seems like an omission can be the result of unseen pressures operating elsewhere in—or outside—the book. Yet Max has done himself no favors. In an interview with The Atlantic that has been widely shared, he speaks of Wallace’s actions with an aesthetic detachment that comes off now as slightly chilling:

One thing his letters make you feel is that he thought the word was God, and words were always worth putting down. Even in a letter to the head of his halfway house—where he apologizes for contemplating buying a gun to kill the writer Mary Karr’s husband—the craftsmanship of that letter is quite remarkable. You read it like a David Foster Wallace essay…I didn’t know that David had that [violence] in him. I was surprised, in general, with the intensity of violence in his personality. It was something I knew about him when I wrote the New Yorker piece, but it grew on me. It made me think harder about David and creativity and anger. But on the other end of the spectrum, he was also this open, emotional guy, who was able to cry, who intensely loved his dogs. He was all those things. That, in part, is why he’s a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.

Max tops it off by quoting a “joke” from a note by Wallace: “Infinite Jest was just a means to Mary Karr’s end.” He helpfully adds: “A sexual pun.”

It’s no wonder that Karr is so furious, but if anything, I’m more impressed by her restraint. Karr is absurdly overqualified to talk about problems of biography, and there are times when you can feel her holding herself back. In her recent book The Art of Memoir, she writes in a chapter titled “The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader”:

Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences the memoirist off from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty. Yes, you can misinterpret—happens all the time. “The truth ambushes you,” Geoffrey Wolff once said…But unless you’re looking at actual lived experience, the more profound meanings will remain forever shrouded. You’ll never unearth the more complex truths, the ones that counter that convenient first take on the past. A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—or to pump himself up for the audience—never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life.

Replace “memoirist” with “biographer,” and you’re left with a sense of what was lost when Max concluded that Wallace’s violence only made him “a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.” I won’t understate the difficulty of coming to terms with the worst aspects of one’s subject, and even Karr herself writes: “I still try to err on the side of generosity toward any character.” But it feels very much like a reluctance to deal honestly with facts that didn’t fit into the received notions of Wallace’s “complexity.” It can be hard to confront those ghosts. But not every ghost story has to be a love story.

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.”

Quote of the Day

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In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by midlife it is overgrown, and some of the wildest thickets that surround it grow out of what we describe as our education. But the channel is always there and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves—to that part of us which is conscious of a higher consciousness by means of which we make final judgments and put everything together.

Saul Bellow, in the introduction to The Closing of the American Mind

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October 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Monroe Doctrine

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[His] secret ambition, after all, had been to steal Marilyn; in all his vanity he thought no one was so well suited to bring out the best in her as himself.

—Norman Mailer, Marilyn

Are writers in direct competition? Any reasonable person—who, by definition, probably isn’t a writer—would have to conclude that they aren’t. The road to publication can be brutal, and there are plenty of ways in which it punishes or ignores deserving talent, but the existence of a specific rival who is consuming resources that might otherwise be allocated to you probably isn’t one of them. Any barriers to entry or success have more to do with luck, timing, and other impersonal forces than with peers who are trying to do the same thing as you. Even prizes, teaching positions, or fellowships are less about writers competing with one another than about their separate confrontations with larger systems, in which the only sustainable solution is to work together. And critical rankings can be rightly dismissed as irrelevancies, or, at best, the byproducts of a different game with incentives of its own. As the novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed wrote:

When a reviewer says that Malamud is second only to Bellow, it means he really isn’t thinking about either of them. When he’s reading Malamud he’s thinking about Bellow, and when he’s reading Bellow he’s thinking about Roth. This is the essence of the ratings game: distraction. Children play it all the time. “Is this the biggest bridge in the world?” “No, it’s the third biggest.” “Oh.” They lose all interest in the bridge.

But you could also argue that writers are effectively in competition, if only because nearly all the authors who have ever lived have behaved as if they were. When asked by an interviewer from the Telegraph if he thought of himself and Philip Roth as rivals, John Updike replied:

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.

Saul Bellow himself wrote, “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” while Gore Vidal was even more blunt: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Elsewhere, I’ve written at length about why novelists seem particularly susceptible to what I’ve called the Colonel Cathcart complex, after the character in Catch-22 of whom Joseph Heller says: “He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the other men his own age who were doing the same thing even better.” And you could make the case that this kind of competition is good for literature as a whole, as Norman Mailer observed to The Paris Review, after noting that writers were as competitive “as star athletes”: “You say, Well, if he’s doing it, I can do it.”

But there’s another factor at work here. The most memorable consideration of literary envy I’ve ever read is Mailer’s essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” which I first encountered as a young teenager and practically memorized. Mailer speaks frankly of his competitiveness with James Jones and William Styron, as well as his uneasy sense of relief when their novels Some Came Running and Set This House On Fire turned out to be artistic nonevents. But here’s the language that he uses when he describes their relationship to the muse, or, as he calls her, the Bitch:

If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war…it would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, I would have had to try to win her back. But the failure of Some Came Running left me holding onto a buttock of the lady—if she had many lovers, I was still one of them…[While reading Set This House On Fire] I would think, “You don’t catch the Bitch that way, buster, you got to bring more than a trombone to her boudoir.”

In Mailer’s imagination, the muse seems to have taken the form of Marilyn Monroe, whom he secretly felt he might have married if Arthur Miller hadn’t gotten there first. Monroe was the ultimate unrenewable resource, and an emblem of the prize to be won. Which raises the question of how, exactly, Mailer imagined how such a rivalry might look to a writer who happened to be a woman—although it doesn’t even seem to have occurred to him that this might be a problem. He spends the rest of his essay discussing ten contemporary novels, from Henderson the Rain King to Franny and Zooey, in an attempt to figure out the pecking order. All were written by men. And it’s open to debate if Mailer even thought that women were playing the same game.

It’s hard not to connect this kind of exclusion to the conception of literature as an economic activity defined by a scarcity of resources, or, if you like, as a contest between suitors. One of the worst manifestations of this sort of competitiveness, in art as in life, is the disqualification of potential competitors who don’t look like you, which winnows the field to the benefit of those who are already on the inside. Assuming that the pool of rewards is finite, it’s rational to limit your chosen rivals to people who fit the right profile, even if it results in a twisted Monroe Doctrine—James, not Marilyn—in which any incursion is seen as an act of hostility. If any outsiders break in, you can claim that they benefited from an unfair advantage, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can pick up your toys and go home. We’ve seen this clearly in the Hugo Awards, but it isn’t unique to science fiction, which just happens to be a place where a structural weakness allowed these impulses to become visible. Over the last few years, we’ve repeatedly seen how psychological or economic insecurity on the individual level can turn to resentment of otherness on a mass scale, and writers are no different than anyone else. (If anything, they’re worse, because their insecurity is universal, and they get to set the rules of the game they’re playing. Among other things, it leads to the curious belief that newcomers need to justify their presence, when by any rational standard it should be the other way around.) Every writer ends up assembling his or her private list of rivals, and if this excludes some while including others, we can excuse this as a necessary survival mechanism in a profession that needs all the help it can get. But it’s a different matter in public. There’s no honor in winning, or even in competing in, a game that won’t accept all players. And if you don’t agree, you’ll inevitably find that you’ve been your own worst enemy all along.

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on December 17, 2010.

As the New York Times recently pointed out, Google’s new online book database, which allows users to chart the evolving frequency of words and short phrases over 5.2 million digitized volumes, is a wonderful toy. You can look at the increasing frequency of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, for example—not surprisingly, they’ve all become a lot more common over the past few decades—or chart the depressing ascent of the word “alright.” Most seductively of all, perhaps, you can see at a glance how literary reputations have risen or fallen over time.

Take the five in the graph above, for instance. It’s hard not to see that, for all the talk of the death of Freud, he’s doing surprisingly well, and even passed Shakespeare in the mid-’70s (around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, as Woody Allen’s creative peak). Goethe experienced a rapid fall in popularity in the mid-’30s, though he had recovered nicely by the end of World War II. Tolstoy, by contrast, saw a modest spike sometime around the Big Three conference in Tehran, and a drop as soon as the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. And Kafka, while less popular during the satisfied ’50s, saw a sudden surge in the paranoid decades thereafter:

Obviously, it’s possible to see patterns anywhere, and I’m not claiming that these graphs reflect real historical cause and effect. But it’s fun to think about. Even more fun is to look at the relative popularity of five leading American novelists of the last half of the twentieth century:

The most interesting graph is that for Norman Mailer, who experiences a huge ascent up to 1970, when his stature as a cultural icon was at his peak (just after his run for mayor of New York). Eventually, though, his graph—like those of Gore Vidal, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow—follows the trajectory that we’d suspect for that of an established, serious author: a long, gradual rise followed by a period of stability, as the author enters the official canon. Compare this to a graph of four best-selling novelists of the 1970s:

For Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, Irving Wallace, and Arthur Hailey—and if you don’t recognize their names, ask your parents—we see a rapid rise in popularity followed by an equally rapid decline, which is what we might expect for authors who were once hugely popular but had no lasting value. And it’ll be interesting to see what this graph will look like in fifty years for, say, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, and in which category someone like Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling will appear. Only time, and Google, will tell.

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