Tag Archives: The New Yorker

Snobs is as snobs does

Oh boy, another article trying to make useful distinctions between “literary” and “genre” fiction. And it’s in The New Yorker, too, so the critic clearly expects his judgments to make a louder thud and leave a bigger crater wherever they land. For a book reviewer toiling on Digital Grub Street, the topic is a never-fail comment generator, a circular argument that will never be resolved. It is to the lit hack hustling page views what accusations of liberal media bias are to the wingnut blogger — a subject that can never go stale because it was never really fresh to begin with.

Genre, served straight up, has its limitations, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise. Indeed, it’s these very limitations that attract us. When we open a mystery, we expect certain themes to be addressed and we enjoy intelligent variations on these themes. But one of the things we don’t expect is excellence in writing . . . [i]t seems to me that Chabon, Egan, and Ishiguro don’t so much work in genre as with genre. All the Pretty Horses is no more a western than 1984 is science fiction. Nor can we in good conscience call John Le Carré’s The Honorable Schoolboy or Richard Price’s Lush Life genre novels.

Of course Orwell’s novel is science fiction — it fits comfortably into the genre’s dystopian tradition, as do The Sheep Look Up and The Handmaid’s Tale. Orwell uses the techniques of SF as capably as Le Carre and Price deploy those of the spy novel and the crime story. What distinguishes these novels from others of their stripe is the skill and ambition of the author. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a fine example of alternate-history science fiction, a sub-genre thoroughly tilled by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Keith Roberts, and Harry Turtledove, among many others. Chabon, to his credit, understands this and feels no embarrassment in such company. As a real artist, he understands that the quality of a given work has nothing to do with its imagined place in the lit-crit show-dog pantheon.

I’d like to read an argument that Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is inferior to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, or that Roberts’ Pavane  is overshadowed by Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, but only if the argument is made without resort to snobbery. I’m afraid that rules out Arthur Krystal. There are critics who act as prospectors, seeking out the new and the good, bringing word of their findings to the wider public. And then there are critics who see themselves as desk clerks patrolling the entrance of a particularly restricted country club. Arthur Krystal belongs to the latter group, and the irony is that even as he pats himself on the back for upholding the club’s rules, the fences out back are being torn down, to the ultimate benefit of those on both sides of the line.

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The old man and the flea

HBO has a pretty high batting average with its original programming, but Hemingway & Gellhorn still has me shaking my head a week after viewing. It’s the kind of Did I really see that? jaw dropper that only comes around once every decade or so.

Conceived as the chronicle of Ernest Hemingway and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (the penultimate Mrs. Hemingway) fighting and fucking their way through history, the film shows director Philip Kaufman reclaiming his Nineties title as the king of high-minded softcore, literary division. His initial entry (so to speak) into this field, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had enough going on to make it worth another look, but Henry and June (the literary passion of Henry Miller and Anais Nin) kept me snickering into my Raisinets the whole way through. Hemingway & Gellhorn is the further detumesence of Kaufman’s ambitions. When the two writers consummate their simmering passion in the Hotel Florida during a Fascist bombing raid, Kaufman shows them rutting atop a desk as shells explode and plaster dust blankets their bodies. I dunno — drizzles of grit and debris never really worked as turn-ons for me, even with Nicole Kidman, but Kaufman is just getting started. Later on, the scene shifts to Havana and we see the two getting it on in a nightclub dressing room as Cuban hotties twirl their feather boas and get their g-strings nestled properly. James Wolcott likens Hemingway & Gellhorn to one of Joe Eszterhas’ heavy-breathing schlock epics — “the Showgirls of the Lost Generation.” Kaufman goes Eszterhas one better (or worse) by using Forrest Gump trickery to splice his lovers into the Spanish Civil War, with each transition telegraphed by the color draining from the image. “Look Papa, we’re turning black and white! We’re entering history again!”

When people say they don’t like Hemingway, they usually don’t mean the work as much as his image. That’s understandable: It’s an unattractive image, easily ridiculed, and Kaufman (along with his screenwriters) never skips a chance to hammer us with it. Though lip service is paid to Hemingway’s talent and dedication, Hemingway & Gellhorn paints him as a mechanical bull, a capon pretending to be a rooster. The endless dick-measuring with other men, the readiness to cock a leg over any writer who might threaten his top-dog status, the pompous self-mythologizing — all of it gets trotted out here, emphasized by Clive Owen’s blustery performance.  (With his bushy moustache and dorky beret, Owen alternately resembles a buffed-up Groucho Marx and Kevin Kline’s moronic assassin from A Fish Called Wanda.) All of it will be old news to anyone familiar with its source: the 1950 profile Lillian Ross wrote for The New Yorker. What’s more interesting is the fact that the New Yorker piece, widely remembered as a stake through the heart of Hemingway’s reputation, caused barely a ripple in his friendship with Ross:

As a friend, Hemingway was stalwart. He had told me to feel free to write whatever I chose to write about him, and he never reneged. “I thought your piece was a good, straight OK piece,” he said about the Profile initially. A week later, he said: “Don’t ever worry about loseing” — it was his habit to keep the “e” in his participles — “me friends nor anything about piece.” He added, “I take the wind like an old tree; have felt the wind before; north south east and west.” Another time he said that he lost about a friend a day over the Profile. “But what the hell; any friend you can lose you might as well lose them early and anyway it is too late.” Once he said: “Please don’t think you ever have to answer any jerks or ever defend me. I am self-propelled and self-defendable.” And again: “Actually good old Profile made me about as many enemies as we have in North Korea. But who gives a s—-? A man should be known by the enemies he keeps.” Several years later, he told me that people continued to talk to him about the Profile: “All are very astonished because I don’t hold anything against you who made an effort to destroy me and nearly did, they say. I always tell them how can I be destroyed by a woman when she is a friend of mine and we have never even been to bed and no money has changed hands?”

That Hemingway is absent from Hemingway & Gellhorn, as is any hint of the talent that led Gellhorn to hitch her wagon to his star. Ironically, Kaufman and his writers let Hemingway off the hook too easily with their chaotic depiction of the Spanish Civil War episode, though they at least take the trouble to put the key figures into place. Among the writers staying in Madrid at the Hotel Florida was John Dos Passos, who had just completed his U.S.A. trilogy, a kaleidoscopic view of America during and after the Great War that made him Hemingway’s creative equal, if not superior. (To Have and Have Not, completed and published during this period, was certainly bad enough to threaten the reputation earned with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.) Hemingway, a romantic without much interest in politics, admired the Republican side for its underdog status, but his loyalty to La Causa was an accident — if he hadn’t wanted to fuck Martha Gellhorn, he could just as easily have ended up sharing drinks with Franco’s men. Dos Passos was losing his enthusiasm for Communism; the murder of his friend and translator Jose Robles by Stalinist agents would tip his politics heavily rightward. Hemingway, cultivated by the Communists on the Republican side (who abandoned Dos Passos as soon as they landed their bigger fish), blackguarded Dos Passos as a coward and turncoat — something he would continue to do for the rest of his life. (In A Moveable Feast, he famously dismissed Dos Passos as “the pilot fish.”) A viewer who doesn’t know any of this background will only be confused by what little is shown in Hemingway & Gellhorn.     

It’s easy and fun to despise Hemingway for his bad behavior, but it’s foolish to apply that judgment to his work: the brilliant short stories, The Sun Also Rises, and scattered portions of the later novels will always tip the scales to favor the writer over the man. Hemingway & Gellhorn would have us believe that once Gellhorn walked out on him, Hemingway turned into a dazed head case out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with his fourth wife playing a chirpy Nurse Ratched. While the man did come to a dark end, I seem to recall a few other things happening along the way: worldwide acclaim for The Old Man and the Sea, a Nobel Prize for Literature, stuff like that. The Old Man and the Sea may not be the greatest book evah, but its hero managed to land a pretty impressive fish. Hemingway & Gellhorn ventures onto even stormier waters, but comes back with something much smaller.

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Friday finds

Emoji

Are you ready for Emoji Dick?

Time-suck alert: The New Yorker has a new blog devoted to churning its vast catalogue of back issues. It’s a simple but valuable idea: Go back into the magazine’s 80-year archive and find articles that reflect some of the writing in the current issue.

Here’s your shot at winning a coffee date with a real live Pulitzer-winning novelist. Having spoken with him myself, I can confirm he’ll be worth the bid.

Medievalists thrill to the tale of the Staffordshire Hoard! But the finder doesn’t have all that much to cheer about.

Want to make bagpipes from PVC tubing? How about trying to build an upright bass with an old washtub? Dennis Havlena has plenty of others.

Who do you like for the next Nobel Prize in Literature? The betting site Ladbrokes has four-to-one odds for Israeli novelist Amos Oz.

Farewell to Jim Carroll, poet, novelist, punk rocker.

F. Scott Fitzgerald thought there are no second acts in American lives. Just try telling that to this guy.

Writing advice from Frederik Pohl.

Krutt, anti-krutt, and the world of Icelandic pop music.

Am I the only one who finds the slang use of “cougar” really unattractive and more than a little insulting to the women it purports to describe? Do we really want to compare Courteney Cox, Demi Moore, and Pamela Anderson to a predatory beast known to leap on people’s backs, crush their spinal cords with a bite to the neck, then eat their faces and internal organs? Last time I saw a photo of Ashton Kutcher, he was looking pretty happy, so what gives with “cougar”? Not that “Milf” is much better. Whatever happened to “Yummy Mummy”? Or “Mrs. Robinson”? They’re dated, obviously, but either is preferable to “cougar.”

“In his Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson does not yet recognize the power of ‘nice’ as the catch-all term for British near-approval, but he Doc Johnsonproduces one of his little gems in defining the word: ‘It is often used to express a culpable delicacy.’ It may be time to observe that Dr. Johnson, neither by his own definition nor by ours, could ever properly have been described as nice. He lacked culpable delicacy to the exact same degree that he lacked good manners, an easy disposition, a sunny outlook, a helpful quality, an open spirit, a selfless gene, a handsome gait, or a general willingness to put his best foot forward in greeting others. If niceness was the only category known to posterity, we would long since have lost Johnson to the scrofulous regions of inky squalor, for he could be alarmingly rude.”

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Friday finds

Time for a Tobias Wolff mini-festival, for no reason other than that he’s one of the all-time champion short story writers and I once had the pleasure of hearing him read his story “Smorgasbord” in Princeton, on a double bill with Robert Stone. Up top he reads an excerpt from his story “The Benefit of the Doubt,” here he sings along with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats and here he reads Denis Johnson’s story “Emergency” and talks about its qualities with Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker. Wolff’s 1997 book The Night in Question is a perfect, gem-studded introduction to his work; his memoir This Boy’s Life (which was made into a pretty good movie) is also a great read.  

C.M. Mayo’s new novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, gets a great review from Bookslut

How Nineteen Eighty-four killed George Orwell.

Rescuing the work of Hubert Harrison, a pioneering Harlem cultural journalist, from obscurity. 

“Final Shtick,” the opener in Harlan Ellison’s 1961 story collection Gentleman Junkie, is about a Jewish stand-up comedian who returns to Gentleman Junkiehis hometown to accept an award, then punks out on his plan to lacerate the crowd with his memories of the anti-Semitism and cruelty he endured as a child there. Apparently Ellison, an Ohio native, was not tempted to reenact that story. Before anyone tries to paint Ellison as an ogre for turning down the Cleveland Arts Prize, it should be pointed out that the award’s organizers don’t come across as terribly well informed — or even very bright, for that matter. Most of the jury hadn’t heard of Ellison, they asked him for help in selling advertising space, expected him to travel from L.A. to Cleveland on his own dime, and then restrict his remarks to a three-minute window. In short, they came across like a bunch of pishers — a word I know from reading Ellison — so it’s hardly surprising the guy told them to get lost.  

How an academic journal can piss away its hard-won reputation, almost overnight. Perhaps some repercussions are in order.

The journey that I’m speaking of starts with the slave days, when slaves had to dig a hole in an inconspicuous place in the cabin, just to keep the food cool. That’s where they would hide the food. The analogy for me is that this album is my potato hole, it’s where I put my goodies, where I have my stuff stored to keep it cool. But you might use your own imagination and go through the changes from then to now. Now there’s an African-American President of the United States, and we’ve come so far so fast. And it’s a good journey. It’s a good direction for a country to be going in.

An Artist’s Guide to Human Typesaverage physical attributes for people around the world, for sketch artists in need of a quick tutorial.

Having seen Jerry Hall in person, I can attest that she’s even better looking in real life than in her pictures. Turns out we won’t be getting a chance to read her reminiscences about Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry and others.

I’m not worried about the robot apocalypse, à la or The Matrix. I’m rather more worried about the WALL-E scenario, in which robots do all the work — happily — and people become pudgy balls of flesh lolling about all day without the slightest idea of what to do other than eat pureed food because it’s just too much trouble to chew. This is totally realistic. Hell, I spend more than eight hours a day in front of a computer screen as it is, sucking down Coke Zero and being glad there’s only one flight of stairs between me and my fridge. If I had C3PO to get me my Cokes, I might have already fused into my desk chair by now.”

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Prose’n’pillage

Spring is in the air, and a young man’s thoughts turn to . . . oh, you know. Springlike kinds of activities. Starting a garden. Tidying up the backyard. Raising a crew and heading off in a dragon-prowed longboat to rape and pillage in far-off lands. Stuff like that.
 
For those looking to get in touch with their inner berserker, I recommend the title story of Wells Tower’s new collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Check out the video pitch for the book above. Though I already knew about the winsome little atrocity the Vikings called the blood eagle, I have to say Tower describes it with a vividness that would make even Quentin Tarantino feel a little woozy. If you want to know more, read this review.

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Speaking of drinking . . .

This Book Bench columnist and mixologist, deputized to connect literary characters with cocktails, apparently believes that a Sparkling Sunrise would be a good tipple for Holden Caulfield. This passage had me wondering if the mixologist hadn’t been taste-tasting his suggestions before hitting the computer:

How could a tequila sunrise, topped with champagne, possibly find its way to Holden Caufield’s lips? Why would he ever order it in the first place? Unbeknownst to Holden, he has set course for the mythical land of authenticity, a state of presence that has underpinnings in Heidegger, and uber-underpinnings in the Buddha. This well-made cocktail, with its painstakingly assembled ingredients, is the perfect first step on his journey.

Urp.

My sources tell me that future mixology columns will connect Conan the Barbarian with a Pink Squirrel, Anna Karenina with a Slow Comfortable Screw and Tarzan with a Fuzzy Navel. I’ll keep you posted.

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