Initially I found yesterday’s announcement of Philip Gourevitch’s hiring as editor of the Paris Review to be odd. I know him best for his journalism in the New Yorker and his much praised works of non-fiction, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families and A Cold Case, but he didn’t seem to have the proper pedigree to head a magazine that is so prominent in its championing of short fiction. However, a look at the press release accompanying the announcement reveals that “Gourevitch holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University, and has published a number of short stories in literary quarterlies. He worked as cultural editor of the Forward in the early nineties, before turning to writing full time,” which would indicate that he does indeed have experience both as a writer of fiction and an editor. Beyond that, perhaps from his experience with the New Yorker, Gourevitch may have inkling of what it takes to make an unabashedly highbrow publication both a critical and financial success. Many were dismayed, or at least apprehensive, when former editor Brigid Hughes was forced out, but I think that Gourevitch’s appointment should leave Paris Review devotees cautiously optimistic. For more details and background on Gourevitch, visit Galley Cat.
The Paris Review, long recognizable for its fat, little, bookish profile, has been redesigned under the watch of new editor Philip Gourevitch. Also gone is the practice of emblazoning the cover with an abstruse piece of art (as opposed to, say, the New Yorker) and nothing else. "Maybe no one thought it before Mr. Plimpton died, but the venerable old magazine did need an update." says Bud, who's got a full accounting of the venerable literary magazine's new look (and contents).
This morning's David Brooks column has reinvigorated my long-running discomfort with pop-intellectuals. "We're entering an era of epic legislation," his column begins. "There are at least five large problems that will compel the federal government to act in gigantic ways over the next few years." The bold assertion is a classic move of the pop-intellectual, who I think of as one who puts forth an idea as a new idea while lacking expertise in the field in which that idea would carry weight. The blending of disciplines is also a tell-tale pop-intellecual trait, and in the opening of his column, Brooks presents as a historian, a sociologist, and a political scientist, even though he is in fact none of the above.One thing I always think about when I read pop-intellectuals like Brooks or Malcolm Gladwell (if Brooks is prince of the practice, Gladwell is king), is the shift over the last couple centuries or so from lay intellectualism to professional intellectualism (I'm not an intellectual historian and I don't know exactly where to date it - in my mind the the change took place concurrently with the the rise of method, around about the time of Darwin). Two hundred years ago it was good enough to be a well-educated citizen with a ruminative soul and you could write with authority about anything - philosophy, history, the natural world. Now to be taken seriously on any of those topics, to be seen as adding to our store of knowledge, you have to have a PhD and work in a university. In part, the change is due to the overall increase in knowledge - it required less learning to be an expert in mathematics a hundred years ago than it does now - but more than that, the change reflects the modern insight that learning shaped by disciplines simply produces better knowledge.Journalists like Brooks and Gladwell can still add value by bringing academic discoveries to the public, but books like Bobos in Paradise and Blink make me cringe for the lack of rigor with which they synthesize anecdotes to produce new ideas. The problem is not so much the content, benign as it usually is, but the methods. Brooks' column, for example, actually promotes a tendency opposite of the one he intends. It makes people less effectively thoughtful, not more.
1. In the most recent issue of The Atlantic James Fallows asks a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds these days: “Is America going to hell?” It’s a provocation that has recurred throughout American history, from John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630 to Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech in 1979. In every case doomsday predictions have proven to be premature; what looked at the time like a descent turned out to be just a dip. As a rule, it’s a good idea to be skeptical whenever anyone tells you this time is different. It’s hard enough to understand our own time, let alone to measure it against hundreds of years of national history we’ve only ever read about. Chances are that even the most acutely wrought pessimism has been felt before and for much the same reasons. And yet when Fallows contends that this time is different, it’s hard to dispute him on the facts. The core of the problem, he argues, is not any one particular challenge—debt, health care, energy—or even all of them summed together; it’s that our government has become incapable of organizing the national effort required to meet those challenges. The culprits Fallows identifies are familiar ones. They include an ADD news media, the permanent campaign, and hyper-partisanship. But mostly he blames the filibuster and special interest groups. The two merit mentioning together because they sow dysfunction by the same method: In both cases well-organized factions are able to get their way at the expense of the common good. While these conditions were present in America at the start, Fallows worries they’ve grown more entrenched and pernicious over time. The gap between the most and least populous states in the country is considerably larger than it was two hundred years ago which means that small states hold even more outsized influence in the Senate today than they did at the Founding. (Fallows notes that the 41 votes needed to filibuster legislation could conceivably represent as little as 12% of the population; 500,000 folks from Wyoming effectively neutralize 37 million Californians.) And about special interests, he says they accumulate like plaque, so that the situation today is a lot worse than it’s ever been. The political economist Mancur Olson wrote in his 1982 book The Rise and Decline of Nations that “organization for collective action” takes a long time (agricultural lobbies didn’t coalesce until after World War I; the AARP until 1958) but that once organized, such groups “usually survive until there is a social upheaval or other forms of violence or instability.” And until that day comes, they nickel and dime the country of its wealth, one earmark, subsidy, and loophole at a time. So there are reasons beyond a general sense of dismay to believe that American greatness may be ebbing. 2. Regardless of how you come down on Fallows’ argument (and as discussed below, I disagree with him), his essay comprises a nice primer on what might be called “Essential Reading for the End of Life As We Know it in America." Here is a selection of the most influential titles mentioned in his essay: The federal government’s first problem is that it’s viewed as inept. This stacks the deck against big legislative initiatives which are vulnerable to the “government takeover” epithet lobbed so effectively against health care reform. Rick Perlstein provides a genealogy for this anti-government attitude in two books critical of modern conservatism—Before the Storm and Nixonland—that show how a postwar “American consensus” shattered into the “American cacophony” that deafens today. The US has staggering debt-obligations dumped around the world: We owe China $2.5 trillion; Japan $1 trillion; Korea $200 billion. In their 2010 book The End of Influence Berkeley professors J. Bradford DeLong and Stephen Cohen argue that as a consequence, “America is unlikely to remain the cultural hegemon, the overwhelmingly dominant source of cultural memes.” In Are We Rome? Vanity Fair editor at-large Cullen Murphy draws unsettling parallels between present-day America and the culturally insular, governmentally corrupt final days of the Roman Empire. Pessimism about the future is nothing new in America. As Sacvan Bercovitch retells it in The American Jeremiad (1978) the Puritans worried that the game was up before they had even stepped off the boat. From Winthrop’s sermon to The Education of Henry Adams, Bercovitch traces the history of what he calls a “national ritual” of lamentation. To that history, Fallows adds George Kennan’s Memoirs, which he tabs as the apotheosis of the tradition in the 20th century. T. Jackson Lears, the Rutgers historian, is the author of two books that caution against viewing the dissatisfaction of our time as exceptional: In No Place of Grace he examines the antimodern impulse percolating through industrializing America in the late-19th century; and in Rebirth of a Nation, he narrates how amidst the hollowness of the Gilded Age, Americans turned to militarization as a source of meaning. Or as Lears puts it: “The rise of total war between the Civil War and World War I was rooted in longings for release from bourgeois normality into a realm of heroic struggle.” The single biggest reason our government doesn’t work, argues Jonathan Rauch in Demosclerosis is “creeping special-interest gridlock.” This in line with Olson’s argument from The Rise and Decline of Nations discussed above. 3. My own view of Fallows’ argument is that it’s either too pessimistic or too optimistic depending on how you think about the American electorate, which strangely goes almost unmentioned throughout the essay. It’s true that aspects of our government are basically set in place: Parliamentary rules will always slow change, the two major parties will always monopolize the ballot, the rich and well-connected will always have an edge over everyone else. But given that, it’s also true that every year we have elections and that those elections matter. Fallows thinks about government like a broken down car, such that no matter how skilled the driver or where he wants to go, he’s not going to get there. During the eight years of the Bush presidency we would have been better off had that been true. But instead we got Iraq and trillion dollar deficits. It feels odd to point to the election and reelection of George W. Bush as proof that our democracy remains vital, but the extreme calamity of his presidency indicates better than anything else in recent memory that for better or worse, who we choose to lead our country has consequences. The real question, then, is can we choose the right leaders and hold them accountable once in office? There are reasons to be pessimistic here, too. In 2004, Fallows notes, 153 state or federal positions were up for election in California and not one switched parties, even as the status quo was driving the state into the sea. So there’s reason to doubt whether voters are capable of promoting their own interests at the ballot box. But there’s also reason for optimism. It’s clear to me at least that we chose the right candidate for president in 2008. And while Obama’s efforts to reform health care have been derailed, maybe for good, the fact that we came within one fluke special election of addressing the biggest problem facing the country says to me that all hope is not lost. If it really were true that our future depended on special interests giving up the fight, or senators ceasing to act like senators, I’d agree with Fallows’ bleak view. But so long as we have the opportunity every November to reset our course, I can’t believe we won't eventually, and maybe even in spite of ourselves, end up moving in the right direction.
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Last week, when it was announced that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I’m guessing I felt something like a football fan does when his team wins the Superbowl. I loved the book, pushing it hard on my bookish friends and even harder on the unbookish ones, certain that this was one of the most broadly appealing works of fiction to have come out in a long time. After the announcement, I wanted nothing more than to high-five all my Egan-loving friends posting the link on Facebook. It was heartening to see that the sentiment seemed widespread and magnanimous. Surely the celebration had to do with the brilliance of the book, but also the fact that a woman won in a year of several lively discussions regarding gender inequality in publishing (see the VIDA report on publication statistics and the backlash to Jonathan Franzen in general.) Alas, the feeling of deserved recognition was short-lived. In a Wall Street Journal interview that Egan gave shortly after receiving the news, her advice to young writers ruffled some feathers: My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at The Tiger’s Wife. There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?...My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower. The Harvard student Egan is referring to is Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was much lauded until it was discovered that large sections had been lifted from other books; among the plagiarized authors were Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries), Sophie Kinsella (Confessions of a Shopaholic) and Megan McCafferty (the Jessica Darling series), all of whom are best-selling authors of the “chick-lit” genre. Chief among the offended was the oft-outspoken author Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes), who was also a prominent voice of the aforementioned Franzen backlash. A tweet from Weiner shortly after the WSJ piece ran: “And there goes my chance to be happy that a lady won the big prize. Thanks, Jenny Egan. You're a model of graciousness.” Following Weiner’s lead, devout fans of chick-lit sounded off; over at The Frisky, in an essay titled “In Defense of Chick Lit,” Jamie Beckman, who opens her essay declaring that Egan was “one of her favorite authors of all time,” expresses doubt that she’ll ever recommend Egan’s work to a friend again. It’s not hard to see how Egan’s statements offended—“very derivative and banal” isn’t exactly timid diction, and it’s a real downer to have someone you respect make you feel like you’ve got bad taste. But before anyone accuses anyone of “step[ping] on other women as [she] makes [her] way to the podium,” as Beckman puts it, we should consider a couple of things. First: the offended parties lay claim to a genre ubiquitously referred to as “chick-lit”, a term used to describe fiction that relays, as Beckman puts it, “thoughtful, funny, relatable voices for the everywoman who’s looking for her personal pieces of life’s pie, including the career, the apartment, and the guy.” I don’t aim to scrutinize the content of the genre so much as the fact that the chick lit demographic has fully embraced the term. Ladies, it’s 2011. Who refers to women as “chicks” aside from Ed Hardy-wearing man-children? Uninspired as it may be, detractors calling the work “fluffy” can’t really be blamed—it’s built into the name, for god's sake. It’s difficult to move forward in an argument about the sexist climate in publishing when a group that is supposedly trying to push for more equality has accepted and even defended a derogatory label. Granted, the term was probably coined by some marketing department somewhere, but authors of the genre stand by it unflinchingly (see Michele Gorman’s article in The Guardian). It’s no secret that the chick lit authors are outselling their literary fiction counterparts by far. What’s alarming is that the tremendous success of the genre is largely because it’s marketed to women who identify themselves “chicks.” Perhaps the bigger issue at hand, though, is the severity of the backlash to Egan’s comments and the reasoning behind it. Bloggers at the The Signature Thing declared it “majorly ugly girl-on-girl crime,” and numerous commenters declared a boycott of everything Egan from this point forward. Another blogger at NerdGirlTalking was utterly perplexed: “Jennifer Egan, have you even MET Meg?.. Because how could you meet Meg and then call her work banal or derivative? I don’t care if you think those things, Meg is so nice that saying those things are almost like kicking a puppy.” These former Egan fans are uniting under the notion that in addition to being a meanie, Egan is setting feminists back 50 years. How could she? In the male hegemony of publishing, us gals are supposed to stick together. Which is all well and good, in theory. But to suggest that a woman writer should not be critical of other women writers is counter to progress. It reminds me a little bit of the 2008 election. There was a certain kind of Hillary supporter that believed all women should be in support of our potential first woman president mostly on the basis that this could be our first woman president! Which is all well and good, in theory. But to express any sort of dissent guaranteed you a look of pity mingled with disgust: Poor thing. She must secretly hate her vagina. This kind of mindless unity is counterintuitive. What kind of feminist movement condones a suppression of opinion on the basis that we should all be nice and stick together, because we’re girls? What Egan said wasn’t nice. It was honest. It reflected her opinion of a certain type of fiction. Publishing should strive to be a meritocracy (though whether it succeeds is a whole other issue,) and Egan’s comments are an acknowledgment of that. On the other hand, in the chick lit realm, amid the outrage and demand for more respect, there is, in fact cowering: observe Weiner selling herself short (and acknowledging a literary hierarchy) in an interview she gave to the Huffington Post: “Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan "Genius" Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.” In 1971, Gore Vidal compared Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex to “three days of menstrual flow.” Mailer then proceeded to head-butt Vidal before they appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, and six years later at a party, he threw his drink in Vidal’s face and started a fistfight. While I’m not suggesting that this is admirable behavior (though it is pretty funny,) it does nothing for leveling the playing field if every time a woman author remarks on the quality of a work of fiction, hysteria ensues, she’s thought of as a catty bitch, and there’s a concerted effort to rally the troops against her. In a year when a male author (Franzen), appeared on the cover of Time for the first time since the last male author (Stephen King,) appeared on the cover ten years ago, the significant success of Goon Squad shouldn’t be drowned out by bitterness because Egan encouraged young writers to aim higher than a genre whose very name degrades its creators. What we should be concerned about is that glaring inequities exist in publishing. So, ladies, one more time, in case you didn’t hear Egan over Weiner’s whining: shoot high and don’t cower. We can’t very well get much done with the kid gloves on.
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Remember those kids who obsessively drew their own comics on loose leaf in school? It should come as no surprise that Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem were furiously scribbling away in their notebooks during their pre-teen years. In the latest issue of Tin House - "The Graphic Issue" - the editors have collected boyhood comics from Chabon, Lethem, Dan Chaon, Luc Sante, and Chris Offutt (who also pens an introduction.) The comic juvenalia of these now well-known writers brought me back to my fifth grade class, where comics became a craze, and nearly every kid had created his own - on loose leaf of course - which we traded and read and discussed at length. My favorite amongst those collected here is Lethem's brief opus "Fig-Leaf Man vs. Hot Dog King."Unfortunately, none of the comics are available online, but the issue is worth a look as it includes graphic novel excerpts from Marjane Satrapi's Chicken With Plums and other new works as well as appearances by Lynda Barry, Tom Tomorrow, and Zak Smith introducing his Gravity's Rainbow Illustrated (Read Garth's recent post about the book). Also in the issue, short pieces by Anthony Swofford, Charles D'Ambrosio, and Stuart Dybek.