The new British quarterly, The Book, is kicking things off with a poll to determine, by popular vote, “the Greatest Living British Writer.” As Gordon Kerr writes in his essay introducing the poll, “Now, there’s a question! It’s such a big one, in fact, that it requires capitals at the beginning of each word!” Indeed. If you’ve got an opinion on the matter, cast your vote. I couldn’t decide – how does one pick in polls like this? – so I selected John Le Carre, who seems to be sufficiently influential and popular while at the same time a little bit outside of the literary box. Thoughts?
If your Twitter or Facebook feed includes anyone who cares about American poetry, you’ve probably seen a link or 11 to Rita Dove’s recent letter to the editor in The New York Review of Books (and Helen Vendler’s painfully terse reply). If not, here’s a quick rundown: The November 24 issue of the NYRB included Vendler’s review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Dove. The anthologist responded with a letter calling Vendler to task, in particular, for explicit and implicit dismissals of poetry by black Americans. Vendler replied, in full, “I have written the review and I stand by it.”
To understand what Dove objected to, you needn’t read any further than the opening paragraphs of Vendler’s review:
Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound). Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.
Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. People who wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel find a longed-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?
Notably, Vendler’s list of America’s foremost 20th-century poets is entirely white — a fact that becomes especially significant when set up against her subsequent suggestion that this legacy of greatness is being crowded out in part by “introducing more black poets.”
Up to a point, it’s worth going easy on Vendler. Like Dove, she had a job to do — the same job, really: make a case for what was worth reading in 20th-century American poetry. Dove made hers, and the NYRB asked Vendler to evaluate it. And after those two paragraphs Vendler’s argument mostly shifts away from issues of race and into critiques that, accurate or not, have more to do with Vendler’s dislike of what she calls “accessibility;” her defensiveness about what Dove refers to as the “poetry establishment;” and what Vendler describes as Dove’s “breezy chronological introduction, with its uneasy mix of potted history (in a nod to ‘context’) and peculiar judgments.” While any of these could be stand-ins for racial prejudice, I don’t believe they are. Instead, they feel like an uncomfortable mix of, on the one hand, Vendler’s legitimate arguments about selection and interpretation and, on the other, her fear that the poems she loves most won’t matter enough to others.
But those first two paragraphs can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. Dove rightly takes her to task for this, effectively unpacking the implications of, for example, dismissing minority writers as being of merely “sociological” interest; suggesting that such writers tend to be valued for their “representative themes,” whereas the major white writers Vendler lists are supposedly notable for their “style;” and asserting that they write poems because they “wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel.” (Vendler might argue that she didn’t mean any of these observations to be specific to minority writers, but she introduces all of them right after complaining that black writers are over-represented, and a critic who’s famous for her attention to detail should know that she’s setting up that reading of her remarks.) Dove also fairly marks the places where the shadow of such remarks can be discerned later on in the review.
Ultimately, I think Vendler’s condescending talk about race and writing is driven by her defensiveness about her own tastes (and more about that in a bit), which of course does nothing to excuse it. But given that Dove and others have already effectively unpacked this most glaring aspect of the review — and given that Vendler’s case seems far from unique — it’s worth stopping to look at the assumptions that underpin most arguments against inclusiveness in art, including this one.
Part of what leads Vendler astray is her belief in a kind of literary value that’s all noun and no verb — that is, one that wants to define value without making room for the fact that many people do in fact value the very writing that, she says, is not, well… valuable. In the process, she, like many other critics (and not just of poetry), creates an oddly unpeopled universe — or, at least, one that’s strangely devoid of living people. Vendler asks us to think of value in terms of a hypothetical and permanent future, one that will have unvarying and therefore conclusive (that is, correct) notions of what was good and bad in our writing. It’s an exasperating argument, since it asks us to defer to the critic’s mystical conjuring of our far off progeny, a population that will, of course, have the same values as the critic herself.
But even if the critic is somehow right about what the academics of the 22nd century will value (and even if the 23rd, 24th and 25th centuries value the same things), it begs the question — why should it matter? Our current canons are based on what a select group of current readers find useful, pleasurable, interesting, meaningful. Were readers in the 17th century wrong for sometimes finding pleasure in other places? Should they have been more concerned with what a Harvard professor might care about today?
With some notable exceptions, taste is not a moral category. Yes, it makes a difference if we eat meat; and it matters, too, if our diets are full of sugar or salt. In different ways, it matters if we embrace art that enforces our prejudices, degrades others, or results from exploitation. The same is true if we choose to read in ways that inspire pettiness or abet us in living timid, unfulfilling, unimaginative lives. But more often than not, none of that is really at stake in these arguments. Just as some people will like poetry and some will like fiction, some sculpture, some movies, some wine — some many things, some few — there are countless ways to get to meaning through poems and just as many different experiences of meaning to arrive at. And almost all of them are worthwhile. In fact, we can enlarge ourselves by being more imaginative about value; it’s a way of learning about others that resembles the experience of art itself, an act or curiosity and creativity and engagement.
Many critics seem to move in the opposite direction, letting in a sense that the appreciation of writing outside of their preferences somehow threatens the value of the poetry they want to champion. If page-counting is a necessary part of reviewing an anthology — of unpacking its claims — the treatment of artistic appreciation as a kind of zero-sum equation is not. There’s a strange logic here, one that feels a little like the idea that gay marriages would threaten the sanctity of straight marriages (which is not to accuse any critics of homophobia — just to note the ways in which a lack of imagination about other people’s pleasures can turn into an unwarranted prejudice and a strangely militant attitude about the things others do and love.)
Vendler’s hardly alone in this. Harold Bloom has made a name for himself by defending the great tradition, as he imagines it, from the encroachment of all kinds of writing. In a nice bit of synchronicity, Bloom actually moved to the vanguard of the cultural wars by releasing his own anthology of sorts — The Western Canon — which made headlines for selecting 26 essential authors and defending their pre-eminence against an army of straw-men and -women: feminists, cultural theorists, etc., a group he likes to refer to as “The School of Resentment.” He, too, has passed judgment of Dove’s anthologizing, in his case when he made the selections for a Best of the Best American Poetry that largely discarded the choices of the series’ first 10 editors, including Rita Dove, and instead came up with his own roster of works that “will endure, if only we can maintain a continuity of aesthetic appreciation and cognitive understanding that more or less prevailed from Emerson until the later 1960s, but that survives only in isolated pockets.”
It’s likely that some of the defensiveness that critics like Bloom feel comes from their awareness that their own selections may be subject to attack, their awareness that championing an all or mostly white or male roster of artists is going to leave them subject to charges of racism and sexism. But there’s a simple way around that: admit that the kind of writing you value is just one kind of potentially valuable writing. Keep in mind that, in trying to maintain the prerogatives and preferences of the establishment (quotation marks deliberately omitted), you’re trying to sustain a series of cultural traditions and institutions that have been hostile to women, blacks, and other minorities on grounds that have nothing to do with merit. Take seriously the ways in which others experience and uncover meaning at the same time you ask others to preserve space for the things you value most. And (hey, why not?) take a little bit of time to consider the possibility that female and non-white writers are already doing important work in that same vein — and that maybe it doesn’t seem that way to you at first glance in part because you haven’t yet immersed yourself in a slightly different set of cultural experiences and associations. (On that last note, Vendler does eventually get around to praising both Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa, but it comes so late in her review that it doesn’t provide much counterweight, and her assertion that the “excellent contemporary poetry” of these two writers “needs no special defense” revives her claim that many other black writers are valuable only under the terms of some separate and lower standard.)
The importance of this extends beyond racial inclusiveness. One of the most useful things a critic can do — and one that Vendler herself has done at various points in her career — is to open us up to new sources of pleasure and insight. In denying the value of so much that clearly does provide value for others (including, for me, the brilliant Gwendolyn Brooks, whom Vendler faintly praises for a “pioneering role” before expressing wild outrage at Dove’s claim that Brooks’ first book “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”), a critic works against our capacity for imagination. We can, should, and will continue to argue about artistic quality, but we should do so while remembering that poetry can only live in the minds of living readers, and that its value comes out of their encounters with individual poems, which are, thank god, incredibly various (both the poems and the encounters.) Too much criticism suggests that we must serve art — a supposedly timeless art removed from the particulars of people immersed in culture and history. And yet the most enduring value of Shakespeare — the favorite cudgel of literary culture warriors — is his ongoing service to individual readers, his ability to bring them joy and inspiration, bring them a more vibrant connection to the language we all speak in our own ways, rich grief, and insight into people living very different lives. Why worry so much about any other writing that provides the same?
I read with interest D.T. Max’s article in the recent Summer Fiction Issue of the New Yorker covering the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which is, by the sound of it, one of the world’s most important literary archives. The piece mostly covered the library’s director Thomas Staley, and his impressive skill in locking down the papers of some of history’s greatest writers, but it also delved into descriptions of the papers themselves.I suppose I’d never really thought of it before reading this article, but I was surprised at the sheer mass that these collections represent. For example, Norman Mailer’s “archive – weighing twenty thousand pounds in all – came to the center in a tractor trailer.” And that’s just one of many, many archives. In all, the collection “contains thirty-six million manuscript pages, five million photographs, a million books, and ten thousand objects, including a lock of Byron’s curly brown hair.” The Texas is also old school in the way it approaches its collection.Staley’s conservatism extends beyond his literary taste. He does not want to place the Ransom’s archives online. He believes, quoting Matthew Arnold, that “the object as in itself it really is” can never be replaced by a digital reproduction. “Smell this,” he told me one time when I was in his office, as he picked up a manuscript box from the Edwardian British publisher Cecil Palmer. We inhaled the scent: tobacco, mold, dust. “See, there’s information in the smell, too,” he said.Be that as it may, the objects that Staley covets for the Texas collection may not be as plentiful in the coming years.I was fascinated, for example, by Don Delillo’s papers as described by D.T. Max in the New Yorker: Delillio’s manuscripts “were eerily immaculate – embalmed in acid-free manila folders inside blue legal-sized boxes, each about the size of an accordion folder.”Compare this to a recent article in the New York Times discussing the increasing use of technology and software in crafting fiction. The article’s centerpiece is Richard Powers, whose affinity for technology is well known. Instead of piles of paper, Powerspoured the background research into hyperlinked notebooks using Microsoft OneNote, a program more commonly used by businesses, which allows you to combine text documents, e-mail, images, spreadsheets and video and audio material into one searchable document. He then mapped out possible changing interactions between characters. “These notebook sections gradually grew into the kernels of individual dramatic scenes, which I could then work up in parallel,” Powers said. “The combination of software programs (each of which links seamlessly into the other) allowed for simultaneous top-down and bottom-up composition.”I would guess that some archivists might find it upsetting that, increasingly, modern day authors won’t leave dusty boxes of paper to sift through. Correspondence will be collected in email form, and background research will include hyperlinks and spreadsheets, images and video. This doesn’t jibe with the classic notion of doing literary research, but it will also open dazzling opportunities, as notable writers’ papers will exist in digital form from the outset, and won’t be physically limited to certain institutions. In this way we may trace the links and paths set down by writers as they crafted their work. We will be able to sift through the “dusty boxes” from our desks, wherever we are.
This is why I love the New Yorker. Right when I’m about to go on vacation, they put out the debut fiction issue, perfect for the beach. In fact, I still vividly recall reading an excerpt from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated in a debut fiction issue while at the beach a few summers ago. This year’s stories look interesting. There’s “An Ex-Mas Feast” (read it here) by Uwem Alpan, “a Jesuit Priest from Nigeria.” There’s “The Laser Age” by Justin Tussing, an Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad, whose first novel, The Best People in the World, comes out nest year. And there’s “Haunting Olivia” by Karen Russell (read it here.)I don’t know why, but I always feel faint stirrings of jealousy when the debut fiction issue comes out. I’m not exactly an aspiring novelist, but I think it riles people up to see unknowns on such a big stage, the biggest in short fiction. I just have to remind myself that there are much more deserving things to decry in the literary world than the debut fiction issue. That way I can enjoy the stories with my emotions unclouded.Update: I read the stories and here’s what I thought.
Aspiring writers might want to consider moving to Japan and focusing on thumbing text messages instead of developing intricate story lines or characters. At least, that is what this front page story from the Sunday New York Times seems to be saying.In 2007, five of the top 10 best-selling novels in Japan were written by teenagers, or early 20-somethings, on cell phones. These novels were published in installments on various specialized Web sites. Although the phenomenon emerged in 2000, according to the NYT, it really took off two or three years ago; one of the Web sites hit the one million “cellphone novels” mark last month. Publishers soon recognized the trend and began republishing popular, finished novels, churning out one best seller after another.”The sentences are too simple, the stories are too predictable,” one of the authors is quoted as saying. Yet, apparently demand for these “tear-jerkers” is on the rise, and, already, there is talk of creating and naming a genre for it. (Yes, the “cellphone novel.”) With direct flights from New York to Tokyo at just under $1,000 and new cell phone plans in Japan providing unlimited data transfers, i.e., text messages and Web-posting capability, this might be the best deal available to witty writers who don’t care much for style, and, well, errr, the story.Update: Ben translates an excerpt of one of these best-selling cell phone novels and puts the phenomenon in context.
Amazon has locked down a rare piece of Harry Potter ephemera far a tidy sum.We’re incredibly excited to announce that Amazon has purchased J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard at an auction held by Sotheby’s in London. The book of five wizarding fairy tales, referenced in the last book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is one of only seven handmade copies in existence. The purchase price was £1,950,000 [$3.93 million], and Ms. Rowling is donating the proceeds to The Children’s Voice campaign, a charity she co-founded to help improve the lives of institutionalized children across Europe.The Tales of Beedle the Bard is extensively illustrated and handwritten by the bard herself–all 157 pages of it. It’s bound in brown Moroccan leather and embellished with five hand-chased hallmarked sterling silver ornaments and mounted moonstones.Since this is a particularly difficult volume to get one’s hands on, and since there are likely many curious Potter fans out there, Amazon has offered up a special review of the book, along with images from its pages. (Thanks, Laurie)Update: Yes, it turns out this happened in December. So: old news, but new to me, and perhaps to you too.
As an urban dog owner I greatly enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer’s article in the New York Times about the trials and tribulations of having a dog in a city. This op-ed piece is an argument against a plan to eliminate “off leash” hours in city parks. As someone who has many times appreciated the ability to let his dog “off leash” in parks in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, I agree with Foer. I also enjoyed his musings on what it means for us (as in humanity) to have this desire to bring animals into unfriendly environs like cities. Kudos, as well, to Foer for letting his guard down in this piece in a way that many other writers might not have. (via Gwenda)
Don’t let the lame title fool you – James Ryerson’s Times Magazine essay on David Foster Wallace’s early philosophical writings is a valuable step toward understanding both the novelist and the intellectual situation in which he found himself. Most substantially, Ryerson’s reading of Wallace’s senior thesis reveals a writer concerned not with language qua language, but with the ostensibly discredited field of metaphysics – or rather, with the space between the two.Wallace was the kind of writer who could do anything with language, but seemed to see native gifts, including his own, as pitfalls rather than accomplishments. (Spare a thought for poor Orin Incandenza, trapped under glass.) His pyrotechnic prose style made it easy for some critics to miss, but even as an undergrad, Wallace was aiming higher than mere felicity.Characteristically (for anyone who made it through Everything and More), Wallace’s thesis defends the possibility of metaphysics through a kind of reductio proof. He shows the insufficiency of other philosophical premises, including those of the philosophy of language, for addressing the basic experience of being in the world. This phenomenological move seems to me be about as far as anyone has gotten in the modernist project of clearing the field of philosophy; it echoes the struggles of Wittgenstein, which in turn echo through Wallace’s two long novels. And it explains the sense of aesthetic aporia that hangs over discussions of contemporary fiction.At the same time, Wallace’s ostensible shift from philosophy to fiction points toward an exit. Most of what philosophers have achieved since the modernist moment has come in some genre other than the propositional argument: manifesto, koan, literary criticism… and, yes, literary fiction. And so the end point of Wallace’s thesis seems to mark the beginning of his career as a philosopher – a career he pursued by writing fiction. In literature, he found a “conceptual tool with which [to pursue] life’s most desperate questions” that shortened the “distance from the connections he struggled to make.” It will be the work of future critics to elucidate those connections, without neglecting or negating the singularity of their expression.
This morning, when I finished reading George Packer’s long article in this week’s New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government’s failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer’s book, The Assassin’s Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel – a collaborator – and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad’s U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. “Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer – nearly impossible to obtain,” Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,” he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan’s position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer’s article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.