Ed Champion has a nemesis, Time magazine book reviewer Lev Grossman, as we discover in Grossman’s latest column. Though somewhat tongue in cheek, Grossman is basically asking bloggers to use their power for good. All in all, it’s far more civilized than Steve Almond’s pathetic attempted takedown of Mark Sarvas in Salon from a year ago, which read like a laundry list of Almond’s insecurities. Grossman’s essay and Ed’s response make it clear that Grossman is an altogether more pleasant person than Almond and that the relationship between book bloggers and the literati has matured. As Ed notes in his brief response to Grossman, he (and other book bloggers) are regularly paid to pen book reviews in major newspapers. The lines are blurring. Oh, and I’ve met Ed. He’s not that scary.
When you go to journalism school (or start out at most traditional journalism jobs), you are issued a style guide as a soldier might be issued a weapon. Quite a few places have their own in-house style guides, reflecting the vernacular peculiarities of the publication or its region. For all others, the default tends to be the AP Stylebook, a utilitarian volume compiled by the AP and meant to keep all of its reporters’ language consistent. Its influence, of course, has spread far wider.As an avid AP Stylebook owner, I read with interest last month, Editor & Publisher’s account of the changes in the latest edition of the Stylebook. In a way, the AP’s regular shuffling in and out of new words and disused ones is not unlike the exercise played to great PR effect by dictionaries every year. The sometimes silly neologisms added to dictionaries make for easy news bites. Seeing “e-mail” or “LOL” printed on those thin pages seems to inspire amusement, dread, and maybe a little bit of pride. But ultimately it feels inconsequential as we watch our vocabulary race ahead of dictionaries, and dictionaries seem to have minimal influence on how we actually communicate.An adjustment to the AP Stylebook, on the other hand, is a writ-in-stone change to what millions of people will read in publications around the world, and it will further influence the style guides at publications that use their own style guides. Certainly the AP is forced to, as the dictionaries do, catch up to trends in the spoken and written word – according to E&P, “‘WMD,’ ‘iPhone’ and ‘anti-virus’ are in, while ‘barmaid,’ ‘blue blood’ and ‘malarkey’ are out.” – but the authority of the Stylebook would seem to bury the words that are being removed and give birth to those that are added.
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?
A recent Wall Street Journal story (I’ll summarize here if you can’t access it), is reporting that Borders intends to “sharply [increase] the number of titles it displays on shelves with the covers face-out.” It is hoped that this move will increase sales, but “the new approach will require a typical Borders superstore to shrink its number of titles by 5% to 10%.”The article goes on to note that “Reducing inventory goes against the grain of booksellers’ efforts over the past 25 years or so. Chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation’s largest book retailer, became household names with superstores that stocked as many as 150,000 titles or more. The rise of Amazon.com Inc., which offers a vast selection online, made it even more important for stores to offer deep inventories.” A little later, the reporter concludes, “With the book market facing unmitigated gloom, Borders has little choice but to experiment.”I’ve talked about chain stores and how they do and don’t satisfy the avid reader: In “What Makes a Bookstore?“, a golden oldie from about four years ago, I granted that “when it comes to hanging out, it’s hard to beat the chains.” But I relish and much prefer the relevance of a good independent bookstore, which should allow one to “walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.”In this framework, putting ever more books face-out and thinning inventory is exactly the opposite of what I want a bookstore to do. The failure of chain bookstores is that they try to make the bookstore experience like any other retail experience, placing the merchandise just so in the hopes that it will entice the shopper. Indeed, according to the WSJ, “The new display strategy is the brainchild of CEO George Jones, who says he learned when he was a buyer at Dillard’s Inc. early in his career that dresses sell better when the entire garment is shown rather than hung sleeve-out.” John Deighton, editor of the Journal of Consumer Research, has a similar point of view. “‘Breakfast cereals are not stocked end-of-box out,’ he says. ‘You want to your product to be as enticing as possible. It’s a little bizarre that it’s taken booksellers this long to realize that the point of self-service is to make the product as tempting as possible.'”And who knows, tests have shown that “sales of individual titles were 9% higher than at similar Borders stores.” Still, further down this path lies the ultimate in bookselling vapidity, the airport bookstore, where all the books are face-out, and the desperate traveler is forced to choose between bad or worse.As I thought about turning books into so many boxes of Froot Loops, the article left me with a final question. Many bookstore regulars may not be aware that bookstores, from chains to indies, accept what’s called “co-op” from publishers. Ostensibly, this is money that is meant to help market certain titles. In practice, co-op money dictates display areas, what ends up on prominent front-of-store tables, and, yes, face out placement on shelves. The article doesn’t mention co-op explicitly, but I wonder if this is another motivation for Borders. If so, putting books face-out may lead to incrementally more sales, but it may also bring in more marketing cash from publishers, and the end result is an ever more pre-packaged, market-tested, one size fits all experience for readers.Edit: Thanks to F.S. for the correct spelling of “Froot.”
In less than a fortnight, Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel Laureate in literature, made headlines in Turkish newspapers not once, but twice. It would have been an ordinary thing a few years ago when Pamuk, commonly perceived as one of Turkey’s major political dissidents, would make news with his comments on the killings of Armenians in 1915 or the Turkish state’s heavy handed treatment of its Kurdish minority. But this time newspapers seem to have discovered a new aspect of Turkey’s most famous writer: his private life.
When Pamuk, who has a daughter from his first marriage that ended a decade ago, started dating Indian novelist Kiran Desai in 2010, photographs of the couple walking on a Goa beach in India were published by a mainstream newspaper edited by one of Pamuk’s old political enemies. Pamuk and Desai were quickly named as a power couple, one journalist calling them Mr. Nobel and Miss Booker. But after two books (Museum of Innocence and The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, both containing Pamuk’s words of gratitude to Desai for helping him with the final English texts) and numerous interviews accompanying the Turkish edition of Desai’s Booker prize-winning Inheritance of Loss (all of them focusing on details of their relationship rather than Desai’s novel), Turkish media seemed to have lost interest.
That was until this December, when a young Turkish artist was photographed alongside Pamuk in New York’s Columbus Circle mall. The following week, newspapers were covered with pictures of her paintings and a full page interview in the daily Sabah, whose American version first published the photographs, had the very Flaubertian headline: “I am Füsun from Museum of Innocence!” This was a reference to Pamuk’s latest novel where the protagonist, engaged to be married, begins an affair with a younger girl, who journalists were now eager to identify as having been inspired by Pamuk’s new girlfriend. Among readers of the interview were Pamuk’s loyal fans who hoped to learn bits of information about his new novel which will reportedly be published in Turkish this year. It tells the story of a street vendor who sells “boza,” a traditional Turkish beverage, and there was speculation as to whether the cover of the book would be produced by Pamuk’s new girlfriend, who has painted portraits of boza sellers in the past.
The latest piece of news, the most surprising to date, was published on the last day of the year. It alleged that Pamuk had an “illegitimate son” from a German professor specializing in Turkish literature. Pamuk is claimed to have never seen his son, who is now five years old. These dramatic claims were made by “an old girlfriend of Pamuk,” whose name was carefully left out of the piece.
Turkish newspapers made life very difficult for Pamuk in 2005 when he was turned into a hate figure by the ultra-nationalist Ergenekon gang which is claimed to include, alongside retired generals, solicitors, and politicians, a number of journalists who orchestrated campaigns against Turkey’s dissident figures, labeling them as traitors and enemies of the country. During 1990s right-wing newspapers were notorious for their portrayal of Kurdish and socialist intellectuals: many artists, like the singer Ahmet Kaya, were forced to leave the country after editors made a habit of picking on them. Last year a Kurdish MP was forced to resign after photographs showing him with a girlfriend were published in the papers.
With their newfound “private” methods, editors seem to have inflicted a deep wound as they turned the famously reserved Orhan Pamuk, whose political views continue to disturb the ultra nationalists, into a playboy figure in just a few weeks. It looks like an attempt by editors to exact revenge by hitting him below the belt. For Pamuk’s loyal readers, all this surely reads like one of Pamuk’s own novels which always feature him as a character, but the serious point to be made here is that Turkish media’s attempts to trivialize dissidents by focusing on their private lives has a touch of the News of the World scandal about it, and this new tactic will probably be a new cause of concern for Turkey’s dissidents this year.
Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass has revealed in an interview with a German newspaper that he was in the Waffen-SS in the twilight of World War II. The SS was the Nazi secret service and played a major role in the Holocaust. He has a new book coming out in Germany in September that is a memoir of his wartime years. From the Reuters story:The author, best known for his first novel The Tin Drum and an active supporter of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), said his wartime secret had been weighing on his mind and was one of the reasons he wrote a book of recollections which details his war service. The book is out in September.”My silence through all these years is one of the reasons why I wrote this book,” the paper quoted Grass as saying in a preview of its Saturday edition. “It had to come out finally.”From later in the article: “‘It was like that for many of my generation,’ he added. ‘We were doing army service and then suddenly, one year later, the draft order was on the table. And then I realized, probably not until I was in Dresden, that it was the Waffen-SS.'”
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.
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.
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.