Merle Miller’s On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual is remarkable in part for where and when it first appeared, in the pages of The New York Times Magazine in January 1971. There have been many additions to the coming-out genre in the years since, in fiction and non-fiction. Everyone knows the conventions. The lonely child is burdened by primal needs. He nurses his secret in a world that despises him and slowly, after years of heartbreak, overcomes fear of societal or familial rejection and admits to the world the man he truly is. His family and his society at that point either accept or reject him. Quite often, they already knew his secret; his behavior had many “tells.” But by relieving himself of his secret he discovers at least a modicum of peace. This is the stuff of People magazine, high-brow literary fiction, long-form journalism, celebrity memoirs, Marvel Comics, alternative comics, young-adult literature, Oprah and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project. Miller’s piece came first and by publishing it The Times made it respectable. A few months later Miller expanded it into a book.
Miller had endured many insults by the time he told his story and a quiet anger permeates his prose as he asserts his dignity and refuses any further humiliation. It’s been 41 years since the piece was first published and the gods of publishing have returned to confer upon it now not respectability but prestige in the form of a Penguin Classics reissue. It’s a handsome edition, but I wish it included the essay that caused Miller to tell his story in the first place. I’ll get back to Miller in a bit, but first a word on Joseph Epstein’s “Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity”.
In 1970 Harper’s, a publication few if any considered an incubator of right-wing cruelty, published Epstein’s study of homosexuality. It’s a long piece, taking up 11 pages in the magazine, but few people today remember more than a couple choice lines. Veterans of the nascent gay-rights movement still quote them through hisses. “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth,” Epstein wrote. “I would do so because I think that it brings infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it, because I think there is no resolution for this pain in our lifetime…” The cruelest cut came at the end of the piece when Epstein, a father of four sons, imagined the greatest horror of all.
[N]othing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual. For then I would know them condemned to a state of permanent niggerdom among men, their lives, whatever adjustment they might make to their condition, to be lived out as part of the pain of the earth.
It’s obvious from reading this line or at least it seemed obvious to some reading this line in 1970 that Epstein preferred his children to become rapists or murderers. He was expressing an illiberal rage incongruous with his Jewish name. A sit-in at the Harper’s offices followed.
But the protesters weren’t entirely accurate in their characterization of Epstein’s essay. It’s always easier if bigots wear swastikas and white robes, and by that metric Epstein disappoints. I for one wish every genocidal hate monger posed as many questions to himself as Epstein did in his essay. Unfortunately, he was a good man. And the essay was a portrait of an intelligent human being whose prejudices made him less intelligent.
Epstein read all the popular materials on homosexuality then available to members of his intellectual class. He quoted Gide, Freud, Dr. David Reuben, M.D. — the anti-gay author of Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex…But Were Afraid to Ask — as well as some early studies of homosexuality in the animal kingdom. On the nature vs. nurture debate he was an agnostic. “[O]ne can’t say with the same old confidence that homosexuality is unnatural, however deeply one might feel that it is.” He had enough sense to feel uncomfortable about comedians who would never think of telling black or Jew jokes, but who had no problem making fun of the faggots, well-aware of the “assured approval from their audiences.” He also condemned anti-sodomy laws.
But the piece took strange directions. Epstein pointed to several homosexuals he had met throughout his life, the pederast in Chicago, the lecherous mayor of a small Southern town, and a Lebanese army buddy who moonlighted as a drag queen. They were all miserable, or if not miserable, at least troubled and strange. He admired those who repressed their homosexual desires. “Men who are defiant about their homosexuality, or claim to have found happiness in it, will, I expect, require neither my admiration nor sympathy.” The essay’s meandering logic and its eerie condescension outlined the kind of conversation a husband and wife might have had at their Upper West Side apartment in 1970, after taking in the latest Edward Albee or Stephen Sondheim production. “My god the way those homosexuals understand some of our weird lives!” “It’s because they’re homosexuals. Everything we do looks weird to them.The talented freaks.”
Merle Miller was one of the many gay men who read Epstein’s casual bigotry as a declaration of war. Miller was a novelist and journalist whose work was fun, light and funny, if a little square. His life was interesting. He had done work for the ACLU in the ’50s during the McCarthy years. Later he tried to develop an aborted TV series that was to feature Jackie Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, and spent hundreds of hours interviewing Harry Truman for another aborted TV series. In between, he had written a few bestsellers. He had many friends in Manhattan and after reading Epstein’s piece, he complained about it to one of them, the editor of Harper’s. A few days later he had lunch with Victor Navasky, who was then a staff member at The Times Magazine. This is the account of that lunch from the book version of his memoir:
[Navasky] said he thought it was brilliant. He said, “At a time when everybody is saying we have to understand and accept homosexuals, Epstein is saying…”
I said, “Epstein is saying genocide for queers.” And then for the first time, in broad daylight, before what I guess you would call a mixed audience, in a French restaurant on West 46th Street, I found myself saying, “Look, goddamn it, I’m homosexual, and most of my best friends are Jewish homosexuals, and some of my best friends are black homosexuals, and I am sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit about me and my friends.”
There it was, out at last, and if it seems like nothing very much, I can only say that it took a long time to say it, to be able to say it, and none of the journey was easy.
Epstein was not calling for a roundup to the camps. He simply wished, in his good honest heart, with his pompous style, that they be freed from the affliction of homosexuality. But it may have been a good thing that Miller misread Epstein, for it filled him with righteous fury and provoked him to come out for the first time to his straight friends, there in that restaurant, at the age of 51.
Miller would claim that he reluctantly agreed a few days later to Navasky’s request to write about what they had discussed over lunch. Who knows how reluctant he really was. There’s nothing that agitates a writer more than to listen to someone speak poorly on a subject the writer himself knows well. Miller had spent years listening to people with no knowledge speak about a particular at the very core of his being. At some point he had to answer back.
In 1971, a good few thousand years into human history, a literate man would have had access to several books about homosexuality. Gore Vidal had published in 1948 The City and the Pillar, a novel about a man doomed by a youthful love. In the mid-50s James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room about white gay people, and then in 1962, Another Country, an interracial melodrama. More patient readers had the novels of Jean Genet, that aged outlaw who was then hanging out with the Black Panthers. On the stage, the love that dare not speak its name howled it in Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, which had by that time been adapted to the screen by William Friedkin. This is to say nothing of the older books everyone knew about, Gide’s Corydon, Wilde’s De Profundis, Melville’s Billy Budd, Proust and Shakespeare. Every freshman at Columbia University spent their first week of school reading The Iliad, which featured the love story of Achilles and Patroclus. Camp had seeped into the wider culture, but these books treated the subject of homosexuality as text not subtext. If you chose to condescend to gay people, you did so in the shadow of a canon.
The ’50s and ’60s can look at one angle like a sexual dark age in which certain highly-sexed monks guarded the great secret of a more liberal civilization in libraries for a future time that would be better able to handle these fantastic truths. But these books were widely read and all easily misunderstood. Shakespeare, Melville, and the Greeks were all located far enough in the past for their homosexuality to be considered part of a distant culture’s strange customs. Vidal and Baldwin were iconoclasts. And their genius, whether in the form of Vidal’s exoticized Waspiness or Baldwin’s blues-intoned blackness, was filtered through an outsider’s bent. Their novels were not about happiness. They were paeans to self-loathing. Vidal’s tragic narrator: “[I]t would be a difficult matter to live in a world of men and women without participating in their ancient and necessary duet.” Baldwin’s hero in Giovanni’s Room is suspicious of the effeminate men who surround him. “I always found it difficult to believe that they ever went to bed with anybody for a man who wanted a woman would certainly have rather had a real one and a man who wanted a man would certainly not want one of them.” The enraged queens in Crowley’s play speak even crueler aphorisms.
And this is where Miller, with all his unbearable whiteness, found a place. He was a middle-aged Midwesterner who wrote with irony when he had to but was just as capable of writing without it. “I dislike being despised, unless I have done something despicable, realizing that the simple fact of being homosexual is all by itself despicable to many people, maybe, as Mr. Epstein says, to everybody who is straight.” Vidal would never demean himself on or off the page by saying he wanted to be liked. Baldwin always demanded to be loved or at least, with a Whitmanesque lilt, to live inside you and for you to live inside him. Miller was comfortable with camp language and employed it in his 1972 novel What Happened, but here Miller described the basic need most humans, straight and gay, actually have, in a plain prose unencumbered by genius, the kind of voice you could hear over lunch at a restaurant on West 46th Street.
The story Miller tells in On Being Different is self-consciously un-extraordinary. There is no Achilles and Patroclus. There is no melodrama and for that reason gay men easily found and still find in his story parallels with their own lives. Miller draws a portrait of himself as the one man on earth least capable of living the life of an outlaw. He was an effeminate boy, a budding pianist, growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa in the 1920s and ’30s. From the age of four to the age of 17 someone called him a sissy everyday to his face, five days a week. “It’s not true, that saying about sticks and stones; it’s words that break your bones,” he writes. He had three close friends, all misfits in this small homogenous culture, a Jewish boy, a polio victim, and a middle-aged woman with a clubfoot. He headed to the local train depot for his earliest sexual encounters, picking up boys from freight trains lost in Depression-era America. “They were all lonely and afraid. None of them ever made fun of me. I was never beaten up. They recognized, I guess, that we were fellow aliens with no place to register.” Just as young gay men in later years would read his essay for comfort, Miller would turn to the library for solace, finding a mirror in an effeminate schoolteacher at the center of one of the stories in Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Reading the story didn’t do him much good. Literature didn’t liberate or ennoble him. Later, as the editor of the University of Iowa’s student newspaper The Daily Iowan he found himself turning his years of pain outward, humiliating the theater queers at his school. It’s an old story and all too human.
He didn’t go in for fag-bashing as an adult, but he spent his career ignoring the plight of people very much like himself. At the ACLU he would do nothing in response to the gay-baiting that characterized the McCarthy years. “The only group of outcasts I never spoke up for publicly, never donated money to or signed an ad or petition for were the homosexuals. I always used my radio announcer’s voice when I said ‘No.’” Activists can be annoying and obnoxious and the old writings from the Mattachine Society can sound shrill, naïve, and filled with a cloying self-regard. Those are also the people most willing to fight the necessary wars.
If Miller’s book is an argument for dignity and acceptance, it is also an argument against politeness. It is an argument against letting stray homophobic remarks from your liberal friends just go in the interest of keeping the evening pleasant. It is an argument against letting someone change the topic of conversation when they tell you they feel uncomfortable about gay marriage. It’s an argument for demanding the part of the territory to which you are entitled. And that last part is an odd thing for a man with Miller’s background to be arguing. “I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe,” James Baldwin would say in his later years. “The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society.” There’s a wounded rage in Miller’s piece, a fury at having to negotiate this territory in the first place.
The gay rights movement, despite what its depiction in The Advocate or the TV series Queer as Folk would suggest, was never a white movement. The greatest heroes of Stonewall were black and Latino drag queens. And then there’s Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s gay mentor. But part of the power of Miller’s piece came from the fact of entrenched prejudices beyond homophobia. The portrait Miller draws of himself is of a white man unable to find a proper place in a white world. As an Iowa boy in Manhattan, he could be something that Baldwin and Vidal and even the later Jewish gay activists Larry Kramer and Harvey Milk could not be. If not for that one thing Miller could have fit into society and perhaps enjoyed a less traumatic childhood. If not for that one thing he would have enjoyed the comfortable place of his straight high school classmates. His cultural background allowed him to obtain a pose that an ethnic marker would have made inauthentic. His Midwestern whiteness could make him always tantalizingly almost normal.
There’s something else the book is arguing for. The gay man is miserable, in part, because of homophobia. The homophobe uses his misery not as proof of the evil of homophobia but as proof of the evil of homosexuality. How does one fight this line of attack? Miller was married to a woman for 10 years and they remained friends after their divorce. And though he doesn’t detail his adult male-male relationships, he does tell the story of a couple who had been together for 25 years who find a place for themselves in a dark time. “They still hold hands, though not in public, and they are kind to each other, which is rare enough anywhere these days.” This is something you do not read in Vidal or Baldwin or the rest of the canon Epstein had read. Miller’s book is a genuine argument for the possibility of such happy lives.
This is the part of the essay in which I am supposed to note the amazing march of history, the ways in which the world we now inhabit differs from the world in which Merle Miller first wrote his piece. We just re-elected a president who supported same-sex marriage, a position which seemed to help his campaign. A Midwesterner, a woman from Wisconsin, will become the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. Three states, including the state in which I grew up and the state where I now live, passed referendums legalizing same-sex marriage. When the first returns came in on the marriage question here in Seattle on election night I was at a party hosted by The Stranger downtown. Dan Savage and his husband Terry were dancing on stage.
Gay men have an acute sense of history. Charles Kaiser, who wrote the afterword to this edition of On Being Different, was born about 30 years after Miller and remained in the closet throughout the ’70s while working as a reporter for The New York Times. Savage, who wrote the foreword, was born about 45 years after Miller and came out as a teenager. Today, there is this new breed of young men and women who never knew the closet and never second-guessed their bodies’ desires. I was born in 1980 and, given the changes I have seen in my own lifetime, I believe that if I had been born a short five years later I would have known a less difficult adolescence and become a less anxious man.
It does get better, as Dan Savage says, if not perfect. There are still the stories of gay kids killing themselves. I am surprised when I meet gay men my age who are not out to any of their straight friends. I am even more surprised by the gay people my age who are not even out to themselves. It’s even more surprising than that when I find that these souls enjoyed childhoods as I enjoyed mine in liberal communities, like the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Such stories upset the historical narrative we are telling ourselves. The march of progress is never neat. For the moment at least the closet is still a part of American life and for that reason alone On Being Different is still an important book.
But I foresee a time not all that far in the future in which the closet will no longer exist as we know it. Sure, people will still feel embarrassed about some of their sexual desires. Society will still hold onto certain gender roles, but the acceptance of gay people may allow society to tweak their stereotypes. What will no longer exist in the world I envision is the man who spends years lying to people about who he is, who marries a woman, and allows himself to grow cold, gray and isolated as the years pass. What will no longer exist is that weird English graduate student who doesn’t understand why everyone thinks Henry James or Walt Whitman is gay. Comic foils like David Cross’s Tobias in Arrested Development will have no corollaries in reality. Gay kids will go on their first dates when they’re 12 or 13 and they will go out with kids of the same gender and everyone will be happier for that fact.
I don’t know what place On Being Different, this classic of the coming-out genre, will have in a world in which people no longer need to come out. Miller’s internal struggles may look as bizarre to future generations as the intrigues and marriage plots of 19th-century novels look to us today. Merle Miller’s book could just as easily survive. We humans have a long history of making people we don’t like feel that they are not fully human. Even if homophobia were to die, human nature would remain. In another 100 years On Being Different may simply serve as the record of one man’s attempt in middle age to declare that his particulars made him no better or worse than you.
A literary controversy (or what passes for controversy in our fairly tame circle) erupted last month when the Pulitzer Prize Board elected not to award a Pulitzer Prize for a work of fiction. It was the first time they had done so since 1977. The reason why this can happen has to do with the way the Pulitzer Prize Board’s selection process works: three initial readers — this year they were novelist Michael Cunningham and critics Susan Larson and Maureen Corrigan — pore over several hundred books published in the previous year and settle on three finalists. Then they turn this list over to the twenty members of the Board, eighteen of whom have voting power (who knows why the board includes two members who can’t vote) to pick one. A majority vote among the Board is required to select a winner. This year, a majority could not come to agree on one book.
The three books nominated were: Swamplandia!, the second book by my friend Karen Russell, a garrulous oddball romp that forays into satire and surrealism; Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a decorated luminary on his way to becoming an old guard figure as our village elders like Vonnegut and Updike are vacating their positions; and The Pale King, the unfinished last novel of David Foster Wallace, the most energizing, polarizing, and influential literary voice of our generation, his reputation as a genius now safely beatified by his suicide.
Apparently not one of these three books was liked enough unanimously by ten people on the Board, and so none was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in America this year. “There’s always going to be dissatisfaction, frustration,” said Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, regarding the indecision. “But [this year] the board deliberated in good faith to reach a decision — just no book got the majority vote.”
When the unusual and disappointing decision was announced, the reaction among the literati—writers, I suppose, and critics, and a vast rearguard of booksellers, bloggers, and book geeks on Twitter who have greatly expanded and diversified the circle of conversation in recent years — was like the moment in the courtroom drama when the unassuming girl on the witness stand calmly says something that suddenly changes everything, and the room bursts all at once into a frenzy of barely contained whispers. What’s more, the Pulitzer Prize Board was pissing on a parade that already felt drenched. Just a few days before, the hobbits of the publishing industry had been dismayed when the Justice Department sued three major publishers over e-book pricing, siding with Amazon like Saruman sided with Sauron, whose ominous red eye sweeps across the land from his Dark Tower in that northwestern Mordor, Seattle.
Ann Patchett, a novelist who last year published a book eligible for the prize (State of Wonder, a novel as magnificent as her other masterpiece, Bel Canto), and now also a bookseller, as she recently opened an independent bookstore in Nashville (so she’s got two horses in this race) maligned the Pulitzer Board’s non-decision in a widely read op-ed piece in The New York Times. “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,” she writes. She argues that the bestowal of a Pulitzer Prize has the power to get people excited about a book in particular and books in general, and under the shadow of our current zeitgeist, it’s a bad time to put down literature. “What I am sure of,” she writes, “is this: Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction.”
Patchett’s piece is heartfelt and impassioned, and in some respects I agree with her — but what this controversy mostly did was remind me of how fundamentally I dislike the whole idea of literary prizes at all. I believe with all my soul that the concept of a board of twenty journalists — or people of any profession for that matter, it doesn’t really make a difference who they are — awarding a prize to a work of art, putting an official stamp of approval on one book and thus by implication saying the other books published that year aren’t as good, should strike us as misguided, shortsighted, and dumb.
I’m not saying this in a sour-grapes way, as a novelist who also wrote an eligible book that was published last year. If I were awarded the Pulitzer, it’s not like I’d fling it in their faces. Obviously I would kiss their feet with gratitude. I have benefited greatly from a literary prize, the Bard Fiction Prize, for which I am hugely grateful, and was nominated for a couple of others, the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and the Young Lions Fiction Prize here (which Karen Russell did win, by the way). These prizes can help writers out tremendously, especially early in their careers, giving them prestige, publicity, and money, and for that, they’re a good thing. But this isn’t about me — I’m making this argument not as a writer, but from a more abstract standpoint, from a big-picture view.
There was a shrewdly observant piece in n+1 that was rerun in Slate last year by Chad Harbach (whose roaringly hyped novel, The Art of Fielding, also came out last year) titled “MFA vs. NYC,” and given the headline, which pretty much spells it out, “America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” I found the piece spot-on about its observation that our literary culture is sharply bifurcated into two contingents, one concentrated in the publishing mecca of New York City, and the other scattered far and wide across the land at various colleges and universities. Harbach is sharply critical of MFA programs, essentially making all the usual arguments against them and coming down on the side of NYC. After I got an MFA at the ur-program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I moved to New York City, because I figured that’s where writers go, and I’ve lived there for the last few years. So I feel I’m in a commodious place from which to observe these two literary cultures, and I must say, though both the insular little MFA world and the New York City world of literary culture come with their own and different forms of attendant bullshit, there is far, far — and I mean far — more bullshit in NYC.
The difference between the two cultures becomes most profoundly evident contrasting the books that get talked about at the bar over after-class or after-work drinks, respectively. There are many books I came to fall in love with that altered the course of my writing and changed what I thought could be done with literature that were recommendations from some of my friends in the MFA program. We would excitedly talk about what we had been reading lately, or great books we had read before — it was a conversation that was happening constantly and everywhere. A quick list of things I discovered in grad school from my friends’ recommendations that hugely affected me would include the philosophy of Antonin Artaud, the poetry of Paul Celan, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, the stories of Mavis Gallant, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. And I dashed out that list in part to illustrate that we were not exactly shrieking and hyperventilating about the brand-new hot young rising stars of American fiction. (Well, some of us were, but I wasn’t one of them. And indeed in retrospect I notice how most of what I just listed were the recommendations of my poet friends, by necessity bound for academia, if they were lucky, and not for the networky New York literary scene.) Of course, we wanted lustily to be those hot young rising stars of American fiction soon. But when we talked about books, we would pull out the interesting and unusual jewels of our collections the way a music geek will pull out a rare LP in a plastic sleeve. We didn’t really give a shit about what book won what prize and did such-and-such really “deserve” to win the Pulitzer? Those are the kinds of gossipy, facile book conversations you have in New York, where everything is in some way tainted with commerce. Ours were the conversations of collectors, enthusiasts, purists, of people genuinely interested in the art itself, and I miss them.
All that is by way of suggesting that literary prizes are mainly manifestations and obsessions of that buzzy New York literati hive, which can become less of a hive and more of an echo-chamber. It’s an observable phenomenon: a book comes out, which for whatever reason gathers a tsunami of critical praise that perpetuates itself — for by the time the great wave makes landfall, some critics may either be hesitant to disagree with their peers, timorously fearing that they’re missing something everyone else can see (Naked Emperor syndrome), or what’s more probable, their perception has been primped by the power of suggestion, in the same way we are more likely to declare a fine wine magnifique if we know before tasting it that the bottle cost a hundred dollars than if it cost ten. This is why sometimes quite mediocre books wind up vaunted with widespread and lavish praise, and are sometimes even buoyed all the way up to the Pulitzer. But mediocre books getting overpraised does not bother me seriously, as I would rather let ten guilty men go free than hang one innocent — it irritates me far more when truly great books are ignored, which happens all the time.
A book has a vertical life and a horizontal one. The vertical life is what happens to it up to, during, and very soon after its publication; the horizontal life is what happens as the years and decades and even centuries slide by. As the Pulitzer is awarded to a work of fiction published in the previous year, all it can take stock of is a book’s vertical life, which sometimes can be deceiving. I’m sure this helps explain some of the more embarrassing retrospective head-slaps in the Pulitzer’s history, such as when, in 1930, it awarded the prize to Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy — a second-rate and now utterly forgotten book by an utterly forgotten writer — for the year in which both Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury were published. It’s perfectly natural they would make that mistake; back then, Faulkner and Hemingway were not yet Faulkner and Hemingway, they were just a couple of young writers who happened to be named Faulkner and Hemingway. The Pulitzer Board would try to atone for their sin years later by awarding them both (Faulkner twice) prizes for far lesser works after their reputations were already secure. The hype of the moment does not necessarily translate into lasting luminance. Just scroll down the list of all the past winners of the prize, and count how many you’ve ever heard of. Start at the bottom and move upward chronologically, and you’ll find the occurrence of familiar names increases as we move closer to the present. This is not because the Pulitzer Board has gradually been growing wiser — it’s because we’re living now, not a hundred years in the future. Then we’ll see. We can’t help it — we’re blinded by our own times; all prizes are like that, and that is why, as a measure of what is good and what is not in art, they are not exactly the trustworthiest oracles.
Also, a twenty-member prize board may be seducible by groupthink. I trust groupthink more when we’re talking about the long and justice-bending arc of history, not twenty journalists (eighteen of whom have voting power) talking about fiction, which is not even their forte. Come to think of it, why have we been letting a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature tell us what the best book of fiction was last year, year after year? Why didn’t they just let Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson pick it? I would be more interested to hear their opinions on the matter, anyway. (The 2012 board did include one — exactly one — fiction writer, past winner Junot Díaz. The only other person on the board I’d heard of was New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who I’m sure is a wonderful man but the dude writes like a clown honks a bicycle horn.)
Let me tell you a story about the problem with a group of people of about that number locked in a room trying to come to a decision about a work of art, fiction specifically. The stakes here are much smaller, but the phenomenon I believe is similar. For a short time I was a submissions reader for a fairly well-known, medium-cachet literary review. There were usually about ten to fifteen of us around the editorial meeting table. Each of us would read through the slush pile and select a few stories we liked, and then the boss would Xerox the top stories for everyone, we’d all go home and read them, pick out our favorites among those, and at the next meeting discuss which stories to put in the issue. After all our arguing and deliberation, usually the pieces that wound up being selected for publication were not the most interesting, or what I thought were the best of what we had to choose from. They were the pretty good pieces that we could all compromise on. Because a truly great and interesting work of art will have both its loving defenders and its outraged detractors, such a work is intrinsically less likely to be selected for honor by a large committee. That is the nature of good art: it provokes. I agree with Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time, but not when it comes to lionizing certain novels over others. That I prefer to do on my own, thank you very much.
Historically, this obsession with prizes — and its grandchild, the micro-hysteria over those “best-of” lists that seasonally return to stipple the hills like dandelions — seems to be an impulse particularly characteristic of the twentieth century and beyond: the first Nobel Prize in Literature went in 1901 to the great Sully Prudhomme (what, you’ve never heard of him?), the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1918 to Ernest Poole for His Family, the first National Book Award in 1950 to Nelson Algren for The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975 to E.L. Doctorow for Ragtime, and the first PEN/Faulkner in 1981 to Walter Abish for his How German Is It. I’d say the only one of those that’s still well remembered today is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (although I happen to have read Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm — it’s pretty good).
However, there’s also an argument that this misguided impulse is not necessarily so much a modern one as an inherently human one (and we have plenty of those), when one considers that in ancient Greek festivals, prizes were given out, as they were for the more objectively measurable outcomes of athletic contests, to the best plays. But this phenomenon was in evidence even back then — that of the critics of the time failing to recognize what history would discover greatness in: angered and confused by the way he broke the conventions of Greek drama, the judges snubbed Euripides.
The next-to-next-to-last time the Pulitzer Board chose not to award a prize at all was in 1974, when all three of the readers recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and every member of the Board categorically denied it. Considering what a rambunctious, rebellious book it is, and considering the long life it has since enjoyed as both a cult classic and a classic, a necessary item on the bookshelf of every druggy collegiate pseudo-intellectual on his way or not to becoming an intellectual, fiercely hated by many and by many fiercely loved (and both parties have their points), it is so fitting that that, of all books, would be bestowed this negative honor; if anything, it’s an enduring badge of coffee-shop cool, and it well deserves it Of course Gravity’s Rainbow can’t win a Pulitzer. It would be like a punk band winning a Grammy.
Here’s a question. Imagine Satan were to appear in a sulfurous cloud as the host of some Faustian game show, on which the contestants, who are artists at inchoate and uncertain stages of their careers, are forced to confront interesting spiritual dilemmas. Old Scratch says to the Young Writer, I offer you a choice between two fates. In the first, he says — and this seductive vision appears in an orb of smoky light hovering above his outstretched claw — your books are met with blazing success. Every critic fawningly gushes over your work. You’re heralded as a genius. You’re interviewed on TV and on widely-syndicated NPR programs, your phone won’t stop ringing with interview requests. Packed houses at every reading you give. The New York Times Best-Seller List. The money rolls in, you easily clear your outrageous advances. You win the National Book Award, you win the National Book Critics Circle Award, you win the PEN/Faulkner, you win the Orange Prize if you’re a woman, you win the Pulitzer. The movies based on your books hit the screens with famous actors and actresses playing your characters, and everyone says the books were so much better. This is your life. But! — and the vision vanishes — know this: after you die, after your life of literary celebrity, interest in your work will fade. None of the shadows you made will stick to the cave walls because, in the end, none of the cave-dwellers was moved to chalk its outline when it was there. Over time, the world will forget you. Or, behind door number two… The world, if it ever knew you, will forget you in your own lifetime, and you will die in obscurity, uncelebrated, unfulfilled, destitute, and bitter. But! —in the years following your death, your work will be rediscovered, and one of your books in particular will even become a classic that lives on for many generations and forever changes the landscape of our collective imagination. In other words, you’ll be Herman Melville.
Now, both of these are rare and lucky fates. If the variables were at all uncertain — if in the first case there was a chance your work would be remembered, and in the second there was a chance you’d remain forgotten — it would be a much harder decision. But I’d like to think that any artist who is truly interested in art would choose the second option in a heartbeat. I know I would, and I’m not too humble to say so. It’s the first option, not the second, that’s the Faustian bargain: heaven on earth, hell for dessert.
The reason a real artist would choose the second option over the first has nothing to do with any inner nobility — far from it; in fact each fantasy springs from the same megalomaniacal, insatiable hunger. (It’s no coincidence that Hitler was a failed painter and Franco a failed poet. The heart of an artist beats wild and greedy in the chest of every despot. It’s the very same source of energy that produces both.) It is because, while worldly recognition may be an object of lust, immortality is an object of love. As I once read in Plato’s Symposium, and was so amazed by their truth that I’ve never forgotten these sentences, “the soul has its offspring as well as the body. Laws, inventions and noble deeds, which spring from love of fame, have for their motive the same passion for immortality. The lover seeks a beautiful soul in order to generate therein offspring which shall live for ever.”
This is why, for any artist, dying in obscurity is among the worst nightmares. If I had a time machine, I would visit Herman Melville at his deathbed and tell him the good news from the future, so he might go into that good night with some sense of satisfaction. But on second thought, why wait until the very end? I’d go further back and tell him sooner, give him something to help him through those nineteen years he spent growing old as a customs inspector, his public literary career long dead in the water after the critics of his day shouted him out of town as a crackpot, though he was still returning home every night to quietly scribble out poetry and a novella that would be published many years posthumously as Billy Budd. On third thought, seeing as he was in fact working on Billy Budd, and wasn’t so frustrated he’d completely given up writing, maybe somebody already told him. On fourth thought, maybe he didn’t need anyone to tell him, because he knew he was a genius and held out hope the world might one day see it.
All in all, I would urge readers to not pay too much attention to big prestigious literary prizes. In a perfect world, I would wish for every writer a magical bag of money that is never empty (to level the financial question) and simply do away with them all: no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award, no PEN/Faulkner, no Man Booker, no Nobel Prize in Literature. Let writers write, let critics have their say, let readers read, let time decide.
It doesn’t really matter, though. Even without the magic moneybags, and even with the swells of cacophonic hype surrounding all the literary prizes and all the literary darlings of any given moment, history will plod on, and the Ozymandias of now will be the half-sunk and shattered visage of later. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who never won a Pulitzer, will remain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington will remain Booth Tarkington. And anyway, I am absolutely certain there have been many writers the equal of Fitzgerald who, through their own bad luck or other people’s bad taste, were never published and never read, let alone given prizes, and it’s especially to these unknown soldiers of literature that I raise my glass. John Kennedy Toole killed himself believing he was doomed to be one of them, and he most certainly would have been, had his mother not accosted Walker Percy years later with his manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win a twelve-years-posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It was a nice gesture.
George Orwell never thought that his work would outlive him by much. After all, he considered himself “a sort of pamphleteer” rather than a genuine novelist, and confidently predicted that readers would lose interest in his books “after a year or two.” Yet sixty years later, Orwell endures, and I am not sure that this is a good thing.
I say this as someone who not only reads Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four once a year, but who also owns collections of essays, biographies, and even a copy of Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, which according to one reviewer “at times mak[es] the reader feel he is sitting in a dentist’s chair.”
But for people like me who are under 30, there will always be something remote and incomprehensible about Orwell. I was in preschool when the Berlin Wall fell, and I know perestroika and détente as answers to exam questions rather than lived experiences. I grew up fearing nuclear power plants more than ICBMs, and found LBJ’s infamous “Daisy Girl” ad far less terrifying than some of the spots from the 2008 presidential election. I think of politics in terms of individual issues and partisan planks rather than grand, historicizing political ideologies. In short, because my worldview is so different from that of Orwell and his Cold War-era readers, I have to “think” my way into their political struggles in a way that someone even twenty years ago probably did not.
In ninth grade, I was required to read Animal Farm. My class read the book over a period of three weeks, which was not that hard of a task, since it is all of 30,000 words. Our teacher gave us the barest outline of historical context, enough at least to know that Napoleon represented Stalin, Snowball represented Trotsky, and that was about it (a whole unit on allegory would have to wait until sophomore year, and Billy Budd). But because the book is a “fairy story,” I learned its themes easily: power corrupts, principles are elastic, revolutions will be betrayed, and evil’s greatest allies are the unthinking masses.
Two years later, I found myself following Winston Smith into the cabbage-smelling hallways of Victory Mansions on a bright cold day in April. This was the year of “relatable” protagonists, so after Ralph from Lord of the Flies and Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, I was primed to look for affirmations of my own worldview. And Nineteen Eighty-Four was both cynical, anti-authoritarian, and a paean to hopeless dissent in the face of inexorable conformity (its working title, after all, was “The Last Man in Europe”). To my teenage mind, Winston was both pathetic and sympathetic – a role model – even if Big Brother got him in the end. Surely, I thought, these were the only lessons that were worth keeping from the book, since nothing else was obvious.
If there is such a thing as a “right way” and a “wrong way” to read books, then my high school approach to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been the latter. But that was because I did not know exactly how these books were shaped by their times, and how contemporary audiences would have reacted to them. We never heard about Orwell’s influences, such as Arthur Koestler, Yevgeny Zamyatin, or James Burnham, because they are not part of the literary canon. We never learned about the show trials in Moscow or the Spanish Civil War, either, because that was meant for history class, not English. And any textual analysis that smacked too much of politics was strictly out of bounds: I did not, for instance, understand that the concept of “Ingsoc” was supposed to be a satire of Nazism, whereby fascism advanced under a socialist veneer, until much later. In short, I could not have known what Orwell intended his works to be, and so I understood them in the only way I knew how, as advice manuals for the American adolescent.
I’m not the only one who never quite “got” Orwell the first time around. Because few people who read Orwell’s novels in classrooms also learn about their context, most people misunderstand them, or at least half-remember them, in the same way. Sometimes, his name gets applied to topics that he never really thought about, such as the “Orwellian” investment philosophy of Goldman Sachs (at best, Orwell railed against the “sheer vulgar fatness of wealth” and the “worship of money” in general) and the “downright Orwellian” American Community Survey form for the 2010 Census (Orwell has nothing specific to say about government paperwork). Other times, this means that Orwell’s political enemies try to claim him for their own side. This is nothing new: in the 1950s and 60s, for example, Soviet publications like Kommunist and Izvestia argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually a critique of American excesses and amorality, and in 1984, Norman Podhoretz famously tried to make Orwell into a pro-nuclear neoconservative hawk.
But even though Hitler and Stalin belong to the dustbin of history, people still manage to find shades of totalitarianism and organized lying – Orwell’s favorite targets – in more places than ever. During the summer of 2009, for instance, opponents of health care reform wielded Orwell’s name indiscriminately. Steven Yates, a philosophy Ph.D. and member of the John Birch Society, told us that “‘Obama-care’ would make George Orwell spin in his grave.” Bill Fleckenstein, an MSN Moneywatch columnist and hedge fund manager, also decried such an obviously “socialist” project: “For those who aren’t clear on why socialism doesn’t work, I recommend reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm.”3 And Tea Party protesters have carried signs reading STOP. YOU’RE STARTING TO SCARE GEORGE ORWELL, ORWELL WARNED US, or ORWELL WAS A VISIONARY. Never mind that, in “How the Poor Die,” Orwell criticized how the indigent had inadequate access to health care; never mind that, in The Road to Wigan Pier, he blamed inadequate government intervention for poor nutrition and squalid living conditions in northern mining towns. Never mind that, for most of his life, Orwell advocated nothing short of a socialist revolution in England! As far as these people were concerned, Orwell’s works amount to nothing more than an anti-government, anti-change screed.
Overuse on the one hand, distortion on the other: what perversely fitting tributes to a writer who underscored the dangers of reductionism, revisionism, and willful ignorance. Clearly, George Orwell is a victim of his own success, and in a peculiar way – there are no public fights over the legacy of Hemingway or Joyce or even over other midcentury political writers like Hannah Arendt that rival the ones for Orwell’s posthumous stamp of approval.
So Orwell was right to consider himself more pamphleteer than novelist. Many critics have dismissed this as a kind of false modesty, but in this case, Orwell was not merely managing expectations. Pamphlets are designed to make a specific point to a specific audience, and then to be thrown away because they can no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended. Orwell’s works are ephemeral too, in the sense that they cannot really be understood without some semblance of historical and intellectual context. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of reading, and a lot of extracurricular effort to do so, however. Obviously, many readers simply find it easier to shout down any opposite political position with Orwell’s own words – Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others – than to really understand what these words, in context, were supposed to represent.
And Orwell was wrong to believe that good writing alone could promote honesty. He wrote that euphemistic, dishonest, and generally bad prose “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” whereas “good prose is like a windowpane,” through which the author’s purpose can be seen clearly. All true. But good writing can still be perverted, as many of his readers have shown and continue to show. As Louis Menand observed in The New Yorker, “Orwell’s prose was so effective that it seduced many readers into imagining, mistakenly, that he was saying what they wanted him to say, and what they themselves thought.” His style, in other words, has overwhelmed his substance, and if he had not been such a good, clear, memorable writer, he would not be plagued by grave-robbers.
Clearly, literary immortality has its downsides. And as the last sixty years have shown, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are not like other canonical works of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, whose messages are straightforward in comparison. Instead, they are as much pamphlet as novel, which means that it is impossible to understand his political purpose without knowing the intellectual and ideological environment in which he wrote. Until Orwell’s readers bother to do so – which, as a rule, they don’t – then we can look forward to another sixty years of use and abuse.