The Disappointment Artist: Essays

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Building My Own Strange Machines: A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem and Christopher Boucher

Time flies. Six years ago Jonathan Lethem published The Ecstasy of Influence, a sprawling collection of essays, sketches, interviews, and fiction, knitted together with candid autobiographical notes. Since then, he’s brought out his ninth and 10th novels — Dissident Gardens and A Gambler’s Anatomy — as well as a story collection, Lucky Alan and Other Stories, and apen monograph on the album Fear of Music. A new year, another book. More Alive and Less Lonely collects literary essays, introductions and book reviews from the last 20-plus years. The book was edited — or curated, rather — for Melville House by Christopher Boucher, whose two novels (How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; Golden Delicious), as I recently read them, significantly altered my perception of language in fiction, reminding me of when I first encountered Lionel Essrog, the compulsively lyrical narrator of Lethem’s now classic New York crime novel, Motherless Brooklyn.

In the spirit of generosity and of abundance, both author and editor agreed to participate in a roundtable conducted recently over several days of emails. Unlike in the humorous essay “The Counter-Roth” included in the new book, which details Lethem’s attempts to entertain Philip Roth at literary functions, I made it clear up front I had abandoned any hope of making either of these writers laugh.

The Millions: This collection caught me completely by surprise, even though I’m an avid reader of Jonathan’s work and previously hunted down several of these pieces online. The editor’s introduction states that a framework and coherence were evident early on among the 60 or so short essays in this book. Were there other breakthroughs later in the process?

Christopher Boucher: It’s fun to think back to the very beginnings of the process, when Jonathan started sending me contenders for the collection. I’d loved The Ecstasy of Influence, and so these uncollected essays seemed like a gift — my own “lonely book” (see “The Loneliest Book I’ve Read”), if you will.

As I remember it, we came to the idea of a “book on books” early on — during our first meeting at Melville House. I was thrilled with this direction, because that was the book I wanted to read. As a diehard fan of Jonathan’s fiction, I gravitated towards his essays on books and literature — I found them addictive, sneakily-instructive, and full of the same joyful inquiry and insight that’s so prevalent in Ecstasy. What’s more, these essays made me want to read — to drop everything and read for days. I liked the idea of trying to create the same experience for the reader — to curate a book that served as a readerly “wake-up call.”

That said, though, we left a lot of wonderful material out. Along the way, too, I found myself lobbying for a rather broad definition of “books and writers” so that we could include as many essays as possible. I remember really wanting to include Jonathan’s fictional exchange between his character Perkus Tooth and director Spike Jonze (“The Original Piece of Wood I Left in Your Head”), for example. While it’s unlike anything else in the book, it’s just so poignant and funny.

Jonathan Lethem: For me, the image of this book emerged in the negative space described by my two earlier essay collections — The Disappointment Artist, and The Ecstasy of Influence. The first one, Disappointment Artist, is really a memoir of my teenage life and self-invention as a writer, disguised as a cycle of cultural essays. It’s about losing my mother and understanding my relationship to my father and concealing my vulnerabilities behind movies and pop music and books. The form is exclusive and everything I wrote in that mode is included in that short book (arguably, the Cassavetes piece doesn’t really belong). Ecstasy of Influence is a baggy monster, full of writing in different modes, and on different occasions. There’s even fiction in there, and a poem. It’s a deliberate — and obnoxious, I’m sure — attempt to measure the space I’d blundered into as a “public intellectual,” which wasn’t a plan I’d had for myself. It’s modeled, for better and worse, on Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself.

What was excluded from those collections created the possibility that became More Alive and Less Lonely. I’d written more often on books and writers than on any other topic, in the form of reviews and introductions, largely. And “appreciations.” Writing about books was the first thing I did besides writing fiction, and the first thing I published in any venue (in the Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter, when I was 22). I reviewed a few books for Salon in the mid-’90s — one of those earliest examples is included here, on Jill Robinson’s Past Forgetting. And the first book I was ever asked to introduce was Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird. That’s here too. It’s really the heart of my activities, the center of my life, as a reader, bookseller, and “author.” It’s a book of devotions, basically.

TM: Were there specific collections (by other writers) that occurred to either of you during this process?

JL: By way of comparison, I thought mostly of books by British writers — things like Anthony Burgess’s Homage to Qwert Yuiop, or Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Afterlife — books that are full of things like introductions and “appreciations.” I think the ways my bookishness manifests itself are more like a U.K. writer than like an American one, honestly.

But I didn’t shove any of these comparisons at Chris. I preferred to let him find the form and the tone, and to do all the heavy lifting here. I really let him wade through the morass — and there was more ass than you’d think. He covered it, for the most part.

TM: I’m curious, how were the pieces received? How many at a time? Over what period of time? Were there any changes or cuts made to specific essays, or other issues or obstacles that came up in bringing this work into book form?

CB: Conversations about this project began in December of 2015, when a mutual friend put Jonathan and me in contact by email. Jonathan sent me 60 or so pieces to review, and we met to discuss the project in early 2016. It was during that meeting that we first talked about the idea of a “book on books.” With a preliminary theme in mind, I dug in and started looking for threads in the essays that could inform their sequencing and the book’s scope and shape. These pieces were published at different times and in a variety of venues, so our reader was going to have do some time travel. And I didn’t want them to feel “unstuck,” or mapless. So I searched for ways for the book to stake out its range and territory early on — that was certainly my goal in the first chapter, “Engulf and Devour,” which shifts from a “devotion” on a book from Jonathan’s childhood to pieces on Moby-Dick and Philip Roth.

Later in the book, the essays focus in on specific writers (Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip K. Dick), link thematically (as in the last chapter, “Fan Mail”), or connect via what I think of as “channels” — inquiries or enthusiasms that reappear in different garb. I love the various forms of nostalgia expressed in the chapter “It Can Still Take Me There,” for example — there’s a piece on the character of Batman, and further on, an essay about Jonathan’s encounter with the beat hero Herbert Huncke.

As the book took shape, Jonathan sent along other pieces that might fit. To my delight, he also wrote some new essays that helped round out the chapters and complete some of the narratives therein. One of my favorite pieces in the book, for example, is his “Footnote on Thomas Berger,” a new piece that follows two previously-published essays on Berger. I won’t spoil it, but it’s an astounding story.

Editorially, most of the heavy lifting took place last summer. Since most of these pieces were previously published, I saw my work as a sort of literary forensics: I read the manuscript version against the published version, and sent Jonathan edits that catalogued all editorial discrepancies and suggested a way forward. I sent these to Jonathan in batches of 10 or so and he returned finalized versions. Overall, my edits were modest — these essays were already in fighting shape. We settled on a preliminary structure and title by July, and the manuscript was submitted a few weeks later.

JL: I’m fighting the temptation to satirize Chris’s scrupulous account of all his due diligence with claims of my having handled the perimeter defense, or being the one in charge of bringing the ziplock bags of trail mix. “First I built a bonfire hot enough to melt down the horse’s hooves,” etc. But the truth is that I did nothing so comprehensive or thoughtful even as that. I really just dumped that initial catastrophe’s worth of pieces on Chris, by means of Dropbox. Then, to make matters worse, I sporadically discovered pieces I’d missed or forgotten about entirely that were hiding either in dingy corners of the Internet or of my own hard-drive, and sent those along as well.

As Chris began to settle on pieces — which didn’t happen all at once, but in sequences — I periodically flew into a panic of rewriting. I think I did a bit more “improving” — or at least triage — on these clumsy old sentences than Chris shows signs of being aware of. Mostly I tried to simplify tormented thoughts into merely agitated ones.

I really like hearing about Chris’s concerns about the risk of “maplessness” and the way he thought of his solution in terms of “channels.” I find the design and flow he arrived at consistently surprising and delightful, nothing I’d have managed myself. That feeling extends to the title of the various sections, and the title of the book itself, which are all Chris’s discoveries.

TM: Readers now can go over the trail themselves to find a discarded ziplock, map in hand. The Hawkman trail? To borrow language describing two kinds of Pynchon novels (in the essay “Pychonopolis”) this new collection teeters between Comparatively Stable and Utterly Centrifugal. Not because it is chaotic but because there is narrative drive and so many plot threads. The time-travel aspect, far from disorienting, is gratifying. What was lived, and sometimes suffered through, for decades, we see transpire in a few pages. I’m wondering if Jonathan’s attitude toward collaboration has changed at all since the famous Harper’s essay and his “Promiscuous” Internet project, where material he authored was made available for filmmakers and music bands?

JL: Well, I’m in no way repentant, if that’s what you mean. All of my impulses — my yearnings — are still in the direction of a gift economy.  It seems even more urgent to me now, more bound up in our political lives, all this stuff: acknowledging intertextuality, breaking the spell of “property” over our expressive cultural lives, find ways to reclaim a commons or create a “temporary autonomous zone” wherever possible. Locating versions of mutual aid for artists and artworks. Distinguishing corporatist imperatives from life imperatives. Not that I have some coherent political plan on offer!

The Promiscuous Materials site is in disrepair — I need to rework it, and freshen it up, make it inviting again. I’m not web-savvy that way, and there are only so many hours in the day. Still, people still do find their way to those stories and texts and song lyrics and make their own things out of them from time to time. I’m glad about that. I should say that it wasn’t some major experiment, I don’t make any such claim for it. The project was more a gesture — a mild provocation, combined with a sort of playground. Like a community garden in a vacant lot.

My main job is writing novels, and as I get older I know I’ve got to exclude a lot of other involvements. Too often that means missing chances to collaborate, and locking myself in my room. But I’m still really dedicated to breaking down the dull imperial notion of the novelist-as-Prometheus. Finding ways to introduce apertures or slippages in the mask of authority — both inside the text, and around it.

CB: My response here skims the surface of your question, Chris, but for me this project has been wholly defined by Jonathan’s generosity. After the briefest of introductions in late 2015, Jonathan invited me to help steer this ship; I’ll always be grateful for, and amazed by, the trust he showed in me from the get-go. Received en masse as they were, too, these essays felt very much like “uncommodifiable surpluses of inspiration” — like gifts, in other words.

This seems like a good time, too, to note that Jonathan’s donating all of his earnings from the book, and that half the proceeds are going to the charity Doctors Without Borders. Jonathan included this proviso in the initial book proposal, and I think it set the tone for the entire project. While I know I’m speaking of a different currency now than the one that drives the gift-economy, the creation of this book was certainly driven by a “Give All” sensibility.

TM: That kind of generosity is inspiring. Now pet theories are kicking around in my mind. Did the choice of Doctors Without Borders have anything to do with the list of doctors acknowledged in last year’s A Gambler’s Anatomy and the convincing, or convincingly imagined, medical research involved in that book, or does the association go back further?

JL: I’m sure it would be easy to overthink it. The fact is that I’ve always just been astonishingly moved by what they do. Which is no knock on, say, The Southern Poverty Law Center, or The Center for Biological Diversity, or many other possible destinations. But you have to pick one. Doctors Without Borders might seem to me — I’ve never thought about this, exactly, before — like the ultimate opposite of the kind of indirect politics practiced even by the most righteous of us artists and writers (I don’t mean myself). That’s to say, where we’re by definition operating in the realm of the figurative and the intangible, in my case also the hesitant and ambiguous. While they are literally rushing bodily into zones of violence and crisis and putting bandages on other human bodies. So it was the least I could do. Let’s leave it at that.

Oh, but I should confess here that the doctors acknowledged in A Gambler’s Anatomy aren’t all doctors! By the time my list of acknowledgees had four or five doctors on it, it seemed fair — I mean, it seemed funny — to award the same title to Chris Offutt, and to my wife. Doctors of my spirit, and doctors to my book.

TM: The acknowledgments reminded me of the dedication, also funny, in Stanley Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show. A list of radio hosts and their stations — Jean Shepherd; WOR…etc — ending with Joan Elkin; WIFE. I guess compared with the earlier discussion of a cultural commons, I was struck in this new collection by more traditional roles of authorship, for the reader respecting what great authors do on their terms. Which of course is a different matter, although I admit conflating them a little. One of my favorite pieces is the essay on Joseph McElroy. It does a great job anticipating a reader’s objections while full-throatedly supporting a big league writer’s craft. Are there some artists that, more than others, represent some kind of line or limit? With McElroy, “narrative ‘sense'” sums it up. Have you experienced any conversions during your reading lives? This essay does much toward recruiting me to the McElroy camp.

JL: Elkin’s WIFE, I’d forgotten that. Genius — I wouldn’t try to compete. But my own wife regards my honorary doctorates as embarrassing jokes, so I took my revenge by awarding her a bogus one too.

As for the opposition you suggest between “authors doing things on their terms” and the cultural commons, I’d say nah. My whole point, if I had one, was that to wade into the cultural commons was my description of what authors do when authors do what they do — on their terms. Anyway that’s how it feels to me. Whether conscious or semi-conscious or unconscious of the fact, we’re all intertextually polymorphous-perverse in the end. As Dr. George Harrison wrote, “text goes on within you and without you.”

I’m glad I rallied your curiosity about McElroy — he’ll gratify it (though, honestly, I probably wouldn’t pick up Ancient History as an entry point. Try Lookout Cartridge first.) But since I’ve gotten started picking apart premises lurking in your questions, let me do it again, and protest the terms “big-league,” “conversion” and “recruit.” Because I know McElroy is generally associated with “difficulty,” and so what I hear in those words of yours is a kind of reader’s hierarchy of striving, as if reading him or someone like him is a matter of stepping up to some higher realm or duty. I’m not into it. Too much Protestant work ethic in there, and status-seeking, and a hair shirt too. Read hedonistically instead. McElroy offers a delicious blast of oxygen — it’s fun to be in his brain, that’s the reason to go there. I mean, if it turns you on to think of your reading of great novels, whether canonical or modernist or postmodernist or translated or just loooong, as some kind of sacrificial devotional act or military campaign or mountain-climbing expedition, go ahead. But admit that that’s what turns you on! Life’s too short to be intimidated by the books that are waiting only to be picked up and encountered, and then devoured, if you like what’s on offer — it’s like being intimidated by food.

CB: I’ll resist the urge to go literal here and steer us towards the last piece in the book, “Books Are Sandwiches,” and say instead that I love this answer because it reminds me, as a reader, to eat what I like and all that I can — to follow my instincts without regard for anything that might obstruct my engagement with the page. Some of my favorite moments in the book, too, are those when Jonathan finds vitality in places I wouldn’t have known to look for it — when he hails Chester Brown as a “a citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul,” for example, or sees in the work of Gilbert Sorrentino “a mind whose only way of handling a first introduction is to blurt out ‘Don’t we know one another already?’”, or praises Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments as “an object in furious motion, humming with its own energy, and all you might wish to do is touch it, alter its trajectory barely, so as to nudge it into universal view.”

TM: One other term that probably does more to activate a reader’s resistance, if the book doesn’t conform to the reader’s preconceived notion of said term, is novel. It’s understood that this is the reader’s problem, the reader’s loss. Although, also it’s a cultural loss if the book or author goes out of print, which lends an urgency to what’s said about the lesser-read authors praised in this book and elsewhere. In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan calls the dip in John Barth “terrifying.” This collection nonetheless concerns novels, second only to the unmitigated joy of reading anything. It’s largely a novelist’s bag of novels and novelists. What draws you to writing novels?

CB: What I love about the novel, both as a writer and a reader, is that it lives with you for a while, imprints itself on you. The novels that first invited me to write one, though, were particularly strange machines: The Age of Wire and String, for example,and Trout Fishing in America. I remember well the experience of reading the latter for the first time, and how the world continued buzzing for me even when I wasn’t reading it; it felt like having a pair of anti-gravity boots stowed away in my backpack. No other object has informed my life quite like my favorite novels have.

From a craft perspective, the novel caters to the kinds of risks that I like to take in my writing. Because of my early influences, perhaps, I’m drawn to building my own strange machines. Also, I don’t think novelistically, as I know some writers do. I have to think small, write small, and I only find my novels once I’m inside them. I began my second book, for example, with one stand-alone piece about a piano that changes your point of view, and another about a character who has a sentence for a pet. It wasn’t until a year later, maybe, that I admitted to myself that these should be part of the same narrative. At the core of my process is a certain unease or anxiety about the form, and I’m glad for that — I think it’s a good place to write from.

Even so, I marvel at those writers who seem to have an easier relationship with the form. Jonathan’s one of my favorite living novelists, and for me his novels are built like tanks — each one different from the last, and yet always dizzyingly inventive, uniquely ambitious, and expertly constructed.  Reading A Gambler’s Anatomy, for example, I was amazed by its grand design — the way that the narrative arc, pacing, and sentence-level music all work together. I’m curious to hear what he has to say about a form to which he clearly brings such mastery.

JL: “A novelist’s bag of novels and novelists” — you make it sound like a sack of cats! Yet one also being carried around by another, larger cat. Or a smaller one who is struggling with a very large sack.

Well, I doubt I could write a more impassioned love letter to the novel than Chris B. has done here, so instead I’ll play the feisty elder, and remind you young whippersnappers what Norman Mailer said when someone played devil’s advocate about the viability of his chosen form (some of which devil’s advocacy I think I hear in your question). I quote: “The novel will be at your funeral!”

Maybe me and Boucher have our heads too far up the wazoo of the novel to realize that the world has moved on to other, better things…the human attention span having suffered irreparable damage,,,I doubt it…but even if so, it has been a pretty good place to spend my life. What I really think is this: the novel is the least airless, the least restrictive, the least solipsistic of wazoos to have climbed up. It is a wazoo with a view.

Okay, to be a bit more serious, I really have come to understand that the humbling mystery of my chosen practice is how capacious the damn thing is. It holds together impossible things (like life itself). It even makes room for the anti-novel — for those always turn out to be novels, too. It models human consciousness in any number of ways — by its involvement simultaneously in narrative and language and also sensation, dreaming and projection and fear, and with our feeling of duration — time, that is.  It concerns itself with concurrence of being-in-our-heads (that’s the siren call of solipsism) and being-in-the-herd (the basic fact that we’re social creatures, wandering among others every day of our lives). The two are simultaneous immersions, never resolving their permanent juxtaposition. The novel actually captures this! How incredible. And even the shortest and simplest novel is oceanic, confusing, too big to get your head around, or see all at once (again, like life).

Anyway, this here bag of cats — it’s got other things in it, I swear. There’s my mother-in-law, in the “Footnote to Berger.” She’s no novelist! There are cameos by any number of others — painters, poets, children, and teenaged pre-novelist me. It’s less lonely because it’s fungible to human beings. As are novels. Whereas bags of cats are just — well, cats, all the way down.

The Disappointment Author: Lethem v. Wood

1.

It is sometimes hard to remember — in our enlightened Internet era — that the line between writer and critic was once very sharp, and that there was no love lost between the camps. “There are hardly five critics in America,” Herman Melville once wrote, “and several of them are asleep.”

Not that you can blame the man, considering the drubbing he took at the hands of the critical establishment, but the quote gives a good sense of the bad blood brewing between writer and commentator all the way back in the 1850s. We don’t lack for contemporary examples, either; in 1991 Norman Mailer called critic John Simon “a man whose brain is being demented by the bile rising from his bowels,” after Simon panned Mailer’s novel Harlot’s Ghost.

But surely it’s not all bile and bellowing; there have to be other, more civilized examples of the writer playing nice in the critical sphere. Henry James, for example, had a prolific side gig as a writer of judicious criticism, and his essay “The Art of Fiction” is one of the most well-considered and fair-minded examinations of novelistic purpose you could ever hope to read. But even James, in the middle of his reasonable defense of novelistic art, couldn’t help giving a swift kick to an unnamed “writer in the Pall Mall” who opposes “certain tales in which ‘Bostonian nymphs’ appear to have ‘rejected English dukes for psychological reasons’” – Portrait of a Lady, I presume? It seems that, no matter their composure, writers look to draw a little blood when they enter the critical ring. Maybe it has something to do with accepting blows in silence all those years.

Which brings us to the latest example of a writer stepping into the ring to defend his work against a rapacious critic: award-winning author Jonathan Lethem v. award-winning critic James Wood, literary heavyweight bout par excellence. The first round of this fight happened recently, when the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay by Lethem entitled “My Disappointment Critic,” in which Lethem discussed his anger at Wood for panning his novel The Fortress of Solitude eight years ago.

Lethem is not some cranky author we can write off lightly and go about our business. He is himself a thoughtful critic, and, as if to remind us of this fact, the title of “My Disappointment Critic” (and some of its content) alludes to his book The Disappointment Artist, a series of excellent essays about growing up in Brooklyn, the pleasures and perils of being an autodidact, and Westerns – among other things. His essay on the way to escape a subway train when you fear being pursued by other passengers is one of the best evocations of frightened childhood and how it shapes (urban) consciousness I have ever read.

All this is to say that Lethem is more than familiar with a critic’s responsibilities. Even when you’re an author/critic with fame hanging heavy on your shoulders  — especially when you’re stepping into the ring to defend your own work — you’re held to the sort of standard all criticism is held to: you have to marshal evidence and portray your viewpoint convincingly. One might even argue that writer/critic dealing with his own work has a higher bar to vault, because if he fails at any of these aims he looks worse than a reviewer writing a poorly-argued review. He looks like a whiner.

So what are we to make of Lethem’s new essay, in which he steps into the ring to defend his eight-year-old novel The Fortress of Solitude from James Wood, critical heavyweight of the age? Is he merely grousing? Or is he making serious critical claims?

Lethem understands our concerns. He wants us to know right away that he knows what he’s doing.

“Why,” Lethem writes, “violate every contract of dignity and decency, why embarrass us and yourself, sulking over an eight-year-old mixed review? Conversely, why not, if I’d wished to flog Wood’s shortcomings, pick a review of someone else, make respectable defense of a fallen comrade? The answer is simple: In no other instance could I grasp so completely what Wood was doing.”

And later: “Was this how Rushdie or DeLillo felt — not savaged, in fact, but harassed, by a knight only they could tell was armorless?”

This is Lethem’s stated purpose: instead of taking the opportunity to complain about his own disappointment, Lethem is going to give his own disappointment greater cultural relevance. He is going to use his own experience to show us what James Wood looks like without the armor. He is going to accomplish something far more serious than simple griping: a true critical takedown.

2.

The critical takedown is well-known cultural corrective with a long and glorious history. Renata Adler attempted something similar in her New York Review of Books article on Pauline Kael 31 years ago. James Wood himself performed similar treatment on Harold Bloom; it’s no surprise that Lethem quotes both of these projects above his essay.

The fellow critic providing cultural corrective to someone who has gotten too big for his or her britches — it’s practically a public service, if you do it right. In our current literary discourse critics can easily become unimpeachable. Wood gets the lofty heights of The New Yorker’s book section whenever he feels like it, and if he’s fudging his responsibilities, chances are a lot of people won’t notice. It’s more or less exactly the argument Adler makes in her takedown of Kael: most critics get sloppy on their soapbox. Their ingrained prejudices take over.

So there’s a precedent for the fellow critic accomplishing such a takedown, but rarely does the author being criticized make the attempt. Maybe this is because the burden of proof is uncommonly high when personal interest is involved. And Lethem’s criticisms, for all of their higher purpose, do spring from personal concerns: Wood failed to see what Lethem was getting at in The Fortress of Solitude.

“James Wood,” he writes, “in 4,200 painstaking words, couldn’t bring himself to mention that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility. This, the sole distinguishing feature that put the book aside from those you’d otherwise compare it to (Henry Roth, say). The brute component of audacity, whether you felt it sank the book or exalted it or only made it odd.”

This comment is, at its heart, disingenuous. Is the magic ring really the “sole distinguishing feature” that separates the Fortress of Solitude from Henry Roth? Wood would never make such a simplistic statement, nor would any other critic with a professional reputation to uphold. The act of criticism, in large part, is to figure out what distinguishes books from each other, and such distinctions never come down to one detail, whether it be a magic ring or a madeleine.

But let’s set this aside for now, and continue to Lethem’s critical conclusion about Wood’s review.
“Perhaps Wood’s agenda edged him into bad faith on the particulars of the pages before him. A critic ostensibly concerned with formal matters, Wood failed to register the formal discontinuity I’d presented him, that of a book which wrenches its own “realism”– mimeticism is the word I prefer– into crisis by insisting on uncanny events. The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive. I doubt Wood’s ever glanced back at the piece. But I’d like to think that if he did, he’d be embarrassed.”
I read Fortress of Solitude several years ago. I remember that magic ring. I remember it having the shaky status of a symbol, and that the boys who used it were themselves unsure of whether it represented real invisibility or some sort of wish fulfillment: imagination grounded firmly in realism (or whatever less offensive word Lethem wants to use). I certainly don’t remember it ever “wrenching” the book’s realism out of whack — it was one thread in the greater fabric of a mimetic narrative.

But let’s set that aside too — maybe Wood was wrong about the magic ring, and its singular symbolism within Fortress of Solitude. What we’re really dealing with here is a takedown of Wood, after all, not a defense of Lethem’s novel. That’s why Lethem proclaims his larger purpose early in the essay. That’s why he includes the paragraphs from Adler and from Wood himself, that’s why he tells us Wood is “armorless” as a critic. What we’re concerned with here is Lethem’s critical judgment of Wood as a critic: “The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive.”

Read that line again, substituting the word “book” for the word “review.” Now imagine that this sentence appeared in a book review. I assume your critical alarm bells are ringing.

Are we as readers expected to believe Lethem when he says that Wood was “erudite” and “descriptively meticulous,” (not to mention “jive”) without evidence?

Lethem obliges us. He drops a Wood quote at the start of the next paragraph.
“Wood complained of the book’s protagonist: “We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book … or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman.” …My huffy, bruised, two-page letter to Wood detailed the fifteen or twenty most obvious, most unmissable instances of my primary character’s reading: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Mad magazine, as well as endless scenes of looking at comic books. Never mind the obsessive parsing of LP liner notes, or first-person narration which included moments like: “I read Peter Guralnick and Charlie Gillett and Greg Shaw…” That my novel took as one of its key subjects the seduction, and risk, of reading the lives around you as if they were an epic cartoon or frieze, not something in which you were yourself implicated, I couldn’t demand Wood observe. But not reading? This enraged me.”
This is the only quote from Wood that Lethem uses in his essay, and he buries it within a full paragraph of editorialization. This on its own would give the average critical reader pause for thought. But when you look closer, when you read Wood in the original, you notice that there is a more fundamental disconnect at work. Lethem has fundamentally misunderstood what Wood was saying.

Here is the Wood quote in the original, concerning the main character from Fortress of Solitude:
“We never see [Dylan] thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book (there is a canonical mention of Steppenwolf, which is just more cultural anthropology, and just about it for literature in Dylan’s life), or encountering music that is not the street’s music, (italics mine) or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman. There is no need for Lethem to be conventional, of course; but there is a need for Dylan to have outline, to have mental personality.”
Wood’s point in his review of Fortress is that Lethem is a fabulous cultural chronicler of childhood, but that he fails when it comes to describing adulthood’s particular individual consciousness. There is something beautiful in Wood’s phrase “music that is not the street’s music” — maybe this is why Lethem chose to elide it in his quote. It reinforces how much Dylan Ebdus’s character is informed by group consciousness.

But all Lethem can see is Wood’s snobbery. “Wood is too committed a reader,” Lethem writes, “not to have registered what he (apparently) can’t bear to credit: the growth of a sensibility through literacy in visual culture, in vernacular and commercial culture, in the culture of music writing and children’s lit, in graffiti and street lore.”

But this is precisely what Wood is talking about. He is pointing out that Dylan, for all his theoretical interest in Sendak and Heinlein, is not very interesting as an individual; far from ignoring street culture, Wood points out that street culture is what makes Dylan who he is. When Dylan grows up and loses sight of the street, Dylan becomes boring. Wood’s snobbery is beside the point here; the critic admits that Dylan doesn’t need conventional interiority, a world of high-brow books or high-brow music — he just needs interiority, period. We’re reminded once again of Henry James, the snobby fussbudget who occasionally got it right — “the only obligation to which we may hold a novel is that it be interesting.” Dylan, in Lethem’s later pages, is no longer interesting, and Wood, as a critic, wants to try and explain why.

3.

Maybe a close examination of Lethem’s article will shed light on the reasons why so many authors attack their critics, and why literary fights can seem so personal. Because authors, at heart, are much more interested in the verdict a critic renders than the evidence they display. And why wouldn’t they be? Authors understand that good reviews sell books and that bad reviews don’t — they are the most consumer-minded of all cultural observers, because they know as well as anyone how hard the literary marketplace can be. This isn’t even considering the personal aspect of having one’s work attacked in public, the feeling, as Edith Wharton put it, that “one knows one’s weak points so well… it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.”

Lethem, despite his own critical experience, isn’t immune to this view. “The review,” he writes, “wasn’t the worst I’d had. Wasn’t horrible. (As my uncle Fred would have said, ‘I know from horrible.’)”

Lethem looks at Wood’s review in a familiar cultural context — is it good, or is it bad? Will it sell my book or will it turn people away? Does it make me look foolish or paint me as a genius? What’s the judgment here?

But what if the purpose of a review is not just to render judgment, but to explicate the way literature works? One can’t fault Lethem for disliking having his own work on the operating table, but certainly he’s been on the cutting end before.

The pain of the writer is that he has to sit still while the critic pokes through the vitals of his work and shows them to the audience. When the critical work is at its finest, the audience is like a crew of medical students standing around a doctor at work — even when we disagree with the way things are being handled, we can still see the body of evidence and draw our own conclusions. The process itself helps us learn; it adds to our understanding of literature as a whole. That is, if the body on the table would only stop complaining.

4.

This is extreme, I know. The body of work on the operating table has its own concerns. Staying alive, for example. An irresponsible critic, like an irresponsible doctor, runs the risk of killing the work — we don’t call it a “hit piece” for nothing. And if Lethem is right, and Wood is not doing high-level criticism anymore — if, like Adler’s vision of Pauline Kael, he has gone “shrill,” “stale,” has fallen prey to the tendency “to inflate” — then we have legitimate cause to worry for other books, other authors.

Where do we go to find if a critic — or an author — is being irresponsible, is failing at their literary mission? We go to the text, naturally — we render the evidence as best we can. This is the burden of proof, the burden the critic takes on when making judgments. This is the burden Lethem must assume if he is to be a critic of Wood’s own critical project.

“When Wood praises,” says Lethem, “he mentions a writer’s higher education, and their overt high-literary influences, a lot. He likes things with certain provenances; I suppose that liking, which makes some people uneasy, is exactly what made me enraged. When he pans, his tone is often passive-aggressive, couched in weariness, even woundedness. Just beneath lies a ferocity which seems to wish to restore order to a disordered world.”

Leaving aside the question of whether or not all critics (and readers) like things of certain provenances, we find ourselves again with the verdict but no facts. If Wood is passive-aggressive, why not show it? And what are we to make of Wood’s supposed ferocity, his drive to correct the world? Are we supposed to take Lethem’s word on Wood’s intellectual makeup?

Lethem gives Wood some credit: he points out that Wood wrote “4,200 painstaking words” about Fortress of Solitude. I would highlight another salient point: of these words, eight hundred (or nearly a fifth of the article) are direct quotations. Say what you will about the subjectivity inherent in what a critic chooses to quote, Wood uses ample evidence from Lethem’s own text to make his points — and nearly 600 quoted words come in blocks, without any editorializing from Wood at all; the critical equivalent of a primary source.

This is not just a feature of Wood’s review of Fortress — it is a feature of his critical style. Wood may be blinkered, he may be a high-culture pedant, but he quotes with vicious abandon: great block quotes of prose that give the reader a decent sense of how the writers he picks use language, so that no matter what verdict Wood renders the reader is capable of viewing the evidence on its own merits.

Take Wood’s review of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, for example. As readers, we are quite justified in our anger when Wood attempts to parody Hollinghurst’s style with his own prose; critics, whether they are also writers or not, are supposed to keep their own prose out of the critical game, lest we realize just how disingenuous they are. Or, as Hollinghurst himself put it, “it exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

But we can’t fault the rest of the review of Stranger’s Child for anything other than having an extremely intense, well-considered, and well-supported opinion, because we have the tools to respectfully disagree with the opinion if we like — Wood gives us reams of quotation on which to draw our own conclusions. I happen to disagree with Wood’s conclusions about Hollinghurst, as I do with many of Wood’s conclusions, but I do not make the mistake of thinking that my disagreement with Wood’s verdict means his article is a failure. I am interested in his ideas, I am interested in his evidence. Then again, it’s not my book under the scalpel — if I were Hollinghurst, I imagine I would be furious. Not being Hollinghurst, however — a fact I share with the vast majority of the readership of The New Yorker — I am free to enjoy the article on the merits.

Quibble how you will with the verdict Wood renders on The Stranger’s Child, just as Lethem does with the verdict he renders on Fortress of Solitude in 4,200 painstaking words, but it’s difficult to fault his methods — considerable quotation, much of it in blocks, and statements based on these quotations. This is why Wood remains a sometimes inspiring, sometimes infuriating, consistently debatable literary critic.

(A critic, mind you, who saw fit to send Lethem a postcard in return to the angry letter Lethem sent him when this review was published — and here, perhaps, we can allow ourselves a little incredulity — eight years ago. A postcard pointing out that he had actually liked a lot about Fortress of Solitude — maybe it’s Lethem, not Wood, who ought to be embarrassed upon re-reading the review, so many years later.)

Lethem has now written 1,700 words attacking, not just Wood’s article, but his entire approach to book reviewing, his “bad faith” — and he supports his argument with 47 of Wood’s own words. Whether or not you would like to see Wood exiled from his favored perch atop The New Yorker’s book section — and many do — this is not a ratio to inspire particular confidence.

It is very difficult to analyze anyone’s bad faith. Lethem himself points this out at the end of his essay; that he goes ahead and attacks Wood’s bad faith despite his own assertions is evidence of his critical perspective. Lethem has every right to be angry at Wood, for criticizing a work which he held dearly, for rendering a verdict that might hurt the work in the marketplace. But those of us who care about criticism are more interested in the evidence than the verdict, and in the case of Lethem v. Wood, the evidence is skimpy indeed.

Image: Generationbass.com/Flickr

What, if Anything, I Taught Them

This fall, among other pursuits, I’ve been teaching one section of “Composition & Rhetoric” at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. I’ve led fiction writing workshops at the university level before, but this has been my first foray into expository writing. At times, I’ve found myself questioning my professorial fitness (as regular readers of this blog may even now be doing); how can I claim to explain a set of forms that I haven’t myself mastered?But when it comes to writing, we’re all apprentices (to paraphrase Hemingway), and I’ve been blessed with a group of creative, curious, and hardworking writers-in-training. Of my 16 students, 14 are enrolled in the Alvin Ailey School of Dance – which is to say that they’re well on their way to being artists in another medium. This may account for the high quality of their work.Or maybe it’s the pedagogical principle I cribbed from my quondam teacher Lawrence Weschler: Assign your students readings that you really love. My syllabus, thrown together in a single manic week in August, wound up coalescing loosely around ideas of New York before and after September 11, 2001. Even in a week when my Socratic skills failed me, my class and I would at least have the consolation of having read something complex and beautiful, like the city itself. What follows is a diary of our mutual education.Week 1: “Here is New York,” by E.B. White (from Essays)For me, this is what a good essay looks like, but at this point in the semester, I can’t quite explain why. My instructions: “Go sit in Central Park when you read this. You can thank me later.” They do.Week 2: “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” by Herman Melville (from Great Short Works) and “Bartleby in Manhattan,” by Elizabeth Hardwick (from Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays)One of the weird things about literary criticism at the college level is that students are often asked to write it without ever having read it. I’m hoping that this pairing might provide an object lesson in good criticism. My class, of course, prefers the story to the essay. The fiction writer in me sees this as a promising sign.Week 3: “Still-Life,” by Don Delillo (an excerpt from Falling Man originally published in The New Yorker) I tell students to treat DeLillo the way Hardwick treated Melville. That is, critically. Instead, they fall in love with him. I end up thinking more highly of Falling Man than I did when I first read it, and liked it.Week 4: “Echoes at Ground Zero,” by Lawrence Weschler (from Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences and “Against Interpretation,” by Susan Sontag (from Against Interpretation)The Weschler reading, which included photographs, leads to a discussion of reading images critically – a skill we all need these days. Then we read the Sontag, which is kind of an argument against everything I’ve been teaching them up to this point. Is this brilliant, or suicidal?Week 4: “Come September,” by Arundhati Roy (from The Impossible Will Take A Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear)Moving away from literary criticism and toward social criticism proves difficult, as many readers, myself included, find this essay frustratingly orthodox in its politics. We end up talking about “preaching to the choir,” and the failure of partisan arguments to persuade their opponents. Victory snatched from jaws of defeat.Weeks 5 – 7: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin.Rereading this clarifies some things for me. Among them, that an essay doesn’t always have to be an argument; that it can be an exploration. This will become a theme. (Damn you, Sontag!)Week 8: “What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill,” by Sarah Vowell (from Take the Cannoli)This one doesn’t get quite the reaction I had hoped for; students find it a little didactic. Maybe I should have chosen “Ixnay on the My Way.” Still, the Vowell essay on Cherokee history does offer an example of how exposition can be structured narratively.Week 9-Week 10: “The White Album,” by Joan Didion (from The White Album)With its jagged, discontinuous structure, this memoir of the ’60s provokes the strongest responses I’ll probably get this year, ranging from, “I loved this” to “I hated this” – which is pretty much what I’ve been hoping for all semester. When I read my students’ personal essays, I’ll see that “The White Album” has challenged them to become better writers. It never hurts to expose undergraduates to a surgically precise stylist like Didion, either.Week 11: “Dancing in the Dark,” by Joan Acocella (from Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints)Yet another of those frequent occasions when the professor learns more from the students than vice versa. The dancers tell me all about Bob Fosse, and evaluate Acocella’s claims critically. In the end, most agree that Fosse’s choreography is more about power than about sex. And again, exposure to a writer of Acocella’s intelligence and lucidity can only help their prose. It’s certainly helped mine.Week 12: “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” by Jonathan Lethem (from The Disappointment Artist)This should be interesting. We’re now in the middle of the research essay unit, but I’d love to see my students push beyond the conventions of the term paper; to combine research, personal reflection, and critical thought as Lethem does in this essay about a subway stop.Week 14: “Last Cigarettes,” by Marco Roth.This piece originally appeared in N+1, and has a lot to say about college, and becoming a writer. Like the Lethem essay, it pushes against the rigid boundaries of the “four rhetorical modes.” If I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that good expository writing doesn’t always adhere to such neat distinctions. Though at times I’ve wished I could tell my class, “This is how you write an essay,” throwing them into the messy process of discovery may ultimately be a more honest initiation into the pains – and joys – of writing.

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