Tuesday, March 08, 2005

More From the Journal of Sour Grapes

I can't resist another cut from The Bitch Goddess Review, perhaps more bitter than the last. Which probably only proves that practice makes the heart grow bitterer. Once again, don't shoot me; I'm just the excerpter.

* * * * *

Well then. The Times recently ran a story noting the sudden abundance of books using the events of 9/11 as a theme. Abundant they may be, but not exactly early. No, it took the serious writers a while to get around to writing about 9/11, the Times notes. Lesser books have come and gone. But it took three years for Literature to come to grips with this tragedy in a way that will endure. All praise and hosannas to these brave and battling artists!

One of those books was written by Nick McDonell, a 21-year-old novelist already “acclaimed” as the author of Twelve, a first novel written when he was yet innocent of two decades. Twenty one years old is mighty young to be dealing with human tragedy on a grand scale. I think of Hamlet asking the actors visiting Ellsinore whether they subscribed to “the late innovation” when they performed, referring to the Elizabethan-era gimmick of having children perform the grownup dramas of the day by keening their lines at the tops of their voices. Shakespeare didn’t care for it.

Now, I am all in favor of children writing serious books. I have no doubt some of them write very well. Only I suspect that the renown they enjoy says more about the publishing industry’s need for saleable stars than the presence of practiced skill.

As discerning as we all like to think ourselves about writing, it’s nevertheless true an author’s reputation sells a book faster than its quality. Publicity departments declare authors prodigies for the simple reason that the great unwashed readership lacks the time for comparative judgment. Greatness usually doesn’t show for many years anyway, but publishers need the return right now. Especially in the case of authors, who is called good is considered good. Which is why I can’t remember the last book whose author was not proclaimed brilliant by his jacket copy.

Marketing departments also love it when prodigies can be made of unlikely material, like children, or former illiterate people, or former dead people—anyone about whom they may speak in not-completely-disprovable wonder.

My friend went to hear this author read during the publicity tour for his first novel. He was nice, she said. Afterwards, playing a hunch, she asked him how it happened that a large publishing house should so much as glance at work from such an unlikely a source.

Well, said the source, his father worked in New York journalism; he knew a lot of publishers.

My friend liked the kid. But knowing as many starving writers as she does, she could not exactly applaud his success. It seemed to her—even to her, a bystander in this game—that the laurels too often went not to those who worked hard and wrote well, but to those it would be fun to gog at in amazement.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Another Spin of the Random Excerpt Wheel

Ben Hecht on the appeal of Teddy Roosevelt:
The second time I cheered for Teddy, I cheered the words he spoke. It seemed to me I would never hear finer words said by a man, and, perhaps, I have not.

There was no historic stage wait this time. Some five thousand men and women sat in silence in the Milwaukee auditorium. They had come to hear Teddy Roosevelt speak, but it was doubtful whether they would.

On his arrival in Milwaukee that forenoon, Teddy had been shot by a would-be assassin. The bullet had plowed into his midriff. He had been taken, bleeding, to the hospital. Surgeons had cut him open and probed for the bullet and been unable to find it.

We in the audience were uncertain whether we would see and hear our Teddy or listen to a bulletin announcing his death. At ten o’clock a group of men came out on the stage. They were escorting a pale-faced, walrus-mustached figure to the speaker’s stand. It was Teddy.

Surgical bandages wrapped the thick torso under its short cut-away coat. Teddy’s voice was fainter and squeakier than I had ever heard it. He held up his hand for silence this time and we gave him the auditorium instantly. He looked as if he might topple over, if we kept him standing too long.

I have never checked my memory of his speech against the records of that night, so I do not vouch for its literal accuracy. However, these are the words I remember.

“Friends and fellow Americans,” said the walrus mustache grinning at us. “I was shot this morning and the doctors haven’t yet removed the bullet from my insides. They are going to operate on me when I get back to the hospital. I came here to tell you one thing. I want you to know that whatever happens to me, I have had a hell of a good time on this earth, for which I am grateful alike to my God, my friends and my enemies.”

Long after Teddy’s ambulance had clanged back to the hospital with him in it, we were still on our feet cheering.

And why was I full of hoorays for Teddy Roosevelt? Why did I respond so worshipfully to his exuberance? Was I admiring myself in a large gaudy mirror; applauding the quality that was at the bottom of my own character?

I doubt this easy answer. There is a life force in hero worship beyond personal psychology, a sort of racial optimism that keeps the human tribe from drifting into psychic defeat and melancholy.

….It is the cry of despair the hero denies for us. He is no mad man reeling and without a goal. He is no structure without foundation. He is no soul overcome by the confusion and dreariness of living. What we see of him glittering in the spotlight is a winner, a human who has met destiny and pinned its shoulders to the mat, a happy man.

Such was my relation to the popeyed hero of San Juan Hill, of Doubtful Rivers, forgotten causes and tattered political phrases. I rejoiced to see in high office not a
sage or statesman but a happy man always ready to enjoy himself swinging the world by the tail.

--From Child of the Century

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Excerpt From The Bitch Goddess Review

Here's a passage from the latest number of “The Bitch Goddess Review, a Journal of Sour Grapes,” a sarcastic little sheet overseen by my friend Winters, who really ought to get out more. Don’t shoot me, I’m just the excerpter.

* * * * *

But to return to our vivisection of Barbara Kingsolver.

I have been nose deep in “High Tide in Tucson,” her collection of essays drawn from the trying life of a full-time world-famous author. Novels are Kingsolver's primary sort of literary emission, not essays, but she’s branching out. Because it’s wonderful being an essayist, isn’t it ? Such scope for literary talent, such a prĂ©cis for living--the essay. The jacket copy assures us these essays show the author at her brilliant best, and how is it we forget that every jacket connected to every book ever published has assured us likewise?

The essays are personal. We hear of Kingsolver’s trials as a mother, of the pain of learning to “multitask,” of the uncertainty with which she performed onstage in a band made up of other famous authors. We learn through her careful scientific process of remembering what she learned in college that some animals dally with non-mates in secret, and so perhaps with humans. In short, we experience with her all she has known of the range of human enterprise, the whole two yards.

To my besotted eye, of course, there appears to be precious little difference between what the book publicity department calls “compelling insights from the small departments of life,” and what the rest of us call grumping.

A certain turned-outwardness characterizes Kingsolver’s writing, a certain share-it-with-you, as if she is tipping her cards to us, but nothing more brilliant than this, so far as I can tell. No gripping enlightenment. No pinky-fresh phrasing. No sounding trumpet.

This is not to disparage her, not in the least. It’s only to try to understand, in so far as we can, why Kingsolver can get away with doing this sort of thing and the rest of us cannot.

Much the same, I’ll be bound, could be said for many of the lady authors that now so ornament the landscape out there. But no. Save that for another time. I like to read a lot of them. Some of them I like a great deal. (Hey, I just stole from Dorothy Parker.) But oftentimes you find yourself delighted with them not so much because they write well as because they can write at all. Yet their names are heaped up high with the celebrity of their work.

As for these essays, without question most of the rest of us could gather words in about the same quality of combination as they exhibit. I could make an essay about my time working in a summer camp, for example. I could turn my everyday morning sequence into an essay, describe my time of rising and my reason for that time, the conditions which have forced such a time upon me. I could speak of my shaving strategy, the vicissitudes of complection. I could bring in references to bugs and other authors. I could speak of the poetry of the soap dish, and how the peculiar pattern of mildew in my tub takes me by allusion back to my first boyish love of Christ. For a concluding insight I could make the flushing toilet into a metaphor for the fresh start of the day.

But in the first place it’d never fly with anyone; I would get no book jackets praising my brilliance. And in the second place I’d have to bore myself to a state of material disintegration to get all the way through it.

Sour grapes here? Very many of them, yes. But also my own little attempt at insight; something along the lines of this: If this stuff gets taken seriously, and this is the kind of stuff most of us turn out just warming up, maybe we should have a higher opinion of ourselves. Maybe we should stop looking, even just a moment, for the felicitous, the keen, the crackling, to come out of our efforts, and aim instead for the merely competent. Maybe it’s time to lower our standards.