Friday, February 27, 2009

Politics, The Airwaves, and the English Language

I found this American Conservative piece interesting, in its reflections on political TV and radio, and in its slippery use of language and labels:

Liberal attempts to duplicate the successes of Limbaugh and his imitators have fallen flat. Alan Colmes’s late-evening radio show can be heard in most cities, and Air America is still alive somewhere—the Aleutians, perhaps—but colorful, populist, political talk radio seems to be a thing that liberals can’t do.

Populism here seems like a major euphemism. Demagogue, it seems to me, would be a much better term for someone like Limbaugh.

There is a lowbrow liberalism, too, but the Left hasn’t learned how to market it. Consider again the failure of liberals at the talk-radio format, with the bankruptcy of Air America always put forward as an example. Yet in fact liberals are very successful at talk radio. They are just no good at the lowbrow sort. The “Rush Limbaugh Show” may be first in those current Talkers magazine rankings, but second and third are National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” with 13 million weekly listeners each. It is easy to mock the studied gentility, affectless voices, and reflexive liberalism of NPR, but these are very successful radio programs.

Gentility? Here are Webster's definitions of that term:

1 a: the condition of belonging to the gentry 2 a(1): decorum of conduct (2): attitudes or activity marked by false delicacy, prudery, or affectation b: superior social status or prestige evidenced by manners, possessions, or mode of life

So the term is really a jab, another version of the charge of elitism that was leveled at Obama and Kerry and probably every Democrat since Kennedy. And, in its suggestion of prudery and false delicacy, I think the term is really off the mark. Does any mainstream news outlet look more unflinchingly and thoroughly at the world than NPR?

Liberals are getting rather good at talk TV, too. The key to this medium, they have discovered, is irony. I don’t take this political stuff seriously, I assure you, but really, these damn fool Republicans... Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert offer different styles of irony, but none leaves any shadow of doubt where his political sympathies lie. Liberals have done well to master this trick, but it depends too much on facial expressions and body language—the double-take, the arched eyebrow, the knowing smirk—to transfer to radio. It is, in any case, not quite populism, the target audience being mainly the ironic cohort—college-educated Stuff White People Like types.

There's a certain amount of truth in the above, along with the broad-brush stereotyping.

If liberals can’t do populism, the converse is also true: conservatives are not much good at gentility. We don’t do affectless voices, it seems. There are genteel conservative events—I’ve been to about a million of them and have the NoDoz pharmacy receipts to prove it—but they preach to the converted. If anything, they reinforce the ghettoization of conservatism, of which talk radio’s echo chamber is the major symptom. We don’t know how to speak to that vast segment of the American middle class that lives sensibly—indeed, conservatively—wishes to be thought generous and good, finds everyday politics boring, and has a horror of strong opinions. This untapped constituency might be receptive to interesting radio programs with a conservative slant.

Conservatives aren't much good at gentility? Ever hear Dick Cheney describe waterboarding?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Delbanco on Obama

In a NY Times article about the struggle by university humanities departments to demonstrate their relevance in tough economic times, Andrew Delbanco (author of a great biography of Herman Melville) suggests that Barack Obama embodies the value of studying the humanities:

“He does something academic humanists have not been doing well in recent years,” he said of a president who invokes Shakespeare and Faulkner, Lincoln and W. E. B. Du Bois. “He makes people feel there is some kind of a common enterprise, that history, with its tragedies and travesties, belongs to all of us, that we have something in common as Americans.”

Book Designs: American v. British

At the Millions, an interesting comparison of the British and American book designs of recent literary fiction.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Packer, Brooks, Obama

George Packer blasts conservative pundits in this post, excepting David Brooks from his condemnations while also taking issue with some of Brooks's recent critiques of Obama:

Here’s the test Brooks should set: will Obama’s efforts lead to worse than the alternatives? Will they be worse than his predecessor’s? The conservative approach to economic and social policy, as refined to ideological purity under Bush, is to get government out of the way, trust free markets, and let chronic problems fester until they turn into disasters. The results are all around us (one example among hundreds: the failure of the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate Wall Street). Brooks pits a rigid, abstraction-loving liberalism against a wise, experience-loving conservatism. But recent American history has shown the truth to be closer to the opposite. We are where we are because the ruling conservative ideology of the past few decades refused to face facts, like the effect of private insurance on health-care costs, or the effect of deregulation on investment banking. Facts drove the Republicans out of power. And judging from their response to Obama’s first month in office, facts are very hard things to face in politics.

Obama isn’t trying to remake America’s economy and society out of ideological hubris. He’s initiating sweeping changes because he inherited a set of interrelated emergencies that require swift, decisive action.

I'm watching Obama talk right now. I haven't seen the whole speech, but what I'm hearing now sound like the thoughts of somebody who's aware of reality, after eight years of a president who ignored everything that didn't fit into his worldview. 

Feels good.

Monday, February 23, 2009


While checking up on this blog, I happened upon a site devoted to Myers-Briggs types. As I recall from my high school days, I'm an INFP, a type written about here by a man with the unfortunate name of Joe Butt. I was glad to learn from Joe Butt that I share my Myers-Briggs type with Homer and Shakespeare, as well as with Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) and E.T. I suspect, however, that Joe has pulled these identifications out of his Butt. 

This passage struck me as particularly amusing:

INFPs live primarily in a rich inner world of introverted Feeling. Being inward-turning, the natural attraction is away from world and toward essence and ideal. This introversion of dominant Feeling, receiving its data from extraverted intuition, must be the source of the quixotic nature of these usually gentle beings. Feeling is caught in the approach-avoidance bind between concern both for people and for All Creatures Great and Small, and a psycho-magnetic repulsion from the same.

Yes, I am a gentle being, quixotically aswim in my rich inner world of Feeling. And if I seem aloof or quiet, it's just that my feelings toward you are delicately balanced between concern and repulsion.

Interested in a little self-discovery today? Check out your type, if you're lucky enough to know it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ian McEwan and the Intentional Fallacy

A passage from Daniel Zalewski's profile (registration required) of Ian McEwan in the current New Yorker reminds me of our earlier discussion of the intentional fallacy. 

McEwan tells Zalewski a story about his son Greg:

Poor Greg had to study
Enduring Love in school. He had a female teacher. And he had to write an essay: Who was the moral center of the book? And I said to Greg, "Well, I think Clarissa's got everything wrong." He got a D. The teacher didn't care what I thought. She thought that Joe was too 'male' in his thinking. Well. I mean, I only wrote the damn thing.

If McEwan's point is that, because he wrote the book, he has a better command of its details than his son's teacher, that's fine. But if he's saying that his interpretation is worth more than the teacher's simply because he's the author, then I think that's suspect.

Great works of literature, it seems to me, take on the richness and complexity of life itself. And, like life itself, they are open to multiple perspectives. If the author has the "answers" to the work, then that work is in some sense lacking multidimensionality: it's simply a vehicle for the author's ideas or "point." 

I think it's interesting that McEwan pointedly notes that Greg's teacher was a woman—and that he frames the divergence of interpretation in terms of gender. Different readers bring different perspectives to a work, and will hence make different meanings out of their encounters with them—meanings that are no less grounded in the details of the work. A great example of this is Judith Fetterley's essay on A Farewell to Arms, in her book The Resisting Reader. One of my colleagues has talked about how this essay completely changed the way he saw Hemingway's novel, even though he'd been teaching it for years.

Greg's teacher might be completely off-base (though in my experience high school English teachers often know the details of books better than just about anyone). But it could also be that McEwan is bristling because someone has seen something in his novel other than what he intended. McEwan may be refusing to accept that, once you put a work of art out into the world, "what was yours is everyone's from now on," as Wilco puts it.

And does it seem a little janky that Greg basically had his dad write the essay for him? Of course the teacher didn't care what Ian thought. She wanted Greg to think for himself.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Ratings Game

On Goodreads, you can sort your books by the number of ratings posted on Goodreads for each book. Of the books I've read since January 2007, these are the ten most often rated, in descending order:

The Road, Cormac McCarthy (40,025 ratings)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz (19,814)
What Is the What, Dave Eggers (18,301)
Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich (17,990)
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (14,629)
All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy (9,619)
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (8,095)
The World Without Us, Alan Weisman (7,159)
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel (4,892)
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson (4,835)

These are the ten least often rated:

Black Cherries, Grace Stone Coates (1 rating—mine)
A Semblance of Justice: St. Louis School Desegregation and Order in Urban America, Daniel J. Monti (1 rating—mine)
The Angel on the Roof, Russell Banks (2)
The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm (3)
Swingin' the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture, Lewis A. Erenberg (4)
Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood, Gerald Early (4)
At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family's Journey toward Civil Rights, Gail Milissa Grant (6)
Return of the "L" Word: A Liberal Vision for the New Century, Douglas S. Massey (7)
Strangers in a Strange Land: Humans in an Urbanizing World, Douglas S. Massey (7) 
Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, J. Anthony Lukas (8)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Blood Meridian

Just finished Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. I expect to be mulling it over for some time. While I was reading it, though, I found this interesting article/interview with McCarthy, in which he makes the following comment:

The ugly fact is books are made out of books... The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.

What books is Blood Meridian made out of? Well, to get a feel for this novel, imagine:

... if the boys from Lord of the Flies, after killing Simon and Piggy, killed Ralph, too, found a ship, and sailed to the American southwest and continued their rampage there.

... if Huck Finn fled his abusive father and found not a compassionate and resourceful runaway slave but a felon with a brand on his forehead and missing ears, and after beating the shit out of each other, they teamed up to burn down a hotel.

... if Vladimir and Estragon finally stopped waiting and went to town and found Godot’s head floating in a jar of mescal.

... if the Iliad's recurrent slaughter and the Odyssey's aimless wandering were combined in a single epic.

... if Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise went on the road riding horses and carrying huge pistols and taking scalps as souvenirs.

... if Lear and his fool took not to the heath but to a bonestrewn desert wearing robes of meat and alternating between legalistic sweet-talk and murder.

The surprising thing is how funny this novel also manages to be.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Presidents' Day Treats

Gerald Early reflects upon the pulp in the African American Literature section.

Dick Cavett looks back on the day Updike and Cheever both came on his show (with video!).

And Wyatt Mason continues to defend Netherland, discussing the very passage I used as Exhibit A in my complaint about the book.  Almost makes me think Mason has been reading Corresponding Fractions.

Much of what O’Neill does with tone in Netherland is, yes, subtly ironic. If you miss, or just don’t like, said tone, you’ll not unreasonably find his prose precious. Take this bit, where the narrator is reflecting on flying from NYC to London to see his wife:
That country might have some meaningful relation to my country of physical residence, and so every second weekend, when I traveled to London to be with my wife and son, I hoped that flying high into the atmosphere, over boundless massifs of vapor or small clouds dispersed like the droppings of Pegasus on an unseen platform of air, might also lift me above my personal haze. That is, I would conduct a retrospective of our affable intercontinental dealings and assemble the hope and theory that the foundation of my family might after all be secure and our old unity within reach.
I’ve got to think that O’Neill’s “dispersed like the droppings of Pegasus on an unseen platform of air” is knowingly too much (i.e. the high-flying language overreaches in the same way that the character is overreaching in his hopes that flying high will put his earthly cares behind him), just as his “conduct a retrospective of our affable intercontinental dealings” is deliberately lawyerly–that is to say it puts the real emotions at a rhetorical remove. If both of these parsings of mine make you say “Poppycock,” though, Netherland isn’t likely going to do it for you.

Poppycock, indeed. 

I see what Mason is saying—that O'Neill wants us to see Hans's detachment, his pompously inflated language; that Hans is kind of like Winterbourne in Daisy Miller—the story is about all he's missing in his telling of the tale. But I don't buy it. I was prepared to read the novel that way. Surely, I thought, the novel will do more to wink at how tediously self-absorbed this incredibly privileged guy is. Surely the end of the novel will lead him to some self-revelation or at least demonstrate the shocking lack of such a revelation. But, as far as I can tell, it doesn't.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Zadie Smith on Barack Obama

Some brilliant thoughts from Zadie Smith on Obama, voice, Pygmalion, Shakespeare, and more.

The whole essay (originally given as a speech at the NY Public Library a couple months ago) is worth reading, but here's her conclusion:

It's my audacious hope that a man born and raised between opposing dogmas, between cultures, between voices, could not help but be aware of the extreme contingency of culture. I further audaciously hope that such a man will not mistake the happy accident of his own cultural sensibilities for a set of natural laws, suitable for general application. I even hope that he will find himself in agreement with George Bernard Shaw when he declared, "Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it." But that may be an audacious hope too far. We'll see if Obama's lifelong vocal flexibility will enable him to say proudly with one voice "I love my country" while saying with another voice "It is a country, like other countries." I hope so. He seems just the man to demonstrate that between those two voices there exists no contradiction and no equivocation but rather a proper and decent human harmony.

(Via Hendrik Hertzberg.)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Millhauser Cordial

Encountering a Steven Millhauser story in a magazine is like unexpectedly finding a portal into an alternate universe. A man writes a letter to his wife in which he explains why he's elected to stop speaking because of the inadequacy of language. A miniaturist pursues his art past the threshold of the visible. Suicide becomes a popular fad in a suburban town.

Reading Millhauser's 2008 collection
Dangerous Laughter, I found that consuming an entire book of Millhauser's eerie stories in some way dampens the pleasure of his weirdness. The tricks are different (at least somewhat) in each story, but you're more expectant, prepared to read about worlds where women's clothing designers liberate themselves from attention to the human form, or domes are constructed over entire houses, neighborhoods, and finally countries; where a tower is constructed that reaches heaven, but it takes longer than a human life to ascend it.

Millhauser's best work ignores the conventions of contemporary fiction, causing us to look differently at our world and our perceptions of it. But it's best if consumed in small doses, like a delicate liqueur. Here's his most recent
story, from the anniversary issue of the New Yorker. In it, Millhauser gives us an invasion from outer space that defies expectations. It's very short: an aperitif. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Never Netherland

In a couple of recent posts, Wyatt Mason defends Joseph O'Neill's Netherland against a friend's charge that it's overwritten, and Mark Athitakis excerpts an interview with O'Neill that praises the deliberateness with which he labored over the novel for seven years.

I'm on the side of Mason's friend. I found Netherland precious and boring. Here's a sample passage, selected somewhat at random, in which the narrator Hans reflects in his detached and verbose way on his separation from his wife:

I was determined to open myself to new directions, a project I connected with escaping from the small country of fog in which, at a point I could not surely trace, I'd settled. That country, I speculated, might have some meaningful relation to my country of physical residence, and so every second weekend, when I traveled to London to be with my wife and son, I hoped that flying high into the atmosphere, over boundless massifs of vapor or small clouds dispersed like the droppings of Pegasus on an unseen platform of air, might also lift me above my personal haze. That is, I would conduct a retrospective of our affable intercontinental dealings and assemble the hope and theory that the foundation of my family might after all be secure and our old unity still within reach. But each time Rachel materialized at her parents' door she wore a preemptive expression of weariness, and I understood that the haze had traveled all the way to this house in west London. 

Ugh. So overworked and humorless. And too many adjectives. 

Monday, February 9, 2009

John Updike~William Dean Howells

One of my favorite professors in graduate school made the same comparison this piece makes between John Updike and William Dean Howells: both extraordinarily prolific novelists and magazine critics (Howells with the Atlantic, Updike with the New Yorker) popular in a sort of Middle-America way. My professor thought that Updike's novels would endure about as well as did Howells's (i.e., not very). 

Great, Imperfect, Torrential Works

This passage from Roberto Bolaño's 2666 reminds me of Underworld and Infinite Jest:

He chose '
The Metamorphosis" over The Trial, he chose "Bartleby" over Moby-Dick, he chose "A Simple Heart" over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and "A Christmas Carol" over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

(Via jeremy on Goodreads.)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Everything is Free, Vol. 3: New Yorker Edition UPDATED

Near the end of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass begins to read and later subscribes to the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. The paper, Douglass writes, became his "meat and drink." As readers of this blog may have noticed, the New Yorker serves much the same function for me. Lately, too, the magazine's various blogs have also occupied my attention. It seems to me that the New Yorker is especially adept at using the web to augment its offerings. 

So I was a bit surprised and very dismayed to read these two blog posts, which suggest that the magazine may be endangered (along with, seemingly, every other print publication these days). I suspect that there may be some alarmism here. Somehow the New Yorker seems too solid to crumble so quickly. I hope that's true.

Kate from Chicago, in a comment on a previous post, provides a link to this interesting article from Time that calls for and tries to imagine some ways that newspapers and magazines might reap some needed profits from Internet readers.  


The NY Times is reporting that Conde Nast has named a new publisher for the New Yorker and moved the former publisher to head Internet ad sales for the entire company. The article also notes that the magazine was operating in the red by the end of 2008. Not good.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Little Rosary

At the Millions, Garth Risk Hallberg's experience mirrors my own:

Back during election season, I remember, I had assembled a little rosary of blogs I'd cycle through every day - or, let's be honest, every hour.

We've both cut back on the political blogs. What a great metaphor, though, huh?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Riverfront Times Past

This is pretty interesting—a series of photos (with commentary) of the St. Louis riverfront area before the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was created.

(Via Stefene Russell at St. Louis Magazine)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Everything is Free, Vol. 2

I've posted a few links to things about what the Internet means for journalism, writing, and publishing. Today Bill McClellan has a funny piece about this—funny but also tinged with sadness. It's McClellan at his best. 

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Updike of Our Time

An anonymous reader of this blog poses the following interesting questions in response to the Jeffrey Eugenides passage I quoted on Thursday:

OK, then. Let's ask the obvious if unanswerable questions: Who, if anyone, are the candidates to be the Updike of our time? Is there anyone in the rising generation of novelists or short story writers who is tapping a vein of experience common to those of us who are reaching middle age these days? Or is there, perhaps, no common vein of experience for this generation, no common trajectory to our post-collegiate lives? (Job, marriage, suburbia, boredom, adultery is a story people keep telling but with less and less relevance it would seem; hence, my lack of enthusiasm for Revolutionary Road despite my crush on Kate Winslet.) But then, was there ever, really, a common arc to our lives, or did it only look that way at a time when the American literary community was a pretty exclusive club? My parents didn't have Updike novels on the nightstand when I was growing up.

We had no Updike in our house when I was growing up, either. Eugenides perhaps overstates his case a bit. But I do think that he's on to something: the Baby Boom did constitute an unusually large and homogeneous cohort of people, and the portion of that cohort that reads literary fiction is, as a consequence, also unusually large, at least in relative terms. It was that group that became Updike's audience, making it profitable for him to publish more than a book a year for fifty years. That's at least how I understand Eugenides's point.

Could there be such an audience and such a writer for the next generation? My sense is no. Partly because the audience for books has shrunk. Here's how Updike himself diagnosed the problem:

When I was a boy, the bestselling books were often the books that were on your piano teacher's shelf. I mean, Steinbeck, Hemingway, some Faulkner. Faulkner actually had, considering how hard he is to read and how drastic the experiments are, quite a middle-class readership. But certainly someone like Steinbeck was a bestseller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent. You don't feel that now. I don't feel that we have the merger of serious and pop -- it's gone, dissolving. Tastes have coarsened. People read less, they're less comfortable with the written word. They're less comfortable with novels. They don't have a backward frame of reference that would enable them to appreciate things like irony and allusions. It's sad. It's momentarily uphill, I would say.

And who's to blame? Well, everything's to blame. Moviesare to blame, for stealing a lot of the novel's thunder. Why read a novel when in two hours you can just go passively sit and be dazzled and amazed and terrified? Television is to blame, especially because it's come into the home. It's brought the fascination of the flickering image right into the house; like turning on a faucet, you can have it whenever you want. I was a movie addict, but you could only see so many movies in the course of a week. I still had a lot of time to read, and so did other people. But I think television would take all your day if you let it. Now we have these cultural developments on the Internet, and online, and the computer offering itself as a cultural tool, as a tool of distributing not just information but arts -- and who knows what inroads will be made there into the world of the book.

If I had to identify the writer who came closest to tapping the generational vein of experience after Updike's, I'd probably point to the late David Foster Wallace. The outpouring of grief on the Internet in the wake of Wallace's death suggests that his work held the same type of deep generational meaning that Updike's does. In this famous essay, DFW kills off Updike in an Oedipal fashion, essentially declaring that he and his generation have outlived their relevance. And just as, for Eugenides, Updike embodied the image of "writer," I think Wallace did the same for his generation, as exemplified by this gag from the Onion:

Wallace's work, particularly his fiction, is less accessible than Updike's. But who knows? His final story published in the New Yorker seemed to indicate that he was headed in a less obscure direction; and the release of Jon Krasinski's film version of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men might have brought him a wider audience. (Before his death, I was often startled to find only one or two of his books for sale even at Borders.) Wallace also supported himself (did he have to?) by teaching, something that Updike did only very briefly. Is it even possible for an Updike to make it as a full-time writer anymore?  

In more ways than one, Updike was an extraordinary figure. Though he was aided by demographics, perhaps, his verbal abilities were amazing and his work ethic astounding. In that sense, we may not see "another Updike" for generations, or ever. With Wallace gone before his time, is there anyone to take his place as a kind of generational writer, in tune with a certain zeitgeist and a certain significant slice of sophisticated readers? 

George Saunders? 

We Can Order It for You....

Well, so much for all my hand-wringing and pontificating. I just got back from Barnes and Noble in Crestwood, where, despite a couple of somewhat prominent tables devoted to Black History Month and Obama, the Best African American Essays collection was not in stock, even though it was released earlier this month and edited by two St. Louisans.