Reviewing the Review: January 24 2010

Drama Fiction Film Lit-Crit Memes

Jay McInerney impresses me today. I didn't know if he had the cojones to give a trendy "serious novel" like Joshua Ferris's The Unnamed a bad review, but apparently he does. Maybe my concern that we'd have to spend this entire decade hearing about the genius of Joshua Ferris was misplaced; the novel has gotten mediocre reviews in Chicago and Washington DC as well. Sometimes the lit-crit establishment is better at spotting fakes than I expect.

Speaking of Joshua Ferris's new novel, this weekend's New York Times Book Review features a very good endpaper essay by Jennifer Schuessler about the meaning, history and brain science of boredom. I'm intrigued to learn that:

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use of "to bore" dates to a 1768 letter by the Earl of Carlisle, mentioning his "Newmarket friends, who are to be bored by these Frenchmen." "Bores," meaning boring things, arrived soon after, followed by human bores.

The spirit of William Safire lives on. But I wish the essay drilled deeper (thank you) into the multiple meanings of "bore", which now signifies a dull emptiness but must have originally been meant to connote not only the emptiness left behind by being "bored" but also the sharp and invasive act of "boring" itself. Can you bore without being sharp? Is it more boring to be bored, or to have been bored, to have been left an empty hole? Anyway, this essay is not boring.

Okay, but what are we going to do about this crushing meme -- so ridiculously prevalent among senior journalists and pessimistic creative folk these days -- about the rise of the Internet spelling the end of all other creative forms? Several months ago, Philip Roth declared that no more novels will be written in 25 years. Today's Book Review gives us this paragraph in Charles Isherwood review of Kenneth Turan's Free For All, an oral history of the career of Joseph Papp:

And in the years since Papp's death, it has become clear that he was not just a major cultural force in New York in the second half of the 20th century; he was probably the last cultural game-changer America will ever know to make his name exclusively in theater. Papp's may not be "the greatest theater story ever told," although the huckster in him would appreciate the hyperbole, but it may well prove to be the last great theater story ever told, at least in this country.

Why? Have they shut Broadway down? Nobody told me! Last I heard, you still couldn't get good seats to Billy Elliot. What on earth would give Christopher Isherwood the idea that popular interest in modern theatre is waning at all, or that somebody in this still-thriving field might not equal or surpass Joseph Papp's achievement in the eternities to come?

It's that meme. And here it is again in this weekend's Book Review, in Neil Genzlinger piece on David Thomson's The Moment of "Psycho":

Maybe alongside all the groundbreaking that Thomson attributes to “Psycho” there is room for a companion theory about the film: that it was the last movie about which a book like "The Moment of 'Psycho'" could be written.

Haven't their been any great, amazing, groundbreaking, thoroughly original movies since 1960? I can name about 100. Some psychologist really ought to come up with a theory as to why so many cultural commentators need to believe that their favorite art forms are in death throes, that the future cannot possibly be as good as the past. My guess: it's only a sign that these cultural commentators have run out of mojo, have allowed their own imaginations to wither away.

This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: January 30 2010. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: January 17 2010.
5 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: January 24 2010"

"My guess: it's only a sign that these cultural commentators have run out of mojo, have allowed their own imaginations to wither away."

Especially when the Internet floods the culture with so many possible influences and voices that haven't been seen before. These are artists who wouldn't have made an impression except they were too weird, too isolated, too uninterested to come to New York and play at Literary Cocktails.

Again, the doddering bluehairs over at the NYTBR don't seem to understand that culture has advanced along quite well without them. They write as if anything after 1995 didn't happen, and hire contributors to match. (And they've dropped their freelancing rates, demonstrating their true commitment to keeping an outmoded period alive.) The NYTBR was never like that during the McGrath days.

I give Asher and Champion about fifteen years to start behaving like the bluehairs they currently ostracize.

by Mark Cohen on

I may end up being the commenter who proves there's a Saul Bellow angle to every issue (I have to put my obsession to some use). So,

"But I wish the essay drilled deeper" into the "sharp and invasive act of 'boring' itself."

Humboldt's Gift features a wonderfully entertaining meditation on boredom. Charles Citrine attempts an essay on "Great Bores of the Modern World." But the best is Bellow's definition of boredom, "a kind of pain caused by unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents." He then goes into a political interpretation of boredom. Terrific stuff.

And regarding the meme of these being end times for one cultural pursuit or another, in 1964 Bellow felt surrounded by this attitude and attacked it in Herzog as a (boring) cliche of modernity. He also connects it to Christian eschatology (first time I'm using as opposed to reading that word) in what is Bellow's most Jewish book.

The connection to Christian eschatology makes sense. Everytime something big happens, a bunch of end-timers climb up on their roofs and wait for the rapture. They see signs of Armageddon in wars, earthquakes, political upheaval, dicks and titties on television, so why wouldn't they see it in the internet, too? The printing press probably freaked out those who wanted to keep the Bible exclusive to the upper class.

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