A casual society of underground/alternative-minded writers calling themselves The Unbearables have been spreading joy and literary wisdom around downtown New York City for as long as I can remember. They protested the cravenness of the New Yorker magazine and the growing commercialism of the surviving Beat Generation writers during the 1990s, and now they're back with The Worst Book I Ever Read, a diverse collection of essays about terrible reading experiences that, I think, many literary folks will relate to. I interviewed ringleader Ron Kolm about this book.
Levi: The Worst Book I Ever Read shows a really eclectic range of choices. We've got the Bible, a dictionary, a 5500 page autobiography by Henry Darger. Michael Carter hates John Locke, and Sparrow picks a psychology book. Were you surprised by the range of responses?
As if I needed more prodding to write about David Shields' Reality Hunger, the book appears in today's New York Times Book Review, respectfully reviewed by Luc Sante, who urges (I nod approvingly here) a calm and sympathetic reading of the controversial work:
On the whole, though, he is a benevolent and broad-minded revolutionary, urging a hundred flowers to bloom, toppling only the outmoded and corrupt institutions. His book may not presage sweeping changes in the immediate future, but it probably heralds what will be the dominant modes in years and decades to come. The essay will come into its own and cease being viewed as the stepchild of literature. Some version of the novel will endure as long as gossip and daydreaming do, but maybe it will become more aerated and less controlling. There will be a lot more creative use of uncertainty, of cognitive dissonance, of messiness and self- consciousness and high-spirited looting. And reality will be ever more necessary and harder to come by.
It would be a shame if the predictable backlash against David Shields' exciting critique of contemporary literarature Reality Hunger (or against Ben Yagoda's related study Memoir: A History) actually discouraged any potential readers from checking out either book. The David Shields book has been stirring up a lot of strong words lately, and I'm finding the intensity of anger strange. Granted, as Laura Miller suggests in the Salon article above, some of Shields' bold statements are designed to be "controversial" (it sells books) -- however, they may still be worth something. It's galling that Jessa Crispin reacts to Shields book with defensive scorn, as if bloggers and critics who discuss the book were trying to tell her what to do. She says, "I don't know why people feel the need to make declarations about what literature should be all of a sudden."
Reality Hunger is a book-length essay about literature and culture by David Shields that's getting a lot of attention for its provocative key argument: we are wrong to think of fiction as the most exalted form of literature, because as readers we mostly value writings that bring us reality and truth -- which are, by strict definition, beyond the scope of fiction. Shields presents today's literary community as blind and confused, trained to pine after the ideal of the perfect novel, the sublime work of art, when in fact we crave something more primal than artistic excellence when we read.
I've spent this weekend reading David Shields' exciting Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a book that urges us to reject the notion that fiction is artistically or philosophically superior to nonfiction. This impressive book is empowering me to accept and embrace for the first time the dread and boredom I have always felt when I pick up a new issue of the New York Times Book Review and see a bunch of articles about novels and short story collections I've never heard of and have no clear use for.
(Please welcome Mark Cohen, author of Missing A Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim and proprietor of the culture blog Stumbling Into Jews. -- Levi)
Author and literary critic Seymour Krim has fallen off today’s Beat bookshelf. But when he let loose in 1957 with his slanted, rankling, fight-picking essays in the Village Voice he was a Beat, because what else could he be? Especially when he saluted Jack Kerouac's On the Road as his escape hatch from literary criticism, his pre-Beat beat. And then in 1960 he edited The Beats and appeared in The Beat Scene. Still, his first and most celebrated book of essays, the 1961 Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, made it clear he was less a Beat than one of the establishment’s casualties (unless that’s one category of Beat). With its foreword by Norman Mailer, and back cover summary of Krim’s publications and death-riddled family history, Nearsighted Cannoneer is torn between sticking its tongue out and making excuses for what the reader will find inside. Krim mined that inner tension his entire writing career, which produced two more collections of essays, garnered him a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, and brought him teaching posts at Columbia and Iowa. Since his death in 1989, Beat anthologies have ignored him. But he still has impressive fans, including James Wolcott, Phillip Lopate, and Vivian Gornick, who called Krim "a Jewish Joan Didion."
I can't ever seem to get on board with the hot new young writers selected by our literary/critical/blogosphere group mind. I haven't gotten into Joseph O'Neill, or Marisha Pessl, or Junot Diaz, or Tower Wells, or Joshua Ferris. Is it my fault? Am I carrying too many prejudices with me, or not trying hard enough? Mark Sarvas recently seconded some comments Joshua Ferris made about readers or reviewers who don't like his latest work. Ferris said:
... they don't allow the book's rules to establish themselves before applying their own aesthetic criteria to it which I think is a mistake. I think a careful and adult reader allows the book to establish its world and then evaluates it on how well it does so.
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.
Fourteen days into the new decade, tastemakers and hipsters are already buzzing about two groundbreaking artistic sensations that may define the current generation: MTV's "Jersey Shore" and Joshua Ferris's The Unnamed. What I'm really concerned about is that I've sampled both and I like "Jersey Shore" a whole lot better.
I still haven't mentally returned from vacation, still haven't gotten back into the LitKicks swing. I've been running around a lot, actually, as well as working hard behind the scenes on a new software platform for the site that has so far only succeeded in breaking the Action Poetry pages (they will be back soon, I promise). More soon! Till then ... links:
1. I first spotted New York City "character poet" Bingo Gazingo at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2002 doing a crazy improvisation about his lust for an R&B singer named "Mariah Canary". I then caught many more unhinged performances at the Bowery by this elderly Queens rhymer, who, I'm sorry to hear, passed away on New Years Day. The world of poetry may not long remember Bingo Gazingo, despite a brief long-ago moment on MTV, but I hope every poetry nightclub in the world has a weird old geezer like him around to liven up the room.
2. "We are not slumming here, or surrendering to the carnival of the web. Quite the contrary. We are hoping to offer an example of resistance to it." Really! Just by showing up, they're going to do all that? The New Republic has launched it's new book section The Book with a big blast of self-congratulation.
5. Jim Morrison's favorite beatnik cafe.
7. Rani Singh, an old friend, has finally published a book about the oddly great Harry Smith.
10. Scott Esposito ponders writers vs. commentators.
11. The Millions asks a few bloggers to name the best literary readings they'd ever attended. It's a good question, and I had to pause for about three seconds before coming up with my own answer. Then I remembered seeing Allen Ginsberg. The kind of full-body, whole-soul performances he delivered -- funny, dead serious, totally in the moment -- set a standard for me that no other performer has yet matched.