Overrated Writers

The fact that I don't love Thomas Pynchon is statistically nearly impossible.

Any literary heat map of my favorite writers would find Pynchon near the center, hovering somewhere between Brautigan, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, Thompson, Acker, Coetzee, Auster. And yet I can't stand his thick, impenetrably clever prose. I find his hysterical habit of packing multiple cosmic curlicues, pop-culture puns and obscure historical references into every sentence simply obnoxious. I don't like a writer who keeps trying to distract my attention when I'm trying to read.

But, well, here's the thing. All my friends and literary comrades and people I respect love Thomas Pynchon. I guess they find his convoluted style fun and challenging. Who knows? My friends have Pynchon tattoos, have named their bands or websites after Pynchon, have even written adoring Litkicks articles about Pynchon. I don't understand why all these smart people love him so much and I don't, and I feel very isolated in this position.

I want to like Pynchon, especially since the kind of cutting social satire that I understand his books add up to ought to be right up my alley (if only I could stand reading them). My dislike of Thomas Pynchon is not fashionably correct, the way my dislike of Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy is. (In this sense it is, however, exactly like my dislike of David Foster Wallace, and I can summarize how both of these opinions make me feel: It's lonely out here.)

With that said, a new Pynchon novel is definitely an event, and everyone I know is super-excited about Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon's brand new novel. Here's Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times.

Each new Pynchon novel presents a different way to parse his bibliography, and "Bleeding Edge" makes a solid case for a divide between books set roughly in present moment and not, Now versus Then. Now includes "Bleeding Edge," "Vineland," "The Crying of Lot 49" and the frame of "V." The Then books are "Gravity's Rainbow" (1944-45 seen from the vantage of 1973), "Inherent Vice" (1970 seen from 2009), "Against the Day" (circa 1900 via 2006) and "Mason & Dixon" (the 1760s by way of 1997).

The Then books have a deliberateness to them, a deep dive into a specific set of ideas dappled with carefully chosen historic details. The Now books have the quality of an exploration, of digestion in progress. "Bleeding Edge," in particular, seems to be a data dump that's being processed on the page.

All of Pynchon's works are crammed with cultural references; here they seem less mysterious and significant than in previous novels. In "Bleeding Edge," Pynchon seems like a kid playing in a ball pit, having an awful lot of fun tossing around whatever is brightly colored and within reach.

Carolyn Kellogg clearly knows her Pynchon, though it's not clear that she's blown away by Bleeding Edge. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times also suggests that this Pynchon work has problems:

In his latest novel, Bleeding Edge, Mr. Pynchon tackles Sept. 11 head-on. And he also addresses the other great contemporary subject — the Internet and its transformation of our world — that happens to mesh so completely with his enduring fascination with hidden connections, alternate realities and the plight of people caught up in the gears of a ravenous and gargantuan techno-political machine.

The result, disappointingly, is a scattershot work that is, by turns, entertaining and wearisome, energetic and hokey, delightfully evocative and cheaply sensational; dead-on in its conjuring of zeitgeist-y atmospherics, but often slow-footed and ham-handed in its orchestration of social details. All the author’s familiar trademarks are here: a multitudinous cast with ditsy, Dickensian names; shaggy-dog plotlines sprouting everywhere, like kudzu; large heapings of coincidence; and a plethora of jokes, ditties, dead-end digressions and trippy, playful asides about everything from Benford Curve anomalies to Beanie Babies to the mysteries of the "Deep Web."

It's worth remarking that Thomas Pynchon's career has now been going on nearly as long as Bob Dylan's. As Ed Park says in BookForum:


That is a lot of years. I'm also intrigued that this novel covers New York City's Silicon Alley scene during the years of the dot-com boom, the dot-com crash, the millennium and the World Trade Center attack. This is, of course, a setting and an era that I have written extensively about myself. I'm still not going to read the book.

You can, though. You'll probably love it.


The fact that I don't love Thomas Pynchon is statistically nearly impossible.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013 07:20 pm
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
Levi Asher

Brooklyn will get over it pretty quick.

(More like this.)

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Thursday, September 16, 2010 07:31 pm
Levi Asher

(I've been on a little vacation, but here are some links you might like. The image of an eye is by Susan Manvelyan, via BoingBoing.)

1. Here's a really good piece by British novelist Tom McCarthy, one of the brighter literary lights of our time: Technology and the Novel: From Blake to Ballard.

2. Jackson Ellis interviews poet Diane DiPrima.

3. Tod Goldberg: Glimmer Train Is The Best Death Metal Band Ever: A Guide To Literary Journals.

4. After postmodern novelist David Markson's recent death, his impressive and highly personalized book collection showed up in pieces at the Strand Bookstore.

5. I'm definitely excited that Jay-Z's memoir is coming out in November. I bet this will be a good one.

6. I've sometimes wondered why there aren't more and better history blogs. But I'm continually impressed by the far-ranging and well-written Bozo Sapiens, by Michael and Ellen Kaplan. Clearly the leader in the history blog field.

7. William Faulkner at University of Virginia in the 1950s, captured on audio.

8. I don't know how I feel about a movie dramatizing Kurt Cobain's life. But if the movie's going to be made, it's probably good news that the screenwriter is Oren Moverman, who wrote the impressionistic Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There. Maybe five different actors or actresses will play Kurt.

9. Adam Langer, author of Thieves of Manhattan, appreciates the books of Beverly Cleary. Speaking of whom: I saw a trailer for a new film called Ramona and Beezus. As far as I can tell from the trailer, this movie has absolutely zero resemblance to the great Cleary stories it's based on (for one thing, the characters are several years older than in the books). It's just another movie about a perky kid. I have no idea why they would bother to call this movie Ramona and Beezus.

10. This Telegraph article seems to imply that Harold Pinter responded in a beastly way to students who asked him questions about his work. But it seems to me he was simply answering honestly.

11. Where F. Scott's Daisy Buchanan grew up.

12. Tao Lin can't escape his shady past. Asked about the title of his novel: "I was quiet then said Shoplifting from American Apparel in a reluctant, vaguely embarrassed, somehow slightly accusatory manner. Immediately an NYU officer I hadn't fully noticed said "oh, really" a bit loudly and walked quickly out of the room."

13. Elton John is writing a musical based on George Orwell's Animal Farm.

14. We can always have fun taking down overrated writers. I agree with Gabriel Josipovici about Philip Roth, but I'm a little peeved that Anis Shivani mocked the same exact William Vollmann quote that I mocked four years ago. Find your own quotes to mock, Shivani.

15. The Library of America has launched its own blog.

16. XKCD on language.

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Monday, August 9, 2010 05:37 pm
Levi Asher

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?

Ron: Well, the Worst Book I Ever Read anthology was assembled over a long period of time; ten years to be exact. When we first asked for submissions we tried to impose a format on the pieces - we asked that they be of a certain length and only deal with real books; in other words, no fiction. And we did get a number of texts that followed the guidelines; most of the Bible pieces, the David Ulin piece, etc. But the result was boring -- it was as if we were putting together some sort of holiday gift book, something that any publisher could do. Then, about three years ago, I heard Carl Watson read his Henry Darger piece at the Bowery Poetry Club, and I was knocked out by it. Carl posits the notion that anything he read in the Darger manuscript would then occur in the real world - when he read about a bridge collapsing in the Midwest, then turned on his TV, he'd find out that a bridge in Minnesota had in fact crumbled into the river. It hit me in a flash that this made the Darger manuscript a 'bad' book; that is, a piece of writing that did 'bad' things in the world. This meant that other forms of writing could also be 'bad,' the same way Fox news is 'bad.' A court transcript could be bad if it was filled with lies; even a book that fell off a shelf and conked someone on the head could be naughty in this light - we didn't have to simply list books or writers we didn't like; we could range far afield. The only constraint we worked under was that all of the 'members' of the group had to be included, no matter what they did, and this is why the book is so eclectic. So, no, given who the Unbearables are, I'm not surprised by the range of responses.

Levi: Several of the best entries in your book failed to seriously answer the main question. I loved Arthur Nersesian's piece, but the fact that he glanced at a biography of Stalin at the moment that somebody kicked over his book table does not constitute a good reason for him to pick that book as the worst book he ever read. Sharon Mesmer's poem is good but doesn't identify the poet she hates. Both you and Hal Sirowitz pick your own books, which really shouldn't count, because we all love/hate our own books. Why won't all these people really tell us what book they hate?

Ron: Part of this question is hopefully answered above. My unpublished manuscript was 'bad' because it wrecked my first marriage. There were several other things we were trying to do in our book; one of those was to further the myth of the Unbearables. The Mike Golden piece and the Jose Padua and Michael Randall pieces all do this to some degree or another. We also sought to archive or document some parts of the downtown scene in New York City we saw, or were part of, in the past. The Nersesian story tells the reader what it was like to sell books on the street, and the Scutti piece gives one a taste of the downtown art scene of that time, and that place. The book also has a hidden story arc, in that the critical pieces dealing with real books are mostly in the front, then it segues into other forms of bad literature, then it devolves into fiction, crumbles into bits in poetry and then, phoenix-like, Jim Feast's concluding piece is about a book he loves! We tried to take the ideal reader on a trip; to actually go from A to B, rather than just get stuck on A. In the end, our book is hopefully praising 'good' writing -- that's certainly what we were trying to do, anyway ...

Levi: James Joyce's Ulysses gets a lot of abuse (by LA Times critic David Ulin, among others). Aren't there really a lot of books worse than Ulysses? Do you think the James Joyce cult needs to be taken down a couple notches?

Ron: Well, Ulin's piece is what it is. Personally, I love Mr. Joyce. You have to read the erotic letters he wrote his wife, Nora, in the Selected Letters to get a real taste of where the dude is coming from! The other thing most folks don't know about Joyce is how hard he pushed his own work, and his own myth. He was relentless. The Ellman biography is terrific in this regard. There are other writers I like more; Flann O'brien, Roberto Bolano, Samuel Beckett, Javier Marias, etc.

Levi: I know you feel passionate about Gerry Nicosia's crusade against the Jack Kerouac estate, but don't you think he kind of missed the point of this book by focusing his essay on this crusade, instead of on the topic at hand? Regardless of who's right or wrong about Kerouac's legacy, why do you think Nicosia's battle is relevant to readers today?

Ron: Nicosia's piece was actually one of the early ones we got. We got to know Gerry during our Crimes of the Beats era. He and Jan Kerouac joined us in our mock protest against the Beats selling out, but they definitely had a different agenda from ours; we were just trying to 'kill off daddy.' We've always tried to do that; that's why we did our New Yorker protests. We feel that all people are equal, don't worship anyone -- love beat writing but don't worship Ginsberg; he's just a person like you or me. Same goes for James Joyce. Enjoy his prose, if you wish, but don't put him on a pedestal! My fascination with the Nicosia-Kerouac-Sampas affair is how much money is involved in the Kerouac estate, and what people will do to keep it, or get it, etc. This is raw capitalism, and most of the kids who buy On the Road would be surprised and perhaps saddened by the Sampas family machinations. So yes, I think the dose of reality doled out in Nicosia's piece is still germane -- and he does feel that the book he's trashing is 'bad' in many ways, so it dovetailed with what we were trying to do.

Levi: I enjoyed Michael Randall's contribution, especially since he picked Michael Chabon's Adventures of Kavalier and Klay which most closely resembles the book I would have picked if I were in this book, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. How can you explain a book with a title like The Worst Book I Ever Read that doesn't include a book by either Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth or Jonathan Lethem? I'm just saying.

Ron: Jeez, there I agree with you. Personally, I detest John Updike -- I always felt that he was an ugly misogynist filled with self-loathing; he got famous to get laid, and then hated women for having anything to do with him. Now there was a person who knew how to use literary power! Someone pointed out that he was one of the few famous writers who continued to write reviews of other writers' books right up to his death. Updike's problem with women is manifested near the opening scene of Rabbit is Rich, if I remember correctly. So I would say that that book is the worst I’ve ever tried to read –- I was unable to finish Blood Meridian by McCarthy as well. As Vince Passaro notes in his piece, most readers don’t finish books they dislike. He had to slog through to the end of the book he slams because he was being paid to review it.

* * * * *

I enjoyed Ron's answers so much that I went on to ask him a few more questions, not about the book, but about literature, the New York City scene and life in general. Stay tuned for that interview next week!

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010 12:44 pm
Levi Asher

Here they are, the Literary Kicks Overrated Writers of 2006: Philip Roth, Joan Didion, William Vollmann, Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem.

What these writers all have in common is that I once cared about each one of them. You don't get on my Worst Five list unless I once had high hopes for you. Each of these five writers seemed to be right up my alley when I first heard of them.

My fateful Cormac McCarthy encounter came on an airplane to California, after I'd excitedly purchased Blood Meridian for a gripping read. I ended up reading the in-flight magazine for six hours, because the writing was better. But I sure thought I'd love that book.

I had very, very high hopes when I first heard of William T. Vollmann, because the subjects he writes about are fascinating to me. I share his interest in the philosophy of history, I like his eclectic craziness, and I bet I'd become a big William Vollmann fan, if the guy would only deign to become readable. I still hope someday he will ... maybe after carpal tunnel syndrome catches up with him.

What I'm trying to say here is -- you can't really hate a writer unless you also love something about them. For example, Joan Didion came up with one of the all-time best book titles ever, the Yeats-inspired Slouching Towards Bethlehem. That's some title. Jonathan Lethem is a Mets fan. Philip Roth is a cranky old weirdo. What's not to like, right?

My week-long rant is now hereby over, and I have to tell you I feel about fifty pounds lighter after getting all of this off my chest. It's a good feeling. So now I'd like to ask you to vent your own opinions. Who are the writers you are really sick of hearing other people rave about? Who left you feeling like a loser for buying his or her crummy book?

This is your chance to let it all out, and I'd really like to hear what you have to say.

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Thursday, June 8, 2006 11:03 pm
Levi Asher

Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem are my final two selections for the five most overrated writers of 2006.

Some readers find Cormac McCarthy's stiff, humorless syntax appealing. I guess this is the way people talk out on the wild western frontier, in long flat sentences, with no commas to spare. Here are the first lines from The Crossing, the first volume in Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed Border Trilogy:

When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they'd named Hidalgo was itself little older than a child. In the country they'd quit lay the bones of a sister and the bones of his maternal grandmother. The new country was rich and wild. You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a cross-fence. He carried Boyd before him in the bow of the saddle and named to him features of the landscape and birds and animals in both spanish and english.

Would you like a Slim Jim or a pack of Marlboro's with that? I'm sorry, Cormac fans out there, but the whole tumbleweed-on-the-prairie routine feels hokey to me.

Not that there isn't a lot of hokey on a typical bestseller list, but what bugs me about Cormac McCarthy is that he so often shows up on lists of serious authors and gets compared to Faulkner and Hemingway. I don't think he has the depth. Granted, I don't always go crazy for Faulkner or Hemingway either, but at least they were blazing their own paths in trying to invent a syntax and a voice that would portray the wide-open American soul. As far as I can see, McCarthy is just following their template.

I can think of some newer books that also rely heavily on a "deep country" narrative voice, but manage to make it feel real, like Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier or Beloved by Toni Morrison. McCarthy's books feel superficial compared to these. They're all mood, all saddle leather and sinew. All drifters on journeys. Rivers that need to be crossed. People talking without quotation marks.

Clint Eastwood already directed the movie of every Cormac McCarthy novel put together, and it's called Unforgiven. I just don't think Cormac McCarthy's body of work rises to the status of great literature. Here's what I'm missing: humor, suspense, ideas, revelation.

I checked out the back cover blurbs of all the McCarthy novels I could find (and there are many, including Suttree, Cities of the Plain, All The Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, No Country For Old Men). Almost every book is described as taut. Taut, taut, taut. Cormac McCarthy has been publishing novels since 1965 -- how long can a guy be taut before he finally snaps?

Or, more to the point, how long can he be taut before I snap? Because McCarthy keeps turning these taut books out, year after year, with characters from Central Casting and props left over from Heaven's Gate, and I'm sick of hearing top critics talk about how great they are.

Jonathan Lethem. Where do I start? I have written about Jonathan Lethem before. That was a year ago, and I still don't like his books today.

There was a time, when I first heard about him, that I thought I would like Jonathan Lethem. His books always seemed to be based on clever concepts. A Brooklyn street kid with Tourette's syndrome. A sci-fi send-up, a noir send-up. I kept trying these books, and they kept collapsing with a thud.

Motherless Brooklyn left me dizzy, and not in the good way. What the hell was that about? It was never believable for a second, none of it. Lethem's books are intellectually paper-thin; they feel like store displays of novels, rather than novels themselves. The message is that they have no message. The message is Brooklyn. Or something. Or more likely, nothing. I think.

But I kept hearing people rave about Jonathan Lethem, and somebody told me The Fortress of Solitude was his best book, the least gimmicky and the most personal. I tried it. But I was immediately annoyed by Lethem's signature futsy, self-conscious prose. He calls proud attention to his word choices way too often. I thought a good writer was supposed to make us forget that we're reading words, not point to them and wait for applause. Here's a typical line from the first page of The Fortress of Solitude, describing kids playing on a Boerum Hill street:

The girls sang murmured rhymes, were murmured rhymes.

No, Jonathan. The girls were not murmured rhymes. You were right the first time. You see, the girls are living members of the species homo sapiens, aged approximately 6 to 11, weighing approximately 75 pounds. Murmured rhymes, on the other hand, are sounds. They are pulsing waves, weightless and ephemeral. So Jonathan, why are you wasting my time with pretentious, pseudo-poetic and completely meaningless assertions like "The girls sang murmured rhymes, were murmured rhymes"?

* * * * *

With the addition of Butch Cassidy and the Brooklyn Kid to the roster, the Litkicks 2006 Overrated Writers List is complete. But I told you this would be a five-day project, and that's because tomorrow morning I'd like to say a few summary words and then invite you to name your own choices for the most overrated writers of our time. Please drop by Friday and speak your mind ... and thank you for listening to me rant the past few days. I hope you enjoyed it anywhere near as much as I did.

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Thursday, June 8, 2006 07:05 am
Levi Asher

I have tried hard, so very hard, to appreciate William Vollmann, a wildly original postmodernist obsessed with history and human aggression who is considered a great intellect by several people I respect. I've eagerly bought his thick, intimidating books, and I have put in solid time trying to read them. I will not try anymore.

William Vollmann is, in my opinion, the David Blaine of literature. It's all an endurance act. Can a skinny kid with pimples and glasses really write a seven volume chronicle of the settlement of North America, follow it with a 3,300 page history of human violence and then toss out an 800 page rumination on the Eastern Front in World War II? Yes, he can. But if you take the "wow" factor away from William Vollmann, does his work stand up? I'm really not sure.

Europe Central recently won the National Book Award, and so there I go trotting off to the bookstore yet again. Maybe this will finally be the William Vollmann book I can read all the way to the end, the one that my body won't reject like a badly transplanted organ. And here I go bringing it home and opening it to page one:

A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy's whole being). Somewhere between steel reefs, a wire wrapped in gutta-percha vibrates, I hereby ... zzZZZZZZ ... the critical situation ... a crushing blow.

At this point I am starting to realize that I may be finished with this 811-page book very soon -- not finished in the sense of completion but finished in the sense of permanent separation. Because, seriously, if it's going to be 811 pages of this kind of stuff, then I am now as finished with the book as I am ever going to be.

But, okay, I keep hearing that Vollmann is a genius, and I really don't want to give up. I peruse the book jacket, which informs me that Europe Central resembles Tolstoy's War and Peace, and I can't help noticing that a) War and Peace had a first paragraph that made sense, and b) War and Peace was shorter. But I'm a hell of a sport, so I'm going back in, one more time. Here's the first sentence of Chapter Two:

You won't get to watch it happen, they don't allow windows in the office, so you may feel a trifle dull at times, since on the steel desk, deep within arm's length, hunches that octopus whose ten round eyes, each inscribed with a number, glare through you at the world.

Can I suggest an alternate phrasing, Mr. Vollmann? Try it like this:

A telephone is on a desk.

If he would try it my way more often, he might sometimes manage to bring a book in under 400 pages. But would that spoil the fun for the small legions of self-punishing William Vollmann readers, who wear their harsh fates proudly, the way albino monks wear their bleeding sulpices? Certainly there is a sense of solemn duty when reading Vollmann, a conviction that in carrying out this task we are somehow suffering for mankind's sins. Take a close look at the all-too-telling back cover blurb for The Royal Family (which clocks in at 774 pages, a veritable short story):

Vollmann's books tower over the work of his contemporaries by virtue of their enormous range, stylistic daring, wide learning, audacious innovation and sardonic wit ... If you consider yourself at all conversant with contemporary American fiction, you must acquaint yourself with Vollmann's work and stay with him.

Note the imperative here. I must acquaint myself with Vollmann's work. Why? To prove I can take it? Because if I don't I'm a wussy Ann Beattie reader? Fuck that! I don't must anything.

In fact, I think it's presumptuous of William Vollmann to assume that I -- a father of three kids with a demanding day job and a litblog to tend -- have the time to read all of this unpruned verbiage, even if I want to. How can anybody find the time? Who the hell is Vollmann's target audience, other than night watchmen, marooned shipwreck survivors and Ed Champion? I really cannot imagine.

In June 2000, after visiting Afghanistan to observe the effects of Taliban rule, William Vollmann wrote an influential New Yorker article that's probably been read more widely than anything else he's written. I admire him for taking the initiative to visit this remote country, and for having the instinct to know that events in this region would become increasingly relevant around the world.

His article was highly informative and thankfully readable, but I discovered something surprising: when William Vollmann writes a straight story, he's really not that different from any other talented writer. Given his reputation as a rampant individualist and an unflinching observer of human nature, I'd somehow anticipated that he'd leave Afghanistan with a radical conclusion of some kind. Instead, he just gave us a competent and newsworthy piece.

Take away the "wow" factor, and what's left of William Vollmann? Just another good, smart writer, that's what. I think I'd like him better without the "wow" factor.

* * * * *

Tomorrow is two-for-one day here at the Overrated Writers Project, and then I'd like to hear about some of your overrated writers on Friday. Check back in the morning for our final two. Hint: one likes to play cowboy, and the other is my homeboy (but it won't help his case).

view /OverratedVollmann
Wednesday, June 7, 2006 06:55 am
Levi Asher

Call it sacrilege ... I just can't get behind this Joan Didion craze. She wins the second position on the Litkicks Overrated Writers List of 2006.

Joan Didion is a skillful and smart writer. But I've always considered her a quintessentially cold author, the epitome of the jaded, detached modernist. I once tried hard to read her most acclaimed novel, Play It As It Lays, because somebody told me it was great. I couldn't get to first base with this book. The sentences were sharp and the transitions were slick, maybe too slick, because my attention kept glancing off the brushed-steel surface of Didion's gleaming prose.

It was all cool anomie, all tone and attitude. Here's a typical passage from Play It As It Lays:

We had a lot of things and places that came and went, a cattle ranch with no cattle and a ski resort picked up on somebody's second mortgage and a motel that would have been advantageously situated at a freeway exit had the freeway been built; I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last.

That's nicely phrased, and it would work well as the setup for an exciting plot. But as I read on, it began to sink in that paragraphs like this were the plot. The book was an exercise in boredom, an exquisite portrait of nothingness. Here's how the teaser text on the book's jacket describes the main character: "Maria is an emotional drifter who has become almost anesthetized against pain and pleasure".

That's supposed to be a selling point? Not for this reader. I see emotional sterility all around me. I read books to cure this condition, not to reinforce it.

Of course, readers who love Joan Didion love her because she is the way she is, and they probably also love Don DeLillo and Lydia Davis and any number of other subtle, precise minimalists. The reason Ms. Didion makes my top five list in 2006 is that she just published what is probably the best book of her long career, The Year of Magical Thinking, a raw memoir about the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and the severe illness of her daughter. This successful book has catapulted her literary status into a higher orbit, but I can't stand idly by with my mouth shut when people start to portray her as the second coming of George Eliot or Virginia Woolf.

I read a long excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking in the New York Times Magazine, and I was very impressed by the piece. But it's an uncharacteristic Joan Didion work precisely because it does pack a punch. For once, Didion really plays it as it lays. Elsewhere, you get a lot of indirection and suggestion. She's the type of author who tells us she once had a nervous breakdown (which she describes as a case of "vertigo and nausea", in her essay The White Album) as an aside by including the full text of a doctor's note.

The Year of Magical Thinking also turns out to be a work of non-fiction, which has always been Didion's forte. But even her essays are underwhelming. Her turns of phrase may be stylistic marvels, but she lacks the distinctive message of a Susan Sontag or Camille Paglia or the signature voice of a Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe. She's a hardworking professional, like Malcolm Gladwell or Janet Malcolm, but that's not the same thing as being a literary genius.

In a Rolling Stone interview many years ago, John Irving cited Neil Young as a creative influence because "he's not afraid to embarrass himself." I don't think Joan Didion has ever embarrassed herself. I do not believe she has the heart of a great writer.

* * * * *

Enough about Saint Joan of California. Tomorrow's overrated writer promises to be a controversial choice, because many smart people I know like this author. Hint: I wouldn't hurt a guy with glasses, would I? Yeah, I would.
view /OverratedDidion
Tuesday, June 6, 2006 07:04 am
Levi Asher

Philip Roth once wrote a great, great book. It's called Goodbye, Columbus and it's his first book, published in 1959. The title novella is a hilarious, piercing tale of a doomed love affair between a poor bookish urban Jew and a spoiled Jewish-American Princess from the suburbs. The story reaches its sublime peak when the hero visits his girlfriend's palatial home and gapes, astonished, while her college-educated brother sits in his bedroom and listens over and over to his "Columbus record", a souvenir from his beloved Ohio State University. Goodbye, Columbus is one of my favorite books, and, yes, it establishes Philip Roth as a superb writer.

Unfortunately, as I said, this book was written in 1959. The "You can listen to my Columbus record" scene was not only the peak of this novella but also the peak of Roth's entire literary career. Did fame spoil Philip Roth? Maybe, because a paranoid, cranky dislike of humanity began to dominate his writing by the early sixties. I'm not sure what went wrong between his first book of short stories and the later books, though it may have had something to do with the difficult personal struggles he eventually chronicled in an autobiography, The Facts.

Paranoia became Roth's central theme, and it permeates most of his novels, from Portnoy's Complaint to American Pastoral to The Plot Against America. Roth's paranoia is different from the cold high-tech creepiness of Don DeLillo or the proud anti-establishment defiance of Ken Kesey. In Roth's world, it's the ones we know best and love most who are trying to oppress and destroy us: our parents, our friends and neighbors, our lovers, our children. This is a harsh and depressing world view, and while I don't begrudge Roth the right to call the shots the way he sees them, I do not find his theme very universal. Even less do I find it edifying. This is why I must disagree when I hear him described as a great writer of our age.

Philip Roth's world view is essentially childish. His most successful writings are about young people, but the formula turns sickly when his characters grow into adults, because the existential self-actualization of a mature adult is beyond his scope. The classic Roth character is terrified, helpless and about to throw a big fit. By the time his characters get old and prepare to die, as in the new Everyman, they may become resigned, but there is little evidence that they ever become mature.

In this sense, there is a great difference between Roth and an author he is frequently compared to, John Updike. There are similarities as well -- they both emerged in the late 50s and hit their strides during the Vietnam War era, when Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Updike's Couples perched on the bestseller list. Both writers carried forward the risque literary tradition of D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, but Updike's literary vision feels expansive where Roth's feels repressive. A look at the way they conduct themselves as literary celebrities brings home this point.

John Updike seems infused with generosity and curiosity. He publishes short stories and poems along with novels, and he is also, by any measure, one of our top literary critics. His characters inhabit an amazing variety of cultural backgrounds, some more convincingly than others, though the attempt is always admirable: an Arab-American terrorist, a Brazilian beach bum, a Danish Queen, an African politician. Philip Roth's fictional universe, on the other hand, is entirely peopled by, hmm, let's see ... Jewish families in Newark, Jewish families who left Newark, famous Jewish writers, famous Jewish writers from Newark, and famous Jewish writers whose families left Newark. Then there are some characters who resemble Philip Roth.

I could forgive Philip Roth's introverted consistency (no short stories, no literary criticism, just one novel after another) if his writing didn't feel similarly churlish. He is a talented storyteller and knows how to paint a key scene, but his narrative voice is often surprisingly clumsy and obvious. I don't want to dwell too much on the Updike-Roth comparison, but it must be said that Philip Roth is not in John Updike's league as a prose stylist. Roth doesn't even attempt the beautiful turns, the sparkling observations, the sharp-edged parentheticals that characterize a typical John Updike sentence.

I must make this clear: I really do like Philip Roth. I just can't abide by the current meme that calls him a relevant spokesperson for our current time. I'm especially bothered by the fact that Roth is often called a representative voice for modern American Jews; I'm a member of that group, and Roth's bitter message of fundamental separatism does not speak for me.

I have spent a lot of time with Roth's books over the years. Sometimes I like them, sometimes I don't. Portnoy's Complaint must have seemed revolutionary in its own time, but it's a bumpy read today. The Breast? A one-joke book. Roth turned a literary corner with The Ghost Writer, introducing a new altar ego named Nathan Zuckerman and a more seasoned, measured authorial voice. I liked this book, but I could not endure the endless sequels. The only other later Roth I care about is The Facts, a searing and painful autobiography that includes a raw account of his terrible first marriage, which is instructive reading for any husband who feels like a secret victim of a dominating wife (this drama played out just as young Roth's literary career skyrocketed, and the ordeal may help explain his signature sense of paranoia).

In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov wrote about a French ape in a zoo who was coaxed into producing a drawing with charcoal on paper. The ape, Nabokov tells us, was only able to draw the bars of his own cage. Philip Roth, as far as I can see, has spent the last forty years doing the same thing.

But read Goodbye Columbus.

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What's the point of naming overrated writers if I'm not going to take on some Goliaths? I'll be naming the five most overrated writers of our time here at LitKicks all week, one per day, and I promise I won't waste your time with easy targets like Curtis Sittenfeld or Jonathan Safran Foer. I'm going for a truly beloved author tomorrow, a bicoastal sacred cow who has recently capped a long career with a triumphant book. I like the recent book, but I find the long career underwhelming. Check back tomorrow to see who I'm talking about.

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Monday, June 5, 2006 07:50 am
Levi Asher