Books postsSunday December 07, 2008
Authors: Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin, Barbara Bush's Dog
What impresses me about Timothy Egan's Op-Ed today, "Typing without a Clue," about the likes of Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin getting multimillion-dollar book contracts while real writers languish in obscurity and poverty, isnt' the logic of his argument, which is unassailable, but the fact that he can still be pissed off about it. I've taken it as a given for so long it doesn't even register as an affront anymore.
This isn't a criticism. Or, if it is a criticism, it's a criticism of me. Because Egan's right. He's so right:
Next up may be Sarah Palin, who is said to be worth nearly $7 million if she can place her thoughts between covers. Publishers: with all the grim news of layoffs and staff cuts at the venerable houses of American letters, can we set some ground rules for these hard times? Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print.
Most of the writers I know work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true. Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal.
Two-Minute Review: E.L. Doctorow's “Creationists”
E. L. Doctorow's Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006, is ordered chronologically — from an essay on Genesis to one on the bomb, or from the beginning of the world to its possible end — and these essays tend to get more interesting the closer Doctorow gets to his own time.
I’ve found this to be true for his novels as well. I love The Book of Daniel (1940s to 1960s) and Ragtime (early 1900s), and like well enough, but have read only once, the trio from the 1930s: Loon Lake, World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate. But once E.L. went into the 19th century he lost me. I barely made it through Waterworks (post-Civil War) and couldn’t get into The March (Civil War). It's as if the 19th century stilts his prose.
Most of the essays here weren’t written as essays anyway. Some were written as lectures and some were written as introductions to classic texts (Tom Sawyer) or afterwords to less-than-class texts (Arrowsmith), and I often felt something was missing. What’s missing is their context, or the primary text to which they’re supposed to relate, and to which Doctorow is silently alluding. They’re less essays than addenda; they don’t have legs to stand on.
Still, as I said, the closer Doctorow gets to our own time the more interesting he becomes. The stuff on Poe and Stowe? Drags. Melville, too, though I was amused that he writes about Moby Dick (“The surpise to me, at my age now, is how familiar the voice of that book is...”) in the sane way that I wrote about The Book of Daniel (“What a surprise that some of the forgotten lines of my life are in here...”).
Yet Doctorow did make me want to read Dos Passos and re-read Kafka. He made me want to see more Arthur Miller plays:
...among the protagonists of these plays, there are those incapable of self-reflection who choose rather to destroy themselves...and those who undergo the crisis of self-revelation and find some means of stumbling on. ... But there are no easy answers. ... Lyman Felt says “A man can be faithful to himself or to other people—but not to both.” That is one tough line and it could not be uttered in a facile moralistic tale.
He’s particularly good on Kafka’s Amerika, in which Kafka learned, according to Doctorow, that his characters needn’t travel anywhere to be trapped. But he’s best outside of literature: on Einstein and his genius — which prefigures Malcolm Gladwell’s discussions on the communal context of creativity — and on the bomb: the why and the how and the oops of it, and the difference, in layman’s terms, between the A- and H-bomb. The A-bomb exhausts its own chain reaction, which limits its destructive power. “The H-bomb has no known limits,” he writes.
I don't get Doctorow's fascination with the 19th century but he keeps drifting further and further back into it. Note from the 21st century: Come back, E.L. You're needed.
Literary Quote of the Day
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
— James Baldwin, from the essay “Stranger in the Village” in Notes of a Native Son. He wrote it about America in the 1950s, and I first read it in the 1980s when it seemed truer than in the 1950s. Today it seems truer still.
Is Ron Suskind a Coen Brothers Fan?
Continuing to read Ron Suskind's book, now on part II (The Armageddon Test), and I've come across a few references to the word “abide” — such as how Pres. Ford's funeral in January 2007, according to Suskind, “prompts reflection about what abides and what is lost with the passage of time.” It's a common Biblical word but pop-culturally I couldn't help but think of Jeff Bridges' character in the Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski: “The Dude abides,” etc.
A few minutes later I came across this line: “But that thought is like a seed that can find no purchase...” Again, Biblical, but, again, Coen brothers, this time Raising Arizona: “Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.”
So have both Suskind and the Coens studied their Bibles (likely) or is Suskind simply a huge Coens' fan? Either way: kind of funny in a book that is anything but.
The Ten-Cent Plague and the ebb and flow of culture
Hajdu’s also adept at our cultural ebb and flow: how and why the focus of comic books became superheroes, then crime, then romance, then horror, then Mad and all of its imitators; how comic books nearly went down in flames in 1954 after often going up in flames in comic-book burnings in isolated spots around the country in the late 1940s.
The general historical overview of this period tends to focus on Frederic Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent, and Hadju shows not only how Wertham was deeper — he opened the first mental health clinic, the Lafargue Clinic, in Harlem — but how the scare went wider, encompassing the rise of juvenile delinquency as far back as the early 1940s. Comic books were an easy scapegoat, the quick fix we’re forever looking for. Even if delinquency wasn’t necessarily on the rise, our concern about it was. One of my favorite bits, from pg. 213:
In the spring of 1953, juvenile crime showed no signs of worsening: to the contrary, on April 16, a headline in The New York Times announced “Youth Delinquency Down”...Eleven days later, the United States Senate approved a resolution to launch an investigation into the causes and effects of juvenile delinquency...Those televised subcommittee hearings seem a staple of the 1950s — Army-McCarthy, etc. — but what I didn’t know, what Hajdu lets me know, was how popular they were. Sen. Estes Kerfauver’s earlier hearings on organized crime, which traveled around the country, from New Orleans to Detroit to St. Louis and onto the west coast, before landing in New York in March 1951, produced gigantic ratings for the period:
Some 70 percent of New Yorkers with TV sets tuned in for the hearings — seventeen times the number of people who usually watched daytime television... Two theaters in Manhattan, finding their seats vacant during the “Kefauver hours,” set up systems to project the broadcasts on their screens... Homemakers had “Kefauver parties”...Several schools dismissed students early so they could watch the hearings at home...I’m reminded of the discussion here a few months back on the fragmentation of our society and our current lack of a national meeting place; these hearings were obviously one such place. I’m also impressed that there was a time when Americans would rather be informed than entertained — or, at least, they found information, this information anyway, entertaining. Not sure how our culture flowed away from that dynamic.