Books postsSaturday March 09, 2013
“Anyway, I decided, if there was anything the human race had a sufficiency of, a sufficiency and a surfeit, it was books. When I thought of the cataracts of books, the Niagras of books, the rushing rivers of books, the oceans of books, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at the moment, only a very few of which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn't written it. One less book to clutter up the world, one less book to take up space and catch dust and go unread from bookstore to homes to second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes to still other second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes ad infinitum.”
-- Joseph Mitchell, “Joe Gould's Secret.”
Joseph Mitchell, author of “Joe Gould's Secret”
The New Hollywood 10: How Stars on the Left are Punished; How Stars on the Right Punish Us
It's logical to assume there are more liberals than conservatives in Hollywood. Artists tend to be progressive, cities tend to be progressive, Hollywood is a city full of artists and artisans. And businessmen. The rub. But not enough of one.
But I've long argued that it doesn't follow that the product of Hollywood, particularly the movies, is progressive. Movies have almost always been conservative. You can sum up most action movies this way: a lone man using violence to achieve justice. You can sum up most romances this way: ...and then they got married. The movies are wish-fulfillment fantasy. That's why we go. And wish fulfillment isn't progressive; it's stagnant. It moves us but it doesn't move us.
Consider this a clumsy lead-in to a quick discussion of Steven J. Ross's book “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.” Ross gives us nine chapters on 10 different stars and their involvement in the political scene, generally intercutting between stars on the left and stars and moguls on the right:
- Charlie Chaplin
- Louis B. Mayer
- Edward G. Robinson
- George Murphy and Ronald Reagan
- Harry Belafonte
- Jane Fonda
- Charlton Heston
- Warren Beatty
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
Hollywood may have more liberals than conservatives, but, certainly in the above scheme, it's better to be conservative than liberal.
Look what happens to those on the left: Chaplin is kicked out of the country, Robinson is blacklisted; Belafonte gives up his career for the civil rights movement and never gets it back; Fonda is pilloried for the rest of her life for a bad, 10-second photo op not of her own making; and Beatty, well, Beatty is the Hamlet of the group. He's the good actor who has trouble acting. He can't make a decision.
(All of these stars on the left, by the way, tend to be incredibly talented, and their legacy in the arts is long.)
On the right? Mayer ran the biggest studio in Hollywood's Golden Age and indoctrinated a few choice stars to the conservative cause. Heston became president of the NRA, Schwarzenegger governor of California, George Murphy U.S. Senator, and Ronald Reagan, of course, became the 40th President of the United States.
(All of these stars on the right, by the way, aren't very talented, and their legacy in the arts, Mayer notwithstanding, is puny.)
You could say the stars on the left were punished while the stars on the right punished us. Murphy, Reagan, et al., transferred the absolutist, wish-fulfillment fantasies of Hollywood to the political realm (“Morning in America”; tax cuts + increased defense spending = balanced budget; “my cold, dead hands”) and remade our society. But there's no Hollywood ending for us. At least not for the middle class. The bad guys win. We just don't see it.
Ross doesn't draw so stark a conclusion but it's there.
The saddest chapter may belong to Edward G. Robinson, who was a good guy, a solid liberal, an anti-Nazi, who was made to pay during the McCarthy era for being liberal and anti-Nazi. He was set up to serve as a warning to everyone in the community to shut the fuck up. I.e., If they could do what they did to Edward G. Robinson, what can't they do to you?
I could see a movie being made out of Robinson's chapter. Not wish fulfillment.
The dirty rats were in HUAC and Red Channels.
Freedom vs. Security: Entering Salman Rushdie's World
In the latest New Yorker, Salman Rushdie has an essay, third person, on his life after the fatwa. The following is my Sept. 2002 review of his book, “Step Across Ths Line: Collected Nonfiction: 1992-2002.” In it, Rushdie raises questions not just for himself but for all of us in the 21st century.
On Feb. 14, 1989, Indian novelist Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death by Islamic fundamentalists for the way he wrote about Islam in the novel “The Satanic Verses.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, all of us, in a sense, entered Salman Rushdie's world.
The issues that Salman Rushdie has been dealing with for the past 13 years are now our issues: terrorism versus security, security versus liberty. “How many more murders and assaults on innocent men and women will the Free World tolerate?” he wrote in October 1993. The answer was: thousands.
And in a sentence that might one day rank with W.E.B. Dubois' 1903 contention that “the issue of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line,” Rushdie wrote, in January 2000, “The defining struggle of the new age would be terrorism and security.”
During the early, dark years of the fatwa, Rushdie was encouraged to keep quiet about the fact that an entire nation (Iran) and an extreme faction of a religion (Islamic fundamentalists) had ordered his death. His adopted homeland, Britain, was still negotiating with Islamic fundamentalists for the release of British hostages (Terry Waite, et al.), and it was felt that Rushdie shouldn't stir the waters. When the hostages were finally released, Rushdie's voice was finally released, and many of the pieces in his new book, “Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002,” were the result.
In articles and letters, and in speeches given around the world, Rushdie kept reminding us that he was not the issue, that what he had written was not to blame. “Many people say that the Rushdie case is a one-off,” he told the International Conference on Freedom of Expression in April 1992, “that it will never be repeated. This complacency, too, is an enemy to be defeated.”
He spoke out not only against atrocities that related to the fatwa (the shooting of his Norwegian publisher; the murder of his Japanese translator) but against religious extremism everywhere: from the persecution of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin to the Kansas Board of Education's decision, in 1999, to remove evolution from the state's recommended curriculum — an action which, Rushdie writes, actually disproves Darwin's greatest theory: “the dumbest and unfittest sometimes survive.”
Throughout, one feels Rushdie's prose sharpening, his anger growing. In the early years, he writes about freedom of expression and national sovereignty. But after Hindu and Muslim violence killed hundreds of innocents in Ahmadabad, Gujarat, in March 2002, he becomes more blunt. “What happened in India happened in God's name. The problem's name is God.”
Not all of the pieces in this collection are fatwa-related. If most writers struggle for the world to take them seriously, Rushdie struggles with the opposite, and in one section of the book Rushdie indulges his pop-cultural sweet tooth with quick articles on U2, the Rolling Stones and soccer. He is most impressive in a long essay about, of all things, “The Wizard of Oz,” focusing on the film's internal contradiction: the need to leave (“Over the Rainbow”) versus the need to return (“There's no place like home.”). He defends the state of the novel (yet again) from those who would declare it dead — making the fine, contrarian argument that the novel's problem is actually its abundance. “Readers ... give up. They buy a couple of prizewinners a year, perhaps one or two books by writers whose names they recognize, and flee.”
Most of the articles, unfortunately, were written for newspapers, and are thus only two or three pages long. Reading straight through can sometimes seem like riding in a car with a stick-shift novice: as momentum builds, you jerk to a stop, only to start up again. Also, many of the pieces are literally yesterday's news. Who wants to read once more about Elian Gonzalez or hanging chads?
Yet there are excellent longer pieces, particularly a 30-page essay on returning to India (the first country to ban “The Satanic Verses”) after 11 years of exile, in April 2000.
Most important, Salman Rushdie has been living in a post-Sept. 11 world now for 13 years, and his wisdom is earned. His January 2000 column alone should be required reading for everyone in America. “We need to understand that even maximum security guarantees nobody's safety ... ” he writes. “And to thank our secret protectors, but to remind them, too, that in a choice between security and liberty, it is liberty that must always come out on top.”
Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
My friend Mark F. used to tell the following story during our days working in the University Book Store warehouse in the 1990s.
Apparently Gore Vidal was on the Phil Donahue Show one time (according to IMDb.com, it would have to be this episode from 1974), and the discussion got around to God and Jesus and yadda yadda, and someone from the audience, a kindly woman, stood up and asked Mr. Vidal, author of “Myra Breckenridge” and eventually “Live from Golgotha,” whether he had ever read the Bible. He responded that, yes, he had read it many times. An even more sincere look crossed her face and she asked, “Yes, but have you ever read it with your heart?” Mark, who bears a slight resemblance in appearance and manner to Dr. Niles Crane, Frasier's brother on “Frasier,” would then do his masterful Gore Vidal response. “My dear,” Mark would say, “I'm afraid that that is hardly the proper organ with which to read.”
As Gore Vidal did with the Bible, so I've done with Gore Vidal. Over the years, reading his books, I've found myself highlighting this or that sentence, or paragraph, or page, which I felt was funny, or sharp, or helped explain some part of the world. That's what I've peppered the blog with today: the stuff I've highlighted over the years. These aren't his most famous quotes; they're probably not his best. But they're the ones that struck me or tickled me as I happened to read with pen or pencil in hand.
I disagreed with him a lot, too, of course, more so as he aged. He came to believe that Pearl Harbor had been a vast conspiracy to get us involved in World War II. I.e., FDR knew the attack was coming and did nothing. Post-9/11, same thing. Bush knew. He became one of those guys. In a 1998 piece for Vanity Fair, Vidal revealed too much sympathy for Timothy McVeigh and not enough for his victims. For years, Vidal suggested a new constitutional convention to replace the worn-out one we've been using.
My disagreements with him even reached my subconscious. From my 1996 dream journal:
Gore Vidal and I are talking in my apartment, and he picks up a book of his essays that I'm reading. Initially I worry I might have scribbled offensive lines in the margins but he doesn't find anything. We talk of other authors and other books, and he asks if I have them, but I worry about the notes scribbled in the margins of those books, too, and don't bother to show him.
I felt bad that I didn't read more of his novels, but the ones I did read (“Lincoln,” “Washington, D.C.,” “Burr”) I didn't like much. His personality didn't come through. I know he railed against the state of the modern novel, its smallness, to go along with the size of its audience. He kept argung that the literature that lasts tends to focus on great men and great events, which is why he wrote about ancient Rome, and Jesus, and the United States of America: from the founding fathers to Washington, D.C., post-World War II, when, as he reminded us again and again, the great Republic died and was replaced by the National Security State. He even gave us an exact date for this replacement: February 27, 1947.
I wound up interviewing him, by fax, and meeting him, at Town Hall, and reviewing for The Seattle Times a few of his later books, none of which thrilled. But the essays remain necessary reading. A final quote, from “How I Do What I Do If Not Why,” which appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1988:
Writers and writing no longer matter much anywhere in freedom's land. Mistuh Emerson, he dead. Our writers are just entertainers, and not all that entertaining either. We have lost the traditonal explainer, examiner, prophet.
Yes, we have.
Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
The Novel for the 99%: Max Barry's 'Company'
Just spent a week on Kauai, Hawaii, a great vacation I'll write about it in the coming days.
But for now a book recommendation: Max Barry's “Company,” which I read during my first two days on Kauai. It's not only the novel for anyone who has suffered a dead-end, meaningless job with idiotic managers—which means 99% of us—it's also the novel most of us who suffered dead-end, meaningless jobs with idiotic managers wished we'd written. In the early nineties, I must have written five short stories/novellas on customer-service/bookstore work but they were all a little too bitter and not nearly clever enough. Barry's wit outweighs all. He pushes the bounds. He makes the absurdity funny. He also makes it both logical and, at the same time, more absurd.
Here's a sample. Sydney, an awful manager and a worse person, is in the act of firing her personal assistant, Megan:
“Second, you don't show any teamwork.”
“But I work alone! I'll work with people if you want! I'd love to work with people! I'm stuck by myself!”
Sydney folds her hands on her desk. “Well, there's no point in complaining now.”
“Then ... why are you telling me these things?”
“It's part of the feedback process. I'm showing you what you need to work on to improve.”
“So if I improve--”
“Not here. You can't improve here. You're being fired, Megan. This is just the process we go through. It's really for your benefit. A little gratitude wouldn't be out of place.”
Megan's mouth works. What finally comes out is: “Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” Sydney says. “Anyway, those two categories hurt your score. But the clincher was your failure to achieve any goals.”
“Well, you didn't have any.” Sydney picks up a silver pen and waggles it. Little daggers of reflected sunlight flash into Megan's eyes. “During your last evaluation, we were meant to agree on goals for you, but we never did. So where it says, 'Goals Accomplished,' I had to tick 'None.'”
“I would have accomplished goals if you'd set some!”
“Well, you might have. It's hard to say.”
“How can you sack me for not accomplishing goals I never had?”
“You don't want me to say you accomplished goals when you didn't, do you?”
Then there's this passage, spoken by the CEO of the company, Klausman, which surely resonates in this presidential year when Republicans are going on about “job creators”:
“You're probably too young to remember, Jones, but there was a time when a man filled your gas tank for you. A boy carried your groceries to your car. There was a time when you hardly ever stood in line, not outside of a government office. But labor is a source of cost, so companies externalized it. They, as you say, shat it out. And those costs landed exactly where they belonged: on their customers.”
“And on their remaining staff.”
“Quite so. Quite so. Hence: 'Doing more with less.'”
In a masterstroke, the novel is dedicated thus: “For Hewlett-Packard.”
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