THE POSITIVE MESSAGE OF NEW AMERICAN ART AND LITERATURE

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Disturbing Trend

A book like Susan Nagel's Marie Therese, Child of Terror-- reactionary propaganda masquerading as history-- wouldn't have been published and hyped twenty years ago or more in this country, when there was still a concern that history be history. This was back when the U.S. was a democracy, not an Empire. The hallmark of the literature of our American Republic was radical populism, from Melville to Harriet Stowe to Mark Twain; Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, Dreiser, up to John Steinbeck, who wrote the screenplay for "Viva Zapata!" which starred Marlon Brando in 1952. Our literature was populist and was also about the search for truth; telling the TRUE story.

The big publishing houses in New York now are distorting and discarding history and especially OUR history.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Nagel book is getting panned everywhere.

Every single author you mention went unappreciated, if not attacked, during their lifetime. The idea that they had more mainstream support than political, realist fiction writers today is a fantasy of yours unsupported by what actually happened.

There is plenty of truth-telling literature getting huge publicity drives right now - probably more than in the days of Norris or London.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

Sorry, but you are flat-out wrong. Crane, Norris, London, Steinbeck, and Company were hugely popular-- AND had great cultural clout; taken seriously by the intellectual community. The only political, realist fiction writer today who gets published and publicized is Gore Vidal, a last ancient holdover from a bygone era, who is also very well-connected himself politically, an Aristocrat, if you will, and so immune from blacklisting.
As for truth-telling: not something you seem to believe in, as you won't even give us your name.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

p.s. It says something when lit-blogs are more pandering than even the mainstream publications about such books. So much for the blogger revolution. Can anyone say "reactionary"?

Anonymous said...

M.Gaitskill, D.Johnson, M.Amis, P.Roth, L.Shriver, M.Chabon, W.Vollman, N.Baker, D.Alarcon, JG Ballard, J.Didion, G.Indiana, H.Mantel, and M.Montero, off the top of my head, would disagree, all bestsellers, all critically respected, all politically engaged. Not to mention the thousands of nonfiction titles which address contemporary issues head-on, in ways that even Crane was unable (due to circumstances) to accomplish.

It's obvious you don't read current literary fiction or criticism, aside from some hype or Google search that catches your eye. You actually have very little idea what's out there. You're just like most people in that regard - except everybody else doesn't rant about its lack of quality.

Your obsession with the names of commenters reveals your true focus - not on literature but on people. If someone's rich or hyped or formally educated, their literature must be devoid of meaning. If someone's from the underclass their literature must be better. That makes for nice brick-throwing but it's just an opinion based on your own prejudices rather than actually reading the books.

King said...

I've read most of these. Should I take them one by one?
Joan Didion was strictly a status quo writer-- her intent to preserve things-as-they-are in this society.
Vollmann is like a latter-day Kipling; a commentator on American Empire. His postmodernism is vastly different from the naturalists I've named.
I'm a fan of Gaitskill's, but her focus has always been on the personal (though she has at times gone further than most at depicting this society). She's incapable of taking the broader view of a Frank Norris or Theodore Dreiser. This is not to knock her as a writer-- merely to mention her limitations.
Roth is above-average as a novelist-- at least compared with everyone else-- but is extremely limited intellectually. His view of things is mired in 1945 Brooklyn-- as shown by his attempt to be "political," with his take on Lindbergh, which is clueless historically. It's about as accurate a book as "Marie Therese," and very similar in that it mistakes the insular point-of-view of one community, and the myths they embrace, with history.
For most of the rest of the lot, their priority remains style. They're literary writers who wouldn't know how to be truly polemical even if they allowed themselves to be. Chabon is typical of their kind.
And what would he have to be polemical about, anyway? Most of these folks are from staid bourgeois existences who've never had an encounter with anger-- theirs or someone else's.
No, I don't say underground writing is inherently better. I'm saying it should at least be acknowledged. Curious how those who are the excluders are always concerned if someone asks thm to give up even one crumb of the pie.
Context is not everything, but we've seen too long context-- the kind of hierarchical society in which we live-- ignored, as if the stratifications we live among don't even exist.
No one's a "great" novelist if they're unable to take this in-- and by their background and training, by the VERY NATURE of literature's selection process, we aren't going to see many writers capable of taking this in.

King said...

p.s. Can you imagine most of these folks writing a screenplay about Zapata! What do you think it would be like?
Didion's movie would never make it out of the cantina.
Gaitskill would luxuriate on the bedroom, but have a few quirky rebels hanging about on the sides.
Roth would find a way to bring baseball (Brooklyn Dodgers) into the screenplay.
Vollmann's main character would be a narcissistic gringo "getting down" with the people.
Martin Amis would portray a cynical fop who thinks all this revolutionary nonsense is just plain silly.

Anonymous said...

Didion's take on the 1960s dared to see the limits of social revolution at a time when everyone was starry-eyed about it. Vollmann writes about little else besides violence in the underclasses - read his book Poor People and tell me that's not polemical. Roth's American Pastoral is easily the equal of American Tragedy, and just as wide in its scope. And if Gaitskill's writing about AIDS isn't a broad enough view for you, you don't understand a thing about the intersection of personal and political.

But you're not really talking about literature, are you? You say you're providing context but actually you only want to look at one kind of context. You speak up for underground literature not because of the writing itself, but because of who writes it, and you slam mainstream lit for the same.

"And what would he have to be polemical about, anyway? Most of these folks are from staid bourgeois existences..."

Dreiser quitting college doesn't mean he's some other class than Baker. Just because Norris drinking a lot doesn't mean he's made of different stock. And you ought to visit Jack London's ranch. But that's not the sort of context you want, is it?

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

You're bothered by the very fact that someone is daring to criticize mainstream lit and its writers.
Attribute it to background or attribute it to what you want, but today's authors are NOT providing the thunder and passion of past novelists. (Or past poets, for that matter. Read Rexroth's "Thou Shalt Not Kill" amd compare it with our much lauded and tame literary poetry of now.)
Do you think Roth is capable of the heartwrenching climax of The Octopus? I haven't seen it from him, and I've read most of his books. And why should he be capable of it? He's your garden-variety intellectual. Reminds me of a boring uncle. Not a Zola or a Dickens or a Hugo, sorry.
You know, whoever you are, I came to literature to start with strictly as a reader, when already an adult. I noticed soon enough the difference between the great novelists and the writers of now. Yes, we see some talented stylists-- but few, very few (Gaitskill has done it in a couple of her stories) who can get right down into a reader's soul. Sorry, they're not doing it. If they were I would never have begun this campaign to start with.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

Re "one kind" of context:
But the fact of the matter is that the mainstream is providing only one kind of context (which usually means no context) and one kind of writer. Most of the styles are interchangeable, as are the mindsets. They're well-trained workshop pets (exceptions noted) for the most part.
There is actually far more variety of styles and voices in the underground. Writers like Jack Saunders, Bill Blackolive, Wred Fright, and James Nowlan sound nothing alike-- their voices are worlds apart from one another.
What they have in common is that all of them are coloring outside the lines.

Anonymous said...

You're making the assumption that I'm gnashing my teeth over your criticisms. I'm not. I just think you're making broad generalizations you haven't bothered to research. If Roth doesn't touch your soul, that's your opinion - but to say that no mainstream writers now are polemical is an ignorant statement. There's wide variety in the mainstream - even in the ultramainstream. But it's clear you're not reading it. You don't even know what the lines are - let alone who's coloring outside them. You see Nagel's book and see that as symbolic of everything happening in literature now. That's like listening to Kenny G and deciding jazz is dead.

And I gotta say, there's no writing on the ULA site that touches my soul. And I'm a reader. I love passionate, off-the-hook writing - Rexroth's a genius. But I see more similarity in Rexroth and Roth than I do in Rexroth and your pals.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

??? But Roth and Rexroth are completely different in their lives and their ideas-- Rexroth was an anarchist who lived his beliefs to the furthest extent possible.
Granted that I haven't read ALL of Roth's novels-- the ones I have, including a couple of his most recent, I haven't read one polemical, angry sentence in the entire work.
Again, what does this character have to be angry about? That the royalty check is a week late? Roth lives a fairly constipated life, has always lived such, and his prose speaks of this.
Those writers you mention, MOST of them come from a narrow segment of America, and so are hardly representative of the voice of this nation.
They look great to others of their kind, I'll grant you that. . . .
A latter-day Jack London, on the other hand-- the kind of guy you see getting off a ship with duffel bag over his shoulder-- no MFA in sight, only a ton of experiences-- doesn't have a chance. (Such writers are out there.)
Vollmann himself would likely not be published without his degrees and his college professor parents who showed him the ropes, were enough of contacts apparently to get his stuff read by someone-- and of course he knows the "language" of the intellectual class; knows how to impress the mandarins, if not the general public.
(One who began as an outsider is Ms. Gaitskill, but she learned how to play the game, got her credentials from U of M, and while she's done some good work, her prose has never broken through the lines of the "literary."
I attended a concert rehearsal once where the conductor was telling the musicians, "More insanity, less control." Even in her best stories Gaitskill has too much control; there's too much residue from too many writing classes present-- where the uncontrollable (I'm thinking of our original "Zeen Elvis") goes into wholly new areas of the art.
Refined control; controlled robots; the Boozhies-- in the lit world they're everywhere, and my personal take on them is one of loathing.

Anonymous said...

Roth's not angry, Vollmann's too controlled, you're definitely not reading the work. You're just all about their lives. No wonder you fell for Nasdijj.

(Did you know that Norris studied in Paris? And yet he managed to be angry. But you think there's no way someone could do that now?)

Good luck with that loathing-based strategy. (And on Happy America Literature, no less!) Add me to what appears to be a long list of potential readers who get intrigued by what you promise and then discover you've got nothing to show for all your "ballyhoo." It's too bad, really. Literature needs a shot in the arm. But you'd rather give it a shot in the head.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

Frank Norris imbibed from the milieu of his era, to his credit.
When a contemporary Norris comes around I'll embrace that person.
It's not Philip Roth! The notion is ludicrous.
(Re-read the over-the-top first chapter of The Octopus. There's not an editor in mainstream lit today who'd buy that. Yes, they are too constipated and too controlled for that kind of writer. It's been proven again and again. Even minimalist Ray Carver was edited down to nothing before he was originally published.
I've had my own published essays demolished editorially-- losing the best parts! I'm mainly a critic-- am fairly provocative. Is that at all wanted? Of course not! The accepted models are bores like Sven Birkerts and James Wood, who creep with soft steps of language that wouldn't stir a sleeping mouse. Enough of that!)

Anonymous said...

Having a bowel movement in a public place may be "provocative," but it isn't criticism.