Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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While I do find the spirit of your retort to Mr. Wasserman largely correct, I would hasten to remind you that the labelling of something as "worthy" by those who have come before us does not necessarily make it so. Many works that are considered classics have given me a hard time in accepting such a conclusion (books such as "A Separate Peace," "Of Mice and Men," and others). I agree that contemporary authors give us a more "challenging" read, however I beg you to give credence to the idea that one shouls also feel free to challenge the canonical works and those deemed as "worthy" by the past.

Jimmy Beck

"I'd call you a sadistic sodomistic necrophile, but that's beating a dead horse."

--Woody Allen

Dan Green

I agree with you, but I'm not sure Wasserman does. Wouldn't that be too "ambitious"?


Doug: Well, one could also argue that the works of the past are "ambitious" and "challenging." The issue here is one of unwarranted bias. It represents an almost total disregard for what's happening right now. To discriminate widely against a cluster of literature, whether past or present, is to live with one's head arrogantly lodged in the sand.

David Milofsky

Let me make sure I understand what you're saying. You actually believe that contemporary novels are more "challenging" than those by writers like Melville, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Joyce and Proust? Say it ain't so, Dan. Of course we're all interested in our own time--and we ought to be--but almost anyone would have to say that the present age can't compare to earlier periods without being canonical about it. And that's not even talking about the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. I hate to agree with Wasserman about anything, so I won't. A good books editor should be attuned to the present without, however, forgetting the past. Okay, I'm ready for the deluge.

Dan Green

"the present age can't compare to earlier periods without being canonical about it."

I'm not sure I know what you mean by this, David, but if you mean present writers can't compare to those of the past, then I do completely disagee with you. There are plenty of great living writers who measure up in every way to the great writers of the past.

The novels by Melville, Proust, et. al. are indeed as challenging as anything being written now, but not because they've already been deemed "worthy" by some process of canonical selection. The best thing to do is to forget about canons and read the writers you mention as if their work was written yesterday--no one has already declared them "worthy" for you.

I'll stipulate that Shakespeare towers over everyone--past or present.

David Milofsky

Sorry, I wasn't clear. The "canonical" reference was to an earlier post by someone else. But "plenty of great living writers???" Name one as great as any of those I mentioned. Without being sociological, I think the fact that we live in a largely anti-literary age is part of the explanation for the decline in literature; the people who might have been writing and reading a century ago are doing other things now. And then there's always talent. I wish I could agree with you, Dan, but while I read contemporary literature constantly (and have reviewed it for nearly thirty years), it's obvious to me that the gold age of the novel was a few ages back--at best.

Dan Green

I'm most familar with American literature, so the following are writers I consider as "great" as Melville: Philip Roth, Robert Coover, Gilbert Sorrentino, Richard Powers, William Gass, James Purdy, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Stephen Dixon, John Barth. Among the recently dead: Stanley Elkin, John Hawkes, Donald Barthelme. William Gaddis. This is not to slight Melville, but really he wrote only one truly "great" book, Moby-Dick. Maybe The Confidence-Man and Billy Budd. "Bartleby the Scrivener."

Names in the European tradition that come to mind: Saramago, Kertesz, Grass, Kundera. Among the recently dead: Sebald, Calvino.

Also Garcia Marquez and Aharon Appelfeld.

David Milofsky

Well, of course this is all about personal taste, I guess, but of that list the only ones that I'd consider even close to the same league of any of the writers I mentioned would be Grass and Calvino. Many of those you mentioned are talented but writers like Sorrentino, Powers, Purdy and Dixon aren't really major and of the others, I can't think of one whose work will last. I want to make clear that I'm not putting down contemporary literature, but naming names as you do just makes my argument more persuasive--in my view anyway.

Dan Green

You really think nothing by Roth, Elkin, Hawkes, Barthleme, Pynchon, Marquez, or Appelfeld will last? I guess it is a difference in personal taste and judgment.



You're stacking the deck by picking more or less the greatest authors who ever lived. Compared to any era, it would be tough to find writers of their calibre.

That said, I don't think Melville is that "challenging" to read and I know that Tolstoy and Chekhov aren't. Also, let's not fall into the trap of conflating challenge with literary quality.

Also, I think your contention that SOrrentino & others "aren't major" is problematic. To take a name from your list, Melville wasn't major within his lifetime. A critic who lived while he wrote could have easily dismissed him with a "yes, that Melville is good, but no one reads him." All that is to say, who cares if a writer is "major?" It's the quality of the writing and I think that of the four you mentioned, at the very least Sorrentino's will last.

David Milofsky


Of course you're right in saying I'm stacking the deck, but that's what the argument is about--who is great and what will last. We're not talking about the pot-boilers of the last age. I'm surprised at the way you and Dan put down Melville and to really read and understand him is challenging indeed. A problem I have with this whole thing, though, is that it must seem as if I'm putting down authors whose work I love--especially Elkin, Roth and Marquez--and I'm not. But--to introduce still others--comparing them to such as Austen, Dickens, Eliott and Dostoevsky just seems unfair, or it does to me. I'd agree that whether or not a book is challenging or ambitious is not really important, but I was taking terms Dan had introduced. For me, the reason we read (hence the title of this blog) has little to do with all of that. I'm not really interested in trying to decide what will or won't make the cut in the 22nd C either. I think literature, indeed art in general, is what makes life tolerable, esp in times such as we're currently living through. Beyond personal relationships or worthwhile work, it's about the best thing we have. There's always a tendency, though, to think that the current whatever is the best there ever was. I hear this often from students who are loathe to read anything written before the 20th C. I think this is a dangerous way to think, particularly for writers, and is also untrue. But, as they say, that's only my opinion.

Dan Green

"There's always a tendency, though, to think that the current whatever is the best there ever was."

But I hear the opposite just as often: What's being done now can't be compared to what was done in the glorious past.

I don't think it's at all unfair to compare Elkin, Roth and Marquez to Austen, Dickens, Eliot and Dostoevsky. All three of them are at least as good as Austen, better than George Eliot, and way, way better than Dostoevsky, who I think is one of the most overrated of writers. They don't measure up to Dickens, but no other novelist does. These are, of course, just my opinions, but I don't see why we should shrink from having such opinions, even if it means questioning some of the "worthy dead."

David Milofsky

What's interesting to me about this is how you could possibly think any of the three are as good as Austen, one of the most gifted writers in our literature--and one of the most misunderstood. But that's another essay. And better than Eliott and Dostoevsky? I just find that hard to understand, but then I don't understand your trivializing Melville's accomplishment either. It's just surprising to me, that's all, and since we disagree so completely about this I don't think there's much more to say about it. Arguments are finally self-limiting, at least when they're between well-read people whose views are pretty well established. I would never have expected to hear anyone mention Gilbert Sorrentino, for example, as a writer whose work would last, or Stephen Dixon, but you have, and I guess we can just leave it at that. I am pleased that you admit Dickens (my personal favorite) rises above all the others, though. That's something.

Dan Green

I don't trivialize Melville's accomplishment. I love Melville. But some of his books (White-Jacket, e.g.) are pretty much of a slog. And I don't simply accept his greatness because he's one of the "worthy dead" who's been put into a "canon."

David Milofsky

And you shouldn't but who among all the writers you've mentioned has written anything nearly as good as Moby Dick, Billy Budd or Bartleby the Scrivener (Elkin's favorite story, by the way )?

Dan Green

Few stories are as good as "Bartleby." Both Moby-Dick and Billy Budd are (in my opinion) flawed but still great books. Among the writers I mentioned, the following are (in my opinion) plausibly in the same league as these two books: the Zuckerman trilogy; Sabbath's Theater; The Universal Baseball Association; Mulligan Stew; The Franchiser; White Noise; V; Lost in the Funhouse; JR; One Hundred Years of Solitude; Cosmicomics; The Tin Drum. Many of these writers wrote more good books across the range of their careers than Melville as well.

David Milofsky

Well, all I can say is that I've never before heard of anyone making such claims for books like these, so I'm glad you are, even though I disagree completely. In my opinion, the only one that comes close (and I think it does) is 100 Years of Solitude. Maybe part of the problem is your view that Melville didn't sustain his achievement over as many books as some other writers, but for me one great book trumps a number of lesser ones. Sophocles, for instance, is supposed to have written more than one hundred plays, but we have only a few. Oedipus Rex is enough to establish him in any canon. The same is true of Melville and Moby Dick.


Here's a hypothetical case, partly facetious: We have a freshman student in a lit course. She hasn't read a lot of novels. She reads Gatsby. She reads Fuentes' The Campaign. Are these old books or new books?

David Milofsky

I'm not sure I understand the question, but since Gatsby was published in 1925, by now it's considered if not a classic at least a part of the modern canon. Fuentes, however, is contemporary, even if it's been a while since the book was published. For me, it's important that students who haven't read a lot be exposed to those books they really should read, not just significant books of our time. Which is why in my classes, I steer pretty much down the center in classes like the one you describe. On the other hand, I may have completely misunderstood your point.


Sorry to be mysterious, David. My point goes to the issue of point of view as we consider literary history. For a student with very little reading experience the era of a story is often a strange and arbitrary thing. For example, Gatsby and Campaign are separated by time and cultural space. But I've had students who come away from Antigone with this reaction: "Wow, it's so contemporary" (to paraphrase). To them, Sophocles, as Melville can be, is "new" and "now," regardless of literary "status," because to them it's that kind of experience.

David Milofsky

Funny, we were just talking about that last night, the way classic Greek tragedy remains contemporary in the best way. It always strikes me as odd when directors feel they have to put the actors in modern dress. I think your point is completely valid. The only problem my students have is the entry point, but once they're into a great novel it's as "now" as anything being written today. Which, of course, is why the classics have lasted and will last.

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