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

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What's falsifying and hysterical about Vineland??? For goodness' sake. If he is going to use such sweeping generalisations to characterise the 'mood' of a book, then he's certainly missed something dark and grim about Mr. Biswas.

J. D. Daniels

“They fail to engage in ‘moral scrutiny.’ He [Wood] objects to this group of Flaubert's offspring not on aesthetic but on moral grounds.”

This has already been explained. I don't intend to harass you; I just thought I'd post a long comment as an ameliorative to my previous terse tantrum.

These categories (the aesthetic and the moral) are inextricably intertwined—unless one chooses, willfully, to misunderstand Wood’s use of the word “moral,” as in: “It may not provide James Wood with a sampling of the human that meets his high moral standards.” (See also Green’s “James Wood indulges in his usual hectoring sermon masquerading as a book review,” etc.) Let me hasten to assure readers that I am normally as exasperated by any Christing around as Green seems to be. But Wood isn’t, in fact, delivering a Sunday school lesson. The word “moral” is used not to describe some arbitrary standard that must be met, but to describe the always open-ended question of relations between people.

I suspect this may be what Wood means when he refers to the maimed conventions of the thriller genre. You thought you were going to read a living book by a living person; instead, you’ve been handed a rotten corpse and a tissue of worn routines. The expected (and deserved) honest relation has been thwarted. But many readers—shades here of McCarthy’s CHILD OF GOD?—seem to find their terror of confronting other human beings is mitigated by reiterated acts of making love to the lifeless. What a snore. As Emerson said: “Treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.”

As I’ve said before—yes, there are aesthetic choices that seem to obviate the moral dimension. (Readers are invited to visit Green’s own “The Primal Scene.” Find the link to your upper right.) There is no question of standards of conduct when a writer decides not to admit that other people actually exist, as in: “There are other, less well-known writers who continue to explore the possibilities of self-referentiality.” Permit me to enumerate the lone possibility of self-referentiality: you may refer to yourself.

Here’s the real Sunday school lesson: “his effort to transcend mere documentaty [sic] description.” Such an unworthy ambition: to document “mere” life. In my opinion, that word—“mere”—gives away the game. We might remember Wood’s earlier observation of a Puritanical, life-rejecting aspect to the self-referentiality of certain postmodern writers. Can you imagine a grander or most grossly megalomaniacal attitude than “anti-real[ism]”? (Pynchon is hysterical and false because paranoia is a form of megalomania—"I’m so important that everyone is out to get me; I'm so powerful that whole armies must conspire against me," etc. Clarence Major’s REFLEX AND BONE STRUCTURE is closer to the truth: The world is full of people who do not care about us.) Isn’t part of the point of truly worthwhile surrealism that it is a legitimate, possibly even a revelatory part of reality—as real as, or perhaps even more real than, certain kinds of “reality”? Much depends on that word: "perhaps."

J. G. Ballard has made a readable, if repetitive and uneven, career of exploring a certain kind of self-referentiality, thick with his own ideas of surrealism. But this is not necessarily to be imitated, for reasons Barry Hannah is said to have made clear to a student:

The main problem with your stories is that they are not interesting, Hannah said.
How can I make my stories more interesting? she asked.
You might begin by trying to be more interesting, he said.

All this to say: the writer whose foremost concern is self-referentiality owes it to his readers to strive to construct a self to which it is worthwhile to refer. “One man, one atmosphere, one sick vision. [see DHL, below] It claims to do no more. And we have to allow it.” But few will pay to tour an empty house.

I seem still to be with T. S. Eliot on this question: “One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones ... Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Another sort of writer, I take it, tries to construct a self—a personality and some emotions—by referring to it: attempting to call it into being by repeated invocations. I sympathize with this hypothetical writer’s plight, but such relatively high-functioning autism does not make for very interesting reading.

Ballard is misunderstood. It might help if people actually read him, instead of thinking of him as a free-standing cultural phenomenon in and of himself. His okay novel Cocaine Nights (1996) attempted to extend and preserve what the narrator of his excellent Super-Cannes (2000) tried to destroy, what Ballard diagnosed thirty years ago as “the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect. This demise of feeling and emotion has paved the way for all our most real and tender pleasures—in the excitements of pain and mutilation; in sex as the perfect arena ... for all the veronicas of our own perversions; [and] in our moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathology as a game ... we live in an almost infantile world.”

That was 1974. The future is now: it is 2005, and we have a second Ballard volume (the first was 1984’s RE/Search no. 8/9) from V. Vale, the dingbat who brought you Modern Primitives (the go-to text for “body modification”), Modern Pagans (“Radical Faeries ... musicians, orgies and more!”), the RE/Search Guide To Bodily Fluids (“mucus, menstruation ... vomit, urine, flatus, feces, earwax ... smegma”) and other books for “your essential counterculture library.” Ballard once said of Crash (1973) that it illustrated “the way in which formerly aberrant or psychopathic behavior is annexed into the area of the acceptable.” A RE/Search book about Ballard? It’s as if a careless fan of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” were to launch a magazine about eating babies.

As early as 1963 (Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars, Boule’s Planet of the Apes, the first season of TV’s “The Jetsons”), Ballard had established the future of futurism: “it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth.” (I would add here that other people, too, have their own inner spaces.) In his introduction to the French edition of Crash, he criticized “science fiction’s obsession with its two principal themes—outer space and the far future ... a scientific pageant that became a kind of historical romance in reverse, a sealed world into which the hard light of contemporary reality was never allowed to penetrate.” But the self can also become a sealed and impenetrable world, and the boring pornography of Crash is the price we’ve had to pay for his deliciously bizarre “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” from The Atrocity Exhibition (1967), which predicted the 1980 Presidential bid, if not, sadly, the construction of a “rectal modulus of Reagan and the auto-disaster of maximized audience arousal.”

Ezra Pound's much-repeated "make it new" is nothing but an advertising slogan: "new" is a word people use when they want you to buy something. Unlike those pious hucksters, the Wachowski brothers—whose bong-sucking Matrix trilogy only encouraged the world of mere appearances that it pretended to abominate—Ballard has not smiled at horror as we fall into its jaws. The future will not be about vinyl pants, nipple-piercing, instant messages and kung-fu. It will be about loss of innocence, blood and suffering, power and pleasure, love and death. It will be more or less indistinguishable from the past.


F. R. Leavis had this to say about the intersection of aesthetics and morality:

Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad “are all very much concerned with ‘form’; they are all very original technicians, having turned their genius to the working out of their own appropriate methods and procedures. But the peculiar quality of their preoccupation with ‘form’ may be brought out by a contrasting reference to Flaubert. Reviewing Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig, D. H. Lawrence adduces Flaubert as figuring to the world the ‘will of the writer to be greater than and undisputed lord over the stuff he writes.’ This attitude in art, as Lawrence points out, is indicative of an attitude in life—or towards life. Flaubert, he comments, ‘stood away from life as from a leprosy.’ For the later Aesthetic writers, who, in general, represent in a weak kind of way the attitude that Flaubert maintained with a perverse heroism, ‘form’ and ‘style’ are ends to be sought for themselves, and the chief preoccupation is with elaborating a beautiful style to apply to the chosen subject.”


And here is a great deal more of the original Lawrence article:

“Thomas Mann is perhaps the most famous of German novelists now writing ... Germany is now undergoing that craving for form in fiction, that passionate desire for the mastery of the medium of narrative, that will of the writer to be greater than and undisputed lord over the stuff he writes, which is figured to the world in Gustave Flaubert ...

“[T]his craving for form is the outcome, not of artistic conscience, but of a certain attitude to life ... [Mann] has never found any outlet for himself, save his art. He has never given himself to anything but his art. This is all well and good, if his art absorbs and satisfies him, as it has done some great men ... But then there are the other artists, the more human, like Shakespeare and Goethe, who must give themselves to life as well as to art. And if these were afraid, or despised life, then with their surplus they would ferment and become rotten. Which is what ails Thomas Mann ... And out of this soul-ailment, this unbelief, he makes his particular art ...

“It is absolutely, almost intentionally, unwholesome. The man is sick, body and soul. He portrays himself as he is, with wonderful skill and art, portrays his sickness. And since any genuine portrait is valuable, this book has its place. It portrays one man, one atmosphere, one sick vision. It claims to do no more. And we have to allow it. But we know it is unwholesome—it does not strike me as being morbid for all that, it is too well done—and we give it its place as such.

“Thomas Mann seems to me the last sick sufferer from the complaint of Flaubert. The latter stood away from life as from a leprosy. And Thomas Mann, like Flaubert, feels vaguely that he has in him something finer than ever physical life revealed. Physical life is a disordered corruption, against which he can fight with only one weapon, his fine aesthetic sense, his feeling for beauty, for perfection, for a certain fitness which soothes him, and gives him an inner pleasure, however corrupt the stuff of life may be. There he is, after all these years, full of disgusts and loathing of himself as Flaubert was ... And so, with real suicidal intention, like Flaubert’s, he sits, a last too-sick disciple, reducing himself grain by grain to the statement of his own disgust, patiently, self-destructively, so that his statement at least may be perfect in a world of corruption. But he is so late."

ted silar

An interesting and informative conversation. I agree with everybody. A sidelight, peut etre?

I've been trying to publish short stories, with no success. Let us elide whether they are any good or not. My stories depart, however, ever-so-slightly from conventional realism. They are not fragmentary or difficult to understand or resolutely self-referential. But their subject matter and style are a little different from the traditional.

I've been reading the stories published in the prestigious journals. To my amazement, they read like the most painfully conventional, traditional, typical, stereotyped, realistic (pick a adjective) stories from, say, a popular magazine of the 50s, or the 20s, or the 19th century, or pick an era. They are hardly readable. It's like Joyce and Eliot never existed. Yikes. What's up with that?


I don't think that Wood was commenting on the anti-intellectualism of America itself, but on the "perceived" anti-intellectualism of the post-War American realists, such as Yates, who pretended to be humble craftsmen with no interest in any discipline aside from storytelling. And creative-writing programs, which tend to limit course work to workshops, without any kind of theory or philosophy, are part of this same "perceived" tradition. Wood is merely pointing out that the "anti-realists" are responding to a perception, whether or not it is true, about their opponents.

Dan Green

The anti-realists may or may not be responding "to a perception. . . about their opponents." But this is beside the point. Anti-realism--in the form of "romance"--is probably the dominant tradition in American fiction to begin with.

J. D. Daniels

Off the top of my head, with some help from other references, and in no particular order, and not very restricted, and certainly not pretending in any way to be definitive: Anne Bradstreet, Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, James Fenimore Cooper, Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickinson, R. W. Emerson, H. W. Longfellow, H. D. Thoreau, Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, Willa Cather, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Ambrose Bierce, Kate Chopin, Frank Norris, Bret Harte, Henry Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Horatio Alger, Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry James, Jack London, Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, Djuna Barnes, John Dos Passos, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Ring Lardner, H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein, Richard Wright, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, William Carlos Williams, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Randall Jarrell, John Gardner, Norman Mailer, Robert E. Howard, Bernard Malamud, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, John O’Hara, Raymond Chandler, J. D. Salinger, I. B. Singer, H. P. Lovecraft, William S. Burroughs, Raymond Carver, Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Eudora Welty, William Styron, and Philip Roth.

May I now see an alternate history of American literature, please, supporting Green’s contention that “[a]nti-realism--in the form of 'romance'--is probably the dominant tradition in American fiction to begin with”?

Dan Green

Read Richard Chase's *The American Novel and Its Tradition*. Many of the writers you name belong to this romance tradition. Also read Richard Poirier's *A World Elsewhere*.

J. D. Daniels

Was it too much trouble to point out which writers -- you know: having a conversation instead of assigning a reading list? Oh, well, never mind.


“My main and, as it seems, inevitable theme is the relation between the romance, or romance-novel, and the novel proper.

“As for my main purpose, it is: to assess the significance of the fact that since the earliest days the American novel, in its most original and characteristic form, has worked out its destiny and defined itself by incorporating an element of romance. This purpose has led me to propose a native tradition of the novel. I understand this tradition, inevitably, as springing from England, but as differing from the English tradition by its perpetual reassessment and reconstitution of romance within the novel form.

“Thus I am interested mainly in defining the leading characteristics of the American romance-novel, as it may be called—that freer, more daring, more brilliant fiction that contrasts with the solid moral inclusiveness and massive equability of the English novel. As Thoreau says, the imagination has a place for ‘wildness’ as well as for the more solid and domesticated virtues ...

“Thoreau’s words suggest something of what ‘romance’ means as it was applied to the American novel by such different writers as Cooper, Hawthorne, James, and Frank Norris ... I try to define ‘romance’ in the first chapter. For the moment, let me say that the word must signify, besides the more obvious qualities of the picturesque and the heroic, an assumed freedom from the ordinary novelistic requirements of verisimilitude, development, and continuity; a tendency towards melodrama and idyl, a more or less formal abstractness and, on the other hand, a tendency to plunge into the underside of consciousness; a willingness to abandon moral questions or to ignore the spectacle of man in society, or to consider these things only indirectly or abstractly.

“Obviously the romance is by nature disqualified to perform some of the classic offices of the novel ... [it is] somewhat disqualified for engaging the moral imagination in the sort of close involvement with real life which makes the context for moral ideas in such novels as those of Balzac, George Eliot, and [Henry] James himself ...

“What I am most interested in in this book is that farther realm of fiction which the American novelists have explored and occupied—moved, as they have been, by what James himself called a ‘rich passion for extremes.’ In this trans-Jamesian realm of fiction there are certain special virtues ...

“[Romance has not] been distinguished, among the perennial literary forms, for its intellectual and moral power. On the contrary, it has on this score generally been inferior to greater forms such as tragedy and comedy—in ancient and medieval as well as in modern times.

“Nevertheless the best American novelists have found uses for romance far beyond the escapism, fantasy, and sentimentality often associated with it ... they have created a brilliant and original, if often unstable and fragmentary, kind of literature.

“It follows that the usual depreciation of romance on intellectual and moral grounds is not always justifiable. (It also follows that the overestimation of the novels of Hawthorne, Melville, and Faulkner by many recent critics, on the ground that these novels have the harmony and authority of the greatest tragic and religious literature, is not justifiable either. [ ) ...] It is not necessarily true that in so far as a novel departs from realism it is obscurantist and disqualified to make moral comments on the world. As applied to many novels, there is no doubt that this view contains much truth. Still, one may put in a provisional claim.”

—Richard Chase, from “The American Novel and Its Tradition.”


Is this the sort of thing you mean?

Dan Green

I'm going to put up a longer post on the subject later. I said so in this post.

". . .that freer, more daring, more brilliant fiction that contrasts with the solid moral inclusiveness and massive equability of the English novel."



I was just trying to point out what Wood meant about "anti-intellectualism" in the American realist tradition. Your comment, "Anti-realism--in the form of "romance"--is probably the dominant tradition in American fiction to begin with," is a whole separate issue. Wood seems to define realism as something much broader than naturalism--as plausibility, not possibility. Under this definition, any so-called romance after Walter Scott would be considered realism, as well. Irving and Brockden Brown might not be realistic writers, but Hawthorne and Melville surely are, no matter what fantastic elements their fictions contain.

Dan Green

"Wood seems to define realism as something much broader than naturalism--as plausibility, not possibility. Under this definition, any so-called romance after Walter Scott would be considered realism, as well. Irving and Brockden Brown might not be realistic writers, but Hawthorne and Melville surely are, no matter what fantastic elements their fictions contain."

This more or less encapsulates my objection to Wood's argument. How convenient to define the term so broadly that you're able to include all the writers you like and exclude the ones you don't like.

J. D. Daniels

vii. “I have had in mind in almost every case the originality and ‘Americanness’ of the novel in question, though I do not deny that the precise nature of these qualities is often debatable.”

I would like to witness this debate. What is originality? What is ‘Americanness’?


Chase writes, at pg 3: “My assumption in this book is that the American novel is obviously a development from the English tradition. At least it was, down to 1880 or 1890. For at that time our novelists our novelists began to turn to French and Russian models and the English influence has decreased steadily ever since. The more extreme imagination of the French and Russian novelists has clearly been more in accord with the purposes of modern American readers than has the English imagination.”

What a disappointment to find, in 1957, today’s banal buzzword: “extreme.” See also pg viii: “the American romance-novel, as it may be called—that freer, more daring, more brilliant fiction that contrasts with the solid moral inclusiveness and massive equability of the English novel.”


x-xi. “There are certain special virtues. Among them are the ‘intellectual energy’ that Brockden Brown prized, the profundity described by Melville as ‘the blackness of darkness,’ a certain intrepid and penetrating dialectic of action and meaning, a radical skepticism about ultimate questions ... One may point to the power of romance to express dark and complex truths unavailable to realism.”

How early one’s confidence in Chase begins to fail when he praises “the blackness of darkness,” that portentous redundancy. See also, perhaps, “the starkness of Park West,” and “the lark’s breast of Loch Ness.”


6-7. “The fact is that many of the best American novels achieve their very being, their energy and their form, from the perception and acceptance not of unities but of radical disunities ... [in THE PRAIRIE] Cooper is not inspired by an impulse to resolve cultural contradictions half so much as by the sheer romantic exhilaration of escape from culture itself, into a world where nature is dire, terrible, and beautiful, where human virtues are personal, alien, and renunciatory, and where contradictions are to be resolved only by death, the ceaseless brooding presence of which endows with an unspeakable beauty every irreconcilable of experience and all the irrationalities of life.”

Phew. Talk about false consciousness: a novel about the escape from culture. Golly, where can I buy it? from whom? using what? One’s investment in praising irrationality and “irreconcilable” contradictions becomes more and more clear. Bertrand Russell said: Most men would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.


7-8. Marius “Bewley is not alone in assuming it to be the destiny of American literature to reconcile disunities rather than to pursue the possibility it has actually pursued—that is, to discover a putative unity in disunity or to rest at last among irreconcilables ... Tocqueville ... observed [that] ‘each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object: namely, himself. If he ever looks higher, he perceives only the immense form of society at large or the still more imposing aspect of mankind ... What lies between is a void.’ Tocqueville believed that this either/or habit of mind also owed much to the sharp distinctions made by Calvinism and its habit of opposing the individual to his God, with a minimum of mythic or ecclesiastical mediation.”

Which is the most interesting thing so far in this little book. Too bad Chase didn’t think of it. The Calvinist heritage might also serve to explain the habit of opposing, say, anti-realism to realism. Do notice that, in this analogy, realism occupies the God position: acting and not reacting.


9. “Like all the observers of American literature we are citing in these pages, Lawrence was trying to find out what was wrong with it. He is a sympathetic and resourceful reader—one of the best, surely, ever to turn his attention to the American novel. But he thinks that the American novel is sick, and he wants to cure it. Perhaps there is something wrong with it, perhaps it is sick—but a too exclusive preoccupation with the wrongness of the American novel has in some ways disqualified him for seeing what, right or wrong, it is.”

Lawrence, as we have seen, thought Mann was sick, too. How rarely anyone thinks to mention that Lawrence himself was sick. He was dying of tuberculosis. But he was never “disqualified.” I’ll still take Lawrence, right or wrong, sick or well, over Chase: this mewling, hand-wringing Columbia academic. Oh, well: better a live dog than a dead lion, as Lawrence himself said, but better a live lion than a live dog.


9. “Finally, there is the division of American culture into ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ made by Van Wyck Brooks in 1915 ... we have lived through enough history now to see its fundamental error—namely, the idea that it is the duty of our writers to heal the split and reconcile the contradictions in our culture by pursuing a middlebrow course. All the evidence shows that wherever American literature has pursued the middle way it has tended by a kind of native fatality not to reconcile but merely to deny or ignore the polarities of our culture. Our middlebrow literature—for example, the novels of Howells—has generally been dull and mediocre. In the face of Brooks’s desire to unite the highbrow and the lowbrow on a middle ground, there remains the fact that our best novelists have been, not middlebrows, but either highbrows like James, lowbrows like Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson, or combination highbrow-lowbrows like Melville, Faulkner, and Hemingway.”

This ‘middle way’ business! such hubris, really, to use language explicitly rejecting Aristotle, Gautama, etc.

Someone’s going to have to explain to me how Chase gets to call highbrow one pole and lowbrow another—then gets to congratulate his American romance-novelists by claiming that, say, highbrow-lowbrow-ism doesn’t unite them. Maybe he didn’t read his galleys very closely.


xi. “And the intense desire to drive everything through to the last turn of the screw or twist of the knife, which distinguishes American writers from English, often results in romantic nihilism, a poetry of force and darkness.”

Intense desire, driving a screwing knife? Sounds like a recipe for dick-swinging annihilism, atavistic self-congratulation, and turgid self-regard.

Every conscious attempt to be “extreme,” to be “freer, more daring, [and] more brilliant,” traps a writer, making him boring, self-important, and ultimately more or less unreadable: form follows function. Tell me what, and I will tell you how: and "how" and "what" are one.


"Realism" should be used as a device, not genre. A device to be used to produce intended effect on a reader. Like puncutuation. In Let Us Know Praise Famous Men, those lists of objects found in the Gudgers's drawers, separated by colons? It would look different on the page if they were listed one by one like a poem. Realism has a similar effect on the reader. If the writer describes a park and trees and ponds and ducks, the reader recognizes those things as such, and it grounds the writing in reality, but if suddenly the ducks start talking you've a) got a talking duck and b) you're no longer producing a "realistic" effect in the readers mind. Plus, here's something to think about: could you ever have a "perfect" piece of realism? If you were to walk outside and get on the bus and go to the store, could you ever get all of that down on the page? The sights, sounds, smells, the things that go through your mind? Forget it. You might as well try to build the Brooklyn Bridge in your backyard.


The comparison between Pynchon and Naipaul is particularly silly, even for Wood. After all, we do have a world in which Naipaul has edged out Pynchon -- Naipaul's world. The work extending through the essays to the excrutiating trilogy he's written in the last five years is not exactly a human one -- rather, it is contemptuous, dry, and above all, joyless -- a joylessness that revenges itself on anyone who tries to live a life more abundant -- the latter being the people who are close to Pynchon's heart.
Wood doesn't understand American literature at all -- which makes one wonder about his enthusiasm for Bellows. But he also doesn't understand Naipaul at all. Unsurprisingly.

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