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

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04/27/2009

Comments

Steven Augustine

Those dismissive, null-nuance readings have the too-sweet stink of the hipster to them: everything on the i-pod a must-have, wouldn't be caught dead in Prague or at a Fellini film, always on the lookout for the ideal Japanese future ex. This is what happens when the Top Ten list becomes an ethos. The hipster is the Kudzu of the critical conversation.

Christopher Sorrentino

I had, I believe, eight hundred words in which to review Barth’s book. If I was inadequate to the task of explaining, in so little space, why I felt the book fell short, then I offer a mea culpa, but I stand by the review’s conclusion. It’s not hostility to either “metafiction” or “postmodernism” (or Barth, for that matter) that fuels the review, but dismay with the way that Barth chose to deploy the techniques we associate with those things. I thought I’d made that much clear. The stories are like episodes of The Golden Girls (pace Bea Arthur) in which one of the characters fixes the camera, and us, with a knowing look, after which, in the next scene, something “touching” happens, and the “studio audience” says “Awwwwwwwwww.” I’ll repeat what I said in the review: Barth’s hedging his bets here. He wants us to admire the superficiality he’s created qua superficiality, but also wants us to be moved by transparent and klutzy manipulations of the plot, with none of the brutal elan one might reasonably expect of metafiction (no, subject and setting are neither inherently hokum nor resistant to metafictional treatment, as B.S. Johnson showed forty years ago in House Mother Normal). For that’s the major objection I have -- it’s certainly not that Barth is working in an “exhausted” mode (although we surely have seen him ring these very changes time and again), but that he’s hedging: he wants us to gasp delightedly when the “rules” are “broken,” yet he also wants us to be moved by these transparent and klutzy plot manipulations. And the deaths of the Feltons in “Toga Party” are indeed “moving” in a Hallmark kind of way. The couple engages death, “with little emotional display,” the way they might engage a round-the-world cruise. You seem to take this not as an effective literary strategy, but as an understandable life strategy. Would that it were so; that death might commonly come to the elderly in so neatly trite a way. “Should” it be so in fiction? Well, I’m sure Barth and I would agree that there are no “shoulds” in fiction. But I thought, Dan, after having read you for five years, that you were moved primarily by what the narrative did, not what it told you. And yet much of what you single out as admirable is both unsubtle and, uncharacteristically for you, plot-oriented. If you would like to call attention to a work of fiction on the basis of its ability to surprise us in terms of the linear movement of the story, for providing “no emotional preparation” for plot changes the author sets in motion, for a “clear-eyed indictment” of the “middle-class lifestyle,” for its “small but representative” (of what?) world, for its surprising earnestness, that’s fine -- but these are your, apparently revised (in view of those five years), criteria, not mine.

Steven, thanks for your wild, amusing, and thoroughly incorrect guesses about me, my enthusiasms and prejudices, and my guiding aesthetic. I might disagree with you and say that it's the comment box that's the true kudzu of the critical conversation -- but here I am. Though I also publish elsewhere.

Dan Green

Christopher: It's not your review I'm referring to as hostile to postmodernism. I didn't think The Development was sentimental, but clearly we did have a different response to this aspect of the book. My overall point in this post remains the first one: in shifting away from his more systematic use of self-reflexivity, Barth becomes vulnerable to the charge that he is selling out, trying to cultivate "mainstream" readers.

Steven Augustine

Chris:

No need to get literal-minded in your defense of the particulars of your lifestyle. My comment was directed at "readings"... plural. I was referring to the hipster phenom in aggregate; of course there are variations at an individual level. You don't even have to be a hipster to adopt a hipster register, though, in any case, it was more Miller's reading I was responding to. My point... that pop judgments are gumming up critical nuance... still stands. Re-read your response (above) for evidence of same and get back to me?

Christopher Sorrentino

I'm a little sensitive about the charge that I'm accusing Barth of selling out. I am probably more aware than most people of the plight of the Twilit Postmodernist and certainly Barth is well aware that his editors at Houghton have him fenced securely inside the demographic pen that will tolerate his work (he is no doubt equally well aware that he is fortunate to be published by Houghton in the present environment). And I have little doubt that in assigning the book to me, Albert Mobilio at BookForum thought he was assigning it to a sympathetic (or at least comprehending) reader -- which, really, I am. I merely (without repeating or elaborating on the above) thought it was an inferior effort, the implication being clear (I thought) that it was inferior particularly in comparison to the deeply significant work he has done throughout much of his career.

One other, small, point, that may be of interest to those curious about the ways that book reviews morph between delivery and publication -- in my original draft, the sentence you quote that reads, "Here, though, we have stories about community that, while not without their appeal, are as bland as the homespun Americana of Garrison Keillor" originally read "...are bland enough to make Garrison Keillor on Lake Woebegon read like Sherwood Anderson on Winesburg." Albert asked me to change it, for perfectly fathomable reasons that I can't recall. The difference is slight but pertinent; despite the fact that as originally intended it may sound even more dismissive than as published, it was not my intention to directly compare Barth to Keillor, but to invoke the distance between The Development and the very high standard against which such a work from a writer as important as Barth should be set.

Dan Green

And I agree with the assessment you gave in your review: "a modest addition to [Barth's] oeuvre."

Steven Augustine


"A virtual Hallmark card for suicide—probably why Stephen King, a perfect judge of hokum, selected 'Toga Party’ for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2007—it's not even the best story in The Development."

So, this isn't pronounced in the register of the hipster? You know you're in trouble when Hallmark, Stephen King and Garrison Keillor are all mentioned in one 800-word review of your book! A positive review would have referenced "The Wire", I guess.

"One imagines Barth circling this material like a wolf around an untended sheepfold, but while it's to his credit that he doesn't take too many easy shots at this subdivided idyll, it's a problem that he doesn't really take any at all."

You're presuming that shot-taking is the proper goal here. By presuming to know the proper goal of the exercise, you've foreclosed on an open reading of the results. Dare I say that the need for a display of shot-taking is a hipster default?

Rather than providing an analysis of the mechanics of Barth's effort (and is it unhip of me to think that after such long, long service, the man deserves enough benefit of the doubt that the reviewer can assume the writer knows what he's doing? PS-this is no small effect; presuming the author knows what she/he's doing makes all the difference when he/she tries something risky), you critique the *tone*... for example, of this passage:

"A comfortable, fortune-favored life . . . ample pensions, annuity income, and a solid, conservative investment portfolio; not-bad health; no family tragedies; few really close friends (and no house pets), but no enemies. To be sure, they fear the prospect of old age and infirmity . . . but feel graced indeed with each other, with their family . . . their neighbors and neighborhood, and the worthy if unremarkable accomplishments of their past and present life."

The apparent presumption on your part being that writing about such characters without obvious shot-taking results in hokum. Would you be more comfortable if Barth wrote about crack addicts without shot-taking? Probably. But what's the difference, if we're not talking hipster shibboleths?

Barth's first mistake, obviously, was in choosing "unhip" subjects/settings. Make no mistake: the old, as a subject, are "unhip" (unless they're being mocked, or behaving, mysteriously, like the young).It was probably also a "mistake" for Barth to apply, perhaps, subtle/gentle/creeping ironies rather than the fire-alarm snark the reader/reviewer can get in one quick pass?

"Barth once talked about embracing 'another order of risk,' in which one would test one's ability to hold an audience with narrative complexity. Here, though, we have stories about community that, while not without their appeal, are as bland as the homespun Americana of Garrison Keillor. At the crucial stage while tying the tie and telling the tale, Barth neglected to pull the knot tight."

*Perhaps the other order of risk Barth embraced here was using tools not normally associated with his brand?*

"I'm a little sensitive about the charge that I'm accusing Barth of selling out."

But what you're actually accusing him of, in your review, is the blunder of no longer being hip; he's now a boring old feller who doesn't know that his time in the spotlight is over:

"Barth's always been a charmer, although at nearly eighty years old he's more like the lovable old uncle who's been entertaining the kids with that necktie routine for about fifty years than the onetime vigorous advocate for 'passionate virtuosity.'"

Are you close-reading the text or reviewing Barth's relevancy (and his relevancy to which demographic)?

"I am probably more aware than most people of the plight of the Twilit Postmodernist... "

If you've got inside information on the fact that most people don't read, and that most of the ones who do read don't read well, and that most of the ones who read well don't have the time to exercise the talent, please spill it. The world wasn't full of people begging for "Postmodernism" forty years ago... but there were lots more open-minded readers (because there were lots more readers); readers who hadn't been conditioned, yet, by TV and trench-overrunning capitalism to expect (nay, demand) standardized experiences in *everything*.

The "plight of the Twilit Postmodernist" is simply the plight of the Artist who doesn't want to bow to the rigid strictures of mass entertainment. I might add that perhaps Barth doesn't want to bow to the rigid strictures of cult entertainment, either. Maybe he still wants to apply the tools he requires to the tasks he sets to himself?

J.

"If you've got inside information on the fact that most people don't read..."

Steven: It may be a bit presumptuous of me, but I take Christopher Sorrentino to mean that he is sensitive to the plight of older postmodern writers nowadays because his own father, Gilbert Sorrentino, never acquired the respect or the audience he deserved. He certainly never enjoyed the stature of his peers. I suppose he might know the toll it can take on someone to suffer critical neglect after years and years of producing great books--not that Sorrentino ever publicly bemoaned his situation (unless one wants to read Mulligan Stew as autobiography).

As for book reviewing, when exactly was its Golden Age? When you say that "pop judgments are gumming up critical nuance" I'm left to wonder when this wasn't the case. I agree with your general attitude toward the "hipster register," but it's simply part of the enduring legacy of the surface-oriented counterculture (the children of wealthy white baby-boomers, the hippies, are your hipsters). Before that it was the puritanical register of New York intellectuals. They both involve affectation and have more to do with what's fashionable than what's good literature. Your pithy assault on book reviewing reminds me of Armond White's take on movie reviewing, which also leaves me saying, "True, but...what's new?" I don't think Sorrentino is accusing Barth of no longer being hip, I think he's accusing him of falling back on cliches and abandoning, somewhat, narrative experimentation, which hasn't been "hip," in the world of literature at least, for about 40 years. It may, of course, be true that Barth is after something more subtle these days and needs to be read in a new light.

Steven Augustine

J:


A) "Twilit Postmodernist" is only a meaningful (if affectionate) pejorative if we're grading/tracking literary Art in the manner of pop music. Believe it or not, there are writers, even now, working on Artmaking without an eye towards Trends or Taxonomies or Bottom Lines. This involves a worldview to which many are smug and hostile. Is this hostility/smugness damaging to the culture's depth and vitality? I think so.

B) Yes, there was no "Golden Age" of reviewing... a point we've revisited dozens of times on TRE. But there were better times for readers of book reviews. Any argument there?

C) How do Christopher's life-experiences relate to his review/comments? Haven't a clue; I was restricting my responses to the texts at hand.

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