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04/05/2010

Comments

Frances Madeson

You're ever so late to this tea party, Daniel. I believe the subject at hand is Morris Dickstein's credibility as a critic? Well, I'll do my best to keep the word count to a minimum. I had the biggest larf of my literary life, barring none, not one but two summers ago when he published the ironically titled essay, Fiction and Political Fact (or, as I think of it, Faction and Political Fact) in Bookforum. http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/015_02/2458

I wish I could tell you, but I cannot because it would be a big, fat, whopping lie to say so, that Morrie wrote the essay in full ignorance of the existence of Cooperative Village (which, as you know is prescriptive to the absence he names in the essay in the same degree as, oh, I don't know, let's say, Jonas Salk's serum was to that other crippling disease—polio). Shall I make a list of the characteristics and attributes of the ideal political novel as called for by the Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center, my alma mater, and provide corresponding proof from my novel? Is that fully necessary, because I am prepared to do it? Is there anyone out there who doubts that I can?

I sent Mo-Dick an inscribed copy with a personal note when my book was published in Spring 2007. He was in the first wave of opinion makers to whom I sent copies. But unlike founder and chairman of the Open Society Institute, George Soros; Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi; or his colleague, Rachel Brownstein, author of among other fine works, Becoming a Heroine, Professor Dickstein did not acknowledge its receipt, or even wish me well. One could perhaps argue that he was under no such obligation to respond to a gift from a stranger. But I was not, am not, a stranger to Dr. Dickstein. Our paths have crossed professionally and socially many, many times. In point of fact, he once interviewed me for a job as his assistant at The Center for the Humanities (presumably having vetted my intellectual and professional qualifications). Furthermore, we have mutual friends in Herb Leibowitz, founder and editor of Parnassus Poetry Review and Susan Yankowitz, novelist and award-winning playwright (her gorgeous play Night Sky is among her more oft-produced and translated plays, but I digress). In addition, when I was Program Officer of the Steven H. and Alida Brill-Scheuer Foundation there were other occasions of convergence around the moment of publication of Serge Klarsfeld's French Children of the Holocaust, which Steve and Alida's generosity made possible—a simply stunning book.

The effrontery of his attempted effacement of my contribution to American letters compelled me to write in protest to the editors of Bookforum alerting them to the grave omission in his essay. As a courtesy, I cc'd Mo-Dick on the correspondence.

It was via my own experience that I unambiguously received the knowledge like a sucker punch to the solar-plexus that 1) we were not in Kansas, 2) any notion of a literary meritocracy was completely risible, and 3) that the fix was most definitely, certainly, and completely in.

As my friend Paul Allman reminded us in his excellent play about Dan Rather, ambition, weather, and Donald Barthelme, I beg of all of you to consider:

What is the frequency?

Dan Green

I feel your pain, Frances, although your comments don't really much address the points made in my post.

Shelley

Back to the 1930's: that's the era of my work, and although I agree that Dickstein's book can be a bit dense, for me there were a couple of points where, out of all the data accumulated, he cuts straight to the heart of the matter: damn, I can't find the quote in all my notes right now, but there's one passage where he talks about--I believe it's an excerpt from a West novel, and it's a character who has just been pushed to the absolute limits of endurance so that it's almost freakish, and reading it, you don't know whether to laugh or cry because the situation is just so devastatingly discouraging...that's the 30's.

Morris Dickstein

I appreciate your close and careful reading of my work, Daniel. I'm delighted you were first turned on to some wonderful fiction writers by GATES OF EDEN. My own excitement about the work of metafictionists like Barthelme, Barth, Vonnegut, and Pynchon certainly is a key part of that book, but it's also true that their succeeding books, including Nabokov's last books, began disappointing me soon afterwards. I thought they were repeating themselves, playing increasingly sterile games, and losing their purchase on the larger world their greatest books were about. I also became much more attracted to the realist tradition that had, of course, always engaged me in its 19th-century incarnations, and that shift is reflected, as you rightly say, in my later books. But LEOPARDS IN THE TEMPLE was also written, in its original form, as part of a large volume of the CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE, in which another critic, an excellent one, Wendy Steiner, was assigned to cover metafiction, as she did superbly. So this took me off the hook, even as it accorded with what I then preferred to do. Where I differ with you is in the notion that I somehow neglect the purely aesthetic power and pleasures of the works I write about. If that were true, if I didn't take an exquisite delight in those books, if I weren't deeply moved by them, I couldn't write about them. I've always tried, perhaps not always successfully, to balance off the social or culture meanings of literary works and their essential character as works of art. (This is what I meant by the term "double agent" in my book on criticism.) I particularly appreciated Adam Kirsch's review of DANCING IN THE DARK for making this point.
http://www.columbia.edu/cu/alumni/Magazine/Fall2009/reviews.html.

The books I left out of DANCING IN THE DARK, such as Dos Passos's U.S.A., invariably were those that simply didn't reach me as writing. On the other hand, I did deal with daringly original writers I love, like Nathanael West, whose books could be seen as momentous forerunners of metafiction. They certainly were not fully appreciated till much later. For the record, I take cultural criticism and aesthetic criticism to be inseparable. Great works of art give us greater insight into the mind and feeling of an era than those that merely document the times. The latter hold little interest for me. They seem stillborn on the page, or just irretrievably dated. They're "history" in the worst sense of the term.

Dan Green

I'm grateful to Morris Dickstein for responding to my post. Readers can now balance my critical comments in the post with Professor Dickstein's rejoinder.

mitch Hampton

The correspondence between Dickstein and Green is redolent of a kind of spirit that seems to be vanishing, alas: a spirit that puts value at the center rather than mere utility, to risk a rather crude formulation. Doubtless Green would argue that there is much utility at work in the EFFECTS of a given style, the question of value has a certain independence for, as Dickstein points out, we should struggle to maintain a part of culture where the distinction between "history in the worst sense" and art in the best sense is taken most seriously.

veg

It was gracious of Professor Dickstein to respond to Dan's post.

However, the particular questions that Dan asked still remain largely unanswered.

Here are two of Dan's questions:

(1) "How does Dickstein know what 'they' [certain writers] were thinking?"

(2) "How can they,' as opposed to individual writers, be thinking anything except insofar as the critic has self-selected a few of 'them,' invested them with 'premises' and speculated about 'their' social standing ('relative affluence') and the state of their souls ('spiritual confusions')?"

Here are some polemical answers:

We cannot claim to know what authors are thinking unless we have documentary evidence of their views (interviews, articles, letters, visual media, etc).

Really good literary history ought to teach us about how we handle sources, claims, and evidence.

To that end, good literary history should not group a few authors together and claim that their purported views are indicative of an entire generation's ideas.

Good literary history is informed by the following:

(1) documentary evidence of each authors' views;

(2) documentary evidence of collaborative understandings among authors, and if the critic does not have such evidence, then she or he should say so, and if the critic bases her or his views on similar formal maneuvers within several writers' works, then the critic should say so;

(3) documents that suggest societal views, norms, trends, and changes (like news articles, reviews, government records, interviews, letters, photographs, broadsides, and the list goes on and on); without this evidence the critic has no competitively valid basis for her or his claims about how cultural trends influence literature (and visa versa).

Without this methodological and formal rigor, we get the following abuses and misuses of so many literary and cultural histories:

- cultural pronouncements without documentary evidence;

- psychologizing about authors' thoughts, feelings, and beliefs without documentary evidence;

- superstitious spiritual pretenses without any rational evidence.

Professor Dickstein's work is frequently extraordinary because he understands the formal work of literature and he writes in an accessible manner that is unlike much of post-60s jargon-filled literary studies. He was also one of the first arguably mainstream literary critics to highlight the importance of writers like John Barth.

However, sometimes Professor Dickstein's method is sometimes NOT rigorous in the way that I sketch here.

(Sometimes it IS.)

Dan's questions expose a few of the deficits in the good professor's methods--namely, the manner in which his claims sometimes rest on poorly evidenced conjecture about author's intentions and too-easy generalizations about arguably hastily grouped-together authors' work.

In so many ways, Dan's questions are haunted by New Criticism. (WiseGeek has an acceptable précis of New Criticism for the uninitiated: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-new-criticism.htm)

I DO think we can "close read the culture of the times" as well as "close read the literature" and make connections between these two kinds of work. But, to make these connections we had better darn sight have the following:

(1) deep analyzes of the actual language on the page and its constructions and formulations;

(2) actual documentary evidence of authors' views; or, open caveats that announce that we are surmising intentions based on textual maneuvers;

(3) voluminous and carefully gathered and vetted documentary evidence of cultural attitudes, trends, and changes.

Why is this important?

Because there is a difference between literary criticism on the one hand (which ought to be about texts' constructions and documentary evidence more than anything else) and literary opinion on the other hand (which is very rarely worth our eyes and ears).

Lastly, there are such things as misreadings--that is, analyzes and conclusions about texts that make mistakes about the formal maneuvers.

Thank you for reading my view.

Finn Harvor

Is Morris Dickstein by any chance related to the politician Samuel Dickstein? I ask because the latter, though usually forgotten now, was an important figure in the politics of the 1930s, and pivotal to understanding some of the stresses that existed at that time.

Dan Green

I don't believe so.

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