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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
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06/28/2010

Comments

Edward Champion

Why is Russo so revered? Because he gets at the roots of human behavior better than most literary novelists. That's also why his books sell. Hardly a mystery. The Lifetime movie charge is more James Wood's territory rather than yours, Dan. Unless, of course you're playing deliberate contrarian.

To interpret Sarah and Karen as a representative dualism is to miss, with painful severity, the subtleties of what Russo is doing. (Keep in mind that the book is also written in the first person and is very much about capturing the past -- that meta element you observed.) And with all due respect, to read Russo in an effort to unravel soap opera elements is as misguided as James Wood making the charge that all of Richard Powers's novels contain a boy-meet-girl subplot. (Both you and Wood are too smart and KNOW better than to jump to such rash conclusions.) If you read STRAIGHT MAN without laughing once, then I'm afraid that you have no soul and I just don't trust your reading sensibilities. Sorry, but it's as simple as that. Not marketing forces, not mainstream; just great comic writing -- worthy in its own way as Sorrentino and Markson.

I do, however, agree with you (slightly) about Bobby -- the most problematic aspect of BRIDGE OF SIGHS. Yet how can you discount a novel that contains this AMERICAN PASTORAL "you fight your superficiality"-like passage?

"Odd, how our view of human destiny changes over the course of a lifetime. In youth we believe what the young believe, that life is all choice. We stand before a hundred doors, choose to enter one, where we're faced with a hundred more and then choose again. We choose not just what we'll do, but who we'll be. Perhaps the sound of all those doors swinging shut behind us each time we select this one or that one should trouble us, but it doesn't. Nor does the fact that the doors often are identical and even lead in some cases to the exact same place. Occasionally a door is locked, but no matter, since so many others remain available. The distinct possibility that choice itself may be an illusion is something we disregard, because we're curious to know what's behind that next door, the one we hope will lead us to the very heart of the mystery. Even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary we remain confident that when we emerge, with all our choosing done, we'll have found not just our true destiny but also its meaning. The young see life this way, front to back, their eyes to the telescope that anxiously scans the infinite sky and its myriad possibilities. Religion, seducing us with free will while warning us of our responsibility, reinforces youth's need to see itself at the dramatic center, saying yes to this and no to that, against the backdrop of a great moral reckoning."

Frances Madeson

Ed of my heart,

Here comes your great moral reckoning.

Russo's books sell well because prior, upon and post pub-date, his publisher purchases double-paged ads in all the high-end publications (thereby inducing more or less positive reviews, or at least write-ups with some salvageable quotes, which is really all you need), posters are plastered in subway stations, and billboards are splashed on the sides of buses a la Sex in the City. They sell well because they have been chosen TO BE SOLD.

Every so often (I'm sure there's an MBA somewhere with an algorithm dangling off his slide rule), the corporate publishers pick a medium-to-low testosterone guy like Russo (I believe I once referred to him as a “love-bug”) or JSF, more or less well-spoken but not at all intimidating writers, regular type married guys (very important: not gay!) with five o'clock shadows to prove it, (and sometimes nerdy gals with assertively designed glasses frames and funky-kicky leg-wear; think Bee Season) whose skills are well within reach of most readers with a general claim on literacy.

They're selected on a schedule and by demographic in order to fuel the casino of writing programs, writing manuals, workshops, the whole company store, outlets and franchises, kit and caboodle. They're recruited and groomed to give both the feckless young and the misguided AARPsters with a dollar and a dream a modicum of hope that they too could hit the literary jackpot. Russo's picture (in his monogrammed canvas director's chair) is Appendix A in the Master Business Plan right next to Warren Adler's (who BTW successfully works both sides of the street, teaching “novel-writing” at NYU in the fall and pulling down the summer workshop haul).

That a critic with your powers of discernment would fail to perceive the marketing big picture is frankly something of a shock. But because I care, I wanted to extend a hand and help you out of that leaky rain barrel before you go (and take others who would emulate you with you), like some gushing honeymooner or P.T. Barnumesque daredevil, completely over the water's edge. Yes, there's a sucker born every minute, but I'll be damned if I stand by and let his name be Ed Champion.

If Russo, who is Nobody's Fool, permits himself to be flashed like a pouch of shiny fool's gold on Miss Kitty's rough hewn bar, it's because he knows that a special someone slash anyone is required to serve as poster boy for the cause. And what is the cause? Selling all those picks and shovels, tents and camp stoves, to everyone rushing into the culture industry in them thar hills. It's the pick-axe sellers (the olde time incarnation of current day royalty collectors) who made the big money in 1849. (I can't believe I'm forced to relate this tidbit of history to someone from San Francisco!) I can easily picture Mr. Russo looking in the mirror and calculating whether or not to shave on a day a photographer is coming over and deciding, what the heck, the poster child might as well be me, for the benefit of him and his. Who's it hurting?

Caveat emptor and carpe diem. Capisch?

Edward Champion

Frances: I refuse to live in a black-and-white universe where a commercially viable title can't have any critical worth or an avant-garde title can't be bad. I'm very well aware of the marketing big picture. I don't see what any of it has to do with assessing a book's worth. I dig Richard Russo. I don't give a shit how many books he sells.

Frances Madeson

You can dig him all you want, even revere him. Just don't be trying to shovel (or peddle) him in anywhere near the same category of writer as Sorrentino and Markson, unless of course as David Markson wrote in Reader's Block:

"God id dead, everything is permitted."

Frances Madeson

Pardon and please supplant "is" for "id." Oh Lord, that's what I get for watching Alphaville last evening into the wee hours.

John Williams

I'm here to defend Russo (up to a point), but I have to address Frances' rant first. I don't think I've ever seen a "billboard" for a Richard Russo novel. Certainly, there were no billboards for his first or second novel. Russo BECAME popular because people LIKED his work. That is one way that the market can operate. You make it sound like Russo is Taylor Lautner.

Anyway, back to the point: Dan, I thought Bridge of Sighs and Cape Magic were entertaining, though disappointing relative to Russo's earlier work. I might chalk some of this up to his increased screenwriting, but that's another story. A critique of his reputation in general that largely ignores all the previous books seems unfair. The Risk Pool, Nobody's Fool, and Straight Man, in particular, are great -- I think the accumulated love for them is what led to so much over-praise for Empire Falls, which was very good, but perhaps not as good as those earlier books.

Frances Madeson

John,
I've never been to Vegas, but it doesn't take a cardsharp (or even a dullard) to understand that though readers also liked Mr. Sorrentino's and Mr. Markson's early books, those writers were never selected for the kind of mass appeal that is a consequence of, not a precursor for, the level of marketing investment that Mr. Russo and Candace Bushnell have received.

John Williams

Now it's Russo and Bushnell together? I have been to Vegas, a few times. But even if I hadn't, I'd know to cut my losses in this conversation.

Shelley

Frances: write a book of essays! Seriously!

Re the review:"sense of place" sounds good to me because of my work, but I have to confess I haven't read this author.

Levi Stahl

I think you're right about Russo--but only regarding these most recent two novels. That Old Cape Magic is entertaining, but slight. Bridge of Sighs is Russo's worst novel; I'm a big fan and I'd rate it almost a complete failure. Throughout, it feels like Russo is deforming his characters in service of his larger themes, forcing them to make decisions and have thoughts that simply don't ring true--and in the process destroying our willingness to believe in their existence at all.

Nobody's Fool, however, is brilliant, a funny, moving, serious, sad look at frustration and failure and personality and place. I find myself thinking of it frequently. His other earlier novels, too, are all very good and worthy of the reputation they established for him.

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