Wednesday, September 13, 2006

In the Penny Press! the TLS destroys!

It was a fairly bloody week over in the TLS, which might be horrendous news to a handful of writers out there ("Donoghue has not mastered his subject matter" ... hee...), but is very happy news to those of us with ringside seats to the veddy veddy British bloodletting.

First up, a trio of books on the biological and evolutionary origins of happiness in humans. The piece is fairly neutral on Richard Schoch's The Secrets of Happiness, very much likes Darrin McMahon's The Pursuit of Happiness and ... well, Danilel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness doesn't fare so well:

At the beginning of his book, Schoch inveighs against the current fad for measuring happiness and experimenting with control groups. In fact, the blurb of his book describes it as a 'kick up the rear' to such activities. Daniel Gilbert is not in Richard Schoch's bibiography under 'the new science of happiness', but that is where Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness belongs. The author is a distinguished Harvard psychologist with interests in the 'systematic mistakes we make when we try to imagine our personal future' and in the brain's limited ability (hence the book's title) to 'predict which of those futures it will most enjoy'. Unfortunately he writes in a style of such irritating condescension and infantile humour (with references to poo, cream-pie, popcorn, and puking one's guts out) that I was only able to read him with great difficulty, a few pages at a time. Gilbert seeks to surprise and amuse us with such scientific pronouncements as: 'Research shows that Californians are actually no happier than anyone else - so why does everyone (including Californians) seem to believe they are?'. This book, written as if human identity were premissed on Middle American taste (and that it's funny to describe Westerner's disgust at certain Chinese delicacies) is a model of how not to present psychological research to the general reader. I hope Daniel Gilbert's editor, who says he has a beautiful ear, reads this review.


Up next? Robert Harris' new novel Imperium. This caused me a flutter of sympathy, I must admit, for two reasons: 1) I very much liked Harris' last book Pompeii and 2) I myself have written Roman historical novels, and the specter of being served on a spike hangs over the endeavor. After all, nobody would like reading this:

It is hard to see for whom this book is intended. Those who know the period well will find it anaemic; others may well be baffled. In spite of some absurdities and vulgarities - maybe in part because of them - the recent HBO television series Rome gives a much richer and more informed sense of Rome in the first century BC than does Imperium - and for that matter, more intelligent portraits of Caesar, Pompey, and indeed Cicero himself. Imperium is not vulgar or absurd, but it is curiously pointless.


Much as it's heresy to say so, I'm not entirely convinced by this review. The TLS is never wrong about scholarly works, but sometimes, very, very rarely, it misses the point of fiction. Pompeii had a wonderful undemostrative intelligence behind its every word-choice, and its characterizations were better and truer in 200 pages than Colleen McCullogh managed in 80,000. I'm holding out hope for Imperium.

But the butcher-belt keeps rolling! Naturally the ever-reliable J.C. gets in on the fun in the NB column, reviewing a new book of poetry by Matthew Cooperman:

A new book of poetry and prose arrives on our desk: Daze by Matthew Cooperman, published by Salt of Cambridge. It's tough stuff to understand. A piece of prose called 'Reasons for the Novel' offers twenty-seven 'reasons', the first of which is 'The novel of it, an unaccountable number of effects, whereby verisimilitude does or doesn't render ensemplastically skin, bicycles, meteors, savoir faires'. Reason No 8 is 'For Gods sake listen. Glottel horizon.'

There has always been 'difficult' literature, of course, and experts to make sense of it. With expectations therefore, we turned to the back cover of Daze to find D. A. Powell offering an exposition of Cooperman's work:

The ache of Berryman and the balls of Berrigan - a combination so striking in its language: sonorous, yes, but also snarky; lyrical and yet perky - dare I say perky? I do ... The poems do daze, they dazz, they does."

Hee. Oh, hee. The really bitter element of this comedy is that of course far worse, far deeper bullshit gets thrown around the poetry world every day, happily below J.C.'s radar. My young friend Sebastian travels voluntarily in such sewers, and he knows I've always been mystified as to how he can endure it. 'They does. They dazz' ... yeesh ...

Unlike the vast horde of bullshit poetasters out there, it should be pointed out, Sebastian is genuinely talented. So of course I had him in mind when I read the MOTHER of all savageries in this TLS, Marjorie Perloff's magisterial, utterly damning review of David Lehman's Oxford Book of American Poetry.

I think I can guess what Lehman thinks, in whatever dark corner he's in after reading this piece. It's a systematic dismantling of Lehman's entire enterprise, culminating in this:

The myriad unaccountable inclusions and exclusions in the Oxford Book (why Joseph Ceravolo but no Amiri Baraka; Molly Peacock but no Majorie Welish?), suggest that Lehman's 'gold standard' is neither revisionary like Donald Allen's, nor encyclopedic like the Library of America's; neither avowedly multicultural like Nelson's, nor providing special focus on transnational and postcolonial poets like Ramazani's. No, the Oxford Book is merely tedious in a corporate way, what with its repeated nods to Lehman's contemporaries in high institutional places such as the President of the Guggenheim Foundation (Edward Hirsch), the director of the National Endowment for the Arts (Dana Gioia), and a bevy of recent laureates, of whom Donald Hall is the most recent.


The really touching thing at the heart of Perloff's piece is its bedrock respect for the OFFICE of poet. Earlier in the piece this note is sounded more clearly:

And there's the rub: far from being apolitical, as Lehman claims, the standard of 'poems not poets' implies that clever, well-educated, well-connected people, working as academics or journalists or publishers, can often produce a lyric or two that deserves to be placed side by side with those who have made poetry their vocation. The poet as seer? as rebel? as serious thinker? as maker of the new? Not, evidently, in Lehman's lexicon.

See, I read the New York Times Book Review to learn what the chattering classes are actually chattering about. That's important, of course.

But the TLS, alone of all major publications (with the exception, perhaps, of Publishers Weekly, although gee, a whole LOT of ad money flows through their coffers ...), offers scrupulously intelligent, dispassionately fierce evaluations of everything worth considering literarily.

I love it dearly, though I doubt the above-named authors do.


Anonymous said...

This is the first chance I've had to read your blog in awhile and I was delighted to find this piece on that shabby old fake! Could you save me a copy of the review for when I'm not bounding?


steve said...

Of course I'll save the piece. You can just imagine how delighted I am that all the comments I seem to be getting are people ASKING ME FOR STUFF.

Anybody out there have any thoughts on, you know, what I'm WRITING?

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