Tuesday, May 20, 2008
In the Penny Press!
A slightly belated look at the Penny Press here at Stevereads, where we've been slightly distracted of late. For instance, we're only just now getting to last week's TLS, which had its usual bounty of great stuff and one ominous little note, in Morris Dickstein's review of Richard Cook's new Alfred Kazin biography. Dickstein's piece (oh calm yourself, Beepy) is very good, but it opens with a few declarations that bear refuting:
Literary journalism is usually as perishable as the paper it's printed on. In times past, the most commanding reviewers might see their work collected in books. Now the general audience for literary essays seems to have disappeared, along with many newspapers and magazines that once published them.
Well, yes and no, right? If Dickstein really believed what he wrote, he wouldn't be writing literary essays for the TLS, now would he? And besides, his dire predictions fail to take into account the very medium in whose warm glow you're right this moment bathing: the Internet is, of course, where the 'general audience' for literary essays has migrated, and that 'paper it's printed on' reference already feels slightly old-fashioned, doesn't it? Print had its long golden age, as did steam and whale-oil, and in another generation even the most obstinate holdouts to paper-and-ink reading will have been won over by some innovation or other that soothes their old-fashioned nerves (we here at Stevereads, for instance, got an absolutely frightening amount of use out of our old manual typewriter - indeed, it sits within easy view whenever we write, even to this day - but the homely little detail that won us over to computers was the backspace ... the ability to magically undo any and all typing mistakes without the torturous necessity of white-out or retyping, like a gift from Heaven! After that, we kept pecking away on our mechanical typewriter for a while out of misplaced sentimentality, but after a while, we saw how pointless that was and stopped). Dickstein's lament is not only premature but misplaced, as the meticulous, wonderfully written prose over at Open Letters (among many other such places, although it's the best of them) shows ever month on the 1st.
Which isn't to say there isn't an abundance of good prose still in the print world! Take the latest issue of Esquire, for instance. Not only does it have a really good, really intense short story titled "Nightstand" by Daniel Woodrell, about a man who wakes to find a stranger standing at the foot of his bed, kills the stranger, and then watches his life change as a result, in disturbing ways the reader won't see coming. It's always a pleasure when Esquire's fiction excels, and "Nightstand" is the best thing they've published so far this year.
Then there's Mark Warren's little insert (oh calm down, Beepy) "Cracking the Code," part of a longer feature on racism in America. Warren very amusingly posits there's a code for how public figures talk about racism, and of course he has one particular public figure in mind:
Of course, you've got to be careful when administering the code visually, because there's a much higher probability that it'll backfire, and you'll be the one looking like a douchebag. Case in point: Earlier this year, the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton released a picture of Barack Obama, taken a couple of years ago when the senator was visiting Kenya. In the picture, Obama, who was gamely playing along by donning local garb, is wearing a turban and wrapped in a bedsheet over his khakis and polo shirt. Senator Clinton's people just put the picture out there, for our consideration, and there it hung in the air, like a fart. They of course couldn't say "Look, he really is a Muslim, and a foreigner, and lookee, he's so black!" So they said nothing, until the Obama campaign responded, essentially, "What the hell?" Whereupon Clinton's campaign manager attacked Senator Obama for being divisive. Awkward.
Trenchant stuff, especially considering the fact that as of this writing Candidate Clinton has just won a brace of Racist State Primaries and instead of being ashamed, instead of quietly shushing up the whole thing (like the way every Presidential candidate who gets the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan - and for a hundred years, somebody's got that endorsement in every race), she's trumpeted it as a sign the system still works, as a measure of the validity of her campaign.
It won't matter in the end, obviously. Barring an assassin's bullet (something Candidate Clinton is all but visibly relying on, which will end up being the least savory detail of her 2008 run), its pretty likely Senator Obama will be the Democrat who get their ass handed to them in the general election against the madman McCain. But it speaks in eloquent counterpoint to Obama's now famous speech on race relations in this country.
Obama is also the focus of Charles Pierce's ferocious, intelligent piece "The Cynic and Senator Obama," which takes as its organizing motif the idea that there's a segment of the smarter American voting public that still refuses to believe in Obama, to believe that he's hitting a genuine nerve in a broad spectrum of people - that he is, in other words, answering a need of some kind (it's worth noting that this isn't exclusively a good thing, needs being weak, after all). Pierce strikes an unashamedly partisan note throughout:
Someone will have to measure the wreckage. Someone will have to walk through the ruins. Someone will have to count the cost. More than anything else, the presidential election ongoing is - or, as a right, ought to be - about ending an era of complicity. There is no point anymore in blaming George Bush or the men he hired or the party he represented or the conservative movement that energized that party for what has happened to this country in the past seven years. They were all merely the vehicles through whom the fear and lassitude and the neglect and the dry rot that had been afflicting the democratic structures for decades came to a dramatic and disastrous crescendo. The Bill of Rights had been rendered a nullity by degrees long before a passel of apparatchik hired lawyers found in its text enough gray space to allow a fecklessly incompetent president to command that torture be carried out in the country's name. The war powers of the Congress had been deeded wholesale to the executive long before Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz and a passel of think-tank cowboys found within them the right of a fecklessly incompetent president to make war unilaterally on anyone, anywhere, forever. The war in Iraq is the powerful bastard child of the Iran-Contra scandal, which went unpunished.
In the article, the Cynic fights hard to retain his cynicism and in the end remains unconvinced by Obama and any of his various messages, but the prose is bracing throughout.
(in an associated point, John Richardson turns in a piece titled "Is This Man a Monster?" about former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, the author of the infamous 'torture memos' that will forever guarantee President George W. Bush a place, however dark, in history. Richardson's title question, about an innocent-faced, career-minded creature who conceived the memorandum that are this country's darkest moments embodied, can be answered with a simple 'yes,' but that doesn't make his article any the less compelling)
And surely for readers everywhere, the highlight of this particular issue of Esquire was its one-page interview with legendary author Gore Vidal. Those of us who've loved Vidal's work in the past have been universally troubled in the present, where our author has seemed to lose his way a bit. His latest memoir, Point to Point Navigation, was touching but ultimately saddening, something akin to the world's longest death notice.
There's something of that tone in Mike Sager's brief interview here, but it's delivered with more fire and wit. And the quips flow like Chianti:
I've developed a total loathing for McCain, conceited little asshole. And he thinks he's wonderful. I mean, you can just tell, this little simper of self-love that he does all the time. You just want to kick him. For a writer, memory is everything. But then you have to test it; how good is it, really? Whether it's wrong or not, I'm beyond caring. It is what it is. As Norman Mailer would say, "It's existential." He went to his grave without knowing what that word meant.
But the troublingly mortuary note is still struck here as well, as in this little revelation:
There was more of a flow to my output of writing in the past, certainly. Having no contemporaries left means you cannot say, "Well, so-and-so will like this," which you do when you're younger. You realize there is no so-and-so anymore. You are your own so-and-so. There is a bleak side to it.
Well, yes, there is a bleak side to it, but fortunately this is a problem with an easy solution, and we here at Stevereads offer it to Mr. Vidal free of charge, in complete confidence as to its efficacy because we've repeatedly tested it ourselves: make young friends! Find new so-and-so's! Not only is it invigorating, but it keeps you on your toes, stops you from thinking you have all the answers (stops you, essentially, from masturbating in public). The English Department of any handy university could provide you with such new blood, or, failing that, we're sure the boys and girls over at Open Letters would be happy to volunteer! Merely click on the link and drop them a line!
Over in the Atlantic, there are two standout pieces this month, and neither one is by Christopher Hitchens (although he does write a lovely essay about Saki)! The first is called "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," and it's written by "Professor X" (as in anonymous, not as in mutant) - and reading the piece, you can see why its author would want to remain anonymous: the thing is a bracing wake-up call about the over-proliferation of college students in this country, and the drastic failures of the pre-college educational system - first by utterly failing to prepare them for higher learning, and second by simultaneously filling their heads with the desirability of that goal.
Professor X is the guy standing between that goal and reality, as he ruefully writes:
Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it - try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn't been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades. For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of the work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less college.
The fault here, of course, lies not in the laudable goal of sending everybody to college; it lies with the criminally substandard state into which Americans have allowed their grade schools and high schools to fall. We here at Stevereads know a dozen teachers at such levels, and all of them routinely spend their own money on supplies, offer up their own time for private tutoring, try their best to reach classes sometimes numbering in the 30s, and doing all of this with virtually no support from local communities and businesses, despite the fact that such support is certainly in their long-term best interests. The reason Professor X is dealing with so many barely literate, intellectually incurious students in college is because they were allowed to pass that way out of high school. His despair at being the guy who hands out the failing grades is a visible symptom of a much more widespread rot.
Of course, none of it might ultimately matter, if the second Atlantic article turns out to be true. Gregg Easterbrook turns in a curiously flat piece about the end of life on Earth, as a result of a catastrophic meteor-collision. His piece, "The Sky is Falling," has some fascinating details lodged in a scattershot general approach (there's a long digression on the feasibility of building a lunar base that any first-year editor should have yanked out of the piece), and the star of the show is 99942 Apophis, our darling girl:
Right now, astronomers are nervously tracking 99942 Apophis, an asteroid with a slight chance of striking Earth in April 2036. Apophis is also small by asteroid standards, perhaps 300 meters across, but it could hit with about 60,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb - enough to destroy an area the size of France.
That destruction would only be the beginning, as all you fans of Armageddon can attest: following it would be shockwaves, tsunamis, earthquakes, and choking dust clouds. As Easterbrook puts it:
...the combination of shock waves and extreme heating at the point of impact generates nitric and nitrous acids, producing rain as corrosive as battery acid.
As some of you may know, we here at Stevereads aren't terribly big fans of the human race (even though some of our best friends are humans). Mankind has proven itself to be a savage and spreading cancer across the face of the planet, a species whose defining action seems to be destruction. Diseases do little to cull the murderous herd, and wars are equally small-fry. A monstrous asteroid striking the planet would, it's true, wipe out all non-human life ... but if it also wiped out humanity, well, that would be a bargain even so. So we'll be watching closely in 2036, with fingers crossed.
And in the meantime, we'll be blogging. So there's karma still in the world!