Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In the Penny Press!


Well, it goes without saying - certainly here at Stevereads - that the most interesting, arresting thing in the Penny Press this time around is our very own letter, printed in the current issue of The Atlantic. As some of you will know, we issued a slight correction to the great literary critic B.R. Myers on the subject of the parables of Jesus. Myers, to his credit, has spunk enough to attempt a rebuttal, but his resorting to Mark is a surefire sign of desperation, as is his unconvincingly narrow construction of the passage he quotes. But still, we give him marks for determination and wish him well in his future endeavors!

Coming down from that height, we have Sam Anderson's fantastic piece in New York, "Raise High the Rafters," in which he maintains that the biggest challenge facing Barack Obama in the upcoming election will be curtailing his personal elegance to conform to the more lowbrow comfort zone of the general voting public, who, according to Anderson, dislike sophistication in any form. We here at Stevereads don't quite believe this, but we love how Anderson writes, as when he says "Style tells us, in a second, what substance couldn't do in a year," or when he describes the moment when his belief in Obama overcame his natural cynicism:

The speech that finally tipped my inner scale decisively toward belief was his least decorative: no refrain, little alliteration, no audience exploding at shouted catchphrases - just the man himself, standing there solemnly, neutralizing the hysteria of a potentially career-killing scandal with the naked power of grown-up thought. With his race speech, Obama chose the riskiest path in American politics: to be conspicuously thoughtful.


Of course, with high points must come low points, and over in The New Yorker, in a short story ironically titled "Deep-Holes," our low point this week is provided by a writer guaranteed to provide nothing else: yes, the issue features yet another endless damp lump of a short story by Alice Munro. This one is about some people doing some things, and it time and again offers up paragraphs like this:

While this was going on, Kent manages to slip behind her and finish up her champagne. Peter must have seen him do this, but for some peculiar reason he does not tell on him. Sally discovers what has happened some time later and Alex never knows about it at all, because he soon forgets there was anything in her glass and packs it neatly away with his own, while telling the boys about dolostone.

So one character does something, and none of the other characters see it or care, and the something never comes up again because nobody cares about it or knows about it (although Alex should, since he "soon" forgets there was anything in her glass, not immediately does, meaning there was an interval of indeterminate length in which somebody noticed and should have cared at least enough to mention it), and the purpose of the wooden, lifeless paragraph describing it is what, exactly? Or was the paragraph really describing anything? Might it not have been simple aimless typing? Let's pick another:

On the steps of the old bank building just beyond the subway entrance, several men were sitting or lounging or sleeping. It was no longer a bank, of course, though the bank's name was cut into the stone. She looked at the name rather than at the men, whose slouching or reclining postures were such a contrast to the old purpose of the building and the rush of the crowd coming out of the subway.

So these men were sitting on the steps of the old bank building, only it wasn't a bank anymore, and they weren't sitting but lounging, only they weren't lounging but sleeping (Munro probably means that some of the men were sitting, some were lounging, and others were sleeping, but her horrid sentence doesn't say that), and they were either slouching or reclining, but it doesn't matter anyway because the main character is paying attention to the building not the men, even though the men are all she describes or talks about?

Yeesh.

Fortunately, the same issue also provides a poem we here at Stevereads kinda-sorta like. It's by Charles Wright, and it's called, for reasons we can't make out at all, "Return of the Prodigal":

Now comes the summer, water clear, clouds heavy with weeping.
Tall grasses are silver-veined.
Little puddles of sunlight collect
in low places deep in the woods.
Lupine and paintbrush stoic in ditch weed,
larch rust a smear on the mountainside.
No light on the ridge line.
Zodiac pinwheels across the heavens,
bat-feint under Gemini.

5 comments:

JEaton said...

I always enjoy it when you give Alice Munro a good thrashing.

By the by, I delved into my dwindling pile of unread Steve-books this week and am now deep into The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence. I'm sure I thanked you for it when you gave it to me 6 years ago but, now that I'm finally reading/enjoying it, I thank you again.

I think I'll have to see the movie again when I'm done.

Greg said...

If you don't thank Steve for something (or even sometimes if you do), you'll never hear the end of it.

I don't agree with Anderson either, at least about Obama. Obama's attempts at lowbrowing it haven't come off well. Remember his awkward attempt at bowling? He should stick to his strengths.

I do, however, agree about the speech. I thought at the time, and I still do, that it was pretty gutsy.

Actually, I disagree with Anderson about style too. I think he comes off a bit too sanguine for the sake of a good sentence. A President and his style must work within the constraints of the political system. Style often bends to the latter, and Obama positions reflect pragmatism as much as anything else.

greg said...

Obama's I mean. Why can't I edit my posts?

Beepy said...

Even if you thank Steve in front of witnesses there is an 80% chance he'll claim you didn't. With video tape, the chance drops to 60%.

Just so you know.

JEaton said...

Love means never having to say "You're welcome." Ha.