Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Votaries and Sharecroppers in the Penny Press!

You have to do a little patient skull-duggery to get to the good stuff in this month’s Atlantic. The James Fallows cover article on what America needs to do in order to ‘bounce back’ against the onslaught of underdog India and world-dominating China starts off strong, makes lots of good points, then in the third act veers off into weird we-need-a-new-form-of-government territory (if I had a dime for every time Jefferson’s boneheaded and offhand remark about how the country “needs a little rebellion now and then” was misused, I could buy a subscription to the Atlantic). Amanda Ripley’s piece on what makes a great teacher spends a great deal of time and verbiage arriving at the conclusion that the really great teachers are the ones who work really hard at it and think about it a lot. Timothy Lavin’s profile of a loony-tune late-night radio host went, I’m afraid, right over my head. And Michael Kinsley starts a piece by willfully misunderstanding the difference between a news story and a news bulletin and then flogging an entire article out of that misunderstanding (the article announces that he’ll be heading up a new website created by the Atlantic’s parent company – making me wonder if the dumbitdown.org domain name is already taken).

But once you get to the rear of the issue, some fun stuff can be found. Not, alas, Benjamin Schwarz (he appears to have the issue off, and I’m betting he’s at home reading), but two other stalwarts of the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan and Christopher Hitchens.

Flanagan, in full snarky-mad fettle, takes on the school-garden craze that’s sweeping her state of California – a craze that’s new to me, in which schoolchildren are assigned time during regular school hours, as schoolwork, to tend to the school’s garden, concoct recipes involving the school’s garden’s produce, harvest that produce, etc. Flanagan’s ire over this movement prompts her to a most excellent high dudgeon, right from the opening salvo:
Imagine that as a young and desperately poor Mexican man, you had made the dangerous and illegal journey to California to work in the fields with other migrants. There, you performed stoop labor, picking lettuce and bell peppers and table grapes; what made such an existence bearable was the dream of a better life. You met a woman and had a child with her, and because that child was born in the U.S., he was made a citizen of this great country. He will lead a life entirely different from yours; he will be educated. Now that child is about to begin middle school in the American city whose name is synonymous with higher learning, as it is the home of one of the greatest universities in the world: Berkeley. On the first day of sixth grade, the boy walks through the imposing double doors of his new school, stows his backpack, and then heads out to the field, where he stoops under a hot sun and begins to pick lettuce.

It’s rare for an immigrant experience to go the whole 360 in a single generation – one imagines the novel of assimilation, The White Man Calls It Romaine.


Apparently, the mastermind behind school gardens is a woman named Alice Waters, whose restaurant, Chez Panisse, is renowned among foodies as the height of the gourmand experience. Flanagan is not amused:
… an eatery where the right-on, ‘yes we can,’ ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting man or woman of the people can tuck into a nice table d’hote menu of scallops, guinea hen, and tarte tatin for a modest 95 clams – wine, tax, and oppressively sanctimonious and relentlessly conversation-busting service not included (I’ve had major surgeries in which I was less scrupulously informed about what was about to happen to me, what was happening to me, and what had just happened to me than I’ve been during dinner there).

But her anger over school gardens isn’t born of anti-snobbery (well, mostly) – it’s purely practical:
I have spent many hours pouring over the endless research on the positive effects of garden curricula, and in all that time, I have yet to find a single study that suggests classroom gardens help students meet state standards for English or math. Our kids are working in these gardens with the promise of a better chance at getting an education and a high school diploma but without one bit of proof that their hard work will result in either.

The lack of those results, and the inevitable consequence of that lack, leads her to a ringing finale:
The state, which failed those students as children and adolescents, will have to shoulder them in adulthood, for it will have created not a generation of gentlemen farmers but one of intellectual sharecroppers, whose fortunes depend on the largesse or political whim of their educated peers.

What can I say? Writing that packs that kind of punch is to be welcomed whenever it shows up. Flanagan almost never disappoints, but this is heady stuff, even for her.

Would I could say the same thing about the other interesting piece at the rear of this issue, Christopher Hitchens’ review of W.W. Norton’s The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard!

It’s not a knee-jerk reaction, either. Long-time watchers here at Stevereads will know that I’ve taken issue with Hitchens once or twice before (including once in the letters page of the Atlantic itself), but it’s always at least as much the product of frustration as anything else. The man can be brilliant, after all, whereas the most I myself am ever able to pull off is indefatigable (a word I wanted to work into the title of our favorite literary journal, calling it Indefatigable Letters Monthly – but John Cotter slammed his ale tankard on the table and bellowed “Avast with that talk, Donoghue!”)(actually, he swished his martini glass counter-clockwise and said, “Wellllll, that’s one way we could go – and here’s another” … and “Open” Letters was born). But when he’s insufferable, he’s A-grade insufferable … and he’s A-grade in this piece.

The main problem is that it’s fashionable among New York bookstore workers who read no science fiction to say that Ballard and writers like him (Margaret Atwood’s name invariably comes up in this context) actually wrote it. This particular version of eating your cake and having it too has always bugged me; it’s snobbery trying to disguise itself as open mindedness. “See?” it says, “I read science fiction! I thought The Road was stunning!” If you’re not willing to get down and dirty with the actual tropes of a genre, you’re nothing but a hoity-toit parvenu.

Cue Hitchens:
As one who has always disliked and distrusted so-called science fiction (the votaries of this cult disagreeing pointlessly about whether to refer to it as “SF” or “sci-fi”), I was prepared to be unimpressed even after Kingsley Amis praised Ballard as “the most imaginative of H.G. Wells’s successors.” The natural universe is far too complex and frightening and impressive on its own to require the puerile add-ons of space aliens and super-weapons …

Hitchens just barrels on from here (without seeming to realize that his rationale, if followed past its cramped use in this instance, would annihilate the legitimacy of all fiction – indeed, all representative art except real-time documentary film footage), high-handedly informing us that although he’s always thought this about the “cult” of science fiction (does he apply the word to Impressionist paintings? Romantic poetry? Even murder mysteries? I bet not), this Ballard fellow is alright – then he spends five paragraphs talking about Ballard’s straight-up historical novel Empire of the Sun.

As is perhaps inevitable in a piece with such a rocky start, further frustrations await, including this rather amazing comment:
Ballard wrote his heart out, especially after the random death of his beloved wife left him to raise three children, so I don’t especially like to say that he wrote too much. (This book has almost 1200 pages). But some of the stories are in want of polish and finish.

The hypocrisy of Christopher Hitchens bemoaning the fact that another writer churned out too much prose is so pronounced as to be almost surreal, but the thing that irked me most about this piece was the unprepossessing sight of a talented writer parading the fact that his mind has always been closed on a certain subject, is currently closed, and will likely remain closed forever. That’s hardly how you want to wind up an issue of the Atlantic.

Ah, but then, that’s NOT how we wind up this issue! No, that honor goes to Jeffrey Goldberg’s asinine “What’s Your Problem?” mock-advice column, which still occupies the magazine’s entire back page, even though its appearance every month for this long must surely have convinced even a blind man that the whole thing is a criminal waste of some of the most valuable magazine real estate in the world. If the goal here is to mimic Harper’s almost equally inane “Findings” end-page, the result is failure – “Findings,” although also a disgrace to the reputation of a legendary magazine, still manages to be bizarrely interesting about once every half-year, for a line or two. There’s no danger of that happening with “What’s Your Problem?” The Atlantic Powers That Be should yank this embarrassment – and if they’re looking for a smart, funny, invigorating one-page ‘literary life’ column to take its place, I’d be happy to see if any of my sharp young colleagues at Indefatigable Letters Monthly wants the gig.


JC said...

Actually, I only swish my martini clockwise. Counterclockwise, I risk a splash on my cravat.

Mike said...

So I've got to ask, do you read Harper's? I've read your reviews/ take-downs (should that be a word?) of most of the other big names of the literary-news magazine world, but I don't remember you discussing the one magazine in that company that doesn't annoy me with an overabundance of perfume ads and uneven writing (not that Harper's is perfect, but it's more fun than the New Yorker or the Atlantic by far). Or does that magazine just not fit your tastes?

Just curious. Enjoying the blog as always.

Sam said...

I second the request for more Harper's coverage--it's still a fairly iconoclastic magazine, if nothing else.

The origin story of the name Open Letters is not far off the scene here. I had flailingly suggested "Open Vessel". John's response was "Try to say it out loud with a straight face". And so was born Open Letters!

Kevin said...

More Harper's coverage. Thirded.

Steve Donoghue said...

The people have spoken! The very next issue of Harper's (next week, if memory serves) will get exactly what's coming to it (in answer to your question, Mike, yes, I do indeed read the magazine - it and I go waaaaaaaay back). Let's hope it's not a 'be careful what you wish for' type of thing!

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