Friday, October 22, 2010

Calculating Column-Length in the Penny Press!

The November Atlantic has one of those big special features that always sound more interesting than they end up being. In this case it's "Brave Thinkers," and the whole it can be painlessly skipped, or skimmed. Ditto the now-obligatory piece on the so-called Tea Party, a phase of national mania that should no more be covered in The Atlantic than it should be in Natural History. In earlier Stevereads entries, we've lamented the increased commercialization of The Atlantic - lamented the fact that half a dozen very intelligent young people of my acquaintance skim or skip not only the magazine's special features but the entire magazine itself. A hundred years ago - hell, twenty years ago - that would have been unthinkable.

Times change, yes, and writing priorities change (except, I'd hope it goes without saying, here at Stevereads), and The Atlantic moved out of Boston - so really, we're lucky it still boasts any of the intellectual spirit and gravitas that made it great.

To get that, I always turn to the back pages of every issue, to the Books section run by Benjamin Schwarz, and this time around, I was pleased in triplicate when I got there. The books-and-the-arts section of The Atlantic this time around features not one, not two, but three of the greatest books-and-the-arts critics alive today, all rubbing against each other cheek-by-jowl. The only thing more enjoyable than that would be having all three of them over here for wine and all-night book-chat.

Ironically, it's the very quality of his assembled material this time around that must present something of a problem for Schwarz, and here I'm using classic Miss Marple thinking, in which the goings-on in humble little St. Mary Mead are asserted to form instructive parallels with the big teeming metropolis. Because I once had Schwarz' job, and it could get mighty frustrating.

My St. Mary Mead was scenic little Iowa City, where for a time I was the Arts Editor of a local newspaper. And the frustration comes from the fact - surely immutable regardless of the size of your venue - that those special features? Those Tea Party bloviations? They require space, and there's only so much of that to go around. In Iowa City, the special feature - indeed, the only thing most Iowans considered 'news' at all - was sports. The unbroken mastery of Dan Gable. The mighty empire of Hayden Fry - these were the things our well-intentioned but lowbrow publisher wanted to see in the back section of his paper; all that artsy-fartsy crap was just good as garnish.

The result was that some of the most handsome, muscular young men in the newsroom could sometimes act like out-and-out beasts. There were many, many days where their hunger for the limited number of pages we shared between us was nothing short of ravenous - and when any self-respecting Arts Editor had to brave their monosyllabic objections and fight for the right to review every dumb Woody Allen movie that came down the pike.

I don't imagine that pitiless calculus ever really changes when you're talking about the physical print media (you'd think it would be eased a bit online, where space is more or less infinite, and yet my colleagues at  Open Letters patiently inform me that there simply isn't room for all the giant-killer-shark reviews I'd like to run...). I imagine Benjamin Schwarz has to deal with a species of it himself, and that must be frustrating.

Never more so than in a case like this, where the acerbic, hyper-intelligent B. R. Myers and the rollicking, lancingly smart faux-bumpkin Clive James have to divvy up that limited pages-space with Schwarz himself, who's as passionate as Myers and as pithy as James and at times exhibits a moral faith in the redemptive power of literature that both those old salts either seldom feel or wouldn't ever confess. The three of them together are riveting reading (kind of like when all the big guns at Open Letters are firing simultaneously, although there may be a touch of St. Mary Mead in that too).

The calculus is frustrating for Atlantic readers as well, since when confronted with a limited amount of space and giants like Myers and James wanting chunks of it, Schwarz does what any arts editor would do: he abbreviates himself in order to free up room for his guests. In this issue he's writing about H. L. Mencken's translation to the firmament by being inducted into the Library of America ("Better late than never" is the dry-ice way Schwarz opens his review), and he's fantastic as always:
Mencken told American intellectuals that their country's popular culture - not just its folk culture - was a worthy, in fact vital, subject to scrutinize. True, Mencken's jaundiced view could lapse into a sterile cruelty (in this he resembled his admirer, Evelyn Waugh, who had an appointment to meet him the day after Mencken suffered the stroke that ended his creative life). But usually he regarded the carnival of his country's buncombe with an indulgent horror. To hate like this is to love forever.

(In the classically waggish manner, Schwarz doesn't bother to identify the source of the slangy adaptation of his final line - we're all adults here, after all). Mencken is one of those authors I've never warmed to - his verbal showmanship has always seemed to me to be mocking not just pretension but intellect itself - but that's one of the things we want our best critics to do: take up the praise-song of some figure we hate and make us reconsider (I could tell you all sad stories of the valiant efforts along these lines I've made myself, and yet my OLM colleagues remain close-,minded about the glory that is the Legion of Super-Heroes). I wanted Schwarz to make the whole case, to present the full-length definitive Mencken piece he could make so glorious. Instead, I got six paragraphs.

Then we were on to B. R. Myers and another province of the critic's role: championing gems that are unjustly overlooked. Myers makes a regular side-show out of doing just that, but the practice carries perils - foremost of which is that you can back the wrong horse. In this issue, Myers backs a nag called Patrick Hamilton, a much-neglected novelist of the early 20th century who richly deserves to become entirely neglected. The advocacy here never goes anywhere, mainly because Myers sticks to the OLM-style review in which copious quotes from the matter under consideration are served up for the reader. When it comes to Hamilton and his wretched prose (it's not even purple - it's more a dirty orange), just one of those quotes should be enough to send all but the most masochistic reader sprinting for the hills. Still, the spectacle of the effort is reassuring: even Myers, it turns out, is human enough to have a soft spot for lost causes.

And then there's the glory of this entire issue, a review by Clive James of Larry Stempel's new history of that greatest of all American art forms, the Broadway musical. James is a ruddy-faced wizard, and although his long, discursive essay here is a soup-to-nuts review of Stempel's book, it's also a fantastic, fast-paced, and eminently quotable mini-version of that Broadway history itself.

James is in top form here, and if this is the essay for which Scwarz had to make ample room, the trade-off is almost worth it. The priceless (and pricelessly phrased) observations follow so fast one upon the other that it's tempting just to quote them all, but I'll restrict myself to a couple:
"I'm gonna wash that man right outta my hair ..." Ensign Nellie Forbush sings that line three times in one stanza, as if it were an interesting line in the first place. It isn't, but just try for a moment forgetting it. Some alchemy of words and music, some enchanted something or other, benumbs the critical powers.

or this, about the casting of Rossano Brazzi for the lead in "South Pacific":
As European and distinguished as a Romanesque cathedral with only superficial bomb damage, Brazzi was perfect in every way but one. He was lying when he said he could sing. When Rodgers and Hammerstein found out that he couldn't carry a tune any further than a few inches, they insisted that his voice be dubbed, even though Brazzi himself was adamant that he could do the job. Dense as well as proud, he never got over not being allowed to, and for much of the filming, as the recorded sound was played in so that he could make with the mouth, he behaved like a beast with its amour propre on the line. They could have got me for half the money.

The whole piece is like that; James has reached the point in his critical life where his unabashed inclusion of himself in the very substance of what he's writing about is just something he does as a matter of course - he no longer cares about the narrow confines of feigning impersonal objectivity, if he ever did care about them, and his fans wouldn't have it any other way. The point is, he delivers the goods, every time, which a smart writer once described as the only inescapable obligation of any author.

Needless to say, I wanted this particular Books section to go on like that forever, these three magnificent critical voices, so unlike each other but so united in their abiding conviction that this stuff matters enough to bring your best thinking - and your liveliest prose - to bear on it. I'm not going to reconsider Mencken any time soon, and I'm never, gawd help me, going to read another Hamilton potboiler again, and I am (um, to put it mildly) already a big fan of the Broadway musical (that hypothetical wine-and-books evening would almost certainly end, around 4 in the morning, with James and I bellowing our endless mental repertoires of Broadway songs known and unknown - we could sell tickets!), so in one cramped way of looking at things, I 'got' very little out of this issue.

But in all the ways that matter, I'm inestimably richer. So the Hawkeyes can go suck eggs. So there.

No comments: