Friday, March 04, 2011

Kings, Princes, and Emperors in the Penny Press!

The mighty Colin Burrow could hardly fail to grab my attention in the latest London Review of Books, since the scamp chose to start his review of the new Yale edition of Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets with this choice little gem: "Most literary criticism is ephemeral, too good for wrapping up the chips but not worth binding, keeping, annotating or editing."

I tried to resist the urge to race over to Open Letters Monthly and reassure myself that it hasn't been quite as bad as all that for the last four years - instead, I plunged forward with Burrow's own exercise in the journalistic version of lit crit, his wonderful article, which has precisely one paragraph on that poor Yale volume and two glorious pages on Johnson's glorious book (which I'll get around to here on Stevereads one of these fine days, and which I urge all of you to take down from your shelves and re-read). Burrow is a mere stripling in years, but his prose uniformly sparkles with great, knowing lines like this one:
When Johnson has nothing to say in the literary-critical section of a life he will accuse and author of overusing triplets or Alexandrines, or of being merely pretty. He sometimes delivers the squelch complete, as when he says of the unfortunate George Granville: 'His little pieces are seldom either spritely or elegant, either keen or weighty. They are trifles written by idleness and published by vanity.'

I hooted with laughter and had to resist by sheer will-power the urge to rename this blog "The Squelch Complete."

A fairly good example of "The Squelch Complete" is delivered by the redoubtable Mary Beard over in the TLS (it's been a very good fortnight for Burrow's chips-wrappings), where she sinks her teeth into a new biography of the Roman emperor Elagabalus, a Cambridge University Press volume by Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado (names that beautiful just aren't fair, says a Donoghue of 100 generations of boring old Donoghue). It's always a joy to watch Beard at work, although perhaps Arrizabalaga y Prado isn't doing any jigs after this rather public spanking. An entire little universe of mythology has sprung up about Elagabalus in the seventeen or so centuries since he briefly rule the Empire - so much so that he seems far more comfortably the province of fiction than fact (Beard doesn't mention the entertaining 1966 novel about him called Child of the Sun, although I cheered when she alluded to Alfred Duggan's 1963 novel Family Favourites). Arrizabalaga y Prado attempts to cut away all that mythology and get at the boy himself, but apparently his methodology leaves something to be desired ('apparently' because Cambridge has been a bit laggardly in sending me a copy of the book, the caitiffs), since Beard ultimately concludes "... a sceptical historian who cannot sustain his scepticism is even worse than one who was gullible all along."

Scepticism might be the order of the day over in the new issue of Vanity Fair, although it's a corker of an issue just the same. Readers might be forgiven for being sceptical when cover-boy and rancid tobacco addict Robert Pattinson bemoans his fame to interviewer Nancy Jo Sales - except that he seems every bit as aware of the inanity as anybody else would be. "Yeah," he says, "but every time you read about someone famous talking about being famous, you're like, 'Shut the fuck up.'" Sales is a really good writer, but nevertheless, her piece provokes scepticism on many levels. She asserts more than once that Pattinson is a "thinking man," a 'thoughtful' person - but he comes across as just another pretty moron in a ridiculous hat; she portrays him as a sensitive fellow, but the whole time he's being interviewed, his dog is apparently fighting for his life just outside the door; and scepticism is just one of the many unsavoury responses provoked by that weird Annie Leibovitz cover.

Fortunately, the issue wasn't relying solely on this smelly kid's celebrity. There's a spirited, chatty look at the Middletons, who are soon to be the in-laws of the heir presumptive to the British monarchy, and there's a moving little excerpt from Christina Haag's surprisingly heartfelt new book about her time dating John F. Kennedy Jr. - the book, Come to the Edge, is a beautiful little testament to the weird draw the Kennedys could always exert on those they allowed to get close to them; it's pretty much exactly the kind of thing the family patriarchs - Jackie Onassis and Senator Ted Kennedy - would have privately frowned upon, but I'm glad for it just the same; and it certainly helps that Haag has such a vivid, entirely honest prose voice.

And quite apart from all these kinds of royalty - British, American, critical, literary, and vampiritic - VF also had a two-page ad I've seen in other magazines and like immensely .... an about magazines.  In this one, there's a picture of a wide-eyed tree-frog (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Pattison, now that I think about it) and a block of text that's as defiant as it is cheering:
Media continue to proliferate. Attention spans continue to shrink. And free content is available everywhere, from the Internet to the insides of elevators. Why then are 93% of American adults still so attached to magazines? Why do so many people, young and old, spend so much time with a medium that's paper and ink, a medium you actually have to pay for in order to read? In a word, engagement. Reading a magazine remains a uniquely intimate and immersive experience. Not only is magazine readership up, readers spend an average of 43 minutes per issue.

Any lover of books will take issue with that 'uniquely,' but still: I like reading such a battle-cry, because I'd hate to live in a world without magazines - and what would our too-infrequent In the Penny Press do without them?

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