Friday, September 23, 2011

Desolation (and small consolation) in the Penny Press!

I made my faithful way through the main attractions of the latest Harper's in order to reach the end. I read about evil Mormons, and I read some bombastic editorializing, and I read an entertaining little squib of a story by Justin Torres (clearly a young author to watch - still prone to gimmicks, still not quite seeing that they are gimmicks, but with a very alluring confidence in his own prose), but the whole time I was holding my mental breath, waiting to get to Zadie Smith's "New Books" column.

As I've mentioned here before, I consider (somewhat to my surprise, having been underwhelmed by her fiction) Smith one of the best fiction reviewers working today (my Open Letters Monthly colleague Sam Sacks would also be on that short list), and it was an amazing, unlooked-for little gift when she suddenly started writing her detailed, lively pieces regularly for Harper's. She's one of the only literary journalists who can so naturally meld the personal with the professional that her pieces always feel like sparkling, invigorating talk about books, rather than the considered and reworked essays they are. She differs from Sacks in this way; his own reviews are almost awe-inspiringly removed from the purely personal - they read like scripture: "And Jereboam begat Gath, and Gath begat Askelon, and Askelon thought the metaphorical underpinning of the latest Julian Barnes was splenetic at best," etc. Smith will sometimes swoop in mid-review from a stunning textual survey to a childhood vignette on her mother's porch, then back again, whereas watching Sacks attempt such a thing would be as painful as watching William James try out his signature fox-trot on "America's Got Talent!" ... each to their own strengths: neither can Smith match Sacks' gravitas. An author reading a pan of his work by Smith can put the magazine down and say, "Well, that's just your opinion." The same author reading a pan of his work by Sacks (at a surgical 200 words, in the Wall Street Journal) is likely to say, "Well, I think they're still hiring down at the sawmill."

I celebrate all these first-rate critics for their differences (except when they differ from ME, as each and every one of the scamps has been known to do at one time or another), and I eagerly look forward to reading their latest thoughts in the venues lucky enough to have them. Sometimes, this can be distressing - in the latest Harper's, Smith begins by singing the praises of the great science fiction author Ursula Le Guin, and that immediately set off alarm bells. First-rate critics of science fiction are extremely rare, and Smith certainly doesn't qualify (nor does Sacks - "Due to the number of moons in the night sky, the reader must surmise that Equinox of the Lobster-Men does not, in fact, take place on Earth at all ..."). But all begins well enough - she heaps much-deserved superlatives on Le Guin's two masterpieces, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and only occasionally does she inadvertently reveal her underlying discomfort with the genre. Whenever her snobbish instincts begin to bubble too near the surface, she taps them off by tossing in a term in German - we get Verfremdungseffekt and Jus for no conceivable reason other than Smith wanting to avoid having her fellow Po-Mo lit-snobs pull her hair in the hallway after class. What remains is a solid, inviting appreciation of Le Guin's work and attitude, which is always welcome.

Smith follows the Le Guin foray up with something in many ways even less comfortable: the latest book by the fantastic Magnus Mills. An author (and, one suspects, a reader) like Smith has absolutely zero chance of ever fully getting an author like Mills, but she's game to try. It isn't a pretty attempt - at one point she starts just jerkily reciting the names of Shakespeare plays in order to regain her balance (call it the book-nerd's "Serenity Now!"), and it's clear the whole encounter has shaken her a bit. She finishes up by wholesale retreating - she runs to the comforting arms of Rimbaud.

And then she drops her bombshell!
I have to fess up to my own irrational fantasy - the one where it's possible to write a novel, teach class, bring up a kid, and produce a regular column: at the moment a speculative fiction for me. With regret I must say good-bye to New Books - at least for a while - and welcome my brilliant successor, Larry McMurtry.

I moaned aloud over my zuurkoolstamppot: No! Perhaps the most important thing Smith shares in common with Sacks - and Clive James, and Ferdinand Mount, and Michael Dirda, and Sam Anderson, and Anthony Lane, and even Christopher Hitchens - is perhaps the one essential trait all first-rate literary journalists must have: humility in the presence of the written word. The author under review might screw up, he might misfire, he might be an idiot - but he's engaged in a holy task, and it trails a holy solemnity behind it. The author might make the biggest mess since God created basset hounds, but the best literary critics take that mess seriously because the act of creation is holy to them (which is why they can get so all-fired angry when a thing is done poorly, or lazily, or insultingly).

Larry McMurtry is 80 years old. He's the author of two very, very good novels (The Last Picture Show and Buffalo Girls) and two great ones (Lonesome Dove and Moving On) - think about that for a minute: two very, very good novels, and two great ones - that's more than almost all authors can do, or even approach. This is not a man who can be humble in the presence of the written word, and with good reason: this is a man in whose presence the written word is humble. Which makes him a great choice to write book-commentary for Harper's or anybody else on Earth - wherever it happens, I'll buy it. But it makes him a lousy choice to write a regular column dutifully reviewing new books. What's he supposed to say, about any of them? Larry McMurtry is supposed to set aside time to make notes on a jaggedly-written coming-of-age story set in contemporary Iceland? Larry McMurtry is supposed to patiently deconstruct the way a precocious author's circus-metaphor goes astray? Larry McMurtry is supposed to be doing this? What's next, making Herman Melville clerk in a customs house?

It won't work. McMurtry will stay on-target for one paragraph, perhaps two, and then the book will be forgotten and the rest of the column will be "and then Renny Price and Wally Stegner and I - all three of us drunk as newts - snuck into Katy Anne Porter's kitchen late at night and commenced a grand attempt to bake her a cake. She flicked the light on and covered us all with a sawed-off shotgun, and it was only a call from Bunny Wilson that saved our hides ..." And that will be undeniable fun to read, but the world of serious fiction-criticism will lose a very high-profile venue until such time as McMurtry sees fit to vacate it.

Don't mistake me: it'll be great to have more McMurtry prose in the world, in any venue, at any time. But I'm nevertheless wondering if Zadie Smith might respond to a good old-fashioned letter-writing campaign ...

No comments: