Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tricks of the Trade in the Penny Press!

It's a pleasure to watch practiced hands at work in the roller-derby world of professional letters, and this week in the Penny Press contained plenty of smiles in that department.

Those smiles came even in venues where a reader might expect nothing but sorrow - as in The New Yorker's annual? semi-annual? Far too often "Food Issue," which always features vast barren tundras of bland food-oriented writing that could scarcely interest the grandmothers of the authors (who are invariably mentioned in the pieces, so there you go). "Food" issues, "Money" issues, and especially the dreaded "Fashion" issues of any otherwise-respectable magazine drive this particular reader to the brink of subscriber-despair - and drive me to hurriedly flip pages in search of the non-theme scraps that almost always manage to fall from the table.

In this case, there were two - but oh, they were tasty! First, there was Thomas Mallon's rumination on "the genre fiction's genre fiction," alternate-history novels. Mallon gives proper credit to Harry Turtledove's fantastic 1992 novel Guns of the South and make the very sharp observation about Don DeLillo's Libra that it "has always seemed more accomplished than satisfying." You know somebody's doing a good job covering a subject when you finish the article and just wish they'd kept writing - I'd have loved a wider sampling from Mallon. I assume he's read and loved L. Sprague DeCamp's 1939 classic Lest Darkness Fall, but what about three of my more recent favorites, Douglas Jones' The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer from 1976,  Robert Skimin's 1988 Gray Victory, or J. N. Stroyar's massive The Children's War from 2001?

And the trick of the trade he employs in his article? He discusses Stephen King's rancidly narcissistic new JFK-assassination novel with actual adult intelligence and discrimination, rather than the opprobrium it deserves - because King mentions his own work favorably in the book. Sigh.

Right next to that article in the same New Yorker is a fantastic piece by Martin Amis (why is it, I wonder, that some of my least favorite modern novelists are some of my most favorite literary journalists?) about the aforementioned Don DeLillo's new book The Angel Esmeralda, and it brandishes its own trick of the trade right up front. When presented with a book that's a self-evident trifle, a writer of readable prose who's lucky enough to have a trusting editor has several options open to him - and my favorite of these (one I've been known to use myself!) is the one Amis employs here: use the book as a dog-and-pony show for some wonderfully indulgent stem-winding of your own (and get around to your actual review later on in the piece - or, if your Harold Bloom, not at all).

In Amis' case, this takes the form of a nifty little challenge:
When we say that we love a writer's work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on "Ulysses," with a little help from "Dubliners." You could jettison Kafka's three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of "Paradise Lost." Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to read the comedies ("As You Like It" is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with "King John" or "Henry VI, Part III"?

Hee. Wonderful stuff. I could read it for hours, whether I agree with it or not (needless to say, I don't in this case - "King John" has plenty of good stuff in it, and Amis shouldn't so readily admit his inability to find the worth in Daniel Deronda). In his tirade, Amis claims that even Jane Austen isn't immune from his theory - he speculates that the only two exceptions might be Homer and Harper Lee. And of course it prompted two natural questions: would Amis be brave enough to apply his theory to his own novels? Or, braver still, those of his father?

One of the oldest and most enjoyable tricks of the trade happens over in the latest London Review of Books (featuring the very first Peter Campbell cover-painting I've ever actually liked - and I'll never get another shot, since we're informed in this issue that the artist died in October): the letter-column rumble! In an earlier issue, Pankaj Mishra turned in a magisterial condemnation (a dismissal, really, at epic length) of Niall Ferguson's latest tome, Civilisation: The West and the Rest, coming as close as he legally could to calling it the steaming pile of smug racist jingoism it is. In the letters column of this latest issue, Ferguson writes an outraged, bombastic reply to that review, claiming he's been libelled and blimpishly demanding an apology. And Mishra, bless him, pens a response that's if anything more tart and damning than the original review.

Now Ferguson has been a show-boating very public historian for a decade or so (and he's done some very good work in that time, mind you), so I'm hoping he knows the tricks of the trade himself. The thing to do at this point is write another letter - letter-column slug-fests must be kept going at all costs, as far too few periodicals seem to realize anymore. The thing not to do is call his lawyers about a possible defamation suit. That's a trick of an entirely different trade.


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