Literary Comedy and Reality

Nobel Literature Chief Bashes American Literature

Malin Rising and Hillel Italie:

“Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.”

New Yorker editor David Remnick tries to defend the US by noting that the Nobel also passed over “Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov” – of France, Ireland, and Russia. (Though Nabokov eventually became a naturalized American, he wrote his first nine novels in Russian.) Other Europeans also passed over (unmentioned by Remnick) for being a bit too progressive for the Nobel a century ago: Tolstoy (late), Ibsen, and Zola. Most such mildly progressive writing is still too progressive for the New Yorker over a century later. Continue reading Literary Comedy and Reality


Writing matters

Jared Roscoe at n + 1

“I paced around my parents’ house, talking nervously, trying to keep up with him [David Foster Wallace], vainly trying to impress him. He refused to give me the validation and satisfaction I wanted. It’s not going to come from writing, he told me. Writing can never do that.”

Maybe it had better, yes? If writing is going to be a large part of one’s life, and that of others, then as with any act it is certainly healthy if writing really does help provide a sense of self, as it does in good amounts for many people.

Fiction Bound: Lionel Trilling, James Wood, and other Cultural Cold Warriors

As historian Michael Kimmage notes in “The Journey Continued and Abandoned,” an essay on Lionel Trilling’s second novel (The Journey Abandoned), Norman Mailer showed a way to solve the dilemma of Trilling, or at least of Trilling’s protagonist in The Journey Abandoned, the would-be-writer Vincent, “Vincent’s dilemma” – though it’s not much of a good solution – for both fiction writers and nonfiction writers, and curiously, Mailer never solved it well for himself in fiction, never came close in my view (since both Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song are nonfiction essentially). And in any event, Mailer’s solution involves sooner or later (immediately on some topics) a lot of compromise, to the point of utter censorship – obviously, a solution that is soon found wanting. Ideologically based rebuffs from the establishment under the guise of aesthetic criticism – many a progressive or revolutionary minded author quickly encounters plenty of those or decides not to bother testing the waters in the first place.

It’s interesting to compare accomplished critic Lionel Trilling with accomplished critic Maxwell Geismar: Trilling, first tenured Jewish professor at Columbia, and Geismar, first Jewish student at Columbia to be, I think, Valedictorian, or to achieve some such rank (though if I recall correctly from Geismar’s memoir, Columbia might not have been aware he was Jewish). Regardless, it may as well have been Trilling, who showed up on national TV to help torpedo Geismar’s career, as the two men who played a key role: William vanden Heuval and Irving Kristol – the former a “protégé” of the “father” of the CIA and the latter the CIA flack and “father” of neoconservatism who several years earlier had passed on his position as editor of Commentary magazine to Trilling’s student, Normon Podhoretz. As I’ve noted elsewhere, when William vanden Heuvel (father of the current editor/publisher of The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel) tag-teamed with Irving Kristol (the father of current prominent Fox TV political pundit Bill Kristol) – when these central figures of the political establishment hastened to appear on national TV over four decades ago to attack directly to the face of the silenced progressive literary critic Maxwell Geismar, on the occasion of the publication of Geismar’s book of criticism about Henry James (”a primary Cold War literary figure”), Kristol and vanden Heuvel, two exemplars of the status quo, serving retrograde state interests, executed a prominent role in destroying Geismar’s accomplished literary career and ending his run on a national literary television show, Books on Trial (”or something similar,” in Geismar’s recollection). Geismar posits William vanden Heuvel as “a rich, cultivated, charming, and liberal member of the upper echelons of the CIA [who] had a large hand in embroiling [the US] in Vietnam,” while Irving Kristol “as it later turned out was almost always affiliated with many State Department or CIA literary projects in editing, publishing, and the academic world…a hired hand of the establishment.”

Continue reading Fiction Bound: Lionel Trilling, James Wood, and other Cultural Cold Warriors

Douglas Valentine on David Foster Wallace

Much more about DFW here, here, and here. Also here.

Rambling David Foster Wallace

by Douglas Valentine

I hadn’t heard of David Foster Wallace prior to his suicide. I had never read anything he wrote, though among the many recent obits I read, I saw that he had written a book titled Infinite Jest. When I saw that I thought, “Ah so! A man after my own heart.” By which I meant a master of invention and device, of irony – for he was certainly referring to Hamlet’s impromptu eulogy for Yorick, whom we all know so well.

As Hamlet facetiously said while holding Yorick’s skull like a grapefruit and gazing into the empty eye sockets, “Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen?”

Any writer who would choose Infinite Jest as a title, I assumed, would appreciate Hamlet’s ironic flirtation with madness, the wry comments made to amuse himself and confuse his foes. And indeed, many reviewers say Wallace’s works are full of irony.

But as I read more and more reviews and obits, I found that Wallace, like a former Party official denouncing himself at a Stalinist show-trial, had branded irony (along with irreverence and rebellion!) as “not liberating but enfeebling.”

I immediately thought, “Is he being cute?” Such a broad generalization could never stand up and walk on its own legs. “His poor students,” I thought, as I apologized on Wallace’s behalf to all of our irreverent literary and historical revolutionary heroes and heroines.