Posts Tagged ‘saul bellow’

A month and a half ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made something of a stir when he complained about his lack of a statue in front of the Staples Center; after all he had been a multiple MVP and a major part of 5 LA Laker championship teams.  This is a remarkable complaint, and maybe incomprehensible display of self-importance for anyone who is not a famous athlete, although I think most people could relate to the fear of being overlooked and forgotten.

Less incomprehensible, to me at least, was Jack White’s complaint during a 2005 interview with Charlie Rose about the lack of appreciation afforded Orson Welles in this country, suggesting at the minimum Welles should have a statue in Manhattan for his early productions of Macbeth and War of the Worlds, never mind Citizen Kane. And yet, it seems unlikely Welles would ever receive a statue in Manhattan or that you would find many people who would believe he deserves one—unlike Kareem, Welles is still often considered a career loser in this country—more famous for never directing a hit film or for getting fat or for his association with commercials and the Muppets and the Transformers. His early brilliance tainted by his disgusting fall—in some ways he’s seen as more of a Shawn Kemp than a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Welles was certainly aware of this impression, and it caused him much agony over the later 40 years of his life (and no small stress when attempting to fund a new film).

With this in mind it’s pretty remarkable how many writers with monuments or statues dedicated to them. In the case of the Jack Kerouac Memorial in Lowell, Mass, it’s all the more remarkable considering how badly and out of favor Kerouac ended. In many ways, Kerouac followed something of a similar trajectory to Welles (and many American artists)—the break out hit, and then years of failures, obscurity, ridicule, and money problems. I remember thinking about this when I first visited that memorial about six years go: how I regretted Kerouac died so long before his city honored him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was another writer who died young and out of favor and he has a statue in St. Paul. I tend to think of Fitzgerald in Paris or, more sadly, in Hollywood, where he was unable to find copies of his books in print, but I like the idea of a major city paying tribute to a native son.

Nathaniel Hawthorne has a statue, and several sites dedicated to profiting off his memory, plus a hotel named after him in Salem, Mass. I wonder how Hawthorne would feel about the tribute paid to him by a town whose major industry is exploiting the same witch trials he so abhorred.  Still, as with Kerouac and his writings on Lowell, Hawthorne does claim fairly frequent association with Salem and the surrounding area in his work.

While Kareem’s complaint is obviously thin-skinned, there’s something quite nice about a town going out of its way to pay tribute and to make immortal their appreciation for the contributions of some cultural or artistic figure. I wonder now how many other writers or filmmakers or artists have monuments and bronze statues dedicated to them in various towns and cities along the country. I can certainly think of a few who deserve them—most prominently, I believe Saul Bellow deserves something, Bellow who so memorably wrote of Chicago in The Adventures of Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift (and elsewhere). I think Bellow, who did worry over the lasting importance of his works (although his writing is certainly at the very top of our literature), would have greatly appreciated the gesture (or even the gesture of suggesting the gesture).

Who else?

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This morning I’ve been reading a blog called bad reviews of good books. This blog is devoted to “laugh[ing] at people inferior to ourselves” and is, apparently, mostly made up of selected Amazon.com reader reviews of “classic” works of literature. Many of these reviews involve apparently semi-literate readers insisting that they are really actually quite intelligent and that they really do read a lot. Some of the reviews are humorous misreadings (of Lolita one person wrote “Girls want to be Lolita—they hold her up as—if not a role model, then a relatable character or a heroine. A sexually powerful child ahead of her years”).  Most of them are superior in tone, are cruel, are nasty.

Many of them are similar to the professional reviews these “classic novels” were initially given. For instance, one modern reader asserts that Herman Melville’s “writing style and sentence structure are poor. It is hard to read. like work. Doubt he could get published today” while a reviewer for the New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review 160 years ago insisted:

Mr. Melville is evidently trying to ascertain how far the public will consent to be imposed upon. He is gauging, at once, our gullibilty and our patience. Having written one or two passable extravagancies, he has considered himself privileged to produce as many more as he pleases, increasingly exaggerated and increasingly dull…. In bombast, in caricature, in rhetorical artifice — generally as clumsy as it is ineffectual — and in low attempts at humor, each one of his volumes has been an advance among its predecessors…. Mr. Melville never writes naturally. His sentiment is forced, his wit is forced, and his enthusiasm is forced. And in his attempts to display to the utmost extent his powers of “fine writing,” he has succeeded, we think, beyond his most sanguine expectations.

Many of the reviews assert how boring, how unreadable literature is. Dickens, we are told, is just as dull as Melville, and George Eliot is even worse. Or we are told how very unprofound these supposedly profound works are–Beckett, for instance, simply isn’t that “deep” (nor are his characters “believable”). Many of these reviewers wish these writers would have written more interesting books and done so in a more easily digestible, readable manner. 

Many are an assault on academics and know-it-alls who don’t have the good taste to say that a book is bad. Classics are just the dusty, boring books know-it-alls like to keep around to prove their superiority.

I’m reminded of a professor in college who answered my questions about Pynchon (I didn’t get around to him until I was 21, 22) by saying “Oh, he’s one of those ‘important’ post-modernists” in a way that let me know that none of those “post-modernists” were worth any young scholar’s time. I’m also reminded of the instructor in graduate school who would use Saul Bellow as an example of a tiresome, unreadable novelist who wasn’t actually a novelist, but a very dull essayist.

I’m also reminded of our ongoing frustrations as a writing community. In the year-and-a-half or so since I became acquainted with “indie” literature and “online” writing I’ve often read how frustrated writers and editors and publishers are at the lack of an outside readership. We are, I read, writing for each other rather than to a wide or general audience. Occasionally folks who insist this is not a bad thing are criticized as snobs or elitists. Writers who are pleased to write for other writers are accused of missing the point–as if a writer should be a builder of chairs and these chairs should be intended for everyone to sit on.

We are not builders of chairs. If I built a chair it would have teeth on the backrest and it would have two legs. It would fall when someone leaned on it. The polish would be smeared. It would sneer.

I’ll have to admit now that I consider the lack of any readership outside the readership of peers or like-minded writers of benefit, both to our art and to our emotional health. Very often on this level our writers are either supported or simply not read. We are free to write to our consciences, not what a public or professional critic will find interesting or relevant. Writing to impress one’s peers or to engage with one’s peers is writing that is free to experiment, to be specialized and difficult, to be new. Writing to please an audience is, naturally, limiting. We may never be in an issue of Rolling Stone (as Karen Russell recently was), but our writing might be better off for it.

I should add that I have no issue with those writers who write for money or acclaim or for wide readerships. But I’m glad to know there are more than a few writers around who do not do that and want to support each other in not wanting to do that. Some of us are better off not doing so or not wanting to do so. Not every writer can be a craftsperson. Not everyone should write to be read on the train by a “readers.”

I wonder how Melville’s career would have evolved without worrying over the cold shoulder of a dwindling popular readership or the abuse he received from increasingly nasty critics (he was called insane, in print, more than once before he was completely forgotten). Perhaps he would not have given up writing prose and “experimental” literature. Perhaps nothing would have change: Melville never quite writing, of course, he wrote as many of us write, he wrote after work, in his spare hours, and he wrote without expectation of being read or making a profit. The commandment “be true to the dreams of thy youth” is etched into Melville’s work desk and I have often thought this is the only commandment one need follow.

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