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'The special pleading of a snob'
A letter from Adam Barken.
July 2, 2002
So, took a look at that interview you posted. BTW, there was a similar sort of article in the New Yorker recently, by The Corrections author Jonathan Franzen, about "difficult books" and the Curse of PoMo. Don't know if you can still get a link to it, but it's worth a read too.
Anyways, I don't know if I'm just in an overly cranky mood or what, but man does this guy bug the hell out of me. Since you seem to roll with him (intellectually/crtically speaking, anyways), and since he seems quite smugly inured to any backtalk, figured I'd fire off my screed to you, and you can spank me accordingly.
Firstly, I'd just say "Beware" to anybody reading any kind of polemic that trashes an entire historic era and/or condition. As was briefly mentioned in the interview, TS Eliot and his crew tried to do the same with the Romantics, arguing they were too fascinated with their own emotional states as compared with the good metaphysicals like Donne, etc. This is real windmill tilting to my mind. There may be a good deal to get ornery about when considering the whys and wherefores of postmodernism, but to piss and moan about it as a grand "wrong turn" or "bad idea" or any other kind of complaint that assumes its little more than a largescale choice is missing the point entirely. "Postmodernism" in the most general sense isn't a conscious ideology or lifestyle choice anymore than Romanticism or Modernism was. It's a description (not a prescription) of contemporary conditions and realities -- that includes, in part, ideologies and choices, to be sure. But it's a helluva lot more than that too.
Now, there are several things people mean when they refer to "postmodernism" -- in the literary sense, obviously it's a bunch of writers and their various "textual strategies" (i.e. The Way They Write Their Shit); in the philosophical sense its the active non-belief in objective, independantly verifiable truths; in the historic (or meta-historic sense) it's a rejection of most, if not all, Grand Unifying "Myths" (like Hegellianism, Marxism, even concepts like "Progress"); and in the socioligical sense, it's a description of current moods and mores that are partly described in the aforementioned disciplines, but also include (in its consideration) such diverse topics as the McLuhanesque Media Theory, Identity Politics, and the Postcolonial Worldview. We are living in the "postmodern" era, and that may suck (like it may have sucked to live in the "Renaissance" or the "Iron Age" or whatever) but that's where we are, and wishing otherwise, or heaping contempt on any who dare to recognize that (or dare to affix a title to it, however provisional), don't make it any less so.
Okay, so I'm sure you know all this, but that's probably why it annoys me so much when "postmodernism" is reduced to an analogy for "The Stylistic Inanities of East and West Coast American Writers." As even the most cursory glance at a PoMo Lit textbook, one of the hardest things any critic has to do first is to say what the hell a PoMo author is. In the end, for the term to make any sense in the literary sense, it should be written thusly:
Because that actually acknowledges the LITERARY distinction -- that it is a desciption of writings conscious of, and engaged with, the previous literary and artistic movements of Modernism. Taken thusly, it's obviously very different from other kinds of postmodernism which didn't have the same kind of perceding movements to bash up against -- although of course, much of what we call "postmodern" is in many ways a continuation of the "modern" issues and preoccupations (urbanization, industrialization of war, exponential media/information growth). Still, literary PoMo-ism is usually defined by how it fits in relation to literary Mo-ism -- writers call to each other across the ages, always have; Chaucer - Shakespeare - Milton - Wordsworth - Dickens - Joyce - Beckett - Pinter - Amis: this isn't just the reading list of some survey course; read backwards, it's line of communication in which the Big Authors respond to their predecessors and their predecessors' own preoccupations. So it is with the (very) general term "Post-Modernism," in which a wide range of authors sought (and seek) to engage both the style and content of their Modernist forebearers. And (to finally refer to Myers, the focus of this rant) I have a very hard time believing that he can have difficulty dealing with Don DeLillo but has nothing but admiration for Joyce.
But sloppy categorizing aside, my biggest problem with Myers (and the biggest reason for my shock that you go for this kind of bleating) is how insulting it is to the "average reader." According to Myer, apparently the reading public is so cowed by the crits at the NYT or TLS that they are forced or fooled into picking up Don DeLillo, who's supposedly boring prose then sends them off into an anti-lit tailspin that has, as a direct result, the Destruction of Western Reading Taste & Enjoyment As We Know It.
Please. Puh-Lease. PLEEEEEEZE.
Now, as much as you may like or dislike DeLillo (I like some of him, but there you go), I'd humbly suggest that the reason why there are (in Myers' own estimation, anyways) fewer die-hard novel readers in the last 20 or 30 yearshas maybe JUST A BIT to do with the huge growth of Television, Home Video, Computer Media and other entertainments that are faster, cheaper and flashier than a boring old book. As much as I'd love to believe in a bygone era of Great Readers, it would force me to assume that Faulkner, Joyce and Kafka were all loved and admired by the throngs of these Excellent Men and Women.
Ooops. Cuz we know THAT didn't happen.
Try turning Myers argument away from the pseudo-populist rhetoric and imagine, say, he was aiming it at Pop culture.
"The reason people don't go see better movies is Hollywood (and their evil press machine) FORCES (or at least STRONGLY URGES) this stuff down the common man's throat -- and then the poor common man, so bewildered by the whirlygigs of MATRIX 5, why he can't help but get sucked in. But he doesn't really like it. Noooo."
Doesn't sound so good now. Sounds like and elitist pompous twit who doesn't want to accept that people vote with their wallets -- and yes, they do want MATRIX 5. And yes, E. Annie Proulx is a bestselling author. She really is, and so Myers only way to explain this horific state of affairs is to argue that She Shouldn't Be, and therefore Somebody Must Be Blamed. Since you can't blame the people who actually bought the book (as that would kind of undercut his whole Up With Readers mantra) he goes after...the evil critics who foisted her on the Unsuspecting Cows in Barnes and Noble!
I hate any argument that presumes huge numbers of people do things because they're fooled into it by a small cabal. I thought you would too. It's the argument of the crypto-socialist -- "the only reason things aren't the way I KNOW they should be is that A Small Group is fooling everybody into thinking the Wrong Way -- if we could just get rid of them, everything would be As It Should Be. And even if it doesn't, we have this 5 Year Plan to ensure it will be..."
Now, if you and Myers want to complain about the quality of PoMo writing per se, fine. I don't buy much of his "Sentence Cult" argument, and I happen to admire most of the authors he pillories. Do I admire them because I am "told" to? No -- and not because I read Myers, but because I read Nabakov, who urges me to remember two things fundamentally -- There's no such thing as reading a Great Book, but re-reading it (suggesting that, yes, Great Books do require a bit more than the once over), and two, that you read first and foremeost with your spine (as in, your senses, your nerves, the limbic system -- with whatever part of your body makes you tingle with pleasure and pain). DeLillo's White Noise PLEASES me, or rather, it leaves a gaping hole in my gut (pleasure/pain/whatever -- I read to get shook up). Pynchon PLEASES me. David Foster Wallace PLEASES me. Honest injun, Myers, they really do -- like most people, I don't have the time to spend too much of it on something that doesn't. Myers dislike of these authors isn't the problem though -- Nabakov despised, amongst others, Henry James, Faulkner, and Joseph Heller, but I happen to dig them too. Myers problem is he wants to BLAME somebody for these authors' popularity. And that's not only dumb Culture Wars crap, in the world of Lit it's just plain useless. In the end, it doesn't matter if just about every single person in America used to have a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin on their shelf -- in terms of literary posterity, it's just a historical curio now, mentioned only in relation to a certain war nowadays. And it doesn't matter if Kafka wasn't even published in his lifetime. We all read him now, and probably will for the foreseeable future. Will DeLillo last? I think so. I think future writers will read him, and feel the need to engage him, as he obviously felt the need to engage Hemingway and Pynchon and Barth. Maybe I'm wrong. But that's a valid lit crit argument to make (as is the argument against it). Bitching about why DeLillo's more popular than fucking Caleb Williams isn't criticism -- it's the special pleading of a snob.
That's why Myers pisses me off. He's a snob masquerading as a populist. In the end, Myers isn't really arguing that Jonathan Franzen isn't necessairly good -- he's just using that author as an excuse to bring up Motherlant. And all the whining that the "Media" is "telling" us to read Franzen is just a bitchy (and paranoid) way to cover that fact.
Alright, I think I've lost the train of my argument...if it ever had one. I'll leave it to you (should you have the energy) to show me where I'm being a jackass, and where I'm just missing the point.
Or, for more fun, why don't you post about Alan Moore? Just getting ready to re-read (per Nabakov) From Hell. Trying to decide if it's even better then Watchmen, or whether such a comparison can even be made.
But I'm sure Myers would chide me for not knowing my Jerry Ordway better...