Posted: July 15, 2014
A review of The American Novel and the Way We Live Now, John W. Aldridge and Panic Among the Philistines, by Bryan F. Griffin
riters are supposed to be motivated by alienation, by the urge to instruct, or by some combination of the two. Sometime after World War II they gave up both and undertook the mass production of plotless, formless, vacuous garbage which the votaries of The Media proclaimed as high art. Writers thus made famous found it easier to be celebrities than to be good writers. So conclude Griffin and Aldridge in their respective examinations of the sorry state of American literature.
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I think it was Richard Armour who wrote that the United States had no need or use for the Virgin Islands when they came upon the market, but that there was something about the name which made Congress cast caution to the winds. A similar flight of whimsy must have seized the editors at Regnery, a normally sound publishing house, whenPanic Among the Philistines came over the transom.
Panic originally appeared several years ago as a two-part essay in Harper's. In the Harper's essays, an angry, Goetz-like Griffin stalked the Republic of Letters and blasted away at the menacing thugs who had turned American literature into a combat zone. Griffin heralded the reawakening of a public long gulled by the posturing of writers well known for being well known, and middle-aged men like Norman Mailer, obsessed by sex, profanity, and nihilist plot lines. Now the people, realizing Pauline Kael and her counterparts in book reviews were pied pipers, were demanding Real Art, and the leaders of postwar culture were terrified: "Old facades were suddenly crumbling, older masks were finally rotting, and everywhere there was the unspoken fear that the game might soon be up."
Amusing stuff, tellingly told, and well enough left alone, as an essay. But no . . . presumably on the theory that if some is good a lot more is still better, Griffin has traded his revolver for a B-52, bloating his essay into a violent, splenetic screed which leaves only smoking ruins behind. Griffin's book is an enormous catalogue of malefactors whose work he does not like. It is a long and comprehensive list, from E. L. Doctorow, "a popular writer of rather smutty political novels," to "literary sexologist Gay Talese" and "schlock novelist John (Carp) Irving," and on to the "clever young writer of explicitly erotic novels named Scott Spencer," John Barth, John Cheever, Christopher Isherwood, Joyce Carol Oates, William Styron, Don DeLillo, Jerzy Kosinski, Truman Capote, a clutch of critics, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and New York Review of Bookstote bags, after which demolition, Griffin ostensibly vindicates good taste in a cautionary peroration as slushy as the worst self-congratulatory excesses he quotes from his targets.
The revitalization of American fiction is a worthy ideal, if you assume it needs it. Taking Griffin's claims at face value, one still finds his argument undermining itself. He goes on too long and too violently. The reader is battered by 259 pages of unrelieved, smirking sarcasm of a rather sophomoric cast. But even if you emerge, staggering, from Griffin's house of terrors, you will find that contradictory arguments are put forth which leave one wondering in which direction he really intended to point his flamethrower. On the one hand, Griffin argues for the return of a literary elite to guide and form the malleable reading preferences of the masses. On the other, Griffin argues that the misled masses began to awaken on their own around 1980, and have already rejected the glitterati and all their false works. It cannot be both.
Stylistically, Griffin deflates the occasionally effective roar of his wrath by adopting the over-the-shoulder style popularized by David Halberstam ("Later, the reader would realize he had been had"). And if by 1980 the game really was up for the old order, and if "most of the well-known books of the last thirty-five years will have been swept up and forgotten by the turn of the century," what's the point of the book? On balance, not much.
While devotees of R. Emmett Tyrrell's incendiary style may want to save a place on their asbestos-lined shelves for Panic next to their old numbers of The American Spectator and their new copy of The Liberal Crack-Up, Griffin's complaints are really nothing new. "All dare to write, who can or cannot read," wrote Horace; Juvenal commented on how "an incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many, and grows inveterate in their insane breasts." In 1751 Dr. Johnson observed in The Rambler:
No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library; for who can see the walls crowded on every side by mighty volumes . . . now scarcely known but by the catalogue. . . . Of the innumerable authors whose performances are thus treasured up in magnificent obscurity, most are forgotten, because they never deserved to be remembered, and owed the honors which they once obtained, not to judgment or to genius, to labor or to art, but to the prejudice of faction, the stratagem of intrigue, or the servility if adulation.
And in 1920 H. L. Mencken covered the American literary waterfront better, and more briefly, in his essay, "The National Letters." Panic Among the Philistines is cocktail party fodder for those who wish to appear knowledgeable without having to think, and should soon take its place in Dr. Johnson's library.
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What Griffin torches, the University of Michigan's John W. Aldridge illuminates in The American Novel and the Way We Live Now. Aldridge has set for himself the task of a critical review of all the major post-war American writers worked over by Griffin; The American Novel is the fifth book in the project. Aldridge's measured pace allows for more considered judgments of the various writers' works, not just their press clippings and cocktail party chat. Aldridge finds that in an era in which Sony lets every man truly march to his own drummer, self-absorption and separation are the real causes of the decline of the novel as a source of entertainment and instruction. "The authority of the novel," Aldridge suggests, "never has been and probably never can be viewed as separable from the nature and quality of the human experience which, at any historical moment, may form its subject matter." All the myths have been exploded, truth is really stranger, and thus fiction comes to chronicle the meaningless life of the suburban couch potato, in which mental and moral inertia are disturbed only by aperiodic bursts of sex and violence.
Different writers deal with this dislocated world in different ways, and Aldridge sets out to analyze their responses. Philip Roth adopted the paranoiac monologue as both theme and plot device. Kosinski places characters in a ruthlessly Hobbesian world of manipulation and abuse where self-preservation is the theme. William Gaddis takes the chaos he sees in life as the basis for chaotic narratives of chaotic lives. Thomas Pynchon tries to re-create the process of entropy in the structure of his books, and John Barth turns old forms-the travel narrative, the epistolary novel-inside out with increasing preciousness and artificiality. Each of these and more Aldridge treats with a chapter.
Among Aldridge's best moments is his dissection of William Styron who, like Thomas Wolfe, has the Southern storyteller's gift of massing heaps of dialogue and information but cannot make much of it. "This has been particularly burdensome for Styron," Aldridge dryly observes, because
while there is little to indicate that he is a writer struggling to express a major vision of life, he has all along given the appearance of being a writer driven by the most intense ambition to be considered major, and he knows he must appear to possess major themes. . . . He must also engage them at the right time, when the public for one reason or another find them topically important or intellectually fashionable.
Aldridge then dissects Styron's attempts to be Faulker's heir (Lie Down in Darkness), a sixties existentialist (Set This House on Fire), the politically relevant Southerner (The Confessions of Nat Turner), and, finally, the conscience of the universe (Sophie's Choice). Where Griffin pulls together goofy quotations by Styron-a job any clipping service could do-Aldridge has clearly considered the work of Styron, and comes to a better, more reasoned, if equally dismissive, assessment. It is the difference between scholarship and polemicism which sets the two books apart. The American Novel has limitations, but they are for the most part limitations of scope and comprehensiveness of evaluation chosen by the author. The result is a good little book of interest and instruction for the reader of current fiction.
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All of which still leaves hanging the question posed earlier: Is all this fuss necessary? George Panichas has declared that "the critic's task . . . is diagnostic, and his purpose should be that of conserving values and defending standards, out of which solutions should ideally emerge."
But too often the defense of standards tends to be the plague-on-all-your-houses denunciation of a Griffin, or an extended sulk about the disrespect one must endure from academic lounge lizards who think Alison Lurie should be awarded the Nobel Prize. Such approaches take the easy course, denouncing the new by citing the old, and arguing that the future lies in a return to the past. This is more often than not literary pathology: From a few samples a critic of the diagnostic school can declare the patient terminally ill, then send a report back to the surgeon with a stern message on how things were better before the patient took up such wicked, wicked ways. It satisfies, but neither resolves nor cures.
In the end, both of these books fail on two diagnostic grounds. First, they assume that whatever the problem is, it is the authors' fault (with an occasional nod to the public and their indiscriminate tastes). In fact, many other factors have contributed to the sorry state of some parts of American letters which are not treated by these books. The effects of television on book-buying habits, and the subjects treated, have probably been significant, if not precisely measurable. The wave of corporate acquisitions of publishing houses in the 1960s and 1970s has had an enormous impact on what gets published, how hard it is pushed, and how soon it gets remaindered, all to the detriment of the higher common denominators among authors, books, and publishers. Add to that the impact of book clubs and chain booksellers, and you have a strong economic argument for the virtues of writing and publishing garbage.
Second, neither of these books inclines me to believe that, assuming American letters are in a bad way, there is much we can do about it in a concerted way. Rather, time and taste will, as always, resolve alarms about literature. Gresham's Law may appear to be winning in the short run; seeing Garfield the Cat cartoon books occupy three or four slots in the best-seller fiction lists is surely disheartening. But on the other hand, one cannot reach for The Brothers Karamazov every time the urge to read strikes. There may be a place for the schlocky and transient, if only on vacations and long railway journeys. Over time, however, the roving character of the mind's search for improvement and diversion will run up the score in favor of those who have had something good to say and who have said it well.
And the rest, the subjects of these two books? Some may stay the course, but Griffin is probably right about their turn-of-the-century prospects. They will wend their way to their resting places: beach houses, ski condos, paperback stands in airports, B. Dalton remainder tables, church rummage sales, and finally to the shelves of Dr. Johnson's library of forgotten books, where they will provide years of harmless employment for graduate students. Barth and Kosinski, Mailer and Lurie, DeLillo and Didion, Sontag and Irving, let them have their laughs with Johnny Carson, their fulsome praise from The New York Review of Books, their press conferences at French congresses on the arts and liberation movements: It's dark and very quiet down in the stacks.