Monday, August 24, 2009

Pow Wow or Hodge Podge? Ishmael Reed and Race Fiction

Ishmael Reed and his longtime partner Carla Blank edited a collection of sixty-three short fiction pieces early in the year entitled Pow Wow, subtitled “Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now.” Da Capo Press recently issued the hefty volume in paperback, and I have been reading it this past month.

Although the book includes several complex short stories such as Russell Banks’ “The Guinea Pig Lady,” Stanley Elkin’s “I Look Out for Ed Wolfe,” Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat,” James Alan McPherson’s “Gold Coast,” Bharati Mukherjee’s “A Wife’s Story,” and Grace Paley’s “Goodbye and Good Luck,” many other pieces are amateurish and artistically insignificant.

The problem with the book is that Reed and Blank's criteria for selection seems to have little to do with the quality of the writing and a lot to do with the subject of race prejudice. Alongside the fine stories mentioned above are numerous short, clumsy pieces that are too subjective, too polemic, too sensational, too melodramatic, or too sentimental to be of any interest except historical and social.

The problem with stories about race prejudice is they are too often, if you will pardon the inevitable expression, a matter of black and white. Many race prejudice stories feature a victim and a victimizer. The victim is usually helpless and the victimizer is usually ignorant. It is difficult to make an interesting, complex story out of such an obvious and simplistic conflict, don’t you think?

I know, of course, that there are many very fine stories about race conflict—both by white writers and by writers of color. But, the very fine stories that explore race prejudice engage us, at least it seems to me, because the characters are not merely ignorant bigots and innocent victims but because the story probes deeply into those complexities of perceived difference that separate human beings from each other.

I know this is a touchy subject. But reading the pieces in Ishmael Reed and Carla Blank’s Pow Wow raised it for me over and over again. I would appreciate hearing from how those of you who teach stories about race prejudice and those of you who write stories about race prejudice deal with this issue.

Is it risky, or even racist, to criticize a story about race prejudice because it is amateurishly written, because it is subjective or polemical and lacks artistic control and thematic complexity?

Is it difficult to write a story about race prejudice without focusing on a simplistic conflict with a predictable conclusion?

In his long polemical introduction, in which he blames the media for much race prejudice, Ishmael Reed says, “Most American critics concentrate on literature authored by whites, regardless of right-wing propaganda that falsely claims that in American universities and colleges Toni Morrison has replaced Shakespeare.”

Is it really right-wing propaganda that in many classrooms stories about race have taken the place of stories by white writers regardless of the quality and complexity of the writing?

Is it really true that most American critics nowadays concentrate on literature written by whites when so many recent critical studies seem oriented toward the cultural rather than the universal?

I probably should not even bring these things up, for I know that I will be called a right-wing bigot for doing so. But since Ishmael Reed has brought the issue up in Pow Wow’s introduction and table of contents, I reckon I have the right to challenge both his remarks and his anthology choices.

As usual, I would love to hear from those who read this blog regularly or who stumble upon it accidently.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Jay McInerney's "How It Ended": Shallow Characters and the Question of Suitable Subject Matter

As an introit to her interview with Jay McInerney in The Observer, Rachel Cook says, “There are some men who you wish would grow up, and some men you hope will remain forever the same: boyish, eager, occasionally ridiculous…fun. Jay McInerney is one of the latter.’’

Well, that may be true when you are having lunch with him in one of New York’s best restaurants. But when you are reading his latest book, a collection of stories that span his career from his 1982 debut Bright Lights, Big City to the present, he is definitely one of the former.

It took me a long time to get through this collection, entitled How it Ended in America and The Last Bachelor in England. I just found it too easy to put it down, and my shoulders sagged when I picked it up. There are twenty-six stories here, and they all begin to sound tediously the same. There are just too many characters, to quote from “It’s Six A. M. Do You Know Where You Are?” who think “decadence” and Dexedrine” are the “high points of the language of the Kings James and Lear.” As Janet Maslin, who reviewed the book for The New York Times, says, “This is the kind of guy whose idea of etiquette is to hold a girl’s hair while she snorts cocaine.”

McInerney’s first novel, and the film on which it was based, brought him a great deal of fame in the 1980’s, for which he was slammed by a number of critics who identified his own lifestyle with that of many of his characters—parties, women, drugs. I don’t think one should condemn a man’s writing for the way the man lives his life. The writing should be judged by the writing. But it’s hard to resist, after reading his story “Sleeping with Pigs,” the obvious observation that if you lie down with pigs, some crap will inevitably rub off.

McInerney says he knows that critics have questioned the legitimacy of his subject matter. “There’s a socialist bias,” he says, “to the consensus of the literary world: a 30s mentality that says factory workers are more worthy of our attention.” But I don’t think it is just that. After reading story after story of drinking and drugs, infidelity and cheating, men who seek serial relationships and one-night stands, and women who seek to marry powerful executives and politicians, I just get tired of it all.

I guess what really bothers me about McInerney’s stories is that whereas sometimes you think he may be satirically making fun of his shallow characters, other times you sense that he really envies the life they lead. Too often, he just just seems to be setting up wish-fulfillment fantasies of a narcissistic life without commitment.

I am not saying that such is not a suitable subject for story. I think everything that humans can imagine, or find unimaginable, is suitable for a story. The secret, however, is that all subjects must be redeemed or refined by style and form. I don’t always like the characters of Henry James or Flannery O’Connor, or Raymond Carver, but all three, in their quite different ways, use language to make their characters revelatory of the unspeakable complexity of what it means to be human. F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom McInerney has often been compared, could be as much a hack writer as McInerney, but at other times, when he found just the right voice, such as in “Winter Dreams,” “Absolution,” or The Great Gatsby, the result was a magical transformation of superficial characters into shimmering significance. McInerney is often clever, turning a phrase in a witty way, e.g. “You have traveled from the meticulous to the slime” and “Eat, drink, and remarry.” But he does not either love his people enough to make them more than two dimensional pawns fitted out with noses to snort and genitals to exploit. And he does not seem to love the language enough to make them more than mere flesh and foolishness.

What do you think?

Do authors have to have some respect for their characters?

Do the characters have to be deserving of respect in some way?

Do readers have to like characters to like the stories they are in?

Can just the right form and style transform even the most meaningless people into meaningful literary significance?

What is a literary character anyway? What transforms real into literary?

Are there fictional characters you love, but that if you met in real life you would despise?

How is that possible?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Hard Gemlike Flames and Loose Baggy Monsters

Jay McInerney says in the preface to his recent collection of stories How it Ended, “Like most novelists I cut my teeth writing short stories,” as if writing short stories were a painful childhood prerequisite to the really adult task of writing novels. You would think that a man who studied short stories under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, two masters of the form, would have a bit more respect for the short story than to refer to them as “warm-up exercises.”

To give him credit, McInerney says he has always been “more than a little daunted by the short story.” He rightfully acknowledges: “Whereas even a medium-sized novel—let alone the kind Henry James described as loose baggy monsters—can survive any number of false turns, boring characters and off-key sentences, the story is far less forgiving. A good one requires perfect pitch and a precise sense of form; it has to burn with a hard, gemlike flame.”

The "hard gemlike flame" phrase is from Walter Pater’s Renaissance. I reprint both the Pater and the James quote in context below, for they are, I think, worth considering.

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.

--Walter Pater, The Renaissance

A picture without composition slights its most precious chance for beauty, and is, moreover, not composed at all unless the painter knows how that principle of health and safety, working as an absolutely premeditated art, has prevailed. There may in its absence be life, incontestably, as The Newcomes has life, as Les Trois Mousquetaires, as Tolstoi's Peace and War, have it; but what do such large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean? We have heard it maintained, we well remember, that such things are "superior to art"; but we understand least of all what that may mean, and we look in vain for the artist, the divine explanatory genius, who will come to our aid and tell us. There is life and life, and as waste is only life sacrificed and thereby prevented from "counting," I delight in a deep-breathing economy and an organic form.

--Henry James, Preface to The Tragic Muse

Serendipitously, on my morning walks with my aging dog Shannon (The walks take longer now than they used to), I have been listening to Tobias Wolff’s memoir-like novel Old School about a boy who attends a boarding school and who aspires to be a writer. It’s a very fine, compact little novel about the seductive nature of literature and reader worship of the author. The school has periodic competitions in which boys submit poems and stories, which are then judged by a famous writer, who visits the school and has a private audience with the boy who wrote the winning piece. At one point, Robert Frost is the invited guest. After giving a poetry reading, Frost responds to a question from one of the teachers about whether a rigidly formal arrangement of language like Frost’s poetry is adequate to express the modern consciousness created by industrialization and war. “Should form give to more spontaneous modes of expression, even at the cost of a certain disorder?” the teacher asks. Frost responds by telling about writing a poem for a friend of his who died in the Great War. He then challenges the teacher:

Would you honor your own friend by putting words down any how, just as they come to you, with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give a true account of the loss? I am thinking of Achilles’ grief, that famous terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed toe cry. Sincere maybe for what that’s worth, but no depth or carry, no echo. You may have a grievance, but you do not have grief. And grievances are for petitions, not poetry.”

I do not know if Frost ever really said this or if Tobias Wolff invented it. I don’t really care. What I do care about is the truth of the assertion that in art, “Form is everything.” This is truer for the hard gemlike short story than it is for the loose baggy novel.

The highly formal nature of the short story has always been criticized by those critics and novelists who have argued that literature has a responsibility to be socially aware and involved. The short story was attacked by realistic writers in the nineteenth century, such as William Dean Howells, for being false to reality. James T. Farrell criticized the form in the 1930s for its failure to be a vehicle for revolutionary ideology. Maxwell Geismar lashed out against short story writers such as Salinger, Roth, Malamud, and Powers in 1964 for the narrow range of their vision and their stress on the intricate craftsmanship of the well-made story. In 1971, Malcolm Cowley criticized short story writers for having nothing to write about except their own effort in finding it difficult to write about anything. And in 1992, John Aldridge scolded short story writers for being too much technique and too little significance. All these complaints boil down to the same thing--that the short story is too much a matter of form and too little a matter of what social critics define as "real life."

But as Jose Ortega y Gasset says, "The material never saves a work of art, the gold it is made of does not hallow a statue. A work of art lives on its form, not on its material; the essential grace it emanates springs from its structure [which] forms the properly artistic part of the work." This seems so obvious it is difficult to see how anyone could deny it. The problem, of course, arises when such a statement leads the critic to ignore the human content of the work. The related problem is how to attend to the human content of the work without lapsing into the gratuitous oversimplification that the artwork is merely an information medium for the replication of everyday life or the rhetoric of ideology.