Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Notes on PEN/Faulkner, Gimmicky Writers, etc...


We went to see E.L. Doctorow on Friday night at the PEN/Faulkner reading hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library. I like the PEN/Faulkner reading series. As it turns out, however, I don’t like E.L. Doctorow’s writing. He’s part of a generation of American writers who are taken very seriously by critics and English professors, and are also commercially successful. Writers like Don DeLillo, Tom Wolf, Tom Robbins, and John Irving. They all suffer from the same problem: they write about stuff that they want us to believe is profound, but when it comes right down to it, is either trite, not insightful, or totally lacking in meaning.
For instance, Doctorow read a short story narrated by a man who had joined a cult. While smoothly written, the story had very little to say. It ends with the cult leader running away with all the cult’s money and the narrator’s wife. Oooooo, cult leaders are immoral hucksters! What a revelation! Never saw THAT coming! The problem, of course, with this conclusion is that, not only doesn't it add anything to humanity’s understanding of the universe, it’s actually, well, wrong. Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite, all died with their followers. What Doctorow wrote was what all we non-cult-followers wish to believe about cult leaders: they don’t actually believe what they preach; they are simply greedy con artists, when in fact the evidence proves otherwise.

Other examples of what I'm talking about: Tom Wolf makes the earth-shattering revelation in I Am Charlotte Simmons that college-age women HAVE A SOCIAL LIFE! Who knew? No one born in the last 40 years would be shocked by anything that Charlotte does.

Don DeLillo ends the prologue of Mao II with this: “The future belongs to crowds.” This sentence is so utterly devoid of context, concreteness, and even a peripheral relationship with meaning, that one may think that it must therefore be DEEP, so deep that I, with my tiny intellect, just don’t get it. In fact, it’s simply bad writing.

“Gimmicky” is the word I would use to describe all these writers. They pick something that has a particular hold on the popular imagination: cults, gangsters, girls-gone-wild, abortion, hippiedom, and then deliver exactly what their audience expects.

Regarding my own writing: Last week was a good week here at aportablesnack: my work poem was picked up by Wonkette, my post about DC Restaurant week was picked up by The Express, and someone actually posted my poem on Joel Auchenbach’s blog page. (By the way, poems are supposed to be grammatically incorrect!) Plus, I finally recieved a copy of my article about the Capitol City Market that was published on December 13 in the Current Newspapers (Georgetown Current, Dupont Current, Foggy Bottom Current, Northwest Current). Unfortunately, it’s not posted anywhere on-line. And finally my friend arjewtino was picked up by Gridskipper. A precedent setting week!

8 comments:

virgle kent said...

no one cares

Ar-Jew-Tino said...

Easy, VK, I care.

I understand your point about gimicky-yet-often "mistaken for good" writing. Unlike that last sentence, which was just awful.

krylonultraflat said...

So in other words, you're basically saying that your list of authors is modern literary criticism's version of Oprah's book club? I can see that. I can also see modern literary criticism failing to like anything that takes any risks of any kind and having largely given up on books that MOVE culture in a certain direction for books that REFLECT culture as being somewhat stagnant.

All that said, I actually liked Book of Daniel quite a bit and was sorry I wasn't able to go see the talk. It wasn't life altering, just well done. I haven't read a life altering book since my queer theory course in undergrad.

Anonymous said...

I think there's a big difference between what those authors wrote in their prime versus what they're writing now. Tom Wolfe was a cynic with an odd obsession with the male physique when he wrote Bonfire of the Vanties, and he was a much older cynic when he wrote I Am Charlotte Simmons. The difference is that he's lost any releveance as a voice. Bonfire contained characters who express viewpoints and act in a way that made a point about the time, as understoond by someone qualified to write about it. It comes across as a "true" work. Wolfe isn't qualified to write about today's American college experience, and as such comes across as a grumpy, somewhat arroused grandfather ranting.

kwest said...

Anonymous: good point about Wolfe. I was painting with a bit of a broad brush. I think you're exactly right: as writers become successful, they tend to lose relevance, because no editor is going to tell them that maybe THAT'S not such a good idea.

kwest said...

Krylonultraflat: I like your analysis, although I think some books that reflect a stagnant culture can be quite good, although the best of those usually shows stagnant people in a culture that is ever in flux (like Galsworthy, for instance).

Anonymous said...

they want us to believe is profound, but when it comes right down to it, is either trite, not insightful, or totally lacking in meaning.

Sounds like your blog...

kwest said...

anonymous: But...your reading my blog...and commenting on it...