Felsenmusick - The Weblog of Daniel Felsenfeld
The Web Log of a Certain Daniel Felsenfeld: Composer, critic, avid reader, aspiring
bon vivant, capricorn, shadowy figure, advice for the lovelorn

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Times Does it Again

Awoke this morning to read a totally insipid, narrow-minded, one-off article about how our current novelists either cannot or will not engage the contemporary political scene. This is, of course, authored not by an artist but an academic, an historian. It just seems bent on excoriating the novelists who do attack politics as well as those who don't, and sites Twain and Hawthorne as the examples up to which our contemporary writers must be held. This lacks for several reasons. For one, Twain was a public figure in his day, a statesman, an enfant terrible because people looked to writers for answers--today his role is (sadly) filled by Oliver Stone, Tim Robbins and Michael Moore at best, Sean Penn and Bono (or Anne Coulter and that O'Riley person) at worst. If Michael Chabon decided to take on the contemporary administration in a scathing parody, it would at best be bought by, say, the population of Brooklyn, read by a portion of them, understood by a portion of that--and who among them would change their opinions, likely of the same agenda, if they were to read even the clearest morality play into Chabon's no-doubt beautifully wrought satire.

What about Coetzee or Gorimer, who do write about contemporary politics in other regions? And if Nicholson Baker does address it, his fantasia of someone wanting to execute W (which I've not read but now will!) sounds as valid as anything. So why slam it, calling it "appalling," when he is actually in line with what you are looking for. Philip Roth was very clear that The Plot Against America, whatever one thinks of the book (or its title) was not about today but a speculative look at a certain era, his own Newark mien, had it been overtaken by Lindbergh who believed fiercely in Hitler and his project. So the esteemed author of this article judges Roth on what the book should have done and rates him accordingly, rather than taking the project for its obvious intentions. This truly is the New criticism: selfish, me-centered, and not allowing for other viewpoints except what one thinks other's ought to be. It really is narrow, but more its anti-intellectual and terribly sad.

And to excoriate Toni Morrison for writing about slavery--which is always charged, still has to be sorted out and can often serve as allegory--is not only stupid and short sighted, it is frankly racist. I am reminded of an article in the new "literature" magazine N+1 which said something to the effect that if you were to read the new novels by Jonathan Safron Foer, Philip Roth and Michael Chabon, the worst trouble we have in this world is anti-semitism. Has the subject of slavery or the holocaust been overdone in these brilliant minds? As if we have somehow gotten past this, in an era where racial divide is worse than 1968, where anti-semitism comes not just from the infidels but from the left.

In the midst of all this, what's a poor novelist to do? Should Philip Roth write an Our Gang about this decidedly un-funny group of murderers who've hijacked America? Would anyone--particularly the Red States--listen to him? Or Tom Wolfe (who is an avid fan of Bush)? Or John Irving? Or Stephen King? Or Tom Clancey? Damned if they do, damned if they don't--and yet again, the Times, always white-hot on matters cultural, once again offers a flaccid "what is a smart person like me to do in such a dumb, thoughtless world" whine in the place of real commentary.

You see, in this culture we simply have no public intellectuals, certainly not the sort to whom voters look to when faced with the complex matters of their ballots. I remember trying to explain who H.L. Mencken was to someone who did not know, and coming up short trying to find a contemporary counterpart. John Stewart? Al Franken? Umberto Eco? Whom?


Blogger Quinn Skylark said...

Just another reason why the Times is becoming less "the paper of record," and is transforming into just another rag whose dubious opinions (both political and artisitic) are less and less relevant.

While there is a little life left in the Gray Lady yet, I think we are starting to see the signs of an illness that indicates she may be bed-ridden soon.

Sure, she may recover from this illness, but either way I don't think she'll be getting around like she used to when she was younger.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Stirling Newberry said...


I think the article was off base, but your assertion on public intellectuals seems... overly broad. There are writers who are known for addressing the political in their fiction today, or who use the credibility of their fiction as a platform. Not that I support the politics of many of them, but they are there.

2:17 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

I agree they are there; I meant they lack any real high-impact cultural presence. Of course writers address politics--rather articulately, in some instances--but what this article seems to posit is the same sad-sack "why don't we get to play" and "everything was so much better when" rhetoric the Times of this age will end up being known for, culture wise. My problem with this article: it is not the fault of the culture but of the novelists. Sort of. I think. At least that's what he seems so say. Maybe.

You get me?

6:48 AM  
Anonymous Eliz said...

Gordimer, babe.

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Eliz said...

My take on the article was that we are lacking novelists who literally engage party politics. I imagine that is at least partially because we live in an age when each individual, especially one who is not living in Washington, has less feeling for political parties and their ideologies in general (other than hatred). Hawthorne and his ilk lived in a time when the idea of sufferage as a right, rather than a privilege, was new -- and therefore worthy of imaginative writing. I remember reading Rip Van Winkle, and being surprised that the announcement of a presidential election was such a big deal in the plot (Rip wakes up just as the votes are in for the latest presidential race). Most writers just don't feel as if their feet tread on the cobbles of political history as those older writers did, which is why Gore Vidal (quintessenitally politically connected) wrote about Lincoln. He'd been to the White House, known presidents and politicians, etc.

But writers are not political enough for another obvious reason; political fiction doesn't sell. The West Wing does, and movies about presidents, so maybe that's something.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Quinn Skylark said...

Though you declined to post my last comment (why?) I'll point it out again: when you say "...the Times of this age will end up being known for..." you don't consider that the formerly great paper might be in its decline, to be replaced by sometihing else that will rise to take its place. It's all part of the great cycle of media.

Just because it's here today, doesn't mean that it will be around tomorrow. It is a newspaper in crisis right now, stricken by a pretty serious ethical/political dilemma (viz. Judith Miller)...and, with the general decline of advertising dollars available to newspapers, the decline of youthful readership, and competition for ad money from Internet heavyweights like Google, etc., I'd say that it doesn't stand the best chance to remain the same paper you once knew.

Though it's powerful now, I expect to see its influence as a news and media powerhouse to slowly decline. This is why I think that it made a powerplay for the Voice...it can rope in some of those advertising $$ in one swift move.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Sorry to Quinn; I thought I had posted you. Damn technology, can never get my mind around it.

12:48 PM  
Blogger R J Keefe said...

I agree with Eliz. Wilentz is primarily concerned with a once-prominent, now-moribund relationship between writers and political action.
Writing about slavery is not political action. Writing about class and race divides is not political action. Everything is not political in Wilentz's sense.
I should have said that Wilentz was mostly noting a difference, not lamenting it (very loudly). The essay's title is unfortunate (and possibly not the author's; it's obviously designed to surf on his big new book), but Wilentz is right insofar as few writers will be found at political conventions.
I would blame the politicians equally if blame were the point. Politics has become incredibly slick, with little room for the fuzzy spontaneity of writing. What writers once furnished is now provided by marketers and advertisers.

1:29 PM  

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