Cowley’s Return

I don’t read Bookforum very often. I should really remedy this, especially if their articles are all as good as Doubleday editor Gerald’s Howard’s essay about The Long Voyage, the new collection of Malcolm Cowley’s letters edited by Hans Bak. Cowley, like Edmund Wilson, Maxwell Perkins, and Harold Ober, was a man who shaped the early- to mid-2oth century American literary scene even when he wasn’t in America. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he helped shape this scene precisely because he got out of America for a little while. Howard writes:

Gertrude Stein gave the American writers who flocked to Paris in the ’20s their indelible tag, “the Lost Generation,” but it was Malcolm Cowley who first gave his cohort its enduring narrative of rebellious escape from, and chastened return to, America in Exile’s Return (1934), a memoir and generational “collective novel” that beat Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to the punch by three decades. We take the near-mythic saga and achievements of this generation for granted today, but as Cowley writes in his elegiac retrospective chronicle and portrait gallery, A Second Flowering, his memoir was “howled down by older reviewers [who] ridiculed the notion that the men of the 1920s had special characteristics and that their adventures in Paris were a story worth telling.”

Had writing his literary memoirs been Cowley’s sole accomplishment, his letters would be worth reading. But Cowley did much more than write criticism and biography, including editing The New Republic, though this part of his career was tainted by his failure to side with the Trotskyites against the Stalinists in the battle for the future of Marxism. His most important contribution though was championing authors who might otherwise have remained obscure, Faulkner and Kerouac chief among these. It isn’t overstating the case to say that without Malcolm Cowley, William Faulkner wouldn’t have won the 1949 Nobel Prize. And without this award, Faulkner might have been forced to spend the rest of his life tinkering on Hollywood scripts to scrape together enough money to put out a novel here and there that would shortly go out of print. Cowley’s 1946 Portable Faulkner is one of the ten most important books of American fiction because it uses an author’s own works to make a case for his greatness. That’s the power of good editing, and even Faulkner himself was shocked by Cowley’s achievement.

Cowley is also responsible for On the Road getting published by Viking in 1957. It’s fashionable among some academics and writers to dismiss Kerouac (Capote famously called him a “typist”), but On the Road might very well be another of the ten most significant works of American fiction because it’s so threatening to middle-class domesticity. It reminds us (warns us?) that there are always people living on the fringes of American respectability who are just as smart and a hell of a lot more interesting than those living the lives they’ve been told they should. It provokes righteous indignation in older readers because it’s simultaneously naive and true: we have choices when it comes to how we lead our lives, and ultimately our regret-fueled misery is of our own making because we care too much about what other people think. It’s this disdain for respectability that connects Faulkner and Kerouac, making Cowley’s attraction to both writers less unlikely than it might at first seem.

So if you have an erudite wo/man of letters on your Christmas shopping list, you could do much worse than to buy s/h(e)im an 850-page volume of letters written by a man who changed American literary history for the better.

Must Be Dylan

I’m sure this isn’t new to any of you, but I think it’s worth revisiting the weirdness of Bob Dylan’s “Must Be Santa” song and video this holiday season. A few days ago, Slate claimed that there hasn’t been a good original Christmas song in 19 years. The article even references Dylan’s 2009 album Christmas in the Heart, yet fails to acknowledge the brilliance of this creepy gem. So, if your morning is leanin’ (or even if it’s a little dusty), this should help fix that.

Thursday Links

I know this is breaking with tradition, but seeing as I wrapped up my grading a couple days ago, I have more time to read and write for pleasure. One of my goals going forward is to try and post here more frequently, including more links to the abundance of great stuff available online. So here’s some post-hump day fare:

  • Ryan has commented on Wesley Morris’s greatness before, but it bears repeating: Wesley Morris is the best film critic in the game right now. But that doesn’t even really cover it. He might be the best writer about our contemporary cultural productions in general. His latest piece on the body in the media is the kind of stuff academics should be writing, though most don’t have the chops to do so, to say nothing of the humility to write about culture without the crutch of theoretical jargon. He also manages to weave in his own life in a way that’s not at all cloying, just heartbreaking. Can’t wait for this guy to put out a book of his essays. Bonus Grantland:  Mark Harris’s “Academy Taxonomy” is a great breakdown of how we end up with the Academy Award nominees we do. Even if Wesley Morris wasn’t writing for them, Grantland would have excellent movie coverage from smart folks like Harris. The fact that he is though makes the site indispensable.
  • Mark Yakich has written a defense of poetry that isn’t at all defensive. The fact that The Atlantic saw fit to run it is encouraging, as poetry gets dogged on all the time (often by the people who write it and write about it) for being “useless” in contemporary culture. The fact that people say this at a moment when rap music is at its most diverse and Twitter is reminding us of the importance of form and diction is frankly why many poets and critics deserve their poverty and obscurity. Pro tip: if you want people to think you matter, don’t trash your own creations. People respect confidence, not whining self-pity.
  • I’ve recently started watching The Rockford Files on Netflix. In another life I wrote a dissertation on bachelorhood in American literature up until the mid-1960s. One of the nice things about not being on the tenure track is that you don’t have to revisit your dissertation ever again if you don’t want to. But if I was going to redraft it, there’d have to be a chapter on James Garner’s Jim Rockford, a 1970s update of Chandler’s Marlowe. Instead of living in a Hollywood apartment, Rockford lives in a junky trailer on the beach in Malibu that would run him at least $4000 a month in rent now. He’s an ex-con (though he swears he didn’t rob that bank), and as he remarks to one of the show’s rotating cast of beautiful women: “I’m eligible for anything but marriage.” Every episode has at least one car chase, and the guy who plays Rockford’s dad (who’s also keepin’ it bach) is only 15 years older than Garner. You should watch this instead of any of the crap ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX are churning out.
  • I’ve never heard of James Delbourgo before, but I think he might be the kind of academic TGR can get behind. I’m not convinced yet, but this article in The Chronicle about curiosity cabinets and the internet is pretty interesting. Still, I have become so wary of academic discourse that I am constantly in “distrust and verify” mode when it comes to this stuff. He cites Evgeny Morozov though, so that’s a plus.

This is Criminal

Matt Yglesias catches a lot of flack from folks on both the Right and the Left for everything from his faulty prose to his sometimes ill-conceived ideas. I will admit to finding Yglesias’s work occasionally too rich-kiddy Neoliberal for my tastes, but there’s a reason he’s been paid to write about economic policy by many publications for as long as he has: he’s very good at quickly getting to what’s important. His latest piece on unemployment insurance is a perfect example of this. If reading this simple take on what the Ryan-Murray budget will do to the long-term unemployed doesn’t make you want to move to Sweden (or Switzerland), I don’t know what will.

It is especially important for articles like this to make the rounds in the wake of Rand Paul’s odious suggestion that we should cut off unemployment benefits after 28 weeks to light a fire under the lazy 47%ers who are mooching off the system (and voting Democrat). Rand Paul mouthing off like this is not surprising, but given his father’s bizarre appeal to a small segment of young voters, it is worth worrying about. Paul the Younger is a major voice within the GOP and presumptive candidate for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination. In his mind, ending unemployment is really just a question of eliminating the pretty minimally humane incentives we extend to people who happened to get thrown off the electric kool-aid acid bus of capitalism. It’s unemployment insurance that’s preventing these people from bootstrapping themselves into the middle (and may even the upper!) class. This is nonsense, and many smart people have said as much, but it’s important that sites like Slate, which caters to younger readers, put things as bluntly as possible:

Mailing unemployment insurance checks to people who aren’t so much unemployed as unemployable is obviously not an ideal public policy. But simply doing nothing for them is cruel and insane… We’re going to do nothing. We’re going to tell people to go out and look for work, even though employers looking to hire can still afford to be very choosy and generally refuse to even consider the long-term unemployed as job applicants. The country failed these people first by letting the labor market stay so slack for so long that they became unhirable, and now we’re going to fail them again.

Matt Yglesias may not be the prose stylist David Foster Wallace was, but he doesn’t have to be in order to point out the cruel insanity that’s ruling the Republican Party, and that’s apparently infected the Democrats as well. People who can’t find work are simply screwed under this new budget, and if folks like Rand Paul get their way, anyone unlucky enough to be unemployed for even six months (and I know many people who’ve experienced this) will be too.

Weekend’s End Beats: Night Skies

It always baffles me that a band can write a song that’s absolutely perfect, only to never even come close to doing so again. This phenomenon happens across other art forms too, but there’s something special about the musical one-hit wonder. Maybe it’s that these singular songs stick around on radio stations for years and get incorporated into television broadcasts and interwebs clips. A song just kind of hangs out (and on) in ways films and novels can’t. It can be perfect for three minutes and then slip out the back door, only to come in the front again when you need it but don’t expect it to show up.

So below you’ll find one of my favorite one-offs. These guys made other songs, I know, but nothing approaching this gem that’s everything U2 could have been if Bono had an ounce of shame. Please share some of your favorites with us on Twitter (@general_reader) or in the comments section.

Snark, Smarm, and Rhetorical Correctness

I’ve been finding it difficult to watch The Daily Show lately. I used to catch it all the time, but now I can’t even get through a half a clip online. It’s not that John Stewart isn’t funny (he is), and it’s not that I disagree with the show’s politics (I’m more or less sympatico with their brand of liberalism). The show just doesn’t do it for me anymore. According to Tom Scocca, this may be evidence that I’m a smarmy, smarmy man.

Let me explain. Scocca’s got a long article up at Gawker that defends “snark” as a legitimate response to “smarm.” Here are his definitions of both terms:

The word, as used now, is a fairly recent addition to the language, and it is not always entirely clear what “snark” may be. But it’s an attitude, and a negative attitude—a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt,” is how Heidi Julavits described it in 2003, while formally bestowing the name of “snark” on it, in the inaugural issue of The Believer.

…The decade that followed did little to clear up the trouble; if anything, the identification of “snark” gave people a way to avoid thinking very hard about it. Snark is supposed to be self-evidently and self-explanatorily bad: “nasty,” “low,” and “snide,” to pick a few words from the first page of David Denby’s 2009 tract Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. (I bought the Denby book used for six bucks, to cut him out of the loop on any royalties.)


What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?

…Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then—it expresses one agenda, while actually pursuing a different one. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection. Its genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.

Scocca goes on to give a ton of examples of smarminess in action, and he’s particularly hard on Dave Eggers, David Denby, and conservatives in both major political parties (poor Joe Lieberman gets just roasted–as well he should). In some respects, “On Smarm” is in the tradition of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” DFW’s “Tense Present” and Bromwich’s “Euphemism and American Violence” in that tries to explain problems in our culture by looking at what is happening to our language. But Scocca doesn’t focus on the words and rhetorical devices we use, but rather on what we say to each other about who has the right to say what they say the way they say it. Got all that?

As a denunciation of smarm, the essay is great. Like Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy, “On Smarm” sees the desire for respectability as the impetus for both smarm’s misdirection, and for smarmers’ attacks on snark and the snarky. What the essay fails to really deal with though is the fact that both snark and smarm are forms of irony, though irony employed in very different ways and for very different purposes. Stephen Colbert combines both forms into one character  as he snarks a smarmy game in order to make the smarm of the right apparent to his respectable liberal audience, who already feel the way he wants them to feel, but who enjoy getting to laugh snarkily anyway. Is this joke even funny anymore?

So yes, smarm is fought with snark, which gives birth to more smarm. The snark-smarm cycle ad infinitum. I hate smarm too. Every time someone gets misty-eyed when using words like “liberty,” “freedom,” “equality,” or “democracy” without explaining what they mean, I want to barf. They’re just abstractions masquerading as facts. People should be asked to define their terms, pressed for hard evidence to back up their assertions, and called out when their real motives become clear. Snark is one way of doing this. But it’s evasive and gives the snarker the out of saying that he was “just kidding.” It probably isn’t the most effective way if what you actually want to do is convince the people you’re calling out to be less smarmy. And if you believe that some groups of people are inherently smarmy, and therefore not worth engaging directly, aren’t you making an argument remarkably similar to the one Mitt Romney made about the “47%?”

Near the end of “On Smarm” though, things make more sense. This hasn’t really been a defense of snark or a hit piece on smarm. No, it’s about Scocca’s irritation with people he finds irritating dismissing the “little” people who criticize them. These last few paragraphs are frankly hard to read:

Recall that what set Eggers off, in his exchange with the Advocate, was the letter writer’s impolite reference to “selling out.” Him? Dave Eggers? He was getting the money he needed—deserved—to pursue the brave and thrilling projects he picked out for himself (Tom Peters: “A project-based world is ideal for growing your brand… Today you have to think, breathe, act, and work in projects”). He was giving money away to charities. How dare some snotty college kid cast aspersions on the success he had made?

Why, the whole idea of selling out was a terrible, bitter lie, told by “wimps” to justify their wimpiness. That was a peculiar position to take if you had just lived through the ’90s, as Eggers had, a decade that saw Disney eat Miramax and Creed sell more copies of its first two albums than Nirvana had sold of Bleach and Nevermind. But again, Eggers wasn’t making a point. He was taking an attitude. He was naming an enemy…

…Above (or beneath) it all, they are little. Eggers writes of his former critical self, “I was a complete, weaselly little prick.” He asks: “What kind of small-hearted person wants an artist to adhere to a set of rules, to stay forever within a narrow envelope which we’ve created for them?” He answers, and answers, and answers: “the lazy and small … small and embittered … narrow-hearted … the tiny voices of tiny people.”

The actual answer, and his actual fear—the fear that keeps the smarmers tossing on their bullshit-stuffed mattresses on the beds of bullshit they would have us all sleep in—is this: We are exactly the same size as you are. Everybody is.

Yes, everyone is the same size on their bullshit mattresses, but Dave Eggers is a more successful writer than I (or Scocca) will ever be. More people will read what Eggers has written. He’s made a lot of money off his writing. And even though I teach kids to write clearly for a living, Dave Eggers has probably done more to help kids write through his 826 Valencia projects than I have in teaching composition classes. And that’s fine. I still feel free to critique his work, but I don’t expect him to care, and I wouldn’t expect him to hold his tongue if something particularly dickish I said got back to him. Why should he if we’re just two similarly-sized people?

And you can add “selling out” to that earlier list of vomit-inducing words. (Seriously, what the hell is he talking about with that living through the ’90s stuff?) Scocca’s piece is really a long way of telling us that he would never sell out like the smarmers he snarks on. Which is absolutely perfect given that the kind of snarky negative criticism he would like to see more of (and that I have totally written myself–might even be writing right now) is always more about the critic than the idea, text, or person being criticized. So what have we learned? Tom Scocca is not smarmy and will never sell out. I feel better knowing this. Honestly.

Saturday Links: Fighting the Bloat

We’ve all made bad choices over the last few days. Our guts are in states of revolt, and we feel encased in thin layers of booze and butter. It will take weeks of kale and green tea to make this right. Running is necessary, but so awful. Sitting. Sitting and reading is the thing. So here are some items to sit and read while our bodies try and undo the damage we’ve done.

  • If you need to feel better about the amount of wine (and other spirits) you imbibed over the last few days, this little post about James Boswell’s Book of Company and Liquors should do the trick. Boswell is one of this blog’s patron saints, along with Hitchens, Amis, Didion, Faulkner, Baldwin… The man was a spectacular writer and drinker, and an unreconstructed lech. The fact that he recorded what he and his dinner guests drank is not at all surprising, as he basically kept accounts of everything in his life, like Fitzgerald did in his ledgers. But the amount of booze he and his bros drank in a given night is just shocking. How the man made it even to 55 is something scientists should be studying.
  • John Warner’s Just Visiting blog over at The Chronicle of Higher Ed is always worth your time, but his latest post about what to do about the sad state of higher ed is required reading. He echoes a lot of what we’ve been saying on this blog for a long time, but his sense that we should do “nothing” about our schools might rub some people the wrong way, particularly progressives and libertarian technophiles who think that every problem needs an innovative solution. Warner’s “nothing” isn’t nothing though. He’s saying that we need to STOP doing the things that aren’t working, like buying kids iPads, devising “better” tests, and constantly changing our standards. How about we just focus on teaching kids to read, write, and reason? I know, sounds revanchist and crazy. Best to keep innovating, because that’s worked out so well.
  • The 92nd Street Y in New York has hosted an eclectic series of speakers and performers since it opened its doors over a hundred years ago. Now you can watch videos of over 1,000 of these events on their website. This is the kind of digital education we can get behind.
  • Good lord, the art world is shady. If you need further proof, check out the documentaries The Art of the Steal (streaming on Netflix) and Stolen.
  • Thanks to Adam Ted Jacobson for sending me this link to Thomas Frank’s latest dose of truth. Frank is that rare writer who can write a positive review of something while also questioning its entire purpose. This piece might be his most on-point yet.