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Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker’

Writing about the second staged exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley exclaims: “This is what a debate should look like — two well-matched heavyweights pounding away at each other, unable to knock each other down, but determined to keep slugging.” He then proceeds, rather lamely, to say, “In the end, who won probably depended on who you wanted to win going in.” (No need to read more of his analysis to know for whom he was rooting…)

Slate’s sampling of newspapers’ coverage of the event features headlines like “No Pulling Punches in Feisty Debate” (Las Vegas Review-Journal), “They Came out Fighting” (New Hampshire Union Leader) and “Obama, Romney Come out Swinging” (Richmond Times-Dispatch).

In his New Yorker blog, John Cassidy manages to liken Obama to both Jake LaMotta and Muhammad Ali before saying, “Enough with the boxing metaphors.” He doesn’t mean it, however. “Truly, though, it’s hard to avoid them,” he continues.

The problem is precisely how easy it is to rely on such clichés. Rather than actually saying something insightful, pundits just reach for the most obvious comparison from sports. Presidential debates are contests between two opponents, and so are boxing matches. Really? You don’t say…

Perhaps it would be worth trying a little harder.

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A few things that caught my eye:

  • Having never read any books by Bret Easton Ellis, I can’t say whether David Foster Wallace’s criticisms of the author of American Psycho (as relayed by Slate) have any merit; however, having slogged through a couple Wallace tomes, and having observed the witlessly earnest ardor of DFW fans, I tend to side with Ellis, who dismisses Wallace as a “fraud” and finds the “halo of sentimentality surrounding him embarrassing.”
  • The New Yorker’s books blog, Page-Turner, has a fascinating item in which Philip Roth corrects mistaken allegations concerning the origins of The Human Stain (a novel I write about in Fighters & Writers).
  • Volume VIII of The Chaffey Review, containing three poems of mine is out, as is the fall issue of San Pedro River Review, featuring a poem by my wife, Nancy (who also has work forthcoming in GreenPrints).
  • The fall issue of The Paris Review includes an interview with James Fenton (whose A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed I recently read). The brief excerpt posted has me looking forward to reading the whole thing.
  • Also looking forward to Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. McEwan’s Canadian publisher provides some of the novel’s historical background.
  • Despite negative assessments of the movies like Tom Carson’s in The American Prospect, I am undeterred in my curiosity to watch the just-released-on-DVD films of Norman Mailer.

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In an essay for The Millions, Mark O’Connell looks at Martin Amis’s out-of-print Invasion of the Space Invaders and claims the novelist tried to distance himself from the 1982 book about video games. He says Amis “has been avoiding talking about ever since” it appeared. O’Connell quotes another journalist’s assertion, from a review of an Amis biography that never mentions Invasion, that “anything a writer disowns is of interest, particularly if it’s a frivolous thing and particularly if, like Amis, you take seriousness seriously.”

Several other websites took notice of O’Connell’s piece, and either echoed the idea that Amis would like to excise from his resume the guide to Pac Man and other arcade fixtures or expressed surprise that he ever wrote such thing at all. Beneath a headline declaring it not to be an item from The Onion, a post at Jacket Copy reports: “Martin Amis, the brilliant British novelist, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award for best first novel and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography, who has been longlisted and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, long ago wrote a how-to video game handbook.… With an introduction by Steven Speilberg [sic] – that Steven Spielberg. For reals.” The New Yorker’s Book Bench is similarly shocked by Spielberg’s contribution, and call’s the book an Amis “secret,” while Slate implies “the masterful English prose stylist” should be embarrassed by such a “gem.” An earlier Slate article calls it a “marvelous oddity in the Amis oeuvre.”

Yet if Amis wants no one to know about the book, he uses a strange tactic to conceal its existence. Anyone bothering to look at the lists of his works in the front of his books would see Invasion of the Space Invaders there alongside Money, The War against Cliché, London Fields, The Information and the rest.

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Since Fighters & Writers was published, I’ve continued to come across items reaffirming ideas I explore in the book: that boxing’s implicit philosophy rests on qualities, like discipline and tenacity, which writers require and that this results in an ongoing productive relationship between the sport and literature. The January 16, 2012, issue of The New Yorker, for example, includes a profile of Alaa Al Aswany in which the Egyptian novelist likens himself to a boxer:

“I have to feel myself a fighter,” he said, hunching his shoulders, lowering his head, and bringing his fists up to his face…. “I am fighting for my career, for my writing, and for my success,” he went on. “Every day, I wake up early. And often I am tired, and my wife says ‘No, no.’ And I think, ‘I must get up and work.’” It is this determination that keeps him moving: “I tell my wife, ‘I am a boxer.’”

One can imagine Norman Mailer or Ernest Hemingway, some of the authors I discuss in Fighters & Writers, having similar conversations with their spouses.

Although the magazine might not carry as much boxing coverage as it did when A.J. Liebling was on the staff, the same edition of The New Yorker does include several more references to the sport. In a review of Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas, editor (and Muhammad Ali biographer) David Remnick writes that “in many black communities the celebrations surrounding the Obama election victory and the Inauguration were on a par with Joe Louis’s one-round knockout of Max Schmeling, in 1938.” Remnick also invokes “the Italian-American philosopher Rocky Balboa.” An article about efforts to build a football stadium in Los Angeles notes that the planned structure could also stage boxing matches and other events. Demonstrating that scribblers aren’t alone in their pugilistic interests, the magazine’s “Goings on about Town” section decorates its list of art gallery shows with an image created by Jeff Wall showing two gloved boys sparring in a living room. It’s titled “Boxing.”

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Novelist Philip Roth caused a stir by winning the Booker International Prize. Good for him: Literature should provoke strong feelings. One of the three judges, Carmen Callil, quit the committee because of the decision to recognize Roth’s “achievement in fiction” over the course of his long career.

Callil made plain her strong dislike of Roth. “I don’t rate him as a writer at all. I made it clear that I wouldn’t have put him on the longlist, so I was amazed when he stayed there. He was the only one I didn’t admire – all the others were fine,” she said, according to The Guardian. (The others who made the shortlist for the biennial award were Philip Pullman, Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson.) Callil also complained that the author of Portnoy’s Complaint, The Counterlife and The Human Stain, among many others, “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” She predicted that no one would be reading his work in twenty years.

It takes either an unusual confidence that the world will come around to your point of view or a not so unusual foolishness (unless those amount to the same thing) to declare that someone’s work will not endure. Herman Melville may have been forgotten during his life time, but his books did not end up neglected. It doesn’t take much effort to think of other celebrated writers who regularly return to “the same subject” in their books, which makes that criticism look something less than incisive.

All the same, if Callil doesn’t enjoy Roth’s writing, fine. But as Macy Halford at The New Yorker’s Book Bench points out, it is ridiculous to agree to join a judging panel but quit in a fit when the majority doesn’t vote your way.

Unfortunately, the hullabaloo may not have only to do with strictly literary concerns. As Halford also notes, Callil founded Virago Press, publisher of Roth’s ex-wife Claire Bloom’s memoir of their unsatisfying marriage. Perhaps Callil feels some allegiance to Bloom. Then again, she would seem to have reason to hope people will still read Roth in 2031. After all, it seems safe to speculate that interest in Bloom’s Leaving a Doll’s House largely depends on curiosity about Roth.

I confess that I want people to keep reading Roth for my own reasons. I write about him in an essay forthcoming in Philip Roth Studies, and a different but not wholly unrelated piece appears in my collection of pugilistic literary essays, Fighters & Writers.

It’s healthy for readers to argue over writing – if they argue intelligently.

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The books writers name as all-time favorites reveals something about their interests, outlook, attitudes and perhaps even their values. Illustrating this very point, The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog posted Susan Orlean’s list of the books that changed her life. She cites works by Joan Didion, John Hersey and Tom Wolfe, and it’s not hard to see why the author of The Bullfighters Checks Her Makeup, The Orchid Thief and other works of nonfiction would regard them as influences. She also includes fiction that I would include on my list, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (appropriate for a Bloomsday post), Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

In the same spirit of giving some sense of what I’m about, here’s an incomplete first attempt at such a list of the books that made the most impact on me (in no particular order).

  • George Orwell’s Ninety Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia and his essays – just about all Orwell, actually.
  •  Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man and The Piazza Tales as well as M-D.
  •  A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science and A Neutral Corner (Liebling raised writing about boxing to an art, and Fighters & Writers certainly owes something to his example, if only in aspiration.)
  •  Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and Saturday
  •  Albert Camus, The Plague and The Myth of Sisyphus, at least
  •  Philip Larkin, Collected Poems
  •  Salman Rushdie, Step across This Line
  •  Philip Roth, The Counterlife, The Facts and The Human Stain
  •  Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act
  •  Martin Amis, The War against Cliché
  •  Anne Fadiman, At Large and At Small
  •  Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  •  Zadie Smith, On Beauty (which I liked better than the novel that inspired it)
  •  Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness
  •  Anne Hathaway, The Year of the Goat
  •  The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself

This is by no means exhaustive…

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